Penelope Mortimer’s Misanthropes and Outcasts

At one point or other, most women of my generation discovered Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater.  We read it after we rented the movie, starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch, with a brilliant screenplay by Harold Pinter. In Mortimer’s classic ’60s novel, an unnamed woman,  fulfilled only by her brood of children, is in therapy. She is struggling to survive her problematic marriage to a  wealthy screenwriter.

Much as I love The Pumpkin Eater, I do not believe it is her best work.  Mortimer considered Long Distance, which was originally published in The New Yorker, her best novel. Certainly it is an unusual, difficult book – a departure from her realistic novels about witty, bemused wives and mothers who struggle to hang on to their identities or forge complicated new identities.  The narrator awakens one day to find herself living in a strange community.  She does not know who she is.

Morimter writes in a blunt, slightly awkward style here, capturing the stream-of-consciousness style of feminist novels of the ’70s.  Pretty writing was unnecessary in such novels.

I was, and still am, running away from the person to whom (in a sealed envelope, a bulky carton, a gift-wrapped package) I had addressed my life. The name on the address is simply “you,” partly because I still can’t bear to name you specifically, and partly because I am beginning to suspect that you are not an individual at all but a composite of many individuals;… that your characteristics, unlike your thumbprint, are not unique to you but are those of an ethic, a way of oblivion, what Mann calls “an unconscious type,” which I must either escape from or pledge myself to destroy.

At the moment, I am rereading the book I consider Mortimer’s best, The Handyman (1983), in which she explores the meaning of home.

Yes, you can decorate a home, or hire a handyman to redo the bathroom, but you need people, too. The  protagonist, Phyllis, a lonely widow, moves to a cottage in the country after her husband’s death, pressured by her daughter, who fears Phyllis will move to London and encroach on her life.  The cottage is adorable but not the home Phyllis  had hoped for:   the vicar doesn’t call on her, Henry James is not on the shelves of the library (he’s in storage), and the neighbors  snub her, certain that the  feudal Brigadier who owns the town  will drive her out, as he did the last  occupants, because he wants her land.

Desperately lonely, Phyllis invites her son Michael, who works in publishing,  to visit: she entices him with a story about her neighbor Rebecca Braun, a once famous writer who is now a recluse.

And here we encounter the wicked hilarity of Mortimer’s take on the male point-of-view.  Michael wants to meet Rebecca for monetary reasons but admits privately that  he dislikes most women writers.

Michael’s views are brazenly sexist, but comical.

…he disliked twentieth-century women novelists, including Mrs. Woolf, who, in his opinion, would have been far better employed as a schoolteacher.  They were either soft-centered bitches or malicious slobs–his vocabulary at the time–and he had no sympathy with their view of the world.

Can he be more outrageous?  Yes.   He continues,

People in a state of transition–women, adolescents, transsexuals, invalids, restless coal miners and most blacks–should not write novels.  Their books were messages from chaos.  He believed that the purpose of fiction was to observe without judgment; all these categories–but particularly women–judged without observation.  They had nothing to offer but prejudice and self-pity.  Privately, he believed that the Brontes and Austens and Eliots were an extinct breed, irresponsibly slaughtered by a bunch of self-conscious schoolgirls.

I have to say this politically incorrect  interior monologue made me  roar with laughter.  I can see Woolf as an intellectual but underprepared teacher, stumbling over a Greek text with her English pony pasted on the back of the page. (This is how she read Greek.)  Woolf’s lyrical running sentences used to send me into rapture, but I prefer the 19th-century geniuses.  (And the Brontes taught.)

Like Mortimer, I appreciate “messages from chaos.”  Without women’s literature, who would we be?  How bored I used to be by the history of men!

Mortimer is witty and brilliant–let’s hope NYRB reissues some of her other books.  The Pumpkin Eater is not her only masterpiece.

The Planned Parenthood Book Sale, The Wrong Box, & Audiobooks

Volunteers getting ready for the Planned Parenthood Book Sale

We went to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale,  which is held  biannually at the 4-H Building (45,000 sq. ft)  on the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.

It is a family tradition.  My grandmother used to attend the sale.  She filled her shelves with 19th-century editions of Thackeray, Dickens, and George Meredith. I was awed: why, oh why didn’t I live in Des Moines?

And now it’s our turn to support Planned Parenthood.

