The Epic As Beach Book: Homer, Virgil, & Others

Robert Fagles' translation is stunning.

Robert Fagles’ translation (Penguin)

At Barnes and Noble, the last bookstore in our fair city, I was delighted to find a copy of The Odyssey on a “Beach Reads” table. It was a very old translation by George Herbert  Palmer, but never mind.   I love to imagine a reader picking up Homer for the first time since ninth-grade English, or a freshman Classics in Translation class.  I read Greek, so I don’t bother much about translations, but I have seen students inspired by the translations of Lattimore, Fitzgerald, or Fagles.

iliad 41zzK2KjwzL._AC_UL320_SR208,320_Epic poems make great beach books, because narrative is as important as the language. It is easy to lose oneself, slathered with sun block under the umbrella, in Homer’s riveting poem about Odysseus’ adventures on the return trip home from the Trojan War, impeded by storms, Cyclops, sirens, and witches.  I read and reread Milton’s suspenseful epic rendering of devious Satan’s tempting of Adam and Eve in  Paradise Lost.  It’s a pity so many of us find Satan sympathetic:  that was not Milton’s intention.  But in Paradise Regained, he is the  unreconstructed villain we remember from the New Testament.

What else would I like to see on that Beach Reads table?   Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Derek Walcott’s Omeros,and Alice Oswald’s Memorial.  (Let me know your favorite beach epics!)

The best beach epic of all, and possibly the best epic poem in any language, is Virgil’s Aeneid,  the story of the founding of Rome by a refugee of the Trojan War.  In the essay “What Is a Classic?” T. S. Eliot explains why Virgil’s epic is a  “classic”.

A classic can only occur when a civilizsation is mature; when a language and a literature are mature; and it must be the work of a mature mind. It is the importance of that civilization and of that language, as well as the comprehensiveness of the mind of the individual poet, which gives the universality.

the aeneid virgil 51bBUTqwlZL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Virgil’s sense of history, the maturity of Roman literature, and his knowledge  of both Latin and Greek literature gives him a rare command of style, consciousness, and vocabulary.  The Aeneid has been read as a celebration of empire; it has also been read as an anti-war poem: there is evidence for both readings. It is a homage to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the texts studied by educated Roman schoolboys.  Books I-VI of The Aeneid are about homecoming, or rather about traveling to find their fated home in Italy, and it is loosely based on the Odyssey.  Books VII-XII is a story of war, a  Roman Iliad:  after the Trojan refugees arrive in Italy, Aeneas and his men must fight for the right to stay and Aeneas must marry Princess Lavinia.

Virgil begins the poem:

arma virumque cano…

A literal translation is “arms and the man I sing…”

The first word arma refers to the war described in the last six books. The second word, virum, refers to the man , Aeneas, whom we meet during his trials in the first six books., as The Odyssey is about the man Odysseus.  Note that these two words, the subject of The Aeneid, open the poem.

Without knowing anything about Roman culture, it can be tough to understand The Aeneid. I wonder how Seamus Heaney’s new translation of Book VI, in which Aeneas visits the Underworld, fares with the common reader who has not read the entire poem.  There is a lot to take in:  the homage to the Odyssey, the odd behavior of the Sibyl, the significance of the golden bough, the pageant of the future…

The best bet, even if you decide just to read the Heaney, is to get a copy of Robert Fagles’s translation of The Aeneid for background.  First reaason:  the whole poem is there.  Second Reason:  the brilliant Bernard Knox, who was probably as close to a celebrity classicist as the U.S. has ever had,  writes the introduction beautifully and succinctly, and intelligently gives you all the background you need.  Of pietas, he writes:

Pietas describes another loyalty and duty, besides that to the gods and the family. It is for the Roman, to Rome, and in Aeneas’ case, to his mission to found it in Hesperia, the western country, Italy.

As state budget cuts threaten or slash language departments at public high schools and the state universities where , by the way, the majority of Americans study languages, classics departments bite the bullet and peppily teach culture classes.  SUNY Albany eliminated it classics department, along with French, Italian, Russian, and theater.  I worry that in the not-so-distant  future classics will  be yanked from business-oriented curricula and taught only at the most exclusive expensive prep schools and private universities.   If that day comes, the division of the rich and poor will be even more exaggerated than now:   only the elite will have knowledge of ancient languages and culture. I am not exaggerating:  that is our heritage.  But Budget cuts are making war on the middle class.  Without Latin and Greek, we would be a poorer civilization.

