Susan Power on Reading in “Sacred Wilderness”

I am a longtime fan of the Native American writer Susan Power, whose debut novel The Grass Dancer won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Fiction in 1995.   And I am loving her third novel, Sacred Wilderness, published by Michigan State Press in the American Indian Studies series in 2014.

Power interweaves the stories of two women, Gladys Swan, an Ojibwe elder, and Candace Jensen, a wealthy woman who has lost herself in consumerism.   When Maryam, the Virgin Mary, arrives to help Candace reconnect with her Mohawk ancestors, Candace refuses to believe in her. Gladys, Candace’s new housekeeper, can also see Maryam, who is grateful when Gladys offers to let her stay in a luxurious room in the mansion.   Candace is so oblivious that she does not even sense the growing rage of a mask in her personal American Indian Museum, which is housed in a room in another wing of the mansion.  Candace is in crisis, though Gladys and Maryam do what they can to help.

Susan Power

But on to bookishness:  there are many literary bonds between the characters.  Even Maryam likes a good book, and Candace and Gladys  attend a reading  at Louise Erdrich’s bookstore, Birchback Books, in Minneapolis.

But I especially love this description of Candace’s love of reading.  To many of you, this will sound familiar.

Candace was a hungry reader who hoarded books and could not feel safe or relaxed unless a visible stack of waiting volumes perched on the table beside her favorite armchair–the only disorder allowed in her domain.  She favored women authors, though quite unconsciously; there was nothing political in her choices.  Louise Erdrich was the reigning queen of her literary heart, but she also pounced on every Alice Munro story she could find, for each one was a world onto itself, every bit as satisfying as a novel.  She’d read Byatt’s Possession and Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant so many times she’d had to buy replacement copies, for she’d read the originals to disintegrating rags.

She needed to hold a book in her hands, touch the pages that were warm in summer, damp with humidity, cool and slippery in frozen January.  No Kindle for her.  That would be like hiring a stiff robot to give one a deep massage.  Plus, she liked to breathe in the book, dip her nose toward the seam where the pages met and smell the sharp spice of a new book, the dusty paper of an old one.

I am still reading it, but it is one of the loveliest novels I’ve read this summer. I plan to recommend it to my “real-life” book club.

Bibliobits: Book Clubs & BookTube

I’m not unsociable. I am chatty.  Sure, I’m a bit prim.   My idea of fun is going to the library, or reading Juvenal in Latin with my husband at Cafe Diem, a coffeehouse in Ames.

I do think my diversions are comical.  Who in this day and age has a Latin club?

And I belong to many other book clubs, too, because I’m kind of geeky.

My “real-life” book club is currently reading Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now, Voyager (in the Femmes Fatales series at the Feminist Press).

I also love online book groups, and have read dozens (literally) of Trollope’s books for groups.  But for the next few months, many excellent groups are reading books I’ve already read.  For instance,

  1. Ellen Moody’s Trollope19thCStudies group at Yahoo Groups is reading Anna Karenina.  I love this brilliant novel, but have already reread it this year, and  have posted about it at this blog seven times.
  2. The Inimitable-Boz group at Yahoo Groups is reading Bleak House, my favorite Dickens novel, which I  have read at least seven times.
  3. The European Literature in Translation group at Goodreads recently read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualites, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.  Unfortunately, I joined too late.  They are currently reading Balzac’s Grand Illusions, which I have read three times and blogged about once.  And in October they’re reading Celine’s Journey into Night, which I’ve also read.
  4. Blogger readalongs are problematic for me, because so often they discuss books I’ve already read.  Several bloggers read Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, all three trilogies, a few years ago.  It’s not that I’m not crazy about Galsworthy, but I’ve read the saga three times.
  5. I do participate in Women in Translation Month (August), an annual event celebrated by booksellers, librarians, reviewers, publishers, bloggers, and journalists.  Only 30% of new books in English translation are by women.  And so we try to read women writers.

I wish I’d read this with the group!

But I may participate in Emily Asher-Perrin’s  Dune reread at Tor (the science fiction site).  I reread Dune last year (a  classic), and the group is now on the third book, Children of Dune.

Please let me know of other good online book groups.  The ones I mentioned are excellent.

Is BookTube the Next Worst Thing?

The very good blogger, I Prefer Reading, mentioned BookTube before  she went on break last spring.

Well, I love I Prefer Reading, but BookTube is not for me. I  couldn’t find anything!   My heart sank as I watched monotonous videos that make PBS look like action films.  BookTube is like very, very bad TV.  The “vloggers” ramble, there is often no script, and obviously no editing.  It’s Narcissist City!