Tonight we staggered home with a box of splendid books, among them Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs,  the Native American writer Linda Hogan’s neglected novel Solar Storm, books by Ted Mooney, Marge Piercy, Nina Berberova, Stephen Dixon, and Amy Tan, and a dictionary.

But I had another reason to attend: I wanted to buy my own books back.

This spring, my husband donated the wrong box to the sale. This kind of muddle regularly happens in our distracted household.   Imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I discovered the mix-up.  Gone were some of my favorite books:  Library of America editions of Louisa May Alcott and  Laura Ingalls Wilder, a Penguin Galaxy hardback copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, 1992 Modern Library hardcovers of Dostoevsky, and God knows what else.

I lamented.  But you know what I say:  Get over it!

The Oxford (left) and  Modern Library (right) edition of “Crime and Punishment”

I  found one of my books at the sale:  the 1990s Modern Library hardcover copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, translated by Constance Garnett.  And it is a relief to have it back, because Nicholas Paternak Slater’s translation reads like English in translation (the Oxford hardcover is gorgeous, though).

Well, it’s all for a good cause!  I’ll just have to make do or buy the books all over again.


Anne Bogel’s podcast What Should I Read Next? is very enjoyable, because she is  well-read in many genres, comfortable interviewing people, and has a kind of alternative radio vibe.   In Episode 173,  “Clocking in at the reading factory,” she interviews Natalie Van Waning, a blogger who  has decided to read long books this year.

Whether you love or hate long books, you’ll enjoy the discussion.  What constitutes a long book  anyway?   (My husband says 500 pages, I say 600.)  And what’s on Natalie’s TBR? John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of her selections.

And then they digressed a bit about audiobooks.  Does listening to an audiobook count as reading?  Yes, they say.  And I’m sure it does  but I admit I have never listened to an entire audiobook.

Years ago, I tried listening to one of Paul Theroux’s travel books while I did the dishes.  But it was so absorbing that I simply bought the book and finished it!

And I tried to listen to one of Elizabeth George’s mysteries while I walked, but the noise of traffic drowned it out.

Do I need better headphones?  Perhaps it’s as simple as that.  I don’t even have an iPod.

What equipment do I need?  Please advise.

The Joy of Reading about Gardens


I am not a gardener, but I am thinking about gardens.   It’s nice  to think of flowers on a warmish day in March.  We dragged the Adirondack chairs out of the basement and sat idly chatting outdoors for the first time this year.  It’s all mud and brown, no grass yet, but I hope to plant night-blooming moonflowers: night is the coolest time to garden.

This year I’ve vowed to  plant something besides reliable geraniums.  Are moonflowers feasible?  I am inspired by Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden, a lovely autobiographical novel about life in her beautiful wild garden; Beverley Nichols’s insanely funny Merry Hall trilogy; Katharine S. White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden, a collection of gardening columns from The New Yorker;  and Dorothy van Doren’s The Country Wife,  essays about summers at the Van Dorens’ farm in Connecticut.

And since I know so little about plants, I’m writing down all the flowers I come across in gardening literature.

Dandelions (got them!), lilacs, wortleberries, Virginia creeper, daisies, celandines, white anemones, violets, blue hepaticas, periwinkles, birdcherries, peonies, crocuses, Ipomoea, sweet peas…

The list will be long.

But where is my sundial?

And aren’t you inspired by this passage from Elizabeth and Her Garden?

I am always happy (out of doors be it understood, for indoors there are servants and furniture) but in quite different ways, and my spring happiness bears no resemblance to my summer or autumn happiness, though it is not more intense, and there were days last winter when I danced for sheer joy out in my frost-bound garden, in spite of my years and children. But I did it behind a bush, having a due regard for the decencies.

Indeed, so little did it enter my head to even use the place in summer, that I submitted to weeks of seaside life with all its horrors every year; until at last, in the early spring of last year, having come down for the opening of the village school, and wandering out afterwards into the bare and desolate garden, I don’t know what smell of wet earth or rotting leaves brought back my childhood with a rush and all the happy days I had spent in a garden. Shall I ever forget that day? It was the beginning of my real life, my coming of age as it were, and entering into my kingdom. Early March, gray, quiet skies, and brown, quiet earth; leafless and sad and lonely enough out there in the damp and silence, yet there I stood feeling the same rapture of pure delight in the first breath of spring that I used to as a child, and the five wasted years fell from me like a cloak, and the world was full of hope, and I vowed myself then and there to nature, and have been happy ever since

Three of the writers/heroines of these four books had hired help.  The exception is Dorothy Van Doren, who was an editor at The Nation, the wife of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and critic Mark Van Doren, and the mother of Charles Van Doren, who was involved in a quiz show scandal.

