Ten Books to Read Outdoors: From the Silly to the Sublime

I have my faults as a human being, but I am not a reading snob. Do I enjoy historical romances? I do if they’re by Jane Aiken Hodge, the daughter of the poet Conrad Aiken! What about frivolous books that inspire one to rush out and join a literary society? Yes, give me Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, please! And am I averse to cozy mysteries? Of course not! I adore clever cozies. All such books are distractions from our enemy, Climate Change Super Heat.

If you like to read in the yard, at a cafe, in a park, or (gasp) at the hot beach, here are

TEN BOOKS TO READ OUTDOORS

1 The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, edited by Robert B. Strassler and translated by Andrea L. Purvis. The Landmark edition is a gorgeous book, chock-full of footnotes on the foot of the page, a readable translation, and many, many maps (sometimes two on a page). I pored over the maps in order to figure out who was marching where and conquering whom, and there is so much marching and conquering I became a map expert. And then the mosquitoes and other insects swooped in, I slapped them and bug blood spattered on a map, and I went indoors to read the rest. But if it’s not buggy, by all means read it outside.

2 The Complete Mapp & Lucia, by E. F. Benson. These six books are so charming and droll that I have read them thrice or more. Benson’s gossipy characters are immensely ridiculous and unpredictable. Lucia is a pretentious snob who pursues “art for art’s sake,” pretends to know Italian, practices simple pieces on the piano to impress her friends, and hatches Machiavellian plots in two adorable villages, first Riseholme, where she and her charming gay acolyte, Georgie, compete with rivals to stay on top of trends like yoga and vegetarianism, and later in Tilling, where Lucia meets her match in the redoubtable Miss Mapp.

3 Jane Aiken Hodge’s Watch the Wall, My Darling. Part historical novel, part Regency romance, this fast-paced novel provides a double fix for readers of Georgette Heyer and Poldark. (N.B. Two of the characters are actually named Verity and Ross.) There is smuggling, saucy dialogue, the threat of an invasion by Napoleon, and a wounded Frenchman hidden and nursed in the musty tunnels of the abbey upon which Tretteign Grange is built. Christina Tretten, an American whose father recently died, is visiting his estranged family in England. Her grandfather is a despot and her aunt Verity often has the vapors, but Christina learns to manage her relatives. When she fires the lazy housekeeper and takes over the housekeeping, her aunt is appalled by her unladylike bossiness, but her grandfather is amused. Christina also takes it coolly when she discovers on her first night that Ross is leader of a local smuggling ring. There is much excitement, with soldiers trying to break up the smugglers, and a rather sensible romance which keeps this from becoming overwrought.

4 Robert Heinlein’s Double Star won the Hugo Award in 1956.  Heinlein explores an idealist’s struggles to change society  and defeat a group of fascists who plan to take over and dominate the people of other planets (like Martians).  Heinlein is a master of plot but is mostly a novelist of ideas.  Here, he attacks racism and examines the effect of politics on morality and philosophy.  The unusual thing is that Heinlein does it at one remove–the star of the novel is an actor and an impersonator of a politician who becomes committed to the cause.

5 Jane Langton’s Emily Dickinson Is Dead. I enjoy Langton’s light Homer Kelly mystery series, and this is my favorite. Homer, a homicide detective who is now a Harvard professor, is keen on attending an Emily Dickinson symposium, but of course dead bodies turn up, and there are many suspects. I vividly remember one character, an Emily Dickinson Museum tour guide who eats a lot of doughnuts, is obese, and had been jealously in love with her professor, who is dating at undergrad. At Goodreads many well-meaning reviewers are furious because of this obese character’s image. I am well aware of fat phobia, but I am not unfamiliar with the concept of enjoying doughnuts. Many of the thin characters in this book are also what my mother would have called “real pills,” so it balances out.

6 E. Nesbit’s feminist horror novel, Dormant, is reminiscent of Angela Carter’s chilling fairy tales. This weird retelling of Sleeping Beauty crossed with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins as a comedy, with a group of charming young people gathered to debate socialism, women’s suffrage, and capital punishment.  Pretty, talented Rose is in love with impoverished Anthony, but when he inherits money, a title, and an estate, he becomes obsessed with his ancestor’s research on the elixir of life and discovers a dead woman in the laboratory. This is far from Nesbit’s best book, and it is wildly uneven, but there are delightful passages and a surprise ending.