The sincerity is evident, but the segments are too long:   eight to twelve minutes of  babbling. My advice: Cut the first three or four minutes and get straight to the books.  And, if you’re chatting about seven books (and seven is the magic number in “vlogs” about “Favorite Books of the Year So Far”),  limit the chat to 30 seconds per book.  Let your model be the PBS “Summer Reading” interview with writers and bookstore owners Louise Erdrich and Emma Straub, who recommend 19 books in eight minutes.  Sure, Jeffrey Brown asks a few questions, but both these writers are very well prepared.

Louise Erdrich at her bookstore, Birchbark Books.

Here’s an excerpt from the superb PBS transcript of this superb video, which you can watch here:

LOUISE ERDRICH:  I don’t think people usually take poetry to the beach to read, but this book has been sold by its cover for quite some time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we should say, it’s called “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” right, by Natalie Diaz.


Natalie Diaz is a powerhouse of a writer. And this book is a wild ride. It has headlong rushes of ecstatic, beautiful language, small details about life on Mojave Reservation. Natalie Diaz is Mojave.

And this is set in Arizona mainly, but it’s also, of course, set in her heart and her head. And there’s a sensibility that is so dark, but so funny. It’s just such a rich, compelling piece of literature. You know, it’s just the kind of book that you want to live with each poem for a while.

I’ve got it on reserve at the library.

A Genre-Mix Post: Louise Glück’s Averno & Louise Penny’s Still Life

Yes, it’s a genre-mix post.

I recently read Louise Glück’s collection of poems,  Averno, and Louise Penny’s award-winning  mystery, Still Life, the first in the Chief Inspector Gamache series.

Louise Glück, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollinger Award, often writes poetry based on myths.  The title of her 2006 collection, Averno, refers to a crater lake in Italy, which is the mythic gateway to the underworld of the dead, known as Avernus in Latinyou may remember it from Virgil’s Aeneid.

Glück’s  book is nothing like Virgil’s: it provides a woman’s view of the underworld.  The cycle of poems revolves around Persephone, the goddess of spring and summer, abducted and raped by Hades, her uncle, the god of the underworld.  Her mother, Demeter,  searches the earth for her daughter, and upon discovering her  whereabouts,  makes  a deal with Zeus,  Persephone’s father, to bring Persephone back.  Unfortunately,  Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds in the underworld;  thus she can return above ground only six months a year, in spring and summer.

In Averno, Gluck meditates on the soul, death, and winter.  Sometimes the observations are modern, from the perspective of the poet/artist, an older woman confronting the specter of death, and other times in the form of a narrative of Persephone and the dead.  The persona of the poem doubts the effectiveness of Persephone’s return from the dead, and the magic work with flowers and food.  She wonders if Persephone wouldn’t prefer to be dead. At one point, in “Persephone the Wanderer,” Glück writes that the rift in the human soul “should be read/as an argument between the mother and the lover–/the daughter is just meat.”

She does know the earth
is run by mothers, this much
is certain. She also knows
she is not what is called
a girl any longer. Regarding
incarceration, she believes

she has been a prisoner since she was a daughter.

In “A Myth of Devotion,” she writes about Hades’ creepy plot to abduct Persephone.  He built a duplicate of Earth below the ground, including the meadow where she picks flowers.  And he watched her for years before he took her.

Later in the book, there is a second version of “Persephone the Wanderer,”the emphasis on Demeter’s complicated relationship to her daugher.

In the second version, Persephone
is dead. She dies, her mother grieves–
problems of sexuality need not
trouble us here.

A powerful collection of poems, but very, very bleak.  Beneath the stark language, there is emotion.

Louise Penny’s Still Life.  For years I’ve been hearing about Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache novels. This summer it was a toss-up:   would I try Donna Leon’s mysteries, recommended by Louise Erdrich on NPR, or  Louise Penny’s mysteries, recommended by my friends?

Well, I opted for Penny and loved it:  Still Life, set in Quebec, in the mythical village of Three Pines, is mainly a police procedural, but there are elements of the cozy. The village is charming, hardly the place where you’d expect a murder. The residents are artists, poets, bookstore owners, bed-and-breakfast owners, and other entrepreneurs.

Chief inspector Gamache is philosophical in the manner of Simenon’s Maigret.  He listens very carefully, notes details, speaks little,and quotes poetry. And it all adds up to solving crimes.    Experienced detective though he is, he is shocked to see the body of Miss Jane Neal, a beloved retired teacher,  shot by an arrow in the woods.

Chief Inspector reacts with sorrow as he leans over the body.

