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The Vagabond, by Colette

I obtained the book you see pictured here so long ago that, when I read it last week, I had to read in short bursts and take Benydril, because the invisible mold on its pages afflicted my sinuses.

Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine Colette, born in Burgundy, France in 1873, published The Vagabond in France in 1910. It was, translated to English, and republished as the paperback in the picture, by Doubleday, under its imprint anchor books, in 1955. It is published now in English, by Dover Publications.

(My wife, Joanna was working at Doubleday, as assistant to the editor of foreign rights, when it published The Vagabond , which I believe is how we obtained a copy. In the mornings, he was a competent foreign rights editor; in the afternoons, after multi-martini lunches, not so much. During the afternoons, Joanna covered all his bases for him, for a whole lot less pay than he was getting, but that’s a story for another day.)

The best way to classify The Vagabond is as early women’s lib, long before the term was common.

Like Renee, the protagonist, in the novel, Colette made her own living as a travelling music hall performer after divorcing an abusive and unfaithful husband, Henry Gauthier Villars, a prominent literary critic who locked her in a room so she would focus on writing the wildly popular Claudine Series, for which he took the credit and kept the royalties for himself! After her divorce, while performing as a music hall mime, Colette managed to write an average of a novel a year. In 1910, she married again. That marriage ended in 1935 when she married for a third time. This last marriage, to Maurice Goudeket, also a writer, was a happy one. She died in 1954.

The Vagabond closely mirrors Colette’s own life.

Renee has settled into her life as a music hall performer when Maxime, a young, handsome, independently wealthy man arrives uninvited in her dressing room, declaring his admiration and bearing the usual flowers. Still simultaneously grieving for the lost love between herself and her ex husband, and still furious at him, she’s determined to abandon romantic love forever. She dismisses Maxime, addressing him contemptuously as “Big Noodle,” and continues to hold him at bay. But he persists, showing up in her dressing room night after night, until, over time, she falls in love with him.

It is not clear to her whether she wants an enduring, loving marriage, including the pleasures of sex, or is seduced by the comfort and security that comes with marriage to a man so wealthy he has no profession, and who swears he will focus all his energies on making her happy.

The reader has the pleasure of being in her head as she makes her decision, one that covers all the markers of the relations between men and women, and the place of women in society, especially in Renee’s case, the lowly place of unmarried female music hall performers assumed to be licentious, ready to be kept.

It would be a spoiler to tell what Renee decides as she plies her trade in a long absence from Maxine during an extended tour of European cities. Suffice it to say she knows that marriage to Maxine will come with his domination over her, even though that is not what he wants. The very act of caring for her, providing her his home, his wealth, and his respectability is a kind of domination, however inadvertent.

I was compelled by this novel, told in prose, that even in translation is powerfully evocative of the senses. I assume that if The Vagabond were to be made into a film, today’s audience would want the love scenes to be explicit. But it was delicious, to read so-called sex scenes that are not scenic at all. What a pleasure not to know whether the lovers are in a hurry, or take the time to take their clothes off first, whether the woman achieves orgasm or not, and whether the lights are on or off.

What good luck it was to discover this book behind another on my shelves, and to read it for the first time after owning it since 1956!

The Vagabond, by Colette2022-12-03T19:58:10+00:00

Best War Novels

The tragedy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent me to my bookshelves this morning to look for and remember the novels about war that I thought were worth keeping and treasuring. Here’s the list.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front

Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms,  and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and obliquely, because set soon after the armistice, The Sun Also Rises

Pat Barker’s World War One trilogy, Regeneration, and The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road

Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Charlotte Grey

Joseph Heller’s Catch Twenty-Two

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

Best War Novels2022-11-14T23:41:56+00:00

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE YOUR BOOKS?

How many words a day should you try for?

The question is imperative for me because I am 91 years old. I’m worried that time will run out before I write all the books that are in my head. I have no interest whatsoever in a calm, leisurely fade. I want to die with my hands either on a computer’s keyboard, or a tennis racquet.

So I was intrigued when I came across a post online by one of the multitude of people who make their living by pumping out advice to writers, urging her readers to write a minimum of 2K words a day. “You can finish a complete draft in less than a month!”

Wow! If I write two more drafts of the novel I am writing now, each taking one month, I can finish in three months. Thus, I could write four novels in a year – the first three in the same time it takes to make a baby! Maybe I better look into this.

Her advice to writers: to write 2k words a day or more, first outline the entire novel and write the biographies of each character before you write the first word of the actual novel.

That’s good advice for some writers, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure I could outline a business letter or the message on a birthday card, let alone a novel. In the second place, it would take me a year to outline the entire arc of a novel in sufficient detail to enable the production of the first draft in a month. Better to just start writing.

I’m not sure whether I start with a character I want to get to know or the situation she finds herself in.

