Winter Reading Recommendations from Bloggers, Commenters & Friends, Part Three

Happy winter! We had an ice storm Sunday night, and I only hope you have had better weather.  This is the last post on winter reading recommendations from bloggers, commenters and friends.  Thank you to all who participated!

the-convert-robins-erobinsconvertcoverDiana Birchall, author of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma: A Sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the blog Light, Bright, and Sparkling,  and a contributor at Jane Austen Variations, writes,

Anything about the life of Elizabeth Robins, actress, suffragette, novelist, playwright, early Alaskan adventuress and much more, makes compelling reading. Born in 1862, she was an actress in New York and in London, where she was the first to produce Ibsen plays, and became famous for her roles in Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House. Always progressive and committed to women’s rights, she wrote the feminist novel The Convert, and adapted it for the stage as Votes for Women in 1907. It was in 1900 that her brother Raymond went missing in Gold Rush Alaska, and she took the long arduous journey to search for him in Yukon Territory. The story of her adventures is described in her books The Magnetic North and The Alaska-Klondike Journals of Elizabeth Robins. Her search for Raymond, the hard conditions they endure together, and the fascinating characters they meet, are all vividly described: I can highly recommend her breathless tales of the Far North for winter reading.

Ellen Moody, editor of Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (Valancourt Press, 2016) and author of  the blogs Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, Reveries under the Sign of Austen, and Under the Sign of Sylvia II, writes,

sontag-volcano-lover-51zpj85d-mlIn the last week of last year I read a novel I enjoyed more than I have any other in a long time. It may sound odd to say this but because I read so much I become jaded, and no matter how much I like a book, I usually have no problem putting it down. I’ve also trained myself to read several books at once so I can read with others online, teach different groups of people, work at reviews and papers. But Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover I sat down and read straight through, for quite a number of hours, day after day. I love historical fiction when well done but this went beyond or was different from the usual: Sontag took a wholly unexpected angle: instead of telling say Emma Lady Hamilton’s story or Nelson’s as a dual romance, her center was Sir William Hamilton, the collector-husband of Emma, and we saw the later 18th century from a highly corrupt marginalized cityscape: Naples where he was ambassador. The book was a meditation on why people collect, on art, on obsessions, and the fun was how the narrator was sometimes your conventional implied presence hovering between 1992 or so and the later 18th century, but then she would become more distinct, as herself, almost the scholar-essayist, and move in time to just after WW2 – because part of her story was the disastrous rebellion by a small enlightened and artisan group in Naples, savagely murdered. Eventually the perspective turned and you also realized  it was about the collector’s (her way of referring to Sir Wm) wife (whom I felt so for) before Emma, Emma herself, Emma’s mother (who Emma never left behind), and a remarkable journalist-poet, Eleanor de Fonseco-Pimentel (hung). Deeply feminist, parallels among women, exploding any notions of human beings as responsive to morality, reasonableness, the very foundations of the enlightenment. The gargantuan corruption, the asinine king, all seemed so relevant to that week in December. It was worth reading almost for that last sentence by Eleanor as she waits to be taken away to be senselessly (from her point of view) humiliated and killed: “Damn them all.”

(c) Compton Verney; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Compton Verney; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

For those who love paintings, the first part of the text (remember Sr Wm is the collector) are real, and when the intertextuality of the talk is over, you have learned much more about them. Part of the fascination is how she brings in through allusion biographies as well as other historical fiction as part of history. It’s anti-genre, also anti-foundational, to take the term from another book I recommend which I’ve not finished as yet as I’m using it to explore its terrain, and it was from its citations I took down Volcano Lover from my shelf where it had been since 1993: Martha Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley. This has been my companion, director of reading for a couple of months on and off now. What counts as history and what doesn’t: Graham Swift played with this in his Waterlands: why is the person executed on the guillotine more history than a pro-revolutionary teacher in a counter-revolutionary village. From Bowden I’ve been led to re-think about Walter Scott, read a book on The Winter Queen (Elizabeth of Bohemia), a whole group of historical romances featuring historical woman, and a little later tonight I’ll watch the movie, Restoration based on Rose Tremain’s novel of the same name which I loved so long ago because it is about a very marginal figure (invented) who opted after much experience of the “world” and an asylum, and the Stuart court.

Oh yes just finished after about five months Hermione Lee’s massive masterpiece of literary biography Virgina Woolf, read with a few people on a small listserv at Yahoo. You cannot do better if you want to get close to this writer if as you go along you follow Lee up on many of the shorter pieces of life-writing, the same kind of original historical fiction and biography and books called novels (for after all how sell them) by Woolf.

Ali of Heaven Ali writes,

girl-in-winter-larkin-2183553090_7b707ddc5f_bI have just finished reading The Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin, a superb novel, from a man best known for his poetry, it was his second novel. I am just off to bed, with a brand new old book The Indian Woman by Diana Gardner. I took a chance on it paying more I usually do for old second hand books.

