Was Clodia Catullus’s Girlfriend? & Uncommon Book Lists

I am chortling over Robert DeMaria’s Clodia, an entertaining historical novel set in Rome in the first century B.C.  All right, it’s mostly the jacket copy that makes me laugh.

The narrator is the poet Catullus:  he has a bad cough, which the doctor doesn’t take seriously, and is pining away in a villa at Sirmio after breaking up with his girlfriend Clodia.  And so Catullus is writing an account of his affair with  “wanton” Clodia, a charming, sophisticated woman who dominated Roman society in the first century.  She is best known today from Cicero’s character assassination in Pro Caelio (more about this later if it proves relevant).

Was Clodia really Catullus’s girlfriend?  There is a romantic tradition among literal-minded classicists that Clodia Metelli was the model for Lesbia, the  promiscuous woman who appears in some of Catullus’s poems.  There is, to my knowledge, no evidence for this connection. Sure, the name “Lesbia” scans like “Clodia” (dactyl –  long short short)  but it is primarily a literary reference to Greek lyric poetry, especially Sappho, who lived on the  island Lesbos.  Catullus  modeled much of his work on Greek lyric poetry, and translated a poem by Sappho into Latin.

Well, I’m not sure that I’ll read Clodia cover-to-cover, but it got a good review in Kirkus in 1965.  And I adore the jacket copy on the Signet paperback cover:

A spectacular novel of Rome in the last decadent days of the Republic–the story of one of history’s most exciting women, the powerful and wanton Clodia and her stormy affair with the love-poet Catullus.

And there’s more!  In the back the publisher advertises an eclectic list of titles.

I am a fan of  Darling by Frederic Raphael, who also wrote the screenplay  and won an Oscar for it!  And I have  also read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Country Girls, and  The Group.

Do you know any of these books?

ANOTHER LIST:  1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich.

My husband and I are poring over this book with fascination.  It was a Christmas gift to ourselves!

James Mustich, the co-founder and publisher of the great catalogue, The Common Reader, compiled this list of 1,000 books and wrote accompanying mini-essays.   He recommends not just classics, but loads of quirky books.

Have you heard of  Shirley Robin Letwin’s  The Gentleman in Trollope:  Individuality and Moral Conduct?   Another one for the TBR.

In Praise of Pronouns

I admire a beautifully-turned sentence. It doesn’t have to be decorative but it must be clear. Alas, grammar errors proliferate on the internet and spill over into the publishing industry.

You can’t imagine how boring it is to find yourself silently editing a novel you’re reading for fun.  Writers and editors seem especially perplexed by pronouns.  Mind you, a grammar workshop could cure the problems.

I am reading an advance copy of Karen Thompson Walker’s new novel, The Dreamers.   (It’s a good read.)  Alas, in Chapter 3, the relative pronouns, who and whom, are confused.

“…two of the girls reconcile by phone with the faraway boys who they loved so much in high school and who they had thought, until now, they’d outgrown.”

Of course the correct form is whom, because the relative pronoun is the direct object.  Who is used only as the subject.

It should be:

…whom they loved so much in high school…

…and whom they had thought, until now, they’d outgrown.

In the first relative clause –  every clause has its own verb –  they is the subject, loved is the verb, and whom is the direct object.  In the second relative clause, they (they’d) is the subject, [had] outgrown is the verb, and whom is the direct object.

Here’s a chart:

who – only used as subject!
whose —possessive
to or for whom – indirect object
whom – direct object
whom – object of prepositions, by, with, after, about, etc.

It’s too late to send a friendly correction but I hope the editors found the errors in time!

AND NOW ANOTHER PRONOUN ERROR.   Anna-Marie McLemore’s Blanca & Roja has received enthusiastic reviews.  I ordered this retold fairy tale because it sounds rather like Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood, one of my favorites of the year.

In the very first sentence I found an error.

Everyone has their own way of telling our story.”

It’s never good to lead with an error.

Their is the pronoun error.

