Unmask Thyself! & A Summer Reading Project

The CDC has issued an Unmask Thyself mandate. We the Vaccinated are encouraged to go wherever we want, indoors and outdoors, without masks. We are relieved to have “vaccine privileges,” and hope this summer will be less confrontational than last. But the truth is we’re a little confused: we don’t feel entirely comfortable without masks in stores. And we LOVE social distancing – the perfect excuse for rudeness. But perhaps more people will get vaccinated when they see there is a reason for it: freedom.

And should we decide to attend a superspreader oldies concert featuring The Turtles, the Association, the Cowsills, Mark Lindsay, Chuck Negron, and The Vogues, we need not worry about “unvaccinated spit” mingling with ours and contaminating us. That will be their problem!

SUMMER IS COMING UP FAST. What is your summer reading project? Of course you’re doing the 20 Books of Summer! I am doing the Two Books of Summer.

Last year it was Dumas’s The Vicomte of Bragelonne, one of the d’Artagnan Romances, which I moderately enjoyed before losing the book. Well, I found it again, and since one plot element does not necessarily lead to the next in this rambling historical novel, I shall happily start on the bookmarked page, 300something. The Oxford edition has a detailed historical character list and excellent notes. I rely on it for background.

I also intend to pick up Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil for the fifth or sixth time. Is it actually a classic? It certainly isn’t “pop.” Virgil is sick and dying, he arrives at Brundisium and is carried on a litter through the city, and he ogles a boy. That is the first hundred pages. For four or five summers, I tried again and quit again on page 100. This year I have decided to start on page 100. My husband is keeping The Death of Virgil on a special shelf, so I will not have the “opportunity” to lose the book. Perhaps one hundred pages a summer?

Tell me your summer plans. I’m begging you! The 20 Books of Summer – and what else?

Lynn Steger Strong’s “Want”: The Adjunct Economy

Have you ever worked as an adjunct? These part-time teaching jobs can be satisfying. But sometimes you find yourself teaching subjects that are not one-size-fit-all, like remedial English composition, quite often for a challenging population, a mix of refugees from war zones and middle-aged moms, many with a dicey knowledge of reading and writing – and some literally do not speak English. So if you have a master’s or Ph.D. in English, comparative literature, anthropology, linguistics or theater, prepare to improvise.

After reading a review in The Nation of two novels about adjuncts, I picked up a copy of Lynn Steger Strong’s stunning novel, Want. It deals with two kinds of want: poverty and the want of love. What happens to people who opt out of the system to work at untraditional jobs? This novel is about the economy.

The narrator, Elizabeth, is a quiet, likable 34-year-old teacher in New York, with a Ph.D. in English, two children. and a lovable husband who left his career to become a carpenter. Her rich parents give them no money – and she doesn’t want to take it, because they are such assholes. (They threaten occasionally to take away her children.)

Elizabeth holds the family together: she teaches one English class for graduate students as a university adjunct, and is also a full-time teacher at a charter school where the impoverished Black students are underserved. I’ve got to hand it to Elizabeth: she hates the high school job, but manages to make an impression on her students. The principal, however, finds Shakespeare irrelevant. Instead of inspiring students to discuss Hamlet, she is supposed to do “test prep.” And so she is transferred to teach seniors, who have already taken all their tests, because the principal says she isn’t trained in test prep. And so she loses the class she has spent almost a year with. She starts skipping out early.

Fortunately, her home life is congenial. She and her husband are very affectionate and have two happy, well-adjusted children. But Elizabeth is so tense she gets up at five in the morning and goes running for fifteen miles (or at least that is the number that stuck in my mind).

And their money is running out. What can they do? They file bankruptcy, but that is still not enough. Her husband is buried under student debt. Should they leave Brooklyn? Their building in Brooklyn is going condo and they can’t afford to buy. Privately, I kept thinking: they could live in relative splendor on much less elsewhere! But they feel that their only other option would be to live on a farm in Maine owned by her husband’s parents, where they would be snowbound three or four months a year.

