Do You Enjoy Rereading?  And If So, What?

I am a devoted rereader.  Give me a Brontë or an Austen for the nth time and I am intoxicated.  My most extreme rereading phase was the decade when I began War and Peace every New Year’s Day and finished by the next New Year’s Eve.  

Occasionally I reread a book  I dislike.  What did I miss, I wonder, when everyone else is crazy about it?   I recently failed to finish a rereading of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It As It Lays, which I have been assured is a masterpiece. Beautiful prose, but perhaps better-employed in her stunning essays. 

In Play It As It Lays, the wilted heroine, Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-uh),  is so limp she can barely get off the patio where she sleeps under towels.  She spends her days speeding along the freeway and having a nervous breakdown.   If she isn’t on the freeway by ten,  she loses her rhythm, she informs us.  As a non-driver, I was annoyed when she kicked off her sandals to feel her bare feet on the pedal as she zooms at 100 miles an hour.

“Just give her a ticket,” I muttered.

The novel is not Didion’s forte.

I recently reread some of Didion’s essays, and found them extremely conservative, though I’d admired them on a first reading.  Her essays on the Women’s Movement of the 1970s and Doris Lessing are so venomous they made my hair stand on end.  And I no longer consider her stylized essay, “Slouching towards Bethlehem,’ a masterpiece.  Somehow, I no longer share her point-of-view.

A rereading gone wrong.

Back to rereading:  there are avid rereaders, and other readers who fiercely disapprove of rereading.   Tom Lamont at The Observer is in my camp, though he is something of an apologist.  He says “Rereading is therapy, despite the accompanying dash of guilt, and I find it strange that not everybody does it. Why wouldn’t you go back to something good? I return to these novels for the same reason I return to beer, or blankets or best friends.” 

Peter Damien at Book Riot shares my philosophy that a reader can appreciate a book more on a second or third or whatever reading. 

I re-read endlessly, and I think of it as nothing different than reading a book for the first time. I maintain a reading journal of books I’ve read and how long it’s taken me, and there are many titles repeated throughout the journal. I don’t differentiate them. I think it’s as completely integral to the reading process as the first time through a book.”

The  Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda at The Washington Post is not a fan of rereading. The only time he rereads is when he is teaching a book or writing an introduction for a book.  He writes, I loved Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, but could the analogous Chinese classic, Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone, be just as good? Like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I want to run and find out.”

Tom Thurston at The Guardian believes rereading is pretentious.  In fact, he doesn’t believe people really reread. He thinks they say it to show off. 

… nothing will make you more insecure than the person who casually drops it into conversation that this summer, as well as a couple of weighty war histories, Julian Barnes’s latest and a fascinating new translation of the Qur’an, he’ll be re-reading Anna Karenina. While it doesn’t leave much time for snorkelling or hammock snoozing after a good lunch, there’s no reason why people shouldn’t choose to bury themselves under a pile of books on holiday. But there is one little verb that’s inexcusable, wherever you are, whatever you’re reading this summer. “Re-read”. Now hear this: anyone who talks about re-reading a book is arrogant, narrow-minded or dim.

Wow, he is fierce!

Do you enjoy rereading?  If so, what?   If not, why not?

Brainy Aging Goddesses with Sensible Shoes: The Problem Is the Bifocals

Aging is more fun than you would think. At 50, Bilbo Baggins had his first adventure (The Hobbit).  The writer Mary Wesley published her first novel when she was 73.  And Harriet Doerr, who graduated from Stanford at the age of  67, was 73 when she published her first novel,  Stones of Ibarra, which won the National Book Award. 

The prospect of wrinkles, gray hair, plucking chin hairs, and the necessity of sensible shoes horrifies us women, but that is partly the Hollywood influence:  we are staggered by the beauty of goddess-actresses, though we are not immortal, and must cope without Dior or Chanel.  The image in the mirror changes, but if we’re lucky we become brainier as we age. That’s what they don’t tell you in fashion magazines.  

