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openingshot
An shot early in The Salesman before Rana has been attacked

Dear friends and readers,

In my mostly literally solitary widowhood — though I’m online with friends a good deal (letters) and participate in reading groups, Future Learn courses, and these blogs to the point I feel companioned and some of what I do regularly are these joined-in activities (more reading, more writing, occasional f-t-f meetings) — in my mostly solitary state (as like some Defoe character, I say), I’m finding that the love of characters so many readers attest to when they talk of what they read has come upon me more strongly than it used to. I feel this especially when I watch a great film adaptation of a great novel where there are many episodes. Good films, moving books. Beyond these imagined congenial souls, I have my cats — such my topic this week.

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A close up

I burst into tears at one point while watching the Iranian film, The Salesman, written, directed, produced by Ashgar Farhadi’s (2016): fine sensitive intelligent (keep adding good words). I saw this in a nearly empty theater late yesterday (Thursday) afternoon — a first it seemed I and one couple were the only people in the audience, but by the end of the film there were about 10 people I saw when I got up at the end and turned round to look. I urge you to see it if it comes near you. It is a touching realistically done story of a couple in Iran who are part of a theater group putting on Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Emad Etesami (Shabab Hosseini) teaches English in what seems the equivalent of an American high school, except all boys. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), his wife has no job or occupation beyond being his wife — though she is very capable one can see, even well educated (how I don’t know). Emad plays Willy, and Rana Linda. The play is acted in English and it seems everyone in the audience understands without subtitles.

[It has proved impossible to find any shots of the play within the movie; frequent shots are of Rana looking out a door from the side, through glass-y barred windows; standing behind Emad — these reinforce stereotypes.]

I asked about Iranians’ knowledge of English on two listservs but no one answered. I know few Americans can speak or read Arabic; even the state department under a decent president had limited resources this way. Miller’s is also apparently a story Iranians are familiar with. Does anyone who reads this blog know if Iranian education includes a thorough grounding in English? I used to have a loving friend on the Net, an Iranian woman and poet who shared my love of poetry, of Virginia (my friend has translated Woolf into Farsi), of books, and cats. She no longer can reach me by email. A great loss for both of us. She wrote beautiful English and Arabic and Farsi are both “Greek to me.”

As the movie begins, the building Emad and Rana are living in collapses, and they must move hurriedly, and get into an apartment where the previous female tenant’s things are still there. One afternoon while he is gone either teaching or rehearsing, she goes to take a shower and thinks he has buzzed her from the ground floor. She buzzes back without checking to see it’s him, and goes off to the shower. We stare at the door ajar — an allusion to Hitchcock’s famous sadistic scene. We hear screams, see a shadow. When Emad comes home she is gone, blood all over the floor, on the stairs. Cut to the hospital: he has learned she is there, her face badly bruised, arm wrenched, back sore, but apart from these ailments physically unhurt. She was taken there by a neighbor, Babak (Babak Karimi), also part one of the players. He found the apartment for them we later discover.

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After the assault

So that’s the initiating situation. The results in their emotional and economic (the play doing, the teaching) causes havoc. We see the problems in calling the police; she can’t tell. She is terrified to be in the apartment alone; she won’t let Emad near her at night. The rapist (? — we are not sure what he did, the wife seems to indicate not) left his pick-up truck downstairs. This furnishes the clue for the husband to find the man is a set of keys and pick-up truck downstairs; the keys are in the apartment and they fit the pick-up truck. Since Rana won’t go to the police (she’ll be blamed she says for opening the door to let the man in), Emad begins to have a need to find the man and punish him himself. It’s a telling detail (to my or American eyes) how no one in the apartment building appears to get excited over this pick-up truck. The women seem to turn a blind eye; the men say ignore it. Slowly we (and he) realize that other male neighbors, especially Babak,, were also this woman’s lovers. Babak (and everyone else) knew the woman supported herself by having lovers. Emad becomes furious: why did you not tell me? The film is not explicit but it seems that men are casually promiscuous in this society but they are also intently hypocritical and hidden and they do all they can to hide such behavior from wives and families. When wives find out they wax fiercely angry. The men seem to dread shaming of any kind.

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Emad pacing on the roof — he has much more active visible agency than Rana but she has power over him because he needs to be a respectable married man with seemingly loving respectful wife

The sex and family lives of these people is a different combination of hypocrisy and interwovenness than our own, and we are studying Iranian society from the angle of this situation. Rana cannot bear to be in the apartment alone; she wants to go everywhere with Emad. She appears angry with him and won’t let him near her at night (he says, accusingly); she can’t eat. One of the women in the cast who plays Willy’s on-the-road mistress, Sanam (Mina Sadati), is herself divorced with a child. Or separated. Sanam has accused the cast members of disrespecting her for the role she plays: Willy’s casual mistress upstate for whom he buys stockings. It hurts her reputation further to play such a role. She has her child with her always and it is a relief when Rana offers to take him home one night to keep Rana company. We see a family-group when Emad comes home and the two attempt to have a decent evening because the child is there. They are cheerful; she has cooked some food she bought in a store, but soon the pretended cheer breaks down when he realizes she uses money she found in a drawer that must’ve been this intruder’s. The marriage is now under terrific strain as he asks her to go to the police, and she says no, and she won’t leave him alone. He follows the pick-up truck to a restaurant and finds Majid (Mojtaba Pirzadeh), the young man who drives it. This is his rapist; Emad has to corner and pressure him to get him to work for Emad at a wedding (Emad claims — weddings appear to be sancrosanct and all bend before its needs and demands).

The play and teaching carry on. Emad can’t sleep and falls asleep as his class and he are watching a movie. The young men begin to cut up; we saw they were not disciplined much before. Their gender makes them all important. Maleness must be allowed aggression? Emad is now ridiculed by them, but he holds his own when he threatens to tell their families. At the theater, Emad and Rana are having trouble carrying on with their roles. Emad moves into a rage at Babak at one point — Babak is one of the characters in the play. Rana’s speech over Willy’s dead body was what hit me. Her grief let loose as Linda’s grief, mine at hers. I began to keen and sat there silently shaking and weeping.

At one point, cut to a new apartment Emad and Rana have found. The next day or so, not Majid, but his father-in-law, an old man shows up at this new apartment. And again slowly it emerges this old man knows is there as a substitute for his son-in-law because it was he who was an ex-lover, angry at the woman for something, who came into the apartment and then “tempted” attacked Rana. The confession is tense with shame; Emad is determined to make the man’s family know, especially his wife. We see how important are family ties in this society, far stronger than ours. The old man tries to run away, but Emad locks him in and he has a heart attack.

When Emad returns, with Rana (from another day of playing theirroles), they find him semi-paralyzed. Emad is still determined to humiliate the man before letting him go, and calls the family to get him. The family arrive, Majid all tender loving care for this old man, and the old man’s daughter, and a hysterical wife who says the old man is her whole life. Rana takes Emad aside and says if Emad tells them the truth, she, Rana, will leave him. She will go home to her family. She is making this family’s harmony more important than anything else, including her terror. They are at first grateful to Emad for saving their father as they know nothing it seems of this history of the man, but when Emad demands he take the old man into a separate room, they begin to be frightened. Emad is unstoppable and when he gets the old man alone Emad hits him hard. Another heart attack ensues. Emad had claimed to call an ambulance but hadn’t, now Rana or he does, and the family follow the instructions by phone to revive this father.

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An intense emotionalism characterizes the behavior of this family — yet in dialogues with the old man it seems that underneath there is distrust and all demand strict conventional behavior from one another; my father used to say among naive people emotionalism is prevalent (one reason for Dickens’s popularity)

The last scene shows us Rana being dressed for her part as Linda and Emad for his as Willy. They have stained unemotional looks on their faces. They have not broken up, but they have not made up. It’s probably significant that Rana has had no child, but I am not sure what how this would be read by an Iranian audience.

I was startled at the overt sentimentality of the families towards one another because at the same time the women overlook the men’s promiscuous behavior as long as they are not told or do not have to learn explicitly the men are unfaithful. The society is so interwoven and desperate economically (most buildings are aging, supermarkets are full but it’s clear that lots of better goods are not on the shelves for most people). Many people make it by odd jobs — taking in one another’s laundry I used to call it. Family members utterly need one another. They have no one else to turn to.

Best of all it made Iranians utterly human. I hope the empty theater is not the result of Americans not wanting to be associated with Muslims lest they somehow get into trouble. The Trump administration is demonizing these people so such a film is important. Iranians are so dependent on family members because the US among other powerful gov’ts and the leaders of factions in Iran prevented a social democratic gov’t which was elected in the 1950s from developing. A coup put back a dictatorial theocracy; then the Shah tried to develop capitalism, freeing women as a sop and as necessary for a modern society. We know where that went. A huge proportion of people were left in poverty. Men find keeping women submissive, under their control, soothes and bucks up their ego and pride. Today in our gov’t the Republicans are removing or trying to all our social helps outside the family, including a meritocracy through education so that they can keep their enormous, take in more, live off us more, and in the process destroy outer non-religious (and thus free and progressive) social world insofar as they can.

Don’t miss it! It won awards and is nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The director is famous, his films are events, so are the leading cast members stars.

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William Wordsworth when young — endorsed as strongly accurate by Kenneth Johnston in his Hidden Wordsworth, which I’ve been reading also

So, another week or so and now on bonding with characters in fiction. Take Wordsworth’s Prelude: it brought back memories. The natural world for me as a child. Not very much. I grew up in the Southeast Bronx. When I think of nature, I think of how Shakespeare says when we live in an artful world, the art comes from nature. Say the word nature to me and I remember a terrifying hurricane my family drove through when I was about 3 — my father’s family had a sort of cottage, home-made where we stayed for a few weeks in summer, on the north shore of Long Island, Suffolk county, a pump in the yard for water, an outhouse. Hurricane Carol hit not far from where we were, and the water coming miles up and high as the cliffs, roofs coming off, trees ripped.

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Turner’s Buttermere Lake — this image is the cover illustration for my parallel texts of two of Wordsworth’s Preludes (1805 and 1850; there’s a third, a short plain evocative 1799)

[I have no pictures of myself when young by a pump in Long Island, no photos of myself climbing up and down fire-escapes in the Southeast Bronx, anyway the block I lived in was torn down decades ago after it was (in my father’s words) abandoned by people, left to the dogs. Now it is rows of small private houses with hispanic families living in them. There is a Crotona Park, in bad disarray when I lived there. In the 1980s, my father meet other older white men from the suburbs there who once lived in these communities, and eventually these other white men brought their equipment from the suburbs and rebuilt the handball walls. Those playing, all male, all hispanic were grateful.]

When he gets to university, Cambridge, wow, the son of a high level agent of a ferociously mean high ranking super-wealthy man, his father dies and the lord refuses to pay the legacy the man had garnered up, so the boy or young man now has a precarious future. Still he is among the privileged boys of his era. As I read I see him as coming there with a group of expectations and a sense of his place. Myself I think how we measure our success or what we define as success comes from where we started out, and what we expected from life from that place. When I went finally to Queens College at age 18, public though it was, I was ecstatic, so relieved. College was not assumed in the cards for me at all. I never thought about — really — the lack of status or where I was going to go afterwards. To me this was a height. I didn’t want it to end. I was there to study, not to get somewhere. It was probably too painful for me to think about what might be my future. I did so much better than others in the class not only because I chose an area or areas that I find myself good at (English, humanities, history of art) but because I valued what I was doing. I knew all around me at the time many didn’t. Dorothy didn’t get to go.

He also says that when he was supposed to leave, maybe he was better off not to have a place to go to. He admits he missed out on something — did things he regrets, but doesn’t say what. For me I grieve not; happy is the man/Who only misses what I missed, who falls/No lower than I fell. Happy is the man is an old Horatian formula.

Well for me years after being in school I knew that I had not profited from “learning” forced on me,for which I had no aptitude — like math, physics — which I did poorly in. Rousseau in the 18th century says we must follow the child or person’s bent. That was a radical idea then: you were paying attention to the individual and saying he (not she in Rousseau) matters; you weren’t forcing them to do or become something for the family’s sake, as part of the family business. Rousseau also says that’s the way a child learns.