I wasn’t sure if I really have winter books and summer books until I stopped to think about it, and realised that sometimes I do. From around late October until December I have in the past enjoyed reading some classics which are perfect for long dark, cosy nights in The Woman in White, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes stories and the like. Around Christmas time I often read one or two books with a vaguely Christmassy theme or setting. Once we are into January however, I like to comfort myself with reading books I really want to read, have looked forward to perhaps. In the past I have usually had a new year long challenge to get to grips with so the first book of the year has often been for that. This year I am not doing any big challenges – I have a lovely, relaxed, free feeling. I try to avoid review copies in January as I like to start the year on a high and avoid a disappointment (this year though, I had two review copies, but they were fine) and often read VMCs, Golden Age crime, or Persephone books or something with a slightly positive, perhaps nostalgic air about it, something I can feel sure of and at home with. I feel that Miss Buncle type books, Miss Pettigrew or I Capture the Castle would suit me in January (if I hadn’t already read them) – or if you want something a little darker perhaps Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca – or her short stories Don’t Look Now – one of my books of 2016. I had so much planned to read this January I already know I won’t manage them all. Last year I read Cider with Rosie in January which I would definitely recommend for winter reading. I would like to read a Vita Sackville West after the Gardner and perhaps a Margery Sharp, and I have another Mary Hocking planned to read with some other readers on a Mary Hocking Facebook group I started.

Lyn of I Prefer Reading writes,

mysteries-of-paris-eugene-sue-9780143107125Although it’s summer here, my reading doesn’t change much regardless of the weather.

I’ve just finished reading The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue, a big, sprawling melodrama about life in Paris, the low-life & the high-life. Originally serialised in a newspaper, it’s plot-driven, has cliffhangers galore & a dizzying cast of characters. It was the bestseller of 19th century France & influenced other writers like Victor Hugo.

I’ve also been tempted to start another big book, Samuel Richardon’s Clarissa. The blogger Ivebeenreadinglately has started a group read. As it’s an epistolary novel & the first letter arrives on January 10, the plan is to read the novel through the year  on the dates the letters are received.

I also have a review copy of The Chalk Pit, the new Ruth Galloway mystery by Elly Griffiths. Love this series & can’t wait to dive in to this one.

Part Two: Winter Recommendations from Bloggers, Commenters & Friends

"Lavacourt under Snow," Claude Monet

“Lavacourt under Snow,” Claude Monet

It’s winter!  What are you reading?

It’s time for cocoa and books.

And so I asked several bloggers, commenters, and friends for winter recommendations.   Fiction? Poetry?  Nonfiction?  Cozy? Mysteries? Classics?  You’ll find it all.

You can read Part One  here.

And now:


tale-of-cuckoo-wood-albert-paperback-1957697-mJean writes,

Currently, I am reading “The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood” by Susan Wittig Albert. It is the third in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. Normally, I am not a “cozy” mystery person, but I love Beatrix Potter (her 150th Birthday was celebrated in 2016) and these books are delightful! Please note: you must be able to suspend all sense of reality when the animals start talking. If this type of book doesn’t interest you, I recommend “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I’ve read it three times and each time, I just fall into the story within the first paragraph. Who wouldn’t want to find the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? A great family saga for long winter nights is “Greenbanks” by Dorothy Whipple. I’ve been turning to old favorites too. Willa Cather, Jane Austen (especially “Persuasion”) and you reminded recently me how much I love “On the Eve” by Turgenev. I must reread it soon!


Elaine Pigeon of Pigeonfiles:  Reading and Travel Writing  writes,

odd-women-gissing-6a00e55268c31388330154378a1673970c-320wiAlong with a small online group, I’m reading George Gissing’s The Odd Women [1893]. The novel is a response to an actual imbalance in the ratio of women to men in England, resulting in a shortage of marriageable males, which led to the emergence of the “New Woman.” While the so-called new woman earned her living by writing, other women were forced to find jobs and these were quite limited: service, governess, companion, shop girl, or type-writer. The narrative hinges on three middle-class sisters who must make their own way in life and a feminist figure, who tries to help these women by offering office training, the best of the available jobs for women. While this background is interesting on its own, Gissing also provides a feminist critique of marriage that is quite the eye-opener.

Gissing wrote 23 novels, yet many readers have not heard of him or read him. He is a rewarding find, so we plan to read his most popular novel next, The New Grub Street, about the conflict between hack writing versus art. Gissing is proving to be a great find.

I also started reading the bio on the fascinating Jean Rhys and another one of her short novels. To counter her rather grim take on life, I am also expanding my reading of Clarice Lispector, another modern writer who in her experimental writings is more uplifting. This should keep me busy for a while.

Joan Kyler of Planet Joan writes,

I’m about a third of the way into Pere Goriot. After a slow start, I’m dying to know what happens to Goriot, his daughters, and the characters at Maison Vauquer. I’m also reading Richard Adams’ A Nature Diary and Jo Nesbo’s Cockroaches. I like a bit of variety in my reading. I wish I could read a book a day. As I’m reading and enjoying ‘this’, I have my eye on ‘that’!


Lory Widmer Hess of  The Emerald City Book Review writes,

troy-chimneys-img_0781-e1454393078788In 2017 I’m trying to tackle a bunch of books that have been sitting on my shelf for some time. This shouldn’t be such a chore — when I got them I was really excited to read them, but somehow I’ve never managed to crack them open.

First up was Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy, a multi-layered, enigmatic historical novel that I really enjoyed once I got past the epistolary framing device in the first few pages. I’m now reading I Was a Stranger by John Hackett, who was wounded and captured in enemy territory during WWII, but was helped to escape and sheltered by a family in Holland. His loving portrait of these courageous people is a bright light during a dark time.

