Musing on the Classics & the Mystery of the Lapsed Subscription

My collection of copies of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

I love rereading the classics. Not occasionally, but constantly.  My shabby copies of nineteenth-century novels fall open to favorite scenes. What ho!  Is it War and Peace time? (That’s on New Year’s Day.)  And I am once again spellbound by the kindness and simplicity of my favorite character,  Marya Bolokonsky, when she forgives Mademoiselle Bourienne, her  shallow French companion, “with her ribbons and pretty face,” for making out with Marya’s imbecilic suitor.   

Every year I reread four of my best-loved books, War and Peace,  Daniel Deronda, Villette, and Bleak House.  They are brilliant, witty, intense,  and gorgeously-written.   These are the most perfect books I have ever read.

Occasionally, when I feel almost too well-acquainted with one of them,  I read another by the same author.  For example, Anna Karenina is my Tolstoy alternate.  Yet I also know this book extremely well.  Oh, yes, I love this scene, I thought, smiling, during a recent rereading of Anna Karenina.

And who could not be charmed by Levin’s comic perturbation when he is late for his wedding because of a wardrobe mix-up?  His servant forgot to provide a fresh shirt, and he can’t wear yesterday’s crumpled shirt with his new stylish waist-coat and coat.  Levin’s other shirts are packed in a trunk at his fiancee’s house.

The dialogue charms and perfectly depicts the personalities of Levin and his friend Oblonsky.

‘Was ever a man in such a terribly idiotic position?’ he demanded.

‘Yes, it is stupid,’ Oblonsky concurred with a soothing smile. ‘But don’t worry, it will be here in a minute.’

‘Oh, how can I help it?’ said Levin with suppressed fury. ‘And these idiotic open waistcoats—it’s impossible!’ He glanced at his crumpled shirt-front. ‘And suppose the things have already gone to the station!’ he exclaimed in despair. ‘

‘Then you’ll have to wear mine.’

Tolstoy weaves a web of happy and unhappy families.  The wedding of Levin and Kitty occurs in the middle of this masterpiece, which centers on three marriages, two disrupted by adultery. Anna Karenina leaves her husband Karenin for Vronsky, and virtually ruins Karenin’s career as well as her reputation;  her brother Stiva Oblonsky cheats on his wife Dolly, but Dolly forgives him, ironically because of Anna’s intervention. (Does Tolstoy think adultery runs in families?)

Tolstoy descrbes the marriage of the innocents Levin and Kitty optimistically, though no marriage is romantic or ideal.   

Tolstoy’s books are nimble, well-plotted, fast-paced, vibrant, and the characters jump off the page.  As for translations, my favorite is the Maude.

THE MYSTERY OF THE LAPSED SUBSCRIPTION.  I do not read enough of the TLS to justify a subscription, but I enjoy the N.B. column, and you can’t go wrong with Mary Beard as classics editor. Over the years I have bought way, way too many books because of the fascinating reviews.  (That aspect of a subscripiton is not good.)

A few days ago, when I was mysteriously “shut out” of the website, I wondered, What the hell…?   So I wrote to the helpline, in India or China or wherever, and was told that my subscription was canceled last March.  I know I resubscribed later;  how otherwise could I have accessed all the articles until this January?  But they say they have no record…

I’ll resubscribe after I’ve read all the books I’ve bought!

Whom Do You Prefer? The Greeks or the Romans?

It is a bore to hear aficionados of Greek in translation denigrate Roman literature, particularly when the fans read neither language in the original.  I try to explain that the literature is brilliant in the original Latin.  “It’s a translation problem,” I say.  And so it is.

The comical thing about it is that most Romans would have agreed with the modern Hellenists.

The Romans revered Greek literature.  The focus of their education was Greek grammar, literature, and rhetoric.   Rome conquered Greece, but the Romans modeled their poetry and prose on Greek forms. Latin did not mature as a written language and literature until the first century B.C.

Did Romans care that the Greeks were deemed superior?  The historian Sallust (86-35 B.C.) was indignant about the inferior status of Roman res gestae (achievements).  He insisted that the accomplishments of the Athenians “were sufficiently great and illustrious, but somewhat less than tradition would have it.”

His theory of their different reputations is based on the difference between deeds and narrative.

Because of the genius of their writers, the deeds of the Athenians are celebrated throughout the world as the most splendid….

But among the Roman people there never was such an abundance of writers, because the most skilled among them were men of action; no one exercised the intellect separately from the body; and they preferred action to narration;  they wanted their own deeds to be praised rather than to praise the deeds of others.

