Late September Reads

Nell Zink’s amazing Mislaid solidifies my respect for her writing, first encountered in The Wallcreeper. Mislaid is a tale of young Peggy gone awry, turning her back on brief lesbianism to shack up with Lee Fleming for ten years and suckle two of his children before absconding with the daughter, abandoning the 9 year old boy to his father. Peggy goes underground, grabs the birth certificate of a deceased young black girl and passes blond hair, blue eyed Mickey off as Karen Brown, passing for black herself. Chaos and charm abound. Lots of passing in this one– white lesbian passing as straight housewife/mom then passing as black due to the “one drop” rule in the lovely lovely south (it says black on Karen’s birth certificate– why would they make that up?).
After thoroughly enjoying her Journal of a Solitude, I read May Sarton’s preceding book, Plant Dreaming Deep but wasn’t as into it. The book details how she ended up with the house in Nelson, New Hampshire, her first battles with the garden/woodchucks/seasons, meeting the neighbors. Journal was much more in my wheelhouse with more thinking about solitude and the qualities that surround it, nurturing it and sapping its strength.
National Book Award nominee Angela Flournoy has a very readable debut with The Turner House. The book follows the story of a 13 child family living in 2008 Detroit, replete with burned out houses and foreclosures. Half the book pivots back to 1944 Arkansas where the father, Francis, was trained to be a preacher but who migrated north to Detroit in search of a better life for his wife Viola and young son Cha-Cha. In current day detroit, Francis is dead and Viola is dying of cancer and Cha-Cha is battling demons (his haint sighting – ghostly blue light that spooks him). The children need to decide what to do with Viola’s house, still owing the bank $40k but the house only worth a few thousand. Youngest child, Lelah, is evicted and unemployed, fired after borrowing money from co-workers to fuel her gambling habit, so she squats in the abandoned house. Brother Troy schemes to sell the house to an unrelated friend in order to secure the real estate for a lot cheaper. Various of the other children make appearances, living in Oakland, etc. They all come back for one last party, unaware Viola is dying, to try to decide what to do about the house.
Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett was another recommendation from Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life. Chock-a-block filled with dialog that reaches to the rafters and spills up the chimney, rapid-fire profusions of words issuing forth from characters’ mouths, hiding the main point for you to dig it up occasionally. Circles of talk. This book was a sort of Upstairs/Downstairs tale, with just as much focus on the servants’ drama and dialog as the family’s. It’s filled with near-betrayal, near-betrothal, scheming letters managed by an illiterate shopkeeper, sons of a domineering father who might just have wanted to kill him, and a thieving servant who is forgiven, folded back into the house.

Journal of a Solitude

Published in 1973 as a way of tempering the imperfections of her previous book, Plant Dreaming Deep, to show the reality of solitude. A single woman in her late fifties, struggling to find time alone to write poetry with waves upon waves of visitors washing up onto her New Hampshire home, with a garden to water and weed, with stray kittens to feed and birds to watch and raccoons/woodchucks to battle with late at night as they forage in her kitchen for cat food and bird seed. She’s also inundated with letters, requests to read manuscripts, and random visitors who pop in to ogle the famous writer.

I feel as if I have stumbled onto a secret club– learned about this book after reading Writing a Woman’s Life by Heilbrun. In this journal of solitude, Sarton mentions meeting Heilbrun, is excited that a critic is coming to visit her, a professor, finally someone paying attention! They have a lovely visit, but after “Carol” (not Carolyn) is gone, Sarton rejects some of the criticism she’s been given, she doesn’t feel the need to be the perfect beyond reproach beyond feeling woman that Heilbrun wishes for.
I love seeing cries for help from 40+ years ago that life is moving too quickly. Surely we are spinning out of control by this time?

It is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn and art or a craft. Instant success is the order of the day; “I want it now!” Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at the first try. So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular values.


It is harder than it used to be because everything has become speeded up and overcrowded. So everything that slows us down and forced patience, everything that sets us back into the slow cycles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.

Simple and perfect:

“How does one grow up?” I asked a friend the other day. There was a slight pause; then she answered, “By thinking.”

On the loss of delight while traveling, the disappearance of “think-time”:

Travel has become more and more difficult. I armed myself in patience and before I finally got back here, I needed it. What used to be a gentle passage by train, that beautiful ride from Boston along the shore line, a good diner, a peaceful think-time, has become a matter of waiting and enduring, of carrying bags long distances, of cross taxi drivers, of battling to get a means of conveyance over the shortest distance. One arrives through the uproar of one’s anxiety and panic, exhausted at the start.

Apparently Sarton was an acquaintance of Virginia Woolf’s:

When I was young and knew Virginia Woolf slightly, I learned something that startled me– that a person may be ultrasensitive and not warm. She was intensely curious and plied one with questions, teasing, charming questions that made the young person glow at being even for a moment the object of her attention. But I did feel at times as though I were “a specimen American young poet” to be absorbed and filed away in the novelist’s store of vicarious experience.

Related, a dream she had about VW being still alive:

Many years ago I had a vivid dream after Virginia Woolf’s suicide. I dreamt that I saw her walking in the streets of a provincial town, unrecognized, unknown, and somehow guessed that she had not committed suicide at all, but had decided that she had to disappear, go under as her famous self, and start again.