There are many, many challenges for middle-aged or older women.  You must deal with menopause, hormone changes, and age discrimination.  You must polish your rhetorical skills and persuade the insurance company to pay for your prescription skin cream (they prefer to fund the cream for younger women, which is surely discrimination) as well as those essential medications, without which you will die; you can go gray or experiment with time-consuming hairdos; you can enjoy shopping for smart flat shoes on sale or opt to live in cute sneakers.

Looks aside, you are likely to become smarter. Less time in front of mirrors!  Bizarrely, information you learned years ago  pops out of your brain and becomes so crystal-clear that you wonder if you are a gypsy with a crystal ball.  Suddenly you know those pesky place names in Latin poetry (Tempe, Socrate, Cypria) and the musical instruments (tibia, barbitos, tympanum) without checking the notes. And you can rattle off the Tudor family tree, whether from reading multiple biographies of the six wives of Henry VIII  or Hilary Mantel, who knows? 

THE ONLY PROBLEM IS…BIFOCALS!

I love my bifocals.  If you are in your forties, fifties, or older, you know the glamor of correcting both your nearsightedness and farsightedness with seamless bifocals.  They used to look like coke bottles, but no more.

But, alas, I find I cannot read books with tiny print, even with bifocals. 

I was in the mood to read Guy de La Bedoyere’s Domina:  The Women Who Made Imperial Rome, which sounded fascinating even though the reviewer in The New York Review of Books bashed it.  I paid little attention to her, because she used the essay to showcase her own theories, and devoted only a few paragaraphs to DominaI am loving this book, but the  print is so small I can scarcely read it. Yale Univeristy Press, couldn’t you have made the print normal size?  

AND THAT’S NOT ALL.  THE TIME HAS COME…to find a Greek dictionary with bigger print.

I was reading a Greek epyllion, the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, but  could barely make out the print in my Greek dictionary.  I have spent years poring over Liddell and Scott, the standard scholarly dictionary.  I once had to translate the Gettysburg Address into the Greek of Demosthenes (an assignment in grad school) with this dictionary.  It was more fun than it sounds–you perused the dictionary to learn which words Demosthenes would have used.  (But you had to be there, I guess.)

And  now I’ll have to read my Greek in strong sunshine with a bright lamp haloing my head.  I can think of no alternative.

Vivian Gornick’s “Unfinished Business:  Notes of a Chronic Re-reader”

I am an avid rereader, as readers of this blog know.  It is the only sure way I know to find a great book.  Although I’ve enjoyed rereading since childhood, it was in my forties that I began to prefer rereading classics to reading new books.

Naturally, I admire Vivian Gornick’s new book, Unfinished Business:  Notes of a Chronic Re-reader.  Gornick, an essayist, critic, memoirist, and fiction writer, interweaves autobiography with incisive renderings of her experience of rereading favorite books. As a reporter at The Village Voice in  in the ’70s, when Second Wave feminists professed that  “the personal is political,” she became conscious of the stereotypes of women in literature and the extent to which she had been educated to believe that love was the main goal of women. This revelation changed the way she lived and read.  Later, she also began to realize how disconnected she had become from her Jewish working-class roots. Men thought and wrote about it, but women less so.  

Some of the essays are very personal, others are almost pure criticism.  I find it fascinating that she misremembered details of certain books.  (That sometimes happens to me, too.)  She also believes that she reads now from a broader perspective.  And she does clearly see books as a whole in a way that is difficult on a first reading.

Gornick  fell in love with D. H. Lawrence’s elegant autobiographical third novel, Sons and Lovers, at the age of 20, as so many of us do.  But each reading brought with it a different perspective.  Reading it three times in fifteen years, she identified first with the hero Paul Morel’s first lover, Miriam, a bookish, earnest young woman who is afraid of sex, then with his second lover, Clara, a free-thinking suffragette who has left her husband, and finally with Paul himself,  a charming  painter who struggles to break away from his mother, a middle-class woman unhappily married to a coal miner and too tied-up with Paul’s life. 