Next I think I might do a reread of an old friend like The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin or Midnight Is a Place by Joan Aiken. With its dark Gothic atmosphere and alternate-historical setting, the latter feels especially appropriate for winter reading — although LeGuin’s anarchist utopian planet could be calling to me too.

Stephanie writes,

As I grew older I began to read more than one book at a time. At first it felt undisciplined. It has come to feel prudent as in: I don’t have enough time to read just one book. That said, I’m currently reading Middlemarch, Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs (wonderfully well written), Pine Island Paradox (Kathleen Dean Moore) and A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (Edwin Way Teale). The fiction book I last finished was Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.



Winter Reading Recommendations from Bloggers, Commenters & Friends, Part One

It’s winter.

What should you read?

doctor-zhivago51kbsizoufl-_sx322_bo1204203200_That’s what I asked several bloggers, commenters, and friends.

My own predilection?  I curl up with Russian novels.  I love the beautiful descriptions of snow and sleigh rides in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

But for a dark take on winter, get out Boris Pasternak’s depressing masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago.   This hibernal classic, set during the Russian Revolution, describes the struggles of the hero, Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, and his brilliant, sensitive lover, Lara, to survive war, politics, and changes of regime.  The winner of the Nobel Prize, Doctor Zhivago was deemed too radical to be published in the Soviet Union and first published in Italy in 1957.

But what do you read if you’re not reading Russian novels? Here are some recommendations from bloggers, commenters, and friends, in the first of two (or possibly three) posts.


1. Belle of Belle, Book, and Candle writes,

nichols-merry-hall-618mqj6rl1l-_sx348_bo1204203200_Since the New Year, we have had snow, followed by days in the high 60s, followed by a week of rain and thunderstorms. OK. That’s enough weather for one year!

I hope to escape this meteorological madness by rereading the delightful Merry Hall house and garden restoration trilogy – where there is always Sunlight on the Lawn and Laughter on the Stairs – by Beverley Nichols. Also ready to join Bill Bryson for One Summer: America, 1927 which I bought a couple of years ago but never read. Perhaps now that we are on the cusp of the 90th anniversary of that season it will prove to be prime reading for winter.

I just bought four books on a recent Bookstore Quest that I hope to read before the dust settles too thickly on them:

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead; The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs; The Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches by William Maxwell; and Notwithstanding by Louis de Berniers. I will most likely begin with the Maxwell and de Berniers books. The first is nonfiction and the other includes fictional tales from a small English village in the 1930s.

2.   Roger writes,

kilverts-diary-513h3n6tbdlOne of the best evocations of winter is Philip Larkin’s novel A Girl in Winter – the whole book, not just descriptions, and for the psychological feel of winter. Robert Bridges’ poem “London Snow” came to mind because of the panic caused by half-an-inch of snow today.

In passing Francis Kilvert’s Diary evokes winter wonderfully, Take this passage, describing Christmas Day, 1870:

“As I lay awake praying in the early morning, I thought I heard a sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost.

I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all around the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass.

The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands for it was a mass of ice.

Gilbert White’s nature diary is another book with wonderful observations of winter weather. And, of course, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.” “The Ancient Mariner,” for all its evocation of cold isn’t really about winter.

As for anthologies, Walter de la Mare’s – Come Hither, Behold This Dreamer, Love…- and Daniel George’s – Tomorrow Will Be Differennt, A Peck of Troubles…– all have very light attribution and annotations and obscure sources, so they are great pleasure to use with the ‘net.

3. Kevin Neilson writes,

righteous-mind-41h9bymawl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt—arguably the most important book in popular science since the Selfish Gene. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt plumbs the latest in neuroscience, genetics, social psychology, and evolutionary theory to provide an account of how people think and the evolutionary forces that have shaped our thoughts and feelings—in morality, politics, and religion.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams—Moby Dick meets Little House on the Prairie. An exceptional novel by a colossally talented writer. I also highly recommend Augustus for the snooty literary type. Bone up on Cicero in advance or the glories of the novel will be partially, maybe even substantially, lost on you.

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean—yes, that N. Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It. The book is about the Mann Gulch fire that devoured a young crew of cocky, athletic firefighters. Although Maclean fails at the end of the book, as he must, when he is consumed by the Platonic fire of mathematics, I forgive him and love him for it, because he’s cocky and athletic in his own right.

Leaving Cheyenne and The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry—Well, I admit it: I love Lonesome Dove, and I was curious if these two offerings are as good. Of course they’re not as majestic, but they’re damn fine pieces of writing.

Visit Kevin at

4.  Eleanor Gluck, author of the blog Silver Threads, writes,

I have just finished reading The Night Manager by John LeCarré. It’s a good thriller with important themes and a romantic undertone but not ideal for winter reading. I have been alternating the novel with Sisman’s biograpy of LeCarré. As a delayed birthday present I have treated myself to a hardcover copy of Michael Chabon’s new book, Moonglow, and I plan to read that next. If you want a book to put you in a good mood (whatever the weather) I recommend Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin.


long-winter-laura-wilder51rvqurgsyl-_sx334_bo1204203200_5.  Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings writes,

Currently reading – The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft. My first experience of this author, so far it’s a rather chilling read, reaching back to the time of Salem and featuring alchemy and all manner of unnatural things – ideal reading for this time of year when the cold dark nights are naturally spooky.

