Kerouac on Tea

from Dharma Bums:

Now you understand the oriental passion for tea," said Japhy. "Remember that book I told you about the first sip is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, and the fifth is ecstasy."

Emily Bronte - Wuthering Heights

When I was a teenager, my friends were mad for Keats, Shelley, "Dark Shadows," and Wuthering Heights. I shared the first three passions - in fact, I wrote a dissertation on "Dark Shadows" for one of my undergraduate English courses - but Wuthering Heights just never caught my interest. The Romantic poetry stoked my love for tragic, passionate poets who died young. I read biographies of Mary Shelley and imagined myself in that room with her husband and Polidori. But two lovers on the moors? No. I'll stick to the doomed Angelique, the doomed love between Carolyn and Jebbas, and the doomed Collinwood.

(You see, it's not that I wasn't into doom.)

I finished Wuthering Heights over the weekend, and I've been discussing it on a couple of boards. I came up with my own backstory for Heathcliff (Earnshaw's illigitimate child), I enjoyed reading about the wild landscape and wild weather, and I admired Emily's brilliance -- but I came up against one huge problem: There is not one character whom I like. Usually, if that happens, I can not and will not read the whole book. I have to like or admire someone, or someone's aspirations.

This quirk of mine has never stopped me from reading works like Crime and Punishment, or other dark, dark books. The most murderous of the characters search their souls and understand that they are not the same as others. They see their guilt, or they don't see their guilt, but they understand their actions in the context of a real world.

All of the characters are personifications of various ways of being corrupted, or of being corruptors. Even Mrs. Dean, the closest to a caring, compassionate character - actually, the closest to an actual human being - allows tragedies to happen because she allows one or the other of the Catherines to manipulate her. Allows, mind you - she knows she's acting against common sense and principle, but she allows.

Having Mrs. Dean as the primary narrator prevents the reader from knowing whether the monstrous Heathcliff knows that his behavior would not fit into a world that was less isolated. In fact, it prevents the reader from seeing any evidence of love that isn't tinged with cruelty. The Romantics may have wept and yearned for their loves, but they didn't lock their loves (or their loves' daughters) into barred rooms, force them to marry mewling invalids, or hang their dogs.

And yet, despite the lack of tolerable characters , despite the overwhelming cruelty and corruption, I loved the book. This puzzled me until I realized that I was reading the land itself - the moors, the bracken, the weather - as a character, and I loved that character. The moors were what they were, are what they are, and will endure despite the disgraceful actions of the humans who enact their nasty lives upon it.

Maybe that was Emily's genius: showing us that humans may come and go, enact decent or indecent acts, or love or hate, but the land - her beloved, beautiful moor - is eternal, and worthy of gratitude. We can look beyond the nastiness of her humans and pity them for shrinking into cruel trolls instead of expanding their hearts in the beauty of the heather.

Booking Through Thursday - Harry Potter

Okay, love him or loathe him, you’d have to live under a rock not to know that J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, comes out on Saturday… Are you going to read it? This Ravenclaw will be reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the moment it arrives from Amazon.uk. If I don't get it by Saturday, I'll have to hide in my closet to keep from being spoiled.
  1. If so, right away? Or just, you know, eventually, when you get around to it? Are you attending any of the midnight parties? See above. I won't attend parties, but I will talk with my stuffed Hedwigs. It will be a comfort to us both.
  2. If you’re not going to read it, why not?
  3. And, for the record… what do you think? Will Harry survive the series? What are you most looking forward to? I am in the "Snape is a good guy" queue because I trust Dumbledore completely. I think he took Harry on the quest for the Horcrux as a rite of passage, to toughen him and to ensure that he could do anything necessary to vanquish (hiss) Voldemort. It was Harry's Bardo, facing what he feared, and he got through it.

Booking Through Thursday - fan letters

Have you ever written an author a fan letter?
Did you get an answer?
Did it spark a conversation? A meeting?

I've written to a few authors, but only received three responses. Joseph Epstein, whose collection of essays, The Middle of My Tether, delighted me, sent a typed postcard thanking me for my comments. Laurie Colwin wrote a short note. And Joan Didion, to whom I sent a letter of condolence on the death of her husband, sent a personal note on her lovely blue stationery.

I've met authors, but not through letters, only at book signings: Joyce Carol Oates, Alexandra Stoddard, Dominick Dunne, Alan Dershowitz, Marvin Kitman...

(Have you read Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life? One of the suggestions she makes is to write letters to authors. I really should write one to her.)

Booking Through Thursday - monogamy

One book at a time? Or more than one? If more, are they different types/genres? Or similar?

(We’re talking recreational reading, here—books for work or school don’t really count since they’re not optional.)

Monogamy? HAH! No way. I have no discipline, no plan, almost no discernment. Whatever comes along, if it looks delectable, I will taste it.

As for what I read - No rhyme, no reason - No, that's not true, because I am apt to be reading poetry and non-fiction together, along with fiction, which can be anything from classics to children's books.

(In fact, I have just joined a read-and-knit-along for Anne of Green Gables, and I'm looking forward to it as I would look forward to curling up with ice water and peppermints... no, that's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I also want to reread...)

Booking Through Thursday - do your friends read as much as you?

There was a widely bruited-about statistic reported last week, stating that 1 in 4 Americans did not read a single book last year. Clearly, we don’t fall into that category, but . . . how many of our friends do? Do you have friends/family who read as much as you do? Or are you the only person you know who has a serious reading habit?

I was not surprised by the statistic. As a librarian for almost thirty years, I have seen how reading habits have changed. Where once, patrons would stagger to the circulation desk with a dozen books to check out, now they have three or four. Where once, we would have to buy a dozen copies of the latest bestseller, now we buy three or four. Perhaps, some of this trend can be attributed to the online booksellers, whose deeply-discounted prices make it more attractive to buy a best-seller than to wait for 3-4 weeks to get it from the library. More likely, people who once were casual readers have become less likely to read for any of a million reasons - I won't bore you with my cynical list of possibilities.

One of the details in the MSN article caught my attention - the notion that women are less likely than men to read biographies . I won't generalize from myself, since I'm a fiend for biographies, especially if they're about literary or intrepid women. (I'm itching to read the new biography of Gertrude Bell, for example.) I will generalize from my women friends, though - they (we) all read history, biographies, science, all manner of nonfiction, and we discuss amongst ourselves.

Another detail - or omission - from the article made me wonder whether the survey included audio books. I've seen discussions and debates on whether audio books count as "reading" - for example, check out this excellent post by Moonfrog and the comments below - and I've been rather surprised by some of the conclusions. For the record, I think that any medium that lets you absorb the author's words qualifies as reading - and I wonder who amongst the scoffers would tell, say, blind people that they aren't reading their "Books on Tape."

So, do my friends and family read as much as I do? Friends, yes, but wouldn't you expect that we'd choose friends whose passions complement our own? In fact, some friends astound me with the number of books they read, especially since they also knit amazing things, create and sustain splendid gardens, raise excellent children, work time-intensive jobs....Would that I had the energy and time-management skills to keep up with them!

(Family - not as much. Alas.)

Katie Roiphe - Uncommon Arrangements


Have you ever seen those mind-map-like charts that begin with one celebrity and radiate / branch out to show who has had (ahem) relationships with whom? That's this book.

In no particular order, these are some of the linked literati: H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Katherine Mansfield, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain, D.H. Lawrence, Vanessa Bell, Radclyff Hall, E. M Forster, Rebecca West - (no, wait, I already listed her - she finds her way into an amazing number of these stories!) -

Some had children with each other. Some were jealous of others. Some were not jealous of others.

Some are old literary friends of mine. I already knew all of the tidbits herein. I did not learn anything new. Had I not known anything about these people, all I would now know is that writers have libidos.

