Greek Lyric Poetry & The Glam Scale

Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, charm-fashioner, I entreat you
not with griefs and bitterness to break my
spirit, O goddess–Sappho, tr. by Richmond Lattimore

Aphrodite of Melos (Venus de Milo), 130 - 100 BC

Aphrodite of Melos (Venus de Milo), 130 – 100 BC

It is delightful in this hot weather to pore over my old school text, Greek lyric Poetry:  A Selection of Early Greek Lyric, Elegaic and Iambic Poetry, ed. by David A. Campell.  I translate the Greek with my Liddell and Scott dictionary and Smythe grammar, and have a freshly sharpened pencil and notebook by my side.

The lyric poets include Sappho (of whom you have all heard), Anacreon, Archilochus, Pindar, and Theognis.  The poetry, written between 650-450 B.C.,  is often personal, about love, death, and drinking.

The poetry was also political, reflecting the events of the 6th and 7th centuries B.C., David A. Campbell explains in the introduction.

Political revolutions resulted in the almost complete disappearance of hereditary kingship and the rise of the tyrants:  in the lyrics of Alcaeus we read the reactions of a man who took part in the struggle for power in Mytilene; his contemporary, Solon, used verse to record the aims of his legislation and to answer detractors in the years immediately before the establishment of tyranny in Athens; Theognis of Megara grumbles at the influx of peasants into the city, and exclaims against the new rich.

I am a Latinist, though I also studied Greek.  I know the Greek poets best through the borrowings of Roman poets, Catullus, Virgil (Eclogues), Tibullus, and Propertius.  One of Catullus’ most famous poems is a direct translation from a poem by Sappho.

Greek lyric poetryAs a young woman, when I first read Greek lyric poetry, I found love quite devastating.  I prayed to Aphrodite to keep far, far away: I prayed to Athena to let me focus on my work.  But  I was frequently enchanted by glamorous men.   (The word “glamour “originally meant magic or enchantment; a variation of “gramarye” or “grammar”: magic spells are related to spelling of words.).

One day Aphrodite cast a spell on me as a tall, dark, handsome, slightly unhygienic man (men somehow weren’t showering enough in those days) crossed the Pentacrest.  Why his appearance in a shabby tweed jacket, ancient khaki pants, and hiking boots illuminated him as the most beautiful person I had ever seen I cannot tell you.  Possibly I was dazed by having spent an hour in a bookstore.

We went out for coffee; when the coffee made me sick he accompanied me to Student Health; we took picnics in cow fields; lived on Ramen noodles; and we drank at George’s.  It was very nice.

Still, there was a certain insecurity.

If you are involved with a beautiful person when you are not beautiful (I was described, much to my annoyance in those days, as “a bubbly blonde,” or, even worse, “effervescent”) you sometimes do not set limits. If he is not available to celebrate your winning an award because he has decided to spend 12 hours watching a sports event, you will be annoyed, but will not break up with him.  Your women friends will shrug and say, “He is a handsome man, and he probably knows it.”  Gay men friends will say, “He’s handsome in a macho way, and that’s what happens.”

In other words, beauty itself can make people behave badly.

I came up with a glam scale eventually (far, far too late). If somebody is too glamorous, YOU HAVE TO STOP LOOKING AT HIM RIGHT NOW.  Come on, honey!  It’s like Cupid and Psyche.  Don’t light that torch and ogle.  Don’t cross that river and fetch golden wool from the fierce, monstrous sheep, or any of the other pointless tasks.  He’ll be doing what Venus says.

We each have our personal glam susceptibilities: long married, I no longer have a glam scale; marriage is a relationship with different rules and corallaries;  but the following glam items will come in handy for women coming up the ladder of glam.   (You can skip the glam scale and go right to the translations of three more Greek poems if you prefer.)

1. All classicists love Colin Farrell, because he hired a classicist to translate two lines of dialogue into Latin for a vampire movie (see Monica S. Cyrino’s “I Was Colin Farrell’s Latin Teacher,” Classical Journal, Feb./March 2012, Vol. 107/No. 3).   Uhhhhhh….but he’s too young…he’s already taken…and the Latin was cut.  Still, I can’t wait to see him in Winter’s Tale, a movie based on Mark Helprin’s novel.

2.  Do not date Republicans, even if they look like Democrats.  They will want to frack your back yard.

3.  If the Beautiful Man spends all his time sailing and you do not even know how to swim, or, worse, watches PBS Civil War shows round the clock when you are yearning for a sitcom or food porn,  you are probably not soulmates.

4.  Scrabble freaks, brain surgeons, marathon runners, and guys in bands are otherwise engaged when you need them to change a light bulb (the kitchen ceiling is just too high for me to reach.).

