The age of isolation

I rode a Citi Bike to and fro Whole Foods yesterday morning, 7:30 a.m.-ish. It was a mistake. By the time I made it back home and up the four flights of stairs to my apartment with my many bags o' foodstuffs, I was sweating with real alacrity. I hopped into the shower with all my clothes on and then I reclined on the sofa whilst watching the Olympics for the rest of the day. Why exert when others are willing to do it for me for glory and precious medallions, is my new summertime policy. Per Robert Frost, the best way out is always through. SarahB did join me @ lunchtime so I was the social butterfly kind of shut-in. I do it for the people! And the air conditioning. 

This is from Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking, which is a beautiful book and a wonderful, empathetic summertime read, although of course it's too hot to cook anything. Don't be insane.

The pudding was brought to the table. My host and hostess, my future husband and a woman guest looked at it suspiciously. I cut the pudding. As Jane Grigson had promised, out ran a lemon-scented buttery toffee. I sliced up the lemon, which was soft and buttery too. Each person was to get some crust, a slice of lemon and some sauce.

What a hit! I thought. Exactly the sort of thing I adored. I looked around me happily, and my happiness turned to ash.

My host said: "This tastes like lemon-flavored bacon fat."

"I'm sure it's wonderful," said my hostesss. "I mean, in England."

The woman guest said: "This is awful."

Be whole and generous with your mistakes, is what's she's saying, which is always welcome news.

Amazing ordinary things

From the anthology Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York, this is Elliott Kalan on falling in love with the city via "The Muppets Take Manhattan":

What to the filmmakers was clearly a fate worse than death, the stifling of a unique spirit by the square establishment, was to young Elliott a dream to strive for. The message of numb conformity totally failed to reach me. All I could see was that Kermit went from naked frog to independent adult, autonomous professional, self-supported citizen. That was the magic of New York. Even an amphibian could become a grown-up. I didn't want to marry a pig and put on a show. I wanted a subway commute and a greasy spoon lunch hour. I wanted meetings around wooden tables. I wanted a desk with a phone on it. The return of Kermit's memory was tragic. He lost all those amazing ordinary things New Yorkers get to do!

A casual book club meeting: “The Ladies of Missalonghi”

It's here, it's here, time to do some book chatting! Friends and readers, don't fail me now... just speak your mind in the comments and let's see where we go. (If you're looking for prompts, this is for you.)

1. Let's talk about the title, which sets up some very clear and simple boundaries. This book is not concerned with dudes or dude lives or dude problems. It will not be about women or girls.  It won't even be about all of the ladies who reside in the small, mean, vaguely inbred "backwater" town of Byron in the Blue Mountains of Australia. It will be specifically about a type, constricted by both sex and status:

To fill in their empty days the ladies of Missalonghi knitted and tatted and crocheted endlessly, grateful for the gifts of wool and threads and linens that came their way each Christmas and birthday, giving back some of the end results as their gifts in their turn, and stockpiling a great deal more in the spare room.

That they acquiesced so tamely to a code and a regimen inflicted upon them by people who had no idea of the loneliness, the bitter suffering of genteel poverty, was no evidence of lack of spirit or lack of courage. Simply, they were born and lived in a time before the great wars completed the industrial revolution, when paid work and its train of comforts were a treason to their concepts of life, of family, of femininity.

A little on-the-nose editorializing there, but true enough and recognizable still. The ladies of Missalonghi inhabit a world filled with broadly sketched cheaters, backstabbers, and snobs, where no husband = no money and no beauty = no prospects. In circumstances like these, you'd best hitch yourself to a good lie and ride that motherfucker down into the valley. I mean seriously, what have you got to lose?

2. Let's talk about the opening:

"Can you tell me, Octavia, why our luck never seems to change for the better?" asked Mrs. Drusilla Wright of her sister, adding with a sigh, "We need a new roof."