Not recommended. Not.


Elizabeth Gilbert - Eat, Pray, Love

I confess: the only reason I read his book was its presence on best-seller racks in Borders and Barnes & Noble. I suppose I got what I deserved. At least I had the sense to stop reading it when - well - I'm getting ahead of myself. Be patient.

Gilbert is a seeker. I'm a seeker. (Wouldn't you like to be a seeker too? ) In a memoir, as in life, I seek clear-headedness. In a travelogue, I seek - well, clear-headedness and a sense of Being There. In a spiritual memoir, I seek - well - how about perspective? Some evidence of growth?

Here's a quote that says it all:
The other day in prayer I said to God, "Look - I understand that an unexamined life is not worth living, but do you think I could someday have an unexamined lunch?"
Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for this book. (In fact, I just gave a copy to a friend who will like it very much.) What the world needs now isn't love as much as reason and clarity. Without those, love is just an impulse. I need more than the evidence of impulse to want to read a book.

Gilbert's travels took her to Italy, India, and Bali. Italy was mostly about food. Even if I, personally, would starve before I ate octopus salad, I can appreciate someone else's appetite. (After all, M.F.K. Fisher wrote about, shall we say, non-standard foods, and her work is stunning.) I can't tell you about Bali, because I bailed out in the middle of India. That's not like me.

I love reading about India. I love Indian music, Indian food, Indian art, Indian thought and spirit. I've read Autobiography of a Yogi, books by Krishnamurti, the Bhagavad-Gita, Rabindranath Tagore, countless books about the Raj. It's difficult to put me off if you're writing about India. Gilbert managed. It wasn't that she arrived at an ashram wanting to pick and choose amongst the necessary disciplines - one expects resistance in a spiritual memoir. It wasn't even the presence of a wry Texan whose comments reminded me of a cross between the late, great Molly Ivins and The Stranger in "The Big Lebowski." It was the moment of enlightenment that involved being bitten half to death by mosquitoes.

Sometimes I can get past mosquitoes. Sometimes I can't. Oh well.

By the way, "The Big Lebowski" is one great film. The Dude abides, you know.

Claire Tomalin: Katherine Mansfield, a Secret Life

Katherine Mansfield: a secret life - by Claire Tomalin

That I love the work of Katherine Mansfield probably is apparent from the way I've rattled on in this blog.How I wish for a new biography of this doomed and brilliant miniaturist! In the meantime, I recommend this 1987 work by Claire Tomalin.

Tomalin can always be counted on for clarity and an unbiased rendition of a life. In the case of Katherine Mansfield, both must have been difficult. Not only did Mansfield try on various personae and artistic identities, not only did she hide and lie about some of her past - she even changed her name several times, finally alighting on the name we know today.

She was, for her times, more sexually adventurous than many. Her early lovers may have included women. Some of the physical suffering she endured before her death from tuberculosis may have been the result of an STD she contracted, relatively early in her life.

Even as her strength ebbed, she flung herself into her art and the artistic life, socializing with such luminaries as Lady Ottoline, Virginia Woolf, and Aldous Huxley. She and her odious husband lived with the volatile D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence for a tumultuous period. (Lawrence later based two characters in Women in Love on Mansfield and Lady Ottoline.) Her stories, crystalline and (sometimes) bitter, caught the attention of Virginia Woolf, who considered Mansfield her only true literary threat.

Mansfield's death in the enclave of the mystical Gurdjieff was part of a desperate search for a cure when conventional medicine failed her. Tomalin takes the reader through the last days and last hopes with the dispassionate details that make Mansfield's decisions tragically clear.

Tomalin's biography brought me closest to feeling that I was in the presence of this complicated woman. I recommend it to all who love Mansfield, and all who admire a good biography.

Agatha Christie - Murder on the Orient Express

I've never before read anything by Christie, and I was expecting to be bemused by a period piece.

Instead, I was enthralled, unable to put down the book until I had finished. Not only that : since I'd never seen the movie, I was depending on the book alone , and I was utterly amazed by the ending. I never saw it coming. Great fun!

(One cavil: anyone who reads this should be prepared for some musty, unpleasant cultural stereotypes. This book is not politically correct... but one must take it as a period piece, after all.)

Booking Through Thursday - generosity

  1. Do you lend your books to other people? If so, any restrictions? Not often. Everyone I know has so many books that they don't need mine! It's a good thing, because I'm almost as neurotic about my books as I am about my fountain pens. I once lent a copy of The Bhagavad Gita to my cousin. When she gave it back, I saw that she'd inked a large OM symbol on the fanned-out pages. This happened at least 35 years ago, and I still remember the punch of dismay I felt.

  2. Do you borrow books from other people? (Friends or family—I'm not talking about the public library) Not often. See above. However, that does not stop me from BUYING books from other people. Heaven help me, I've discovered BookMooch.

  3. And, most importantly—do the books you lend/borrow get returned to their rightful owners?? Yes. Absolutely.

A. S. Byatt - The Biographer's Tale

Welcome to the Bizarro World edition of Possession. Where once the literary sleuths sought the mystery of a Victorian poet, now the sleuth seeks to escape the Laputa-like world of modern literary criticism. He wants things - facts - tangibles.

Steered by his orotund advisor (who doodles random, obscene runes during lectures) and stirred by a three-volume biography of Elmer Bowles (a Victorian polymath whose own writings may or may not have been, shall we say, reliable), Phineas Nanson decides to write a biography of the biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes. Destry-Scholes becomes Phineas's guru, inspiring him to write as he wrote by retracing his subject as Destry-Scholes had followed his multifaceted and peripatetic subject all over the world, learning the same languages, and, possibly, dying in the pursuit of Biography.

Byatt is devilish. In Posession, literary factions flung themselves into the chase for Cristabel's secrets. In this book, nobody flings himself at anything - except, perhaps, a zealous Swedish bee taxonomist, whose assistance in translating some of Destry-Scholes's notes on Linneus prefigure her zest for - well, for Phineas.

Notes rescued from the bottom of a file drawer seem to show that Destry-Scholes was in the process of a work - or works - on three men who seem to have little in common: Linnaeus, the taxonomist whose travel-writings betrayed a singular desire to catalog the sexual organs of everything he sees, whether human or plant; Galton, the inventor of fingerprinting and a zealot for eugenics; and the great playwright.

As Phineas tries to follow the biographer's notes, his confusion begins to resemble one of Galton's passions: creating composite portraits of people by selecting features of each and blending them, creating, in Phineas's eyes, "something that had been taken away by being added." The same process begins to afflict Phineas, who loses focus as accumulated facts begin to blend into an unsatisfactory whole.

Vera, a niece of Destry-Scholes, allows him access to shoe-boxes filled with note cards and a collection of her uncle's marbles, which she tries to match up to lists of unrelated words in one of her uncle's notebooks: maidenhair, bum, lamplight, tendril, gloop, gentian, spitfire, goosefeather... His employment at Puck's Girdle, a fey, blue-green travel agency, introduces him to a sinister gentleman who offers snuff Phileas as a sly requestfor a rather perverse tour -- but is this desire any less perverse than the celebrated taxonomists's prurient focus?

Phineas describes himself as "a very small man.. but perfectly formed." This book is a perfectly delightful stew of things, facts, and intangibles that might not satisfy the cravings of the would-be biographer, but satisfied me completely.

Booking Through Thursday - caring for your books

What kind of care do you take of your books? Let's review, shall we?

  1. Are you careful with the spines? Or do you crack your books open to make them lay flat? I'm both careful AND I crack the books - depends on the book (and, needless to say, whether it's mine!)

  2. Do you use bookmarks? Or do you dog-ear the corners? If you do use bookmarks, do you use those fashionable metal ones? Or paper? I use bookmarks. Many of them were gifts, and some are hand-made (embroidered, knitted). The only metal one I use is William, the hippo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on a blue ribbon.

