I called my parents this evening (well, okay, they called me and I missed the call, and then I called them and they missed the call and eventually the Powers That Be got bored of messing with us). After a couple of minutes chatting about my little brother’s social graces (much better than mine as a high school freshman, i.e. he has friends) and my cousin’s awesome music camp where they got a bunch of teenagers to produce a credible Mozart Requiem at the end of the week, my dad casually said, “And of course  we’ve been doing gardening and housework all day for the 4th of July.” And I remembered that, again, I would miss the most quintessentially ‘Murican holiday of all time by being in England. I’ve been missing the 4th of July for years now; since at least the summer of 2010. When people ask me about it, I say that I don’t want to go back–not now, not ever–and that’s true, as far as it goes. I don’t want to live in the States, I don’t want to have a career or start a family or build my life there. But I started my life there, and that does make a difference. Sometimes, especially in the summer, there are things that I miss about America. We do a lot of things pretty poorly, but some things we get right. To wit:

Oreos. I swear they’re smaller here.

Highways. You can’t really do a good road trip in England. It just doesn’t have the same feel to it as this:

The Extraterrestrial Highway–more UFO sightings than anywhere else in the country.

Milkshakes. English shops sell something called “milkshake”. It’s essentially flavoured milk, a sad, pathetic shade of what it claims to be. I particularly miss the ones from Chaps, a downtown Charlottesville institution.

County fairs. Their combination of livestock, quilting and jam exhibitions, healthful snacks such as cotton candy and funnel cake, stomach-dropping rides, all in the dying heat of a late-summer evening…that constitutes my childhood, in some ways.

Heat haze. Where the blacktop meets the horizon and it looks like water.

Flipflops. Every day from April to October.

Ceiling fans. They’re beautiful, they create a delicious breeze, and the low humming sound the blades make is the most comforting in the world.

The Blue Ridge Mountains. Just…unghh.

Sometimes I get really bored of how flat Oxford is.

Guitars being plucked. Like this:

Bandanas are cool. Srsly.

The University of Virginia. Especially the Lawn. And all the frat houses on Rugby Road, which are the most gorgeous big old red-brick neo-Palladian things.

Coffee. Look, I am sorry, but screw instant granules.

Thunderstorms. They just don’t seem to exist in England, and I miss the way the world feels scrubbed and fresh after they pass over.

School buses. Obvi.

Wilderness. In Virginia, you can drive for fifteen minutes and be in the middle of East Jesus Nowhere. In most of England, you can be pretty sure there’s a tea shop somewhere nearby. Which is often a good thing, but sometimes you want to be in East Jesus Nowhere, and uncertain of how you’re going to find civilization again.


The sheer ingenuity of this awful, awful creation must be acknowledged.

Accents. Simply watch O Brother, Where Art Thou?. People actually talk like that. (Not everywhere, of course.)

Summer nights that are warm enough not to need a jumper when you sit outside.

Whitetail deer. Everywhere.

Baseball. Watched on TV on aforementioned warm nights, with a beer. Your team always loses.

Football. Watched in freezing, windy, bright-blue-sky conditions, with a beer. Your team always loses.

Diners (and their cheeseburgers).

Flexible Flyer little red wagons (a brand name which, now that I think about it, sounds like a burlesque act).


Macy’s 4th of July firework display, NYC


You know what they say about going home again

What they say about going home again, of course, is that you can’t, but I have found this to be a slightly pessimistic assessment. For one thing, I just did: I flew from Heathrow to Washington, and then on to Charlottesville, on Tuesday, and I’m going to be in the US until September 20th, when my flight gets back into Heathrow at a delightful 6:00 in the morning or thereabouts. The only thing about going home again is that you have to expect things to be different from the way you remember them, or at least, if you don’t expect them to be different, you have to be okay with it when you notice that they are. Because they invariably will be. I have been away since Christmas, and there are things that I’ve noticed—after two days—which I never paid the slightest bit of attention to, previously. This is either because America has gotten a lot weirder in the past nine months (not an implausible conclusion) or because being away for nine months, and doing your own cooking, is different from being away for six and a half months, which was my previous record. Or both.