That's the start of a fairytale (you can almost hear "Once upon a time"), but it also outlines the full shape of their misery. What these two ladies long for is practical and useful; what they're accustomed to is disappointment, which they accept as the way things are, have been, and always will be. There's no questioning and no argument; they surrender to their circumstances:

It had been Sir William's policy to distribute his worldly goods among his sons only, leaving his daughters possessed of a dowry consisting of a house on five good acres of land. On the surface it seemed a good policy, discouraging fortune-hunters whilst ensuring the girls the status of landowners as well as a measure of independence. Nothing loath (since it meant more money for them), his sons had continued the policy, and so in their turn had their sons. Only as the decades passed, the houses became steadily less commodious, less well built, and the five good acres of land tended to become five not-so-good acres of land.

The result two generations later was that the Hurlingford connection was divided into several camps; uniformly wealthy males, females who were well off due to fortunate marriages, and a group of females who had either been tricked out of their land, or forced to sell it for less than its real value, or struggled still to subsist upon it, like Drusilla Hurlingford Wright.

Drusilla was my favorite character, btw. I love cranky widows who know more than they tell.

But Missy is the one who fights back.

3. Let's talk about Missy, who seems to come straight out of Cinderella: small, dark, and homely, poor but generous, mild but tough. Easy to overlook. Of course she's a bookworm and a green thumb and a genius with a needle. Of course she does what she's told while breaking small, harmless rules on the side. Ugh. Snoresville.

And yet!

Driven by sheer exhaustion, exasperation, and a false reading of her own symptoms, it turns out she's just as willing to play dirty as the rest of the Hurlingford clan. Eavesdropping at opportune moments? Check. Secret backroom deals with old ladies to reclaim their stolen gold doubloons? Check. Going turncoat on family in the interest of justice? Telling her bitchy Nellie Oleson cousin to bugger off? Check and check. Missy Wright, Spinster Superhero. 

The most interesting thing about her, though, is the lie she concocts to secure her own happiness, by deciding that John Smith—appearing out of nowhere as a sort of Paul Bunyan Prince Charming—is her ticket to salvation. Did you care that she lies to him? Or that she gets away with it? I did not, since I'm an American and we want what we want when we want it, no matter who we're tricking into emergency fake death nuptials, although I certainly see how this might read as "unwise" in a rational human light. Does it matter? Is a lie really an untruth if it ends well for everyone involved? As Missy tells Una,

"I had to resort to trickery and deception to get him."

"If you couldn't get him any other way, why not?"

"I told him I was dying of heart trouble."

"Aren't we all?"

Una's the kind of pal you want by your side when the chips are down, obviously, although she's also the type who might talk you into shoplifting or pulling some Thelma-and-Louise-type gas station heist. I get the sense that I should be outraged by these machinations of the heart, although Missy's man-trapping scheme is straight out of a daytime soap opera and not unlike how I myself once dreamed of nabbing a Quartermaine. Also it's just a story, and isn't fiction a safe space where one is allowed—nay, encouraged—to imagine all sorts of unimaginable things? Thus I harbor no objections. Case closed.

4. Let's talk about Una! Una the ghost, Una the fairy godmother. Did you guess this as you were reading, what with the constant references to her preternatural aura? (I'm sorry to say it only made me picture Mr. Burns' nuclear glow in that "Springfield Files" episode.) Her surprise appearances and absences, arriving at the perfect moment with the perfect smutty book or the perfect red dress, always one step ahead of the curve? Or the fact that no one but Missy seems to know she exists? 

She sat in stony silence, unable to move the smallest part of her. Una. Una!

How could her mother and aunt sit there so unresponsive to that name, when they had met her and entertained her in this very house? Didn't they remember the biscuits, the documents?

Haven't they ever seen "The Sixth Sense"?!

Una drops hints herself when we first meet her in the library, as she tells Missy about her divorce: "So here I am, washed ashore for the very last time in a backwater like Byron, doing penance for my sins." The way this is stated actually makes it sound like she's John Smith's fairy godmother, not Missy's. And what a different story that would make.

