Am I Hallucinating, or Is Every Book Group Reading Trollope’s Palliser Series?


I belong to too many online book groups.   You probably do, too.

But here’s what I wonder:  why are they all  reading Trollope’s Palliser series?

Mind you, I love the aristocratic Pallisers.   Trollope’s six-book “political” series is loosely linked by recurring characters who are members of the political and social  circles of Plantaganet Palliser, a dry-as-dust  politician, and his lively, willful wife, Lady Glencora.

I am a great rereader, but  recently I was struck by the comedy of hundreds of Victorian lit fans rereading the Pallisers–probably for comfort and sanity!  My email Trollope group has read the Palliser series several times, and is about to embark on The Duke’s Children, the last  in the series.

And then I visited a Goodreads group I’ve long neglected, “The Readers Review: Literature from 1714 to 1910.” And they just finished The Duke’s Children.

The Duke’s Children is not my favorite Trollope, but since I seem to be  living in a Palliser era, don’t you think I should participate?

I wonder if we need the relatively cozy (though sometimes very dark) Palliser books to get us through our current unstable age.

Long live Trollope!

A Return to “War and Peace”

My “War and Peace” collection

I am rereading War and Peace, my favorite novel. (Well, it is tied with my other favorite, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette).  I have read Tolstoy’s classic 12 times since I was 18, when it changed my concept of the novel, and I’ve written  about it eight times at my old blog Mirabile Dictu.

Tolstoy’s masterpiece is more than a blockbuster novel:  it is a portal to 19th-century Russia, particularly to society in Moscow and Petersburg . And may I say the Rostov family and their awkward, fat friend Pierre seem as real to me as many people I know?  I am also fond of Nikolai Rostov’s military comrades in the Napoleonic Wars, especially the doppelgängers,  Denisov (lisping, comical noble, valiant ) and Dolokhov (valiant, a devoted son, but also nasty, jealous, and immoral). Both men fall in love with Rostov women, Denisov with Nikolai’s sister Natasha and  Dolokhov with Nikolai’s cousin Sonia.  (Is there a latent, transferred homosexuality here?)  When rejected, Denisov is embarrassed and knows he overstepped boundaries, but Dolokhov takes revenge by bankrupting Nikolai at cards.

My favorite character is Marya Bolokhonskaya, a plain young spinster who finds joy in doing good works, household duties, and religion.  We wonder, Will she ever escape her eccentric, often verbally abusive father?  Will any man ever see her inner beauty? But we admire her practicality in not living for silly flirtations and fashion.

I know something of the perils of translation, and so I was  fascinated by an essay I recently found by Michael R. Katz, “War and Peace in Our Time.” He muses on the coincidence of the publication of  three new translations of W&P in the first decade of this century.  In analyzing the reasons for the resurgence,  he traces the history of the English translations of W&P, beginning with the prolific  Clara Bell.  He considers the older translations by the English couple Louise and Aylmer Maude and the American translator Ann Dunnigan notable.  Of the new, he is  interested in the much-lauded translation by the famous couple Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and that of the British translator Anthony Briggs.

The word “translation” comes from the Latin translatum, a past participle of the verb transfero, “carry across.” If you have ever attempted to “carry across” the literature of a foreign language into English writing, you will understand the difficulties.  Structures of languages are sometimes incompatible: English depends on word order, while inflected languages like Greek and Latin depend on word endings. The  flexible arrangement of words in inflected languages can’t quite be “transferred” to the English structure.

Since I have not read Ann Dunnigan’s translation, recommended by Michael R. Katz,  I decided to try it.   I popped the Signet paperback of the Dunnigan translation into my bike pannier for reading on the go. But here’s what I learned when I took a break at Starbucks:  War and Peace cannot be ideally read at a coffeehouse. Who knew?  Dunnigan’s translation is accessible and affecting, but not in a crowded cafe.

HERE ARE EXCERPTS FROM A POST I WROTE AT MIRABILE DICTU IN 2015, “The War and Peace Collection: Is Rosemary Edmonds’ Translation the Best?”

I reread War and Peace every year.

I started reading it again on New Year’s Day and just finished it a few hours ago.

And now I’m ready to start again.

 War and Peace says everything, no?  Why read anything else?  The translator Rosemary Edmonds wrote,  “War and Peace is a hymn to life.  It is the Iliad and the Odyssey of Russia.  Its message is that the only fundamental obligation of man is to be in tune with life.”