7. P. G. Wodehouse’s hilarious books are ideal for reading outdoors. They will not tax your brain. Tropes repeat, but never boringly:  there are cases of mistaken identity, impostors, savvy butlers, thefts of jewelry, prize-winning, pigs, and accidental engagements. Wodehouse’s stock characters are stuck in an Edwardian comedy, or possibly slightly latertime frame, and their pitch-perfect dialogue is hysterically funny. I especially love the Blandings books, where someone is always trying to steal the prize pig, called the Empress.

8 New Hope by Ruth Suckow. Ruth Suckow, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, was born in Hawarden, Iowa, in 1892. She chronicled life in midwestern small towns in her gentle novels and stories. In New Hope, not much happens, but that is the case with all her books. It begins with arrival of a new minister’s family, who, until their new parsonage is ready, are staying with the Millers, a bustling, sociable family. There are vivid scenes of women frying chicken for church suppers, buggy rides, visiting farms, flirting with beaus, making fudge, and much information about the town’s water supply and the importance of the railroad station to the economy.

9 White As Snow by Tanith Lee. This is an exquisite retelling of the Persephone myth, with a nod to the fairy tale Snow White. Terri Windling commissioned it for her Fairy Tale series, which includes Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Patricia Wrede’s Snow White and Red Rose.

10 If you are a fan of cozies with likable, realistic characters, try Patricia Moyes’s Murder à la Mode, set in the 1960s at a London fashion magazine.  Moyes used to work for Vogue, so she knows fashion and magazines.   When somebody puts arsenic in the assistant editor Helen’s tea, Inspector Henry Tibbett investigates–and it helps that his niece has been interning there. One of the most charming mysteries in the Henry Tibbett series!

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE BOOKS TO READ OUTDOORS? AND ARE YOU ALSO SUFFERING A HEAT WAVE? With or without bugs?

Anne Tyler’s Appeal: Is Her Humor Generational?

I love book blogs – at least the better ones – and have discovered a number of engaging, feisty bloggers who know what they like and tell you vehemently.

I do not, however, agree with their reviews unconditionally. I have been puzzled by a recent trend of trashing Anne Tyler -who is surely one of the most charming of American writers. The word that comes to mind is “whimsical”: her books are set in a quirky Baltimore that exists in an imaginative territory somewhere between the subtle observations of Emily Dickinson and the exuberant wit of of Alison Lurie.

I have never known anyone in real life who dislikes Tyler. Some bloggers, however, are really worked-up. One announced that he/she loathed Tyler’s winsome novel, The Accidental Tourist, in which the hero, Macon, is a travel writer who hates travel. Another could not say enough negative things about Morgan’s Passing, which, if I recall correctly, begins with a puppeteer going into labor. What’s not to like?

I wondered, Is it a generational taste? Perhaps we are seeing the death of the individual in the 2020s. The Baby Boomers and Generation X grew up in a freer, more individualistic America, so Tyler’s portraits of eccentrics not also make us laugh but seem very real. Perhaps it is a question of lifestyle and upbringing: the majority of middle-class Baby Boomers’ mothers stayed home, or worked part-time, while the Gen X parents may have worked more hours but also gave their kids freedom: they were not afraid to let them go outdoors or walk to school – because the moms couldn’t wait to have time to themselves! (They also may have had common sense.) And thank God, no one forced us to play soccer. We may have played whiffle ball, but we also had leisure to read and read and read.

Millennials, for better or worse, are more team-oriented. They had less leisure growing up because their guilty, often divorced parents over-scheduled them. If they weren’t playing soccer (and I’m so sorry if you had to!), they were discouraged from reading for long stretches of time, making hollyhock dolls in the back yard, or building card houses, because Mom and Dad liked to see them on the go! They were also exposed to computers and cell phones at a much earlier age. (Does anyone remember that cell phones can cause brain cancer and you’re supposed to wear a headset? We have mass amnesia in this world.) And too much electronic stuff influences the way you think — too much Twitter upsets you and after a while you may even think it is real. It is the Millennial bloggers who have been trashing Tyler.

It is foolish to generalize about generations, though. Just like the Millennials, though no one says this, BabyBoomers and Gen X faced college debt, had low-paying jobs after graduation, and couldn’t afford to buy houses in their thirties. Anne Tyler knows this, and her characters, however odd they seem, learn to make peace with themselves and their fellow humans, and to change their own situations slightly.

Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons, the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Accidental Tourist, and was nominated in 2020 for the Booker Prize for Redhead by the Side of the Road. My guess is that there are more Tyler fans than dissenters. But there is something disturbing about the hostility of the Tyler loathers. That’s the problem with the internet. We all need a breath of fresh air.

