Lucia Berlin’s “Evening in Paradise”

This fall I planned to catch up with 21st-century fiction, but  I quickly hit a reality check: (a) I prefer classics, and (b) only a few new books are worth reading.

Take Lucia Berlin (1936-2004).  I adore Berlin’s fiction but of course it was written in the 20th century.  Her witty, buoyant, autobiographical short stories  were out-of-print  until Farrar Straus Giroux published  A Manual for Cleaning Women in 2015.  And now FSG has published another superb collection, Evening in Paradise:  More Stories.

Berlin is noted for her dark humor and sharp observations of down-and-out middle-class women. Many of the stories portray witty, smart heroines who share Berlin’s history.  She herself struggled with alcoholism and was in and out of rehab programs.   After marrying  a sculptor and then a musician, she raised four sons on her own and worked  as a cleaning woman, hospital clerk, high school teacher, college writing teacher, and physician’s assistant.

In one of my favorite stories, “The Wives,” Laura and Decca have little in common, except for being the alcoholic ex-wives of Max.  When they get together for drinks one night–and Decca is so drunk she can’t even remember inviting Laura over–they humorously mourn the fact that Max is about to marry either a car hop or a Clinique salesgirl, depending on which you believe.  The dialogue is so sharp and witty Dorothy Parker could have written it.   A brilliant and funny story, also terribly sad.

In”Noel, 1974,” Maggie, a teacher, has an unwanted guest for Christmas, Aunt Zelda, who tries desperately to fit in by saying “Far out” all the time.    The house is already crowded with Maggie’s four sons, one sleeping in the garage, their 17-year-old pothead friend, Jesse, in a sleeping bag in the living room, and Maggie gives her room to Zelda.  Over the holiday, they do normal family things:  they attend Maggie’s son’s school Christmas pageant, quarrel over decorating the tree, and have a huge, chaotic dinner.  And then Aunt Zelda becomes frantic when she learns her daughter Mabel is gay.  These family scenes are right out of a comic movie, but Maggie’s exhaustion takes her in an  unexpectedly dark direction.  (There is a similar story in A Manual for Cleaning Women.)

In “My Life Is an Open Book,” Claire Bellamy teaches Spanish at the university and lives happily but chaotically with her sons in a farmhouse.  When she gets involved with 19-year-old Mike Casey, a drug-using guitar player, a neighbor starts to gossip.  After they break up, oblivious of the neighbor’s gossip, he babysits for her sons so she can go to a party.  While she is out, the youngest son disappears. But let me reassure you:  life is hard for Claire, but nothing terrible happens.

The title story, “Evening in Paradise,” is not my favorite, but it has its points:  The Night of the Iguana is being filmed in Mexico, and the bartender observes Liz Taylor, Richard Burton (not drinking at the time), Ava Gardner, and various tourists and male prostitutes drinking nightly at the hotel.  Much of this is very witty, but I am not a movie buff.

Lucia Berlin is a great American writer!  Astonishing her work was lost for so long.

I Voted for the Environment!

I used to have hippie-dippie ideas about voting.  The politicians were all fools, so why vote?

The  office where I worked, however,  was next-door to Democratic headquarters.  One of the Dems offered  me a ride to the polls the first year I was eligible to vote.  After that I realized it was my duty.

Did I vote today?  Naturally.  There are many important issues, but I am  concerned mostly about the environment.  The  UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported last month that we have only 12 years before  environmental damage like global warming is irreversible.  That’s 2030, people!

I did not, however, like waking up to see a Google doodle on the computer commanding me to vote.  I do not care for computer programs using the imperative mood.  It’s an intrusion.

Google doodle

Nonetheless, I made my way to the polls.  And I wore my Jesse Jackson for President ’84  button  because it seemed as good a way as any to protest conservative Republican politics.   Anyway, it is 1984!

I do hope the Democrats are  voting today.  Let’s get out all our liberal political buttons and wear them!

Alice Thomas Ellis’s “More Home Life”

It has been raining a lot, so I  indulged myself by staying home  and rereading  Alice Thomas Ellis’s Home Life Two, or More Home Life. The “Home Life” columns were written for the Spectator in the 1980s, and then collected and published in four volumes.  Ellis, who was nominated for the Booker Prize for her novel  The 27th Kingdom, is an equally witty essayist.  Her columns range in subject from meditations on domestic life to the burlesque of being mistaken for a prostitute in a bar to freezing on vacation in Wales because nobody understands the boiler.

