What’s on My TBR? To Be Read, to Be Reread, & Comfort Books

It’s not pretty…

I moved a bookcase into my bedroom.  It is the only way to cope with the TBR.

“Yup, that’s the TBR shelf,” I told my bookish friend, Suzy, a teacher who stopped by briefly in the middle of a literary road trip.   She has visited the American Writers Museum in Chicago, taken the Betsy-Tacy tour in Mankato, Minnesota, is on her way to Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and, against her better judgment, may swing by Mark Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Missouri (a commercial nightmare), on the way home.

After a trip to Half Price Books, Suzy happily examined my shelves, but is not entirely sympathetic to the TBR concept. She thinks it’s internet-ish. “So what’s Aeschylus doing on the nightstand?  Where’s his shelf?”

“That’s a chest of drawers.  Aeschylus is bedtime reading.”

“Cozy, kind of like Stephen King.”

“Maybe less horrifying, like domestic noir.”

I explained I dropped Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil in the laundry basket so I’d remember to put it in the giveaway box in the laundry room.  It is his worst book.  The characters are like the Snopes.  Inger killed her baby who had a harelip.  And she just got out of prison.

“May I have it?”

Over ice cream with raspberries, we discussed the pros and cons of a TBR shelf.

I rarely read anything on my TBR, alas. Will I get back to Dostoevsky?  Not unless I acquire some name-brand antidepressants. (Impossible.)  I often dip into D. H. Lawrence’s short stories, but prefer his novels. I recommend Gissing’s The Odd Women, but should some  of Gissing’s other books before I return to my favorite.  Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, a series of fictional conversations about the virtues and conduct of the ideal courtier,  is a comfort read for the middle of the night.

So it’s really a comfort read shelf?

Suzy is reading Willa Cather’s  Collected Short Stories, because the autobiographical story “Old Mrs. Harris” is essential reading for the tour.

So what’s on your TBR?  And do you actually read it?

What I’ve Been Reading: Allende, Austen, Anders, & Literary Links

You may ask, Is Mirabile Dictu finally done with Ladies’ Greek?

Yes, I am reading, reading, and reading novels again!

Here are brief remarks on a South American masterpiece by Isabel Allende, Jane Austen’s first novel, and and Charlie Jane Ander’s acclaimed science fiction.

1. The Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende’s stunning  first novel, The House of the Spirits, was translated by Magda Bogin and published in the U.S.  in 1985. This lush, witty, poetic masterpiece is laced with magic realism, and  reminiscent of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Allende narrates the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trueba family in a politically unstable  country in South America.  The strong women of the family ignore Esteban Trueba, the volatile family patriarch, and live their own lives. I am especially fond of Clara, the  psychic matriarch who opens their enormous house to eccentrics and adds on rooms and staircases that go nowhere; her daughter, Blanca, a potter who teaches Mongoloids; and her radical granddaughter, Alba, who  feeds the homeless and hides refugees in the wake of a fascist coup. Even the tyrannical patriarch, Esteban Trueba, a landowner and far-right politician, is appalled in old age by violence of the new regime and begins to understand the women. Not only was I reminded of how very great Allende is, but I am eagerly looking forward to her new novel, In the Midst of Winter (October).

2. A rereading of Jane Austen’s Northanger AbbeyThe heroine, Catherine Morland, is one of Austen’s most comical characters, and I enjoyed my rereading of this charming little book.  Catherine, a fan of Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and other “horrid” Gothic novel, hopes to find a ghost or secret manuscript when she visits the Tilneys at the elegant  Northanger Abbey. Her witty boyfriend, Henry Tilney, one of the very few of Austen’s heroes I heartily approve, brings Catherine down to earth when she gets carried away.  He, too, is a novel reader, and has a good sense of humor.  He says,

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  I have read all Mrs. Radliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure.  The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again,–I remember finishing it in two days–my hair standing on end the whole time.”

3.  Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky.  A nominee for the Hugo Award, this  science fiction novel was highly lauded.   Parts are charming, parts are a bit awkward and rambling, but it should appeal to fans of Harry Potter and Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy.  The story of the relationship between Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a brilliant techie, includes lots of magic, science, sex, and global warming.  Though this novel seems to me very slight, it is a good weekend read.


