I am happy to report that I have completed my math class, and that I passed it. But it wasn’t always pretty, and it often resulted in frustration, anger, and broken pencils. I may or may not have broken a few other small items as well, in the heat of working on homework problems that I should have been able to solve but couldn’t. But that’s all water under the bridge. It’s over now, and I made it. In my darkest days as a student, I promised myself that pass or fail, when I completed the class I would write about my experience here, and although summer is beginning and I have a host of tasks that I’ve put off during the last few weeks as I studied for my final, I am trying to fulfil that promise now.
And so here is my first discovery: All teachers should be granted time off (course load reductions) every few years to take a course that is completely out of their area of expertise. In other words, every teacher should experience what I did last semester, because learning something completely new provides a critically important window to show teachers how their students feel and what they encounter as learners. My greatest regret about the whole experience of taking math as a retiree is that I cannot put what I’ve learned to use in my own classroom. Would I have changed my teaching methods if I’d had this experience earlier? Perhaps not. But I would have been more sympathetic to students’ complaints and frustrations in learning new material. I would have worked harder to find alternate delivery methods to make sure that material was accessible. I wouldn’t have been so quick to shrug off my students’ inability to master content by assuming they simply weren’t taking the class seriously enough. I’m absolutely sure that the taking a class like this (assuming that it was not simply added onto my other duties, but rather that my teaching load was reduced to allow me adequate time to engage in the class) would have made me a better teacher.
Good teachers, those who are engaged with their subjects, tend to be intuitive learners in their area of expertise. But this is a problem for their teaching, because many students they encounter will not be intuitive learners in that area. Taking a class out of my area of knowledge forced me to pay attention to how I learn. Certainly we teachers have been aware of different learning styles for decades, but there is a real difference in awareness of a thing and direct experience of it. If we are really interested in teaching, in transmitting not only knowledge but critical thinking skills, then we teachers need to immerse ourselves in a fresh learning experience every so often to enable us to check our assumptions, to experience failures, and, when necessary, to adjust our techniques–and our expectations. And the closer that learning experience comes to our students’ experience, the better.
Another important thing I learned is that there is a difference between showing someone something and teaching them something. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure what that difference is. I think it has to do with paying close attention to feedback from the student–and not just verbal or written feedback but nonverbal cues as well. This is an area that deserves more study and observation.
On a purely personal level, I believe I had a better chance of success in this class today, as a senior citizen, than I would have had as a young adult, and not just because I have much more free time at my disposal. Given that my most recent math class was in 1979 (it was called “Terminal Math” — not because it killed you, but because it was a curricular dead end), one would think that I might have struggled with memory problems. The truth, however, is that I was a much more experienced learner and was therefore able to contextualize information in a way that wasn’t possible for me in my twenties. I was aggressive in using YouTube videos for additional learning, and I was far more focused and determined than I had been in my younger years. In other words, whatever I have lost in terms of memory function, I have gained in terms of experience and critical thinking ability.
Pure bull-headedness helped me pull through as well. So, in addition to a larger reserve of learning experience and critical thinking skills, a greater store of patience also helped me to progress through the class (snapped pencils and crumpled paper notwithstanding). These assets are all important factors in student success. All of them are something that young adults typically lack, however, which makes you wonder about how successful college learning really can be.
I had one final asset that helped me make it through the class. A superpower, if you will: I was willing to fail the course and take it again if necessary. But most traditional college students do not have this option. The clock is running, and they just want to get through, tick off the class, and proceed to the next one. As long as education is seen as an economic good and learning institutions mere factories to produce workers (and, unfortunately, to produce debt as well–something that is inherent in the capitalist control of the state), education will be mistakenly conflated with job training, and we will limit our learning throughout life.
At points throughout the semester, frustrated by the frenetic pace of the class, which in turn is dictated by powers beyond the control of individual professors–because all math classes have to align to assure transferability, and if they don’t then the colleges that mess with course content stand to lose students, funding, and revenue–I declared that the community college or university is the lastplace a person should go for an education. Now, having gotten through the class intact, I see that this is a harsh judgment, but there is nonetheless some truth in it. Our institutions of higher learning have become, as I said above, factories, and if we stop the production line or try to slow it down, we risk gumming up the whole process. And we all know what happens when that occurs:
I’ve often told my students that education is wasted on the young. But we can remedy this if we want to. The tragedy is not that so few of us actually go back to complete our education when we finally have the time and resources to do so, but that we limit the amount of learning all students can achieve, even in the place that is supposedly the most conducive to learning: the university. I hope in the years to come we begin to see the limits of higher education as we’ve fashioned it, and remediate these ill effects.
As for me, I’m celebrating my success, such as it is, and picking up the threads of my life. More adventures in math to come next fall, as I proceed to Trignometry.
Note: I enrolled in a College Algebra class this semester as part of my revisionist education project. One of the assignments is to read a book on mathematics and write about it. Being quite busy with learning all I’m supposed to be learning right now, I haven’t time to write much on this blog, so I thought I’d post my book review here as a short-term solution. I hope to post here at greater length about my mathematical journey in a few weeks.
FLATLAND, A ROMANCE OF MANY DIMENSIONS by Edwin Abbott Abbott
Flatland, by Edwin Abbott Abbott (1838-1926), was the perfect book to start my mathematical journey, for several reasons. Abbott lived pretty much right in the middle of the Victorian age, which is the period of literature I know best. This means that while his book is mathematical in nature and seems strange and alien in its subject (at least to me), its wordiness and heavy, formal style are somehow comforting at the same time. Aside from the oddness of the subject itself (life in a two-dimensional world), some of the themes in the novella were essentially Victorian. Take, as one example, the upward mobility of shapes, going from triangles, to squares, to pentagons and hexagons as generations “improve” themselves, which reflects the Victorians’ belief in the perfectability of human nature over time, as well as the ability to move from one socioeconomic status to the next higher one. While we think of social mobility as a purely American invention, it was surely present in nineteenth-century England. One need only point to Patrick Bronte, father of the Bronte sisters, who was born in squalor in Ireland but managed to secure a scholarship to Cambridge University and become a clergyman, or to Charles Dickens, whose grandparents were servants in a rich household, to demonstrate that a Victorian might be born a square, or even a triangle, but could hope one day to have hexagonal grandsons.