I wasn’t badly off in my undergraduate years. I was naively happy in my studies, though it took shutting the future out from my mind. I liked all my courses (even some of the required ones outside humanities) but the honor courses I found myself simply in in my last and have to agree I did read more interesting books in such courses. The shock was to come back and see this institution which had meant so much to me — it did free me, it gave me the scholarship to England I did leave the social class I had been born in basically forever — and that to another (my daughter) it was irrelevant as a place and worse. She couldn’t learn in it even if it’s academic program in music for a librarian was excellent. The social world mattered in her case.

We’ve also talked of Coleridge this week on Trollope19thCStudies: I’ve long loved best “This lime-tree bower, my prison” to Lamb, but as others spoke of Coleridge rhythmic ballads I conceded:

It’s both hard and easy to get back to an earlier self. I’ve said a few lines in Michael confirmed my resolve to be an English major, to go and study British literature for the BA. In that term where I first read Coleridge too I was swept away by the intensity of the “faery” side of his poetry, the unfinished romance, Christabel was it called, also loved and reread over and over Frost at Midnight. And Kubla Khan started — especially with the story about it. But I remember this and cannot feel the same today. I don’t mean to say they are at all inferior to the contemplative type poem only that as I look at them now, I remember how naive I was. I admit I was never “gone” on The Ancient Mariner. Him stopping one of three and the rest of the ritual type chant, even the moral with the albatross at the end seemed something imposed.I grant though lines have stayed with me all my life . Ah sleep it is a blessed thing/Beloved from pole to pole. How many times I’ve repeated that one. It is a mismemory I’ve just discovered: “it’s gentle thing ….” For me until I began with my nightly trazadone it was something often out of reach, only gotten in 3 hours snatches at best. Coleridge ended his life living in a kindly person’s attic, giving free lectures to those who could appreciate great literary criticism, among others of Shakespeare

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Kay Spark: Virginia Woolf or Seraglia

I’m now read/skimming and listening in my car to Woolf’s The Voyage Out as read by Nadia May. I remembered my “voyage out” as I read/listen. Over on Trollope19thCStudies I said going to Queens College transformed my life, but I was plucked out of the limited frustrating environment to which I was born by a scholarship offered through Queens: to go to Leeds University, half paid by Queens and half by a Chancellor’s scholarship from the UK. I took a boat trip that took 12 days. For 12 days I was aboard a boat loaded down with students my age — I had been married and had some adult experiences they hadn’t, but they had had all sorts of social experiences I hadn’t. Fine art films all day long, one of 4 in tiny rooms (Bunk beds). I’ll never forget that experience and coming up the channel to see the white cliffs of dover. Much as I didn’t understand was going on round me, and had a week long nervous collapse in Leeds as result of what to me was also an ordeal — I was with a group of 12 students shepherded by an British history teacher teaching at Queens for the great salary — but fascinating, all so news, 3 weeks in London, arrive at Leeds, a flat shared with another student in a private house (attached), Leeds itself and then I met Jim.

It’s a book much influenced by Austen — as her next, Night and Day, is much influenced by the Brontes. There is a trek the characters take up a hill to look down. It’s not that they go on donkeys or that the breaking into groups is uncomfortable, some of the conversation (though some sublime and refreshing), but Woolf’s characterization of the whole long incident as a group of people “very dull, not at all suited to each other,” and not really wanting to come (some of them). There’s a scene strongly reminiscent of everyone sitting on blankets in a circle and talking. At the end as in the 2009 Emma for some they’ve had too much of a good thing. Then there’s a dance, how Rachel loves dancing, the partners — just very like. She has Austen in mind.

And for a backwards proof, as with male critics writing about Ferrante’s fiction, so Mitchell A Leasla, resentful of Helen (shepherding Rachel in something of the spirit but much smarter, more generous, for the girl’s interest) of Emma with Harriet, Leasla cannot understand what this book is on about.

As for bonding with characters in films that go on for episode after episode and are taken from deeply felt realistic fiction, see my latest blogs on the new and old Poldark films and the 1972 BBC War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins Pierre, Morag Hood, Natasha, Joanna David Sonya …. )

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A Caturday entry: on bonding with my pussycats:

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We don’t credit animals the way we should. To my mind this is part of our defense from treating them with equal respect and affection. Since becoming so close with my cats my understanding of animals has improved and my general behavior. I now buy only “free range” chicken, and I look at labels where I ‘ve read the packaging or company treats their pigs or lambs decently — or not cruelly anyway (so it’s claimed). I try to eat much less meat. I wrote a couple of blogs on books that tell the history of the increase of animal protection laws and companionate relationships. For years when I taught Adv Comp in the Natural Sciences and Tech I had a unit where we read Jane Goodall, and a couple of times showed Wiseman’s Primate. We are such a cruel species it’s hard to get my mind around what scientists do to chimps: primates to other primates.

I was thinking that one of my narcissistic impulses is when I feel glad to see my cats react to things that are recognizable that seem more like a human reaction, something we wrongly do not expect from animals. So for example, when a car drives up to my part of the sidewalk — not close to my house, my boy growls and often the girl will get off her perch and trot to a front window — or she’ll scurry away. They know immediately when someone is coming down the path.

For a couple of weeks I lived with a woman friend who was vegetarian: her diet included cheese and eggs and she was wonderful cook so we had all sorts of vegetables and pasta. I didn’t mind being without meat for the time. I’ve never tried it otherwise but I nowadays understand the logic of the position. You’d have tobe careful to get the vitamins and nuitrition you need. I “use” far too much sugar, wine but we don’t eat much processed food. When we first brought our kittens home, they had one another and (it’s hard to remember) it seems to me pretty fast the problem was how to keep them out of the bedroom. They were too lively to sleep all night and Jim was very bothered by the whole thing. I somewhat forced the cats on him with my older daughter — I wanted them for myself, to find common ground with this older daughter (didn’t work) and to provide Izzy with more creatures to interact with. At the time she was not working and having a very hard time.

My two have been with me since birth. They are frightened to go out the door and start away from it. I know if I were to leave it open they would go out and so keep all doors shut. They both twitch with intensity when they see birds, squirrels outside but I doubt they’d know how to kill them. The boy, Ian, does stalk and by playing with kill insects and occasionally he has brought one to me to show his stuff. It is all routine. I wake with them cuddled into me. We get up when it’s fully light.Into the kitchen where I top up their dry food. Then they just stay round me all day as I go about my routine. They know when I’m going out of “our” workroom from when I turn off the computer or put on my coat. Clarcat looks sad then. They can tell time duration; when I’ve been away on trips, at first they are not friendly and then get intensely affectionate. Usual times away — say an hour or so or 4 at most – one or both come to the door. Around 5 or so they seem to know it’s time for wet food. They do know their names I think; at least they respond to them They know “wet food” I think. I go open a can and pour myself a glass of wine. So all are content. I do differ routines in food: sometimes I give them tuna with or instead of the wet food. About an hour before I go to bed, they go into my room and wait. I have a high cat bed near mine and Ian sleeps there. We have play periods and sitting on lap periods, and he presses himself against my chest and nudges my head. She thinks I’m another cat and licks me industriously sometimes.
Going to the Vet is an ordeal I have described here before.

They do love string. They can’t resist playing with me with string — like people, me, in front of a movie.

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New Yorker Cartoon

Last night I knew a strange moment of intense peace, highly unusual. I had read hard all day, written, and when I drank that glass of wine, and this mood came over me. My mind collapsed. I could no longer read or write. Suddenly I felt so deeply in my gut, What did it matter if I didn’t want to put myself through an ordeal of travel to a Jane Austen and Arts conference. I felt I could choose to not go without telling myself, where does it stop here? Lose contact? what am I talking of? what mad dreams obeying? I just relaxed into myself. I shall have no grandchildren. I re-watched Last Orders, the film I watched the day of Jim’s funeral as it only lasted for 3 hours and by 3 I was home alone again. i’m going to teach the book this coming spring, listen to it read aloud by Juliet Stevenson when my MP3 comes. I sat and tears came and went as I wiped my eyes. And went to bed.

I am now in the fourth year of widowhood and have no words for the kind of grief I live with all the time. Nameless because society refuses to recognize this, give it a vocabulary.

Next up: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, on the BBC radio worlds. I’m nearly to the end of her nearly perfect The Bookshop: desperation as courage who loses out to the machinations and human instruments of silent ruthless power enacted, controlled, by one blight of a woman. Any hope I ever had of a full-time contingent position at Mason was destroyed similarly years ago by Rosemary Jann, the chair of the department. So bonding again …

Miss Drake

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From Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1990 film, scripted by Harold Pinter, featuring Natasha Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s probably not a pure coincidence that a new version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is going to be screened on Hulu, a new computer channel which shows movies, that they have chosen this distopian tale for their first venture. I’ve read that top sellers for this week at Amazon (which by the way operates with Trump businesses, so if you want to boycott these you can at least try to find other online stores to buy your books from), as listed in the New York Times Book Review include Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. If you want genuinely to understand what we are living through, what we appear to be watching happening at its final visible phase (it’s been mostly stealth or only seen in local instances for some 40 years) — the setting up of a dictatorship, you might do better to read a serious history of the first hundred days or say six months of Hitler’s regime.

I’ve not read It Can’t Happen Here, but have read the others, probably with the mistaken impression in my mind that in fact this is a democracy, people, real individuals in the millions, believe in voting and having their votes properly counted. I have now seen how such a certainly in the mind (I thought) of every American citizen makes it hard truly to believe in the dystopia of your choice. Trollope wrote one: The Fixed Period, taking place on an island that seems coterminous with New Zealand. All people at age 67 are required to “deposit” themselves in an asylum, a year later they will be killed. (His New Zealander, first published in 1972 in an edition by N.John Hall, is a somber analysis of 19th century British political culture as he so lucidly understood it.)

The roll out of destructions by the Republican rump and their ignorant malevolent shamelessly self-centered leader has been and continues to be done piece-meal. He’s putting it together with remarkable ease. His vicious people in the powerful places. Firing the staff just below. Slowly felt contradictory vague executive orders are an attempt to divide people by when they are hard hit – all the while lying. So I have not yet personally felt anything economically critical gone. Just heart. Just. The grief is hard to characterize. This morning I tried Dance Workshop again: they have a new woman, just relentlessly cheerful. Talks about the 45 minutes as a party. I wilt under such treatment.

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Kathryn Schulz

I recommend to my reader Kathryn Schultz’s “Losing Streak,” or When Things Go Missing, in this week’s New Yorker (13, 20 February 2017): she begins with the word loss, which apparently goes back to “Old English” and means “perish;” it was in the 13th century that “lose” meant failing to win; in the 16th century we began to lose our minds (so mental distress, trouble), in the 17th century our hearts. It’s been expanding so now it includes all those hundreds of losses of things we endure over the course of our lives, from “mittens” to money, to beloved people. Now we are feeling our whole future has been stolen from us, robbed by the gerrymandering, politicization of our courts, electoral college, insane campaign against Hillary Clinton; all that we could had in improvement is now reversed and our very republic, safety from all-out war, civil and human and women’s rights about to be lost and in a way that might be irretrievable for decades and more to come. Losing a beloved, losing her father, she talks of death, not of losing friends, which has been part of my losing streak this year.

But in the meantime I’ve met an honest man! My neighbor-friend recommended as a contractor, a German man, semi-retired, and he has offered to do all I want (enclose porch, and make a fully functioning room, paint outside of house cream color, update electricity in house &c&c) for what may come out to be less than the kitchen renovation cost. It seems the demand I have the foundation dug out is a way for builders to make huge sums; the way veterinarians to clean a cat’s teeth want to put them under anesthesia and stick a tube down them (risking their lives) in order to make $500. So after all I’ll have what I’ve longed for for so many years. Too bad Jim is not here now. I’ve no one to take pleasure in it but myself. Izzy approves but it does not mean for her what it does for me. The neighbors will like this as it will help property values. I will have more space for my books 🙂 and not be ashamed any more.