Winter recommended reading – my therapy book for when I’ve had enough of dark and cold and snow is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It always reminds me that a couple of inches of the white stuff is nothing compared with what some areas of the world have to deal with, I’m not like likely to starve to death and I should quit moaning and get on with life!


Am I the Heroine of My Own Life?

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
—The opening sentence of Dickens’ David Copperfield

David Copperfield and Mr. Mawber (illustration by Fred Barnard)

David Copperfield and Mr. Micawber (illustration by Fred Barnard)

I love David Copperfield, and by the way, the Inimitable Boz group at Yahoo is reading it.  Every time I read the  opening sentence,  I muse on the question: Am I the heroine of my own life? What if I am the narrator, but not the heroine?  Since I am a former governess/teacher, do I qualify as a Dickensian heroine?  Isn’t that Bronte territory?

Well, yes, it is.

The semi-autobiographical world of  David Copperfield is comic, tragic,  both real and surreal, and ultimately cozy.  Like Dickens, David knows he is the hero of his own life:  the indirect question is rhetorical.  David Copperfield is a comedy.  And though he suffered as an orphan, banished as young child by his evil stepfather, Mr. Murdstone, to labor in a blacking factory, and live like a little adult in London, he is never far from fragile and outlandish friends who model the virtues of loyalty and charity.  His eccentric friend and landlord, Mr. Micawber, is always in debt, but treats David as one of the family and kindly gives him good advice about not going into debt. And even when Mr. Micawber is in debtors’ prison, the depressed but loyal Mrs. Micawber  pays homage with the cry, “I never will desert you, Micawber!”

Like most women,  I feel more at home with the Brontes,  because I understand all too well the work open to penniless educated women of the 19th century. (We still do that work today.)   I identify with despairing and desperate Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette:  she must teach in a school in Brussels (called Villette in the book) because she is destitute, not because she loves the work. She proves to be a talented English teacher and good disciplinarian, so her unruly students cooperate and at least learn a little.   Alas, she is plain, so the doctor she falls in love values her friendship but does not think of her as a woman. Lucy  does find another boyfriend but the relationship is, well,  second-best, if that.  T

Lucy knocking on the door of the school in Villette.

Lucy knocking on the door of the school in Villette.

In Anne Bronte’s underrated Agnes Grey, Agnes, a minister’s daughter, is a governess to a family of rich children who can only be described as ruffians, dominated by a sadistic boy  who tortures animals. Their mother forbids Agnes to punish them, but their tantrums are so frequent that she is blamed for lack of discipline.  Later she becomes the  governess to two manipulative teenage girls whose morals leave much to be desired. Rosalie, with the collusion of her sister,  mischievously attempts to win the affection of the curate.  Why?  Because he is interested in Agnes.  Rosalie already knows she will marry a rich man.

I AM the heroine of my own life.  I am a resister, a rebel,  thoroughly in the camp of the Brontes.

I love Dickens, but there’s just not a part for me there!  I mean am I supposed to be Peggotty?

The Athens of the Midwest

Roman woman writing

It started in the Midwest.

I grew up in Iowa City, a hip university town.  I wish I could live in a university town:  Iowa City, Madison, Bloomington, Ann Arbor,  it hardly matters, since they are all nicknamed “the Athens of the Midwest.”

In some ways, Athens saved me. That is, fifth-century Athens.

The Athens of the Midwest failed me for a year and a half.

I was happy growing up in Iowa City.  Then, in my teens, my idyllic life crumbled when my parents divorced.  My irresponsible father, who was my guardian, left town to  live with his girlfriend.  Now that was a good call.  And so I  became the live-in concubine of a lesbian English teacher (fortunately not my English teacher). It all started innocently, as far as I was concerned.  She invited me out for coffee repeatedly, and lent me her copy of Anne Sexton’s poems.  Then she got  hysterical over the phone about Sexton.  Oh, her notes in the margins would tell me she was a lesbian, she wept, and she didn’t know how I’d feel about it.   I politely said it didn’t matter, and it didn’t, since I had no intention of reading Sexton.

Nonetheless, I ended up living with her.  Having a place to live was a big part of my decision. (I had been staying with some benevolent hippies, in a back room without a door.)  A room with a door had its appeal, and lesbian feminism was not only fashionable but attention-getting.   But it was dull, and I only dared tell a few of my most radical friends, because she was in her thirties and stressed I was a minor and she could go to jail, plus it was still taboo to be gay.

All right, I was extremely bored. We had nothing in common, the sex was terrible, and I wasn’t even gay.   She never read a book, liked to shop at K-Mart (so unhip!), and listened to Melanie (Lay Down Candles in the Rain).

I was unhappy.  I did not see how life could go on like that.  And it didn’t.    I got away a few years later and had lots of books and boyfriends.  And what else does a person need?

But it is no exaggeration to say my discovery of classics in college saved me.   The beauty of ancient languages, the enjoyable memorization of paradigms, the fascinating vocabulary, hours with lexicons and grammars, and the joy of translation gave my life a much-needed structure.

