Covid-19 Summer Reading: Books for Local Trips

It’s summer!  Long, leisurely hot days divided between the lush outdoors and the domestic indoors. This is the summer of Covid-19, so  we will not camp on the shores of Lake Superior, travel to Pompeii, or explore a national park. But we will still have a shopping bag with books by the kitchen door, so we can riffle through it and grab a book for outside.  The odd thing is that my taste hasn’t changed much:   I spent a summer lugging around The Complete Jane Austen (Modern Library) when I was so young I could barely carry it.   Nowadays, I prefer to carry an individual copy.

Books get so tattered on the go that I recommend cheap books to stuff in your purse or book bag. But as you see I  break my rule with the first book on the list, which happens to  be new, but is very short and light.  

A LONG ESSAY.  I loved Coffee by Dinah Lenney, a charming little book in the Object Lessons series, published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic. Lenney, a writer and former actress,  is a coffee connoisseur.  She is so authoritative on the art of making coffee that she  “was suddenly having trouble letting anyone else make the coffee.” In this gorgeous essay, she describes her own experiences with coffee, that of her friends and family, compares the coffee culture in the U.S. to the more casual cups of coffee in France.  She also interviews experts on the history of coffee and the new artisan coffees. A perfect gift book!

THE CHEAPEST OF THE CHEAP.  Summer is a good time to catch up with the classics, but you don’t want to compromise your nice copies when you’re on the go.  Opt for the Wordsworth editions!  Though the covers  are rather strange and inappropriate–and I prefer the ’70s blue cover of The Professor to the 2012 black cover of Mary Barton— they are cheap and sturdy–under $5. You can pack them with your lunch and they’ll still survive.

BEAUTIFUL INEXPENSIVE  BOOKS.  Everyone adores Elizabeth Gaskell’s short novel Cranford, and Pride and Prejudice is the favorite of many Janeites.   A used copy of theattractive Vintage edition iof Cranford starts at  $4.50, and the colorful Modern Library paperback  of P&P is $8 new.

OLD FAVORITES.  On the left is Mary Wilkins Freeman’s stunning collection of stories (which I wrote about here), on the right are two mysteries,and you can’t go wrong with Simenon and Michael Innes. Be cheap!  Support used books!

Any suggestions for summer to-go books?  And do you prefer any particular publishers for outdoors reading?

Are You a Yahoo?

Pool party at the Lake of the Ozarks, Memorial Day weekend.

Since Memorial Day, my friend Janet and I have asked ourselves the flippant question, “Are we Yahoos?”

We are haunted by scenes on the the news of an outlandishly crowded pool party in Missouri and  hordes cavorting on beaches in Florida, with no semblance of social distancing.

“Oh my God–it’s the Yahoos!” we exclaimed.

The dictionary defines yahoos as “an imaginary race of of brutish beings in Swift’s  Gulliver’s Travels.” It is, in my imaginary dictionary, the cry inspired by the “reopening” of the beaches.  The cry “Yahoo!  Yahoo!” is reminiscent of “Thalassa! Thalassa!”

Actually it is more like Carpe diem, but Horace didn’t intend for us to seize the day by throwing a coronavirus party.

Mind you,  it is difficult not to be a yahoo.  We are used to having everything, and having it now.  Live-streaming, same-day delivery, multi-tasking, Alexa, the State Fair, designer tacos from the premier taco stand, jazz festivals, the latest Wonder Woman movie, and beach vacations.  

Patience is no longer a virtue.  It’s been three months…in the scheme of things, not that long.

It is a very good idea to keep your social distance.

So stay home, stay safe, and ignore the politicians.

Is Thomas Hardy Old-Fashioned?  Tess of the d’Urbervilles 

Not everyone is a  fan of Thomas Hardy. The Southern poet James Dickey found him old-fashioned.

When I briefly met Dickey some years back, he was plotting his escape from a PR woman. She had entrusted him to my care while she took a 15-minute break. During our desultory conversation, he asked if he could come to my house (“No”); he also asked who my favorite writer was.  My mind was blank and I blurted: “Thomas Hardy.”  The Wrong Answer bell immediately chimed on Dickey’s Favorite Writer Quiz Show as he said, “He was our grandfather’s writer.” 

