Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent

Last summer we weathered the first heat wave in air conditioning. This summer we are sitting in front of fans and drinking bottles of water. We are environmentally correct, but it’s just a matter of time before we turn on the AC.  Perhaps we should build a windmill in our yard to generate electricity.

And what did we read this weekend?

Longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize this year,  Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent   was the Waterstones Book of the Year in 2016.  Just published in the U.S., it is dazzling, witty, pungent, and almost magical.   Set in 1893, it chronicles a year in the lives of a group of eccentric characters who search for, or are affected by, the mythical Essex Serpent.  Part traditional narrative, part epistolary novel, it is beautifully crafted.

The  heroine, Cora Seaborne, a feminist widow, reads Darwin and scientific journals.  Relieved that her sadistic husband is dead (and she has the scars to prove it), she is  fascinated by the myth of the Essex Serpent, first spotted in Essex in 1699. When the serpent is rumored to be haunting Colchester, she and her companion, Martha, a passionate socialist, and Cora’s young  son Francis (who probably has Aspergers), move from London to a hotel in Colchester where Cora gathers fossils and searches for the monster.  She hopes to find an antediluvian beast that survived extinction.  And as you can imagine, such a beast will cause havoc.

Love and sexual triangles are meshed in with the serpent myth.  Charming, spiky, sexy Cora is surrounded by romantic acolytes. Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon of short stature, nicknamed the Imp, and Martha, who sleeps with Cora, are both in love with her. And Martha has her acolyte, too:  Garrett’s friend Spencer, a wealthy doctor, is so smitten that she persuades him to fund a new housing project in a slum.

Sarah Perry

But what of the Essex Serpent?  It is wreaking havoc, they say, in  Aldwinter, a village near Colchester.  Cora falls in love with the fetching vicar of Aldwinter, William Ransome, who is married to a beautiful, fairy-like woman with tuberculosis.  You can feel the heat between Cora and William, but one cannot help but pity Stella.  Something about romantic heroes…I’m beyond them, even if they are not that romantic, and personally preferred Luke Garrett.

In the village, an unhappy girl, Naomi, jealous of her best friend Joann’s friendship with Cora, starts a rumor that Cora has brought the serpent to the village.  And Naomi causes mass hysteria among schoolgirls in the classroom; they all laugh and can’t stop and snap their necks like eels.  One girl falls down and breaks her arm.  It is The Crucible all over again.  But the adults prevent a witchhunt. There’s that.

This historical novel with its spiky, willful characters, reminds me of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman rather than of actual Victorian novels. And that is intentional: it is a 21st century interpretation of 19th century novels.  Cora is more independent and hands-on in her quest for knowledge than, say, Dorothea in Middlemarch, who must work second-hand through her old-fashioned scholarly husband’s study of mythology. On the other hand, both Cora and Dorothea may be New Women, but don’t have a shot of being taken seriously as scholars. It takes George Eliot herself and Sarah Perry to achieve that;  their heroines fall a little behind.

Truly a lovely, lyrical book.  Am so glad I read it.

Summer Reading Binge: Lose Yourself in a Trilogy or Quartet

It is hot. Prairie hot. It is in the 90s.  Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady hot.  But there is no Marian Forrester to bring us lemonade. I bring the lemonade.

Here’s how we cope:  loll in the hammock and read until it cools off, when we may or may not take a walk.  I like to lose myself in a trilogy or quartet.

Here are 10 recommendations of trilogies and quartets for summer reading.

1.  Lynne Reid Banks’s THE L-SHAPED ROOM, THE BACKWARD SHADOW, and TWO IS LONELY .  In The L-Shaped Room (1960), pragmatic Jane Graham,  a former actress who is respected at her PR job, daren’t tell her friends when she gets pregnant. In a bug-infested L-shaped room, she muses on her life and befriends some unconventional Londoners. The two sequels, published in the ‘70s, relate Jane’s further adventures.   (And I posted on The L-Shaped Room here.)

