The Class in Classics

Class is fluid when you are in classics. You can rise a class or two in the world.  Without classics, I might have puttered around for years as an office clerk or at a library circulation desk (and the latter would have been a long shot). But when you are young, have a degree in classics, and invest your life savings in preppy clothes, you can get any job. Yes, you’ll have to move to Maine or Texas, but at least you’ll work.

I fell out of the middle class for a time.  Can that really happen?  When my parents got divorced, my dad got custody, and then got bored and left me to live on my own. A lesbian teacher on the prowl picked me up (I was her second high school student) and installed me in her house for a year and a half. I wonder, what class was I then? Meretrix (a prostitute)? Serva (a slave)? Later, I knew another classics student who’d been prey to whoever came along, and had a reputation as a meretrix, poor girl. She’d had sex with the sex education teacher.

Classics brought us back into the middle class.  We both found good, if not lucrative, jobs.

Classics— derived from the Latin noun classis,  meaning “a  class or division of the people (according to property),” and classicus,  an adjective meaning “of or belonging to the highest class.”

Language enthusiasts love Greek and Latin. Some enjoy the puzzle of the grammar and syntax, others the elaborate figures of speech and meters, still others the history or the philosophy.

I was always a serious reader.  I’d devoured Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Trollope on my own. I was a Victorian, or might as well have been. But unlike John Stuart Mill, who started learning Greek when he was three,  I took it up in college.  It all started when I decided Homer was ridiculous in translation. Before I knew it I was studying Greek and Latin, and reading Homer and Virgil in the original. I was an epic freak!

It wasn’t just the literature I loved, it was the all-absorbing process of translation. It required so much equipment!  I hustled into the library and spread out my Greek and Latin books, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries, notebooks, and flashcards.

The Greeks and Romans are with me for better or worse, through sickness and health. In the hospital, I have recited lines of Latin poetry feverishly. Once a doctor decided I was well enough to go home when he discovered me reading Lucretius in my room.  Nowadays I snuggle up on the couch with classics and a dictionary.  I’ve read classics so long I no longer need an entire table!  There’s less “equipment.”

The ancient languages are no longer spoken; you study them to read the literature. And since you are reading poetry, plays, philosophy, oratory, history, and more, the vocabulary is different for each genre. Even if the words overlap, they mean something different. That’s why you need a dictionary.   For instance, the Latin word classis, which can mean “class,” also means “fleet (of ships).”You cannot read Virgil or Livy without encountering a  classis, a fleet of ships.

Excuse me while I go read Sappho and Catullus.  (Sappho influenced Catullus, and he translated one of her poems.”


Escape Reading: Ten Comfort Books That Beat Holiday Blues

This is the time of year when I like to slow down.  WAY down.

I don’t participate in the holiday frenzy. In the  glossy commercials, attractive nuclear families give orders to their robots, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.   Am I the only one who doesn’t want texts from my vacuum cleaner on Christmas morning?

I blot out Christmas till it’s actually here. We try to have a nice day rather than a gift exchange.

And the hours formerly devoted to shopping are now  spent reading comfort books.  Mind you, these are not all classics but they transport you to another world—and then you’re satisfied with this one!


1  I love D. E. Stevenson’s Bel Lamington, a light, charming novel I inhaled in an afternoon.

Although there is a marriage plot, the  heroine does not want to marry.  Bel, an orphan from the country, has a good job as a secretary in London.  She misses flowers and greenery, so she makes a secret garden on the flat roof outside her window. And this secret garden is so charming that I didn’t care what happened next!

One evening she finds a man sitting on her deck-chair in the garden.  Mark is an artist, and almost immediately starts sketching her.   He is fun, but impulsive and selfish. I do love Stevenson’s description of the artists’ scene!

The other man in her life is  Mr. Brownlee, her boss, who  upgrades her job responsibilities before he goes on a business trip to  South America.  Jealousies in the office escalate, and she ends up out of a job and on vacation in Scotland  with her old school friend, Louise. I won’t tell you what happens–but it ends happily for her!

The Truth by Terry Pratchett  is a witty satire of journalism, set in Pratchett’s fantastical city of Ankh-Pork, where William de Worde starts a newspaper after dwarves invent a printing press.

