A Novel about a Bookstore: Robert Hellenga’s “Love, Death & Rare Books”

“We’re fine,” I say on the landline. (I’m keeping it real.) Of course things are not fine. They are far from fine. At least we have enough books.  Should we start a bookstore in our living room?

What I miss is browsing in bookstores. Sounds trivial, doesn’t it?   I miss the dusty stacks where you discover South American novels you’ve never heard of, and  bright displays of new books with crisp pages.

A few bookstores are open again.  I stood in a socially-distanced line and noticed a copy of Robert Hellenga’s new novel, Love, Death, & Rare Books.  I had not read any reviews of this, but I bought it.

And it is everything I need in a novel right now: it is a book about books! I am racing through this fictitious history of a family-owned antiquarian bookstore in Chicago, Chas. Johnson & Sons, from 1970 to 2011.

Gabe, the narrator, grows up at the store, and eventually works side-by-side with his father and grandfather. As you can imagine, he inhales books, beginning with The Hardy Boys, and The Catcher in the Rye, and moving on to Ovid, Homer, Wordsworth, Walter Mosley, and Salman Rushdie (the store is bombed when they display The Satanic Verses in the window). As Gabe gets older, he is drawn to Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. And he is a melancholy guy himself, reserved, introspective, and rejected by the woman he loves.

We see how the business changes over the years, and I am fascinated by the details about the valuation of rare books, the bookseller’s deep knowledge of a book’s provenance, a trip to assess 100,00 books in a library at a bankrupt Jesuit college, book sales at Christie’s, and antiquarian book fairs.

Although Gabe is immersed in bookselling, his personal life is somewhat messy.  In his twenties he falls in love with Lydia, an independent, beautiful young woman writing a thesis on Keats (she works in the bookstore and recites “The Eve of St. Agnes” at the dinner table). Alas, she is too focused on romantic poetry to marry him: she goes to graduate school at Yale to learn to deconstruct Keats.  When she returns pregnant by her married English professor, Gabe remains her friend, and is with her in the delivery room. She still refuses to marry him.  He does not compare to the professor.

Why, why doesn’t she marry Gabe, we moan.  Truth to tell: I found Lydia irritating. She is so strong-minded and personable (though caustic) that she has more romantic choices than Gabe does. “I’m not a nun,” she says at one point.

I haven’t finished this well-written book yet, but if you want to read about the book business,  Hellenga’s enthusiastic description provides a good balance to actual bookstore owner Shaun Bythell’s more caustic view in Diary of a Bookseller.

How to Read Dickens without Reading about How to Read Dickens

Penguin Clothbound Classics edition of “Hard Times”

I often read Victorian novels without reading about the Victorian novel first. I love a good Penguin, but I eschew the introduction and footnotes. You don’t want to interrupt the spell of Dickens’s charming  novel, Hard Times, with  a footnote on St. Giles’s Church, London. Not that it wasn’t a great note:

Chapter 4. Note 3. “St. Giles’s was a notoriously poor area of London. See Dickens’s piece, ‘On Duty with Inspector Field,’ Household Words, III (14 June 1851), pp. 265-70.”

I read the note fondly (the introduction and footnotes in the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition are by Kate Flint), but it is  too much in hot mid-July.  I do recommend Peter Ackroyd’s exhaustive 1990 biography, Dickens, though.

I picture myself at the British Library.

After years of reading Dickens and about Dickens, I would love to discover some area of Dickens studies that scholars haven’t done to death. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit with pencil and notebook at the British Library or the Dickens Museum or the Bodleian Library or the Harvard Library or the University of Texas at Austin library or God knows what other library and read musty old papers and discover a detail that changes Dickens studies? With the pandemic raging, that is unlikely to happen. I wonder if I’ll ever see London again.  Austin, Texas, maybe.

This week, I was fascinated by my third reading of  Dickens’s Hard Times. It almost seems like a new book, because I haven’t read it to shreds as I have, say, Our Mutual Friend. Published in 1854, Hard Times is a charming little book, and a good introduction for Victorian newbies who do not embrace 900-page books. Like Bleak House (1853), Dickens’s previous novel, Hard Times begins with a stylish repetition of the same word in successive sentences; note facts and principles in the first paragraph.  And the repetition of the word facts occurs throughout the first chapter.

“Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle upon which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle upon which I bring up these children!”

Fans of Dickens’s elegant whimsy realize immediately that he is satirizing education whimsically–again! Dickens thought poorly of the schools.  The character Thomas Gradgrind, who depends on facts, math, and a philosophy of self-interest for the system of education at his model school, detests whimsy and imagination. His unfortunate children, Louisa and Tom, are not the better for their facts:  they are not allowed to go to the circus, and are admonished for peeking through a gap in the tent.  A circus is not a pastime for reasonable people.

Ironically, they become connected to the circus when the pupil Sissy Jupe, known as “Girl Number Twenty,” is abandoned by her father, a circus clown.  Thomas kindly takes her into their home. Sissy’s sunny personality improves the outlook of his youngest daughter, Jane, but it is too late for Louisa and  Tom. Louisa is married off to Mr. Bounderby, a boastful middle-aged owner of a factory and a bank, to whom marriage is certainly a hell, and Tom becomes a dishonest clerk at Bounderby’s bank who begs Louisa to pay his gambling debts and other debauchery.

The education of the Gradgrinds has not served them well.  In some ways, Dickens is more sympathetic to the uneducated factory workers than to the Gradgrinds, though some of them are also frankly awful, too.  One thread of the novel is spun around the hard life of 40-year-old Stephen Blackpool, a weaver stuck in a loveless marriage to an alcoholic, and in love with kind, sweet Rachael, whom he can never marry. When he asks Mr. Bounderby about the laws of divorce, Mr. Bounderby says they are not for the lower class. There is one law for the rich, and another for the poor, as Stephen discovers.  And yet Stephen has paid his alcoholic wife to go away several times, and she always returns down-and-out, and sells the furniture for drink while he is at work.

The workers are poor and have no rights; but a dishonest union organizer turns on Stephen when he says he believes in the principles but doesn’t agree with the manner and will not join because he needs the money so badly. And so a campaign of ostracism against him begins.

Dickens loves to write about social issues, and I thought of other industrial novels, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854) and Mary Barton (1848), and Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849). Such issue-driven novels were “in the air” at that time. I wonder, Is anyone writing novels about labor and unions these days? Or does that belong to an earlier time?

Hard Times is such a brilliant read! It is satiric, elegantly written, and Louisa is an especially vivid character.  Parts are sentimental, but Dickens can get away with it.  In fact, where would we be without sentimentality?

The Book Journal Crisis: What to Do When Numbers Become Meaningless

Reading is my solace. I do not recognize myself without a book; but in the mild, beautiful spring of 2020, I was so jittery, sometimes terrified, that I took three walks a day just to calm down. Everything was closed, including the parks, but there was no limit on exercise.  When I came home from my walks and did read, I gravitated toward short books, particularly short stories by Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield.

And then I began to worry about my new attitude toward reading. Where were my usual Victorians?  They had disappeared from my night table.    My book journal, in a curious way, was as terrifying as the lurking Covid: it showed how my way of life had been destroyed, or at least derailed–and I didn’t even have the virus. During an old-fashioned phone call, I was gloomy. “All these f—- book lists, book journals, book blogs, indecipherable Twitter, Goodreads–I wish I’d never been born.”

“I haven’t read a thing in months,” my friend confided.  “Yesterday I hummed a Van Halen song in a Zoom meeting.”

“What was the song?” I wanted to know.

Before I stopped making entries in my book journal, I talked dramatically about my determination to WIPE IT OUT.  You would not believe how many notebooks I have with lists and lists and lists.  On Feb. 16, 2013, I read Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me.   Oops, maybe it is worthwhile to remind myself of that excellent novel.  I finished Felix Holt on May 17, 2020,  my third reading of this classic, but I have no idea what year I first read it.  Does it matter?

I do remember telling a friend I was “bored out of my mind,” and was reading “too much” and keeping a book journal with “frightening numbers.”