Dating in Alice Adams’s Superior Women & Tolstoy’s War & Peace

barbie queen of the prom 859b73499fc1bc9866aebc53112bb08cI often think of Barbie Queen of the Prom when I think of dating. In this Monopoly-like 1961 board game, you roll the dice to acquire, among other things, a date to the prom.  The possible dates are Ken, Bob, Tom, and Poindexter (pictured left).  Needless to say, Poindexter is the geek. Cards give you directions like:  “YOU ARE NOT READY WHEN HE CALLS. MISS 1 TURN.”

But the game is much more fun than dating.  Actual dating so often means getting stuck on a sailboat with a virtual stranger, or discovering he/she has no bookshelves.  Instead of “dating,” I hung out with bookish men I met at parties, at work, or in language classes.  Yes, I married one.

But would it work for Peg, the fat, plain character in a group of friends at Radcliffe in the 1940s in Alice Adams’s novel, Superior Women (1984)? This stunning  novel, reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, follows a group of friends over four decades.  At Radcliffe, the maternal Peg plies her friends with cookies and tea and is much more intelligent than they think.    Lavinia, the beauty, is an aristocratic Southerner who wants total control:  she mourns a boyfriend who died in World War II, neglecting to say he dumped her before he shipped out. Plump, sexy Megan is irresistibly attractive to men, who tell her she is different because she likes sex (they don’t actually want to go on dates, though); Janet, a Jewish woman who criticizes Megan’s WASPy “technical virgin” friends, is in love with an  Irish Catholic whose  mother opposes the match.  Cathy, a smart Catholic, goes out with a flashily-dressed Catholic from Ohio (known as Flash by snobs) with whom she shares a taste for good steak.  Are they in love…?  Well…

You see Peg’s dilemma.

Alice Adams Superior Women 41xTsBHIaNLWhen her friends  learn Peg is going on a date with a Yale man she hasn’t seen since childhood, they humiliate her by helping her get ready.

Thus it works out that getting Peg ready for her date is a group project. With a variety of emotions that includes both genuine kindness and an incredulous condescension (Peg, on a date? what will he think when he sees her, no matter what she has on?), the three friends, her “best friends,” gather in her room; they watch and they make suggestions, helpful and otherwise. They make silly jokes. Megan and Cathy and Lavinia, all concentrated on poor Peg.

And not one of them has the slightest idea of what is going on in Peg’s mind. In close physical proximity to her, looking at her and talking, not one of them recognizes what is actually a serious anxiety attack; they do not feel Peg’s genuine panic.”

The Maude translation (Everyman)

The Maude translation (Everyman)

Adams, who graduated from high school at 15 and Radcliffe at 19, is very smart: the preparation-for-the-date scene is a homage to a scene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  In Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Princess  Mary,  a young, very kind, very plain  woman who lives in the country with her severe father, is excited because a suitor, Prince Anatole, is coming to meet her. Her  French companion, Mademoiselle Bourienne , and her pregnant sister-in-law, Princess Lise, help her prepare for the “date,: only to find that she actually looks worse in chic clothes and the new hairdo.  Here is a passage from the Maude translation.

It was not the dress, but the face and whole figure of Princess Mary that was not pretty, but neither Mademoiselle Bourienne nor the little princess felt this; they still thought that if a blue ribbon were placed in the hair, the hair combed up, and the blue scarf arranged lower on the best maroon dress, and so on, all would be well. They forgot that the frightened face and the figure could not be altered, and that however they might change the setting and adornment of that face, it would still remain piteous and plain. After two or three changes to which Princess Mary meekly submitted, just as her hair had been arranged on the top of her head (a style that quite altered and spoiled her looks) and she had put on a maroon dress with a pale-blue scarf, the little princess walked twice round her,

In neither Peg’s nor Mary’s case, does the date go well.  In Superior Women, the plain, red-faced Yale man, Cameron, gets drunk and almost rapes Peg, who fortunately is strong enough to shove him off her.   In War and Peace, Princess Mary is very shy and stilted, but Anatole will marry her for her money. But the next day, but after finding him making out with Mademoiselle Bourienne, she turns down the proposal.

Whether it is the nineteenth century or now, dating can be grueling.

Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love

hannah rothschild the improbability of love 51WS3JA5AyL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Want to know about the biological clock?  It is a reading clock that starts ticking when you realize your own mortality.   Nowadays I am fussy and cautious about committing to new books, though I loved the trendy literary novel of the summer, Emma Cline’s The Girls,  thoroughly enjoyed Jo Walton’s science fiction novel based on Plato’s Republic, The Just City, and am relishing the Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich (1950-2013).

For every hour I spend on a second-rate book, however, I are depriving myself of an opportunity to read a classic.   Reviews are often unreliable.  How on earth does one find good new books?

By consulting the shortlist for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize, I discovered Hannah Rothschild’s entertaining novel, The Improbability of Love.  Though it is not perfect, I loved it!  It is a fascinating story of the competition in the art world to acquire a lost painting by Watteau, “The Improbability of Love,”and prove its authenticity. This clever novel about establishing the provenance of art is slightly reminiscent of A. S. Byatt’s Possession.

The prologue opens on the night of the auction. Celebrity bidders, among them  a rapper, a rich Russian thug in exile,  and a savvy American widow, climb out of their limos  and are snapped by the Paparazzi.  As Earl Beachendon, the organizer of the auction, fantasizes about the money he will earn from his commission, a young Chinese man approaches the velvet-colored plinth in plain sight of the Earl and security cameras–and he and the painting vanish.

hannah-rothschild

Hannah Rothschild

Then Rothschild pedals back six months in time to explore the mystery of the painting.  The narrative is told from multiple points of view, and, delightfully, one of them is the painting itself.  We are most interested in Annie, the central character,  a chef who  purchases the grimy Watteau in a junk shop, intending to give it to a lover who dumps her on his birthday by calling to cancel the meal she has spent all day cooking.   Does she have any idea it is a Watteau?  No.  On a walk the next day, she discovers the junk shop has burned down.

And, ironically, she is the temporary chef  for Memling Winkleman  and his daughter Rebecca of Winkleman Fine Art, one of the most famous art houses in the world.  They are desperately seeking “The Improbability of Love,” which Memling, a Jewish survivor of the camps, has acquired by shady means and stowed temporarily in the junk shop.  Meanwhile, oblivious of their search, Annie parks the painting in a bag in the kitchen and researches recipes for a banquet centered on a newly-discovered painting by Caravaggio, “Judith Beheading Holofernes.”  The Winklemans are inviting guests who may be interested in buying  the painting.  Although the surprisingly uncreative Rebecca requires fish every night and says she wants nothing fancy at the dinner party, Annie has decided to recreate a menu that “reflects the element of danger and brio” of Caravaggio and dishes that could have been eaten by cardinals, popes, and nobleman in post-Renaissance Italy.

Annie went to look at the painting, which was already hanging int he main vestibule of the gallery. It was an unappetizing image:  a man’s throat cut, the blood spurting over a white cloth, his life ebbing away with each heartbeat; the perpetrator, a beautiful black-haired woman, looked at the viewer triumphantly, holding a bloody blade in her hand, watched by a wizened old hag.  Fingering her letter of resignation, Annie decided there was little to lose by preparing a fantastical feast; at least she would be fired for something she was proud of.

Annie has problems: her mother, Evie, an alcoholic, temporarily moves in with her, and  it is her flamboyance, taking the painting out of the bag at the Wallace Collection and holding it up beside some Watteaus, that attracts the attention of a painter working as a guide.  He  falls in love with Annie at first sight and helps her investigate the provenance of the painting with his contacts in the art world, historians, critics, and art experts.

There are intertwined stories of numerous characters who covet or are interested in the painting, including the collectors and an art expert who was fired by Winkleman for objecting to his selling art that was stolen by the Nazis.  Here’s what we learn:  don’t mess with the powerful dealers!  Memling has a shocking secret, provenances are faked, and character assassination and even murder are coolly undertaken. But, in the end, this is more a comedy than a drama.  All’s well that ends well.

Rothschild’s knowledge of art is impressive:   she is  the chair of the trustees of the National Gallery Board and a trustee of the Tate Gallery and Waddesdon Manor, as well as a documentary filmmaker.

A very enjoyable book!

