Monthly Archives: December 2019

Trends in 2020: How to Have Fun in the Future!

The Midnight Grapes!

It seems appropriate to look to the future now that 2020 is on everyone’s lips.  While poring over lifestyle magazines and websites, I decided to compile links to five articles about 2020 trends.  It’s fun to fantasize about the future.  And who knows?  Maybe we’ll get there.

I was enchanted to learn the messy bedroom is a trend. Snap a photo of your boudoir with the unmade bed, teacups, piles of books, Tarot cards, and the dog shedding hair on your easy chair—and voila!  A lifestyle article at The Guardian claims this is actually a thing:  “The anti-Marie Kondo movement continues, with untidy, unfiltered photos all over Insta.”

Good Housekeeping lists “15 Awesome Things to Do on New Year’s Day to Get 2020 Started Right.”  Starting right doesn’t sound fun with a hangover, but it is always healthy to declutter, go to the gym, etc.   Good Housekeeping also recommends starting a bullet journal. Can anyone explain what a bullet journal is?  Everybody I know just has a spiral notebook.

USA Today tells us about “eating for luck” on New Year’s Eve.  The foods seem random, but eating 12 grapes at midnight certainly couldn’t hurt.  And “round foods” resemble money, so we should also eat peas and lentils—those I assume we eat earlier.

What about hobbies for 2020?  Little Coffee Fox suggests “hand lettering” (we used to call it calligraphy), flower arranging, and, you guessed it, bullet journaling.  I do like the idea of flower arranging—it sounds very Barbara Pym!

I adored an article at Good Housekeeping about decorating trends for 2020.  One would love to decorate, but somehow one doesn’t.  “Vintage accents” are  in fashion (tables with spooled legs and chair backs with spindles, very cute, but probably expensive). And navy blue is in, because the 2020 Pantone Color of the Year is Classic Blue (a navy shade). 

What trends do you foresee in 2020?

Best Books of the Year:  Reading across the Centuries

Happy Saturday Night!  It’s not New Year’s Eve yet, but I’m making my Best Books of the Year list already–late by most standards, I realize.

Mind you, I’m compiling the list by “genre,” so I will neglect many great books.  Only four of these books are “new,”but I’ve tried to include some surprises.  Of course Dickens is my favorite, but I left him off the list because you know him.  Type Dickens in the search box if you want to read my thoughts on Dickens.

Get ready for a wild ride across the centuries. 

BEST NEW ENGLISH NOVEL (2019):  Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day.  Why didn’t this at least make the Booker Prize shortlist?  This insightful, delicate, lyrical novel examines the close friendships of two couples in their fifties–and the unlooked-for changes wrought by the death of one of them.  (My post is here.)

BEST NEW AMERICAN NOVEL (2018):  Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife.  This retelling of Beowulf from a feminine point of view is gloriously poetic and unconventional.  Whether you know the Beowulf story or not does not matter: this retold version stands on its own.  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.  (You can read the rest of my post here.)

BEST NEW NOVEL IN TRANSLATION (2019): Klotsvog by Margarita Khemlin, translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden.  The Jewish narrator,  Maya Klotsvog, dismisses the impact of Soviet history on her character, despite her tragic past.  Absorbed in love affairs and multiple marriages that ultimately hurt her family, she has a psychological explanation for other people’s errors, but does not examine her own.  The most extraordinary novel I’ve read this year.

BEST NEW HISTORY (2019):  Orlando Figes’ The Europeans:  Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture.  Fans of the great Ivan Turgenev will love  this sparkling, exuberant  history of the development of European culture in the the 19th century.  The book focuses on the relationship between the Russian writer Turgenev and Pauline Viardot, the opera singer he loved for most of his life, and her husband, Louis Viardot, a theater manager and writer.  This trio was influential in promoting the work of their peers, international writers, musicians, and artists.  And the building of railroads proved to be the international link between European and Russian cultures.  You can read my review here.

BEST POLITICAL NOVEL:  Mary McCarthy’s Cannibals and Missionaries, a  novel about terrorism, was first published in 1979.  Forty years later, it remains relevant, a powerful historical novel about liberals and terrorists, a hijacking of a plane, art and property, economics and class, mediation and violence.   You can read my post here.