2.  Edna O’Brien’s THE COUNTRY GIRLS TRILOGY AND EPILOGUE.  In this lyrical coming-of-age story, Caithleen and Baba, two bickering, mischievous friends, contrive their own expulsion from a convent school and move to Dublin to pursue fun and love. And then they get married.  Do they live happily ever after?  O’Brien occasionally overwrites the wispy, romantic parts, but it’s all true to women’s literary heritage.

3.  Anthony Burgess’s THE COMPLETE ENDERBY (Inside Mr. Enderby, Enderby Outside, the Clockwork Testament, Enderby’s Dark Lady). The poet hero, Enderby, happily writes in the lavatory.  And then he wins a poetry prize and everything changes. Women are attracted to his fame, such as it is;  a pop star plagiarizes him; he teaches poetry cluelessly; and writes a screenplay based on a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins. It has been years since I read it, but I loved these comical novels.

4.  R. F. Delderfield’s Swann trilogy, GOD IS AN ENGLISHMAN , THEIRS WAS THE KINGDOM, and GIVE US THIS DAY.  Want to go pop-literary?  Delderfield’s fascinating  ’70s trilogy, set in the 19th century, focuses on work.  Every character, male or female, must work to fulfill himself or herself.  Idleness leads to confusion and mistakes. The hero, Adam Swann, a former soldier, founds a haulage firm after a railroad employee explains there is a need for wagons to carry merchandise from cities and small towns to the railroad. He and his spirited wife, Henrietta, with whom he originally has a rocky relationship, build a dynasty of employees and family.

Award-winning Australian Elizabeth Jolley’s THE VERA WRIGHT TRILOGY (My Father’s Moon, Cabin Fever, and The Georges’ Wife).  Her style is Virginia-Woolf-meets-D.-H.-Lawrence, a poetic yet blunt stream-of-consciousness mixed with erotic strangeness and lies.  Vera, a hero-worshipping nursing student/adulterer/false friend/unwed mother/housekeeper/doctor, is the  unreliable narrator of unreliable narrators.  Vera lies and cheats to get attention and makes weird lateral and downward career moves.  She is a fascinating heroine.

6. Pamela Hansford Johnson’s HELENA TRILOGY.  These complex, witty novels, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide,  delineate the the changing relationship between the narrator, art historian Claud Pickering, and his histrionic stepmother, Helena, amidst the disintegrating class boundaries of postwar society. It is as good as Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time!

7.  Known as Joyce Cary’s SECOND TRILOGY, these stunning novels, Prisoner of Grace, Except the Lord, and Not Honour More, center on the mercurial career of Chester Nimmo, a  Union man who becomes a politician and savvily changes his politics with the winds of public opinion.   His story is told from three different points of view, his own, his wife Nina’s, and Nina’s cousin Jim’s.


8.  Storm Jameson’s THE MIRROR IN DARKNESS TRILOGY.  Jameson is one of my favorite leftist writers, so it is odd I’ve never blogged about this trilogy, Company Parade (1934),  Love in Winter (1935) , and None Turn Back (1936).  I once wrote about it for a bookish newsletter, which I apparently threw away because it was only a newsletter! (Who knew I’d want to post it someday?)   Set after World War I, these superb novels explore the life of Hervey Russell, who moves to London while her husband is still in the Air Force, copes with an unhappy marriage and a child she can’t take care of easily, poverty, radical politics, publishing, falling in love, and the General Strike.  Jameson is not the smoothest writer, but she is very intelligent.

9.  Eleanor Porter’s MISS BILLY TRILOGY. In  Miss Billy, Miss Billy Married, and Miss Billy Makes a Decision. Porter, the author of Pollyanna, tells the story of Billy as an orphan-heiress.  At 18, upon the death of her aunt, she contacts her father’s best friend, William, because she is his namesake. Thinking she is a boy, William invites her to live with him and his two brothers in Boston at “the Strata,” thus called because each of the three brothers has his own “stratum” or floor on which to pursue his interests. William collects antiques, Cyril is a musician, and Bertram paints.  These charming, funny novels follow Billy’s adventures from age 18 into young adulthood.   (The books are free at Project Gutenberg).

Kristin Lavransdatter: a cult classic!

