A Month of Books: March 2018

Books Read:

Miller’s Valley (2016) – Anna Quindlen

The Essex Serpent (2016) – Sarah Perry

Heroes of the Frontier (2016) – Dave Eggers                                                      

Keeping On Keeping On (2016) – Alan Bennett (collection of prose pieces)

(I’ve only just now noticed that all of my March books were published in 2016. Purely coincidental. I did not go on a nostalgic pre- Nov. 8, 2016, binge.)

Miller’s Valley is Quindlen’s eighth (of nine) novels and the fourth one that I have read. I read them because I am a big fan of her essays. (I wanted to grow up to be a columnist like Anna Quindlen or Fran Lebowitz, both of whom I started reading at the beginning of their careers in the late ’70s. Of course, we are all around the same age, but that hasn’t changed my aspirations.) I haven’t become a big fan of Quindlen’s novels. I can appreciate that they are well-written and well-constructed, but that’s it. Miller’s Valley did not change my impression.

And I am a big fan of Dave Eggers the person. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was great. He does good things with his publishing house McSweeney’s and with 826 National, his network of seven tutoring centers around the country. I met him a couple months ago at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he was promoting The Monk of Mocha, his latest non-fiction book. I bought a copy and in it he wrote a lovely inscription to my daughter, who has volunteered at the Boston center of 826. However, I find his novels uneven: I liked A Hologram for the King (2012), but gave up on The Circle (2013). Heroes of the Frontier was just frustrating. In this book, described in a New York Times review as a “picaresque adventure and spiritual coming-of-age,” the “heroes” are Josie and her two young children and the frontier is Alaska. Running away from the mess that is her life in the lower 48, Josie has packed her kids into a rattle-trap RV and they go on one ill-conceived adventure after another. I get the “picaresque” because of the adventures without a real plot. But “coming of age” requires some narrative arc, and I detected none. She lacks judgment at the beginning of the novel and lacks judgment at the end, and she consistently puts her children at risk. I mostly just wanted to strangle her.

Now to the books I did like…!

The Essex Serpent is the second novel by British author Sarah Perry, but the first to be published in the U.S. Set at the very end of the 19th century, the story entwines two plots: (1) the growing hysteria among the populace of a small village on England’s eastern coast that a mythical murdering sea creature has returned as divine punishment on the village for some unknown corporate transgression and (2) the consequences of independence for a wealthy recently widowed London woman (Cora), an excellent amateur naturalist who relocates to the village with her son in her quest to find a scientific answer to the serpent mystery and in the process strikes up a close friendship with the village vicar. Perry is an elegant and engaging writer with a nice wit who can capture a moment with wry lines such as, her “father,…whose tenants liked him contemptuously,…had gone out of business” or, upon Cora having uttered an empty pleasantry, she and a cripple “both examined this statement for logic, and finding none let it pass.” She also uses the word “livid” in its 19th century meaning (to describe a discoloration of the skin, not an emotional state) so that it would be contemporary with the time of the novel’s setting. That was pretty impressive. (I taught Wuthering Heights for a number of years in my schoolmarm days, and the word “livid” shows up all over the place in that book.)

Perry’s novel is a classic late Victorian novel, with Gothic overtones and several subplots, and is a fun read (if a little long). But Perry also brings a 21st-century sensibility to her portrait of the complicated relationship between the highly intelligent country pastor and the highly intelligent – and willful – woman not his wife. Perry examines friendship, irrational fear, and the literal and figurative serpent in our midst. No fairy tale ending here, but also no moralizing punishment meted out, as it might have been if written more than hundred years ago. It was a refreshing study of how passionate yet compassionate people manage to work things out. Since 2014, Sarah Perry has won or been short- and long-listed for more than a dozen awards in Britain for her two novels. I look forward to her next book.

