The Solemn Reader: Cheating on Your Reading List

This weekend I cheated. It is a shocking event, and I regret it.   I CHEATED ON MY READING PLAN.

Those of you who rely on spreadsheets to tell you what to do will consider me weak-minded.  Those of you who are twenty-first-century bohemians will wonder why anyone would make a plan at all.  

Perhaps you’ve been there.  You have a new hardcover planner.  You LOVE making checklists.  You see nothing peculiar in deciding to read  Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thackeray’s The Newcomes, and Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:  A Journey through Yugoslavia in the same month.  I believed I could read all three.  Then my husband pointed out the project had 3,000 pages.

It was getting to be kind of a drag.  Three such serious books.  All great…and yet.  So serious (except for Thackeray, who has a great sense of humor).   I adore Anna Karenina (964 pages), which I’ve read many times.  All finished!  Soon, soon I will get back to the others.

At first I cheated on them with relatively short books. I didn’t care much for Jeanine Cummins’s new novel American Dirt, which was not as short as I wished (400 pages), but it was fast.  Then I galloped through Patrick Dennis’s 1962 comic novel, Genius, which was lots of fun and only  300 pages.  And now I’m planning something even shorter–a Barbara Pym. 

I must say, cheating on my plan has been a blast. But I cannot believe my hero, George Eliot, would have cheated on a READING plan.  Jane Austen, maybe.  Pamela Hansford Johnson, definitely.  She breezily read (or skimmed) five or six review copies in day and then hurriedly scribbled the reviews.  Shocking!  But she was such a good writer. 

I WILL get back on track. 

In this age we need so many checklists and plans. I’m always reading about plans and checklists.   Honestly, it starts to feel almost RIGHT-WING!  Now I’m back to my pragmatic self: reality.  God knows how many pages I have already read this month!   I will return to the  charming Thackeray (880 pages), but will postpone the Rebecca West (1,181 pages).  I have learned that I have little interest in the Balkans.  


Winter Weekend:  Books, Coffee, & Podcasts

“Come on in,”  I yell, trusting it is not a political canvasser.

The door bangs in the wind, reputed to be blowing at 46 miles per hour.  A many-layered quasi-human creature, looking twice her size in a puffy down parka recommended by Oprah, stomps in and curses the book that falls on her foot.

No need for formality. It’s my cousin, Megan the librarian, who staggers in with 2 Starbucks coffees, a box of chocolates, a bottle of whisky, and  an ARC of the new Donna Leon. Her furnace has broken down, so she’s temporarily living in the mud room.

“Did you bring more blankets?”

She turns up the thermostat.  “There’s your answer.”

Although she is not exactly company, we’re not soulmates.  We politely played cards, but now we’re in family mode, i.e., ignoring each other. The plan:  drink  Irish coffee, read light books,  and then listen to podcasts.  Then sleep for 12 hours or so.  Then repeat.



PATRICK DENNIS’S Genius (1962).  Although Patrick Dennis is best-known for Auntie Mame, a witty novel made into a hilarious movie with Rosalind Russell, his  novel Genius is even funnier.  In fact, it’s so funny it’s really a humor book.

The narrator is the crusty, witty author himself, wintering in Mexico with his wife, also a writer, who is referred to as “my wife.”  They inhabit a huge, eccentrically furnished apartment, which is located in a former convent, in “one of those bogus Spanish colonial establishments in Lumas, where all good revolutionary generals and their mistresses go to retire.”

There are many eccentric characters at Casa Ximenez, including the proprietor, Catalina Ximinez, a middle-aged ex-movie star known for her starring role as an Indian deaf-mute in the art film, Yucatan Girl.   And, coincidentally, the washed-up director of Yucatan Girl,  Leander Starr, also lives there, supported by his starstruck manservant.  Starr cannot return to the U.S., because he is indigent and is on the run from the IRS and his ex-wives.  Anyway, the goofy set-up leads to the making of another art film, co-written by Starr and Patrick. Lots of high-jinks!

Patrick also spends two pages, with footnotes, satirizing the commercial fiction in women’s magazines.  He keeps procrastinating his writing.

It was a light, frothy piece for a famous women’s service magazine that will buy any piece of fiction, no matter how bad, as long as it’s wholesome and the author’s name is sufficiently well-known to beef up the front cover.  They have a something-for-everyone formula that is one hundred percent foolproof.  While the ladies in the fiction department put away about a quart of gin apiece at lunch before dashing off to their analysts, the stories they insist on printing are simon pure….  In the nonfiction department, however, anything goes, and the closer to pornography the better.

He gives examples of such titles as “Syphilis in Our Nursery Schools,” “Is Your Daughter a Teen-age Prostitute?”, and “The Orgasm and You.” 

I think I’ve read some of those!

ALSO ON THE READING LIST are the “Shouts and Murmurs” humor pieces in our neglected New Yorkers, Cornelia Otis Skinner’s humor book, Nuts in May, E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady books, and the new Donna Leon.

Here’s a RECIPE FOR IRISH COFFEE at the Food Network.

Here’s our favorite PODCAST,  Tea and Tattle.