  3. Do you write in your books? Ever? If you do, do you make small marks, or write in as much blank space as you can find? Pen or pencil? Highlighter? Your name on the front page? Sometimes I use an address label on the inside front cover, and sometimes I write in the book. If the paper is fountain-pen friendly, I use a fine-nibbed pen. Otherwise, a ball point. If I write, it's usually on one of the blank pages at the end - I take notes, and indicate the page number.

  4. Do you toss your books on the floor? Into book bags? Or do you treat them tenderly, with respect? On the floor!?!?!?!? I carry books with me in my knitting bag, or in a tote with my notebooks and journal. My books, c'est moi. If anything, I treat them more tenderly, and with more respect, than I treat myself!

  5. Um--water? Do you bathe with your books? Hold them with wet hands? Read out in the rain? Anything of that sort? No. No. No.

  6. Are your books lined up on a bookshelf? Or crammed in any which way? Stacked on the floor? On bookshelves or piled on furniture. Never ever ever on the floor (see #5).

  7. Do you make a distinction--as regards book care--between hardcovers and paperbacks? Not really.

  8. And, to recap? Naturally, you love all of your books, but how, exactly? Are your books loved in the battered way of a well-loved teddy bear, or like a cherished photo album or item of clothing that's used, appreciated, but carefully cared for? Both. Some are well-loved stuffed rabbits, and some are cherished like a pair of velvet gloves. (Wine-colored velvet, or forest green. I know this is more information than you want. I have a thing for gloves.

  9. Any additional comments? Not now - I'm reading.

Edith Hahn Beer - The Nazi Officer's Wife

The Nazi Officer's Wife - Edith Hahn Beer, with Susan Dworkin.

I read this book because a good friend said she'd been inspired by it. People will do anything to survive. Yes, and it often is astonishing to know about them. Astonishing, inspiring - and terrifying.

This book terrified me. Anything about the Holocaust terrifies me. The very word, Kristallnacht, terrifies me. I am a Jewish woman; I would be foolish if it didn't terrify me, or if I were complacent enough to think it never could happen again.

Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass. When I read about the Holocaust (which I rarely do), my brain experiences Kristallnacht. Thoughts break away and shatter. I lose my ability to speak coherently. To think coherently.


Edith Hahn's memoir is coherent and focused. I read it in one sitting because it was impossible to look away. Her story has been dramatized, and it is remarkable.

The world for Viennese Jews came apart very quickly. One day, she was finishing law school, and the next, she was enslaved and forced to work on a farm and in a carton factory. Rather than submit to being taken to Poland, she went underground in Vienna, where kind Viennese women helped her to get false identification papers and saved her life. She moved to a town outside of Dresden, met a Nazi officer, lived with him, married him, had his child, a daughter. He spent time in Siberia, captured in battle, and returned. They divorced. She and her daughter went to England. Both survived. We know this story because her Pepi, the beloved who could not escape his grotesque and hysterical mother, saved all of her letters and papers, and because her daughter read them.

What a person will do to survive -

I can not put my thoughts together for this. Instead, I offer some of my reading notes, in no particular order. Please read the book.

the Nazi officer who demanded a dust-free home
millions turned to dust. millions.
to be able to hold two beliefs

to be considered subhuman and powerful enough to threaten civilization
those who would scapegoat
1984 - do it to her
to know the lie - the citizens knew full well - THEY MAY NOT ESCAPE INTO DENIAL BECAUSE THEY KNEW-
she refused anesthesia - she endured the pain of childbirth to protect her Jewish child- to protect the daughter of a Nazi
Thomas Mann on the radio - the first time she heard the full truth, piles of children's shoes
"I had often heard Werner's views about the power of Jewish blood"
"She turned her back on me. I could feel her sense of triumph, her genuine satisfaction in destroying my life. It had a smell, I tell you - like sweat, like lust."

Katharine Mansfield: Marriage a la Mode (Rereadings)

Technically, this is not a "rereading." It's an offshoot of the last book I read for Rereading. That's what I do, as a voracious reader: I follow pathways from one book to something else.

"Marriage à la mode" -- Katherine Mansfield

Imagine Isabel, if you will: a young, married woman who once lived in a pretty London house with her loving husband William and two little children. Picture the house, with lush petunias in a window box: a harmonic convergence of peace and bliss after the First World War.

Now think of the changes perfuming the ancient English air: women's suffrage, feminism, artistic and literary modernism. Each change drew advocates and acolytes, many of them famous (the Bloomsbury group) and colorful (Lady Ottoline's many-hued estate, harboring artists, pacifists, and pugs). These were the glitterati of the new London.

Pretty Isabel goes to Paris with her friend Moira, and returns discontented, a new Isabel who laughs "in the new way." William, baffled by her desire for a new house, new music, and new friends, nonetheless buys her a house in the country. He stays in London and visits on weekends while Isabel lives her new life with new friends. Bohemians and artists surround her, sharing a sunlit idyll with their pretty muse. She thrives, the children thrive, and William continues to work and support the merry band of early flower children that has replaced the traditional family.

Satisfactory, no? It's feminist fairy tale, if the prince and the princess don't mind a long-distance happily-ever-after.

Not so fast.

We meet William as he prepares for a weekend visit. His children expect presents, as children do. Toys, perhaps? No: Isabel has thrown out their old toys because they were "appallingly bad for the babies' sense of form." What else would please the children? William buys a pineapple and a melon, boards the train, and thinks of his lovely, "petal-soft" Isabel and the featherbed they one shared. Worries surface. Will the merry ones be there this weekend? Will they try to steal the fruits (of his labors?) from the children?

They are, and they do.

Mansfield's pen loathes artifice, and it wastes no time peeling each acolyte. (This, one senses, is personal.) Dennis, the wannabe ironist, frames every scene into a precious verbal tableau ("A lady in love with a pineapple"). Bobby, the fey freeloader, wants to don a Nijinsky dress and dance. Moira, Isabel's friend, discovers that "sleep is so wonderful. One simply shuts one's eyes, that's all. It's so delicious." (This, one senses, is very personal.)

They tolerate William because Isabel chides them (and William overhears): "Be nice to him, my children! He's only staying until tomorrow evening." Left alone, he wanders into a sitting room that is littered with the leavings of Isabel's new children -- piles of cigarette ashes, a grotesque mural on a yellow wall, strips of paint-daubed cloth strewn over the furniture ...

What makes a house a home? Mansfield offers a gesture. William, sitting in an armchair, feels the space next to the cushion. In London, in the old house, he would have retrieved his children's toys: a three-legged toy sheep, perhaps, or a little horn. Here, he finds "yet another little paper-covered book of smudged-looking poems." Not even the detritus of Isabel's new life belongs to him. Isabel's new life has both alienated and trivialized him. The reader hears a window slam shut before a clearly-relieved Isabel shoves him into a taxi.

Mansfield's pen loathes artifice. It also loathes sentimentality. Another writer may have pounced on William and reveled in the long love-letter he begins to compose on the train. William's lachrymose letter might have been lampooned with as much savagery as Dennnis' faux irony. But it isn't; she doesn't.

Instead, she follows the letter as it is delivered to Isabel the next day, a sultry Monday that finds the sulky group moping. Only Isabel receives a letter that day, "and mine's only from William." The envelope is thick, and the letter is long. It begins: "My darling, precious Isabel," and it continues, page after heartfelt page.

Isabel, astonished, feels an unexpected, unwanted emotion. A sentimentalist may have led Isabel up to the cool privacy of her bedroom, there to have an epiphany, and to resolve to reunite with her loving husband.