Finding the way without an outline

All I knew when I started writing The Encampment, the third novel in the Miss Oliver’s School for Girls Series, is that Sylvia Bickham, the daughter of the head of school, was a senior there who was less motivated than her friends to compete for admission to one of the “best” colleges. She didn’t want to wait four more years to enter “real” life. I also knew that she was a person of color, like her mother, and that she would leave campus on a Saturday afternoon early in the academic year to get an ice cream cone in the nearby village. I didn’t know she had a roommate to walk with until I gave her one, Elizabeth Cochrane, from a little impoverished town in Oklahoma.

By then I realized that the two girls were going to come across a homeless Iraq war vet with PTSD. I understand now, looking back, that the homeless veteran was in my subconscious because I was, and still am, outraged that our American culture is so cruel that some of its less fortunate have to sleep on sidewalks and under bridges. I doubt that the homeless vet would have come to my mind in an outline.

I had to send the girls out of the safety of their campus to be confronted with the fact of that cruelty. As soon as they did. I knew they were going to put some money in his hat and get more and more involved with him in an effort to help him survive. And then I knew that their experience would teach both girls what they wanted to do with their lives.

Once I had that beginning established, I had a fair idea of how the novel would end, but only the next step on the path to that destination was clear, and then the next, and the next – an incremental journey during which I was frequently surprised by what the characters did. This is a much slower process, at least for me, than writing to an outline. And, for me, a whole lot more intriguing. Instead of planning, I discover.

Since reading that post, I have started to keep a record of how many words I write each day. The average is 1015.

I am very interested in how writers write. I’d like to learn from writers how many words you write each session, how fast you write your books, whether you outline before you write, and if so, in how much detail and how often what you actually write is different from what you posited in the outline. If you are so inclined, put your answers in the comment section below. I promise to get back to you.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE YOUR BOOKS?2022-11-10T23:01:22+00:00

Mr. Zeetzee’s Terrible Temper

We lived in Riverside, CT, on a point of land that reached out into Greenwich Cove, on Long Island Sound. Our back yard went right to the water, and at the end of the point, less than a quarter of a mile from our house, there was a small private beach with a pier to dive from when we went swimming. Ever since I’d been a little kid, Mr. Zeetzee and his wife had lived across the narrow street that went down the center of the point of land to the beach. He wasn’t like all the other men on that street who commuted to their work in New York City. He owned a jewelry store in Stamford. That made him different somehow. I liked him. He was always friendly to me.

One day, during a snowstorm when I was walking home from school, he stopped to give me a ride. I wasn’t surprised; he wasn’t the kind of guy who would drive right by a neighbor’s kid walking in a snowstorm. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember how glad I was to be riding instead of walking.  He drove calmly through the peaceful silence that comes with falling snow, until two kids walking home from the elementary school stepped out into the road and he had to put on the brakes. The car skidded in the snow, but stopped well short of the kids. Nevertheless, he jumped out of the car and screamed at them. They ran away. He kept on screaming, his body shaking, even after the kids had stopped running, several hundred yards away. I was frightened enough to want to get out of the car, but I thought that would insult him, and I didn’t dare.  Finally, he got back into his car. I could tell he was ashamed. We didn’t say a word to each other the rest of the way.

That temper got Mr. Zeetzee into big trouble on an August night a year later, the summer before my tenth grade year.  My parents were away fly fishing in Maine and my friend John B was spending the night at my house. Even then, I was amazed at my parents’ naiveté to leave me and my older brother unsupervised. I suspect that John’s parents didn’t know that my parents weren’t home. My two younger brothers were away at a summer camp and my older brother was visiting a friend – which is probably why I had invited John. I didn’t want to be alone.

All the stars were out. It was warm and humid, the tide was high, and John and I, of course were restless, so around ten o’clock we walked down to the beach at the end of the point.  There was a big sailboat, a yacht, at least forty feet long, tethered to a buoy several hundred yards away. It had not been there before. So, curious, we “borrowed” a canoe that was lying on the beach – maybe it was Mr. Zeetzee’s – and paddled out to it. With each stroke of our paddles, the phosphorescence in the water lighted up the night. There was no one aboard the yacht. We tied the canoe to the buoy and climbed up onto the deck. It was a magnificent vessel, with a commodious cabin. It was so big it had a steering wheel instead of a tiller. “You could go around the world in this,” I said.

“So, let’s us sail it around for a little while,” John said. I was dumbstruck. We stood there looking at each other. I can still remember the smell of varnish and the hemp of ropes. I knew if I said ‘yes,’ we really would steal that yacht and sail it around in the dark. Like so many times before, he had suggested something that I wanted to do, just as fervently as he, but I lacked the nerve. We already understood that one of the reasons for doing things others would never dare is to add to the collection of stories you can tell for the rest of your life. That’s powerful motivation for doing dumb things! But I knew we didn’t have the competence to sail so big a craft. We’d run it aground someplace and end up in jail.

I was tired of being the one who didn’t dare. I said, “I got a better idea. We’ll climb the mast and dive off.” Even he wouldn’t do that. It was much too dark.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s.”

It turned out to be easy. There were ratlines to climb. So up we went.