In other words, while the things Abbott wrote about were unfamiliar to me as far as the two-dimensional world he created goes, many of the accompanying characterizations were not. Moreover, there were some really enjoyable surprises within the book as well. I was particularly amused by the portrayal of women as vicious lines who, through their raging fury or even simple inattention to their relative positions, could maim or destroy their more mild-mannered mates, offspring, as well as innocuous bystanders. (How any offspring was ever produced in this world, however, was never covered in Flatland. Some things, I suppose, are better left unimagined.) In addition, the power struggle between the chromatists and the opposition, the traditionalist, anti-color party, was reminiscent of all political struggles, and so quite familiar as well. In short, Flatland, while a bit difficult to read, was intriguing and creative, and I am glad I read the book to its conclusion.
To be clear, I ended up liking the book, and I give it four out of four stars, not for its plot, or for its characterization, and certainly not for its verbose and weighty style, but because it became a symbol for my own journey into the study of mathematics. As I began the course, I had to quickly relearn concepts and skills that had been buried for well nigh fifty years, beneath Shakespeare plays and Elizabethan sonnets, Victorian novels, and Romantic poetry. As soon as I had dusted off my meager mathematical skills, however, I was deluged with other, new concepts that demanded all the brainpower I had to digest them. Then, while I was busy learning these new concepts, I found I had forgotten the older ones that I should have known all along and had just re-learned. It was all very frustrating and, frankly, an embarrassing exercise in intellectual humility. To be honest, early in the semester, I had to make up my mind to stick with the course even if that meant failing it—something I’d never done in my life up to this point.
Enter Edwin Abbott Abbott with his two last names and his strange little book. Once I began reading it, I quickly came to realize that my journey as a reader and my journey as a student were similar. Look at it this way: In signing up for Math 130 (College Algebra), I had entered an unusual world, one that had rules and laws that I knew very little about. I had to immerse myself in them, barely understanding them, simply trusting that they would become clearer and more understandable as I proceeded through the course. The same was true of reading Flatland. The only way to get through this book, I’ll maintain, is to buckle up and settle back for a very strange ride. I’d say the same is true for studying College Algebra.
When, after a week or so of starting the book and concentrating on my math homework, I began to have dreams about equations, square roots, and graphing polynomials, I realized something very interesting was happening in my brain: I was changing my perception of the world. In fact, one night I dreamt that my husband, to whom I often go for help as he studied Electrical Engineering (albeit some 40 years ago), gave me an edible and a magic mushroom, both of which I ate without question and was immediately rewarded by understanding everything I needed to about math. Yet I’ll argue the dreams were not just amusing; I believe they were my brain at work, struggling to adapt to new information and new perceptions. Indeed, I take them as a sign that I was beginning, with oh-so-tiny baby steps, to see the world from a more mathematical perspective. It’s a lot like those three-dimensional pictures that you have to concentrate on not concentrating on to be able to see. It takes a bit of work to see an interesting scene rather than zig-zagging blocks and shapes, but the effort is well worth it in the end, when you are rewarded with a three-dimensional view somehow transcribed onto a flat piece of paper. I hope that the same will be true of Math 130.
Learning math, for those of us to whom math is not second nature, demands that we forge new perceptions and that we learn to see and think in totally new ways. This is easy to posit, but very hard to accomplish. I suspect it’s easier the younger one is, but no matter one’s age, it is difficult to craft new perceptive tools with which to look at a changed world. In other words, studying math is a trippy experience—we might as well admit that—and Flatland is a trippy little book, and for this reason, it turned out to be the perfect start to Math 130 for me.
For the past few years, I’ve been trying to transform myself from a retired academic to a smallholder. (A “Smallholder” refers to someone who owns or manages an agricultural plot that is smaller than a traditional farm. It is the term the British use; I prefer it to the American term, “hobby farmer,” which has a hollow ring to my ears.) The problem is, I’m essentially a city girl who was born in Brooklyn at the tail end of the Baby Boom, back when it was definitely not cool to be from Brooklyn. My knowledge of rural life is meager, and although I’ve been working on expanding it for the past twenty years, I have more to learn than I have time left to learn it in.
Why should I be invested in this self-transformation? That, in fact, is what I’d like to try to examine in this post. I have always been attracted to the outdoors; one of my earliest memories is of trying to make a fishing pole out of a paper clip and some string and tossing it into the shallow waters of a lake–perhaps it was just a fountain–in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Twenty years ago I opted out of urban living by moving from Houston, Texas, to rural Northern Michigan, a move towards my present state of mind. But several things have compelled me to reinvent myself during the last five years, a curious blend of events that left me forging a new path, and perhaps a new identity as well.
The first step towards my present state of mind occurred six years ago, when I retired from my job as a community college professor. It was an early retirement, but definitely a good time for me to go. Because of falling enrollment, I was able to teach fewer of the courses I really enjoyed, and I knew there were other people who wanted–and needed–the job more than I did. It seemed only right for me to move out of the way and let them have a go. So I did, and fairly quickly I found myself foundering. What was I, if not an English professor? My purpose in life seemed inextricably bound up with my identity as a teacher. With that identity receding quickly into the rear view mirror of life, I felt destabilized and adrift.
The next thing that happened was the election of 2016. Without going into details (you can find many posts on this blog from that period that reveal my state of mind), I’ll just say that I felt as if the entire world was falling to pieces. In the midst of political unrest and sorrow at the state of my country, I struggled to find something solid to hold onto. The world, I told myself at one point, had become a caricature of itself, something like the world of Voltaire’s Candide, a work I’ve never really felt comfortable with. But then I remembered the end of the story. Disappointed with life after all his adventures, dealing with his own sense of loss and languishing in what I’ve begun to call the “Peggy Lee Stage of Life,” Candide asks his teacher what he should do with the time remaining to him. The answer was simple: “Cultivate your garden,” says Master Pangloss. I decided then that this could be good advice, and I too, like Candide, began to work at gardening.
And there was yet another force at work as well. At this time, I was working on a novel that was set in southern England. I was trying hard to make the landscape a large part of the novel, as its effect on the protagonist worked its way into her psyche. To get myself into a frame of mind in which I could describe the trees and fields around my character, I tried to immerse myself in the forests close at hand, here near my home. It worked, to a degree, but gradually something unexpected happened. In the course of trying to drink in the feel and look of the forest in order to write about it and weave it into my story, I found that I had accidentally fallen in love with forests myself.
Within a couple of years, my husband and I found a piece of land for sale relatively close by our house and bought it. We had no plans to farm–we just wanted a change from our life in a small town. We were attracted by the hilltop house overlooking eight cleared acres abutting the winding front road; the hidden treasure, however, was the rich forest that stretched behind it. Old logging trails wound through a tangle of beeches, maples, hemlocks, and ironwood trees. In the first few years, it was quite possible for me to get lost back there. But during the last couple of years I’ve spent many days walking the paths, working on making new ones, and learning the smells, sounds, and general feel of the woods, and I don’t think I could get lost there now.
