10 Genres, 10 Books: Last-Minute Christmas Shopping

One year I tried to make Christmas perfect. I spent hours choosing the right gifts, but it is so easy to select the wrong gifts: an eco-friendly corn resin watch, which I learned from the recipient was not ec0-friendly, a sweater for my mom in the wrong size (and shouldn’t I have known her size?), and a cute literary board game that bombed. We simplified our Christmases after that, and now I have a foolproof one-stop last-minute shopping method: I consult my 10 Books, 10 Genres list.

BOOK ADAPTED FOR FX LIMITED SERIES
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. Godden’s debut novel, published in 1939, tells the story of five Anglican nuns who establish a convent in the Himalyas.  Instead of praying and meditating in the palace-turned-convent, they become daydreamers, confused by the altitude, the extreme heat and cold, and the constant noise of construction/renovation in the convent.  The mother superior, Sister Clodagh, tries to hold everything together. A great nun book, and you can also watch the TV series.

HISTORICAL MYSTERY
The Shadow of Vesuvius by Tasha Alexander. The latest charming mystery in Alexander’s Lady Emily series is beautifully-written and great fun.  Set in the ruins of Pompeii, ir alternates stories in two timelines:  Lady Emily’s investigation of a murder in Pompeii in 1902, and a woman poet’s experiences and frustrations in Pompeii in 79 A.D. I love Alexander’s slightly verbose, old-fashioned prose, and the distinctive voice of Lady Emily. It’s not so much the mystery that enthralls, as the characters.

LITERARY FICTION
Private Means by Cree Lefavour. This stunning, witty first novel should appeal to fans of Elizabeth Tallent and the recent novels of Jay McInerney. It is also a book for dog lovers. Devastated by the loss of her cute dog, Maybelle, who ran away from the dog walker, Alice searches the streets while her husband, Peter, a psychiatrist, becomes increasingly irritated. Since their daughters went to college, Alice has dropped all pretense of interest in him. What will happen to this unraveling marriage as the summer drags on? It depends on the dog!

A NEGLECTED LITERARY CLASSIC
The Leopard and the Cliff
by Wallace Breem. This 1978 novel came up on a Best Books of the Year list, and was compared to Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. I had to read it! Set during the Third Afghan War (1919-1923,) this pitch-perfect book follows the fortunes of Sandeman, an insecure, middle-aged British officer who is in charge of a retreat from a fort under attack. This brilliant novel is both plot-oriented and psychological: Sandeman’s low estimation of his powers are as wry and and self-denigrating as Waugh’s character Guy Crouchback’s. I was hooked by the first sentence: “He was sitting on the veranda drinking lime juice when the message came through, and he was alone.”

LITERARY BIOGRAPHY
The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives
by Diane Johnson. In 1972, the award-winning novelist Diane Johnson reconstructed the story of George Meredith’s first wife, Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls Meredith. Mary Ellen was the brilliant daughter of the novelist Thomas Peacock, but left out of most of the biographies of George. An avid reader of French and English novels, a gourmet cook (but George was dyspeptic), a writer of essays and poems, and, briefly, the editor of a magazine, she was seven years older than George and left him for the artist Henry Wallis. This was reissued by NYRB this year.

A FANTASY NOVEL FOR FANS OF LINGUISTICS AND ARCHAEOLOGY
Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan. In this offbeat book, Brennan explores the difficulty of translation from an ancient language and the ethics of the sale of archaelogical relics. Set in a society that resembles 19th-century English society, it exposes the dark side of the biz: wealthy lords and ladies want to buy archaeological artifacts from the ancient Draconean civilization. When Lord Glenleigh, known to be prejudiced against Draconeans, acquires a set of ancient Draconean tablets, he hires Audrey Camherst to translate what turns out to be an ancient epic. But can she and her learned assistant prevent his dastardly plot? Though this is categorized as fantasy, it is really cross-genre.