The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale, a writer whose short stories were published in The New Yorker.  She was the  daughter of painters Lilian Westcott Hale and Philip L. Hale.  She was inspired to write this memoir about her unconventional family by relics  she found in  her mother’s studio when she cleaned it out after Lilian’s death.   A classic!

4  Carter Dickson’s And So to Murder, a  fast, funny Golden Age Detective novel with no corpses!  Set in a movie studio at the beginning of World War II, it focuses on the foibles of movie directors, writers, and actors as well as struggles to close blackout curtains and the fear of Nazi spies.

5. An Orderly Man by Dirk Bogarde.  Tired of the hectic life of an actor, Bogarde buys a small run-down house in France. He hires an architect to renovate it. While he is away finishing a film, the contractors make a mess, and everything that can go wrong does. Any home-owner will appreciate these difficulties, even if his or her house is not 500 years old!

Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy.  This delightful  novel is for women of a certain age, or at least for women who know they may someday be that age.  The witty Confessions are narrated by a sixtyish interior decorator who falls in love with a 40ish man.   She tells us that Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, but failed to invent the Jocasta complex, “to look at the situation from the point of view of…his mother.”  In her work as an interior decorator, she meets the gorgeous French tile maker, Alain.  An enjoyable light novel!

William Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Metropolitan Life.  These delightful autobiographical novels about a physics-teacher-turned-civil-servant are the first two  in a series of five.  They were praised by Kingsley Amis and John Braine.  Neglected classics!

8  In Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat,  moody flappers and free love abound. The narrator, a writer, relates the tragic  story of Iris Storm, a languorous , beautiful woman of the 1920s who wears a green hat and drives “a long, low, yellow car which shone like a battle-chariot.”

9 Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, a collection of charming columns she wrote in for the London Times, was published as a novel in 1939.  Mrs. Miniver’s domestic life is happy, she loves her children, one of whom is at Eton, and she  describes marriage as two crescents bound at the points, with a leaf-shaped space in the middle “for privacy or understanding.” In my favorite scene,  she endearingly buys an expensive green lizard engagement diary instead of a  hat.

10  Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost.  Porter, an Indiana native and environmentalist, is best-known for her children’s books. (You can read an excellent article about her by Janet Malcolm in The New York Review of Books.)  I thoroughly enjoyed  Girl of the Limberlost, which I recommend to fans of Anne of Green Gables.  Determined to get an education, Elnora defies her mother, a reclusive farmer who won’t give her money for new clothes.   Mocked by the other students, she walks home crying.  Two neighbors discover Elnora’s plight and buy the appropriate clothing and books – and a local expert on natural history, Bird Woman, informs her she can sell moths from her collection. An excellent coming-of-age story.


Afternoons off: Cultural Adventures, or Reading?

I take one afternoon off a week.

The first rule of the afternoon off is:  No technology.  The second:  Have a destination.   Look at public art,  have an ice cream soda at the fun restaurant that never gets the orders right, or persuade a librarian to let you  borrow MacKinlay Cantor’s out-of-print novel, Spirit Lake, which is bizarrely in a special collection.

Fortunately, we had a gorgeous day, so I set out to look at public art.  I decided to check out the “Timeless Beaverdale” mural in the Beaverdale neighborhood.

“Timeless Beaverdale” mural:  I really don’t know where the hell this is!

The Beaverdale neighborhood has a mystique.  They love their Beaverdale bricks (brick houses), annual parade and festival (we always find squished candy on the street), and every business has “Beaverdale” in the title.

All right, I couldn’t find the mural!

There are several stores in what I think of as “downtown Beaverdale.”   But the mural wasn’t there!

And then I learned there is another block of restaurants and pubs near the Catholic church.  The mural is somewhere around there.  But the sun was setting, and the vampires would soon come out…

Another day.


There are more new”Best of ” lists every day.  Although the same few books tend to get mentioned again and again, occasionally you find something new.  Here are five links!

Shelf Awareness, the publisher of two newsletters for readers and booksellers.

The Guardian.  Best books of 2018: Hilary Mantel, Yuval Noah Harari and more pick their favourites

The New York TimesTimes Critics’ Top Books of 2018

Vulture.  The 10 Best Books of 2018

And last but not least:

Largehearted Boy, a compilation of  Online Best Books of 2018 links

Happy Reading and Happy Afternoons off!