Instead, Mansfield leads Isabel to her bedroom, but not before she shares the letter with her new, feral children. They whoop and jeer when they read the clumsy prose. "God forbid, my darling, that I should be a drag on your happiness." They roll on the ground, weak with hilarity.

Something about the raucous scene catches Isabel's attention. Perhaps, Mansfield seems to suggest, the letter has touched Isabel's disregarded heart. Perhaps the letter shifts Isabel's attention. Indeed, Isabel begins to berate herself, calling herself "shallow, tinkling, vain..."

Is this a liminal moment? Mansfield certainly has given Isabel a chance, but she chooses, with minimal consciousness of error, to rejoin her friends, "laughing in the new way."

Virginia Woolf once characterized Katherine Mansfield as "hard and cheap" (although she recognized Mansfield's potential to equal her own art). Hard and cheap. How else to tell this story? Isabel squanders the opportunities of liberation, congress with serious artists, and a loving husband. She chooses cheap thrills.

This fairytale does not end with Cinderella and her prince, beautiful to the end. Sleeping Beauty does not awaken to the true value of true love. The story holds up a mirror to every frivolous, self-reverential society that is so enthralled with itself that it stagnates. As it was, Mansfield implies, so shall it be.

- - - - -
- - - - -

Mansfield died of tuberculosis, at the estate of a charismatic, esoteric teacher, Gurdjieff. The wizard could not heal her - another fairy tale gone awry. Perhaps Katherine Mansfield knew that the mage would fail, but she chose to reach for the fantasy after hard reality had failed her.

Childhood favorites

I found this at Heather's site, The Library Ladder. (It was written by Kate, of Kate's Book Blog.)

1. How old were you when you learned to read and who taught you?
Family legend has it that I read at age 3, and that no one taught me. Family legend also has it that my mother read at age 2 1/2, and she could read upside down, from a newspaper. Family dynamic has it that everyone in the family is a genius, but some have more extravagant ways of proving it.

2. Did you own any books as a child? If so, what’s the first one that you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles that you borrowed from the library?
I owned many books. The first one I remember was a Little Golden Book about ballet. All of the little girls in the book were tiny blonde goddesses. I studied ballet for years, but I never achieved goddesshood, or blondeness. Fortunately, I learned the difference between fiction and non-fiction very early. As for books I borrowed from the library, The Little Lame Prince, which I borrowed so many times from the school library that I still remember where it was shelved!

3. What’s the first book that you bought with your own money?
Jane Eyre. My parents took me to the big Barnes & Noble on 5th Avenue in New York because my mother wanted to buy art books. I wandered over to the fiction section and happened upon Jane Eyre. Reader, I bought it.
I should also mention another book I bought when I was very young: Franny and Zooey. I bought it in the local 5 & 10 cent store. The clerk was reluctant to sell it to me because she thought it was pornographic, and that I was too young to read it. I'm sure she hadn't read it. I've read it so many times since then that I can recite passages from it. I've never outgrown the notion that I am Franny's astral twin, nor the gratitude that my mother never tried to put me on a show like "It's a Wise Child." (How did she miss that one?)

4. Were you a re-reader as a child?
Yes. I still am a re-reader. As a child, I re-read Little Women (a gift from my paternal grandfather) and Jane Eyre (see above).

5. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest and how old were you when you read it?
Again, Jane Eyre. I identified with her loneliness and the way she had to repress her passions.

6. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?
Andersen's fairy tales, especially "The Emperor's Nightingale,""The Snow Queen" and "The Little Mermaid." I wasn't particularly interested in fairy tales when I was a child, but I became obsessed with them as I got older. Now, I see many things in everyday life as expressions of myth and tale and archetype, and I long to learn more.

Booking Through Thursday - The White Witch

Do you have a favourite book, now out of print, that you would like to see become available again?

The White Witch, by Elizabeth Goudge. I've been reading this book (almost) yearly since I was sixteen, and it never has lost its magic. Goude's writing style is simultaneously descriptive and spare, conjuring the intimacy of half-gypsy Froniga's herb-filled cottage, as well as the violent world during the time of Cromwell. To this day, the scent of rose or lavender brings me back to the first time I read the book, and I imagine myself in another life, creating rose-petal conserve, perhaps.

Booking Through Thursday - Franny and Zooey

I got this one from Booking Through Thursday --

  1. What is most battered book in your collection? The one with loose pages, tattered corners, and page edges so soft that there's not even a risk of paper cuts anymore? Franny and Zooey - Franny, c'est moi, in so many ways, and for so long.

  2. Why is this book so tattered? Is it that you love it so much that you've read it a zillion times? Is it a reference book you've used every day for the last seven years? Something your new puppy teethed on when you weren't looking? Even today, a zillion years after I first read it, I pick it up, lose myself in the Glass family, and remind myself that everyone is the Fat Lady.

Doris Grumbach - The Ladies

What book would I most want to see filmed? The Ladies, a novel by Doris Grumbach. I've wondered often why it never was filmed. It's such a good story!

In the late 18th century, two Irish women decided to leave their family homes and create a life for themselves in the wider world. Sarah, an orphaned teenager, met Eleanor while on holiday from school. Eleanor, a woman in her thirties whose father had never forgiven her for being a daughter instead of the son he longed for, had dressed as a man from childhood and had enjoyed the kind of freedom that few traditional women could imagine. They became dear friends and companions, and their friendship was considered salutary by their families - until they eloped.

Lesbian love, even (and especially) loving relationships that were true marriages of hearts, minds, and bodies, shocked the families into allowing Sarah and Eleanor to leave their homes. They never returned. Instead, they established themselves in a small Welsh town, Llangollen, where they lived according to their own vows and beliefs. That their love was as natural as any was their first vow of binding. They vowed to create a beautiful home with bountiful gardens to sustain them, and to read and study to develop their minds and hearts.

Dressed in the riding habits and top hats that Eleanor designed as their lifelong fashion, they lived a solitary life in the puzzled town, and refused to allow themselves to be sensationalized when they attracted notice. Gradually, they received the visitors who would make them famous - Wordsworth, Byron, Walter Scott, Edmund Burke, Richard Shackleton, Josiah Wedgewood, and Anna Seward, amongst others. They grew old together, and they died together; their love never faltered.

Now, imagine the movie! Since there will be no more Merchant/Ivory productions, I would like Jane Campion to direct because of her skill in depicting women who make brave and difficult choices amidst natural or social beauty. (Think "The Piano" or "Portrait of a Lady," and imagine the Ladies against the expanses of rural Wales.) Picture Sarah's resplendent gardens, the house that the Ladies decorated, and the immense bed they shared; picture their beloved cow and the artichokes they feasted on with freshly-churned butter. The movie would be a visual treat.

Emma Thompson might be a good choice for the older, more assertive Eleanor. I can imagine Kate Winslett as Sarah, blonde and emotional, comforting Eleanor through her monthly migraines, knitting delicate stockings and gloves, and designing the gardens that would be so admired. Who would portray their famous friends? I'll leave that to you,the casting director, although I might suggest Anthony Hopkins as Sir Walter Scott, and (dare I say) Hugh Laurie as Lord Byron.

Perhaps you are puzzled, wondering why real-life luminaries are including in this fiction. Simple: Doris Grumbach's novel is a fictionalized biography of two very real, very brave women: Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, the Ladies of Llangollen. Did Sarah suffer from debilitating dreams and lingering guilt about her sexual preference? Did Eleanor develop a passion for magic in her later years? Grumbach cautions the reader to remember that her book is fiction, her own vision, and not a faithful biography. I think it would make a splendid film, and I recommend the book as a fine romance and a vision of the lives of two pioneering women.

Booking Through Thursday : villains in literature

Who’s the worst fictional villain you can think of? As in, the one you hate the most, find the most evil, are happiest to see defeated? Not the cardboard, two-dimensional variety, but the most deliciously-written, most entertaining, best villain? Not necessarily the most “evil,” so much as the best-conceived on the part of the author…oh, you know what I mean!