Some of these essays strike a “chord” with me (literally).    In “Too Many Love Songs,” she admits she doesn’t care for most music.  She says outrageously, “I don’t know which I hate more, Mozart or the Rolling Stones…”  (I do like the Rolling Stones, but I agree about Mozart.). But when her favorite shows on Radio 4 are repeated, she listens to the music on Radio 2.

…as I washed the dishes I was struck by the fact that every single song was about love.  For me, on a scale of one to ten, romance comes about eighth, after chess but before politics and football.  I scarcely ever give it a thought.  My mind is usually taken up with what to cook for lunch, or why I’ve got an overdraft when I’ve hardly bought anything, or who’s going to feed the boa constrictor while its master is away on holiday, or where the daughter is, or why the mat from outside the bathroom is draped up the steps to the barn.  Perhaps these topics are not suitable to be set to music, but surely someone could think of something to sing about as well as love.

I agree with Ellis!  The rock songs I grew up with were always about love, not to mention the Frank Sinatra songs my mother listened to.  And since real life generally consists of other activities, it’s no wonder that women read romance novels.

Many of you will cackle over Ellis’s essay, “Over-booked.”  When she reads a confusing article in the newspaper about the British book trade’s schemes to compete with shops like Marks & Spencer, she has trouble deciphering the meaning.  She quotes an almost unintelligible paragraph:  the book trade needs to”reallocate resources”and “market the product better overall and so that  we strive to produce a product which is going to be popular and of the highest quality.”

Ellis informs us that 50,000 books were published last year.  She wries facetiously, “If only these multiple titles could be reduced to, say, 100 standard lines–ideally to ONE BOOK written jointly by a committee of tried and tested best-selling authors…”

Home Life is so much fun to read.  Unfortunately these books are out-of-print.

When Writers Don’t Know Enough: A Glib List of Books That (May Have) Shaped American Culture

Ephron’s classic collection of essays didn’t make the list.

Attempts to define the canon can be problematic even for Harold Bloom and Elaine Showalter, but Emily Temple, a Millennial who is a senior editor at Literary Hub, is not afraid to miss the mark. She glibly compiled a list of books she thinks shaped the literary culture in the U.S. from  1900 to the present.  She says in her article “A Century of Books” (actually more than a century) that these books, “if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade.”

Wow, even  as a confident young reviewer I did not suffer from this kind of hubris.  And at the TLS or The New York Review of Books, this list would be a task for a team of  contributors, among them critics, biographers, novelists, and sociologists.

But Temple  writes,

Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered. Finally, two process notes: I’ve limited myself to one book for author over the entire 12-part list, so you may see certain works skipped over in favor of others, even if both are important (for instance, I ignored Dubliners in the 1910s so I could include Ulysses in the 1920s), and in the case of translated work, I’ll be using the date of the English translation, for obvious reasons.

I do not take lists seriously, but the first thing that struck me was how little Temple knows about American history. Her ten choices per decade are bizarre–do Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes,  and J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy really deserve three slots in the 1910s?– but she is also surprisingly sexist, naming only two or three women per decade. Never mind that in the 1960s she left out Tillie Olsen, Doris Lessing, Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman, Denise Levertov, Ellen Willis, and Adrienne Rich.   On her list for the 1970s, the height of Second Wave feminism, she mentions only  one book by a woman:  Judy Blume’s Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret. (Apparently it’s not so long ago that Temple was reading childrne’s books.)

Better even than Raymond Carver!

it does make me wonder what on earth Millennials think the 1970s were about.  Our Bodies, Ourselves changed women’s health care;  Erica Jong’s best-selling Fear of Flying was compared to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn; Nora Ephron’s stunning  essay,”A Few Words about Breasts,” in Crazy Salad made all small-breasted women feel better; Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics influenced literary criticism, as did The Madwoman in the Attic, by Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert; Ann Beattie’s minimalist  first collection of stories, Distortions, and novel Chilly Scenes of Winter were published simultaneously in 1976; and The Environmental Handbook, released for the first Earth Day, introduced us to ways of saving the planet, if only people had listened….

If this list had been called “Fun Books in Amerika,” I wouldn’t have minded, but Temple takes herself too seriously.  And this is why I don’t trust shallow online publications.  Editors of print publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post are still careful about what they print and would have assigned “A Century of Reading” to writers who had done the reading.

