Golden Days

“On the whole, they say, people got what they expected. The generals and the military were very hard hit. A certain kind of women and children were devastated. . . . But, as in any catastrophe, there were the crackpots who hadn’t paid much attention; the ones who, in a sense, went on playing poker through the quake. They were the dumb ones, the sissies, the . . . hedonists who were too enchanted by their own lives to get excited by Death descending.

“The ones I know who lived were the ones who had been making love, or napping, or fixing dinner, when the End came, or the ones at the beach—who still talked about the great crystallization of the sand, the ones far out windsurfing who dove beneath the waves and felt the whole Pacific turn lukewarm, the ones whose boats were out on the far side of Catalina when it happened and hove to, sailing back out of pure curiosity. And, of course, all of the scrabbling canyon weirdos, who saw the whole global collapse as just another brush fire.”

Carolyn See (1934-2016), Golden Days (McGraw Hill, 1987), 192-193.

Living in the past

“The reading of jestbooks could be, and was, justified on the ground that they were pills to purge melancholy and thus (since the Elizabethans were firm believers in psychosomatic medicine) could improve one’s physical health. Similarly, because the reading of history was recommended as perfectly safe and useful, it was possible to take up with a clear conscience any book, however fantastic, that had the word ‘history’ displayed on its title page.” Richard Altick,  The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (1957; rpt. Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1998), 42.

It’s the same principle as looking at photographs of kittens, and supports me in reading history as escape/distraction. I would like to urge my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writers to subtitle their works with “A history of . . . .” Would it work just to write in my own sub-titles? “An alternative history of Regency England.” “A History of Riverside.” “A History of the Hidden Land.”

What is poetry good for?

Many things, of course; building vocabulary is one.

When I was in high school, I encountered Lorca’s poetry via two books, two exposures in different classrooms. A translation of one of his poems appeared in my literature anthology for English class, and my Spanish teacher had a volume of Lorca’s collected poems on a shelf from which we got to choose a book, one day when we were allowed some free reading time (looking back, I suspect my teacher hadn’t prepared the day’s lesson, but at the time, I found it a delightful change to the usual routine). I loved his poetry; I bought my own copy of the facing-page collected poems; they led me on to Lorca’s other work, and to other Spanish-language poets, notably Neruda and a few of the members of the Generation of ’98.

And so, many years later, when I listen to call-in shows on Spanish radio, I can follow the ones about relationships without difficulty. I soon lose the thread of the shows about politics, mortgages, and health problems, but it’s remarkable how well poetry prepares a person for conversations about emotion. Corazón, lácrimas, amargura, cariño, amor: these words stuck with me. They stuck because I loved the poetry; even if I had read about mortgages, at that age, I doubt I would have carried the lines and words in my head.

Why am I listening to these shows? Because I like languages; because I want to hang onto the ones I have; because I haven’t given up on learning one or two more before I die. I have no purpose in mind. I just enjoy the process, the feeling of growing mastery over another language. In at least one way, this activity is counter-productive: it distances me ever further from the mass of my students, makes it even harder to understand what it is that they don’t understand. I think I am a better teacher of the things I struggled to learn than I am of the topics that came easily to me. Studying languages could perhaps lead to a second career or interesting volunteer work as a translator, interpreter, or guide. I have no such ambitions. Nonetheless, since the possibility is there, I would say, Poetry does too make things happen.

Has it ever made something happen for you?


The War of the Emerald Ash Borer

One chilly autumn afternoon, Sir John and I set out to walk in a bit of urban greenbelt which we haven’t visited in some time. The sky was grey, the trees were bare, the path was covered in dull brown leaves. Since this is an urban area, even when we appeared to be deep in the woods, we could still hear the roar of traffic at a distance, and since even the vines had lost their leaves, we could see houses and their back gardens through a fence. It was all very drab, chilly, and ordinary.

We walked about five miles, looping out on a paved path shared with runners and cyclists, and back on a once-gravelled trail used only by walkers and the occasional horse. When we were about half a mile from the parking lot we’d started from, the trail began to slant downhill, toward a branch of the river, and suddenly the undergrowth was bright green again. We saw a deer grazing, her tail a white flag. We walked on toward a gently arched bridge, passing a white deer skull balanced at the edge of the stream. I said, “You know if we cross that bridge, we’ve had enough signs that we shouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves in the middle of the War for the Oaks or the War of the Emerald Ash Borer or something.”