SMALL PRESS FICTION
Eleanor, or the Rejection of the Progress of Love by Anna Moschovakis. Since I never wrote any notes on this superb novel published by Coffee House Press, here is an excerpt from the book description: “A novel about a woman writing a novel about a woman who writes — The Rejection of the Progress of Love is a sexy, earthy, bracingly intelligent examination of the vicissitudes of grief, ambition, aging, information overload, compassion fatigue, and a data-centric understanding of self; the relative merits of giving up or giving in; the seductive myth of progress; and the condition of being a thinking and feeling (gendered, raced) inhabitant of an unthinkable, numbing world.’

DEBUT FICTION
It Is Wood, It Is Stone by Gabriela Burnham. In this haunting novel, the heroine, Linda, a former newspaper writer and artist, travels to Brazil with her professor husband. She does not know Portuguese, and while he is at work, she feels increasingly paranoid as she navigates the streets alone. And she has no housework to do, because the university has hired a maid for them. Burnham, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Brazil, lyrically and evocatively describes Brazil, and explores Linda’s complicated consciousness. Think Virginia Woolf crossed with Catherine Lacey!

POLITICAL FICTION
A Burning by Megha Majunmda. Yes, this debut novel is as good as everyone says. Set in India, it hinges on the arrest of Jivan, a Muslim girl, for a terrorist bombing she did not commit. The police, wanting to arrest someone quickly, pin the crime on her because of a careless comment she left on Facebook. Terrifying, tense, ironic, and almost too believable to be fiction.

FAMILY SAGA
An Elegant Woman by Martha McPhee. This elegant family saga follows four generations of an upper-class family. The focus is on Grammy, a,well-mannered, rigid woman who, it turns out, had many family secrets. Her granddaughter Isabella investigates Grammy’s past: Grammy, whose name used to be Tommy, stole her younger sister Katherine’s identity when she went to New York from Montana to reinvent herself as a nurse. Gorgeously written, fun to read, and based on McPhee’s own family.

Read on!

In Which I Meditate on Classical Snobbery and Have a Fling with Cicero

There are two kinds of classicists: the snobs and the proles. I am a snobbish prole, or do I mean a prole snob? For most of my life I have read widely in the canon of ancient literature. Though I do not make my living in classics, I occasionally enjoy a scholarly book such as Sarah Lindheim’s relatively light Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides. 

Classics is not for everybody, yet I am grateful every day for an education by snobbish classics professors who taught not only Latin and Greek but the close reading of literature. Their obsession with grammar, style, figures of speech, and poetic meter blew my little undergraduate mind. And when I was offered a teaching assistantship at the only graduate school I applied to (the application fee of $25 was too expensive!), I was able to teach first-year Latin and Virgil as well as continue my studies.

Though sure of my language skills, I was apprehensive about teaching. My attitude was: You WILL do this, Kat! You HAVE to. And so I did. I was a gifted Latin teacher at the college level. My students enrolled for the language requirement but were hard-working and a pleasure to teach: they ranged from an extremely sweet frat boy (polite, never drunk) to a goofy English major who seemed dazed by the weight of the Complete Shakespeare to two brilliant pre-med students who were by far the best students. All eventually mastered grammar and read the Antiquae Sententiae in Wheelock, which is still a favorite first-year Latin textbook.

Teaching honed my Latin and my confidence. The only adverse effect of such an education on my personality was a certain snobbery, a disdain and pity for those who read the classics only in translation. I do have a strong feeling that classics professors, not English professors, should teach the Classical Lit in Translation classes. It baffles me that English professors can poach Classical Literature in Translation, when the same class is offered by the classics department–and taught by classicists! The particular English professor I’m thinking of dabbled in the Greeks but eschewed Roman literature altogether. O tempora! O mores!

Cicero

The real gift of my education, though, has been the solace of getting better-acquainted with the ancients through my own reading. This fall I had a literary fling with Cicero, and was extremely touched by his little-known speech, Pro Marcello (In Defense of Marcellus). Friends of M. Marcellus gathered in 46 B.C. in the Senate to ask Julius Caesar to allow Marcellus, who he had fought on the wrong side of the Civil War, to return from self-imposed exile. Cicero, who had also sided with Pompey, argued that Marcellus should be allowed to return safely to Rome as had Cicero and others of similar background.