Summer Reading: A Women’s Prize Finalist, a Golden Age Mystery, and a Book about Ancient Greece

A few weeks ago, inspired by other bloggers, I posted a picture of my Twenty Books of Summer. So much ambition, so much flippancy! Thus far I have read neither The Man without Qualities, Part 2, nor The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald. Well, their day will come. The temp has been in the nineties since June 4 (and it is 100 degrees today) so I’ve indulged myself with books I already own. Let me recommend three smart but undemanding books that have helped me forget the heat!

Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule is shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize. And what a compelling read! If you enjoyed Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, you will be fascinated by this thriller-cum-literary novel about Hannah, a desperate, underemployed woman who forms a murder pact with Jinni, a charismatic woman she meets on a train.

Hannah and Jinni fall into conversation: both have been physically abused and are separated from their husbands. Jinni hatches a murder plot seemingly on the spur of the moment: they agree to kill each other’s husbands, with tasers and knives. Hannah hesitates but is hypnotized by the well-dressed Jinni’s charm and apparent compassion. It’s as though desperate Hannah has finally found her place with the in-crowd.

Hannah, a Millennial, refers to her generation as Generation Rent. Her wealthy husband Jake, who has a trust fund, has deserted her and their daughter Maisy to live with his new girlfriend, Eve, leaving Hannah in an apartment in a bad neighborhood in London. And so Hannah, who quit her stressful advertising job when she had a baby, must support herself and their daughter by part-time house-cleaning jobs, their tiny income supplemented by the food bank. As for the rent, she is terrified of eviction: she fights with Jake every month for the rent.

But this novel is not so much a thriller as a detailed narrative about Hannah’s struggle to survive. When her mother Holly dies, she and Maisy go to Cornwall to sort out Holly’s things and reconnect with the family. Conveniently Jinni’s husband, Constantine, the man she has agreed to kill, lives nearby in a run-down mansion on a huge woodland estate. Faking a car breakdown, she walks up the drive and knocks on the door and meets Stan, a rugged, hairy, smelly, drunken man with chipped teeth, whom she assumes is the caretaker. An odd friendship develops between the two.

Craig is a smart, eloquent storyteller who interweaves Hannah’s narrative with the kind of anthropological details that document the problems of a generation. (Margaret Drabble did this kind of thing in her earlier novels, though in a different style.) And Craig, like her bookish heroine, is a master of literary tropes, playing with Stranger on a Train and Jane Austen’s books.

A great read! Should this compelling, brilliant novel win the Women’s Prize? Well, I am not one of the judges, but I thoroughly recommend this as a reading treat.

Not a summer goes by without my reading a mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), the brilliant translator of Dante who was best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series. My pick this summer was Unnatural Death, the third book in the Wimsey series, which presumably I read at some time in the past since I do have a copy.

As usual, Lord Peter Wimsey is smarter than his crime-solving peers and twice as whimsical as the average member of The Egotists’ Club, which Sayers describes as “one of the most genial places in London.” But it is not whimsy that persuades him that Agatha Dawson, a rich, old woman with cancer, has been murdered. A doctor confesses at the club that he suspects Agatha did not die a natural death but when he suggested an autopsy he became unpopular and lost his practice. As Wimsey investigates, the evidence piles up against Agatha’s charming heiress niece yet not the means of the murder. A witty, entertaining, exuberant mystery, by the best of the Golden Age Detective Novelists.

The Greeks by H. D. F. Kitto (1951) is a slightly dated but lively introduction to the ancient Greeks – and it is still in print. A few years ago, the TLS ran a piece which lauded clasics popularizer Edith Hamilton, but The Greek Way proved too sentimental and corny for me. And so I recently extracted a copy of Kitto’s The Greeks from my shelf. Perhaps this was a text for an ancient culture class for which I graded tests when I was a T.A.? Kitto writes elegant prose, and his intelligent examination of facets of Greek history and culture is enlightening. He explores and explicates the origins of the Greek people, their community-minded form of government (the polis), their literature, philosophy, the history of classical Greece in the fifth century and the less community-minded fourth century, several wars, and more. A whole chapter is devoted to Homer. This is a solid, unusually well-written book, though Kitto, like Hamilton, does romanticize the Greeks. Still, Kitto is more inspiring than sentimental, and overal, it remains an excellent introduction, though his analysis of Greek women did cause me to raise an eyebrow.

