Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Redhead by the Side of the Road

I love Anne Tyler. Maybe my favorite of hers is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. But I just read Redhead by the Side of the Road and was charmed. It’s pretty short, reads quickly, and keeps you rooting for love, of whatever kind, to win in the end. 

People keep being human in Anne Tyler novels, flawed, though sometimes trying very hard, even too hard, not to make mistakes. They want to be worthy of love.

I could focus on this book, even during this wackadoo time when it’s hard to focus on reading. Main character Micah Mortimer likes his routines, and that may have anchored me! He’s a misfit brother in a chaotic family, one of  Anne Tyler’s endearing routines.

He’s an IT guy and a bit of a hermit…so he has his own business, Tech Hermit. He’s “finicky” compared to his sisters and their families, but his sisters remember a bunch of personal details about people, past and present. I love how Tyler gets into his tech head in her third person limited omniscient p.o.v. “Shouldn’t they be periodically clearing out their memory caches or something?”

It was easy to return to normal life in this book, but I had a little moment of COVID-19 reading, when Micah is out very early in the morning to run, before any people are out. In his head again: “Imagine if some cataclysm had hit the city overnight.” The streets are empty. He does indeed begin to imagine the world like that, how long before he would notice, and his solitary day: “he had all the time in the world, it was beginning to seem.” This awareness makes him a little lonely. It prepares him for something.

I won’t tell you what!

Saturday, April 25, 2020

April Poem-a-Day

Like many poets in April, National Poetry Month, I’ve been writing a poem a day. I provided prompts for an online writing workshop I attend and adapted those prompts for the public library, where they are posted weekly on social media, so patrons and poets in the community can write along. I had hoped to offer and to write on a variety of topics, not to be preoccupied with quarantine, lockdown, worry, or disease, but worry often creeps in—to my own poems and those of my fellow poets.

Here’s one, for example, that began as the heart’s response to the sound of the train, just before it was leaving town headed north. I used to ride that train often, back and forth to Chicago, and would tell my husband to listen for the train horn and head for the station to pick me up. Then an ordinance was passed, establishing a Quiet Zone in town, and hearing the train now is rare.

Overground Railroad

Leaving town, the train moans once
on the cold air, unwelcome April snow
coming down like rain on silent lawns,
into silent fields. It might be a new
crew, unaware of the ordinance against
the train sounding its horn in town.
Who’s riding the train now? Is it mostly
empty, one living being for every six ghostly
passengers? By now, the train has passed
the ghost house three stories high, a stop
on the Underground Railroad, or rumored
to be. By now, the train can sound its horn
at crossings if it wants, can moan and groan,
can wail and keen, lament to heart’s content.

There, in the heart of the poem, I see the train sparsely populated, and I know why. Then the other passengers become ghostly. Then history and rumor arrive, and then grief. There is a house, just outside town, rumored to have been on the Underground Railroad. It’s a beautiful and lonely dwelling, a favorite of mine when I rode the train. When I could, I sat on that window side to see it.

This poem turned out to be a "broken sonnet." It has 14 lines and five beats per line, with much variation of meter. It doesn't rhyme, except now and then, internally, externally, or slantwise. But it does wail.

April generally gives me 30 or more drafts of poems to revise and develop over the next year. This one might stop here.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Blithedale Postponement

As I mentioned in the context of my loopy reading, The Blithedale Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne was up next, after Little Women (fiction) and American Bloomsbury (nonfiction) and the not-quite coincidence of all that genius in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1800s. (Ralph Waldo Emerson brought a bunch of smart people together.) It’s always good to read (or re-read) the right book at the right time. As I started re-reading The Blithedale Romance in mid-April, shortly after some unwelcome mid-April snow, I encountered an unwelcome mid-April snowstorm in fiction as Miles Coverdale travels to Blithedale to join an idealistic, intentional, back-to-the-land community, based on the actual Brook Farm that Hawthorne himself had visited for a time with high hopes. 

Then Coverdale gets laid up for two weeks with a rhinovirus! (common cold) in near isolation, tended by main characters Hollingsworth (driven by a single idea) and Zenobia (a beautiful woman and feminist). “Zenobia” is her writer/public figure name; she has a real name in the fiction and is probably based on feminist Margaret Fuller, who is named in the fiction, as if to separate the two, perhaps a courtesy.

Here are some more coincidences that surprised me:

--One of the entertainments in their little set-apart community is “tableaux vivants,” or dressing up as works of art. You may be aware that the Getty Museum challenge, etc. has inspired a lot of that in our current shelter-in-place situations.