Tolstoy’s brilliant, entertaining chronicle of Russia during the Napoleonic wars is a pageturner.  Tolstoy said it was not a novel.  “It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.”

I am loving Rosemary Edmonds’s superb translation of War and Peace.  This afternoon I was particularly moved by the pages describing Denisov’s grief over the senseless death of Petya Rostov.  The bleak contrast between the reactions of the unfeeling officer Dolokhov and the brave, kind, lisping officer Denisov made me cry.

When Dolohov notes Petya is “done for” and rides away from the corpse, expecting Denisov to follow,

Denisov did not reply.  He rode up to Petya, dismounted, and with trembling hands turned Petya’s blood-stained, mud-bespattered face–which had already gone white–towards himself.

“I always like sweet things. Wonderful raisins, take them all,” he recalled Petya’s words. And the Cossacks looked round in amazement at the sound, like the howl of a dog, which broke from Denisov as he quickly turned away, walked to the wattle fence and held on to it.

Which is your favorite translation of War and Peace? Constance Garnett?  The Maudes?  Anthony Briggs?  Pevear and Volokhonsky?

Feeling Melancholy? What to Read in Inclement Weather

Are you feeling melancholy?  Perhaps because of inclement weather?

Here are mini-reviews of three very light books I recently read to lift my spirits.   And I’m including “pop” star ratings for the fun of it!

THE BEST:  Rose Macaulay’s Dangerous Ages.

Rose Macaulay’s Towers of Trebizond is a masterpiece.  I wish I could say the same of her other books.

Dangerous Ages, however, is a moving, deftly-written novel, characterized by charming, meticulous sketches of four generations of women.  Macaulay observes that all ages are dangerous,  but some are more dangerous than others.

The main character is Neville, age 43, and my guess is you’ll identify with her whatever age you are.  She is a lovely, generous, sensitive, thoughtful woman,  whom Macaulay compares to “an ageless wood-dryad.”  When Neville wakes up on her forty-third birthday, she thinks, “Another year gone, and nothing done yet.  Soon all the years will be gone, and nothing ever will be done.”

That’s the mid-life crisis.

Macaulay’s writing is plain but smooth.  The book is mostly a novel of ideas, a kind of philosophical fable about ages.  Now that Neville’s two children, Kay and Gerda (yes, The Snow Queen), who were raised during the Great War and are readers of Freud, are in their twenties, Neville is determined to become a doctor.  In her twenties, she dropped out of medical school to marry Rodney, a politician, and have children.

Alas, she has trouble concentrating on her medical books.  She envies her children’s absorption in writing and drawing.  Macaulay, who was forty in 1921 when Dangerous Ages was published, clearly feels this is the wrong age to pursue such a demanding profession.  (We women have different attitudes toward age now. Modern medicine?)

Neville is in the middle of four generations.  She is not only a mother but the favorite daughter of 63-year old Mrs. Hilary, a malcontent who wants to be the center of attention.  Mrs. Hilary lives with her 84-year-old mother, known as Grandmother, a serene, intelligent, religious woman who laments her daughter’s lack of interests.  And it is Neville who must soothe Mrs. Hilary when she sulks on her sixty-third birthday because her children swim out  and leave her in the shallows.

Mrs. Hilary resents her other daughters.  Thirty-nine-year-old  Pamela,  a lesbian who lives with an old friend from Cambridge, seems the happiest of the bunch.  Needless to say, Mrs. Hilary finds Pamela’s devotion to her partner “annoying” and “immoral.”  But Mrs. Hilary’s least favorite daughter is 33-year-old Nan, an unmarried bohemian novelist.  Nan has just decided  that she will let her lover know she is finally ready to marry after she finishes her book.  But then 20-year-old Gerda gets in the way, falling in love with Nan’s boyfriend.  And  Neville is appalled as she watches this romance between her seductive daughter and a thirtyish man unfold.

Mrs. Hilary is also at a dangerous age, and maliciously meddles with Nan when she hears gossip about her sexuality.  One sees some appalling similarities between the selfish beauty in her twenties and the idle woman in her sixties.

All the women must come to terms with their dangerous ages.

Fascinating, but out of print. It is available as an e-book, though .