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I can link the two entertainments I’ve gone to over this week to our present dystopia. I was finally able to remember the name of the woman who ran an inexpensive and sometimes innovative and intelligent repertoire company in DC: Carla Huber; her group, The In-Series, located in DC just off 14th Street, a walk along U Avenue (from the Metro). It was a show made up of songs of Irving Berlin with a narration carried on by the performers situating songs in his life, his career, the particular musical or just song cycle. The songs were chosen to reflect some characterization of a type in one of his musicals, the actors and singers people one knew would put the material across. I conquered driving there and back by car, so learned where it was, and then going there by Metro on Saturday evening. One song prompted long, strong and extended applause: a black woman singer-actress, Krislynn T. Perry, sang “Supper Time,” in a deeply moving way, belting it out. I did not know before this that it’s a song by a black woman whose husband has been lynched. Here’s Ethel Waters performing the song:

I attended the first of our Washington Area Print Group’s lectures for this spring: Deirdre Johnson discussed popular series fiction by two American women: their circumstances and what they produced are typical of the era: Adelaide F. Samuels (1845-1941) and her much more upper class sister-in-law Susan Caldwell Samuels (1846-1931). Middling educated white people with connections to publishers, especially through a father, Emanuel Smith (1816-86, zoologist, botanist, collector) and Susan’s husband, Edward Samuel (1836-1908, naturalist). The stories focus on central characters who live individualist successful lives, attached to churches, looking now and again to their family for help. Although strongly teleological, the titles tell an occasional tale of lives stranded and broken (Adrift in the World). Susan and Edward’s divorce led her to concentrate on how the power a husband has can inflict cruelty and failure on those in his charge. Adelaide had come from much poorer people and when she was widowed, with one son, she listed herself as a “writer” and attempted to live off her earnings. Her stories are less moral than Susan’s. But (what the lecturer didn’t say) all these stories are a depiction of a large (taken as a whole) ceaselessly on the move culture treating itself as ever so moral. We got to talking as a group about children’s literature, how it’s changed in the last half-century, and how in contrast to American, British books for children were a melange of fantasy and realism (e.g., The Borrowers). What American children were give was imagined communities. British children were offered an escape from local reality.

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Robert Southey’s desk in Greta Hall as drawn/painted by Caroline Bowles Southey: it’s the world as seen from her husband’s desk; he had the biggest best room in the house; not entirely unfairly as he supported himself, his nuclear family and Coleridge’s, as well as women and children attached to other romantic and dispossessed poets and writers when needed

On Trollope19thCStudies we are into Wordsworth’s Prelude and I’m reading Kenneth Johnston’s excellent The Hidden Wordsworth (it’s really a history-biography of the realities of intimate oppression in the later 18th and early 19th century in Cumberland), and I’m trying to accompany it with reading a fine woman poet’s autobiographical poem, much less well-known, Caroline Bowles Southey: The Birthday: A Life in Verse. I hope by the time we finish I can wrote my first foremother poet blog in a long time. For now, in case you’ve never heard of her (talk about the enemies of promise), here’s a brief literary biography by me:

Caroline Bowles’s years were 1786-1854 so she crosses the 18th and 19th century eras. She was born to people with money but as when her parents died her guardian absconded with the money that was to support her, she grew up very poor. She was educated (she was a genteel hanger-on in a big family and I imagine might have loved Jane Eyre and identified readily with Lucy Morris in Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds or Kirsten in Oliphant’s wonderful novel of that name). She published other books of poetry; The Birthday was originally compared with Cowper’s Task. She does write in the poetic diction of Cowper. Wordsworth’s greatness is based on his original use of a natural spoken English not seen before. At the time Wordsworth’s Prelude was hardly known. Robert Southey met, introduced her to Wordsworth, and they collaborated on a poem called Robin Hood. It never saw the light (was not completed). When Southey’s wife died, Southey married Bowles, but he was very ill by that time and his illness blighted her later life. She received a crown pension in 1854. Unhappily too she has been blamed for marrying him, blamed for somehow getting between his wife and him (she didn’t) and then her own work seen as super-influenced by him — which it wasn’t.

There’s a wonderful essay on Bowles Southey in Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, edd. Harriet Linking and Stephen Behrendt: Kathleen Hickok, ”’Burst are the Prison Bars: Caroline Bowles Southey and the Vicissitudes of Poetic Reputation,” pp. 192-213. There has been an edition of Caroline Bowles Southey’s poetry and a biography by Virginia Blain:, Caroline Bowles Southey, 1786-1854: the Making of a Woman Writer .

“The Birthday” is a longish blank verse poem telling of the growth and development of a poet’s mind through retelling her story. It’s called “The Birthday” because it’s imagined that she begins to write it on her birthday one year. “The Birthday” gives us a woman’s version of Wordsworth’s Prelude. It’s shameful “The Birthday” is not better known. Unlike Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh as it hasn’t got a melodramatic story at its center, but a real one. In the excerpt I sent the poet goes to a filthy shop in London where she meets a laboring man who loves to read and has aspirations to write. He can’t. He can’t begin to get the books he needs (shades of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) and hasn’t got any time to himself at all. He must work from early morning to late at night. Wordsworth refers to poor people but does not give them reality; in her Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning gives us this melodramatic story of the seamstress in love who has a baby out of wedlock and (in the poem) deserved to be dropped. Not Caroline’s heroine, herself.

To the reading and papers I’m working on (described in previous diary entries), tonight I begin the second of my chosen books for the course I hope to teach at the OLLI at Mason, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (short-listed), a kind of distilled Cathy Come Home, starting late March. I’m now listening to Nadia May read aloud Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out: it focuses on the coming into maturity of a super-sheltered, minimally educated intelligent young woman, Rachel Vinrace. Much water imagery. This from The London Scene which I read with someone on Wwtta last week:

A group of sketches, all at most 5-7 pages or so; like much of Woolf’s work, it’s a posthumous publication carefully staggered/staged and packaged by Leonard. I have separate thinnish books of non-fiction by her and for the first time I understand how they came to be and why they are so heterogeneous. This is a late book, first published in 1975, put together by Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell, niece and brother-in-law, published nominally by Hogarth Press but really a small press hired and in a limited edition. These feel bright, seemingly cheerful excursions — the sort of thing one sees in a magazine. I say seeming because the undercurrent leads us to her The Waves. Time is doing its work across the centuries and in single hours, days, weeks, years, all is going to rot or was once (so relics, remnants)

What strikes me as I’ve finished The Waves, and begun The Voyage Out, how water (as in Shakespeare) is central to Woolf, waterways of the world, oceans, rivers, streams. While the sun controls the seeming 24 hour structure of the Waves, the imagery is watery or about stream, life as ooze. Orlando crosses time as in a reverie: Eva Figes’s greatest novella is The Seven Ages of Women. Here we have a eye going through the river recording different phase sof English history by different classes at different times – in 8 pages the eye bypasses very different ships and boats, from Liner and streamers with crowds of ordinary people on the shore, to a dingy warehouse area (very Dickensian), to left over village, with a desolate pub (note desolation), church, a cottage or house gone to ruin, trees, bells once rung here. Then barges, rubbish and Indian, next to the Tower of London, commerce, the city, factories with chimnies. On we go to indefatible cranes unloading and loading according to exquisitely understood plans by mazes of peple. (Le Carre’s Night Manager shows all this replaced by these intensely dull boring containers and very few people employed.) I have read the ships which carry these containers can be dangerous for passengers if not enough of them. Jenny Diski traveled on one in one of her books. Then the beautiful things packed, the oddities, the jewels, sports of nature – Woolf imagines all this. Now we realize if we didn’t before this is a kind dream. Then the wine-vaults: Cask after cask. Customs officers. No smuggling here: stamped out in the mid-19th century by England’s first determined army of police effort.

The phrase “use produces beauty as a bye-product” could sum up all Jane Austen on the picturesque … Then words have been invented out of all we see.I don’t understand a couple of them, nor understand why flogging is there but that sailors were once flogged to get them to do this work, flogged if they mutinied and disobeyed. (Will Trump bring flogging back; there is nothing he can do which bothers his followers or the Republicans. I am waiting for him to beat the hell out of his wife, and the tweet: “I lost it – my temper.” ) Last: all we see is the result of us, of our bodies. All the things and animals that made these products were created and used by us – Australian sheep say. And this rocking rhythm and final peroration. L’ecriture femme with the full stamp of Virginia Woolf

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From my window where I sit most of the time there has hardly been any snow: very summery days, so here to remind us of winter: Pytor Konchalovsky’s Poet’s Window (1875-1956)

I handed in a proposal for teaching at OLLI at Mason for this coming summer (how relentless is time and it’s been just about accepted:

Romancing 18th century historical fiction

Our topic will be the nature of recent post-modern post-colonial historical fiction as well as how as a genre historical romance differs from historical fiction, and what happens when the two subgenres mix. We’ll read as examples the older traditional The King’s General by Daphne DuMaurier (1946) against the recent innovative The Volcano Lover (1992) by Susan Sontag. Bringing in as part of the discussion, other popular novels set in the 18th century (from Poldark to Outlander) and 18th century historical films (from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon to Scola’s That Night in Varennes), we’ll explore these questions: How do such books use documents and relics (e.g. houses and paintings) from an era; landscape then and now, history, biography, life-writing; biographical fiction and fantasy, to reach and recreate the irretrievable, the unknowable past, to persuade us to imagine we are in the past as presences with the author. Why do we want to do this? Why is it important for the text or film to be authentic and yet familiar? For us to bond with the characters? And be fascinated by their era?

I end on yet another woman poet-writer, 19th century, American: Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919). In Cox’s case what’s telling is she was very popular, and part of the 19th century progressive or populist socialist movement (Bernie Sanders is a rare unashamed modern representative), which has been crushed since the advent of the FBI and ceaseless repression from the 1950s on.

Protest

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

I just thought that I’ve never focused on Scarlett Johansson’s eloquent speech at the Women’s March, on January 21st:

It is still hard and brave for most women to speak before a huge audience, and she’s telling intimate realities of her life. Elizabeth Robins’s The convert is about how hard it was for the first suffragettes to talk before a crowd. It is harder yet to be sincere.

Miss Drake

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A recent photo of the woman who should right now be our president and is not — and a gov’t is being set up in the courts and elsewhere which endangers us all in every way

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d start this week’s diary with a couple of incidents that seemed more significant than my having seen a brilliant production of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette at a rerun of the HD screening at movie-theaters, and heard two (to some extent) informative lectures on another opera, Carl Maria Von Weber’s Magic Marksman (English for Der Freischutz) about to be staged at George Mason University this Saturday evening, which I’m not yet sure I’ll go to. It was an slightly dramatic occurrence that helps explains why Hillary Clinton lost the electoral college, why it seemed so acceptable to excoriate her in public hearings repeatedly (and “lock her up” is still a rallying cry for Trump’s “base” — a scary bunch they have become) and accuse her of doing things called crimes which are in fact everyday business in top gov’t executives’ lives: Trump and his gang use private email servers — meanwhile she was not allowed to use a reasonable excuse that it is common, especially among those not so good at computer programs. Another example, commonplace, of what Rebecca Solnit wrote about so brilliantly last week in the LRB. In the case of Romeo and Juliette, the actress-singer was put into an outfit near falling off her; for the Weber opera, a member of the Virginia Opera Company made a mishmash of perhaps great art.

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Susan Herbert’s ballerina

I still go to a gym (in the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center) two mornings a week (maybe I should go three) where I take an hour long strengthening class. As with so many of these classes I teach or go to everywhere (not the individual lectures at the Smithsonian though) the ratio is 5 to 6 women for every man on days when there are a number of men. Some days there are few men (they are much less joiners of institutionally-formed groups). I’ve noticed (and thought to myself does the instructor knows she is doing this?) she calls on men all the time to count, to do attendance, she kibbitzes with them, she consults with them in front of the class as authorities. The other day I thought she was flirting. She is 60 and in good physical health, a grandmother as she likes to present herself, living alone with dogs, gardening. She does sometimes address women and there I’ve noticed she has the curious social impulse to talk to women I recognize as alpha types, respected, sometime previously in their life, asking them how they are doing. So maybe the calling on men was not a totally aware act.

