Jane Austen Bicentenary Readings & Various Non-Jane Literary Links


I’m not big on death anniversaries, but I had intended to participate in The Guardian Book Club’s discussion of Austen  to commemorate the bicentenary of her death (July 18).   Alas, they have chosen to read  Persuasion, which I just read in May.

And so I will quietly read Jane on my own.  I am not sure which book.  What will you be reading?

If you think you have read Austen too many times, don’t despair:  there are dozens of new books every year about Austen. In Jane Smiley’s entertaining essay, “The Austen Legacy: Why and How We Love Her, What She Loved, ” in The New York Times,  she writes about Deborah Yaffe’s  AMONG THE JANEITES:  A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, Devoney Looser’s THE MAKING OF JANE AUSTENand Paula Byrne’s THE GENIUS OF JANE AUSTEN.


1 Have you read the satirical novels of Thomas Love Peacock? Pamela Climit at the TLS recommends the new Cambridge editions of Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle.  I’m always ready for a laugh.  (And the Penguin is good enough for me.)

2.  Michael Dirda at The Washington Post recommends eight small presses, NYRB, Haffner Press, The Folio Society, Poisoned Pen Press, Wildside Press, Europa Editions, Centipede Press, and Cadmus Press.

“Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” So said Henry James, who would doubtless recommend spending some of those sunlit hours with a good book or two. Whether you enjoy escape fiction or literary fiction, check out the home pages of the following small publishers. I confess to deeply admiring their commitment to older or neglected writers, which explains why a few titles from New York Review Books, the Folio Society and Tartarus carry introductions by me.

The Folio Society Jane Austens

Sylvia Plath

Emily Van Duyne at the Literary Hub asks. “Why Are We So Unwilling to 
Take Sylvia Plath at Her Word?” She writes,

Back in April, the Guardian dropped an apparent literary bombshell—new letters had been discovered from the poet Sylvia Plath, alleging horrific physical abuse at the hands of her husband, the British poet Ted Hughes. The letters had gone unread by any major Plath scholar through one of those black holes so common, and frustrating, to those of us who love her work.

It is not a matter of not taking Sylvia Plath at her word; it is a matter of needing to know more.   Van Duyne is writing a book on Plath, so she has read everything  and obviously this discovery means something to her.  I myself know so little about the couple that an article in The Guardian  doesn’t say “Of course!” to me.

But poor Sylvia!  I do love her poetry.

Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael

I love Mary Stewart.  Perhaps she is my equivalent of Daphne du Maurier.  I discovered The Moon-Spinners when I was nine, and have read and reread her books.   Stewart is the most literary of “romantic suspense” writers, and her books might just as easily be called “travel suspense.”  Her intelligent heroines are always on vacation in exotic places, where they stumble into danger, help solve a mystery, and fall in love with a sexy, articulate man.  Stewart’s physically-fit intellectuals are more my type even than Jamie in Outlander, who has set the bar since 1991. And I am quite surprised that I never met such a man in Greece, Corfu, Crete, Austria, etc., because I knew  from reading these books that it was supposed to happen!

I recently reread My Brother Michael.  I particularly like this one because it’s set in Greece, mostly in Delphi, and the epigraphs are from Sophocles’ Electra.  And the quiet heroine, though likable, is a little mousier than some:  in other words, we could compete!

The thoughtful narrator, Camilla, a Latin teacher who recently broke up with her fiance, is sitting alone in a cafe in Athens on vacation.   She writes in a letter to a friend, “Nothing ever happens to me.”

But she still enjoys Athens.

…It occurred to me, thinking of that last depressed sentence in my letter to Elizabeth, that enough was happening at the moment to satisfy all but the most adventure-hungry.  That is the impression that Athens gives one.  Everyone is moving, talking, gesticulating–but particularly talking.  The second one remembers in Athens is not the clamour of the impatiently congested traffic, or the perpetual hammer or pneumatic drill or even the sound of chisels chipping away at the Pentelic marble…  [but] the sound of Athenian voices arguing, laughing, talk-talk-talking, as once they talked the world into shape in the busy colonnades of the Agora, not so very far from where I sat.

