Mimi on Tolstoy in Maureen Howard’s “The Rags of Time”

 Today, when I told my husband I was finishing up two books this month, he asked, “Is one of them War and Peace?”

I love Tolstoy so much that it is a family joke.  But, no, I haven’t been reading it.

I just finished Maureen Howard’s The Rags of Time, a kind of woman’s Ulysses, and the last in Howard’s quartet of novels on the seasons.  And there are a few references to War and Peace.

Howard’s double, Mimi, an 80-year-old writer who reflects on American history, personal history, and  the design of Central Park, recalls reading War and Peace as a girl one summer in her parents’ bedroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut. ( N.B.  This episode is also in Howard’s memoir, Facts of Life.)   And near the end of Rags, her husband picks up Mimi’s copy of War and Peace and reads the notes on her rereading . 

“She had read to page 733 in War and Peace, marking the confrontation between Napoleon and the Russian emissary as they moved ahead to their bloody war.  Girlish!!! in the margin next to the description of the emperor. . . a white waistcoat so long that it covered his round stomach, white doeskin breeches fitting tightly over the fat thighs of his stumpy legs, and Hessian boots.  His snuff box, his cologne!  Her notes, trailing down the side of the page, remarked upon the brilliant maneuvers of the scene, the slippery give-take of diplomacy, the rough talk of plain take.  He presumed she’d read the love story, though this time round, her second chance, notes in the margin revealed how closely she observed the lush setting of the Tsar’s palace, the slippery make-nice that preceded war.  Revise, reread, work ahead right up to the end.  He must tell her brother, who maintained that when she took up her post with the fat library book each long Summer day, then slept on a cot in his room–that she snored.”

The Rags of Time is a twenty-first century classic, in my view, but it is generally underappreciated (especially at Goodreads).  I wonder if women’s experimentations with literary form are still less acceptable than men’s.

Nicole Hollander’s Humor & a Trip to the Library

I used to pore over Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia cartoons.  Her eccentric character Sylvia lived with cats, was politically radical, and spent a lot of time reading in the bathtub.  She was the only  comic-strip heroine I identified with, besides Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy.  I read Sylvia in an alternative paper.  Hollander introduced Sylvia as a character in The Feminist Funnies in the ’70s, and the Sylvia strip was syndicated in 1981.  Alas, Hollander retired Sylvia in 2012.

We still miss her!

Fortunately at the library I recently found Hollander’s 2007 book,  Tales of Graceful Aging on the Planet Denial, a collection of comic essays.  I had no idea she’d written a book.

She begins,

The two girlfriends and I are going to the movies.  Someone who looks about twelve is selling tickets.  She looks at me and I prepare to be complimented on my earrings, scarf, any number of things because I know I look adorable.

She says, “Will that be senior citizen, ma’am?”  Behind me the girlfriends suck in their breath.  They are happy they made me leave that cute little revolver that I bought in case some man proposed to me and wouldn’t take no for an answer at home.  They fear another traumatic event like the one when that kid tried to give me his seat on the bus.  Big deal…He’s young, his scars will heal.

lf that hasn’t happened to you yet…just wait!  I’m not a “senior” yet,  but at the hair salon they’ve started asking if I want the discount.  I burst out laughing when I realized I looked ancient to them with my gray hair. And then I looked in the mirror and I do look ancient.  I’m not sure exactly when I get those senior benefits–I vaguely think it’s 65. But everybody ages at a different pace.  Viva la age!

These essays are witty.  I’m chortling on every page.  Some are better than other, but it’s so much fun!

A TRIP TO THE LIBRARY.   It’s a warm day in autumn, the lake is blue and ruffled by wind, and we popped into the library on impulse:  well, mainly because I wanted a D. E. Stevenson book.

And I did check out one Stevenson book.  No idea if I’ve read Mrs. Rochester’s Wife or not!  I’ll find out.  I also was happy to find a novel by the Southern writer  Lee Smith.  I’ve been a fan since Black Mountain Breakdown but I’ve never seen Something in the Wind, her second novel.  A good find.