The Meaning of Dog-Eared


There is a midwestern bookstore called Dog Eared Books. What a droll name! I visualized shelves of dusty used books, perhaps with a Trollope I’d missed, or a Barbara Pym biography. The proprietor would hunch over a tattered first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses , because he would be mentally rehearsing the part of Leopold Bloom for Bloomsday, next Wednesday, June 16.

But no, the store was bright and cheerful, and it was not a used bookstore. Nobody was reading Ulysses. I looked around, crestfallen. There were crisp new books everywhere, displays of romances with gaudy covers depicting couples who hated each other but would soon fall in love, and the latest literary fiction, including Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle and Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising.

A bookstore is a blessing for every town. There should be a bookstore in every town. But where were the dog-eared books? There were only four shelves of used books, all of which seemed to be by Maeve Binchy or Patricia Cornwell. They were in perfect condition, and that’s what I like, of course.

It is a clever name, but is it appropriate for a new bookstore? Let me know what you think!

From an old Merriam-Webster dictionary:

dog-ear – (in a book) the corner of a page folded back like a dog ear, as by careless use, or to mark a place’ to fold down a corner of a book

dog-eared – a dog-eared book.

Can History Be Changed? Nero Revamped

ln her meticulously researched essay, “How Nasty Was Nero?”, in The New Yorker (June 14, 2021), Rebecca Mead writes about a new exhibition at the British Museum, Nero: The Man Behind the Myth, which challenges the monstrous image of the emperor Nero. (I would love to see this exhibition, but the UK is not open to Americans right now.) We all remember the hyperbolic “fun fact” that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Mead points out the facetiousness of this well-beloved legend: the violin had not yet been invented. And Thorston Opper, a curator of the Greek and Roman division at the British Museum, also questions the riveting reportage of the Roman historians, Suetonius, my favorite Roman gossip; Tacitus, a glorious writer who shaped his histories into literature; and Cassius Dio, a Greek historian and senator who wrote his Roman history in Greek.

Thorston Opper is unimpressed with these primary sources. “Anything you think you know about Nero is based on manipulation and lies that are 2,000 years old,” Oper told Mead.

Opper more or less takes what I call the “no-fun” approach to history. Most of us do approach it with caution: if you are aware that the word historia (history) in Greek and Latin can mean”inquiry,” “narrative,” “report,” and “story,” you are used to appreciating many elements and you take them with a grain of salt. Still, the primary sources of 2,000 years ago are closer to events than speculations in the twenty-first century. There is nothing new under the sun: twentieth-century scholars also questioned the reliability and read ancient history with a mix of admiration, fascination, and skepticism. The twentieth-century English historian Michael Grant often used the word “alleged”in his brilliant books, which include Nero: Emperor in Revolt, History of Rome, and The Twelve Caesars.

I first encountered the revamping of the reputation of Nero in Margaret George’s historical novel, The Confessions of Young Nero (2017). In the Afterword, she writes, “This novel is my mission to rescue a gifted and remarkable young ruler, who was only sixteen when he became emperor, from what historian David Braund, in his essay ‘Apollo in Arms: Nero at the Frontier,’ calls ‘the extensive fog of hostility, which clouds and surrounds almost all the historical record on Nero’ and ‘makes historical analysis extraordinarily difficult. (George did an enormous amount of research, and I scribbled down several titles of books she mentioned .) By the way, George has also written a sequel, The Splendor Before the Dark.

Margaret George and modern scholars agree that political machinations influenced the Roman historians and biographers: Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and perhaps the Flavian dynasty wished to practice cancel culture. Most historians agree that Nero was a liberal, progressive emperor in the first years; he gave up when things got ugly and went the sex-drinking-crazy route.

Tacitus tells us that Nero tried to kill his mother by sending her out in a collapsible ship (she swam back, and was killed later). Scholars try to debunk this story. But why couldn’t it be true? The lord knows, Nero had money: his extravagant Golden House had a large artificial lake, baths with sulforous and salt water, and moving panels that dropped scent and flowers on his dinner guests. What’s a collapsible ship compared to this? One of the most horrible scandals: Suetonius reports that Nero killed his wife by kicking her when she was pregnant. But Thorston Opper is skeptical: he points out this is also a scene in one of Seneca’s tragedies. On the good side, Nero was artsy-craftsy: he wrote poetry, performed in plays, and supported games. On the other hand, he ordered his tutor and advisor Seneca to kill himself. Wrists were slit.

