Why I Love to Reread: The New Brontë Craze

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”
― Robertson Davies

vintage woman reading book stock-illustration-21375543-vintage-woman-reading-book-and-holding-cup-of-coffeeThere is a secret bloom that arrives in late middle age.

It has to do with books.

Rereading a book for the first time in decades is an entirely new and delightful experience.  You remember your first reactions, and add new impressions from years of reading history and reviews.

I always have my nose in a book.  From Virgil to Virginia Woolf, from Catullus to Colette, and from Gogol to Edward Gorey.

Below is a humorous image of Rory (Alexis Bedel) on The Gilmore Girls, with her nose in a book at the Harvard Library.

For a couple of decades after graduate school, I had little time to reread the classics.  In my free time I reviewed contemporary fiction for newspapers and (now defunct) literary journals. I was remarkably well-informed on the trends of the 1980s:  the minimalist stories of Ann Beattie, the gritty working-class fiction of Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, John Updike’s suburban adulterers, the  bizarre humor of T. C. Boyle (then known as T. Coraghessan Boyle), and the magic realism of Louise Erdrich.

The bad thing about reviewing is that you don’t get to choose the books.

The good thing about not reviewing is that there is no longer pressure to keep up with the latest books.

And so I have been free to reread the classics.

I have reread all of Austen’s novels several times.  Emma is my favorite.   But, yes, you can read too much Austen.  I am on an Austen break at the moment.  But never fear, I’ll be back.

anne bronte tenant of wildfell hall 51Sp7PW34wL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My latest craze is rereading the Brontës.  I just reread Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Is Anne as interesting as Charlotte and Emily?  No, but she is very good indeed.

Although her style is not  as poetic or striking as that of Charlotte or Emily, I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s feminist novel about the perils of romantic love.  The frame construction reminds me of Wuthering Heights.   We get to know the heroine, Helen, through the narrator’s intense  letters to a friend, and then through the diary she gives him to read, and then back to his letter.  She marries an attractive man who turns out to be a dissolute drunk.  She escapes with her son to live in the run-down Wildfell Hall.

I wish Anne had written more.  I like Agnes Grey less than the intense Tenant. 

Are you or aren’t you a rereader?  What are your favorite books to reread?

Giveaway Winners!

Jen gets the Will Self.

Joyce gets the Rumer Godden.

Diana gets the Cathy Marie Buchanan.

Send me your addresses at mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com

If anyone wants Little Dorrit, The Trumpet-Major, or Anna Karenina, the offer is good through the weekend.

Happy reading!

Spring Giveaway: Little Dorrit, Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major, Anna Karenina, Rumer Godden’s Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, Will Self’s Grey Area, and Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls

Heritage Press edition of Anna Karenina.
Heritage Press edition of Anna Karenina.

It is the Spring Giveaway!

These books need a good home.

They range from good reading copies of the classics to never-been-read newer books.  If you would like one or more, leave a comment. If you choose Little Dorrit, Anna Karenina, or The Painted Girls, could you reimburse me for the postage?  These three are hefty.

1.  A lovely Heritage Press edition of Anna Karenina that comes in a box.  I bought this for $3 at a sale because I wanted to try the Constance Garnett translation.  It has illustrations by Barnett Freeman.  And, after all, Garnett introduced Virginia Woolf and the Edwardians to Tolstoy.  (There is a fascinating article at The New Yorker on Constance Garnett here.)

2.  A Penguin of Little Dorrit, with a cover photo from the Masterpiece TV series.

Little Dorrit penguin 41UioCbPFHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_3.  Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major.  This is a 1995 Wordsworth edition, a good reading copy.  It is a little larger than the current Wordsworth paperback, but I can’t find an image online.

4.  Will Self’s Grey Area.  A collection of short stories which I have never read, but I am a  fan of his novel, How the Dead Live.

5.  Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls, a historical novel about two sisters, one a model for Degas, the other in a stage adaptation of Zola’s L’Assommoir.

Rumer Godden Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy 24607254.   Rumer Godden’s Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy.  This is Godden’s third nun book, which I bought for $1 at a sale.  Yes, I have another copy; no, I haven’t read it yet.  But Godden is one of my favorite writers.   

Diary of a Pelvic Exam

doctor health-drs-swscan01630-copy-copyI grew up on Our Bodies, Ourselves.

I understand the importance of looking after one’s health.

Recently I wrote what I call a diary-in-a-list when I found a pea-sized bump under my skin in an awkward place.

Here is what I did.

1.  I tried to find a mirror to do a self-exam.

2.  I finally used the one in my compact.

3. After looking at my lump, I Googled health care sites.

4.  I diagnosed my lump as a benign cyst.


1.  My doctor barely knows who I am, because I am a very healthy person. (And that is a good thing.)  He/she knows me only from the records on his/her tablet.

2.  He/she confirms my diagnosis, but wants to know the date of my last pelvic exam. I do not have that data in my memory.

