Tag Archives: Mary Gordon

Book Serendipity, Mid-April through Early June

I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. This is a regular feature of mine every few months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.


  • Fishing with dynamite takes place in Glowing Still by Sara Wheeler and In Memoriam by Alice Winn.


  • Egg collecting (illegal!) is observed and/or discussed in Sea Bean by Sally Huband and The Jay, the Beech and the Limpetshell by Richard Smyth.
  • Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know is quoted in What I’d Rather Not Think About by Jente Posthuma and Glowing Still by Sara Wheeler. I then bought a secondhand copy of the Levy on my recent trip to the States.


  • “Piss-en-lit” and other folk names for dandelions are mentioned in The House of the Interpreter by Lisa Kelly and The Furrows by Namwali Serpell.


  • Buttercups and nettles are mentioned in The House of the Interpreter by Lisa Kelly and Springtime in Britain by Edwin Way Teale (and other members of the Ranunculus family, which includes buttercups, in These Envoys of Beauty by Anna Vaught).
  • The speaker’s heart is metaphorically described as green in a poem in Lo by Melissa Crowe and The House of the Interpreter by Lisa Kelly.


  • Discussion of how an algorithm can know everything about you in Tomb Sweeping by Alexandra Chang and I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel.


  • A brother drowns in The Loved Ones: Essays to Bury the Dead by Madison Davis, What I’d Rather Not Think About by Jente Posthuma, and The Furrows by Namwali Serpell.

A few cases of a book recalling a specific detail from an earlier read:

  • This metaphor in The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry links it to The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell, another work of historical fiction I’d read not long before: “He has further misgivings about the scalloped gilt bedside table, which wouldn’t look of place in the palazzo of an Italian poisoner.”
  • This reference in The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton links it back to Chase of the Wild Goose by Mary Louisa Gordon (could it be the specific book she had in mind? I suspect it was out of print in 1989, so it’s more likely it was Elizabeth Mavor’s 1971 biography The Ladies of Llangollen): “Do you have a book about those ladies, the eighteenth-century ones, who lived together in some remote place, but everyone knew them?”
  • This metaphor in Things My Mother Never Told Me by Blake Morrison links it to The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry: “Moochingly revisiting old places, I felt like Thomas Hardy in mourning for his wife.”


  • A Black family is hounded out of a majority-white area by harassment in The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton and Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe.


  • Wartime escapees from prison camps are helped to freedom, including with the help of a German typist, in My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor and In Memoriam by Alice Winn.


  • A scene of eating a deceased relative’s ashes in 19 Claws and a Black Bird by Agustina Bazterrica and The Loved Ones by Madison Davis.


  • A girl lives with her flibbertigibbet mother and stern grandmother in “Wife Days,” one story from How Strange a Season by Megan Mayhew Bergman, and Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery.
  • Macramé is mentioned in How Strange a Season by Megan Mayhew Bergman, The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller, Floppy by Alyssa Graybeal, and Sidle Creek by Jolene McIlwain.


  • A fascination with fractals in Floppy by Alyssa Graybeal and one story in Sidle Creek by Jolene McIlwain. They are also mentioned in one essay in These Envoys of Beauty by Anna Vaught.


  • I found disappointed mentions of the fact that characters wear blackface in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie in Monsters by Claire Dederer and, the very next day, Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe.
  • Moon jellyfish are mentioned in the Blood and Cord anthology edited by Abi Curtis, Floppy by Alyssa Graybeal, and Sea Bean by Sally Huband.


  • A Black author is grateful to their mother for preparing them for life in a white world in the memoirs-in-essays I Can’t Date Jesus by Michael Arceneaux and Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe.


  • The children’s book The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson is mentioned in The Jay, the Beech and the Limpetshell by Richard Smyth and These Envoys of Beauty by Anna Vaught.


  • The protagonist’s father brings home a tiger as a pet/object of display in The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell and The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller.
  • Bloor Street, Toronto is mentioned in Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery and Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe.


  • Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thinking about the stars is quoted in Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery and These Envoys of Beauty by Anna Vaught.


  • Wondering whether a marine animal would be better off in captivity, where it could live much longer, in The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller (an octopus) and Sea Bean by Sally Huband (porpoises).


  • Martha Gellhorn is mentioned in The Collected Regrets of Clover by Mikki Brammer and Monsters by Claire Dederer.