AN ENTERTAINING BOOK CLUB-TYPE NOVEL,  The Great Passage by Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.  This charming, feather-light Japanese novel centers on lexicography.   Three generations of dedicated eccentrics work  passionately on a new dictionary that will be “the great passage” between words of the past and present.  My favorite character, Mitsuya Majime, is a social misfit who loves old books and has a hint of OCD when it comes to asking the right questions about words.  You’ll love his “dictionary camp,” a camp-out in the office with 40 temporary employees to finish the dictionary.  Yes, everyone sleeps over for many night, and some are assigned to laundromat duty.  There is much proofreading, editing, and other joys!


A COZY QUASI-GOLDEN AGE MYSTERY, Patricia Moyes’s Black Widower.   This mystery, published in 1985, is too late for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but Moyes’s Inspector Henry Tibbett bears a striking resemblance to detectives of the past.  When Mavis, the beautiful, promiscuous wife of ambassador Sir Edward Ironmonger, is murdered at an embassy party in Washington, D.C., Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard is called in.  That’s because Sir Edward of Tampica, a newly independent island country, does not want the American police involved–it might ruin the country’s reputation.  Loved the details:  there is even a dangerous garden tour. It’s spring!


Too Many Library Books? & Literary Links

Widener Library at Harvard University

Libraries shape our lives.

At libraries I’ve found the little-known novels of Anna Kavan; Rhys Davies’s Honeysuckle Girl, a novel about Kavan ; Lilian Pizzichini’s The Blue Hour:  A Life of Jean Rhys; Vita Sackville-West’s out-of-print novel, The Easter Party; and a Welsh duology about coal miners. (Can’t remember the title, and it’s not How Green Was My Valley!)  Where else would I have found these books?

If, like me, you’re a library enthusiast, I recommend Christine Thompson’s amusing essay at The American Scholar, “The Ritual of Renewal.” After finishing a writing project, Thompson realized she has 200 books checked out from Harvard University Library.

2.  How do you feel about the suburbs?  I have spent most of my life in towns and cities, because it’s more convenient and the mass transit is better. But at NPR,  Etelka Lehoczky reviews a new book by Amanda Kolson Hurley, Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City.  And it sounds fascinating:  a few suburbs were founded as radical communities.

3.  At The Guardian, Marcel Theroux reviews Ian McEwan’s new book, Machines Like Me,” a dystopian vision of humanoid robots in a counterfactual 1982 Britain.”  I can’t wait to read it.

4.  Do you know the work of Iowa writer Margaret Wilson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for The Able McLaughlins? I was pleased to see that Library of America has published this neglected classic as an e-book.  Wilson also wrote a sequel, The Law and the McLaughlins.

Marilynne Robinson (left) at Ruth Suckow’s home.

5.  Marilynne Robinson recently visited Ruth Suckow’s birthplace home in Hawarden, Iowa. (I’ve been there; it’s charming and simple .)  For more information about Ruth Suckow (1892-1960), a novelist and chronicler of small-town life in Iowa, visit the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association Website.

Have Y.A. Books Ruined the Novel?

Have Y.A. books ruined the novel?

Although Y.A. is  marketed to readers age 12 to 18,  adult women make up 55% of  Y.A. readers, according to an article in The Atlantic.   The Y.A. genre is reviewed in The New York Times, Bustle, Entertainment Weekly, and The Washington Post. And this publishing trend is reflected at our local Barnes and Noble,  where the Y.A. books now occupy shelves formerly devoted to adult fiction, science fiction, and mysteries.

Teen characters in novels have always had problems (think Holden Caulfield and  Cassandra Mortmain), but the problems in today’s Y.A. novels must be trendy and sensitively paint-by-number.  Y.A. books are dense with inter-species romances, occasionally between humans and vampires, sometimes  cancer patients and robust friends.

But there are some exceptions:  Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books are Y.A. pulp fiction classics. I see Twilight as Library of America material, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars.  Meyer is a master of plot, pithy writing, and sharp characterization.  But the most fascinating aspect of Twilight is its influence on Millennial women writers.

