Pool-side Picks: A Few Suggestions

winters tale mark helprin

This post is dedicated to my brilliant, older sister, Shannon, who continues to read voraciously and inspires me to do everything.

At parties, I know how to clear the room. Someone might find out that I am closing in on my PhD in Literary Studies and ask, “Oh yeah? Do you have a recommendation for some classics?” I usually stammer and then ask them, “What do you like to read?” which gets them off the subject because I hate to seem like I hold some keys to the reading mecca of the world. I don’t. I just have opinions like anyone else.

So, here are a few opinions. (Besides taking to the pool or the ocean or the woods a stack of old New Yorkers…) The above is a great, chilly read for these hot summer days. I am not one to condemn movies, but please, read the book and then judge for yourself. This novel sparkles in the ghost of snowy mornings. Its pixie dust reveals the Hudson Valley like you’ve never experienced.  ‘Nough said.


Look up my previous post about  Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. We love Little Nel characters – the “one against” and “underdog” archetype – who either triumph against all evil or succumb as martyr. No spoilers but there are moments in this novel where I had to pause to re-read and cherish. This cherishing can be easily done by poolside.


This is for my students who would like to crawl inside what “voice” feels like in the novel. Robert Bird’s Introduction is key to understanding the circumstances of Dostoevsky’s life at the time he wrote Notes from the Underground. You’ll notice, eventually, that the protagonist is unreliable and that he is one of those you love to dislike.

harriet the spy

Yes. I believe Louise Fitzhugh stands up to Dostoevsky.  If you never sat down and read this in your teens, or if you have and haven’t revisited it for a while, you’ll be sucked in by Harriet’s life rather than told or pandered to. She’s bossy and insistent and has set presidents for so many novels and movies.


If you have never read Byatt’s Possession, it’s a treat waiting for you. Two story-lines concurrently. Love twists and intrigue. It’s thick so if you prefer shorter novels, then maybe read this in sections. Again, the movie is up to you to judge. Read the book first.

I tried to sift through my Margaret Atwood library and can’t pick out just one. Try to read any Atwood. Buy one randomly and you will be thrilled. If you want to read Alias Grace, read it first and then watch the Netflix production.


Persuasion is one of Jane Austen’s more subversive novels. If you pick up an Austen novel this summer, you’ll enjoy trotting into parlors in Bath, England and all of the social circumstances Anne Elliot is up against. Another underdog story.

Any and all Bronte sisters.

If you would like to delve into Early Modern Britain’s history, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World is, in my opinion, the first science-fiction novel.

If you’re scratching your head and asking: what does she like that is new? You can message me. This post is disparate but aims for pool length novel reading.

Here is a list of authors I tend to like:

Elena Ferrante

Jhumpa Lahiri

Arundhati Roy

Josephine Tey

Again, not any kind of order to the above. Just off-the-hip suggestions from someone who likes to read…





It Was Love at First Sight


My posts are few and far between since I’m re-writing three memoirs, a novel, and am on the second chapter of my dissertation while teaching, and my cat’s femur broke, was repaired, and screws came loose. Now we’re hanging tight hoping for miracle bone to heal itself.

I’m relying on the articulate ladies’ choices forming my bookclub’s reading list to comprise my blog. Just while I finish these projects. If it isn’t Goethe or Early Modern Rogues, I’m not reading it right now – with the exception of my bookclub text.

With that said, Phillip Roth’s opening paragraph in Goodbye Columbus is one of those passages that makes the weak writer in me cringe. Not a bad cringe. It’s that cringe every writer knows–the “I shouldn’t be a writer” or the “I’m not worthy” cringe. Dickens does it to me. So does Raymond Carver. Lydia Davis. A kind of –should I really be trying to do such a thing as write? Instead of the tired phrase I used as title for this entry, Roth employs advanced techniques. Gesture, yes. But more than gesture- he develops both characters. Well, I’ll explain more after I show you the paragraph:

The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could have been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it. She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. She glided to the edge and then was beside m. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes watery though not from water. She extended a hand for her glasses but did not put them on until she turned and headed away. I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped. (3)

I already mentioned gesture that is strewn throughout this passage: the glasses holding, the foggy look into the pool, the glide to its edge, and the catching of the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and its flick back over the flesh. All of this slows the moment, presents her through our narrator’s eyes (first person) and creates a dynamic that lasts until the end of the story. In communication theory, once you hold or touch someone’s property or take/eat something of theirs, you feel indebted. In this section, holding the glasses is a power move and reveals the shifting away from our protagonist, his helplessness and socioeconomic inadequacy that dooms the couple. As I instruct my students to do, I also chide myself for not employing enough active verbs. Not a problem for Roth. Also, if you want a great example of telling and showing – the last statement does both through a hyperbolic gesture that all the writing teachers in the world want you to just know – and that, my friend, is called voice.