  • Characters named June in “Indigo Run,” the novella-length story in How Strange a Season by Megan Mayhew Bergman, and The Cats We Meet Along the Way by Nadia Mikail.


  • “Explicate!” is a catchphrase uttered by a particular character in Girls They Write Songs About by Carlene Bauer and The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller.


  • It’s mentioned that people used to get dressed up for going on airplanes in Fly Girl by Ann Hood and The Lights by Ben Lerner.
  • Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn is a setting in The Lights by Ben Lerner and Grave by Allison C. Meier.


  • Last year I read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, in which Oregon Trail re-enactors (in a video game) die of dysentery; this is also a live-action plot point in “Pioneers,”  one story in Lydia Conklin’s Rainbow Rainbow.


  • A bunch (4 or 5) of Italian American sisters in Circling My Mother by Mary Gordon and Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano.

What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?

10 Days in the USA and What I Read (Plus a Book Haul)

On October 29th, I went to an evening drinks party at a neighbour’s house around the corner. A friend asked me about whether the UK or the USA is “home” and I replied that the States feels less and less like home every time I go, that the culture and politics are ever more foreign to me and the UK’s more progressive society is where I belong. I even made an offhand comment to the effect of: once my mother passed, I didn’t think I’d fly back there often, if at all. I was thinking about 5–10 years into the future; instead, a few hours after I got home from the party, we were awoken by the middle-of-the-night phone call saying my mother had suffered a nonrecoverable brain bleed. The next day she was gone.

I haven’t reflected a lot on the irony of that timing, probably because it feels like too much, but it turns out I was completely wrong: in fact, I’m now returning to the States more often. With our mom gone and our dad not really in our lives, my sister and I have gotten closer. Since October I’ve flown back twice and she’s visited here once. There are 7.5 years between us and we’ve always been at different stages of life, with separate preoccupations and priorities; I was also lazy and let my mom be the go-between, passing family news back and forth. Now there’s a sense that we are all we have, and we have to stick together.

So it was doubly important for me to be there for my sister’s graduation from nursing school last week. If we follow each other on Facebook or Instagram, you will have already seen that she finished at the top of her cohort and was one of just two students recognized for academic excellence out of the college’s over 200 graduates – and all of this while raising four children and coping with the disruption of Mom’s death seven months ago. There were many times when she thought she would have to pause or give up her studies, but she persisted and will start work as a hospice nurse soon. We’re all as proud as could be, on our mom’s behalf, too.

The trip was a mixture of celebratory moments and sad duties. We started the process of going through our mom’s belongings and culling what we can, but the files, photos and mementoes are the real challenge and had to wait for another time. There were dozens of books I’d given her for birthdays and holidays, mostly by her favourite gentle writers – Gerald Durrell, Jan Karon, Gervase Phinn – invariably annotated with her name, the date and occasion. I looked back through them and then let them go.

Between my two suitcases I managed to bring back the rest of her first box of journals (there are 150 of them in total, spanning 1989 to 2022), and I’m halfway through #4 at the moment. We moved out of my first home when I was nine, and I don’t have a lot of vivid memories of those early years. But as I read her record of everyday life it’s like I’m right back in those rooms. I get new glimpses of myself, my dad, my sister, but especially of her – not as my mother, but as a whole person. As a child I never realized she was depressed: distressed about her job situation, worried over conflicts with her siblings and my sister, coping with ill health (she was later diagnosed with fibromyalgia) and resisting ageing. For as strong as her Christian faith was, she was really struggling in ways I couldn’t appreciate then.

I hope that later journals will introduce hindsight, now that she’s not around to give a more circumspect view. In any case, they’re an incredible legacy, a chance for me to relive much of my life that I otherwise would only remember in fragments through photographs, and perhaps have a preview of what I can expect from the course of our shared kidney disease.


What I Read

The Housekeepers by Alex Hay – A historical heist novel with shades of Downton Abbey, this comes out in July. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.


Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston – Terrific: stark, sexy stories about women who live out West and love cowboys and hunters (as well as dogs and horses). Ten of the stories are in the first person, voiced by women in their twenties and thirties who are looking for romance and adventure and anxiously pondering motherhood (“by the time you get to be thirty, freedom has circled back on itself to mean something totally different from what it did at twenty-one”). The remaining two are in the second person, which I always enjoy. The occasional Montana setting reminded me of stories I’ve read by Maile Meloy and Maggie Shipstead, while the relationship studies made me think of Amy Bloom’s work.