But the crosstree we stood on way up there was thin and hurt my bare feet. I was dizzy with the height, and it was so dark we could barely see the water down below.  It would be like diving from a cliff with your eyes closed. “How do we know it is deep enough?” I said. “We could hit bottom and break our necks.”

“Yeah, maybe it’s shallow, “John said in his most matter-of-fact tone. I’ve never known anyone who was so good at keeping his expression blank. It was why his jokes were so funny: he never laughed.

“Well then, maybe we better steal this yacht instead,” I said.

“No,” he said. “Just dive straight out, not straight down,” and then he did exactly that, launching himself. He hit the water in an explosion of phosphorescent light and disappeared. I knew he was staying under the water to scare me into thinking he was dead, but when he finally surfaced, I started to breathe again.

I was more afraid of being ashamed of being scared than I was  of gravity, so I dived too. And discovered how much fun it was. I don’t remember how many times we climbed and dived into that phosphorescent gleam before we quit and paddled home. I do remember it was magic.

Walking home, still keyed up with the excitement of the diving, I picked up a rock and threw it hard at a tree on the other side of the narrow street. I hadn’t noticed Mr. Zeetzee standing on the front steps of his house – until the rock missed the tree, hitting the steps he was standing on, then bouncing up and striking his leg. Unlike the purposeful trespass on the yacht, this was completely a mistake. Besides, the rock had lost most of its momentum when it hit his leg. But I knew of his temper, and I started to run.

It was too dark for him to recognize me, so, as we came near my house, I turned to John running beside me to tell him to run past my house so Mr. Zeetzee wouldn’t know it was me. But what I saw wasn’t John; it was a lighted cigarette, still in Mr. Zeetzee’s lips, cruising along beside me, and the next thing I knew I had dived into some bushes. He’d never seen me. He’d seen John who was wearing a white T shirt, while I was only in shorts. I watched John run down the street in bare feet, Mr. Zeetzee in hot pursuit, until they disappeared around a bend. Then I went into my house and turned all the lights out so it would appear that either no one was home, or everybody was asleep. I told myself not to worry about John. He could run fast. Mr. Zeetzee wouldn’t catch him.

But it seemed forever that I was alone in the house, and I began to imagine Mr. Zeetzee catching up to John and beating him up. Maybe killing him? Then through the living room window, I saw the headlights of Mr. Zeetzee’s car coming out of his driveway and heading down the road. Now I was sure Mr. Zeetzee had caught John, hurt him badly, then grown ashamed of himself, as when he’d screamed at the kids who’d stepped out into the road. So he was taking John to the hospital! Should I call my parents in Maine and ask, ‘What do I do now? Should I call the police?’ Either one of those actions would have been a sensible thing to do. Which, I suppose, is why I didn’t do either of them.

I waited, and waited  in the dark of our living room, wishing my brother were home to tell me what to do, or, better yet, persuade me that John was safe. He was a whole year and a half older than me, and either was actually more responsible, or better at appearing to be – I still don’t know which.

It must have been near midnight when I heard a knocking at the back door. Someone had come to tell me that John was dead. Or maybe John had told, under torture, who had actually thrown the rock, and Mr. Zeetzee had come to kill me too.

But it wasn’t an enraged Mr. Zeetzee at the door, nor a bad news messenger. It was John, soaking wet.  “You swam?” I said, my relief that he wasn’t dead replaced by envy. I never would have thought of escaping that way.

He shrugged as if swimming was the usual way to get to my house. “What have you got to eat?” he said. “I’m hungry.”

Over a monster sandwich and a quart of milk, he told me, with the same straight face he’d suggested we borrow the yacht, how much fun he’d had with Mr. Zeetzee. “He could never catch me,” he said. “He’s much too fat. I’d let him almost catch up to me and then I’d sprint.” John went on to explain that this got boring after a while, so he headed for the woods where he hid behind a tree and yelled Zeetzee, Zeetzee, Zeetzee. “I knew that would get him,” John said. “If I had a name like that, I’d be pissed too.” When Mr. Zeetzee, crashing through the underbrush like a drunk grizzly bear, got near the tree, John would slip away to another tree, calling, Over here, Mr. Zeetzee, Over here!

After a while, Mr. Zeetzee stopped chasing him. John was sure he was pretending to have given up and had gone home. John was too smart to fall for that one, so for the next ten minutes or so, he stayed where he was, thinking he was outwaiting Mr. Zeetzee, but then a car’s headlights were lighting up the woods. Mr. Zeetzee’s fury was so durable that it had lasted long enough for him to go home, get his car and drive it back so he could shine his headlights into the woods and find John.

“I stepped out from behind the tree, and said ‘Hi Mr. Zeetzee,’ and waved my hand like I was glad to see him again,” John told me, and went on to tell that Mr. Zeetzee jumped out of the car and came running toward him. John jumped sideways, out of the beams of light, and sneaked in a big circle back toward Mr. Zeetzee’s car. “After a while, I realized I’d lost him,” John said. “It was kind of disappointing. So I made some big whooping noises. I heard him crashing around in the bushes. He still didn’t know where I was, so I went the rest of the way to his car and started blowing the horn.”