MOST  TIMELY POLITICAL SPEECH:  Cicero’s Against Verres (In Verrem), an oration calling for the impeachment of Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily.  When I read this speech in July (in Latin), I had no idea how relevant it would be this year.

BEST ENVIRONMENTAL NOVEL:   Booth Tarkington’s The Midlander, a novel about industrial pollution and urban sprawl in the early 20th century.  Pulitzer Prize-winning Booth Tarkington was revived in 2019 with a new Library of America’s edition of  his novels and stories.  The Midlander didn’t make the cut, but it is one of Tarkington’s best, the story of a wealthy family who experiences the gradual fall of their city  as smoky factories are built in their posh urban neighborhood and  people flee to the suburbs.  Ironically, the mediocre son of the family, whom everybody thought was crazy,  foresaw this change.  

BEST DYSTOPIAN NOVEL:  Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. This gripping, realistic novel about a nuclear holocaust in the U.S., published in 1959, is a neglected American classic—and one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read. If you were riveted by Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, you will find Alas fascinating, because it deals not with the knowledge of impending death but with nearly unsolvable problems of survival.  You can read my post here.

BEST VICTORIAN NOVEL:  Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Helbeck of Bannisdale.  In this neglected Victorian classic, Ward portrays a stormy relationship between an atheist woman and a Catholic man who fall in love.  Ward’s strongly-delineated characters are reminiscent of some of the Brontës’ creations:  the heroine, Laura Fountain, bears a slight resemblance to Lucy Snowe in Villette, with traces of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights’ Catherine;  the hero, Alan  Belbeck, is a hybrid of M. Paul (Villette) and Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre).  You can read my post here.

BEST POETRY:  The Silvae of Statius.  Betty Rose Nagle’s translation of Statius, a Roman poet of the first century A.D., is brilliant and extremely readable.  In fact, I can’t praise it too highly.  This summer I read his poems in Latin:  perhaps his most famous is the Ode to Sleep. My favorite is his elegy to a lion who dies fighting in the Roman arena, but I also loved a poem in which Statius tries to persuade his wife Claudia to leave Rome and retire with him to Naples, his hometown.

A Balancing Act: Rachel Hadas and Virgil

My discovery of Rachel Hadas’s Poems for Camilla, a collection of stunning poems inspired by the author’s rereading of Virgil’s Aeneid, was an example of bookish serendipity.  I adore Virgil,  yet what were the odds of my coming across Poems for Camilla?  I must have read a review, but where on earth? Hadas’s poetic meditations on lines from the Aeneid are revelatory, evocative, sometimes emotional, and more inspiring than scholarly articles.

Poems for Camilla is one of my favorite books of the year.  But I do want to address a problem with the text–not Hadas’s problem, but a proofreading problem.  Publishers are notoriously careless  when it comes to proofreading quotations from foreign languages. Latin errors proliferate in modern books, just as they often did when monkish scribes absent-mindedly erred in their copying of Virgil. And in this case, each of Hadas’s poems (except one) is headed by a Latin epigraph from the Aeneid, followed by Hadas’s own poetic meditations and reactions to the lines.  Translations of the Latin epigraphs are not included, so the majority will happily look up the translation in their favorite English edition.  It is an absorbing interactive experience!  But since I am a nerdy Latinist, I read the Latin myself.  So the proofreading errors are jarring.

I did find a few Latin errors and typos in the epigraphs.  Publishers need to hire specialists to proofread even short quotations . But wouldn’t it be simpler to scan  the Latin text from The Aeneid (can this be done?) or photocopy and paste the Latin lines?  (I don’t know if this can be done in the publishing world.)

Most of the Latin is correct here. But what is tani, I wondered when I read the  epigraph for Hadas’s  poem, “The Cause.”   Then I realized,  it was tanti (“of so much”).  I checked the Latin text in the Aeneid to make sure I was right.  Yes, I was.  So I began going directly to the Latin text of the Aeneid so I wouldn’t get stuck on modern typos. Sadly, the Latin epigraph to Hadas’ beautiful poem “No Way Out” was not just cryptic because of mistakes, but nonsensical.  I thought I must be going mad, until I compared it to the text in my Latin edition.  I underlined the three errors below so you can see them.