Interesting to note the reaction of “ordinary women” to the movement:

(from a letter to Sarton): I am grateful to all the crazies out there in the Women’s Liberation; we need them as outrageous mythical characters to make our hostilities and dilemmas really visible. As shallow as my contact with the Women’s Liberation has been, I have really seen something new about myself this year; the old stalemated internal conflict has been thrown off balance and I am surprised to understand how much of my savage hostility is against men.

On the need to tell the truth about oneself:

My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life–all of it– flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other and we have to be wiling to go naked.

On attention:

Simone Weil says, “Absolute attention is prayer.” And the more I have thought about this over the years, the truer it is for me… if one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like a revelation takes place. Something is “given,” and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self.

The most perfect birthday gift= a day alone:

There was no time yesterday to write of my best birthday present. Anne Woodson was to have come for lunch today, the only “free day” I shall have for some time to come. When I got back from Cambridge on WEdnesday I walked into a house full of surprises–a hanging fuchsia, two marvelous rose plants, a little bag of brownies, and a note from Anna to say that she was giving me a day’s time. (She had come on purpose while I was away.) This is the day she has given me and I have two poems simmering, so I had better get to work.

A Little Life

On the short list for several literary prizes for a reason. 700+ pages that will force you to give up all other obligations for the next 24 hours to read read read your eyes out. A book that caused a physical reaction in me, plus left lingering thoughts in the back of my head about when I could return to my chair and finish the last hundred pages. Hanya Yanagihara is a real talent – not the most brilliant writing, not quite genius – but her storytelling skills are beyond magical. This is the story of a core group of four college friends, JB the artist, Malcolm the designer/architect with wealthy parents, Willem the waiter turned movie star from Wyoming, and Jude the troubled broken sick man who had unspeakable horrors meted out to him as a child. Surrounding these are satellite characters of Harry & Julia who adopt 30 year old Jude, Andy the doctor that tends to Jude since college, Richard the sculptor, the Henry Youngs.
Some gripes:
* Jude is unbelievably petulant and everyone lets him get away with it due to the sorrows and issues he’s faced. The blowup with him and JB after his limp and moaning face were mocked was excessive- both Jude & Willem cut JB completely out of their lives when he needs them most, as a recovering meth addict? Does not compute.
* Every one, and I mean EVERY ONE, of their old friends becomes successful, no failures. It’s no problem at all to jet to Paris for a weekend to celebrate a birthday with everyone, and we hear endlessly about the various globe trottings of all the artists in their residencies. Multiple extravagant house purchases, apartments in many cities. All who entered the story early seem blessed by Midas Touch (except all their untimely deaths)
* Graphic depiction of the violence Jude endures both as a child and at the hands of Caleb, his first adult relationship which naturally turns abusive when Caleb is horrified to see Jude in his wheelchair.
* Curious that Yanagihara would choose to write a book with 98% male characters. Was this a necessary device to tell the tale of abuse of Jude, perhaps shockingly not as disturbing if it were to happen to a young girl? Or a means to capitalize on a cultural shortcut – by making all the characters men, you don’t have to show the tedious overarching struggle and baggage that accompanies the lives of women? By making them all men, she taxes less the audience’s suspension of disbelief that these characters can all be successful, independent, childless beings into their 50s?
Some great stuff on friendship:

Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.

On children/childlessness:

Their world is governed by children, little despots whose needs–school and camp and activies and tutors– dictate every decision, and will for the next ten, fifteen, eighteen years. Having children has provided their adulthood with an instant and nonnegotiable sense of purpose and direction: they decide the length and location of that year’s vacation; they determine if there will be any leftover money, and if so, how it might be spent; they give shape to a day, a week, a year, a life. Children are a kind of cartography, and all one has to do is obey the map they present to you on the day they are born.
But he and his friends have no children, and in their absence, the world sprawls before them, almost stifling in its possibilities. Without them, one’s status as an adult is never secure; a childless adult creates adulthood for himself, and as exhilarating as it often is, it is also a state of perpetual insecurity, of perpetual doubt.

Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1923

Here we see Kafka battling his interior demons, his exterior sicknesses, and his obsession with finding a wife to settle down with into normalcy. Meanwhile, he lives at home with his sisters and parents, stewing when he is interrupted while writing, his fraught relationship with father. He pals around with his literary/artistic crew, goes to the theater, lectures. It’s interesting to see how he uses the diary to flush out plots, warming up for a story he’ll write elsewhere. He muses about Edison’s feelings about Bohemia – that Czechs returning from America bring ambition back and are creating more development in the land. He faithfully records his dreams, his despondency, snippets of plays, sketch drawings. He is always observing, writing. I’d like to spend a few weeks being similarly free and undisciplined in my own journal, to feel empowered to experiment with ideas and move beyond the dreary encapsulation of my daily thoughts and actions (but really, my journal exists as my memory, since mine own is riddled with holes like swiss cheese). At the end, the editor included his travel diaries with their rich descriptions of Switzerland, Italy, Paris, and various country excursions in Germany: Kafka machine-guns us with details, leaves me swooning (minus the descriptions of visiting brothels).