Sallust is blunt in his views. His monographs chart the decline of Rome from an idealized legendary Golden Age.

I have a soft spot for Sallust.  He is far from the best writer, but I like his style– in Latin.  And Latin literature improved after his death.

The translation of Sallust above is my own.

Staying Warm: Fireplaces, Hot Flashes, & The Complete Works of Jane Austen

Mind you, we love old houses, but they tend to be cold in winter. Although they are comfortable and built to last, they come with concomitant problems, like drafty windows.

The best way to stay warm at our house is to huddle under a blanket on a chair as far away from the windows as possible.  We distract ourselves by reading and rereading The Complete Works of Jane Austen (always a pleasure!), or knitting the scarf we’ve worked on intermittently since that knitting class in 2006.  

When we want to get really warm, we struggle into our gear and head to the nearest library or coffeehouse with a fireplace.  It is de rigueur among itinerant readers to frequent coffeehouses with fireplaces. All the best people do. We order a latte with two shots of espresso, flop down in a big chair in front of the fireplace, and lose ourselves in Persuasion.

Half an hour later, we’re too hot.  We find ourselves flushing and sweating.   It’s not a hot flash!  It’s the fireplace! At home I look up fireplaces and realize it is a  gas fireplace, not a wood-burning fireplace. 

Later I asked a scientist friend whether burning gas or wood pollutes less. “Gas pollutes less,” he said.  Apparently burning gas emits less soot, particulate matter, and other air pollutants.

And this excerpt from an EPA article says the following:

The smoke from wood burning is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles (also called particle pollution, particulate matter, or PM).  In addition to particle pollution, wood smoke contains several toxic harmful air pollutants including:

• benzene,

• formaldehyde,

• acrolein, and

• polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

The more efficiently you burn wood (e.g., using an EPA-certified wood stove and dry, seasoned wood) the less smoke is created.

Well, it’s complicated.  I prefer Jane Austen to science.

And so I return to Bath with Anne Elliot and hope the rooms are not too smoky.

The Survivalist Generation

The survivalists.

Every generation of cats is different.

Long ago, we adopted our first generation of free kittens.  It was like living in a picture book:  they daintily drank milk, adorably raced around the apartment chasing toys, and once ventured through a loose panel in the linen cupboard which led under the floor.  Naturally, they got lost.  We had to walk above them and call their names to guide them back through the panel.

Recently, we had a survivalist generation of cats.  The strong-willed tortoiseshell (pictured above) and the white cat with brown and gray markings hopped into the tub first thing in the morning to lap water out of the faucet.  They also drank out of their bowl, but the tub had a fascination for them.

They lived to be very, very old ladies.  They died in 2019.  We miss them so much.

Illustration by B. Kliban

A friend said recently, “What if there’s heaven for cats and not people?”

We all believe in heaven for cats!

And here’s a lovely poem:

“On the Death of a Cat,” by Christina Rossetti

Who shall tell the lady’s grief
When her Cat was past relief?
Who shall number the hot tears
Shed o’er her, beloved for years?
Who shall say the dark dismay
Which her dying caused that day?

Come, ye Muses, one and all,
Come obedient to my call.
Come and mourn, with tuneful breath,
Each one for a separate death;
And while you in numbers sigh,
I will sing her elegy.

Of a noble race she came,
And Grimalkin was her name.
Young and old full many a mouse
Felt the prowess of her house:
Weak and strong full many a rat
Cowered beneath her crushing pat:
And the birds around the place
Shrank from her too close embrace.
But one night, reft of her strength,
She laid down and died at length:
Lay a kitten by her side,
In whose life the mother died.
Spare her line and lineage,
Guard her kitten’s tender age,
And that kitten’s name as wide
Shall be known as her’s that died.

And whoever passes by
The poor grave where Puss doth lie,
Softly, softly let him tread,
Nor disturb her narrow bed.

What We’re Reading: Anne Bronte & Lucy Ellmann

Anne Bronte

This is a month for reading long books.  I decided this when I learned January 17 is the bicentenary of Anne Bronte’s birthday.  How could I skip that celebration?   Naturally, I am rereading Anne.  She wrote just two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, so this is easier than you might think. Somewhere I have a collection of the  poems.  Too bad there isn’t more.