I have made a discovery. Owning a forest is like owning a cat. You don’t own it at all; rather, it owns you. You’re there merely to take care of it and appreciate it. You develop protective, nurturing feelings for it, while respecting its wildness and independence. Sometimes you watch from a distance, awed by its power and majesty; other times you simply want to gather it in your arms and hold it tight, protecting it from all harm. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have learned to love the trees and the wildlife they shelter with a devotion that I’d once saved for the works of literature I studied from my early adult years. And the things I’ve learned in this time! For example, I know now that the forest can look completely different from one day to the next, much less from one season to the next. In the last few years, I’ve thrown myself into reading books about ecology, about natural science, about biology–things I’ve not studied since I was a high school student. And I’ve learned to appreciate what the forest gives me: wicker baskets full of delicious mushrooms, colorful trillium and Dutchmen’s britches covering the hillsides in spring time, a rare glimpse of a deer’s back as it passes by, and chipmunks growing bolder in my presence.
My transformation is not yet complete. It may never be complete. I still have difficult days when I wonder what my purpose is. Often I feel useless. And, like Candide, I still have those Peggy Lee days, when I wonder if that’s really all there is. But the forest is always there, ready to pull me into its ageless world when I walk through it, no matter the weather, the season, or the time of day. And in the final analysis, while I can trace how I came to love the forest so deeply, I know that this rational exploration doesn’t stop me from counting myself lucky to have discovered such a sweet and pervasive passion so late in life.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been ambivalent about posting on my blog. I’m tired of serious topics, tired of politics–tired, it seems, of just about everything. I’m not interested in adding to any online conversations, in garnering more hits, in making this blog anything but a personal record of thoughts and ideas that should interest no one so much as myself. That, it seems to me, is a good enough reason to stop writing completely.
And yet here I am, writing a blog on a topic of marginal interest to 99.9% of humanity. In a way, it’s just like the old days, when I routinely held classes on Victorian literature at the rural community college where I taught. Perhaps the best, indeed the only reason, for me to write anything at this point is simply because it interests me, on the off-chance that it might actually interest one or two other readers in the vast cultural repository that is the blogosphere. We can go with that, anyway. So, today I’m posting about a fascinating (but utterly trivial) discovery I made about an almost forgotten Broadway musical that, in my opinion, deserved a lot more attention than it ever received.
Last week, I happened to listen to one of my favorite radio shows: “Footlight Parade” with Bill Rudman. I like Broadway musicals, but I have a decided preference for pre-1970s Broadway, and Rudman often spends time on the oldies. The episode I listened to was “Classical Goes Broadway,” and I found it very enjoyable. Better yet, it led me to explore one Broadway musical in particular, a klunker (98 performances) produced in 1961 that was based on Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata, called The Happiest Girl in the World.
I’m interested in any adaptation of Lysistrata, because I’ve just finished reading it as part of my university re-dux syllabus. Let me pause here to say that the original play is well worth reading: it’s about the women of Athens protesting their city’s endless war with Sparta by withholding sex from their husbands. In an interesting side plot which gets much less attention than Lysistrata’s plan to end the war, all the old women of the city take over the treasury and barricade themselves in, freezing war expenditures. Indeed, their actions have as much to do with Lysistrata (the heroine) achieving peace as the young women’s sex boycott. Power rests not only with young women, but with old women, says Aristophanes–a lesson we would do well to remember.
Before hearing of The Happiest Girl, the only adaptation of Lysistrata I knew of was a strange episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mrs. Howell convinces Marianne and Ginger to join her in a revolt against male obnoxiousness by completely boycotting the company of the men and moving to the other side of the island; obviously, as always on the desert island, no mention of sex occurs. You can’t withhold what isn’t given in the first place, I guess.
Back to the topic at hand, I have to thank Bill Rudman for setting me on a search that has taken up several days of my rather sparsely filled schedule. It turns out that The Happiest Girl is well worth spending a bit of time on–not, perhaps, as much time as I have spent, but still worth some attention.
The wikipedia entry gives some bare details about the musical, and the soundtrack is available on Spotify. If you give it a listen, the first thing you’ll notice is that the music sounds familiar, because it is recycled from the opus of Jacques Offenbach, the composer who is responsible for the “Can-Can” as well as “Barcarolle.” This alone might put listeners off; we still follow the Romantic Era’s prejudice in favor of “original” work, despite the fact that there is, in fact, nothing that is truly original. Perhaps, with the penchant for Broadway “repackagings” such as Mamma Mia and Beautiful, audiences might be more understanding of recycled work these days, but at the same time, I’m not sure lack of originality had anything to do with The Happiest Girl‘s failure at the Box Office. As I’ll discuss below, Leonard Bernstein’s amazing treatment of Candidefared even worse than The Happiest Girl back in 1956, with almost a third fewer performances before it closed, and it contained some amazing music that Bernstein himself composed.
According to Jaime J. Weinman, in his excellent blog on The Happiest Girl, the musical was doomed to failure because it relied on well-known melodies that originated from operetta at a moment in time in which mock operetta was decisively passe. Weinman points to Candide‘s dismal 78 performances just a few years earlier. Sadly, artists can’t always time their work with their audience’s taste in mind, and many a fine work of art has gone unappreciated because popular tastes shifted unpredictably. (I’ve always put Shirley Jones into this category. Her massive talent, evident in Oklahoma and The Music Man, was worth so much more than what she became famous for–Mrs. Partridge of the 1970s television sitcom The Partridge Family–and all because popular taste had shifted from grand musicals to paltry rom-com schmaltz.)
The music alone from The Happiest Girl is worth a listen, but the lyrics are what make the soundtrack really intriguing. Written by Yip Harburg, the same lyricist who gave us songs from The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow, as well as the songs “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” in addition to one of my personal favorites, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” the songs burst with a clever but subtle humor. For example, in the song “The Glory that is Greece,” there’s a not-so-veiled reference to the classical penchant for bisexuality in Greek mythology. The song insists on the pre-eminence of Greece (more on this in a moment), and urges, as a few reasons why Greece should be celebrated, “Strike up the cymbals for the glory that is Greece/ The land of lute and lyre and the golden fleece/ We give you sex/ that’s ambi-dex/ we give you Oedipus for future wrecks.” Harburg is clearly having fun with his lyrics, the kind of fun that makes you listen twice (or more) to them.