This novel is mostly about the economy, but parts are also devoted to her quasi-sexual love for her best friend, Sasha, who lived near her when she grew up in Florida. These women were so close that one summer they lived together and went out every night to read their books at a bar, where beautiful Sasha meets various men and goes home with them. Elizabeth is jealous – she is so close to Sasha that she wants her to mock the men and go back to the apartment with her. But Sasha falls apart, has a mental breakdown after she falls in love with a man who doesn’t want her, and never seems to recover after a baby she wants dies in her womb. Elizabeth realizes that Sasha’s beauty doesn’t save her -that Sasha wants everyone to love her. And Elizabeth is too exhausted to continue the friendship. But she wistfully stalks her on Instagram, which Sasha never updates.

This is an intelligent literary page-turner, which I read in a couple of sittings. I won’t tell you the decisions Elizabeth makes, except to say they are unexpected. And one wonders, not for the first time, why doing a job well and drawing on your deep knowledge can make you so poor.

Two Depressing Novels: Dima Wannous’ “The Frightened Ones” & Doris Lessing’s “The Diary of a Good Neighbour”

I cannot identify my favorite critics: I barely seem to register their names. That astounds me, and yet it must be common for those who read many book reviews.

For instance, The New York Review of Books recently published a review of Dima Wannous’ The Frightened Ones, a short, tragic Syrian novel which I would not otherwise have heard of – and yet I did not look at the name of the reviewer. In this delicate novel, two damaged people who have survived the Syrian revolution meet in a psychiatrist’s office. The sullen Naseem, a brooding writer who ought to have a DANGER warning on his lapel, wordlessly invites Suleima, a shy 40-year-old woman, out for drinks. Between drinks, they slice pills and pop them: these are prescription pills, not the recreational drugs of Bright Lights, Big City.

Identity becomes an urgent question for Suleima when she is unable to find Naseem’s books in a bookstore. He publishes under a pseudonym; his books are everywhere. He decides to leave Syria and gives her an unfinished manuscript of a novel – which is about her! If you’re depressed, like Suleima, you will soon descend into hell (and she’s already been there). In alternate chapters, we read Suleima’s narrative and Naseem’s book about her. The weight of history, her own, Naseem’s, and the country’s, is almost unbearable… And the two stories intertwine and get mixed up.

And so should I thank the critic, Lydia Wilson, a Research Associate at the Computer Laboratory and in Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge and a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford? (I looked her up.) It is a tribute to her that I read The Frightened Ones, but I must stress that I was not the ideal reader.

Then, as if I were not depressed enough, I picked up Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbour. This smart, realistic novel is one of two she published under the pseudonym Jane Somers. It was an experiment: she wanted to see whether critics recognized her style without her name brand (they did not) and what reception they would give a “new” writer.

Lessing writes, “One of my aims has more than succeeded. It seems I am like Barbara Pym! The books are fastidious, well-written, well-crafted. Unsparing, unsentimental and deeply felt. Funny, too. On the other hand they are sentimental, and mawkish. Mere soap opera. Trendy.”

Lessing’s books are always remarkable, whether under her brand or not. So should I trust the critics? Apparently not!

Let me stress that I did not remember The Diary of a Good Neighbour was depressing until I embarked on it this week. It wasn’t depressing when I was younger! The Diary deals with the problems of old age, which became grim and apparent to me during my mother’s illnesses and at the end of her life. Lessing’s heroine, Janna, is a middle aged, glamorous assistant editor of a women’s magazine. Her husband died, and she regrets she never really tried to talk to him. She keeps her relationships superficial. She did not take care of her mother or grandmother when they were dying: that task was her sister’s. Janna’s whole life is work.

By chance at the drugstore one night, she meets 90-year-old Maudie Fowler, a bent-over witch-like woman whose nose practically hooks down to her chin. Maudie wants aspirin, rather than the prescription pills that “deaden” her, and charming Janna expedites the transaction. Then Janna accompanies Maudie home to her rent-controlled basement flat – which is filthy, cold, and has treacherous old electric fixtures, a coal fire, and an outdoor lavatory.

