Constance Fenimore Woolson – A Fiction Author Recovered


‘Miss Grief and Other Stories’ by Constance Fenimore Woolson    (1840 – 1894) – 287 pages   Edited by Anne Boyd Rioux



I am always up for the reclamation of authors, especially woman authors who have been unnecessarily trivialized or ignored.  Before Tim Page, who knew that Dawn Powell was probably the best United States fiction writer of last century, surpassing even Hemingway and Fitzgerald?  And in all of England there is no writer I would rather read than Elizabeth Taylor.  Randall Jarrell did an excellent job reclaiming the novel ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ by Christina Stead from the dustbin of history.  I did my own small part in recovering Henry Handel Richardson and her ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ trilogy‘ early on in my blogging career.

Now Anne Boyd Rioux is reclaiming the nineteenth century author Constance Fenimore Woolson by writing Woolson’s biography and editing her ‘Miss Grief and Other Stories’.

Constance Fenimore Woolson was considered one of the best writers of her time in the late 19th century.  Woolson was a quintessential American writer.  She wrote stories of Ohio and the Great Lakes and later when she moved to Florida, stories of the American South.  The characteristic scene for Woolson is on a boat or in a lighthouse along a sea shore or in a river or stream or even in a marsh.  She excels in her descriptions of nature, makes you feel that you are there in the water with her.  I don’t know how she got so much experience on boats, but it seems quite unusual for a woman of that time.

“You might call it a marsh, but there was no mud, no dark slimy water, no stagnant scum; there were no rank yellow lilies, no gormandizing frogs, no swinish mud-turtles.” 

“The lazy gulls who had no work to do, and would not have done it if they had, rode at ease on the little wavelets close in shore.”    

The style is of its time in the 1870s and 1880s, longer sentences and longer paragraphs, perhaps more description altogether.  It takes a bit of getting used to.  However as I read these stories, I got that rush I get only when I am reading fine fiction.

In her story ‘Solomon’, Woolson captures the dignity of a poor coal miner in eastern Ohio who spends all his free time painting primitive pictures of his wife until he finally dies, poisoned by the gas from the mine.   I found this to be a deeply moving story.

The words used to describe a black person in Woolson’s story  ‘Rodman The Keeper’ could easily be interpreted as racist which they are.  But at the same time one must remember that the N-word was used by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn 219 times, and that Henry James considered himself so aristocratic that he never even depicted black people in his novels.  Otherwise, ‘Rodman The Keeper’ is a compassionate story that takes place at a Union cemetery in North Carolina a few years after the Civil War.

In 1879, Constance Fenimore Woolson made what I consider to be the most disastrous mistake of her writing career and perhaps even of her life.  Why would a woman who was so in tune to the natural world of the United States move to Italy?  Her story ‘Miss Grief” hints that Woolson was already in thrall of Henry James even before she met him.  At this point Woolson was much the more famous writer with James still largely unknown.  Later Woolson and Henry James became close friends in Europe, with the two of them keeping separate apartments in a shared rented villa for a time.   They kept in touch until the end.

Early in Woolson’s career,  George Eliot and her empathetic realism were her role models for fiction writing.  However Woolson changed her writing style toward Henry James’ contrived brand of analytical realism.  Her later story ‘A Florentine Experiment’ reads like warmed-over Henry James about insanely rich people traipsing around Italian museums and their own Italian mansions.  This story was a severe disappointment to me after reading Woolson’s early original and forceful American stories.

The story of Constance Fenimore Woolson ends tragically.  Woolson was always prone to bouts of depression and on the night of January 24, 1894, she fell or jumped from the third floor window of the bedroom of her Venetian villa to her death.  Henry James afterwards told of how he disposed of Woolson’s old clothing in a Venetian lagoon three months later, but the dresses kept rising to the surface.


Grade:    B 


‘The Nest’ Phenomenon


‘The Nest’ by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney   (2016) – 352 pages



Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney has captured the secret of the ages in her new novel ‘The Nest’.  And what is that secret?  It is that a family is nothing more or less than a collection of characters.  Your family or my family may have a different set of characters, but characters we all are just the same.

In ‘The Nest’, we have the Plumb family siblings Melody, Jack, Bea, and Leo.  Melody is the wifey-wife and mommy-mom; she has husband Walter and two daughters, Nora and Louise, ready for college and all its expense.  Jack is the gay guy with his husband Walker and his antique store.  Bea is still single and still struggling to be a writer.  And Leo is the outrageous one who though pushing fifty still picks up stray young women at weddings and makes out with them in a car parked near the church.  Is this a dysfunctional family or just another typical family?

