Helen of Marlowe's Blog

The Perspective of Time

Posted in Literature, poetry by helenofmarlowe on August 4, 2017

If I could go back in time
and speak to my teenage self,
I thought last night,
I would say to her
When you are 70,
You will say happiness is
lying half asleep at 5:00 a.m.
listening to soft, gentle
snoring on your left,
listening to a woodthrush in the distant woods
and hearing the early songs of wrens
and cardinals and towhees through four open windows
on your right,
with a yellow cat curled up at your feet.

Helen Etters
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Work In Progress: on poetry and fiction

Posted in Literature by helenofmarlowe on March 16, 2014

When people learn that I taught English literature, they sometimes ask my favorite poets, or my favorite novels or novelists or short-story writers.

Usually the question throws me.  The first thing that comes to mind is whatever I happen to be reading at the moment.  So here is my effort to give that question some thought.

OK, POETS  You know, to be ready.

I love Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.  Might that be my favorite poem?  I can’t say that, but I can say I love the poem.  The opening lines

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me

resonate with me, so much that often, in the evening, as I am gathering up my garden tools, these first lines run through my head and heart.

Robert Frost — the narrative poems, especially.  The Witch of Coos is wonderful.  Home Burial is worth reading over and over, year after year after year. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge — especially The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Some of my favorite lines in that one are

The moving Moon went up the sky.
And nowhere did abide;
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside-

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to a Skylark

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! . . .

Billy Collins.  I especially love to hear him reading his own poems.  The way he reads, so un-dramatic. He makes the words stand or fall on their own strength.  No dramatic support from the poet.

Edgar Allen Poe, especially Annabel Lee (considered by critics to be inferior) and The Raven

Robert Browning’s Home Thoughts, From Abroad

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!

The fluting song of the wood thrush is, indeed, the musical sound that I look forward to every summer.  The towee comes in a close second.

And Browning’s   Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister

And His Last Duchess

And Fra Lippo Lippi

NOVELS, thinking of the classics. 

Middlemarch, by George Eliot.   I read this every few years.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorn

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

Howards End, by E.M. Forster.

And E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops,  A Room With a View

Contemporary writers

My new favorite is A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles.  A remarkable novel about a young count who is exiled to life in a hotel, by a Bolshevik tribunal.

I like Ann Patchett, especially  Bel Canto, Run, and The Magician’s Assistant

One contemporary novel that had a lasting effect on me was The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.  I highly recommend that one to just about anyone.  Also, its sequal,  Children of God

I like almost anything by Barbara Kingsolver, especially  Prodigal Summer and Poisonwood Bible.  I have not yet learned to love her latest, Lacuna.  I may try again later, with that one. Some critics have said it’s her best work.  Update: February 2014.  Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is now perhaps my favorite.  it appeals to me on so many levels: my interest in environmental issues, my connection to nature, and the strength of her characters; even the antagonists, the characters who stand in the way and fight the good, are presented as real people with life histories that lead them to where they are, and who have real and even sympathetic reasons for taking unsympathetic stands.  You can disagree with them, but you can’t wish them harm.  Her main character lives in an America that is foreign to any experience I’ve even known, and yet she rings true and comes to life as a friend you don’t want to leave when you turn the last page.

And of course there is Marilynne Robinson’s Home.  As the few  readers of my blog will know, I have a separate, whole ‘nother entry about Home.  It speaks to me.

I’m not a big fan of short stories. I like to be drawn into long novels. If I like the places a story takes me, then I want to stay there a while. But a few short stories come to mind that I’d recommend to just about anyone.

There’s Sarah Orne Jewett‘s The White Heron.

And there is James Agee‘s  A Mother’s Tale, a beast fable told by a mother cow to her son and daughter:

The calf ran up the hill as fast as he could and stopped sharp. “Mama!” he cried, all out of breath. “What is
it! What are they doing ‘! Where are they going!”
Other spring calves came galloping too.
They all were looking up at her and awaiting her explanation, but she looked out over their excited eyes. As
she watched the mysterious and majestic thing they had never seen before, her own eyes became even more
than ordinarily still, and during the considerable moment before she answered, she scarcely heard their urgent
Far out along the autumn plain, beneath the sloping light, an immense drove of cattle moved eastward.
They went at a walk, not very fast, but faster than they could imaginably enjoy.   …

And a top favorite, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, a 1922 short story by Katherine Mansfield.

I will come back to this, probably many times, as I continue to read and to find more literature to love.  As I remember old favorites and discover new ones.  More to come, and while I think further on this, I’d welcome comments about your favorites in literature.

