Losing It!  A Bibliophile and Her Coffee

I took a brisk walk in the slush.  My motto in winter is:  Worse is on the way, so get out while you can. 

I happened, by accident, of course, with no intention of reading, skimming, buying, perusing, and did I say buying?, to walk to a bookstore.

The bookstore coffee is awful, though, so I stopped at a coffee shop.  And here’s the first sign I was losing it: I PICKED UP THE WRONG COFFEE DRINK.  

It was so bad, I almost spat it out.  Who, I wondered, would order coffee sickeningly sweetened with artificial syrup?  I drink mine black. I take it seriously.  That’s how it’s done. Halfway down the street, I threw it in the trash. 

Fortunately, the atmosphere at the bookstore made me mellow. If you’re a bibliophile, it is a bit like going to an opium den, or perhaps that’s the wrong simile, since I was in my right mind–sort of–but I’m also a biblio-addict.  The issue in a bookstore, as always, is:  Should I buy a book? Well,  I have resolved to buy no books at all in 2020.  But who takes that seriously?

My goodness, there are so many books I’d love to read.  There’s the  new Isabel Allende.  There is The Colours by Robyn Cadwallader, author of The Anchoress, which I loved.  Then there is Amina Cain’s Indelicacy, the selection for a New York Times Text Book Club.  I also flipped through Clare Pooley’s The Authenticity Project, because the cover told me it is very light, but it looked a little, well, sentimental.  

 My husband is so enthralled by my resolution he actually thinks I’ll use the library!  But of course I did buy something.  And I was so absorbed in it on the bus that I got off at the wrong stop.

And on the long(er) walk home, I slipped on an unshoveled sidewalk, and I caught myself talking to myself.  Whining about the weather OUT LOUD in public.

Yes, I am definitely losing it.

Do You Enjoy Rereading?  And If So, What?

I am a devoted rereader.  Give me a Brontë or an Austen for the nth time and I am intoxicated.  My most extreme rereading phase was the decade when I began War and Peace every New Year’s Day and finished by the next New Year’s Eve.  

Occasionally I reread a book  I dislike.  What did I miss, I wonder, when everyone else is crazy about it?   I recently failed to finish a rereading of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It As It Lays, which I have been assured is a masterpiece. Beautiful prose, but perhaps better-employed in her stunning essays. 

In Play It As It Lays, the wilted heroine, Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-uh),  is so limp she can barely get off the patio where she sleeps under towels.  She spends her days speeding along the freeway and having a nervous breakdown.   If she isn’t on the freeway by ten,  she loses her rhythm, she informs us.  As a non-driver, I was annoyed when she kicked off her sandals to feel her bare feet on the pedal as she zooms at 100 miles an hour.

“Just give her a ticket,” I muttered.

The novel is not Didion’s forte.

I recently reread some of Didion’s essays, and found them extremely conservative, though I’d admired them on a first reading.  Her essays on the Women’s Movement of the 1970s and Doris Lessing are so venomous they made my hair stand on end.  And I no longer consider her stylized essay, “Slouching towards Bethlehem,’ a masterpiece.  Somehow, I no longer share her point-of-view.

A rereading gone wrong.

Back to rereading:  there are avid rereaders, and other readers who fiercely disapprove of rereading.   Tom Lamont at The Observer is in my camp, though he is something of an apologist.  He says “Rereading is therapy, despite the accompanying dash of guilt, and I find it strange that not everybody does it. Why wouldn’t you go back to something good? I return to these novels for the same reason I return to beer, or blankets or best friends.” 

Peter Damien at Book Riot shares my philosophy that a reader can appreciate a book more on a second or third or whatever reading. 

I re-read endlessly, and I think of it as nothing different than reading a book for the first time. I maintain a reading journal of books I’ve read and how long it’s taken me, and there are many titles repeated throughout the journal. I don’t differentiate them. I think it’s as completely integral to the reading process as the first time through a book.”

The  Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda at The Washington Post is not a fan of rereading. The only time he rereads is when he is teaching a book or writing an introduction for a book.  He writes, I loved Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, but could the analogous Chinese classic, Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone, be just as good? Like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I want to run and find out.”

Tom Thurston at The Guardian believes rereading is pretentious.  In fact, he doesn’t believe people really reread. He thinks they say it to show off. 