I started with Greek, though everyone said I should start with Latin.  Baffled by Lattimore’s Homer—how could anyone take his prosy epic seriously?—I wanted to read the Iliad in the original.   Soon I was spending hours with Homer, Lysias, Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus,  the Greek lyric poets, Plato.  And I also studied Latin, a cognate language of Greek, and was unprepared for the wit and vivacity, because it is a literature that does not translate well into English.  And yet it always felt familiar to me, and I came to love it more than Greek.  It is the literature that influenced the Western canon.

catullus-poems-51fhu8iesgl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Let me share with you a  witty,two-line Latin epigram by the Roman poet Catullus.

My literal translation:

I hate and I love. You may ask why I do so.
I don not know, but I feel it and I am tortured.

Here is Horace Gregory’s four-line translation, which is also fairly literal and much more elegant.

I HATE and love.
And if you ask me why,
I have no answer, but I discern,
can feel, my senses rooted in eternal torture.

Here are  the two lines of Latin”

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucio.

Can you tell odi (“odious” is a derivative) means ” I hate” and amo (“amiable,” “amatory”) means love?  Bet you can!

And, by the way, another wild girl from my high school also took Latin.  We agreed to keep mum about our past lives.  “I’m working on getting my virginity back,” she said.

I’m pretty sure both of us managed to do so because of our hours of study!

A Turgenev Roundup: Rudin, On the Eve, & Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev

rudin-penguin-turgenev-big-514q04r4xl-_sx319_bo1204203200_I spent the first week of January rereading Turgenev.  It has been freezing cold here, down to zero at night.   Except for a  jaunt to the stunning musical, La La Land, choreographed by Mandy Moore of Dancing with the Stars, I have toughed out the cold under blankets with tea and books.

I finished Rudin, Turgenev’s first novel, On the Eve, his second novel, and Robert Dessaix’s bibliomemoir, Twilight of Love:  Travels with Turgenev.  Since I have already written about these books and want to share my enthusiasm, I am posting slightly revised versions of  previous posts.

on-the-eve-penguin-turgenev-9780140440096ON THE EVE (1860)

I have read both Constance Garnett’s translation ( free on the internet) and Gilbert Gardiner’s translation (Penguin, Folio Society). This was Henry James’ favorite Turgenev novel.

Set on the eve of the Crimean War and written in 1859, the year before the emancipation of the Russian serfs, this stunning novel reflects Turgenev’s own agitation on the brink of political unrest.  In the introduction to the Folio Society edition, Hisham Matar quotes one of  Turgenev’s  letters. Like one of his own despairing characters, Turgenev asks,

Is there any enthusiasm for anything left in the world? Do people still know how to sacrifice themselves? Can they enjoy life, behave foolishly, and have hopes for the future?

At the center of the novel is one of Turgenev’s most  intense heroines, Elena, an aristocratic young woman who lives in the country and longs to  fall in love or undergo some life-changing experience.   The daughter of a hypochondriac mother and a materialistic father who openly visits his mistress,  Elena has high ideals and wants a change.  She “struggled like a bird in a cage, though there was no cage.”

The Folio Society edition

The Folio Society edition

Sometimes it seemed that she wanted something that no one else wanted, that no one dreamed of in all Russia.  Then she would calm down, and spend day after day in carefree indifference, even laughing at herself; but suddenly some strong, some nameless thing which she could not control boiled up inside her and demanded to break out.  The storm passed, the tired wings dropped without being flow; but these moods were not without their cost…

Men  fall in love with Elena.  Two close friends, Bersyenev, a philosopher, and Shubin,  an artist who loves to tease, are enjoying their summer in the country.  Both young men are in love with Elena, whose cousin Shubin, is staying with her family.  She cannot take Shubin seriously, and anyway he has made out with  Zoya, a German girl who is  her companion.  She is more interested in Bersyenev,  but she falls in love with Insarov, a Bulgarian revolutionary in exile.  She needs the political cause as much as love, but her journey does not end where you think it will.


An illustration of Elena looking out the window (Folio Society edition)

An illustration of Elena looking out the window (Folio Society edition)

RUDIN (1856)

I enjoyed both Constance Garnett’s translation (Faber Finds, or free on the internet) and Richard Freeman’s translation (Penguin).

turgenev rudin constance garnett 17179.books.origjpgRudin, Turgenev’s first novel, is elegant, lyrical, and spellbinding.  Not much happens, but you don’t need action with this exquisite level of lyricism.  The characters are delicately drawn, like figures in a water-color painting.   They converse endlessly and take long walks, and we learn about them mostly through dialogue

Turgenev  begins the novelwith the first of many walks.

She moved without haste and as though she were enjoying the walk. The high nodding rye all round her moved in long softly rustling waves, taking here a shade of silvery green and there a ripple of red; the larks were trilling overhead. The young woman had come from her own estate, which was not more than a mile from the village to which she was turning her steps.

The walker is Alexandra Palovna Lipin, a widow who lives with her brother. She is on her way to visit a sick old womanand meets Lezhvyon, an intelligent, eccentric  landowner who is in love with her.  Both love the quiet rural life in Russia.

These two are contrasted with their urbane neighbor, Darya Mihailovna, a pseudo-intellectual who holds a  salon at her summer country house. Her guests include Pigasov, a misanthropic old man,  Pandavlevsky,  a parasite, and Bassistoff, a tutor. But it is her teenage daughter, Natalya, who is most susceptible to the charms of strangers.