I have encountered many people with similar opinions of Thomas Hardy.  Hardy is out of style: perhaps he was always out of style. Certainly, he struggled against the censorship of critics and many editors, who were severe about his “immoral” descriptions of sex, sexual harassment, rape, and unhappy marriages in the 19th century.

Hardy’s books are serious, usually tragic, but they also crackle with witty dialogue and comic scenes.  He balances considerations of social mores, class, poverty, education, and the nature of love with everyday scenes of life in the setting of his imaginary Wessex area. His graceful style is spare and poetic, exceedingly modern at times.  But I fear that modern readers do not, as a rule,  take to Hardy.  A few years ago a writer at Book Riot said she hated Tess of the D’urbervilles and wanted to tell Tess to “grow a pair.”  I think you will agree with me that Dickey’s designation of Hardy as “our grandfather’s writer” was much sharper and more descriptive.

When I reread Tess of the d’Urbervilles this weekend, I was struck by the lyricism, the realism, and the sheer exhaustion of Tess’s struggles. Doom haunts the characters from the beginning.  Hardy fans will not be surprised that the  plot takes an immediate downward swerve.  The novel opens with a minister’s telling Tess’s father, John Durbeyfield,  that he is the last descendant of the aristocratic d’Urberville family. The wealthy buyers of the d’Urberville estate took the name, but the Durbeyfields have the  blood.  Ironically, this knowledge leads to the downfall of the Durbeyfields and the faux d’Urbervilles.

Through one of Hardy’s classic strokes of fate, the Durbeyfields lose their livelihood.   Tess, pushed by her mother, reluctantly visits the  d’Urbervilles, who offer her the job of looking after the poultry.  The son of the house, Alec d’Urberville, flirts with her, stalks her, and rapes her after a dance.  Tess moves home and has a baby, but after the baby dies she finds a job as a dairymaid miles from home.  Most important, she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare, a minister’s son studying to be a farmer, who is so charming and handsome that all the the young women are smitten,  even Tess’s two roommates. After much resistance, Tess agrees to marry Angel,  but isn’t sure it is moral in the light of her past. When after the wedding he admits he has had sexual relations with a woman,T ess confesses her past, thinking he will empathize.   As soon as he learns her history, he takes off for South America to learn more about farming. He leaves Tess a bit of money, but she struggles to make a living as a laborer on a farm.  Will he be back?

As to who is worse, Alec or Angel, I would say they are on a par. But Tess does encounter Alec again, and he is  concerned about her, as well as in love.  Tess does not want him–she is obsessed with Angel–but Alec looks after her family and saves her from poverty.  Each time I read this, I am more annoyed with Angel.

Since I didn’t expect the struggling Tess to be a modern woman in Manhattan or London, I admired this book very much.  But it has a difficult publication history.   Because the first publisher didn’t read the book until the proofs had been printed, and then found the content offensive, he offered to pay Hardy for the manuscript with the understanding it would not be published.   Hardy, who was well-respected and knew someone would publish it,  suggested they cancel the contract without any payment. The novel went through many revisions, and there were wrangles with publishers. The harsh criticiscm of Tess and then Jude the Obscure depressed Hardy so that he stopped writing fiction. Think of the novels we might have had!

By the way, D. H. Lawrence  wrote that Hardy was the most important novelist of the 19th century (or that was the gist; it’s been a while since I read Lawrence’s essays). Hardy’s influence on Lawrence is apparent.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover is modeled on Hardy’s Two on a Tower.

The Library Problem


Mind you, I have my own books, and I don’t go to the public library often.   But I wish I had made it to a university library before the Covid-19 outbreak. There are some books I NEED which are too expensive to buy.  Occasionally I check the university library websites to see if they are open.  Still closed.  They’re not CRAZY.

Some people complain that they can’t get their books on reserve.   I empathize.  There the books are, in a building a mile or two away, and they can’t pick them up.  We cannot even return books here,  because apparently the books have to be quarantined.  