But this Monday the man who counts as we exercise and another favorite male who sometimes replaces him were not there. She seemed to ask someone to count as we exercised. She keeps up a patter of talk and she watches to see if people are okay (the average age is 55-65 and older). So I started. I felt a curious frisson. So I changed to French numbers for two sets and that seemed to somehow break tension but then I returned to English (as I had no intention of showing off if it would be seen this way). Then — and this is what I want to communicate — between sets one woman near me quickly came over to me and said how strange to hear a female voice. Yes,she said that and did not look glad. Another said I was not quite carrying across the room. So I spoke louder. And finally one or other of the women half joined to count as if one woman could not do this alone, as ifshe should not.

In other words, they knew and approved of her behavior to men.

Today I realized had I any doubt, she knows it too. When we finished the first half hour of dance, and it was time to exercise, I was not sure she would like this, not sure it was not pushing myself in to be the counter even though both men were not there again. Clever lady, she encouraged me when she saw me begin. I am doing it differently than the men. They seem to sing out a number only at intervals (five, fourteen, and then the last), rather carelessly as a joke, drawling sometimes, but I did it throughout regularly on a regular beat. She said aloud she liked that and my voice was carrying. I wanted to say I’ve taught for over 33 years and think I know how to project. She then went to the trouble of indicating first she always demonstrate so the second movement is no. 1. Then as I continued, she complimented aloud, and said this was very good. So did someone else — a woman. I’m not her and not strong, so some of my numbers start to wilt or groan as we proceed and there was laughter –congenial as if I was expressing what others felt. She indicated a thank you when this part of the strengthening hour was over.

These two incidents went well beyond making a minority of people in the room comfortable. Not just to the men but for the women a woman having any authority disturbs the group. She complimented me to give me legitimacy to give me legitimacy. I was doing it differently, more plainly and seriously. Not cavalierly as if we were above our exercises, didn’t care about our bodies this way.

Even in such an unimportant powerless kind of assertion, this society is made uncomfortable when an ordinary women is given some kind of authority that is not granted because she is a trained teacher. I know as a teacher at OLLI I find the men raise their hands and tend to dominate the discussion; my unashamed feminist outlook is not liked and when I did Tom Jones with a class I got into contentious altercations with men that women in the class had to interrupt and stop.

Sickening when I think of what this past couple of months would have been — only that a ruthless horrific attempt to impeach Clinton would have begun. Reporters actually asked Trump if he would accept the election if he lost. Would they have asked her? Wisers head might have prevail as gov’t is needed and she not be impeached, and then we’d have had a repeat of the Obama frustrated years, but not lose ground and end in a nuclear war. She was demonized to the point she was likened to him which anyone with brains after a week or more sees is governing as a dictator and looking to turn the US gov’t into a male white supremacist fascist oligarchy for a long time to come. Hillary Clinton would have done nothing like what he’s done to Muslims, she’d be improving our social services, not shutting agencies up, putting idiots and corrupt people at the heads of those he wants destroyed, and planning to eliminate health care and slash social security for millions. Soon he will attack voting rights directly. She was going to try to get rid of Citizens United and fight for a constitutional amendment so that money could no longer carry doing what it’s succeeded in doing over 40 years and we could slowly resume our republic.

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Susan Herbert’s Fidelio

So what shall I say of the HD Met’s Romeo and Juliette? what was remarkable was how everything beyond the central love relationship was carved away from Shakespeare’s play. You were given the minimum story line you needed to have to understand the lover’s desperate situation. the set made a single slab the center which became marketplace, bed, tomb, a place for ghosts to wander.

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Set designer Bartlett Sher

There was a powerful actor-singer for Mercutio (Elliot Madore) a part necessary for the plot-design: he must be killed by the fiercely hateful Tybalt (Diego Silva), and we must have the nurse (Diane Montagu), Friar (Mikhail Petrenko) and at least one parent: the librettist has Juliette’s father. Other than these it was simply a chorus. The major songs and long scenes between Diana Damru and Vittorio Grigolo were not only beautifully, alluring, magnificently sung, but acted. They really were psychologically persuasive. All the actors looked the roles too — dressed as young twenty year olds in outfits redolent of today’s teenagers or people in movies in Renaissance garb. Despite my anxiety-ridden and troubled state of mind I was moved. Is it patriarchal? Not as strongly as the Kenneth Branagh production I saw at the Folger (also HD screened, with Lily James as Juliet) because Damru did not seem as much a victim as James, as a passionate woman choosing her fate: but throughout she wore this nightgown which displayed as much flesh as could fall out of the gown, arms, legs, thighs, breasts, this flowing blonde wig. Was it necessary for her to be on the edge of such exposure from the the middle of the first act on.

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A typical poster

The two lectures on The Magic Marksman were part of a four session course on Opera given by the “community outreach music director of Virginia Opera company, Glenn Winters, and his lectures function as advertisements and explanations (pre-opera lectures so to speak) for the productions the company mounts at Mason. I went because the dates of the composer, Carl Maria Von Weber (1786-1826) and his opera are in the romantic era and looked so interestng. I thought I might learn something about the 18th century. I hesitate to go the opera because while years ago Jim and I saw a marvelous production by this company of Aaron Copeland’s The Tender Land, a deeply thoughtful meditative opera, more recently three productions have been awful: there was a boring Marriage of Figaro and Jim said if you make Marriage of Figaro boring something is wrong. And Winters was excruciatingly condescending; tasteless jokes he thought would go over well (one of them with a semi-racist poster); he seemed determined to reach an audience he set up as stubbornly bored and hostile to this opera by making as many popular vulgar comparisons as he could.

The story is a folk-fairy tale one of a young man who is mocked by his village when he fails to win a shooting contest, and who is tempted by a devil with his sidekick to take some magic bullets, and who with these wins but in doing so cheats and almost causes the death of his beloved Agatha. He has to go before a trial, is judged guilty but is not executed; compassion makes the sentence a year long wait in exile. He can then return and marry the heroine. Mr Winters said music is a follower of style, not an innovator (he made large general assertions over and over), yet the interest of the opera is how it anticipates Wagner, and substitutes the old witty rational stories for a this folk one. Winters retold The Sorrows of Werther in a mocking way, but I could see the character of the sensitive alienated young man is that of this hero.

The transformative forces are from witchcraft and the famous scene set in a “Wolf’s glen” in the forest where our hero and he devil Samiel; and the man who has sold his soul already, Caspar, meet to forge seven magic bullets, the seventh of which (unknown to our hero) will kill the heroine. There is a dead mother’s ghost who comes and warns the hero — and when the clip was played this audience (alas) laughed. I had a hard time asking if he thought the center was gothic because he wanted to liken it to Star Wars and showed a clip of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and the central Flash Gordon sequence of one of the movies as the opera’s equivalent. He did respond when I asked if Weber was influenced by Anne Radcliffe and Mysteries of Udolpho with a yes, and looked at me, curious, but didn’t want to go in this direction. I would have liked to say gothic movies are done today but he was intent on his male action-adventure with stunts super-popular comparisons.

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I did find a staging of the Wolf’s Glen which is reminiscent in an austere way of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest, with one of her male-father villain type stalking along

He himself seemed to think the contemplative tranquil arias of the heroine were exquisitely beautiful but he talked of them as if we his audience would be bored, and want the passionate arias found in Puccini in all operas. Agatha is not sexy, not sensual he repeated over and over. It seems strange to me to try to appeal to an audience by talking to them half-hostilely about how they’ll be bored, seeming to complain and then playing music which is so appealing. At least I thought so. Maybe he did not and only liked the Wagnerian forceful macho magic music of the Wolf’s Glen which he did take a little time out to describe musically.

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To my dismay I discovered most Agathas are dressed ludicrously sexily or they are put into witch outfits (in dark red): here is a rare attempt at some tasteful fidelity

He did mention that Beethoven’s Fidelio is exactly contemporary with this piece and described Fidelio as a flop (not popular, not making money). Fidelio is to me a neoclassic opera moving into austere romance, with serious ethical themes in a story about prisons and liberty: in other words Enlightenment. What was the shame was I could see he might have given such an interesting talk on this opera and yet did not, substituting crap comparisons because he thought these might get the audience to come see this opera. The Magic Marksman was a tremendous hit and has remained a staple of German opera since it was first played. His argument was Max is undergoing an existential crisis, his identity is threatened and the opera teaches him and us to lose yourself in the German world, its community, its rituals. You must be a huntsman and not by cheating.

I do worry that if he had anything to do with this production he’d be so cowardly as to ruin it by downplaying what is best about it, and going for spectacular scenery and special effects so I am still not sure if I should go. For all I know the costumer will have been directed to make an outfit for Agatha as searingly revealing as Damrau’s for Juliette: she is supposed to be all innocence, virtuous, all obedience to family, a coming mother. What he could not stand perhaps is this is an opera for a sensitive romantic person which uses folklore; that its sources include a female gothic which I doubt he will know anything about any more than he really did Goethe’s masterpiece. He opened the lecture by saying there were three kinds of operas goers, papa bears (dedicated, knowledgeable for real), mama bears (casual) and baby bears (hostile and ignorant). This was embarrassing to listen to but note the knowledgeable is the male. He then said for years he was bored by people watching car races and had to learn it’s as legitimate an activity as opera lovers (perhaps they are fantastically mechanically learned). I was waiting for him to try to bring in football but he never did. He was content with the father-son battle in Star Wars.

An opera with a Werther at the center, a sensitive ethical heroine, caught up in the dark forces of the natural and gothic world, becomes a variant on Star Wars …. This is a stupid mishmash of an opera to try to make it appealing. As I write this out (and see what I think) I realize I’m not going. I am glad I have learned there is such an opera and have been able to gain some insights into it by listening against the grain.

But I am losing my thread. A male hegemonic order which intensely sexualizes women was seen in Gounod, and in this man’s drawling discourse was dismissive of anything intellectual, sensitive. And oh yes to be good and valuable it must be popular and make money.

What if we had a body of opera by women? It would tell such different stories.

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An example of one found in Menabilly began DuMaurier’s The King’s General where the heroine is crippled; Rose Tremain’s Restoration focuses on a mental aslyum and the plague in London — women’s historical fiction is a site for disabled characters, filled with grotesquerie

I am deeply engaged in my reading of Austen and the picturesque, in my reading for my coming teaching of a course on Booker Prize winners: I’ve now reread Michael Ondaatje’s masterpiece, The English Patient, Anthony Minghella’s screenplay and watched the movie. I carry on exploring historical fiction and the sources for Sontag’s Volcano Lover: a volume of fascinating essays called Vases and Volcanoes (collectors and wild geological and political forces). I watched the interesting film adaptation of Rose Tremain’s Restoration, have been listening to Gabaldon’s Outlander and browsing in Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General. I’m still reading about Surrealism and women artists (Whitney Chadwick’s book). About these more anon in separate blogs. I’ve much to do to interest me as long as I can stay among my books in my house. But I should not stay in alone altogether. Friends on the Net are not enough. I become desperate, and have panic attacks because of what is happening to the US and may hit Izzy and I hard. I was going to go to a local concert at someone’s home in Fairfax on Sunday, but it is the day of Izzy’s first social club of the year and I must drive her there.

So that’s this week from Lake Woebegone. Where we are really and truly Woebegone.

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Susan Herbert’s mad Edgar from Lear: Tom’s-a-cold

Ellen

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Leonora Carrington (1917-2011): Owls

Peace, where art thou to be found,
Where, in all the spacious round,
May thy footsteps be persued?
Where, may thy calm seats be view’d?
On some Mountain doest thou lie
Securely, near the ambient Skie,
Smiling at the Clouds below,
Where rough Storms, and Tempest grow;
Or in some retired Plain,
Undisturb’d does thou remain.
Whre no angry whirl-winds passe,
Where no streames oppresse the grasse,
High above, or deep below,
Fain I thy retreate wou’d know;
Fain, I thee alone wou’d find
Balm, to my ore’wearied mind …
Anne Finch (1661-1720), “An Enquiry after Peace”

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not written here in nearly a week because I’ve been putting semi-autobiographical blogs on two of my other sites. Since I wanted my report on the massive demonstration in DC and Los Angeles (actually as big as D.C., both half a million people) and many other cities and towns inside the US and beyond (Europe, Asia) to reach more than my modest number of subscribers here, I put it on my Ellen and Jim have a Blog, Two site, where I have well over 300 subscribers, more email people and (unaccountable to me) some 2000 hits for periods of time on my Poldark and other blogs: The Rump versus Wall-to-Wall People: a few thoughts too.