Then an adventure happens to Camilla.  A Greek stranger enters the cafe and drops car keys on her table.  He tells her the car she has rented for Simon in Delphi is ready.  She protests that she did not rent the car, but he insists she left a deposit and says, “And Mademoiselle said it was a matter of life and death.” And then he leaves.

So she goes to Delphi.  She had planned to go anyway.  And her trip to Delphi is hilarious.  She is not a good driver, and she gets stuck behind a bus packed with people, chickens and goats.  The driver won’t let her pass, and I can just visualizes the macho Greek who accelerates every time she timidly approaches.   Finally a bold woman driver races past the bus, with much blowing of the horn, and Camilla follows in her wake.  And this is appropriate, because the other woman, we learn later, is Camilla’s doppelgänger.

But where is Simon?  In Delphi, she cannot find anyone who rented a car. She meets  a charming Englishman named Simon, who takes her on a  moonlight tour of the temple and theater at Delphi, and because.  Because he is a classics teacher he is the perfect guide.  I wanted to rush off to Delphi and pray to Apollo!

But Simon has a serious reason for visiting Delphi.  He has come to pay homage to his brother Michael, who worked undercover in the Resistance on Parnassus  during World War II.  A Greek traitor murdered him.    And in his last letter home he mentioned that he had discovered something valuable.

In the course of the book Camilla and Simon drink ouzo and retsina, climb Parnassus, and encounter some truly sociopathic thugs.

It is very exciting, well-plotted and beautifully written.

If you haven’t read Stewart,  let me recommend starting with my favorite,  This Rough Magic, set in Corfu, which plays with the theme of The Tempest.  I blogged about it here.

But I have enjoyed most of her books.  I especially like the ones from the ’50s and ’60s.

Culture in Clear Lake & Richard III

cabin coffee ClearLake-StoreFront1

Can coffee cure your headache?

We were on a road trip this weekend. We ended up in  Clear Lake, Iowa.

Do you like road trips? My husband  is an interstate man.  We do not see the lovely scenery:  we see cars, construction, and rest stops.  So, no, I’m not a fan of road trips.

But every summer there are Shakespeare festivals in  small university towns.   And so we were on our way to Winona, Minnesota, to the Great River Shakespeare Festival to see Richard III.

Jonathan Gillard Daly as Richard III in 2005

How many times have I seen Richard III? Thrice?  Four times?  We’ve seen good productions, and bad productions. The bad ones are fun, too.  Actually, the best  I’ve seen was not in Stratford, as you might think, but in Winona in 2005.  I remember Jonathan Gillard Daly hunching around with a sinister, yet mesmerizing manner.   As the Winona Daily News said, “Richard is one bad dude. But he’s kind of fun.”

Why do we enjoy Richard III?  Years ago, in a very smoky Shakespeare class (everybody chain-smoked then),  I wrote a paper on  Richard III and the Richard III-obsessed detective in Josephine Tey’s mystery, The Daughter of Time.  Long before my blogging days,  I gambled on pop culture treatises, guessing that a light essay would be a relief from  the paraphrases of the Pelican Shakespeare.  (And by the way, I reread  The Daughter of Time a few years ago and posted about it here And I appreciate Detective Alan Grant’s obsession.)

Anyway, there I was this weekend,  sitting in a hot car, on the way to see Richard III.  It got hotter, hotter, and hotter, and suddenly my head felt as if it were splitting.  I moaned, “I’ve  got heat stroke.”

My husband explained that if that were the case my whole body would go into shock and I would  be dead.

Good news!  I wasn’t dead.

We stopped in Clear Lake and got Advil.  It did nothing.  I lay down on a picnic table. It did nothing.  I wondered if coffee would help. And so we went looking for a coffee shop in  Clear Lake.  It was kind of like William Burroughs looking for a fix in Pleasantville, Iowa.