10.  Sigrid Undset’s KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER TRILOGY.  This gorgeous trilogy, written in luminous medieval-style language, chronicles the life of a Norwegian woman in the 14th century. Nobel Prize winner Undset dazzles with her vivid descriptions of Kristin’s childhood, teens, love affairs, marriage, religious dilemmas, religious pilgrimages, and the disappointments of life with Erlend, her weak husband. I love Undset!


Summer Reading: Edan Lepucki’s “Woman No. 17”

Edan Lepucki, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop who lives in L.A., did not expect her debut novel, California, to take off. But after Stephen Colbert recommended it on The Colbert Report, it became a best-seller.

I recently raced through Lepucki’s second novel, Woman No. 17.  This gorgeous, lyrical, edgy book is the perfect summer read.

Lepucki gracefully intertwines the stories of two women, one a writer and the other an artist. Lady Daniels (her real name is Pearl) has a contract to write a memoir about raising her mute son, Seth, now a college freshman. And S (her real name is Esther) is a live-in babysitter for Lady’s second son, Devin, a toddler.  She does not tell Lady she is an artist.

Lady’s life is complicated. She raised Seth on her own after her first husband, Marco, left her.  It took her years to accept that Seth could not speak. (He can hear.)  Was it the trauma of losing Marco?  Or was it physical?  It seems to be physical, but Lady is racked with guilt.  And now she and her second husband, Karl, are separated.  She doesn’t worry about energetic Devin, but her relationship with Seth is so intense she worries she will lose him to Karl and his artist sister, Kit Daniel.

S, a recent graduate of Berkeley, is equally complicated.  For a conceptual art project, she is dressing and drinking vodka like her mother circa 1985.  And she is fascinated by a photograph of Lady, taken by Kit Daniels.  Lady hates the photo.

In a way, Seth is at the center.  Everyone connects over Seth, who is searching for Marco.  Lady spends her writing time tweeting and stalking Seth on Twitter.  S has an affair with him.

But I read for the style, not the plot.  Lepucki’s writing is lush and sensual.

Here are the opening lines.

It was summer.  The heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt. The freeways shimmered, any hotter and they might crack, might explode, and the poor cars would confetti into the air. People were complaining, they were moving slowly. They were swarming the beaches like tiny bugs upon the backs of dead animals. I preferred to stay home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer. The air conditioner was broken. I had taken to sitting in the living room with the curtains drawn, my body edged with sweat like frosting on a cake, daring to see how hot it could get. I ate salad for dinner every night and had almost checked myself and the boys into a hotel. I’d refrained because of the babysitter search. What would applicants think if I requested they meet me poolside at the Roosevelt? Instead I waited. It didn’t take long for the job hunters to come calling.

Beautiful detailed writing. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  Perhaps the ending is a little weak, but the narrative is bold.

I may even read California.

Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party and Other Stories”

What a gorgeous day! I am lounging in the back yard sipping iced tea and reading. A bee is flying around the clover. And that’s a good sign, isn’t it?

Summer is the time to read short stories.  You read a story, you weed flowers; you read a story, you mow the lawn.

Long ago I admired but was vaguely mystified by Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories.  But these days I appreciate short stories more, and I am completely enthralled by The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Wordsworth Classics).

I just finished The Garden Party and Other Stories, published in 1922.  (It is included in The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield.)

Mansfield (1888-1923) grew up in a large extended family in New Zealand. Eventually she moved to London, where she wrote, married the editor John Middleton Murry, and socialized with D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group.   (Lawrence portrayed her as Gudrun in Women in Love.)   She traveled widely in Europe, and died tragically of tuberculosis in 1923  in France.

Her semi-autobiographical story “At the Bay” is a small masterpiece.  She humorously portrays the Darnell family as they go about their business on a summer day. The story is a kind of sequel to “Prelude,” which appeared in Bliss and Other Stories.

The women in “At the Bay”—and it is a house full of women—are relieved when Stanley Darnell goes to work. Absurdly furious that a neighbor has beaten him to the beach for his morning swim, he is curt with his wife Linda about a missing walking stick. And though his mother-in-law, Mrs.Fairfield, who takes care of the children, and her daughter Beryl try to be patient, his anger is a cloud over the family. They are happy when he goes to work.