Of course, no video recording of the musical exists, and so, to understand how it works, I took the trouble to look up the script and read it while listening to the soundtrack. Doing so showed me two things: first, Fred Saidy and Henry Myers, who wrote the book for The Happiest Girl in the World, departed freely from Aristophanes’s play, often shifting the perspective from events in Athens to those on Mount Olympus; and second, there are numerous topical references to contemporary events in the script, which are all obscured in the soundtrack. In other words, if you don’t read the script along with the soundtrack, you’re really missing the most important part. For example, one of the first things I noticed was that the musical shifts the names of the gods from their Greek forms to the Roman ones. I initially assumed this was an egregious mistake, or perhaps a dumbing-down of the original material, but now I am convinced that this was done on purpose. Using “Jupiter” instead of “Zeus,” for example, plays into more familiar usage (thanks to the naming of the planets in our solar system), while also forcing the audience to take the play as a less than accurate version of Aristophanes’s play, which in turn makes it more applicable to contemporary times.
As a case in point, take a look at the following statement by Pluto (who takes on the role of a kind of trickster, a Paradise-Lost-Satan antihero determined to mess with humanity and bring it down). Pluto masquerades as various people throughout the play, and early in the first act, he declares, “In my present alias as Chief of State of Athens, I’ve been waging awar against Sparta for the past twenty years. You have your hot wars and your cold wars. I’m conducting a sort of cool war. We’ve been doing very well. We’ve gained 80 yards in the past 12 months.” This is clearly a direct reference to the US-USSR Cold War that had been ongoing since the end of WWII. In addition, minutes later, Pluto must field the criticism of one of his advisors, who blames him for a military defeat by saying, “Your fault! Choosing a young, romantic General!” Pluto’s answer is, in 1961, poignant, referring as it does to the young JFK in his first months as president. Indeed, Pluto responds, “How dare you! Youth in high places is the latest thing. Rather chic, don’t you think?”
Reading the script also allowed me to see the way the play sets Greece up as an obvious analogy to the United States, an analogy that wasn’t clear to me from listening to the music alone, although it was there all along. Consider the following lines from “The Glory that Is Greece,” in which Pluto boasts that Greece is “the only great democracy on Earth,” continuing ,”Each backward nation is our protege and ward/ We bring them culture with our cultivated sword/ We set them free from tyranny/ And woe to the foe who refuses to be free.” Harburg is lampooning the aggressive stance of the United States in its drive to make the world safe for democracy.
Another song, “The Greek Marine” is a direct rip-off of the United States Marine Corps Hymn, using the melody and merely substituting “Macedonia” for “Montezuma.” The song paints the image of a worldwide empire swollen on its hubris: “From the shores of Macedonia/ We will set the whole world free./ We will blot out Babylonia/ And mop up Thermopylae.” In the conversation afterwards, Pluto deflects criticism, defending a Greek surprise attack on the enemy by explaining it was merely “preventive retaliation,” using the very language of gunboat diplomacy before it was invented.
In a departure from the original play, the action then shifts to Mount Olympus, where the Greek gods are in a panic over the war breaking out again, because they are tired of the nuisance of hearing the Greek women praying for peace. In an attempt to come up with a solution, Juno says, “I know! Inspire their wisest men to work on the peace problem — their statesmen and philosophers.” Jupiter’s answer is caustic: “Statesmen! Philosophers! They’ve ravaged the earth! Why even Diana [a junior goddess] here could do better.”
And Diana does do better: it turns out that she’s the origin of the idea of withholding sex from the warriors until they promise to end the war. A perpetual virgin herself, she has been watching human behavior from Mount Olympus and has discovered that even hale and hearty men turn into quivering jello when sex is denied them. She carefully avoids mentioning sex outright, however, and the song in which she introduces this idea, “Whatever That May Be,” is delightful in its innuendo and clever rhyme, containing vintage Yip Harburg lyrics to describe sex: The man “offers her/ The whole big world/ For something that/ The maid has got/ Why, each new tot / That is begat / Cannot be got/ without that that / Whatever that may be…”
And so the gods decide to send Diana down to earth to suggest her idea of a sex boycott to the Greek women, using Lysistrata as her spokeswoman. After which, all of Mount Olympus breaks out into a lively song, “Eureka!,” declaring victory: “We’ve got the girl to put the gods back on god’s earth again / Diana will solve the paradox / and save paradise.” Which, they add, is a darn good thing, since as Diana points out in the song; “We got to last until at least A.D.”
These clever lyrics continue in Pluto’s number “Vive la Virtue” which explains the whole virgin/whore complex: “This is man’s ambivalent taste/ Whatever is chased has got to be chaste/ Paradox is deep in his blood/ He’s after the rose but leaps at the bud.” However, the standout song of the musical has to be “Adrift on a Star,” set to the music of Offenbach’s “Barcarolle,” an understated love song that reminds us that the Harburg who created “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” also created the ballad “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This peculiar but lovely song asks existential questions in the most delightful melody, even containing a bit of self-referentiality: “Is there a bright shining goal/ Ending this brief barcarolle?” These lyrics are certainly a reference to life in general, but also to Offenbach’s song itself, perhaps the most famous barcarolle ever composed. Indeed, according to Bill Rudman, “‘Adrift on a Star’ was Harburg’s personal favorite among all his lyrics,” which, given his prodigious output, is saying quite a lot.
There are continual surprises in The Happiest Girl in the World, one of which is a clear reference to the 1956 Broadway musical My Fair Lady (the film had not yet been made) in a line from the song “That’ll Be The Day,” in which the Greek men attest that they’ll never succumb to their women’s demands: They’ll take back their wives, they say, “as soon as the rain in Spain is pink champagne.” It seems Harburg is not above making pointed jabs to other, competing musicals.
One of the highlights of The Happiest Girl occurs when Pluto appears as Aristophanes, telling the women holding the citadel that he is actually writing a play about them, another touch of self-referentiality. The women, flattered by his attention, ask if they qualify for being in a play. His answer: “Eminently. You are touchy, immature, and unreasonable. Prime requisites for theatrical characters.” One wonders whether Pluto is talking about characters in plays or the actors who depict them. He goes further, however. A few lines later, he declares, “At the first sign of reasonable behavior by people in plays, the dramatic literature of the world would collapse.” The criticism is both sharp and funny, and perhaps true as well.
All in all, The Happiest Girl in the World, which I’d never heard of, occupied my time and attention for longer than I care to admit. Undoubtedly a box-office failure with a mere 98 performances, it proves interesting for its connection to ancient literature (sorry, Aristophanes), as well as for its clever use of language, its piercing wit, and its references to topical events. And, while I will never get back the four days I’ve spent immersing myself in it, I don’t regret the time I’ve spent on it at all.