“What is too much and why write a list?” she asked.

When did the book lists start? I can only think it had to do with blogging. Book bloggers make a lot of lists, and the early blogs were especially fun, full of spontaneity, full of reading recommendations. I loved the early days of blogging when I read short books by Pamela Frankau, Pamela Hansford Johnson, C. P. Snow, and Angela Thirkell in a day, and posted my thoughts the minute I finished.

Now I seldom visit my old blogs and rarely look at the lists in the book journals.

It is one thing to post about my reading at the blog, but keeping lists of every book I read seems pointless. Perhaps I’m less narcissistic than I used to be?  Or perhaps more?  Surely this issue is pointless!

I’ve stopped making lists.  Now I’m a free woman!

Not a Covid-19 Dystopia:  Doris Lessing’s “The Memoirs of a Survivor”

We all remember that time. It was no different for me than for others.  Yet we do tell each other over and over again the particularities of the events we shared, and the repetition, the listening, is as if we are saying, “It was like that for you, too?  Then that confirms it, yes, it was so, it must have been, I wasn’t imagining things.”–Doris Lessing’s “The Memoirs of a Survivor”

This weekend I reread Doris Lessing’s  beautifully-written novel The Memoirs of a Survivor, because I needed to get my bearings in an increasingly unreal world.  I was in need of comfort, in fact in need of a “cozy catastrophe.” After rattling the pages of the daily newspaper and perusing the record number of Covid-19 cases, I was embarrassed by the government’s inability to protect us as numbers spike after a huge number of unwise state reopenings.  I was also embarrassed that we are practically a third-world country in the view of the world now, and banned from traveling to other countries. (Not a good time to travel, but still.)  I longed to escape into an alternate chronicle of the fall of civilization–which is and isn’t happening here and elsewhere.

Lessing gets everything right, on a metaphorical level.  In another way, she gets very little right.  Of course this is fiction, a kind of dream-like fable, in which it is possible to survive the fall of civilization and travel through walls to other times.  There are epidemics, but that is only one cause of the disintegration.

The narrator, a middle-class older woman who lives in a comfortable flat in London, describes the crisis known in her times as “it.” There are food shortages: people get tips from each other on where to get potatoes, imitation meat, and other necessities. Official sources of news are unreliable, though the government still exists in a talking-heads way.   Hardly anybody bothers with electricity, though the narrator has running water. Squatters move into empty hotels and houses in the narrator’s neighborhood, and gangs of young people, some of them cannibals, many of them armed, pass through and camp on the pavements, sometimes for days, finally leaving for the north.  And then the residents of the neighborhood sigh with relief.  But soon they, too, are thinking of joining the gangs and traveling with them.

And into the narrator’s life comes Emily, a 12-year-old girl dropped off at her flat one day by a strange man who says she is now the Emily’s guardian. Emily is inseparable from her pet, Hugo, which looks part dog, part cat, and which is really part of her personality.  Much of the book talks about the rapid coming-of-age of Emily:  soon she is known as “Gerald’s girl,” the girlfriend of one of the gang leaders who has a house in the neighborhood.  But just as easily Emily could have led a gang herself, the narrator muses, as she is the one  with the most information about where to get what.    And the narrator believes the catastrophe has crushed the years of the struggle for women’s rights.  Women are content to be in second place now.

Lessing tries to define the crisis she calls “it.”  She writes,

For ‘it’ is a force, a power, taking the form of an earthquake, a visiting comet whose balefulness hangs closer night by night, distorting all thought by fear–‘it’ can be, has been, pestilence, a war, the alteration of climate, a tyranny that twists men’s minds, the savagery of a religion.

And, much to our surprise, she explains the government is still at work. 

All this time, while ordinary life simply dissolved away, or found new shapes, the structure of government continued, though heavy and cumbersome and becoming all the time more ramified….  What government really did was to adjust itself to events, while pretending, probably even to itself, that it initiated them.

Although Lessing hated people to interpret her books as autobiography, I do recognize some scenes from her Children of Violence (Martha Quest) series  and her autobiography.   

