At Mrs. Lippincote’s: Elizabeth Taylor on the Brontës

One of the creepiest things that Julia, the heroine of Elizabeth Taylor’s superb novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s, has ever seen is Emily Brontë’s comb.

She and her cousin-in-law, Eleanor, are talking about the Brontës, because Julia’s son Oliver  is reading Jane Eyre. The nearby school, Sunnybank, reminds Oliver of Lowood.

Julia has read all the Brontës’ books.

Julia lit a cigarette and picked up Oliver’s books from his chair.  “I haven’t read Jane Eyre for years, have you, Eleanor?  There’s something about those girls that gives me the creeps.”

“What girls?  Oh, Brontë girls!”

Julia’s husband Roddy is in the RAF, and the family has recently moved into Mrs. Lippincote’s house to be near his work.  Julia doesn’t have much in common with the soliders, but the Wing Commander is fascinated by Julia. When he drops in, she calls him Mr. Rochester.  She says to Oliver, who has measles, “Dear, it is Mr. Rochester to see you.

Jane Eyre is not the Wing Commander’s favorite.

Jane Eyre is NOTHING to Villette,” he observed.

“No.  Nothing.”  Julia leant forward with her hands clasped on her knee.  “Oliver has not yet been at Villette.”

The Wing Commander has toured Brussels, the scene of Villette, and seen where Charlotte and Emily studied French.

Later in the book, he visits Anne Brontë’s grave.

I loved this charming classic!  And Brontë fans will laugh.

Why read anything but Elizabeth Taylor?

Summer Reading: Five New Books I Loved

Do you ever wonder how Critic X could tout a silly, mediocre novel, or a puerile autobiography?

If only there were a Critics’ Buy-Back Day!

Dear Critic at New York Times/Washington Post/L.A. Times/Chicago Tribune, etc.

Would you please buy back this dreadful book you recommended?

Granted, they are paid to read bad new books, so there is the tendency to overpraise the slightest hint of talent.  You must adjust your standards to immerse yourself in twenty-first century literature.

But even I occasionally find great new books, and I unreservedly loved the following five, from five different genres.  I don’t guarantee–my taste is my taste–but one of them might be good summer reading for you!

My favorite new book of the year.

1 . The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch.  Shelved in the literary fiction section, this haunting science fiction novel has been widely reviewed–deservedly so.  Set in 2049, it consists of the meditations of Christine Pizan, an artist, rebel, and “skin writer,”  on gender, ecology, devolution, and the dictatorship on the space station where she lives.  We also read her book about Joan of Dirt, a post-apocalyptic Joan of Arc who led the Resistance on the now devastated Earth.  The rumor is that Joan is still alive.  (You can read my post on this intriguing book here.)

2. The Clairvoyants by Karen Brown.  Entertaining, suspenseful, and engrossing, this is one of my great bookstore finds of the year.  Two sisters, Martha and Del, were raised near a summer colony of psychics.   Martha, a reluctant clairvoyant,  repeatedly sees the ghost of Mary Rae, a missing person, after she moves to Ithaca to attend college.  When her sister, wild, promiscuous Del, shows up at her apartment, Martha has to take her in:  Del has been living in a progressive mental hospital. And then things get eerie fast.  (Here is my post on this novel.)

3.  Morningstar:  Growing up with Books by Ann Hood.  This won’t be published till August, but I received an advance copy and loved it.  Hood is a novelist and has written a spellbinding memoir of her reading in childhood and adolescence.  Her favorite book was Marjorie Morningstar.   (You can read my post here.)

4.  The Idiot by Elif Bautman.   A charming, comical coming-of-age story.  Selin, the slightly nerdish narrator,  is baffled by nuances during her freshman year at Harvard: she is perplexed by the conversation of her eccentric roommates, the medium of e-mail (which is new in 1995), and the intentions of Ivan, a charming Hungarian student who writes e-mails to her constantly.   Does he like her?  The daughter of Turkish immigrants, Selin falls in love with him, to the point that she spends her summer in Hungary.  But will it work out? He already has a girlfriend.   (You can read my post here.)