History can be changed by artefacts: coins, new inscriptions and archaeological findings, which continue to influence the interpretation of the story of Nero. If only more of the ancient histories had survived: depending on the three surviving ancient histories by Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius is problematical.

You can see the exhibition, Nero: The Man Behind the Myth, at the British Msueum (now through October 24).

A Neglected Classic: Caroline Gordon’s Charming Novel, “Aleck Maury, Sportsman”

Caroline Gordon is the best southern writer you’ve never heard of. Her delightful novel, Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934), tells the riveting story of an easygoing classics teacher whose avocation is fly-fishing and hunting. In middle age, he asks a college president to schedule all his classes for the morning so he can devote afternoons to fly-fishing. Maury’s musings on the the rivers and lakes, and his observations of animals are fascinating. In the foreword, James Kilgo writes that Faulkner was such a fan he told Gordon he wished he had known Maury.

Gordon’s sure-handed prose is witty and seemingly effortless. And yet her graceful work seems to be entirely forgotten. Her poet husband Allen Tate has perhaps fared slightly better with posterity, though I cannot pretend I see his name in literary journals either. Do readers prefer their southern literature to be more freakish, more like that of Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner?

Alec Maury, Sportsman is Gordon’s tribute to her father, who was a classics teacher and a keen sportsman. She got the idea for this fictional autobiography one evening on her grandfather’s porch, when her father abruptly delivered the non sequitur : “Sometimes the Black Bass strikes from natural pugnacity.” His touching preoccupation with sport clarified for Caroline Gordon his intense private communings with nature, which he rarely shared with his family.

I was amused by Gordon’s portrayal of the Southern classics-educated gentlemen who recognize each other by their classics tags and quotations. From childhood hunting and Virgil study, to teaching at various schools and marrying a student who also could translate classics at sight, Maury fits in very well with the gentlemen in southern towns and fellow teachers. His supportive wife, Molly, gives him practical advice for the workplace but she and her mother both insist that he go hunting while she is having a baby. He is getting on Molly’s nerves. Their son Harry loves sports but is the only Maury who can’t learn Latin, which amuses Aleck. Meanwhile, their daughter Sally would rather stay indoors and read. But my favorite character is the small three-legged hunting dog, Gy (short for Gyges). I got so attached to Gy!

Quite often Maury prefers the company of avid sportsmen to that of classicists. One day as he passes a friend’s house, he muses

John Ferguson was probably still abed. The lazy dog didn’t really care much for fishing. I was glad he was not with me today. An excellent fellow but his mind was never really on angling and he had an abominable habit of scaring the fish by shouting questions – usually about Greek grammar; he was unfortunately convinced that I knew more than he did about it – from one pool to another.

Alec is also an environmentalist: in old age, he discovers that many of the lakes and rivers are now depleted of a proper food supply for fish. He experiments with various methods and and manages to save some fish before he returns to fishing.

Believe me, I have never gone hunting or fishing. But the hunting scenes are as good as those in War and Peace, and I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading about fly-fishing! A lovely book from first to last.

More Summer Reading: Doris Lessing’s “The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five”

On a summer reading scale of 1-10, how would I rate Doris Lessing’s science fiction novel, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, the second book in the Canopus in Argos series? Lessing is my favorite writer and I view her as a goddess; yet the title is so portentous that I was apprehensive about rereading. And I have not even typed the entire title yet: in tiny print, it goes on to say “as narrated by the Chroniclers of Zone Three.”

This short dogmatic fable (I know not what else to call it) is, in a way, about utopia and dystopia. The planet is broken up into five zones, which the jacket copy calls “indeterminate lands.” Zone Three is inhabited by sophisticated artists, singers, farmers, and craftsmen who live in peace and beauty. Like old hippies and the characters of John Updike’s fiction, they do not have monogamous relationships. Zone Four is ruled by a war lord and hence is always at war; it is also very poor and narrow-minded. Inhabitants rarely go from one zone to the other, mainly because the air is different, and they need special shields to breathe. But they also do not care about people from other cultures.

So when the “providers” (vague god-like beings we never meet) send a message to Queen Al-Ith of Zone Three that she must marry the military King Ben-Ata of Zone Four, all is topsy-turvy. Neither Al-Ith nor Ben-Ata wants this marriage. At first Al-Ith laughs, but Ben-Ata’s army meets Al-Ith and guides her to Zone Four, where she must live in a special house, which, before she teaches the rudiments of good taste to her husband and women friends, looks a bit like a bordello.