The subject, everyone, is singular indefinite pronoun, and of course the verb,  has, is singular, too.  The subject and verb must agree in number.   But then the writer switches to their, the plural possessive personal pronoun,  to refer back to the singular everyone.   The possessive pronoun should agree in number with the noun it refers back to.  In other words, it should be singular here.

Here are three correct versions of the sentence.

Everyone has his own way of telling our story.

Everyone has her own way of telling our story. 

Everyone has his or her own way of telling our story.

And if you don’t like the use of “his” or “her,” you can substitute “All” for “Everyone.”

All have their own way of telling our story.

I have seen nothing else untoward in the  few pages I’ve read.  Do I give the book a chance, or return it to the bookstore because of a grammar error?

Do you, too, silently correct grammar?

Two Great Books & a Pair of Reading Socks

Let me recommend two remarkable new books.

Deborah Eisenberg’s brilliant collection of short stories, Your Duck is My Duck, is my favorite book of the year. (It is also a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year.)  I’ve been an Eisenberg  fan for decades:  I  pore over The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2011,  when I need humor, sanity, and gorgeous sentences.   Your Duck is My Duck, a collection of six new stories, is another classic.

I plan to write about it later, but  meanwhile here is a brief witty excerpt from the title story.  When the narrator consults a doctor about sleeping problems, he offers her a prescription for sleeping pills.  She declines, so he advises her to try to figure out why she’s not sleeping.

“What’s to figure out?” I said. “I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, my life. Plus, it’s beginning to look like a photo finish—me first, or the world. It’s not so hard to figure out why I’m not sleeping. What I can’t figute out is why everybody else is sleeping.”

“Everybody else is sleeping because everybody else is taking pills,” he said.

So witty, so true!  Does anyone describe the world’s problems better than Eisenberg’s narrator in that brief paragraph? N.B. The narrator reluctantly tries the pills, but throws them away because she doesn’t like the way they make her feel.

 On a different note, there’s  1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich.  This isn’t just a reference book.  Mustich, the co-founder and publisher of the charming book catalogue The Common Reader from 1986 to 2006, has always been a promoter of great old and new books. If you had the pleasure of reading the catalogue, you’ll know how captivating his writing is.  In this attractive, long, but unintimidating book, he has written a mini-essay about each book on his list.  The book also comes with a checklist on a poster!  We are poring over this book with pleasure at our house, and making a new list of books we want to read.

Reading Socks!

We saved up Barnes and Noble coupons–one 25% off, one  20% off, and one 15% off–and went to B&N to pick out the books for our Christmas book exchange.  And my husband also bought me Reading Socks!

  They are SO  comfortable and warm:  a pair  of long socks lined with faux sherpa fleece.  And they come in different styles and colors.  Below are some short reading socks.

Having warm feet makes a difference !

A Giveaway: “Asymmetry” by Lisa Halliday

This is one of the Best Books of the Year, according to The New York Times critics. And  I’m giving it away to anyone willing to reimburse me for the postage!

Halliday writes beautifully, and yet I found Asymmetry gimmicky.   It consists of two novellas, the first about Alice, a twenty-something wannabe writer who has an affair with Ezra Blazer, a famous American writer in his seventies. Coincidentally,  Halliday in her twenties had an affair with seventyish Philip Roth.  Every reviewer gossips about this, so I assume the tittle-tattle was part of the publicity package.

As a Second Wave feminist, I eventually tired of Alice and Ezra.    It’s not that women who f— their way to fame don’t have talent, but it’s the f– part that cements the deal.  Fortunately, in the second novella, “Madness,” Halliday  casts aside  Alice and Ezra to delineate a truly interesting character, Amar, an upper-middle-class  Iraqi-American researcher who is detained at Heathrow Airport in London on the way to Iraq.  This is the truly brilliant part of this novel.

Alas, in the final section Ezra is back!  He gives an interview on a BBC radio show,  “Desert Island Discs.”   And, not surprisingly,  Ezra mentions an interesting young writer he is helping.  Just as we thought, Alice has benefited from Ezra’s patronage.

Somebody will love this novel, but I want it out of my  house!  When will women get out from under men?

How I miss Second Wave feminism!