… nothing will make you more insecure than the person who casually drops it into conversation that this summer, as well as a couple of weighty war histories, Julian Barnes’s latest and a fascinating new translation of the Qur’an, he’ll be re-reading Anna Karenina. While it doesn’t leave much time for snorkelling or hammock snoozing after a good lunch, there’s no reason why people shouldn’t choose to bury themselves under a pile of books on holiday. But there is one little verb that’s inexcusable, wherever you are, whatever you’re reading this summer. “Re-read”. Now hear this: anyone who talks about re-reading a book is arrogant, narrow-minded or dim.

Wow, he is fierce!

Do you enjoy rereading?  If so, what?   If not, why not?

Brainy Aging Goddesses with Sensible Shoes: The Problem Is the Bifocals

Aging is more fun than you would think. At 50, Bilbo Baggins had his first adventure (The Hobbit).  The writer Mary Wesley published her first novel when she was 73.  And Harriet Doerr, who graduated from Stanford at the age of  67, was 73 when she published her first novel,  Stones of Ibarra, which won the National Book Award. 

The prospect of wrinkles, gray hair, plucking chin hairs, and the necessity of sensible shoes horrifies us women, but that is partly the Hollywood influence:  we are staggered by the beauty of goddess-actresses, though we are not immortal, and must cope without Dior or Chanel.  The image in the mirror changes, but if we’re lucky we become brainier as we age. That’s what they don’t tell you in fashion magazines.  

There are many, many challenges for middle-aged or older women.  You must deal with menopause, hormone changes, and age discrimination.  You must polish your rhetorical skills and persuade the insurance company to pay for your prescription skin cream (they prefer to fund the cream for younger women, which is surely discrimination) as well as those essential medications, without which you will die; you can go gray or experiment with time-consuming hairdos; you can enjoy shopping for smart flat shoes on sale or opt to live in cute sneakers.

Looks aside, you are likely to become smarter. Less time in front of mirrors!  Bizarrely, information you learned years ago  pops out of your brain and becomes so crystal-clear that you wonder if you are a gypsy with a crystal ball.  Suddenly you know those pesky place names in Latin poetry (Tempe, Socrate, Cypria) and the musical instruments (tibia, barbitos, tympanum) without checking the notes. And you can rattle off the Tudor family tree, whether from reading multiple biographies of the six wives of Henry VIII  or Hilary Mantel, who knows? 


I love my bifocals.  If you are in your forties, fifties, or older, you know the glamor of correcting both your nearsightedness and farsightedness with seamless bifocals.  They used to look like coke bottles, but no more.

But, alas, I find I cannot read books with tiny print, even with bifocals. 

I was in the mood to read Guy de La Bedoyere’s Domina:  The Women Who Made Imperial Rome, which sounded fascinating even though the reviewer in The New York Review of Books bashed it.  I paid little attention to her, because she used the essay to showcase her own theories, and devoted only a few paragaraphs to DominaI am loving this book, but the  print is so small I can scarcely read it. Yale Univeristy Press, couldn’t you have made the print normal size?  

AND THAT’S NOT ALL.  THE TIME HAS COME…to find a Greek dictionary with bigger print.

I was reading a Greek epyllion, the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, but  could barely make out the print in my Greek dictionary.  I have spent years poring over Liddell and Scott, the standard scholarly dictionary.  I once had to translate the Gettysburg Address into the Greek of Demosthenes (an assignment in grad school) with this dictionary.  It was more fun than it sounds–you perused the dictionary to learn which words Demosthenes would have used.  (But you had to be there, I guess.)

And  now I’ll have to read my Greek in strong sunshine with a bright lamp haloing my head.  I can think of no alternative.

Vivian Gornick’s “Unfinished Business:  Notes of a Chronic Re-reader”

I am an avid rereader, as readers of this blog know.  It is the only sure way I know to find a great book.  Although I’ve enjoyed rereading since childhood, it was in my forties that I began to prefer rereading classics to reading new books.

Naturally, I admire Vivian Gornick’s new book, Unfinished Business:  Notes of a Chronic Re-reader.  Gornick, an essayist, critic, memoirist, and fiction writer, interweaves autobiography with incisive renderings of her experience of rereading favorite books. As a reporter at The Village Voice in  in the ’70s, when Second Wave feminists professed that  “the personal is political,” she became conscious of the stereotypes of women in literature and the extent to which she had been educated to believe that love was the main goal of women. This revelation changed the way she lived and read.  Later, she also began to realize how disconnected she had become from her Jewish working-class roots. Men thought and wrote about it, but women less so.  

Some of the essays are very personal, others are almost pure criticism.  I find it fascinating that she misremembered details of certain books.  (That sometimes happens to me, too.)  She also believes that she reads now from a broader perspective.  And she does clearly see books as a whole in a way that is difficult on a first reading.

