We are obsessed with summer reading. What will we peruse? Classics or light books? Some prefer the Modernists; others the Victorians; others enjoy cute beach romances with cover art depicting Adirondack chairs. And I would too if I hadn’t already lost one of Elin Hilderbrand’s Nantucket novels—at the beach!
Summer is also an ideal time for long-term projects. You can read The Tale of Genji (did it), The Death of Virgil (spoiled my idea of Virgil, who is portrayed in the first 30 pages as a dying man ogling a boy fan), the worst of Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit), or Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy (which I’m not as crazy about as most people).
But this year I have a far, far tougher quest: catching up with at least three books published in the last few years.
I’m in my armor, on my horse. I’ve got some books. Alas, the regrettably simple style of 21st literature is often colorless and dull. Blab, blab, blab: I like the classics. But this summer I’m going partially for new “pop,” new “literary, and “new” nonfiction. Maybe I can even read four new books.
Before I go on to trash new books, let me recommend some brilliant new books I’ve read this year.
Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a brilliant feminist retelling of Beowulf.
Brad Leithauser’s The Promise of Elsewhere, an academic satire in which a professor goes rogue on vacation in Europe.
Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day, a novel about two couples’ complicated relationships.
Pam Houston’s graceful collection of essays, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.
Vita Nostra, a pretty good SF novel by Marina and Sergey Dychenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey.
And here is a list of mediocre new books I’ve read parts of but then rejected. This doesn’t mean they’re bad.
The Heartland: An American History, by Kristin L. Hoganson. This history of the midwest by a professor at the University of Illinois has been well-reviewed—and kudos to Hoganson for taking on the Midwest! But it seemed narrow, concentrating almost entirely on research in Illinois, which doesn’t take into consideration the differences between groups of immigrants in different states or problems endemic to different landscapes. She does make interesting parallels between the Kickapoo Indians and itinerant pioneers. But ye gods! She devotes an entire chapter to the breeding of livestock. That’s where I gave up.
All the Lives We Ever Lived, by Katharine Smyth. How could I not love a bibliomemoir about Virginia Woolf? But Smyth is too richy-rich for me. I tired of her father’s “varnishing the teak of the cockpit” of their yacht. I abandoned this book after 30 pages..
David Means’s Instructions for a Funeral, a collection of short stories. Too verbose for me.
Marie Benedict’s The Only Woman in the Room, a historical novel about Hedy Larmarr, the actress, and a Barnes and Noble Book Club selection. Actually, I finished this, but found it formulaic.
So on with the quest for great new books! The most-promoted new books will not necessarily be the best.
Last week, we pulled over at a rest stop. Sheet lightning was flashing and the wind was so strong it shook the car. We sat in our shuddering car wondering what to do. A woman in a car beside us looked out her window anxiously.
We couldn’t save her, we regret.
No one could save us, either.
This is the way it’s going to be.
Storms come up suddenly. Furious storms, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes. We’ve never seen so many.
This week, it’s raining. Everybody has water in the basement. Everybody hopes it won’t flood, though there has been terrible flooding this spring in Nebraska and western Iowa.
Now, we need to stop burning fossil fuels. We need to go VERY green. Yet there’s resistance to green energy like wind turbines (which spoil the landscape or kill the birds, according to rich men of different political parties, among them Trump (it spoils the view on his Scottish golf course), Robert Kennedy, Jr. (it spoils the view on Nantucket or wherever), and Jonathan Franzen (who worries about the birds, which will all be dead if we don’t change to green energy). There is similar resistance to the huge solar farms: rich people in a gated community in Virginia oppose them because the solar panels spoil their view.
HERE’S WHAT HUMAN BEINGS CAN DO: Every time you DON’T drive you help. Take the bus or bicycle. According to the EPA, motor vehicles cause 75 percent of carbon monoxide pollution in the U.S. And yet people cannot make the connection that driving is killing the planet. They blithely move to the ex-urbs, which means even MORE driving. And the next generation is being trained to do the same. The driving age here, if you can believe it, is 14.
