Reading through Burn-out: A Retreat into World War II Women’s Fiction

Blogger burn-out is a strange concept. Writing a blog is a voluntary activity, done for the love of writing, or perhaps for self-promotion or sales. It can be an escape from the real world, which is a fairly horrible place at the moment. Blogging is usually a personal choice.

And yet I suffer from blogger burn-out, intensified by the serious burn-out known as Covid fatigue.

Because of my two major burn-outs, I have retreated abruptly into English women’s fiction. It takes me far away from my own troubles, though I am a bit surprised to find myself suddenly in the late 1930’s and ‘early 40’s. Everything I read is set in England during World War II.

Over Thanksgiving, always a good time for light reading, I became absorbed in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazelet Chronicles. Then I picked up a copy of Angela Thirkell’s 1942 novel Marling Hall (one of her Barsetshire novels) to complement the reading of Howard. The genres and styles are very different, but they treat many of the same issues. There are, however, so many characters to keep straight. Fortunately The Cazelet Chronicles has a family tree in the front of the book, but I would love one for the Thirkell, too.

I certainly wish I had this copy!

Mary consider Howard’s Chronicles a literary masterpiece, though I view these books mainly as an engrossing, beautifully-written family saga. Thirkell’s light, comical novels are unique, perhaps best compared with E. F. Benson’s, though her characters are, in my opinion, more fully developed. But tell me, Thirkell fans, about David Leslie, who I suspect will marry Lettice by the end of Marling Hall. Was he in love with Mrs. Brandon in The Brandons? Or was that someone else? It has been a while since I’ve read Thirkell!

Then I decided to watch the movie Mrs. Miniver. Such a great World War II movie, on the domestic front! There was much crying her over the death of one of the characters. But now I have mixed up some of the events in Mrs. Miniver (the movie, not the book) with the Cazelets and Marlings! So do you suppose I will read Mrs. Miniver next?

My coy seems to have been marketed to romance readers! The cover has nothing to do with the content.

My husband looks askance at these charming women’s books, and assumes they are trash because of the covers. I assure him that COVERS LIE (especially the Thirkell). It isn’t even the right period!

Alas, he will never read them. I did get him to read a Thirkell once, and he disliked it. I doubt he will read the Cazelets. So it goes: men and women are different.

My copy of this Cazelet cover is also marketed to women readers

The Sophisticated Groupie and, Yes, It WAS Vintage Chanel!

I have not attended a reading lately, nor have you. That is, unless it is virtual. The pandemic has stolen the real-life pleasure of the reading.

But is it a pleasure?

I would say, “Yes,” unless you have to organize the event. Poor PR people! There are late planes to be met, no water pitcher, charming writers who want company while your spouse or escort just wants to go home, a plate of spaghetti dropped by the waitress on the writer, a writer who insists on having her hair done at a salon in town before doing the reading, and a moody poet who claims dramatically in print that she was sexually harassed by the gay bookstore owner who drove her to the airport. Oh, dear, there had to be a misunderstanding. We all had the giggles about that.

Sternly: “Did you admire her dress and touch the fabric?”

Bookstore owner: “Yes, but it was vintage Chanel!”

All right, but what if you are NOT organizing the event? Ah, then you can relax and enjoy yourself. Over the years, we have attended readings by Joy Williams, Tobias Wolff, Rosellen Brown, Amy Stewart (author of a fascinating book on earthworms and a mystery series), Amy Hempel, and Sherman Alexie.

Now is there etiquette at readings? Well, sort of. If you are a man, anything goes. Swill beer, don’t comb your hair. It’s fine. If you are a woman, you will seem more “reading-ly” if your hair is long. And “reading-ly” women often favor black or gray turtleneck sweaters with jeans and boots (except in summer). Of course there are plenty of “reading-ly” white-haired women, but perhaps a discreet dye job… I’m just saying.

No, I’m joking!

The biggest problem is: your reading buddy (friend or husband) may have a Ph.D. in English but has never been so bored in his life as he is at these readings. He has read none of the author’s books, refuses to buy one, and can hardly bear to wait while you stand in line to get an autograph. ‘We’re missing ‘Westworld.’ Let’s go!”

Well, he has a point!

And touring must he horrible for the writer. One writer was so grateful I’d read her work that she invited me to coffee. She confided that hardly anybody bought her books. But I really did have to go home. I’m sure somebody else entertained her.

Don’t bother to get autographs from the male writers if you’re of a Certain Age, because they will think, however unlikely, that you are hitting on them. What they don’t realize is your mind is on getting back to Assisted Living in time for Movie Night! (Okay, I know about that from mother.)

So how can virtual readings be as much fun as this?

It’s hard to imagine!

How Very, Very Few Books I’ve Read on the Best Books of the Year Lists

Is she reading one of the best books of the year?