Her Eyes Were the Key to Her Soul


I have to admit, while in my PhD program, I’d peruse the English aisles at the DU book store and scan other faculty’s classes’ text offerings, to see what I was missing. I also would check out what my fellow PhD candidates were teaching. I came across Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station. Someone at one time or another had recommended him to me a while back so I read the blurbs about terrorism, Spain, Fulbright…and I thought, why not?

His sentences do sing. This paragraph, a great testament to how students don’t have to say “She had piercing blue eyes.”

“Whenever I was with Theresa, whenever we were talking, I felt our faces engaged in a more substantial and sophisticated conversation than our voices. Her face was formidable; it seemed by turns very young and very old; when she opened her eyes wide, she looked like a child, and when she squinted in concentration, the tiny wrinkles at their corners made her seem worldly, wise. Because she could instantly look younger or older, more innocent or experienced than she was, she could parry whatever speech was addressed to her. If you were to accuse her, say, of reading too much into a particular scene in a movie, she would widen her eyes and look at you with an innocence that made you feel guilty of projection; if you accused her of some form of naivete, her squint would bespeak such expanses of experience that the accusation was instantly turned back upon you.” (82)

Throughout Leaving The Atocha Station, Lerner allows us to struggle with him in the dregs and no-mans-land between language – a place he describes well when trying to interpret others around him in conversation.

Does his overly-privileged, apathetic and lying character offend? Is this character meant to get the proverbial rise, especially out of those of us who scrape at walls trying to achieve something so special and amazing as a Fulbright? Does this type of reader (Yes, it is me) resent the main character with fury while reading this text? Yes. I do. Would I recommend it? I am not sure.

I read The Scarlet Letter five times throughout five changes to different high schools. Does that mean I have to pick it up again and read it in adulthood? No.

I acquiesce to the beautiful sentence and to the pretty lines peppered throughout this text. I guess I wanted a few more overt hints that this guy is a monster…a la “I am a sick man. … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” But we only get these nuanced and yet very ugly American gestures. The worst of privileged scholars, I’d say. I wanted off the train, never to see this guy again. But use your best judgment. I am biased. My PhD was a teaching fellowship, which I cherished.

#bannedpoem [special post re: banned words]

Hi all,

This is a special post in reaction to a notion that words can be banned in our land of the free: our United States.

Here’s my #banned poem #1


At least one #vulnerable catalpa

not yet born #diversity

#entitlement of Robins’ eggs

#transgender Twins

Tower semi-automatic semiotic #fetus


wish-wash, troubleshoot, toe-to-heal

baggers bag evidence-based micro-organisms

fill Trump’s water-bed.


Telephone poles tell all when

tapped. Nets and neutrals,


list your monotone troubles

with ads,

they’ll always listen empirically.

feebling free, at least no wranglers

ranging from ages 3 to 93

ropes shoot from the hip



Tell the telephones’ dials

Say the saw-toothed sides

Wail the wassailer songs

when buildings shed their Gods

and #sciencebased lips tell the truth.


Cloister “not to vex the senses”

paper bodies







So this is a little off the beaten track. I thought I’d share a taste of what I’m studying for my dissertation. Early Modern Women contributed to women’s issues throughout the end of the sixteenth and all through the seventeenth centuries. As I read Margaret Cavendish’s plays, faux letters and essays, I kept thinking, “Why? Why were women not successful with this movement?” And then in a wonderful text edited by Ostovich and Sauer Reading Early Modern Women, they cite Suzanne Hull who conducted extensive research on my question. The answer? “Eighty-five percent of the 163 books in 500 editions addressed to women or largely concerned with women’s behavior or rules were published between 1570 and 1640. That is — manners books telling women how to act, what not to write, how not to speak, etc. But, at least women had a small come back, and contested these texts in ones like Margaret Cavendish’s play “The Convent of Pleasure from Plays Never Before Printed.”

In this play, the main ingenue named Happy is beautiful and wealthy. The opening scene shows three gentlemen discussing/scheming how they should marry her and all benefit from her wealth. But in the next scene, Happy speaks with her servant:

Servant: Madam, you being young, handsome, rich, and virtuous, I hope you will not cast away those gifts of Nature, Fortune and Heaven, upon a person which cannot merit you?

Happy: Let me tell you, that Riches ought to be bestowed on such as are poor, and want means to maintain themselves; and Youth, on those that are old; Beauty, on those that are ill-favoured, and Virtue, on those that are vicious: So that if I should place my gifts rightly, I must Marry one that’s poor, old, ill-favoured, and debauch’d.

Margaret was condemned by some who told her she didn’t write the play according to the “play rules” by Aristotle, which was a way to keep women from publishing. This passage not only reveals an individual mind, but a clever one, one who has considered the world at large, the problems in society, and offers herself as example to right its wrongs.

The play goes on to reveal Happy cloistering herself in a women’s only club, the “Convent of Pleasure” where the goal is to get away from men because they only cause displeasure. Happy describes this cloister as “not a cloister of restraint, but a place for freedom, not to vex the senses but to please them” (Cavendish 101).

I’m crazy to post right before my comprehensive exams, but I haven’t posted in so very long and need to be somewhat human again. I can only hope that this utopian feminine cloister gave some women hope, gave them strength in a society that took away rights and limited speech. Margaret calls to us today, to protect our successes, our speech, our bodies, and our rights.



What you usually call disgusting is my beauty.


Lydia Davis

While I was supposed to be reading Herman Melville’s poetry and Literary Criticism throughout the ages, I received The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in the mail and I couldn’t read anything else. What the title of this entry suggests is how Lydia Davis turns everything we’ve ever known on its head. Where was she fifteen years ago for my beginning fiction courses? I can’t regret the years I haven’t read Lydia Davis. Let’s just be thankful, right?

I title this entry in reaction to the story: “Cockroaches in Autumn.” She begins:

“On the white painted bolt of a door that is never opened, a thick line of tiny black grains–the dung of cockroaches.”

Not a word wasted, this first line sets theme, character and introduces plot through a fragmented thought.


“I am alert to small moving things, and spin around toward a floating dust mote. I am alert to darker spots against a lighter background, but these are only the roses on my pillowcase.”

This dispassionate assessment of the infiltration and nerves that can set one into an anxiety spiral sheds new light on the subject: herself as an experient. It’s as if she sat down with the thought: I wonder if I can show myself as a removed observer and anxiety ridden at the same time? Mission accomplished.

She ends with the fragment:

“The white autumn light in the afternoon. They sleep behind a child’s drawings on the kitchen wall. I tap each piece of paper and they burst out from the edges of pictures that are already filled with shooting stars, missiles, machine guns, land mines…”

All of these fragments study, at arms length, relationships of sharing our spaces and environment with others, whether they have goals to subsist or to gain insight.

The entire collection asks: what do you know of the world? And the answers are many, layered, not over-thought, on the page at least, and will reside with you for the rest of your life. Thank you, Ms. Davis!





She Was Trapped in and by Her Job

Henry James

I’ve read too much to comment on in any kind of articulate way. I’m entering my second year (yay!) of a PhD program at DU in Literary Studies. I thought I’d consumed books before, but now, I know the difference. Out of my first year’s grouping, let me isolate at least one sentence. A challenging task –and if you befriend me on Goodreads, you can peruse the list– though I must choose Henry James. I thankfully was tasked to read his novella In The Cage: a tale about a telegrapher woman who fantasizes about her high-society customers. She doesn’t want to break the fantasy by joining them, though. That wouldn’t do.

This novella is stream-of-consciousness only because James is fond of the comma. One can read along but it takes fortitude and the kind of alertness one stores in the marrow for poetry.

Coming from retail myself, there are points at which I am plunged back into the service industry, regardless of time or station. The smells of retail are visceral and come with any category of work. They are always assailing and strong and give one a delayed repugnance long after the job is left behind.

Case in point:

“Her function was to sit there with two young men—the other telegraphist and the counter-clerk; to mind the ‘sounder,’ which was always going, to dole out stamps and postal-orders, weigh letters, answer stupid questions, give difficult change and, more than anything else, count words as numberless as the sands of the sea, the words of the telegrams thrust, from morning to night, through the gap left in the high lattice, across the encumbered shelf that her forearm ached with rubbing. This transparent screen fenced out or fenced in, according to the side of the narrow counter on which the human lot was cast, the duskiest corner of a shop pervaded not a little, in winter, by the poison of perpetual gas, and at all times by the presence of hams, cheese, dried fish, soap, varnish, paraffin, and other solids and fluids that she came to know perfectly by their smells without consenting to know them by their names” (James 118).

Immediately, I’m reminded of patio duty at The Westin Resort’s restaurant. 6 am, when the nose is not used to any smell, being attacked by egg and onion and Pine-Sol. Or 6 am at Crabtree and Evelyn, the store would ooze into the mall a woody-rose combination. Once in, the powdery scent of Nantucket Briar took over. Chucking lunch and sometimes dinner into the tiny, souring fridge…

What is Henry James’ lesson here? Part POV, part illegal use of prepositional phrases all piled up…commas, semicolons, smells and sounds all contribute to character and this character is the plot.