But we did find a place called  Cabin Coffee.  The coffee was weak and there were no sleeves for the cups.

So we missed our Shakespeare. We turned around and drove home.  Hours later, I diagnosed my illness (online!) as a migraine.  I took more Advil, sinus pills, and brewed up various herbal teas.   The head-splitting feeling went on well into Sunday.

Now that my migraine is gone, I think I’ll read my Shakespeare.  But first, look at this  charming photo of Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart)  holding his copy of Shakespeare on Star Trek:  The Next Gen.

Which Daphne du Maurier Should I Read?

Which Daphne du Maurier should I read?

I missed the movie,  My Cousin Rachel.  How bewildering!  It couldn’t have been here long.

But, honestly, the only du Maurier novel I’ve loved is Rebecca.  I thought My Cousin Rachel very mediocre when I read it years ago. In fact, I didn’t find anything by du Maurier in the same class as Rebecca.

Lately there has been much hubub about du Maurier, due to the release of the new film. Both The New York Times and The Guardian have recently published excellent essays about her work.  In “In Praise of Daphne du Maurier” at The New York Times, Parul Sehgal writes,

I’ve never known a writer to make otherwise sensible, not especially bookish women chase down first editions “as investments”; to cling to, as my sister does, a childhood copy of “Frenchman’s Creek” in unspeakable condition. And then there’s my mother, whose indifference to convention, especially where child-rearing was concerned, reminds me very much of du Maurier. She taught me to read with her own battered copies of “Rebecca” and “My Cousin Rachel,” a book that begins with a corpse swinging from a gibbet and features, in short order, sexual obsession, attempted strangling and possible laudanum poisoning. It inspired my most exciting nightmares.

And at The Guardian, Julie Myerson is fascinating on  My Cousin Rachel: Daphne du Maurier’s take on the sinister power of sex.”

And though My Cousin Rachel – written in 1951 when Du Maurier was, arguably, at the height of her confidence and powers – might appear to be a simple did-she-didn’t-she thriller about Cornish estates and poisonings, it is absolutely and inescapably a novel about sex. Most specifically female sexuality: its ambiguity, its mystery and its potentially fatal – as perceived by men – power.

When Virago reissued du Maurier’s books, about a decade ago, many bloggers loved them.  As for me, I didn’t get beyond Jamaica Inn.

Occasionally feminist readers push both women’s classics and pop lit.  I do like good pop lit, but  I find du Maurier overrated.  Is it time for me to try The Glass Blowers again?  I didn’t get very far in that!

Or Hungry Hill?

Oh, I did like her biography of her father, Gerald:  A Portrait, so maybe I like her nonfiction!
But please recommend. I’m ready for the du Maurier reading experience.

Reading Alix Kates Shulman’s “In Every Woman’s Life” & Searching for Paula Fox

Sometimes I love a good beach read.

Last spring I read Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions, a superb novel about the rise of Second Wave feminism.   Published in 1978, it is the best, most accurate historical novel I have read about the Women’s Liberation Movement.  It is a feminist classic.

I recently picked up her 1987 novel,  In Every Woman’s Life.  (Both books are free with Kindle Unlimited.)

Is it as good?  Well, it is much lighter, really a beach read, but I enjoyed it immenselyShulman is a novelist of ideas:  she examines subjects that concern women but were especially pertinent in the mid-to-late twentieth century.   In this absorbing novel, she writes about women’s sexuality, marriage, and adultery.

Shulman writes,

In every woman’s life a time must come to think about marriage. Once, that time was brief, to be seized in the moment, or anxiously borne, or boldly flung away; but now it seems to descend like a recurring dream to vex or tempt the troubled dreamer with secret longings and second thoughts—such are the uncertainties of the times.

And the times are still uncertain, yes?

Alix Kates Shulman

The two main characters are good friends who have antithetical attitudes toward sex and marriage.  Rosemary, a mother of two, stays married for the sake of her children.  She likes her husband, but is having a discreet, satisfying affair with a painter.  She is also happy in her work:  she teaches math as an adjunct. On the other hand, her friend Nora, a successful journalist, rages against marriage.  She says Rosemary has wasted her time raising children, and should have devoted herself to work.  Why is she so upset?   Nora realizes that her married lover, Lex, will never leave his wife.  She would like a relationship with an available man.