Today I saw another great play relevant to what is happening in the US today: August Wilson’s Fences, the film starring, directed and partly produced by Denzel Washington where Viola Davis was nominated for an Academy Award: I was so distressed by how he treated his wife, and sons, as well as his own anguish, his brother’s disability, felt so vulnerable, and helpless, and then was confronted by the closing peroration justifying the vindictive irrational cruelties of the central male, Troy, on the basis that a man so crushed has the right to behave destructively to others. It was made plain the man was deranged by the way his society’s arrangements kept him from ever achieving anything higher than a driver of a garbage truck. He had had a great talent for baseball but as a black man had been thrown off the team it seemed for being so good at it — and black. He could not bear for his son to try to achieve anything out of jealousy but also in a perverse rational to protect him. Still the speech at the end was not about this, not about racism, but stood up for unqualified patriarchy within the black community for men. I left the movie distraught for the wife who this man had bullied and betrayed by having an affair with another woman and refusing to give it up; having a baby by her (she then conveniently dies). He won’t sign for her son to join a football team; he insists the boy stay with a demeaning job at a supermarket. Yet she justifies him as her God at the end. He was the only person who did and could protect her. But she could not escape him, for the only job she could have gotten was to a lowly paid cleaning woman. I was overcome with emotion.

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Viola Davis as Rose

Then I come home and felt another daily (sometimes it seems hourly) assault from the news — now Trump and his gang accuse those who reported on the protests inaugural day where pepper spray and tear gas were used against peaceful protesters trying to march — and read Rebecca Solnit’s starkly accurate analysis of the ceaseless misogyny behind Hillary Clinton’s inability to take power even with the majority of American voters voting for her. Read it and weep. Two hours ago that the man picked to head the FCC is determined to do away with Net Neutrality. Will I be able to write blogs? reach others?

I just don’t know how to live in fear, perpetually anxious. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I did not realize what a dictatorship the US constitution potentially sets up. I can’t sleep as long as I should — maybe 4 hours at most, and then I will wake with a pain on the right temple, the whole of my right side sore and weak. Should I stop getting and reading the Washington Post daily, and the New York Times on Sunday. I want to support them as they are now becoming rare outlets for accurate news inside the US. I feel I need to know what’s happening. I’ve been reading a book by Whitney Chadwick about surreal art and the women artists involved in the movement and can see how their art is an attempt to express how living in conditions like ours today feels to women.

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Martha Rosler, Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (recalls Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale)

Adrienne Rich, one of the great poets of the later 20th century put it this way in Contradictions: Tracking Poems:

The problem, unstated till now, is how
to live in a damaged body
in a world where pain is meant to be gagged
uncured    ungrieved over    The problem is
to connect, without hysteria, the pain
of any one’s body with the pain of the body’s world
For it is the body’s world
they are trying to destroy for ever
The best world is the body’s world
filled with creatures    filled with dread
misshapen so    yet the best we have
our raft among the abstract worlds
and how I longed to live on this earth
walking her boundaries    never counting the cost

In her powerful memoir, Almost There, Nuala O’Faolain quotes another poem by Rich:

You sleep in a room with bluegreen curtains
posters    a pile of animals on the bed
A woman and a man who love you
and each other    slip the door ajar
you are almost asleep    they crouch in turn
to stroke your hair    you never wake

This happens every night for years
This never happened . . .

What if I told you your home
is this continent of the homeless
of children sold    taken by force
driven from their mothers’ land
killed by their mothers to save from capture
— this continent of changed names and mixed-up
     blood
of languages tabooed
diasporas unrecorded
undocumented refugees
underground railroads    trails of tears
What if I tell you your home
is this planet of warworn children
women and children standing in line or milling
endlessly calling each others’ names
What if I tell you, you are not different
it’s the family albums that lie
— will any of this comfort you
and how should this comfort you?

I’ve been listening to Frances Jeater reading aloud (performing) Virginia Woolf’s great masterpiece of a novel, half prose-poem, The Waves, an attempt to get down the core experience of six lives through inside their minds impinged upon by all their outward experiences, what they read, where travel, some in war. Six begin in young childhood together, move across a lifetime where the turning points of years are represented by italicized sections describing a day from earliest to dawn across the morning to twilight to evening to dark night. To me it is superior to Joyce’s much lauded Ulysses: less self-indulgent, more humble, equally registering three women’s lives as well as men’s: from the central wife, mother, home-maker, Susan, sewing away in some scenes, putting her children to sleep in others (Viola Davis as Rose, the wife, in Fences spends her time cooking as well as sewing, washing, hanging out clothes),

“Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells . . .
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance —
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright; silk against roughness,
putting the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care . . .” (Rich)

to Ginny, independent, lesbian, to Rhoda, terrified from a young age by the abrasive sexuality and competition, aggression she finds inflicted on her. Three males: Bernard, the writer (probably has a lot of Leonard Woolf in him), Neville, super-successful at signing, meeting in government, Louie, the dominating business man. Only Perceval, the old-time hero, gone to India, was thrown off by a horse pushed too far, and died. Inside the minds of people living according to or working against moulds.

This comes from The Waves: “I have lost friends, some by death… others through sheer inability to cross the street.”

Today I lost another friend over a political discussion. I was trying to say the comparisons between Bernie Sanders and Trump as “both populists” by centrist democrats and others are so misleading: two men could not be more unlike in their attitudes. She took great offence, began to accuse me of attacking her in some long ago blog, how dare I speak this way when I was supported by the Pentagon, and so on. How to remain calm? Without Jim I feel so vulnerable. I don’t understand my taxes — they are very complicated and I doubt unless I were to sit and study for 2 weeks I would not get it and if I tried to make them out I’d do it wrong. I was meant to and did live in Viola, Susan, Demelza’s way: as the wife of a loving man, in our case at the time, feeling in charge of his fate. I just don’t know where to find a place for calm, for feeling safe or secure. Each day I expect a blow on me or my daughter.

I fear above all losing this house and my books. This is my nest, my comforts, what I live life through: reading research writing. Others may regard my house as shabby, small, the neighborhood eyesore. My real atttidue is its a splendid solid house, large enough for so many books, comfortably for three and more people, two cats. I watched a cleaning maid come out of another house today: I hired a team too. I hired someone to mow my lawn. I can’t do that at all myself. I am so surprised and lucky and yet withoiut it now after all these years I’d know a personal death, it would be losing Jim all over again, losing my life, existential. Like the elderly woman in The Gabriels. I’m here too.

I just don’t know how to live in this atmosphere, I can’t live this way. Order, stability, social cooperation, courtesy, consideration, kindness, some feeling of safety are a core for me. I shall try to return to Jane Austen’s Emma tomorrow morning, but it is not easy to lose myself in my books any more. I shall now listen to Anne Finch in my blog on the poetry of retreat: how to do it for enough space each day to remain steady.

josephfarringtontheoaktree
Joseph Farrington, The Oak Tree (1785-90)

Fair tree! for thy delightful shade
‘Tis just that some return be made;
Sure some return is due from me
To thy cool shadows, and to thee.
When thou to birds dost shelter give,
Thou music dost from them receive;
If travellers beneath thee stay
Till storms have worn themselves away,
That time in praising thee they spend
And thy protecting pow’r commend.
The shepherd here, from scorching freed,
Tunes to thy dancing leaves his reed;
Whilst his lov’d nymph, in thanks, bestows
Her flow’ry chaplets on thy boughs.
Shall I then only silent be,
And no return be made by me?
No; let this wish upon thee wait,
And still to flourish be thy fate.
To future ages may’st thou stand
Untouch’d by the rash workman’s hand,
Till that large stock of sap is spent,
Which gives thy summer’s ornament;
Till the fierce winds, that vainly strive
To shock thy greatness whilst alive,
Shall on thy lifeless hour attend,
Prevent the axe, and grace thy end;
Their scatter’d strength together call
And to the clouds proclaim thy fall;
Who then their ev’ning dews may spare
When thou no longer art their care,
But shalt, like ancient heroes, burn,
And some bright hearth be made thy urn.

Another:

Kind birde, thy praises I designe,
Thy praises, like thy plumes should shine,
Thy praises, should thy life out Live,
Cou’d I, the fame I wish thee, give.
Thou, my domestick Musick art,
And Dearest Trifle of my heart.
Soft in thy notes, and in thy dress,
Softer, than numbers can Express.
Softer than love, Softer than light
When just escaping from the night;
When first she rises, unaray’d,
And Steals a passage, though the shade.
Softer than aire, or flying Clouds,
Which Phoebus glory, thinly Shrouds.
Gay as the Spring, gay as the flowers,
When lightly strew’d with pearly showers.
Ne’er to the woods shalt thou return,
Nor thy wild freedom, shalt thou mourn.
Thou, to my bosome shalt repaire,
And find a Safer shelter there.
There shalt thou watch, and should I sleep,
My heart, thy charge, Securely keep.
Love, who a Stranger is to me,
Must by his wings, be kin to thee.
So painted o’er, so Seeming Fair,
So soft, his first addresses are;
Thy guard, he ne’er can pass unseen,
Thou, Surely thou hast often been,
Whilst yet a wand’rer in the grove,
A false accomplice, with this Love.
In the same shade, hast thou not sat,
And seen him work some wretches fate?
Hast thou not sooth’d him, when in the wrong,
And grac’d the mischief, with a Song?
Tuneing thy Loud, conspiring voice,
O’re falling Lovers to rejoice?
If soe, thy wicked faults redeem,
In league with me, no truce with him,
Do thou admitt, but warn my heart,
And all his Slye design impart,
Lest to that breast, by Craft he get,
Which has defy’d, and brav’d him yett

These are texts in the manuscripts of Anne Finch at the Folger Shakespeare library; they are not the ones printed in the recent edition which consistently prefers the later often censored and somewhat inferior texts (FWIW)

He left me here among all these books in front of this computer 4 years 3 months and 16 days ago. If he were here, I’d have a better idea how to feel about what’s happening, how to think about it. Can a minority of people force the majority to lose their way of life?

Miss Drake

P.S. Someone just sent me this: How to stay outraged and yet not be torn to pieces, not lose your mind

About 2/3s the way through Hungry, Part One of The Gabriels, the family begin to talk about the election campaign supposedly 8 months before election day, and when they come to talk of Hillary Clinton, and talk of how she is disliked, and women are not keen on her because of what seems to be her privileged background, they make this vague reference to Trump without using his name, too “unthinkable” and “dreadful” to contemplate. Then one character says: he feels “something very bad is just about to happen.” The audience as a group made this sound, not a laugh, but a real groan of what felt like semi-distress. The reference in immediate context is now Inauguration Day …

Dear friends and readers,

During this week seeing Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels has taken enough time from my wide awake hours to write about. I was more moved by Parts 3 (“Women of a Certain Age?”) and 2 (“What did you expect?”) than I’ve been at any movie, play or opera, for a very long time. Ben Brantley of the New York Times, comes closest to doing justice to the whole trilogy and making available what is so tremblingly relevant to us, two days before “a very bad thing is about to happen” (a line from Part 1 (“Hungry,” written and first produced months before Trump gained the nomination of the Republican Party).

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From The Gabriels… Part Three: Women of a Certain Age? (Maryann Plunkett is Mary leaning over the mother, Patricia played by Roberta Maxwell; George, her son is played by Jay O Sanders is comforting his mother who has lost her house; Hannah, his wife to the back, is played by Lynn Hawley; Joyce, Patricia’s daughter round the back (Amy Warren)

Let me begin with Part Three first, Women of a Certain Age, as I began there Saturday afternoon into early evening. Here is a brief synopsis (scroll down).