In her recent rereading,  Gornick believed her focus on the novel as a whole had been wrong.  “…it wasn’t so much that I found I’d gotten many of the details wrong (which I had), but rather that my memory of the overriding theme–sexual passion as the central experience of a life–was wrong.” 

I was fascinated by Gornick’s chapter on Colette.  She loved Colette in her twenties–didn’t we all!–but now is ambivalent.  Gornick concentrates on my favorite Colette novel,  The Vagabond, a novel based on Colette’s experiences as a writer-turned-music-hall artist; she also writes about t sequel, The Shackle.  The narrator of these two books is Renee Nere, age 33, who does not want to commit to love.  In the first, she escapes it; in the second, she is shackled.

Gornick’s insights are sharp and unflinching.

Most striking, for me—the single greatest change, in fact, in my feeling about these novels—was the sense I now had that everything was taking place in a vacuum. When I had read Colette before, the entire world seemed to collect around what I took to be the narrator’s wisdom. Now that wisdom seemed narrow and confined. Vanity alone gives her whatever insight into an affair she may gain. While she cannot see that she makes instrumental use of her lovers, she can easily see that she herself has no reality for them and, in her thoughts, she is quick to condemn them for an emotional shallowness she cannot spot in herself:

Although I don’t quite agree with this, I have been disappointed in some of Colette’s books on rereading them.   The style is always lyrical, but sometimes the situations are overwrought  These days I prefer the novels she wrote when she was older, like Break of Day.  But perhaps it’s best to keep Colette’s books as a beautiful memory!

Equally interesting are  Gornick’s subtle interpretations of Elizabeth Bowen, Delmore Schwartz’s The World Is a Wedding, Natalia Ginzburg,  J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country,  and Doris Lessing’s Particularly Cats.  You can read this book in a day, and it will make you want to  reread like mad.

The Nightmare of Technology: Blame the App, Not the Iowans

The Iowa Caucus is over. There will be no more political flyers in the mail.  The Democratic candidates have flown to New Hampshire.  

There is a residue of depression.  “People are unusually quiet at the office,” a friend says.

Before the app scandal, the Democrats were exhilarated.  They thronged to the caucuses Monday night. They were psyched about their candidates.  To a man, they praised the newly-organized caucuses, which, for the first time, had paper backup:  caucus-goers filled out cards with detailed information on first and final alignment, to support the head count by precinct captains.

At home later, they sat down in front of the TV news–only to learn there were no results.  An app had malfunctioned.

Iowa caucus registration.

The chair of the Iowa Democratic party apologized for the defective app. But the results came in so much later than anyone thought.  Not available in toto  the next day, nor the next, nor the next…and on Friday, last time I checked, 99% were tallied, with Bernie and Pete declared the winners. 

The scandal rages on. And the DNC has not only rapped Iowa on the knuckles for buying a faulty app, but has threatened to kill the Iowa Caucus.

Instead of blaming the Iowans for an app that didn’t provide the  promised results, shouldn’t the focus be on the company that made it and the problems with the technology?

Ballots and tech so often go wrong, even in low-tech elections.   Remember the presidential election of 2000, when Al Gore was declared the winner, and then the Republicans insisted that George W. Bush had won?  This battle went on for months.  If I recall correctly, some votes in Florida were disqualified because of “hanging chads” on the ballot.  And Florida, where Jeb Bush was governor, determined the winner.

Elections are a hassle.  At the general elections here, I have long doubted that my vote gets counted.  Why?   I cannot color inside the lines of the bubbles on the old-fashioned multiple-choice-style ballots, because of a hand tremor, a side effect of a medication.  There are strict directions about keeping inside the lines.

The system of voting, tech, and ballots needs to be examined, whether at the caucuses, the primaries, or general elections.  And by all means, continue the caucus if the Iowans want it.  They devised the system, and the first caucus was held in 1972.  

More Roman Than Roman: John Williams’s “Augustus”

During a recent illness, I sweated, ached, and slept,  but managed to stay up a few hours a day to read genre books.  Of course some  will argue that John Williams’s National Book Award-winning Augustus  is not a genre book but a literary masterpiece. 