Like any family, they could all use more money.  That is where the nest or nest egg comes in.  Their father had put aside some money before he died, and now it has grown over the years to be divided equally among the children when the youngest, Melody, turns forty.

The point of view shifts from family member to family member to one or another of their acquaintances throughout the novel, so we get a varied picture of this family living in and around New York.  The time is today, nearly fifteen years after 9/11.  There is the obligatory 9/11 scene in ‘The Nest’, but life moves on.  There is room for plenty of humor in ‘The Nest’.

‘The Nest’ is one of those rarest of novels, both a remarkable literary debut and a best-seller.  The author maintains just the correct distance from her characters so that we can see them clearly but also with enough irony and humor so we can fully enjoy them.   I must say I too got caught up in the lively energy of the writing in ‘The Nest’, devouring this novel much faster than I normally read novels.  The scenes are either hilarious or poignant or both.

There is a prologue scene in ‘The Nest’, and that scene reminded me very much of a famous one in another novel that was also both a literary and best-selling sensation, ‘The World According to Garp’ by John Irving.  The scenes in both novels involve a man and a woman in a parked car and a tragic car accident.   Both ‘Garp’ and ‘The Nest’ are high-activity and sharply written novels that you just want to keep reading to find out what happens next.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney received at least a million dollar advance for this novel, and Amazon Films has already purchased the movie rights for it.  The author is 55 years old, and ‘The Nest’ is her first novel.  That is kind of cool too.


Grade:    A-    

‘Slow Days, Fast Company’ by Eve Babitz – The World, The Flesh, and L.A.


‘Slow Days, Fast Company’ by Eve Babitz   (1977) – 178 pages



New York Review Books (NYRB Classics) is issuing a new version of the 1977 fiction ‘Slow Days, Fast Company’ by Eve Babitz in August of this year, so I decided to be uncharacteristically ahead of the curve this time in reading and writing about it.  This book is described as a series of fictional memoirs, which I suppose means that the events described within actually happened, but that the names have been changed to protect the guilty.  And guilty these characters would probably be considering some of their behavior.  There are threesomes, there are women going back and forth between guys and gals, and men going back and forth between gals and guys.  This is Hollywood in the 1970s, and Eve Babitz was on the front lines of it all.   But this book is not mainly about sex; it is about enjoying wild and wicked times in Los Angeles.

Eve Basbitz started out in the art world.  When she was nineteen in 1963, an iconic picture of her was taken with Eve playing chess in the nude with renowned Dada artist Marcel Duchamp.  You can easily find this picture puppy now via any image search engine.  In the Sixties she designed album covers for such music acts as the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield.   Babitz took the picture of Linda Ronstadt that appears on the cover of the ‘’Heart Like A Wheel’ album.  As well as these music acts out in Laurel Canyon, Babitz met a lot of the set designers working on Hollywood movies.

As NYRB has discovered, Eve Babitz had a talent for writing.  She was “a frivolous young woman prone to adventure.”  Her earlier memoir ‘Eve’s Hollywood’ which I also have read was also republished by NYRB.

A lot of ‘Fast Days, Slow Company’ has to do with the quandary of male/female relationships.

“I’ve often noticed that there is a moment when a man develops enough confidence and ease in a relationship to bore you to death.  Sometimes one hardly even notices it’s happened, that moment, until some careless remark arouses one’s suspicions.  I have found that what usually brings this lethargy on is if the woman displays some special kindness.  Like making dinner.”

This is lively effervescent writing.  Since it is a series of scattered fictional memoirs, the book lacks the coherence of a single novel.  However I believe it gives a good overall picture of what life must have been like in the middle 1970s in Los Angeles for the fast crowd, for the art and movie and music types.


Grade:    B 


‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ by Jennifer Johnston, Irish Virtuoso of the Short Intense Novel


‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’  by Jennifer Johnston   (1974) – 156 pages




‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ tells about an Irish family facing World War I, but it is no exercise in misty-eyed nostalgia; this novel confronts hard truths head on.    It sure would be nice if we all came from loving reasonably happy families but that simply is not the case, not even among the upper class people.  Bitter unhappiness in families and hugely murderous wars are two of the manifestations of imperfection in humans, and ‘Babylon’ deals with them both.

This novel is about two Irish boys, Alec and Jerry, who go off to fight in World War I.  Alec is upper class; Jerry is lower class.  They befriend each other while out in the fields while young, much to Alec’s mother’s distress.  Alec’s mother is one of the most spiteful characters I have ever come across in fiction.  The marriage between Alec’s mother and Alec’s father is strained somewhere between indifference and outright hatred.  Here is a couple who probably should have been divorced, but divorce was unacceptable at that time.