In December 1910, he writes: “11:30PM That I, so long as I am not freed of my office, am simply lost, that is clearer to me than anything else, it is just a matter, as long as it is possible, of holding my head so high that I do not drown.”

November 1911:

Honesty of evil thoughts. Yesterday evening I felt especially miserable. My stomach was upset again. I had written with difficulty. I had listened with effort to Lowy’s reading in the coffeehouse (which at first was quiet so that we had to restrain ourselves, but which then became full of bustle and gave us no peace), the dismal future immediately before me seemed not worth entering, abandoned, I walked through Ferdinandstrasse… The Talmud too says: A man without a woman is no person.

December 1911:

Despite the fact that for a considerable time I have been standing deep in literature and it has often broken over me, it is certain that for the past three days, aside from a general desire to be happy, I have felt no genuine desire for literature. In the same way I considered Lowy my indispensable friend last week, and now I have easily dispensed with him for three days.
When I begin to write after a rather long interval, I draw the words as if out of the empty air. If I capture one, then I have just this one alone and all the toil must begin anew.
One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer and which in a general way are naturally believed, surmised and admitted by you, but which you’ll unconsciously deny when it comes to the point of gaining hope or peace from such an admission. In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.

February 1912:

Hold fast to the diary from today on! Write regularly! Don’t surrender! Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment. I spent this evening at the family table in complete indifference, my right hand on the arm of the chair in which my sister sat playing cards, my left hand weak in my lap. From time to time I tried to realize my unhappiness, I barely succeeded.

March 1922:

The work draws to an end in the way an unhealed wound might draw together.
Would you call it a conversation if the other person is silent, and, to keep up the appearance of a conversation, you try to substitute for him, and so imitate him, and so parody him, and so parody yourself.

Travel diaries, 1911:

You recognize strangers by the fact that they no longer know their way the moment they reach the top step of the subway stairs; unlike the Parisians, they don’t pass from the subway without transition into the bustle of the street. In addition, it takes a long time, after coming up, for reality and the map to correspond; we should never have been able, on foot or by carriage, to have reached the spot we stood on without the help of a map.

More Mid-September Reading

Tillie Olsen recommended many a book, and it is due to her guidance that I read Anton Chekhov’s Notebook, translated by Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf. It’s a disparate collection of thoughts, themes, notes, sketches, ideas for things to write about. If Chekhov used an idea, he struck it out of the notebook to note its use. Some examples of the weird bits: “He wore a blouse and despised those who wore frock coats. A stew of trousers.” “The ice cream is made of milk in which, as it were, the patients bathed.” “A man, married to an actress, during a performance of a play in which his wife was acting, sat in a box, with beaming face, and from time to time got up and bowed to the audience.” “A play: in order to avoid having regular visitors, Z. pretends to be a regular tippler, although he drinks nothing.” “Russia is an enormous plain across which wander mischievous men.” “A bill presented by the hotel-keeper included ‘Bugs–fifteen kopecks.’ Explanation.”
Sawdust and Solitude by Lucia Zora, another awesome LZ. Recommended via the always helpful Neglected Books site, this was a 1920s tale of circus performer turned pioneer. If you can stomach the chapters of torture couched as “training” of elephants, tigers, and lions, you’ll enjoy it. After a decade in the circus, she and her hubby find a patch of land in the mountains of Colorado, first squatting then owning outright. Hardships abound. I read the 1928 edition with pages almost as thick as tree limbs. My god, we used to squander paper so recklessly!
I read bits and pieces of Daniel Defoe’s A General History of the Pyrates, first pub’d in 1724 under pseudonym Captain Charles Johnson (apparently only 12 of the purported 500 works now attributed to him bore his name on the title page – it’s all well and good to be literary detectives and assign him as the author, but are we sure that no one else was capable of writing in this same stale style?). Mostly I wanted to read the sections on Mary Read and Anne Bonny, two women pirates in the 1700s who posed as men. The detail was fairly weak in this volume – Read fell in love with men along the way and exposed her secret, Bonny supposedly fell for Read until she revealed herself. Both women were brought up as boys, to either cover for an adulterous relationship (Read, pretending to be her brother, who died) or covering for her father’s indiscretion with the maid (Bonny).
Also picked at the pretty great Intimations of Mortality by Violet Weingarten, which journals her battle and recovery from cancer. I paused after 60 pages due to an avalanche of other priorities but have full confidence I’ll return to her. Only beef so far is that she continually bemoans the impact of her disease on her husband, what a burden she has become for him. I have a feeling this is a book I’ll want to return to if a loved one finds themselves locked in battle with the big C.
Rejected: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. Picked this up since she was one of two women shortlisted for the Booker prize this year. Her inclusion makes me wonder about the entire crop of nominees, but I’ll have a better idea after reading Hanya Yanagihara’s book. Or maybe the deck is stacked against the ladies, so she was chosen to weaken the crowd. What didn’t I like about it? The quick descent into pure dialog at the beginning, overladen with exclamation points and weak adjectives like “sharp look”; it begins with a phone call to parents telling them a son was gay. “What?” “Says he’s gay.” “What?” “Said he needed to tell me something: he’s gay.” “And you hung up on him!” Pass.