AND NOW FOR TWO LITERARY LINKS.  When I spotted an online review at the TLS of Ann Hood’s bibliomemoir, Morningstar,I paid a month’s subscription fee to read the review.  Well, I will also benefit by reading other reviews for subscribers only.   I loved Hood’s memoir, and hope others will enjoy it, too.  (You can read my post on Morningstar here.)

Jenny Hendrix writes in the TLS,

…[Hood] credits her childhood bookishness with setting her on a path to the literary life of her dreams. Hood reflects on ten works of fiction that guided her through adolescence in the late 1960s and early 70s, and her discovery through them of how to live “the mysterious, unnam­able, big dream life I wanted”: “My parents learned about life from hardship”, she writes. “Me? I learned from books.”

In her blue-collar Rhode Island mill town, Hood was an oddity in a household of non-readers; in her hard-working Italian immigrant family, books were seen as a waste of time and money. But, after she had enjoyed a chance encounter with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, literature opened Hood’s eyes to possibilities beyond her immediate milieu. She learnt what it meant to be a writer from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; learnt to love language via the poet Rod McKuen; and credits John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with teaching her how to write. There were other, extra-literary lessons as well, in subjects her family didn’t discuss. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, the novel Johnny Got His Gun sharpened her political thinking; the free-loving teens of The Harrad Experiment opened her eyes to the mechanics of sex. Together, these books built Hood an off-ramp from what she experienced as the dull and uninspiring trajectory of her peers: baptized in the church at one end of the town’s main street, married at the club in the middle, and buried by the funeral parlour at the same street’s far end.

The tough women criticizing women at the TLS always find a few negative things to say, and so Hendrix calls the book “heart-warming,” which is not the worst thing I’ve ever heard!  Overall, she liked the book.

If you like free reviews, and don’t we all, you can read the insightful review at  The Minneapolis Star Tribune .  Laurie Hertzel, the book page editor, aptly describes Hood’s graceful book.

In these 10 appealing essays, Hood deftly recounts pivotal moments in her early life, recalling not just what happened, but how she felt and how wonderful it was that the right book seemed to appear at the right time. “Once again,” she writes, “my world had been cracked open by a book.”

Hood’s book is actually one of my favorite books of the year.

My Experience with “Ladies’ Greek,” in the Free-Wheeling 1970s

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Michele Gordigiani, oil on canvas, 1858

I am still reading Yopie Prins’s Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedies, a lively history of Victorian women who studied and translated Greek tragedies.  Some were classicists; others amateurs. An entire chapter is devoted to Virginia Woolf”s Agamemnon notebook.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a passionate Greek student, and the phrase “lady’s Greek”  comes from  her novel/poem, Aurora Leigh.  The heroine, Aurora, is a passionate reader of Greek, but her cousin Romney teases her about the Greek marginalia in her book of poetry. He denigrates her Greek, implying that it is not up to the level of the typical schoolboy.

Were the men defeated by Crosby and Schaeffer?

Inspired by EBB, I got out my Greek copy of Prometheus Bound (there is a translation by EBB) and suddenly realized:   I took an actual “ladies’ Greek” class as an undergraduate! Don’t get me wrong:  it was real  Greek, of the kind American schoolboys learned in the 1920s, in a “minimalist”  textbook known as Crosby and Schaeffer.  We  memorized paradigms and translated sentences like: “The satrap himself wrote as follows” and “Not being able to find the road, the captain perished.” And we loved it!

All the men dropped out of  Greek after the first rigorous year. What wimps!  Yes, we fair ones are the strong sex.  In second-year Greek, six or seven of us women ecstatically pored over Lysias and Euripides.  Some of us studied Greek for classics or related majors; others were enthusiastic but had less time.  And this was the situation of many of the classicists and amateurs in Prins’ book.  Populizers of Greek like Jane Harrison and Edith Hamilton encouraged the study of Greek for women, with an emphasis on  art as well as grammar.  Virginia Woolf, returning to Greek in middle age, had to devise a system by which she could read Agamemnon with a crib.  Her Greek was rusty, and she finally discovered a way to muse on the Greek words but also read quickly with the crib.