The scent of mothballs, his grandmother’s perfume, met him halfway. Jane’s gentle and kindly eyes stared as though surprised to see him.

He was surprised to see her. That was his little secret. Not that he’d ever seen her before. No. His little secret was that in his mid-fifties, at the height of a long and now apparently stalled career, violent death still surprised him. Which was odd, for the head of homicide, and perhaps one of the reasons he hadn’t progressed further in the cynical world of the Sûreté. Gamache always hoped maybe someone had gotten it wrong, and there was no dead body. But there was no mistaking the increasingly rigid Miss Neal. Straightening up with the help of Inspector Beauvoir, he buttoned his lined Burberry against the October chill and wondered.

The mystery is  riveting.  Was it an accident? Was it murder?  There is an archery club in the village. So many opportunities. But oddly it happened only after Jane’s first painting was accepted in the local art show.  Was something stirred up by the painting?

It is well-written and great fun.  But it was very hard to get anything done until I finished it! And I do feel a need to read the second one. But I must be disciplined.  More Penny on the weekend!

Lyrical Book Reviews: No Adverbs with My Coffee, Please!

Here’s one thing I don’t need:  a lyrical book review.

The “lyrical book review” is on the rise, to judge from two recent book reviews in The New York Times and The L.A. Times.

I’d never read the work of Parul Sehgal, the new daily critic at The New York Times, until I metaphorically rustled the  book page (at the website)  and saw her review.  Here’s what I know about her:  She studied political science at Magill and got an MFA at Columbia.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have started with her review of Karl Knausgaard’s new book, Autumn, written in the form of a letter to his “unborn daughter.”  i.e., fetus. Under no circumstances would I read a letter by a man to a fetus. (Why are men obsessed with fetuses? Ian McEwan also wrote a novel from the point of view of a fetus, Nutshell. )

Although I don’t doubt Sehgal’s critical judgment of the book, I do doubt her editor’s line-editing.

The review begins,

How best to follow up a six-volume, 3,600-page, terrifically indiscreet autobiographical novel that cops to infidelity, self-mutilation, premature ejaculation, alcoholism, attraction to reactionary politics and ambivalence about fatherhood?

If you’re the author of “My Struggle,” the final installment of which will be published in English next year, it’s with a slightly penitential book-length letter to your unborn daughter.

Ye gods!  Is the first 28-word sentence a diary entry, or perhaps a poem? There is no subject or main verb.  “How best…?”  One wonders, does she mean, “How can one best follow up a …?”  or “How is it best to follow up…”  or “How could Knausgaard follow up?” And do we need “up”? And the verbosity goes on:  one adverb (“terrifically”) and six adjectives, two of them hypehnated  (“six-volume,” 3,600-page,” “indiscreet,” “autobiographical,” “premature,” and “reactionary”).  Whatever happened to the power of the verb?  What happened to Strunk and White?

And in the next sentence, let us delete the preposition “with.”  It’s not “with” a book-length letter, it is a book-length letter.

Mind you, people think very highly of Sehgal’s work.  In 2010 she received the National Book Critics Circle award, Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

I  think the piece was  badly edited.

Or is lyrical verbosity  a Millennial thing?

In the L.A. Times the other day, I read an incomprehensible opening paragraph of Ilana Mesad’s review of Paul Yoon’s ‘The Mountain.”   Mesad is an Israeli-American writer and critic.

Her review begins:

Paul Yoon’s new collection, “The Mountain,” is not what you’d call delightful — the stories are sober and the prose is quiet, yet in that is the howling of the human condition that makes the best short fiction stand out. Only six stories long, it is also a small collection and an almost unfailingly tight one from Yoon, author of the short story collection “Once the Shore” and the novel “Snow Hunters.”

Wow, “the howling of the human condition”– pseudo-lyrical, yes? What does “yet in that” refer to?  Instead of “only six stories long” and “it is also a small collection and unfailingly tight,”  the editor might have considered,  “Yoon’s six-story collection is unfailingly tight.”  “Unfailingly” is so eccentric he might consider another adverb, though.

The rest of the review is written in ordinary spare language, nothing to offend.  But that first paragraph was too much before coffee.  Whom can we blame?  Writer or editor?

I’m hoping these two reviews were a glitch in the system.

The lyricism hasn’t yet infected The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, and the TLS.

Thank God!

The AmazonCrossing Imprint: Oksana Zabuzhko’s The Museum of Abandoned Secrets & Shion Miura’s The Great Passage

Fans of novels in translation may not know this literary secret:   AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s translation imprint, is the largest publisher of fiction in English translation.