There is much unhappiness as a result of this culture clash, as you can imagine. I am still not sure what the providers were thinking! Al-Ith and Ben-Ati do not want to be together, and neither understands the other. But gradually Al-Ith teaches Ben-Ata that there is more to life than war. She thinks they are together because both zones have experienced low birth rates and illness among humans and animals, and their procreation of a child must be the purpose. Al-Ith’s teachings about art benefit Zone Four, but it is difficult to see what Zone Four gives Zone Three. The rebellious women of Zone Four do introduce her to their secret festivals, which are reminiscent of the rites of Bacchus recast as a women’s music festival.

And yet the outcome of Al-Ith’s travel to Zone Four is sad. She becomes an outcast when she goes home to Zone Three…an outcast with a purpose. But it is still tragic. As for Zone Five, I have not the energy to describe it, but it plays a very small role.

This is a clunkier book than Shikasta, but I do recognize Lessing’s themes and repetition of character from earlier novels: the heroine Martha Quest can be clearly seen in Al-Ith, particularly when it comes to politics and sex. (Martha is intensely radical before and during World War II, but she doesn’t discover good sex until Landlocked, the fourth book in the Children of Violence series.)

Doris Lessing said that she found “space fiction” freeing. In the preface to the first book in the series, Shikasta, she wrote: “The old realistic novel is being changed, too, because of influences from that genre loosely described as space fiction. Some people [in academia] regret this…. Space fiction, with science fiction, makes up the most original branch of literature now; it is inventive and witty; it has already enlivened all kinds of writing…”

By the way, Philip Glass wrote an opera, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, with a libretto by Doris Lessing , translated into German. It premiered in Heidelberg, Germany on 10 May, 1997. (See photo below.)

Lessing wrote brilliant science fiction in the late sixties and early seventies. My favorites are The Four-Gated City (the last part of this realistic novel segues into SF) and Memoirs of a Survivor. But I must say The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five is very slight. I read it quickly, and it went by like a summer breeze. I will have forgotten it by next week. If I were to give it a number…well, it would have to be Zone Three! No, really, did you think I would rate it with a number?

Tomorrow Will Be 90 Degrees….and My First Summer Read Was “Spring Torrents”

Summer in the midwest is delightful before it gets too hot, usually at the end of the first week in June. (“I’ll think about that tomorrow.”) Meanwhile, on a recent lovely day, with purple clover, dandelions, and other weedy flowers blooming, I lingered outdoors to finish Turgenev’s Spring Torrents (1871). And I enjoyed this slight, yearning novel about love gone wrong.

This is one of Turgenev’s later novels, and is not highly esteemed by the critics. (Avrahm Yarmolinksy calls it “mawkish.”) Yet I don’t mind the simplicity and sentimentality, and love Turgenev’s lyricism and intelligence. This novel grew out of a long short story, and, according to Leonard Schapiro’s essay in the Penguin, can be considered either genre: the Russian word “povest” applies to both novel and short story.

As always, Turgenev is a master of 19th-century Russian tropes: we have the impetuous hero, a stay in a resort town or at a country estate, a love affair, intense conversations about politics (in this case about owning serfs), walks in gardens and parks, and a duel. And yet there are unexpected plot twists along the way. The hero’s life is ruined, not by a duel but by a dangerous friendship.

Though you may or may not be a fan of the frame construction, Turgenev’s use of it captures our attention as a portal to the past. At age 53, Dmitry Sanin looks back and worries that 30 years ago he may have ruined the life of the woman he jilted. Sanin is having a midlife crisis, and is genuinely despondent.

He had never before felt so tired – in body and in spirit. He has spent the whole evening in the company of agreeable women and educated men. There had been some beautiful women among them too, and nearly all the men had been witty and accomplished. His own conversation had come off very well, brilliantly even…and yet, and yet…never before had he felt such disgust for life, such taedium vitae, which the Romans talked about in their time.

And then Turgenev deftly segues into the story of Sanin at 23, who is visiting Frankfurt after a trip to Italy. On an aimless walk around town, he enters a patisserie by chance: a beautiful young woman, Gemma, rushes out from the back and begs him to help her brother, Emil, who is dying. It is merely a fainting fit, and he revives Emil by brushing his limbs with clothes brushes. The doctor approves this rather strange course of healing. Gemma and her mother, the humorous Frau Lenore, invite him for dinner, and treat him like a member of the family. He talks politics with Gemma’s uncle Pantelone, a former actor, and he keeps postponing his journey home. Frau Lenore and Pantelone are the most vivid characters in this family, while Gemma and Emil are little more than sketches on the page. But then they are young. The humor will come later.