But I agree that is the wrong way to read her books.  I’ve always loved this novel, but this time I was reading for directions.  

The Zombie Lost Generation: Can They Be Educated?

28 Days Later

They mill and throng, blocking the trails for hikers and bicyclists.  When a friend asked them to social-distance, they came CLOSER.  It’s kind of like dealing with the zombies in 28 Days LaterFinally, someone put up a sign:  KEEP YOUR SOCIAL DISTANCE.  

Their handlers can’t handle them.  Please, please send them back to school in the fall.   They are so used to being over-scheduled,  playing sports (what a waste of time) when they’re not in school, that they have turned into zombie-bullies during their new leisure hours.

Provide the teachers with face shields, gloves, whatever it takes. I do pity them: it’s a tough job at the best of times, departments are being cut, and one teacher was fired last year for teaching English grammar in an English class. By all means, keep the students as ignorant as possible!  But at least keep them busy.

There are safety worries:  the Republicans in Washington object to the CDC guidelines for reopening the schools. (What?  Wear masks? An outrage!  Clean surfaces as often as possible?  Another outrage!) SAFETY LAST! is the new motto of my country.  And it is not the best idea to send students into a pestilence pot.   They’ll spread the virus.  

If the schools don’t have an adequate safety plan, my advice is:  hire a GED tutor to work with small groups.  That way, their diplomas will mean something.

Meanwhile, the universities–and let’s face it, that’s where the real education takes place–are still making plans.  Some universities will allow 40% of the students to live on campus,  but all will take their classes online.

It’s not the ideal situation, and I’m sorry for the students.  But this is what they can have until a vaccine is found.  

 Thank God I was infertile!  Overpopulation, pandemics, climate change…a tough world.  

And now, after lecturing, I will give you the peace sign.  You know what to do:  stay home, practice social distancing, wear a mask, and wash your hands.

Recommended Weekend Reading:  Martha McPhee’s “An Elegant Woman”

Martha McPhee’s fifth novel is a lyrical, elegant family saga, based partly on her own family history.  The narrator, Isadora, is a writer and novelist whose grandmother (Grammy) has recently died. Isadora, one of four sisters, is the only family member who is interested in the past.  She sifts  through a web of Grammy’s papers in a trunk to recereate her complex life. 

As a child, Grammy was known as  Tommy, an eccentric, boyish pioneer girl who once skinned coyotes in Montana but later stole her sister Katherine’s identity to apply to nursing school in New York, using Katherine’s high school diploma. (Tommy had dropped out of school and supported Katherine financially.).  Isabella tries to explore what is tangled truth and what is false in Grammy’s stories about scrambling up the ladder of class.

I love Isadora’s distant, graceful voice, but Tommy/Katherine outshines all of her descendants.  Her mother, Glenna, a suffragist and leftist,  deserts Tommy, age 6, and her younger sister Katherine on a train in the custody of a group of nuns and does not return.   Days later, the nuns find Glenna, but Glenna does many disappearing tricks during the girls’ childhood. She prefers politics and men to motherhood.  Tommy and Katherine often live alone, and Tommy raises Katherine, pushing her to do well in school, while she makes a living skinning and trading coyote skins.  Katherine decides to change her name to Patricia and move west to become a movie star.  And so Tommy becomes Katherine.  

The situation sounds melodramatic, but the cadences of McPhee’s poetic prose , the rugged fascination with the past, and her humor  make us believe in the importance of Katherine/Tommy’s family stories, even when they are false.

Isabella writes,

If Grammy was our version of Homer, I was Herodotus. I wanted to tell a history, but my allegiances were more toward providing a sense of character. My sisters, on the other hand, were straight-up historians in the mode and model of Thucydides. They required the documentation, the verification, the proof. They were fully possessed of the world’s cynicism, of the fact of realpolitik as the true measure of how things happen in human affairs. Long before she died, thus, they had stopped paying attention to Grammy’s tales. It fell to me, therefore, to be the keeper of the family stories, my inheritance from Grammy.

And, in case you’re interested, McPhee is the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee.

An enjoyable, gracefully-written novel.