Maudie refuses to go to a nursing home, or to welcome volunteers called “Good Neighbors.” Doing good has fallen into Janna’s hands. She brings groceries, calls an electrician, buys her new underwear, nad chats for hours to Maudie. Both women genuinely enjoy their conversation, but when Janna returns home, she spends hours washing the terrible smell off her body and clothes. Maudie’s flat reeks of urine, unwashed clothes, and worse. And yet Janna is now responsible for her.

Perhaps what interests me most this time round is Janna’s personal experiences. When her only friend, Joyce, the editor of the magazine, decides to follow her unfaithful husband to America, Janna understands that she has unwittingly been part of Joyce’s marriage for years: without Janna at the office, Joyce would never have had the flexible hours to work at home , save her marriage (though it is very bad), and raise her (horrible) two children. The loss of Joyce is more terrible for Janna than was her husband’s death. Poor Janna grieves.

I look forward to moving on to Jane Somers’s more cheerful second book, If the Old Could, in which Jane falls in love. Love is more sprightly somehow, though this is not a happy book, either.

But it’s Lessing. I mean Jane Somers! And so I must read it.

Do you ever come upon a book that is almost too depressing to read? This seldom happens to me, but when it does…

The Book Binge Conundrum: What Drives Us to Excess?

The twenty-first century is, well, different. So many books are available online – more than we could find at any physical bookstore. Now I have access to all of Thomas Hardy’s books, including The Dynasts: An Epic Drama of the War with Napoleon (a verse drama). Yes, the faded old hardcover copy sits on my shelf, very dingy and uninviting. My husband says, “You are never going to read that.” He is right, but I can’t weed it, either. I have read the rest of Thomas Hardy.

The question is: when did I decide I must read the complete works of favorite writers – even their worst? In general, it used to take a long time to find all their books. One read an author’s complete oeuvre over several months or years. Of course, I did binge on Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest series. And over a period of years, I have read all of Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, the Brontes, Cyril Hare, Ngaio Marsh, Ovid, Margaret Drabble, Marge Piercy, and Penelope Fitzgerald – and most, if not all, of multitudes of other beloved writers.

My fanciful theory: our brains clicked into binge mode at the beginning of the new millennium. The speed of Wifi gave us the capacity to trawl the internet faster and faster, and discover more books than ever. One friend at a small online provider wished publishers would take a year off from publishing so she could catch up! And then after we got Wifi, we found out about even MORE books. Too many, really.

Is this internet bounty the fount of bingeing? Today the word “binge” dominates popular culture. Books, films, and TV are lauded as “bingeable” or “binge-worthy.”

In 2016, NPR ran a three-part series, “Read, Watch, Binge!” In 2019 at Mashable, Chris Taylor wittily related his experience of binge-reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy in 24 hours (“Lord of the Binge”). This is a common kind of internet whimsy. Naturally, I read with fascination, because I wanted to know how he kept awake.

At The New York Times in 2005, Julie Salamon wrote an excellent article about rediscovering Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd novels. (Dragon’s Teeth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943). She had loved the series as a child, as had her mother, and in 2005 reread all 10 books over a period of several months. She inspired me to read them (not all ten, though). And Salamon’s rediscovery of the books was not a 24-hour binge; it was a labor of love, without a quick deadline.

At Goodreads, blogs, and other social media, avid readers plan the future. The groups list the books they plan to read months in advance. This isn’t my way, but in 2016, after Anita Brookner’s death, I decided to reread all her books. I perused four or five before realizing this is probably not the way we’re meant to read her. I admire her art and style, but best to space the books out. By all means, binge if you want to, though.