The book is beautifully written and critically acclaimed.  Leave a comment or email me at mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com if you want the book.

Retro-chic Gifts for the Common Reader

Common readers are chic.

If you’ve been to a reader’s fashion show, you know what I mean.

On the runway you will see a bespectacled model dressed in a Jane Austen sweatshirt and composition-book print yoga pants. She holds a copy of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and sips from a mug that says, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.”

But, dear reader, you can have a chic Christmas without the latest fashions! JUST TREAT YOURSELF (OR FRIENDS) TO ONE  ITEM BELOW.

A reference book.  A good reference book has the advantage of being written by experts and researchers. Wikipedia is fun, but there are mistakes.  I recommend an old set of encyclopedias (cheap at used bookstores), James Audubon’s Birds of America, or anything else that interests you.

A dictionary (the biggest you can afford).  You will enjoy the detailed entries, love the etymology, and when you look up “ineffable,” you will see  pages and page of words beginning with “i.”  (On the internet you see only what you look up.)

A thesaurus.  So many synonyms!

4.  A slim volume of poetry.  Everyone should have one.  You might read A. E. Stalling’s new translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin, 33 pages) but you will never open that huge anthology of classical poetry.

5.  A used copy of a novel by Balzac (preferably a Penguin).  “This old thing? I’ve read it, like, 100 times.”  Pere Goriot…Cousin Bette…  You’ll  be late for work  BECAUSE YOU WERE READING but who can fire you for that?

6.  A new book journal.  Forget the spreadsheet and return to paper when you write your book journal.

7.  Reading socks (Barnes and Noble).  They’re just socks, but you want them!  You can also write your own label, Reading Socks, on an ordinary pair of socks and give them as a gift.

8.  An old-fashioned Rolodex to keep track of characters in Proust.  Experience the 20th century! It’s fun to write the information on cards!

9.  A mug with a bookish slogan. They’re frivolous, but we all like a Jane Austen mug.

10.  A totebag  doesn’t need a literary slogan, but everyone needs a totebag!


How Menopause Made Me a Better Reader

In movies, menopausal women sweat during hot flashes and remove their clothes as they make the most important presentation of the year.  Ha, ha!   I assure you, nothing of the kind happened to me. It’s like the menstruation myths.  You don’t turn into an emotional witch.  And once your reproductive system doesn’t define you,  you can change your life.

READ BETTER BOOKS, I wrote in my journal.

I went back to the classics.  And since the canon has expanded to include women, there are even MORE great books to read.

The women’s canon is in flux, though.  Mind you,  I have a distorted idea of literary taste because of Anglophilia, cute blogs, internet forums, and all those English publications I read. There is a tendency today to throw everything together, the literary and pop culture.  Virginia Woolf is in the canon, but can Elizabeth Gaskell,  Viragos and Persephones possibly compete?

It would seem so, judging from enthusiastic posts on the internet.

Mind you, I love Gaskell to bits.  North and South is a delightful read, but it is no Middlemarch .  And Gaskell is not quite in the class of the other George, either:   George Gissing, who is not, I fear, quite in the  canon, though he wrote New Woman novels.

I don’t mean to start a riot when I say that Viragos and Persephones are overrated.  I have read a lot of Viragos, the A list and the B list.   Virago publishes the brilliant Elizabeth Taylor, Molly Keane, and Margaret Oliphant.  But nothing would compel me to return to the plodding Sheila Kaye-Smith or Winifred Holtby.  And though I enjoy Persephones, I do not remember a single  Persephone title.  What does that say about  wonderful middlebrow reads?

Being an American, I have a clearer idea of the American women’s canon:   Susanna Rowson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Jean Stafford, Katherine Anne Porter, Susan Sontag, Louise Erdfich…

But people quarrel constantly about the canon.  Harper Lee and Laura Ingalls Wilder are now in question.  The ALA demoted Wilder’s Little House books and took her name off an award, apparently because Pa was insensitive about Native Americans and blacks in the 19th century…   Lee’s use of the “n” word in historical context has also caused a crisis.