And now for more Greek lyric poetry:

Love, like a blacksmith, struck me with a giant
hammer, then plunged me in a wintry torrent.–Anacreon, translated by Kat

Here I lie mournful with desire,
feeble in bitterness of the pain gods inflicted upon me,
stuck through the bones with love.
–Archilochus, translated by Richmond Lattimore

The story is not true.
You never sailed in the benched ships.
You never went to the city of Troy.
–Stesichorus, “Palinode to Helen,” tr. by Lattimore

More soon!

Labor Day Weekend

Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry any more,
cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.–“Uncle John’s Band,” The Grateful Dead

Grief can make you a little crazy.

Not full-fledged walking-down-the-street-naked-and-singing-Grateful-Dead crazy.

More like leaving comments at newspapers online.  (POINTless, Kat!  You lose a point.)

So we are hanging out.


Iced tea.  Grateful Dead. Cherry Garcia.

I am turning myself into a Deadhead this weekend.

No books, just music.

That’s me in the back yard in sunglasses and iPod.

Oh, and maybe with my Nook.

Mom and me.

Mom and me.

I am sorting through my mother’s things.

She died a few weeks ago, pointlessly.

At the funeral I felt like an envoy from another planet, gravely stepping back and declining to look at the open casket.

“The next time you see me I’ll be in my grave,” her friend said.

Aint no time to hate, barely time to wait,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?

Her house was sold two years ago.

We now have a few odds and ends from the nursing home.

A laundry basket with a Room 219 tag, cf. Doris Lessing’s “To Room 19.”  (Actually the number is 224.)

One sandal, Size 8.

Many, many matching pants and tops in Size X-Small.  She was anorexic the last few years of her life.

Eight leather handbags, Liz Claiborne, East West, etc.

A copy of The Des Moines Register, Aug. 6.

A copy of The New York Times, Aug. 4

A copy of Cathie Pelletier’s The One-Way Bridge, bookmark on page 180.

A copy of Elizabeth Goudge’s Green Dolphin Street, one of my mother’s favorite books.

A tiny little pair of pajamas with Scotties design.

A framed picture of a dog.

A wooden block calendar.

It is the detritus of a life.

You know the kind of thing.

Anybody’s choice, I can hear your voice.
Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?

Beautiful People Behaving Badly & Susan Choi’s My Education

Love, like a blacksmith, struck me with a hammer, then plunged me in a wintry torrent.–Anacreon, 413

My-EducationIn Susan Choi’s elegant new novel, My Education, beautiful people behave badly.  A stunning woman devastates the lives of three characters who are  far from guiltless, but suffer disproportionately.

The narrator, Regina Gottlieb, a brilliant graduate student in English, is astounded by the beauty of Nicholas Broduer, an English professor who has been (falsely) accused of sexual harassment.  When Regina, baffled by his seminar, goes to his office, the reader wonders if she will seduce him.

She does not.

Nicholas is charming and recruits her as a T.A. for his Chaucer class:   though she has never read Chaucer, she is quick-witted. Her fellow T.A., the endearing Laurence, explains how little she needs to know to grade undergraduate papers.  Later, the three spend a quiet day together at Nicholas’ house, eating, drinking, and grading.  The highly organized Nicholas gives Regina all the data and tips she needs to  grade each paper in five minutes. (Sometimes she falls a little behind.)

Later, when Laurence and Regina are invited to a dinner party given by Nicholas and his wife Martha, Laurence tells her about Martha.

She’s very intrepid, Martha.  She lived on Madagascar for a year for some reason, and learned to cook something in a can.  Truly–she can cook you a multicourse meal with no more than a fire and a large-size tin can.  The first time I went to their house it was summer, and Martha had constructed a fire pit of stones in their backyard, and she’d set up a wrought-iron grill, and she served clams casino, wild-mushroom pizza, whole lobsters, a corn salad, and, I am earnest, a peach pie, all of which she produced from that fire without setting foot in her kitchen.  You know Nicholas almost can’t boil water.”

Martha is a blond, gorgeous, brilliant, sullen, outdoorsy professor with a baby she prefers to hand over to the nanny.   She is bad-tempered at the party, practically throwing parts of a stale baguette at her guests, and  she barely converses . But Regina, drunk and fascinated by Martha, finds her outside and initiates wild, quick sex with her. It seems that Martha and Nicholas have been sleeping in separate rooms for quite a while.  Both have had affairs.  But when Regina and Martha embark on an affair, it is dangerous for everybody.

Choi has an unerring ear for dialogue, tells a compelling story, and writes beautifully.