Are You an Influencer? The Kim Kardashians of Book Reviewers

I did not know who celebrity influencer Kim Kardashian was until I read the Style section of The New York Times this weekend. It seems that everything she wears or uses, from Barefoot Dreams blankets ($180) to Spanx shapewear, is sought by her excitable fans. I, too, wanted the soft-as-silk Barefoot Dreams blanket, until I realized it is just polyester!

And so I began to wonder: who are the Book Influencers? In addition to celebrity influencers Jenna Bush and Rhys Witherspoon, bibliophiles and amateur reviewers have a loud voice.

In my case, professional critics still have the most influence. Hence, I am reading a disturbing Syrian novel by Dima Wannous, The Frightened Ones, about two damaged people who meet at a psychiatrist’s office. This beautifully-written, spare novel about living in hell during the Syrian revolution is so depressing I mete out only a few pages a day. I do recommend it, but I will not review it.

The age of criticism is dead, or so they say, and certainly critics vie for assignments of fewer reviews squashed into a reduced number of pages. Perhaps blogs, Bookstagram, and Booktube have a greater influence on readers these days, though it may be a question of the kind of reader.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I loved the raw enthusiasm of blogging: my personal blogosphere was one big tea party of courteous postings on Monica Dickens’ One Pair of Hands and E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady books. Bloggers filled a gap: they “reviewed” Viragos, Persephones, and other small-press reprints, books which were seldom noted in professional publications. And, not surprisingly, some of our own favorite out-of-print books eventually were rediscovered. I was ahead of the curve with Nancy Hale, whose books I discovered in 2011 after reading one of her stories in a New Yorker anthology. The Library of America recently published her selected stories, and I hope they will reissue her charming memoirs, A New England Girlhood and The Life in the Studio, and her best novel, Dear Beast. Thank God for Library of America!

Pictures mean more than words these days, I fear. It is a brutish, snarling, semi-literate Climate Change age: our brains are literally shrinking, according to Scientific American. Perhaps this explains the weird appeal of picture-oriented social media. Bookstagram/Instagram consists of photos of books, sometimes raw snapshots, others almost of professional quality, arranged against backdrops of lace, flowers, and teacups, or simply dropped on the floor. These pictures may be saying: I love this book! but the captions do not tell us much.

Booktube is even more mystifying. A bibliophile sits unselfconsciously in front of a camera for 30 minutes to an hour, methodically showing you his or her latest book haul, one book at a time, while reading aloud the jacket copy, or, if you’re lucky, saying why he/she wants to read them. These monotonous home movies are badly in need of editing. Nonetheless, I do not underestimate their influence: some Booktube channels have thousands of followers (perhaps hundreds of thousands!).

So here we all are, doing our bit, all for the sake of books.

Weekend Reading: What’s on the Shelf?

Some of you may know me as the Book Sibyl. Actually you do not, because I have never used that soubriquet, but I truly am sibylline, favored with the power to pluck the right book from the shelf. Whether you need to relax or challenge yourself, the right book can balance your mood, and provide solace from the muddle of a work week.

What do you need this weekend? These are on my shelf.

CAMBRIDGE AND CONSEQUENCES. In Christopher Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties, he charmingly mixes autobiography and fiction to describe his life in the ’20’s. Isherwood is very funny: he was bored at Cambridge, where he was determined to do no work, and schemed to get expelled. After his glorious, comical expulsion, he is qualified to do nothing but has many jobs. He is briefly a secretary to a charming but disorganized professional musician, misses out on the fun of the Great Strike, joins his bohemian friends on Romilly Road in what they sardonically call “the Romilly Group,” writes his first novel, and attends medical school. Isherwood advises us to read this as a novel, though some consider it autobiography. By the way, I do not consider it “autofiction.” Great fun to read!