The worst villain: Gilbert Osmond in
The Portrait of a Lady. He devours innocence and freedom for sheer sport - ruining Isobel's life, Pansy's life - even Ralph Touchett's, in a way, as his sufferings are multiplied by his generosity. Osmond's delight in the trappings of wealth and culture makes his heartlessness even more ironic.

Slammerkin - Emma Donoghue

I never leave the house without a red ribbon.

Mary Saunders, the focus of Slammerkin, is thrown out
of her house
after being raped for her desire for a red ribbon.

Does the red ribbon establish a kinship between Mary and
Perhaps. Lacking a common desire or situation, the
reader may have
difficulty opening herself to a character
– in my case, the relationship
between a middle-aged
librarian and a doomed teenaged prostitute.

Slammerkin places a very young woman in a desperately
household, where she is neither loved nor consulted
about how her life
will unfold.

All evidence points to a miserable and colorless
continuation of her mother’s life of poverty, drudgery,
subjugation that was sealed when her father
was killed in a misguided protest
by men who believed that
they were going to lose, literally lose,
eleven days of their
lives when the government changed to the
calendar in 1752 -that they would lose time.

I was fascinated by the subjective inconstancy of Mary’s
perception of
time. In her mother’s house, time is nearly a
solid mass, changing
only by suffering and the family’s
heartless response to Mary’s
pregnancy. This response, a
product of the times, is doled out without

How could the family understand the depth of Mary’s need
escape the faded beige of their lives, or the magical hope
by that red ribbon? And yet, how could a mother
cast out her raped,
pregnant daughter?

(As I write, I realize that Mary’s mother is the only truly
unforgivable character in the book. Perhaps my modern-time
sensibility intrudes. All of the subsequent damage and
tragedy that
defined Mary’s brief time, and all of the bitter
focus on the actual
material that she craved in this world,
began with this primal betrayal.
If she was not loved for
what was within, she could, at least, adorn
herself with the transitory beauty of clothes.)

Time, and the times, were different when Mary fled
to London. London
was fast-paced, and the woman who
accepted her into the sisterhood
of prostitutes were fast.
Doll’s love and practical
guidance showed Mary that society
can tolerate – even require –
actions and beliefs far larger
than she had ever imagined. Through
prostitution, Mary
acquired financial independence and freedom to see
some of
thewonders of her modern world. Likethe fireworks over
she and her sisters of the night were brief flashes
of beauty, dressed
in their colorful slammerkins (loose
dresses) and masked behind their

Mary’s sudden need to escape a street thug impelled her
to Magdalene
Hospital, a residence founded to purge the
evil from the street-wise
women. Time was suspended there,
with silence, blandness,
and time to think without fearing
starvation or death in the freezing
streets. With Doll’s death,
Mary realizes that she has to leave London,
and her
retreat ends in a desperate flight from the sanctuary
to the
town where her mother had grown up. Glimpses
of the possibilities
there almost melt her cynicism, but
her nature has been formed, and
she can not escape.

This novel is based, loosely, on the actual life of a Mary
Saunders who
was executed for murder in 1764. From the
beginning of the novel,
when Mary is 13, to her death by
hanging at age 16, Mary passes
through more lifetimes
than many experience in ten times the years.

How many such lifetimes can a child endure? For Mary is a
child, and
my working-class perception of childhood
makes me ache for this young
girl, whose only
transgression was the love of a piece of red ribbon.

How does the red ribbon bind me to Mary’s life? For both the
18th -
century child and the 21st century woman, the red
ribbon symbolizes
hope. Mary’s hope for a better life is
destroyed, but the
hopes of my Eastern European Jewish
ancestors for the children who would be born in the new
world, and would escape the Evil Eye of the old. have
realized. After reading Slammerkin, I realize anew
that I am, indeed,

On Being Ill (Virginia Woolf) and In Bed (Joan Didion)

On being ill - Virginia Woolf
In bed - Joan Didion

"English," says Virginia Woolf, "which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache... Let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry."

Woolf's brief meditation is much sunnier than one might expect. (Perhaps a headache was a minor inconvenience, compared to the sufferings of her bipolar disorder - diagnoses courtesy of Kay Redfield Jamison). She seems almost cheerful as she reports on the luxury of lying in bed with no responsibility other than to observe the sky: "this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows... This, then, has been going on without our knowing it?"

Woolf shares her joy, but dismisses sympathy altogether. No one else has experienced your unique pain, and it is "...better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable." Surprising, isn't it, how this most social of women should reject others in this circumstance?

"The body smashes itself into smithereens," she says. Joan Didion's migraines smash her world into smithereens, as well. "The physiological error called migraine is, in brief, central to the given of my life... Almost anything can trigger a specific attack of migraine: stress, pressure, allergy, fatigue, an abrupt change in barometric pressure, a contretemps over a parking ticket..."

Always the reporter, Didion reminds us that LSD was developed, originally, as a treatment for migraine. How amusing! My own visual, olfactory, and sensory aura manifestations are hallucinatory enough! Wouldn't LSD be like the hair of the dog that bit you?

Where Woolf basks in the beauty outside her window, Didion hides from the light behind closed shades. Where visitors offer Woolf unwanted sympathy, those in Didion's world offer no sympathy whatsoever: "I'd have a headache, too, spending a beautiful day like this inside with all the shades drawn."

Two women, two headaches -- the passionate sensualist and the reserved observer. Can you tell where this migraineur's sympathies lie? I can't describe the experience as Didion can, but maybe a fellow American will, since, according to Woolf, "the Americans, whose genius is so much happier in the making of new wards than in disposition of the old, will come to our help and set the springs aflow."

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading - Maureen Corrigan

I love this book.
I love this book even though it has complicated my life by adding dozens and dozens of books to the list of books I will never have time to read, dammit.

** Maureen Corrigan is related to Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan.
** She once lived a part-time approximation of Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night.
** Her literary loves include mysteries with hard-boiled detectives ("the ultimate independent contractors").
** As a child, she read many Catholic "martyr stories" that taught a "pedagogical tough-love message. "
** She once told a student that Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is "an elegant goof."
** She once taught a course called "Sleuthing spinsters and dangerous dames."
** She regrets that tomboy characters in children's books have been "gussied up and diminished into girly girls by Disney."
** (My favorite) As a critic, she has been forced to misspend reading time on mysteries narrated by cats.

I love this woman.

Corrigan's narrative is not jumpy, and is not list-like. My notes are, both. When I started reading, my notes focused on her thoughts about reading as a search for personal authenticity, to deepen one's own life. By the end, I was compiling a bibliography.

I am fascinated by her analysis of men's vs. women's literature. Both, she says, can be extreme adventure stories. Men's adventures usually are visible, external struggles with extreme topography or evildoers. Women's, however, may not be as obvious if they are internal struggles with issues as strong as the most fearsome dictator or hurricane: abortion, widowhood, childbirth, psychological or physical abuse, repression. A woman's extreme adventure, she says, is "less Herculean and more Sisyphean in nature."

I am also fascinated by the memoir that is woven through her literary adventures. She left the Catholic childhood behind and pursued a career in writing that included non-tenured professorships and writing for the "Village Voice." Her job at NPR as book critic is her dream job (which anyone reading this blog knows to be true). This trajectory was, at least, logical.

Not so logical or linear was her struggle to have a child. She and her husband endured the extreme adventure, all-too-common, of treatment for infertility. Finally, they decided to adopt a Chinese baby. That trajectory, through Byzantine paperwork and terrifying Chinese roads, careened from despair to optimism to bewilderment - and ended with their daughter, Molly, asleep in their arms.