Anyway, we went to the grocery store on Wednesday (our equivalent of a shop like Tesco or Sainsbury’s is a grocery store called Kroger), and it occurred to me, as it never had before, that all the food was huge. Some of it is just the packaging, as with the twelve-inch-tall peanut butter jars, but some of it is inherent in the actual food. The salmon fillets I bought to make dinner with, e.g., were enormous. They were literally two times the size of the salmon I could get in Cowley. The aubergines (which in America are called “eggplants”, for reasons no one has ever explained to my satisfaction) were all the size of a week-old baby. The chicken was similarly proportioned to the salmon. It was utterly unreal. I went wandering around the store with my mouth hanging open like a Soviet refugee, clutching my mother’s arm and whispering, “Oh my God, look at that! Look at it!” Searching for Greek yogurt to make a sauce for four people, I found one container that was just about the size I wanted, then discovered that it was being packaged as a single serving. For some reason (possibly some kind of hypnotic fascination induced by the contemplation of such plenty), I bought a different one, the only other size they had, which came in what could be described as a bucket. Incomprehensible!

This is without taking into consideration the bakery, where I found a) some witch’s concoction which consisted of two chocolate chip cookies sandwiched together by pure icing, in lurid University of Virginia colours of orange and blue, and b) a foodstuff called a Marshmallow  Munchie, which resembled a Rice Krispie on crack and which was being sold as a snack suitable for consumption in school lunches and by sports teams. What an extraordinary country.

I wish I had brought a camera along. If I remember, I may take some pictures the next time I’m there, to add to this post. Otherwise, none of you will believe me for a second when I tell you—entirely truthfully—that there is also a sign on the wall in the bakery which reads, helpfully but ungrammatically, “Froze Cakes”—and which has read thus, apparently unnoticed by staff and patrons alike, for at least the past two years.

Zeitgeist litéraire 1: Universally acknowledged

High on every bookseller’s list of ubiquitous current publishing trends, I should imagine, would be the agonizing proliferation of pop crit books on Jane Austen. This category doesn’t even encompass the fan fiction. Do not get me going on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the brood it spawned. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters? Oh dear. Not that there’s anything wrong with their existence; I just have an upsetting premonition that more people will end up being familiar with the Sea Monsters than with the Sense or the Sensibility. The thinly veiled Mr. Darcy soft porn, on the other hand, is wildly amusing, but begins to pall after a while, mainly because it is so clearly and depressingly the result of a particular demographic’s fantasies and happy-ending fetish. Which reminds me of this felicitous piece of comedy (I tried to put it in this post as a picture but it wouldn’t do it), by the brilliant Kate Beaton (GO TO HER WEBSITE RIGHT NOW SHE IS COOL AND FUNNY AND CLEVER AND I SPEND VAST PORTIONS OF MY TIME ON THE INTERNET LAUGHING BECAUSE OF HER GENIUS).

Fitzwilliam himself, romantically a-smolder. 

But no—what I actually started off talking about was the nonfiction. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. A Truth Universally Acknowledged. A Jane Austen Education. A Walk with Jane Austen. I can cope with reasonably informative things—Deirdre le Faye has a genuinely interesting book on the social and cultural background of Austen’s novels. It’s the personal-quest-narratives of the Janeites that drive me bonkers. They preach to the converted; as for the unconverted, they flee screaming. Which isn’t ideal.

One of the problems about approaching Austen in this rabid, frothy sort of way is that it makes people take her less seriously as an artist. She gets mentally (but not literally, not in my bookshop) shelved under chick lit. In practice, what this means is that men decide they can forget about her because she’s for girls. I hate this. I read both Tom Sawyer and Pride and Prejudice when I was ten. I loved them both. I’ve reread P&P more often, but that may just be because it’s been on more syllabi. Anyway, it makes me think about author celebrity cults and the way they influence reputation. Are there any fans of male writers who are as insanely devoted, and as (in the main) unscholarly in their appreciation? (Your average Janeite—average, mind you—does not care that the novels are about legalized prostitution of young women and the terrifying economic imperatives against which said women are pitted; all she knows is that everyone at the end is rich and married and happy, which is, as far as she is concerned, great.) I think maybe only Goethe had such a crazed following. For commentary on which, please see the extraordinary Kate Beaton again (REALLY REALLY GO LOOK. Second strip.)