Alone, Together: Joining the NYRB Classics Club

I have a shelf of unread NYRBs.  When you throw a party and an English professor wearing a bowtie, leather jacket, and owlish glasses pauses to admire  them, it is best not to admit absent-mindedly, “I haven’t read any of those.” 

A  friend whispered,  “For God’s sake, pretend.  He would!”

“Maybe I could say I’ve perused them?” I said thoughtfully.

One of my favorite NYRB books.

Mind you, I have enjoyed many NYRB classics and quasi-classics over the years, among them John Williams’s Augustus, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows,  Shchedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, and a new translation of Balzac’s The Memoirs of Two Young Wives. They have also reissued some of my favorite books by Dorothy Baker, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Kingsley Amis, and Jessica Mitford, all of which deserve to be in print.

On the far left is Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate” (photo from NYRB facebook page)

The unread NYRB shelf, however, is an entity unto itself.  It houses several grim Soviet tomes, which stare at me accusingly. I have begun most of them and put them down shuddering.  How is it possible for a lover of 19th-century Russian literature like myself (I have read War and Peace  perhaps 11 times) to dislike Soviet lit?   But I don’t find the same lyrical qualities of language in the Soviet novels.   As my husband says, the wonder is that they were able to write at all under those conditions, and we should not expect them to have written well.  The cranky Nabokov was also critical of Soviet literature.

The Soviet shelf reminds me of suffering and the seriousness of life.  Still, I have a hankering for other NYRBs, so I recently joined the NYRB Classics Book Club.  Why? One wonders. Perhaps it is a question of belonging.  We have all had enough of Zoom during the pandemic.  We have had enough of #Tolstoy. (I could only find the first day’s discussion and coudn’t decode the simplistic tweeted criticism, some of which may have been ads!)  We have had enough of noble book videos filmed from the confinement of apartments all over the world.  Somehow, I’m reminded of, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”  Princess Leia isn’t in any of my book clubs, alas.

Recently I have had blogging angst (too much bad news 24/7) so I have begun to dabble in book clubs.  I loved the May selection for the Barnes and Noble Book Club, Emma Straub’s All Adults Here, which is light and bubbly but also literary fiction.  I inadvertently read the Today Book Club selection for June, A Burning, because everybody is reading it this summer.  I do feel I’m keeping up with modern literature.

But the NYRB Classics Book Club is different from the book clubs described above.  It has a certain cachet.  The selection of the month arrived a few days ago:    I was overjoyed to find Diane Johnson’s 1972  biography, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives.  I am a great fan of Diane Johnson, and George Meredith is one of my favorite Victorians.  I’ve read all of Meredith’s fiction:  The Egoist and perhaps Diana of the Crossways are still in print, but I went so far in the days before the Kindle and the Nook as to purchase print-on-demand copies of the others.  Johnson wrote this biography of Meredith’s wife because she was tired of Meredith’s biographers’ pegging her as the unhappy wife. I did read a biography of Meredith sometime in the zips, and remember nothing about his wife, so she’s right.  Writers’ wives tend to be fascinating.   I loved a biography of Jane Walsh Carlyle, another underrated wife, but she was popular, because she wrote excellent letters.  

So are you joining book clubs this summer?  Quitting book clubs?  

I have about six books going right now and will finish one of them soon.  And then perhaps I’ll get back to my blog.  Something about this summer…  it’s depressing that human beings just can’t get it together and stay home during the Covid-19 pandemic.  And are we really abandoning WHO?  The UK has Brexit; we have Whosit.

I have book clubs!

A “Shortlist”: We Need Shorter Books!

In an amusing essay atThe Spectator, Boyd Tonkin recommends that we turn to shorter books.  He writes,

If I had a rouble or a euro for every reader who fulfilled their lockdown promise to devour Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Proust my bank account would hardly grow by a single penny. Duty, guilt and pride never made the pages turn more swiftly, whatever a book’s length. Almost all vows to catch up on doorstopper classics from the global canon will have failed to outlast the fallen blossoms. Yet you might more realistically blend discovery and delight by exploring some of the smaller miracles of great fiction in translation.