Gornick  fell in love with D. H. Lawrence’s elegant autobiographical third novel, Sons and Lovers, at the age of 20, as so many of us do.  But each reading brought with it a different perspective.  Reading it three times in fifteen years, she identified first with the hero Paul Morel’s first lover, Miriam, a bookish, earnest young woman who is afraid of sex, then with his second lover, Clara, a free-thinking suffragette who has left her husband, and finally with Paul himself,  a charming  painter who struggles to break away from his mother, a middle-class woman unhappily married to a coal miner and too tied-up with Paul’s life. 

In her recent rereading,  Gornick believed her focus on the novel as a whole had been wrong.  “…it wasn’t so much that I found I’d gotten many of the details wrong (which I had), but rather that my memory of the overriding theme–sexual passion as the central experience of a life–was wrong.” 

I was fascinated by Gornick’s chapter on Colette.  She loved Colette in her twenties–didn’t we all!–but now is ambivalent.  Gornick concentrates on my favorite Colette novel,  The Vagabond, a novel based on Colette’s experiences as a writer-turned-music-hall artist; she also writes about t sequel, The Shackle.  The narrator of these two books is Renee Nere, age 33, who does not want to commit to love.  In the first, she escapes it; in the second, she is shackled.

Gornick’s insights are sharp and unflinching.

Most striking, for me—the single greatest change, in fact, in my feeling about these novels—was the sense I now had that everything was taking place in a vacuum. When I had read Colette before, the entire world seemed to collect around what I took to be the narrator’s wisdom. Now that wisdom seemed narrow and confined. Vanity alone gives her whatever insight into an affair she may gain. While she cannot see that she makes instrumental use of her lovers, she can easily see that she herself has no reality for them and, in her thoughts, she is quick to condemn them for an emotional shallowness she cannot spot in herself:

Although I don’t quite agree with this, I have been disappointed in some of Colette’s books on rereading them.   The style is always lyrical, but sometimes the situations are overwrought  These days I prefer the novels she wrote when she was older, like Break of Day.  But perhaps it’s best to keep Colette’s books as a beautiful memory!

Equally interesting are  Gornick’s subtle interpretations of Elizabeth Bowen, Delmore Schwartz’s The World Is a Wedding, Natalia Ginzburg,  J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country,  and Doris Lessing’s Particularly Cats.  You can read this book in a day, and it will make you want to  reread like mad.

The Nightmare of Technology: Blame the App, Not the Iowans

The Iowa Caucus is over. There will be no more political flyers in the mail.  The Democratic candidates have flown to New Hampshire.  

There is a residue of depression.  “People are unusually quiet at the office,” a friend says.

Before the app scandal, the Democrats were exhilarated.  They thronged to the caucuses Monday night. They were psyched about their candidates.  To a man, they praised the newly-organized caucuses, which, for the first time, had paper backup:  caucus-goers filled out cards with detailed information on first and final alignment, to support the head count by precinct captains.

At home later, they sat down in front of the TV news–only to learn there were no results.  An app had malfunctioned.

Iowa caucus registration.

The chair of the Iowa Democratic party apologized for the defective app. But the results came in so much later than anyone thought.  Not available in toto  the next day, nor the next, nor the next…and on Friday, last time I checked, 99% were tallied, with Bernie and Pete declared the winners. 

The scandal rages on. And the DNC has not only rapped Iowa on the knuckles for buying a faulty app, but has threatened to kill the Iowa Caucus.

Instead of blaming the Iowans for an app that didn’t provide the  promised results, shouldn’t the focus be on the company that made it and the problems with the technology?

Ballots and tech so often go wrong, even in low-tech elections.   Remember the presidential election of 2000, when Al Gore was declared the winner, and then the Republicans insisted that George W. Bush had won?  This battle went on for months.  If I recall correctly, some votes in Florida were disqualified because of “hanging chads” on the ballot.  And Florida, where Jeb Bush was governor, determined the winner.

Elections are a hassle.  At the general elections here, I have long doubted that my vote gets counted.  Why?   I cannot color inside the lines of the bubbles on the old-fashioned multiple-choice-style ballots, because of a hand tremor, a side effect of a medication.  There are strict directions about keeping inside the lines.

The system of voting, tech, and ballots needs to be examined, whether at the caucuses, the primaries, or general elections.  And by all means, continue the caucus if the Iowans want it.  They devised the system, and the first caucus was held in 1972.  