Like every reader, I am enthralled by Christmas Book Gift Guides. Every year I peruse the Best Books of the Year lists in multiple publications. Do I agree with the critics? Well, my reading seldom coincides with theirs, so it is hard to say.

Before I announce my hilarious Best Book List reading stats, let me recommend three books I loved that are on none of the lists!

The Story of Stanley Brent, by Elizabeth Berridge (I wrote about it here)

It Is Wood, It Is Stone, by Gabriela Burnham (here)

Interlibrary Loan, by Gene Wolfe (here)

And Now for My Personal Stats: HOW MANY BOOKS DID I READ ON TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR LISTS?

I read ONE of the New York Times 100 Notable Books. Pitiful! I expected to have read more. The book is A Burning by Megha Majumda, which I predicted would win the Booker or the National Book Award. I was wrong.

This appears on multiple lists.

I read ZERO of The Guardian Best Books of the Year. Pathetic. How could I have neglected to read the best books on this splendid book page?

I read ZERO in the Washington Post Top 10, but FIVE in their Notable 50. I give myself many, many points for this. I read: Actress by Anne Enright, All Adults Here by Emma Straub, A Burning by Megha Majumda, Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford, and The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. I also blogged about these books, but am tired of linking.

I read TWO at The TLS Best. Lydia Davis did not recommend new books, but wrote that she is ” looking forward to Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, followed probably by Cather’s The Professor’s House…” Good taste, Lydia.

I read TWO at the BBC Best, which means the BBC and I have something in common. I loved Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler and Actress by Anne Enright. I predicted–wrongly–that the latter would win some awards.

I read ONE of the Best Fiction Books of 2020 Time. A Burning by Megha Majumda. Yes, again!

I read ZERO at NPR’s Favorite Books of 2020, of 2,500 titles picked by staff and “trusted critics.” Pathetic! How could I not have read one of those?

I read ONE at Bustle’s Best Books of 2020. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas . Not a personal favorite, but Bustle is a Millennial publication, and this novel has a Y.A. style,

I read ONE at Parade. All Adults Here by Emma Straub (one of my favorites of the year).

I read ZERO at Town and Country. No surprise there!

I have read eight! And yet I read so many books…

Do you read Best Books Lists? With reverence, amusement, or excitement? Are they useful?

I can’t wait to hear!

Notes on an Unputdownable Book: “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak

This month I decided to reread the Nobel Prize-winner Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, surely one of the most breathtaking Russian novels of the twentieth century. Such a gorgeous book! I was enraptured by the lyrical language, the romance between soulmates Yuri and Lara, the detailed descriptions of family life in Moscow and small towns, and the tragic descriptions of war and the splintering of revolutionary politics.

I have a long history with Doctor Zhivago. David Lean’s gorgeous film, starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, was my introduction. I am still haunted by “the ice palace” scene, where Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) and Lara (Christie) take refuge in a deserted house at Varykino, which is filled with snow and stalactites and stalagmites (actually frozen beeswax). And–don’t ask!–of course I had a “Lara’s theme” music box.

But it was years before I got around to the the novel. Somehow the cover of the Signet movie-tie-in put me off. I finally read this tattered paperback in the ’90s, during a blizzard. Honestly, I was not that impressed.

I didn’t really fall in love with Zhivago until I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky in 2010. Some critics praised it, others reviled it. I remember an indignant essay in The Guardian by Pasternak’s niece, Ann Pasternak Slater, who felt they had ruined the book. The Pevear-Volokhonsky backlash seems more extensive in the UK, but they do get people’s backs up. Janet Malcolm hated their Anna Karenina.

The Soviet-banned Doctor Zhivago was first published in Italy in 1957. The Italian edition was translated into English by Manya Harari and Max Hayward in haste after Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in 1958.  

The translations are very different. Here’s Yuri’s observation of a foul day in autumn (Pevear-Volokhonsky).

“The rain poured down most disconsolately, not intensifying and not letting up, despite the fury of the wind, which seemed aggravated by the imperturbability of the water being dashed on the earth. Gusts of wind tore at the shoots of the wild grape vine that twined around one of the terraces.  The wind seemed to want to tear up the whole plant, raised it into the air, shook it about, and threw it down disdainfully like a tattered rug.”

Here is the same passage in the Harari-Hayward translation:

“The rain poured with a dreary steadiness, neither hurrying nor slowing down for all the fury of the wind, which seemed enraged by the indifference of the water and shook the creeper on one of the houses as if meaning to tear it up by the room, swinging it up into the air, and dropping it in disgust like a torn rag.”

I love this book so much!

By the way, there is a new translation by Boris Pasternak’s nephew, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, commissioned by Folio Society ($125). It looks lovely at the website.