“All of a sudden, he was right there in front of me, grabbing for me,” John said.  “I guess I’d blown the horn a few too many times. He was making funny noises, like snoring and screaming all at once and I could feel how crazy I’d made him. So I yelled goodbye and took off.”

John ran, full speed now, not playing games anymore, out of the woods, across the road and an empty lot, where some college age kids were singing songs and drinking beer around a fire and dived into the water at the back of the cove, a good half a mile from my house. It took at least a half an hour to swim to my house. I imagined him calmly swimming under all those stars, and my envy, mixed with admiration, grew even more intense. “I knew it was your house because all the lights were out,” he said. “So I climbed up the sea wall and knocked on the door.”

So that was that. Two fine adventures in one night! How satisfying is that?

Two days later I saw the headlines in our local newspaper, Greenwich Time: RIVERSIDE MAN ARRESTED. And a picture of Mr. Zeetzee. The article told how Mr. Zeetzee had burst upon the college kids sitting around the fire, and proceeded to beat one of them up. I would never have seen the article if I hadn’t happened to offer to take a friend’s place on his paper route that day so he could he could go sailing with his parents. All of a sudden, he was punching me in the face, the article quoted the kid. I figured, in the light of the fire, like the light of the headlamps, he must have looked like John. The kid’s father was pressing charges.

After I finished the route, I kept one of the papers and showed it to John. I needed to know how he would react. Did he feel guilty? After all, he was the one who had tortured Mr. Zeetzee. Yes, I had started it all, but by mistake. John didn’t let on how he felt. I got the same blank expression, and a little shrug. After that, we never talked about that night.

But I was the one who’d known Mr. Zeetzee, and had liked him, ever since I’d been a little kid. Not everyone stops and gives rides to people walking in snowstorms. There was no way I would ever be able to look him in the eye again.

My parents came home a few days later.

The next day, a bright warm Saturday, when the tide was high, my father said, “Let’s go swimming.”  I prayed Mr. Zeetzee wouldn’t be on the pier. But there he was, sitting on the bench with a towel around his neck. We had to walk right by him. Not having read the paper because he’d been away, my dad didn’t know about his humiliation. And of course, no one in our neighborhood would talk about it. But I saw Mr. Zeetzee’s shame when my dad said hello to him. He didn’t know my dad had been away. I said “Hi Mr. Zeetzee, but I kept my eyes away, and kept on walking, my eyes straight forward toward the buoy where the yacht was tethered no longer, and dived off the pier. In the water, I looked back and saw my father dive in. Behind him, on the pier, Mr. Zeetzee had already started to walk home.

That evening, I confessed to my father. I was desperate to get it off my chest.  Maybe he’d tell me to confess to Mr. Zeetzee. I started at the beginning, telling him about John’s and my adventure on the yacht. He made it clear he disapproved, though mildly, for trespassing, and he was disturbed that I would take such chances by diving into water that might not be deep enough. “You don’t have to do something dangerous just to keep up with your friends.”

But when I told him about John and Mr. Zeetzee, and how I had started it by throwing the rock, and how I’d thought Mr. Zeetzee was chasing both of us until I’d seen his lighted cigarette and dived into the bushes, he started to grin. I felt a huge relief. Besides, it was fun to tell such a good story, so I told all the details. By the time I’d gotten to the part where John was blowing Mr. Zeetzee’s car horn, he was laughing so hard he had to sit down. When I went on to tell him about Mr. Zeetzee beating up the college kid and getting arrested, he stopped laughing.  I’m pretty sure, he had as much sympathy for Mr. Zeetzee as for the kid whom he had beaten up. But I could see that, for him, that was a separate story, a whole other event.

So I didn’t have to feel guilty! My father wasn’t going to tell me to cross the street, knock on Mr. Zeetzee’s door, and when he opened it, stand there, look him right in the eye and confess to him!

Then why didn’t I feel satisfied? I’ve pondered that question ever since. My father remains for me the most upright man I’ve ever known. He never would have even considered stealing someone’s yacht.

On the other hand, he would never have gotten up the nerve even to climb that mast – let alone jump off of it.

Into the dark.

Mr. Zeetzee’s Terrible Temper2022-10-10T19:33:39+00:00

My Father Finally Succumbs to Old Age

My father was a young man until at the age of 87, he had a stroke while fly fishing from his canoe on Kidney Pond, near Mt. Katahdin in Maine. He was in the act of casting a dry fly at a rising trout just before sunset when suddenly he was very dizzy and knew a stroke was coming. He put his fly rod down carefully in the canoe, slid off the seat and lay down in the canoe so that he wouldn’t fall out into the water and drown. Then he threw up all over himself. The canoe drifted aimlessly in the middle of the lake while the sky above him darkened, the stars came out, and he realized he couldn’t move his right arm or leg. The whole right side of his body was paralyzed.