Mimi on Tolstoy in Maureen Howard’s “The Rags of Time”

 Today, when I told my husband I was finishing up two books this month, he asked, “Is one of them War and Peace?”

I love Tolstoy so much that it is a family joke.  But, no, I haven’t been reading it.

I just finished Maureen Howard’s The Rags of Time, a kind of woman’s Ulysses, and the last in Howard’s quartet of novels on the seasons.  And there are a few references to War and Peace.

Howard’s double, Mimi, an 80-year-old writer who reflects on American history, personal history, and  the design of Central Park, recalls reading War and Peace as a girl one summer in her parents’ bedroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut. ( N.B.  This episode is also in Howard’s memoir, Facts of Life.)   And near the end of Rags, her husband picks up Mimi’s copy of War and Peace and reads the notes on her rereading . 

“She had read to page 733 in War and Peace, marking the confrontation between Napoleon and the Russian emissary as they moved ahead to their bloody war.  Girlish!!! in the margin next to the description of the emperor. . . a white waistcoat so long that it covered his round stomach, white doeskin breeches fitting tightly over the fat thighs of his stumpy legs, and Hessian boots.  His snuff box, his cologne!  Her notes, trailing down the side of the page, remarked upon the brilliant maneuvers of the scene, the slippery give-take of diplomacy, the rough talk of plain take.  He presumed she’d read the love story, though this time round, her second chance, notes in the margin revealed how closely she observed the lush setting of the Tsar’s palace, the slippery make-nice that preceded war.  Revise, reread, work ahead right up to the end.  He must tell her brother, who maintained that when she took up her post with the fat library book each long Summer day, then slept on a cot in his room–that she snored.”

The Rags of Time is a twenty-first century classic, in my view, but it is generally underappreciated (especially at Goodreads).  I wonder if women’s experimentations with literary form are still less acceptable than men’s.

Nicole Hollander’s Humor & a Trip to the Library

I used to pore over Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia cartoons.  Her eccentric character Sylvia lived with cats, was politically radical, and spent a lot of time reading in the bathtub.  She was the only  comic-strip heroine I identified with, besides Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy.  I read Sylvia in an alternative paper.  Hollander introduced Sylvia as a character in The Feminist Funnies in the ’70s, and the Sylvia strip was syndicated in 1981.  Alas, Hollander retired Sylvia in 2012.

We still miss her!

Fortunately at the library I recently found Hollander’s 2007 book,  Tales of Graceful Aging on the Planet Denial, a collection of comic essays.  I had no idea she’d written a book.

She begins,

The two girlfriends and I are going to the movies.  Someone who looks about twelve is selling tickets.  She looks at me and I prepare to be complimented on my earrings, scarf, any number of things because I know I look adorable.

She says, “Will that be senior citizen, ma’am?”  Behind me the girlfriends suck in their breath.  They are happy they made me leave that cute little revolver that I bought in case some man proposed to me and wouldn’t take no for an answer at home.  They fear another traumatic event like the one when that kid tried to give me his seat on the bus.  Big deal…He’s young, his scars will heal.

lf that hasn’t happened to you yet…just wait!  I’m not a “senior” yet,  but at the hair salon they’ve started asking if I want the discount.  I burst out laughing when I realized I looked ancient to them with my gray hair. And then I looked in the mirror and I do look ancient.  I’m not sure exactly when I get those senior benefits–I vaguely think it’s 65. But everybody ages at a different pace.  Viva la age!

These essays are witty.  I’m chortling on every page.  Some are better than other, but it’s so much fun!

A TRIP TO THE LIBRARY.   It’s a warm day in autumn, the lake is blue and ruffled by wind, and we popped into the library on impulse:  well, mainly because I wanted a D. E. Stevenson book.

And I did check out one Stevenson book.  No idea if I’ve read Mrs. Rochester’s Wife or not!  I’ll find out.  I also was happy to find a novel by the Southern writer  Lee Smith.  I’ve been a fan since Black Mountain Breakdown but I’ve never seen Something in the Wind, her second novel.  A good find.

We filled our huge shopping bag with books. Am so glad I remembered to bring it, or I would have had to put some books back.  (Well, I did put a few back.)