We crossed. We reached a liminal space, where woods, prairie, and houses came together. We met only a mountain biker in a fluorescent vest, accompanied by two black Labradors each wearing a glowing collar, one green, one blue. And then when we were nearly back to our car, another group approached us: a silver-muzzled blond Lab leashed by a silver-haired man, and by his side a woman with an owl’s head . . . .

Lawrence Durrell, morning writer

Watching The Durrells in Corfu prompted me to return to the novels of Lawrence Durrell, which I enjoyed when I was in my teens (I moved on to them after devouring Gerald’s memoirs, and was surprised to find them so different; but I loved the lyricism). It was very strange to re-read books that I once knew so well, and to have a completely different perspective on them now. When I was young, I was definitely an immasculated reader: able to read in sympathy with a male narrator. Now, not so much. And now I am not only older than most of the characters but also older than the author of the Alexandria Quartet. That also changes my perspective, as does being trained as a literary critic. As a teenager, I was completely uninterested in the political intrigue of the Quartet, which distorted my understanding of the work. Now I see better what Durrell was doing, and while I admire his female characters less, I see why, as a writer, he needed them to behave in certain ways.

I am particularly skeptical about Leila, the older woman whose vanity, after smallpox ravaged her once-beautiful face, kept her veiled on her Egyptian country estates rather than moving from Alexandria to Paris or London. I think she would have said “the hell with what people think,” moved anyway, dressed exquisitely and been accepted as a jolie laide. But then, I am the product of ’70s feminism, and in my London and Paris, there are women who veil. And the novelist needed her on the scene, as both mother and former lover; she wouldn’t have been effective as an emotional force in the novel if she were in Europe living her own life.

I moved on from Durrell’s own work to biographies and to Michael Haag‘s study of literary Alexandria during/between the World Wars, where I found this quotation about the way Larry worked while living on Cyprus in the late ’40s:

“With his teaching day beginning at seven in the morning, Durrell would rise at four-thirty and over a mug of black coffee add a few more lines to his novel, writing in longhand in his ‘Caballi’ notebook so as not to disturb his sleeping household, before driving thirty miles round the shoulder of the coastal range and onto the plain of Nicosia. In those dawns and in the lengthening shadows of his return drive to Bellapaix he was composing his novel in his head; these were the passages he set down by candlelight the following morning in ‘The Caballi’. At weekends he would type out the fifteen hundred words he had written there; it was a slow process of distillation. ‘Never have I worked under such adverse conditions’, Durrell wrote to Miller in October, but also ‘I have never felt in better writing form’.”   Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory, pp. 319-320.


Things to do

So we have come to live in Bizarro World. There is a rift in the space-time continuum, only half the passengers understand this, the Enterprise is stuck and can’t make it over to bail us out, and Sisko and the Bajorrans are too far away to do anything clever with the wormhole. What now?

Some of the people whose blogs I read regularly are already thinking about how to react: Christine, with a comforting post; Cloud, with a thoughtful one; Fie, with characteristic refusal to quit. And John Scalzi’s worth a look. In The Middle makes a statement I can get behind.

I expect part of the reason I am so stunned is that I am not, in general, a very political person. I tend to cultivate my own garden, focus on the things I can change, ignore the ones I can’t, avoid conflict, political debate, and activism, and just sort of float along, sticking my neck out for nobody, as Rick says in Casablanca. I have only so much energy and only one life, and I like contemplating lilies (if you have two loaves of bread, sell one and buy a lily).

Thus, in that lily-contemplating spirit, while I’m going to be looking for ways to help people who help immigrants, I’m also a patron of the fantastic blog Medieval People of Color, because people need to know that the European Middle Ages were not a white supremacist’s fantasy land, and of Pamela Dean, because we’re going to need some more good escapist fiction.

It’s a start.





I don’t know what to say to my students tomorrow.

My students who are Muslim, mixed-race, American-born black, American-born of Hispanic descent, West-Indies-born immigrants. Those are just the ones I know I will face tomorrow . . . so many other faces of other backgrounds, from other semesters, are in my mind, including a young woman who found out, months before her 21st birthday, that she was illegal, in this country illegally, brought as an infant, which her parents never told her. These students know, better than I do, how racist this country is. I don’t want them to have to comfort me. But I’m not sure I have it in me to be their older, wiser, reassuring professor.