We filled our huge shopping bag with books. Am so glad I remembered to bring it, or I would have had to put some books back.  (Well, I did put a few back.)

My husband is a nonfiction fan, and we found…

…a short biography of Buddha, Czeslaw Milosz’s Selected and Last Poems, and Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live:  Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  

I spent most of my time in fiction, starting  in the S’s and slowly went back to the M’s. I didn’t have time to go back to the A’s.  I checked out Him Her Him Again The End of Him by Patricia Marx, whom I know as a humorist for The New Yorker.  And I hope it’s humorous because that’s what I’m in themood for.

I’ve never heard of Jane McCaffrey, but First You Try Everything looks intriguing.  Perhaps I’ll get around to it, perhaps not.

And, last but not least, how could I resist The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl, a book that, according to Maureen Corrigan at NPR, celebrates daydreaming?

A satisfying hour at the library:  a good haul, and I hope I get around to some of these!

Have You Read Publishers Weekly’s “Best of”? & Musings on #MeToo

It is  too early for us readers to contemplate the Best Books of the Year, but it is not too early for booksellers.  As a bookstore groupie I pored over The Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2018, which will undoubtedly be in bookstores this Christmas. I’ve read only one:  Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood, a clever retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.

So let me now promote my own favorite book of the year:

 Conscience by Alice Mattison.  Told from three points-of-view, this counter-culture classic focuses on the consequences of reading, or rereading, a Vietnam-era novel about a terrorist.  Olive Grossman, a biographer of women writers, has agreed to write an introduction to a new edition of Bright Morning of Pain, which was based on the life of Olive’s best friend, Helen, a conscience-stricken anti-war activist who became a terrorist and died in a robbery.  Olive’s husband Griff, an African-American high-school principal, is portrayed in the novel as a militant with a gun. (Both Olive and Griff knew the author.)  Griff reads the novel for the first time, and the circle of readers opens when Griff leaves the book in the office of the director of a drop-in center.  Complicated politics, complicated emotions.  Fascinating, labyrinthine, and psychologically pitch-perfect.  And here is a link to an excellent review in The Washington Post.

MUSINGS ON #METOO.

Hollywood actresses are not my role models, but the #MeToo movement has had a powerful  impact on society.  Harvey Weinberg is gone, whoever he was, and several other entertainment icons.

But the trickle-down effect has triggered hysteria among women who complain of having been touched on the butt in bars.  Are we 19th-century women on the fainting couch?

Sarah Silverman and Louis C.K.

The comedian Sarah Silverman has enraged both women and men by talking about her friendship with Louis C.K., a comedian accused of sexual harassment and misconduct.   This week on Howard Stern’s SiriusXM show she said, “I’ve known Louis forever, I’m not making excuses for him, so please don’t take this that way.  We are peers. We are equals. When we were kids, and he asked if he could masturbate in front of me, sometimes I’d go, ‘Fuck yeah I want to see that!’”

If you are outraged, don’t read on.  Because Kat Rosenfeld at Tablet writes,

What Silverman’s critics condemn as “muddying the waters” might better be described as a useful reintroduction into the public realm of a forgotten version of femininity: one in which a man asks a woman, who is also a colleague, if he can masturbate in front of her, and her response is not horrified silence or reluctant assent, but an enthusiastic yes (or “fuck yeah”). …She made a choice, as was her right—and it should continue to be her right to do so, even if her choices are not ones that someone else might prefer, and even if they are inconvenient to certain facile narratives about How All Women Are.

That’s a powerful thing in a year where second-wave notions of resilient womanhood have been eclipsed by a more fearful, breakable brand of femininity. The new story, told in Twitter moments and viral videos, is that women are scared—and should be, considering how fragile they are. Teetering on the precipice of trauma, trapped at the wrong end of a power dynamic that puts them at a permanent disadvantage, unable to advocate for themselves, women are always on the verge of being victimized—not just by rape and assault, but by nonconsensual ghosting and fake male feminists and dates that just don’t go as they’d hoped.