5.  Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World by Kathy Chamberlain.  This engrossing biography focuses on eight years in the life of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle’s wife.    Virginia Woolf called her  one of “the great letter writers,” and Elizabeth Hardwick said she had a “private writing career.”  Indeed, the quotes from the letters are better than excerpts from many novels!   (You can read my post here.)

Apuleius’s The Golden Ass: Is It My Last Book Purchase?

The Limited Edition of The Golden Ass

I recently ordered a copy of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, published by the Limited Editions Club in 1932. This beautiful leather book with its soft silky pages is a replacement for my tatty paperback.

And, she says dramatically,  it may be the last book I ever buy.    I have given up buying books, and I wanted to go out with a bang!

Illustration by Percival Goodman: Lucius watches the witch Pamphile transform herself into an owl.

Written in the second century A.D., The Golden Ass is the only Roman novel to survive whole.   I  first read Jack Lindsay’s lively translation in my senior year at the University of Iowa. I lived in a tiny room with a  mattress, a few books, no chair, and no closet for my clothes. (That was in the hall.)  l sat on the mattress for hours reading, then raced to my job, and then conducted my social life  at the Burger Palace, a local dive. If not for my absorption in classical studies, my life would have been something out of Dostoevsky.  Fortunately, reading Apuleius was one of the delights of that semester. I chortled over the fantastic adventures of Lucius, a comic hero whose curiosity about witchcraft results in his transformation into an ass.

Jack Lindsay’s brilliant translation is by far the funniest and the closest in spirit to Apuleius, and it is the translation published by the Limited Edition Club.  In the introduction, Lindsay writes that The Golden Ass is “one of the great fantasies of the world.” He compares it to Gargantua and Pantagruel, Don Quixote,  Gulliver’s Travels, and Robinson Crusoe.

Apuleius, born in Africa and educated in Carthage, was fascinated by magic:  he was even accused of witchcraft after his rich wife and stepson died.  (He successfully defended himself.)   Latin was not his first language, and some critics believe his quirky style was the result.  But Lindsay disagrees.  He writes,

The freakishness of the style is an essential part of the fantasy; and yet it is slighted as something of which to be ashamed, a lapse on Apulieus’s part which the kindly translator should do his best to correct.  But it is ridiculous to infer that these gamesome conceits and involutions are mere excrescences on the otherwise even tenor of a romantic tale.  They are an organic part of the symbolism; and if they are lacking, the adventures of the ass lose half their suggestive relish and ironic commentary.

The Indiana University Press paperback edition of Lindsay’s translation.

Did I need a beautiful Limited Edition of The Golden Ass?  No, but why not?

Consumerism is exhausting, though. Why have I bought so many books? Did I need that Penguin copy of Theodor Fontane’s No Way Out?  I did not, and I did not even enjoy it.  That is the case with so many obscure books I read.  Oh, I want this, I think.  And later I think, Why?

During the black mold scare last year, we had to move seven bookcases out of the study.  Bizarrely, the bookcases had contributed to the problem. A few tall bookcases blocked the windows, where condensation formed and dripped into the wall.

As a result, we boxed up many of our books.

Was it a sign?

I was not in debt, but I was profligate.  One day shopping stopped being fun, and I just stopped.

There are all kinds of reasons for shopping addiction. An article in the Huffington Post says,  “Compulsive shopping is an attempt to fill an emotional void, like loneliness, lack of control, or lack of self-confidence.”

Well, we all have emotional voids. I am not sure this is one.   I am crazy about books.  I started buying books in junior high and never stopped. Years of book-buying have filled our shelves, but I don’t regret it.  I just want to read what  we have for a while.

The Golden Ass is my last purchase.  Well, my last for the summer anyway!