The last five months of Mom’s life were spent in an assisted living apartment just about two miles away from my house. I was able to visit her every day, despite the pandemic, because she was listed as a hospice patient—for which I was very grateful. Some days I would stay for an hour and a half, some days longer. A few times we would get caught up in an old movie and I would stay to watch it to the end, and three hours would go by before I’d get home. It didn’t matter to me, as I had nothing special to do, anyway. I knew the time with Mom would be short, and I was glad to spend what time I could with her, which is why I didn’t dare miss a single daily visit.
I’m not sure how much she was aware of, but I don’t think it was much. There were good days and better days, and a few bad ones. She was, however, always happy to see me when I came into her apartment, and I think she always remembered who I was. When I came to see her last Wednesday (I think), she was at lunch, and I went up to her small table to say hello in the dining room on my way to her apartment. She looked at me with recognition in her eyes, and said, “Oh, I was wondering where you were! I’ve been waiting for you!” It was a good day, and we were able to take a few minutes later that afternoon to call my sister. It was a short call, and at the end of it, my sister said, “Bye, I love you, Mom.” Mom replied, in a surprised voice, “You do?” It was quite funny, and we all laughed, Mom especially. It was always good to hear her laugh.
There were some wonderful people at her building who helped her. She was very popular with the aides, because by this point in her life, she was easy-going and pleasant, and completely gracious. She seemed to really connect with Peter, a handsome Jamaican man who somehow ended up in the Frozen North. Peter was caring and gentle. He’d come into her room and say, “How you doing today, Mama? Let’s go get some lunch!” Yesterday, in Mom’s last hours, he’d stroke her hair and say, “What you doing now, Mama?” I have the feeling that Mom, always flirtatious, reacted to his guileless charm. I know I did, and I don’t consider myself flirtatious at all. But Peter was extremely kind to me, bringing me food the last day from the kitchen, showing me how to wet Mom’s mouth with small sponges to alleviate her thirst, and just chatting with me about all sorts of things.
Alicia helped in the last days, too, despite being eight months pregnant. She broke into tears when we called her into the room to report that Mom had died. Michelle was amazing with Mom’s showers, and when I happened to be there during them, I would wait on the loveseat for Mom to get done, and Michelle would bring her out of the bathroom, a little shaky on her pegs, with her hair wet and clean, and dressed in her ridiculous flannel pajamas—at three in the afternoon. Michelle and I would get Mom settled into her chair, recline it, and cover her with a blanket. Then I’d bring her a cup of instant flavored coffee—I would always make her some when I came in to visit, just as I’d always feed her cat Prissy some canned catfood—and we’d watch a show about animals, which she loved (she once told me she liked it when they fought, which I found quite odd, but, oh well), or a classic movie (I had no idea she loved Spencer Tracy so much—she was absolutely bonkers about him), or Gunsmoke. She loved to point to Matt Dillon when he appeared on the screen and say, “There he is!” Again, I had no idea she even knew who Matt Dillon was, much less that she liked that show.
Theresa did Mom’s wash, and she was extremely kind and patient, especially during the last days, when there was a lot of wash to do. Tracy, another aide, also helped those last few days. She was new to the facility, but she learned the routines quickly, and she was very caring, not only to Mom, but to me as well. We had several conversations about children, and families, and aging parents.
The nurses were more than capable: Natalie, the Hospice nurse, had a matter-of-fact attitude that made dying seem normal, which I suppose it is, until it happens to someone you love. But she was also really sweet during her last visits, and I took comfort from them. Wendy was the nurse on the desk at American House; a slightly built young woman, she was capable and tough—and, surprisingly, ambidextrous, which I noticed soon after I first met her, when she was signing me in per the Covid protocols. She had a preference for her left hand, she told me, but used whichever one was more convenient.
All in all, while I wish Mom hadn’t been so far gone in her dementia when we moved her to be closer to me from her previous living situation, I really don’t think things could have ended up better, given the circumstances. Mom was happy, as far as I could tell. She had Prissy with her, who came out from under the bed when no one was there but Mom. Soon after Mom got settled into her apartment, I stopped knocking before I came in because I didn’t want to scare Prissy under the bed. My tactic worked, and I got to see her little smushed face for longer and longer intervals, until by now she is completely used to me and comes to me for petting and purring sessions. She seems even to have forgiven me for my part in shaving her to free her of the matting in her long fur. It’s true that my husband did the shaving, but I was the one who held her. We did an abysmal job, and she ended up looking like someone had tried to butcher her but changed their mind midway through, her fur was so uneven. But she was much more comfortable afterwards, and Mom didn’t mind our wretched handiwork.
Taking care of my mother in her last few months wasn’t really such a heroic task. It was, in fact, quite easy to go over there and sit with her and knit silly projects while we watched television. To be honest, I found it challenging to sustain a conversation with her, so I just sat and occasionally pointed out something that was happening on screen. To my surprise, I found that Mom loved watching slapstick movies, guffawing at Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers’ antics. She loved watching Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and she hated seeing monkeys, except for baby monkeys. Actually, she loved seeing any babies, whether they were baby animals in a program about the zoo, or human babies on a silly commercial. Perhaps this delight was displaced from her love for her great-grand-babies Henry and Daphne, whom she always loved to see on the Grandpad.
The last day wasn’t so easy, but it was just one day, and I was glad to be there for it, even though it was hard to witness. All in all, I feel like it was a privilege to have had my mother under my care for these last few months. I realized that my siblings were entrusting me, the youngest one, with an important task. I was determined to do it as well as I could, not only for Mom’s sake, but for them, since they were prevented from doing it by circumstances beyond all our control.
My mother died at the ripe old age of 90, something no one would have predicted in her wild and wooly youth. She left behind a passel of grown grandchildren, all of whom loved her in their own ways, and two great-grand children, as well as her own three children and their spouses. She also left behind a legacy of flamboyant hats, watered-down martinis with ice in them, and some really wonderful stories that will live long after her death.
Lately I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with the Aged Parent , and one thing we do together–something we’ve rarely done before–is watch television shows. My mother, deep in the throes of dementia, perks up when she sees Matt Dillon and Festus ride over the Kansas (it is Kansas, isn’t it?) plains to catch bad guys and rescue the disempowered from their clutches. Daytime cable television is filled with Westerns, and I find this fascinating, although I’ve never been a fan of them in the past. Part of my new-found fascination is undoubtedly inspired by Professor Heather Cox Richardson’s theory–presented in her online lectures as well as her Substack newsletter–that the United States’s fascination with the Western genre has a lot to do with the libertarian, every-man-for-himself ideal most Westerns present. I think she’s got a point, but I don’t think that this alone explains our fascination with Westerns. This, however, is an argument I’ll have to return to at a later date, because in this blog post, what I want to talk about is nuns.
