So Many Books: What I’ve Been Reading & the “Should-I-Bother” Pile


I’m very much enjoying a new summer novel, Honestly, We Meant Well, by Grant Ginder.  It is light, realistic, well-written, and comical, a literary novel that can double as a beach read.  Ginder is a master of fast scenes and witty dialogue in this adroit portrayal of a  family vacation in Greece.  When Sue Ellen, a classicist, accepts a gig lecturing in Greece, she isn’t entirely happy that the family is accompanying her.  She’s annoyed with her philandering husband and grieving  the death of Christos, a former lover who ran the inn where they’re staying.  Her husband, Dean a writer and creative writing professor, is worried about his next novel and, unbeknownst to her, is cheating on her again.   Their  son, Will, is in agony over a breakup with his boyfriend and has also plagiarized a short story. Then there’s  Eleni,  Christos’ daughter, about to sell the inn.  The novel is also a  kind of guide to Greece.  Delphi, Athens, Aegina…  Great fun.

The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan by Stuart Palmer. This quick American novel, first published in 1941, is a Golden Age Detective novel. The amateur sleuth, Hildegarde Withers, is a New York schoolteacher on vacation in L.A. When a Hollywood agent recruits her as an expert advisor for a film about Lizzie Borden, she starts finding dead bodies, beginning with the scriptwriter in the office next door. Rollicking adventures, humor, and suspense:  I do hope I can find other books in this Miss Withers series. In Otto Penzler’s introduction, he compares Miss Withers to Miss Marple. This book is in the American Mystery Classics series, chosen and introduced by Otto Penzler.


L.A. Woman by Eve Babitz. I loved Babitz’s self-described confessional novel, Eve’s Hollywood (my post is here), but put aside L.A. Woman.  Some of it is a little bit coarse. For instance, the narrator Sophie’s dog, Tango, has a kind of affair with her on the bathroom floor.  And a friend gives Sophie advice on how to “give head”: “Spit,” Ophelia concluded, “That’s the whole trick to giving head. Just spit.” Okay, it’s funny but… not that funny. Should I bother?

Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion. All of Georgette Heyer’s novels are elegant, witty, and very much alike. I enjoyed the first 285 pages of Cotillion, then lost the book behind a chair.   Eureka!  I vacuumed!  Heyer’s novels are billed as Regency romances, but they’re more like Regency comedies.  I  guarantee the girl will get the guy.  Should I bother?

The Magus by John Fowles.  This is always mentioned on summer reading lists. Last summer I read the first 300 pages.  It’s haunting and boring at the same time. Should I pick it up again?

What are you reading and what’s on your “Should-I-Bother” pile.

The Poet Statius on the Death of a Lion

I love to read Latin, but I seldom write out a translation.  It occurred to me, however, that readers today may be unfamiliar with Statius, a  stunning Roman poet of the first century A.D. and the author of Silvae, an innovative collection of “occasional poems” that celebrate or describe many subjects: sleep, a party thrown by the emperor Domitian, a statuette, the anniversary of the death of the poet Lucan, even the construction of a highway.

The following poem is addressed to a lion who died fighting in the arena.  I love this lion so much.  Domitian mourns.  Even the tame lions in cages growl their grief over his death.

I have not attempted to turn this poem into verse, first, because I am not a poet, and second, because the meter in Latin poetry is determined by the quantity of the vowels (long and short) rather than  the stress on syllables. This is a prose version arranged in lines that follow the lines of the Latin more or less—less than more—but I attempt nothing but to show the character of the lion.