Any favorite gardening books?

A Nonfiction Rival of Historical Fiction: Francis Galassi’s “Catiline, The Monster of Rome”

If you studied Cicero in the early-to-mid-20th century, you undoubtedly read Cicero’s First Oration against Catiline.  In the last quarter of the century, when I studied Cicero, professors assigned more “relevant” orations to entice us, and still later, I taught Pro Archia, Cicero’s brilliant defense of the liberal arts (which I wrote about at Mirabile Dictu).

You’ve got to love Cicero, even if you hate Cicero. Yes, he was pompous, pushy, and ambitious, but he was such a damned good writer.  And in his four Orations against Catiline (which I enjoyed), his vilification of Catiline seems over-the-top. (Cicero could have done a dark Dostoevskian character sketch if he’d been a novelist.)  Cicero claims that Catiline is  a murderer, an assassin, a conspirator against Rome,  a former governor of Africa who ripped off the people, and, as if that weren’t enough, says he raped a Vestal Virgin (who was Cicero’s wife’s sister).

But if you want to know both sides of the story, you’ve got to read Francis Gallassi’s Catiline, The Monster of Rome: An Ancient Case of Political Assassination. In this short nonfiction page-turner, Galassi writes an impassioned defense of Catiline, and accuses Cicero of character assassination.  After all, Catiline and Cicero were political rivals:  they both ran for consul for the year 63 B.C.  Cicero won.

I was glued to this book, which reads like an entertaining if slightly unpolished historical novel.  What will happen next? I kept wondering.    And though Galassi is not the only historian to question Cicero’s case, he  has devoted this clear, coherent book to Catiline’s defense. He depicts Catiline as an impoverished aristocrat, a soldier, and an aspiring liberal politician who wanted to reform the government and favored popular causes like agrarian reform..  And he was a  threat to the conservative optimates (aristocrats) and senators, among whom Cicero was an up-and-coming New Man.  After the senate blocked an election which might have passed some of Catiline’s reforms,  Catiline and other prominent men, including Caesar, conspired to take over the government.

Was Catiline a hero?  Well, I don’t know.  Rome was a bloodbath back then.  So I didn’t entirely buy Galassi’s argument, but I found it fascinating.

And it really makes me want to reread Cicero’s orations against Catiline.

And can anyone forget the first line of the First Oration, “How long, Catiline, will you abuse our patience?”  (In Latin it is: Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?)

So many people abuse my patience.  In fact, I think I’m going to be saying this a lot now.

Why I Don’t Miss the Hustle of “Pop” Blogging

Writers  at a coffeehouse.

The best article in last week’s New York Times was Brian X. Chen’s thoughtful essay, “I Deleted Facebook Last Year. Here’s What Changed (and What Didn’t).”  Chen, a tech columnist, writes, “The social network’s long-stated mission has been to connect people so that we can live in a more open world. But after being off Facebook since October, I found that I did not feel less connected and that my social life didn’t suffer, even though I was no longer seeing status updates and pictures on my News Feed.”

Chen outgrew Facebook.  He marvels at all the time he wasted there.  Now he reads lots of books.

And he doesn’t miss his 500 Facebook “friends.” He sees about twenty of them in real life.

I relate to the pleasure of giving up an  online activity that no longer gives pleasure. I decided to stop writing my blog Mirabile Dictu last fall.   Six years: 1,567 posts.  Highlights: so many highlights.

I wrote all kinds of sense and nonsense.  And I wrote fast.  It was so much fun for a while.

But turning around copy is not the point at a blog.  As soon as the blog begins to feel automatic, it’s like work. Why am I  writing this, you begin to ask yourself.   Blogs get stale.   And I wrote such long posts (about 900 words).

The cool thing about Thornfield Hall is that it’s like a private blog. It’s a quiet place. Nobody knows it’s here.  And that’s a relief.

The “bloggers-reading-bloggers” thing has quieted down.  Social networkers used to comment at Mirabile Dictu so other readers would click on the links to their blogs.   One blogger commented daily, not only at Mirabile Dictu but at every blog in blogdom! It was a case of amicitia (political friendship), I suppose.

I can’t help their stats now. And anyway I don’t have my comments on all time!