I don’t know what “nonconsensual ghosting” is–thank God for that!

Ovid in the News & “Odyssey” Groupies

OVID IS IN THE NEWS, AND NOT IN A GOOD WAY.  The classicist Donna Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, has noted a disturbing trend among the online Red Pill communities, a group of conservative alt.right men who resent women and say that men have been disenfranchised.  They are using Ovid’s comic didactic poem, Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), as a serious pick-up guide.  You can read more about this at The Atlantic.

Ovid may not be a feminist, but he was a bohemian and a free spirit.  The  Greek and Roman models of poetry were far from prudish, yet his writing is bold:  think Henry Miller or D. H. Lawrence, only comic.  He may be sexist but he is not a Red Pill Casanova. In Amores (The Loves), the narrator woos Corinna, a strong, sexy woman who is not always available to him. And in his poems he describes Roman women’s lives:  their beauty regimens, going to the games, dinner parties, their relationships with men, and even almost dying of an abortion.

Ovid’s erotic writing is said to have offended Augustus.  He was exiled for carmen et error (a poem and an error), and scholars conjecture that the  carmen  was his outrageous early poem, Ars Amatoria (Art of Love).

In The Art of Love, a parody of didactic poetry, Ovid  devoted two books to instructions on how to pick up women, and the third to instructing women so they would be in bella pares (equal in war).

The opening lines of  Book I are light and frivolous.  (And, by the way, this is my literal translation–sorry, I don’t write poetry–and the Latin lines are at the end of this post.)

If anyone does not know the art of loving,
let him read this, and by these lines let him love learnedly.
By art the swift vessels with sail and oars are moved,
By art the light chariots; by art Love must be ruled.

The  opening of Book III, the women’s guide, shows that Ovid is not a woman hater.  Parodying the Greek and Roman war epics,  he explains women must also know the art.  He has already “armed” the Greeks (the men) with advice, now he “arms” the Amazons (the women).

I gave arms to the Greeks against the Amazons;  arms remain
for you and your troop, Penthesialea.
Go evenly matched into war; let them conquer whom nurturing
Venus favors, and her son who flies around the whole world.
It would be unfair for unarmed women to fight armed men.
It would be shameful thus for you to conquer them, men.

It’s a very silly early poem, far from Ovid’s best.  And if the alt.right misconstrue Ovid, there’s nothing we can do.

ARE YOU A HOMER FAN?  The Odyssey has groupies.

Everybody loves a hero’s journey, a witch, monsters, sirens, and shipwrecks, but English translations of the Odyssey don’t always capture the tone and mood.  Last year a new translation  by Emily Wilson, the first woman  to translate the Odyssey into English, became fashionable. 

It may not be a best-seller, but it has gotten much attention. Wilson was profiled last year in  The New York Times Magazine.  A few weeks ago the TLS published “Beginning Our Odyssey,” in which Mary Beard and other contributors wrote about their first encounters with the Odyssey.  And then there was a reading of Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey  as part of the London Literature Festival.

Homer’s poem was meant to be recited, not read, and certainly Wilson’s lucid, simple verse is perfect for that.  Here is her  translation of the opening lines.

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy.

There are many translations of  the Odyssey, something for everybody.  I grew up on  the Richmond Lattimore, which is very close to the Greek.  Only after I read it in Greek did I appreciate its brilliance.  He manages to correlate the number of English lines with the Greek–and since Greek is more economical than English, this is quite a task.

Lattimore’s opening lines:

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.

The  paperback of Wilson’s translation will be released in November, so  we can treat ourselves to a new book!

NOTES ON OVID:  HERE are the Latin lines from The Art of Love, Book III, vv. 1-6.

Arma dedi Danais in Amazonas; arma supersunt,
Quae tibi dem et turmae, Penthesilea, tuae.
Ite in bella pares; vincant, quibus alma Dione
Faverit et toto qui volat orbe puer.
Non erat armatis aequum concurrere nudas;               5
Sic etiam vobis vincere turpe, viri.