According to statistics in 2015,  AmazonCrossing published 75 titles, while the second largest publisher, Dalkey Archive, published only  25.

I read these stats and immediately forgot them, of course, because when I read a book in translation it is likely to be by Balzac.

But AmazonCrossing is a little different, in that it publishes many genres, not just the literary fiction favored by small presses or best-sellers by the brilliant Haruki Murakami.

I recently read a review in the New York Times of a new AmazonCrossing novel, Shion Miura’s The Great Passage.  And the hero is a dictionary editor!  (How fun.)   I already appreciate the translator,  the award-winning Juliet Winters Carpenter.  Have you read her brilliant translation of  Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, a Japanese retelling of Wuthering Heights?   (One of my favorite books:  I posted about it here.)

I am reading another AmazonCrossing book at the moment, a 2009 Urkainian novel, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, by Oksana Zabuzhko. (The translator is Nina Shevchuck-Murray.)  It is the first  modern novel I have read set in Ukraine.  Zabuzhko, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy and has written 17 books of fiction, poetry, and essays, uses techniques like stream-of-consciousness and one-sided dialogues.  The narrative is complicated, but compelling.

Losses and secrets:  the heroine’s life is full of them.  Daryna Goshchynska,  a popular TV journalist, is always looking for new material.  When she finds a photo of Olena Dovgan, a member of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed by Stalin’s secret police in 1947, she decides to make a documentary about her.  Olena’s charming grand-nephew, Aidan, an antique dealer, comes forward, and they become lovers.   He has eerie dreams that seem to be the memories  of someone who knew Olena in the ’40s.

Daryna’s obsession with Elena may be partly because of her loss of other people:  her father, sentenced to years in a mental hospital for his views, finally died of cancer at home, and  her  best friend, Vlada, a famous artist who was ignored in her native country, died in a car crash, the paintings in her trunk stolen before the police found the car. Daryna is sure it was an accident, but Vlada’s politician husband thinks it was a hit.

I am still reading this novel, but here is a moving passage from an interview Daryna did with  Vlada, who describes a  collage inspired by a girl’s game of the 1960s.  The girls made “secrets,” which were very like folk art icons.

Vlada recalls,

“So you have this shiny silver or gold background, and you lay out your design—with leaves, pebbles, whatever junk you could find, as long as it’s brightly colored: Candy wrappers, pieces of glass, beads, buttons—there were lots of fun buttons back then, everyone sewed, knitted, crocheted, you had to be crafty. You could add flowers—marigolds, phlox, daisies—usually to make a kind of a decorative frame, a border, which is also a common practice in Ukrainian folk art. So you had a little collage piece of sorts, whatever struck your fancy, and then you took a bigger piece of glass, like the bottom of a bottle—remember that those factory-made icons also came framed and under glass—and set it on top of the hole and buried everything again. Then, when you came back later and brushed the dirt off that spot, you’d see a tiny magical window into the ground, like a peephole into Aladdin’s cave.”

Breathtaking, no?   I realize how much I am missing by not reading more modern fiction in translation.

I may write more about this later, when I’ve finished.

What’s on My TBR? To Be Read, to Be Reread, & Comfort Books

It’s not pretty…

I moved a bookcase into my bedroom.  It is the only way to cope with the TBR.

“Yup, that’s the TBR shelf,” I told my bookish friend, Suzy, a teacher who stopped by briefly in the middle of a literary road trip.   She has visited the American Writers Museum in Chicago, taken the Betsy-Tacy tour in Mankato, Minnesota, is on her way to Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and, against her better judgment, may swing by Mark Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Missouri (a commercial nightmare), on the way home.

After a trip to Half Price Books, Suzy happily examined my shelves, but is not entirely sympathetic to the TBR concept. She thinks it’s internet-ish. “So what’s Aeschylus doing on the nightstand?  Where’s his shelf?”

“That’s a chest of drawers.  Aeschylus is bedtime reading.”

“Cozy, kind of like Stephen King.”

“Maybe less horrifying, like domestic noir.”

I explained I dropped Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil in the laundry basket so I’d remember to put it in the giveaway box in the laundry room.  It is his worst book.  The characters are like the Snopes.  Inger killed her baby who had a harelip.  And she just got out of prison.

“May I have it?”

Over ice cream with raspberries, we discussed the pros and cons of a TBR shelf.

I rarely read anything on my TBR, alas. Will I get back to Dostoevsky?  Not unless I acquire some name-brand antidepressants. (Impossible.)  I often dip into D. H. Lawrence’s short stories, but prefer his novels. I recommend Gissing’s The Odd Women, but should some  of Gissing’s other books before I return to my favorite.  Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, a series of fictional conversations about the virtues and conduct of the ideal courtier,  is a comfort read for the middle of the night.