I loved it. The experience might be regarded as aesthetically old-fashioned, but the realism is done in such quietly rigorous naturalistic ways I’d call the technique innovative: how the talk was delivered, the gestures, the rooting in private realities brought forth indirectly was among the most naturalistic experiences on offer I’ve seen. The directors included Oskar Eustis and Patrick Willingham. It is about previously comfortable white middle class people who have lost out badly. The house owned by the mother, Patricia, is being foreclosed because she fell for a con-artist and went for a reverse mortgage and didn’t understand what this meant; she has been quickly fleeced at an assisted living facility and is now bankrupted by them. Mary, a widow, a doctor by profession, has not kept up her license to practice, as a result of four years of caring for a beloved husband who had Parkinson’s disease, intense grief. We gather over the play that his marriage to Thomas Gabriel, relatively late in life, was her second: she has a daughter from a previous husband (divorce ending it) and her one daughter feels so hostile she tells her mother not only can Mary not count on her for a place to stay however temporarily and to move near, but the daughter wants Mary to stay away from the whole city she lives in (Pittsburgh) or she’ll never even speak to her again. All three plays open with Mary (as the action takes place in what she discovers is nominally her house from her mother-in-law, now foreclosed). The relevance of details is obvious: the foreclosure king is now in charge of one of Trump’s departments of government, Treasury I believe and he was convicted (though had no money to pay or prison term) of foreclosing over thousands illegally to enrich his bank (himself and associates)

Hannah has taken a job as a maid in a hotel working with Hispanic people to try to get some money and keep her son by George (Gabriel), until late years a deeply proud carpenter — in college, which seems their own (however forlorn) hope. What George has had to endure in the last years is the very wealthy no longer think they need to pay him much (when they do pay him). The play has quiet tragedy beyond anguished humor — as the Gabriels are gifted people. Karin, Thomas’s first wife, now teaching play-writing, and come to live with the Gabriels (allowed out of Mary’s kindness) and trying to find a venue for her play on Hillary Clinton, can never tell if she has a date: she shows up for appointments to discover the man wants to exploit her monetarily, to learn about the house Mary has allowed her to rend a room in. The place is the Berkshires where there are many sites of memory, summer culture for the very wealthy. They are hard put to name Trump. At one point someone says what if “he” wins, and Mary replies, well, we’ll just all take a walk to a cliff and jump off.

Among other things, the play puts paid to the notion that it is declining standards of living, a feeling of being left out of globalization and technology led to voting for Trump. This group of people is not super-educated at all. But they are not racist, not bigoted, are mildly feminist (they would be with five women there), not into glamor– the audience for the New Yorker. It’s Edward Albee without the wrenching, Terence Rattigan in American mode.

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Hungry Public Theatre LuEster HUNGRY Written and Directed by Richard Nelson  Featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, and Amy Warren Sets & Costumes  Susan Hilferty Lighting  Jennifer Tipton
From The Gabriels … Play One: Hungry: beyond Joyce (Amy Warren) leaning over on one side; next facing us to the left is Thomas’s first wife (Mary was his second wife), Karin (Meg Gibson) who was once Patricia’s daugher-in-law and Hannah’s sister in law (but divorce cancelled that); and then Hannah (Lynn Hawley), George’s wife so Patricia’s daughter-in-law & Mary’s sister-in-law; then facing Joyce on the other side, we see Mary (Maryann Plunkett), also Patricia’s daughter-in-law

Onto Part One, Hungry: there is this problem if you choose to see the plays separately. And I admit not everyone has the time, stamina, to say nothing (at the Kennedy Center where it’s $23 to park in the garage) of the price to see all three plays (nearly two hours each) in a row. Partly (for me and a woman I sat next to who was so un-entertained that she said she would not go on to see the other two when she had planned to with friends) Nelson is expecting too much of a theater experience, which is unique and cannot be replayed, rewound, fast forwarded.

So now seeing Part One I began to better understand Part Three. Bad events are about to happen in Part one (foreclosure on the mother’s property) I hadn’t understood everything in the third play, and upon seeing the first, much was explained. Even the names of the central characters and how they related as “long-time” family and friends. I now from seeing Hungry know a lot more: who the characters are, their relationships. Now I’d like to re-see Play 3 — which one reviewer whose reviews I trust said is the best. There was a standing ovation for Part 3. But understandably, not so Part 1. It was scene setting and character and situation explication. Since I had seen Part 3 I was more moved by Part 1 (relatively hopeful than people who’d seen none: a woman sitting next to me who said she was disappointed and would not come to see the others. I knew more of what these characters were hiding (Hanna about to go to work the next week as a “maid” in a vast luxurious hotel, the only white cleaning woman. Nelson’s problem is he is expecting too much for a theater goer who has literally to get him or herself there. The experience of The Gabriels (cooking and preparing food, political discussions reading aloud to one another taking 4 hours to develop his story to intense engagement.

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THE GABRIELS: Election Year in the Life of One Family Play Two: WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? September 10 - October 9 Meg Gibson Roberta Maxwell Jat O. Saunders Maryann Plunkett Amy Warren
From The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, Play Two: What did you expect?: George and Hannah the married couple, son and daughter-in-law to Patricia (brother- and sister-in-law to Mary)

Part Two, What did you expect?, the last I saw: I felt unbearably moved tonight (Wednesday) at the close of Part Two. If anything Part 2 is the most moving of the three. Since we are not encouraged to weep, I cannot liken it to Chekhov but the experience is closely analogous.

In Part Two the hard economic conditions under which this group of people are living emerges. What is conveyed is the inexorable lack of any help for the average person from gov’t or any other entity, and how family groups as individuals with no group to belong to (no union comes to mind, but there could be other entities such as I remember in the UK: Friendly Societies for mortgages, Building Societies, school programs), they are fleeced and cheated so fundamentally that they cannot win to security, and in the present gov’t induced “austerity” are condemned to struggle which gets them nowhere. They have lost the family house they are now living in because the mother was preyed upon by mortgage in reverse people — she agreed to give her house away and get payments for it because her social security was so small. She did not understand what she needed to pay and now she has lost the house. She must leave her assisted living because the charges are way too high and she now owes them thousands she cannot pay. The charge is $4500 a month for living in a single room, for meals, and for the individual dinners she had with her son and daughters-in-law. The discussion over this that suddenly breaks out is painful in the extreme to watch because it is the kind of discussion families avoid and allow to come out only in parts.

The one saving that George, the son, and his wife, Hannah have done, has been for the boy’s college and they must use that just to get the mother debt-free; they will have to borrow to pay for the boy’s college. We the audience know he may not get a decent living from this degree. They live in a community where super-rich people come for the summer to their summer homes. George wants to go on a picnic with a rich friend he recently made because they will go on a literary walk, but it emerges he is hoping to be hired to build bookcases for this man all over the man’s house. The man’s wife has three times since buying the house renovated the walls. We have seen how easy it is to cheat him of his pay. Hanna says the man agreed to it because he’s hoping to hire George to carry things for him (be a handyman-drudge). She has been asked to provide the picnic because George told these people she caters sometimes, but it was put as a favor, and she is not to be paid. We see the whole family preparing this picnic in What Did You Expect?

It’s just endless. The election as backdrop is a show, there is no sense that this Hillary or Bill who come round will do anything in gov’t for them. Nelson seems to know that Trump will win. We see a hollow government order. There are hidden powers these people don’t come near that are keeping them this way. They live in a vacuum. These powerful people are what is putting Trump (or Hillary) in power and it is they who call the shots. Nothing will be done to help these people, and they sink more and more. George we are told is not well but does not go to the doctor. He is not an aggressive man and during the second play we see how easy it is for a woman to buy a precious piano for much less than she should pay. It’s an upright no prestige, has these scratches (just what the Toyota store used to give me much less money for the car I traded in); it breaks his heart to lose the piano and he gets so much less for it than he should. He is a kind good-hearted man. I thought to myself that now that Trump won he will take power not because the constitution is being obeyed: when Obama wa sin power the constitution was not obeyed over senate appointments and they congress stopped him from passing everything they could. Becaus of Citizens United (put in place by the courts and corporations who brought the case) huge sums have put Republicans in power in all states and in congress. Now these powers will back whatever Trump does to the to the hilt now no matter what he does or says as long as he gets rid of the New Deal, and runs a gov’t by billionaires for millionaires.

That is the larger political reality this play slowly conveys. Not through speeches and a strong allegorical mirroring situation but in bits and pieces through real talk. In this talk we see a group of people who are good to one another and supportive: these characters are luckier than many. They have known griefs. Thomas whom Mary so loved and who was her meaning and mainstay for the last ten years did divorce Karin who now has come to live with Mary. In the first act Karin comes for a visit to commemorate Thomas’s death (Mary’s birthday), by the second she is renting Thomas’s old office to live in; by the third she has to find herself a new place she can afford. Not easy. She is alone, and at first Patricia and Hannah are not sure Mary should even let Karin stay the night (which is how she begins to insinuate herself into the family group). Mary’s one daughter will have nothing to do with her and it breaks her heart. Joyce, the third child of Patricia’s family now grown has intense “issues” with her mother who favored her two sons, George and Thomas, heavily. She has come each time because of an important occasion: Mary’s birthday where they commemorated Thomas; the mother moving out of assisted living. She is an assistant dress designer and like George services the super-rich. Hanna clearly loves George for him, what he is. The desperation is Chekhovian, the delicacy of the talk that moves into anguish only at heights. It seems that both George and Joyce resented Thomas’s success and his search for an “identity,” which seems to have meant really him trying to break away from this group and be a successful playwright, which he didn’t manage.

Something is omitted: like other middle class vehicles which play to white audiences (all three audiences were mostly white people): the systemic racism that fuels the refusal of the average person to identify with social programs and want to end them. This is a group of people seemingly not bigoted, the only time ethnicity comes up is when Hannah says in play three she will be the only white woman on the staff. Rhinebeck where they live is apparently heavily white in the native as well as the summering rich groups of people. It does show that immiseration does not have to lead to voting for Trump. These people are for Hillary Clinton because they are not racist; they never bring up immigrants either. This is probably improbable. Never to mention these as issues. Only Bill Clinton’s sex life, the bill that let the bank loose on people. Never as women to mention the end of welfare — since they are women who might need to go to unemployment offices. So there’s the flaw if made acceptable by its placement.

There is self-reflexive talk by the playwright too as when Karin is going over Thomas’s plays to see if anything can be sold. Talk about playwriting, what people go to plays to see. Nelson justifies his technique and goals in some of this. When George is pretending the sole reason he is going on the picnic, he goes on with great warmth over Hawthorne, Melville and Emerson and other American writers who lived in the area once upon a time. They read from a novel at one point (a graphic charged description of a scene of sexual intercourse from a woman’s point of view). And how could it not be implicitly truly feminist with five women on stage, and it’s deeply humane social vision. As with Austen’s Emma, the play has other invisible presences or characters so intensely talked about they are there: Thomas, the dead man; Paul, George and Hannah’s son, someone George gives a piano lesson to, the cruel women who drives down the price of the piano and lies she has another she might buy, and plays games like going to leave; the two dates that Karin goes out on, only to return quickly as they wanted only to exploit her (she is too old to attract a man); others they describe in their stories.

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whatdidyouexpect
Women of a Certain Age as title fits this scene: going round the table left to right: animated Joyce, single (never married); Mary, widowed (previously married with one estranged daughter); Hannah, married but now must work as a maid in a hotel; Karin divorced and no where to go, a stray (in patriarchal arrangements that’s what women of a certain age frequently become … )

So I came near tears at the end of the third play, and my last night at the end of the second didn’t dare speak or look at anyone or I would have burst into crying. Each play opened and closed with Mary, and her grief and loss. Here I sit week after week writing what I do? why? it’s the only way I know how to communicate with people.

So many thousands years in solitary confinement in the US. The extreme symbol. It was the play’s human dimension that hit me hard. The acting is so persuasively real and not at all overdone. What a relief. I did recognize people in the audience from Part 1, there for Part 2, and a couple from Part 3 on both nights. So I was not mesmerized alone.