Yet it is still a genre book:  a historical novel. 

Best-known for Stoner, a kind of tepid imitation of the lesser work of Willa Cather,  Williams is more ambitious in Augustus, which won the National Book Award in 1973. (He shared the award with John Barth for Chimera.) Centered on the life of Octavian, the first Roman emperor, who was later known as Augustus, this intelligent novel unfolds in the form of pitch-perfect letters, documents, memoirs, journals, and even a stilted “lost poem” by Ovid (Williams is not much of a poet).  In a non-chronological narrative,  Williams charts the growing power of Octavian/Augustus, beginning with his wish to avenge the assassination of his uncle Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., followed by  the formation of the Second Triumvirate, a trio of powerful men consisting of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus.   Inevitably, the triumvirate split up,  and Octavian defeated Antony (and Cleopatra) at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.  And then Octavian returned triumphant to Rome, where he became emperor/dictator, took the title Augustus, and called himself Princeps (First Citizen, which less threatening than emperor). 

Occasionally the style is stilted, but much is brilliantly readable.   And Williams’ imitation of Roman letters is right-on: it captures the formality, underscored by the peculiar tone of Latin in translation.  (In Latin such letters are more fluid.) . Occasionally the letters are laced with gossip.   

James Purefoy as Antony in “Rome”

I have to admit, I’ve always been fond of Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius),  because he was so sensual and madly in love with Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra is my favorite Shakespeare play.   But perhaps I also have mixed Antony up with James Purefoy, who played Antony in the entertaining TV series, Rome.  (I loved that show.)

In the following letter, Antony describes Augustus as the pain in the ass he probably was. 

That whey-faced little bastard, Octavius, came around to see me yesterday morning. He has been in Rome for the past week or so, acting like a bereaved widow, calling himself Caesar, all manner of nonsense.

The letters of Maecenas, one of the earliest supporters of Augustus and the patron of the poets Horace and Virgil, are a mix of formality and liveliness.  In Williams’ novel, Maecenas is portrayed as a gay man, though I cannot verify if that is true or not.  Here is a typical opening of a  letter from Maecenas to Livy  the historian  

You must forgive me, my dear Livy, for having so long delayed my reply. The usual complaints: retirement seems not to have improved the state of my health at all. The doctors shake their heads wisely, mutter mysteriously, and collect their fees. Nothing seems to help—not the vile medicines I am fed, nor even the abstinence from those pleasures which (as you know) I once enjoyed. 

Williams also includes portions of a fascinating (fictieious) journal by Augustus’s daughter Julia, who was exiled for adultery.

At times Williams seems more Roman than Roman. Although he has studied the letters of Cicero, Pliny, and Seneca carefully, he needs to break away from his imitations.  If  were less consistently intent on pastiche, this might have been a better book.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Augusutus, the great Roman historical novell is  Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, the story of a later emperor.  You can’t go wrong with either of these.

From the Groundhog to the Caucus

the Iowa Caucus

It has been hectic.  So much going on!

First Groundhog Day, then the Iowa Caucus.  Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring, and yet it’s Tuesday and we don’t know who won the Caucus.

Like many Americans, I’ll vote in November for any Democrat who wins the nomination.  But I’m curious to see who won in  Iowa, because it provides a basis for comparison in the months to come–at least in the midwest.

Politics has been stressful for the last three years, but I have been touched by the Democratic candidates’ talk of the need for empathy (a word rarely used by politicians), social justice (another forgotten concept),  environmental justice (God, we need it!), equal pay for women (after all these years),  protecting the right to choose (I am shocked by the erosion of Roe v Wade), and raising the minimum wage to $15 (a necessity).

If politicians don’t strive for high ideals, things go downhill fast. We’ve seen it many, many times.  And so it is a pity about the malfunction of the Caucus app,  which was supposed to ensure accuracy and prevent the cheating, or perhaps the errors,  if one is being kind, that occurred during the 2016 caucuses, when Hillary was neck-and-neck with Bernie and declared the winner. 