5. Let's talk about the ending: 

A chill breeze puffed in through the open door, and just before Drusilla reached to shut it out, it whispered for Missy's ears alone, "Never tell him! Oh please, never tell him!"

Now you tell me: does that sound like a happy ending, or a curse?

Today’s deals

Recode writer Ina Fried calls it nerd bingo, and I believe I won:

I'd like to thank my parents, Louisa May Alcott, Donald J. Sobol, Nancy Drew, Judy Blume, my ninth-grade English teacher Mr. Bradley, my senior year vocab development teacher Mr. Van Deuren, those Sweet Valley High twins, my good friend Meredith, Harper Lee, J. D. Salinger, Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz, and every librarian I have ever known. And Steve Jobs, I guess, for ripping me off in the first place and thereby making this dream I never had a reality I never expected.

The person I do not thank is whoever made me read "Billy Budd."

Notes on “The Ladies of Missalonghi”

A reminder: I'll be posting my important thoughts here on or around June 27 and invite you to do the same. All I can say at this point is that I hope you're all still speaking to me after this book. I finished it yesterday and can't say I regret it, exactly, but I do suspect my near 30-year-old memory of loving it may have led us down a somewhat crooked path. In other news, I will not be re-reading Danielle Steel's "Palomino" anytime soon.

Here are some things to ponder while you read, borrowed mostly from the fiction guides at Book Browse and Lit Lovers:

  1. How did you experience the book? Were you engaged immediately, or did it take you a while to get into it? How did you feel reading it—amused, sad, disturbed, confused, bored...?
  2. What's the significance of the title?
  3. What is Missy's role in the family? What is her relationship to the other characters? How does it change throughout the story?
  4. Did you find the characters convincing? Do they seem alive to you? Did their actions make sense to you? Did you find them troubling? 
  5. Was the plot interesting? Did you find it engaging or formulaic? Believable? 
  6. Would you call the ending surprising or predictable? Does it unfold naturally or is it forced or manipulative? Is it satisfying, or would you prefer a different ending?
  7. What about the theme—the larger meaning behind the work? What ideas does McCullough explore with the story and characters, or the setting? What is she trying to say? Did she say it effectively?
  8. Does the setting color the telling of the story or is it merely a backdrop? What about the time period? Did you learn anything new?

If you have questions before we discuss, feel free to leave them in the comments. Thanks, sorry, and happy reading!

p.s. I came across an interesting aside yesterday in Colleen McCullough's obituary in the New York Times. A smarter person would probably have unearthed this news prior to reading the book but alas I am not that smart person:

She drew unwelcome attention in 1987 with the publication of her novella “The Ladies of Missalonghi,” about an impecunious woman in early-20th-century Australia. As some critics pointed out, the book’s plot, characters and narrative details strongly resembled those of “The Blue Castle,” a 1926 novel by L. M. Montgomery, the author of “Anne of Green Gables.”

How do you like them apples!? I haven't read the LMM book and definitely will not seek it out (everything that came after AoGG gave me cavities), but here's another take if you'd like to do some detective work of your own.

A very casual book club: you’re all invited

I picked up Anne Tyler's "A Spool of Blue Thread" at the bookstore today and then checked out its performance in the 2016 Morning News Tournament of Books. While it did not advance to the semifinals, this comment from John Warner caught my eye:

Anne Tyler isn’t a particularly flashy writer, but if you ask a bunch of regular readers, I think you’re likely to have a fair number telling you that she’s one of their favorite authors.

Anne Tyler is a writer I love to read, and I do consider myself a "regular reader," which to me is someone who reads a book, maybe chats about it with a friend, recommends it to a couple other friends, and then moves on with her life. As a regular reader, I know a writer succeeds if I want to keep reading. I'm not looking for flashy or trendy. I don't worry too much about themes or subtext or even context; I want a good story well told. The end.

Except that's not even close to the end, because we're going to have a Very Casual Book Club this summer right here at the newly reborn Litwit. That is, a book club for regular readers who want to talk about what they've read: no degree needed, no study required. There are no rules; I'll post some stuff that you may want to consider as you read, but it's all optional. All I want to do is talk about books with friends on this blog, and on the designated meeting date I'll post my thoughts and you can post yours. 