As for the Alan Bennett collection, to be truthful, I am still reading it, have been reading it for a couple months, and expect to be reading it for another couple months as it is 700 pages long. It is a delight. Bennett has been one of England’s most charming men of letters and comic writers since “Beyond the Fringe” in the 1960s. He’s probably best known as a dramatist (“The History Boys,” “Lady in the Van”). He is also a wonderful diarist and his diaries from 2005 to 2015 make up the bulk of this collection. (I am up to 2011.) To read his diaries is to live vicariously an idyllic life (at least for an English major and Anglophile). He and his partner Rupert divide their time between their home in London and their home in Yorkshire. They plan outings to village churches far off the M roads. They have tea with their friend Debo (the Duchess of Devonshire to us). Bennett spends his “working” days at a writing desk in Gloucester Crescent or backstage with actors we’ve come to know from watching four decades of Masterpiece Theatre. He writes with gentle, yet sardonic, humor and a clear-eyed assessment of what has been lost as he ages and as Britain stumbles into the 21st century. If you’ve never read any Alan Bennett, you might not want to start with a 700-page tome. Try The Lady in the Van (non-fiction) or The Uncommon Reader (fiction). If you do know Bennett’s work, this collection is a treasure.

March News

Since my last “News” bulletin, only one creative piece has managed to escape from my computer. It was a remembrance of things past as I approached an interesting milestone: receiving my Medicare card. (No madeleines were involved.) The piece was posted on Humor Outcasts: Crushing It.

I wish I had more to report  for March, although I wasn’t completely idle. I wrote a half dozen biographical profiles that will be of interest to Princeton alumni when they vote this spring for alumni trustees to the University’s board. The profiles do not have entertainment value. Instead, I am going to use this space to share my admiration for Sarah Ruhl, the American playwright who, among many other things, was nominated for a Tony Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer for her play “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).” She is also on the faculty at Yale School of Drama and is a wonderful essayist. In 2014, she published 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. The subtitle is “On umbrellas and sword fights, parades and dogs, fire alarms, children and theater,” and that’s only a partial list of topics. The essays (in addition to being envy-enducing) are engaging, entertaining, and in many instances  enlightening.  Essay #13 is “The drama of the sentence,” a meditation on the power of individual sentences, on the importance of how “word follows word,” transcending just the telling of a story. (Sam Anderson in his “New Sentences” column in the “New York Times Magazine” also focuses on the power of a single sentence.)

Below are two sentences that I’ve saved as examples of the power a careful arrangement of word following word can have:

“What was odd about Auntie Andy, I realised, was that her shyness had been blasted out of her by whatever had happened, the way an explosion can leave people deaf afterwards.” (From Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl.)

“Lynwood was malevolent, truculent, and brittle, and it seemed as if one were always in midsentence with him, as if the subject had been lost but the verb was firing like a crazed piston so that one might perceive the action but not the context.” (From Kenneth A. McClane’s essay “Sparrow Needy” in The Best American Essays 2017.)

A Month of Books: February 2018

[Yes, I know. I am about three weeks late on my compilation of books read in February. That’s what four nor’easters and a trip to Boston will do to one. At least, though, I am posting it before we are into April!]

Month of Books: February 2018

Books Read:

The Past (2016) – Tessa Hadley

Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) – George Saunders

The 50 Funniest American Writers According to Andy Borowitz (2011) an anthology

Disquiet, Please! More Humor Writing from the New Yorker (2008) an anthology

 

The two novels in February could not have been more different from each other. The Past was Hadley’s seventh novel with echoes not only of her earlier novels (see January’s Month of Books) but also of other novels I’ve been reading by British women, right down to setting the story in another deteriorating old house in Cornwall populated by family members in contention! While in this one the narrative switched back and forth between the present and the past as it related the stories of the family members, Hadley still focused on what one critic called “crystallizing the atmosphere of ordinary life” – once more, not exactly a rave review, hinting at stasis

In contrast, Saunders’ novel was in constant motion, teeming with everything but the ordinary.

First, I have to confess that I was not one of those who rushed to buy this book. (My copy is the paperback edition.) I had never been a fan of Saunders’ short stories and read a couple only because a dear friend suggested that I should. Second, I was very annoyed that Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize. I am allergic to change. I still hadn’t gotten over being peeved that the prize is no longer just the Booker. Then they went and opened it up to writers outside of the British Commonwealth! If you are going to have a national kind of prize, then keep it national. We have our National Book Award, they should have the Booker. Somehow it feels diluted, less special. (“They’ll give that award to anyone now. Even an American!” Sniff.)

