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…!