In June we'll be reading "The Ladies of Missalonghi" by Colleen McCullough, as decided by me. I hope you'll join us.*

From the Publisher's Weekly liner notes:

"Like a box of chocolates, this short novel by McCullough is seductive and satisfying; readers will want to devour it in one sitting. Set in the early 1900s in the tiny town of Byron, nestled in the Australia's Blue Mountains, it tells of the blossoming of Missy Wright, 33-year-old spinster and poor relation of the town's ruling family, the Hurlingfords. Missy, her widowed mother and crippled aunt live in genteel poverty, victims of the Hurlingford inheritance policy that gives riches and power to the male members of the family, who heartlessly abuse the women they dominate. Plain, painfully thin and doomed to dress always in serviceable brown, shockingly dark-haired in a clan of luminous blondes, Missy seems fated for a dreary future until a distant cousin, a divorcee, arrives from Sydney."

*Well, that summary was almost as long as the book, which was written in 1988 and which I have not read since college. It is only 189 pages. Maybe it's terrible! Who knows, only time will tell. You should be able to find it at your local library, and then you have until June 27 to wrap it up and start talking. If you have any questions or suggestions in the meantime, just leave them in the comments.

Looking forward to reading with you, friends!

Get strong, stay healthy

This weekend: SarahB and I rented a couple of Citibikes early Saturday morning and took a trek through the park and also (briefly) on an actual city street. Since I am both a nervous Nellie and a pathetic cautious Cathy I have long dreaded/avoided this scenario, not because I'm lazy (although I am) but because I am anti-death. (Not that I believe death should be abolished, although, you know, fingers crossed.) I can't quite square the terror I feel at the idea of traveling on an actual road along with actual cars with the reality, which is that riding a bike in the city is perfectly safe, and the fact that more than one person I know has been struck by a car while simply crossing the street IN A CROSSWALK. Of course it's also possible to be struck by falling air conditioners, falling cranes, exploding manhole covers, exploding gas lines, etc., ad infinitum, so pick your poison, I guess. There's no shortage of ways to die in this city; I should probably worry more about being stabbed by an umbrella. But since I'm currently in the market for (a) new ways to sweat and (b) any way to turn an hour-long commute back into what it should be, which is 20 goddamn minutes, Citibike seems like an easy, cheap option that bears further investigation. Stay tuned.

This fella: Holy smokin' jesus, batman, look at this picture of my ideal man, Harrison Ford, wearing my ideal costume. The navy stripes, the crewneck, the collar askew, the whiskers, the clipped cut, the look of semi-confusion mixed with irritation. I appreciate how he's turned into such an irascible crank as he's gotten older, since he now reminds me of myself. Perhaps it bodes ill for future prospects that my ideal man is basically a man version of me? Also TBD.

Related: If Stanley Tucci were your boyfriend ("If Stanley Tucci were your boyfriend, your apartment would redecorate itself in only the finest and most luxurious of fabrics. The predominant colors would be Nantucket blue, slate grey, and the color of the sea before a storm." "If Stanley Tucci were your boyfriend, Nora Ephron would still be alive somehow. She would have dinner with the two of you at least three nights a week.")

This book: Quirk by Hannah Holmes will give you a new appreciation for your prefrontal cortex (what Holmes calls the CEO of the brain), oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, science, evolution, and even mice and rats. For the love of god, mice and rats! Not to mention monkeys and prairie voles.

On the reason women have evolved to be more naturally cooperative than men:

The female mammal, whether rat, vole, or human, is compelled to stay near her infants so they can nurse. So that's one layer of cooperation she needs. That bondage means the female must neglect her food foraging when she's nursing and must leave her young unprotected when she's foraging. But if she's able to tolerate a female sister or neighbor, the two can share child care and reduce their risk. That's a second layer of cooperation. 

This song: Gotta love the Junkies.