I won’t give a complicated explanation.

Quem (singular whom) should have been qui (plural who).  

vellant should have been vellent.  It’s a spelling mistake–the vowel a should be an e–but since everything looks true in print, I wondered at first if it was an archaic form of the subjunctive.  No, it was just a typo!

aligat (binds) should have been alligat or adligat.  A simple spelling error.

Now don’t be put off:  this is a great book. I am awed by Hadas’s  poetry.  And hardly anybody reads Latin anymore, so it will not spoil your experience.  It didn’t spoil mine.  But publishers, whether they be corporate or small presses, need to pay more attention to detail.

N.B.  WordPress no longer has a spellcheck feature .  Does that reflect a growing carelessness about detail in the larger culture?  We can all use a second pair of eyes, even if it’s only the fallible spellcheck. As it is, I’m looking through bifocals!

Reading Short Books: Rachel Hadas, Rumer Godden, & Marjorie Wilenski

After a year of reading 155 books, including 17 nineteenth-century novels, I have given way to the temptation of short books.  I am now the trendy reader who finishes a new book every day before sunset (like a vampire) and walks it down the street to the Little Free Library.  I could, at this point, do a double Goodreads challenge.   

This seasonal break of reading slim volumes has been rewarding.  I particularly admired Rachel Hadas’s Poems for Camilla, a luminous collection of poems inspired by her rereading of Virgil’s Aeneid. Each poem begins with a quotation of Latin lines from the Aeneid, followed by elegant meditations on the lines. “Filing System” refers to the disarrangement of the Sibylline books and the scattering of the pages by the wind of Hadas’s own manuscript.  “The Cause” is a reflection on the princess Lavinia as the reputed cause of war (like Helen of Troy).  My own favorite  is “Stride by Stride,” a poetic commentary on the friendship of Aeneas and Fides Achates (faithful Achates).  Here is an excerpt from this poem. ( Sorry, the blog insists on double-spacing these lines!).

Fidus Achates: my Latin teacher taught us

to snicker at the epithet as too

predictable.  But that’s not how I see it

now. The companion, the fidelity,

the sharing of a burden

too heavy to be carried all alone–

far from predictable. Precious and rare.

Your younger brother is your dear Achates.

Worry matching worry, stride for stride,

you pace and talk together a long time.

I have also enjoyed several short novels.  Here are brief reviews of two.

Rumer Godden’s Breakfast with the Nikolides, set in India during World War II,  is a small masterpiece about a dysfunctional English family. The tragic arc of this  novel fans out from a single event, Louise’s decision to have her daughter’s dog killed when she thinks it has rabies.  Her two daughters, Emily and Binnie, who have been sent to have breakfast with the Nikolides, their neighbors, while the spaniel is put down, are devastated when they hear of his death.   To torment her mother, Emily insists that Don is still alive and half believes it.  And the ramifications  extend to the guilt of Dr. Das, the Indian veterinarian, for killing an innocent creature, and his attempts to share his doubts with his strangely manic, charming student boyfriend, who rebels against the college and writes poetry.  Godden’s style is lyrical, and she has an astonishing gift for structuring a novel like a poem.   The ring composition will make you gasp with admiration.  

I wish that all short books were equally stunning, but I found Marjorie Wilenski’s novel Table Two disappointing.    The book description hooked me, claiming Table Two was “as biting and funny as Barbara Pym at her crankiest, follows an office of women translators at the fictional Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in London [during World War II].”  

I am a fan of office novels, and at first enjoyed getting acquainted with the cast of middle-aged characters.  I thought that the heroine was Elsie Pearne, an intriguing, embittered, extremely smart but paranoid middle-aged woman who could have run the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence single-handed, if it weren’t for her gruff personality. She despises her co-workers and shows it. But then the narrative shifts to a bland, sweet young woman, Anne, a new employee who, because she she is from an aristocratic family, is assumed to be capable of quick promotion.  Elsie and Anne are briefly friends, despite  class differences,  until Elsie starts to resent Anne’s romance with a handsome RAF officer.  And since Anne is less interesting than the others,  I wish we’d stayed in the office.  Don’t expect Pym!  The book description here is better-written than the book.