This speech is as much a eulogy of Caesar as it is a defense of Marcellus. Cicero’s obsequiousness and flattery of Caesar can seem absurd, unless you are, like me, breathing a sigh of relief when Cicero manages not to alienate yet another powerful man and literally keep his head on. He needed to pay court to Caesar in order to help his friend. He tells Caesar that the pardon of Marcellus will be his greatest deed, that brilliant though his war prowess was, his deeds of peace and restoration of civilization would be even greater.

Here is a famous passage from the speech. Bear in mind all these words fit gracefully into two sentences in Latin.

Unless this city is stabilized by by your plans and institutions, your name will merely wander far and wide, and not have a stable place in history. There will be among those who will be born, just as there is among us, a great difference of opinion about your achievements: some will praise your deeds to the sky , others will think they lack some great signifiance, if you have not quenched the flame of civil war with the security of our country. The result of the deeds of war may seem to them the work of fate, but the stability of Rome will be praised as your own design.

Alas, Marcellus was assassinated while he traveled back to Rome. Dangerous times…

Skiable Snow, Klutziness, & Christmas Nostalgia

This is not me, thank God.

Last week, we had our first “real” snow. It is “skiable,” thus “real.” Those who want ski wax in their stockings are merry and bright. I do not personally cross-country ski, ice-skate, or attempt any of those sports undertaken by Kristin Lavransdatter (Kristin Lavransdatter) or Kitty (Anna Karenina). But I know ALL about them, as I married into an athletic family.

It is embarrassing to be a klutz. Suppose it is Christmas and you are snowbound at your in-laws’. Suppose your mother-in-law suggests cross-country skiing would be fun. I had never heard of cross-country skiing till that moment, but was horrified at the prospect of attempting to stand up on skis. Little did she know how (literally) painful and embarrassing my lack of balance would be.

Luckily, there was no pressure to excel in phys-ed when I was a girl. I grew up before girls’ soccer materialized as the badge of honor for yuppie moms and their offspring . Like Betsy in the Betsy-Tacy books, my best friend Carla and I had “weak ankles” to get out of ice skating, i.e., we couldn’t balance on ice. I have one deplorable memory of playing ice hockey in gym. I was hit with a hockey puck and fell down. Horrified by my bruises, my mother wrote an excuse to get me out of gym. And she confided she was afraid of water, and not allowed to graduate from college without swimming a lap across the pool. The teacher finally passed her for her courage as she desperately floated and floundered, never reaching the other side. Klutziness has passed from generation to generation…

Never mind. Earlier, as goofy 10-year-olds, my friend Carla and I were proud of our lack of athletic prowess, but lamented that it would interfere with our “plans” to marry into the Kennedy family. We pored over photos in Look and Life of “cute” Bobby Jr. and Joe Jr., who were constantly skiing, playing football, sailing, and kayaking. Fortunately, we were also in love with Christopher Jones in Wild in the Streets. We had options.

This year everything has changed for athletes and non-athletes. The fear of Covid is in us all. Well, in many of us. The ice rink is closed, but of course there is always room for cross-country skiers and walkers. Yesterday, I donned parka, scarf, hat, boots, and extra-warm gloves and took a short walk in the beautiful snow.

As I walked I felt nostalgic for Christmas vacations past. Yet I realized with surprise how little I’ve changed over the years, moving from political era to political era, from capitalist Christmas to capitalist Christmas. I am saddened by Climate Change and the resulting Covid virus, but am not surprised. What, I wonder, did the governments think would happen if they didn’t get off fossil fuels? Then as now, I also retain less serious political beliefs. I still avoid the exploitative fashion industry, and wear the same drab university-town attire I’ve worn my whole life.

Everything is the same in 2020; everything is different. I am enjoying Christmas break, though it is dull to stay home all the time to avoid the virus.

1951: Alastair Sim (1900 – 1976) as Scrooge

I miss the festive gatherings where one cannot avoid the ribbon candy or figgy puddings, caroling (off-key, in my case), watching the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol, which used to be on TV all the time, taking a break from our rented rooms in college to stay in a friend’s spacious apartment while she went home for vacation, dining on Chinese food on Christmas as newlyweds, and, on one occasion, traveling to my hometown (which my husband romanticizes) for Xmas vacation and eating breakfast at a steak house, the only restaurant open on the holiday.