As in so many of Turgenev’s novels, the action, such as it is, is touched off by the appearance of an outsider.  Rudin, a stranger, arrives unexpectedly at Darya Mihailovna’s estate, bearing a note from her friend the baron.  She invites Rudin to stay.  He dominates the conversation, and he turns ideas  and relationships upside-down as he discourses on philosophy and human nature. Only Lezhvyon, who knew Rudin years ago, is unimpressed.  As each character gradually finds that Rudin is not quite who he seems to be, Rudin himself undergoes a transformation.


dessaix-travels-with-turgenev-439938This short, lyrical,  meditative book is part biography of Turgenev, part memoir/travel book, and part literary criticism.  If I were Oprah, and thank God I’m not, because then I’d have to share my thoughts by underlining passages for the special e-book version, Dessaix’s Turgenev-inspired travel book would be my Book Club “pick.”

Dessaix, an award-winning Australian writer, novelist, scholar, and former Russian professor, fuses personal and literary history. This genre-bending volume of belles-lettres is divided into three parts: Baden-Baden, France, and Russia. As Dessaix retraces Turgenev’s footsteps and sight-sees with his friends, he meditates on his own relationship with Russian literature, and connects his own Australian identity to the “barbaric” Russian identity of Turgenev in the 19th century (both places were said to have “no culture,” and travel to Europe was necessary for intellectual development). Dessaix recreates not only the atmosphere and mood of Turgenev’s 19th-century world and novels, but also describes the changes in Europe and Russia since the ’60s and ’70s when he first traveled there.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the Heritage Press Edition


Painting by Vassily Verestchagin in War and Peace, Heritage Press, 1938

 Not only is Tolstoy’s War and Peace dazzling and veracious, it is rambunctiously entertaining. I used to tell friends,  “It’s like reading a movie.”  I have read it nine times.  It is my favorite novel, though Tolstoy  said it was NOT a novel.

He wrote,

It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.

What a cranky man!  His wife Sophia put up with a great deal as she copied his books.  (Read her diary.)   She was so annoyed by The Kreutzer Sonata that she wrote her own version.

But I love War and Peace.

When I’m not reading War and Peace, I’m blogging about it: I have posted eight times about the masterpiece at Mirabile Dictu and twice at my old blog, Frisbee:  A Book Journal.  I mentioned it last month in a post about Balzac’s Modeste Mignon: two fathers, the cynical Prince Bolkonski (W&P) and the gentler Charles Mignon (MM), mockingly refer to the  their respective daughters’ correspondence in terms of Julie d’Etanges in Rousseau’s epistolary novel, Julie, or the New Heloise.

I recently acquired a used copy of a two-volume Heritage Press edition of the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude.  It was revised and annotated by the Maudes for a six-volume Limited Editions Club edition published in 1938.   Then Heritage Press, the Limited Edition Club’s less fancy sister, reissued it in two volumes in 1943.

The Maude is my favorite, so I love the Heritage Press edition.  My Oxford paperback of the Maude translation, which has survived many readings, is full of scribbled notes and ink stains on the endpages.  I do have a small collection of other reading copies:  the Anthony Briggs (Penguin),  the Pevear and Volokhonsky (Vintage), and the brilliant Rosemary Edmunds (a two-volume Folio Society edition, which, alas, has no notes).

Many swear by Pevear and Volokhonsky, but I love the elegance of the Maude (1922-23).

The Heritage Press edition is the most conveniently-organized edition of W&P I’ve seen.  Their’ brilliant introduction is followed by “Notes to the Opening Chapters,” which they suggest you read before you start.  Then here are footnotes on pages of the text itself, and detailed endnotes published at the end of each part ( eight parts in the first volume).  There is much less thumbing back and forth. 

And the Maudes’ introduction is masterly.

Of War and Peace it may be said that it stands at the crucial point where the modern novel begins. Its predecessors (and many of its successors) seem to belong almost to a pre-historic stage of the novel.  If there can be said to be a dividing novel between the old and the modern novel Tolstoy marks it–unless indeed we take the earlier Richardson as doing so.

It is illustrated by 40 ink drawings by Fritz Eichenberg and reproductions of paintings by the 19th-century artist Vassily Verestchagin.

Here are some snapshots of the illustrations.

A Fritz Eichenberg drawing.

A Fritz Eichenberg drawing: “Rostov visits the hospital.”


Eichnberg drawing: “The Rostovs at the Opera.”

And here’s one more by Vassily Verestchagin:

war-and-peace-heritag-vassily-nightSo much fun to read this beautiful edition!

The Balzac Problem: A Quick Look at The Black Sheep and A Daughter of Eve

Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman In "Julia"

Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in “Julia” can write anywhere, but this beach house looks nice….  And I think I need a cigarette.

Blogging can be boring. Same-o, same-o. Like a journalist, I can bang out a 700-word post anywhere:  at Starbucks, in a bubble bath, or the wilds of the Wisconsin woods.

I often do.

There was the daily diary. Deleted it. There was Frisbee: A Book Journal (still twirling in cyberspace) and  Mirabile Dictu since the end of 2012.

Does anyone really want to read about my daily reading?

More important, do I want to write about it?

Is blogging performance art?