“A Lion Tamed” (Silvae II.5)

What good did it do you to be tamed, you who had shown your rage?
What good did it do to forget crime and human killings
and endure command and obey a lesser master?
What good, the fact that you were accustomed to leave your den
and return to a cage and withdraw freely from captured prey
and let go the trainer’s hands from a lax bite?
You die, expert killer of giant beasts,
not encircled by the Massylians of Numidia with their curved net,
not goaded in a dreaded jump over hunting spears,
nor deceived by the blind gaping of a pit,
but conquered by a fleeing animal. Your unlucky cage
stands open, and around the locked doors on all sides, the tame lions 
swelled with rage that this disgrace had been allowed.
All their manes fell and they were ashamed to see your body brought back, and they brought their foreheads
down to their eyes in a frown.
But that new shame did not destroy your character as
your life poured out with the first blow:
valor remained and courage returned to you
from the middle of death as you fell.
Just as a dying soldier conscious of a deep wound
charges the enemy and threatens and raises his hands with the sword falling: so the lion, slow in step and stripped of dignity.
stares, panting, and looks for his breath and the enemy.
And yet you, conquered lion, will bear the solace of sudden death, because the sorrowful people and senators
have mourned you as if you were a well-known gladiator
falling in the sad sand of the arena; and because the loss of one lion has touched Domitian—one lion among so many insignificant wild beasts from Scythia, Libya, Germany, and Egypt.

A Random List: Books I’ve Read on May 28

Do you keep a book journal?   If so, you know what you’ve read on May 28 each year for the last decade (2010-now).

It is a very odd list:  I’ve included links to posts at my old blog, Mirabile Dictu, where relevant.

MAY 28, 2010: The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante  (my favorite book by Ferrante)

MAY 28, 2011: The Needle’s Eye, by Margaret Drabble

MAY 28, 2012: Doctors and Women, by Susan Cheever

MAY 28, 2013: Ursule Mirouet, by Balzac

MAY 28, 2014: Off Course, by Michele Hunevan

MAY 28, 2015: The Professor, by Charlotte Bronte

MAY 28, 2016: Uncle Silas, by Sheridan le Fanu

MAY 28, 2017: Golden Days, by Carolyn See

MAY 28, 2018: Love in a Cold Climate, by Nancy Mitford

MAY 28, 2019: Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger

Does this list have meaning?  Well, it’s a random date, and I’m disappointed by the results.  If I’d included 2009, the title would have been Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which would have added flair.  But these are good titles, all thoroughly enjoyable, more or less classics, with the exception of Susan Cheever’s clever novel, which is long forgotten  and out-of-print ( hence not a classic) but worth reading if you can find a copy.

Summer Reading: In My Armor, on a Quest

It’s Memorial Day, the first real day of summer.

We are obsessed with summer reading.  What will we peruse?  Classics or light books? Some prefer the Modernists; others the Victorians;  others enjoy cute beach romances with cover art depicting Adirondack chairs. And I would too if I hadn’t already lost one of Elin Hilderbrand’s Nantucket novels—at the beach!

Summer is also an ideal time for long-term projects.  You can read The Tale of Genji (did it), The Death of Virgil (spoiled my  idea of Virgil, who is portrayed in the first 30 pages as a dying man ogling a boy fan),  the worst of Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit), or Robert Harris’s  Cicero trilogy (which I’m not as crazy about as most people).

The worst of my beloved Dickens.

But this year I have a far, far tougher quest: catching up with at least three books published in the last few years.

I’m in my armor, on my horse. I’ve got some books.  Alas, the regrettably simple style of 21st literature is often colorless and dull. Blab, blab, blab: I like the classics. But this summer I’m going partially for new “pop,”  new “literary, and “new” nonfiction.  Maybe I can even read four new books.

Before I go on to trash new books,  let me recommend some brilliant new books I’ve read this year. 

  1. Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a brilliant feminist retelling of Beowulf.
  2. Brad Leithauser’s The Promise of Elsewhere, an academic satire in which a professor goes rogue on vacation in Europe.
  3. Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day, a novel about two couples’ complicated relationships.
  4. Pam Houston’s graceful collection of essays, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.
  5. Vita Nostra, a pretty good SF novel by Marina and Sergey Dychenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey.

And here is a list of mediocre new books I’ve read parts of but then rejected.  This doesn’t mean they’re bad.