Parts of the book take the form of  dialogues between Rosemary and Nora.  Call me crazy, but if Socrates had been a woman…  No, I’m kidding; it’s not that deep, but it is very interesting.

NORA: If you had your way, you’d condemn everyone to the bondage of the past. People should only be together because they want to be.

ROSEMARY: But if they happen to want to stay married for any reasons besides romance, you won’t allow it.

The book description claims the book is about three women.  But look at the cover, hm?  I only see two women!  Rosemary’s daughter, Daisy, whom we first meet as a high school senior and later when she is contemplating marriage,  plays only a small part in the novel. Just as much time is devoted to her brother, Spider.

What to read when you’ve finished Shulman?  Well, I had an urge to reread Paula Fox, the much-praised author of adult novels, children’s novels, and memoirs.  Her work has been acclaimed by Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, and Andrea Barrett.

Most of you will have read, or heard of, Desperate Characters, her masterpiece.  I have read this several times, but have never had the moxie to write about it. (You can read an excellent article about it in The New Yorker.)

Apparently I weeded all of her books except Desperate Characters.  Wouldn’t you know?  And since I have promised not to buy books till fall,  I cannot spend $3.48 for one of her books online.

I rolled my eyes when my husband recently found a book mailer in the trash, and demanded to know if I had bought a book.  It was a gift from a friend.  Really.

In every woman’s life a time must come to think about borrowing books from the public library.  Alas, our library has weeded most of Fox’s books.

But first thing in September…

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

In  Ellen Klages’ dazzling new collection of short stories, Wicked Wonders, she crafts one perfect sentence after another.

Published by Tachyon, a small press in San Francisco, this extraordinary collection is introduced by PEN/Faulkner Award winner Karen Joy Fowler.   Klages has a reputation for eclecticism:  she won the Nebula Award in 2005 for her novelette “Basement Magic” and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2007 for her Y.A. novel, The Green Glass Sea.

Klages’ perceptive stories cross genre.  Are they miniature fantasies?  Magic realism?  Retold fairy tales?  A little bit of all three, plus some smart homages to Ray Bradbury.

Klages is an evocative chronicler of childhood.  In “Amicae Aeternum,” Corry gets up early one lovely morning to take a  walk through her hometown. She has a list of things she wants to see:  she appreciates every detail, from flowers to fire hydrants.

Klages writes,

A dandelion’s spiky leaves pushed through a crack in the cement. Corry squatted, touching it with a finger, tracing the jagged outline, memorizing its contours. A weed. No one planted it or planned it. She smiled and stood up, her hand against a wooden fence, feeling the grain beneath her palm, the crackling web of old paint, and continued on. The alley stretched ahead for several blocks, the pavement a narrowing pale V.

It is gradually revealed that Corry’s future life, unlike a dandelion, will be planned.  But for now, Corry goes bicycling with her best friend, Anna.

No traffic, no cars.  It felt like their last day on earth.

Ellen Klages

And then we learn that it is Corry’s last day on Earth.   She and her parents are  leaving on a “generation” spaceship headed for a distant planet.  She will spend the rest of her life on the ship, and her great-great-great–she doesn’t know how many “greats”–grandchildren will live there.  She will never see the planet.

The melancholy narrative is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s depictions of t of Midwestern small towns in Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles, where astronauts on Mars never stop missing their hometowns.  Is the journey  worth it? As in Bradbury’s stories, small town characters are split between Earth and space.  But the girls make a pact that may sustain Corry.