ARE YOU A FAN OF “LOAM AND LOVECHILD” FICTION? If you enjoy Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Mary Webb, you will be smitten with The Hurly Burly and Other Stories by the neglected writer A. E. Coppard (1875-1957), published recently by Ecco. In my favorite story, “The Higgler,” Harvey Witlow drives his cart along country roads to buy whatever is for sale , eggs, bags of apples, odds and ends, and then he resells it. But times are hard, and he is thinking of quitting, when he comes upon a farm owned by a middle-aged woman who becomes his best client. Her beautiful daughter fascinates him, but she is completely silent. One day Mrs. Sadgrove proposes that Harvey marry her daughter, but Harvey shies away. What was the young woman’s secret? Should he or shouldn’t he marry her? Coppard’s lyrical, beautifully-crafted stories, set mostly in rural areas, are among the best of the 20th century.

POP WOMEN’S FICTION. Oh my God, I was so grateful on a truly awful day to kick off my shoes and get lost in Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary. Set in London, this entertaining novel straddles two timelines and three points-of-view. Caroline, an amateur historian in the present, arrives in London on her anniversary trip without her husband because she has learned he had an affair. By chance, she discovers an old glass vial in the Thames, and a librarian at the British Library helps her trace it to the 18th century. In 1791, Nella, an apothecary, prepares poisons for women who want to kill abusive men and puts them in vials. As her life becomes intertwined with that of Eliza, a 12-year-old maid who collects the poison for her mistress to administer to her husband, Nella comes to terms with the good and the bad she has done. Although the three women are only loosely connected, Sarah Penner holds the threads together. A fun read.

HOW ABOUT A COUNTERCULTURE CLASSIC? Treat yourself to Nathaniel Hawthorne’ charming novel, The Blithedale Romance. A group of idealists move to the country, grow their own vegetables, and escape the capitalist grind. The narrator, Miles Coverdale, a poet, is skeptical about the commune, but expects to find time to write there. Naturally, there is way more farm work than he had anticipated. And it is galling that two attractive women, the dark lady, Zenobia, a professional storyteller, and the light lady, Priscilla, a wan blonde who has been ill, have no eyes for any man but Hollingsworth. Coverdale takes to spying on his friends from a tree (the bower is so lovely he’d like to spend his honeymoon there, he tells us). Hawthorne himself was painfully shy, so perhaps he too escaped communal life at Brook Farm by sitting in trees! This novel is loosely based on his brief experiences of the failed commune.

Happy Weekend Reading!

One Fell Swoop & Claire Fuller’s “Unsettled Ground”

Our book club met for the first time in a year. We discussed Claire Fuller’s superb novel, Unsettled Ground, which is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year. Perhaps Fuller will win: her style is lyrical, the plot is engrossing, and I ached for the characters, fifty-one-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who are shattered when their mother dies. They have always lived in their childhood home – and now they are evicted. The mood is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though Unsettled Ground is not a horror novel. Fuller’s prose is hypnotic and sometimes devastating. A slightly surreal atmosphere permeates the pages due to the twins’ perplexity about the simplest actions in society.

The novel is so resonant that the group discussed a real-life problem, and thus broke all the rules of etiquette in one fell swoop.

“Lynn is on GoFundMe,” Sue said. “She needs a hot water heater.”

In a dim corner of my mind, I had realized Lynn might face poverty, but this flash of insight rarely visited. Lynn was Emily Dickinson-ish, a sweet woman who stayed home and wrote poetry. She was one of those intelligent but withdrawn people who cannot quite cope, so she lived with her parents. When they died, things must have been very hard for her. She was so secure she never wanted to leave – and so she never did.

Tears were in Sue’s eyes, Lori whispered,”Shit,” Janet distributed Kleenex, I blew my nose, and Megan demanded, “How did this happen?”

“I heard she wasn’t doing well, so I cyberstalked her,” Sue admitted.
We knew poverty could happen – and yet it is dizzyingly unreal. Lynn had become convinced that we all looked down on her, and hung up when we called. Only Sue broke through that barrier.

We decided to give some money, whatever we can.

We did not dwell on Lynn’s plight after we formed our plan of action, and so we did enjoy our book discussion. Illiteracy is Jeanie’s biggest problem, one that allows others to take advantage of her. Jeanie cannot read, and when she finds a job as a part-time gardener the checks pile up, because she does not know how to cash them. Julius does odd jobs for cash, but spends most of it at the pub.