He knew that his friends at Kidney Pond Camp where he was staying would check to see if he had returned, because that’s what all the fishermen did for each other every evening when they got back. Soon they’d get in their canoes and come looking for him. But my father wasn’t the kind of person who lay around waiting for others to do for him what he could do for himself. With his left hand, he patted around himself until he found his paddle, and he started to paddle home. I still don’t know how he managed to reach up over the gunwale with only one hand, while lying down, and get any leverage on the water – nor how in the world he knew which direction to paddle since he could only see straight up. He was only a few hundred yards from the dock in front of his cabin when two of his friends found him and towed him the rest of the way home. The right side of his face was also paralyzed, the skin and the muscles beneath it sagging. He could talk, but only haltingly, and his words were slurred.

It was several hours before the ambulance arrived from Millinocket and took him to the hospital there. The next day my father was transferred in a private plane to the Greenwich, CT Hospital, near his and my mother’s home. I got the news in London where I was attending a conference and rushed home on the earliest plane I could get, and the first thing I saw when I walked into his hospital room was my father sitting up in bed trying to chin himself from a bar that hung above him from the ceiling on two wires like a trapeze. A nurse stood beside the bed, one hand on his paralyzed hand, squeezing it for him around the bar.

“Hi, Dad,” I said, as cheerily as I could. He didn’t answer. Instead, he raised his eyes to the bar above him, and pointed to it with his chin, as if to say ‘Don’t interrupt.’ He made the same grimace of exertion I’d seen a thousand times, widening his mouth, baring his teeth, squinting his eyes almost shut, and strained to lift himself, willing the muscles of his right arm to activate – commanding them to do their job, the way they always had for 87 years. They disobeyed. He tried again, and once again. And still again. Each time the left side of his body would rise a slight amount, and his right would not – he was a boat with a list to starboard. At last, the nurse took his right hand off the bar and laid it down beside him on the bed, like someone putting something back in a bureau drawer. “We’ll try again, this afternoon,” she said.

It was no surprise to anyone who knew the power of my father’s will that he got the use of the right side of his body back, along with a full command of speech.  The stroke had done no harm to his prodigious intellect; it stayed intact until very near the end ten years later. Nevertheless, at the moment of the stroke, he finally became an elderly man. Before that time, the adjective just didn’t fit. After it, he never got back enough of even the mild athleticism it requires to put a canoe in the water and paddle out into a lake, nor to hike through the woods, to outlying lakes carrying his fly rod and his lunch. His timing at tennis doubles became so abominable it rendered the game impossible. He and my mother made the decision to trade independence for security, and moved into a retirement complex. My brother drove them from the house on the shore of Long Island Sound they’d lived in for fifty years to this new place where everything would be taken care of until they were dead.

“As we drove out of the driveway, they never looked back,” my brother told me, his voice full of wonder. “They looked straight ahead.”

My Father Finally Succumbs to Old Age2022-07-25T19:11:21+00:00

Miss Henry

Miss Henry, our 7th grade teacher in the Riverside, CT public school was a very large, very round person. When she stood at the front of the room, it was hard to see the blackboard.

On the first day of school, during lunch recess, when all my classmates were on the playground, and Miss Henry was in the teachers’ lounge, I sneaked back into the class room and wrote a little story on the blackboard attributing the presence of a large crack that had been present for several years in the cement path to the school’s front door to Miss Henry’s  having walked on that path on the very first day of her employment. I went on to claim that the Principal had told her never to walk there again.

I think this was my earliest venture into narrative fiction, a fairly good try for a seventh grader. I especially liked my depiction of the inner thoughts of the amazed principal in which the word freak appeared several times, and I was clever enough not to adulterate the punch of the story by explaining how Miss Henry had managed to enter the school every morning since.

I assumed Miss Henry would walk back into the room, see what was written on the blackboard and demand to know, “Who wrote this?” None of the girls would answer. And all the boys would shout, “I did!” All through the sixth grade this tactic had worked.  Such fun!

But Miss Henry paid no attention to the blackboard when she returned. It seemed she didn’t even see it. I can’t remember what we did that afternoon. Whatever it was did not require a blackboard. We kept waiting for her to turn around and see the blackboard and fly into a rage. Finally, just seconds before the end of the day, she looked straight at me, smiling kindly. “You spelled cement wrong, Stevie,” she said. “It starts with a c not an s.” Then the bell rang and we all trooped out. From that day on in that class my name was Stevie. Everywhere else it was Steve.

I have no idea how she knew who was the culprit. But I do know it is hard to be a wise guy with a tendency to cruelty when your name is Stevie.

So, after a while, I stopped.

Miss Henry2022-07-25T17:43:22+00:00

THE WEIGHT OF INK, A NOVEL BY RACHEL KADISH

I hate to think of what I would have missed if my daughter had not given me this unusually structured, magnificent novel for Christmas, 2021. It was published in 2017. That I had never heard of it is, to me, like being the geologist who didn’t notice an earthquake he was standing on.