Yes–that’s right–Catholic nuns. What was going on in the 1950s and ’60s that made the figure of the young, attractive nun so prevalent in films and television? Here, for example, is a short list of the movies that feature nuns from the 1960s:
The Nun’s Story (1959) with Audrey Hepburn
The Nun and the Sergeant (1962), itself a remake of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)
Lilies of the Field (1963) with Sidney Poitier
The Sound of Music (1965), no comment needed
The Singing Nun (1966) starring Debbie Reynolds
The Trouble with Angels (1966) with Rosalind Russsell and Hayley Mills
Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968), the sequel to #6
Change of Habit (1969), starring the strangely matched Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis Presley (!)
The fascination with nuns even bled over into television, with the series The Flying Nun (1967-1970), starring a post-Gidget Sally Field. This show, with its ridiculous premise of a nun who can fly, seems to have ended the fascination with nuns, or perhaps its bald stupidity simply killed it outright. From 1970 until 1992, when Sister Act appeared, there seemed to be a lull in American movies featuring nuns. Incidentally, the films I’ve mentioned here all feature saccharine-sweet characters and simple plots; in a typically American fashion, many of the difficult questions and problems involved in choosing a cloistered life are elided or simply ignored. There are, however, other movies featuring nuns that are not so wholesome; Wikipedia actually has a page devoted to what it terms “Nunsploitation.” These films, mostly foreign, seem more troubling and edgier. I leave an analysis of such films to another blogger, however, because what I really want to investigate is this: why was American culture so enamored, for the space of a decade, with nuns and convent life? I’ve argued previously that popular culture performs the critical task of reflecting and representing dominant ideologies, so my question goes deeper than just asking, “Hey, what’s with all these nuns?” Rather, it seeks to examine what conditions caused this repetitive obsession about nuns in a country that prided itself on the distance between religion and politics and, at least superfiically, religion’s exclusion from American ideology.
I have some ideas, but nothing that could be hammered together neatly enough to call a theory to explain this obsession, and so I will be looking to my readers to provide additional explanations. Surely the box-office success of films starring Audrey Hepburn, Debbie Reynolds, Sidney Poitier, and Julie Andrews count for something: Hollywood has always been a fan of the old “if it worked once, it should work again” creative strategy. But I think this might be too simple an explanation. I’ll have another go: perhaps in an era when women were beginning to explore avenues to power, self-expression, and sexual freedom, the image of a contained and circumscribed nun was a comfort to the conservative forces in American society. It’s just possible that these nuns’ stories were a representation of the desire to keep women locked up, contained, and submissive. On the other hand, the image of the nun could be just the opposite, one in which women’s struggle for independence and self-actualization was most starkly rendered by showing religious women asserting their will despite all the odds against them.
I think it’s quite possible that both these explanations, contradictory as they seem, might be correct. Certainly the depiction of women who submit to being controlled and defined by religion presents a comforting image of a hierarchical past to an audience that fears not only the future but the present as well (we should remember that the world was experiencing profoundly threatening social and political upheaval in the late 1960s). Yet at the same time, the struggle many of these nun-characters undergo in these films might well be representative of non-religious women’s search for meaning, independence, and agency in their own lives.
As I said, I have more questions than answers, and I will end this post with an obvious one: what effect did these films have on the general public? We’ve briefly explored the idea of where such movies came from and what they represent in the American ideology that produced them, but what did they do to their audiences? Was there any increase in teenage girls joining convents in the 1970s, after these films played in theatres and later, on television? What did the religious orders themselves have to say about such films? I’d be interested in learning the answers to these questions, so readers, if you have any ideas, or if you just want to compare notes and share your impressions, please feel free to comment!
I’ll be honest: for a moment I thought about entitling this post “Reflections on Re-reading the Iliad,” but aside from sounding very dull, I will admit that I’m not sure I ever did read that pillar of Western Literature in college. Of course, like most other people, I’d heard of it. I’m old enough to have gotten my first and greatest dose of mythology–Greek, Roman, and a small bit of Norse myths–from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology almost fifty years ago, back when I was in high school.
To be honest, I’ve always wondered why American schools even bother to teach mythology. For a long time, I thought it was just to provide an introduction to the basis of Western culture, but then I realized, with a shock, that mythology in high-school English curricula actually had no point; rather, it was an oversight, a leftover from previous educational imperatives. Our insistence on teaching mythology to bored high school students, in other words, is something like having an appendix in our guts: there is no real purpose for it. While it once did have a function, it now simply dangles there with any reason for existing.
Here’s my version of why we have mythology in high school. It certainly isn’t for them to become acquainted with stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. After all, these stories are brimming with violence and sex, and are totally unsuitable for young learners. How do you explain the rape of Leda by Zeus–in the shape of a swan, no less–to high school students? Yet this is where the Trojan War, and the Iliad, really begins, as William Butler Yeats reminds us in his masterful poem “Leda and the Swan.” No, the reason we teach such things is because they were once vehicles for learning Latin and Greek. All language learners know that it’s no fun simply to do exercise after exercise when you’re trying to acquire a second language; you want to get to stories and dialogues, no matter how puerile or simplistic. (Incidentally, the language-learning computer platform Duolingo has figured this out and now provides an entire block of lessons with short stories to keep its learners interested. It’s worked for me.) Since a truly educated person, from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century, needed to know at least some Latin and less Greek (as the poet Ben Jonson rated Shakespeare’s knowledge), schools were obsessed with drumming classical languages into recalcitrant students’ heads. What better way to get them to learn than to present them with violent, prurient tales of heroes and heroines? For generations, apparently, the scheme worked. But gradually the need and desire to showcase one’s Latin and Greek knowledge wore off, and these languages ceased to be taught in schools.
But the mythology remained. And thank goodness it did.
A few years ago, a friend of mine and I decided to read the then newly published translation of the The Iliad by Caroline Alexander. We never got past the first few books then, but Covidtimes provided us a new opportunity, and we started over. I began by being less than impressed with the story, but I have to admit that now I am pretty much hooked. The world that it presents is violent and nasty, but there are some moments of real beauty, too.
Yet what has really caught my attention is that the world of the Iliad is totally random. Things happen for no reason, or for reasons well beyond the control of the humans involved. You may think you’re winning a battle, but then a god shows up, sometimes disguised as a human, sometimes in a fog, and things go to hell in a handbasket quickly, and suddenly you’re terrified and hiding by your ships wondering if you should push off for home. Events kaleidoscope by and you can’t do anything about them, because even if you do take action, often it has the opposite effect you intend.