Do read his essay:  you’ll enjoy his take on Colette and Calvino, as well as others whose work you may not know.

And let me recommend four of my favorite  shorter novels. (I consider anything under 375 pages “shorter.”)

Carmen Laforet’s Nada (244 pages), translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, an autobiographical novel about a young woman in Barcelona in the 1940s.  This atmospheric coming-of-age novel, set in  post-Civil War Spain, is narrated by a college student who moves into her grandmother’s apartment in Barcelona.  The cramped apartment also houses the narrator’s controlling Catholic aunt, two uncles, both painters, and one of their wives, a gambler, all slowly starving in poverty.  Life is a struggle, though there are moments of humor.

Fans of Olivia Manning will enjoy her tightly-plotted novel The Rain Forest (352 pages)published in 1974, set on an island in the Indian Ocean. If you are a fan of Graham Greene or W. Somerset Maugham, you will not be able to put it down.  This hypnotic story of an expatriate couple living on a jasmine-scented island ruled by the British is a trenchant examination of colonialism and culture clash. 

The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier (352 pages). If you loved Rebecca, you’re bound to enjoy du Maurier’s lesser-known novel The Parasites,  an intriguing  portrait of an artistic family.  It begins with Charles, a country squire, calling his wife Maria, who is a famous actress, her brother Niall, a songwriter, and  sister Celia,  a writer, “parasites.” Are they or not?  The novel explores the question.

Doirs Langley Moore’s charming 1948 novel, Not at Home (300 pages),has recently been reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow.  It is brilliant, funny, and bingeable, with a likable spinster heroine and an utterly believable plot.  And you will be rooting for the polite heroine all the way, though her too good manners sometimes get in the way of life.  This novel is about landlady problems!

The heroine, Miss MacFarren, a middle-aged botanical writer, must rent out part of her London house because of post-war money problems.  And, because she is so polite, she takes her bossy friend Harriet’s advice and rents to Mrs. Antonia Bankes, a manipulative American who will agree to anything–and then go her own way.  Mrs. Bankes slowly takes over the house…  Fascinating, funny, and unputdownable!

I am a fan of some long, very long books, but we need to mix it up!

Reading William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!”

Faulkner statue in Oxford, Mississippi

To my knowledge, nobody has toppled the William Faulkner statue in Oxford, Mississippi, but residents, including Faulkner’s nephew, protested in 1997 when the Mayor ordered a magnolia tree to be cut down and replaced by the  statue. But there is certainly much in his grotesque, gorgeously-written novels to offend ultra-sensitive people.  In the comically grotesque short novel, As I Lay Dying,  Addie Bundren’s coffin falls off a wagon into a river. There is a one-sentence chapter:  “My mother is a fish.”  In The Hamlet, a mentally retarded man has an affair with a cow.  I stopped reading at that point.

Many of Faulkner’s  characters are poor white trash, like the unforgettable Snopeses, whom I sometimes wish I could forget, or the crafty, intelligent, immoral poor white, Thomas Sutpen, one of the main characters in Absalom, Absalom!, a man who claws his way to the top.  And of course the white characters of the Old South use the “n” word.

On this Fourth of July, I am reading Absalom, Absalom!, a  shocking but lyrical and brutal novel in which, as usual, Faulkner plays with narrative and point-of-view.   A wan old spinster, Miss Rosa, summons Quentin Compson, a young man about to go to Harvard, and recounts her grotesque family history. Then his father tells Quentin more of the grisly details.   Miss Rosa’s family is essentially destroyed by Thomas Sutpen, an ambitious outsider who arrives in Mississippi, builds a mansion with funds gotten who knows where, and then marries Miss Rosa’s older sister, Ellen, who is very keen until she gets to know him, and eventually takes to her bed and dies. Miss Rosa is left to look after her niece, Judith, who is older than she is. And her nephew, Henry, ruins Judith’s life.  The cycle never ends.

I was admiring it, and then I got to a 50-page section in Italics–and the print was almost too small for me to read.

I do hate Italics, if they go on for more than a paragraph. And did the Italics  really have to be that small?  I soldiered on.