--It shouldn’t have surprised me, as some summaries call Hollingsworth a misogynist, but he really is, and Coverdale, the narrator, calls him out on it, saying, “Hollingsworth had boldly uttered what he, and millions of despots like him, really felt.” Which was, basically, that woman is only a helpmeet at man’s side and must support him fully in his endeavors, blah, blah, blah. I guess the main surprise was Hawthorne outing “millions of despots.”

--Zenobia, complicatedly pissed off by this, retorts, “Let man be but manly and god-like, and woman is only too ready to become to him what you say!” Meaning, of course, that man isn’t.

--Earlier, Zenobia has said, in the context of supporting women’s rights, “Thus far, no woman in the world has ever once spoken out her whole heart and her whole mind.” It reminded me of Muriel Rukeyser, who said in a poem, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open”

--Hawthorne sounds like a closet feminist himself, speaking through the character closest to himself in life, Coverdale, defending a broken-hearted woman:

It was nonsense, and a miserable wrong,—the result, like so many others, of masculine egotism,—that the success or failure of women’s existence should be made to depend wholly on the affections, and on one species of affection, while man has such a multitude of other chances, that this seems but an incident. For its own sake, if it will do no more, the world should throw open all its avenues to the passport of a woman’s bleeding heart.

Now, Coverdale sounds like a pretty feeling guy there above, but Arlin Turner in the introduction sees him as rather cold, aloof from fellow humans, and almost the worst villain of the piece, while I saw him as more the observer, as a writer necessarily is—Coverdale is a poet. Sigh… 

But, plot-wise, he had the power, probably, to act, and did not, and that’s what counts, alas. Even if you can’t achieve a utopia on earth, you’ve got to act in human sympathy where you can. I guess I forgave him for being human, flawed, imperfect, and a poet…

And I do think he’s right in opposing Hollingsworth, who cares not a fig for the utopian community, but only for his own one central idea, pushed relentlessly upon the innocent and unsuspecting, respecting only his will, not theirs. Coverdale thinks we are meant to tend to our own lives as best we can and “insensibly influence other hearts and other lives to the same blessed end,” not force our “philanthropy” on others or be subsumed by one overarching theory or dream.

Looping back, I should mention that the cold snap in Blithedale caused the residents to postpone their May Day celebration until later, when the weather would be nicer. Likewise, our shelter in place has been extended, postponing many things, but rightly so, as our governor, listening to the advice of experts, is thinking of the general good of all, not pressing his personal will upon us. (And that makes it a Thor's Day in the blog!)

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Antics of the Ants

The ants are marching two by two by four by dozens into our house in April, undaunted by the snow. Or they were. They had been very interested in the (covered!) butter dish on the kitchen counter and the flecks of toothpaste on the bathroom counter. But when they appeared en masse, not respecting social distancing at all, in the bedroom near my husband’s closet and dresser, he went into action with bug spray. 

He is usually a very gentle guy, and animals love him. But he does not love ants.

One was crawling up my pajama leg after some floor stretches. I have returned to yoga. Our daughter, who is training to be a yoga instructor, practiced a focus class on lower back pain on us via Zoom on Friday, and it got me back to A.M. Yoga for Beginners with Rodney Yee on Saturday and Sunday. I like Rodney Yee, forever young via video, as I am forever a beginner.

Also got back to the trail, now that the sun is out and the temperature is up. People remain friendly and polite as they (for the most part) maintain the six feet distance from each other. There are “Mind the Gap” signs up now.

I’ve reported on my “loopy reading” of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s fiction. I’ve also been reading poetry—the wonderful books Match, by Christine Marshall (Unicorn Press, 2018), Indigo, by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon, 2020), and Blowout,* by Denise Duhamel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Next up is Duhamel’s Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). I got the Duhamel books to read on the plane to Pittsburgh in early April for a reading event there. I won the 2019 Patricia Dobler Award, and she was the judge, and part of the prize was the reading! It was, as you can guess, canceled. The new (May/June) issue of Poets & Writers just arrived, with the announcement of this award in it, and it gave me a brief pang, tiny as ant bite in the scheme of things.

Zoom is helping me in so many ways—the yoga class, work meetings, a library open mic this past Thursday, Zoom Church this morning, and a family gathering by Zoom this afternoon, bringing together family members in Tennessee, Illinois, Nebraska, Oregon, and California. With a baby!!

