Monthly Archives: January 2023

Heat Lightning by Helen Hull 

The name of this author, Helen Hull, was not familiar to me, but I wanted to read something from the Persephone list, and this one (and two others) caught my eye. She wrote 17 novels (20 if you believe her New York Times obituary) and this one was made Book of the Month in 1932, when it first appeared. Those two recommendations, published by Persephone and chosen as Book of the Month were enough for me.

Heat Lightning

It’s 1930, and in the searing heat of summer Amy returns to the town of her childhood. She travels by train from New York to the midwestern town of Flemington. Amy’s life is in a turmoil as she and her husband Geoffrey appear to be drawing apart. Her children are at summer camps, so she returns to her parents’ house to rest and think about her life.

But Amy finds no rest for she is immediately plunged into family issues: her sister has just given birth to her fifth daughter; the effects of the Crash are rippling towards them; her father and his brother and sister are at loggerheads; and her cousin Tom appears to be in some kind of trouble. 

The novel follows Amy as she meets up with her parents, brother and sister, aunts and uncles and many cousins. The family is dominated, from the house next door by her grandmother, Madam Westover. She is a widow, but she is cared for by Lavinia, a faithful servant, and by Curly the devoted odd job man.

Amy is not able to devote any time to her own problems, but she observes the activities of her family and reflects on how they approach life. The Westover family is a large one, and there are incomers as marriages have taken place. There is a lot of grasping behaviour, motivated by greed, jealousy, and need. 

The Westover family appear to be tolerant of unconventional behaviour. Amy’s cousin is clearly gay. She wears a tie, tweeds, and sensible shoes, she smokes, and she refers to a waiting female friend. Although she is not very kind, the family bear with her cruel comments. Amy reflects:

Poor Harriet was a muddle. Her well of loneliness had brackish waters. (256) 

The notorious novel by Radclyffe Hall called The Well of Loneliness had been published in 1928. Amy’s parents’ maid, Lulu, is pregnant by Tom. But no one believes that they should marry. It turns out that Amy’s grandfather had an illegitimate son, born around the same time as her father Alfred. Madam Westover appears to take this in her stride, acting as problem-solver and peacemaker. She is the most vivid character in the novel, old but not staid, wealthy but also generous and big hearted.

The central crisis of the book sets off many unsavoury behaviours. Some members of the family are revealed as selfish, desperate, entitled or plain stupid. But others turn out to be generous, helpful, and ready to take on change. Amy’s parents have a good relationship with each other and are among the good guys.

Amy observes all of this and draws conclusions for herself. Some of this is rather turgid reading as characters provide her with little lessons about their own codes or lack of them. Today we are more likely to use the phrase moral values, I think. Here Amy’s mother reflects on the two things she lives by:

‘… one is acting so I don’t feel ashamed of myself, so I feel comfortable with myself. Sometimes I’m driven into saying or doing things I know I’m going to be ashamed of. The other – that’s people. Loving them. Loving them enough, now, so you feel alive. Not a vague love for everybody. That’s nonsense. But for your special ones.’ (300)

This wisdom is imparted towards the end of the novel, and Helen Hull has shown the reader that Catherine behaves with integrity. She has also shown us plenty of family members not following this code. Amy comes to realise that there is a future for her marriage as a result of her brief stay.

I have seen this novel described as domestic, a family novel. But one reason for the large cast of characters seems to have been that Helen Hull was using the family to stand for American society, especially as it faced the outcomes of the 1929 Crash, and all the other social changes of the ‘30s.

The preface is helpful in this respect.

Eventually she [Amy] realises that her family – into which ‘foreigners’ have married – is a microcosm of the larger society. … The plot is driven by her struggle to identify values that persist, even though norms of behaviour may vary among ethnic groups, social classes or generations. (Preface xi)

Some of the description and the similes are rather overwritten, but I can forgive Helen Hull this for most of the book is pacey, rich, and thoughtful. It kept me occupied while a suffered my stonking winter cold!

Helen Hull

Born in Michigan in 1888, Helen Hull lived until 1971. She wrote many novels and short stories, and taught creative writing at Wellesley, Barnard and Columbia. She edited The Writer’s Book, a collection of 50 essays by prominent writers, described as practical advice by experts in every field of writing. Heat Lightning was her sixth novel.

Despite the unflattering depiction of Harriet in the novel, Helen Hull herself had a lifelong relationship with a woman, Mabel Louise Robinson. 