Was there sexism in our “ladies’ Greek” class?  Well, yes, but it was often hard to distinguish between sexism and classism.  Our professors were men with elite educations. They would much rather NOT have been teaching at state universities. Once this was actually discussed in front of us women, when a male transfer student from an elite school chatted to our professor about how unimpressed he was by our university.   Yes, the professor  regretted the low level.   Well, we women were not impressed by the young man’s Greek, who was not held to the same high standard we were. Our professor was one of the best teachers I have ever had, regardless of what he thought of us.   And the strict training in grammar, translation, and prosody prepared us well for a Hellenistic future.  Not that it ever arrived!

One other incident has stayed with me.  A friend from Greek class and I attended an evening lecture on Boethius.  (I was also an earnest Latin student, and though I had not read Boethius in Latin, I had read an English translation.) The professor asked us after the lecture what we thought of it.  Like the unpolitical babes in the wood we were, we told him we found it very dull indeed. (And it was–so dull!) “It might help if you read Boethius,” he said.  “We did,” we replied,.  (‘Nuff said?  Bit weren’t we silly not to say we thought it brilliant?)

In graduate school in classics, there was no more ladies’ Greek.  The number of male and female students was roughly equal. And, as far as I could tell, we were all treated equally. I had an independent study in Plato at a professor’s house:  there was much chinking of teacups and dropping of notes, but, as he said, my Greek was very good. My priority in graduate school was improving my Greek and Latin, and teaching.  I must confess I did not read many of the very, very, very dull articles assigned in classical journals because most of my time went to languages, and nary a one of these articles was relevant to my master’s exams.  And if I didn’t have time to read novels, I would go mad.  I mean I needed it!  Without Dickens or Trollope at the end of the day I could not sleep!

My one great disappointment in grad school? I did not take the Aeschylus seminar!  Greek prose composition (which I also loved) was scheduled for the same time, and I did need that course.  Can I go back in time? The professor retired.  And, really, I do not live near a university with a classics department. Fortunately I relearned my Greek grammar in middle age and hence dip into Aeschylus on my own. I am elbow-deep in dictionaries and grammars.

And that is something we Ladies in Greek do. We relearn our grammar, get out our vocabulary lists, and go for it!

Colm Toibin’s “House of Names” & Other Retold Myths

I did not quite love Colm Toibin’s House of Names, though it is a gorgeous retelling of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, with nods to Sophocles’s Electra and Euripides’s Orestes.  It is brilliant in its way, and often poetic.  It is  part Greek tragedy (the best part), part well-plotted Mary Renault.  Although I loved The Master, Toibin’s historical novel about Henry James (nominated for the Booker Prize), I was only intermittently swept away by his  much-lauded new book.  Perhaps it is because there is a lot of competition in the genre of retold myths.  But perhaps the real reason is that I no longer teach, so I am not assigning these books for extra credit to inspire my students with a love of classics.  (They will read anything for extra credit, and I hope some of them got something out of it.)

The novel begins well, with Clytemnestra’s rage.  Clytemnestra has murdered her husband King Agamemnon to avenge  his killing of their oldest daughter, Iphigenia:   he sacrificed Iphigenia to the gods so they would send a wind to take his  ships to war in Troy, where he and the Greek army would ravage and destroy an entire civilization.  And he had deceived his family, sending for Iphigenia so she could, supposedly, marry Achilles.

Clytemnestra’s views on her husband’s deceit and violence are icy-cold.  She coolly says the gods have deserted mankind.

When he was alive, he and the men around him believed that the gods followed their fates and cared about them. Each of them. But I will say now that they did not, they do not. Our appeal to the gods is the same as the appeal a star makes in the sky above us before it falls, it is a sound we cannot hear, a sound to which, even if we did hear it, we would be fully indifferent.

Tobiin’s characterization of the women is powerful, really the best part of the novel.   The younger daughter, Electra, a daddy’s girl,  turns against her mother, and eventually, when Electra comes into power, she turns, ironically, into a version of Clytemnestra, as far as shrewd politics go.

But most of the book focuses on the son Orestes, who is a follower, not a leader. In Toibin’s version, he is  kidnapped and sent to live in a barracks with other kidnapped boys, and escapes under the leadership of a smarter boy, Leander.  They trek for days, doing their best to take care of Mitros, a sickly boy who never stops coughing  And if you’re a Renault fan, you will enjoy Toibin’s excellent plotting as they barely escape one danger after another. For a time, the three boys live idyllically on the farm of an old woman who needs help with the animals and the crops.  But of course eventually the boys must leave. At home they find  so many dead, so many disappeared. Encouraged by Electra, Orestes kills Clytemnestra.