*I love how “blowout” is a big fight, a big party, and a way of styling hair, among other things. In hair, it’s a desired thing; in tattooing, not. But how about that beautiful body art on the Indigo cover? And that makes this a Random Coinciday, as well as a Poetry Someday in the blog.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Loopy Reading

After Little Women, I couldn’t settle on the right book to read next. I started Baltasar and Blimunda by José Saramago, picked up at the library book sale, which was charming for a boarding pass left inside by its donor; it is a Portuguese novel, and the boarding pass was from Lisbon, Portugal to Barcelona, Spain, back in the days of international travel. I used it as a bookmark. But the language was detailed and dense, and I couldn’t stick with it, and have set it aside for now.

Then I went to my shelf for another American classic, and pulled out The Blithedale Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which I vaguely remembered reading at some point. The underlining and margin notes indicated I had read it in some studious mood or circumstance. I skimmed paragraphs of the introduction and put it back. But, to foreshadow quite obviously, the way Louisa May Alcott does, I was destined to take it up again later!

Finally, I looked up at the top shelf of my computer desk, where I keep a row of books about Emily Dickinson, literary feuds, literary intersections, and the act of reading. 

And there was American Bloomsbury, by Susan Cheever, also scooped up at a library sale, and not yet read. This would be it, the next read, and its subtitle will tell you why, and also why I looped back to The Blithedale Romance afterwards. American Bloomsbury is subtitled Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work.

It was exactly the right read, in part because of its “loopy” style. The author explains what she’s going to do: “a series of overlapping scenes in which some incidents are repeated, sometimes more than once.” She wants us to see the same incidents through the eyes of the alternating focal characters. “By this method I have tried to honor the characters, their lives, and their intimate connections with each other.” I remember my old self, so I confess that this method may have driven me a little crazy in the past, but the repetitions were helpful during this scatterbrained time!

It was fun to learn that teen Louisa had sort of a simultaneous crush on Thoreau, a young man, and Emerson, an old man; fun to learn (again) that Emerson basically paid for everything, that he had helped gather all this genius in Concord, Massachusetts; fun to revisit the annoying and endearing traits of Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, and Thoreau. I understand fictional Marmee better in Little Women, when she says she is angry every day of her life, by meeting her actual husband via Susan Cheever. Ineffectual dreamer.

And Margaret Fuller, charismatic feminist, interested me the most. Apparently, several male writers have fictionalized her, including Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance, so I will be reading it alert to the “male gaze” but with her interesting life seen recently through a “female gaze,” as well.

If you are having trouble reading, you might connect to this piece by Kim Kishbaugh in Escape Into Life. She has discovered YA books! 

And yesterday, thanks to my library’s ebook collection, I finally read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo. 

Yes, I cried.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Penny Serenade

Fair warning: Penny Serenade is a tearjerker. It was on my mind after Baby Boom, because...babies! I had fond (and partly mistaken) memories of Penny Serenade, black and white, first viewed on tv late at night, interrupted by commercials. I loved it then, and I love it now. The hoopla copy had a good soundtrack (volume-wise) and a few vertical slits or seams in some of the frames, giving it a marvelous vintage quality. And now I may be hooked forever on free movies via hoopla via my library card.

I had remembered a sweet, sweet moment when a man gives a baby a bath. It takes as long as it takes, as does a new mother's fumbling with getting her baby's clothes off for the bath, and that was a delightful part of the movie, real time scenes. And the baby's sweet, sweet face! But I thought it was Cary Grant giving the bath, and that made no sense. I had conflated the bath scene with a later scene where he gives a great speech with the baby (a year older) sitting in a giant chair. You'll like it.

This movie has everything: romance, travel, an earthquake, journalism, comedy, New Year's Eve, and old-fashioned records. In a way, it's the story of a marriage unfolding through memories evoked by songs played on an old-fashioned record player. I don't want to say too much more, so you can have the surprises I had on first viewing. And so you can cry. This time I started crying when the inspector saw the child's room in the apartment upstairs from the newspaper office. And just kept crying, between smiles.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Baby Boom & Paper Man

OK, boomers! Yesterday I watched Baby Boom via Hoopla via my library card! Of course, I had first seen it back in 1987, three years before I had a baby! It was delightful to re-visit this film, which had come up in family emails because my sister and her husband now live on many acres that include an apple orchard, and he’s getting ready for the summer and fall Farmers Markets (or cancellation thereof due to virus and options for his products via McKelvie Farm at Etsy; the wood items are already there, the apple items will come later!) The tie-in here is applesauce from Country Baby, a brand created by Diane Keaton’s character after she heads to Vermont!