But savvy Jeanie must solve their problems. She is appalled when Julius decides they should live in a dumpy trailer in a no man’s land. Hooligans stalk and victimize the twins in the woods. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel as smart Jeanie learns how to navigate society, despite her learning disability.

This resonant novel will make you think about poverty and homelessness, you will find hope through Jeanie’s quick learning, and you will race through the well-written pages.

A Simpler Time: Bridge Clubs & Borges

We are, in a way, lucky to live in the U.S. this spring. According to the White House, approximately one-third of the U.S. population, 100 million American adults, are now fully vaccinated. The number of Covid cases has fallen to pre-October levels, except in a few hotspots like Oregon (a hip state – so there’s a surprise!) and Wisconsin.

It has been a dangerous time, with the U.S. suffering an unnecessary number of deaths, due to the lack of consistency in mask mandates and health precautions from state to state. Now we breathe a sigh of relief because we have been vaccinated. We wear masks in public, but not always double masks, and we feel relatively safe, as compared to always in danger.

The greatest problem here: to persuade anti-vaxxers and the too-hip-to-get-sick to get vaccinated (no appointment necessary at many sites). This negotiation process will apparently be slow. According to the Washington Post, about one-fourth of Americans say they won’t get the vaccine – and many of them are white Republican males.

Last year was disastrous. We knew little about the virus, we were afraid of library books (some people quarantined them), some states were under lockdown, others not, and, at the height of housewifely insanity, we disinfected doorknobs several times a day.

Maybe it is because of spring, but suddenly I have a more positive outlook. I try to appreciate the slower pace of life and match it to my mother’s: her favorite decade was the ’60’s, when she was home full-time, standing there ironing (like the woman in Tillie Olsen’s story) in front of her favorite soap, As the World Turns. With no internet and no constant connection of the cell phone, she had more time to be present with us, to sit on the back stoop with neighbors. (When she was old, she lamented that people didn’t “neighbor” anymore.) She and her friends, to an extent, made their own entertainment: she enjoyed hosting bridge clubs, fussing about the decorations and prizes, worrying about making coffee in the percolator (she didn’t drink it herself, and didn’t know whether it was good or bad, but it had to be served!).

Mind you, I will not join a bridge club: the only clubs I join are book clubs, since the Drones Club (in Wodehouse) is not open to women (ha ha). But it is calming to avoid the crowd at the mall, unplug the computer occasionally, and read the books on our shelves while we wait for the latest Jhumpa Lahira, which I long to read, but have decided to wait for the paperback instead.

I am not exactly trying to be “mindful,” because I doubt that I can be mindful – but slow time is not necessarily empty. Perhaps I am trying to say, We need boredom? That’s what they say.

Jorge Luis Borges à Biarritz le 27 septembre 1980, France.

My husband and I had a sad conversation the other night. “Do you remember when we attended literary readings in person?”

Yes, we even saw Borges, though we don’t remember what he said or read. We should have taken notes. Why didn’t someone tell us?

So very, very many opportunities. And that was normal life!

We do not know what the future holds, but it is too late to roll it back.

Carpe diem! Horace said it, and so do we.

May Day Musings & The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Such a lovely May Day! Almost too lovely – and too hot! I sweated in front of the fan as I mused on May-Day traditions. In the twentieth century, we used to rise at dawn to make paper cones, fill them with violets and flowering weeds, add tiny scrolls on which we had copied poems, and drop the “May baskets” on friends’ porches. A charming custom, which has faded into oblivion.