What happens to a matricide?  What happens to his name?

The shade of Clytemnestra comes back to see her son.  At first she cannot remember his name.

“I am Orestes,” he whispered.

“Orestes,” she whispered.

He could see her clearly now. Her face was even younger.

“There is no one,” she whispered.

“There is,” he said. “I am here. It is me.”

“No one,” she repeated.”

“She said the words “no one” twice more, and then, as her image began to fade, as the shadows grew around her, it seemed to him that she had some fierce and sudden intimation of what had happened, how she had died. She gazed at him in surprise and then in pain, and then she gasped in anguish before she disappeared.”

And Orestes is almost invisible to others after the matricide. He is no one.   He is not respected.  He is ignored.

If you like The House of Names, here  is a list of other excellent retellings of myths.

1  Katherine Beutner’s debut novel, Alcestis.  I very much enjoyed this  feminist retelling of the Alcestis myth, winner of the Edmund White Award for debut fiction from the Publishing Triangle in 2011.  Not as poetic as Toibin’s book, but worth reading. And what happened to  after she wrote this?  Don’t you hate the way good writers disappear?

2  David Malouf’s Ransom, an inspired reimagining of the Iliad focused on the incident of Priam’s ransoming of his son Hector’s body.

3 Barry Unsworth’s The Songs of the Kings, a brilliant  retelling of Agamemnon’s  sacrifice of Iphigineia.

4  Jane Rawlings’s The Penelopeia:  A Novel in Verse.  This retelling of Peneolope’s story in the form of an epic poem is quite effective.

5.  Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong.  A retelling of the Persephone myth in the age of climate change.

Reading the Classics and Yopie Prins’ “Ladies’ Greek: The Victorian Translations of Tragedies”

Did you know the translation of classics is male-dominated?  Check your bookshelf:  is Aeschylus’s Oresteia translated by Robert Fagles, Richmond Lattimore, or Ted Hughes?  How about Ovid’s Metamorphoses? Maybe  David Raeburn, Allen Mandelbaum, Charles Martin, or Rolfe Humphreys is the translator.

I never considered the issue of women translators of classics until I read Emily Wilson’s brilliant article in the Guardian“Found in Translation:  How Women Are Making the Classics Their Own” (July 7, 2017).  Wilson, whose new translation of Homer’s Odyssey will be published this fall, writes a compelling case for women translators after centuries of men.

For hundreds of years, the study of ancient Greece and Rome was largely the domain of elite white men and their bored sons. One might assume optimistically that things have changed. After all, women from a wide variety of backgrounds are now able to enrol at prestigious universities and colleges and learn Latin and Greek from scratch; knowledge of the ancient languages is no longer open only to men. But the legacy of male domination is still with us – inside the discipline of classics itself and in how non-specialist general readers gain access to the history and literature of the ancient world.

She says in the last decade we have begun to see more women translators of classics:  she mentions Caroline Alexander, Pamela Mensch, Sarah Ruden,  and Josephine Balmer.  On my shelves I have Betty Rose Nagle’s brilliant translations of Ovid’s Fasti and Statius’s Silvae, the classicist/poet Anne Carson’s Euripides, and Susan H. Braund’s  Civil Wars by Lucan.  That’s it.

If not for Wilson’s article, I would not have discovered the clever, charming book by Yopie Prins,  Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedies. I am reading it with great enthusiasm.  And I would say this is not just for classicists, though it helps to know Greek tragedies. The book revolves around Victorian women classicists, writers, and poets who translated tragedies, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf, H.D., Amy Levy, and Edith Hamilton.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was very keen on Greek, and the phrase “lady’s Greek”  comes from her  novel/poem, Aurora Leigh.  The heroine of the poem, Aurora Leigh, is a passionate reader of Greek who hopes to become a  poet.  Her cousin Romney, who proposes to her on her 20th birthday  cannot resist teasing her, i.e., denigrating her education.  He mocks her Greek marginalia in a book of poems.