But first she has to acquire a baby! And I’ll let you discover or rediscover that plot element on your own. I just want to say I laughed out loud a lot during this movie—exactly what I needed—and some of it was from Keaton carrying the baby sideways. Pretty sure no babies were harmed in the making of this film! And, as often happens, two babies, twins, played the part of this adorable baby! You will fall in love with her—I did!—and also possibly Sam Shepard!

But is this happening to you? I view films through the lens of Covid-19 now, and cringe when people touch each other or kiss! Early in the film, there is even a handshake. Noooooo! I wanted to scream, and I knew Dr. Fauci would agree with me, and then the guy in the film actually shook the virus off his hand!! I know he was really shaking the hurt off his hand from her very strong handshake—it’s a feminist film (ish)—but virus eyes saw it differently.

Likewise, in an airport—nooooo, not an airport!—the baby sticks her finger in her mouth. Nooo! Later, she actually gets sick, with symptoms of fever! If I weren’t falling in love and laughing so much during this movie, it would have been unbearable.

Then this morning, on the recommendation of my cousin, I watched Paper Man, also via Hoopla, via my library card! This is a little gem about a writer, starring Jeff Daniels (so I had to watch it on my own as my husband doesn’t like Jeff Daniels), Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, and Lisa Kudrow. Good acting, a pinata, and a superhero, Captain Excellent!*

I’m so happy I can do this, find nostalgic old favorites and charming new favorites! And do you know what? These two movies have something in common: a yellow house in the country. Oh, also twins. And they are a little hard to hear. I wonder if this is a transfer-to-hoopla thing, because all ways of turning up the sound were employed. Or just older soundtracks. Or older ears.

Two favorite lines (I leave it to you to figure out which line is in which movie):

“I don’t even know how many grandchildren I have now.”

"Why origami? Why now?”

Wait, my favorite lines end with the word “now.” And that really makes it a Random Coinciday in the blog.

*And so does this: also this morning (I've been getting up very early) I found this fabulous YouTube video created by Emily Lloyd, librarian in Minnesota, to help kids handle wearing masks. She's a superhero! Who you gonna call!? Germbusters!

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Little Wisdoms

I’ve finished my re-reading of Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, a Big Book full of Little Wisdoms! By that, I mean pithy, sometimes surprising phrases and paragraphs that resonate now as containing something deeply true about human beings and their conventions and institutions—so that even if her time stamps them as dated, they still stand as true, sometimes as prophetic. 

Here are some examples:

When Jo takes Beth to the seashore, hoping to shore up her health but feeling the imminence of her death: “They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it; for often between ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which it is very hard to overcome.” So true! And yet I hope we are speaking our hearts in the current circumstances, feeling our fragility.

Alcott uses the phrase “division of labor” to describe what saves Meg and John’s marriage when she has become consumed with the care of their baby twins, neglecting him and the house. When she accepts his help in childrearing and the offered household help—dividing and sharing the work—their happy little family thrives.

Amy’s good sense, here speaking to Laurie: “it’s wicked to throw away so many good gifts because you can’t have the one you want.” Indeed, it is! When she speaks of herself, she explains that she has given up on her own artistic ambition “because talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great or nothing.” She’s right about that, and we have to look hard at our talents, and find the ones to follow. And Amy isn’t contradicting herself here, as she is not throwing away all her good gifts; she will choose among them and apply them differently. In one of the “dated” aspects here, she intends to be “an ornament to society,” which sounds terribly like being an object, but 1) it was what she always wanted, from childhood, to be a rich man’s wife and go about in good society and 2) the way she and Laurie will do it includes a lot of generosity toward struggling artists and education!

And here’s a dated-sounding-but-still-apt paragraph on men and women:

Amy’s lecture did Laurie good, though, of course, he did not own it till long afterward; men seldom do, for when women are the advisors, the lords of creation don’t take the advice till they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do; then they act upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it; if it fails, they generously give her the whole.

Alcott’s irony comes within her feminist, suffragist context, which you can read about here, in a lovely article offered by the Arlington (VA) Public Library this month, helping to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment! Alcott’s “weaker vessel” surely echoes what men say, not what women are!

Her humor suffuses her prose. Describing those twins, now small children at a family gathering with a table laden with goodies, she says: “…didn’t they each whisk a captivating tart into their tiny pockets, there to stick and crumble treacherously, teaching them that both human nature and pastry are frail?” Yes, and these days it’s also a warning against hoarding! Again describing children, this time Jo’s, who thrive in a wild upbringing, Alcott says Professor Bhaer, their father, thinks “that babies could digest anything, from pickled cabbage to buttons, nails, and their own small shoes.” This made me giggle.