Myth, Religion, & Mother Right

Spend any time rooting around the dustbin of feminist theory and you’ll stub your toe on Bachofen and his late nineteenth century work, Mutterrecht und Urreligion. Bachofen was a Swiss legal scholar whose interest in antiquity led him down an untraveled path to discover the original matriarchy that ruled the world. Because how could women NOT have been in control at some point, really? He dives into mythology and picks up the shards and strands of what’s left to us (remember that the patriarchy has had thousands of years to bury evidence of earlier Mother Right: e.g. Sappho’s works burned by the Christians in 380 A.D. among other examples).
Bachofen is not a feminist in the least, but he does present some interesting ideas about earlier matriarchy. Using examples from Lycia, Athens, Lemnos, Egypt, and India, he presents his case that the ancient ancient world was ruled by women, and they were slowly stripped of all their rights. He cites as example the change in fashion between the short, less-restrictive Dorian robes (with their clasps that hacked away at the lone soldier who returned from war) to the full length hard-to-move-in robes of the Ionians, as noted in Herodotus 5.88. From naming conventions of the Lycians (taking names from mother’s line), to notions of the “motherland” far deeper in culture than “fatherland”, and seeing the clash between cultures in Aeschylus’s Eumenides where Clytaemnestra is unpunished for killing her husband but her son kills her to avenge his father. The Amazons and those deemed Amazonian were examples of extreme female power, where all the men were killed. Bachofen claims that the turning point for matriarchy was on Lemnos, where Amazonian-esque women included Hypsipyle who had Jason of Argonaut’s children and who “marks the transition from mother right to father right” by naming her children after Jason.

Raising her young, the woman learns earlier than the man to extend her loving care beyond the limits of the ego to another creature, and to direct whatever gift of invention she possesses to the preservation and improvement of this other’s existence. Woman at this stage is the repository of all culture, of all benevolence, of all devotion, of all concern for the living and grief for the dead.

What has become of the heroines whose praises were sung by Hesiod, poet of the matriarchy?… The matriarchal age, with its figures, deeds, upheavals, is beyond the poetry of cultivated but enfeebled times. Let us never forget that when the power to perform high deeds flags, the flight of the spirit falters also, and incipient rot permeates all spheres of life at once.

Every change in the relation between the sexes is attended by bloody events; peaceful and gradual change is far less frequent than violent upheaval. Carried to the extreme, every principle leads to the victory of its opposite; even abuse becomes a lever of progress; supreme triumph is the beginning of defeat… Although the struggle of matriarchy against other forms is revealed by diverse phenomena, the underlying principle of development is clear. Matriarchy is followed by patriarchy and preceded by unregulated hetaerism.

In speaking of the Amazon Omphale, Clearchus remarks that wherever such an intensification of feminine power occurs, it presupposes a previous degradation of woman and must be explained by the necessary succession of extremes… Everywhere it is an assault on woman’s rights which provokes her resistance, which inspires self-defense followed by bloody vengeance. In accordance with this law grounded in human and particularly in feminine nature, hetaerism must necessarily lead to Amazonism. Degraded by man’s abuse, it is woman who first years for a more secure position and a purer life. The sense of degradation and fury of despair spur her on to armed resistance, exalting her to that warlike grandeur which, though it seems to exceed the bounds of womanhood, is rooted simply in her need for a higher life.

To be sure, this transition from nomadism to domestic settlement is a necessary part of human development, but it is particularly in keeping with the feminine nature and occurs most quickly where the influence of women is paramount. The observation of still living peoples has shown that human societies are impelled toward agriculture chiefly by the efforts of women, while the men tend to resist this change. Countless ancient traditions support this same historical fact: women put an end to the nomadic life by burning the ships; women gave most cities their names, and, as in Rome or in Elis, women inaugurated the first apportionment of the land.

In considering the Lydian matriarchy, Clearchus writes: “The rule of women is always the consequence of a violent revolt of the female sex against the humiliation of an earlier day; among the Lydians it was Omphale who first practiced such vengeance and subjected the men to matriarchy.”

By and large the decline in women’s virtue sets in when the men begin to look down on them, when with advancing civilization the males develop a foppishness for which our own cultivated times have coined so many euphemistic terms. The progress of civilization is not favorable to woman. She is at her best in the so-called barbaric periods; later epochs destroy her hegemony, curtain her physical beauty, reduce her from the lofty position she enjoyed among the Dorian tribes to the bejeweled servitude taht was her lot in Ionia and Attica, and ultimately compel her to regain through hetaerism the influence of which she has been deprived in marital relations.