Here’s a book I found!
No name writ on it–poems, by the form;
Some Greek upon the margin,–lady’s Greek
Without the accents.

The phrase “lady’s Greek” implies that Aurora does not really know Greek: in her personal notes, she has omitted the accents and breathing marks.  Browning may have encountered such sexism. She  was so passionate about Greek that she once wrote to the scholar Hugh Stuart Boyd, with whom she used to read Greek, “I intend to give up Greek when I give up poetry; & not till then!”

Mind you, I am as thrilled to read about Victorian women classicists  as about famous poets and novelists, but you will probably be more interested in the latter.  Fans of Woolf may have read  her essay, “On Not Knowing Greek.”  And, truly, she did not know Greek very well.  She studied as  a young woman with a Miss Janet Case (whose background Prins also describes).  At the age of 40,  Woolf returned to Aeschylus’s Agamemnon before she wrote her essay.  And she was rusty.

Virginia Woolf

To give you an idea of the challenge Woolf faced–her Greek was far from fresh–let me tell you that even scholars use dictionaries and grammars to translate tragedies.  Ancient Greek  is not a spoken language, the dialects can be difficult,  the vocabulary is entirely different from that of prose, and you are reading writers over a period of many centuries. So Woolf devised a crib for Agamemnon, consisting of a Greek text cut and pasted into the notebook, with Arthur Verrall’s English translation copied out in her own handwriting on the other side of the page. She began to realize it was impossible  for her to read the mystical and occasionally mystifying Greek quickly.  As she pored over the obscure poetry of Aeschylus, she wrote, “it is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words.”  (I think a better grasp of Greek grammar also would have helped.)

Prins is equally adept at portraying the Victorian women who first studied classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, and Somerville college, Oxford.  Agnata Frances Ramsay was the first woman to receive Top Honors in Part One of Tripos Examination at Cambridge.  How was she rewarded by the press?  A cartoon in Punch portrayed her stepping into a train coach marked First Class and Ladies’ Only, next to Punch himself and a dancing dog:  Samuel Johnson said an educated woman preaching is like a circus dog performing tricks.

After graduating from Newnham, Cambridge, Jane Harrison had an enormous influence: she popularized Greek through lectures, classes, and articles in women’s magazines and popular journals before returning to Cambridge to teach.  And Helen Magill, an American with a classics degree at Swarthmore who went to Cambridge  only to get a third in the Tripos at Cambridge–she blanked out–went back to the U.S., earned a Ph.D., and taught Greek in the women’s annex at Princeton.

Magill developed her own theory about studying Greek. She wrote, “Latin and Greek are by far the best instruments for training the mind in grammar and logic, but this training should not come first.  Every language should be studied as an art before it is studied as a science.”

This is very much like Virginia Woolf’s theory.  I myself think art and training should be simultaneous.

I am reading and loving this book, and  I do think many of you would enjoy it.

Why Can’t I Take an Urban Vacation? & Ann Beattie’s The Accomplished Guest

Did you spend July slapping deerflies and reading on the dock?   Is it time for an urban vacation?  I considered going to New York:  I wanted to see Mandy Patinkin  in Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, a  musical based on War and Peace. Unfortunately, Patinkin canceled his three-week run as Pierre after a Twitter hubbub, and now the show is closing!

Oh, well, if I went to New York, I’d buy too many books anyway.

And I have not read all the Penguins I bought on my trip to London last year.

The three most likely Penguin candidates for my August reading are:  Arnold Bennett’s The Card (I love Bennett!), Merle Miller’s The Sure Thing (he’s an Iowa writer!), and Travels with Herodotus (I’m a Herodotus fan!)

I am not sure why I bought a novel with mountain-climbing in it.  That will  stay on the shelf.

No urban vacation for me till they’re all read.


Ann Beattie’s new book, The Accomplished Guest, is one of my favorite short story collections of the year.  I thought the Man Booker Prize judges might consider it, but, alas! they did not include any books on my list.  (And that’s why I’m not Ladbrokes.)

I’m a longtime fan of Beattie, who has chronicled the quirks of American life since the simultaneous publication in 1976 of Distortions, her first collection of stories, and Chilly Scenes of Winter, her first novel.  Critics used to label her a minimalist, but her  lyrical style has evolved over the years, and her elegant stories have grown longer and fuller.