I also have to confess my intellectual failings (once again) and admit that I didn’t know what “bardo” meant. In addition, I managed to hear the title as Lincoln at the Bardo, which made it sound as though Lincoln was frequenting some sleazy dive. My brain created a mash-up vision of a bar where all the waitresses looked like Bridget Bardot. Then I looked up the definition: “a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.” That made me equally uncomfortable. I feared the book might be some serious version of “Lincoln vs. the Zombies,” and I thought that would be a terrible thing to read.

Nonetheless, I started the book, though remained skeptical for the first 12 pages or so. Since I hadn’t paid close attention to the reviews, I didn’t know the basic premise, which is: Lincoln in such grief at the death of his son Willie that he visits the mausoleum where Willie’s body has been taken following the funeral. A cast of characters who are themselves in the bardo, between their earthly lives and whatever was next, witnesses this extraordinary event. Not having this context, I  found the first exchange between the two lead characters in the bardo, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, puzzling. What’s a “sick-box”? Several (short) chapters followed that were nothing more than quotes from various primary sources who were at the White House at a gala event the night Willie died and various historians who have written about the same. This seemed to me a pretty easy way to write a book: just create pages of quotes from other people!

But I soon was caught up in the extraordinary interplay that Saunders created to allow us (1) to see multiple human perspectives ( often contradicting each other) on a real event and (2) to experience a community of not quite ghosts whose time on earth took place in different eras and whose own witnessing of Lincoln’s grief brings out their compassion and their best (and in some instances worst) selves.

Politics and pathos. Factions spar in the White House at the beginning of the Civil War while the depth of Lincoln’s loss is described by those around him (the living and the dead). Humor and humanity. The characters’ “dead” bodies make visible the characters’ traits in life: one character always enjoyed observing all around him so in the bardo he has multiple eyes to take in everything, while another was somewhat randy in life so in the bardo has to maneuver with a hugely outsized member.

I don’t want to say much more, as part of my delight in this book was my own dawning of appreciation for what Saunders was accomplishing, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. He has woven an intricate tapestry of history, stitched through with a fantastical shadow world, suspended beyond the grave but right there beside the president. Full of wonders and great heart, the book ultimately demonstrates that when spirits, no matter how different, work together, a miracle can happen. I savored every minute of reading it.

The two humor anthologies were fun incidental reading. Not surprisingly, some pieces appeared in both collections. Though a fan of Andy Borowitz, I was disappointed with some of his choices. The pieces in the New Yorker collection were all terrific. What was surprising was how some of the older pieces in the Borowitz could have been written today. I recommend Mark Twain’s “The Presidential Candidate.” Read it on Google Docs for free.

A Month of Books: January 2018

Books Read:

Winter (2017) – Ali Smith

Everything Will Be All Right (2003) – Tessa Hadley

Clever Girl (2014) – Tessa Hadley

What She Ate (2017) – Laura Shapiro

This Is the Place: Women Writing about Home(2017) – Margot Kahn and Kelly                       McMasters, editors

My Mistake (2013) – Daniel Menaker

———

No, I did not spend the month of January lounging on the couch, reading by the fire. The essay collections What She Ate and This Is the Place were begun in December, and I didn’t get around to finishing them until into January. Two airplane flights in mid January gave me five to six hours with nothing to do but read. Don’t be envious (or possibly judgmental) about my knocking off six books. It probably won’t happen again.