“Mother was always insistent in an immaculate appearance at the breakfast table.  They would be there, immaculate themselves, their heads elegantly bent towards the breakfast morning papers and the cream-drenched porridge, starched damask napkins folded neatly across their knees. They would grow old immaculately, their implacable hatred of each other hidden from the world.  Is hatred as necessary as love, I wondered, to keep the wheels driving forward?”

These lines highlight two of the special qualities in Jennifer Johnston’s writing.  There are the physical details that dramatize the scene but also advance the story, “the cream-drenched porridge, the starched damask napkins folded neatly across the knees”.  But then also there is the heavy emotional weight of the scene, the couple’s “implacable hatred of each other hidden from the world”.   There would have been so many other ways for Johnston to lighten this scene, but she instead faces up to the antagonism between this husband and wife directly.

We also get into the political situation at the time.  Irish men are fighting in the British army, but many of them during World War I are looking forward to the day when Ireland will be independent of England, and they resent having to follow the commands of their British officers.

Whenever I read a novel by Jennifer Johnston (and I have read at least six), I think this could really work well as a play or a movie.  She always has strong characters and dramatic scenes in her stories that just seem to be calling out to be portrayed by actors.  I know her father, Denis Johnston, was a playwright so it is in her genes.

All of the novels of Jennifer Johnston that I have read have been tough-minded and deal with hard truths, and ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ is no exception.  However her writing is also lyrical and passionate and you get a grand picture of what life was like in the Irish countryside.  She is a master of the short intense novel.

I do believe that Jennifer Johnston is one of the absolute strongest writers of recent times and that you could do yourself a favor and read her work.   But don’t only take my word for it.    Check out the Jennifer Johnston collection at Reading Matters.  Jennifer Johnston is also the favorite living author of Kim at Reading Matters.


Grade:   A 


Modern Fiction Writers Who Have Been Harassed or Banned for Political Reasons


Here are ten courageous authors who have written truth to power in their novels and stories and have gotten into trouble for doing it.


PersepolisMarjane Satrapi  – Marjane Satrapi’s marvelous graphic novels Persepolis and Persepolis 2 are not only banned in her birthplace country of Iran.  These books are also banned from Chicago Public Schools classrooms below grade 8.  In fact Persepolis is now number two on the top ten list of frequently challenged books in the United States.  The reason for banning is supposedly the one or two depictions of torture, but some have wondered if the books’ positive images of Muslims may be the actual reason.



Hans Fallada – By the time the Nazis took over, Hans Fallada was already a successful author with his books translated and published in Great Britain and the United States.  However in 1935 Fallada was declared by the Nazis an “undesirable author”. Fallada continued to write, and his fortunes changed somewhat when the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called one of his novels, ‘Wolf Among Wolves’, “a super book”.  Goebbels repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to get Fallada to write an anti-Semitic novel.  Ultimately Fallada was incarcerated in a Nazi insane asylum for other reasons.  After the war Fallada wrote his anti-Fascist masterpiece ‘Alone in Berlin’ (‘Every Man Dies Alone’) while in a mental institution.  Fallada died shortly thereafter.


263555._UY200_ Abdul Rahman Munif –  Saudi novelist Abdul Rahman Munif had his powerful works banned in Saudi Arabia for their scathing criticism of the oil industry in the Middle East and of the elite Saudis who played along with the oil companies.  Munif was also stripped of his Saudi citizenship.  His ‘Cities of Salt’ trilogy describes how the desert oasis village of Wadi-Al-Uyoun was transformed and destroyed by the arrival of western oilmen.   I read the entire ‘Cities of Salt’ trilogy which I consider probably the strongest work of protest in modern literature.  The trilogy is difficult to find in the United States for perhaps apparent reasons.


the four booksYan Lianke – Yan Lianke is China’s most banned and censored novelist.  He is also one of China’s most popular writers. I have recently read his novel ‘The Four Books’ which is his powerful work about China’s Great Leap Forward.  I will be writing a separate whole article about this novel soon.  It was an act of courage for Lianke to write about this massive government failure and major famine that occurred between the years of 1958 and 1962.  It is a sign that China is finally opening up to some extent that this work has been published and translated.


