Ninety Degrees in the Shade: Ten Ways to Cool off with Books


Caroline Gordon, one of America’s coolest Southern writers.

We have fans whirling, drink pitchers of iced tea, and occasionally remember to close the drapes during the day.

I read only the coolest books in hot weather

There are three kinds of cool:

  • Books by cool writers.
  • Books set in winter or cold climates.
  • Books set in very hot summers.

So here is my list of 10 cool books (and my descriptions mostly come from my blogs).

Caroline Gordon The Women on the Porch 51XF3WC451L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_1.  Caroline Gordon’s The Women on the Porch  (1944) is a small masterpiece by a Southern Catholic writer, who was married to the writer Allen Tate–twice!  A contemporary of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, Gordon did not achieve their fame:  she is a quieter, more traditional writer. The Women on the Porch  is the story of a woman who flees her unfaithful husband in New York and goes home to Tennessee, where her female relatives live together without men.    In her novels, Gordon beautifully portrayed white Southern monied culture of the early-to-mid- twentieth century, when there lingered an immediate feeling of connection to the Civil War.

Jonathan Lethem chronic_city2.  Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City.  This is one of Lethem’s best novels, set in a New York City where it is always winter.  It is slightly reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, which in turn is related to Petronius’ Satyricon (Trimalchio’s dinner party).  But Lethem laces his work with magic realism.  The narrator, Chase Insteadman, is a wealthy former child star whom we meet when he’s  doing a voiceover at a DVD studio). He doesn’t work much, he’s a charming ornament at people’s dinner tables, his astronaut girlfriend is literally lost in space (their romance is famous), and he lives off residuals from his ‘80s sitcom. He spends most of his time with s characters who live in a kind of alternative parallel city. The most fascinating is Perkus Tooth, a former pop culture critic for Rolling Stone who takes a shine to Chase when they meet at the Criterion Collection.Perkus seldom leaves his apartment and spends most of his time smoking dope (a kind called Chronic is his favorite), watching old films, listening to little-known CDs, and making paranoid connections between disparate aspects of the culture. Chase, a rather quiet socialite, is fascinated by him.  A great, completely absorbing novel!

minor-characters-joyce-johnson-paperback-cover-art3.  Joyce Johnson, one of the best writers of the Beat Generation, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her memoir Minor Characters. She tells of growing up a rebellious young woman and then living in the East Village in the 1950s.  She was also Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend.

alexandria quartet durrell 2d3c616b7b5a141c46c9c2af280991564.  Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.  Set in Alexandria, Egypt, it is very hot.  The prose is moody and lush. Over the course of the quartet, Durrell’s narrator, Darley, reiterates and augments a series of events in the lives of his lover Justine and a group of friends in Alexandria, Egypt. Other characters, particularly Balthazar and Clea (Mountolive is the hero of the prequel), contribute their viewpoints, so that a clearer picture is revealed. Published from 1957 to 1960, these books are elegant but occasionally too flowery. In the ’50s, Durrell’s poeticism flourished..  Set mostly in Alexandria, Egypt, it is hot, lyrical, and deals with complicated sexual relationships.  The prose is moody and lush. Over the course of the quartet, Durrell’s narrator, Darley, reiterates and augments a series of events in the lives of his lover Justine and a group of friends in Alexandria, Egypt. Other characters, particularly Balthazar and Clea (Mountolive is the hero of the prequel), contribute their viewpoints, so that a clearer picture is revealed. Published from 1957 to 1960, these books are elegant but occasionally too flowery. In the ’50s, Durrell’s poeticism flourished.

snow country kawabata 41Pjx4jNUuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_5. Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country is a remarkable read.  Set in a mountain town with a hot spring, it describes the relationship between Shimamura, a married man, and Komako, a woman who learns to be a geisha. She loves him, but Shimamura is cold and insists that many of her activities, such as keeping a diary, are a waste of time.  He visits her very seldom, and we see her often falling into drunkenness at parties.  He is fascinated by another young woman whom Komako  dislikes but is reluctantly loyal  to.

6.  Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys, a stunning novel about the doomed Antarctic expedition led by Captain Scott in 1912.