The  Twilight effect can be traced in Catherine Lacey’s spiky, elegant novel Nobody Is Ever Missing,  Natalie Stagg’s Millennial classic Surveys, and  Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The heroines of these novels are smart but they are also passive descendants of Meyer’s heroine Bella Swann, a city girl with deadpan wit,  who feels lost when she moves from Phoenix to Forks, Washington, to live with her father. It turns out the Northwest is full of monsters, especially vampires and werewolves.  Bella is a klutz, and is constantly rescued by Edward, a glitteringly attractive boy who turns out to be a vampire. Who but a masochist would fall in love with  a vampire?   And certainly the heroines of Millennial novels metaphorically are involved with vampires.

In Twilight, Bella’s relationship with Edward is problematic.  Edward refuses to have sex with her because of inter-species incompatibility.  Indeed, there is no sex at all till Breaking Dawn (the fourth book), after Bella and Edward marry, and she insists on having sex, even though it means she gets bruises (and that’s at his gentlest).   Similarly, many Millennial heroines in novels are lost girls rather  than women, masochists in need of rescue, though they may have no rescuers.

Now I will focus on three Millennial classics (and have adapted these reviews from my blogs Mirabile Dictu and Thornfield Hall).

Natasha Stagg’s Surveys is a Millennial masterpiece. The narrator,  Colleen, a 23-year-old college graduate, can’t find a job in her field (psychology), and her life is empty and troubled.  She works at a marketing firm office at the mall, giving surveys to people who  earn a couple of dollars for answering questions about products like a new Britney Spears perfume.  And then Colleen and her co-workers must fake the results, because the marketing firm wants big numbers of people saying they like the product.

Her real life is spent online. She stays up all night updating her social media.  And then  she falls in love with Jim, a “semi-famous person” she meets online.  She flies from Arizona to  L.A. to meet, him  and they become suddenly a famous couple, because of their exchanges on social media platforms, which they begin to manage and plan together.  They have more and more followers every day.  And they are paid for hosting parties at clubs.  But, as you can imagine, it doesn’t last.   It’s Twilight, without actual vampires or true connections.

Sally Rooney’s much-lauded Normal People is about Marianne and Connell and their hooking up and splitting up and friendship and depression and hooking up again.  They’re rather like the characters in Girls, though less sympathetic than narcissistic Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her pals from Oberlin.

The protagonists grow up in the same town in Ireland.  Marianne is a loner from a wealthy family, and Connell, the maid’s son, is popular and athletic.  The two embark on a secret sexual relationship that improves Marianne’s self-esteem until Connell asks someone else to the prom.  When they meet again at Trinity, their status is reversed:  Marianne fits in with the rich, privileged students, while Connell is friendless and struggling.  But for some reason Marianne pursues  S/M relationships, and boasts about being beaten up.  But why is she so unstable?  The psychology is too pat.

In Catherine Lacey’s novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing,  the narrator, Elyria, a brittle woman named after a town in Ohio,  leaves her life in Manhattan and gets on a plane for New Zealand without telling anyone.  She and her husband, a math teacher, had bonded over her sister’s death, but the relationship grew increasingly unhappy:, and he is violent in his sleep–a kind of vampire?   In New Zealand, she stays with a poet on his farm, but he kicks her out, because she is too troubled even for him.  She befriends a transgender woman, but any relationship is too much pressure.  Elyria runs deeper into solitude, sleeping on the beach, in a shed, and then settling for months in a caravan outside the cabin of a generous vegetarian hippie couple, Luna and Amos.  By the end of the novel, Elyria has fallen to the bottom tier of society.   She wants to be missing to herself.  She is passive and empty.

I do see Twilight parallels in these three Millennial novels.  And perhaps the influence is more widespread than I know.  The difference is that Bella finally becomes strong and saves the world.  That doesn’t happen in Millennial classics.

Academia and Travel: Brad Leithauser’s “The Promise of Elsewhere”

I’m thoroughly enjoying Brad Leithauser’s new novel, The Promise of Elsewhere, a brilliant academic satire about a professor on vacation.  Prior to this, I knew Leithauser’s work only from his introduction to the Penguin edition of Kristin Lavransdatter.

The experience of reading Leithauser’s sharp, elegant novel is rather like reading Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America crossed with Alison Lurie and David Lodge. But it’s not all comedy:  at times it’s poignant and painful.

Louie, the protagonist, is a professor of art history at Ann Arbor College (AAC), which he emphasizes is not the University of Michigan.  The  students at AAC, a dinky undistinguished college, are so dull and naive that his art history classes inevitably turn into English comp.  The most popular class at AAC is “13 Ways of Looking at The Flintstones,” taught by a medievalist with a Ph.D. from Berkeley.