The Shaping of a Liberal & Reading “Reinventing Anarchy”

The politics of the 2010s could not be more different from the problematic politics of the 1970s.  But at least back then we witnessed the rise of the ecology movement, the Clean Air Act, Second Wave feminism, the legalization of abortion, the end of the Vietnam war, and the impeachment of Nixon.  And now the country is going backwards.

And that is why I am reading the 1979 tome, Reinventing Anarchy: What Are Anarchists Thinking These Days?   I want finally to comprehend the political views that inspired social change and resistance to government oppression.

I am not particularly political, but in my hometown everybody was a radical. Some were brilliant; others simply lacked good sense.  When I tell my husband about the teacher who taught me to shoplift (an activity I disapprove of, by the way, but which was then anti-capitalist or something), he asks, “Were any of your teachers not radicals?”

In this university town, the leftists were teachers, professors, students, freaks ( hippies), and  friends’ parents.  They believed their voices and actions could make a difference. Students pursued the Dean on bicycles, took over buildings, and marched the streets. Radicals formed collectives. And thus sprang up the Women’s Center, a women’s health clinic, day-care co-ops, a food co-op, free legal aid offices, and more.

Whether they were socialists, anarchists, or other I couldn’t say. I  didn’t know the “-isms.”

My closest friend was the daughter of radicals. We absorbed some of her parents’ ideas but in general ignored them.  We listened to The Band and wrote satires together. And we believed earnestly we would  one day be like Anna and Molly, the “Free Women” of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

Damn Google!   I learned from Google that she died in her forties, survived by her parents and cat.  And the part about the cat got to me.

Absurdly, I wondered if our health would have been better had we had not lost touch.  When she moved away, her parents invited me to come and live in their collective, but I erroneously thought my father needed me, and what if I had to attend political meetings in the collective?  (I am sure they would have spared us that!)  My friend had a breakdown, and I had a couple of nightmarish years.  Were we, as Hillary used to say, “Stronger together”?

I picked up the anthology Reinventing Anarchy because one of the writers is  a couple of degrees of separation away.  And there are some brilliant articles about feminism, the failure of the electoral system, and the differences between anarchism and Marxism. There are also poems, cartoons, and posters.

I have crudely absorbed a few of their principles, and I assure you that they are the opposite of the stereotype of the anarchist.   Their goal is the non-violent destruction of hierarchy.  They believe small groups and collectives can be a means of personal and political liberation.   And of course everyone should get an equal wage, though perhaps adjusted for families.  But, unlike Marxists, their emphasis is really on working to better the community without hierarchy.  The writers of this book admit they’re a bit like libertarians.

Judith Malina writes in the article, “Anarchists and the Pro-Hierarchical Left”:

There is nothing integral to the nature of human social organization that makes hierarchy, centralization and elitism inescapable. These organizational forms persist, in part because they serve the interests of those at the top. They persist, too, because we have learned to accept roles of leadership and followership; we have come to accept hierarchy as necessary, and centralization as efficient. All of this is to say that we learned the ideological justifications for elite organizations quite well.

Very idealistic, but I do not believe we will ever see these changes.

The liveliest and most fascinating essay is  Kingsley Widmer’s“Three Times around the Track: how American workouts helped me become an anarchist.”  He writes about how the junior high coach used to punish them by making them run three times around the track.  This is his metaphor for how we learn to obey authority and knuckle under in the workplace.

I will not read all the articles in the books, but I understand a little more about anarchism.

And here is a cartoon in the book that I think is pertinent to today.

Wintry Mood Reading: Five Books & an Ode

It is dark at 5 p.m., and I don’t deal well with the dark.  Every winter, I struggle with the gloom and the cold.  Thank God the Winter Solstice is almost here, so we can look forward to the return of lighter days. Meanwhile, turn on  the lights, drink some wine, and get in the winter mood by reading wintry books.

Here are:


1.   Ice by Anna Kavan.   Kavan, an English writer who became addicted to heroin during a stay in the hospital in the 1930s, has a reputation as a “cult” writer. In her famous novel, Ice, the world is on the brink of an icy nuclear war, and the narrator is searching for a mysterious, fragile girl who has eluded her two male pursuers, the narrator and her husband (who thinks she is in need of psychiatric treatment). For those of us who’ve read Kavan’s biography, it is obvious that the fragile girl is based on Kavan, who charmed men but rejected them in favor of heroin.  The narrator of Ice tells us, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”  Lyrical prose and a weird trip through a winter world.