Oh, the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house. Their very voices were changed as they called to one another; they sounded warm and loving and as if they shared a secret. Beryl went over to the table. “Have another cup of tea, mother. It’s still hot.” She wanted, somehow, to celebrate the fact that they could do what they liked now.

And then the lives of the women and children begin. After a messy breakfast (rivers are dug in porridge), Isobel, Kezia, and Lottie climb the stile and wander to the beach, where they marvel at a glittering green treasure their friend Pip has found: he tells them it is “a nemeral.” Extending the jewelry theme further, Mansfield describes Beryl’s dropping her two rings and a thin gold chain in her disapproving mother’s lap before she hastens to bathe with the “fast” Mrs. Harry Kember. At home, the lazy Linda luxuriates in the yard with the baby, happy to be free of the demands of children, whom she cannot love, and telling the baby she doesn’t love him either–and then suddenly she does.  And at night Beryl goes out into the garden, fantasizing about a man’s falling in love with her, but asserts her feminine loyalty and power by  refusing the advances of her friend’s husband, Mr. Harry Kember.

Katherine Mansfield

Perhaps my favorite story is  “The Garden-Party,” in which Laura, a young woman, supervises the setting up of the marquee for her mother’s garden party, while her sister Meg dries her hair and her mother pretends not to be interested in the party. But when Laura learns that a working-class neighbor, a carter, has died in an accident at the bottom of the hill, she cries and wonders if they should cancel their garden party.  And she cannot understand her mother’s assertion that her reaction is hyperbolic until later.

In “Life of Ma Parker,” a cleaning woman mourns the death of her young grandson, Lennie.  In “Marriage a la Mode,” William is troubled about his wife’s new bohemian friends and her new stylish theories about raising their children without bourgeois toys.  In “Mr. and Mrs. Dove,” a young man courts a woman who loves to laugh but at first earnestly says they are too alike to be romantic.  In “Miss Brill,” a spinster loves her role as part of the audience at a Sunday concert until a young couple mocks her.  And of course there is the brilliant story, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” in which two spinster sisters realize that they are finally free of their domineering father.

It is one brilliant story after another.

Summer Rereading of Jane Austen

This Modern Library Giant was my first Jane Austen.

I am rereading Jane Austen.

In March I reread Persuasion, in which the gentle Anne Elliot reconnects with Captain Wentworth, and in  April I read  Sense and Sensibility for the first time in years. Poor Elinor and Marianne!  Their boyfriends’ deceptions and secret engagements with richer women shocked me.  I know many readers find Jane’s novels romantic, but her heroes often appall me.

We all have our favorite Austens.  I especially love Emma.

I was enchanted by the first sentence.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

At the university in a Nineteenth-Century Literature class, even the Vietnam vets loved Emma. Napalm and Nixon didn’t exist in Emma.  I read the novel mainly as satire then, while the radical professor was impatient with Austen’s conservatism.  Now I see both elements.

But I do shudder at Knightley, who seemed a romantic hero during my first reading. In middle age my opinion changed.

Margaret Drabble’s heroine, Jane Grey, in The Waterfall particularly dislikes Knightley.

How I dislike Jane Austen. How deeply I deplore her desperate wit. Her moral tone dismays me: my heart goes out to the vulgarity of those little card parties that Mrs. Phillips gave at Meryton, to that squalid rowdy hole at Portsmouth where Fanny Price used to live, to Lydia at fifteen gaily flashing her wedding ring through the carriage window, to Frank Churchill, above all to Frank Churchill, lying and deceiving and proffering embarrassing extravagant gifts. Emma got what she deserved, in marrying Mr. Knightley. What can it have like, in bed with Mr. Knightley. Sorrow awaited that woman: she would have done better to steal Frank Churchill, if she could.

I love Jane Austen’s wit and chortle over Emma’s absurd misunderstandings, matchmaking, and meddling, but am sorry that Knightley is the sole eligible man for her.  I see Emma as George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda and Knightley as the controlling Grandcourt.  Am I wrong?

I am slowly reading Helena Kelly’s new book,  Jane Austen:  The Secret Radical, an excellent critical work for common readers.  I admired the chapter on Sense and Sensibility, but have not read the chapter on Emma yet.