My husband is a nonfiction fan, and we found…

…a short biography of Buddha, Czeslaw Milosz’s Selected and Last Poems, and Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live:  Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  

I spent most of my time in fiction, starting  in the S’s and slowly went back to the M’s. I didn’t have time to go back to the A’s.  I checked out Him Her Him Again The End of Him by Patricia Marx, whom I know as a humorist for The New Yorker.  And I hope it’s humorous because that’s what I’m in themood for.

I’ve never heard of Jane McCaffrey, but First You Try Everything looks intriguing.  Perhaps I’ll get around to it, perhaps not.

And, last but not least, how could I resist The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl, a book that, according to Maureen Corrigan at NPR, celebrates daydreaming?

A satisfying hour at the library:  a good haul, and I hope I get around to some of these!

Have You Read Publishers Weekly’s “Best of”? & Musings on #MeToo

It is  too early for us readers to contemplate the Best Books of the Year, but it is not too early for booksellers.  As a bookstore groupie I pored over The Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2018, which will undoubtedly be in bookstores this Christmas. I’ve read only one:  Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood, a clever retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.

So let me now promote my own favorite book of the year:

 Conscience by Alice Mattison.  Told from three points-of-view, this counter-culture classic focuses on the consequences of reading, or rereading, a Vietnam-era novel about a terrorist.  Olive Grossman, a biographer of women writers, has agreed to write an introduction to a new edition of Bright Morning of Pain, which was based on the life of Olive’s best friend, Helen, a conscience-stricken anti-war activist who became a terrorist and died in a robbery.  Olive’s husband Griff, an African-American high-school principal, is portrayed in the novel as a militant with a gun. (Both Olive and Griff knew the author.)  Griff reads the novel for the first time, and the circle of readers opens when Griff leaves the book in the office of the director of a drop-in center.  Complicated politics, complicated emotions.  Fascinating, labyrinthine, and psychologically pitch-perfect.  And here is a link to an excellent review in The Washington Post.

MUSINGS ON #METOO.

Hollywood actresses are not my role models, but the #MeToo movement has had a powerful  impact on society.  Harvey Weinberg is gone, whoever he was, and several other entertainment icons.

But the trickle-down effect has triggered hysteria among women who complain of having been touched on the butt in bars.  Are we 19th-century women on the fainting couch?

Sarah Silverman and Louis C.K.

The comedian Sarah Silverman has enraged both women and men by talking about her friendship with Louis C.K., a comedian accused of sexual harassment and misconduct.   This week on Howard Stern’s SiriusXM show she said, “I’ve known Louis forever, I’m not making excuses for him, so please don’t take this that way.  We are peers. We are equals. When we were kids, and he asked if he could masturbate in front of me, sometimes I’d go, ‘Fuck yeah I want to see that!’”

If you are outraged, don’t read on.  Because Kat Rosenfeld at Tablet writes,

What Silverman’s critics condemn as “muddying the waters” might better be described as a useful reintroduction into the public realm of a forgotten version of femininity: one in which a man asks a woman, who is also a colleague, if he can masturbate in front of her, and her response is not horrified silence or reluctant assent, but an enthusiastic yes (or “fuck yeah”). …She made a choice, as was her right—and it should continue to be her right to do so, even if her choices are not ones that someone else might prefer, and even if they are inconvenient to certain facile narratives about How All Women Are.

That’s a powerful thing in a year where second-wave notions of resilient womanhood have been eclipsed by a more fearful, breakable brand of femininity. The new story, told in Twitter moments and viral videos, is that women are scared—and should be, considering how fragile they are. Teetering on the precipice of trauma, trapped at the wrong end of a power dynamic that puts them at a permanent disadvantage, unable to advocate for themselves, women are always on the verge of being victimized—not just by rape and assault, but by nonconsensual ghosting and fake male feminists and dates that just don’t go as they’d hoped.

I don’t know what “nonconsensual ghosting” is–thank God for that!

Ovid in the News & “Odyssey” Groupies

OVID IS IN THE NEWS, AND NOT IN A GOOD WAY.  The classicist Donna Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, has noted a disturbing trend among the online Red Pill communities, a group of conservative alt.right men who resent women and say that men have been disenfranchised.  They are using Ovid’s comic didactic poem, Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), as a serious pick-up guide.  You can read more about this at The Atlantic.