The governor has declared libraries can reopen, but they’re not doing it here–yet.  I read an essay in Book Riot about the frustrations of Chicago librarians, who have been ordered to return to work.  According to the writer of the article, the planning is pretty hazy.  Employees will not be given protective gear and have been told that patrons will automatically practice social distancing.   In Chicago???!!! 

Speaking of which, are your social distancing standards rigorous?.  Six feet?  That’s for amateurs.  I like a good ten, twelve feet distance. First, I was a crazy person hopping into the street.  Then everybody was doing it! I was a role model.  Back to crazy person now that the state has reopened, I suppose.

If only things were normal this Memorial Day weekend, we would go to a park, have a picnic, take a walk…but there are huge crowds.  

It’s one big Jane Austen novel these days.  Take a walk, take another walk, take another walk–and if only we could go to Bath, like Anne in Persuasion.

The Portable Chekhov

It is difficult to “follow your bliss” during a pandemic; I have been all over the map with my reading.  But one of the great comforts this month has been Anton Chekhov, whose graceful style and genuine characters make it easy to lose yourself in his world.   

I began with 100 pages of the new translation of Chekhov’s stories by Pevear and Volokhonsky, but realized I prefer the plays.  After rereading The Sea Gull and The Cherry Orchard, I dusted off our copy of The Portable Chekhov, a brilliant collection of short stories, plays, and letters, edited and translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, except for five stories translated by Constance Garnett.

Let me digress by saying how much I have always loved The Viking Portable Library, which has been around, I think, since the 1940s. We were forever being assigned these books in college, because they were inexpensive, attractive, and edited by scholars:  The Portable Thomas Hardy, The Portable D. H. Lawrence, The Portable Chekhov, The Portable Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader, The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, The Portable Nietzche–so many Portables!   I love these volumes because they are lightweight, with perfect-sized print even for the nearsighted, and the heft of a much smaller book than their average of 700 pages.

This is my the one i have.

Chekhov, who was a doctor as well as a writer, had a wide-ranging knowledge of people of different classes. The early stories  are often simple tales and sketches about peasants; later he moves on to more complicated and, to my mind, more interesting stories and novellas about the middle- and upper-classes. Sometimes there is a hint of Tolstoy in his style, sometimes of Turgenev, sometimes even of Lermentov.  I  alway admire his  gift for describing unhappy circumstances concisely and sharply without a  trace of sentimentality.

Yet you will be devastated by the early story” Vanka,” with its cruel sense of irony.  Vanka,  a nine-year-old orphan who has been a shoemaker’s apprentice in Moscow for three months, stays up on Christmas Eve to write a letter to his grandfather. Vanka wants to go home:  he is bewildered by the big city,  where boys don’t go caroling; he is beaten by his master and mistress for for falling asleep while rocking the baby in a cradle, and not cleaning the herring properly; and he is given only bread or porridge to eat.  He is so hungry.

“Do come, dear Granddaddy.  For Christ’s sake, I beg you, take me away from here.  Have pity on me, an unhappy orphan, here everyone beats me, and I am terribly hungry, and I am so blue, I can’t tell you how, I keep crying.”

At this point, we need Dickens to intervene and save him, but alas, it does not happen. Chekhov is an observer, not a social worker.   And so  Vanka addresses the letter to “Grandfather in the village” and mails it.  He is happy and full of hope, and we are saddened by the irony.  

In Chekhov’s wickedly astute stories, wisdom is not always held by the best-educated.  In “The Letter,” Archdeacon Fyor Orlov unwillingly entertains  two collegues, Father Anasty, an old man who has been forbidden to officiate because of drinking and negligence in keeping church accounts, and  deacon Lubimov, who has just heard disturbing news that his son is living with a woman out of wedlock.  Archdeacon Orlov says he must write a letter to his son, and ends up writing the letter for Lubimov.  Both Lubimov and Father Anasty praise the letter, but Father Anasty later tells Lubimov not to send it. “What’s the good of it?  You’ll send it, he’ll read it, and then what?  You’ll only upset him.  Forgive him, let it be.”  And this story has a happy, comical ending.  