The Castle

I broke my rule of not reading posthumously published books with Kafka’s The Castle (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir). First published in 1926 (English translation in 1930), it was heavily edited by pal Max Brod, and the edition I read included fragments and passages deleted by Kafka in the appendix. The first German edition ends in the middle of the 18th chapter, with Frieda closing the bedroom door behind her and Jeremiah, leaving K. alone in the passage of the inn. The edition I read continued on for a few more chapters, which includes a fantastic depiction of K. exhaustedly searching for Erlanger’s room and mistakenly entering a secretary’s room, one who might be able to help him but K. falls asleep after downing a decanter of rum. Bürgel, the secretary, begs K. to remain to keep him company while they wait for the five o’clock hour when everyone awakes. Bürgel drones on about how the most unexpected night visitors might be the best way to move cases forward, but K. is too sleepy, can’t appreciate his luck. Later, Erlanger bangs on the wall and demands to see K., only to tell him that Freida must return to the taproom to serve Klamm. K. sleepily takes this command and watches Erlanger depart, then witnesses the frenzy of file deliveries at five in the morning to the other Castle gentlemen at the inn.

A dreamy, mystical so-called companion piece to The Trial, this book recounts the tale of a “land surveyor” summoned by the Castle, but who never makes it to the Castle, it being off limits, red-tape bureaucracy protecting it from the village below where K. finds refuge. Was K. even a land surveyor? He arrives and mentions having assistants who will come the next day, and then the assistants are sent by the Castle as spies. The whole village is on tenterhooks about his situation- what to do with him, where to house him. He obtains a post as the school janitor and decamps there with his soon-to-be wife Freida and two assistants. The wood shed is locked, they smash it to get wood for the fire, oversleep in the warm room and awaken to find kids staring at them. Freida is his key to happiness, or is it Barnabas the messenger?

Made me think of Mann’s Magic Mountain, which I’m now pining to read again. Mann wrote an Homage to Kafka in the edition of The Castle that I read… makes me realize the connections and influences writers have/had on each other.

Mid-September reading

Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories was weird and thoughtful and bloated and challenging. She sets a snide tone in the Preface, “I have done a certain amount of work on it, but no more than was enough to establish it decently in its unimportance… I have set myself the task of discovering very obscure, or irrelevant, material, and done a minimum amount of work on it.” She breaks the book into categories of stories: lives, ideas, nearly true, and more. And they are a bunch of misfits, intentionally jarring, Riding trying to get you to wake from your readerly slumber and note the outlines of her pen. On the whole, the Stories of Lives was the most readable section, with stories like Socialist Pleasures, where a group of socialists indulged themselves in parties and could “act according to their least sane instincts,” like wearing Spanish shawls, earrings, and dancing. Also The Secret, about a man who is friends with criminals and brings them victims, including a group of men who get mesmerized by a fortune teller that the world will end tomorrow, but that they must meet every year to discuss that night’s reading. Daisy and Venison is a sweet tale of a woman living on her own in a town where her father buried his ill-gotten loot, who takes in a lodger (Venison) until Daisy feels she must leave (after the publisher of Venison’s stories arrives). The last of the bunch, Three Times Round, has some nice bits on travel, including:

For a long time, it seemed that nothing was going to happen to her in Japan. She did not, in fact, feel that she was in Japan–or in any particular place. She lived in a large European hotel and rarely went out. There were little shops in the hotel where she could buy everything she needed, and all her friendships were with people staying at the hotel- people who, like herself, did not quite know why they were there and had no immediate reason for going away. They did not talk to one another, but merely sat in the same room together telling themselves that they were in Japan. The strongest emotion that travellers feel in Japan, without any disrespect to it, is that they have had enough of travelling.

I was disappointed by Pamela Lu’s book, Pamela; for once in my life I felt shunned as a reader, like I was intentionally not the audience for a book. She uses single initials instead of character names, and it becomes tedious to juggle all those letters in one’s mind. It seems less like experimental fiction and more like a boring tale of a twenty-something’s first exposure to the Bay Area.

Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn Heilbrun was a 1988 foray into understanding the restrictions around autobiography and biography of women – autobiography because women weren’t yet ok with sounding angry (shrill/strident!), biography because the men writing it assumed cultural norms (she must have been disappointed that she didn’t marry, so she decided to study instead). A quick study, but I got a long list of books to read from this.

Consumed bits and pieces of this gorgeous but terribly dry book, Woman Under Socialism by August Bebel. Luckily it was summarized into a condensed version by Eleanor Marx’s 1887 The Woman Question which I read a few weeks ago. I don’t have the heart for all the data charts, sad to say.
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Put Off Thy Shoes

This charming 1945 novel by Ethel Voynich was my first exposure to her writing, although it appears that she is rather well known (in Russia at least) for The Gadfly, a book published 48 years earlier. She took a break from writing for 25 years to focus on composing music, and returns triumphant to the written word with this book. Put Off Thy Shoes is an attempt to lay the ancestral roots for her first book, so she sets the scene in mid 18th century England, beginning with Henry Telford dressing for a ball “with care, but without enthusiasm” as his search for a wife to bring back to the farm from London has thus far been fruitless. At this ball he meets a mopey, innocent girl (Beatrice) who isn’t trying all that hard to find a mate in her coming out season, who looks downright depressed. We soon learn why– her mother has remarried a scoundrel after her beloved father’s death; the step-father attempts to rape Beatrice and she fights him off, determines she must marry to get out of the house and summons her brother to fetch their younger sister to protect her virtue.
Into Henry’s arms she is swept, albeit still reluctantly, his ardor disgusting her on all levels. On their honeymoon, she walks to the end of a jetty and drops a knife into the water, an instrument she’s kept on her person ever since the incident with her mother’s husband. She marches to her imagined doom in the bridal chamber and ends up with four children. One final pregnancy kills the baby and nearly her, so she is freed from Henry’s unwanted embrace forever when the doctor says no more babies. Beatrice’s maternal feelings take awhile to develop, if at all:

As if she did not know that all the talk of mother love is nothing but hypocrisy and lies! Cats apparently love their kittens while they are small, and some women– especially the most stupid– feel a kind of animal attraction towards an extension of their own fowl flesh. But a child is its mother’s natural enemy: created at her expense, deforming and torturing her, parasitic on her body, hated and hating. Had she been any different from her own hideous mother, she would have killed herself rather than put a helpless being into the world like this. Yet she had put it there, had dropped into the water the knife that would have saved herself and it; and now, in bare decency, she must do her best for it, till it grew old enough to loathe and curse her in its turn, as she loathed— A queer kind of farce, this living and causing to live.

Eventually she has a son (Bobby) who she feels a special connection to. The last child, Gladys, a daughter, is a charming miracle as well. And oldest son Harry is very respectful. But the 2nd son, Dick, asks to be adopted by his aunt in order to inherit a much larger estate. And Bobby dies after being gored by a bull (Beatrice flings her body in front of it, but can’t save him, is injured herself). She gives up any interest in living until spirited away to her brother’s windswept cottage on the Cornwall coast where he is hunkered down reading and making discoveries about ancient burial grounds (and hiding from hideous wife Fanny). Harry & Dick are allowed to visit, and they nearly die when disobeying orders to stick with the fishermen’s boats, are saved by a curmudgeonly poverty-stricken fellow with a too-large family, Penwyrne. To repay him for his heroism, Beatrice buys them a new boat, a cottage, and takes their gifted son Arthur as her own to educate. Quickly Arthur becomes her favorite.
The end is too tidy, death and marriage and all loose ends tied up. But ends are hard, they are so final.
Excellent writing throughout, as evidenced by:

Mealtimes at The Chase especially disgusted her. Reared in the abstemious atmosphere of her father’s house, where not even her mother had been guilty of overeating or drunkenness, she loathed the coarsely intemperate habits of the midland squirearchy. In Henry’s social circle nearly all the men were usually a little fuddled and bloated after dinner. Their wives tended to a more moderate excess of indulgence in food and wine, but Lady Monckton’s gluttony had a quality that was scarcely less than obscene. Nauseated, Beatrice would often drop her eyes to avoid seeing the gloating appraisal in her hostess’s face when some favourite dish appeared on the table, the swinish gormandizing and guzzling, the gradually increasing signs of repletion, the bleared eyes and stumbling tongue after too many glasses of port.

More September reads

The idiotic brouhaha at Duke over Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Traficomic increased my interest, so I grabbed a copy. Probably the best graphic novel I’ve read so far. A heartbreakingly sweet and tender exploration of family, diving into her father’s secret past and trying to understand why everyone in the family was so inwardly focused, like living in an artists colony where they only came together for meals. Layered references to literature buoyed my interest, as I looked up titles the characters were depicted as reading – The Worm Ouroboros, The Stones of Venice (Ruskin), The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (Clark), A Happy Death (Camus), Earthly Paradise (Colette). I may have to give Kate Millet’s Flying another chance after seeing its treatment in this work.
It’s been a few decades since first reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a book that should be required reading for all college-aged folks. I picked it up again and breezed through, admiring the strength of some of the bits and noticing the frayed edges of parts of the plot – the heavy handed switch from NYC gal about town to reminiscing about Buddy, the idiot Yalie who she refuses to marry. The narrator’s fierce commitment to never marry, to keep her independence, is a refreshing bit for the early 1960s. Sadly the novel only got published in America because of Plath’s death. She first submitted the manuscript (which was rejected) in 1962 to Harper, but it was accepted by her London publisher and came out to mediocre reviews a few weeks before her death.
I thought I got tipped off about Amina Cain’s writing prowess via a Kate Zambreno interview in the Believer, but I can’t find it now. At any rate, I’m working my way through a spreadsheet of book recommendations, and was able to score Cain’s Creature from the library, slurping it up in a few hours. At first I was intoxicated by her style, perhaps unfairly, since I was alternating between this and Laura Riding’s collection of stories (that I’m still reading/in awe of). After a few stories, it wore off a bit, and I left feeling less jazzed than at the start, where I had been convinced that it was pure gold. No dog-eared pages, which says a lot for me. Creature is a collection of fourteen stories, mostly strong narrators saddled with flat characterizations of men. A bunch of stuff flashed out at me as similar to my own tastes, “Sometimes I forget the names of books, the ones I like the most. My memory is bad, and I’m also ashamed of what I think about literature…” and “I don’t even know how to write. Maybe I am only a reader…” and “I cannot write anything else except sentences.”
On the comic front, read Nancy Loves Sluggo: Complete Dailies 1949-1951 by Ernie Bushmiller. There are some sly ones in here– like the comic where Nancy rattles off a list of professions to a kid and asks which one they want to be, and the kid says “None, because I’m a girl.” Nancy gets into frequent trouble stealing cookies and jam from her Aunt Fritzie, pals around with Sluggo and gets jealous of his girl-craziness. She has a crush on some random movie star that comes to town. There were a few panels that were complete repeats of jokes from a year earlier– Nancy & Sluggo go downtown to look at tall buildings, in one version Sluggo brings a mirror to look down to look up and not look like a hick. In another version, he goes into a manhole to look up without looking like a hick. Also recycled was Nancy’s inability to sleep during the “dog days of summer” which are actually the cat nights of summer, caterwauling outside Nancy’s window.