Is censorship on the rise? Book-banning is always popular.  The unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover wasn’t published until 1960.   Not long ago, an upper-class white woman chided me because “Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin make black people feel bad.” Suburban white women don’t have the final say, though.  Several African-American writers on the PBS show, The Great American Read, praised Huckleberry Finn and  To Kill a Mockingbird, which was voted the most popular American read.

In 2015, in a  New York Times dialogue about who should be kicked out of the canon, Francine Prose wrote,

One problem with trying to decide who should be kicked out of the canon is that I’m never exactly sure who is in it. I’ve always felt that the canon was like the guest list to a secret party, a roster drawn up by covert hosts at some undisclosed location. I know that Harold Bloom wrote a book in which he ruled, quite definitively, on which writers do and don’t belong. But not having read his book, I have only some vague memory of the brief controversy that erupted when someone noted how few women Bloom included.

Before menopause, I would have been indignant about Bloom’s list.  Fortunately, I read The Western Canon after menopause.  My list has more women, but I like the traditional canon, too.  Viva the hormone change!

Reading Lisa Halliday’s “Asymmetry” & Are Reading Socks Real?

This weekend I picked up a copy of Lisa Halliday’s first novel, Asymmetry, because (a) it is in paperback, and (b) it made so many critics’ Best of the Year lists.  Some of the critics are always wrong, but they can’t all be wrong, can they?

This smart, absorbing, accomplished novel is a good read.  It is divided into three sections, and I have finished the first part, “Folly .” Because I hadn’t read the reviews, I was astonished by the premise: Alice, a lonely young editor in New York, has an affair with Ezra Blazer, a famous prize-winning elderly writer. And it’s based loosely on fact. Halliday, who is now 41, had an affair in her 20s with Philip Roth.  He was 45 years older than she.

I probably would have enjoyed this more if I hadn’t googled her and read about the thing with Philip Roth. Roth’s American Pastoral may be THE great American novel of the 20th century, but when  he began to write about very old men who had affairs with young beautiful women, I thought,  Sheer fantasy.  I was wrong!

Fortunately Halliday is such a good writer it isn’t necessary to know about the Roth affair.   In the context of the novel, it makes sense.  Alice is lonely, and her job in publishing isn’t so great.  We first meet her sitting on a park bench.

In the perfect opening sentence, Halliday sketches Alice’s character  and mood.

Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks?

It is funny and charming that an editor doesn’t care for a book without quotation marks.   She pretends to read it when Ezra, whom she immediately recognizes, sits down beside her to eat his ice cream.  He asks her what she’s reading:  she shows him her book.

“Is that the one with the watermelons?”

Alice had not yet read anything about watermelons, but she nodded anyway.

When they become lovers a few weeks later,  Ezra becomes Pygmalion to her Galatea.   He tries to educate Alice:  he gives her a bag of books he thinks she should read, among them The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, July’s People, and The Joke.  Soon they are buddies who watch baseball games together. He is also very paternal: he sends her shopping for a warm coat  because he doesn’t think hers is warm enough, buys her an air conditioner during a heat wave, and invites her to his gorgeous country home, where she must pretend to be his research assistant.

Eventually his health problems get in the way. He has heart disease, degenerative joint disease of the spine, glaucoma, and osteoporosis.  After a  harrowing night at he emergency room, Alice cries because she  wants a “normal” relationship. His health problems are simply too much for a twentysomething woman to cope with.

I am a little more than halfway through the novel: the second part is about a different character, Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained by immigration officers at Heathrow.  We shall see how it all connects.

Though it may not be my favorite book of the year (too soon to tell), she has a  smart, elegant style, and I will certainly read anything else she writes!


Are reading socks real?

I do want reading socks!  They sell them at Barnes and Noble.

I want magical socks for reading! It is so cold in here at night, due to my husband’s having been raised in the north and liking a cool house, that I huddle under 10 blankets and quilts while I’m reading.  Would cozy long soft socks, lined with polyester fleece,  or short socks that seem to be fake fur-trimmed slippers, make a difference?

They’re just socks, I tell myself.

I do need more socks, though.