No, Gemma and Sanin are not in love – she is engaged to a placid German store manager, but, ironically, it is Sanin, rather than the fiance, who fights a duel after a soldier at a cafe makes inappropriately provocative comments to her. Sanin is such a romantic! No one dies in the duel-the result is that Sanin and Gemma fall in love and he proposes.

The problem is, What will they do for money? As a landowner, he wants to sell his estate so he can refurbish the patisserie and support the whole family in style. By chance, he runs into an old school friend, who invites him to Weisbaden, where his beautiful businesswoman wife, the exuberant, Virgil-quoting ex-peasant Maria Nikolaevna, may be interested in buying it. But Sanin’s visit to this couple – who make a horrifying bet about him – ends in his abandoning Gemma and accompanying them to Paris. The whole novel turns on this event. So much can be learned about Sanin from this plot twist. And so we understand his perhaps romanticized recollections of early love.

Turgenev fans will not read Spring Torrents without remembering the long three-way relationship between Turgenev and Pauline Viardot, the opera singer he loved for most of his life, and her husband, Louis Viardot, a theater manager and writer. If you’re interested in reading more about these stars, I recommend Orlando Figes’s The Europeans, a smart, ambitious history of the development of European culture and technology that revolves around this influential trio, who promoted the work of their peers, international writers, musicians, and artists.

I very much enjoyed Spring Torrents (Penguin), translated by Leonard Schapiro.

A Literary Critic Criticizes Criticism and, Of Course, Amateur Reviews

How can readers reap the benefits of reading without a critic’s essay that criticizes critics and severely censures “amateur” reviewers? In a glumly fascinating essay in The Walrus by Steven Beattie, “What We Lose When Literary Criticism Ends,” Beattie scolds critics for dropping their standards and amateur reviewers for sub-standard reviews.

We have all read articles by critics about the heinous nature of unqualified bloggers, Goodreads reviewers, and Booktubers. But Beattie will surprise you: he thinks critics are almost as careless as the amateurs. While critics of yesteryear mastered basic writing techniques, such as backing up statements with examples from the text (Writing 101?), now they make unsupported statements with no pretense of documentation.

What to do in an age of bad criticism? Beattie is not completely negative: he finds an example of good writing. He praises the expertise of Canadian critic Donna Bailey Nurse and writes, “Nurse, as it happens, is also one of the handful of working book reviewers capable of discerning good from faulty literary technique—willing to speak about an author’s language as opposed to a novel’s moral or social message.”

I agree with Beattie’s concern about the new emphasis on “moral and social messages” – though I wonder how moral the bluestocking “J’accuse” bacchantes really are. Are censorship and cancel culture the answer to disagreement and perhaps envy? There was Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a well-meaning novel about Mexican migrants making a long, weary, dangerous trip to the American border. Latinx protesters raged that she was white and that they should have written the book. The peculiar thing: Cummins was on the side of Mexican migrants. But she received death threats and her book tour was cancelled.

Beattie cites another problem: not only is the thinking fuzzy but reviewers’ clichés horrify him. He writes “…the number of ‘compelling’ or ‘riveting’ books with ‘fully developed characters’ and stories that ‘will remain in a reader’s mind long after the last page has been turned’ are positively legion.”

Oops! Who hasn’t done that? I must stop saying “compelling” and “page-turner.”

And Beattie also provides a model of a bad review. He writes,

…[in a review] of Jo Owens’s debut novel, A Funny Kind of Paradise, about a septuagenarian woman who has suffered a stroke and now lives in a long-term care facility, mentions the author’s “direct and unvarnished prose,” “richly drawn and complex” characters, and “rosy but not saccharine” tone without providing any examples from the text, essentially demanding that we take these things on faith. The review ends by highlighting the novel’s message—“There is joy and meaning to be found in every stage of life”—but refrains from analyzing precisely how the author forwards this message on the level of language, style, and craft.

Are you feeling humble, fellow bloggers? Well, probably not. I even chortled a bit. Beattie does provide useful tips in the topsy-turvy age of what we can only call “tell don’t show.” (“Show don’t tell” is forgotten.) Perhaps it is time for the professionals to put not their money – there is no money – but their writing where their mouth is.