The first page of The Weight of Ink is dated twice: June 8, 1691, and II Sivan of the Hebrew year 5451. The place is Richmond, Surrey, which was then on the outskirts of London.

The first sentence of the first page: “Let me begin afresh, this time to tell the truth.”

The very next page is dated four hundred years later, November 2, 2000, in London, where Helen Watt, an ailing professor, near the end of a less than satisfactory career, is about to get access to the papers in which the unknown writer promises this time to tell the truth. One of Helen’s former students, whom she doesn’t remember, and his wife, are legally prohibited from finishing the remodeling of their recently purchased 17th century house in Richmond until the authenticity and historical value of a cache of papers recently discovered by an electrician behind a panel can be evaluated. If Helen can identify the author and place him or her in the context of that time when the Great Plague was about to arrive in London, she will retire in some glory, thus redeeming her career. To do this she must unlock the mysteries before her younger colleague, favored by the department head, does.

Thus, two women are connected across the centuries, Helen Watt and Esther Velasquez, an immigrant from Amsterdam who, contrary to the norms of the time, was permitted to be the scribe for a blind rabbi, a role usually reserved for men. The novel switches back and forth between their lives as Esther, secretly a philosopher and seeker of truth, navigates her tenuous situation, and Helen and her young assistant, study the papers to unlock their mysteries, most importantly the identity of Esther – who they at first naturally assume is male.

What is delicious for the reader is the dramatic irony in the novel’s architecture: Helen and her assistant and their competitor can only read the papers while the reader of the novel has access to all the rich dimensions of Esther’s life in the time when Jews were only recently allowed to live in England. The reader always knows more than Helen does and hopes that Helen will catch up in time to win her race. The reader cares just as fervently for Esther to find her truths and survive.

Thus, The Weight of Ink thrives vibrantly in several genres simultaneously: mystery, historical novel, career novel, feminist novel, while transcending all genres via the literary quality of the writing. Here is Helen approaching for the first time the house where the cache of papers is still behind a panel:

“She approached the door, her cane slipping on the irregular stones. Her breath was uneven from the unaccustomed exertion – she slowed to calm it. On a narrow window beside the door, a reflection of her own bent figure. As she leaned closer, it rippled as though on the dark surface of a stream: a pale aged professor in her outdated suit. Tilted to one side, leaning on her cane.

——— Straightening, she took the cold iron knocker in her hand. Both – the smooth weighty metal and her thin quaking hand – were impervious to the sunlight that fell profligate over everything: the door, the marble threshold, the sleeves of her wool coat. The knocker’s blows reverberated dully through the thick door and died. And in the silence – the unmistakable silence of an old house – she felt, for just an instant, the old feeling: the impossible ache of standing so close to a piece of history. A feeling like something dropped endlessly inside of her – like being in the presence of a long-ago lover who had once known her every inch, but now refused to acknowledge her.”

I figure I extracted about a third of the richness in my first reading. I’ll get another third in the next. And if I’m still around in a year or so, I’ll read it for the third time.

If you haven’t read it for the first time yet, you’re in for a treat.

THE WEIGHT OF INK, A NOVEL BY RACHEL KADISH2022-07-01T21:52:42+00:00

An Introduction to Right-Wing Radio Jock Mitch Michaels

THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM NO IVORY TOWER, BOOK THREE OF THE MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS SAGA

It was three o’clock in the morning and Mitch Michaels was wide awake.

Ordinarily the two Vicodins he had swallowed at midnight would have taken him all the way to six o’clock, and then there would be the limo ride to the studio where, as soon as he leaned forward into the mike, he’d imagine all those people nodding their heads, guys mostly, driving to work all over the country, their shoulders relaxing because they were hearing what they already believed, and his pain would melt away. But there was no show today because it was a holiday weekend and he was not in his New York apartment; he was in his summer house on the beach in Madison, Connecticut, and without the daily morning rage vent to look forward to and with the disturbing presence just down the hall of Claire Nelson, his daughter’s long-legged, willowy guest with the raven hair and deep-set, innocent eyes, he knew that, in another half an hour, if he didn’t take another pill, the electricity that was then a mounting tingle at both sides of his lower back would pulse down through his buttocks and explode in his hamstrings and toes like bombs going off every minute and a half. Ninety seconds exactly. He’d counted them. It never varied. The worst part was waiting in between.

He didn’t need to turn the light on to find his way down the hall to the bathroom past the room where his daughter Amy and Claire were sleeping because it was just a little shingled cottage, which he and his wife had bought when he was still a sportscaster for seventy-five thousand dollars. Seventy-five thousand! It was worth six hundred thousand now. He knew because he’d had to pay her half that to buy his half from her when they divorced—which he was happy to do—until he figured out that it made her rich enough to enroll their daughter in that school. “How would you feel,” he’d asked on his show, pretending he was talking about some other family, “if you had no say in what kind of a school your daughter goes to?”—forgetting that most of his listeners sent their kids to public schools and didn’t have any say either. The more he’d learned about Miss Oliver’s School for Girls in Amy’s freshman year—how the students addressed their teachers by their first names—or even nick names! How the kids were allowed to dress like savages and read books like Catch 22—as if they knew enough by then to know why we fought that war and what guys died for—the more cheated he felt. It didn’t help that his ex-wife, as sole custodian of his daughter, in total control of when and if he could visit with her, had obtained a court order prohibiting him from stepping foot on the campus.