We have all known for decades that walking, bicycling, and mass transit are good alternatives to driving. After a lifetime of NOT driving a car because of environmental concerns, I begin to wonder why I’ve done it. I despair over the stupidity and greed of human beings. But what about the plants and animals? Yes, they are worth saving.
Drivers do not want you to save the planet. Pedestrians and bicyclists are viewed not as role models but as eccentrics IN THE WAY. Drivers become more and more hostile: road rage. A car hit my husband last year (the driver veered suddenly left into the bike lane) and broke my spouse’s collarbone and punctured his lung. A car also hit the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year (I voted for him) on his bicycle and he will not walk without a walker for six months.
In the Netherlands, drivers are trained to watch out for bicyclists. The New York Times said last October that they’re trained in a maneuver called the Dutch reach.:
When you are about to exit the car, you reach across your body for the door handle with your far or opposite hand. This action forces you to turn toward the side view mirror, out and then back over your shoulder to be sure a bicyclist is not coming from behind. Only then do you slowly open the door.
This is one of many things which should be stressed in the U.S.
So now we’ve almost killed the planet, you might as well read a dystopian novel. I strongly recommend John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, which I wrote about here at my old blog, Mirabile Dictu. In this terrifying post-modern SF classic, pollution has rendered the U.S. a wasteland. The poisoned air blows into Canada and sometimes across the ocean to Europe (sound familiar?); everyone is sick; antibiotics no longer work; fleas and rat infestations in houses and apartment house can no longer be controlled because they are immune to poison; the acid rain in NY is so bad that you need to wear plastic outside; the water is poisoned (there are frequent “no-drink water” days); intelligence levels are dropping (lead in the air and water); a virus causes spontaneous abortion; the oceans are so polluted that people vacation in Colorado rather than California; and big businesses are profiting by selling air filters, water filters, etc.
Three days of drinking beer and grilling hot dogs with the relatives from Kansas may be a trial for an addicted reader. I have been reduced to perusing People magazine at the picnic table. And don’t forget: Cousin Myrna, her husband Mickey, and their grown-up kids, Dakota, Dylan, and Donny, WILL be camping in the backyard. Tattoos WILL be compared. Too many marshmallows will be roasted.
Personally, I’m doing a Beowulf and Beowulf retelling marathon this weekend. (Do I think the relatives are monsters? But I may eat some bratwurst.) I can’t recommend too highly the novel I am reading, Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a feminist retelling of Beowulf.
Whether you know the Beowulf story or not does not matter. The Mere Wife is a compelling book. Somewhere, we do have a copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation. (It has been a LOT of years.) But you can always read a summary of the poem at Encyclopedia Britannica.
People love retold myths, poems, and fairy tales. The Mere Wife, touted by critics, is no exception. Set in a suburban gated community called Herot Hall, this version focuses on the women characters, especially the mothers. Dana, an ex-soldier with PTSD, lives in a cave under the mountain with her son Gren (Grendel), a boy born with teeth and claws; her suburban counterpart, Willa, is the miserable wife of the heir of Herot Hall, who is cheating on her with a neighbor, and Willa is also the ice-cold mother of Dylan, a lonely friendless boy.
The women don’t have much power, or so it seems. Dana, who volunteered as a soldier sometime after 9/11, has survived rape and torture in a hostage situation and returned to the U.S. with only one eye and pregnant by an unknown captor.
Headley writes so insightfully about PTSD that I did really wonder if the author was a veteran. (I haven’t looked it up.) She lyrically, impressionistically describes Dana’s state of mind. You are immediately in Dana’s chilling world in the first paragraph of the prologue.
Say it. The beginning and end at once. I’m facedown in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead. I think about praying, but i’ve never been any good at asking for help. I try to sing. There aren’t any songs for this. All I have is a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things will be well.