Beattie’s voice can be flamboyant: she balances her canny perceptions with witty dialogue.

In my favorite story, “Hoodie in Xanadu,” Beattie’s originality and charm dazzle.  The narrator, a flower arranger in her sixties in Key West, becomes acquainted with her eccentric, obese, agoraphobic neighbor.  She has signed for packages for him for years, but they haven’t chatted.  Finally he invites her for tea:  he has turned his front room into Xanadu, which she describes as an “enormous, vibrant, multicolored tent.  The materials were radiant:  some sparkled with tiny mirrors that threw off light…”  And he rents it out to celebrities for private parties.  He asks her to do the flowers for her

Here is one of Beattie’s joyful, funny observations when he tells her she mustn’t tell anyone about the celebrities.

In the second before he whispered their names, I wondered: Might they be the Queen of Hearts and the White Rabbit? The first name, the woman’s, I recognized, but I wasn’t sure I could pick her out of a lineup. The man’s name meant nothing to me, but he was apparently the husband.

Beattie is also astute about the vicissitudes of old age.   In “The Indian Uprising,” the kind narrator, Maude, a writer, takes Franklin, her 71-year-old retired English professor, to lunch at a Mexican restaurant.  It is snowing, and he is not in good health–he has had a triple bypass and has diabetes –but she helps him put on his velcro shoes, and after closing one with a paperclip, out they go.

Franklin mocks his old age. He tells her,

“An old man like me, and I’ve got no scarf, no hat, only gloves I bought from a street vendor, the same day I had a roasted chestnut and bought another one for a squirrel. I can tell you which one of us was happier.” He was holding the crook of my arm. “Only you would take me out in the snow for a meal. Promise me one thing: You won’t make me watch you make a snowball and throw it in a wintry way. You can make an anecdote of that request and use it later at my memorial service.”

At the restaurant, she sees her ex-husband sitting with a pretty woman.  And then she faints after she spots blood on Franklin’s foot.  Much to her chagrin, her ex- and his girlfriend come to her aid, but at least they help persuade Franklin go to the hospital. He steals a sombrero  on his way out.  On the phone he claims that they want to amputate his legs, and he says, “You’re the ugly stepsister who crammed my foot into the slipper.”  After Franklin’s death a few months later, there is no memorial service, and she turns  this  remembrance into a story.

The other stories are equally entertaining and unexpected.  In “The Gypsy Chooses the Whatever Card,” the 80-year-old narrator, Pookie, accompanies  Pru, a bubbly sorority girl who runs her errands,  and Pru’s friend Carrie to a coffeehouse where  Carrie’s bankrupt  mother sells her Avon makeup.  In “The Astonished Woodchopper,” John attends a complicated family wedding .  In “The Cloud,”  Candace visits her Uncle Sterling on a business trip, and learns he secretly married a young Hispanic woman who, it turned out,  preferred her ex-.

This is great fun, a good place to start reading her work. I very much enjoyed the 13 stories and could go on and on…but this is enough!

Beattie has won an award for excellence from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story form.

Two Great Reads: Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life & Janwillem van de Wetering’s “The Mind-Murders”

Edouard Vuillard’s “Madame Hessel Reading at Amfréville,” 1906

I have read many, many stunning books this summer.  In July it was so hot that I did very little bicycling or hiking:  I stayed indoors and read 13 books.  Did I write about all 13?  No.

Here are brief reviews of two great reads: Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life and Janwillem van de Wetering’s The Mind-Murders.  And look later this week for short reviews of Ann Beattie’s The Accomplished Guest and Victoria Redel’s After Everything.

A POIGNANT MEMOIR OF POETRY.  In Poetry Will Save Your Life, the poet Jill Bialosky refines the popular biblio-memoir and takes it in a new direction.  Instead of describing her favorite fiction, Bialosky is in love with poetry. She pairs her beautifully-detailed  personal vignettes with poems that help her parse emotions and experiences. Each poem is followed by a short literary analysis.  And it is a joy to discover or rediscover poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Denis Johnson, and many more.