So it’s really a comfort read shelf?

Suzy is reading Willa Cather’s  Collected Short Stories, because the autobiographical story “Old Mrs. Harris” is essential reading for the tour.

So what’s on your TBR?  And do you actually read it?

What I’ve Been Reading: Allende, Austen, Anders, & Literary Links

You may ask, Is Mirabile Dictu finally done with Ladies’ Greek?

Yes, I am reading, reading, and reading novels again!

Here are brief remarks on a South American masterpiece by Isabel Allende, Jane Austen’s first novel, and and Charlie Jane Ander’s acclaimed science fiction.

1. The Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende’s stunning  first novel, The House of the Spirits, was translated by Magda Bogin and published in the U.S.  in 1985. This lush, witty, poetic masterpiece is laced with magic realism, and  reminiscent of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Allende narrates the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trueba family in a politically unstable  country in South America.  The strong women of the family ignore Esteban Trueba, the volatile family patriarch, and live their own lives. I am especially fond of Clara, the  psychic matriarch who opens their enormous house to eccentrics and adds on rooms and staircases that go nowhere; her daughter, Blanca, a potter who teaches Mongoloids; and her radical granddaughter, Alba, who  feeds the homeless and hides refugees in the wake of a fascist coup. Even the tyrannical patriarch, Esteban Trueba, a landowner and far-right politician, is appalled in old age by violence of the new regime and begins to understand the women. Not only was I reminded of how very great Allende is, but I am eagerly looking forward to her new novel, In the Midst of Winter (October).

2. A rereading of Jane Austen’s Northanger AbbeyThe heroine, Catherine Morland, is one of Austen’s most comical characters, and I enjoyed my rereading of this charming little book.  Catherine, a fan of Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and other “horrid” Gothic novel, hopes to find a ghost or secret manuscript when she visits the Tilneys at the elegant  Northanger Abbey. Her witty boyfriend, Henry Tilney, one of the very few of Austen’s heroes I heartily approve, brings Catherine down to earth when she gets carried away.  He, too, is a novel reader, and has a good sense of humor.  He says,

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  I have read all Mrs. Radliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure.  The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again,–I remember finishing it in two days–my hair standing on end the whole time.”

3.  Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky.  A nominee for the Hugo Award, this  science fiction novel was highly lauded.   Parts are charming, parts are a bit awkward and rambling, but it should appeal to fans of Harry Potter and Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy.  The story of the relationship between Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a brilliant techie, includes lots of magic, science, sex, and global warming.  Though this novel seems to me very slight, it is a good weekend read.


AND NOW FOR TWO LITERARY LINKS.  When I spotted an online review at the TLS of Ann Hood’s bibliomemoir, Morningstar,I paid a month’s subscription fee to read the review.  Well, I will also benefit by reading other reviews for subscribers only.   I loved Hood’s memoir, and hope others will enjoy it, too.  (You can read my post on Morningstar here.)

Jenny Hendrix writes in the TLS,

…[Hood] credits her childhood bookishness with setting her on a path to the literary life of her dreams. Hood reflects on ten works of fiction that guided her through adolescence in the late 1960s and early 70s, and her discovery through them of how to live “the mysterious, unnam­able, big dream life I wanted”: “My parents learned about life from hardship”, she writes. “Me? I learned from books.”

In her blue-collar Rhode Island mill town, Hood was an oddity in a household of non-readers; in her hard-working Italian immigrant family, books were seen as a waste of time and money. But, after she had enjoyed a chance encounter with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, literature opened Hood’s eyes to possibilities beyond her immediate milieu. She learnt what it meant to be a writer from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; learnt to love language via the poet Rod McKuen; and credits John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with teaching her how to write. There were other, extra-literary lessons as well, in subjects her family didn’t discuss. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, the novel Johnny Got His Gun sharpened her political thinking; the free-loving teens of The Harrad Experiment opened her eyes to the mechanics of sex. Together, these books built Hood an off-ramp from what she experienced as the dull and uninspiring trajectory of her peers: baptized in the church at one end of the town’s main street, married at the club in the middle, and buried by the funeral parlour at the same street’s far end.

The tough women criticizing women at the TLS always find a few negative things to say, and so Hendrix calls the book “heart-warming,” which is not the worst thing I’ve ever heard!  Overall, she liked the book.

If you like free reviews, and don’t we all, you can read the insightful review at  The Minneapolis Star Tribune .  Laurie Hertzel, the book page editor, aptly describes Hood’s graceful book.