A Rediscovery of a Literary Virtuoso: Shirley Hazzard’s “Collected Stories”

The month of May has rushed by. Lots of rain here – two weeks, actually – and more of the same in the future. So what have I been reading? This month, Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard proved irresistible. Whether you plan to spend the weekend on the lake (I wish!) or dilly-dallying at home, I am sure you will love at least some of these stories. Hazzard (1931-2016), an Australian writer who had dual citizenship in the U.S. and the UK, won many awards, including The National Book Award and The Miles Franklin Award.

Last fall Farrar Straus and Giroux published Collected Stories, which comprises her two story collections, Cliffs of Fall and People in Glass Houses, and ten uncollected stories, eight of them published in The New Yorker and other magazines. As if this were not enough to keep us busy, Penguin recently reissued her award-winning novel The Transit of Venus. It is reasonable to say that Hazzard is back in fashion. And both books have been widely reviewed (or re-reviewed) by the critics.

I think of Hazzard mainly as a novelist, and I still have my 1990 Penguin copy of her 1980 novel, The Transit of Venus. I was intrigued at the time by her intelligence, grace, and nuanced writing, though, honestly, I remember little about the novel now. But I kept it all these years; it is now on the nightstand pile. When her National Book Award-winning novel The Great Fire, set in the aftermath of World War II, was published in 2003, I found it painful and uneven, almost too full of events, as it turns from a ghastly investigation of the ruins of Hiroshima into into an unlikely romance. But much of Hazzard’s life was in this book – she knew the shattering aftermath, having worked in the late forties for British Intelligence in Hong Kong, and in the fifties as a secretary for the UN.

I read the Collected Stories at my leisure, only one or two a day. Surprisingly, I preferred the energetic early stories to the later stories. I loved “A Place in the Country,” the second story in her first collection, Cliffs of Hall, which begins with the upacking of boxes in a country house. Hazzard shares this country house territory with Updike and Cheever: it is the place where intelligent, well-educated women read poetry and give dinner parties, while their husbands work in the city. (Perhaps Hazzard and Updike knew the same people.). And the opening of “A Place in the Country” is bound to hook avid readers.

“Try to keep the poetry separate,” said May. “The rest can be arranged later.” She made her way around the boxes of books and china to the doorway, and called up the stairs, “Clem, when you’re finished up there, you could help Nettie with the books.”

Not surprisingly, it turns out Clem and Nettie are having an affair. May has no idea: she is busy arranging objects in their country house, where she and the children will live for six months, while Clem works in town, coming down for an occasional weekend. Nettie is so in love that at one point she wishes – like an adolescent- that she could darn Clem’s socks. She is too young to understand marriage, and glosses over May’s potential pain: Nettie thinks the marriage must be worse than most.. But the love between Nettie and Clem turns out to be unequal. At the end of the story, Clem will tell her he should never have said he did not love his wife.

In “Forgiving,” Kate gets out of a party by saying her husband Lucas is sick. Actually, they sit in the woods, discussing Kate’s infidelity, and Kate assures him that she will never cheat again. “‘You leave me alone too much,’ she says”. Aa indeed, he does. He was away two months on a business trip in Africa. He snaps, “Well, one doesn’t go to Africa for the day, you know.”

I am especially charmed by the witty linked stories from People in Glass Houses, set in the offices of the Organization, which is a thinly-veiled U.N. (Hazzard worked at the UN for seven years.) She gently mocks the bureaucracy, the Methods of Enforcement report and the Advisory Commission on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, the firing of a misunderstood anthropologist (Ashmole-Brown in “The Story of Miss Sadie Graine”), who then becomes a best-selling writer after he publishes the report he’d been working on at the Organization, and various other workplace events and scandals. The employees come from different countries and different backgrounds, but nobody quite understands how the Organization works, especially the idealistic character Mr. Flinders in “The Meeting,” who discovers he has taken insufficiently professional photos of people in a third-world country planting trees to stop erosion. A man with better slides has actually contributed to pollution with his mission, but no one has the background to tell the difference.

In “The Flowers of Sorrow,” the Director-General departs from the agenda of his speech to say, “In my country, we have a song that asks, ‘Will the flowers of joy ever equal the flowers of sorrow?” The audience is flustered. Some are annoyed that there has been no mention of the proposed change in retirement, or longevity increments. One of the English interpreters is freaked-out: “It would be better not to give us a prepared text at all than to make all these departures from it.” But two of the characters, Miss Kingslake and Mr. Willoughby, feel heartened by a feeling remark that isn’t on the agenda.

If you do not have time to read all the stories, do try People in Glass Houses. At first I didn’t “get” them and found them dry, but the employees of The Organization now hold a special place on my mental bookshelf of workplace fiction.