Insights that come with age

I am re-evaluating the late-middle-aged to elderly women in fiction, and sometimes in life, who waft multiple layers of scarves (probably silk chiffon) behind them, and send their companions/daughters/whoever back to pick them up or get another one. In fiction, the scarves seem to indicate a charming femininity that the younger narrator or POV character feels she lacks, and of a certain type of privilege (the sort that has a companion, daughter, or someone to go fetch another scarf).

An Alice Adams story I love, “Home is Where,” features one of these ladies (“lady” seems more the mot juste than “woman,” in this context). The narrator writes, “My mother is one of those women who, having been great beauties, forever retain that air . . . . All my life I had watched her performances with a defeated, angry envy, as I too deferred and waited on her. . . . Now she came in, scarves floating around that faded golden head”  (159). Granny in The Fair Adventure is another floaty-scarf lady (maybe it’s a Southern thing).

I always used to take the narrator’s word for it.

Now I think that lady is suffering from hot flashes. Instead of constantly taking off and putting on layers of clothing, she loosens or snugs up a scarf or so. If the scarves waft elegantly, so much the better; one doesn’t want to mention personal matters that are none of anyone’s business.

Adams, Alice. “Home is Where.” Beautiful Girl: Stories by Alice Adams. New York: Pocket Books, 1978. 155-177.

Books I may read

Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground. I definitely want to get this before I next visit London. Seeing what’s nearby is much more fun than spending huge amounts of time in transit from one thing to another.

The Ginger Tree. Sometimes I like this sort of thing. Usually I like it better as a memoir than as a novel.

How I Live Now. Maybe not. Clearly late to the party on this one, since it’s been made into a movie, but I first heard of it recently, when I was going through a British blogger’s archives. The Amazon UK link gave a lot less detail than the US Amazon link, and now that I’ve seen the US description, I think I probably won’t read it after all. My initial impression was that it was a WWII novel, rather than set in the future.

Doing this post lets me close some tabs, at least. Bookmarking, for me, is like filing. I might as well just toss the paper. I need to see things, or have them in a format that allows text searches. Using a blog as a list of links: how retro.

YA book review: The Fair Adventure

When I was looking for the Verney book, I also found The Fair Adventure, by Elizabeth Janet Gray (shelved under her married name, Vining, never mind how she identified as a writer or what her publisher put on the title page. I blame the patriarchy). This was one I liked when I was, oh, maybe in middle school, I’m not sure. The sixteen-year-old heroine, Page MacNeil, was definitely older than I was, enough older to seem glamorous, but near enough to seem like someone I could aspire to be. I remember that it took me awhile to read this book instead of re-shelving it after a quick glance at its pages, because the title suggested a fantasy-quest sort of book, when in fact it’s a book about What Happened The Summer After A Girl Graduated From High School.

There are a lot of those books. Sometimes they’re about jobs, and sometimes they’re about looking forward to college, and they’re nearly always about boys: outgrowing a high school boyfriend, or meeting a new one who’s going to the same or a nearby college. Whatever. The Summer-After-High-School book is, to me, a recognizable sub-genre.

The Fair Adventure seems far more modern than Friday’s Tunnel, though published in 1940 and set in the late 1930s. Daddy’s Depression salary cut has not yet been restored, and wealthy visitors have strong opinions about the New Deal, Trade Unions, the Race Question, and Socialism, but there is not a word about what might be happening in Europe. Page does have a rather narrow outlook. Well, she’s sixteen, she just graduated from high school, and she lives in a small college town in Virginia. She knows she hasn’t experienced anything much; she’s never even left the state. She hopes to go to a women’s college in the north and study Art History, and learn to be a painter. Daddy teaches Classics at the local co-ed college, where “girls went in for dates and clothes and feminine charm” (120), and because money is tight and she fails to get a scholarship to her northern dream school, Page may have to go there, where there isn’t a single class in Art History.

The plot mainly consists of episodes in which events in her older siblings’ lives overshadow significant firsts in Page’s life (high school graduation, a good role in a play, getting a permanent wave), alongside the problem of where she’ll go to college. Marriage is a significant theme: her next older sister gets married, her oldest brother gets engaged. However, it’s not explicitly one of Page’s ambitions. She’s being “rushed” by a very eligible boy, the college president’s son, back from his freshman year at Princeton. In fact, he has flunked out, and seems willing to go to the local college if Page will be there. Clearly, she could stay home, date this boy, and settle into a comfortable small-town life, if she wanted to.