I need new glasses. But really, why so small?

My Covid-19 Summer: Reading Historical Novels

The Summer of Covid-19

It is not exactly that I am depressed. It is more that the world is in crisis.  The long game:  we wash our hands, wear masks in public, and stay home as much as possible.  Dr. Anthony Fauci says that a vaccine is unlikely to be more than 75% effective, and may not develop herd immunity in the U.S. because of anti-authoritarianism and the anti-vaccine movement.  And that’s where I’m living: in a country in denial.

I  am not depressed, but allowed myself a Doris Lessing-style mini-breakdown (see The Summer Before the Dark and The Four-Gated City), which took the form of not washing my hair, wearing pajamas, meditating, and treating myself to historical novels. There are so many good historical novels out there–and I’ve been missing out!


In progress:   Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, The Book of Longings.

Sue Monk Kidd is a well-respected writer, best known for her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. I got hooked on her second novel, The Mermaid Chair, the story of a mother-daughter relationship and the middle-aged daughter’s coming to terms with the past.

Kidd’s style is simple and spare, characterized by short sentences. Her intelligence and skilled storytelling make her novels a delight.   I don’t want to do anything at the moment but read her new novel, The Book of Longings, set in the first century A.D., during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius.

I have a weakness for novels set in ancient times, and I am thoroughly enjoying this one.  The fiery heroine, Ana, a young Jewish woman in Sephoris in Galilee, lives in unusual times.  And, though rich, she marries a poor man.  There it is, right on the jacket copy: Ana marries  Jesus. Yes, that Jesus!  If I had written the jacket copy, I would consider that a spoiler.  She doesn’t actually marry him until page 144.

Instead, we meet her as a rebellious, studious girl, the daughter of one of the top advisers of Herod Antipas (King Herod in the Bible). And her brother is Judas, a Zionist and an agitator.

The narrator, Ana, is a writer and a scholar.  Her father, an advisor of Herod Antipas (a ruler of Galilee and Perea), teases her that she should have been a boy when she asks him to hire a tutor to teach her languages. And so she becomes a scholar:  she is writing her own account of women in the Bible. Her mother disapproves, but Yaltha, her radical aunt, gives her the support she needs.

Monk deals with many women’s issues in ancient Galilee: women are threatened with rape, mutilated for speaking out (one poor girl has her tongue cut out),  and betrothed to men they don’t want to marry. Ana runs away when her father wants her to become Herod’s concubine; she filches the ivory tablets they tried to bribe her with, telling them it is her gift.  At the market, when Herod’s servant catches her with the ivory, Jesus saves her not only from being stoned , but says he and Ana are about to be betrothed. It’s an odd concept, the marriage of Jesus, one you’ve probably heard of and wondered about. Kidd’s research is meticulous, and though she is writing fiction, the characters are brilliantly-depicted and the details of life in the ancient world are mostly accurate.  Ana is more than a wife:  she is a writer and uses birth control because she is not interested in motherhood.

Entertaining and meticulously researched. It gets better as it goes along.  An enjoyable read, if not great literature.

I also enjoyed Crystal King’s entertaining novel, Feast of Sorrows, set in ancient Rome. I wrote in my book journal:  Set in ancient Rome in the first century A.D., it is narrated by the slave Thrassius, who is the gourmet cook (coquus) for the household of Apicius, a Roman gourmet after whom an actual Roman cookbook was named.  In King’s  novel, Thrassius is the author of the cookbook, though  Apicius takes credit for it.  It is great fun to read about the dinners (cenae), but there are also fascinating political intrigues and feuds. The pages fly.

Now I want to read her second novel, The Chef’s Secret, which sounds similar, except for the setting. The book jacket says: ” A captivating novel of Renaissance Italy detailing the mysterious life of Bartolomeo Scappi, the legendary chef to several popes and author of one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time, and the nephew who sets out to discover his late uncle’s secrets—including the identity of the noblewoman Bartolomeo loved until he died.”

And what historical novels have you been reading? I’m washing my hair again, but I’m still reading historical novels!

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