And where are the new book blogs? I swear, every blogroll features the same blogs.  Are we all in some eerie network? Trapped in cyberspace?  And, if so, how did that happen?

And, as a break from these difficult questions,  I am banging out a “postette” on The Balzac Problem instead of a longish book post.



It was going to be the Year of Balzac.  Actually, I said it might be.  His entertaining novels center on the mesmerizing schemes and unpredictable exploits of misers, courtesans, politicians, journalists, spinsters, coquettes, and con men.  His psychological analyses are penetrating and incisive.

In his 95-volume magnum opus, La Comédie humaine, he manically attempted to portray every type of human being  and chart every niche of society.

I love Balzac. My favorites are Cousin Bette, Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot, Modeste Mignon, and A Harlot High and Low.

But now I’m leaving behind the Penguin classics and have reached the no-man’s-land of what I call DEEP Balzac.  (It’s a little like Deep Throat in All the President’s Men.)   I am perusing the lesser-known books, the ones translated by Clara Bell and Ellen Marriage in the late nineteenth-century.

And when a Victorian translator scribbles too fast and clumsily for quick money (they were paid little), you get to know Balzac’s formulas and tricks almost too well.  There’s the phrenology and physiology,  which so many 19th-century writers took so seriously; the endless exposition (When WILL he start the story?);  then the frenetic unrolling of the plot to make up for lost time; and the blunt narration when he tires of constructing the story.

It’s Balzac’s world.

black-sheep-balzacAnd. much as I wanted to read all 95 novels and stories, I have no desire to write about the entire Human Comedy.  I am behind:  In December I read  The Black Sheep (available in Penguin) and A Daughter of Eve (free at Project Gutenberg), and though both novels are thoroughly enjoyable, they are uneven, with abrupt transitions.    I suggest you read and enjoy these two without thinking too hard.


In The Black Sheep, Balzac creates an Oedipal triangle consisting of a mother and two sons. At the apex is Philippe, a gambler/thief/murderer/spendthrift,  the favorite son of his widowed mother, Agathe.  Her less beloved son, Joseph, is a successful artist who financially supports his mother when, on so many occasions, she is bankrupted by Phillippe.  She underrates his success.

But how can Joseph protect her from Phillipe?

Early on, we learn that the generous aunt who shares their flat gambles on a small scale:  she  buys a lottery ticket with the same number every day for years and years.  So perhaps the gambling is in the family.  Phillippe, too, is addicted to gambling.  He steals from his aunt and horrifyingly deprives her of the winnings when her lottery number finally comes up. The family’s rented rooms shrink with their new poverty,, and Agathe, ironically,  takes a job managing a lottery office.  And finally Philippe robs the till at work, gets involved in a political mess, and goes to prison.

Agathe and Joseph enter a new chapter of their lives then:  they travel to the provinces to try to save a pecarious legacy her brother should have saved for her from their father. Well, it is a struggle, and they fail.   The last part of the novel weirdly veers away from Agathe and Joseph, while  Philippe  attempts to win the  inheritance for himself.  And lets’ just say, there is violence and the usual theft and ruining of live.

countess-illustration-the-daughter-of-eve-013A Daughter of Eve is simple and slight, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It starts out like a fairy tale.  Two virtuous sisters grow up in total innocence and are shocked when it comes time to marry.

Here’s an excerpt:

Marie-Angelique and Marie Eugenie de Granville reached the period of their marriage—the first at eighteen, the second at twenty years of age—without ever leaving the domestic zone where the rigid maternal eye controlled them. Up to that time they had never been to a play; the churches of Paris were their theatre. Their education in their mother’s house had been as rigorous as it would have been in a convent. From infancy they had slept in a room adjoining that of the Comtesse de Granville, the door of which stood always open. The time not occupied by the care of their persons, their religious duties and the studies considered necessary for well-bred young ladies, was spent in needlework done for the poor, or in walks like those an Englishwoman allows herself on Sunday, saying, apparently, “Not so fast, or we shall seem to be amusing ourselves.”

Marie Eugenie marries a rich banker, Mr. Nucinigen,  and Marie-Angelique marries a count. They thrive for a number of years–it’s better than living along– until one day, after years of virtuous marriage,  Countess Marie de Vandenesse  takes a lover, the journalist Raoul Nathan.  And this becomes a problem, because soon everybody, especially Nathan, will need money.

Fun to read!

And now I say Adieux for the weekend, so I can catch up with my TV-watching!

Turgenev’s The Diary of a Superfluous Man


Turgenev is one of my favorite Russian writers.

But I wonder:  Who reads Turgenev now?  My guess is he is one of Russia’s best-kept secrets. Sure, he is dubbed one of the “giants” of nineteenth-century Russian literature, along with Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, but his name doesn’t resonate with the average reader.  Type the phrase “Turgenev reviews” on Google and you’ll find a paltry 206,000  results,  while “Chekhov reviews” garners 511,000, Tolstoy 453,000, and Dostoevsky 435,000.  Does this unscientific survey mean the other three are more than twice as popular!

Well, I read Turgenev’s short, luminous books over and over. No one writes better about love and politics. His characters include fiery nihilists, intellectual women, star-crossed lovers, and aristocrats who are nostalgic for a simpler time.  Their fervent discussions of love and politics not only reflect the concerns of 19th century Russia but of our own time.  They are as confused about politics as we were during the recent election.