I am also reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, the behemoth of a novel that won the 2019 Goldsmiths Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and the Saltire  Award.  The critics were uniformly reverent:  “It is experimental!  It is the women’s Ulysses!  It is one long 1,000-page sentence!”

 Somehow it’s not like that.  It is quite accessible if you enjoy stream-of consciousness. The narrator is an American housewife, buoyantly musing on Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Long Winter, Doctor Zhivago, Trump, abortion rights, her expensive dough-kneading machine, baking cinnamon rolls and pies, choosing crudités for a cocktail party, her son’s preference for yellow crayons, her daughter’s disapproval of her sweatpants, her inability to get handymen to fix the washer on the faucet, the sad fact that they went broke when she had cancer, and much more. I’m sure she gets less buoyant at some point, but there is plenty of humor.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I am reading Ducks with the same fascination I have for women’s magazines. The housewife’s musings could easily be published in Good Housekeeping, Redbook, McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal–if there were periods instead of commas and these magazines all existed!

And when I say that, I mean it as a good thing. I have very much enjoyed what I’ve read so far.  I think many other women would like it, too, even if they’re not fans of experimental novels.

More on this later.

On Not Bothering to Read Everything

What ho!  Happy January 5!  We have made it through the first few days and so far have kept our  New Year’s resolutions—one of the most fun things about the calendar’s rolling over.

So far, my easiest resolution to keep is by far the oddest, but I promise it will bring you calm and mindfulness.  Are you ready?


You don’t have to read everything. Really, you don’t.  If you suspect something will annoy you, skip it.  If you are an expert on a subject, you needn’t bother to seethe over the opinions of every counter-expert.  Often it’s the most trivial details that ruffle feathers.

And so I stare beadily at the headlines, hoping for a psychic flash on whether an article will prove enlightening or irritating.

Take books about grammar.  I enjoy a brisk debate about whether the nominative absolute is dead.  I love understanding relative pronouns and explaining the difference between “who” and “whom.” I  have given many people copies of Strunk and White, Dreyer’s English Grammar, Patricia O’Connor’s Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing, and similar books

But do I need to read every new book on grammar? No, but it is time to reread Strunk and White.  (It’s been too long.)  New books on grammar can take only two directions:  they either uphold the traditions , such as the proper form of relative pronouns and the use of the subjunctive, or they  insist that all such grammatical forms are antiquated and should be outlawed. 

Recently The New York Times published a review of David Shariatmadari’s new book, Don’t Believe a Word.  It may be a very good book, but I daren’t read the review.  The subhead says, “David Shariatmadari’s book delves into issues like grammar snobbery, quirks of human and animal speech, and the transformation of even the simplest words.” 

I love a good self-improvement book about grammar snobbery,  but the subhead hints that it may be the reverse.  What if it’s a book about throwing out the rules?  If it’s my kind of book, somebody tell me, okay?  Otherwise, I don’t want to know!

Loving Rumer Godden’s “Black Narcissus” & Dottily Reading to Blog

Oh, joy! The holidays are behind us and the days are getting longer.  I love sunlight, and if I lived in ancient times I would worship Helios. 

I took a middlebrow book break in December to cheer myself up in the dark days before the Winter Solstice.  I am now hooked on Rumer Godden, who is very high middlebrow.  I recently finished her engaging first novel, Black Narcissus, published in 1937. 

Godden weaves the fascinating story of five Anglican nuns who establish a convent in the Himalyas–a mission with very mixed results.  Distracted from their meditations, partly because of the altitude, partly because of the extreme weather, partly because of the constant noise of construction/revovations in the palace-turned-convent, the nuns become daydreamers.  It’s as if they are on a reluctant drug trip, escaping through fantasies of might-have-been marriages, exotic gardens, and tragic personal histories.  The mother superior, Sister Clodagh, tries to hold everything together, but even she finds herself slipping.

Godden’s whimsical descriptions of daily life in the convent and her character-revealing dialogue are charming.  In the following excerpt,  it is Christmas Eve, and the nuns have  returned to the convent soaking wet and freezing cold after cutting boughs in the forest on Christmas Eve and find a gift waiting for them.

‘It’s a parcel for us!’ cried Sister Honey.

‘Not for us,’ corrected Sister Clodagh. ‘Mr Dean knows better than to send us presents. It’s for the Order.’

‘That’s splitting a hair,’ said Sister Ruth boldly, but, as if she had not heard her, Sister Clodagh opened the parcel. Inside were five pairs of Tibetan boots, knee high and made of felt and worked with wool and lined with fleece.