Gifts under the Tree: Books, of Course!

Merry Christmas!   

We’ve opened our gifts, and we’re feeling jolly.  Well, of course we are.  We picked out our own books, so everything is perfect.  I now have a copy of Lucy Ellmann’s controversial novel, Ducks, Newburyport, which won the Goldsmiths Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.   And I have begun Eleanor Fitzsimons’s well-reviewed new biography, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, which is very good indeed.

I’m sure you have heard of Ellmann’s novel, which is 1,000 pages long, published by a small press, and written in one sentence from the point-of-view of an American housewife.  The critics love it.  I hope I will.

My favorite book as a chld.

You may not be familiar with E. Nesbit (1858-1924), who was best-known for her children’s fantasy novels.  When I was a child she was my favorite writer, so my sensible mother gave me her books for Christmas and birthdays.  I read these books over and over from the ages of 10-12.  The Enchanted Castle was my favorite.

Although I didn’t know it then, Nesbit also wrote for adults. You can very cheaply buy an e-book edition of her Complete Works, which contains all her adult books as well as the children’s books. Nesbit is undergoing a revival:   Penelope Lively selected Nesbit’s delightful adult novel The Lark for the Penguin Women Writers’ series in 2018.  Furrowed Middlebrow has also published an American edition of The Lark.   And for those of you who love trivia, Nesbit and her circle were thinly-veiled characters in A. S. Byatt’s Booker-shortlisted novel, The Children’s Book.  

I am loving Fitzsimon’s biography, because Nesbit was absolutely fascinating and very “progressive.”  She was a Fabian socialist who hung out with H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and other famous writers; she was willing to write anything, from newspaper articles to books, to support her unemployable husband, Hubert Bland, along with their five children, Hubert’s mistress, and his two children with her.

Well, enough about my good books!  I love the bio, and will start the Ellmann soon.

Have a Contented Christmas! 

The Long-Distance Book Club: Our Picks of the Year

What, you may ask, is my favorite thing about the holidays?  It isn’t the banquets, it isn’t the presents, and it certainly isn’t the darkness.  Every December I diagnose myself with low-grade depression.  And so does everybody else I know. 

So it’s a good thing we have the long-distance book club.  We live in different towns, but we do try to get together once or twice a year.

This year we had a holiday meeting in central Iowa. Seven of us made it.  Pretty good.  We gossiped about our relatives’ bad behavior—why aren’t our Christmases like the ones in The Bishop’s Wife or A Christmas Carol?—and the latest news about old friends from college.  Fascinatingly, our friend Don, a doctor, “is living in a leaky geodesic dome, for God’s sake.”  And Melanie, who worked at the co-op,  just finished her Ph.D. at 50. She had to wait till the  mad professor who blocked her retired. 

After the gossip, we moved on to books. And instead of discussing a single book, we each talked about our own favorite books of the year.

How can I choose just one book,  I wondered.  Finally I picked Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Helbeck of Bannisdale, a neglected Victorian classics. Ward portrays a stormy relationship between Laura, an atheist who has recently lost her father, and Alan Bannisdale, a strict Catholic who has given most of his fortune to a Catholic orphanage.  The two are unsuited, but fall in love by proximity.  But can they have a successful interfaith marriage?  This brilliant, fascinating, complicated novel has been compared to Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, one of my favorite books.  

My friend Janet, a poet who lives in a small town near Iowa City, has been reading—surprise, surprise!—poetry.  “I stay up late reading Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems.  They are a joy: the early poems are formal, then she becomes more experimental.   She digs deep emotionally, and is also very political.”

My cousin Megan, a librarian who boasts that she doesn’t like to read, belongs to our book club “for social reasons.” Her secret is that she does read most of the selections, and she slangily explains why she does not finish those she dislikes. 