The Harpy by Megan Hunter – Read for Literary Wives club. Review coming up on Monday.


The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller – A solid set of narratives alternating between the POVs of four characters whose lives converge around a play inspired by the playwright’s loss of her boyfriend on one of the hijacked planes on 9/11. Her mixed feelings about him towards the end of his life and about being shackled to his legacy as his ‘widow’ reverberate in other sections: one about the lead actor, whose wife has ALS; and one about a widower the playwright is being set up with on a date. Fitting for a book about a play, the scenes feel very visual. A little underpowered, but subtlety is to be expected from a Miller novel. She, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Berg write easy reads with substance, just the kind of book I want to take on an airplane, as indeed I did with this one. I read the first 2/3 on my travel day (although with the 9/11 theme this maybe wasn’t the best choice!).

For apposite plane reading, I also started Fly Girl by Ann Hood, her memoir of being a TWA flight attendant in the 1970s, the waning glory days of air travel. I’ve read 10 or so of Hood’s books before from various genres, but lost interest in the minutiae of her job applications and interviews. Another writer would probably have made a bigger deal of the inherent sexism of the profession, too. I read 30%.


Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano – I knew I wanted to read this even before it was Oprah’s 100th book club pick. It’s a family story spanning three decades and focusing on the Padavanos, a working-class Italian American Chicago clan with four daughters: Julia, Sylvie, and twins Cecilia and Emeline. Julia meets melancholy basketball player William Waters while at Northwestern in the late 1970s and they marry and have a daughter; Sylvie, a budding librarian, makes out with boys in the stacks until her great romance comes along; Cecilia is an artist and Emeline loves babies and manages a nursery. More than once a character think of their collective story as a “soap opera,” and there’s plenty of melodrama here – an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, estrangements, a suicide attempt, a coming out, stealing another’s man – as well as far-fetched coincidences, including the two major deaths falling on the same day as a birth and a reconciliation.

There is such warmth and intensity to the telling, and brave reckoning with mental illness, prejudice and trauma, that I excused flaws such as dwelling overly much in characters’ heads through close third person narration, to the detriment of scenes and dialogue. I love sister stories in general, and the subtle echoes of Leaves of Grass and Little Women (the connections aren’t one to one and you’re kept guessing for most of the book who will be the Beth) add heft. I especially appreciated how a late parent is still remembered in daily life after 30 years have passed. This is, believe it or not, the second basketball novel I’ve loved this year, after Tell the Rest by Lucy Jane Bledsoe.


I always try to choose thematically appropriate reads, so I also started:

Circling My Mother by Mary Gordon – A memoir she began after her nonagenarian mother’s death with dementia. Intriguingly, the structure is not chronological but topic by topic, built around key relationships: so far I’ve read “My Mother and Her Bosses” and “My Mother: Words and Music.”

Grave by Allison C. Meier – My sister and I made a day trip up to my mother’s grave for the first time since her burial. She has a beautiful spot in a rural cemetery dating back to the 1780s, but it’s in full sun and very dry, so we tried to cheer up the dusty plot with some extra topsoil and grass seed, marigolds, and a butterfly flag.

Meier is a cemetery tour guide in Brooklyn, where she lives. In the third of the e-book I’ve read so far, she looks at American burial customs, the lack of respect for Black and Native American burial sites, and the rise of garden cemeteries such as Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’ve been reading death-themed books for over a decade and have delighted in exploring cemeteries (including Mount Auburn, as part of my New England honeymoon) for even longer, so this is right up my street and one of the better Object Lessons monographs.


What I Bought

I traded in most of my mother’s books at 2nd & Charles and Wonder Book and Video but, no surprise, promptly spent the store credit on more secondhand books. Thanks to clearance shelves at both stores, I only had to chip in another $12.25 for the below haul, which also covered two Dollar Tree purchases (I felt bad for Susan Minot having signed editions end up remaindered!). Some tried and true authors here, as well as novelties to test out, with a bunch of short stories and novellas to read later in the year.

Chase of the Wild Goose by Mary Louisa Gordon: A Lurid Editions Reprint

Chase of the Wild Goose, a playful, offbeat biographical novel about the Ladies of Llangollen, was first published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1936. I was delighted to be invited to take part in an informal blog tour celebrating the book’s return to print (today, 1 February) as the inaugural publication of Lurid Editions, which will focus on reprinting lesser-known and trailblazing 20th-century classics.