In these 10 appealing essays, Hood deftly recounts pivotal moments in her early life, recalling not just what happened, but how she felt and how wonderful it was that the right book seemed to appear at the right time. “Once again,” she writes, “my world had been cracked open by a book.”

Hood’s book is actually one of my favorite books of the year.

My Experience with “Ladies’ Greek,” in the Free-Wheeling 1970s

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Michele Gordigiani, oil on canvas, 1858

I am still reading Yopie Prins’s Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedies, a lively history of Victorian women who studied and translated Greek tragedies.  Some were classicists; others amateurs. An entire chapter is devoted to Virginia Woolf”s Agamemnon notebook.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a passionate Greek student, and the phrase “lady’s Greek”  comes from  her novel/poem, Aurora Leigh.  The heroine, Aurora, is a passionate reader of Greek, but her cousin Romney teases her about the Greek marginalia in her book of poetry. He denigrates her Greek, implying that it is not up to the level of the typical schoolboy.

Were the men defeated by Crosby and Schaeffer?

Inspired by EBB, I got out my Greek copy of Prometheus Bound (there is a translation by EBB) and suddenly realized:   I took an actual “ladies’ Greek” class as an undergraduate! Don’t get me wrong:  it was real  Greek, of the kind American schoolboys learned in the 1920s, in a “minimalist”  textbook known as Crosby and Schaeffer.  We  memorized paradigms and translated sentences like: “The satrap himself wrote as follows” and “Not being able to find the road, the captain perished.” And we loved it!

All the men dropped out of  Greek after the first rigorous year. What wimps!  Yes, we fair ones are the strong sex.  In second-year Greek, six or seven of us women ecstatically pored over Lysias and Euripides.  Some of us studied Greek for classics or related majors; others were enthusiastic but had less time.  And this was the situation of many of the classicists and amateurs in Prins’ book.  Populizers of Greek like Jane Harrison and Edith Hamilton encouraged the study of Greek for women, with an emphasis on  art as well as grammar.  Virginia Woolf, returning to Greek in middle age, had to devise a system by which she could read Agamemnon with a crib.  Her Greek was rusty, and she finally discovered a way to muse on the Greek words but also read quickly with the crib.

Was there sexism in our “ladies’ Greek” class?  Well, yes, but it was often hard to distinguish between sexism and classism.  Our professors were men with elite educations. They would much rather NOT have been teaching at state universities. Once this was actually discussed in front of us women, when a male transfer student from an elite school chatted to our professor about how unimpressed he was by our university.   Yes, the professor  regretted the low level.   Well, we women were not impressed by the young man’s Greek, who was not held to the same high standard we were. Our professor was one of the best teachers I have ever had, regardless of what he thought of us.   And the strict training in grammar, translation, and prosody prepared us well for a Hellenistic future.  Not that it ever arrived!

One other incident has stayed with me.  A friend from Greek class and I attended an evening lecture on Boethius.  (I was also an earnest Latin student, and though I had not read Boethius in Latin, I had read an English translation.) The professor asked us after the lecture what we thought of it.  Like the unpolitical babes in the wood we were, we told him we found it very dull indeed. (And it was–so dull!) “It might help if you read Boethius,” he said.  “We did,” we replied,.  (‘Nuff said?  Bit weren’t we silly not to say we thought it brilliant?)

In graduate school in classics, there was no more ladies’ Greek.  The number of male and female students was roughly equal. And, as far as I could tell, we were all treated equally. I had an independent study in Plato at a professor’s house:  there was much chinking of teacups and dropping of notes, but, as he said, my Greek was very good. My priority in graduate school was improving my Greek and Latin, and teaching.  I must confess I did not read many of the very, very, very dull articles assigned in classical journals because most of my time went to languages, and nary a one of these articles was relevant to my master’s exams.  And if I didn’t have time to read novels, I would go mad.  I mean I needed it!  Without Dickens or Trollope at the end of the day I could not sleep!

My one great disappointment in grad school? I did not take the Aeschylus seminar!  Greek prose composition (which I also loved) was scheduled for the same time, and I did need that course.  Can I go back in time? The professor retired.  And, really, I do not live near a university with a classics department. Fortunately I relearned my Greek grammar in middle age and hence dip into Aeschylus on my own. I am elbow-deep in dictionaries and grammars.

And that is something we Ladies in Greek do. We relearn our grammar, get out our vocabulary lists, and go for it!