“I have to say my favorite is an old book by Georgette Heyer, Venetia.  I love her comic romances.  They’re a bit like Jane Austen.  Venetia lives in the country and gives up the idea of marriage. Then Lord Damerel, a neighbor who’s a libertine, returns home and the witty repartee flies.”

Our friend Linda, home from the East coat for the holidays, was very taken with Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, the award-winning 1,000-page novel which is written from a housewife’s perspective, in one long sentence.  “The secret is to read the e-book so you don’t have to carry that heavy book around.  It’s very witty and accessible.  You can like Alison Pearson and still enjoy Lucy Ellmann.  It’s a surprisingly fast read.”

Sue, who describes herself as “a stressed-out administrative assistant who likes to read in the bathtub,” rediscovered Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street this year.  “My reward for going to college was this crappy administrative assistant job, but I still identify with Carol Kennicott, who left Minneapolis for a small town.  I wonder, What am I doing in Gopher Prairie?  Why don’t I live where there’s culture?”

Sue’s daughter Paula, a part-time server  and a full-time student at a community college,  says good books distract her from “wasted opportunities.”

“I wish I hadn’t gotten into drugs.  I’ll never get my brain back. I can’t do what I used to.”  But she is off drugs and on books now. Her favorite of the year is Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, which she read after watching the DVD of the movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis   “I love the concept of the travel writer who hates to travel. The book is witty and poignant, quirky and never corny.”

Carla, a hospice nurse in Omaha, used to be our mortal enemy. Long ago in school she yanked my long hair (ouch!) when she passed me in the hall, and reduced Janet to tears by mocking a poem she wrote and read aloud in English class.   After many, many years, we ran into Carla at a party. She is kind and witty now.  A bit depressed, though.

“I’m divorced,  everyone in my family is dead, and I’ll never be in another relationship.

“It sounds morbid, but my favorite book this year was The Undying by Anne Boyer.  It’s a memoir about being diagnosed with breast cancer1.  It is poetic, but kind of raw.  It articulates the hell of cancer.”

On this solemn note, we dispersed to a department store, where we all bought flannel nightgowns with coupons.  And then the  book club dispersed. 

Deo volente, we’ll see one other again next Christmas.

Time, Time, Time: Read Less & Get a Life!

Time, time time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities.—“A Hazy Shade of Winter,” by Paul Simon

It is nearly the Winter Solstice–my favorite winter holiday.  I much prefer it to Christmas and New Year’s Eve.   

Tonight it is bitterly cold, though, with a thin layer of snow just fallen, lights blinking on the battery-operated tinsel tree, cats batting at ornaments, and the scent of jasmine tea wafting through the house.  So here I am on the couch, cozily scribbling about two tenses, the past and future as I wait for the future brighter days.  (The present rarely exists.  It’s much too shattering.)

 Here are my plans for the Winter Solstice:  Read less!  Do something!  Save the environment!  Act now!  

Or maybe I should do that the day after the Solstice.

Mins you, reading is my life.  It is action.  It expands our world, shapes who we are, and helps us survive the worst of times.  It  is also a drug: the best books lift us above the hysteria of the twenty-first century.  I especially love the Victorians, who take their ethical dilemmas seriously, and interweave morals with the action of the plot. I personally can shrug off the end of the world if I have a copy of Bleak House. I’m stocking up on Victorians for 2030, the year climate change becomes irreversible.  

As so often happens, I have read almost too much (150 books) this year, but I have also discarded tomes that started promisingly and then fizzled.  I have a dismaying pile of partially-read new books on the nightstand:  I gave up on most of these after one-third.  When I tell myself to read less, I want the time back I lost on those books.  

“Reading less” is a bizarre resolution, I know. I see a lot of:  “Read harder!” “Read faster!” “Do the Goodreads Challenge!” That is so darling, so peppy, so optimistic, and yet so wrong.  I have no team spirit.  Yet it does kill time making checklists, photographing book hauls, scribbling in Planners, reorganizing TBRs, and photographing cats sitting adorably beside piles of books (my cats are not photogenic).  And I consider those activities “reading less,” so I’m allowed to do them, even though I don’t join the team.

