Reading on the Net: Essays about Jean Kerr, Henry David Thoreau, & Graham Greene

It has been months since I wrote a Literary Links post, and yet I love this kind of post at other blogs: I am always looking for recommendations of internet articles. If you’re at the beach – I’m not – and getting blasted by the sunshine and heat, you might retire to the shade and check out one or more of these articles about books and writers.

1. Those of us who like domestic humor – and who doesn’t? – will relish the following clever article about Jean Kerr, the brilliant essayist and playwright who entertained us with Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and The Snake Has All the Lines. You can read “Days of Wine and Daisies” at The Washington Examiner (April 14, 2003). And you won’t regret it, whether you are male or female, because Kerr is always relevant.

Here is a short excerpt.

“Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” is a collection of witty dispatches from the frontlines of motherhood. She had plenty of material.. Kerr has been compared, inevitably, to that other published suburban housewife, Erma Bombeck, though, in truth, the only book in the genre that can rank with “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” is Shirley Jackson’s “Life Among the Savages,” a surprisingly charming account of motherhood from the author better known for the grim story “The Lottery” and the Jamesian horror novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” While Bombeck did tread some of the same ground, she didn’t write about, say, how she taught her boys not to loathe poetry. Worried that the only Milton their children would know was the chocolate maker, the Kerrs instituted a family “Culture Hour” in which the children would recite poems they’d memorized during the week, followed by some highbrow music on the hi-fi.

2. Thoreau is my favorite Transcendentalist philosopher, and I had no idea Walden was controversial nowadays. Sometime it is good NOT to keep up, especially in 2021. But Caleb Smith investigates all sides of what for me is a non-question in his thoughtful essay, “Thoreau in Good Faith”, at Public Books.

“One of the books that I love is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden,” Alda Balthrop-Lewis writes at the beginning of her new book, Thoreau’s Religion. Before she starts analyzing Walden, she composes a little list of its charms. Some of the features she names are aesthetic: “I like it because it is funny, and beautiful, and weird.” Some of them are ethical: “I like that it doesn’t seem to hide its weird messy bits, its contradictions and vices.”
Balthrop-Lewis, a research fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University, is letting us know that she will be taking the part of the author she studies, not taking him apart. Rather than seeking out Thoreau’s hypocrisies or flaws, she will treat him with generous affection. In other words, she will read Walden in good faith.

3 . Graham Greene fans will enjoy this fascinating review at Commonweal of a new biography of Greene, The Unquiet Englishman. Here is an excerpt:

…The Unquiet Englishman, Richard Greene’s sparkling new biography of Graham Greene, would have a lot of interest even if the latter were not an important writer who, twenty years after his death, still has a large audience. Graham Greene traveled widely, through Europe, Mexico, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, and the United States, and he wrote about what he saw in all those places. He worked for the British secret service during World War II, and spent a lot of time with Kim Philby, who would later turn out to be a double agent for the Soviet Union. Greene became a Catholic in 1927 in order to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, but almost from the start, he had trouble with the practical demands of Catholicism—and in particular, trouble with marital fidelity. Soon after his marriage, he began a long series of affairs, but Vivien refused to grant him a divorce, and he continued to support her. 

What have you been reading on the net? Any good literary links?

Happy Weekend!

Tangled up in Headphones, Longer Days, and Literary Links

I love Daylight Saving Time. I metamorphose from a hibernating mammal into an exuberant human being. Changing the clocks (spring forward!) is a hallmark of spring. The worshippers of rosy-fingered dawn lament losing an hour but we see light overcoming darkness. Some states do not, or at least used not, to observe Daylight Saving Time: they were on “God’s time” all year round. But when twilight steals the sun at five o’clock, I histrionically mutter, “I wish I were dead,” and go to bed at eight. As long as I use the subjunctive of to be (were), I am fine. But if I mutter, “I wish I was dead” (the indicative), please ply me with healing subjunctive exercises.

Collection of vintage clock hanging on an old brick wall; Shutterstock

ARE YOU VACCINATED? According to the Atlantic, the U.S. is in good shape with the vaccination rollout, and the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are effective against the new strains. So let us hope we get on top of the fourth wave soon (though isn’t it really just one big wave?). Yes, I have been vaccinated, and I feel more secure. There’s a long way to go, though, with so many, many new cases every day.

MY NO. 1 PROBLEM WITH MASKS: The mask earloops recently got tangled up in my headphones. A delicate disentangling operation had to be performed single-handed in a store.

And now here are three Literary Links.

  1. I recommend Gal Beckerman’s interview with Paul Theroux, “Would the Pandemic Stop Paul Theroux From Traveling?”, in The New York Times Magazine. His new novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, will be published in April.

And here is a short passage from the article:

For six days, Paul Theroux, the famous American travel writer, dined on hard-boiled eggs, microwaved dal and wine.

He had set out cross-country in a rented Jeep Compass on the day before Thanksgiving, driving from Cape Cod, where he has a house, to Los Angeles, where he delivered boxes of his papers to his archives at Huntington Library, and then flying on to Hawaii, his other home.

Theroux said he observed a landscape largely emptied out by the coronavirus pandemic, from deserted motels in Sallisaw, Okla., and Tucumcari, N.M., where he stopped to sleep, to a rest area in Tennessee where he had his solitary Thanksgiving meal, and the In-N-Out Burger in Kingman, Ariz., on his last day on the road. Every night, as is his habit, he wrote out in longhand all he had seen.

2 At Tor, Melissa Baharddoust, author of Girl, Serpent, Storm, writes about “Persian Legends and Their Western Counterparts.” Here is a short passage:

While poring over Persian myths and legends for my novel, Girl, Serpent, Thorn, I was always delightfully surprised whenever I came across a story that sounded familiar to me from my western upbringing. While I don’t have the expertise to speak to exactly how these stories found their way from one culture to another, or whether any of these stories were directly influenced by each other, I hope you’ll join me in marveling at the way some stories speak to and create common threads in all of us.