I am going to focus on the three novels by two British authors. The best of the three is Winter by Ali Smith. I sheepishly admit that I had never heard of her until just this past October. While doing the tourist thing at the Notting Hill Book Shop in London, I saw the magic words “Man Booker Prize” on a paperback with a pretty cover picture of a country lane. So for completely superficial reasons I bought Autumn by Ali Smith – and it turned out to be an extraordinary novel. Since I didn’t read it in January, I’ll save it to talk about in a future month when I might be a little lax in my reading. But it was so good, I immediately started researching (that is to say, Googling) Ali Smith to see if she had written other books I could read. Turns out she is a Scottish writer who has been producing award-winning short story collections, plays and novels for twenty years! Autumn was the fourth(!)of her nine novels to get short-listed for the Booker. How had I missed this writer? (It also turns out that what I was calling a “pretty cover” was a photo of a David Hockney oil titled “Early November Tunnel.” The whole experience was a bit of a comeuppance.)

Putting aside my artistic cluelessness for now… When Autumn was published in 2016, Smith announced that it was the first of a quartet of novels she was working on. On January 17, I was walking around the Books & Books bookstore in Key West (where I was taking a writing workshop) and I spied Winter on a display table. I began reading it on the flight home. Winter is also a gem, and maybe more accessible than Autumn. The premise sounds like a British novel set piece: dysfunctional family members end up together at a rambling house in Cornwall for the Christmas holidays. But Smith moves around the pieces of this novel in a wholly original way. The elderly mother (Sophia), who lives in the house chats with a disembodied head that has appeared; the London-based neglectful son (Art) picks up a young woman from the street and pays her to impersonate his girlfriend who was to visit his mother with him but who has dumped him instead; the mother’s estranged sister (Iris), who has been an environmental activist dating back to the ’60’s, shows up (as does a busload of birders). Smith takes real delight in upending expectations, pushing limits of reality, and allowing her characters to emerge into fully rounded and cherished figures through dialogue and deeds – never telling you what you should be thinking when. She does all this through an extraordinary facility with language and a love of wordplay and comic scene-setting that is a joy to read.

Now on to Tessa Hadley. She writes what might be thought of as traditional, family-driven novels. Both of these books follow women living through the cultural changes in England from c. 1950 to c. 201O. Everything Will Be All Right follows four generations of women in the same family; Clever Girl follows one woman through the same time span. I confess that I inadvertently did the second book a disservice. Hadley wrote the books more than a decade apart, publishing four other novels in between. If I had had that ten-year break between them, I might have written, “Hadley returns to familiar themes.” Instead my reaction was, “This again?” I found myself just pushing along to get to the end. In addition, Meg Wolitzer, reviewing Clever Girl in the New York Times Book Review, wrote, “A story that doesn’t overreach…told in prose that isn’t ornate yet is startingly exact.” Damning with faint praise?

To shift gears, I did get a surprising history lesson by reading all three novels. In each, one of the main characters plays an active part in the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Starting in 1981 and going until 2000, nineteen years, women chained themselves to fences, camped out, and marched at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire to protest the British government’s decision to use it as a site for nuclear missiles. While the protest didn’t stop the government from going ahead with its plans (surprise), an article in the Guardian gives it credit for changing “the nature of protest,” with that kind of protest apparently having some success in recently saving a British village from fracking.

Once again I am astonished and abashed at my ignorance. I do not recall ever hearing about the Greenham Common protests, and I was 28 years old when it started and 47 when it ended. How did I miss this obviously seminal moment for the advancement of women in England that surely should have been spotlighted as a primary example of “I am woman, hear me roar”?

Finally, Dan Menaker, author of the memoir My Mistake, was the leader of the writing workshop I took down in Key West. Read it for the inside scoop on days at the New Yorker, from William Shawn to Tina Brown. Dan is a character.

A Month of Books: An Introduction

My kids know me very well. While this means they show no mercy in mocking and mimicking me, it also means they give me presents that are always perfect.

They both had me pegged early: wine and books. When Jay took a Middle School trip to France, he was somehow able to bring me a bottle of white wine from Provence. I was so moved that at 13 he knew just what to get for me, I decided not to ask any questions. (For example: Where was Madame when you were off buying wine?? How did you get this in and out of airports??) Almost 20 years later, the bottle is still intact down in the basement refrigerator. I didn’t wanted to consume it, as then it would be gone. (It did occur to me, many years too late, that I should have consumed the wine and conserved the bottle, thus having my wine and drinking it, too.) This past Christmas, Jay and Erica gave me a case of Brouilly from Louis La Tour — my favorite that, of course, cannot be found in Pennsylvania State Stores. It is, however, accessible to Brooklyn dwellers.