Whatever the year, Turgenev is relevant. I have blogged about Fathers and Sons twice once here, and once at my old blog.  In 2012, the year of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I mused on the role of the nihilist anti-hero Bazarov in Fathers and Sons in a post (at my old blog, Frisbee:  A Book Journal) titled  “Would Turgenev’s Bazarov Occupy? And I wrote here again about Fathers and Sons in 2015.

borzoi-turgenev-12478287572If you are a fan of elegant prose and originality, you’ve got to read Turgenev.  I have read his  gorgeous novels innumerable times and am jsut discovering the stories.   I recently  read  and enjoyed his 1850  novella, The Diary of a Superfluous Man.  (I read Harry Stevens’ translation in The Borzoi Turgenev, a collection of four novels and three long stories.)

Chulkatirin, the cynical hero of The Diary of a Superfluous Man, considers himself an unimportant man who accomplished nothing in his life.  He calls himself “a superfluous man.”  Literary critics adopted Turgenev’s phrase to describe a popular character type in 19th-century Russian literature.  Two of Chulkatirin’s “superfluous man” predecessors are Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and Lermontov’s Pechorin in  A Hero of Our Time.  All three are courteous, attractive, and well-educated, but are too cynical, bored, and contemptuous of society to define a goal or prove their high opinion of themselves. And they cannot resist fighting pointless duels.  (By the way, both Pushkin and Lermontov died in duels.)

As The Diary of a Superfluous Man opens, the dying hero Chulkaturin decides to start a diary .  He wants to analyze his life.   He claims he accomplished nothing and was unloved and superfluous.  He coins the phrase “superfluous man.”

Superfluous, superfluous…  I have thought of an excellent word.  The farther I penetrate into myself, the more closely I examine all my past life, the more convinced I am of the stern truth of that expression.  Superfluous–precisely.  To other people that word is not applicable.  People are bad, good, intelligent, stupid, pleasant, and unpleasant; but superfluous…no.  Yet understand me:  even without these people the universe could manage quite well–of course; but uselessness is not their main quality, not their distinctive characteristic, and when you speak of them the word ‘superfluous’ is not the first to come to the tongue.  But I–about me it is not possible to say anything else:  I am superfluous, and that is all there is to it.

diary-of-a-superfluous-man-turgenev-9780486287751Chulkatirin sketches his early life, but then zeroes in on the events of the few short vivid months he spent in the district town O—-.  During his stay, he  fell  in love with Liza,  the pretty daughter of  Kirila Matveevich Ozhogin, a wealthy county official.  Though he had difficulty expressing himself and was not socially astute, Chulkatirin believed that her politeness indicated she returned his feelings.   Then Prince N. arrived, and Liza is radiant when he is in the room.  Chulkatirin assumes  her vivacity is aimed at him, not the prince.  Finally, at a ball, Chulkatirin cannot ignore her radiance as she dances the mazurka with Prince N. and realizes the two are in love.  He insults Prince N. and they fight a duel which proves to be ridiculous:  the superfluous man’s life is a comedy.  What does Chulkatirin gain by his passion?  Nothing.

Russian novels are chock-full of superfluous men, including the famous Bazarov in Fathers and Sons.  Finally I know the source of the phrase.

Searching for Tacitus

edward-gorey-cats-books-a50cb5178866eb4a8d584a8358452d49We were at a tiny bookstore in a small town.  I was crawling on the floor, searching for Tacitus.  The foreign language section has been dismantled and banished to two bottom shelves in the philosophy section.   I had to adopt a yoga pose with head lowered to read the titles.

A couple of years ago I saw an old battered Latin edition of Tacitus here.  It was overpriced and in barely acceptable condition.  I wanted to look at it again.

It is gone!

Darn!  Who would have bought it?

Oh well, I have another Tacitus at home.  True, I’ve already read it.  I COULD buy a nicer  (and cheaper) paperback copy online, except I cannot:   I have resolved this year to shop at bricks-and-mortar stores.

Shopping at indies will make me a better person.  Well, I’m already a good person.

Anyway, I am weeding books to find shelf room for books in boxes (including my London books).

Supporting the brick-and-mortar culture is part of my resolution to be more “present.”  The experience of browsing among physical books is electronically inimitable.  I miss it.

Although I hear that independent bookstores are having a comeback, I don’t see that here. As I’ve often explained, we have to travel 100 miles to find a good independent  bookstore.

Anyway, here is a list of the excellent brick-and-mortar indies and chains I visited last year.

IN LONDON (THOUSANDS OF MILES AWAY!):  Skoob, London Review Bookshop, Oxfam, Foyles, Waterstones, and several used bookstores on Charing Cross Road.

IN IOWA CITY:  The Haunted Bookshop, Iowa Book, Prairie Lights

IN OMAHA, NE:  Jackson Street Booksellers, The Bookworm

IN OSKALOOSA, IA:  The Book Vault


IN DES MOINES, IA:  Barnes and Noble, Half Price Books

IN ANKENY, IA:  The Plot Twist

Very sadly, the last independent bookstore in Ames, Firehouse Books, closed last year.

I expect this to be a more leisurely year, with less shopping and more rereading.

Let me know your favorite brick-and-mortars.  I’ll support them if I’m there!