Here are the Latin lines from Book I, vv. 1-4:

Siquis in hoc artem populo non novit amandi,
Hoc legat et lecto carmine doctus amet.
Arte citae veloque rates remoque moventur,
Arte leves currus: arte regendus amor.

Why I Don’t Work in a Bookstore

Meg Ryan as a bookstore owner in “You’ve Got Mail.”

I don’t work in a bookstore. It is probably what I was meant to do.

“You’re a natural teacher,” my mother said.  Then why was I so tired?

Teachers were all tired.  As the only Latin teacher I had three preparations (most had two)  and taught five classes a day (most taught four). I went home and took a nap, or zoomed off to aerobics class to work out the tension.  And then I prepared. And then I got up at 5 a.m.to grade homework and quizzes.

Here I am teaching Ovid in the “Big Glasses” era.

According to Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a study  in 2012 called Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession found that the average teacher works 53 hours a week.   That sounds about right.

Eventually I found a more creative job with flex-time.  I enjoyed it more, but I admit I worked  on my wedding day.  “I just have to finish this up…”

Why didn’t I work in a bookstore?  Wouldn’t the hours have been more reasonable?

I love books.  I sold them without meaning to.  I would go to a bookstore, chat about books, and sometimes a bookseller would come over beaming to say I’d sold a book.

I also amused myself by doing the “first sentence test.” I read a lot of first sentences.  The first sentence test isn’t too bad, really.  And other people started reading first sentences… and I sold books that way, too.

I did work at a bookstore briefly in Iowa City when I took a year off from college.  The men got to work on the floor with the books; we women had to be cashiers.   Hard to believe it was so sexist back then, but it was.  And we women all loved books:  there was one college graduate among us, one student, another woman on a gap year, and a smart head cashier.

My copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence

The good thing about working in the bookstore was that we got to borrow books. The bad thing  was that I used to buy the books.  Madness! Here is my copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. It cost $12.50. I made $1.60 an hour.  I put my money back into the store!  And so I had to leave.

If I had been allowed to work with the books,  I would have stayed and had a different fate!

A Retelling of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” & Cover Art of Classics

I am reading Rena Rossner’s  brilliant fantasy novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.   It also has elements of fairy tales, myths, and Jewish stories and folktales.

Naturally I must reread Goblin Market.  Finally I found my copy: a tiny used Everyman’s Library Pocket edition which does fit in your pocket.

And so, on this lovely Indian summer day, I sat on a bench and read Rossetti.  The book is so tiny that I was confident no one would see what I was reading.  (I only see people reading phones; I wonder if books are outlawed.) Fascinating to note Rossner’s mimicry of Rossetti’s style and content:  she alternates chapters from the two sisters’ perspectives,  Liba’s in prose, Layla’s in poetry. (They are Lizzie and Laura in the poem.)  And Rossetti’s and Rossner’s fruit-sellers are equally seductive.   Rossner is not primarily a poet, but it is a very clever undertaking.

I never seek out the pocket classics editions of classics, but they are quite nice.  Though they don’t have intros or footnotes, they are handy and sturdy.

I recommend the Everyman’s Library pocket copy of John Updike’s The Maples Stories, a slim collection of interwoven stories–some of Updike’s best.  They delineate a young couple’s relationship through the early married years,  adultery, divorce, and post-divorce. Fascinating and moving!

WHAT OTHER EDITIONS OF CLASSICS SHOULD WE CONSIDER?  Madeline Raynor reveals in her article,”These Book Covers Are So Terrible You Won’t Believe They’re Real” at Electric Literature, that she is not a fan of Wordsworth Classics. She writes,

They’re known for their cheap price: one of these paperbacks costs a mere £2.50 (they’re available in the U.S. for a comparable sum). They’re a great option if you love the classics but live on a tight budget, but there are sacrifices. The paper quality isn’t great. The introductions and supplemental essays don’t exactly pass muster. But worst of all are the covers, which are so offensively terrible that it makes you question whether the cheap price is worth it.