It was hot when I got up – much too hot to believe it was May: eighty-seven degrees. And so I devoted myself to sitting still and reading a remarkable book, At the End of the Century: The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Readers of this blog will already know my fondness for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won the Booker Prize in 1975 for Heat and Dust. A writer of Polish and German descent, she married an Indian architect, Cyrus Jhabvala, and lived in India for many years; later she lived in New York and wrote screenplays for Merchant Ivory films. I am especially captivated by her exceptional short stories, some set in India, others in England and the U.S. They have the best features of her novels: a simple but percipient voice and style; a compassion for displaced characters; and perfectly-etched descriptions of scenery.

Jhabvala’s characters become our friends and relatives as we read. We understand the comic determination of Nalini, the homesick Indian girl in “A Course of English Studies,” who seduces her married professor at a Midlands college in England; and the exhilaration of Sofia, the depressed wife in “Desecration,” who falls in love with the corrupt Superintendent of Police.

Many of Jhabvala’s stories reflect aspects of Western masterpieces, as seen through a mirror of Indian culture. The first sentence of “Desecration” conjures the tragedy of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary: “It is more than ten years since Sofia committed suicide in the hotel room in Mohabbatur.” Sofia is a vibrant, pretty woman who comes from nowhere. No one knows her background or who she is – she looks to be part Afghan “with a dash of Russian”- and her only talent is for entertaining important guests at dinner parties. Her husband, Raja Sahib, is thirty years older, so we understand why she falls for the dynamic, much younger SP (Superintendent of Police). And then she blinds herself to the degradation of their meetings in a sleazy hotel. In this short pitch-perfect narrative, we feel both sympathetic and annoyed by Sofia on her downward path.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Sofia is not the only woman in Jhabvala’s stories to fall in love with a cad. In “A Spiritual Call,” Daphne meets an Indian swami in London. After traveling to his ashram in India, she becomes disillusioned with his hypocrisy and fakery, yet she cannot break away. And even I cannot help but be charmed by Swamiji when he says, “Can I talk to you? You won’t turn into a laurel tree?” (You know me, the Ovidian.)

Sometimes even female characters become spellbound by female dissemblers. In “Great Expectations,” the solitary, self-satisfied Pauline, a canny real estate agent, has shown many properties to Sylvie, a blond, wan, indecisive client, and her daughter Amy, but Sylvie never signs a lease. The two are kicked out of a friends’ apartment, so Pauline allows them grudgingly to stay at her house for a few days… which turn into many days. We cannot help but think of Daphne and Swamiji when Pauline becomes mesmerized by Sylvie and Amy and their dream of going to India.

The stories in At the End of the Century were chosen by Jhabvala’s family, and span the time from 1963 to 2013 (the year she died). I had read many of these stories before, but I found them mesmerizing a second time.

And that is the test of a great book, don’t you think? Good books are fine for one reading, but great books delight again and again.

Is the #MeToo Era too Proper for Ovid?

I would buy a ticket if Ovid gave a reading on Zoom. If he is resurrected from the dead let me know. I might even be persuaded to attend “Ovid in Conversation with a Modern Poet.”

Ovid is the wittiest, most elegant of Roman poets, but here is what translators conceal: he is extremely bawdy, positively filthy at times.

You would think Amores II.15, an elegy addressed to the ring he plans to give his mistress, would be simple and sweet. That would be too facile for Ovid, who glories in eroticism and jokes. I have translated a few lines to unveil the double entendres.

O ring, about to encircle my mistress’ finger…
May she put it on joyfully and rub it on her knuckles.
May you fit together as my cock fits her vagina,
and may you rub her finger – perfectly sized.

Did you know that Shakespeare used the word “ring” for “vagina” in The Merchant of Venice, V.1.307? Ovid was hugely influential.

Translators tone down the Amores, while scholars explicate the double entendres and argue over problems in the text. The sexual puns are Roman, understood by Roman readers.

Brilliant Ovid had his detractors. Augustus tried to legislate morality. He banished Ovid to an island for carmen et error, “a poem and an error,” and perhaps his poetry would raise hackles in the #MeToo era, too.

You know what I say: love the writing, but don’t bother about the writers’ personal lives. You don’t need to approve them as your best friends. You just need their words.