‘Ahh!’ whispered Sister Briony, going down on her knees as if they were something holy. ‘Dear goodness! Just feel the warmth and the fleece and the softness. Blessings on the dear, dear man. Now I shall be able to get about on my poor feet without wanting to cry at every step.’

Middlebrow Book Break is over. I am in the middle (can’t get away from middle!) of  two big, relentlessly long books. I love them, but it will take a while to read them.  Meanwhile, as a  constant blogger, I wonder, What will I blog about?

I had a little talk with myself.  “You know better than that.  YOU DO NOT READ TO BLOG.”

 THAT IS JUST THE END if I start giving myself assignments.  No, Kat, you are certainly not an editor pitching books to yourself.

The dialogue between self as editor and self as writer goes like this.

“There’s a new book out; somehow we missed it; everybody else has reviewed it.  Can you read it overnight and do a quick phone interview with  the author?  Oh, and can you take five buses,  three trains, and walk a mile to pick up the book?”

Now you can get the books on Netgalley.  But is it a privilege to be a pinch hitter?  

Perhaps I’m going on another reading path now.  I want to get back to pre-Wifi days, when I savored Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks without worrying about getting it done.  I loved Buddenbrooks so much I went to a free showing of an old black-and-white German movie, and was enraptured even though I hardly understood any of it.

Before I began my book journal in the zips, I never thought about the number of books I read.  I recently looked through it, and you know what?  Reading the titles, dates, and authors means little to to me.  In the zips I discovered Monica Dickens and read a lot of her, in the 2010s I reread a lot of Charles Dickens.  What does it mean?  

Somehow, this doesn’t sum up those years for me.  Sometimes I can remember a particular day when I read a book, or the bookstore where I found it.  But it leaves me with the question, What was I like back then?  Wouldn’t it be almost better to write down the weather report?  Sunny…sunny…rained…misted.

Should You Burn Your Diaries? and Other Musings

I’ve kept a lot of diaries in my time, usually with fancy covers.  I have a leather blank-page book with a flower embossed on the cover (I meant to write poetry in it),  two Jane Austen notebooks (very cute), quaint imported notebooks, spiral notebooks, Moleskine notebooks which somehow I never fill up, and a Penguin On the Road notebook.

Mind you, I do not “journal”; I write in a journal. I also dislike the verbal adjective“journaling” (a gerund).  The mere mention of a “journaling” class in an adult education catalogue repels me.  In my experience, people who talk about “journaling” tend to be breathy pre-Raphaelite types who cry in public and are diagnosed with the mysterious borderline personality.  Everyone has sympathy, because they are so outwardly feeble (tough as nails inside, though).  Alas, we are not pre-Raphaelite flowers in the meadow here. It’s the midwest, baby.  We are goddamned tough prairie grass.

I wish I could say I’d recorded the narrative of my life in journals, but, alas,  I only write in them when I am feeling blue.  And that is sad!  I have mused on the loss of a friend with leukemia, and days spent sobbing after my favorite cat was put down because her kidneys were failing.  And why hang on to all this sadness?  How can I get rid of these journals?

It would be symbolic to purge the sadness by make a bonfire of the diaries, but that is illegal:  open burning pollutes the air.   What other methods?Shredding? However, it takes about an hour to shred a single page on our Office Depot shredder.  Perhaps there are super-shredders at one of the old photocopying stores.   

THE BULLET JOURNAL.  A few days ago, when I looked up New Year trends, many magazine writers and bloggers cited the “bullet journal.” I have had trouble grasping the concept, but it seems to be a planner.  The women’s magazine Good Housekeeping claims that  bullet journals are sui generis.  “Unlike traditional organizers and planners, this method encourages authors to examine how their goals, tasks, and responsibilities make them feel. Instead of a standard checklist, bullet journaling requires daily, monthly, and yearly reflections along with bullet points and asterisks.”

Well, that is fine with me, though I’ll stick to my planner.  

WHAT ABOUT ALBUMS?  I would like to see a revival of old-fashioned albums, like the one in Jane Austen’s Emma.  When Emma and Harriet ask Mr. Elton to write in an album, he writes a romantic riddle, which Emma is sure is for Harriet; no, it is for Emma.  Other friends write verses. 

 Autograph albums were briefly trendy in my childhood.  We never met famous people, but who cared?   My friends wrote a lot of goofy stuff.

What is your favorite kind of journal?  Or do you get rid of them, in which case you must tell me how!