Jo Walton’s The Just City

jo walton the just city 22055276“I read Plato way too young for which I’d like to thank Mary Renault,” writes Jo Walton, a Welsh-Canadian science fiction writer who has won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Tiptree Award, the Locus Award, and the Mythopoeic award. Later, she read Plato as a classics major at the University of Lancaster.

In Walton’s brilliant, if very strange, philosophical novel, The Just City, the bookish Athene, goddess of war and wisdom, decides to found a city based on Plato’s Republic.   Her brother, Apollo, bemused by the nymph Daphne’s dramatic rejection of his sexual advances (she prayed to Artemis for help and was turned into a tree), decides to participate in the experiment, because he, too, has read Plato, and he wants to be reborn as a mortal to understand the human condition.

The city is still in the planning stages, but Athena has already time-traveled through the ages to rescue any person of either sex who has read The Republic in Greek and prayed to be transported there. Some very famous philosophers are working to set up the city, among them Krito, Cicero, Plotinus, and Boethius. They will buy ten thousand child slaves to be educated by the masters. Robots will do the manual work of the city.

The narrative is told from three viewpoints, that of Apollo, reborn as a farmer’s son,Pytheas, and brought in slavery to the city; Simmea, one of the most brilliant of the children, an artisan, athlete, and philosopher; and Maia, a nineteenth-century woman who  studied Greek and Latin with her father when it became clear she was doing her brother’s work for him.  Maia is fascinated byThe Republic , particularly Plato’s belief in the equality and education of women.

Maia muses,

Like everyone who reads Plato, I longed to stop Socrates and put in my own arguments. Even without being able to do that, reading Plato felt like being a part of the conversation for which I had been so starved.  I rad the Symposium and the Protaogoras, and then I began The Republic. The Republic is about Plato’s ideas of justice–not in terms of criminal law, bur rather how to maximize happiness by living a life that is just both internally and externally.  He talks about both a city and a soul, comparing the two, setting out his idea of both human nature and how people should live, with the soul a microcosm of the city.  His ideal city, as with the ideal soul, balanced the three parts of human nature:  reason, passion, and appetites.  By arranging the city justly, it would also maximize justice within the souls of the inhabitants.

It is Maia’s discovery of Book Five, when he talks about the education of women, that leads her the next day in a church to pray:

“Oh Pallas Athene, please take me away from this, let me live in Plato’s Republic, let me work to find a way to make it real.”

Are there problems? Yes. When Sokrates is snatched against his will from the hemlock cup and brought to the city, he  reveals that the city was certainly not his idea–and that he does not want to be here.  He  challenges the wisdom of giving money to slavers, even though the children are educated, and talks to the robot workers, whom he suspects are sentient.  Not everyone is best pleased with his investigations.

One of the things that amuses me most is that characters converse in Socratic dialogues.  I love Socratic dialogues.  And yet they sound natural.

This is the first of a trilogy and, despite a slow start as Walton fills us in on the background, it is one of the most original novels I’ve read this year.

I, too, am a fan of Plato.  I was one of those sweet young women who wanted to maximize the graduate school experience and concentrate on as many language and literature classes as I could, even if it meant adding an independent study.  After my Greek philosophy seminar I convinced my advisor I needed to read yet more Plato, so he graciously offered to do an independent study with me. I have always associated the Protagoras with rattling my teacup as I nervously tried to balance the text, my notebook, and the cup and saucer.  There was no coffee table in the sparsely furnished living room.  I finally stood up and carried it into the kitchen.

Reluctantly Subscribing to Intellectual Book Review Publications

I recently subscribed to  The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement (TLS).  Mind you, I didn’t want to.  I wanted to buy a new set of dishes at Target.

But it seems I should “invest” in such publications if I want to “hold the line.”

With a few exceptions, mainstream book reviews seem to be going down. Critics say everybody’s a critic:  well, they still need to do their job.  Formerly reliable book pages (The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.) are occasionally still brilliant, but have acquired a new nervous tone, like a homecoming queen smiling too hard as she coaxes votes from the hoi polloi (οἱ πολλοί). As newspapers fold, editors try to attract a new audience:  they waste space on romances, Stephen King, and “pastel lit” (otherwise known as chick lit”).  God help me, Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers is the fluffiest of beach books, and I read it because Michiko Kakutani reviewed it, and  The Washington Post actually reviewed Ann Patty’s error-riddled Living With a Dead Language:  My Romance with Latin, an inconsequential, poorly-written memoir of her auditing of Latin classes, consultation of “laminated SparkNotes,” and shallow observations on Roman literature. My husband and I, who are both Latinists, refer to Patty, a former New York editor who discovered V. C. Andrews,  as “the new Lucia.”