And Dana understands how the military recruits young ignorant people who want to be heroes. The reality is different.
Back in the U.S., Dana returns to Herot Hall, where she grew up (though her modest family’s house has been bulldozed), and in a harrowing scene, gives birth in the mountain cave to her “monster” son, Gren. He will never fit in, so she protects him by living in isolation under the mountain.
But the blond, gorgeous trophy wife, Willa, is the really violent one. Boiling with repressed rage at Herot Hall, where she has nothing to do, she wants her glass house–glass walls and no curtains–to remain perfect. Her willful misinterpretation of what she has seen—Gren as a monster rather than a child playing with her son during her perfect party—drives her berserk. And she goads the Beowulfian hero, Ben Woolf, a policeman and war veteran, to investigate.
Sometimes there is a chorus of the zoned-out wives of Herlot Hill, who do Pilates, boxing, and are in shape for whatever happens. They don’t have power, but they insist on action here. They want blood.
The most famous retelling of Beowulf is John Gardner’s Grendel, written from the point of view of the monster. I have had a used copy on the shelf for many years, but I am ashamed to say I have never read it. And I just discovered that there is WRITING in it. You cant imagine how unhappy this makes me. But it’s in pencil, so I plan to erase it.
Have you read Beowulf ? Have you read The Mere Wife or Grendel? And what are you reading this weekend?
What do I want to read during summer vacation? Will it be Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, or Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries?
I took my vacation last week, so the planning of vacation reading is moot. But let me recommend three short perfect books for travel.
The German writer Kurt Tucholsky’s novel, Castle Gripsholm (NYRB), translated by Michael Hoffman, is the charming story of a summer vacation in Sweden. Published in 1931, it begins with a series of short letters between the author and an editor who asks him to write a short love story. Tucholsky’s reply is facetious.
A love story… but, my dear master, how could I possibly? Love in the present climate? Are you in love? Is anyone in love these days?
Tucholsky says he would prefer to write “a little summer story.” And then the little summer story begins.
The characters are endearingly original and delightfully bohemian. A writer, Peter, travels to Sweden with his girlfriend Lydia, a witty secretary whom he nicknames the Princess. The two are romantically involved, though their manner is not in the least romantic.
It is impossible not to enjoy their repartee. The couple have the same comic sensibility. On a brief stop in Copenhagen, they visit the Polysandrion, a little museum which displays bad paintings by a singularly untalented gay Danish artist who owns the villa. They find the paintings hilarious: they depict scantily-clad young men with butterflies perched on their shoulders and bottoms. But Peter and Lydia must delay laughing because the painter’s friend is there.
In Stockholm, they walk around admiring the beautiful houses. “A city with water is always beautiful.” But they want to get out of Stockholm and find a cottage in the country. A shrewd guide who speaks German with an American accent takes them to Mariefred, where they tour Castle Gripsholm. Unexpectedly, he finds them the perfect place to stay, large rooms in the annex of the castle. Their stay is idyllic.
Tucholsky’s style is buoyant, witty, and lyrical. This lovely account of a summer holiday is so exquisitely detailed you can see the charming castle, feel the lapping of waves on the lake, and hear the beautiful silence which they are unused to in Berlin. Peter says that eyelids are not enough: he needs “earlids” in the city.
There isn’t much plot, and such as it is revolves around visits from devoted friends and a good deed (really a rescue mission). The latter doesn’t quite fit in with the rest. But I loved this book.
In Rebecca West’s spare first novel, The Return of the Soldier, set during World War I, a soldier’s amnesia causes chaos. Shell-shocked Chris cannot remember Kitty, his shallow, pretty wife, and is desperately in love with Margaret, a woman of another class whom he wanted to marry long ago. The third woman, Jenny, his cousin, understands him as well as Margaret does, and also is in love with him. Who are the real soldiers here? It could be argued that Margaret and Jenny are, as they sadly do their duty, which will make no one happy.