More Roman Than Roman: John Williams’s “Augustus”

During a recent illness, I sweated, ached, and slept,  but managed to stay up a few hours a day to read genre books.  Of course some  will argue that John Williams’s National Book Award-winning Augustus  is not a genre book but a literary masterpiece. 

Yet it is still a genre book:  a historical novel. 

Best-known for Stoner, a kind of tepid imitation of the lesser work of Willa Cather,  Williams is more ambitious in Augustus, which won the National Book Award in 1973. (He shared the award with John Barth for Chimera.) Centered on the life of Octavian, the first Roman emperor, who was later known as Augustus, this intelligent novel unfolds in the form of pitch-perfect letters, documents, memoirs, journals, and even a stilted “lost poem” by Ovid (Williams is not much of a poet).  In a non-chronological narrative,  Williams charts the growing power of Octavian/Augustus, beginning with his wish to avenge the assassination of his uncle Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., followed by  the formation of the Second Triumvirate, a trio of powerful men consisting of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus.   Inevitably, the triumvirate split up,  and Octavian defeated Antony (and Cleopatra) at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.  And then Octavian returned triumphant to Rome, where he became emperor/dictator, took the title Augustus, and called himself Princeps (First Citizen, which less threatening than emperor). 

Occasionally the style is stilted, but much is brilliantly readable.   And Williams’ imitation of Roman letters is right-on: it captures the formality, underscored by the peculiar tone of Latin in translation.  (In Latin such letters are more fluid.) . Occasionally the letters are laced with gossip.   

James Purefoy as Antony in “Rome”

I have to admit, I’ve always been fond of Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius),  because he was so sensual and madly in love with Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra is my favorite Shakespeare play.   But perhaps I also have mixed Antony up with James Purefoy, who played Antony in the entertaining TV series, Rome.  (I loved that show.)

In the following letter, Antony describes Augustus as the pain in the ass he probably was. 

That whey-faced little bastard, Octavius, came around to see me yesterday morning. He has been in Rome for the past week or so, acting like a bereaved widow, calling himself Caesar, all manner of nonsense.

The letters of Maecenas, one of the earliest supporters of Augustus and the patron of the poets Horace and Virgil, are a mix of formality and liveliness.  In Williams’ novel, Maecenas is portrayed as a gay man, though I cannot verify if that is true or not.  Here is a typical opening of a  letter from Maecenas to Livy  the historian  

You must forgive me, my dear Livy, for having so long delayed my reply. The usual complaints: retirement seems not to have improved the state of my health at all. The doctors shake their heads wisely, mutter mysteriously, and collect their fees. Nothing seems to help—not the vile medicines I am fed, nor even the abstinence from those pleasures which (as you know) I once enjoyed. 

Williams also includes portions of a fascinating (fictieious) journal by Augustus’s daughter Julia, who was exiled for adultery.

At times Williams seems more Roman than Roman. Although he has studied the letters of Cicero, Pliny, and Seneca carefully, he needs to break away from his imitations.  If  were less consistently intent on pastiche, this might have been a better book.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Augusutus, the great Roman historical novell is  Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, the story of a later emperor.  You can’t go wrong with either of these.

From the Groundhog to the Caucus

the Iowa Caucus

It has been hectic.  So much going on!

First Groundhog Day, then the Iowa Caucus.  Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring, and yet it’s Tuesday and we don’t know who won the Caucus.

Like many Americans, I’ll vote in November for any Democrat who wins the nomination.  But I’m curious to see who won in  Iowa, because it provides a basis for comparison in the months to come–at least in the midwest.

Politics has been stressful for the last three years, but I have been touched by the Democratic candidates’ talk of the need for empathy (a word rarely used by politicians), social justice (another forgotten concept),  environmental justice (God, we need it!), equal pay for women (after all these years),  protecting the right to choose (I am shocked by the erosion of Roe v Wade), and raising the minimum wage to $15 (a necessity).

If politicians don’t strive for high ideals, things go downhill fast. We’ve seen it many, many times.  And so it is a pity about the malfunction of the Caucus app,  which was supposed to ensure accuracy and prevent the cheating, or perhaps the errors,  if one is being kind, that occurred during the 2016 caucuses, when Hillary was neck-and-neck with Bernie and declared the winner. 

Today the app was fixed, they say, and they have slowly, painstakingly been computing the numbers. It has been frustrating and depressing for politicians and political junkies. But for the first time there is paper backup, photos of cards filled out by caucus-goers, in addition to the  head count by precinct captains.  Ironically, this slow vote-count may be more accurate than past caucuses.  They’re probably counting on paper!

At least Punxsutawney Phil says it’s almost spring.