  1. The Heartland: An American History, by Kristin L. Hoganson. This  history of the midwest by a professor at the University of Illinois has been well-reviewed—and kudos to Hoganson for taking on the Midwest! But it seemed narrow, concentrating almost entirely on research in Illinois, which doesn’t take into consideration the differences between groups of immigrants in different states or problems endemic to different landscapes. She does make interesting parallels between the Kickapoo Indians and itinerant pioneers.  But ye gods!  She devotes an entire chapter to the breeding of livestock.  That’s where I gave up.
  2. All the Lives We Ever Lived, by Katharine Smyth. How could I not love a bibliomemoir about Virginia Woolf? But Smyth is too richy-rich for me. I tired of her father’s “varnishing the teak of the cockpit” of their yacht.  I abandoned this book after 30 pages..
  3. David Means’s Instructions for a Funeral, a collection of short stories. Too verbose for me.
  4. Marie Benedict’s The Only Woman in the Room, a historical novel about Hedy Larmarr, the actress, and a Barnes and Noble Book Club selection. Actually, I finished this, but found it formulaic.

So on with the quest for great new books!   The most-promoted new books will not necessarily be the best.

Why the Planet Can’t Be Saved

Something positive for the planet!

Last week, we pulled over at a rest stop. Sheet lightning was flashing and the wind was so strong it shook the car. We sat in our shuddering car wondering what to do. A woman in a car beside us looked out her window anxiously.

We couldn’t save her, we regret.

No one could save us, either.

This is the way it’s going to be.

Storms come up suddenly. Furious storms, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes.  We’ve never seen so many.

This week, it’s raining. Everybody has water in the basement. Everybody hopes it won’t flood, though there has been terrible flooding this spring in Nebraska and western Iowa.

After 2030, climate change will be irreversible. But it could be reversed now. Remember the hole in the ozone layer?  NASA and other agencies around the world have fixed it by phasing out the industrial production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). They signed an international agreement in 1987.

Now, we need to stop burning  fossil fuels.  We need to go VERY green.  Yet there’s resistance to green energy like wind turbines (which spoil the landscape or kill the birds, according to rich men of different political parties, among them Trump (it spoils the view on his Scottish golf course), Robert Kennedy, Jr. (it spoils the view on Nantucket or wherever), and Jonathan Franzen (who worries about the birds, which will all be dead if we don’t change to green energy).  There is similar resistance to  the huge solar farms:  rich people in a gated community in Virginia oppose them because the solar panels spoil their view.

HERE’S WHAT HUMAN BEINGS CAN DO:  Every time you DON’T drive you help.  Take the bus or bicycle. According to the EPA, motor vehicles  cause 75 percent of carbon monoxide pollution in the U.S.   And yet people cannot make the connection that driving is killing the planet.  They blithely move to the ex-urbs, which means even MORE driving. And the next generation is being trained to do the same. The driving age here, if you can believe it, is 14.

We have all known for decades that walking, bicycling, and mass transit are good alternatives to driving.  After a lifetime of NOT driving a car because of environmental concerns, I begin to wonder why I’ve done it. I despair over the stupidity and greed of human beings.  But what about the plants and animals?  Yes, they are worth saving.

Drivers do not want you to save the planet.  Pedestrians and bicyclists are viewed not as role models but as eccentrics IN THE WAY.  Drivers become more and more hostile:  road rage.  A car hit my husband  last year (the driver veered suddenly left into the bike lane) and broke my spouse’s collarbone and punctured his lung.   A car also hit the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year (I voted for him) on his bicycle and he will not walk without a walker for six months.

In the Netherlands, drivers are trained to watch out for bicyclists.  The New York Times said last October that they’re trained in a maneuver called the Dutch reach.:

When you are about to exit the car, you reach across your body for the door handle with your far or opposite hand. This action forces you to turn toward the side view mirror, out and then back over your shoulder to be sure a bicyclist is not coming from behind. Only then do you slowly open the door.