Mary Louisa Gordon was a medical doctor and early graduate of the London School of Medicine for Women. She also served as a prison inspector and had a special concern for the plight of female prisoners; another of her works was Penal Discipline (1922). Chase of the Wild Goose was published when she was 75. She underwrote the book to keep it in print until her death in 1941. A word-of-mouth success, it sold reasonably well in those first years.

I’d encountered the Ladies of Llangollen a couple of times before, in nonfiction: in The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl, where they are among her exemplars of solitary, introspective living; and in Sign Here If You Exist and Other Essays by Jill Sisson Quinn, where, in the way that they blur the lines between romance and friendship, they presage her experience with an intimate female friend. This was a different way to explore their story.

Portrait of The Rt. Honble. Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby ‘The Ladies of Llangollen’. By James Henry Lynch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. (Wearing their customary plain riding habits and top hats.)

“The two heroines of this story, the Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, have a remarkable history. They achieved fame at a stroke. They made a noise in the world which has never since died out, and which we, their spiritual descendants, continue to echo.”

These are the opening lines of what, in its first half, is a fairly straightforward chronological account of the protagonists’ lives, from their first meeting to when they flee to Wales to set up house together at Plas Newydd. They grow up in Ireland and, although their prospects differ – EB has a wealthy upbringing at Kilkenny Castle, whereas teenage SP has recently lost her mother and is being passed around relatives and acquaintances – both are often told that marriage is the only viable option. The eccentric spinster stereotype is an unkind one, but one EB is willing to risk. In one terrific scene, she shames her archbishop great-uncle for being just like everyone else and threatening to sell her to the highest bidder in matrimony. Still, the notion persists that if only the right man comes courting, they’ll change their tune.

At their first meeting EB and SP engage in an intense discussion of the possibilities for women, and within two weeks they’re already pledging to be together forever: “I think that nothing cheap, or second-rate, or faute de mieux, will ever do for you or me … We think—you and I—that we want something strange and exceptional, but something different may be ordained for us,” Eleanor says to Sarah. “From now onwards I… won’t you keep me… in your heart?” Sarah asks in parting. Eleanor replies, “I think you have been in it since before we were born.”

The strength of that romantic conviction that they are fated for each other keeps them going despite difficulties – EB’s father disowns her and cuts her off, which has inevitable financial implications, though she had already bought Plas Newydd outright; and for both of them, leaving Ireland is a wrench because they feel certain that they can never go back.

Plas Newydd. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

By Part II, the erstwhile fugitives, settled into local life in North Wales, enter into a sedate middle age of visitors and correspondence. Much of the material for this section is drawn from the journal EB kept. Part III is where things get really interesting: in a metafictional twist, Gordon herself enters the narrative as she meets and converses with the long-dead Ladies at their house, reflecting on the social changes that have occurred since their time.

As the Afterword by Dr Nicola Wilson notes, Chase of the Wild Goose is creative nonfiction in the same vein as Orlando, building on real-life figures and relationships in a way that must have seemed ahead of its age, not least for how it looks back to venerate queer foremothers. Although there are long stretches of the book that are tedious with biographical detail and melodramatic speeches, there is enough in the way of convincing dialogue and scenes to make up for that. While I feel the novel probably has more to offer to academics and those with a particular interest in its subjects than to general readers, I was pleased to be able to experience a rediscovered classic. I marvelled every time I reminded myself that this largely takes place in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. Gordon ably reproduces the diction and mores of the Ladies’ time, but her modernist intrusion takes it beyond pastiche.

As for the title, I’m most accustomed to the wild goose as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit in Celtic Christian iconography, but of course it is also a pun on the proverbial wild-goose chase. Gordon nods to both connotations; the phrase appears several times in the text and is the protagonists’ private term for their search for a life together – for liberty and for love. You have to cheer for them, achieving what so few could in their time. Here’s to you, Ladies!

With thanks to D-M Withers and Lurid Editions for the free copy for review.

Twitter: @LuridEditions
Instagram: @lurid_editions
Podcast: Lurid Talk

A first read for Karen and Lizzys #ReadIndies challenge. I will hope to add many more before the end of the month!

Liz has also reviewed the novel.

For more information, do also read this fascinating Guardian article.