My favorite character is Regina’s housemate, Dutra, a witty ex-drug dealer who was kicked out of his prestigious school ,attended a community college for two years, and then transferred to the university in the small college town in New York, where he is now a medical student.  Dutra, like Nicholas and Regina, is struck by Martha.

Every perfect detail gives information about Regina’s charming outlook and the atmosphere of the university town.

Dutra drove a very old, very damaged Volvo sedan the color of calamine lotion where it wasn’t affected by rust. The car was so barely indistinguishable from the countless other aged, rusted, neutral-toned Volvo sedans living out their last days in that time it might have been part of a utopian experiment of ubiquitous, ownerless cars, as with bicycles in some parts of Europe and indeed even here in the seventies, when the university had apparently paid for a fleet of bicycles for public use on the campus, all of which had wound up within just a few days abandoned at the base of the hill.

All four of the characters end up in New York, though Martha moves west, leaving the others to recover from their suffering.  Regina is instrumental in putting things right years later when she is a mother and a writer.  And this remarkable last section of the book is in some ways the most interesting.  We get to see the characters indedependently of their love for Martha.

My only criticism is that Martha reminded me slightly of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed in H. Rider Haggard’s She.  She is a goddess with total control over everybody.  But I do know that beautiful people can control and devastate. I believed in her.

And I loved this book.  It’s brilliant, one of the best of the year.

My House Smells Like a Salad, and the Today Book Club Selection

tomatoes-01We have a garden:  the rabbits eat most of it.  We’re in a drought:  everything is burning out there.

We have dozens of tomatoes.  We have zucchini, so much zucchini.  Too bad you can’t give away tomatoes or zucchini this time of year. Everybody on our street has a garden.

Tomatoes are easy: sauce, soup, salsa, sandwiches, salads, tacos, quiche, chicken parmesan, chili, pizza.

We have State Fair-size zucchini.  It is huge by the time we remember to pick it.   Stir fry, stir fry…enough with the stir-fry.

And no one will eat my 10-minute tomato-zucchini sauce.  I invented it:  sautéed tomatoes in one pan, sautéed zucchini in another, and throw it all on pasta..

“No more,” everybody begs.

I don’t really want to cook when it’s 100 degrees.

And my house now smells like a giant salad.

You walk in and you are IN a salad.  The kitchen smells like a salad.  The sheets smell like a salad. My hair smells like a salad.  There is much washing of everything.

I spent the afternoon with the air conditioner off (it’s ONLY 98.1 degrees), windows open, and fans going.

It finally got rid of the salad.

Tonight we’re having bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwiches, and since I’m not cooking the tomatoes, it should be fine.

I have one fabulous recipe for a grilled cheese-zucchini sandwich, which you can find at the Big Girls Small Kitchen website.  It is the best thing to do with zucchini.


I am not a snob about genre books.  I like good science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and the Twilight books.  Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale and The Silent Land are superb literary fantasies. (I wrote about The Silent Land here.) My favorite writer, Jonathan Lethem, is the author of brilliant literary novels with elements of magic realism (Chronic City and The Fortress of Solitude).  His early books were science fiction.

So I was willing to try The Today Book Club’s choice of  Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Trash, oh, I mean The Bone Season, a dystopian novel.

I read 75 pages of The Bone Trash incredulously.

Oxford beauty writes bad genre book.

21-year-old Oxford graduate writes best-seller.

Is the Today Show Book Club aimed at fifth-grade Harry Potter fans?

I thought it was probably for middle-aged people.

I cannot imagine who they think their audience is.

This book has been marketed the hell out of.  Shannon is a 21-year-old Oxford graduate.  Her novel is the first in a series of seven.  The movie rights have been sold.  It has even been translated into other languages.  (Why?  Haruki Murakami she’s not.)

I very much wish I had not downloaded it onto my e-reader, because it is simply dead space there.  I cannot GIVE it away.

Read Janet Maslin’s brilliant review in The New York Times to get an idea of just how bad this is.

P.S.  My husband wants to know who picked the book.  Samantha Guthrie?  Al Roker?  Matt Lauer?  According to the website, it’s the Today Book Club team.  Will somebody get fired for this?

My Classical Education and Six Books About Classical Educations

My classical education has been a boon and a burden.

Classics has always been about balancing literature and boyfriends.

A 1928 textbook:  still used, because there is  very little available for first-year Greek.

A 1928 textbook

My charming first husband was a language major: give him a language and he could speak it.  I was a School of Letters major interested in dead languages.  Stultified by Lattimore’s lackluster, literal translations of Homer, I signed up for Greek, suffered through Crosby and Schaeffer, the cryptic 1928 textbook written for schoolboys who knew Latin, and then fell in love with Homer, Euripides, and the lyric poets.  I also adored my fellow Greek students.