Beryl Bainbridge The-Birthday-Boys7.  Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal, a stunning novel about a doomed Arctic expedition.

Walker Percy TheLastGentleman8.  Walker Percy’s The Second Coming.  In this funny, beautifully written existentialist novel by one of the best Southern novelists, Will Barrett is the anti-hero, a middle-aged lawyer who has retired early in New York and moved back to North Carolina to play golf and…what? He isn’t sure. He is hallucinating on the golf course, falling down repeatedly, blacking out, and having flashbacks to his childhood. Death is on his mind, and no wonder. His wife has died, and he is living alone. Because of the petit mal seizures, he becomes obsessed with a childhood hunting trip on which his father “accidentally” shot both Will and himself. His father later committed suicide (by gun) in an attic in Mississippi. He becomes involved with Allie, a rich, brilliant young woman, considered mad by the world, who has escaped from a mental hospital and is living in a greenhouse. The two meet when one of his golf balls smashes a window in the greenhouse. And Allie gradually becomes stronger to take care of Will.

Clyde Edgerton night train 51wkTl3y53L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_9.  Clyde Edgerton’s charming, humorous novel, The Night Train, inspired by James Brown, Civil Rights, and friendship, is a small, deceptively simple novel. If you missed it in 3011,  and you missed it if you blinked, you should check out this Southern rock-and-roll classic.  Of course it’s not just rock: it’s also jazz, blues, and a bit of country. Set in 1963 in the small town of Starke, North Carolina, The Night Train is the story of a music-based interracial friendship between two boys who work in a furniture-refinishing shop. Larry Lime, the son of an unemployed father and a mother who works in a dog food factory, is black and a brilliant aspiring jazz pianist, while Dwayne, the son of the owner of the shop, is white, very liberal, and the leader of a small band.

The Silent Land by Graham Joyce10.  Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land is a beautifully-crafted novel.  After an avalanche, a married couple find themselves eerily living in a deserted hotel.  They cannot seem to ski out of the village.

Zoe truly loves Jake, is charmed by everything about him from his beautiful eyes to his big ears, and describes his breath in the cold as “a faint oyster-colored mist.” The nature of love shapes this luminous novel, with its dream-like scens.  The plot is as uncanny as that of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, a fable about the afterlife. A stunning novel.

The New Poldark

The original Poldark and the new Poldark

The original Poldark and the new Poldark

Everyone loves the new Poldark.

Me?  Not so much.  Tonight the series premiered in the U.S.

Initially I was distracted by the fashion model-beauty of the actors.

Poldark (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson):  Too beautiful?

Poldark (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson): Too beautiful?

Their looks are so angular.

It is what we call at our house the Dancing with the Stars effect.  Actors must work out and be buff.  We expect Poldark (Aidan Turner) to rip off his shirt any minute.  And, indeed, Turner does so in the second episode.  (The British press already “covered” this event.)

It is not that I object to looking at beautiful people, but the softer, more natural looks  of the 1970s are easier on the eye.  Robin Ellis (the original Poldark) was dashing, but looked real:  his skin had a few acne scars, as well as Poldark’s war scar.  We remember Angharad Rees (Demelza) for her charm rather than her beauty.  Only Elizabeth (Jill Townsend, an actress I very much admire) had that neurotic, angular look.   In other words, we all could have been Ross or Demelza when we were young.

Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Reese):  A softer look

Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Reese): Less glamorous.

To get ready for the new TV series, I reread Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark, the first in his 12-book series.  Very well-written, very well-plotted.  Ross returns from the Revolutionary War (fighting on the losing British side) to troubles at his home in Cornwall.  His father is dead, his girlfriend Elizabeth is engaged to his cousin Francis, his house is in a shambles, and he has no money.  He is a radical, a champion of the miners, and works hard for justice.  In one of the most memorable scenes, he rescues a boy (actually Demelza dressed in boys’ clothes)  at the market,  where she is struggling to untie her dog’s tail from a cat’s, which a group of coarse boys has done.  He discovers she is hungry and has been beaten by her father. Then he hires her as a maid.  Years later, he marries her.

ross poldark graham 51NbqPxH4XL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In the mid-70s, I galloped through the first six Poldark books, because I was so hooked on the TV series.  One could buy the paperbacks at Kresge’s.  The novels are very good:  top-of-the-line pop fiction.  Six more books were published after my Poldark madness.