Well, my snowy walk made me feel more Christmasy, and perhaps I shall drag up the artificial tree. Some bloggers have just reread A Christmas Carol. After all, Dickens is the father of Christmas, according to A. N. Wilson in his brilliant book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens (which would make a good gift). Well, it is time to get out one of Dickens’s Christmas books. At least there will not be any cross-country skiing in it.

A Brainy Battle: Literature vs. New Books

At this year’s bookish cocktail party (that is, if there were such a party in plague times), I might have read just enough new books to hold my own in conversation. Perhaps the latest books are actually more like cultural commodities, wrapped in bright jackets and praised or panned by the critics. They are certainly ephemeral, as the new lists of Highly Anticipated Books of 2021 have already begun to eclipse them. I can imagine a reader wailing, “Wait, I’m still shopping for Christmas this year.”

We just can’t wait for the new books. If only we could all slow down. These 2020 books can be read any time–even in 2021. I consider a book “new” if it has been published in the last decade. For God’s sake, that’s much newer than Gilgamesh!

I admit, I read mostly classics and older books, because they are much better-written than contemporary books. I do not mean that there are no great living writers. There are. My mind is a blank at the moment, but I promise to list some at the end of this post.

Of course I am not as strict in my standards as the critic Joseph Epstein, a former editor of The American Scholar. In the essay, “Our Literary Drought,” recently published at the National Review, he laments the state of 21st-century literature, which he believes has been diminished by the Digital Age. He begins by talking about the flourishing of literature of 1955, the year the National Review was founded: Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Albert Camus, André Malraux, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Kingsley Amis, and Jorge Luis Borges were all working then.

And I agree the middle of the 20th century was a great time for literature, though my list of ’50s writers would include Jean Stafford and Mary McCarthy!

Epstein goes on,

When and why [the good times for literature] stopped rolling are complex questions. That they have stopped, that we are in a less-than-rich period for literature today, cannot be doubted. Ask yourself whose next novel among living novelists you are eagerly awaiting. Name your three favorite living poets. Which contemporary critics do you most rely upon? If you feel you need more time to answer these questions — a long, slow fiscal quarter, say — not to worry, for I don’t have any impressive answers to these questions either. Recent years have been lean pickings for literature.

Epstein notes that some periods of time are naturally richer in literature than others. He cites the Elizabethan age and 19th-century Russian as brilliantly productive ages. We can’t argue with that! But he adds that some periods of literature are lacklustre, and we are in one. The Digital Age has taken a plunge for the worse.

Epstein writes,

Everything about it, from 280-character tweets to Kindles, is anti-literary. What the Internet offers is information, whereas literature sets out in pursuit of something deeper. Reading online, I have found, is different from reading a book or serious magazine. I, who rarely skim books or magazines, online find my fingers twitching on my mouse when confronted by any piece that runs to more than ten or so paragraphs.”

I do agree about the problems of reading online–it is the madness of abundance. Online I keep clicking from article to article to find more news about a specific item–and paper keeps me calmer, perhaps because it limits the amount of reading.

Joseph Epstein isn’t the only one who yearns for more golden literary ages. Another fan of classics is Emily Temple at Literary Hub. During this plague year, she fond herself turning to older books. In her essay, “Want to Feel Better? Stop Reading New Books,” she writes about losing herself in Daphne du Maruier’s Rebecca, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, José Saramago’s Blindness, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Temple writes:

While reading each of these novels, and others, I found myself transported in a way that the newer books I was sticking between them could not accomplish, as good as I might have found them. And look, I read some damn good new books this year, like Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. and Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks.

Temple concludes these books helped her escape from the problems of 2020, but I wonder if that was all. Many readers eventually reach the point of wanting to go deeper in their reading and turn to the past. New books speak to current events and experience, and even historical novels are interpreted from a “modern” point of view every 20 years or so. It is always good to get some distance, to read from a different point of view, to come to realize that “now” is not necessarily “best.”

And now can I deliver on my promise to list some great writers of the day?

Of course!

Some of my favorite living writers are Louise Erdrich, Jayne Ann Phillips, Isabel Allende, Larry Woiwode, Deborah Eisenberg, Anne Tyler, Ellen Gilchrist, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Lethem, Gail Godwin, and John Irving.