Such a life can be busy and useful, as her mother illustrates: she’s a member of multiple clubs, including a church group, the PTA, and the garden club. Page’s older sister, Jean, graduates from nursing school on the same day that Page graduates from high school; although Jean marries a young doctor before the summer is out, Page reflects on the way the couple have “fresh responsibilities both to each other and to the community” (244). The oldest sister, Alison, is 28 and has three children, the oldest eight years old. Dr. MacNeil complains that “Every thought she has is impregnated with Fred’s ideas. It comes of marrying too young. Page, you are not to marry till you’re thirty” (108). Nonetheless, Alison is staying with her parents temporarily after three years in Panama with Fred, her engineer-husband, and at the end of the summer the young family go off to Canada. Even if Alison doesn’t work outside the home, it’s pretty clear that she’s contributing a lot to her family’s well-being, and that when her children are older she will, like her mother, put her talents to work in the community.

The large family is close-knit and imaginative. One of the charming set-pieces is the play that they write and perform to celebrate their mother’s birthday, a spoof of their family life in which they work in all the characteristic activities and sayings of the family members, and Alison’s five-year-old plays her great-grandmother to great effect.

“What I need is scope,” Page says early on (42), and she eventually gets it. Or makes it. She’s not really impressed by the eligible boy who wasted his time at Princeton on extra-curriculars instead of studying at least enough to stay in school. She forgets a date with him when she has the opportunity to get paid for a water-color, and this leads her to tell him they’re seeing too much of each other. She clearly identifies as an artist, not as a girlfriend or muse.

I didn’t notice the period elements when I was in middle school, but I enjoyed them now. It’s the US before the second world war, before Eisenhower’s highways, when a mountain guest house provided candles to go to bed by, when the younger members of a family turned out of their rooms and slept on cots on a sleeping porch in order to make room for guests, because putting them up at a hotel just wouldn’t be hospitable.

I’d like to know what SophyLou thinks of this one.

Children’s book review: Friday’s Tunnel

I sometimes lurk on the Chron fora, and I’ve enjoyed the thread on children’s books. There were a couple of posts this month that caught my eye, both because of the poster’s name, Glendower, and because of the books described. Glendower! It must be a different Glendower. Mine is sweet and handsome but I swear he’s illiterate. He doesn’t even sleep on books very often, though he enjoys the tunnels behind them on the shelves.

Anyway, the forum’s Glendower reported on a book called Friday’s Tunnel, by John Verney, that sounded familiar . . . and yet not. I found it in the library, and I think it is the one I remember, but like Glendower, I remembered it very differently. I think I also later confused it with a children’s book that my father started writing (but never finished, sadly) about a tunnel under the elementary school that my brothers and I all attended.

Reading Verney’s book as an adult, I suffered from feminist outrage as well as the usual odd time-warping sense that happens when I re-visit books I haven’t read in decades. The narrator, a 13-year-old girl named February, describes her mother as “tall and thin and easily the most beautiful woman I know and not very strong because of having so many children [six, and another on the way]. Dr. Henry says they have overtaxed her strength and that’s one reason why Daddy won’t let her drive the car” (26).

If Daddy is so worried about Mummy’s strength, he had better find his way to the drugstore. Chemist. Whatever. He ought to know where babies come from, at his age, and if he doesn’t, I’d be willing to explain to him. With a pair of scissors.

And when February makes breakfast for the gang one morning when Mummy’s back has seized up, she reflects, “Shouldn’t be surprised if I made a jolly good housewife myself—if anyone ever asked me” (212-3). Is this all she can think of to do with herself? Is this all John Verney can think of for a girl to do?

The book was published in 1959. I can put up with quite a lot of outdated reactionary hogwash in an old book if the story, characters, and setting are appealing. But I agree with the forum’s Glendower that the plot was confusing. Worse than that, as February was galloping about on her pony, I realized that she is one of those privileged snobby horsy girls: “I thought . . . of how lucky Friday and I are the others were to be living in the country and to have parents like ours, and of a girl at school called Helen Ponton whom I always tease because she’s so fat and stupid and awful and whose parents were killed last year in an air-crash and who has no brothers and sisters or proper home but spends every hols with a maiden aunt in a bed-sitting-room in Leamington Spa” (46).

Poor Helen. I don’t care that at the end of the book, February urges a rich childless couple to adopt Helen Ponton. I expect if I, or February, were suddenly deprived of parents, we’d also be fat (eating our feelings) and stupid (grief will do that to you) and probably awful (ditto). I want to read about Helen. In particular, I want to read about Helen putting all her weight behind a punch to February’s stuck-up teasing nose.