Louie is not just a disgruntled professor. His personal life is on the skids. A cop arrested his wife and her lover for  indecent behavior–having sex in a car. And so Florence has lost her job as a third grade teacher,  and she and her lover are, ironically, living in the Virgin Islands.

Louie is tired of being the subject of gossip, so he decides to spend the summer  traveling in Europe and Asia to look at his favorite architecture.   But somehow he doesn’t connect in Rome, even though he loves the Pantheon.  And so he goes off his bipolar meds, hoping to make the experience more real.  He thinks he can control his disease with time-honored alcohol and caffeine.

Impulsively he goes to London, because he suddenly wants to be surrounded by English speakers.  He finds excellent coffee in London.

Louie could sit here all day. His cappuccino is better than what was typically served in Italy, though predictably not as good as what you’d find in Ann Arbor at Roa’s Deli, where the beans might have been roasted that morning.

Louie is also an excellent guide to the Dickens Museum, though hilariously he hasn’t read Dickens.

Dickens’s life and work present another topic he would hate to encounter in a televised quiz show before a studio audience of his disillusioned, headshaking students. Louie knows he finished A Tale of Two Cities (back in advanced English in twelfth grade at Fallen Hills High) and feels fairly confident of having completed Oliver Twist; in any case he saw Oliver!, the movie musical. He’d like to claim he’s read A Christmas Carol, but he may be confusing the book with the old Alastair Sim movie

I was very amused when Louie considered going home to Ann Arbor and simply  writing a blog about a trip–he could make it up!  But he soldiers on, even if it’s off the beaten track.

It’s a pleasure to read a really good new book.  I know there are some great new books out there, but I must confess that I’ve already rejected six in three months after only 25 pages.

Leithauser, a poet, novelist, and essayist, teaches at The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.

A Trip to Iowa City

This photo of the IMU terrace was obviously taken in summer.

We went to Iowa City and walked by the river.  Gorgeous weather, coats open, mild, gentle air.  (The above pictures are not mine–and were taken in the wrong season.)

We spent much time sipping coffee on the Union terrace overlooking the river.  Ducks, geese, professors with salt-and-pepper hair,  bicyclists, runners–everybody was out.

Damaged in the flood of 2008, the Iowa Memorial Union has undergone extensive repairs and been partially rebuilt.   Hence the new raised terrace, as opposed to the old terrace on ground level.

The Iowa Memorial Union during the flood of 2008

On the west side of the river, the University of Iowa Art Museum has not been given the same priority.  Destroyed in the flood, the building is now empty and bleak.  (It should be demolished.) There are plans to rebuild on another site, but perhaps the FEMA funds are not forthcoming.  Damn the government!

The University of Iowa Art Museum

Well,  it’s sad about the museum.  Between classes at my (now defunct) high school on the river, I used to nip over and look at the Jackson Pollock.

I last visited the University of Iowa Art Museum in 2005 to see the exhibit of the  120-foot scroll of Jack Kerouac’s typed manuscript of On the Road. The manuscript was, appropriately, on an international tour of 13 cities–on the road.  Kerouac typed the whole book on tracing paper, and when he finished a  page he taped it to the previous one. The museum displayed the scroll  in a metal-and-glass case in a gallery long enough to hold the scroll unrolled.  It was completely unrolled on the tour for the first time at the University of Iowa Art Museum.

What else to do in Iowa City:

  1. Visit Prairie Lights Books, a bookstore
  2. The Englert Theater, the venue of concerts, comedy, readings, etc.  You can see Patty Marx and Roz Chast on April 9 ($25).
  3. Hickory Hill Park, 190 acres of forest, abandoned fields, reconstructed prairie, wetlands, and parkland centered on Ralston Creek and its tributary drainages.
  4. See the Black Angel at Oakland Cemetery (this bronze statue of an angel has turned black; there are so many legends about it).
  5. Look at the old houses.  I have favorites on Summit Street and Brown Street.

The Leggings Protest & Doris Lessing’s “The Summer Before the Dark”

What should women wear?  Pant suits? Jeans?

What about leggings?