This year I collected the Folio Society editions of Jane Austen.  My old paperback editions were tanned and scruffy.

No, I did not take this beautiful photo of Folio Society Austens.  I found it on Google.

I suppose a true collector would want first editions (or are those beyond our wildest dreams?), but good lord, I am not a collector. The Folio Society editions with their beautiful paper and illustrations are just right for me as collectibles go.  I very much enjoy reading my favorite classics in these lovely hardbacks.  Can illustrations enhance our reading?  Yes.

And so I own the four Folio Society Janes now in print:  Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion.

To finish the set, I bought used copies of the 1989 Folio Society editions of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.  with illustrations by Joan Hassall.  They are lovely, too, and much cheaper.

What Austens are on my dream list?  I do admire Helen Sewall’s illustrations in the Heritage editions. I believe it was Jean who commented here about Sewall.

But I cannot have every edition of Jane Austen!  Here is one of Sewall’s illustrations from Pride and Prejudice.

An illustration by Helen Sewall in Pride and Prejudice.

Should We Build a Cat Wing? & Literary Miscellanea

Cats lounging in bed.

I adore cats.  A friend has ten.  Five is our limit.

Multi-cat households can be hectic.

Have you tried to type only to have a cat jump on the keyboard and (a) send an email before it is ready, (b) add a zesty sentence in cat language, or (c) delete an entire blog post?

They are cute and energetic.

When we lived in a large house in a cheap bad neighborhood ( where we dared to live when young), the cats had three floors to explore.  Emma and Miss Beethoven spent hours trying to break into the attic, while Max, Tigger, and Baby lounged like beatniks in the living room.

Now we live in a smaller house, with fewer cats.  They are too fond of me.  If I am on the couch, they sit on the couch.  If I am in bed, they sit on the bed.  If I am in the kitchen, they sit in the kitchen.

So I looked into building a Cat Wing, so they could have more space.  I visualized it as a cheap prefab four-season porch, assembled quickly and attached to the house.  Like a garage!

But it’s not as simple as I thought–and very expensive!

So I made an  experiment.

I bought a comfortable chair.  Not too comfortable–not like our Barcalounger.   It is just a  chair where you can sit and spend some upright cat-free time.

And now the cats give me a few hours while they lounge on the couch or the bed.  It is my new wing!


My own girly vinyl-and-silk ’70s diary

1.  Do you keep a journal?  Jane van  Slembrouck wrote an enjoyable piece for The Millions, “A Gift to the Future: In Defense of Keeping a Journal.”

She writes,

The first one was the size of a piece of American cheese. It had a photo on the cover of a horse tossing its mane and a silver lock that opened with a key.

2.  At Publishers Weekly, Rosalind Reisner writes about a Depression-era newsletter with a quiz for women booksellers she found at the Columbia University library.

In fall 1917, a group of 15 women booksellers—excluded from membership in the ABA and the Booksellers’ League—met at Sherwood’s Book Store in Manhattan to form the Women’s National Book Association. Membership was open to women in all areas of the book world: publishers, editors, booksellers, authors, librarians, illustrators, and production people. Today the organization is nationwide, with 11 chapters; members are women (and men) who support the WNBA’s mission to promote and connect members of the book community.

As the organization prepares to celebrate its 100th year, research in the WNBA archives—housed at Columbia University—has turned up some treasures. The following bookseller quiz is condensed from a Depression-era issue of the WNBA newsletter, The Bookwoman, and is a reminder that some things seem never to change. The quiz will appear in the forthcoming book Women in the Book World: 100 Years of Leadership and the WNBA.

The quiz is posted at the end of the article.

3.  At Booker Talk, I learned that academics have their own definition for “social reading.”

 What the academics are interested in is a deeply immersive group–based collaborative process that happens on-line. It can involve several readers or even hundreds. All of them read the same text, post comments on it and respond to other people’s comments. Now you might think that’s what you’re doing when you join a ‘read-a-long’ and it’s true this is a fairly simple example of social reading. But for a more sophisticated approach — and the one the academics are most excited about — you’d need to get involved in a synchronous reading where people are reading and commenting on the same text simultaneously.