Alas, some of the greats have died this year, among them Elizabeth Spencer and Alison Lurie. We will miss them.

Who are the great writers of today?

Women’s Epistolary Novels of the ’30s’: “Business As Usual” and “I Lost My Girlish Laughter”

Last week I serendipitously came across two 1930’s women’s epistolary novels. The two books, Business As Usual (1933), by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, and I Lost My Girlish Laughter (1938), by Jane Allen, are charming and riotously funny.

Business As Usual will delight every bookstore enthusiast. Told in the form of letters, telegrams, memos, and charming illustrations, it relates the struggles of Hilary, an out-of-work librarian who moves to London to find a job. Her parents in Edinburgh worry, and her stuffy fiancé, Basil, objects to the idea of women’s work, let alone in London. But she assures them that all is fine, even when it is not fine.

After a few weeks of job-hunting, she is no closer to finding work. She has answered ads (many of them scams) and visited numerous employment agencies, where no one is impressed by her education and training. Can she cook? Can she type?

Hilary writes,

I asked if there weren’t any other sort of places, and they looked me up and down and said darkly that it all depended. They had placed twenty people from Wales last week, but I was more difficult. (I hadn’t the courage to ask why.) At last somebody had an idea. They suggested that I might be a Good Saleswoman. And what about a Bookshop? A degree, they said, would matter less there. It might almost cease to be a disadvantage.

And so she becomes an office clerk for the book department of Everymans, a large department store. The job is far from glamorous–she writes labels all day, and sometimes puts cards in order. It is frustrating, because she would be more qualified to work in the bookstore itself, or the store’s lending library. I felt sympathetic, because at one of my first jobs, I was set to work photocopying all day. My education was a disadvantage until I found a professional job! And I’ll bet you have been there, done that, too.

Hilary is self-confident but miserable. The nine-to-six routine is grueling, and she barely has enough money to keep herself in stockings. Eventually her boss, Mr. Grant, whom she refers to as one of the Olympians, notices her talent and intelligence and promotes her. After that, life becomes much more bearable. She has more money, more energy, and no longer spends weekends reading in bed!

This charming novel is illustrated by adorable drawings of Hilary in her daily adventures. By the way, the two authors met while working at the Times Book Club in London, and collaborated on several novels. Jane Oliver was the pen name of Helen Christina Easson Rees, and Ann Stafford was the pen name of Anne Isabel Stafford Pedler.

Set in Hollywood, Jane Allen’s I Lost My Girlish Laughter is another hilarious epistolary novel. It has the appealing tone of the great humor books by Cornelia Otis Skinner, Emily Kimbrough, and Betty MacDonald. The narrator, Madge Lawrencee, an aspiring actress, becomes the secretary of a famous producer.

Like Hilary in Business As Usual, Madge has trouble finding a job. She stays in a women’s hotel where all the “girls” are looking in vain for acting jobs. They share Madge’s most stylish green dress, which they are constantly altering to fit different figures.

Madge has letters of introduction, but they do not help. A typical response is:

Mr. Freeman has asked me to acknowledge your letter and to advise you he regrets there is no opening at the present in which he could place you. I would suggest you apply to our Employment Department. I am sure they will show you every courtesy.

One desperate, dreary night Madge gets her break. Having nothing to do, she goes alone to a famous bar. And the magic happens; connections get her a job–and a bad connection too!

She writes in a letter to a friend:

The bar is crowded, so I modestly hie me to a little table facing the bar. I have taken the third sip of my Scotch highball and am feeling very sorry for myself when suddenly I spy a familiar face and hear a familiar voice. My first reaction is a wild surge of joy at recognizing anyone I know; then I think why couldn’t it have been someone I liked. For, it is no other than that limp bore, Bob Faulkner. Don’t tell me! I know what you’re thinking. But, in my condition even Bob Faulkner is welcome. Do you remember how we used to devise every known dodge at State to avoid him? Well, I think my sins are coming home to roost, for now I feel a large grin of welcome sprouting on my face and I wave frantically. He doesn’t seem to see me so I wave the louder. I am sure he looks directly at me but it is as though his eyes are opaque and they see nothing. I am thinking it is all very odd when I notice that a man near him is nudging him and pointing to me and whispering. Suddenly Bob comes to life. Next thing I know he is beside me and introducing me to Max Sellers, the director. Mr. Sellers is very cordial to me and Bob is very much Bob.