Last week at Notre Dame University and St. Mary’s College, the student paper published a letter that sparked a protest. The subject:  leggings.  Maryann White, a Catholic mother of four sons, asked women students to renounce the  fashion of tight leggings with short tops .  She was disturbed by the sight of women’s derrières at Mass, and thought leggings too provocative in the presence of men and her sons.  She said it made it more difficult for her to be a good Catholic mother.

The students did not say “YES” TO Maryann White’s letter.  Instead, they protested by wearing leggings for two days.  Well, the energy could have gone into protesting the denial of global warming or the closing of Planned Parenthood clinics, but I don’t care whether or not they wear leggings.

I assumed from the mockery of the press that Maryann White was dotty.  Then I read the letter.  She makes some good points about the fashion industry’s exploitation of women.

She writes,

The emergence of leggings as pants some years ago baffled me. They’re such an unforgiving garment. Last fall, they obtruded painfully on my landscape. I was at Mass at the Basilica with my family. In front of us was a group of young women, all wearing very snug-fitting leggings and all wearing short-waisted tops (so that the lower body was uncovered except for the leggings). Some of them truly looked as though the leggings had been painted on them.

A world in which women continue to be depicted as “babes” by movies, video games, music videos, etc. makes it hard on Catholic mothers to teach their sons that women are someone’s daughters and sisters. That women should be viewed first as people — and all people should be considered with respect.

Again, I don’t care who wears leggings, but it is true that clothes send a message.

For instance, in Doris Lessing’s novel The Summer Before the Dark, the middle-aged Kate has a kind of fashion breakdown. She has a makeover before taking a summer job as an interpreter, and is much admired.  When she returns to London, she rents a room in a young woman’s flat for the rest of the summer.  She doesn’t dye her hair and loses so much weight her clothes no longer fit.  When she finally goes out again in baggy clothes she is invisible to men.

All this changes  when she borrows a fashionable dress from her young roommate.

Mrs. Brown strolled in the park all afternoon. She had not at first realised she was again Mrs. Brown, but then she noted glances, attention: it was because she wore Maureen’s properly fitting shift, in dark glossy green, because she had done her hair with the twist and the lift that went with “piquant” features—because she was, as they say, “on the mend,” and the lines of her body and face had conformed? A man came to sit near her on a bench and invited her to dinner.

A woman walking in a sagging dress, with a heavy walk, and her hair—this above all—not conforming to the prints made by fashion, is not “set” to attract men’s sex. The same woman in a dress cut in this or that way, walking with her inner thermostat set just so—and click, she’s fitting the pattern. Men’s attention is stimulated by signals no more complicated than what leads the gosling; and for all her adult life, her sexual life, let’s say from twelve onwards, she had been conforming, twitching like a puppet to those strings.…

Doris Lessing is brilliant and articulates ideas the rest of us can’t.

I myself ignore fashion so didn’t even realize that leggings were the fashion.

Leggings or not?

What to Read at Silent Book Club: Spellbound by Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters

A Silent Book Club

Once a month, À la  Caffeine, the provincial coffeehouse for itinerant writers,  hosts a magical Silent Book Club.  Like the magic theater in Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, it is “NOT FOR EVERYBODY.” The head barista founded the group after reading an article at Read It Forward about the grassroots  silent book club movement.  It is certainly a freaky concept.

Nonetheless, ink-stained nerds and bibliophiles cannot forego an evening of free coffee and books.  After half an hour of book chat, everybody sits and reads his or her own book in silence.  Guinevere de la Mare in San Francisco, dissatisfied with her book group, came up with the idea. She didn’t want assigned reading:  she just wanted to go to a bar and read her own book silently.

There is an empowering feeling about it:  it is a kind of Zen experience.  And you can dumb down or smarten up your reading, The Girl on the Train  or The Man without Qualities, but you don’t have to do it at another’s bidding.

As for me, I just finished Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters.

I am spellbound by this elegant 20th-century Japanese classic. I first heard of it when Jeanette Watson, owner of Books & Co in New York from 1977 to 1997, wrote in the Literary Hub that it was the Japanese Gone with the Wind.

Well, it is nothing like Gone with the Wind, but it is a page-turner, and I am not a fan of Gone with the Wind anyway.  Set on the brink of World War II, when  Japan is already at war in China, this tender, subtle, exquisite novel is a brilliant social history of the lives of Japanese women. I am fascinated by the four Makioka sisters, whose expectations and attitudes are gradually changing as the century progresses.  And Tanizaki illustrates what a stifling culture it could be for women.