And to think New York editors blame Amazon for their problems!

All right, so I can breathe again.  The TLS , The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker are holding the line.

In the “N.B.” column in the TLS (June 15, 2016), J. C. writes about George Gissing.

Some weeks ago, we made a modest suggestion to the editors at Penguin Classics: to publish George Gissing’s disguised memoir The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903) in a single volume with Morley Roberts’s memoir of Gissing, The Private Life of Henry Maitland. Roberts’s book, published in 1912, nine years after Gissing’s death, is itself an act of disguise. It uses fictitious names for well-known personages – G. H. Rivers for H. G. Wells; Schmidt for Gissing’s friend Eduard Bertz – and for books: for Paternoster Row, read New Grub Street; for The Unchosen, The Odd Women. Distracting at first, this habit eventually has a certain charm; Roberts’s biography is as much a work of the imagination as Gissing’s autobiography. Hence our proposal to Penguin to compensate for its past neglect of Gissing. So far we haven’t heard back.

Oh, what a good idea! I could do with a Penguin set of Gissing.   I recently started Gissing’s brilliant novel, Born in Exile, which novelist and critic D. J. Taylor has said is his favorite book.  I was only able to find a used Everyman paperback, and the print is too small.  I’ve had to turn to the e-book.

And The New York Review of Books (June 23, 2016) is also doing its job.   Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliant article, “How Greek Drama Saved the City,”  examines the difference between theater in ancient Greece and the modern U.S.  Here is an excerpt from Mendelsohn’s essay:

At the climax of Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs, a tartly affectionate parody of Greek tragedy that premiered in 405 BCE, Dionysus, the god of wine and theater, is forced to judge a literary contest between two dead playwrights. Earlier in the play, the god had descended to the Underworld in order to retrieve his favorite tragedian, Euripides, who’d died the previous year; without him, Dionysus grumpily asserts, the theatrical scene has grown rather dreary. But once he arrives in the land of the dead, he finds himself thrust into a violent literary quarrel. At the table of Pluto, god of the dead, the newcomer Euripides has claimed the seat of “Best Tragic Poet”—a place long held by the revered Aeschylus, author of the Oresteia, who’s been dead for fifty years.

A series of competitions ensues, during which excerpts of the two poets’ works are rather fancifully compared and evaluated—scenes replete with the kind of in-jokes still beloved of theater aficionados. (At one point, lines from various plays by the occasionally bombastic Aeschylus are “weighed” against verses by the occasionally glib Euripides: Aeschylus wins, because his diction is “heavier.”) None of these contests is decisive, however, and so Dionysus establishes a final criterion for the title “Best Tragic Poet”: the winner, he asserts, must be the one who offers to the city the most useful advice—the one whose work can “save the city.”

Today, the idea that a work written for the theater could “save” a nation—for this was what Aristophanes’ word polis, “city,” really meant; Athens, for the Athenians, was their country—seems odd, even as a joke. For us, popular theater and politics are two distinct realms. In the contemporary theatrical landscape, overtly political dramas that seize the public’s imagination (Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, say, with its thinly veiled parable about McCarthyism, or Tony Kushner’s AIDS epic Angels in America) tend to be the exception rather than the rule; and even the most trenchant of such works are hardly expected to have an effect on national policy or politics (let alone to “save the country”). Such expectations are dimmer still when it comes to other kinds of drama. The lessons that A Streetcar Named Desire has to teach about beauty and vulnerability and madness are lessons we absorb as private people, not as voters.

By the way, last fall I wrote a blog entry on “Filthy Jokes in Aristophanes.”  (It is NOT intellectual!  That’s why I need the NYRB.)

Do you have any observations on good, bad, or indifferent book reviews?  Are they “going down?”  Favorite publications?  Favorite blogs?  I know I’ve asked this before.  I need to add some new American blogs to my blogroll! Some of my favorites have quit.

Too Cozy? Not for Me!

After I was hospitalized for an infectious disease cured by trial and error by a smart team of doctors, I was very weak.  I could barely walk from my apartment house to the corner. Kind friends brought casseroles and books. They also gave me a  lot of cozy mysteries.