I was encouraged to study Latin, but had no interest in it.  And yet I turned out to be a sort of Latin savant.  My great affinity is with Latin.  I love Roman poetry. I knew the structure from the Greek, so I didn’t have to waste time learning the grammar.  After a semester I was reading sexy Caesar, charming Catullus, brilliant Cicero (though I thought him a horrible sexist in Pro Caelio about Clodia, who classicists will continue to insist, with very little evidence, was Catullus’s lover, Lesbia), and the irresistible, erotic Ovid.  I won the Latin prize and wanted desperately to continue to study classics.  Just a few more years, I thought…I didn’t want to be a scholar…the idea bored me… I was really more into having boyfriends… I had a new boyfriend (soon to be my second husband) whom I had met in a Latin poetry class…  and I very much wanted to read more Greek and Latin poetry and to postpone getting a job.  I applied to only one graduate school, because I thought the $25 application fee was obscene (I lived on $125 a month) , and then one day in the spring received a letter saying I had an assistantship.

Virgil aeneid williamsGraduate school was also about juggling school and my boyfriend.  I had probably 12 hours of work a day, but I also had a relationship, an an apartment to clean, and cooking. I cut my studying time to eight hours a day.  Despite the graduate advisor’s insistence that we publish before we got out of grad school (publish what?  I wondered, since very few of the students had much of a grip on the languages), I stuck strictly to the languages and translation… oh, and teaching.   I didn’t have time to read articles on eye disease in Aristophanes, or anything that wasn’t written by Bernard Knox, because he was the only  classicist who could write, as far as I could see.  (Oh, and he also wrote about Virgil, my dearest love.)

I got a “high pass” on the Ph.D. Latin exam (I was supposed to take the master’s  exam but I was given the WRONG EXAM.  They were graded blindly and only two of us passed.)  The next year, I worked part-time for the department as a “visiting lecturer”, teaching first-year Latin and an independent study in Virgil while my boyfriend finished his master’s.

Teaching was probably the best thing that happened to me in graduate school.  I knew the Latin by heart after a year of teaching.    I could get a job teaching Latin at private schools anywhere in the country (and did).  Problem:  they paid very badly.  I took editing jobs.  Problem:  they paid badly.  I did freelance work.  Problem: it paid badly.  So I was essentially prepared NOT TO BE ABLE TO EARN A LIVING.

A feminist wife.

Nonetheless, no regrets!  I can’t imagine having done anything else.

Here is a list of six outstanding novels and memoirs about classical educations.


Ignore the cover:this i s actually a college novel.

1. BEST ALL-AGES BOOK ABOUT A CLASSICAL EDUCATON.  Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, billed as retelling of the “Tam Lin” ballad, is not strictly a novel about a classical education.  Janet Carter, the heroine, is an English major at Blackstock College, a tiny college like Grinnell, or the “little” Cornell (in Iowa), or Carleton College in Minnesota (where Carter got her B.A.).   But from the opening pages we know that classics will be important in the novel:  all classics majors are rumored to be crazy, Chase and Phillips (a first-year Greek textbook) was just the right size to wedge the uneven wooden bookcases in the dorm rooms, and a ghost of a classics major haunts the dorm.

Precocious Janet decides to take Greek, after her pushy advisor, a classics professor, pitches it.  She and her roommates spend time with, and date, beautiful, precocious male  classics students who are oddly theatrical and know as much about Shakespeare as Greek (and they have a secret which I won’t reveal).  They constantly quote Greek and English poetry.    Even in the steam tunnels that connect buildings on campus, they find Homeric graffiti:  the first ten lines of The Iliad painted on a wall.

Dean provides us with three different translations of the 10 lines.  One classics major, Nick, translates a few lines, but another classciist, Robin, objects:  “Don’t give me these newfangled translations.”  Robin then recites the first lines of Chapman’s Homer. (Remember Keats?)  And then, when one of Janet’s roommates asks what the translation means, Robin translates it a third time in modern English.

This is a wonderful novel about an undergraduate education.
the Secret History2.  Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.  I adored this novel about classics majors who commit a murder, though Publishers Weekly was less enthusiastic.  Here’s an excerpt from the PW review:  “Despite their demanding curriculum (they quote Greek classics to each other at every opportunity) the friends spend most of their time drinking and taking pills. Finally they reveal to Richard that they accidentally killed a man during a bacchanalian frenzy; when one of their number seems ready to spill the secret, the group–now including Richard–must kill him, too. The best parts of the book occur after the second murder, when Tartt describes the effect of the death on a small community, the behavior of the victim’s family and the conspirators’ emotional disintegration. Here her gifts for social satire and character analysis are shown to good advantage and her writing is powerful and evocative. On the other hand, the plot’s many inconsistencies, the self-indulgent, high-flown references to classic literature and the reliance on melodrama make one wish this had been a tauter, more focused novel.