In other words, life as represented in The Iliad is something like life in a pandemic. Covid seems to hit randomly, and to hurt randomly. We don’t know why some people are barely affected by the virus while others are struck down, killed or incapacitated by it. We don’t know how long the pandemic will last. We don’t know what steps the government will take to protect us from it. We are like the characters in the Iliad, taking action in good faith but knowing in our bones that anything can happen.
Nowhere is this brought out more poignantly than in a relatively insignificant scene in Book 8, which takes place in the middle of a raging battle. The Trojan Paris shoots an arrow at the Greek Nestor, which hits the seasoned warrior’s horse in the head, “where a horse’s forelock / grows on the skull, and where is most fatal” (lines 84-85). Then something truly odd happens; the narrative perspective changes and instead of watching sweeping actions–men swinging swords and throwing spears, horses stamping over bodies, chariots careening and crashing about–suddenly we are watching a single arrow as it plunges into a horse’s head. We watch, transfixed, as the arrow skewers the poor horse, who in his death agony “flung the horses with him into panic as he writhed around the arrow point” (line 87). We go from big action (battle), to smaller actions (arrow shooting), to an even smaller action (the arrow penetrating the horse’s brain). The center of focus has contracted to the tiny tip of an arrow, and we, like the horse itself, are flung around this arrow, orbiting it just as the earth orbits the sun. We have changed our perspective, from large heroic actions taken by men, to a single arrow around which a horse rotates. It’s as if we’re inhabiting a kaleidoscope, living on the inside of it, subject to its twists and turns at any moment. The effect on the reader is disorienting, just as it is meant to be, because it reinforces the sense that events in the story are random, uncontrollable, and largely unpredictable, while at the same time suggesting that mere perspective determines our allegiance and our ideology.
This is why I find reading The Iliad right now so very meaningful. This is a poem that was written ages before the Enlightenment values of logic, continuity, causality–in short, Reason–had been adopted in Western culture. These values are being tested right now in our daily lives, and reading this ancient epic reinforces the sense that values come and go, that worldviews shift and change, and that our sense of primacy is, and should be, rather fragile. If there is anything that Covid-19 has taught us, it is that, at least in the short run, we are all at the mercy of the gods, whoever and whatever those gods may be, and we must, like Odysseus, Agamemnon, Hector, and Achilles, simply get along as best we can in the face of a world we cannot control, even if we desperately want to believe we can.
As it happens, recent research suggests that the appendix does, in fact, have a function: to protect and nurture healthy bacteria until they are needed in the gut. Perhaps teaching mythology serves a similar purpose; perhaps, appendix-like, it preserves and protects various ideas, attitudes, and perspectives that, while outmoded and seemingly unnecessary in modern life, can provide us some kind of insight in difficult times. At any rate, reading The Iliad has certainly given me food for thought these past few weeks.
The debate over whether to open schools is revealing an important question that has lurked just below the surface for a generation–indeed, perhaps for as long as free public education has existed in the United States: what is the purpose of our schools? Is it to teach people crucial skills and allow them to acquire important knowledge, or is it rather to provide a holding tank, a safe and dependable place for a part of the population that cannot yet care for themselves?
Some teachers take umbrage at the thought that K-12 schools are used as childcare centers; they say that they are not babysitters, and that the push to open schools is an attempt to get the economy going again by providing workers with childcare that is not otherwise available to them. There is truth in this assertion. But universities, too, have been used for the last fifty years as childcare centers of a sort, places where a group of people is deposited under the guise of acquiring a higher education until they are ready to enter the workforce, or until the working world is convinced to let them in. Our educational institutions, in other words, have been, at least for the last fifty years, both places of learning and care facilities at the same time.
It’s best if we accept this dual role of educational institutions, rather than rail against it. A K-12 school can be both a place where education occurs as well as a place where parents can send their children for safe care (school shootings and pandemics aside). A university or college can be a place to teach important skill sets, including knowledge that is difficult to acquire on one’s own, as well as a place where young adults are sent while they wait their turn to enter a work force that isn’t quite ready for them yet. This leads to the question of opening the schools: are they essential for our country? In the short-term, the answer is a resounding “yes”: providing such a safe space is essential in order to run the economy we’ve grown used to, one in which financial necessity compels parents to scramble to find childcare, as well as one in which young adults require an expensive university education merely to snag an entry-level job in a field that becomes outmoded within years.
In this sense, teachers and professors are indeed essential workers; they are, in fact, babysitters. (Note that I do not say “mere” babysitters. The term itself is a demeaning one, indicating that a caregiver’s job is completely passive, but anyone who has ever been around young children knows this is far from the truth. I will leave that topic for future post, however. At any rate, babysitting is at least as important a role in our society as being a university professor, perhaps much more so.) But at the same time they are caregivers, teachers are also purveyors of knowledge and skills, and we need to keep both functions in mind as we think about the job they do.
I’ll be honest: I can see no clear solution as to whether schools should be opening up in a few short weeks. Sadly, we have completely squandered the time we bought back in March, when schools were summarily shut down in order to stem the spread of Covid-19. We did not stop the disease from spreading, which is bad, but what is even worse is that we completely failed to create a workable plan for re-opening schools and instead just held our breath, hoping that the pandemic would simply die down or fade away. It didn’t have to be this way; the complete lack of leadership at the federal level is to blame for this awful situation. During this time, other countries’ schools have created solutions that we can learn from, and we must study them closely to find our own, but here is one simple takeaway: flexibility is the key to fighting this pandemic. As argued in Tomas Pueyo’s important article published the early days of the pandemic, we need to shift between strict containment measures, including lockdowns, and loosened restrictions, again and again until Covid-19 becomes manageable. This demands that we act with flexibility, becoming responsive to the current situation.
And here we find a heartbreaking irony: flexibility is precisely what is lacking in the educational institutions we have come to rely on for childcare. And this in turn is a direct result of the binary role of schools in our society and our unwillingness to recognize it. In other words, what matters in childcare is dependability, after all; we need to know that our children have a safe place to go with someone watching over them whenever we need to be at work. But as far as education goes, flexibility is the most important thing. If one learning method doesn’t work, a good teacher always has a host of other methods to try out. Learning itself has to be flexible, because knowledge is acquired through a series of attempts, failures, and (hopefully) successes; a good education should always provide its student with the ability to be flexible. In other words, critical thinking, simply described, is the ability to see a problem in a variety of ways in order to solve it. Flexibility, elasticity, and adaptability are excellent things in education, however unwelcome they may have become in the working world (or the political world, for that matter). I would even argue that ignoring the role of flexibility in education has actually led to the demise of its effectiveness in our country, as we came to rely on testing and objective-chasing rather than more organic approaches to teaching, but that, too, I will have to leave for another post, or to another blogger.