This year Annie gave me note cards, cleverly packed into what looks like a truncated drawer from an old library card catalog. The note cards themselves on one side are replicas of actual old cards, handwritten with penciled notes. The first one is A335 Alcott, Louise May, 1832-1888, Little Women. I want to keep them all intact to show off to my library-loving friends of a certain age who will appreciate Annie’s excellent insight into her mother’s psyche. (However, I’ve also asked Annie to get me another set to use for actually writing notes. I learned my lesson about figuring out how to have my gifts both ways.)

A couple years ago Annie gave me Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books, a collection of the monthly columns that Hornby (About a Boy) wrote for Believer magazine. Each column was headed by two lists: “Books Bought” and “Books Read.” Then followed 1500 to 2000 words of Hornby reacting to, riffing off of, and sometimes ranting about books and the world of books. He rarely touched on all that he read and regularly wandered off on tangents with only the thinnest thread of connection to his starting point. And it all was “hilarious, insightful, and infectious,” to crib from the back cover.

As I made my way through the book, I kept thinking, what a great job! I wish someone would hire me to write about all the books I read in a chatty sort of way! Yet, strangely, no one has asked me.

I have written legitimate book reviews, but here’s the problem: When I am reading a book I like, I read fast. I want to take the whole book in. I don’t want to break up the experience by stopping to take notes. When I get to the end of a book, no matter how much I liked it, I don’t want to have to go back and recreate all those notes I should have taken on character development, use of language, narrative arc, etc., if I had wanted to write a formal book review. I am both too lazy and too eager to get to the next book in my stack of “waiting to be read.” Books pile up that I had intended to review, but never do.

So, since no one is stepping forward to ask me to write a monthly ramble around my reading, I’ve decided I’ll just do it myself on this blog. I will use Hornby’s column as a (loose) model. While we do have some similarities – we both buy more books than we can ever read – the differences are somewhat more noticeable. At the top of my “column” I will list only the books that I have read in the month under examination. I definitely will not go on for 1500 to 2000 words. (I’ll stick closer to 750 or so words.) I will be unlikely to make knowing remarks about an author’s life to rival Hornby’s since often the authors he was reading were also his friends. (But if I happen to know some interesting tidbit, I promise to share it.) And don’t count on my being hilarious, insightful and infectious like Hornby’s work, though I do hope every column will be fun to read.

I plan to publish my look back at a month of reading on the first Sunday following the end of a month. The title of the post will always be “A Month of Books: [month and year]. The first one will be this Sunday, so will read “A Month of Books: January 2018.”

Finally, I do want to make clear, if it hasn’t been clear already, that I won’t be writing traditional book reviews. I am aiming more for entertainment than enlightenment. I will understand if this way of “chatting” about books is not your cup of tea. If that’s the case, when you see that “Month of Books” post show up in your email, go ahead and delete. (I won’t know anyway!) If you do enjoy hearing about the books and you would like some further discussion, please comment!

H is also for Hopper and Hollidaysburg

I recently read that Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania.

Yes, that Gertrude Stein. Poet of Paris salon fame, hostess to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, author of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook beloved by beatniks decades later for its famous hash-infused fudge recipe. Did she really grow up in a small town in Pennsylvania? And why did I care?

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania: Hollidaysburg, population (then and now) about 5,000. I thought I had found a famous female writer who shared my background. This news was worth a visit to Google!

Well, it is true that Stein was born in Allegheny (in 1874), but she didn’t exactly grow up there. When she was three years old her parents whisked her off to Vienna and then Paris. A year later they returned to the States to settle in Oakland, California. Stein grew up a California girl. (No Allegheny newspaper headlines blaring, “Local girl makes good in Paris writing incomprehensible poems!”)