I get so involved with literature that allows me to be with others and talk to others (or write) because (from Virginia Woolf on novels) “they are about people, they excite in us [me] feelings that people excite in real life.” This play attaches itself to an idea of what life is about, what makes it valuable, beyond community people need self-esteem, they need to be comfortable and secure, they need to feel good about themselves, need to value their activities and think of them as worth while. The Gabriels are a form of angels because they do want the finer values, not sheer material wealth, though they need some of that too. It’s about America’s spiritual condition which is being torn down and torn apart. In my solitary life I am representative of a lot of people. Karen in the play is closest to me but I recognized myself in all the women and recognized men I’ve known in George and Thomas (including Jim, in his last years an adjunct dressing down the way George does).

As I looked at the audience last night I saw displeased faces. People there did not like what they were shown. All three times the audience auditorium was about half full at best. There was a standing ovation at the end of the third part, but only applause (and standing has become a new standard) at the end of the second. I almost did not stand at the end of the second, but I so respected these actors for conveying such a depth of intelligent understanding and Maryann Plunkett for what it is to be a widow, containing in herself such stifled emotion and loneliness even amid these family members that I stood. I caught the eye of one of the actresses, Lynn Hawley who played Hannah and saw she was grateful to me. My standing made her feel better. Another woman had stood up too.

E. M.

treeputout
January 2nd, 2017

… as to be hurt is petty, and to be hard
Stupidity; as the economists raise
Bafflement to a boast …
… the flat patience of England is a gaze
Over the drop …
There is not much else that we can praise.
— Wm Empson, from Courage Means Running (not!)

Dear friends and readers,

Given that I live in a country where those who have the power to stop this a fascist regime from taking over its central gov’t, at its headed a narcissistic sociopathic man whose public positions veer like some weathercock, it’s hard to look forward to kind any of certainty in the future, much less count on or plan for a good one. I’ve spent the time since I last wrote a diary entry (nearly two weeks ago) in the usual ways of reading, writing, watching movies at home, punctuated by going to the gym, or shopping, two times out to lunch, once with a real friend. It’s been cold, rained, snowed.

(i)
As ghosts obscurely trail the past
She is posthumous
She haunts the future.

(ii)
Late in the night
The lit house she comes back to
Is empty, echoing
— “Widow,” Barbara Everett

What can I share? It’s that time that people assess where they’re at, and so here are a few areas of my continuing life I’ve thought about a bit.

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blogging-cat
A blogging cat …

Blogging itself.

The nature of blogging has changed over the 15 years or so since I began blogging and what’s called the blogosphere emerged. I find I blog less because more is expected: blogs like mine (literary, semi-political, life-writing) could be seen as a form of privately-run mostly unpaid journalism, especially if you write about books where your reader is probably literate and wants good information and insight. I try for four a week (one on each of my four blogs), and know I invent projects (women artists is my latest series)-— the way other bloggers join in web-ring marathons: a group of people who’ve met somehow or other all read but more importantly write about a specific author or books published in a specific year around a certain date; or they agree to blog about this kind of movie or by this director in for a given month. Then they comment on another’s blogs, link into one another’s blogs. These are planned and controlled performances where a social world you belong to is presented.

I’m not bored with what I do. I pick projects that I love to develop: read about, write about as I learn what I’m thinking, enrich my experience by writing, it’s almost as if I didn’t have the experience or make it real to myself unless I write. But it’s hard to balance this with say my teaching, or doing papers for conferences, or going out to do something. There is a conflict: I would read more if I wrote less, watch another movie. I find I also respond to the audience: so if a particular topic gets more clicks I develop it more: so for example, my Poldark blogs are responsible on some days for as much as 3000 clicks (hits!) — though I don’t read the books or watch the two mini-series to get an audience. I love them: last night I was much moved by the death of one of the heroes in Warleggan and its presentation in the new Poldark as well as Debbie Horsfield’s script.

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herbertshrew-jph
Susan Herbert’s Taming of the Shrew — the key to all of these is they re-contextualize by replacing people with cats, and are done with a slightly parodic feel

Teaching and offering readings of books and films

Since we already are suffering from a surfeit of false news-stories and popular entertainment which is becoming more frankly racist, sexist, intolerant pro-violence every day another topic to think about at this point for me is teaching. I choose to carry on teaching, if not quite for free, for very small sums. In a way writing blogs on books and films and the kinds of topics I chose (or postings to listservs and face-book) are forms of teaching, sharing insights and knowledge. I teach to get out and write to be part of a social world, but if I didn’t think these activities valuable in some way or other I would stop.

What should one do in such eras as a teacher? or writer? I re-watched John Berger’s famous four-part 1970s mini-series Ways of Seeing (he died recently) the other night and remind us all of what he said. (You can find and watch all four on YouTube.) I found I had forgotten or never realized some aspects of it.

I did not realize how quietly feminist it was. I say quietly because at no point is Berger overt about feminism, never goes near any of the terms associated. The first half hour seems t be the most famous: like people starting a book. Here he argues how the context of a work enforces how we see it, how hard it is to ignore this: it’s not just an imaginative understanding of the time of the work (he hardly goes into this) but how the era the person lives in, where they see it, how it is framed there (as a precious object in a museum), where it’s discussed, if reproduced what surrounds the image in the book. He has a funny imitation of the usual hushed tones within which the pictures are discussed. They are fetishes because sold for such huge sums. This contextualization and re-contextualization is so important that one must stop and consider it a bit.

Berger teaches us why a text that in itself is an enlightened and good one (teaching say good values or meaning) can in a different context, different era, different audience, have a pernicious effect. That’s what happened to the class I tried to teach Huckleberry Finn to. No matter what I said, the way they saw it was racist: several of the whites triumphing, the black kids feeling pain and (the one who gave a talk) anguish.

Trump is said to have read All Quiet on the Western Front (he seems to be a functional illiterate). I went back to it: it is characterized by very easy language, simple sentences, a very easy reading book, one you could give to junior high school students (12 and up). I remember teaching it — like HF fruitlessly to even most in a sophomore level general education literature class, though not with the same evil effect. When we came to the end of AQWF, a number of the students raised their hands (a number) and said how disappointed, dismayed, angered (!) they felt at the hero dying — I added so meaninglessly, hopelessly. Today I’ll add the same is true of the death of Francis Poldark in Graham’s Warleggan which I watched last night. I tried to tell them the book is anti-war, anti-heroism, that it fits the meaning; if I wrote that in huge letters and talked with examples till i was blue in the face it would not matter. Many in the class had actually read it; it was seen as a man’s book. But they had read the book in the context of 2006, many of them having fought or having relatives who fought in of our colonialist wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. It must be for them something
that was pro-war and pro-fighting people. They were able to read it literally but not able to understand what was meant in 1929.

What they objected to (even vociferously was not having an ending where the hero was rewarded. Again it was useless to argue a book can have ambiguous endings. I have been told most in American audiences do not accept ambiguous endings and British movies are changed to have them or the larger numbers in US audiences object, won’t go. I remembered how Hitler hated the book, burned it, and to take revenge on the author had his sister beheaded (literally did this).

As I stopped teaching ghost stories after I realized so many in the class believed in ghosts and I was reinforcing atavistic ideas, never assigned HF again, so after that I knew it was useless to assign All Quiet on the Western Front to class of American college students of average intelligence. I brought up Graham because I discovered that for reasons I don’t quite understand they did respond in the way intended to Ross Poldark (the novel); hence I assigned it again and again. Also Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Why they understood this one or were capable of understanding (empathizing with) Bolt’s play as intended by the author I never figured out.

Re-contextualization is inescapable Berger says. Learned books surround pictures with abstract discussions that deflect the reader’s attention from the content of the pictures and what the viewer might intuitively see accurately if left out unintimidated. Berger says it is also the whole context in which the work of art is experienced, the photograph, the sounds. Many people don’t read literary criticism because it asserts things about texts they can’t see themselves and in classrooms there are students who don’t believe or don’t like when teachers present readings of books — it’s elitist. They can’t see what you are saying or react negatively from their culture.

I know my attitude is not common in the academy. I have no faith I’ve made any difference whatsoever (like Leonard Woolf) and when I see a person in pain in classroom (as in the HF experience) I know in my gut I’ve done wrong to that person. I can see that. As in the movie adapted from LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener, the heroine (tortured, raped, murdered for her pains) says we can do good for that one person if we act like our brother’s keeper and the hell with the law so I can refrain from doing harm. Maybe there were people in the classroom who learned from reading AQWF but no one said. It was me talking and I won’t do it again. It was feeding the beast. One can find books where there is no harm done and something good in it. I mentioned two, another was Jane Goodall’s books on chimps.

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Edouard Manet, Dejeuner sur l’herbe

For the second segment Berger demonstrates and reiterates over and over how women are made to see themselves first and foremost as they assume (from this culture) how others see them which turns out to mean how men see them, and then a particular man. Their destiny is defined by how they look. The woman before the mirror is the truest way women see themselves. He shows so many pictures of women, how they do dominate advertising, how attention-grabbing they are made. Men he says are not self-conscious about their looks in the same way at all: they see themselves more generally in society as free agents. Naked women; he goes over Kenneth Clarke’s famous book filled with beautiful reproductions of naked women in European art where he said he was looking at nudes, not naked woman. The difference seems to be these are fine art, not coarse salacious calendars and presented as goddesses or Biblical figures in Bibles or high culture stories.

After this second half hour the third and fourth can be seen to have these images of women throughout, which I would not usually notice. He has made the point and now it lingers. And endlessly for four half hours the The pictures of women with unreal bodies (only gotten for a few short years after dieting, exercise, efforts of all sorts) to resemble a white European norm of sexual objectification (recently intense thinness is associated with youth) or nurturing women for strong agressive men.

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Herbert’s Lady Anne (seduced, enthralled, abused, murdered by Richard III)

The third and fourth had a series of themes: how pictures are still and silent. He reads aloud typical academic style literary criticism which ignores the relationship of the author’s life at the time to the picture, and is general and abstract and often erases what people are seeing in the content. He has a group of youngsters and then women simply give their uneducated responses – in one we are show the famous Manet where men fully dressed sit on a blanket with a naked woman (Lunch on the Grass). One woman frankly says how she hates the Manet. It’s mortifying. This lead to the most refreshing discussion of his famous cool portrait of Olympia (a prostitute) I’ve ever heard. The last ten minutes allow us to see (or he interprets for us — for he’s not neutral nor can anyone be) how painting and today most photography are about presenting wealth, most often people but sometimes landscapes and rooms and the point is see all the objects this person has and what they mean symbolically about the person’s prestige, the room and landscape as a symbol of wealth, power, control.

The last segment ends on advertising and shows modern ads all around us are utterly ideological, teaching us that we will be happy if we have all these wonderful things. The thing sold often has nothing to do with the image attached to it for real.

Nowadays when I go to museums I am so alive to the third perspective — all this is the patron showing off — I am sickened and need to go to rooms of paintings of landscapes or mythical figures or simply pictures which don’t do this, but I equally find deeply distasteful deliberate ugliness, over the top preaching (so that I need to read the card next to the object to understand why it’s there), grotesqueries. If our large and sometimes local social political and economic world is vile, and so the psychological one underneath this, presenting vileness doesn’t help. This does come out in the fourth half hour of series where he juxtaposes photographs of the powerful, of displays of luxurious food,dresses and so on with photographs of refugees and the poor, miserable, and imprisoned and tortured. These latter are not vile and grotesque; they are simply photographs.

What Berger does enable, encourage me to do (paradoxically) is carry on. His idea is to encourage people on their own to discover what they think and feel by becoming aware of how they are manipulated. The idea is to help them free themselves to feel and think. To show also how to go about conventional close reading. The task though thorny and often vexed can do a little good if genuinely throughout with the underlying notion of do no harm. So my last are trying to enact something of what Berger encourages.