There are many plot changes in the new TV series:  In Episode One, Elizabeth chases after Ross in almost every scene, though in the book she is initially contented with Francis. (It has, after all, been three years since their boy-and-girl romance.)  I was especially surprised when she showed up at the market and witnessed Ross’s saving Demelza.  Not in the books!

The second half hour tonight was better than the first, and I would have enjoyed the whole hour if I were still a young thing. But is it as good as the original series?  I cannot say.  I watched the original on DVD about 10 years ago, and loved it.  The original Poldark series was 29 episodes, and this one is eight episodes. Perhaps they’ll make a sequel.

I am not a big fan of costume dramas anymore, though the BBC introduced me to so many great books when I was young.  I

Well, I’ll tune in next week, and perhaps I’ll enjoy the second episode more than the first.  I have now adjusted to the new actors.

Poldark new series 13741357

Canonical Genre Books: Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine Tailors & Pat Murphy’s The Falling Woman

The Nine Tailors Sayers screen-shot-2015-03-10-at-4-06-11-pmGenre writers are seldom admitted into the canon.

But Dorothy Sayers and Pat Murphy are canonical within their genres.  Sayers, the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series, is one of the “queens” of Golden Age Detective Fiction. And Pat Murphy is an award-winning science fiction writer.

I recently read Sayers’s The Nine Tailors and Murphy’s The Falling Woman, which won the Nebula Award.

Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, published in 1934, is one of my favorite Peter Wimsey novels.

Sayers’s sleuth is a witty Oxford-educated lord who dabbles in solving crimes. On  a snowy New Year’s Eve, as  Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Bunter, are traveling back to London from the country, Wimsey drives the Daimler across a slick bridge in the Fens and plunges into a ditch.

Sayer’s lively style, humor, and and witty grasp of figures of speech are apparent from the beginning.

The car lay, helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank, as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifted snow.

the nine tailors sayers mass market $_20The friendly rector of a tiny village, Fenchurch St. Paul, and his wife give them a place to stay for the night.  The rector tells Lord Peter that the village bell-ringers plan to ring in “the changes” for the New Year.  One of them has influenza, and Lord Peter, who rang the changes at Oxford, takes his place.

Sayers has done her research:  she describes the change-ringing methods (lots of math!) for the nine-hours of bell-ringing on New Year’s Eve.  But, as you might suspect, the bells are also part of the mystery.  Many years ago, an emerald necklace was stolen from a wedding guest at the Thorpes’ manor house in the village.  The thieves were caught, but the jewels were never found. Sir Henry repaid the guest, practically bankrupting himself. (This reminds me of Maupassant’s “The Necklace.”)   Lord Peter learns more about the theft during his stay, and attends the funeral of Lady Thorpe, who died of influenza on New Year’s Day.  A few months later, when Sir Henry also dies, they find a corpse with missing hand and a battered face shallowly buried on top of Lady Thorpe’s coffin.  Lord Peter comes back to solve the crime. And may I say the bells play a sinister role..

I read Sayers more for her lovely writing than her watertight plots:  but sheshe goes in for timetables, ciphers, and all kinds of lovely things that I sometimes skip over!

falling woman pat murphy 91fN01GqVsLPat Murphy’s The Falling Woman (1986), which won the Nebula Award, reads like literary fiction, with a touch of mysticism. (Perhaps it wouldn’t have been published without the SF label.)  The setting is an archaeological dig on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.  There are two heroines:  the chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Elizabeth Butler, an archaeologist and expert on Mayan civilization, and her daughter, Diane, who was raised by her father but after his death shows up unnanounced at Elizabeth’s dig.

Elizabeth barely knows her daughter. She was miserable in her marriage.  After she attempted suicide and was locked up in a mental hospital for  a year, she left her husband, moved to New Mexico, typed for a living, and got an education.   Elizabeth’s  “madness” has helped her make discoveries:  she sees Mayan ghosts in temples and villages as she walks around the excavation sites.  Her relationships with ghosts, and a casual friendship with her archaeologist colleague, Tony, are sufficient for her.  She doesn’t like emotions dredged up.

She is not a romantic.  When a reporter interviews her for a popular women’s magazine, she says,

I dig through ancient trash…. I grub in the dirt, that’s what I do.  I dig up dead Indians. Archaeologists are really no better than scavengers, sifting through the garbage that people left behind when they died, moved on, built a new house, a new town, a new temple.  We’re garbage collectors really.  Is that clear?”

Diane obviously wants to get to know her aloof mother,  but she also discovers she enjoys helping an archaeology graduate student survey the site.    Then something eerie happens.  Like her mother, she starts to see and hear Mayan ghosts.

I dreamed that i heard voices, unfamiliar voices.  In the private darkness behind my closed eyes, I listened, but I could not understand the language that the voices spoke.

Ghosts never see Elizabeth, but something uncanny happens:   a Mayan female prophet begins to talk to her.  She tells Elizabeth that she did not “know that shadows dreamed.”  Elizabeth learns more than she wants to about the gods and sacrifices.  She has always in the past justified Mayan sacrifices as similar to the Christian Eucharist.

The writing is eerily beautiful, and I loved this book.  It is a classic  about a mother-daughter relationship as well as SF.

Semi-Canonical: Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets & Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

IMG_3175I recently read and very much enjoyed two semi-canonical novels, Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets (1936) and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Lehmann’s is a love story; Jackson’s is a horror novel.

Wendy Pollard, author of a recent biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson (I interviewed Wendy here), is also the author of a book on the reception of Rosamond Lehmann’s work.  And so I decided to reread Lehmann: I have a few of her novels in the ’80s American Dial Press Viragos with black covers.  I began with The Weather in the Streets, which is a sequel to Invitation to the Waltz (which I haven’t read yet, but I have the e-book).

Open Road Media e-bookThe Weather in the Streets is a poignant, unsentimental chronicle of an adulterous love affair from a woman’s point of view.   The  impoverished heroine, Olivia Curtis, is separated from her husband, but sees no point in divorcing him. She has many artistic friends and  works for low wages for Anna, a photographer.  She lives in a room in her cousin Etta’s flat and sometimes goes hungry.   One weekend, traveling on the train to visit her sick father in the country, she meets a former neighbor, Rollo, who is now a wealthy, unhappily married man working in the City. He says he’ll telephone her.

1930s telephone 4201There are many emotions we all recognize, such as the agony of waiting for the telephone. Lehmann presents Olivia’s emotions by a page of stream-of-consciousness.  She was undoubtedly influenced (says I)  by Dorothy Parker’s  short story “A Telephone Call” (1930).  Take a look at the Parker first.

I must stop this.  I mustn’t be this way.  Look, suppose a young man says he’ll call a girl up, and something happens, and he doesn’t.  That isn’t so terrible, is it?  Why, it’s going on all over the world, right this minute.  Oh, what do I care if it’s going on all over the world?  Why can’t the telephone ring?  Why can’t it, why can’t it? … You damned ugly, shiny thing.  It wouldn’t hurt you to ring, would it?

Parker’s narrator is more vulnerable than Lehmann’s reserved Olivia, but  that may be the difference in tone between Parker’s first-person singular and Lehmann’s third-person singular. Here is an excerpt from the cooler, possibly older Olivia:  (by the way, the dot-dot-dots-dots are Lehmann’s punctuation, not my ellipses.)

The telephone rang, faint to her ears:  someone inquiring, Kate would answer.  It couldn’t be Rollo:  not yet.  Not ever, of course.  Rollo would think about ringing up, sometime tomorrow maybe; and then he wouldn’t do it.  Because nice men don’t like to get mixed up…. Rollo was undoubtedly in the category of nice men, broad-minded.  They are on their guard….

lehmann weather in the streets virago 81zqtt9uwpLOlivia expects little.  But she and Rollo embark on an affair and fall in love.  They spend some nights together, get away for a few weekends, and once go away for longer.   His wife is an invalid.  They move in different social circles.  Olivia reads about his wife in the society pages. Olivia is usually alone.

There are some very rough patches in their relationship.  He disappears for a summer. Olivia  has an abortion.  Will she stay with him?

The book seems entirely modern.  Young women are very vulnerable in love, yet are experienced by their late twenties.  Where are all the men? I must say, it is senseless (and I mean SENSELESS!) to have an affair with a married man.  But one can see Olivia trapped in a very small  society.  Whom can she love?

Fascinating, very good in parts, occasionally a purple patch, but not often.

Shirley Jackson 220px-WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastleShirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in a Castle is a clas-SICK!  It is a horror take on Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.  Smith’s novel is narrated by the benign, humorous Cassandra Mortmain, an aspiring writer who lives in a dilapidated castle with her eccentric family. The narrator of Jackson’s novel, Mary Catherine Blackwood, lives only with her sister in the large country house because her family is dead from arsenic poisoning.

When she introduces herself, she talks about overdue library books and it seems cozy. But there are warnings that she is quite weird.

I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content wi;th what i have.  I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise.

When Mary Catherine, nicknamed Merricat, goes shopping in the village, she has to run a gauntlet.  The villagers make rude remarks and the children yell,

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.

old paperback we-have-always-lived-in-the-castle1We do have a certain sympathy for Merricat, and especially for Constance,  her older sister, who was tried for murder and acquitted. But  Merricat’s point of view is… shall we say odd?

And when a man comes for an extended stay, Cousin Charles, Merricat is furious.  We suspect the truth from the beginning…

Beautifully written, funny, horrible, and perfect.

This novel appeared in a volume of Shirley Jackson’s writing in a Library of America edition.  So she in the  canon?  Well, she is in the women’s canon, at any rate.

Jackson wrote several novels, but I am only familiar with We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House.  Are the others any good?  They’re not in my LOA edition.

Exhausted by the Nightstand!

If I had this house, I wouldn't need a nightstand!

If I had this  kind of shelving, I wouldn’t need a nightstand!

I am, yes, exhausted by books.

Not by reading books, but buying books.

On the nightstand, just in case I feel like reading them, are 17 books.  Do I plan to read all 17 at once?  One wonders.  The cats do not like the stack at all.  They are fond of jumping up on the nightstand.  The nightstand is actually a chest of drawers.   They jump up on the chest and nudge the books off the edge with their paws.

Lessing landlocked 328419I am already in the middle of five other books.  (Reviews to follow!)  So do I have time for 17 more?  Yes, I would dearly love to reread Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, but after looking at a few pages of A Proper Marriage , I realized that I should skip to her fourth novel, Landlocked, in which Martha Quest becomes disillusioned with the Communist movement in South Africa during World War II.  Landlocked is a masterpiece.  At my age, I need the masterpieces.

The guy on the cover looks as though he's wearing a Star Trek uniform!I  cannot understand why I purchased Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, described on the Vintage edition as “a bold, unapologetic portrayal of male homosexuality during World War II.”  I am not sure I need another gay classic:  I already have two of Radclyffe Hall’s books on a “sub-nightstand.”  After Virago reissued The Charioteer a few years ago,  a reviewer at the TLS raved about it,  and, if I remember correctly, considered it a classic.   If I could get past the first chapter, maybe I’d agree.  N.B. Doesn’t the guy on the cover look as though he’s wearing a Star Trek uniform?  Is this a novel about a gay Trekkie?

Grau Th eHouse on Coliseum Street 13577050I thought  the former Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley had recommended Shirley Ann Grau’s Pulitzer-winning The Keepers of the House, but it turns out he was lauding The House on Coliseum Street.  Oh, damn, I bought the wrong book!

music at long verney warner 51tBSNUFFlL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I discovered Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes at a used bookstore when I was in grad school, and went on to enjoy many other of her books. I adore Kingdoms of Elfin, her dark collection of whimsical fairy tales. Somehow I have never read The Music at Long Verney, another collection of stories. Will I finally read it this summer?

Imagine 13 more…

Shall I shelve my 17 books?  It gets ridiculous.

What do you have on your nightstand?  Is yours as useful (ha ha) as mine?

Historical Novel Summer: From Tolstoy to Jean Plaidy to Gore Vidal & More

Sometimes I feel like indulging in a truly trashy historical novel summer.

Even writers of the most literary historical novels spin tales about sensational events and larger-than-life characters.

wolf hall bring up the bodies hmantelAnd why not?  There is nothing more fun than hanging out with historical characters.  Take the Tudors.  I love the Tudors.  A few years ago, after much protesting and resistance,  I finally read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  I was intrigued by her story of Thomas Cromwell, the Chief Minister/lackey of Henry VIII. And do I get Booker bonus points if  I read the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies?

murder most royal plaidy 51gFaxck1VLThen there is Jean Plaidy.  Yes, I like to go from the high to the middlebrow.  I have enjoyed Jean Plaidy’s  Tudor series, which consists of nine novels.  Jean Plaidy was a pseudonym of Eleanor Hibbert, who also wrote Gothic novels under the name Victoria Holt. As Plaidy, she penned historical novels about the Tudors, the Stuarts, Catherine De Medici, the French Revolution, and more.

Heyer the convenient marriage 0-373-83445-4On the other hand, I might prefer to devote myself to the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer.  They are witty, well-written, and well-plotted, and the heroines are spunky gals who live for more than marriage.  Some of them gamble and hang out with rakes.  And I do adore going out in public with a novel with a cover like the pink edition of The Convenient Marriage.  It gives everyone the wrong idea.  All right, I admit Sourcebooks has reissued Heyer’s books with more respectable covers.

Derby Day Taylor AmericanIf you like pseudo-Victorian novels, you will enjoy D. J. Taylor’s historical novel, Derby Day, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011.  Set in Victorian England, this entertaining novel describes the double dealings and crimes revolving around a horse favored for the Epsom Derby. In the prequel,  Kept, Taylor peppers a traditional narrative with a fictional diary of George Eliot’s, the musings of a mad woman in an attic, the double-dealings of out-of-pocket Londoners who turn to crime,  and The Great Train Robbery.

war-and-peace-briggs-bigMy favorite historical novel is Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Forget the length:  War and Peace is a page-turner. The plot revolves around Russian life at the beginning of the 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Russia.  It has all the elements of the most entrancing fiction:  romance, elopement, gambling, parties, balls, aristocratic society in Moscow and Petersburg  fortunetelling, battles, and the fall of Moscow.

ross poldark graham 51NbqPxH4XL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The  BBC remake of Poldark  will be shown on PBS  starting this  Sunday.  It is based on the first two books of Winston Graham’s Poldark series, Ross Poldark and Demelza..  The hero, Ross Poldark , a veteran of the Revolutionary War (on the Brisish side),  returns to Cornwall to find his father is dead and his girlfriend engaged to his cousin.  Though brooding and disappointed, he is dashing, passionate, radical, brave, and a proponent of social justice–every woman’s ideal.  And we all adore Demelza, the scruffy girl in boys’ clothes whom he saves from a fight at the market and many years later marries.  There is also much detail about the mining business and the lower classes.

Julian Gore Vidal 51WlI3fKjjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Gore Vidal’s Julian  is a stunning take on Julian the Apostate, the fourth-century emperor who tried to stop the spread of Christianity.

Augustus williams productimage-picture-augustus-436John Williams is best-known for Stoner, but he won the National Book Award for his brilliant novel, Augustus, about Julius Caesar’s heir , who became arguably the most powerful Roman emperor.  The novel is told in letters, despatches, and memoirs.

Kristin Lavransdatter 516HWD3P20L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Nobel Prize-winning Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavrandatter is one of my favorites, a trilogy about a woman in medieval Norway who, after a youthful passion, marries her rakish, charming, but careless lover and struggles to manage his neglected household  and raise her children as good Christians.

Have you ever seen a trashier cover?

Have you ever seen a trashier cover?

Sergeanne Golon’s best-selling Angelique series, recommended by a librarian friend long ago, cheered me up during a ghastly week in a cabin that had no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing.  To quote Goodreads, this French series “begins in 1648 during a time of insurrection, terror and revolt in a divided France….[Angelique] is one of the most irresistible heroines in the history of fiction. Her stormy adventures have taken her from the gutters of Paris to the harems of Africa to the silken prison of a King. Angelique has loved, intrigued, hated and fought her way into the hearts of million of readers all over the world.”  Unfortunately, these old paperbacks are very expensive–and out of print–so I have no idea if they are as good as I thought they were.  (On a par with the Poldark books.)

Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

Death of Ivan Ilyich tolstoy 9780140449617

I am always reading something by Tolstoy.  I love Anna Karenina, but War and Peace  is a masterpiece.  I now limit my rereadings  of it to once a year.

I must make do with Tolstoy’s short stories for a while. Anyway, I have not read all the stories.

In the Penguin edition of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories,  translated by Ronald Wilks, Anthony Briggs, and David McDuff, “The  Death of Ivan Ilyich” is a grisly masterpiece.  It is both satiric and incredibly grim.

Divided into chapters, it  begins with the end.  Anthony Briggs writes in the introduction that it is a very unusual story.

…we are barely a hundred words into the narrative when we are told, ‘Gentlemen!   Ivan Ilyich is dead.’  So much for suspense. At no stage in the succeeding pages are we going to entertain doubts about the protagonists’ fate, which has been settled and sealed.

The structure is a ring composition.  It begins with and ends with Ivan’s death.

In Chapter 1, Ivan Ilyich’s colleagues learn from the newspaper that Ivan has died. Nobody is emotionally affected.  They start immediately thinking about how it can benefit themselves:  can they get a promotion?  can they get their brother-in-law the job?

And that is how society is:  brutally shallow.



All the characters in Ivan’s social circle care about the same things. They furnish their houses the same, they make the same conversation, they have the same opinions.  No one deeply cares for anyone else.   Even Ivan’s wife and daughter do not care much for him.  His long illness, with its intense pain, has been vaguely diagnosed by the doctors as a floating kidney or colitis. For his family, it is a drag on their social life.

His daughter Liza says, “I’m sorry for Papa, but why do we have to suffer?”

He tries to deny that he is dying, because it could not be happening to him.  He goes to work every day–he is a judge–until he begins to lose his concentration.

According to Anthony Briggs’s introduction, the story was based on  a true story.  A judge who lived near Tolstoy in the town of  Tula died of stomach cancer.  The judge sentenced people to very harsh punishments.  Tolstoy wondered how he could go home and enjoy his life.

Tolstoy tells the story of Ivan’s life.  It is a simple story of a successful man.  He graduated from law school and qualified for the civil service.

His career started in the provinces, where he had affairs, played cards, and married a pretty woman.

…it did not take Ivan Ilyich long to arrange a lifestyle that was as easy and agreeable as the one he had enjoyed at law school.  He did his work, pursued his career and at the same time discreetly enjoyed himself.

He does not have enough money, he and his wife think, so he goes to Petersburg, and through connections, gets a job as a judge for five thousand pounds a year. He buys a big house and arranges it all to his own taste before the family arrives.  He tracks down antiques, rugs, and plants and shows the upholsterer how to hang the curtains.  Ironically, all the accoutrements he acquires make Ivan look exactly like every other person who wants to appear richer than he is.

And while he is on the ladder to attend to the curtains, he slips and falls and bumps his side on a window knob.  He tells his family,

It’s a good job I’m athletic.  Any other man would have killed himself, but all I did was bruise myself a bit here.  It hurts when you touch it, but it’s getting better.  It is only a bruise.”

That is the beginning of his death.  He complains of the pain in his side and a funny taste in his mouth.  The doctors cannot make a definite diagnosis, though they sound authoritative. The medicine doesn’t help. He can no longer play cards.  The opium makes him sicker. Tolstoy does not say that he has cancer.  But the pain, the screaming, implies that he does.

He begins to wonder about his life.  “What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived  my whole life, my conscious life?”

We are with him to the moment of his death.

This story is so realistic, and even modern, in its depiction of the doctors’ failure to diagnose and treat difficult illnesses that it is difficult to read.

Of course Tolstoy being Tolstoy, there are also spiritual problems.

The translation by Briggs is seamless.  He is one of the best Russian translators today.  I love his War and Peace (though I also love the other translations of War and Peace.).