Heat Lightning by Helen Hull first published in the US in 1932. I used the edition from Persephone, published in 2013 with a preface by Patricia McClelland Miller. 328pp

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Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I much enjoyed the collection of essays and journalistic pieces by Nora Ephron published in 2006 under the title I Feel Bad About my Neck. And I was aware of the writer’s career in journalism and in film, especially the screenplay for When Harry met Sally. But I had never read her novel Heartburn. I was a little surprised that it was referred to by Cathy Rentzenbrink in her memoir: Dear Reader: the comfort and Joy of Books. And then I noticed that it had also been chosen by the journalist Dolly Alderton in What Writers Read. You can find the link to the post about these two books here. As Heartburn was so strongly recommended in these two books I felt I should correct my failure to read it. Here are my thoughts.

Heartburn

Heartburn is the ‘thinly disguised’ story of Nora Ephron’s breakup from her second husband, (in real life) Carl Bernstein who was having an affair with Margaret Jay. Nora Ephron was 7 months pregnant at the time. So far, so autobiographical. 

In the introduction to the edition I used, written 25 years later, she complains that people refer to it as a ‘thinly disguised novel’. She points out that Philip Roth and John Updike ‘picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book’ but were not ‘hit with the thinly disguised thing’. The criticism is mostly applied to books written by women, she observed.

My mother taught me many things when I was growing up, but the main thig I learned from her is that everything is copy. She said it again and again, and I have quoted her saying it again and again. As a result, I knew the moment my marriage ended that someday it might make a book – if I could just stop crying. One of the things I am proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is. (Introduction)

Heartburn is full of pain, hurt, anguish and crying. The narrator is Rachel, a food writer and she tells the reader of the six weeks that followed the discovery of her husband Mark’s affair with an unbelievably tall woman. She has been living in Washington DC, where her husband is a political journalist, but she feels DC is less interesting than her native New York. 

The novel follows her immediate flight to New York from Washington, her return to patch things up, and her eventual permanent removal to New York after the birth of her second child. She is ready to ‘begin to forget’.

The humour in the novel comes from some situations and some comments on the events. We also have some recipes: cheesecake, Key lime pie (which plays a satisfying role in the final scene), linguine alla cecca, Lillian Hellman’s pot roast and an almost sacred but certainly secret recipe for vinaigrette.

The characters in this novel are drawn from 1970s intellectual East Coast milieu: they appear to have a great deal of money, maids and childcare whenever they need it, flying frequently on the shuttle from New York to DC and back again, several properties, psychiatric help and they mix with people in the forefront of national politics and with the journalists who report on all of the above. They are not troubled by climate change, popularism, third world problems, or any of those things that make us so anxious today.

But that doesn’t stop Nora Ephron from finding the humour in many situations. Perhaps the funniest is that her group (an encounter group run by her psychiatrist) is held up at gun point by a man Rachel had been flirting with on the subway. It turns out to be a key plot element as he steals the extremely expensive diamond ring that Mark gave Rachel when their first child was born. It was worth $15,000 dollars and eventually provides Rachel with the wherewithall to leave her marriage. The robbery itself interrupts gentle bickering in the group. Rachel is taken hostage by the gunman with the nylon stocking mask and demands valuables. She digresses from the fact that he was holding her with a gun to her temple to tell us about Mark’s behaviour at Sam’s birth, for two pages. It’s a masterclass in mixing drama and humour and creating suspense as she tells us that when she went into labour she had been afraid that Mark would turn into

the kind of hopeless father who goes through the whole business under the delusion that it’s as much his experience as it is yours. All this starts in Lamaze classes … (57)

There is quite a bit of wisecracking. I wondered how to describe it and was thinking that New York humour would cover it when I read this. 

I’m not exactly a conventional television personality, although I suppose I am somewhat conventional when it comes to public television, which is what my show was on, not network. ‘Too New York’ is what the last network that was approached about me responded, which is a cute way of being anti-Semitic, but who cares? I’d rather be too New York than too anything else. (16)

Risking being accused of antisemitism I can say it is Jewish humour. Fast, verbal, clever and funny. It often involves repetitions of phrases, or reversals of nouns in sentences, or long lists of unrelated objects. For example, her obstetrician asks her, as she is about to leave hospital after the birth, ‘Do you believe in love?’

Sometimes I believe that love dies but hope springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that hope dies but love springs eternal, Sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals love, and sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals good sex. Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that the only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.
‘Yes,” I said. ‘I do.’ (165)

Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941, Nora Ephron grew up in a Jewish family of writers, journalists and scriptwriters. She graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in political science and then tried to get a job as a writer on Newsweek. They did not employ female writers. So she began writing for other journals: New York Post, Esquire among them. Her second husband was Carl Bernstein, whose name will forever be linked to Watergate and the exposure of former President Nixon (see All the President’s Men with Bob Woodward).

Along with her journalism, Nora Ephron became known for her screenplays and later became a director in her own right. Her third marriage, to screenplay writer Nicholas Pileggi, lasted until her death in 2012.

After I had finished Heartburn, I watched the film Sleepless in Seattle (1993), which you may remember ends happily in New York at the top of the Empire State Building. It was written and directed by Nora Ephron.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron, first published in 1983. I used the Virago Classic Edition (from 1996) with an introduction by Nora Ephron after 25 years. 179pp

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Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively ten years on

I read this novel nearly a decade ago. It was one of the first to be featured in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. I found in it a refreshingly unsentimental view of ageing in an intelligent woman. 

I noticed that it was chosen by the novelist Taiye Selassi in What Writers Read, which I reviewed very recently on this blog. She described how reading this book had a significant effect on her writing and claimed it as a ‘masterpiece’. Her comments encouraged me to reread it.

Moon Tiger

On my first reading I noticed how the protagonist, 76-year-old Claudia Hampton, is infantilised by the medical staff in the hospital. 

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment: she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit dear, there’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’ (p1)

On the next page, ‘the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone.’ (p2)

These two small incidents set the tone for the care of the old woman who was a very successful writer and historian. Such lack of respect, the ‘old dear’ view of older women, is distressing and can still be met with today, despite a better understanding of respecting the old.

The other, and much more significant idea in the novel is that memory and life are not understood as linear, not a long succession of events. Rather, Claudia’s life is an accretion of all the experiences and relationships she has had: as a sister, lover, mother, foster mother and writer. Those experiences are still with her, have formed her and are still part of her understanding of herself. She understands that ‘nothing is ever lost ‘and ‘a lifetime is not linear but instant’.

From childhood Claudia’s life has been a challenge to the accepted view of how a woman should live in the twentieth century. In her first years she regarded her brother Gordon as her equal, tied together in argument, competition, and physical attraction. In her early adulthood she became a war correspondent in Egypt in the 40s, a career shared by very few women. After the war she had a long affair with Jasper, an exploitative opportunist, and still did not marry, despite having a daughter. Asked why she has attracted so few proposals of marriage her reply suggested a truth – men have had a good sense of self preservation. The daughter, Lisa, was raised by grandmothers. Claudia wrote successful popular history, out of kilter with the grand narratives of post-war academic writing. She lived a life that is challenging.

Working as a correspondent in Egypt was a vivid and important phase in her life. She revisited Cairo much later and makes this observation.

The place didn’t look the same but it felt the same, sensations clutched and transformed me. I stood outside some concrete and plate-glass tower-block, picked a handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes. Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia, on a pavement awash with packaged American matrons, crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once. (p68)

It was in Cairo during the war that she met and fell in love with Tom, who was serving on the tanks. They had a passionate affair and planned to share their lives after the war. But he was killed. Although this is undoubtedly the main passion of her life, she has forty more years as she reflects as she approaches her own death.

I am twice your age. You are young; I am old. You are in some ways unreachable, shut away beyond a glass screen of time; you know nothing of the forty years of history and forty years of my life; you seem innocent, like a person in another century. But you are also, now, a part of me, as immediate and as close as my own other selves, all the Claudias of whom I am composed; I talk to you almost as I would talk to myself. (206)

Most novels would have made the love affair the climax of the narrative. But it is in keeping with the idea of the plurality of experiences that make up a life that this novel provides the reader with a different experience.

These features of Moon Tiger were what impressed Taiye Selassi when she first read it, and her reading encouraged her to continue with her own writing.

Bouncing back and forth between past tense to present tense, starting sentences without subjects, ending paragraphs with ellipses, moving from first person subjective to first person omniscient to third person objective and back again was the wildest, freest, most thrilling prose I’d ever read. It left me giddy, wondrous. Was writing allowed to be so free?! Was a writer? (115 in What Writers Read)

In that first reading she wondered at the ‘rebellious prose’, ‘dazzling structure’, and ‘unfurling of form’. And from understanding and admiring these characteristics of the writer’s craft and noticing the author’s confidence in her writing, Taiye Selassi felt empowered to write her own novel (Ghana Must Go). 

And all over again I found myself admiring the richness and intelligence of this wonderful book.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, published in 1987. I used the Penguin edition of 1988. 208pp

Winner of the Booker Prize in 1987

Related posts

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. The original post from August 2013.

How it all began by Penelope Lively, also in the Older Women in Fiction Series in February 2018

Books about Reading and Writers, including What Writers Read, edited by Pandora Sykes, in January 2023.

The Bookword page about the series Older Women in Fiction can be found here

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published during the Second World War (1943) and was an instant success in the US. It sold many copies, especially as it was published in an edition suitable for the pockets of uniforms. A film was made of it, directed by Elia Kazan in 1944 – his first. It’s been adapted for radio (1947), as a musical (1951), and again as a film in 1974. 

But this was Betty Smith’s one-hit wonder. Although she wrote other novels and plays none of her subsequent work achieved the popularity of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Thank you to Jennifer for recommending it to me, even if it was several years ago and she may not remember.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The success of this novel is due to the main character, Francie. She is 11, going on 12, at the start of the novel in 1912, and we follow her life until 1917, when the US became involved in the First World War. The character of Francie is very well realised, and she matures gradually throughout the events of the novel. 

Her parents are the children of immigrants. Her father is from an Irish family, and her mother’s family have come from the Austro-Hungarian empire. The immigrant experience is a constant theme, with the hardship of newly arriving in New York being mitigated eventually by the second generation. But the struggles of both families in the promised land are harsh and enduring: language (Francie’s maternal grandmother never learns English); access to education (seen by the same grandmother as the key to their successful settlement, but a struggle for Francie in the local school); cultural differences in clothes, rituals, religion, employment, attitudes to foreigners, and marriage. Francie wins through, a kind of delayed success for the American Dream.

We can infer that Francie’s experiences are drawn to a greater extent from Betty Smith’s own life. She was the daughter of parents of similar origins as Francie’s, and she too struggled to find a decent education, inveigling herself into a better school at a young age. Her father also died from alcohol-related illness and left the family struggling to survive and needing the two older children to leave school early.

Francie’s mother had three sisters who lived nearby, although the one who took orders is only briefly mentioned. The other two make lives for themselves and their children, support their sisters’ families as best they can, and provide more colour in the lively but poverty-stricken immigrant life in Brooklyn. One of them is Sissy, who loves men, marries (but does not divorce) frequently, and is illiterate but manages to provide essential support for Francie more than once. They had no access to telephones, so the family depended on the insurance money collector to take messages between them.

Francie has loving parents. Her mother is harsh, and at pains to avoid showing that her son Neeley is her favourite but determined to help Francie be a strong young woman. Her relationship with her father is touching. He has a beautiful voice and a very loving nature, but he is unable to support his family in his work as a waiter, a singing waiter, because of his alcoholism. His early death affects the family in different ways. Francie’s grief is hard, but she eventually comes to see that her father is present in her siblings, and even in herself.

The novel opens in the summer of 1912 with a typical Saturday in Francie’s life. She has chores, some of which provide a meagre contribution to the Nolan family’s finances, collecting and selling scrap, for example. She must bargain and outwit the shopkeepers when running errands for her mother. In the afternoon she visits the public library, where she can borrow books and read them for no cost. Sadly the librarian is impervious to her young customer, and when Francie asks her for a recommendation a ritual is played out.

“Could you recommend a good book for a girl?”
“How old?”
“She is eleven.”
Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child’s face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. […]
Francie trembled in anticipation as the woman reached under the desk. She saw the title as the book came up: If I Were King by McCarthy. Wonderful! Last week it had been Beverly of Graustark and the same the two weeks before that. She had had the McCarthy book only twice. (22)

Francie sits on the fire escape in the sun and spends the afternoon reading about the 15th century French poet, François Villon, in If I Were King. The only vegetation she can see is the umbrella tree that survives despite everything in their back yard of the house. Its persistence provides the metaphor and the title for the novel.

Much of the first half of the novel is a series of vignettes from Brooklyn in the first 15 years of the twentieth century, eg shops, customs, transport, poverty, rituals and so forth. In particular we observe Francie struggling in the overcrowded public school, where her flair for reading and writing are treated with the same indifference as the librarian treated her love of books. 

In her new school Francie, now aged 14, usually got As for her compositions, but she wrote three stories about her father, because she missed him so much, which the teacher graded as Cs. She explained that it was the subject matter that caused her to lower Francie’s grades.

“Poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit that these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”
“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.
“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”
“What is beauty?” asked the child.
“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’”
Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”
“Nonsense!” exploded Mrs Garnder. Then softening her tone, she continued. “By truth we mean things like stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anticlimactically.
“I see,” said Francie. (315)

A dialogue follows between the insensitive teacher and Francie’s silent replies. One could say that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Betty Smith’s response to the original version of Mrs Garnder.

There is so much more in this detailed and endearing novel; a horse that pees on its handler; generous Sissy who frequently rescues the family; the downtrodden grandmother who encourages reading a page a day of Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible; the story of the would-be rapist; how Francie’s heart is broken; the effect of the US’s entry into the First World War on the neighbourhood and so on. There is love and persistence, heartbreak and struggle. Just what one wants from a long read.

Betty Smith

Betty Smith in 1943

Born in Brooklyn in 1896, Betty Smith lived to be 76 years old, dying in 1972. She was involved in community drama from her teenage years but later began writing fiction. She wrote four novels altogether but had success only with her first. Like her protagonist Francie, Betty Smith struggled to complete her education. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, first published in 1943. I used the edition from Arrow Books. 483pp

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Books about Reading and Writers

I like spreading ideas about what to read. That’s the main thing this blog is about. And I always enjoy books about books, and these two today are about writers enjoying books. Books about reading are always popular with me. So much rich treasure here. So much to read that has already been published that I don’t need to scour those lists of forthcoming books in 2023 in the newspapers. I’ll be happy for a while with what I found in these two volumes, and the choices made by my reading group. 

Dear Reader: the comfort and Joy of Books

Dear Reader is more than a list of significant books that the writer has read. This is a memoir with the theme of the importance of books threaded throughout. More than significant books, she credits reading with helping her through some tricky patches in her life. Ultimately books gave her a living, first in bookshops and then in making reading accessible to adults and finally by writing books herself.

Cathy Rentzenbrink comes from a family that was not well-off. Her father earned a living as a miner in several locations and later as a publican. He was not able to read until late in life. But the family had love and she also had reading.

Her career in the book trade, began in Waterstones in Harrods and moved on to senior positions in some of the biggest bookstores in London. She ran Brief Books for adult learner-readers, and found herself working in prisons, helping inmates with learning to read and to write. 

As she recounts her past, she tells us what she had been reading, or re-reading. And every now and again she includes lists on a theme: books about bookshops and booksellers; series books; mothers and children; memoirs.

My only complaint about this book is that there is no contents page, index or list of books referred to. It makes returning to find titles again very difficult. But there are books I have noted that I will read or reread on Cathy Rentzenbrink’s recommendation.

Dear Reader: the comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink, published in 2020 by Picador 232pp

What Writers Read: 35 writers on their favourite books

Here are 35 writers providing ‘a snapshot into the writer as a person, told through the book that they were reading at that time’ (introduction). I note that this is not the same thing as a ‘favourite’, but we can let that pass. These contributions are not book reports, the editor tells us. Many of the contributors are writers becausethey are readers. In this volume there are 70 books for the price of one. That’s good value. 

I can across many books I have read, and recommendations by writers whose books I have read, and a few books that intrigued me and I want to experience again. One such was Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, chosen by Taiye Selassi. Moon Tiger is one of the most interesting and successful books in the Older Women in Fictionseries on this blog. 

A children’s book that I plan to revisit, having read Tessa Hadley’s comments on it, is Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce. And then there is the delightful The Summer Book by Tove Jansson chosen by Ali Smith and also in the Older Women in fiction series. Heartburn by Nora Ephron is praised in both books featured in this post. I’ve never read it, but now I plan to.

One could do better than read through the 34 highlighted books and those of the writers who picked them. I’ve got my little list

What Writers Read: 35 writers on their favourite books edited by Pandora Sykes. Published by Bloomsbury in 2022. 180pp

Related posts

Bookworm by Lucy Mangan (Bookword blog July 2018)

The Book of Old Ladies by Ruth O Saxton (January 2021)

Imagine a Society of Readers (February 2019)

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (August 2018)

On being a Good Reader (March 2018)

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