There’s nothing like coming across a friend you don’t like in a new city! Bob hates her, but Mr. Sellers does not. In fact, he knows a famous producer who needs a secretary. He says Mr. Brand will be impressed that Madge is a college girl, and immediately makes a long-distance call to him in Palm Springs. And so she gets the job! And then the three of them go to Hollywood parties. She is enchanted.

Madge is thankful to have the job. Her secretarial adventures become more comical and hectic as she obeys Mr. Brand’s ridiculous demands, stays at the office all night to take notes on meetings where he completely changes the setting, time, and plot of a script and sends the exhausted writers to rewrite, flies with Mr. Brand’s retinue to calm a hysterical “foreign” actress on location, and observes how fame changes the actors. Fortunately, Madge’s friend, Jim Palmer in PR, tells her what to expect. She sees Mr. Brand at his best and at his worst. You can’t count on him!

In real life, Jane Allen was the pseudonym of two women who collaborated on this book, Sylvia Schulman Lardner, who was David O. Selznick’s personal secretary, and Jane Shore, who came to Hollywood to write a film which was not produced. Jane Shore used the Jane Allen pen name for her later work.

A fun book, even if you are not a Hollywood aficionado.

When Does My Vacation Start? And What I’ve Been Reading

Emma (Kate Beckinsale) and Harriet (Samantha Morton) in “Emma” (1996).

I have not been on vacation this year. Wow, am I ever cranky! I would love a vacation for a day at a library. That’s how desperate and cooped-up I am.

Are you a fan of Jane Austen’s saucy heroines? Do you feel more like one of them now that you take walks for “fun”? Emma is my favorite–the most controversial heroine. To those who dislike Emma, all I can say is, I empathize with her fantastic misreadings of character, because who wouldn’t live in a fantasy world if she had to take THE SAME WALK EVERY DAY?

So why don’t I stop walking and go somewhere in a car, train, or plane? A trip to California, or is it under lockdown again? (I checked, and it is.) Or to New York, which is the most expensive, exhausting, and crowded American city. Do I really enjoy masked glamour and sophistication? Somehow the vibe isn’t right. I’d be tired before I even got to the Strand.

Oh, she’s so cowardly, you say. We’ve been on so many adventures this year! Some of you spent spring break at Yellowstone Park, where the sewer analysis proved you’d been pissing and shitting Covid virus. Others spent summer vacation at Black Lives Matter camps, or waving guns at the governor of Wisconsin for imposing lockdown. And my favorite rockin-vacation is the Sturgis motorcycle rally. Think of the Covid spread! And think of the articles I could have freelanced! I don’t have a driver’s license, but I bet somebody would have let me drive a motorcycle in Sturgis!

Meanwhile, enough about vacation. I know you want to know what am I reading.

I gave up on Angela Thirkell’s Marling Hall. Though it is mildly funny, it sags in the middle. Darn, Lettice isn’t going to marry David Leslie after all, and the other guy is too bland. It is a short book, so I’ll probably finish, but why? Time’s a-wastin’! If you want to read Thirkell, I can tell you honestly that her ’30’s novels are better than the later ones. She wrote one a year, like her character Laura Morland, and they vary in quality. After a while she gets her own characters mixed up.

I read parts of Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language, an earnest, well-written book by Nicola Gardini, translated from Italian by Todd Portnowitz. Why did I pick this one up? Susan Hill recommended it on a Best Books of the Year list. I assure you it is a lovely, enthusiastic book, but it isn’t quite for me because I am already a Latinist. Gardini explains in the introduction that he wrote it for people who may have studied Latin in high school or college and liked it then, or for those who are simply curious about it. This is a book I would recommend to my students.

And what’s on my bedside table? Please, God, help me choose a cozy mystery. Do I want a Michael Innes, a Josephine Tey, something in Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series, a Robert Barnard, or maybe an Amanda Cross?

Let me know if you have suggestions!

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.