Am I Still Bookish? A Glut of Lists & Carol Shields’s “The Box Garden”

I wondered, Am I still bookish? 

Every year, the “Best Books of the Year” lists become less reliable.  Yes, they make good Christmas shopping lists—what to give Aunt Betty in What Cheer, Iowa, is a problem—but publishing the lists before Black Friday is just giving in. The daily critics used to be so classy that their “Best of” list did not appear until a week or two after Black Friday.   I am not sure this is still the case—Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, has enfolded them into her operation.

A masterpiece

Needless to say, the New York Times’ “Top 10” is not for me, because I read older books. But I did expect to find Tess Hadley’s masterpiece, Late in the Day, and possibly Ludmilla Ulitskay’s Jacob’s Ladder,  among the New York Times “100 Notable Books”—and instead found Cathleen Schine’s bubbly chick lit novel, The Grammarians, and  Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything.   

O tempora!  O mores! 

I had better luck with “The Best Books of the Year” at the Washington Post. Tessa Hadley made the list, and Schine and Weiner did not.  Actually, the reviews at the Washington Post are usually brilliant.  The reviewers have distinctive voices.   

And I enjoyed the “Best of” at the TLS:  several critics write about their favorite reading of the year, so it is more than  a list.  I always scribble down a few of the titles, but do giggle over some of the more pompous ones that are not in my field.

WHAT HAVE I BEEN READING?   I loved Carol Shields’ superb second novel, The Box Garden, a sequel to Small Ceremonies (which I wrote about here).  (Yes, I’ve been back in the ‘70s.)

Shields’s style is deceptively simple. She breezily treats family problems and spiritual aches within the context of a domestic comedy.  The likable narrator, Charleen, a poet and part-time assistant editor at a botanical journal, is depressed about the impact of divorce on her family life.   Her husband left her and their fifteen-year-old son to live in a commune and raise organic food five years ago.  Meanwhile she is dating an orthodontist—whom her  friends think very unhip—and corresponding with a man whose philosophical essay on grass (not marijuana) was rejected by the botanical journal.  And now she must go to her 70-year-old mother’s wedding—and that will be a trial, because her mother never liked her or her older sister, Judith, a biographer (who is the narrator of Small Ceremonies).  Resonant, riveting, and often humorous!

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.