I have to admit, the famous stories are famous for a reason.  “The Kiss” is an exceptional story, in which  a shy army office is kissed in the dark at a party by a woman who mistakes him for someone else. For the next year, he fantasizes about her and wonders which woman she was.  An ironic circumstance prevents from form finding out. 

In my favorite, “The Name-Day Party,” a young pregnant woman is outraged when she overhears her husband flirting with a young girl and complaining about his life.  She has to behave pleasantly, because the guests will be there till midnight, but she is raging under her mask.  And their fight after the party unveils their true relationship.

So what can be more fabulous than Chekhov?

And shall I read the letters?  But I’m not sure I want to know that much about Chekhov!

This is the original 1947 edition.

Minimalist Contact: Light Reading, More Exercise, & Less TV

I don’t miss minimal contact.  During a dashing-to-the-store interaction, I might have said, “Isn’t it a lovely day?” and the clerk might have said, “I won’t see it till I get off work.”

But now that we’re all in masks, there is no conversation. The older employees have quit or been laid off, and I hope they’re okay.   I find it hard to say ANYTHING in a mask.  Sometimes I say, “Keep the change.”  But I’m thinking more about money germs than I am about leaving a tip.

Now here’s what is very, very sad.  Curbside pick-up.

We’ve done this only a couple of times.  But how stressful to be a masked employee (or often a store owner) and tote a basket outside with the item, and set the basket down on a sidewalk, or transfer the item from the basket to the trunk! 

We never counted on “minimalist” contact, did we?  It’s a whole new world out there.


TREAT YOURSELF TO A LIGHT NOVEL.  My mood lifted as I read Emma Straub’s witty, absorbing  new novel, All Adults Here.  The setting, Hudson Valley’s Clapham, New York, is a quaint charming small town which becomes blessedly quiet after the summer tourists leave.  I loved the town as much as the characters.  And I lost myself in the daily drama of the slightly dysfunctional family at the core of the novel, the Stricks. 

The first sentence will hook you.  

Astrid Strick had never liked Barbara Baker, not for a single day of their forty-year-old acquaintance, but when Barbara was hit and killed by the empty, speeding school bus at the intersection of Main and Morrison streets on the eastern side of the town roundabout, Astrid knew that her life had changed, the shock of which was indistinguishable from relief.

This tragic death unnerves Astrid,  a 68-year-old widow who suddenly finds herself examining her  control-freak habits and superficial relationships.  She isn’t pleased with what she sees, especially her take on Barbara.  And so she decides to be more honest with her family: she has had a long affair with the owner of Shear Beauty, a beauty salon, and decides to come out.  

It turns out Astrid’s children and granddaughter have secrets, too.  Her daughter, Porter, who runs a goat farm and makes cheese, has chosen a sperm donor and is pregnant ; her son Nicky, a Buddhist pothead who has a French dancer wife, dispatches their stressed teenage daughter, Cecilia, from Brooklyn to live with Astrid, because he can’t cope with her problems; and Astrid’s  oldest son, Elliott, the unlikable one, is proud of the McMansions he builds, but knows his mother looks down on them.

This is a character-driven book: the plot, such as it is, is fairly predictable. But I like the narrative, with each chapter told from a different third-person  point-of-view.

I’ve also been reading light nonfiction.  Who knew there was such a thing?

TO GET OUT OF YOUR RUT, DO SOME NEW EXERCISES.  Yes, you may walk or use the elliptical, but you need to SHAKE IT UP if you’re depressed during this traumatic pandemic.   Find a workout online, even if it’s only 10 minutes.  Yoga or 1980s aerobics class videos can help your mood as well as your body.

TURN OFF THE TV.  Since we got a smart-ish TV, we have watched lots of dumb TV.  Who knew that every comedy on Netflix and Hulu had mandatory toilet jokes? And, really, I’ve seen nothing more hackneyed than the edgy Netflix originals, Amazon originals, and so on.  Good luck to you in finding anything good besides Homeland.  Turn off the TV and you’ll immediately feel smarter.