Colm Toibin’s “House of Names” & Other Retold Myths

I did not quite love Colm Toibin’s House of Names, though it is a gorgeous retelling of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, with nods to Sophocles’s Electra and Euripides’s Orestes.  It is brilliant in its way, and often poetic.  It is  part Greek tragedy (the best part), part well-plotted Mary Renault.  Although I loved The Master, Toibin’s historical novel about Henry James (nominated for the Booker Prize), I was only intermittently swept away by his  much-lauded new book.  Perhaps it is because there is a lot of competition in the genre of retold myths.  But perhaps the real reason is that I no longer teach, so I am not assigning these books for extra credit to inspire my students with a love of classics.  (They will read anything for extra credit, and I hope some of them got something out of it.)

The novel begins well, with Clytemnestra’s rage.  Clytemnestra has murdered her husband King Agamemnon to avenge  his killing of their oldest daughter, Iphigenia:   he sacrificed Iphigenia to the gods so they would send a wind to take his  ships to war in Troy, where he and the Greek army would ravage and destroy an entire civilization.  And he had deceived his family, sending for Iphigenia so she could, supposedly, marry Achilles.

Clytemnestra’s views on her husband’s deceit and violence are icy-cold.  She coolly says the gods have deserted mankind.

When he was alive, he and the men around him believed that the gods followed their fates and cared about them. Each of them. But I will say now that they did not, they do not. Our appeal to the gods is the same as the appeal a star makes in the sky above us before it falls, it is a sound we cannot hear, a sound to which, even if we did hear it, we would be fully indifferent.

Tobiin’s characterization of the women is powerful, really the best part of the novel.   The younger daughter, Electra, a daddy’s girl,  turns against her mother, and eventually, when Electra comes into power, she turns, ironically, into a version of Clytemnestra, as far as shrewd politics go.

But most of the book focuses on the son Orestes, who is a follower, not a leader. In Toibin’s version, he is  kidnapped and sent to live in a barracks with other kidnapped boys, and escapes under the leadership of a smarter boy, Leander.  They trek for days, doing their best to take care of Mitros, a sickly boy who never stops coughing  And if you’re a Renault fan, you will enjoy Toibin’s excellent plotting as they barely escape one danger after another. For a time, the three boys live idyllically on the farm of an old woman who needs help with the animals and the crops.  But of course eventually the boys must leave. At home they find  so many dead, so many disappeared. Encouraged by Electra, Orestes kills Clytemnestra.

What happens to a matricide?  What happens to his name?

The shade of Clytemnestra comes back to see her son.  At first she cannot remember his name.

“I am Orestes,” he whispered.

“Orestes,” she whispered.

He could see her clearly now. Her face was even younger.

“There is no one,” she whispered.

“There is,” he said. “I am here. It is me.”

“No one,” she repeated.”

“She said the words “no one” twice more, and then, as her image began to fade, as the shadows grew around her, it seemed to him that she had some fierce and sudden intimation of what had happened, how she had died. She gazed at him in surprise and then in pain, and then she gasped in anguish before she disappeared.”

And Orestes is almost invisible to others after the matricide. He is no one.   He is not respected.  He is ignored.

If you like The House of Names, here  is a list of other excellent retellings of myths.

1  Katherine Beutner’s debut novel, Alcestis.  I very much enjoyed this  feminist retelling of the Alcestis myth, winner of the Edmund White Award for debut fiction from the Publishing Triangle in 2011.  Not as poetic as Toibin’s book, but worth reading. And what happened to  after she wrote this?  Don’t you hate the way good writers disappear?

2  David Malouf’s Ransom, an inspired reimagining of the Iliad focused on the incident of Priam’s ransoming of his son Hector’s body.

3 Barry Unsworth’s The Songs of the Kings, a brilliant  retelling of Agamemnon’s  sacrifice of Iphigineia.

4  Jane Rawlings’s The Penelopeia:  A Novel in Verse.  This retelling of Peneolope’s story in the form of an epic poem is quite effective.

5.  Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong.  A retelling of the Persephone myth in the age of climate change.

Reading the Classics and Yopie Prins’ “Ladies’ Greek: The Victorian Translations of Tragedies”

Did you know the translation of classics is male-dominated?  Check your bookshelf:  is Aeschylus’s Oresteia translated by Robert Fagles, Richmond Lattimore, or Ted Hughes?  How about Ovid’s Metamorphoses? Maybe  David Raeburn, Allen Mandelbaum, Charles Martin, or Rolfe Humphreys is the translator.

I never considered the issue of women translators of classics until I read Emily Wilson’s brilliant article in the Guardian“Found in Translation:  How Women Are Making the Classics Their Own” (July 7, 2017).  Wilson, whose new translation of Homer’s Odyssey will be published this fall, writes a compelling case for women translators after centuries of men.