3 At The Guardian, Sam Byers explores the post-pandemic future in “We will have to choose our apocalypse: the cost of freedom after the pandemic.”

Here is a passage from the essay:

On one thing, at least, we were all in agreement: we wanted to be free. The problem was that we couldn’t agree on what that freedom looked like, or who should enjoy it. Even as new horizons of collective action and mutual support seemed possible, the urge to do whatever we wanted, free from the inconvenience of consequences, took hold with renewed force. Set against the freedom from infection was the freedom to endanger others by leaving lockdown; the freedom to do away with masks and sow airborne death in the supermarket; the right, via “unmuzzled” speech across high-profile platforms, to spread dangerous, divisive fictions. When finally the halls of US government were stormed and occupied, it wasn’t civil rights activists or eco-warriors posing for a selfie in the chamber, it was a loose conglomeration of angry and often baffled conspiracy theorists, splinter Republicans and Nazis, freely subverting the democracy they claimed to defend.

Keep well and Happy Reading!

Too Many Library Books? & Literary Links

Widener Library at Harvard University

Libraries shape our lives.

At libraries I’ve found the little-known novels of Anna Kavan; Rhys Davies’s Honeysuckle Girl, a novel about Kavan ; Lilian Pizzichini’s The Blue Hour:  A Life of Jean Rhys; Vita Sackville-West’s out-of-print novel, The Easter Party; and a Welsh duology about coal miners. (Can’t remember the title, and it’s not How Green Was My Valley!)  Where else would I have found these books?

If, like me, you’re a library enthusiast, I recommend Christine Thompson’s amusing essay at The American Scholar, “The Ritual of Renewal.” After finishing a writing project, Thompson realized she has 200 books checked out from Harvard University Library.

2.  How do you feel about the suburbs?  I have spent most of my life in towns and cities, because it’s more convenient and the mass transit is better. But at NPR,  Etelka Lehoczky reviews a new book by Amanda Kolson Hurley, Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City.  And it sounds fascinating:  a few suburbs were founded as radical communities.

3.  At The Guardian, Marcel Theroux reviews Ian McEwan’s new book, Machines Like Me,” a dystopian vision of humanoid robots in a counterfactual 1982 Britain.”  I can’t wait to read it.

4.  Do you know the work of Iowa writer Margaret Wilson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for The Able McLaughlins? I was pleased to see that Library of America has published this neglected classic as an e-book.  Wilson also wrote a sequel, The Law and the McLaughlins.

Marilynne Robinson (left) at Ruth Suckow’s home.

5.  Marilynne Robinson recently visited Ruth Suckow’s birthplace home in Hawarden, Iowa. (I’ve been there; it’s charming and simple .)  For more information about Ruth Suckow (1892-1960), a novelist and chronicler of small-town life in Iowa, visit the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association Website.

Bookish News: Lord of the Rings, Greek to Me, & the Konmar Book Method

Alas, the Polar Vortex is cruel. It was 20 below zero yesterday. And now I have a  sinus infection.  Well,  it is supposed to warm up tomorrow and be in the forties this weekend.  I’ll take it.

Meanwhile, distract yourself from the Polar Vortex with bookish news.

1. Chris Taylor at Mashable set out to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy in 24 hours.  Why?  Unclear.  But in “Lord of the Binges,” he says,

I’m no speed reader, but I’m no slouch. Writing insta-reviews of political bestsellers on the day they were released has upped my game. I took an online test that clocks your reading speed and predicts how long you could read various classic books. For Lord of the Rings, its estimate was 11 hours and 9 minutes — 21 minutes under Jackson’s total [film time]. Bags of time!

He says he read it in 21 hours, 57 minutes. 

Is there a point?

2.  I was enthralled by Mary Norris’s essay in The New Yorker, “Greek to Me.”   She loves the alien mysteries of ancient Greek, which she did not begin to study till she was in her thirties, after her first trip to Greece.   And she is awed by the attempts to translate words that have no equivalent in English or context in our culture.

Here’s her first paragraph:

A few years ago, in the Frankfurt airport on the way home from Greece, I bought a copy of Virginia Woolf’s “The Common Reader,” which includes her essay “On Not Knowing Greek.” I already had the book at home, but I was impressed that anything by Woolf was considered airport reading. When I was about ten years old, my father, a pragmatic man, had refused to let me study Latin, and for some reason I assumed that “On Not Knowing Greek” was about how Woolf’s father, too, had prevented his daughter from studying a dead language. I pictured young Virginia Stephen sulking in a room of her own, an indecipherable alphabet streaming through her consciousness, while her father and her brother, downstairs in the library, feasted on Plato and Aristotle.

This article is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Greek to Me:  Adventures of a Comma Queen.

3.  Deborah Levy at The Guardian unravels the reasons for the recent Twitter war over Marie Kondo’s book-weeding methods. 

The backlash to Marie Kondo’s suggestion that we chuck out books that don’t “bring joy” shows how attached we are to physical books, even in a digital age. I think Kondo is very impressive. I like how she advises us to fold a shirt with love in our hands. Why not? All the same, I’m not going to give it a go because I believed Virginia Woolf when she advised female writers to kill the angel in the house. Hopefully, we did that with love in our hands. (Actually, I thought it was quite exhilarating when Kondo experimented with ripping books apart so they fit better on shelves. Perhaps it’s even a bit dada.)

I am fascinated by Levy’s dada theory.  Levy says she’ll hang on to Colette and Kerouac forever, but she has weeded many, many books in recent years.