We see most of the events through the eyes of Sachiko, the second sister, who is happily married, creative, and sweet.  She often practices calligraphy and writes letters. The two younger sisters live with Sachiko, though traditionally they should live with their oldest sister, Tsukuro, whose rigid, dictatorial husband is the head of the family.

The two oldest sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko, are married women with children and live in the traditional Japanese style. The third and fourth sisters, Yukio and Taeko, still unmarried in their mid- and late twenties, cause much angst.  Quiet Yukiko likes staying home, helping with the housekeeping, caring for the children, and nursing the sick.   Taeko attempted to elope when she was a teenager, but now runs a successful doll-making business. The dolls are works of art.  When she decides to become a seamstress, this  causes family friction, because it is beneath their class. And Taeko, who has affairs, is not allowed to marry until Yukiko does.  Yukiko cannont marry, because the head of the household shoots down her suitors one by one.  As the book goes on we realize Yukiko is also quietly rebellious.

The translator Edward G. Seidensticker, known for his acclaimed translation of The Tale of Genji, has a delicate, pellucid style.  This is a simply a ravishing book, with a scintillating plot, and colorful characterizations.

Perfect for Silent Reading Club!

Why Cicero Isn’t My Type–and Yet I Love Him

“Cicero and Clodia,” by suburbanbeatnik

Cicero isn’t my type, and yet I love him.

It’s the literary side that appeals to me.  If  he can say something elegantly three times ( a triad), he does it. That’s classical literature, but not everyone can pull it off.

Cicero was the most eloquent orator and politician in ancient Rome (first century B.C.). He was also a savvy lawyer who defended some dicey characters in court, and vilified others who may have been guiltless.  In my favorite speech, Pro Caelio (For Caelius),  Cicero defended his protegé, Caelius,  who had gotten into a hell of trouble, and was prosecuted in 56 B.C.  for vis (political violence) and involvement in the murder of an  Alexandrian embassy opposing the restoration of Ptolemy XII to the throne in Egypt.

To defend Caelius, Cicero had to employ all his dexterity.  Whenever possible, he deflected attention from Caelius to others.   The fact that Caelius had been a  friend of Catiline, a radical who had conspired  against the Roman government, and against whom Cicero had delivered four orations, was natural, Cicero says:  all the upper-class young men were drawn to talented, charming  Catiline, before they knew his true character. (N.B. You can read more about Catiline in my post on Francis Galassi’s book, Catiline, The Monster of Rome).

But then Cicero goes rogue and gets vindictive. He claims the charges were concocted by Clodia Metelli, a rich, powerful, older woman who used to be Caelius’s girlfriend.  He says she wanted revenge.

I know, I know: I could never agree with sexist Cicero politically. Though I was not quite the Clodia Metelli of the Midwest, there is a triad of reasons we would have been on opposite sides: (1) I was a radical feminist— who as  a bored, bewildered teenage Lolita living with a lesbian Humbert Humbert, a  teacher who’d seduced me, finally found solace in classics and reading Cicero.   (2)  As a feminist in grad school, I was Volunteer Coordinator for IPCAL (Indiana Pro-Choice Action League), a job I doubt Cicero would have approved, because it took me away from classics.  (3)  I’ve written numerous controversial articles about feminism, which, again, take me away from Cicero.  And I’ve always defended Clodia.

I’m thinking about Cicero, because I’m rereading Pro Caelio.  I am also reading Marilyn K. Skinner’s brilliant book, Clodia Metelli, The Tribune’s Sister.  Skinner writes an entire chapter on Cicero.  She says,

Though he had, as far as we know, not much face-to-face contact with Clodia Metelli, Cicero will be the man mentioned most often in this biography, because he is our only contemporary source about her….  While his allegations about Clodia in Pro Caelio and other speeches were once accepted as factual, we will see that they cannot be taken literally.  As a defense speaker, Cicero’s obligation was to persuade, not to report truthfully.  His practice of reading a sinister purpose into observable public behavior does allow us, however, to reconstruct the conduct that gave rise to such claims.

I should mention that some classicists believe Clodia was the model for Lesbia,  the bitchy girlfriend in Catullus’ poems.  I do not.

I am utterly absorbed right now in Cicero’s world.