3.  Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.  Jude is a stonemason who wants to study classics.  He struggles with Greek and Latin textbooks on his own.  I would love to reread Jude, but it can’t be done.  Two words:  “Father Time.”  (Jude’s son, Father Time, murders his siblings and kills himself.)  I love Thomas Hardy, but this one goes too far for me.

4.  David Grene’s Of Farming and Classics.  Grene was a classics professor at the University of Chicago, a translator of Greek, and editor with Richmond Lattimore of a series of translations of greek tragedy published by the University of Chicago Press.  (I haven’t read this yet, but it is highly recommended.)

5.  Peter’ Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Nights of
.  Much of this brilliant book is a memoir of Stothard’s classical education, and his fascination with Cleopatra, the subject of his obsession, is rooted in it .

Fields without Dreams6.  Victor Davis Hanson’s Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea.  Hanson, a classics professor and fifth-generation raisin farmer, has written an elegy to the American farm in this brilliant memoir.  He is so far right (a neoconservative who is a registered Democrat) and I’m so far left (I would vote socialist if I weren’t a little bit conservative) that we almost (but never, never will) agree.   Amazon review:  “Classicist, professor, and farmer Hanson chronicles the decline of small-scale agriculture in the Central Valley of California. He takes his classics seriously, likening the raisin farmers of Modesto to Aeschylus’ ideal virtuous man, who “did not wish to seem just, but to be so.” He takes modern cultural dictates less seriously: “Is it not odd,” he writes, “to rise at dawn with Japanese-, Mexican-, Pakistani-, Armenian-, and Portuguese-American farmers and then be lectured at noonday 40 miles away on campus about cultural sensitivity and the need for ‘diversity’ by the affluent white denizens of an exclusive, tree-studded suburb?” Hanson relates the life stories of his farmer neighbors, writing that their way of life will likely soon disappear, thanks in part to a federal system of agricultural subsidies that favors large-scale, industrial farm corporations over individual “yeomen.” This is a sobering and eye-opening book.”

The Colette Project: Claudine Married

Colette and Willy

Colette and Willy

In January 2012 I announced my Colette Project.

Why I announce New Year’s resolutions I cannot say.  I never keep any of them.

I had intended to read or reread all of Colette’s books, and indeed I have read several in the last year and a half. But this weekend I picked up the project again, reading two of her novels and delving into three biographies, because it is 95 degrees, the brown back yard looks like a scene from a dystopian novel, and I wanted to forget global warming by losing myself in the short, witty Claudine novels.

I read Claudine Married, the third of the four Claudine novels, and Claudine and Annie, the fourth.  (Last year I read the first two, Claudine at School and Claudine in Paris.)

Colette fascinated biographers:  she was a great bisexual beauty, a writer of lyrical autobiographical masterpieces, a pantomime artist, and briefly a cosmetician with her own beauty salon and line of cosmetics.  I have three biographies of Colette on my coffee table:  Allan Massie’s Colette, Judith Thurmon’s Secrets of the Flesh:  A Life of Colette, and Creating Colette, Volume One, by Claude Francis & Fernande Gontier.

No one needs that many biographies of Colette.  But I read some of the chapters this weekend as background for her first novels, the Claudine books.

Claudine MarriedIf you don’t know the Claudine books, you are obviously not familiar with Colette.  They are charming, funny, gently autobiographical and slightly smutty, because she wrote them for her husband, Henri Gauthier-Willars (Willy), a well-known writer of soft porn books penned by ghostwriters.

Colette tells the story of Claudine:  her schooldays in Montigny; her late teens in Paris with her absent-minded father, a malacologist, and her romance with Renaud, her future husband; her marriage to Renaud and her lesbian affair with Rezi; and her friendship with Annie, a woman oppressed by a domineering husband.

There are two versions of how Colette came to write the Claudine books.  In the most famous, Willy told Colette to write down her memories of her schooldays, locked her up to write them, thought they were amateurish and put them away for five years, and then looked at them and realized they could earn him some money.

But Colette, in an interview in 1907, told a different version.

He (Henri) wrote books and that did interest me.  One day, I told him that I, too, could write a book.  He burst out laughing and made fun of my pretensions and inexperience. However, without saying a word, I jotted down whatever went through my mind; when there was enough material, I showed it to him; he was flabbergasted, amazed, dumbfounded.