In the Russian poet Karolina Pavlova’s only novel, A Double Life, published in 1848, she mixes prose and poetry to great effect. Pavlova tells the story of a wealthy young woman, Cecily, who enjoys riding, parties, flirtations, and dancing. The mood of the novel is often dreamy, somewhat reminiscent of Turgenev. Cecily leads a double life, absorbed in dreams and fantasies of love; but also apprehensive about where love will take her. And she is surrounded by manipulative people: her best friend Olga’s mother, a sophisticated society woman, views Cecily as the rival of her daughter , and plots to deflect an eligible suitor. Pavlova was apparently unpopular with male poets and writers, who jeered at her poetry. And is this why she disappeared from the canon? I admired this elegant novel.
I spent a few days in Iowa City, my hometown. I did some research at the University of Iowa Library. And I also took long walks around town.
Nostalgia was laced with Zola-like naturalistic observations as I contemplated the monstrous greed of developers who have destroyed whole blocks of graceful old houses and replaced them with cheap apartment houses.
And that’s why you can’t go home again. It’s like having double vision: seeing everything twice through optometrists’ lenses.
At first it was blissful.
Iowa City is pleasantly deserted in May, because the students are gone, and you have the place to yourself . You do not have to stand in line for an American Gothic coffee at Java House. You nip up the hill to College Green Park to sip your coffee and read Barbara Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment, an eminently suitable vacation novel, peopled by Pym’s diffident, eccentric characters: Ianthe Broome, a librarian, who has “an unsuitable attachment” to a younger man; Sophia, a vicar’s wife, who is obsessed with her cat, Faustina; and Rupert Stonebird, an anthropologist, who can’t decide if he is more attracted to Penelope, whom he calls”the pre-Raphaelite beat-nik,”and to Ianthe, who is “more suitable.”
In the days when College Green Park was called College Street Park (why the change?), I often sat on the swings or picnicked on takeout from the Pioneer Food Co-op. It is the same mellow space it always was, except now it has a new gazebo.
After leaving the Park, I headed over to Washington Street and down the hill to the University of Iowa Library. This is a real library–with tens of thousands of old books. I found a table by the window in the eerily dark literature and language stacks, and arranged my crisp new notebook, British Library pen, and backup hotel pen. And so began the reading and note-taking.
So many books, some great, some terrible. I quickly flashed back to grad school techniques and recalled the unscholarly habit of judging books by the title. Yes, why not? One needs a whimsical sorting system among so many unpromising dull books. Not surprisingly, Sarah Lindheim’s Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides, is clever and amusing: the title even echoes You’ve Got Mail, the Nora Ephron movie. Lindheim is such a smart, amusing writer that I can’t help but think the allusion was deliberate. And the book is a fascinating analysis of Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of elegiac epistles written from mythological heroines to their lovers and husbands. On the other hand, I struck out with A Web of Fantasies:Gaze, Image, and Gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by Patricia B. Slazman-Mitchell. It’s best to avoid books with “gender” in the title, I decided.
After a morning at the library, I did a lot of walking. I do recommend visiting Hickory Hill Park, 190 acres of woods, meadows, creek, etc. I used to know the park well, but they have bought more land, built more trails, and have deliberately revamped others so you go nowhere near the gap in the fence that led into Oakland Cemetery and was a shortcut home. The large open meadow is now confusingly planted with trees, while another open meadow (which I mistook for the old one) still has that Andrew Wyeth look that makes you want to plop down in the sun. (I got sunburn.) A deer and I came face to face when I stumbled on a remote muddy trail, which perhaps was not even a human trail. Yes, I did get lost, but eventually found an exit that led to Dodge Street. Wow, I need to start a five-miles-a-day walking regimen, because I could feel this in my legs! My husband looked it up and said it was eight miles as the crow flies.