Ovid may not be a feminist, but he was a bohemian and a free spirit.  The  Greek and Roman models of poetry were far from prudish, yet his writing is bold:  think Henry Miller or D. H. Lawrence, only comic.  He may be sexist but he is not a Red Pill Casanova. In Amores (The Loves), the narrator woos Corinna, a strong, sexy woman who is not always available to him. And in his poems he describes Roman women’s lives:  their beauty regimens, going to the games, dinner parties, their relationships with men, and even almost dying of an abortion.

Ovid’s erotic writing is said to have offended Augustus.  He was exiled for carmen et error (a poem and an error), and scholars conjecture that the  carmen  was his outrageous early poem, Ars Amatoria (Art of Love).

In The Art of Love, a parody of didactic poetry, Ovid  devoted two books to instructions on how to pick up women, and the third to instructing women so they would be in bella pares (equal in war).

The opening lines of  Book I are light and frivolous.  (And, by the way, this is my literal translation–sorry, I don’t write poetry–and the Latin lines are at the end of this post.)

If anyone does not know the art of loving,
let him read this, and by these lines let him love learnedly.
By art the swift vessels with sail and oars are moved,
By art the light chariots; by art Love must be ruled.

The  opening of Book III, the women’s guide, shows that Ovid is not a woman hater.  Parodying the Greek and Roman war epics,  he explains women must also know the art.  He has already “armed” the Greeks (the men) with advice, now he “arms” the Amazons (the women).

I gave arms to the Greeks against the Amazons;  arms remain
for you and your troop, Penthesialea.
Go evenly matched into war; let them conquer whom nurturing
Venus favors, and her son who flies around the whole world.
It would be unfair for unarmed women to fight armed men.
It would be shameful thus for you to conquer them, men.

It’s a very silly early poem, far from Ovid’s best.  And if the alt.right misconstrue Ovid, there’s nothing we can do.

ARE YOU A HOMER FAN?  The Odyssey has groupies.

Everybody loves a hero’s journey, a witch, monsters, sirens, and shipwrecks, but English translations of the Odyssey don’t always capture the tone and mood.  Last year a new translation  by Emily Wilson, the first woman  to translate the Odyssey into English, became fashionable. 

It may not be a best-seller, but it has gotten much attention. Wilson was profiled last year in  The New York Times Magazine.  A few weeks ago the TLS published “Beginning Our Odyssey,” in which Mary Beard and other contributors wrote about their first encounters with the Odyssey.  And then there was a reading of Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey  as part of the London Literature Festival.

Homer’s poem was meant to be recited, not read, and certainly Wilson’s lucid, simple verse is perfect for that.  Here is her  translation of the opening lines.

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy.

There are many translations of  the Odyssey, something for everybody.  I grew up on  the Richmond Lattimore, which is very close to the Greek.  Only after I read it in Greek did I appreciate its brilliance.  He manages to correlate the number of English lines with the Greek–and since Greek is more economical than English, this is quite a task.

Lattimore’s opening lines:

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.

The  paperback of Wilson’s translation will be released in November, so  we can treat ourselves to a new book!

NOTES ON OVID:  HERE are the Latin lines from The Art of Love, Book III, vv. 1-6.

Arma dedi Danais in Amazonas; arma supersunt,
Quae tibi dem et turmae, Penthesilea, tuae.
Ite in bella pares; vincant, quibus alma Dione
Faverit et toto qui volat orbe puer.
Non erat armatis aequum concurrere nudas;               5
Sic etiam vobis vincere turpe, viri.

Here are the Latin lines from Book I, vv. 1-4:

Siquis in hoc artem populo non novit amandi,
Hoc legat et lecto carmine doctus amet.
Arte citae veloque rates remoque moventur,
Arte leves currus: arte regendus amor.

Why I Don’t Work in a Bookstore

Meg Ryan as a bookstore owner in “You’ve Got Mail.”

I don’t work in a bookstore. It is probably what I was meant to do.

“You’re a natural teacher,” my mother said.  Then why was I so tired?

Teachers were all tired.  As the only Latin teacher I had three preparations (most had two)  and taught five classes a day (most taught four). I went home and took a nap, or zoomed off to aerobics class to work out the tension.  And then I prepared. And then I got up at 5 a.m.to grade homework and quizzes.

Here I am teaching Ovid in the “Big Glasses” era.

According to Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a study  in 2012 called Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession found that the average teacher works 53 hours a week.   That sounds about right.