For hundreds of years, the study of ancient Greece and Rome was largely the domain of elite white men and their bored sons. One might assume optimistically that things have changed. After all, women from a wide variety of backgrounds are now able to enrol at prestigious universities and colleges and learn Latin and Greek from scratch; knowledge of the ancient languages is no longer open only to men. But the legacy of male domination is still with us – inside the discipline of classics itself and in how non-specialist general readers gain access to the history and literature of the ancient world.

She says in the last decade we have begun to see more women translators of classics:  she mentions Caroline Alexander, Pamela Mensch, Sarah Ruden,  and Josephine Balmer.  On my shelves I have Betty Rose Nagle’s brilliant translations of Ovid’s Fasti and Statius’s Silvae, the classicist/poet Anne Carson’s Euripides, and Susan H. Braund’s  Civil Wars by Lucan.  That’s it.

If not for Wilson’s article, I would not have discovered the clever, charming book by Yopie Prins,  Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedies. I am reading it with great enthusiasm.  And I would say this is not just for classicists, though it helps to know Greek tragedies. The book revolves around Victorian women classicists, writers, and poets who translated tragedies, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf, H.D., Amy Levy, and Edith Hamilton.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was very keen on Greek, and the phrase “lady’s Greek”  comes from her  novel/poem, Aurora Leigh.  The heroine of the poem, Aurora Leigh, is a passionate reader of Greek who hopes to become a  poet.  Her cousin Romney, who proposes to her on her 20th birthday  cannot resist teasing her, i.e., denigrating her education.  He mocks her Greek marginalia in a book of poems.

Here’s a book I found!
No name writ on it–poems, by the form;
Some Greek upon the margin,–lady’s Greek
Without the accents.

The phrase “lady’s Greek” implies that Aurora does not really know Greek: in her personal notes, she has omitted the accents and breathing marks.  Browning may have encountered such sexism. She  was so passionate about Greek that she once wrote to the scholar Hugh Stuart Boyd, with whom she used to read Greek, “I intend to give up Greek when I give up poetry; & not till then!”

Mind you, I am as thrilled to read about Victorian women classicists  as about famous poets and novelists, but you will probably be more interested in the latter.  Fans of Woolf may have read  her essay, “On Not Knowing Greek.”  And, truly, she did not know Greek very well.  She studied as  a young woman with a Miss Janet Case (whose background Prins also describes).  At the age of 40,  Woolf returned to Aeschylus’s Agamemnon before she wrote her essay.  And she was rusty.

Virginia Woolf

To give you an idea of the challenge Woolf faced–her Greek was far from fresh–let me tell you that even scholars use dictionaries and grammars to translate tragedies.  Ancient Greek  is not a spoken language, the dialects can be difficult,  the vocabulary is entirely different from that of prose, and you are reading writers over a period of many centuries. So Woolf devised a crib for Agamemnon, consisting of a Greek text cut and pasted into the notebook, with Arthur Verrall’s English translation copied out in her own handwriting on the other side of the page. She began to realize it was impossible  for her to read the mystical and occasionally mystifying Greek quickly.  As she pored over the obscure poetry of Aeschylus, she wrote, “it is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words.”  (I think a better grasp of Greek grammar also would have helped.)

Prins is equally adept at portraying the Victorian women who first studied classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, and Somerville college, Oxford.  Agnata Frances Ramsay was the first woman to receive Top Honors in Part One of Tripos Examination at Cambridge.  How was she rewarded by the press?  A cartoon in Punch portrayed her stepping into a train coach marked First Class and Ladies’ Only, next to Punch himself and a dancing dog:  Samuel Johnson said an educated woman preaching is like a circus dog performing tricks.

After graduating from Newnham, Cambridge, Jane Harrison had an enormous influence: she popularized Greek through lectures, classes, and articles in women’s magazines and popular journals before returning to Cambridge to teach.  And Helen Magill, an American with a classics degree at Swarthmore who went to Cambridge  only to get a third in the Tripos at Cambridge–she blanked out–went back to the U.S., earned a Ph.D., and taught Greek in the women’s annex at Princeton.

Magill developed her own theory about studying Greek. She wrote, “Latin and Greek are by far the best instruments for training the mind in grammar and logic, but this training should not come first.  Every language should be studied as an art before it is studied as a science.”

This is very much like Virginia Woolf’s theory.  I myself think art and training should be simultaneous.

I am reading and loving this book, and  I do think many of you would enjoy it.