I came away from this book wishing that I had Maureen in my life as a friend - or, barring that, wishing I had unlimited access to her library.

I don't just recommend this book. I relish it.

(In no particular order, some of the books that I now want to read or reread : Gaudy Night, News from Nowhere, The Girl Sleuth, The Unicorn's Secret, The Godwulf Manuscript, Etchings in an Hourglass, Quartet in Autumn, Villette, Lost Lady, Lucky Jim, Murder in the English Department, stories by Chekhov including "Lady with a Lapdog," Madwoman in the Attic, The Lecturer's Tale, Straight Man, and Charming Billy.)


Sylvia Plath - a newly-discovered poem!

What riches!

A newly-discovered poem by Sylvia Plath has been published by
Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts. Written when she was an undergraduate at Smith College, it "germinated from Plath's creative response to The Great Gatsby..." -

(And yes, of course, this is Daisy:"blase princesses indict/tilts at terror as downright absurd.")

ackbird has decided to publish it "to recognize and celebrate the disciplined hard work she put into her early writing." Click to read the whole poem, and to see two early typescripts.

Ennui -

Tea leaves thwart those who court catastrophe,
designing futures where nothing will occur...

I am so delighted that I don't even want to think yet! I just want to bask for awhile and reread "The Beast in the Jungle," which informs yet another allusive line ("The beast in Jamesian grove will never jump..."). Who can read that story and not shudder?

A Short History of Myth - Karen Armstrong

A Short History of Myth might be the sequel to A Brief History of Time (and infinitely more readable, I might add). One brings us from the first moment of the universe forward. The other brings us from the first conscious human moment forward.

Allow me to state a personal belief here: both journeys are awesome. Equally awesome. Karen Armstrong believes that reading about myth without experiencing (even at an historic distance) the accompanying ritual gives "as incomplete an experience as simply reading the lyrics of an opera without the music." I don't agree. If the reader participates, imaginatively, in the act of storytelling, then the ancients who transformed their questions and awe into stories are as modern as we are - which is to say, a few thousand years of time have not changed human psychology one whit.

What are the domino theory, the red menace, the Cold War, and the information superhighway but modern myths, meant to tame our fears, awe, and perceived helplessness against overwhelming power? And what are the arms race, HUAC hearings, wars, and the creation of pc icons but rituals to propitiate that power?

Armstrong says that the presence of myth posits a belief in a future similar to our own - a means to allay the consciousness of mortality and its despair. "Myth," she says, "looks into the heart of a great silence." Myth and religion also explain (or bring us to) transcendent moments when logic quiets, and experience narrows and expands. (I would call them Zen moments, the ultimate detachment of one's personal ego from the cosmos, both the ultimate surrender and relief.)

This parallel universe is one where the gods and goddesses have dealt - as badly, at times, and as egotistically - with the same problems of mortals. Jealousy, greed, ambition, and arrogance damage the gods as much as they do humans. Every culture has believed in a lost paradise and a powerful, single god whose remoteness has spawned lesser deities or landscapes where the two worlds are linked. Both the Australian Dreamtimes and the Elusinian Mysteries, for example, provide links between the worlds, as do the Burning Bush or Jacob's Ladder.

Myths transform and symbolize the seasons and agriculture (Persephone and Demeter), rites of passage, humanity's punishment for arrogance or attempting to transcend the natural order (Icarus, Prometheus), and disrespect for the Mother (Ianna), who forever retains her fearful power over reproduction and the food supply, and who must be propitiated. Agriculture and death intertwine (Osiris, Persephone's stay in the Underworld), heroic quests are undertaken (the search for the Grail).

Are any of these stories outdated? Of course not. Therein lies the power of myth - as metaphor of the original story, the Jungian idea of collective consciousness, the Christian concept of original sin, the folly of those who worship wealth (the Golden Calf), the quest for the fire that might illuminate our path away from death. We always will have Mysteries, Eleusinian or not.

This is a mighty little book that combines a concise overview of myth with an invitation to discover the very modern ancients. I recommend it for its information, style, and the provocative questions it invokes.

Reading Women

reading woman.jpg
I'm so lucky. I am a cataloger in a public library, and I get to handle every book that comes in. Children's books, reference books, fiction, poetry - everything comes through my hands. This compensates for a lot of the daily angst (oh yes, there is angst in a library!).

I just cataloged a new art book, Reading Women by Stefan Bollman. Every reading woman will see herself in paintings by Vermeer, Manet, Vuillard, or Alma-Tededma, or photographs, such as "Alice Liddell" by Julia Cameron (below).

alice liddell
I also found a review by the Guardian Unlimited - actually, not a review in the sense of criticism. It's a collection of short essays, each by a renowned writer who has focused on one of the images.

A. S. Byatt, for example, responds to "In the Library" by Edouard Vuillard, seeing a story in the setting of two children and a distant, perhaps disapproving young woman in the doorway of an ornate library.

Jeanette Winterson writes about a photograph of Marilyn Monroe by Eve Arnold, saying "She doesn't have to pose, we don't even need to see her face, what comes off the photo is absolute concentration, and nothing is sexier than absolute concentration."

Other Guardian essayists include Alison Lurie, Hilary Mantel, and P.D. James. If I owned a copy of this book, I would keep the article folded in its pages to remind myself to distill my visual pleasure into my own medium - language.

I don't drink... wine ...

I've been reading Brideshead Revisited for Knit the Classics. How I love Anthony Blanche. ..

Ah, Anthony. Anthony is my favorite character (outside of Aloysius, but let's no go there) in the book, and in the mini-series. Maybe I just have a Thing for flamboyant magi, but one must find truth where it is. Is anyone else as fascinated by this character's perfect observations as I am?

I just reread the section where Anthony and Charles are having dinner, and Anthony is telling Charles about Sebastian's "gruesome" family. In retrospect, wasn't he perfectly correct? Did he not have (especially) Lady Marchmain down in every respect? Were not (are not) the aristocracy far more decadent than the most florid commoner?

I'm also a sucker for anything that mentions the Bloomsbury crowd, and even their tangents, so I love the comment he throws off about having to read Antic Hay before he goes to Garsington. He would have fit in perfectly at Garsington! Lady Ottoline would have loved him, and how he would have loved her home, the colors, the Orientalism, the pugs -

... and gracious - can you imagine a conversation between Anthony Blanche and Lytton Strachey? It would have been so d-d-delicious.

A Changed Man - Francine Prose

Everyone believes in something, be it God, alchemy, market forces, or mutability. Meyer Maslow, high-profile Holocaust survivor and founder of Brotherhood Watch (BW), believes in all of the above, and then some. As head of an organization that uses publicity and moral pressure to free political prisoners and dissidents, he is surrounded by acolytes who staff his offices and follow his central belief: "peace through change."

The eponymous changed man, Vincent Nolan, leaves his van in the top tier of a parking garage, descends to the gritty heat of Manhattan, and rides the elevator (along with a dwarf - his description, not mine!) to the cool BW headquarters. The women who serve as gatekeepers for Meyer are wary, but they do allow him access.

Vincent tells Meyer his story, mixing truth with wary selectivity. He has, indeed, escaped from the ranks of the American Rights Movement (ARM), a neo-Nazi organization, after an ecstasy-fueled flash of insight in the middle of a rave. He also has stolen his neo-Nazi cousin's van, money, and stash of drugs, details he omits, knowing that they would block his plan to offer himself as a symbol of the type of change dear to Meyer's heart and soul.

Also omitted is the shaky basis of his altered philosophy and the struggle to change his inner vocabulary of borrowed neo-Nazi lingo. He is determined. (" "Attitude is everything,' he reminded himself as he navigated the hot and multicultural streets of Manhattan - the very essence of the evil against which the Aryans fight.") His decisions are fortified by his totem books: Crime and Punishment, and The Way of the Warrior.