In the bathroom, he opened the medicine cabinet and reached behind the row of bottles containing aspirin and ibuprofen and vitamin C and Barbasol Shaving Cream to where the one containing the Vicodin pretended to hide, opened it, and shucked two into his palm. Only ten left. He put one back and swallowed the other. He’d learned to take them without water because water was not always handy, and besides, if he drank water now, he’d have to get up and pee when what he needed was to be obliterated in sleep. The doctor in Madison didn’t know there was a doctor in New York who filled out prescriptions too—or, anyway, pretended he didn’t.

On the shelf beside the sink sat his daughter’s guest’s toilet kit. Toilet. What a nasty name for what’s in there: toothbrush, toothpaste—lipstick maybe? What else? He reached, touched the soft leather, ran his fingers where the zipper was slightly opened, then, shamed, pulled his hand away. Never before in his life had he imagined that a teenager would stir him. Girls that age, especially if they were as beautiful as this one, were people you needed to protect! He didn’t understand that this one’s ability to stir feelings very near to lust in him was a purposeful application of power, in this case just for the hell of it, and he was as addicted to being around power as he was to painkillers—because maybe they were the same. But he did understand that when the Vicodin kicked in and he was back in bed in the dark, not counting the seconds until the next explosion, he might dream of her, and because he hoped he wouldn’t and still wanted to, he was shamed still more.

An Introduction to Right-Wing Radio Jock Mitch Michaels2022-05-19T21:33:37+00:00

THE SINKING OF THE US.S. VERMILION

Not long ago, my grandson asked me to show him a picture of the ship I served on as a very junior naval reserve officer from August, 1953 to February, 1955. I pulled my I phone out of my pocket and typed in USS Vermilion, AKA 107, expecting to see a picture like the one above:

Vermilion was part of the amphibious fleet. She was a freighter carrying 24 landing craft topside and cargo such as jeeps and trucks below decks, which, anchored off the target beach, we unloaded into the landing crafts. We deck officers would then scramble down the embarkation nets, jump into one of the landing craft and lead the way into the beach.  This was practice war, not war for real. The Korean war had ended just before I entered the navy.

As the phone warmed up, I wondered if Vermillion had been de-commissioned, maybe even scrapped.

Instead, a video started playing of the ship with its superstructure stripped off, huge square holes cut into its sides, about to be sunk, re-purposed as an artificial reef, to support aquatic life off the coast of South Carolina. I know very well this is an appropriate use for all those tons of metal, but I was struck with an unexpected surge of grief and a feeling that this was terribly wrong. Without her superstructure, she was humiliated, like the traitorous women shorn of their hair and made to walk naked in the streets at the liberation of Vichy France. What kind of reward was this for her faithful service?

Sailors, whether naval or civilian, live on ships. They don’t go to work. They work from home. Now what was once my home, and that of 150 others, was headed for the bottom of an ocean. I thought of the houses on the banks of rivers, drowned when the rivers were dammed to make reservoirs. Are they still houses? If not, what are they now, under all that water?

I began to understand that what grieved me most of all was that Vermillion’s death was death by sinking. Every naval officer, standing watches on the bridge, focuses on seeing to it that sinking doesn’t happen. This is especially true when steaming in formation, which is most of the time. Vermillion was over 400 feet long, with only one propeller and was therefore not very maneuverable. Reversing the propeller at “Emergency Full,” caused the ship to shudder and shake, but it would be almost a mile before her forward motion stopped. If I remember correctly, her turning circle was 2000 yards, but in formation, we steamed 1000 yards apart. A recipe for collisions.

Serving in the Combat Information Center, otherwise known as C.I.C – and also, sometimes, as “Christ, I’m confused!” – I made a mistake that almost caused a collision one night on the 4am to 8am watch. We had just received two orders to be carried out at once: a change of course for the whole formation of many ships and a change of position within that formation. I recommended turning left at standard speed, forgetting that another ship was positioned behind us and to our left – on the port quarter in Navy speak. The officer of the deck took my advice and ordered a left turn, and then I realized my mistake and rushed to the bridge. By then, the officer of the deck had also realized the mistake and had ordered back emergency full and hard right rudder. Vermillion continued turning left and going forward for what seemed like hours while everything shuddered and shook. Indeed, compared to an automobile accident, it did take forever. Our standard speed was 12 knots. The two ships got so close to each other the water between frothed up in spray. Standing on the port wing of the bridge, I could have shaken hands with the skipper of the other ship standing on the starboard wing of his ship. The collision siren on both ships screamed as crewmen leaped out of their bunks. Then the two ships stopped sliding toward each other, running parallel at first, then moving clearly away.