Other fun surprises during this re-reading:

Beth drops treats from her window to the children below, just like Emily Dickinson!

Alcott prefigured the song “YMCA”! “Demi learned his letters with his grandfather, who invented a new mode of teaching the alphabet by forming the letters with his arms and legs, thus uniting gymnastics for head and heels.”

I am so glad I read this long book in my cozy moments of downtime on the couch or in the back yard, now that the weather is turning warm. What’ll I read next?

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Topsy-Turvy Jo

There are so many lovely covers to the book Little Women. Here’s one, though not the copy I am reading, an image of which I cannot find online. Today I learned (or re-learned, if I once knew it) that May Alcott, Louisa’s little sister, illustrated the first edition. May was the real Amy. Her name was Abigail May Alcott, and, Wikipedia tells me, she was known as Abba or Abby until she chose to be known as May, and that’s how she is listed on this title page of the first edition, with her illustration opposite. So “Amy” is not just an anagram of “May” but echoes the two nicknames!

I loved this article about the real Amy—“What Greta Gerwig Got Right: Rethinking Amy March in Light of May Alcott Nieriker,” by Kelly Blewett in the Los Angeles Review of Books—re-seeing her in light of Greta Gerwig’s movie adaptation as well as a new book by Jane Smiley, The March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women. Both authors recognize May Alcott as a modern woman and a feminist of her own times.

Clearly, a lot of us are re-reading and re-thinking Little Women right now. I am turning to it as a kind of “comfort food” during this time of crisis. Imagine my astonishment at discovering May Alcott’s illustration of Beth greeting her father on his return—wearing his scarf like a coronavirus mask!

And there are various other surprises, among them the number of nicknames. I had remembered Topsy-Turvy Jo, and, for Theodore Laurence, the boy next door, Laurie, of course, and Teddy, but I had forgotten Toodles as one of his nicknames!

A somewhat unnerving surprise was the common use of the word “trump” in a slang sense, with the entirely positive connotation it has from cards, where the trump beats everything! “Three cheers for dear Father! Brooke was a trump to telegraph right off, and let us know he was better.”

We live in a topsy-turvy world right now, changed forever. When we come through this hard time, and I hope we will, let it be for the better. I know we’ve been made vulnerable by the current president, a “trump” with entirely negative connotations, who  must be voted out, my dears, so let us be strong and kind and do what needs to be done. There! That shows the influence of listening to Marmee and spending time with some admirable “little women.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Pertinence of Little Women

As a comfort during this strange and difficult time, I am re-reading Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, first read in childhood. I recalled the March family hunkered at home during the Civil War, their father off serving as a chaplain for the army, but little did I know quite how much their situation would resonate now!

When I picked up my book this morning, opening to where my bookmark had fallen inplace the night before, the little women and their mother had received news of the illness of Mr. March. Illness in war is common, and our big flu pandemic of 1918 happened in war, and here we are again. So Marmee, as her daughters call her, packs a trunk and heads off to tend him, leaving the little women on their own, in the care of Hannah the cook, and with the protection of the neighbor, Mr. Laurence, and his grandson, Laurie.

The next morning, they wake to the completely changed circumstances. “’I feel as if there had been an earthquake,’ said Jo…” Indeed! And not only does the disruption current in our lives feel as devastating as that, but there has just been another earthquake—in Idaho!

And for those of you who are stress eating (or stress baking), look at the pertinence and needed humor of this! “’I think anxiety is very interesting,’ said Amy, eating sugar pensively.” I laughed a little, while maintaining my compassion for those whose anxiety is hard to manage, and probably not with sugar, and definitely not straight from the shared sugar bowl!

I am reading a hard copy of Little Women, a paperback I got for my son when he became enamored of the movie (with Winona Ryder) one Christmas season. (I don’t think he read it, though, as the binding was very tight, until, alas, I broke it, but now I am not straining to read in the gutter, so to speak.) And I was eager to re-read this novel after seeing the new film version this Christmas season, directed by Greta Gerwig. But you can easily find e-book versions at the library, along with Little Men and Jo’s Boys, so I might try those as our “shelter in place” continues.

So many wonderful details from the book are coming back so vividly from my first reading! Others I had forgotten: for instance, that the sisters had girlfriends in the neighborhood who attended their little plays. And that they went on a picnic with Laurie’s British friends and played croquet. That is, there’s not as much “social distancing” in Little Women as I had remembered.

Ah, but I know what’s coming next in the plot: Beth’s visit to a house with illness in it. Again, the pertinence of Little Women.