Plus, Allegheny was more cosmopolitan than one might have suspected for a town that doesn’t  exist anymore. I learned that in the 19th century Allegheny was large and quite prosperous, even having a street known as “Mansion Row.” But on December 9, 1887, against its population’s wishes, Allegheny was annexed by Pittsburgh. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “145,000 people who had gone to sleep the night before in Allegheny woke up in Pittsburgh.” Allegheny was henceforth referred to as Pittsburgh North Side. Not exactly Russia and Crimea, but still.

Discovering all of this was disappointing. I had wanted Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to be like Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t. And Gertrude Stein was not to be the famous female writer who shared my background.

I then researched (for another 15 minutes) “famous writers who came from Hollidaysburg.” What I came up with was Hedda Hopper. This seemed an even more improbable pairing of writer with birthplace. Known for her outrageous headdress and the outrage she provoked during the heyday of her Hollywood columnist years, Hopper was born in Hollidaysburg in 1885 and christened Elda Furry. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.) Like the Steins with Gertrude, Elda’s parents also whisked her away at age three to another location, but that was the end of any similarity: the Furrys had moved their nine children only 7 miles north of Hollidaysburg to Altoona. By her high school years, Elda was studying singing in Pittsburgh and had stars in her eyes for Broadway fame and fortune. She bolted at 18 when her parents refused to let her pursue her dream.

Elda did make it onto Broadway and in 1913 became the fifth wife of a handsome young actor named DeWolf Hopper. Hopper’s four previous wives were inconveniently named Edna, Ella, Nella and Ida. Stories have it that, annoyed by her husband’s unhappy habit of calling her by the wrong name, Elda Hopper went in search of a new name. She consulted a numerologist, who came up with the nicely alliterative Hedda Hopper.

With the rise of the motion picture industry just after World War I, Hedda Hopper moved with her husband to Hollywood where she appeared in almost 100 films. In the mid 1930’s, however, Hopper reinvented herself. By then divorced and facing a fading acting career, she switched to gossip journalism, first on the radio and then in the newspapers.

While her column became wildly popular, appearing in thousands of newspapers large and small and read by millions, her personal nastiness and rumor-mongering made her just as wildly unpopular among many in the celebrity world. Even 50 years after her death, Hollywood still chafes at her name. In a September 2015 issue of Variety, editor Peter Bart wrote, “The best news about Hedda Hopper is that few remember her. Hedda was a journalist (of sorts), who famously wore exotic hats and devoted herself to destroying the careers of anyone she identified as being communist, gay or otherwise reprehensible.”

So, that’s it for my model female writer. Hedda Hopper from Hollidaysburg, a scribbler of screed widely read but generally despised, if remembered at all. At least, Hollidaysburg does have one beloved superstar to call its own, though gender undetermined: the Slinky. But that doesn’t give me much to model myself on. I’m really not limber enough to write while flopping down stairs head over heels…

H is for Hawk…and Hungry

Noted writing teacher Natalie Goldberg recounts in Old Friend from Far Away that, while she was reading James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, she thought, “I was reading one of the most beautiful books of my life.” During a weekend when she was supposed to be helping her 90-year-old mother cope with the aftermath of a Florida hurricane, she could barely put the book down, reading through a morning, through an afternoon. She was “entranced” and gobbled it up.

When I first began reading H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s meditation on reading T. H. White, training her hawk and mourning the death of her father, I had a similar realization: I was reading one of the most beautiful books of my life. But my gut reaction was very different: I have now been reading it for over a year, consuming it in (very) small bites.

It is like a rich dessert. The writing is so exquisite that I want to read each sentence slowly, lingering over every word and savoring the pleasure of it all. Sometimes I am tempted to write out her sentences, just to see what it would feel like to have the kind of control that she does. (This is not a new idea, of course. Many writing craft books and articles suggest a practice of copying out word for word a passage, a paragraph, a page of a favorite writer as a way to experience the writer’s style from the inside out.)

