You, Too, Can Be T. S. Eliot’s Child, and Other News


On the Shelf

“She said she was what now?”


  • Things would be easier if you were the descendant of a famous writer. Doors would open. Carpets would be laid at your feet. I know what you’re thinking: you’re not born of literary royalty, and nothing will ever change that. Except: Did you ever consider lying about it? This is a more effective practice than you might expect. Take Alison Reynolds, for example. Until recently, she was claiming to be T. S. Eliot’s twin daughters, at the same time—even though Eliot had no children. For her troubles, she was rewarded with a few cushy theater gigs and a handsome tax break. And sure, she’s on her way to jail, but maybe it was worth it. Robert Mendick reports, “Alison Reynolds pretended to be both Claire and Chess Eliot, who she claimed were the twin daughters of the poet. In fact, Eliot never had any children. Reynolds, who is remanded in custody and facing a jail sentence, used wigs, stage makeup and a variety of costumes to portray herself as at least eleven different aliases over the course of a decade. Using the fake identities, she posed as a theatre producer and director and falsely claimed VAT credits in the name of bogus dramatic companies. In 2003, she moved to Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire … setting up the Journeyman Theatre Company and writing a play, Desperately Seeking Jake Roverton, to make her scam more compelling … The ruse was rumbled after theatre staff became suspicious that they had never seen Claire and Chess in the same room.”
  • Book clubs are a great way to foster friendships. If you’d prefer to make enemies, they’re good for that, too. Judith Newman has stories of readers’ flaring tempers: “Elizabeth St. Clair, a lawyer … had her Waterloo in a previous club over Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. The group consisted of several couples, including Ms. St. Clair and her boyfriend at the time. In one scene, she explains, ‘the main character is staying in a bunkhouse, and over the course of several nights a gorgeous strange woman comes to his bed and has sex with him. The men in the group thought this was the most romantic thing ever—dark, anonymous sex with no consequences. The women, on the other hand, were guffawing. When they pointed out that this was entirely a male fantasy, that few women would relish the prospect of anonymous sex with a possibly unattractive stranger in a bunk bed, the men felt insulted. Tensions were already high and everything kind of escalated … People walked out.’ ”

  • Floods: bad for life, good for art. Peter Coates writes of the wellspring of music and writing that came from the 1927 Mississippi flood: “Since the resonance within American culture of the river known as ‘Father of Waters,’ ‘Ol’ Man River,’ and ‘Big Muddy’ matches its ecological and economic significance, it comes as no surprise that the cultural fallout from the shock of 1927 was also enormous—the only comparable phenomenon is the musical inspiration provided by the boll weevil cotton pest, as recounted in James Giesen’s Boll Weevil Blues … Even before the waters subsided, Bessie Smith had released ‘Back-Water Blues,’ followed by ‘Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan),’ and the country singer Vernon Dalhart had recorded ‘The Mississippi Flood.’ [Pete] Daniel also listed Sippie Wallace’s ‘The Flood Blues,’ Ernest Stoneman’s ‘Mighty Mississippi’ and ‘Blind Lemon’ Jefferson’s ‘Rising High Water Blues’ as notable flood songs … The catastrophe was also crucial in launching the literary careers of William Faulkner (twenty-nine in 1927) and another novelist, Richard Wright (who was just eighteen, and joined the Great Migration northwards in 1927), as well as a major event for already prominent African American writers and public figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White (soon to become executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and Ida B. Wells-Barnett (notable critic of discriminatory and authoritarian Red Cross relief practices).”
  • Until recently, Osama Alomar, a Syrian immigrant, was driving a cab to finance his fiction writing. Now, after six years, he’s been able to give that up. Here’s Mythili G. Rao on Alomar’s new book, The Teeth of the Comb: “These are very short stories—they might be called flash fiction in the U.S., but in the Middle East they are known as al-qissa al-qasira jiddan. There, the genre has a rich, ancient history, and, in recent decades, repression and unrest have brought the style back into fashion. Very short stories can be published and circulated quickly; their political critique is often sharp but also oblique enough to evade censorship. [Alomar’s translator C. J.] Collins told me that there’s a ‘kind of Arabic literature that wins international prizes and gets translated quickly into English but that doesn’t reflect the popular literature.’ By contrast, he said, ‘Osama’s work comes from the popular tradition. Even though his stuff gets billed as experimental over here, it was designed to have a popular appeal in the Arab world.’ ”