I thought, What’s so bad about the covers?  I’d never seen anything untoward.  But there has been a redesign.  Fortunately, these redesigns are not available in the U.S.

Here are three different Wordsworth editions of Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, starting with the new redesign.

Ye gods!  Who are these women?

Here’s the edition I now see at Half Price Books.

Not great, but not terrible.

I actually prefer an earlier Wordsworth edition with a blue background.

Sometimes a publisher goes to hell with redesigns.  For instance, I prefer older  incarnations of Penguins and Oxford paperbacks.When did they change? In the early 2000s?  All that black on Penguins  can be gloomy, and the white on the Oxfords too pretty-pretty.   That said, I especially love Penguins.   But the print size is absolutely perfect in the Oxfords.

Look at the cover art.  Here are  new and old Penguins of Daniel Deronda.  Which do you prefer?

Here are the new and old Oxford editions.  Which do you like?

And, let me add, I see nothing wrong with snapping up cheap Wordsworth copies.  The cover is not the main factor, and the text is all there.  I have a used 2012 Wordsworth edition of Selected  Works of Virginia Woolf I bought for a trip. Yes, it was long enough to last for a week (or more).   F— art!  (Except for the portraits of Woolf and friends at the National Portrait Gallery. )  Well, I don’t mean that, but this cover is fine with me!

How important is cover art to you?  And are there covers that put you off ?  And, most important, does price matter?

Two Books for Fall: Zola’s “Germinal” and Stanley Middleton’s “Valley of Decision”

I retire early to bed with books these days.  What do I recommend?  Zola’s Germinal and Stanley Middleton’s  Valley of Decision.

Zola’s Germinal is not for everybody.  I was perusing James Mustich’s new reference book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, and surprised to find Germinal named as Zola’s masterpiece. IT IS the most over-the-top book ever written!   When I read it at 21, I found it so depressing I raced through it just to be done.  And I’m a Zola fan.

What do I think many, many years later?  Well, it is gloomy. Set in a coal-mining town in France, it details the harshness of the work and everyday life.  People  live like animals, they sleep in shifts in crowded houses, they beg, they starve, they fornicate practically in public.  The main character is Etienne, the son of the alcoholics in Zola’s L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den). He arrives at loose ends and takes a job in the mines.  The focus is largely on Etienne and the Maheu family.  All of the Maheus, except the wife and youngest children, work in the mine, and the conditions  are horrendous.  Etienne preaches radical ideas and organizes a strike.  And the strike is a disaster, because the miners have no power.

Everybody dies.   Almost everybody.

I kept exclaiming out loud, “Poor horse!”  “Poor Catherine!”  Did I weep?  I think so.

I prefer Nana, The Ladies’ Paradise, and The Conquest of PassansGerminal is brilliant, but I can’t survive it every day.

Stanley Middleton’s Valley of Decision is melancholy but upbeat after  Germinal Middleton won the Booker Prize in 1974 for Holiday.  Set in the Midlands, Valley of Decision is a beautifully-written novel about musical careers and a marriage on the rocks.  David and his wife Mary are happy.  They have a lot in common:  David teaches music and is an amateur cellist; Mary is a former opera singer.  When she  is offered a gig in the U.S. singing opera on a two-months’ university tour, David and Mary agree she should do it.  It is an opportunity for Mary, though she doesn’t want a professional career.

While she is away, David begins to perform with a prestigious quartet.  It takes up time, and he loves it. Middleton’s descriptions of the rehearsals, conversations about music,  and the concerts are fascinating.  I’m not even musical.

Mary is a hit in Handel’s  Semele.  But suddenly she stops writing to David and won’t answer his phone calls. She is not in touch with her parents or David’s parents, either.  David  is worried.  He continues with his music, and that is a saving grace, but he becomes depressed.

Where is Mary?  we wonder.

A brilliant little novel, the kind of thing that might get overlooked now.  Personally I wish there were more short, pitch-perfect (no pun intended) novels like this.

AND NOW WHAT WILL I READ NEXT?