21318-MLM7474457131_122014-OHerta Muller – Early in her career, Herta Muller was fired from her job as a translator because she refused to be an informant for the secret police in Communist  Romania.  Later because of her criticism of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, Muller was banned from publishing in her own country.  She won the Nobel Literary prize in 2009.  In 2012 she severely criticized the Nobel selection of Mo Yan as a catastrophe calling him a Chinese writer who “celebrates censorship”.    So far I have only read one novel by Herta Muller, ‘The Land of Green Plums’, but I hope to read more soon.


4cd40492131723f092e7ff060955c4cdAlberto Moravia – Alberto Moravia’s first novel “The Time of Indifference” got him in trouble with the Fascist authorities under Mussolini.  After that, he ultimately had to leave the country and write under a pseudonym.  However, unlike several others on this list, Moravia’s story had a happy ending.  With the liberation of Italy, Moravia returned and had a long and successful career as a fiction writer and screen writer.  Among his many fine works are ‘The Woman of Rome’, ‘Boredom’, ‘Contempt’, and ‘Agostino’.  He was also a great story writer.


md15648249826Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky) – Andei Sinyavsky was arrested and imprisoned by the Soviet authorities in 1966 on charges of “anti-Soviet activity” for the opinions of his fictional characters.  He was released in 1971 and allowed to emigrate to France.  One interesting sidelight, Sinyavsky was the catalyst for forming the excellent Russian-English translation team of Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear.  Perhaps Sinyavsky’s greatest work is his satirical memoir ‘Goodnight!’, but I have also read and enjoyed several other of his fine novels.


9780140061406Nadine Gordimer – Gordimer was active in the anti-apartheid movement joining the African National Congress when that organization was banned in South Africa.  She edited Nelson Mandela’s famous speech, “I am Prepared to Die”, which he gave at his trial in 1962. Gordimer’s excellent novels, among them ‘July’s People’ and ‘Burger’s Daughter’, deal with how people cope with the terrible choices forced on them by racial hatred.  Her books were banned in South Africa up until the end of apartheid in 1994.


6a00e5509ea6a1883401a3fd343154970b-120wiJaroslav Hasek  – “The Good Soldier Schweik”  is at the top on the list of the funniest anti-war novels ever. It is about an unfunny subject, World War I.   Joseph Heller has said that he would never have written his anti-war novel “Catch-22” if it had not been for “The Good Soldier Schweik”.  This subversive novel was banned from the Czech army in 1925, the Polish translation was confiscated in 1928, the Bulgarian translation was suppressed in 1935, and the German translation was burned in Nazi bonfires in 1933.  It is especially common that army headquarters will ban this novel, citing necessary discipline within their units. Somehow it has survived.


_39238813_pamuk2Orhan Pamuk – The novels of Turkish novelist and Nobel Literary winner Orhan Pamuk have often been banned and burned in Turkey.  In 2005, Pamuk was arrested for an “insult to Turkishness” for the following remark: “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”  The charges were later dropped.  He has become the most prominent advocate of a modern, liberal, cosmopolitan Turkey. Of Pamuk’s excellent novels, so far I have read ‘The Black Book’, ‘My Name is Red’, and ‘Snow’.




‘Love in a Cold Climate’ by Nancy Mitford -The Hilarious and Necessary Corrective to Downton Abbey


‘Love in a Cold Climate’  by Nancy Mitford   (1949) – 256 pages



I watched and delighted in Downton Abbey as much as anyone else, tuning in each week to watch the adventures of the supremely aristocratic Crawley family and their household staff.  I figured that Downton Abbey was precisely calibrated to please those of today’s upper class who might still contribute money to public television, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Nancy Mitford was born into one of those aristocratic families in England but her view is entirely different from that of the writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes.    Hers is a much less humane, wickedly humorous, look at the aristocracy from the inside.  Somehow I trust Nancy Mitford in her picture of the upper class more than Julian Fellowes.  The aristocrats at Downton Abbey are portrayed as being nowhere near as obnoxious as many of them at that time actually were.

Whereas in Downtown Abbey, the family cares oh so much about all the trials and tribulations that beset members of their household staff,  in ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ Lady Montdore says “I love being so dry in here and seeing all those poor people so wet.”

Here is Mitford’s wicked description of Lady Montdore:

“Her curtsies, owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind.  She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost like a cow, a strange performance, painful it might be supposed to the performer, the expression on whose face, however, belied that thought.  Her knees cracked like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.”

In Downton, the Maggie Smith character, the Countess of Grantham, says abrupt rascally things, but she is still lovable.  In ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ the aristocrats’ behavior is often unjustifiably hateful.

In ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, we have Boy Dougdale, the Lecherous Lecturer.  He is a rich uncle in his forties who flirts with the fourteen year old girls.