Nero Wolfe’s Income Taxes

Posted in "North Carolina", Literature, Politics by helenofmarlowe on August 25, 2012

Nero Wolfe, detective extraordinaire who sprang from the imagination of Rex Stout in the 1930s, is in the 90%  (marginal) tax bracket.

I was reminded of today’s conflict between Tea Party Republicans and the Occupiers, and almost everyone in between, when I recently read a Nero Wolfe mystery.

Most of Nero Wolfe’s clients come into his office with a $10,000 deposit. And with assurance that this is only a deposit, and that after the job is completed, Wolfe can make out the bill for whatever he wants it to be. Wolfe usually replies something to the effect that he always makes out his bill for whatever he wants it to be.

But in “Instead of Evidence” (1946) Wolfe is about to turn down a job. Not just because he doesn’t like the job, but also because the fee being offered is absurdly low, only – at least for deposit – $5000.

The client stuck his cigar in his mouth, took it out again, and asked, “What’s the matter, don’t you want five thousand dollars?”

Wolfe said gruffly, “I wouldn’t get five thousand dollars. This is October. As my nineteen forty-five income now stands, I’ll keep about ten per cent of any additional receipts after paying taxes. Out of five thousand, five hundred would be mine. If Mr. Blaney is as clever as you think he is, I wouldn’t consider trying to uncover him on a murder for five hundred dollars.”

The prospective client is not so easily deterred. His hand went into a pocket and came out full of folded money, and he began to speak to Mr. Wolfe of the advantage of taking cash, thereby allowing the detective to keep the full amount. No receipt required.

But, as narrator and Wolfe sidekick Archie Goodwin reports,

Wolfe’s look stopped him. “Pfui,” Wolfe said. He hadn’t had as good a chance to show off for a month. “I am not a common cheat. Not that I am a saint. Given adequate provocation, I might conceivably cheat a man – or a woman or even a child. But you are suggesting that I cheat, not a man or woman or child, but a hundred and forty million of my fellow citizens. Bah.”

No Swiss bank accounts or off-shore investments or hedge funds for Nero Wolfe.  No hiding assets in the Cayman Islands.  Cheat a hundred and forty million of his fellow citizens? Bah!

In search of Correo del Maestro

Posted in fiction, Literature by helenofmarlowe on May 28, 2011

May 28, 2011

I have a calendar on my desk. It’s a perpetual calendar, with photos of world masterpieces in art museums. I could tell you which museums, except that I don’t read Spanish.

This calendar has been on my desk for several years.

I like it. I even turn its pages once in a while.

But you wouldn’t have noticed it in my clutter.

Recently, I cleaned off my desk, and Emily noticed my calendar.

Cool!” she said, or maybe “Awsome!” or maybe just “Hey, I like this!” She said whatever monolingual eighteen-year-old American girls say when they see a calendar with 365 works of art and all the words in Spanish.

So, I thought, aha! Idea! I will buy one for Emily, and surprise her.

Next day I set about the task of finding a copy of Un ano en el Museo.

Put together, as far as I can tell, by Olivia Barbet-Massin and Caroline Larroche,

Recuerdo de Mortefontaine
Recuerdo de Mortefontaine

and published by Correo del Maestro. ISBN# 9685142025.

Here it is – I opened it to a pretty page.

But to get back to my task – I’m not a bad googler, and I usually find what I want. But I can’t find this calendar. I did find a picture of it, but not accompanied by an order form, or an email address, or a telephone, and besides, the site was in Spanish (see paragraph #1).

After trying longer than a person with better sense would, I decided this was not working out and that, as all enlightened people know, there is more than one path to the true calendar. I would find another way.

The next day I put the calendar into a plastic bag, so that I could wrap it around the handle bars (my bicycle doesn’t have a basket) and I rode my bicycle over to Wake Forest University, which is within bicycling distance even for me.

Logic being, they know how to speak all sorts of foreign languages over there, and they have a bookstore which means they know how to order things with ISBN numbers.


I was directed to Lizzie, who orders things. Lizzie looked at all the clues, and said she’d get back with me.

A few days later, she did. She can’t find it.

But I have other resources. I happen to live right next door to a librarian. Now in case you didn’t know this, nb:

Librarians know everything. Especially things with ISBN numbers.

And what they don’t know, they know how to find out.

Most of the time. But not this time.

She did, however, find the email address of the publisher. And a picture of a similar calendar in French (but no ordering information). I thanked my good friend for getting a step closer, and I sent email (in English) to Correo del Maestro.

un ano en el museo

un ano en el museo

As my hopes for a response diminish, I try Plan C.

Which is to write this.

If all three of the people who occasionally read my blog would mention this to three of their friends, and those people do the same, someone will find this calendar, and I can order it.

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