And then Vermillion’s captain took me aside and yelled at me for 45 minutes. I had nothing to say.

Watching the video, my grandson and I saw huge billowing flames and smoke burst out of the Vermillion. Explosives had been planted in her to speed her death. She started to slide under the surface, stern first, her bow pointing toward the sky and slowly disappeared, leaving fountains of water and spray on the surface as air escaped upward out of her. And then she was gone.

And then another video came on. In praise of the virtues of vacationing in South Carolina where the scuba diving is quite special. Fishes, striped bass among them, calmly swimming along the deck ,  while a singer sings about jumping right in and then no other than John Denver sings about Carolina on his mind. I was especially entranced by a close up of the huge winch for the anchor chain, while he, who is no longer with us, sang on.

I was the officer in charge of the anchor detail. In the fall of 1954, we were sent up the Chesapeake Bay to shelter from a hurricane. The wind was so fierce that, in spite of using both anchors and steaming ahead one third speed, we dragged anchor for several miles. When the storm subsided, we brought both anchors up. The starboard anchor, which is the one that is always dropped, had a thick coil of wire wrapped around it. I sent for a member of the repair division to cut through that wire with a blow torch. Just as he started, I warned him to be careful not to burn a hole in the shackle that holds the chain to the anchor. “What did you say?” he asked turning his head to me, away from his job and burning a hole in the shackle. For the next six months, every time the captain ordered me to drop the starboard anchor, I dropped the port anchor. He never noticed. If he had, he would have yelled at me again – but not for 45 minutes.

My grandson was fascinated by the videos and John Denver’s singing. He might take up scuba diving someday. But, after I put this link in here, so you can watch the videos for yourself, I will never look at it again. the sinking:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUfmb8R_iqs 

The singing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEzR-6vm8Ig

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THE SINKING OF THE US.S. VERMILION2022-05-16T22:24:42+00:00

WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA,CONFESSIONS OF A CUBAN BOY, BY CARLOS EIRE, PUBLISHED 2002, WINNER NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

Like in all great narrative, the opening lines reach beyond the particulars of that narrative to identify for us what is universal in the story, in this case paradise lost, Adam, looking back on what disappeared, the instant he lost his naivete.  The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. That’s how it would always be from that day forward. Of course, that’s the way it had been all along. I just didn’t know it until that morning. Surprise upon surprise: some good, some evil, most somewhere in between. And always without my consent.

‘That morning’ was when his father told Carlos Eire, “Batista is gone. He flew out of Havana early this morning. It looks like the rebels have won.”

In 1962 at the age of 11, Eire was one of the 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba, exiled to physical safety and emotional turmoil, by, and from, his own parents, because Fidel Castro came to power. Eire’s memoir describes his boyhood with lyrical precision that brings every scene to life and is full of nostalgia, not just for the privilege and affluence he took for granted as a part of the upper crust in Batista’s, world, but also, indirectly, for his innocence about Batista, who, in cahoots with the mafia and the CIA, was a cruel, murderous dictator, surely no less and maybe more, evil than Castro.  Eire’s father was powerful judge who sent his children to the same private school in Havana that Batista’s children attended. One of the key moments in the memoir comes when Carlos accompanies his father to the courthouse and watches his father act as both judge and jury, dispensing summary ‘justice’ to the less than powerful, then, after only three hours of work, returning to his comfortable home and art collection.

Memoirs are never about what happened; they are about what the narrator remembers about what happened, and how he or she shades that memory toward one version of truth. Carlos Eire reveals which truth he chooses in the final verse of the poem which serves as the preamble to this stunning memoir:

Still, all of us are responsible for our actions.

Not even Fidel is exempt from all this.

Nor Che, nor his chauffeurs, nor his mansion.

Nor the many Cubans who soiled their pants

before they were shot to death.

Nor the fourteen thousand children who flew away from their parents.

Nor the love and desperation that caused them to fly.

In my opinion, any person with the sensibilities that enabled Carlos Eire to write to write so superb a story would eventually become an outcast wherever he ended up living.  If Fidel had lost and Batista won, and Carlos’ family remained at the top of society, still wealthy and powerful, he would have eventually learned that Cuba was never the paradise he had thought it was, because it wasn’t a paradise for most. He would have left in his heart but stayed in place, rather than the other way around. To me, that is what makes Waiting for Snow in Havana universal. This is not a story of what happened to happen to Carlos Eire. This is the story of the nature of exile, of the experience of diaspora, wherever it has happened and wherever it will happen again.

I didn’t read Waiting for Snow in Havana when it came out in 2003. I wasn’t even aware of it. Several months ago, browsing in a bookstore I saw the those words in the title: Snow in Havana? No way could I resist.

This one’s a keeper. I’ll remove a book from my shelves to make room for it, and if I’m lucky enough to still be here in a year or so, I’ll read it again.

WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA,CONFESSIONS OF A CUBAN BOY, BY CARLOS EIRE, PUBLISHED 2002, WINNER NATIONAL BOOK AWARD2022-05-16T22:21:34+00:00
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