The Blog Is Dead & Why Would Anyone Want FaceTime?

The blog is dead.

Well, is it?

Today I read an incomprehensible article in USA Today.  A caption under the photograph said, “Instagram performers Andrea Russett and Baby Ariel tell how their alliances with brands like Nordstrom, Nike and Soap and Glory helps the companies reach the ever-elusive young consumer on #TalkingTech.”

I did not understand a word.  I  felt like my mother, who had no interest in tech.

No, blogging is enough for me.

I was determined to find some new book blogs.

In my search for new blogs of note, I visited several blogs tonight, some for the first time.  Although I recently deleted my blogroll,  I do find other people’s blogrolls enlightening and did some link-hopping tonight.

We book bloggers all do the same things.

We read a lot of books, and are forever adding books to our TBR lists.  We leave short comments, saying sincerely that we hope to read the fascinating books.  We lament that we don’t have time to read everything.  We participate in challenges, or  readalongs, often inadvertently.  Who knew that by reading Jane Austen I am participating in a 200th-anniversary-of-Jane’s-death readalong?

Two excellent blogs I discovered recently:  Booker Talk and 1streading’s Blog.

So the blog is not dead.  It is just hard to find new ones.


My husband wanted to set up FaceTime on my tablet.

“What’s wrong with the phone?” I asked.

Why would I want to chat on video in pajamas, with my hair squashed down, without makeup, with a cold, surrounded by Kleenex and cups of tea?  Does any woman of my age  want FaceTime unless she has spent a day at the spa?

Would Lucy want FaceTime?



Not My Favorites: Junichiro Tanizaki’s Quicksand and Catherine Lacey’s The Answers

I do read a lot of good books.

But some are not that good.

I recently read two novels that are neither very good nor very bad.

I loved Junichiro Tanizaki’s brilliant novel,  Some Prefer Nettles, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, who is my favorite translator of The Tale of Genji.

And this week I read Tanizaki’s Quicksand, translated by Howard Hibbert.

It did not quite measure up.

I admired this macabre comedy, with its elements of noir. But Hibbert’s translation is labored, and I missed Seidensticker’s elegant exuberance.  A reviewer in The New York Times in 1994 said Quicksand is notoriously difficult to translate, and it wasn’t Hibbert’s fault.

Well, it can either be translated or it cannot.

But the plot is fascinating.

The narrator, Mrs. Sonoko Kakiuchi, is a bored housewife who does not love her husband. She takes classes at art school, where she falls in love with gorgeous, seductive Mitsuko. The two women have an affair, and enjoy deceiving Sonoko’s husband and Mitsuko’s parents. When Sonoko learns that Mitsuko is also having an affair with a ravishing, impotent young man named Watunuki, it doesn’t affect the women’s relationship. Yet Mitsuko is a mad femme fatale–rather like Zuleika Dobson in Max Beerbohm’s satirical novel.

Still, Sonoko is a schemer in her own right.  Her apology to the author for intruding on him and telling him her story is the frame for the novel.  She is a fan, but perhaps an aspiring writer, too, the unreliable narrator of unreliable narrators.

The novel opens:

Do forgive me for bothering you again, but I simply had to see you today–I want you to hear my side of the story, from beginning to end. Are you sure you don’t mind?  I know how busy you are with your own writing, , and if I go into every detail it will take me forever!  Really, I only wish I could put it all down on paper, like one of your novels, and ask you to read it… The truth is, the other day I tried to start writing, but what happened is so complicated I didn’t know where to begin.

A fascinating story, and her versions of the other character’s versions (we’re in a mirror) are equally riveting.

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers is stunning. That is, for the first 89 pages.

Dwight Garner raved about it in The New York Times.  Why did I forget that I rarely agree with him?

I have read several novels in recent years about passive, tractable young women.  It is a disturbing trend:  I find myself longing for George Eliot, Elizabeth Taylor, and Doris Lessing.  Lacey’s prose is lyrical and detached, as if her heroines are dissociating.  This was also true in her first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing.