Iowa City is home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and in 2008 was named a UNESCO City of Books. We were always vaguely proud of the Workshop, where Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Gail Godwin, John Cheever, Frank Conroy, Marvin Bell, Marilynne Robinson, T. C. Boyle, Karen E. Bender, Margot Livesey, and many other brilliant writers have studied or taught.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, however, is NOT a haven for Iowa writers. The only Workshop alumna I can think of from Iowa is Elizabeth Evans. No, these geniuses come from New York, California, occasionally Grosse Point, Michigan. The name “Iowa Writers’ Workshop” is an oxymoron. I’m not suggesting a name change–I’m all for tradition!–but there is a certain irony.
Iowa City has always been bookish, but nowadays has trouble supporting bookstores, despite the UNESCO status. Prairie Lights, a two-story bookstore established in the late ’70s, is still magnificent, and has a stunning selection of new books and a good selection of classics, but the number of books seems slightly smaller than it used to be. Prairie Lights also sponsors readings, though fewer big names come through on tour these days. Mostly the readings are by Workshop writers now.
There are only a couple of other bookstores left in Iowa City. Around the block from Prairie Lights is Iowa Book, which used to be called Iowa Book and Supply (or Iowa Book and Crook). To say I was shocked that the store now has only a few shelves of remainders is an understatement. It always made most its money from t-shirts and sweatshirts, but now that is the entire business.
As for used bookstores, I am not a fan of The Haunted Bookshop, where a cat once attacked me. The bookstore clerks apologized, but as a longtime “cat mom” in a multi-cat household, I assure you this is unusual cat behavior. And, honestly, the condition of the books at The Haunted Bookshop is often barely “acceptable.” I miss Martha the cat at Murphy-Brookfield, a truly great bookstore that, alas, folded a few years ago. The Haunted Bookshop is now located in the old Murphy-Brookfield building.
There are many restaurants in Iowa City. The pedestrian downtown lost its department stores years ago and is now a center of restaurants and bars. The best food I found? The vegetarian sandwich at the University Library’s cafe. Honestly, I lived on those. But you won’t go hungry.
CAVEAT: Iowa City is larger than it used to be, and if you are a woman alone, do be careful. It’s hard to take Iowa City seriously as a city because it seems so quaint, but things change, and I was too casual in the evening. Iowa City has a homeless problem, or so I’d read in The Press Citizen, without taking it seriously. I scoffed, until I went to CVS at the Old Capitol Mall around 5 p.m., and had to thread my way through crowds of homeless men out of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. No, it wasn’t Little Dorrit or the Father of the Marshalsea. And I’m not anti-homeless, but they’re destitute and often off their meds. I am talking about safety. I also had not considered the risks of studying at the library at night. During the day, there are people working upstairs, but at night the stacks were deserted. I skedaddled out of there.
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SURROUNDINGS. IF YOU FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE , LEAVE.
Yup, I couldn’t face it that Iowa City is a real city now.
Overall, a lovely trip, and it can be fun to visit your hometown. Just don’t stay too long!
I didn’t have time to read Rumer Godden’s Gypsy, Gypsy. After 30 pages, I regretfully put it away. Set in France, this charming novel focuses on Henrietta, a young woman who has been raised by Aunt Barbe, a Colette-like debauchee with “gentlemen” friends. Henrietta wistfully wants a simple life in the country but her warped aunt has other ideas. The book is a study in the contrast between simplicity and dissipation. Published in 1940, this does not seem to be one of Godden’s better-written novels, but I do intend to finish it someday (if I can find it). I predict the end will be (1) marriage, and (2) a move to the country.
I was at the library to do research for an article which is not exactly scholarly but perhaps a bit esoteric. It wasn’t exactly boring—I enjoyed much of the reading—but then I found some lighter books in the stacks that I prefer. There was Gypsy, Gypsy, as well as Dear Dodie, a biography of Dodie Smith, and Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Gratitude, a volume of her autobiography. Such a treat!