Claudine Married, the third novel, is almost embarrassing after the charming originality of Claudine at School and the sparkling near-perfection of Claudine in Paris.  Colette attempts to titillate with some comic vignettes about Renaud’s attractions to the young  girls at Claudine’s old school (where the teachers are also lesbians, and, yes, this is all very boring but does not go on for very long ).  There are also many scenes of Renaud’s voyeurism when Claudine has an affair in Paris with a young woman, Rezi.  Oh, please! I thought.  But this latter was apparently based on Colette’s life.

Still, I kept wanting to edit out chunks of this short novel.

Claudine begins by telling us there is “definitely something wrong” with her married life.  Then she charmingly if wanderingly recalls her wedding.

What a fantastic comedy my wedding day was!  By the time that Thursday arrived, three weeks of being engaged to this Renaud whom I love to distraction, with is embarrassing eyes, his still more embarrassing (though restrained) gestures, and his lips, always in quest of a new place to kiss, had made my face as sharp as  a she-cat’s in heat.  I could make no sense of his reserve and abstention during that time! I would have been entirely his, the moment he wanted it, and he was perfectly aware of this.  And yet, with too epicurean concern for his happiness–and for mine?–he kept us in a state of exhausting virtue.

Colette the complete claudineWhen she longs to have an affair in Paris with Rezi, a young beautiful woman who flirts with everyone, it is Rezi who insists that Renaud be told so he can find them a love nest where they won’t be disturbed by anyone.  When Claudine learns that Renaud is also having an affair with Rezi, she leaves him.

In Montigny, she relaxes, meditates,  and finally realizes that she still loves Renaud.  This is realistic (isn’t marriage usually a recovery from this or that?) but somewhat disappointing, since I was waiting for Claudine to turn into Renee, the music hall artist-heroine of The Vagabond (one of my favorite books) who leaves her husband and is totally independent.  But before Claudine and Renaud get back together, they do agree that they will no longer have an open marriage.

Colette’s humorous sketches of the salons of Paris, the witty dialogue, and steamy descriptions of Claudine’s sexual desperation when she and Rezi have  nowhere to go (where would two women dependent on their husbands  at the turn of the twentieth century have gone to have sex?) are so fluently written that one races through the novel, despite a certain glibness.

Here is an example of Colette’s witty dialogue, when Claudine asks Renaud if he thinks Rezi is vicious and then defines viciousness.

I take a lover, without loving him, simply because I know it’s wrong…that’s vice.  I take a lover…”

“That makes two.”

“…a lover whom I love or whom I simply desire–keep still, Renaud, will you?–that’s just obeying the law of nature and I consider myself the most innocent of creatures.  To sum up, vice is doing wrong without enjoying it….”

This novel is fun, but far, far from her best.  I also read the fourth Claudine novel, Claudine and Annie, and it is so slight I have almost nothing to say about it.

Perhaps tomorrow…


Faye Dunaway in "Network"

Faye Dunaway in “Network”

My friend Janet the poet and I are both blessedly childless, so we haven’t shot our savings on a child’s college education (usually, to judge from our friends, a child who wants to go to a very expensive college). We have plenty of time and money to buy books, bicycle, and vacation in the Caribbean with our husbands/boyfriends.

But these days we spend a lot of time taking care of our parents.

Janet’s mother, Alabama,  calls her constantly at work.

Janet is in the middle of a meeting, preparing an annual report for a nonprofit, when Alabama calls to say that she has a pain “here.”

“Where?  I can’t see you.”

“It’s in my side.  It’s probably appendicitis.”

“Then call the hospital.”

“You know what happened to Kat’s mother,” Alabama says vaguely.  And then she says she needs Janet to bring chocolate chip cookies from Original Cookies, Chinese food from The Dragon, a new garden-theme mug from Ben Franklin, and a dress from Nordstrom’s she saw online.

“I’ll have to buy a cooler for the Chinese food.”  Janet lives 100 miles away.

“Just bring it in a sack.”

“The crab rangoon might go bad.”

I am, sort of, some of the time, taking care of Janet’s mother because we live in the same city, and she likes me.  I got her Chinese food at the Hy-Vee yesterday.  When Janet calls me in her car to say she is on the way to X City with Chinese food from The Dragon, I tell her Alabama had Empress chicken and crab rangoon yesterday.

“Damn her!”  Janet is exasperated.

Alabama is what we used to call a squeaky wheel.  Even ten years ago heads turned when she walked into a room.  She covered organic gardening, and then fashion, for a local newspaper, and then, rather suddenly, became a TV reporter.  It was all about the hair, she used to say.  She knew nothing about being a TV reporter.   Janet thinks it was perhaps all about sleeping with someone at the station.  Alabama dyed her hair white-blonde and tossed it all the time on air.  Her eyelashes were as big as butterflies. She fluttered them.  She says they are real.   Janet says they are fake.