And she tells us about an excellent website where seven women discussed Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.  They commented in the margins of the text, which is posted online.

4.  At She Reads, a website run by popular women’s fiction writers Mary Beth Whalen and Ariel Lawhon, the Summer Book Club selections have been announced.

THE BOOK OF SUMMER by Michelle Gable

THE ALMOST SISTERS by Joshilyn Jackson


I read at least one popular  women’s book every summer.  And I do like their posts.

An American Classic: Carolyn See’s “Golden Days”

“Why I didn’t leave was food and love and sex and palm fronds, but let’s get serious.”
Golden Days by Carolyn See

Carolyn See’s brilliant, witty novel, Golden Days, is a neglected masterpiece.

Published in 1986, it was loved and lauded.   But books are forgotten quickly, and the fact that it defies genre may have worked against it.

It has been called a nuclear apocalypse  fantasy, but that is only one layer.  In this effervescent novel, an unconventional family in L.A. in the 1980s lives as joyously  as they can in the shadow of the imminent dropping of a nuclear bomb.

Carolyn See, a novelist, memoirist, and longtime book critic at The Washington Post,  died last year at the age of 82.  Her two  best novels, Golden Days and Making History, are philosophical,  moving, and gracefully-crafted.

The narrator of Golden Days, Edith Langley, has a  carpe diem attitude toward life.  A divorced mother in New York determined to escape the ghetto of consumer wives and reinvent herself as a financial consultant,  Edith moves back to her hometown of  L.A. with her two daughters by different fathers. Housing is expensive and they finally look in Topanga Canyon, where the steep curving roads are terrifying. Driving  in the Canyon is a risk Edith must take to achieve independence.  She observes,

I drove with the kids one dreadful morning into the San Fernando Valley and felt that if there had to be a nuclear war, it could do some good in this area.  I drove through Topanga Canyon, fifteen miles from the Valley to the coast (like Switzerland after the A-bomb, some friend of mine had said years before), hands sweating on the steering wheel as I took the curves, and had to think that maybe I wasn’t ready for the Canyon; maybe I didn’t have the nerve.  I braked at the Pacific, knowing that Malibu was north and no way could I afford it yet.  I turned south, looking for Venice… and headed–like a gerbil in a cage–back downtown.

Carolyn See

They find a cheap house on a cliff.  (It just sort of hangs there, but the view is breathtaking.) Soon she is teaching extension courses and  advising housewives to take control of their finances and invest in jewels, not paper. And then at a wedding she meets Skip Chandler, a banker/financial genius who has been living in Brazil with a paranoid wife who believes the U.S. is unsafe.  He has come back to L.A. because he thinks he is ill.  He moves in with Edith and her daughters.

He founds a bank and she becomes president (she listens a lot and learns).  And then they attend a kind of New Age business seminar because it is popular with their clients.   At first they think the leader is a huckster, but Lion turns out to be as charismatic and able to communicate joy as Valentine Michael Smith, the man from Mars in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land who founds a church that teaches human happiness.  They learn that to get what they want they must first give it away, and then it comes back and multiplies.  (Or something like that.)  And then Skip is magically not  ill. And Edith reconnects with an old friend, Lorna, whom she knew at college long ago.  Lorna, who is Lion’s sometime lover,  has her own magical powers of healing.

There are wars and the end of the world does come.  But Edith, Skip, and her youngest daughter don’t leave L.A.  And they survives, at first in  much pain, but then they find joy.

And is there a more perfect paragraph than this?

Finally, it was the city that held us, the city they said had no center, that all of us had come to from all over America because this was the place to find dreams and pleasure and love.  I noticed–looking at headlines–that some cities emptied and some didn’t.  Ours didn’t, not completely. It may be argued, of course, that the hundreds of miles of desert that surrounded us had something to do with it, but I don’t think so.  (And if there was any rage I felt, outside the terror that periodically seized up my body like a Porsche engine running without oil, it was a fury that “they” were going to have the nerve to take our defenseless little adobe houses and turn them back to blowing dust.)  They said we were crazy to stay.  But then someone had always said we were crazy to be here in the first place.  And someone had always said Noah was crazy to build a boat in his desert, and  Lot had been crazy to pack up, on an impulse and head west.