3.  The doctor asks if I have all my “lady parts.”  I do wonder why none of this is in my records!

4. But I have no qualms about putting my feet in stirrups, because I have had, of course, many pelvic exams.


1.  The speculum, an ice-tongs-like instrument that is used to hold open the vagina so the doctor can examine the cervix, is not a one-size-fits-all device.  The type of speculum used for a menopausal woman is different from that used for a menstruating woman.  (I learned this after the exam.)

2.   He/she tried to shove the speculum in.  I was in such pain that I instinctively shot up into a half-sitting position and told him I couldn’t take the pain.  I have never had this kind of pain before.

3.  He/she said he/she was almost done.  The nurse looked concerned.

4.  Instead of screaming, I endured the pain.  I was sure something was wrong with ME.  It wasn’t till later that it occurred to me the speculum was the wrong size.

5.  I went home and wept.  I had a burning sensation in my vagina and cramps.

6.  And then I went online and learned from Our Bodies, Ourselves that new guidelines from the American College of Physicians say pelvic exams are unnecessary for most healthy women.
The article says,

There are no data supporting the effectiveness of the screening pelvic examination (including speculum and bimanual examinations) in the asymptomatic average risk woman for any indication other than periodic cervical cancer screening. The procedure causes pain, discomfort, fear, anxiety, and/or embarrassment in about a third of women and can lead to unnecessary, invasive, and potentially harmful diagnostic procedures. …

There are also potential procedure–related harms. For example, researchers report that heavier women are more likely than women of average weight to report more disrespect and embarrassment during a pelvic exam. Women with a history of exposure to sexual violence are also more likely to report fear, embarrassment and anxiety.

So this was an unnecessary procedure for me.

I guess we have to research everything before we go to the doctor.  But we can’t.

I’m sure family doctors have only a two- or four-week gynecology rotation during their residency.  This is not their expertise.  And perhaps they don’t treat many post-menopausal women.

Next time, I’ll go to a gynecologist.

A Few Words on Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words

Lost for Words St. Aubyn 9781250069214Who doesn’t love satires?

I am a fan of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde,” Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, Dawn Powell’s The Wicked Pavilion, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

I recently purchased a paperback of Edward St. Aubyn’s novel, Lost for Words.  Why?  Because I liked the the cover art.  This slight novel is a satire of the politics of a literary prize–and what could be better summer reading, I thought, what with the Man Booker longlist coming up soon?

St. Aubyn is witty, but he is much more savage than he is comical. (In fact, the savagery is almost frightening.)  This glitteringly malevolent novel reads like a writer’s revenge.  And, no, in case you’re wondering, he has never won the Man Booker Prize.  Parts of his novel were obviously inspired by the 2011 Man Booker Prize debacle, when the chair of the judges, Dame Stella Rimington, former Director General of M15 and author of thrillers, made a gaffe:  she upset critics and readers by saying she was looking for readability.  (It doesn’t sound so bad in retrospect, does it?)

The British take the Booker so seriously–for months I am agog over a surfeit of information about the drama of the judges and the longlist and the shortlist.

The Elysian Prize is the name of St. Aubyn’s thinly veiled Man Booker Prize, which his stick-figure writer characters would kill to win.  Sonny, the wealthy Indian author of a self-published novel, very unamusingly plans to assassinate the chair of the judges when his book doesn’t make the longlist  Katherine, a  beautiful writer with multiple lovers, dumps two boyfriends over the prize:  the first, an editor whose  assistant mistakenly submitted a cookbook instead of her novel, and the second,  a boyfriend whose novel makes the shortlist.

Most comical are the unlikely  judges.  Unpromising and unliterary, but funny!  The chair of the judges is a Scottish M.P., who accepted the chairmanship “out of backbench boredom.” The other judges are Jo Cross, an outspoken newspaper columnist who values “relevance”; Tobias, a charming actor whose favorite is a pseudo-lyrical historical novel about Shakespeare; and Penny, who has retired from the Foreign Office and is writing bad thrillers with the help of software called “Ghost” which suggests hackneyed phrases like “ice water running through his veins” when you type in “assassin.”

Vanessa is the only literary judge, an Oxford academic.  Here is Malcolm’s reaction to her:

In the last analysis, Malcolm felt there was no harm in having one expert on the history of literature, if it reassured the public.

Now I admit that is funny!

Reading this short, uneven book is a bit like watching a Road Runner cartoon.  Will Wile E. Coyote explode the dynamite or not?  Only who IS the Road Runner?  And is it racist that the Indian writer is Wile E.?  Can you deconstruct it?   Although St. Aubyn is a highly-praised writer, there is no way I can recommend this book.

Literary Gossip is Good for the Soul: News, Prizes, and Links

algonquin round table 610_algonquin_aboutSometimes it’s pleasant to post literary gossip and links to juicy articles about books. (Juicy by our unexciting standards.)