Today the app was fixed, they say, and they have slowly, painstakingly been computing the numbers. It has been frustrating and depressing for politicians and political junkies. But for the first time there is paper backup, photos of cards filled out by caucus-goers, in addition to the  head count by precinct captains.  Ironically, this slow vote-count may be more accurate than past caucuses.  They’re probably counting on paper!

At least Punxsutawney Phil says it’s almost spring.  

Musings on “The New Yorker”: Elizabeth Enright’s Forgotten Stories for Adults

Michael and Shawn in “The Good Place”

In an episode of The Good Place, the demon Shawn threatens the former demon Michael (recently converted into an angel by a moral philosophy class) with  torture:  a small room furnished with a stack of New Yorkers.

“You know I’ll never read these,” says Michael. 

“That’s the point.  And they just keep on coming!”

I understand completely about The New Yorker.  It piles up on our mail table, and after a few weeks I sneak them into the recycling pile.  Then my husband sneaks them back. I get through The Talk of the Town, the movie reviews, and the TV reviews, but shudder at the fiction, seldom read the serious articles, and cannot comprehend the fashion ads, which remind me of Charles Addams cartoons.

The New Yorker, however, used to publish very good fiction. I was enthralled by John Updike, Ann Beattie, Elizabeth Tallent, and more.  But it all changed in the ’90s, when there was an editorial shake-up.  Still, if you pore over old  New Yorker anthologies, you will find the short stories of the neglected Nancy Hale (whose work has recently been published by LOA), Victoria Lincoln, and lost writers of the ’30s and ’40s who are no longer in style. 

Elizabeth Enright

Did you know Elizabeth Enright, the Newbery-winning author of Gone-Away Lake and The Melendy Quartet, wrote superb short stories and essays for adults?  Her four collections of fiction and autobiographical essays are, alas, out- of-print, but you can read some of her work at The New Yorker website.

In Enright’s charming story, “The Sandals of Monsieur de Flandre,” published on Feb. 22, 1958, the narrator, who is an art student, and her mother, an illustrator, share an apartment in Paris.  Their eccentric landlady is an antique dealer who regularly changes the furniture in their apartment:  one night two furniture movers show up in the middle of a dinner party and demand the dining-room table. The narrator’s mother firmly expels them, much to everyone’s delight.

It turns out another trespasser regularly visits their apartment. Monsieur de Flandre, a young actor nobody likes, often wanders the halls in rubber sandals.  A comical confrontation ensues when they learn he has a copy of their key.  

An out-of-print book by Elizabeth Enright

The most thrilling thing about Enright’s work is the lovely details. She says the winter sky in Paris is “a solid pork-fat gray.” The Russian neighbors have a beautiful garden with rustling bamboo, which the narrator likes to listen to at night because it reminds her of the country, and thecat, dog, and maid seem all to be named Masha.  She also wittily describes the antiquated plumbing, all of which except the WC is located in her bedroom.  

And I like her take on French.  

“I nodded apprehensively. Though I understood French fairly well, I was barred from speaking it by the grim verb forms I had had to struggle with in school. They stood before me like so many rigid iron gates, and by the time I had decided which was the proper form to use, the occasion for using it was lost forever.”

I do understand what she means.  Personally, I would prefer to conduct conversations in a foreign language written on post-it notes!

Enright’s writing is beautiful, lyrical, and ntelligent!  I read a few of Elizabeth Enright’s stories and domestic essays at The New Yorker webite, and look forward to finding more.  

The issue with the Elizabeth Enright story.

Weekend Reading with the Flu:  A Wonderful Historical Mystery & Musings on Who Your Friends Are

It is a beautiful weekend, characterized by melting snowmen and snow-women.  Alas, I have a touch of the flu.  Between napping and meds, I haven’t left the house. Not surprisingly, I’m too sick to concentrate on Lucy Ellman’s never-ending novel, Ducks, Newburyport, which surely would have elevated me to the rank of a reigning intellectual had coughing allowed me to concentrate.  Instead,  I have a stack of mysteries.  I thoroughly enjoyed the following.  