Here’s the really fun thing.  I have received  mail addressed to Thornfield Hall.  I love the Brontes,  but never thought I’d be Jane Eyre!

I have saved the address label.

A Color-Coordinated TBR: Minae Mizumura, Julie Berry, George Gissing, & Joy Williams

Gorgeous Instagram photos!  How do they do it?

Bookstagram hypnotizes me.  Photos of pretty books, photos of pretty books and pretty tea cups, photos of pretty bookshelves, photos of manicured hands holding  pretty books…  Pretty feminine.

And so I decided to color-coordinate my TBR.

“You won’t.  You’re not fun,” said my cousin. She is fun when she’s not in rehab.  And she curates the library’s Instagram account.

“I am fun.”

“You took a picture of the books in the library dumpster.”

“That’s fun undercover reporting!”

I am not posting a fun pic of the perfectly fine set of Encyclopedia Britannica I found in the dumpster.  You know why?  Because I am fun.

I yanked some matching books off my shelves, but everything in my photo looks rumpled.  Julie Berry’s  Y.A. novel, Lovely War, and Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English, a book about English language dominance, obviously belong together. The colors!








I bought  Julie Berry’s Lovely War, because Entertainment Weekly described it as “a retelling of the Aeneid.” In the first 65 pages, there are references to Homer and Hesiod but none to Virgil.  (Perhaps the reviewer got her poems mixed up.)  But the gods pull the strings in human relationships: the  goddess Aphrodite, caught in flagrante delicto with Ares and “bagged like  a chicken” by her husband Hephasetus,  explains she is the source of love but never in love.  And she  tells the story of bringing together three musicians and a soldier during World War I.

Minae Mizumura is the author of one of my favorite books, A True Novel, a brilliant Japanese retelling of Wuthering Heights.  Fandom is why I bought The Fall of Language in the Age of English.  So far I am mesmerized  by the  essay “Under the Blue Sky of Iowa,” which revolves around her month in Iowa City on some kind of International Writers’ Workshop fellowship. I know Iowa City well, so would be fascinated even if it weren’t for her description sof the other international authors.  And many are writing in languages with few readers.

I found more matching books on my shelves:  the 19th-century novel Eve’s Ransom by George Gissing, an olive green Dover, and the muted brown 40th-Anniversary edition of Joy Williams’s novel The Changeling.

The N.B. column in the TLS recommended Eve’s Ransom. And I love Joy Williams’s short stories.  You can read an excerpt from Karen Russell’s introduction to  Williams’ novel The Changeling in The New Yorker.

The  Instagram folks are skillful photographers!

À la Caffeine: Editing Pulp Science Fiction

“Why did I say I’d do this?” I wondered as I sipped a soy latte at  À la Caffeine.

À la  Caffeine is the chic coffee boutique for itinerant writers in our uncharted provincial city.  Managed by a library school dropout who has posted  “Shh” signs on the wall, it is a nearly silent cafe.

“Shh” isn’t everybody’s favorite word.  And so the clientele tend to be Renaissance Fair organizers designing Celtic Clan flyers, nervous Ph.D. students writing snappy dissertations on Sexuality in  Small Towns in Willa Cather’s Later Fiction, and freelancers desperately polishing reviews of “The Ten Best Homeless Shelters in Town”–for the alternative paper.

I often write such things myself, but today I’m editing a pulp SF novel about a race of “Uplifted” animals– animals who are biologically modified in labs to have human intelligence.

I am doing this as a favor for an editor friend who is  forced to publish this thing.

Wow!  This is ineffably bad.   I asked in an email,  “Did you know the hero is a  lemur whose ancestors are   blue ponies?”

She wrote, “Yeah.  Delete ALL adjectives and adverbs and cut to 30,000 words. Then we hide it in an anthology, submit it for an SF novella prize, and call it done.”

But where to start?  Here is the astonishing first  paragraph.

And so it came to be that Hal the Lemur flew through the tall green  trees of Madagascar Not-on-Earth  on the morning that Mam was attacked by the Madagascar Hawk. Hal bravely fought it. His Mam was not alive…not dead.  He could get help  from the  blue Ponies who’d trained him in Rhetoric and Medicine. And then he saw the Pony Ship was gone. Gone through space……time was a concept…time and space beyond Ponies beyond Earth…beyond…and he was alone.

But will it win the novella prize?

I’ll have another soy latte.