A Writer’s Diary

Can I excuse myself for reading this cheat sheet of Virginia Woolf’s diary, compiled in the 1950s by Leonard, instead of the 5 volumes of the complete diary that sit on my shelf? It has only served to whet my appetite to dive into the full ocean of her words, so I suppose yes, I am excused. Leonard edited out the names of people VW insulted in this culled down edition, marking “X” instead of those august personas who would supposedly be offended to read her words. Luckily, having the complete diaries on hand (which came out in the 80s, fully intact), I could look up the names, nothing shocking though. This edition focuses mostly on entries that describe VW’s writing process and what she was reading. For instance, her 1922 take on Ulysses (8/16/22 and 9/6/22) “a misfire,” “genius… but of the inferior water,” “brackish… pretentious…illiterate,” “underbred book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating” which differs a bit from her remembrances of Joyce upon his death in 1941, read the book “with spasms of wonder, of discovery, and then again with long lapses of intense boredom.” In 1941’s entry, she also records Katherine Mansfield’s initial reaction to the book – “she began to read, ridiculing, then suddenly said, But there’s something in this.” TS Eliot’s own spasms of delight were recorded initially, and also in the 1941 entry, “rapt, enthusiastic.”
The entries teem with doubts and confidence, a roller coaster of emotions caused by praise and criticism of how her work was received, carefully totted up notes on how many copies were selling and the fact that she could now pay for a water closet to be installed at the house off her earnings. She talks of her head being wound up in a ball thinking about the book she’s writing, the tightness eased by playing a game of bowls. She thinks of how she’ll walk along the Strand and let “each face give me a buffet” to write about. For any reader, it’s a wonderful experience to peek behind the curtain as she’s crafting the books you love, to see her struggles and triumphs, the long months spent spinning wool and then slogging over editing, trying to tamp her imagination down to prevent from other ideas for books spouting out. And of course war looms dirty, terrible, from 1939 on, casting a gloom and shadow occasionally pierced by VW’s wit.
Her struggle with plot:

I can make up situations, but I cannot make up plots. That is: if I pass a lame girl, I can without knowing I do it, instantly make up a scene: (now I can’t think of one). This is the germ of such a fictitious gift as I have. (10/5/27)

An idea to write about aging:

Oh and I thought, as I was dressing, how interesting it would be to describe the approach of age, and the gradual coming of death. As people describe love. To note every symptom of failure: but why failure? To treat age as an experience that is different from the others; and to detect every one of the gradual stages towards death which is a tremendous experience, and not as unconscious, at least in its approaches, as birth is. (8/7/39)

I found this to be a perfect sentence:

Today’s rumor is the Nun in the bus who pays her fare with a man’s hand. (5/25/40)

The Millstone

I’ve no idea where I came across Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, but once it made it onto my list, it was duly libraried and devoured. A chapter-less 200+ page saga of an independent intellectual woman in London who has asexual relationships with two men, playing them off each other, each man thinking she’s sleeping with the other. One night she finds herself alone in her flat with another man, George, and loses her virginity, becoming pregnant on the first (and only) time she has sex. She casually decides to drink a bottle of gin and take a hot bath, an old wives tale for getting rid of the problem, only her friends arrive and drink half the bottle and when she draws the bath it comes out ice cold. Lazily, she decides to have the child, determines not to tell George (not having his number, and only able to hear his voice as an announcer on the BBC for comfort). She gets rid of her two “beaus”: Roger and Joe, and goes on teaching her four private pupils along with researching her thesis in 16th century English poetry at the British Museum, bloating more and more. She finally decides to tell her sister, expecting sympathy, but her sister is horrified that she plans to keep the baby. Rosamund (the narrator) also bumps into her sister-in-law at the grocer, whose wide-eyes take in her condition but stay mum. Her parents are loaning her their flat while teaching in Africa, and only find out about the baby after receiving a letter from her doctor, an old pal of her dad (they decide to travel for another year to India to allow Rosamund time and space to raise the baby). Octavia (the baby) has a heart condition that must be operated on, and Rosamund again tells no one, working herself up into a state of frenzy and having to go into hysterics in order to see Octavia post-surgery to ensure she’s ok. The pair go home and start to live their odd life. Rosamund nears the finish of her thesis, obtains a teaching position with a university, and Octavia rips to shreds half the pages of a novel their boarder, Lydia, wrote about Rosamund’s condition. The final scene has Rosamund bump into George on Christmas Eve at a pharmacy, she to pick up penicillin for Octavia and he for throat pills. He comes back to the flat, sees Octavia, is told nothing, and departs. Tremendous title– the baby is not the millstone you would expect her to be on a single mother’s neck.
Drabble does an excellent job telling a tale of what is so often told, the unintended pregnancy, the impact on one’s life. She eviscerates the myth of the glowing beauty of pregnant women by describing a waiting room full of them:

Anaemia and exhaustion were written on most countenances: the clothes were dreadful, the legs swollen, the bodies heavy and unbalanced. There were a few cases of striking wear: a huge middle-aged woman, who could walk only with a stick, a pale thin creature with varicose veins and a two-year-old child in tow, and a black woman who sat there not with the peasant acceptance of physical life of which one hears, but with a look of wide-eyed dilating terror.

Early September reads

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – a tremendous novel that sticks in your craw and won’t let you stop thinking about it. A woman lives her life through various tragedies, which she dies and goes on to rebirth to re-live, skirting the tragedy. Opens with killing Hitler in 1930. Towards the end, we see her as a retired woman in the late 1960s, her secretary ensuring flowers are on hand for the farewell celebration. Also hints that Ursula’s mom also had the “gift” of re-living, having a pair of surgical scissors on hand to extricate Ursula from the umbilical cord upon birth. Shout-outs to the major literati throughout. Definitely worth a read.

I’ve been hounded by the idea that I need to read Charles Baudelaire, and thus plucked On Wine and Hashish from the shelves, a delightfully slim novel of less than 100 pages that exposes you to CB. I was also attracted to this volume because the foreword was by Margaret Drabble, whose book The Millstone sits beside me awaiting eye-time. Nothing new in CB’s Wine & Hashish— people attempting to explore and plumb the depths of human experience by altering consciousness. It’s a bit twee, a nineteenth century delve into psychotropics.

Recommended by Gertrude Stein to Hemingway, I picked up The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes. A delightful suspense novel first pub’d in 1913 about a respectable couple (retired butler & maid) taking in lodgers to help them meet rent. When they most need it, a somewhat wonky gentleman calls at the door and is installed as the lodger, coincidental to the time that a series of brutal murders of women is taking place across London. The butler’s daughter Daisy comes to stay with them, attracting the attention of Scotland Yard detective Joe, who fancies her. Meanwhile, the maniac in the attic goes out and kills women on foggy nights. I teetered on thinking that perhaps the twist would be in favor of Joe as the murderer, but instead read a dramatic tale in the wax museum where the lodger comes face to face with his “nemesis”, the doctor who put him away in an insane asylum years prior. Obvious, but good quick read.

On the lighter side, I read Eleanor Marx’s 1887 The Woman Question, repackaged 100 years later as Thoughts on Women and Society in an edition edited by Joachim Müller and Edith Schotte. My first exposure to Eleanor was in her translation of Madam Bovary, and she was apparently a prolific translator along with being a major force in working for socialism and gender equality. Eleanor’s essay was a response to August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism, which sits beside me for perusal as well, but which was banned in Germany under Bismarck’s law against socialists. An English translation heavily laden with printer’s errors was recently out, and Eleanor skips the “not best part of the book” – the first or historical part, but deals with society and women of today. One thing niggles in my mind– why do we strive for a society where the goal is that the means of “production” are collectively owned? Why is production king? Some bits from the essay:

Women are the creatures of an organized tyranny of men, as the workers are the creatures of an organized tyranny of idlers. Even where this much is grasped, we must never be weary of insisting on the non-understanding that for women, as for the laboring classes, no solution of the difficulties and problems that present themselves is really possible in the present condition of society. All that is done, heralded with no matter what flourish of trumpets, is palliative, not remedial. Both the oppressed classes, women and the immediate producers, must understand that their emancipation will come from themselves. Women will find allies in the better sort of men, as the laborers are finding allies among the philosophers, artists, and poets. But the one has nothing to hope from man has a whole, and the other has nothing to hope from the middle class as a whole.

How many of us have ever paused, or dared to pause, upon the serious fact that in the streets and public buildings, in the friend-circle, we can, in a moment, tell the unmarried women, if they are beyond a certain age which lively writers call, with a delicate irony peculiarly their own, uncertain? But we cannot tell a man that is unmarried from one that is wedded. Before the question that arises out of this fact is asked, let us call to mind the terrible proportion of women that are unmarried. For example, in England, in the year 1870, 41 per cent of the women were in this condition. The question to which all this leads is a plain one, a legitimate one, and is only an unpleasant one because of the answer that must be given. How is it that our sisters bear upon their brews this stamp of lost instincts, stifled affections, a nature in part murdered? How is it that their more fortunate brothers bear no such mark? Here, assuredly, no natural law obtains. This licence for the man, this prevention of legions of noble and holy unions that does not affect him, but falls heavily on her, are the inevitable outcome of our economic system. Our marriages, like our morals, are based upon commercialism. Not to be able to meet one’s business engagements is a greater sin than the slander of a friend, and our weddings are business transactions.