1.  Who is the  biggest publisher of literature in translation in the U.S.?  The New York Times reports,

It’s not Random House, and it’s not a specialized indie outfit like Europa Editions or New Directions. It’s Amazon.com. Last year, the company’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, brought out 44 new English translations from a diverse slate of literature, including Icelandic, Turkish and Korean. That’s more translated titles than any other American publisher, according to data from Three Percent, a literary translation blog at the University of Rochester.

2.  In The Guardian, Tessa Hadley writes about Margaret Drabble’s first novel, The Millstone She says, “For my money, it’s the seminal 60s feminist novel that Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is always supposed to be.”

the millstone drabble 41XWah-yQmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_3.  In The Guardian, we also learned that Dorothy Richardson’s superb sequence of novels, Pilgrimage, is to be reissued by Oxford World Classics. 

Dorothy Richardson
Dorothy Richardson

4.  At the TLS blog, you can read Michael Caines’s article on rediscovering Brigid Brophy. Coincidentally, on my e-reader I have a copy of of Brophy’s The Finishing Touch, with an introduction by TLS editor Sir Peter Stothard.

Brophy the finishing touch 51tTNdHJzML5.  Karen E. Bender’s stunning collection of short stories,  Refund, is on the longlist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award.  (I blogged about this extraordinary book here.)

Karen E. Bender Refund book-refund-stories6.  Jo Walton has won the James Tiptree Award for her dazzling novel, My Real Children (I wrote about it here.)

Jo Walton's My Real Children7.  Wendy Pollard’s brilliant biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson, who is one of my favorite writers,  is a finalist for The People’s Book Prize. (You can vote here.) Wendy said in an email that it is “a vote for literary biography.” I interviewed Wendy here.

wendy pollard Pamela-hansford-Johnson-web8. Penguin has reissued Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.  Ruth Franklin in The New York Times Book Review describes them as “a collection of warm and funny magazine pieces chronicling the ups and downs of Shirley Jackson’s household.” Franklin also reports that  ten years after the publication of Life Among the Savages, “Betty Friedan accused Jackson of betraying her readers by contributing to the pernicious myth of the ‘happy housewife’ purveyed by women’s magazines of the era.”  Hm, I love Betty Friedan, but I also enjoyed Jackson’s funny memoirs.

life among the savages and raising demons 1505_SBR_SHIRLEY_COVER.jpg.CROP.original-original

The Poison Pen in Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night

Dorothy sayers gaudy night 51HkbAgFJTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Gaudy Night is not Dorothy Sayers’s most amusing mystery, but it is undoubtedly her most brilliant literary novel.

The elaborate plot is disturbing and hyperrealistic.  The heroine, Harriet Vane, a tormented mystery writer who was tried and acquitted for the murder of her lover, returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, a women’s college at Oxford, to investigate a poison pen writer who is also playing poltergeist.  Her long-time suitor, Lord Peter Wimsey, the amateur detective and star of most of Sayers’s novels, comes to her aid. The women at the college, who pride themselves on their independence in the 1930s when women’s education was not the status quo, ironically need a man to solve the case.

And yet, despite this clichéd business of the women’s failure to find the perpetrator, Sayers deepens the psychology of her characters.. Harriet, who has always been improbably annoyed by Peter’s attentions, becomes more vulnerable and sympathetic as she seeks a refuge in scholarship at Oxford, only to be tormented by fear again. And it turns out that Peter, exhausted by work at the Foreign Office, has a similar temperament. He got a first at Oxford, which Harriet had not known. He also wishes he could retreat to Oxford, but the world exists there, too.

sayers old paperback gaudy_nightUsually I read for character, not plot, but what strikes me on my third reading of Gaudy Night is the very contemporary problem of the poison pen.  On the internet there are trolls.  Oddly, it is TV-watching that has brought this issue to my attention.  The beautiful Rumer Willis, one of the finalists on Dancing with the Stars this season, has said that she was “bullied” on social media about her unconventional looks (and, indeed, some of these horrifying tweets were shown on this DWTS episode).

I rarely see this kind of comment at book blogs, and fortunately am under the radar at Mirabile Dictu. But social media can be risky, and even online book discussions can be contentious. I have seen perfectly nice online groups splinter over very insignificant matters. Indeed, I have never been forgiven by a Virago group, or perhaps it was a Persephone group, for gently mocking the constant Virago and Persephone reading weeks.  And I love Viragos!

Jason Silverman’s wrote in article in 2012 about the pressure on the internet to be  “nice,” i.e., uncritical.  I wrote a response at my old blog:

I once said something about Persephone books (or was it Virago?) that upset quite a few bloggers who every few months declared it Persephone Week (or was it Virago Week?). I spoke out against “Amazon affiliates” and got even more grief. And recently I was called a “bitch” and a “bad reader” for trashing John Irving’s In One Person. …but I delete all comments that call me a bitch, unless I forget (which happens if I’m busy).

There are poison pens online, and there are patrol pens online.  But of course there are also good friends on the net.