Each of Macdonald’s sentences has a rich texture – but how to explain that? How does each of her words become an ingredient in a whole? How, when taking a bite of crème brûlée, do you identify with your tongue the individual taste of the egg, the cream, the sugar, the essence of vanilla bean? I suppose if I had all the time in the world I could diagram every sentence. Is it her use of subordinate clauses? Is it that she never uses the passive voice? Is it the interplay of simple and complex sentences? Is it that the nouns and verbs evoke a visual image, an emotional reaction, a physical response like a shudder or a sigh?

But why do that, because it is of course all of those things and more, all precisely measured and mixed. I can know that a spoonful of crème brûlée is delicious without having to go back into the kitchen to watch how the dessert chef put all the ingredients together before carefully lowering the filled custard cups into a water bath and then gently putting them into the oven before carefully finishing them off under the broiler with a crown of crusty glaze.

But frankly, I think the main reason I am digesting the book so slowly is that I just don’t want it to come to an end. Who wants to know that she will never have another bite of a great dessert?

Peacocks vs. Pussycats

Knowing how much I like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925-64), several years ago a good friend gave me a copy of Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, a collection of O’Connor’s essays and lectures, many not published in her lifetime.

The collection begins with O’Connor’s classic essay about her pet peacocks, “The King of Birds,” filled with wry humor and Technicolor scenes of farm life in mid twentieth-century Georgia. Following that, though, I struggled to get through the rest of the offerings.

I should have enjoyed her essays and lectures on writing and teaching literature. Instead, I found the writing distant and dated, as though the words were a black-and-white movie. But the book was a gift, so I felt compelled to finish it.

This took me two years, reading in fits and starts, but finally I came to the end a couple weeks ago. And there I was rewarded for my perseverance. The last entry, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” was riveting: it revealed her observations of the South then that are at play right now in this crazy election season and it illuminated something of the appeal of a certain Republican candidate. She noted that the Protestant South had (has?) a traditional hostility to “outsiders…foreigners from Chicago or New Jersey,” yet also an instinct “to fall eager victim to every poisonous breath from Hollywood or Madison Avenue.” Those who are “long on logic, definitions, abstractions” are likely to come up short “when they find themselves in an environment where their own principles have only partial application” to the society in which they are finding themselves.

But what really startled me was tucked into the appendix: a one-page excerpt from a review of a short story collection by J. F. Powers, a novelist and short story writer from Minnesota who, like O’Connor, was a devout Catholic. The review is clearly a rave, with one reservation: O’Connor takes exception to Powers’ having seen “fit to use a cat for the Central Intelligence” in two of the stories. She allows that the cat has wit and sensibility as well as faith and charity…

 …but he is a cat notwithstanding, and in both cases he lowers the tone and restricts the scope of what should otherwise have been a major story. It is the hope of this reviewer that this animal will prove to have only one life left and that some Minneapolis motorist, wishing to serve literature, will dispatch him as soon as possible.

 Wait just one minute there, Flannery!

That’s a bit harsh, especially coming from someone who loves farm life (and presumably animals) and who in particular admires an oddly shaped show-off of a bird that has a fingernails-on-blackboard call and is known to attack young children.

So let’s take a look at what Flannery O’Connor found so fascinating about peacocks. I quote:

“If I appear with food, they condescend…to eat it.”
“If I refer to them as [mine], the pronoun is merely legal, nothing more.”
“When it suits him, the peacock will turn to face you.”
“The peacock himself is a careful and dignified investigator.”
“Sometimes one will chase himself, end his frenzy with a spirited leap into the air, and then stalk off as if he had never been involved in the spectacle.”

That sounds very like a cat to me. So I suspect some inter-species rivalry going on here. And cats would win that battle, hands down.

Cats are cuddly. Peacocks are not.