“I hope you’re going to come with me to see her, because I’M REALLY MAD AT HER,” Janet says.

And so Janet and I both visit Alabama.

Alabama is a relatively healthy septuagenarian who still drives, shops, and reads the news all day on the internet.

She says we must go to several websites and read articles on….   Then unfortunately she zeroes in on Janet and trashes her looks.

She checks Janet’s hair and makeup and says she needs to dye her hair a lighter shade of blonde and wear darker foundation.

“I’m not doing that,” says Janet.

Alabama looks at me and says, “You need to lose weight, Kat.”

Janet is horrified.  “Mom!  You know she’s on those pills.”

“Yeah, I’ve got hypothyroidism but I’M IN BETTER SHAPE THAN YOU,” I say, laughing.  God knows, I’ve spent a lot of time with Alabama, and now she’ll change the subject.

Janet quotes her favorite movie, Network, which she grew up watching, due to her mother’s job. “And now we’re going to say, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.'”

I just watched Network so I know some better lines.   “‘All I know is first you’ve  got to get mad.  You’ve got to say, I’m a human being, goddamn it.  My life has value.'”

Network?”  Alabama asks waveringly.

Are Book Reviews Too Conservative?

Perhaps book page editors all review the same books because their offices look like this!

A book editor’s office in the U.S.

Are book review editors too conservative?

Do all assign the same books for review?

Could they please tell us if they’re Democrats or Republicans?

If they’re more liberal, do they take more chances on little-known or small-press books?

As I cut back on traditional reviews and limit my online time to reading blogs, Goodreads, and other strictly internet publications, I ask myself questions about what gets reviewed or and what does not.

And so I gave myself a very enjoyable assignment today:  comparing book pages!  (And I got to catch up on reviews.)

Night FilmSadly I discovered that small press books and books in translation rarely get a break.   Only a few, very few, books published by traditional publishers (perhaps 100 a year?), make the cut at book pages.  I understand perfectly why that is:  book editors must keep up with the latest big books, and God help them if they miss the announcement of the new Today Book Club’s selection, Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season!

Yes, most publications review many of the same books.  For example, here are four interesting books I might like to read, and they are reviewed everywhere.

George Orwell: A Life in Letters, ed. by Peter Davison, has recently been reviewed in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Christian Science Monitor.

Roy and Lesley Adkins’ Jane Austen’s England has been reviewed or otherwise featured in the Washington Post, USA Today, The London Times, The Daily Mail, and The Huffington Post.

Marisha Pessi’s Night Film has been reviewed in The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, The L.A. Times, Elle, and USA Today.

Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light (translated from the German by Andrea Bell) has been reviewed in  the TLS, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Boston Globe, and The Star Tribune.

Why should we worship at the shrine of “old media” if every book review publication features reviews of the same few books?  Do we rely on the judgement of the reviewers?  I  don’t.  I sift through reviews to find out what’s out there, and sometimes a bad review will send me rushing to a bookstore.   Ironically, I found my “best books of the year so far” (see sidebar) without reading any reviews.

It is soothing to read blogs because so few write about the same books at the same time, and, often they’re writing about older books. There are some traditional reviewers at blogs, like Kevin from Canada and Asylum.   But many (most?)  write book notes and book journals rather than review.

Provincial Lady in LondonTo give you an idea of bloggers’ interests, here are what some of my favorite bloggers are posting about (and the links are on my sidebar):

Vintage Reads recently reviewed E. M. Delafield’s  The Provincial Lady Goes Further, a delightful book originally published in 1932 and known in the U.S. as The Provincial Lady in London.

Blogging for a Good Book recently reviewed Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek (an Oprah selection).

Silver Season recently reviewed Philip Roth’s The Human Stain.

Asylum recently reviewed J. Robert Lennon’s Familiar.

The Book Trunk recently reviewed Kitchen Essays, by Agnes Jekyll.

Belle, Book & Candle recently wrote about Edna Ferber’s So Big.

Kevin from Canada recently reviewed Lisa Moore’s Caught.

Thinking in Fragments recently reviewed Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves.

Random Jottings recently reviewed Fanny Blake’s The Secrets Women Keep.

Tony’s Book World recently reviewed Jim Crace’s Harvest, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

And I must add, it is almost impossible to cancel subscriptions to “old media” book review publications (or anything else).  They don’t have my name as a subscriber, what’s my address?, did I sign up through Blah Blah Blah, they’ll forward my email to…

What can I say?  I’m “spending” less virtual time.  I will catch up on reviews from time to time.

Please let me know your thoughts:  any pet peeves? any recommendations?

Jim Crace’s Harvest

Every year fervent bloggers read the entire Booker Prize longlist.

I am lucky if I get through two.