On Not Believing Cassandra: My Covid-19 Anxiety


When the Covid-19 pandemic began, people barely believed in it.  My husband barely believed in it.  I was terrified for him.  When I tried  to explain why we needed to cross the street to avoid other pedestrians, he thought I was delusional.  “If you keep talking like this, I’m taking you to a doctor.”

Talk about Cassandra!  “So wait–you want to take me to a doctor for telling you about coronavirus?”  I was petrified:  the only thing worse than a psych ward would be the infectious disease ward.

Fortunately,  his boss sent everyone home the next day, and he started to believe.  I  am thankful he is working at home: I would not have had a moment free of anxiety otherwise.  Because, well, men try to be too brave.

Much of my time now is spent trying to be “normal.”  I have been anxious. The other day as I crossed a parking lot I realized I’d left my mask in the car, and loped back to get it.  I’m always on alert:  the  anxiety has settled in my vertebrae.

Today I did a yoga/meditation workout for people with upper back pain. Ah!  During the stretches,  I could feel the chest and back “opening up,” as they say.   The instructor kept telling us to breathe deeply–I can’t hold my breath long enough, though–and focus on what we were feeling.   I had a revelation near the end:  what I felt was rage.  

A lot of people are raging now.  Look at the protesters with guns, protesting shelter-at-home orders in Michigan, Wisconsin, California, and even Europe.  They want to go out!  They want to go to bars!  They’re spreading the virus, but they can’t stand to stay home.  

Then there are the many pouting moms writing essays about how hard it is to be home with their kids.  Yes, yes, but in the scheme of things, it’s hard to care.. They are (upper?) middle-class and made the  choice to have them.  And if they can’t  NANNY-up, too bad.  People are sick and dying. 

My own problems are minuscule right now.  We’re on top of each other, but at least we’re here.  

STAY HOME AND SAVE LIVES,  a plaque in the neighborhood says.

The politicians are…well, opening up the beaches.  But what wouldn’t I give to be on a beach, or at least on vacation somewhere.  Alas, I can imagine  inadvertently taking the virus somewhere or bringing it back home.  Not a good time for a vacation.

Reasons for Rage and Anxiety:  None of us have control right now.  None of us can prevent the stupid mistakes being made during the pandemic.

I think of all those women in 18th-century and 19th century novels, going on their walks. Have you, too, taken many, many walks lately?  Every time someone takes a walk in one of my books, I mark it.  The latest walk?  In Chekhov’s short story, “The Name-Day Party.”

All Dressed up and Nowhere to Go? Read Proust!

 Kristin Stewart reading Proust

It is your mission. You decide to finish Proust.  “It’s all downhill after Swann’s Way,” a friend confided. And since it has been five years since you read the last volume, you don’t even remember who the characters are.   So Swann’s Way again?

Funny, you’d rather read catalogues. One thing new this spring: all the models are suddenly LGBT.  Yes, the women are all holding hands…on a beach…and wearing plenty of things you’d like to buy:  embroidered jeans, summery tunics, and slip-on sandals that doubtless would slip off.  

If you bought these lovely clothes, you’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go. These days, you mow the lawn for fun. Or go to the grocery store! 

The state has “reopened”–it  proudly is a hotspot– and it is a bit too much.  And so many people are staying home.  Restaurant dining rooms are empty.  The parking lot at Perkins is empty (perhaps it’s closed altogether).  Penney’s is out of business.  Supposedly drive-in theaters are open, but I’d like to know where the heck these drive-ins are.

The drive-through at Starbucks is very popular:  I’ve seen the lines!

Really, it’s enough to inspire you to stay home and keep reading Proust.  I’m going to go eenie-meenie-mo and pick a volume.

Chekhov in Covid-19 Spring: Rereading “The Sea Gull”

Medvedenko:  Why do you always wear black?

Masha:  I am in mourning for my life.  I’m unhappy.