Eventually I found a more creative job with flex-time.  I enjoyed it more, but I admit I worked  on my wedding day.  “I just have to finish this up…”

Why didn’t I work in a bookstore?  Wouldn’t the hours have been more reasonable?

I love books.  I sold them without meaning to.  I would go to a bookstore, chat about books, and sometimes a bookseller would come over beaming to say I’d sold a book.

I also amused myself by doing the “first sentence test.” I read a lot of first sentences.  The first sentence test isn’t too bad, really.  And other people started reading first sentences… and I sold books that way, too.

I did work at a bookstore briefly in Iowa City when I took a year off from college.  The men got to work on the floor with the books; we women had to be cashiers.   Hard to believe it was so sexist back then, but it was.  And we women all loved books:  there was one college graduate among us, one student, another woman on a gap year, and a smart head cashier.

My copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence

The good thing about working in the bookstore was that we got to borrow books. The bad thing  was that I used to buy the books.  Madness! Here is my copy of The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. It cost $12.50. I made $1.60 an hour.  I put my money back into the store!  And so I had to leave.

If I had been allowed to work with the books,  I would have stayed and had a different fate!

A Retelling of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” & Cover Art of Classics

I am reading Rena Rossner’s  brilliant fantasy novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.   It also has elements of fairy tales, myths, and Jewish stories and folktales.

Naturally I must reread Goblin Market.  Finally I found my copy: a tiny used Everyman’s Library Pocket edition which does fit in your pocket.

And so, on this lovely Indian summer day, I sat on a bench and read Rossetti.  The book is so tiny that I was confident no one would see what I was reading.  (I only see people reading phones; I wonder if books are outlawed.) Fascinating to note Rossner’s mimicry of Rossetti’s style and content:  she alternates chapters from the two sisters’ perspectives,  Liba’s in prose, Layla’s in poetry. (They are Lizzie and Laura in the poem.)  And Rossetti’s and Rossner’s fruit-sellers are equally seductive.   Rossner is not primarily a poet, but it is a very clever undertaking.

I never seek out the pocket classics editions of classics, but they are quite nice.  Though they don’t have intros or footnotes, they are handy and sturdy.

I recommend the Everyman’s Library pocket copy of John Updike’s The Maples Stories, a slim collection of interwoven stories–some of Updike’s best.  They delineate a young couple’s relationship through the early married years,  adultery, divorce, and post-divorce. Fascinating and moving!

WHAT OTHER EDITIONS OF CLASSICS SHOULD WE CONSIDER?  Madeline Raynor reveals in her article,”These Book Covers Are So Terrible You Won’t Believe They’re Real” at Electric Literature, that she is not a fan of Wordsworth Classics. She writes,

They’re known for their cheap price: one of these paperbacks costs a mere £2.50 (they’re available in the U.S. for a comparable sum). They’re a great option if you love the classics but live on a tight budget, but there are sacrifices. The paper quality isn’t great. The introductions and supplemental essays don’t exactly pass muster. But worst of all are the covers, which are so offensively terrible that it makes you question whether the cheap price is worth it.

I thought, What’s so bad about the covers?  I’d never seen anything untoward.  But there has been a redesign.  Fortunately, these redesigns are not available in the U.S.

Here are three different Wordsworth editions of Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, starting with the new redesign.

Ye gods!  Who are these women?

Here’s the edition I now see at Half Price Books.

Not great, but not terrible.

I actually prefer an earlier Wordsworth edition with a blue background.

Sometimes a publisher goes to hell with redesigns.  For instance, I prefer older  incarnations of Penguins and Oxford paperbacks.When did they change? In the early 2000s?  All that black on Penguins  can be gloomy, and the white on the Oxfords too pretty-pretty.   That said, I especially love Penguins.   But the print size is absolutely perfect in the Oxfords.

Look at the cover art.  Here are  new and old Penguins of Daniel Deronda.  Which do you prefer?

Here are the new and old Oxford editions.  Which do you like?

And, let me add, I see nothing wrong with snapping up cheap Wordsworth copies.  The cover is not the main factor, and the text is all there.  I have a used 2012 Wordsworth edition of Selected  Works of Virginia Woolf I bought for a trip. Yes, it was long enough to last for a week (or more).   F— art!  (Except for the portraits of Woolf and friends at the National Portrait Gallery. )  Well, I don’t mean that, but this cover is fine with me!

How important is cover art to you?  And are there covers that put you off ?  And, most important, does price matter?