Should We Believe Surveys? The Decline of Reading

Reading is in a decline, according to a survey by Pew Research. The NEA and Gallup polls have done similar surveys with the same results.  I am reluctant to believe them, because I know so many bookish people.  That said, the findings fit the dystopian gloom of the country.

Over the years I’ve known many ardent readers, but even more non-readers.  In my experience, few people continue to read after college.  The average English graduate immerses himself/herself in celebrity biographies and pop psychology, which I don’t call “reading.” And then on the opposite track are the brilliant writers who rarely read except for work.

If you’re reading this, you probably love reading.  You are unlikely otherwise to make your way to Thornfield Hall, the manse of Mr. Rochester. If it’s been a while since you’ve read Jane Eyre, let me refresh your memory: Jane, a plain but exceptionally witty governess, fell in love with the Byronic hero, Mr.  Rochester, who, it turned out, kept a mad wife in the attic.  He liked to compartmentalize his women.

It was indeed very Gothic at Thornfield Hall.  

Why do we women readers love Gothics so much?

We all know reading can be a thorny path. Non-readers misunderstand readers, especially us novel readers, because they consider us idle.  Why don’t you get some fresh air?  (Where is this fresh air, I often wonder.)   Or, in a brutal relative’s words, “You’re a non-participant in life.” Now that was a blow.

Ah, the fresh air fiends.  Sitting on the lawn looking at their phones.  That’s magic, isn’t it?  And then there are the lawn mowers, the chainsaw wielders, the leaf blowers, etc.  The air is polluted.

Mind you, I spend a lot of time outdoors, though I always take a book along. I used to ride my bike 20-30 miles every weekend with my husband.   One summer I lolled on benches during our breaks reading Constance Garnett’s translations of Turgenev on my Sony Reader. On a 90-degree day, I sat grouchily on a trail, reading Rudin and refusing to go on until my husband fetched Gatorade and power bars from a convenience store.  These days, I take shorter rides with him, because I got tired of the filthy porta-potties along the way!  

Dear Reader, I married a reader.For a short time, we  even had a lunchtime book club. We alternated reading Joseph Conrad and Edith Wharton. 

And  recently we divvied up the 2019 Booker Prize winners: he thought Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was just okay; I considered parts of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments brilliant, but I’m going to pass on whether it deserved the prize,  since I didn’t reread The Handmaid’s Tale first.

And so reading is in a decline…or not.  Surveys have a lot to tell us, but they may not be 100% true. In reading, women seem to have an advantage over men.  According to Pew Research in 2019, women read more books than men. “The average woman read 14 books in the past 12 months, compared with the nine books read by the average man, a statistically significant difference. The median number of books read by women was five, compared with a median of three for men, which was not statistically significant.”

I guess that’s one up for us women, isn’t it?  

It’s only a survey.

As Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

A Migrant Journey: “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins

Sometimes I dread writing about a hyped new novel. It often turns out to be not my kind of thing.  I politely scribble, “An excellent read, but not quite for me.”

Jeanine Cummins’s  American Dirt, a fast-paced, issue-oriented new novel, has been hyperbolically promoted, almost to the point of hysteria.  It is a heart-rending book, but in terms of style unmemorable.  I call it the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of migrant-journey fiction.  

Though I have reservations about the style, it is an emotional read. Cummins breathtakingly chronicles the flight of sympathetic heroine Lydia, a bookstore owner, after her journalist husband and fifteen family members are massacred by a cartel in Acapulco.  Lydia hopes she and her eight-year-old son Luca can make it to the border, where they will hire a coyote (guide) to help them cross illegally into the U.S.  They are on the cartel hit list because Lydia’s husband wrote an article revealing the identity of the cartel leader.

Though well-researched and well-written, the book has a hint of Y.A. didacticism. 

A syrupy headline of a review at The New York Times declares:  “Writing about the border crisis, hoping to break down walls.”

And take a look at these dramatic blurbs.

Ann Patchett:  “I couldn’t put it down. I’ll never stop thinking about it.” (Never? And now I remember how self-serving and insincere Patchett always seems.)

Stephen King:  “Extraordinary.”

John Grisham:  “It’s been a long time since I turned pages as fast as I did with American Dirt.”

For most of us, the issue of illegal immigration is distant, but for Cummins, the wife of a former undocumented immigrant, it is terrifyingly real.  She details  the grueling conditions of migrants from Mexico, and the high probability of injury, capture by Immigration agents, or death along the way.  Lydia has the money to fly from Mexico City, but her son doesn’t have a passport. They must go by foot and by train, running alongside the train, hopping onto the rungs of the ladder, and then climbing on top for the trip.  

On their journey, they make friends, but there are also criminals and undercover cartel members. It is a terrifying journey:  they must even be alert in the churches that give shelter, because they never know who’s in the next room.

Some of you will like this book,  others will love it.  Some, like me, will be lukewarm. It is a good read, if you like issue novels.  

Musing on the Classics & the Mystery of the Lapsed Subscription

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Then you’ll have to wear mine.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whom Do You Prefer? The Greeks or the Romans?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The translation of Sallust above is my own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this excerpt from an EPA article says the following:

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

• benzene,

• formaldehyde,

• acrolein, and

• polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

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

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

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