I tried  Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic.  It is elegantly written, but I am not a fan of historical novels, and I saw little connection among the historical characters, so I put it down regretfully after 160 pages.  (Most love this book.)

crace-jim-harvest-cover-022613-margJim Crace’s Harvest, another longlisted book, is a blessedly short, perfect novel.

Harvest begins and ends with fires.  The ring composition is absolute, creating a dizzying verisimilitude.

The narrator, Walter Thirsk, an intelligen farm laborer who loves his simple life, narrates the events that herald change and catastrophe in a feudal village. A dozen years ago, Walter came to the farm as Master Kent’s personal servant; after Walter married, he moved into his own house and  worked on the farm.  Since his wife’s death, Walter has stayed out of inertia.  But he is viewed as an outsider when a blaze disrupts the villagers’ lives.

On the day after the harvest, smoke awakens the villagers.  One twist of smoke indicates that newcomers have built a hut and lit a fire so they can stay; the other that Master Kent’s barn is on fire.  Walter knows, and is sure others know, that three men, the Derby twins and Brooker Higgs, irresponsibly ingested “fairy cap” mushrooms and then accidentally set the barn on fire.  They were trying, while high, to drive away some of the master’s doves that had been thieving the grain.

The barn smells of roasting birds.

Walter’s hand is wounded from the fire and he needs to tend to it. Like the others, he is looking forward to the harvest party and doesn’t want to get involved.  Life is good in the village under Master Kent.  So he doesn’t speak up.

Walter muses:

In any other place but here, such willful arsonists would end up gibbeted.  They’d be on hooks in common view and providing sustenance to the same thieving birds they’d hoped to keep from gleaning.  But, as I’ve said, these fields are far away from anywhere, two days by post-horse, three days by chariot, before you find a market square; we have no magistrate or constable; and Master Kent, our landowner, is just.  And he is timid when it comes to laws and punishments.  He’d rather tolerate a wrongdoer among his working hands than rob a family of their father, husband, son.

And so the newcomers, rather than the twins and Brooker Higgs, are scapegoated for their fire, supposed to have started the fire in the barn while stealing birds.  The two men are pilloried, and the woman disappears.

There are other newcomers:  Philip Earle, known as Mr. Quill, is a charming cartographer, who has come to make two maps:  one of the farm, and one of what it may become when the new owner, Master Jordan, turns it into a sheep farm.

Master Kent’s wife’s cousin is the rightful heir, and Master Kent must step down.  No more barley. Sheep-farming will change the villagers’ way of life.   When Master Kent’s horse is killed,  Master Jordan organizes a hunt for bloodied garments. He is happy to scapegoat women.  He is sadistic.

There are many “twists of smoke” in the plot, but Crace’s strength lies in the stark grace of the prose and the sharply-observed scenes that add up to more than the sum of their parts.  This is a brilliant novel,  worthy of the Booker Prize.

Blueberry Muffins

There was nothing in the fridge except eggs and milk.  I should have gone to the Hy-Vee.  I didn’t want to go, because I was in my housework outfit:  old gym shorts and a Freedom Run ’79 T-shirt. Going to the store would have meant donning a matron shirt  and a bicycle helmet, because after a certain age one does not bicycle to the store without wearing a matron shirt and helmet.

Actually, matron shirt, t-shirt?  Helmet, no helmet?  What does it matter?  But I’m thinking of my mother, who never left the house without wearing matching attire.  At the coffeehouse, she would eat a blueberry muffin without spilling a crumb on her linen pants and matching jacket.  (How she did that I don’t know.)

betty-crocker cookbookMom!  Blueberry muffins.

How peculiar that she is no longer here and that I can’t bake blueberry muffins for her.

I thought, Okay, I’ll make muffins.

My old muffin pan does not make those huge late-20th century coffeehouse muffins my mother loved, so I used the recipe in my old Betty Crocker’s Cookbook (1982), because it makes just the right amount of batter for an old-fashioned muffin pan.

The  great thing about muffins is that they’re quick.  You can finish reading Jim Crace’s Harvest while the muffins bake, because ONCE YOU GET OFF THE INTERNET (yes, I’m still cutting back on my time online),  you have more time for other things.

Here is the recipe:

Blueberry Muffins


1 egg
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup fresh or 3/4 cup frozen blueberries

Heat oven to 400 degrees.  Grease bottoms only of muffin cups (or in my case, a muffin pan).  Beat egg; stir in milk and oil.  Stir in remaining ingredients till the flour is moistened (batter will be lumpy).  Fill muffin cups 3/4 full.  Bake 20 minutes.

An excellent recipe!  I always over-stir the batter, though.  Doesn’t matter: it’s delicious!