I Am Not Franz Kafka

Writing prompt for March 12: “the seductive voices of the night”

(Yes, I am a bit behind on my writing prompts…)

That chunk of prompt, found in A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves, was taken from a letter written by Franz Kafka to his close friend Dr. Robert Klopstock, an American lung surgeon whom Kafka met when they were both being treated for tuberculosis. (Klopstock was later at Kafka’s bedside when the writer died in 1924. Klopstock lived another 48 years, dying in New York in June of 1972. I guess the lesson there is: if you are going to get TB, better to be a famous lung surgeon than a writer riddled with existential angst.) But I digress…

Kafka was comparing the seductive voices of the night to those of Ulysses’ sirens who “sounded so beautiful.” I do not find the voices of the night seductive or beautiful. I find them at best annoying, at worst scary. There are sirens in our nighttime, too, but their wail comes from the local police station only two streets over. Other not at all beautiful sounds are:

  • The irregular sloshing of the dishwasher that sounds as though its heart might stop beating any minute.
  • The whiz and BLAM! of cherry bombs being set off by our neighbor’s son in their driveway, which just happens to be right under our bedroom window.
  • The hollow banging of the pipes trying to break out from behind the walls of our old house.
  • The slamming of a car door at 3 a.m. – whose and why at that hour?
  • And any sound from a thunderstorm: the rushing wind threatening to topple our giant pin oaks and send them crashing through the roof; the torturous drip, drip, drip of rain on the outside window frame that some former owner decided to cover with tin to protect the wood; the snap and crackle of electric wires as the arcing pops with UFO blue light.

No, not one of these sounds is seductive, in either the modern meaning or the Latin (seducere, to lead away). They do not tempt me or lead me away into the night.

It is the voices of the morning that I find seductive. The birds – song sparrow, indigo bunting, Carolina wren – their tiny throats throbbing with tunes as the dark begins to fade. The booming of hard rock music from a car window as our paper deliverer tosses the New York Times thwack! onto the driveway. The welcoming whistle of the first SEPTA train of the day down at the local station. Those voices call, “The day has started! Time to go! Kick off those covers!”

And I do.

The Curtain Rises on Act IV

The subject line on the most recent of (frequent) communications from TIAA-CREF reads: “Ready for Act II?”

Act II? Heck, I am trying to get Act IV underway!

Since leaving graduate school nearly 40 years ago, I have been a bank vice president (Act I), an English teacher and department head at a secondary school outside of Philadelphia (Act II), and a director of the Alumni Affairs Office at my undergraduate alma mater (Act III). Three acts. The End?

But what I really wanted to do when I grew up was to write, to read about writing, to write about reading. As a young girl, I spent hours at an old roll top desk in our attic writing poems and the first chapters of novels. I created little news sheets for the neighborhood. I was the Features Editor of my junior high’s newspaper.

Then something happened. I chickened out. It was safer to go to graduate school. It was safer to work for a bank. It was safer to be a teacher. It was safer to work for a university on the administrative side. I could still publish the occasional essay, book review, and then blog post “on the side.”

Well, I don’t want the writing to be on the side anymore. It’s time to get over the stage fright.

And how do Act IV’s turn out? Shakespeare always has lots of action happening in Act IV. In the tragedies, during Act IV the forces (natural or supernatural) come together to culminate in violence, and then in Act V everyone dies. Not very heartening! In the comedies, confusions are cleared up, characters are rescued, married, restored to their kingdoms, and then Act V just wraps things up before everyone goes to bed.

That’s all well and good for Shakespeare’s characters: they have their lines given to them. For my Act IV, I will have to make up all the lines, find my fellow actors, build the sets. And I have such flimsy boards on which to build…

I needed some guidance, and that led me to look for writing blogs. I was lucky that one of the first I found was Anne R. Allen’s Blog. And one of the first posts I read seemed as though it had been written just for me: “The Must-Read Story for Writers with the Impossible Dream.” She shares the story of Walter Reuben, a screen-writer and film-maker who didn’t have his first big success until he was nearly 70 years old.

Another post earlier this year, “Writers: How to Succeed at Building Platform Without Really Trying,”  helped me get over my procrastination about creating a real website, a place to build a platform out of my flimsy boards. And that post referenced “newly retired Boomers.”

I take to heart that it’s not too late to grow up to be what I really want to be. And I am not alone in wanting to have an Act IV.

So here goes…!