At this stage, Vincent is a chameleon in the guise of a changed man, trying on the identity of redemption as he once did with ARM (although without a drug hit). He has drifted from one identity to another, from his mother's New Age airiness to the ARM, on currents of disappointment and neediness, taking on coloration as needed.

Bonnie Kalen, Meyer's fundraising assistant, is a witness to the moment that bonds the two men. Both have tattoos, coloration, as it were - Vincent's death's head and SS thunderbolts vs. Meyer's tattooed numbers. Meyer believes in the alchemy that can transform evil into good, and sees potential where others might suspect a scam.

Bonnie agrees to give Vincent temporary refuge in her home. Her disaffected sons accept the stranger as another peculiarily in their lives, already changed by their parents' divorce. The elder, writing a school paper about Hitler, takes Vincent's hint about Hitler's sexuality and takes it too far, resulting in a minature version of the plight of the dissident journalists that BW deplores. Bonnie, numbed from her divorce from a self-absorbed cardiologist, takes on the challenge of making Vincent ready for his closeup as the new face of BW.

The transformation is not easy. What transformation is? A dress rehearsal for the upcoming glittering fundraiser begins when Vincent spills red wine on his shirt. It ends with Bonnie, drunk and asleep on Meyer's bed. Meyer, who knows that he has burdened Bonnie with the task of taming the rough-edged stranger, looks at his sleeping aide and "feels like a different person. Purified. Washed clean. It's as if he's come through to the other side... he can experience pure love for a fellow human being... This is what God gives you in return for trying to be conscious and do the right thing."

(Yes, even secular saints can lose their way and begin to fret about drug busts at Pride and Prejudice camp, or insert phrases like "moral bungee jump" into their speeches.)

The newly-tamed Vincent has a weakness that almost ends his new career - an allergy to nuts - and he has to fight the effects of a single nut in a salad to deliver his speech about - well - about his escape from a nest of nuts. His escape from ARM has not escaped his cousin's notice, and his desire for cover is destroyed as his heroics are publicized. Raymond, the neo-Nazi cousin, hunts him down and confronts him on a live, Oprah-like talk show...

Francine Prose has conjured a story that uses fairy tale and archetypal situations and characters in a very modern cautionary tale. The reader will encounter Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Pea, dwarves (both physical and moral), Ice Princesses, and the solitary rites of passage that prepare a person to emerge and survive in a new life. The twin devils of political correctness and bigotry are personified in high school classes as well as Raymond's Homeland Encampment. Can it be as dangerous to follow a charismatic leader whose goals are saintly as to follow a demonic historic figure? If Meyer is eager for publicity, is he selling his soul by agreeing to a live appearance with a charismatic talk show host?

I loved this book.

Bliss - Katherine Mansfield

When we meet Bertha Young, she is a happy woman. She loves Harry, her husband, and Little B, her baby girl. She loves her home, her thrilling friends, her flowering pear tree, the beautiful fruit she has purchased for the night's dinner party. She is so happy as she approaches her home that she wishes she could run or dance, but she knows better than be so unseemly. "How idiotic civilization is," she thinks. "Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?" But no, she thinks. "... that about the fiddle is not quite what I mean."

The exuberance, the love of place, the pleasure in the preparations for a party predate the appearance of Mrs. Dalloway , but Bertha could be her younger, less-introspective sister. She also could be the younger, less-callous sister of Isobel in "Marriage a la Mode," eager to know interesting people and to enjoy the moment. In fact, she shares one circumstance with them both: her enthusiasms do not lead to true intimacy in marriage. All three women who love life and color and friends have marriages that are companionable, but passionless.

After she arranges the smooth pears and ripe grapes, Bertha visits the nursery, where Nanny is feeding Little B. Nanny does not want to allow Bertha to feed the baby, but Bertha insists, thinking "why have a baby if it has to be kept - not in a case like a rare, rare fiddle- but in another woman's arms!" Bertha feeds Little B and admires the child, saying "I'm fond of you, I like you," as she admires the child's doll-like toes, and the sweetness of her lips and hands. Her blissful, ecstatic afternoon continues as she thinks of her books, her artistic friends, the scent of jonquils, and the lovely white dress she will wear to dinner.

Amongst the guests at her dinner party are characters who could have been lounging in the heat along with Isobel. Bertha loves them all: Eddie, the writer in the blazing white socks, the monocled Norman Knight, and his wife, who tucks things into the front of her dress "as if she kept a tiny, secret hoard of nuts there." She loves them, and wishes she could tell them "what a decorative group they made, how they seemed to set one another off and how they reminded her of a play by Chekhov!"

But the most beloved guest is the mysteriously cool, blonde, silvery Pearl Fulton. "They had met at the club and Bertha had fallen in love with her, as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them." Bertha feels a deep connection with Pearl, although her husband has been most uncomplimentary about her ("cold like all blond women") and Pearl has been indirect, quiet, observant, inexact. Like a schoolgirl with a crush, Bertha wants a sign, proof that Pearl shares that mystical connection, although "what would happen after that she could not imagine."

As the guests mingle and talk after dinner, she and Pearl look at the pear tree, its white flowers gleaming in the moonlight, illuminating and encircling them both (she feels) in a silvery, unearthly, intimate light. The moment passes, the party goes on, and Bertha thinks of how she will praise and champion her silvery friend later, in bed with Harry.

With that thought, Bertha is caught in a wash of a feeling - terrifying, new - one she never has before known: sexual desire. Desire for her husband. Desire that makes her ache."Was that what this feeling of bliss had been leading up to?" As her guests are leaving, bustling about with their coats and their taxis, she is as detached as if it were she who is departing, leaving an old world behind.

Mansfield has prepared the reader for the story's end, but gently, quietly. A body should not be hidden like a fiddle, she has said, twice. Look at the grapes, the pears, the flowering fruit tree in Bertha's Eden; look for the silence behind the chattering guests and the thoughts that skip through Bertha's mind as she would skip through her blissful, ecstatic, childlike life. But look also to the violin's sensual curves, the fecundity of the fruit and the flowers. Be prepared to participate in the world as it is.

Bertha is prepared for her old life to recede, and, perhaps, the reader is prepared for what Bertha sees when she looks to the hallway as her guests leave. She sees her husband and Pearl, "with her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks...and her sleepy smile" as Richard turns her violently toward himself for an embrace and a promise. Pearl touches Bertha's hand and says good-bye, leaving Bertha to gaze at the pear tree in her garden, still blooming, still lovely, and still. With that touch, Bertha loses her virginity.

Although Mansfield's observations are sharp, and although she is relentless in her parodies of the modern, artistic people who populate the world of the Youngs, she seems to have more compassion for Bertha than for many of her women characters. Bertha has served a purpose in the lives of her husband and her friends. She has been decorative, cheerful, and pliable. She simply never has grown up. Her only flaw has been innocence that has never been tested. Perhaps her daughter will be better prepared to be a woman in the real world. Perhaps her daughter will truly understand Chekhov.

A. S. Byattt's working space

I love to see how/where writers write, don't you?

Here's a link to
A.S. Byatt's writing room -- a Victorian attic, glass paperweights, room to write by hand -
and magpies outside her window...

The Song of the Lark

Why did I select this book? I'd never read Cather, and I knew that the plot included opera. Well, now I have, and it does.

The plot - the trajectory of a young girl's life from small-town Colorado to international acclaim as a Wagnerian diva - is almost incidental. The huge Colorado landscape will, one knows, transmute itself into the vistas of Valhalla. The landscape itself will be as much a character as any human being, and will be given a voice more eloquent and true than any human.

In fact, every character's inner life centers on the radiant promise and fulfillment of Thea Kronenborg's artistry. Even the dying thoughts of a hideously-injured trainman are reverences to Thea. Thea contains multitudes, and they all are consumed by Thea.