Klages’ other stories of childhood are equally fascinating. In “The Education of a Witch,” Lizzie, a small girl, sympathizes with Maleficent in the movie Sleeping Beauty  She finds Maleficent beautiful, unlike the warty witches in storybooks, and thinks the king and queen were wrong not to invite her to the christening.  Later, at a toy store, she persuades her mother to buy her a Maleficent puppet. And after her mother has a baby, Lizzy  spends more time with Maleficent, who tells her stories. When Lizzy tells her nursery school teacher she wants to be a witch, we wonder if she already has the power.

Klages is also fond of portal fantasies. In “Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s,” the heroine Rachel plays a game of backgammon with the school’s cleaning lady and is transported through a portal to living board games, where she must win Clue, Snakes & Ladder, and Monopoly for the lives of her best friend and herself.

Klages’ stories also explore identity.  In “Woodsmoke,” the heroine Peet, whose real name is Patty, is excited about spending  the summer at camp while her parents go to Europe. She loves camp, where girls get to do everything boys do.   Another strong girl, Margaret, whose parents live in Asia, is also there for the summer.  The two girls become close friends, because  other campers leave after one- and -two-week session.  But there’s an identity twist at the end.story.

In my favorite story, “Echoes of Aurora,” a single retired woman, Jo,  returns after her father’s death to the resort town where she grew up. Her father owned a penny arcade, which decades ago was successful, and she repaired the machines.  She plans now to fix some up and sell them to a circus museum.

Again, it is Klages’ prose that makes the story so special.

Cedar River was a summer town.

You’ve seen it, or one just like it. Off a state highway, on the edge of a lake—a thousand souls, more or less, until Memorial Day. Then the tourists come, for swimming and fudge and miniature golf. They laugh, their sunburns redden and peel, and when the first cool autumn breezes ripple the water, they leave. The carnival is over.

I have seen it!

One day, while Jo listens to the nickelodeon in the arcade, a beautiful young woman, Aurora, shows up dancing.  The two become lovers, and Jo stays longer than she had planned.  In the fall, we learn Aurora’s real identity.  It is so fitting–why didn’t we realize it all along?  But you won’t guess it.

I loved these stories.   I am so glad to have discovered this writer.

The Third of July: “Revolution” vs. “Grace and Frankie”

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in “Grace and Frankie”

It is a hot, hot, hot Third of July.  Tonight and tomorrow sweaty people will watch fireworks in the parks. Not I!

I plan to watch Grace and Frankie, a Netflix  show starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston.  With this line-up, how can it not be great? It centers on a divorce: when Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin) learn that their husbands are gay and want a divorce, they freak out and separately take refuge  in the beach house they co-own. Frankie, an old hippie with long gray hair, meditates and chants, while Grace, an uptight trophy wife with a hint of OCD, relies on cups of tea and routine.  Will they drive each other crazy?

Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) and Miles (Billy
Burke) in “Revolution.”

Perhaps the best show for the Fourth of July is  Revolution, a science fiction series about a post-apocalyptic America without electricity.  Nobody knows why the power went out, or maybe a few do. Two brilliant scientists, Ben and Rachel Matheson (Juliet Mitchell), escape violent Chicago, where people now kill for food or  because they feel like it.  Rachel voluntarily becomes a hostage in the rogue Monroe Nation (who want her scientific skills) while Ben and their daughter, Charlie, and son, Danny, take refuge in a housing development/pioneer village in the middle of nowhere.   Years later, the army finds and kills Ben and kidnaps Danny, and Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) resolves to get her brother back, with the help of friends and family.

The first season is a bit like Lord of the Rings, only set in America, with guerilla operations, sword fights, and a trip to the eerie power plant.  The characters are well-developed, and the dialogue is very witty.  Juliet Mitchell (from Lost and V) is stunning as Rachel Matheson, the brilliant scientist who may be able to turn the power back on.  And Billy Burke is superb as Miles Matheson, her brother-in-law, a cynical Iraq war vet who is “good at killing” and who left the Monroe Nation when it got too crazy.  His niece Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) persuades him to quit tending bar in Chicago (by inadvertently blowing his cover) and help them find Danny.  Charlie is the moral compass, opposed to war and killing unless absolutely necessary.

Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) in “Revolution”

In the second season, the focus of the show is Rachel’s idyllic hometown, Willoughby, Texas, for which the U.S. “patriots” have sinister plans And so the Mathesons must continue to resist.

Oh, dear, couldn’t NBC bring the show back?


After a death in the family, what do you bring home?

“Get something,” I begged my husband.  “You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

I know of what I speak.  After my mother’s death,  I took the photo albums and a small chest filled with obituaries.  A few years later, I was sorry I had left the large round carved oak table in the basement.  But how did they get it into the basement in the first place?

My husband came home with a plastic tray filled with Holy Cards and bookmarks.  Oh dear, we are so alike.

I am now using a holy card with a picture of the Pope as a bookmark in  Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour.

The Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh

Some like Evelyn Waugh’s satires, others prefer his serious novels.  Right now I am rereading his superb World War II trilogy,  Sword of Honour, which consists of  Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender.

These novels are absorbing, but not too brainy (good for summer reading). Partly autobiographical, partly a moral examination of war, they are also satiric.  Though Sword of Honour is as far as you can get from War and Peace, Waugh, like Tolstoy, ridicules the muddle of military strategy.  Everybody is forever getting lost, military operations go awry, and battles are randomly won and lost.  In Waugh’s world,  companies don’t see action for months or years:  they are posted in England or Scotland.

The hero, Guy Crouchback, age 36, is appalled by the rise of the Nazis and wants to fight in the war.  But older men are not wanted:  none of his upper-class contacts at his London club can help him.   Finally, an acquaintance of his father,  Major Tickeridge, a man ironically of a lower class, finds a place for Guy in his brigade, the Halberdiers.

Why is Guy so eager to fight?  Well, his life is meaningless.  His wife left him when he was farming in Kenya, and Catholicism is the only thing left to shape his life.

He is also the last of the Crouchbacks.

In the first book, Men at Arms, Waugh gives us background on the Crouchbacks.

The Crouchback family, until quite lately rich and numerous, was now much reduced. Guy was the youngest of them and it seemed likely he would be the last.  His mother was dead, his father over seventy.  There had been four children.  Angela, the eldest; then Gervase, who went straight from Downside into the Irish Guards and was picked off by a sniper his first day in France, instantly, fresh and clean and unwearied, as he followed the duckboard across the mud, carrying his blackthorn stick, on his way to report to company headquarters.  Ivo was only a year older than Guy but they were never friends.  Ivo was always odd.  He grew much odder and finally, when he was twenty-six, disappeared from home…Then he was found barricaded alone in a lodging in Cricklewood where he was starving himself to death  He was carried out emaciated and delirious and died a few days later stark mad.

Guy regards Ivo’s mad life as “a horrible caricature of his own life.”  But his membership in the Halberdiers, even though the younger men call him “Uncle,” gives him a sense of purpose.

There are many eccentrics in the brigade.  One of the most memorable  is Althorpe, another thirtysomething  officer in training.  He is a stickler for rules to the point of paranoia,  except in the case of toilet facilities.  He hides a chemical toilet,  the Thunderbox, in a shed where he can take care of “unfinished business.” One-eyed Colonel Ritchie-Hook, famous for decapitating men, as Guy learns at a party, finds the thunderbox and  battles  for supremacy.

Later, under the leadership of Ritchie-Hook, Guy and some of the Halberdiers participate in a mad midnight operation on an island.  Ritchie-Hook is wounded, but he also manages to decapitate “a Negro” on the island and takes the head on board and calls it his “coconut.” No one cares about the head, but Guy and Ritchie-Hook are sent home because of the idiocy of the caper.

Then in Officers and Gentlemen, Guy finds a place in another brigade, through his ex-wife’s ex-husband.    During the evacuation of Crete, Guy observes the height of military incompetence.  Waugh sometimes visits other points of view:  The obsequious Major Hound goes mad, and we briefly feel his desperation.  We don’t exactly empathize with him, but are relieved when his own men find and take care of him.

These books are very enjoyable, even though they are about the war.