Do you like historical mysteries? You’ll enjoy Tasha Alexander’s In the Shadow of Vesuvius, the latest in her beautifully-written Lady Emily series.  Set in the ruins of Pompeii, it alternates stories in two timelines:  Lady Emily’s investigation of a murder in Pompeii in 1902, and a woman poet’s experiences and frustrations in 79 A.D..

I love Alexander’s slightly verbose, old-fashioned prose, which makes the narrator, Lady Emily, an utterly believeable Englishwoman of the Edwardian age.  She is an amateur sleuth and a cosmopolitan traveler,  and when her dear friend Ivy invites her to visit an archaeological site in Pompeii, Lady Emily persuades her husband, Colin Hargreaves, a British secret agent, to accompany her.  

Alexander has done her homework–the bibliography is three pages long–and you will learn as much as you will from a documentary.  The novel opens with the three main characters exploring a triclinium (an ancient dining room), where they stumble upon the corpse of a man, cleverly concealed in one of the plaster casts of the bodies which were found in layers of hardened pumice and ash.  The murder victim turns out to be a journalist for The New York Times, who specialized in cultural pieces.  Who would want to murder him?  One of the archaeologists, a surprising number of whom had shady backgrounds? One of the guides?  Or someone else?

What I really love is Alexander’s writing.  The narrator, Lady Emily, reveals the character of her dearest friend in two sentences.  “Ivy, who who since we were children had tried to provide a tempering influence on my more iconoclastic impulses, was not prone to interrupting anyone.  From the earliest days of our acquaintance, I had observed her effortlessly perfect manners, but had never managed to emulate them.” 

I also enjoyed the story of the (fictitious) Roman woman poet, Quinta Flavia Kassandra, who has grown up a slave and the close companion of her master’s daughter, Lepida.  Kassandra loves all things Roman, especially Virgil, and she is writing an epic as a tribute.  When she and her father are freed, he opens a bookstore, and she works as a copyist (of scrolls) when she is not writing poetry.  But she misinterprets  attentions from Lepida’s fiance (then husband), who suddenly becomes very interested in her poetry.  The story finally connects to Lady Emily’s mystery in the final pages, when, in a way, the 20th-century woman and the ancient woman save each other.

DO YOU KNOW WHO YOUR FRIENDS ARE?  I am horrified to learn that some members of the Latino community (surely not all!) have harassed Jeanine Cummins, author of American Dirt, to the point where she had to cancel her book tour.  There were  protests and threats against Cummins and the bookstore owners.  As Ron Charles of The Washington Post put it, Threats against the author of ‘American Dirt’ threaten us all.”

Cummins’s issue-oriented page-turner, now an Oprah book, is far from my favorite (you can read my post here) but it certainly increased my compassion for Mexican migrants.  Cummins describes the journey of two middle-class Mexicans, a bookstore owner and her eight-year-old son, who flee from Acapulco to cross the borders of the U.S. after sixteen of their realtives are killed by a cartel.

Why has there been such a rumpus in the Latino community?   They insist a white woman shouldn’t have been allowed to write it (why?), and  that the seven-figure contract should have gone to a Mexican-American.   Wait a minute:  Cummins, an experienced writer, writes a fast-paced novel which takes the side of the Mexican-Americans, and they protest?  Of course there are talented Mexican-American writers, but Cummins wrote the book.  And sales of her book could help the publishers fund more literary novels, some by Latino writers who might not write best-sellers.  

Tragically, these writers do not seem to know who their friends are. Yes, Cummins is their friend!  I do not doubt that American Dirt will raise the consciousness of many Americans, as it raised mine.  I had never thought much about illegal immigrants, but now I feel I have a better understanding of why they should be protected.

I must say, I find these attacks on free speech, whether from the right or the left, terrifying.  And don’t they all seem to originate on Twitter?