Such a gorgeous, perfect book!  And it is still in print, published by University of California Press.

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”: The Separation of Ceres and Her Daughter

There is a book, one book.

Everyone has a book.

For me it is Ovid’s epic poem, Metamorphoses, a lively collection of Greek and Roman myths. In this saucy Roman classic, the theme of metamorphosis links his elegant narratives of myths and legends. The poem begins with the creation of the universe and ends with the apotheosis of Julius Caesar. Much of it is comical, though he has his serious moments.

Ovid enchanted me as a young woman. I took Greek, then fell in love with Ovid, then added Latin, then went to graduate school in classics. As I read the Latin, I appreciated the maturity, flexibility, and joy of Ovid’s poetry, and its allusions to Greek and Roman literature and philosophy.

Many of Ovid’s retellings of myths make us  feminists uncomfortable, especially his tales of rape, which in our current political climate I have begun to read, perhaps not accurately, as  double tales of empire.  There is the myth of Daphne, a virginal nymph dedicated to Diana who would rather be turned into a tree than raped by a comically out-of-shape Apollo, huffing and puffing as he chases her and begging her to run slower.  Ovid makes it slapstick, but is it? We are in suspense as Daphne prays to her father, who thinks Apollo is a good match. After her  transformatione, Apollo claims the tree, a laurel, as his own.  Even as a tree, Daphne is colonized.  Is this a subtle criticism of empire?  Or just a myth?

Since my mother’s death,  I identify most with Ovid’s version of Ceres (Demeter in Greek)  and Proserpina (Persephone in Greek).  It is  a story of a mother’s loss of and search for her daughter. Ceres, the goddess of agriculture,  loses Proserpina to Pluto (Hades, god of the underworld), who abducts and rapes her after  he is struck by one of Cupid’s arrows.  And, horrifyingly, Ovid presents the rape of Proserpina  as another imperial mission.

Cupid’s shooting of Pluto is part of Venus’s political plot to expand her empire. She speaks to her son Cupid of  their conquest of the other two parts of the tripartite kingdom:  she says Cupid already rules Jupiter and Neptune , so why should Pluto hold out?

Ovid writes (and this is my literal abridged prose translation):

“..My son, pick up the weapons by which you conquer all,
and shoot your fast arrows into the heart of the god
who drew the last lot of the tripartite kingdom ( the underworld).
You rule the gods in heaven and Jove himself,
you rule the gods of the sea and Neptune himself.
Why should hell resist? Why not expand our empire?
The third part of the world is at stake.”

During Ceres’ search, she curses the earth and there is famine. She is violent:  she transforms a rude child into a newt, even though his mother prepared her a snack. Ceres is a god, and gods are terrible.  Ovid doesn’t sentimentalize.  No cozy mothers here.

And yet she  loses her daughter not only to Pluto and Venus, but to patriarchal politics.  Jupiter, the father of Proserpina and Pluto’s brother,  tells Ceres that Pluto is powerful and not a bad match.   Is he colluding with Pluto?  B Ceres cannot free her daughter from her marriage to Pluto ebcause Proserpina has eaten seven pomegranate seeds in the underworld.  (Don’t eat if you want to leave.)  But Jupiter arranges for Proserpina to spend six months above ground (and that’s spring and summer).

How were we like Ceres and Proserpina?  My mother lost me to my father in a divorce (not sexually). Like so many girls, I was enchanted by my hitherto absent father:  he began to park outside my school  and complained about his loneliness. He rented a dungeon-like basement (the underworld), with sinuous pipes and high narrow windows in the snot-green walls.  At night  I was terrified by the woman upstairs screaming at her voiceless husband, whose larynx had been surgically removed:  I thought he beat her, but could I have known this?   And after my father left town… well, I won’t go into it, but my mother was beside herself.

She never gave up, and we finally reconciled. Many years later our roles were reversed. As Ceres to her Prosperpina, I rescued her from neglect in an assisted living facility.  But I lost her again two years later.

At the funeral she appeared as an energetic poltergeist:  as the priest swung the censer, the incense burner flew off the chain.

Yes, I am sure it was my mom.