We who live at the end of the world don’t have much team spirit.  Icebergs melting, impeachment hearings, the rollback of women’s rights, defunding Planned Parenthood, building the wall, Facebook scandals… we are exhausted.  It is an angry age. Sometimes we wonder as we look around, What have humans contributed to the earth?  Well…  I’m not sure humans have done much.  They can’t work together for change.  It has been a chaotic year.   But then we can’t see the future.   Hope on, hope ever!  

Well, it is officially tomorrow (after midnight).  So I guess I’d better get ready to save the world.

And here is the video of Simon and Garfunkel singing “A Hazy Shade of Winter”

Fabulous Plot-Oriented Escape Reads: Ada Leverson, Susan Howatch, & Early Henry James

holiday-blast-image-738x1024 taintor

…and a book!

It isn’t officially the holidays, but you may be plotting your holiday reading, or perhaps taking the break before the holidays.  

Here are a few notes on three fabulous plot-oriented escape reads to add to your TBR.   

bird of paradise leversonAda Leverson’s Bird of Paradise (1914).   Leverson, a friend of Oscar Wilde, is best known for The Little Ottleys (Virago), a witty trilogy which consists of Love’s Shadow, Tenterhooks, and Love at Second Sight. I recently read one of her lesser-known novels, Bird of Paradise, and found it equally charming.

The heroine, Bertha Kellynch, is exceptionally intelligent, fashionable, and very much in love with her husband Percy, who describes her as a bird of Paradise.  Leverson emphasizes Bertha’s uniqueness.  She is not just beautiful: she gives sensible advice. Her lovelorn friend Madeline pines for the affections of a caddish aesthete who lends her architecture books; her snobbish mother-in-law dithers at an at-home party until Bertha steps in to chat with a nouveau riche former chorus girl;  and Bertha deals tactully with her former boyfriend, Nigel, who visits her house a tad too often and makes his wife jealous. We know everything will end well, beccause Bertha is so calm, but there are a few tense moments in this sweet, comical novel.

the wonder worker howatchSusan Howatch’s The Wonder Worker.  About 10 years ago, one of my former English professors taught a class on Howatch’s brilliant six-book Starbridge series, which is slightly reminiscent of Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Starbridge is a fictitious Anglican diocese in England which seethes with intrigues.

I recently read The Wonder Worker, which is set at St. Benet’s Church in London in the ‘80s.  It is entrancing.  I dare you to put it down!   Howatch describes the chaos of a ministry of healing which goes astray.  The charismatic Nicholas Darrow changes strangers’ lives but neglects his family;  his wife Rosalind, a successful businesswoman, has grown to despise his hypocrisy and wants a divorce; Lewis Hall, a priest who was Nicholas’s former spiritual adviser, has a troubled past and rages in his diary about his ambivalence toward women and hatred of modern times; and Alice, an obese gourmet cook, stumbles into the church to get out of the rain and finds help for her dying aun; she also finds a job as the cook at St. Benet’s.  I couldn’t get enough of this book; it is the first of a trilogy.

9780140390827Henry James’s The American.  Do you like your Henry James with a plot?  That is not his strength, but this early novel  does have action. Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, travels to France and meets Claire de Bellegarde, a beautiful widow whom he wants to marry.   Her aristocratic family does not think he is good enough for her. There are complications and Gothic elements:  dire family secrets,  a mysterious death, ties to a nunnery… you  won’t think this is  James at all.

Epic Trouble: Lucan Blunders in “Civil War”

civil war lucan penguinYou know you’re in trouble when you start laughing at the epic poem you’ve decided is your winter reading project.

I love epic:  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Keats’s Hyperion, Derek Walcott’s Omeros… 

But I have gone astray with my choice here.  The other day I began reading Lucan’s Bellum Civile (Civil War), an epic poem about the power struggles and the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey.  What a fascinating subject, I thought.  Historical rather than mythic.  

a lucan readerYou can imagine my horror when I realized this poem is not only dull but deplorablly written.