But there is much to do when you’re on a brief “research” trip. If you don’t do research, the trip is not justified, let alone deductible, and I’m not at all sure about the “deductible” part anyway. You look up articles in a not very orderly way, you drag a lot of books to a table, you take a lot of notes.… and then decide to change the focus of your article. I was delighted by Sarah Lindheim’s Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides. And so I wondered, Should I mention the Heroides, though I’ve always considered these poems substandard? This book had caught my eye in the stacks, and is unusually well-written. Some scholarly stuff really is not.
I was also astonished by what I could access on my tablet. Free access to articles from obscure journals! What? You don’t have to go up in the dark stacks and find the right journal? Oh, wait, this article is by a former friend and who knew how smart she was! Well, you did know… still. And it turns out you can subscribe to a service online and access these journals. But so much more fun to go to a library and get it free.
They try to make libraries “fun” these days. The “fun” is on the first floor. There is a cafe, really more a market where you grab wrapped sandwiches and drinks. Then two TVs are on ALL THE TIME. I did not care for this concept. The sound was off, thank God.
The library IS a bit spooky at night. The lights are on a sensor system, so you walk miles in the stacks before the lights come on. I got the jitters one evening and got the hell out of there. It’s a daytime place!
But then there are the books. Books and books and books, occupying four of the five floors, I think. Wouldn’t it be fun just to read at the library for a week?
The copy of Gypsy, Gypsy has that old-fashioned library binding. I like the feel of the cover and the library book smell. The dust jackets are not a part of a research library’s apparatus, even though the special library binding seems dead.
We’ve had such lovely weather that I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors. Nothing is more charming than sauntering on cobblestone sidewalks past lilac bushes and blooming fruit trees in the wild yards of old hippies. White blossoms covered one brick sidewalk like snow. I walked under blossoms across blossoms.
I also walked up and down hills, and my hips feel creaky as a result. I ambled around a scenic cemetery, green and leafy, very hilly, and looked at gravestones–the dates give you a perspective–other people have done this life thing before–and you’ll be in a grave one day .
The new gazebo in the cemetery had no benches. I had planned to sit there and read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, her exquisite memoir about life on a coffee plantation in Africa. But I couldn’t sit on a stone slab! A pity, because Dinesen is ideal outdoor reading. Her memoir is not precisely linear, but the language washes over you as her vivid vignettes unfold.
I wondered as I walked around the cemetery if Out of Africa, published in 1937, is still appreciated, or if it is dismissed as racist because she sometimes calls Africans “natives”? And can the fussy readers of today imagine a Danish woman in 1912 moving to Kenya to run a coffee plantation with her syphilitic husband, and, after seeking medical treatment in Denmark for syphilis herself, returning to the man who infected her? After Dinesen’s husband left her in 1921, she ran the plantation alone until 1931. Her experiences are touching and vividly detailed: she gives medical treatment to the Africans, adopts an antelope, Lulu, and saves the life of Kamante, a young boy who becomes her chef and medical assistant. No matter that she knows all about the cultures of the Kikuyu and the Masai: I can imagine the Millennials slamming the book shut.
I have not observed this readerly intolerance myself. I worry about this only because professors and journalists rant about the younger generation’s rejection of classics. If Millennials and Gen Z think something is sexist or racist, they’re done with it, according to several writers of articles. I do hope they’re exaggerating. I’m praying that the end of the world won’t go down in iPhones and intolerance.
I do love Out of Africa, and recently found a new Modern Library hardback with a pretty cover. In my favorite part of Out of Africa, Dinesen decides to write a book. The Africans who work for her gather in the dining room and watch her. Kamante asks if she really thinks she can write a book. He picks up her copy of The Odyssey and points out that it is hard and the pages stay together, while hers are loose and all over the dining room table. She explains that in Denmark they can put it together. But he doubts that anyone can make it blue.
And I love this bit about reading in a drought.
So I went to bed, taking a book with me, and leaving the lamp to burn. In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he may have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun. Your mind runs, transported, along a fresh deep green track.