“But the fascinating thing was after the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex, think what a thrill.  He took Linda up on to the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least, she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer.  And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing.  Do admit, Fanny.”

The whole family is appalled when the now eighteen year old Polly decides to marry her recently widowed uncle Boy Dougdale.

As Jassy truly observed, however, “Isn’t Sadie a scream, she simply doesn’t realize that what put Polly on the Lecturer’s side in the first place must have been all those dreadful things he did to her, like he once tried to with Linda and me, and that now what she really wants most in the world is to roll and roll and roll about with him in a double bed.”

The Mitford Manor House

The Mitford Manor House

You can be sharp and mean and wicked in fiction.  They don’t write them like ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ anymore.  I wish they did.

The idea that Downton Abbey misses is that all that money and free time gave these aristocratic families many opportunities to misbehave, and misbehave they did.  Many were unregenerate Nazis and needlessly cruel to their servants and less fortunate others.  And their misbehavior could take countless other forms.  I’m not saying that aristocrats were worse than the rest of us; they were just as bad, and considering the money and influence these people had the results were more pernicious.

I think Nancy Mitford would have agreed with that.



Grade:   A


‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ by Anthony Marra –“Heroin on the Kitchen Table, Snow on the Window Sill”


‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ by Anthony Marra   (2015) – 332 pages



Here is a story of modern Russia with its origins in the old Soviet state.  Life goes on, and Anthony Marra captures a lot of it.

‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ is arranged like a homemade mixtape with a Side A, an Intermission, and a Side B.  At first the material on the mixtape seems unrelated, but a pattern develops.   It contains riffs on Kirovsk in Siberia, Chechnya, and St. Petersburg, riffs on the old Communist oligarchy and the new organized crime oligarchy who took over after Communism fell.  The crime team now rules, and not much has changed since the old Communist years.

When Communism fell, the people of Chechnya fought a war and won their independence just like many of the countries in Eastern Europe had achieved.  However the organized crime bosses ruling Russia lusted after all that oil money to be made in Chechnya and fought another vicious Chechen War to get it back.

An example of Anthony Marra’s sardonic black humor is the story titled “The Grozny Tourist Bureau”. It takes place in 2003 after the first and second Chechen Wars have left Grozny the most devastated city on earth according to the United Nations.  In the 1990s, Chechnya was one of the most heavily mined regions in the world with an estimated 500,000 planted land mines. The Chechnya Museum of Regional Art had been destroyed by Russian rockets, and now the former deputy director of the museum has been named the chief of the Grozny Tourist Bureau.  He must now write a brochure explaining the glories of Chechnya for tourists.

“Upon seeing the space where an apartment block once stood, I wrote “wide and unobstructed skies”.  I watched jubilantly as a pack of feral dogs chased a man, and wrote “unexpected encounters with natural life”.

Life goes on even in miserable circumstances whether it was in the old Soviet forced labor camps in Kirovsk, Siberia or in the new war-torn Chechnya.

“Kirovsk isn’t that bad, is it?”

It’s a poisoned post-apocalyptic hellscape.  “It’s a wonderful place to raise a family.”    

‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ is one work of fiction I do not recommend you listen to via audiobook as I originally attempted to do. Many of the sentences in ‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ are too rich and dense with meaning and attitude to be fully appreciated by a casual listen.  Here it is best you read the words so you can easily stop, think about them, and fully appreciate them before moving on.  Here are typical sentences:

“Whatever life-preserving instincts evolution endowed him with have been war-blunted to an amused disregard for all mortality, particularly his own.”    

“But to some people ignorance is a sleeping mask they mistake for corrective lenses.”    

Besides, this fiction is so packed with marginally related characters, locations, and plot lines, it is difficult to keep the stories all together while listening.

Grozny, Chechnya After Two Wars

Grozny, Chechnya After Two Wars

The stories take place in many locales ranging from St. Petersburg to Kirovsk in Siberia to rural Chechnya to the Chechen capital city of Grozny to outer space.

If I were summarizing the plots of these interconnected stories, it would be as follows.  These stories give specific examples of the oligarchy-induced tragedies for the Russian people from the 1930s up until today.  From Stalin’s forced labor camps in Siberia to the Chechen Wars and beyond, the misfortunes for the people of Russia have continued.

This is a rich devastatingly well-written novel.  I only wish it were more tightly organized.  I just feel that a novel this complex should have more than a mixtape structure.  Anthony Marra is certainly making some strong statements about modern Russia, but the impact is somewhat blunted by the hodge-podge arrangement of the material.


Grade:   B+



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