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Two films: the HD Screening of Nabucco and Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing (on DVD)

Izzy and I went on that Saturday (January 7th) and left at the first intermission. I don’t say it wasn’t interesting — the opera is one of these museum pieces, and I felt watching it, How different from most previous operas, the music was different, and whole sense of some natonalistic seriousness. We probably listened to one of the best or famous arias. A soprano (Liudmyla Monastyrska) who has sung Santuzza (Cavaliera Rusticana) was Abigaile (she thought herself Nabucco’s daughter but has learned she is a slave) was powerful: seething, angry, and singing away. There was a man who was priest of some sort, Ismaele (Russell Thomas) with an aria like the one in Magic Flute — base voice. Very Verdi though. I noticed the parallel with Mozart’s Magic Flute: the women aria singers are all seething, spiteful, erotic, powerful; the men singing low base music, also powerful aria singers are singing of reason, enlightenment, and are commendable. The gender faultline never ceases.

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I couldn’t stand the story matter: wikipedia quoted some contemporary critics who were candid enough to express loathing of its material: rage, bloodshed, murder. If in modern context (a la John Berger) it could be seen or felt as pro-Israel, all it did was make me remember a video online I saw briefly of a Palestinian man lying on the ground and then a Israeli officer comes over and shoots him point-blank in the head; a towel is fetched to cover the eye-sore, and when the officer is not indicted even a judge protests some Trump-tweeter in training tweets how the judge should be cut up into pieces and fed to dogs. There are Bible stories where this happens. Izzy said it was Christian opera because we are to rejoice at conversions. The set an imitation of the barbaric — and seemed thus to connect to our present political era.

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Domingo sang the part of the aging Nabucco who has declared himself a God and is a murderous tyrant. He is now too old; his voice didn’t carry; he just doesn’t have the strength. I felt sad to remember another video (a feature in one of these HD operas where a young “Jimmy” Levine playing a piano and a young Placido singing next to him. Now we saw Levine already set up in that chair of his looking so weak. But I often do think such operas are better in concert form.

I felt sorry for Eric Owens who was host and trying so hard to be unnaturally ebullient and just going on about how ecstatic he found the whole thing; I know he’s paid very well so I must not be embarrassed for him. He repeated what one scholar has said is not true: that the audience was so deeply moved by an aria about freeing Israelis as a metaphor for themselves (“Va pensiero”), according to this scholar, it was another aria altogether, a hymn thanking God (for what I don’t know) TMI

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Susan Herbert’s Shakespearean Cats — this is too charming not to offer an enlargement

I had brought in the New Year in typical evening fashion. A kind friend had sent me a DVD of the Kenneth Branagh film of Much Ado About Nothing. As a film or interpretation of the play it didn’t work: he did all he could to eliminate the Hero-Claudio plot, downplay it, and what we were left with was a brilliant performance by him and especially good Emma Thompson of Beatrice and Benedict but it was not rooted in anything, they were deeply emotional in fact, more than these characters usually are. But all around all the actors were grinning for nearly 20 hours, hectic dances, silly pictures of Italian rural life as a happy place. Early on it seems Branagh liked to have a whole concept within which he would pour Shakespeare …

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My daughter, Isobel, with whom I am fortunate to live

The TLS carries on

I sometimes think that if I had to give up all my subscriptions and just keep one, it would be the Times Literary Supplement. When Murdock first took over, it took a bad dive: became 1/4 its size, the reviews began to be so reactionary that you could no longer trust the information. About three years ago, it changed back: never as long, but the reviews suddenly improved, went back to the previous mostly disinterested or at least seeming neutral point of view (literary) that had dominated. Recently the editor has begun to include more political reviews (with the excuse books on politics) but by no means do they overwhelm the issues. It’s not as good as being in London, but I do learn what has been on in all sorts of venues with a review that gives me a real sense of it. Where else can you learn the latest in academic politics about classics? Their bloggers are very good (include Mary Beard).

Last month they had a fine review of poetry published in pamphlets and by small presses: “Safe from Devaluation” by Paul Batchelor, two pages of four columns each: 12 books covered and much apt quotation. That was followed up by a “Seven Poems” by Barbara Everett. I know I must not quote the whole set but only a selection in good critic’s fashion. She was capturing the experiences of a day: who the poet might see (“Workmen”), what she might experience (“Storm”), a dog and his or her owner hard-put but happy because together). Here are three (the fourth is my preface): the first a tragic story, austerely told; the second reminds me of how I am now so close to my cats, we are one another’s company on and off all day, in communication, the boy daring now, he persists in keeping both Izzy and my doors open; the last how I feel when I come out in the morning to pick up my copy of the Washington Post:

Partners

Seeking answers, she
Plunged, and finding the water
Lethally cold, drowned.

Wiser, luckier,
He skated on thin ice, always
Upright, in motion

Alzheimer’s

(i)
He walked the streets by
Night, and when retrieved, asked the
Way back to Warsaw

(ii)
The loved dog saw no
Difference, or at least chose
Not to speak of it.

Snails

The world was sometimes
So empty the slow grace of
Snails stealing breadcrumbs

From the paving-stones
Outside in early morning
Was almost welcome

To conclude:

I have decided to hold off on enclosing my porch. Given the attitude of those in power to federal workers (Izzy’s job), to people on social security and medicare (me), the looting of the US treasury for corporations that is about to begin (justified as giving them tax breaks to hire people with no guarantee they will), it’s foolhardy. I have longed to do this for years. The porch floor is cement; it becomes filthy easily; the screens have again torn. Had Jim lived, even with my mother’s money, he might have said this is unnecessary: you don’t need the extra space for living. I know if I sold the house it would still be a “tear-down,” so I’d gain nothing there. I guess this was not in the card for the likes of me. I will still pay to have my fuse or “switch” box replaced later this spring as it is so old. I have been embarrassed for twenty years now about the blueness of my house. So I may yet pay to have it painted a decently unobtrusive cream color, but next year, and then I’ll put out for the first time a little sign with the house’s address (from Home Depot or some such place).

I am beginning to teach myself to accept my mostly solitary life. Sometimes I am quite cheerful. Almost at peace. Because of my real long-standing friends here, my cats, my reading presences, the Internet, my movies it doesn’t feel so solitary. Better than seeking elsewhere for what is not going to be there. I am trying harder to go to better plays, concerts, movies I might really enjoy, and if there is nothing out there I’m sure of, stay in.

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New Year’s Eve night this year — looking out my window

Miss Drake

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Susan Herbert for Anne Boleyn (her Shakespeare’s Cat)

Friends, readers,

It’s common to list the ten best new-to-me books one read this year as the year ends; my problems with this are

I often cannot remember what I read specifically this year, so at first I included Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing (a historical novel centering on Marie le Jars de Gournay, her maid and Montaigne); Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (a revelation of sorts);and Linda Porter’s Katherine the Queen [Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife], but they were what I remembered best from last year. Paula Byrne’s A Life in Small Things [Jane Austen] was the book I most remembered from the year before (no new good books on Austen, though some superb individual essays on Austen films): I so love Austen and she shed genuine new insight into Austen and her texts, taught me new relevant contexts, evidentially sound facts about Austen (though she’s wrong on her new portrait, it’s the only book on Austen’s texts to do this written in the last couple of years).

I reread a lot and in rereading I find new things, re-discover old in a new way — as I just did in Oliphant’s ghost story, “The Library Window;” and

It’s hard to choose and impossible to list in any meaningful order

Books are so different; genres, functions matter.

Nonetheless, to join in and look back on what I took real pleasure in: which books taught me, absorbed me deeply, I felt sorry when I came to the end, enjoyed so much. That’s a lot to ask, so let’s say did some of the above. In the order I remember them (which must say something)

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Herbert’s Russian Blues (Movie Cats)

My very favorites:

1) Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (mostly Maude’s translation; spent best part of year if I include listening to David Case’s reading of Constance Garnett’s text, deeply satisfying text)
2) Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover (most brilliant and relevant for politics today book of the year for me)
3) Anne Boyd Rioux’s Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist (you are missing out on a great American later 19th century writer if you’ve not read any of her books)
4) Judith Cook, Melissa Hardie, and Christiana Payne’s Singing from the Walls: The Life and Art of Elizabeth [Armstrong] Forbes (moving, beautiful pictures)
5) Daphne DuMaurier’s Vanishing Cornwall: The Spirit and History of Cornwall (uplifted and told truths)
6) Charlotte Smith’s Collected Letters (about courageous abused woman alone)
7) Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (for the first time, close to Woolf)
8) Angela Rosenthal’s Angelica Kauffmann: Art and Sensibility (on women’s art)
9) Jane Jill’s The Art of Carrington (revelation)
10) Miranda Seymour’s Mary Shelley (about 3/4s of Shelley’s life I hadn’t known and her other great writings)

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Herbert’s Adelaide Labille-Guiard with her pupils (a painting cat, imitating Labille-Guiard’s picture)

Runners-up or a not-quite my very favorites:

1) Diane Reynolds’s The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I won’t forget her portrait of Nazi Germany)
2) Carla Sassi’s Why Scottish Literature Matters (insights into how literature works, into an unusual colonialized people)
3) Virginia Woolf’s Memoirs of a Novelist (three brilliant novellas, historical fiction one of them: “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn;” the extraordinary feminist “Mysterious Case of of Miss V” (a woman alone, how thwarted, how silenced)
4) Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (unforgettable, a middle class kind of Cathy Come Home)
5) Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (taught me the mini-series distorted this deeply compassionate book about a wise woman not well understood)
6) Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love (deeply Middle Eastern historical novel as Neo-Victorian epistolary narrative)
7) Charlotte Smith’s Marchmont (for its depictions of life in a debtor’s prison)
8) Carol A Martin’s George Eliot’s Serial Fiction (for reading Eliot)
9) Margaret Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores, together with Lady Car (a continuation) (so rich and painfully insightful)
10) Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter (I’m just now reading Frantumaglia: mothers-and-daughters her true theme)

Best new-to-me greats plays I read (and saw) — texts becoming plays and/or movies:

John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil (Scotland’s history, a masterpiece of song and words)
1979 Danger UXB (everyone should watch this profound anti-war mini-series once a year)
Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark Scripts for Seasons 1 and 2 (bit of a disappointment because no indications of camera work or thinking behind choices & themselves could have been better but drew enormous strength from where faithful to Graham’s historical fiction)

My favorite long poem reread this year: Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head
My favorite (new) movie (not a mini-series): 45 Years
My favorite mini-series: 1972 Jack Pulman’s War and Peace (one of the best of the 1970s BBC and that’s saying something)
Undefinable: both series of the BBC The Hollow Crown (Shakespeare’s history plays, Wars of Roses and Henriade)

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Susan Herbert’s drawing for Duchess of York (Shakespeare’s Cats)

Old books made new, seen in some new way:

1) Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones
2) Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

I did not like yet read to the end (worth citing because they are strong, possibly widely-read and/or reviewed texts as what is bad in them is importantly bad):

1) Henry James’s Aspern Papers and The Other House (I detested the cruel spiteful Greville Fane) (perverse in who he critizes and accepting evil)
2) Patti Smith’s M Train (she’s posing as a man, seems hardly to have heard of any woman writers or musicians)
3) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (pernicious in several crucial ways, pro-violence, and against women, seriously anti-LBGT, yet as women’s historical romance and about Scotland in others it sent my spirit soaring; the mini-series, especially from its adapted scripts & acting much better)

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Jacobite cats (Herbert, from Millais’s “Proscribed Royalists”)

I asked Izzy if she could name some new great best books for her this year, and she cited two I know she read and re-read slowly:

1) Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy Caste: Hamilton: The Revolution [stageplay, music book)
2) Mary Beard’s SPQR: The Senate and People of Rome

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Herbert’s “Ice-Skating” (from Victorian Cats) — Izzy read and wrote a lot (professionally too now) about ice-skating

I promise you I omitted some: many good ones were rereads e.g., first five Barsetshire books by Trollope, read and taught; Rachel Ray; Shelley’s Frankenstein, read astonishingly eye-openly aloud by Gildert Jackson (and taught); several I didn’t finish but recognize I should have e.g., Adhaf Soueif’s very great In the Eye of the Sun; Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights on 19th century women of letters, especially on Jewsbury Sisters, Jane Carlyle; some I reviewed and wrote about for conventional journals and/or blogs (Martha Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley), a few more novels, literary critical books, film studies, biography, autobiography …

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Susan Herbert’s “Train Riding” (Victorian Cats)

Miss Drake