I do love her style, but she cannot plot.  The opening, however, is spellbinding. It is narrated by Mary Parsons, an emotionally numb young woman raised off the grid in Tennessee.  Rescued by her Aunt Clara, who adopts her in her teens, she learns to imitate normalcy.  She cannot understand social culture .  In New York, Mary works for a pittance for a travel agency, and descends into a chronic pain which doctors cannot understand.  Eventually, her friend Chondra recommenda a New Age healer. But the treatment costs a fortune, so Mary takes a second job.

As for the second job?  Here is where Lacey loses me.

Catherine Lacey

An insane actor, Kurt Sky, who claims he hates celebrity and has spent years ineptly editing a film, hires a team of researchers to formulate a “Girlfriend Experiment.”  They hire a crew of false girlfriends to help him work through different emotions.  Ironically, Mary, who cannot relate to people, is hired as the Emotional Girlfriend.  Others are the Maternal Girlfriend, Anger Girlfriend, Intellectual Girlfriend, and Mundanity Girlfriend.  They do not have sex with Kurt, but memorize bizarre scripts.

In Part 2, Lacey begins to write about Mary in the third person, which I suppose is meant to show her dissociation.  But when she switches to Kurt’s point of view, and then to that of  Ashley, a boxer and a waitress, I am far less interested.

Well, there is some good writing, but I cannot pretend it is the best book about wispy, passive young women I have read in recent years. That would be Emma Cline’s lyrical novel, The Girls.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves

I am a fan of middlebrow women’s literature.

And Amber Reeves’s  superb novel, A Lady and Her Husband (Persephone), first published in 1914, exactly suits my taste.  This neglected novel is graceful and entertaining, yet it has long been out-of-print.

Amber Reeves is best remembered now as one of H. G. Wells’ mistresses.  In fact,  I first read about her in Margaret Drabble’s introduction to Wells’ brilliant novel, Ann Veronica.  Reeves was the model for Ann Veroinca, a 21-year-old Cinderella suffragette who leaves home on principle after her father forbids her to go to a ball.  And she continues to pursue the unfeminine study of sciences, also denounced by her father.

But Reeves was a writer in her own right:  she was a Fabian socialist, a feminist, and a brilliant graduate of Cambridge.  In the Wellsian tradition, Reeves’s A Lady and Her Husband is laced with radical politics, socialism, and feminism.

When the novel opens,  the 45-year-old heroine, Mary, has no interests outside the home. Her husband James runs he family business, a chain of tea shops, though she is half owner. Now her youngest daughter, 18-year-old Rosemary, is getting married, and Mary is anxious about the too early marriage.   Rosemary, guilty at leaving her mother, urges Mary to investigate the state of the female employees at the tea shops and introduce improvements.

And so Mary begins to study the culture of the waitresses.  With her secretary, Miss Percival, Mary interviews the waitresses and managers.  And when a young pretty waitress, Florrie Wilson almost faints in front of her, she is concerned that there are no chairs for the waitresses. And they make very little money:  they are hired only if (they say) their income is not their main support.

Florrie is the archetypal waitress. She needs the money, but pretends to be a lady.  One day she sends Mary a note asking for help.  Florrie lives in a grim room in poverty with her dying mother.  And she has been fired from her job, through a complicated set of events that ended in her borrowing, or stealing, money from the till.  Moreover, she pawned a diamond necklace, a gift from a young man she doesn’t love, and needs to retrieve and give it back. She says he has threatened her.  As Mary and Miss Percival walk with Florrie to the pawn shop, the young man follows them.  Florrie says he stalks her everywhere.

They turned off down the street and Mary knew for the first time the choking excitement of the chase.  She would not look round to see whether the man was following, every instinct forbade it, but she could not help wishing that Florrie would do it for her.   This did not seem likely; Florrie’s eyes were fixed straight ahead, and every line of her shoulders expressed an unyielding singleness of purpose.  It was extraordinary that she did not seem to mind whether the man was there or not.  Even the bold Miss Percival was looking at the ground.