They all worship with the same voice, designed to express grand principles, both aesthetic and philosophic. Unless I kept track of the the "he said" antecedents, I had no idea who was thinking, talking, or observing.

Perhaps I truly began to lose heart when Theas' musical mentors steered her toward Wagner. I loathe Wagner and nearly everything his music has influenced. Certainly, I always lose interest when a novel seems to be nothing but a duck blind for the author's philosophy. I would have stopped reading well before the end, since I did not care a whit about any character except Thea's mother, but I soldiered on in the name of - oh, who cares....

I'm not sorry that I read this book, but I am glad that it's over.

Notable passages (quotation herein does not constitute approbation by Teabird):

"Though their challenge is universal and eternal, the stars get no answer but that - the brief light flashed back to them from the eyes of the young who unaccountable aspire."
"Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is."
"He was observant, truthful, and kindly - perhaps the chief requisite in a agood story-teller."
"[A rabbit] seemed to be lapping up the moonlight like cream."
"[Thea's sister had] the kind of fishy curiosity which justifies itself by an expression of horror."

National Poetry Month 2007

Poets.org has a list of 30 things we can do to celebrate National Poetry Month.
Hmm. Let's see.

I'm a New Yorker, so I can celebrate Poem in your Pocket Day (a bit early). I keep the poem-a-day calendar on my desk, and often stuff a poem in my pocket. The poem that I stuffed into my pocket today (actually, it's the poem from April 6, but no matter) is by Molly Peacock:

The Land of Tears

You can stop in the spot you're already in
and enter the Land of Tears. It takes
a liquid thought inside the tin
mixing bowl of the brain pan, full of aches
from the scraping of your mind-spoon to make
the journey of the ingredients, the batter
that you turn out into a pan and bake
back into your old self, now new matter,
all because of that liquid thought mixed-up
with your dry milled existence. Curiously
simple tears stop the furiously
churned air, as a door opening up
stops an argument. You know what you meant.
As, after a rain, the air is brilliant.

I think this also qualifies as reciting a poem to family and friends.

I already subscribe to their free newsletter.

Next, I think I'll write to the post office and suggest Allen Ginsberg for the subject of a stamp.

It's a start!

Capote, as if by wizardry

I toyed, briefly with the idea of reading Proust instead of my Summer Reading Challenge books. The idea did not toy back. It's just not the right time for me.

Instead, I plunged into Gerald Clarke's Capote. Since I'm only 1/3 through the book, I suppose I should wait to post - but - I can't contain my enthusiasm. It reads more like a novel than many novels - the characters, even the minor ones, are living, breathing, catty, yearning people. The plot begins like a Southern Gothic, with Truman alternating living with three wierd sisters and his self-centered, self-delusional parents. He comes to New York and, as if by wizardry, becomes the beloved sprite of the publishing world before finishing his first novel.

I remember Truman Capote's appearances on television in the time of In Cold Blood and after. The black-and-white ball glittered in my imagination. Capote himself would go on talk shows, sprawl in the guest-seat, and speak in that baby-voice, his words either dripping with sarcasm or honeyed with admiration. Clarke's book captures what I remember, and illuminates what went on behind that very public life.

I can't wait to read more.

Arianna Huffington On Being Fearless

I'm reading this book because I want to be Arianna when I grow up, and because I can not believe that she ever was fearful.

Right now, I'm reading the chapter about the body.
How many times do we read that the key to taking control over parts of our lives is to change the negative self-talk to positive? And yet, affirmations have never worked for me, so I loved reading Arianna's take. "It was only when I began observing the critical voices inside me rather than giving in to them that I could start to take control over them. Instead of being drained by the negative self-talk, I found myself amused by it the way you are by a naughty child... We may not be able to tune them out entirely, but we don't have to let them run the show."

It never occurred to me to be amused by these voices - what a concept!

Arianna intersperses her text with excellent quotes, and by short essays by other strong women, including Nora Ephron, Sherry Lansing, and Diane Keaton. My favorite quote so far is by Maureen Dowd, whom I also want to be when I grow up: "It took only a few decades to create a brazen new world where the highest ideal is to acknowledge your inner slut."

To be continued...

The Children of Men

When a book inspects your views and finds them wanting, you know it is special. This one qualifies. It's a good yarn, and a poser.

Anyone who has seen the film or its trailers knows the premise: in the year 2021, 26 years after the last human was born, England has become the last holdout against the chaos that has engulfed much of the world. Its leader, Xan Lyppiatt, has been in control of England as the last Warden, and he has instituted changes to keep the aging population comfortable as resources dwindle.

Immigration, for example, has been curtailed except for a select number of Sojourners, whose presence is necessary to perform basic, laborious services. They are deported back to their home countries against their will, knowing that death will come early there. The elderly are encouraged to take part in a new ritual, Quietus, in which they float out to sea in a voluntary suicide. All citizens are forced to endure fertility tests, and the government supplies its populace with pornography to try to combat sexual apathy.

Xan's cousin, Theodore Faron, is an Oxford don whose classes have become diversions for older students in the absence of the young. He is approached by Julian, a woman who had caught his attention in his class on Portrait of a Lady by denouncing Isabel Archer's passivity, who asks him to bring to the concerns of a small radical group to the attention of his cousin. Reluctantly, he agrees to do so after he verifies their concern about the Quietus by observing its brutality.

Xan listens to his cousin's concerns, but answers them, point-for-point, in a classic clash between an advocate for the needs of the many vs. an advocate for the needs of the few. (One senses Mr. Spock nodding as Xan speaks.) He agrees that the Quietus that Theo observed was mishandled, and promises to monitor the ritual in the future. However, the other concerns that the radicals brought up are countered, point for point. The Sojourners can not stay, he says, because they would increase the strain on the already-disintegrating resources and means of distribution, hastening the deaths of many. Fertility testing is a last-ditch attempt to find a miracle, one fertile male and one woman who could bear a child. Any government would do the same in this circumstance - in fact, it would be irresponsible not to.

The issue that caused me the greatest soul-searching dealt with the island prison to which violent criminals were exiled. Conditions on the island were brutal. The government provided materials for basic sustenance, but did not prevent the strongest and most psychotic of the criminals to torment, torture, and kill the weaker. The dissidents wanted the government to step in, to send peacekeepers, as it were, to protect the rights of the exiled.

Xan's response made me wonder whether extreme circumstances could ever justify abandoning our civil rights advances and allowing such a hell to exist. Circumstances certainly had eliminated the pretense of rehabilitation: there simply was not enough time. The citizenry did not deserve to fear being victimized by criminals at this late date. And besides, Xan asked, who would give up the last years of his life to police the island? Would you?

P.D. James sets up this situation, an unsolvable puzzle in the context of the novel. Might the actions of current leaders be caused by their belief in the extremity of the present? It certainly sets up a dynamic, a Pushme-Pullyou philosophical problem - how does one judge the extremity of circumstances, and how far should individual rights be stretched to protect the many?

Without revealing plot details, I will say that what happens in the last few paragraphs of the book dwarfed all of the previous horror. One earlier tableau haunts me. It had become the fashion for women to stroll the London streets pushing exquisite dolls in perambulators. That alone would be creepy, yes? One such woman stops to allow another woman to coo over her doll, her baby. Suddenly, the other woman lifts the doll from its pram, smashes it to the ground, and walks away. Bereft of her baby, the first woman opens her mouth and howls in pure animal anguish. That howl continues to distress me, and to cause me to wonder what I would do, how far I would go to spare her that agony - to spare us all.

"Teach us to number our days," says King David in Psalm 90, "that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." Children of Men, enjoined to "return to dust" by the psalmist, is dystopian fiction at its most frightening.