Vae miserae mihi! (Woe is me!) Don’t pretend you’ve read it. Nobody has.  You’ve never heard of Lucan unless you’re a classics nerd, and that is a good thing, because he is low on anybody’s list. He was a minor Roman poet, a nephew of Seneca, and a frenemy of Nero (who eventually ordered him to commit suicide).  

But I’ve got an adorable Lucan Reader. It was on a syllabus. That’s why I’m reading it.  

lucanLucan attempts to imitate Virgil, but his writing is so labored,  his vocabulary so limited and repetitious,  and his metrical effects so clumsy that you’ll want to cover your eyes.

Here is my literal prose translation of the opening lines:

We sing of wars worse than civil on the Emathian fields, and of the law given over to crime, and a powerful people turned against their own hearts (viscera) with their conquering hand.  

And here is Matthew Fox’s excellent translation in the Penguin, which fascinatingly reflects the actual Latin word order, and I cannot stress how difficult that it is to do.

Of civil wars and worse waged on Emathian fields,/of crime made law we sing, how a powerful people turned on its own heart its conquering hand…

Perhaps the best is Sir Edward Ridley’s translation (late nineteenth century or early 20th).

WARS worse than civil on Emathian  plains,
And crime let loose we sing: how Rome‘s high race
Plunged in her vitals her victorious sword;

Susanna Braund says in the introduction to A Lucan Reader:  “After a protracted lack of appreciation of Lucan’s achievements and years of scholarly neglect, happily there is now an abundance of excellent scholarship to enhance our reading of Lucan. ‘ 

Pity the poor scholar!

I plan to gallop through Lucan and move on.  Any suggestions for alternative epics?

Can a Book Prize Controversy Sell “Ducks, Newburyport”? 

I have nothing against award-winning books, but I try to use my time wisely.

That said, I am considering reading Lucy Ellmann’s experimental novel, Ducks, Newburyport,  which won the Goldsmiths Prize recently and was shortlisted both for the Booker Prize and the Saltire Society literary Award in Scotland.  It is on my Christmas gift “shortlist,” mainly  because of Parul Sehgal’s dazzling review in The New York Times.

 A literary prize “scandal” has put me off, though.

Lesley McDowell, a judge for the Saltire Society literary award, resigned from a panel of five judges because Lucy Ellmann’s novel did not win.  Three of the judges voted against Ducks, Newburyport, two for it. McDowell believes it was a sexist decision.  According to The Guardian, she is indignant that the prize went to Ewan Morrison’s Nina X, a novel by a man writing from the  point-of-view of a woman.  She insists Ellmann’s Ducks is a “masterpiece” by a woman from a woman’s point of view.

And so the judges disagreed.  Is that a big deal?

Has any small-press novel garnered as much attention this year as Ellmann’s novel?  That indicates the book is well-respected, and that the writer has powerful friends.  This  1,000-page novel, told from the point-of-view of an Ohio housewife, apparently in only one sentence, is available at my local Barnes and Noble.  I glanced at it:  it is very accessble.

Our own favorite small-press author, the late Stephen Dixon, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1991 for his experimental novel, FrogThe Baltimore Press described the 769-page book as follows: “Composed of 21 chapters — each with the word “Frog” in the title — it tells the story of a nondescript, middle-aged man named Howard Tetch and his family, moving back and forth in time countless times, recasting events from different perspectives.”  He did not win.  Sounds like Dixon and Ellmann had some things in common.

McDowell claims that not all the Saltire Society judges finished Ellmann’s 1,000-page novel.  Again, I may be in Cloud Cuckooland, but this sounds like a smart move.  If the judges dislike a book after, say, 30-50 pages, is it likely they will change their mind on page 1,000?  And how do the judges find the time to read all of these books?  Don’t they need a sane process of elimination?  (You see, I am far too pragmatic for the world of award politics!)

From what I’ve heard, Ducks, Newburyport is not for everybody.  I am interested in it, but I hate award “scandals”:  the Nobel Prize scandal last year, a judge for the International Booker Prize resigning when Philip Roth, our great American writer, won, and on and on.

 Perhaps literary prize scandals sell books.  Alas, they depress me.

The fact that Ellmann’s small-press novel won one award (the Goldsmiths Prize) is astonishing!