–Chekhov, The Sea Gull

I recently found an old Modern Library book, Best Plays by Chekhov. I was thrilled to find it, because there is a Chekhov revival at the moment, or at least there should be.  A new translation of Chekhov’s short stories by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky has been published, and though The New York Times critic disliked it, I have  enjoyed what I’ve read. But I also love Ronald Hingley, who translated nine volumes of Chekhov’s plays and six volumes of his stories for Oxford University Press.  The four-volume Folio Society set of Chekhov’s Collected Stories is translated by Hingley.

The Folio Society set of Chekhov’s The Collected Stories, translated by Ronald HIngham

While thumbing through Chekhov’s stories,I realized  I prefer the plays, so I decided to return to them.   And as soon as I read the opening lines of The Sea Gull , I was in love with his work, just as I was the first time.

I was an intense young woman, and though I was fairly contented when I read The Sea Gull, I identified with the misery of Masha. (We were all brooding young women then.)  I loved the cynical Masha’s witty point of view (see quote at top of post), though she is a second-string character in the play, very much in the shadow of Nina.   She  feels unrequited love for Konstantine Treploff, a suicidal aspiring writer who feels unrequited love for Nina, a charming young aspiring actress, who is in love with a famous writer…and so it goes. As the play opens,  Nina is acting in an amateur production of a play Treploff has written (performed in the barn), but Treloff’s brash flamboyant mother, a famous actress, is so loudly mocking that he  decides not to finish the performance.  Poor Masha knows she will never get anywhere with Treploff.  She may be brighter, but how can she compete with Nina?  

Chekhov’s characters speak intensely about the need for a new form in drama and in literature. It seemed very  modern when I read it, and probably still is, though I knew a little more about the theater then. The ring composition in The Sea Gull is perfect (too perfect?):  it comes full-circle, with the last act mirroring the first–and a tragic ending.

Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt

Translator Stark Young’s introduction to this 1956 Modern Library edition is fascinating.  He says he translated The Sea Gull for the actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt.  Critics expected lofty language, and were so puzzled by the simplicity that they  believed it was “an adaptation.”  But Young explains that Chekhov’s vocabulary is very simple.  He writes, “Of all the dramatists Chekhov least deserves the muddle of the various styles that have been foisted on him in English–the involved, for instance, or the elevated, or the psychological-gloomy, or the turgid-soulful, or the flat, or the lacking in lyricism or in wit.”

I am not at all sure where we got this Modern Library book. I know I read the plays in paperback, possibly the Signet, translated by the great Ann Dunnigan.  I prefer the blue cover (the older edition), but it is still in print by Signet, with the white cover (on the right).

We Could All Use Horace’s Letter of Recommendation!

Have you ever spent a day reading Jane Austen and Horace?  It is a strange conjunction.

If you are more like Emma (Emma) than the modest Fanny Price (Mansfield Park), you will enjoy Horace’s witty letter of recommendation written in the form of a poem. If Emma had known Horace, she would have pasted it in her album.  She also would have persuaded herself it was  a love letter to her friend Harriet, for whom she was shamelessly trying to find a husband.

Honestly, I’m not even sure if Horace was heterosexual.

Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton (or do I mean Horace?)

Fanny would have found something improper about Horace’s letter.  God knows what, but that’s the way Fanny is.

You may know Horace for his famous odes, but he also wrote two books of Epistulae (Letters).  Epistula I.lX is a charming letter of recommendation for Septimius, who shamelessly bullied him until he wrote it.  Sometimes I love Horace, sometimes he is smarmy, but here  he is very smooth and funny-I can only imagine that Septimius got the job.

 Nobody reads Horace in English, because the Latin is concise and the English, alas, requires many, many, many more words. Here is my wordy English translation.

Dear Tiberius,  Septimius is the only one who understands

how much you think of me.  When he urges me

to praise and introduce him as a man worthy

of your intellect and honorable family,

he discerns and knows what I can do better for him

by the enjoyment of the  gift of being a closer friend.

Indeed, I have said many things to excuse myself

but I feared I would be thought to have pretended

 less power than I have, hiding the favorable assistance

I could give.

And so, to flee the reproaches of a greater fault,

I have stooped to the networking of bold men.

If you approve of the modesty set aside because of a friend’s request,

enroll this man in your company and trust that he is good and brave.

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