My point here is simply this: it isn’t necessarily bad for education to serve as child (or young adult) care, but not recognizing and accommodating this dual nature of our educational institutions will lead us to make faulty, even disastrous, choices as we move forward to confront our new future.
This pandemic, awful as it is, may well have good consequences. One of them, I hope, is the bright light it shines, often harshly, on the institutions and traditions we’ve come to accept so blithely through the years. Though it may be painful in the beginning, we can work to make these institutions work for our society much better than they have in the past. But the first step, as always, is to see things as they are, and in this case, we must accept the idea that schools have been necessary in this country not only because they teach the skills and knowledge that citizens of a democracy must have, but also because they provide childcare to people who need to work and otherwise could not afford to do so. Let us look at the situation clearly, transparently, and earnestly: only then can we hope to meet the challenges that face us in this difficult and unprecedented time.
Most of us who have taken (or, as the case may be, taught) literature classes understand that stories are made up of three components: plot (what happens); setting (when and where it happens); and characters (whom it happens to). And what makes the study of literature so fascinating to us is that these things aren’t present in equal amounts. Picture a series of knobs, like those on a complex sound system. Say you slide the plot knob way high, turn down the setting knob , and leave character knob in the middle region. This configuration might describe a detective novel, in which what happens (plot) is of paramount importance. But if it’s Sherlock Holmes stories that you like, then the setting will be different, because it isn’t their compelling plots that draw you in, but rather the unique character of Holmes himself, or the foggy, turn-of-the-century setting of London, because it’s the hansom cabs, gas lighting, and general ambiance that appeals to you. A book’s literary mix, in other words, can reflect a variety of combinations of plot + setting + character.
Certain writers tend excel at one or the other of these three elements. (Of course, there are more elements of story out there beyond plot, character and setting; for example, I haven’t discussed “voice,” the teller of the story, and there may be some elements I haven’t thought of or read about. But for the purposes of this blog post, we can just focus on the standard three components of story.) To illustrate my point, I’ll just say that Thomas Hardy, who created an entire English county (Wessex) for his novels, is great with setting, that Agatha Christie is ingenious as far as plot goes, and that Jane Austen produced amazing characters. Some writers are wonderful at two of these, but fail with the third. For example, Charlotte Bronte is great with setting and characters but her plots are pretty much bat-shit crazy. (I still love her works, by the way.) A few highly talented writers, like Charles Dickens, manage to work all three elements in equal portions. But for today, I’d like to talk about stories in which nothing much happens, those novels which are virtually plot-less, and why they can be a source of comfort and entertainment to readers today.
I am now going to alienate half of my readers (sorry to both of you!) by saying that I place Jane Austen squarely into this category. But just think about it: not a whole lot happens in Pride and Prejudice. I mean, the only really exciting part of the novel I can remember (and I’ve read it many times) is when Lydia elopes with Wickham. And that scandalous event doesn’t even happen to the main character. That’s not all: to be honest, I cannot even remember the plot of Sense and Sensibility, which suggests that it scarcely has one. But that’s okay–Jane Austen isn’t about plot. If you want excitement and adventure, don’t read Austen. Read Sir Walter Scott instead. But be advised: Walter Scott himself, author of Ivanhoe and Waverley, those early, action-packed adventure novels so beloved by the Victorians, openly admired the newfangled work of Jane Austen, his opposite in so many ways, as he clearly indicated in an unsigned review of her book Emma. As far as nineteenth-century English writers go, Austen is not the only plot-eschewing literary giant, either; if you’ve ever read an Anthony Trollope novel, you’ll know that few dramatic scenes ever occur in his novels. In fact, when something dramatic does happen, it often occurs offstage, leaving the characters to deal with the effects of momentous and emotional events without ever allowing the reader to witness them herself.
Now this type of novel might be dull and frustrating for most readers, but I will admit that I take great pleasure in books in which very little happens, especially nowadays, when I must brace myself anytime I dare to look at news headlines, with crisis after crisis occurring at breakneck speed. Thankfully, in the world of literature, there is a whole category of works in which books with minimal plots highlight either setting or characters, or both components, in order to produce a delightful and soothing reading experience. I will share some of these works below, with the ulterior motive and express intention of hoping to spur my readers to make their own suggestions in the comments section, and thereby help me find more of these little treasures that I can place on my personal reading list.
First, there are the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson. I am a late-comer to these books, having just finished the first in the series, Queen Lucia, in which nothing really happens other than village residents in early twentieth-century England try to one-up each other and claim dominance within their social circle. The very pettiness of these maneuvers is highly entertaining, however, and the characters are drawn well. The writing is as precise as a well-built chronometer, with an Austenian feel to it. Earlier this year, I attempted to listen to Mapp and Lucia, which was a mistake, I think; I stopped listening because it was too acerbic. I think that with Queen Lucia under my belt, I will be much more appreciative of the sharp wit with which Benson portrays a character that not even he likes that much. (Sidenote: Agatha Christie wrote a book called Absent in the Spring, under the name Mary Westmacott, in which she also created a very unlikable character. It’s worth reading, but very different from her usual detective novels.)
Another novel quite similar to Benson’s work is D.E. Stevenson’s Vittoria Cottage. Stevenson was a first cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of swashbuckling novels like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, but she specialized in what was termed “light” fiction. Now, I’m not taking anything away from Robert Louis, but I believe it takes real talent to write about the trivial; as Hamlet says, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V.ii). D.E. Stevenson possesses this talent, and it is a delight to delve into the world she has created, in which nothing happens, and little seems to change.
The Kindle version of Vittoria Cottage has an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, which is highly appropriate, since Smith’s works offer an excellent contemporary example of the minimally plotted novel and fit precisely into the category I’ve identified here. Sure, the Sunday Philosophy Club books are detective stories, but they are the subtlest mysteries imaginable. One could say the same thing about the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series; we don’t read them for plot, but rather for the delightful characters they introduce, such as Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi, as well as for the simply drawn but well-evoked setting of Botswana. Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books have more plot, but only because they depend on coincidence and absurdity to move their stories forward. I could sum it up by saying it this way: in Smith’s novels, there is scarcely any climax, but instead a gentle descent to the concluding pages. And far from condemning or critiquing such a structure, I will praise it here, in an attempt to celebrate these minimally plotted novels that allow us to focus on, and take delight in, both setting and character instead of plot.
Now, readers, it’s up to you: do you have any suggestions for books of this type? I look forward to more discoveries.