This is one of many things which should be stressed in the U.S.

So now we’ve almost killed the planet, you might as well read a dystopian novel.  I strongly recommend John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, which I wrote about here at my old blog, Mirabile Dictu.  In this terrifying post-modern SF classic,  pollution has rendered the U.S.  a wasteland.  The poisoned air blows into Canada and sometimes across the ocean to Europe (sound familiar?);  everyone is sick; antibiotics no longer work; fleas and rat infestations in houses and apartment house can no longer be controlled because they are immune to poison; the acid rain in NY is so bad that you need to wear plastic outside; the water is poisoned (there are frequent “no-drink water” days); intelligence levels are dropping (lead in the air and water); a virus causes spontaneous abortion; the oceans are so polluted that people vacation in Colorado rather than California; and big businesses are profiting by selling air filters, water filters, etc.

John Brunner was prescient.

Memorial Day Reading: A Beowulf Marathon

It’s Memorial Day Weekend!

Some love summer holidays.  Some do not.

Three days of drinking beer and grilling hot dogs  with the relatives from Kansas may be a trial for an addicted reader. I have been reduced to perusing People magazine at the picnic table. And don’t forget: Cousin Myrna, her husband Mickey, and their grown-up kids, Dakota, Dylan, and Donny, WILL be camping in the backyard.  Tattoos WILL be compared.  Too many marshmallows will be roasted.

Personally, I’m doing a Beowulf and Beowulf retelling marathon this weekend. (Do I think the relatives are monsters?  But I may eat some bratwurst.) I can’t recommend too highly the novel I am reading, Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a feminist retelling of Beowulf.

Whether you know the Beowulf story or not does not matter.  The Mere Wife is a compelling book.  Somewhere, we do have  a copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation. (It has been a LOT of years.)  But you can always read a  summary of the poem at Encyclopedia Britannica.

People love retold myths, poems, and fairy tales.  The Mere Wife, touted by critics,  is no exception. Set in a suburban gated community called Herot Hall, this version focuses on the women characters, especially the mothers.   Dana, an ex-soldier with PTSD, lives in a cave under the mountain with her son Gren (Grendel), a boy born with teeth and claws; her suburban counterpart, Willa, is the miserable wife of the heir of Herot Hall, who is cheating on her with a neighbor, and Willa is also the ice-cold mother of Dylan, a lonely friendless boy.

The women don’t have much power, or so it seems. Dana, who volunteered as a soldier sometime after 9/11, has survived rape and torture in a hostage situation and returned to the U.S. with only one eye and pregnant by an unknown captor.

Headley writes so insightfully about PTSD that I did really wonder if the author was a veteran. (I haven’t looked it up.)  She lyrically, impressionistically describes Dana’s state of mind.  You are immediately in Dana’s chilling world in the first paragraph of the prologue.

Say it. The beginning and end at once. I’m facedown in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead. I think about praying, but i’ve never been any good at asking for help. I try to sing. There aren’t any songs for this. All I have is a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things will be well.

And Dana understands how the military recruits young ignorant people who want to be heroes.  The reality is different.

Back in the U.S., Dana returns to Herot Hall, where she grew up (though her modest family’s house has been bulldozed), and in a harrowing scene, gives birth in the mountain cave to her “monster” son, Gren.  He will never fit in, so she protects him by living in isolation under the mountain.

But the blond, gorgeous trophy wife, Willa, is the really violent one. Boiling with repressed rage at Herot Hall, where she has nothing to do, she wants her glass house–glass walls and no curtains–to remain perfect.  Her willful misinterpretation of what she has seen—Gren as a monster rather than a child playing with her son during her perfect party—drives her berserk. And she goads the Beowulfian hero, Ben Woolf, a policeman and war veteran, to investigate.

Sometimes there is a chorus of the zoned-out wives of Herlot Hill, who do Pilates, boxing, and are in shape for whatever  happens. They don’t have power, but they insist on action here.  They want blood.