2.   The Silent Land by Graham Joyce.  The plot of this eerie novel is as uncanny as that of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, a fable about the afterlife.   Zoe and Jake are on an expensive skiing holiday.  One morning they are on the mountain before anyone else, and then there is an avalanche.  Zoe is buried upside down and there is only a small pocket of air.  They make it back to the hotel, which is eerily empty, and have all the food they need, but every time they try to leave the village they cannot get beyond a point. What is happening?  Are they dead?  This novel is brilliant beyond description.

3.   In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende.  In this gorgeously written novel, Allende deftly interweaves the complex narratives of two Latin American women and an American man. The book commences during a blizzard that shuts down New York.   Sixty-two-year-old Lucia, a visiting lecturer at NYU from Chile,  is freezing in the basement apartment of a brownstone in Brooklyn, cuddled up with Marcelo, her Chihuahua, and wondering why Richard, her cheap landlord and boss at NYU, doesn’t turn up the heat.  Lucia is a warm, optimistic woman who still hopes to find love, despite her husband’s desertion of her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She is also dealing with the recent loss of her mother, and the decades-old anguish over her brother’s disappearance  after the 1973 coup in Chile.  When Lucia and Richard encounter a Guatemalan refugee, they take a drive in a blizzard to save her from her homicidal employer.

4.  Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.  I never appreciated this Nobel-winning classic until I read Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s elegant translation in 2010. Talk about winter:  this brilliant realistic novel  has more snowy scenes than you’re likely to endure in the Arctic in the age of global warning.  Doctor Yuri Zhivago, an idealist, doctor, and poet,  does what he needs to survive the Russian Revolution but is separated from his family and conscripted as an army doctor. He also struggles with his love for Lara, a teacher who is the wife of a fanatical revolutionary.  Utterly breathtaking, history, romance, and snow.

5.  Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.  In this award-winning science fiction novel, the soldier narrator, Breq, has trouble identifying gender, and is on a special mission in search of a special antique gun.  The book opens like a noir western:  on a winter planet (a nod to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness), Breq finds a body in the snow:  it is  Seivarden, a person he used to know and didn’t like.  Seivarden’s body, frozen for 1,000 years after a disaster, was recently rediscovered and thawed. She is  a drug addict who will sell anything she can find  for drugs. Breq understands her tragic history:  she refused “re-education” and turned to drugs after she was suddenly awakened and found herself in a world she didn’t understand.  The two form a strange alliance.  You won’t be able to stop turning the pages.

7.  And as a bonus, here is Dryden’s  translation of one of Horace’s odes about winter, Ode I.X

Behold yon mountain’s hoary height
Made higher with new mounts of snow:
Again behold the winter’s weight
Oppress the labouring woods below’
And streams with icy fetters bound
Benumbed and cramped to solid ground.

With well-heaped logs dissolve the cold
And feed the genial hearth with fires;
Produce the wine that makes us bold,
And spritely wit and love inspires;
For what hereafter shall betide
God (if ’tis worth His care) provide.

Let Him alone with what He made,
To toss and turn the world below;
At His command the storms invade,
The winds by His commission blow;
Till with a nod He bids them cease
And then the calm returns and all is peace.

Tomorrow and its works defy;
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by
To put them out of Fortune’s power;
Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –
Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.

Secure those golden early joys
That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,
Ere with’ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years.
For active sports, for pleasing rest.
This is the time to be posesst;
The best is but in season best.

Th’appointed hour of promised bliss,
The pleasing whisper in the dark,
The half-unwilling willing kiss,
The laugh that guides thee to the mark,
When the kind nymph would coyness feign
And hides but to be found again –
These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain.

Are You an Upstart? Emma vs. Mrs. Elton

Are you ready for winter reading?  Not a single flake has stuck to the ground, but the mix of mushy rain-snow is unpleasant.  And so I did a LOT of laundry today, and then retreated into a 19th-century novel.  Jane Austen’s Emma soon obliterated the gloom.