Bialosky, who has also written novels and a memoir of her sister’s suicide,  is a master of lyricism.  Her imagery is crystalline and perfectly-wrought, and yet her style manages to be both evocative and earthy. She writes about her girlhood, college days, building a life in  New York, and her compassion for  her aging mother.  Many of the short chapters are almost novelistic. I told my husband,  “If Betty Smith had been a poet,  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would read like this.” (Only in Bialosky’s case, the tree would have grown in Cleveland.  And in my husband’s case, he didn’t care where the tree grew.)

Bialosky grew up in the Midwest with her beautiful, warm widowed mother and two affectionate sisters,  one of whom tragically committed suicide. She discovered poetry “when my fourth grade teacher, Miss Hudson read us Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’.”  Later, poetry helped her cope with her move to New York, her doubts that she would ever marry, and her difficulty in starting a family.  Poetry is the constant in her life.

In the preface, she  says poems are “like a map to an unknown city.”

For years I’ve flagged poems in individual volumes or anthologies with paper clips and Post-its. I have xeroxed poems and stuck them on my refrigerator or on bulletin boards. I have collected poems as someone else might collect stamps or coins or works of art—amazed by the many human experiences, large and small, that find their meeting place in poems.

As she walks on the beach alone in December, feeling lonely because her son is away at college, she thinks of William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud.”  In the early ’80s, when she is overwhelmed by the anonymity of New York City, she remembers a poem by Gerard Stern, “The Red Coal,” which tells the story of two poets in Pairs who are walking and talking about Hart Crane and Apollinaire.  When she loses hope that she will fall in love, she recites Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed and Where, and Why.”

I was moved by her description in “Legacy” of her disappointed mother, who had thought she would be a happily married housewife and was disoriented by widowhood.  In the chapter “Legacy,” Bialosky writes,

After my mother’s divorce from her second husband, my sisters and I try to push my mother. We urge her to take classes, find a job, and for a time she works as a receptionist, sells real estate, then works in retail, but there is a layer of fatigue and resentment underneath it all. It’s as if she feels she’s still entitled to the life she was meant, but there’s no husband at home taking care of her.

I wept, because I was thinking about my mother, who died four years ago.  She too lost her dream after my father divorced her.  She lived a full life, but was alone.  She never remarried. She once told me the best days of her life were when my siblings and I were small and we were all together.  It was heartbreaking.  She worked at menial jobs  and office jobs (I was very upset when I saw her working as a cashier at a drugstore) even though she had a bachelor’s degree.   Bialosky compares our mothers expectations in the ’60s of staying home with  our own generations’ assumptions that we would work.  Strange how just a few decades can make a difference.  Reading Lucille Clifton’s “Fury” and Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”  empowers us in that chapter.

A very moving book, with something for everybody.  It could be read for comfort, or as a textbook for a comp class or a poetry class.

I will certainly reread it.

A BRILLIANT MYSTERY. The Dutch crime fiction writer  Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008) is famous for his Amsterdam Cops series. He had the ideal background for writing quirky novels:   for many years he was a police officer in Amsterdam, and he was also a Zen Buddhist monk.

In his Amsterdam Cops series, there is often a hint of Zen:   Detective-Adjutant Grijpstra, an overweight, middle-aged, unhappily married man,  makes improbable connections between seemingly unrelated events.  His mind works differently from those of other cops. And Sergeant de Gier, his dapper, moody, contemplative, sexy younger partner, is also a gifted cop, who is of an age that he always gets a girl.

The Mind-Murders is one of the strangest in the series, a police procedural with a nod to Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop.   What happens if a murder has been committed, but no laws have been broken?  Durings a disturbance at a bar, the inebriated Mr. Fortune, a publisher,   attacks two overzealous young cops with his cane. They throw him in the river, and he fends them off with a cane, preferring drowning to being saved.  Grijpstra rebukes the cops for harrassing an invalid  but soon learns from the bar owner that Mr. Fortune had his reasons for getting drunk.  All of the furniture in his house, down to the nuts and bolts, have disappeared, and Mrs. Fortune with it. Fjrijpstra has a hunch that Mr. Fortune murdered his wife, and soon learns of a money motive that could just as easily have inspired the reverse.  And they do find a corpse in the trunk of a German businessman’s Mercedes?  Are the crimes connected?  Yes, by a couple of details that could easily elude the police.