The most famous retelling of Beowulf is John Gardner’s Grendel, written from the point of view of the monster. I have had a used copy on the shelf for many years, but I am ashamed to say I have never read it.  And I just discovered that there is WRITING in it. You cant imagine how unhappy this makes me. But it’s in pencil, so I plan to erase it.

Have you read Beowulf ? Have you read The Mere Wife or Grendel? And what are you reading this weekend?

Perfect Summer Reading: Kurt Tucholsky’s “Castle Gripsholm,” Rebecca West’s “The Return of the Soldier,” and Karolina Palova’s “A Double Life”

What do I want to read during summer vacation? Will it be Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, or Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries?

I took my vacation last week, so the planning of vacation reading is moot. But let me recommend three short perfect books for travel.

The German writer Kurt Tucholsky’s novel, Castle Gripsholm (NYRB), translated by Michael Hoffman, is the charming story of a summer vacation in Sweden. Published in 1931, it begins with a series of short letters between the author and an editor who asks him to write a short love story.  Tucholsky’s reply is facetious.

A love story… but, my dear master, how could I possibly? Love in the present climate? Are you in love? Is anyone in love these days?

Tucholsky says he would prefer to write “a little summer story.” And then the little summer story begins.

The characters are endearingly original and delightfully bohemian. A writer, Peter, travels to Sweden with his girlfriend Lydia, a witty secretary whom he nicknames the Princess. The two are romantically involved, though their manner is not in the least romantic.

It is impossible not to enjoy their repartee. The couple have the same comic sensibility.  On a brief stop in Copenhagen, they visit the Polysandrion, a little museum which displays bad paintings by a singularly untalented gay Danish artist who owns the villa. They find the paintings hilarious:  they depict scantily-clad young men with butterflies perched on their shoulders and bottoms.  But Peter and Lydia must delay laughing because the painter’s friend is there.

In Stockholm, they walk around admiring the beautiful houses. “A city with water is always beautiful.”  But they  want to get out of Stockholm and find a cottage in the country. A  shrewd guide who speaks German with an American accent takes them to Mariefred, where they tour Castle Gripsholm.  Unexpectedly, he finds them the perfect place to stay, large rooms in the annex of the castle.  Their stay is idyllic.

Tucholsky’s style is buoyant, witty, and lyrical. This lovely account of a summer holiday is so exquisitely detailed you can see the charming castle, feel the lapping of waves on the lake, and hear the beautiful silence which they are unused to in Berlin.  Peter says that eyelids are not enough:  he needs “earlids” in the city.

There isn’t much plot, and such as it is revolves around visits from devoted friends and a good deed (really a rescue mission).  The latter doesn’t quite fit in with the rest. But I loved this book.

In Rebecca West’s spare first novel, The Return of the Soldier, set during World War I, a soldier’s amnesia causes chaos.  Shell-shocked Chris cannot remember Kitty, his shallow, pretty wife, and is desperately in love with Margaret, a woman of another class whom he wanted to marry long ago.  The third woman, Jenny, his cousin, understands him as well as Margaret does, and also is in love with him.  Who are the real soldiers here? It could be argued that Margaret and Jenny are, as they sadly do their duty, which will make no one happy.

In the Russian poet Karolina Pavlova’s only novel, A Double Life, published in 1848, she mixes prose and poetry to great effect. Pavlova tells the story of a wealthy young woman, Cecily, who enjoys riding, parties, flirtations, and dancing.  The mood of the novel is often dreamy,  somewhat reminiscent of Turgenev.  Cecily leads a  double life, absorbed in dreams and fantasies of love;  but also apprehensive about where love will take her.  And she is surrounded by manipulative people: her  best friend Olga’s mother, a sophisticated society woman, views Cecily as the rival of her daughter , and plots to deflect an eligible suitor.  Pavlova was apparently unpopular with male poets and writers, who jeered at her poetry. And is this why she disappeared from the canon?   I admired this elegant novel.