Amber Reeves

Reeves’ spare prose makes the narrative distinctive:  it is very fast-paced,  well-crafted, and not preachy (until the near the end).  Florrie throws the necklace at the young man, who begins to cry.  Mary suspects the story is more complicated than Florrie’s version, but by the time they get back to the room, Mrs. Wilson, Florrie’s mother, is dead.  Whatever the story really is, whether Florrie is a thief or a victim, Mary is determined to help her.

What is the answer?  Higher wages.  Mary cannot get around it.  As you can imagine, her husband James, who considers her the “little woman,” dismisses this.

And what follows, if not quite Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, shows Mary as a mature woman who studies economics so she can learn about business.  I did not believe the ending, but the book is thoroughly enjoyable.  I want to read more Reeves.  Why isn’t she in print?

Is Virgil’s “Aeneid” a Weepie? (The Restored Version)

If there is one word on which we can fix, which will suggest the maximum of what I mean by the term “a classic’, it is the word maturity. I shall distinguish between the universal classic, like Virgil, and the classic which is only such in relation to the other literature in its own language, or according to the view of a particular period.
― “What Is a Classic?” by T. S. Eliot

Is Virgil’s Aeneid a weepie?

I tell everyone it is a beach read.

Some of us read it because we love it. Some of us read it in school. Perhaps you remember the opening words of the epic, arma virumque cano… “Of arms (war) and the man I sing…”

The poet sings of two wars, the Trojan war and a later war in Italy, and the man is Aeneas.

I read this Roman classic every summer. I focus on the elegance of the Latin, but this time found myself weeping over Aeneas’s harsh fate. A leader by default–everyone else is dead–he must lead the survivors of the Trojan War to their new homeland in Italy and found Rome. The gods says it is his fate. He is a reluctant hero, even whiny sometimes. He seems like a human being. Not just an epic hero.

Why was this so shattering to read? The Trojan plight seems so fraught, so war-torn, so modern. Exile is horrendous, whether it is by war (Aeneas) or emperor’s mandate (Ovid’s exile, which he wrote about in Tristia, “Sad things,” and Epistulae ex Ponto, “Letters from the Black Sea”). I kept visualizing Aeneas’s and the Trojans’ wanderings, driven from place to place, welcome no place. Modern refugees of war, too.

The young women I taught in third-year Latin much preferred Book IV of the Aeneid, a kind of romance. But the heroic fate wrecks that, too. When Aeneas and his men are shipwrecked at Carthage, Dido, a refugee widow and queen of a new city, Carthage, takes them in. She and Aeneas become lovers. But he flees when his mother, Venus, tells him to go and follow fate. He tries to slip away without Dido’s knowing.

During the years I taught Virgil, I gradually became more sympathetic towards Aeneas. Constantly referred to as pius Aeneas, he is ripped apart by pietas, which is not quite“piety,” but a very Roman notion of duty to the gods, one’s country, and family.

After a shipwreck at Carthage, can he cry and moan? Only privately. He wishes he had died at Troy.

His duty is to make an encouraging speech to his men.

And he says the famous line:

Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
“Perhaps sometime it will please us even to remember these things.”

The literal order of the Latin words is as follows:
“Perhaps even these things someday to remember will be pleasing.”.

Emphasis on “perhaps even.”

Does this stoic sentiment even make sense? Not for Aeneas, who has lost wife, father, and friends. He says what he has to to comfort his followers.

Does Virgil believe it? In the context of the poem, I doubt it, though he certainly flatters Augustus when necessary. Perhaps this is a line generals will quote in future wars.

I certainly do not believe the Trojans will someday find these things pleasing to remember.

Hence my lacrimae rerum, “tears over these things” (Aeneid, Book I, line 462).