Each time I read Emma, I  focus on a different aspect, and this time  I was struck by the rivalry between Emma Woodhouse and the nouveau riche Mrs. Elton.  Mr. Elton, the vicar, married Augusta on the rebound after Emma rejected his proposal of marriage.   The first meeting between Emma and Mrs. Elton is awkward.  Mrs. Elton marks her territory:  she insists that Emma’s stately home, Hartfield, is exactly like her brother Mr. Suckling’s estate, Maple Grove.   She is  determined to rival Emma in society, and does not recognize their class differences.  (Should I say, “Good for her,” or “How annoying”?)

Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson) and Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) in “Emma” (1996)

Nobody likes bossy, vulgar Mrs. Elton. Emma considers her an upstart, Knightley thinks her manners deplorable, and the brilliant Jane Fairfax, Emma’s only real rival in terms of education and talent (Jane surpasses her), must bear Mrs. Elton’s condescension as long as she lives with her impoverished aunt and grandmother.  Mrs. Elton assumes that a ball in Highbury has been put on for her, though it was planned before Mrs.Elton moved to Highbury.  But the best people, though they despise Mrs. Elton,  have such excellent manners that Mrs. Weston urges her husband to open the ball with Mrs. Elton.  (It should have been Emma and Frank Churchill, we learn.)

Mrs. Elton is a kind of shadow Emma. She does good works with less grace:  Emma has befriended Harriet Smith, a young woman of unknown birth; Mrs. Elton has befriended, or more like dominated, the superior Jane  Fairfax.   Ironically Mrs. Elton “has a horror of upstarts.” When Mr. Weston explains that his son’s aunt, Mrs. Churchill, is not well-born but soon outdid  Churchill family in snobbery, Mrs. Elton says,

Only think! well, that must be infinitely provoking! I have quite a horror of upstarts. Maple Grove has given me a thorough disgust to people of that sort; for there is a family in that neighborhood who are such an annoyance to my brother and sister from the airs they give themselves! Your description of Mrs. Churchill made me think of them directly. People of the name of Tupman, very lately settled there, and encumbered with many low connexions, but giving themselves immense airs, and expecting to be on a footing with the old established families.”

We have all known social climbers,  but the brazen Mrs. Elton thinks she has no need to climb.  That’s much more American than English, isn’t it? Am I an upstart?  I don’t know many upstarts,  because I am no use to them in their clawing to the top!


Dress Like an Anarchist & Other Challenges


“In 2017, despite getting married, vacationing in Maine, and remodeling three rooms in my house, I managed to read 137 books.”

This is not a skit: it’s a quote from an article about finishing the 2018  Goodreads Reading Challenge. Four bibliophiles who read over 100 books a year talked about their reading habits and their challenge tips.

Goodreads is a fun site, where I’ve found excellent books, like Grace Dane Mazur’s brilliant novel, The Garden Party.  And I enjoy the Goodreads Reading Challenge.  And yet every year women bloggers and women writers publish articles about anxiety about the Goodreads challenge. Is this sublimation for other anxieties in the 21st century?  Or does the internet foster discontent?

Illustration by Laura Callaghan

Do we consume more books by participating in reading challenges?  Of course.  There is the Women in Translation challenge, the Pop Sugar challenge, the historical novel challenge, the TBR challenge, Japanese lit, Italian lit, German lit, and hundreds of others.  The problem is, if you do all these, you  won’t have time to achieve your personal goals.

I’m not a particularly political person, but after reading some 20th-century articles on anarchism and feminism, I started thinking about how the internet shapes our consumerism.  Marketers stalk us.   We are encouraged to consume more commodities. We must do more book challenges, post cuter selfies, read more books, get more followers and “friends,” and buy those adorable soft lounging clothes I now see at lifestyle blogs and crave, and why is there still a void?

In one of the articles I recently read, a feminist anarchist reminds us of what I used to know.

It is difficult to consume people who put up a fight, who resist the cannibalizing of their bodies, their minds, their daily lives. A few people manage to resist, but most don’t resist effectively, because they can’t. It is hard to locate our tormentor, because it is so pervasive, so familiar. We have known it all our lives. It is our culture.

I  told my husband that I might become an anarchist.  He said, “You’ll have to show people you are and dress like an anarchist.”

Well, I can’t afford a new wardrobe…

Happy Reading Challenges, People, and remember, you control the number—it doesn’t control you!