My friend Ann introduced me to Lilian Jackson Braun’s  charming series, The Cat Who books. The hero, Jim Quilleran, a prize-winning reporter who has left the big city to live in Moose County, solves crimes with the help of his two Siamese cats, Koko and Yum Yum.  Well, the cats don’t help much, but the books are very funny.  Braun wrote 29 novels and three collections of stories between 1966 and 2007.

Lilian-jackson-Braun-Cat-Who-Books-QwilleranMy fondness for cozies has continued since my illness. Sure, I love Golden Age detective fiction, but since 2000 I have also read a slew of trendy new series by women about amateur sleuths who own their own business.  Who knew that female owners of bookshops, tea shops, coffee shops, knitting shops, bakeries, herb shops, and inns investigated so many murders?    Some  are better written than others–I enjoy Lorna Barrett’s Booktown series, Laura Childs’ Tea Shop series,  and Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series–but I love the details about their shops as much as I do the mysteries.  You don’t read these for the style.

I should warn you:  these are very, very, very light.  Perfect to read in a heat wave.

Book-clubbed-MEDI have recently read a couple of titles in Lorna Barrett’s Booktown series.  The heroine, Tricia Myles. owns a mystery bookshop in a small tourist town in New Hampshire.  Her sister, Angelica, a chef, is also in the book business: she owns a cookbook store and a small restaurant, Booked for Lunch.

Lo and behold! Trish finds a lot of dead bodies. And she can solve a crime faster than the police chief (whom she has dated somewhere in the series:  I am not reading them in order).  And you’ve got to love her employees, Pixie, a former prostitute, and Mr. Everett, a retired 77-year-old man whose wife runs a charitable trust.

I started the series in medias res with Book Clubbed.   In the opening paragraph, Barrett introduces the heroine and manages to capture the mood of a slow winter in New Hampshire.

For once the winter weather seemed to be cooperating, meaning that unless any unforeseen complication arose, Tricia Myles, owner of the mystery bookstore Haven’t Got a Clue, would get a lot more accomplished on that particular Saturday in February.  No ice, or snow, and though the sun had not yet made an appearance in Booktown, otherwise known as Stoneham, New Hampshire, the skies were due to clear before lunchtime–hopefully bringing plenty of book-buying customers with it.

Tricia and Angelica have an appointment to look at a private book collection, but Angelica, also president of the Chamber of Commerce,  is late:  she is busy arguing with the cranky secretary, Betsy, who is complaining about having to use the public restroom.  Betsy storms out to take out the trash, and a few minutes later they hear a commotion upstairs.   They find Betsy strangled and crushed by a bookcase.

Nobody liked Betsy, who lived by Robert’s Rules of Order.  And it turns out she was a hoarder and embezzler who also kept incriminating dossiers on everybody in the Chamber of Commerce. Turns out Betsy is a millionaire.  Where did the money come from, and who killed her?

There are also cats on the covers of these books. That’s why my husband thinks I read them.   Tricia’s cat is called Miss Marple.

Lorna Barrett is not Simenon.  I hope I’ve made that clear!

Anthony Trollope’s Rachel Ray & Soho Passport to Crime Series

rachel ray trollope penguin 9780140434101-us-300There is one way to cope with the excessive heat: get up early in the morning.

I’ve heard of morning:  sunrise, dew on the grass, and rabbits and squirrels nibbling on grass blades. I stayed up so late the other night rereading Trollope’s Rachel Ray that I considered staying up to see the dawn.

Well, I didn’t make it, but at any rate I loved Rachel Ray. 

When people talk about Trollope, they concentrate on the six-book Barsetshire series and the six-book Palliser series.  Well, I adore both series, but the standalones don’t get the respect they deserve. So I was pleased last year when Adam Gopnik did mention Rachel Ray in his article, “Trollope Trending,” in The New Yorker.

The fun of Trollope lies in his endless multiplicity: people who like “Rachel Ray” turn to “The Three Clerks,” and fans of “The Three Clerks” ask their friends about “Orley Farm.” Yet, beyond saying that his writing feels like life, it’s hard to say just how he works his magic—and a little digging shows that a sense of Trollope as a slightly guilty pleasure has been around since people started reading him.

rachel ray trollope 9780192818096-us-300You don’t hear much about Rachel Ray.  Published in 1863, it is a charming, utterly absorbing novel about love, business, gossip, good beer vs. bad beer, jealousy, politics, and the clergy.  The editor of the magazine that commissioned it rejected the serial because he was offended by Trollope’s lampooning of religion and the clergy.  Rachel Ray was published as a two-volume novel but not serialized.

We all like Trollope’s smart heroines, and Rachel is one of my favorites.  Because of her kindness and beauty, she attracts Luke Rowan, a handsome, smart young man who has moved in with the Tappitts, owners of the local brewery. He has inherited a partnership in the business, but Mr. Tappitt is trying to shut him out.  Luke has a radical idea: why not make good beer as opposed to cheap bad beer?  Tappitt is in a rage and says Luke will ruin him.

The road is not smooth for Rachel, either: women disapprove of her relationship with Luke.   Miss Puckett, a pious spinster, spreads the gossip that she has seen Rachel and Luke walking together at night. Rachel’s older sister,  Mrs. Prime, a minister’s widow, is furious and tells Mrs. Ray, their mother, another widow, about Rachel’s immorality.

You’ve got to love witty Rachel, who says, “Oh, Dolly, do not speak with that terrible voice, as though the world were coming to an end.”

Eventually Mrs. Prime leaves home and moves in with Miss Puckett because of Rachel’s insistence on attending a ball at the Tappitts and her friendship with Luke.

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope

Rachel is a good friend of the Tappitt sisters, Augusta, Martha, and Cherry, but at the ball Luke dances with her repeatedly, even though she tries to discourage him.   Mrs. Tappitt  is furious because she wants Luke to marry Augusta and starts a campaign to destroy Rachel’s reputation.

And because of their disagreement over the business, Mr. Tappitt threatens Luke with a poker, they part, and he spreads gossip about Luke.  But Luke is hardly diplomatic:  he plans to sue Mr. Tappitt for his interest in the business and start his own brewery in the village if Mr. Tappitt doesn’t give in.  Sheesh!  (Does Luke want to start a microbrewery?)

Mrs. Ray vacillates about Luke.  After Rachel receives a letter from him, Mrs. Ray can’t decide whether it is  proper or not.  “He writes as though he means to have everything quite his own way.”  Rachel thinks it is natural.

Mrs. Ray did not quite know whether it was bad in a man or no. But she mistrusted the letter, not construing it closely so as to discover what might really be its full meaning, but perceiving that the young man took, or intended to take, very much into his own hands; that he demanded that everything should be surrendered to his will and pleasure, without any guarantee on his part that such surrendering should be properly acknowledged. Mrs. Ray was disposed to doubt people and things that were at a distance from her. Some check could be kept over a lover at Baslehurst; or, if perchance the lover had removed himself only to Exeter, with which city Mrs. Ray was personally acquainted, she could have believed in his return. He would not, in that case, have gone utterly beyond her ken. But she could put no confidence in a lover up in London.

It’s fascinating and fun, comedy and drama, though mainly comedy.  This 400-page novel is a good place to begin if you don’t want to start with one of Trollope’s huge tomes.

cara black murer in the marais 51WH1LarVRL._SX331_BO1204203200_-200x300Soho Passport to Crime series.

Soho Press has a new Passport to Crime series.  This small press has reissued the first novels in several popular series.  Who says covers don’t sell?  Has anyone read any of these?

The books are:

—The Last Kashmiri Rose by Barbara Cleverly

—Slow Horses by Mick Herron

—Another Sun by Timothy Williams

—The Dragon Man by Garry Disher

—Crashed by Timothy Hallinan

—Billy Boyle by James R. Benn

—Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten

—Outsider in Amsterdam by Janwillem Van de Wetering

—Zoo Station by David Downing

—Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin

soho crime Jade-Lady-394x600—Death of an Englishman by Magdalen Nabb

—Random Violence by Jassy Mackenzie

—Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage

—The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey

—Jade Lady Burning by Martin Limón

—Murder in the Marais by Cara Black

—Eye for an Eye by Frank Muir

—Converging Parallels by Timothy Williams

—The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

—Rock, Paper, Tiger by Lisa Brackmann

—Wobble to Death by Peter Lovesey

—Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang

—The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville

—White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones