Reading from the Shelves: Thanksgiving Reading Plans

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, because there is no pressure, no religious observation, and no compulsory shopping for gifts. It’s all about the turkey, mashed potatoes, and  green bean casserole.  As the hero of Mary McCarthy’s novel, Birds of America, hilariously observes, it is basically just a harvest fest.  (I enjoyed this satiric novel and wrote about it here.)  I do love a good harvest fest.

But, alas, we may not have a good holiday this year. Every happy family is alike, and we have identical bad colds. One gets the cold, all get it.  As the least ill person in the house, I bicycled to the box store to buy cold pills–and had to show my ID.  At first I thought I was being carded by a moron,  but it turns out they scan the ID, presumably so you don’t go home and make meth.  Although meth is a problem, I wonder if the lawmakers watched too much Breaking Bad.

Oh, well, at least we have decongestants so we can breathe and plan our holiday reading!

Yes, the “Best of” lists are already showing up, and  I pore over them with fascination, but I plan to stay peacefully at home and read books off the shelves.  Often on  holidays I’ve read old potboilers like Edna Ferber’s Giant (loved it!) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (liked it!).  They’re page-turners, pretty well-written, and distract you from obnoxious relatives.

This year I’m going for something different, possibly short, not necessarily by women, and not necessarily a blockbuster.  Here is my stack of books.

1. The first books follows my usual holiday blockbuster M.O.   I have started reading the Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber’s 1929 novel, Cimarron, an intriguing novel about the Oklahoma “land rush.” The main characters, Yancey Cravat, a lawyer and newspaper editor, and his wife Sabra, the pampered daughter of a wealthy Kansas family, are very believable and likable.   Yes, this book is a blockbuster, but it is so much fun. Ferber won the Pulitzer Prize for  So Big, a remarkable novel about a woman farmer.

2. I’ve long meant to read Saki.  And so I picked up this Dover edition of The Chronicles of Clovis, a collection of his short stories about a witty socialite named Clovis. The book is blessedly short, and it even has an introduction by A. A. Milne.

3. Violet Trefusis is best known for having been Vita Sackville-West’s lover, but she was also a writer, and her novel Hunt the Slipper is a romantic comedy with a twist.  I am looking forward to reading her 1951 novel Pirates at Play, which also looks very witty.

4. D. J. Enright’s Academic Year, a satire about three expatriate Englishmen teaching in Egypt, has been on our shelves for years.  I only know Enright as a reviser of Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, but I love academic satires.  My  husband is sicker than I am, though, and he pounced on it and said, “Maybe I’ll read it on Thanksgiving.”    Okay, he can read it first.

5. l am a great fan of Enid Bagnold’s books, and especially enjoyed The Loved and Envied, a bold novel about a group of aging upper-class friends. I  am not particularly horsey, but I did love the Elizabeth Taylor movie of National Velvet, so picked up this paperback for 90 cents (a weird price) at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.


Do let me know what your reading plans are for the holiday!

Work for Women: Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop

Let me ‘fess up.   I knew nothing about Amy Levy (1861-1889) before I read The Romance of a Shop.   I’d mixed her up with the witty Ada Leverson, the author of the charming trilogy, The Little Ottleys.  But I enjoy novels about women in the workplace, and found Levy’s book entertaining, if very slight.

The four Lorimer sisters are bereft:  their father has died, and they must support themselves. But what can they do?  Gertrude, an aspiring writer, regretfully consigns her scribblings to the trash and hatches a plan.  She discusses careers with her sisters, the charming 20-year-old Lucy, the irrepressible 17-year-old  Phyllis, and their simple half-sister, 30-year-old Fanny, who  has “somewhat the appearance of a large and superannuated baby.”

Fanny seems to have a slight intellectual disability.  She cannot grasp the idea of business and insists naively that Gertrude must become a famous writer.

Gertrude’s face flushed, but she controlled all other signs of the irritation which poor hapless Fan was so wont to excite in her. “I have thought about that, Fanny,” she said; “but I cannot afford to wait and hammer away at the publishers’ doors with a crowd of people more experienced and better trained than myself. No, I have another plan to propose to you all. There is one thing, at least, that we can all do.”

And that one thing they can do is  photography, since they have long had their own home studio and professional equipment. So they rent a  studio and start a photography business in London. They live in an apartment above the shop.  Fanny does the housekeeping.

Amy Levy

I was very interested in Levy’s treatment of their work.  What does Levy tell us about photography? It is a demanding career and a hard life.  They have very few customers, and very little money. One of  their first jobs is to photograph the dead wife of Lord Watergate, and  Gertrude does this alone, to spare her sisters. Later, a neighbor, Frank Jermyn, an artist, befriends the Lorrimers, and introduces them to his artist friends, so they have work photographing studies and paintings.  Unfortunately, one of the artists is the debauched Sidney Darrell, who causes much grief.  Frank, Lord Watergate, and Darrell are important characters.

Does being women get in the way of their career?  After a while, it actually helps them.  They are a novelty.  And their social circle expands.

I wish there were more about work, and less about love. Soon the novel descends into a romantic melodrama.  I had read  that this is a predecessor of George Gissing’s The Odd Women.  It is not.

Oddly, it slightly resembles Louisa Alcott’s Little Women, sans humor. And I am quite sure Levy would have read that girls’ masterpiece, published in 1868.  There are some parallels between the Lorimers and the March sisters.   Gertrude, the writer and more-or-less studio CEO, is rather like Jo, the writer; Lucy is charming and practical, like Meg;  Phyllis is a spoiled Amy with worse manners; and Fanny is a grotesque doppelganger of Beth, who possibly has Aspergers.   Somebody even dies.

Levy, a novelist, poet, and essayist, was the first Jewish woman to attend Newnham, Cambridge. Her best-known novel, Reuben Sachs, was written partly as a response to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, which she considered too romantic.

By the way,  Reuben Sachs has been published by Persephone.  And all of Levy’s books are also available as e-books.

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

“Our apartment always looked like Christmas because the shelves were laden with red and green Loeb books in Greek and Latin,” writes the narrator of “The Mouse Queen,” a  surreal story in Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, her debut collection of short stories.

Who has ever thought of Loebs, those small green and red books with Greek or Latin on one page and  translations of English on the facing pager, in terms of Christmas?  This striking detail,  delivered in the narrator’s matter-of-fact voice, is so unexpected that the whole story becomes an exercise in whimsy and hyperbole.  Whimsical detail follows whimsical detail, and we read eagerly for the narrator’s unique insights.

It is difficult to categorize Grudova’s stories.  Are they fairy tales?  Are they horror stories?  The strange twists and turns go places you have never imagined. The stories are slightly  reminiscent of the surrealism of Leonora Carrington and the dark baroque fairy tales of Angela Carter.

I like to let the spare poetic prose wash over me, and sometimes I intuit the meaning. The  common theme of the stories is metamorphosis.

I really am not as obsessed with classics as I seem, but let me return to  “The Mouse Queen,” because it is one of the eeriest and most audacious of the stories.  The narrator meets her husband Peter in a Latin class.  She explains ,

I was drawn to Latin because it didn’t belong to anybody, there were no native speakers to laugh at me.  There were private school kids in my classes who had studied Latin before, but I quickly overtook them.  Peter, who was one of them, slicked his hair back like a young Samuel Beckett and had the wet, squinting look of an otter.

Camilla Grudova

And here we get the first hint that something may be awry with Peter, one of the rich kids, the son of two lawyers; he is adamantly contemptuous of classics students who go to law school.  The narrator is poor and hard-working, and her mother lives in a dark ground-floor apartment. No thought of law school has entered her head.

The two marry young, against their parents’ wishes.  They post ads in bookstores offering Latin tutoring services, but, not surprisingly no one replies. so they won’t be going to Rome any time soon…   The narrator finds s a job  in a doll’s house shop, and Peter installs tombs at a cemetery.  The details about their workplaces are charming, particularly the descriptions of the miniatures at the dolls’ house shop.  But  Peter becomes increasingly obsessed with the Roman world, and goes mad when he learns she is pregnant with twins.  He accuses her of having cheated on him with a god.  He leaves her, and she becomes  a single mother of twins, and gets a job at a chocolate factory to support them.  Then one day  she metamorphoses into a werewolf and writes her memoirs.  This story is rich with allusions to the  Nutcracker, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Romulus and Remus story, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Roald Dahl,  Peter and the Wolf.  and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses.

Sure, the theme of metamorphosis links many of the stories,  but Grudova is also obsessed with sewing machines.  In the first story, “Unstitching,” which is only three pages long, women learn to unstitch themselves, and their true selves look like  sewing machines. They are happy to have evolved into their true form, and sewing machines are no longer used;  they are aesthetic objects displayed at exhibitions. The men are not happy about it; they regret the loss of the women’s forms.

“Notes from a Spider,”a horror story, takes a different turn.  A  man with eight legs falls in love with a sewing machine, a model called Florence, with “four legs,like iron plants, a wooden body, a swan-like curved metal neck,…and a small mouth with a silver tooth.”  He  hires seamstresses, disfigured from long hours sewing,  to sew on Florence so he can  “read”‘ her stitches .  Each seamstress eventually drops dead from exhaustion. And then one day he asks one   to sew his legs, and the stitches and scars are “love bites” to him.  What it means I can’t quite tell you, but it’s horrifying.

“Waxy” takes place in a postapocalyptic future, in which women work to support men who need to pass “exams.”  Pauline works in a factory, painting “NIGHTINGALE” on sewing machines, and dislikes the job but realizes she feels great not having a man. Still, she has to find one soon, and finally spicks up a smelly,  incontinent young man named Paul, who, it turns out, isn’t registered for exams.  He is kind and they fall in love, but they have to live a underground life so no one will know he’s not registered,  and they can’t register their tiny baby.

A lovely book: give it to the oddball on your list!  In an interview at Publishers Weekly, the Canadian writer Camilla Grudova explains that she was discovered after she  posted some stories at Tumblr.  Her background is in art history and German.

In Which I Flippantly Consider Venus’s Purple Buskins; & What Are Your Favorite Agatha Christie Novels?

Sarah Ruden’s translation of the Aeneid is the first in English by a woman.

I am obsessed with Virgil.  As  I’ve written many times since I began this blog five years ago, rereading the Aeneid in Latin is one of my guilty pleasures.  Virgil’s epic poem about the founding of Rome by Trojan refugees is partly a brilliant homage to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, partly a  celebration of empire to flatter Augustus, and partly an anti-war poem.

There are many critical interpretations of the Aeneid; hence comparing translations to the Latin can be illuminating.  This fall I am reading the English for the first time since Robert Fagles’ superb translation was published in 2006.  I am fascinated by two new (or newish) translations, the poet David Ferry’s and the classical philologist Sarah Ruden’s.

I love David Ferry’s spellbinding new translation, though occasionally he wanders from the Latin to perfect the beauty of his own lines.  But why, I lament flippantly, did he leave out Venus’s purple (or crimson) buskins (open-toed  boots with laces)? When she disguises herself as a huntress in Carthage to confront and advise her son Aeneas, she denies to him that she is a goddess and says she is just a normal Tyrian girl wearing the current fashion.

Before we look at Ferry’s, here is my literal translation of the Latin (and the Latin lines are below, at the end of the Virgil section of this post).  “Then Venus said: ‘Indeed, I am not worthy of such an honor./ It is the fashion for Tyrian girls to wear a quiver/ and purple buskins  tied high on the calves.'”

Venus as huntress (in  crimson buskins) appears to Aeneas in Carthage

Ferry is a very great poet, but he chooses to add a bow to the quiver and subtracts the purple from the boots.

Ferry writes, “Then Venus:  ‘I am not worthy of that honor./It is the custom of Tyrian maidens to wear/Such hunting boots and carry a quiver and bow.'”

Sarah Ruden, the first (and only?) woman to translate the Aeneid into English (Yale University Press, 2008), has a different, more literal approach. She lines up her  English lines of blank verse almost exactly with Virgil’s Latin , and  since Latin is much more concise  than English this is quite an achievement. Her translation is less poetic than Ferry’s, but equally effective. And, yes, she mentions the purple boots.  Here is Ruden’s translation of those three lines:

“She answered, ‘That would surely not be right./These quivers are what Tyrian girls all carry; /We all wear purple boots, laced on our calves.”

I love it!   And that famous purple dye, which ranged from violet to crimson, is worth a mention:  it was, later, one of the main Tyrian exports.

And here’s the Latin of those three lines:

Tum Venus: ‘Haud equidem tali me dignor honore;               335
virginibus Tyriis mos est gestare pharetram,
purpureoque alte suras vincire cothurno.


This weekend we saw and very much enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s new movie adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express.  It was so much fun!

It made me want to curl up with an Agatha Christie, so I found my copy of Murder on the Orient Express.  And then, looking around for more,  I found a charming article at the Barnes and Noble Reads blog about “10 Absolutely Essential Agatha Christie Classics.”

Here is the list, and do let me know your favorite Christies!  I have enjoyed the Jane Marple mysteries, but have many Hercule Poirots yet to read.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The ABC Murders
Murder on the Orient Express
And Then There Were None
Death on the Nile
Endless Night
Peril at End House
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Murder at the Vicarage

An Offbeat Women’s Novel: Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York

“What are you going to major in in college, Sheila?”
“Liberal arts.”
“I think teaching is such a good profession for a woman. Good starting salary. Good vacations, and it’s always something that a girl can fall back on. Even if you get married, it’s always something you can go back to when the kids are older.”
Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, by Gail Parent

How I laughed over the passage above!  I had the same conversation with my own mother. The narrator of this witty novel, Sheila Levine, is adamant about not wanting to teach.  She wants to do something creative after college, preferably something that will get her written up in Vogue.

I kept underlining passages as I chortled over Gail Parent’s 1972 novel, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York. (I ‘d never heard of it until it came up recently as a recommendation at Amazon.)  Written in the form of a suicide note, it reads like women’s stand-up comedy,  hilarious, poignant, and unabashedly unpolitically correct:   Sheila has problems with “women’s lib.” Unlike the beautiful heroines of ’70s feminist best-sellers like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen,  Sheila Levine is an overweight sexy girl who doesn’t attract the men she is attracted to.  She doesn’t mind being an easy lay:  she enjoys sex.   She is very funny, but we do feel her pain and grief increasingly as the book goes on.

Sheila is tired at 30 of being a single Jewish  woman in New York.  She wittily describes her history of bad dates,  her smashed expectations of  finding romance, the sharing of a one-bedroom apartment with two roommates and an impecunious gay man sleeping on the couch–and the scenes are familiar, though Parent’s language is blunter and brasher than is likely to appeal to the overly-sensitive ears of today’s delicate feminists. Don’t faint or swoon, okay?  Parent is a very good writer.   Although I am of a later generation than Sheila and never thought in terms of husband-hunting, we all had our hair-raising stories of single life, and were very happy to get married.  Those who didn’t marry cope in their own way, some very well, some very badly.

Sheila has a lot of sex at Syracuse University, never with men she really likes, but she enjoys the sex. And she cynically describes the ritual of smart women working as hard for  that Mrs. degree as for the B.A.  After sophomore year, if the juniors don’t have boyfriends, they transfer to another school, because they can’t compete with the incoming freshmen.  After transferring to NYU, where Sheila majors in drama/education, she can’t decide if she’s in love with Hinley, the  professor-director, who gives her a C- in children’s theater, or Joshua,  the star actor of all the plays. By the way, Sheila is their gofer. Hinley has given her the key to his apartment, and all three hang out.   Imagine her surprise when she finally figures out they are a gay couple.

After graduation, the employment agencies keep referring her to  typing jobs, though she specifically says she isn’t interested.  She finally finds a “creative” job through the Jewish community of friends and relatives of her parents.   Rose Lehman’s sister knows of a  children’s record company which is expanding, “owing to a Christmas hit he had where a lot of squirrels sang.”  (Oh my goodness, remember Alvin and the Chipmunks?)  All of Sheila’s Jewish friends get jobs through friends and family.  And it is a resource, with the competition in New York.

Housing is a huge problem in New York. I am horrified by the descriptions of the places she and her college roommate, Linda, see when they hunt for an apartment in the East Village.

Somehow they have believe they’ll find a cute place like an apartment in a Doris Day movie.

Sheila explains,

My roommate, Linda, and I decided way back in Syracuse that if weren’t married by the time we graduated, we probably would at least be engaged, and we would live together in Manhattan.  Why not?  Didn’t Doris Day always have a  precious, little two-bedroom  apartment, all yellow and light-blue and cuddly?  Nothing pretentious–just a modest fifteen-hundred-a-month apartment in a gorgeous brownstone that poor Doris paid for with her unemployment check.  The sheets and pajamas alone must have cost a fortune.  Four years of college apiece, and Sheila Levine and Linda Minsk didn’t know that Hollywood had been deceiving them all these years.  We thought that if we were good girls and looked hard enough, Doris Day, when she was carried off into blissful matrimony, would sublet her place to us.

I found this book fascinating:  it’s also blessedly short, so you can read it in a day.  Sheila is raised from toddlerhood to expect to get married, and is so depressed that the culture, including movies, revolves around that and then doesn’t deliver,  that she plans to commit suicide, even after she meets a man who gives her orgasms (he also gives her a fungus!).  The novel goes in a very odd direction.   I enjoyed this enormously, once I got into the mode of the style of another time!

Parent is a screenwriter who has won two Emmys, and her other books are out-of-print.   There’s not much information about them online, but if anyone knows a good place to start, let me know..

Popularizing Literature: A Revival of Edith Hamilton & an Unfortunate Review of a Roman Classic

Norton has reissued two books by Edith Hamilton, a popularizer of Greek and Roman culture.

In my thirties and forties  I reviewed for (mostly now-defunct) book pages,  but I have enjoyed blogging far more than reviewing.   My goal as a blogger/book journal writer is to popularize neglected classics, as well as an occasional striking new book.

Alas, critics seldom respect popularizers or bloggers. The received wisdom  is that bloggers’ opinions do not matter because they do not know the language of criticism.  But as book review publications change direction or fold  (and  as a lifelong reader of reviews, I’m very sad about this), critics have more to worry about than the competition of bloggers.  I am disturbed that  two of the daily critics at The New York Times,  Michiko Kakutani and Jennifer Senior, have recently resigned and transferred to  “longform journalism” (whatever that may be).  And in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, the review of David Ferry’s new translation of the Aeneid was written by April Bernard, a poet who does not know Latin.  Mind you, she is enthusiastic–a popularizer?–but the review is riddled with errors–and bullshit.  The NYRB usually assigns such reviews to classicists, among them Mary Beard and Daniel Mendelsohn.

On the positive side, I am  enthusiastic about an excellent article in the TLS about the revival of Edith Hamilton, a classicist who popularized Greek and Roman culture in her books.  And, by the way, the reviewer, thank God,  is a classicist, Donna Zuckerberg.  (N.B. At the end of this post I will write more about Hamilton.)

But first let me rant about the NYRB review of David Ferry’s translation of the Aeneid.

If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s good to establish your lack of credentials.  Bernard cleverly does this. She writes,

My own Latin education, which came too late to stick, required me to construe some lines from the Aeneid before a frowning, and then sarcastic, doorkeeper to a graduate program in literature. He seemed to regard my poor performance as no better than could be expected, and passed me on with a sigh. My point is that I am no scholar, and like the vast majority of readers I gratefully apprehend the likes of Virgil and Ovid through their English translators.

This is not false modesty–it’s hubris. It’s an attempt to get readers on her side.  Bernard manipulates readers into forgiving her ignorance, thinking, Oh, classicists are so stuffy!  But I would guess that quite a few classicists will read this  and wonder, as I did, How on earth did she get the job?

Bernard writes at length about poets influenced by, or responding to Virgil, and she does that very well.  But she has problems when she actually looks at Ferry’s translation and waffles unconvincingly about Virgil’s Latin.  She spends much time marveling at Virgil’s use of the “historical present,” a substitution of the present tense for the past tense.

If she knew more Latin, she would understand this is common usage. Roman writers frequently employ the historical present, i.e., present tense, instead of the  past  to emphasize the immediacy and vividness of the action, or even just to fit the meter of a poem.  Poets, prose writers, Virgil, Ovid, Tacitus, Livy:   all use the historical present.  In many languages this is common usage: think of the  present tense of the short stories of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason.

She illustrates the use of the historical present in the following passage from Book VI, when the Sibyl leads Aeneas travel  to the Underworld, guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog.

Ferry writes in his translation

Huge Cerberus, crouching there in the dooryard of
The cavern he was watchdog of, made all
The regions round reverberate with the loud
Barking of his three heads. Seeing the serpents
Bristling around his neck, the Sybil throws him
A drugged pellet of meal, drowsed with honey.
He catches it in his ravenous triple gullet,
Wolfs it down, and at once his monster body
Relaxed, and he sank down….

What Bernard doesn’t understand is that the shifting of tenses from past to present at which she marvels is not a literal translation.  The past tense of “made all reverberate” is Ferry’s own, not that of Virgil, who consistently uses the present in the passage (Book VI, lines 417-423, in the Latin.)  So when she writes the following, it is bullshit.

What results from this shuffling of tenses is a strange, accordion-fold relation to time. We sit far away, even farther away than the gods, since we in the future know that what Fate has decreed will come to pass. And yet much of the time we are “on the ground,” in the thick of the action in the present tense. Moreover, events from this historical present are constantly “predicting” the future—in addition to being given yet another famous shield covered in predictive panoramas, Aeneas is also peppered with auguries, omens, and more casual guesses, promises, and threats of consequence throughout the epic. His job, of course, is to see Fate realized in the most honorable of ways, to make his person serve as vehicle for the story that is so much larger than himself.

Oh, by the way, the present is also sometimes used for the future–but we won’t go there.

In Book IV, the monster Rumor walks.  Virgil describes Rumor  as a horrendous monster with feathers all over her body, and with as many eyes, tongues, mouths, and ears as there are feathers (the eyes, tongues, mouths, and ear are under the feathers),  Bernard translates  tot linguae, “so many tongues,”as “these tongues.” And she fudges about the reasons for Ferry’s modifications in translation, as so often, by comparing it to Latin she doesn’t know.

She quotes a passage from Ferry’s translation about Dido’s suicide.  Dido explains that she wants to die.  And then she stops speaking, and her companions see her  actual death, that she has fallen on the sword.

Then Bernard decides, for some odd reason, to show off her  inability to translate Latin.  She writes,

Here is an opportunity to compare translations. The Latin original, for those last five lines after Dido’s speech, is:

Dixerat, atque illam media inter talia ferro
conlapsam aspiciunt comites, ensemque cruore
spumantem sparsasque manus. It clamor ad alta

Literally, and clumsily, this translates as:  “Having spoken, in the midst of all that, her retinue sees/saw [Dido] fall/having fallen on the blade, the sword making a geyser of gore, hands awash in blood. The clamor rose to the roofs of the palace.”

Alas, Bernard is not skilled enough to write a literal translation. She confuses the pluperfect verb,  dixerat (‘she had spoken,” translated in English narrative as “she spoke,” perfect tense), with a past participle (“having spoken).” Since I am a classicist, let me share a literal Latin translation with you:   “[Dido] spoke, and in the midst of such words her companions saw her fallen on the sword, and the sword foaming with blood and her hands bespattered.  A cry goes up to the roofs.”

Bernard also waffles about fatum, “fate,” and does not understand the complicated attitude of the sophisticated literary Romans of the first century B.C. toward the concept.  Even the etymolology of the word “fate” is fascinating:  it comes from the Latin  fari, “to speak,” and literally means  “that having been said.” It comes to mean “prophetic declaration,” “oracle,” and”prediction.”  Does anyone feel up to writing about fate.   I do not.

Bernard does not know enough about classics to write the lead review for the New York Review of Books.  A much shortened form of this review might work in a lesser publication, even in The New York Times (barely), but never in the  NYRB, one of the most intellectual publications in the U.S.

And, by the way, I will blog about Ferry’s translation eventually.  It is absorbing, and I love it.  But honestly? For our Virgil readalong in January, I will read Robert Fagles’ or Mandelbaum’s translation.  They are closer to the Latin, and that matters to me.

Are you ready to move on?  In this week’s TLS, the classicist Donna Zuckerberg  has written a fascinating article about  Edith Hamilton, the author of  The Greek Way and The Roman Way,  which inspired generations of readers, including Robert F. Kennedy, to appreciate the classics and Greek and Roman culture. I became interested in Hamilton last summer when I read Yopie Prins’ Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedy,  a fascinating book about  Victorian women classicists, writers, and poets who translated tragedies, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf,  and Edith Hamilton.  (I wrote about this stunning book here.)

I was particularly interested in Edith Hamilton, an American classicist who dedicated herself to popularizing Greek and Latin. We never read her at the university,  because she wasn’t strictly scholarly,  but I’ve known people who became interested in classics through Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.

Donna Zuckerberg in the TLS considers  Hamilton’s  The Greek Way and The Roman Way  classics. Norton has reissued these two books, and she says with good reason.   She writes,

Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way and The Roman Way, originally published in 1930 and 1932, are classics in their own right. Praised for their lucidity and accessibility, her books served as an introduction to classical antiquity for the general American public for much of the twentieth century. Although less well known in Europe, Hamilton achieved such popularity in the United States that, when I tell people that I study Classics, most people over the age of fifty who are familiar with the subject tell me that Hamilton was their entry point. The Greek Way was a favourite volume of Robert Kennedy, and – he claimed – a text that helped him process his grief after the assassination of his brother. Hamilton’s works underlie one traditional American approach to the Classics. Do they deserve re-publication?

Hamilton herself is a figure about whom much has been written lately (for example, the excellent chapter by Judith Hallett in the volume Women Classical Scholars, 2016). She had two distinguished careers, first as headmaster at Bryn Mawr, then as a writer about the ancient Mediterranean. It is tempting to compare Hamilton to her British contemporary Jane Ellen Harrison, but while Harrison’s work on Greek mythology became the foundation of scholarship on the subject, Hamilton’s work on mythology and classical civilization was unapologetically popularizing.

I did read a bit of The Greek Way last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it, though it is a bit dated.  Good for the TLS for writing about this now neglected writer.

“Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee”: Tom Petty, Virgil, and I

Tigger, a bookish cat preparing to read Dostovesky.

We drove all night in a Honda Civic with five cats.   With the exception of Tigger, a four-pound tabby who would not be fooled by a sedative in Fancy Feast, I’d managed to administer sedatives to all the cats.  Cats do not like to travel. Our black-and-white, Emma, howled  even on two-block trips to the vet and then coyly  refused to come out of the carrier. The vet dubbed our reclusive cat Helen “Yellin’ Helen.”  She’s fine at home, but her idea of hell is other people.  Now Emma curled up sleeping in a large carrier with her inseparable companion, Lou May. I held Tigger’s small carrier in my lap.

We were very, very tired. Indiana was endless.  Illinois was flat.  In Iowa we stopped at Kum & Go (really!) convenience stores for bad coffee.

As we finally veered off the Interstate, the sun rose over the dome of the Capitol.  A good omen.

Then it began to snow.  A bad omen.

Mixed omens.  That’s the way moves are.

And then we pulled up into the driveway.  “That’s the house?” It was a minuscule three-room rental house.   You could practically sit on the couch  in the living room and reach across to the kitchen to turn on the stove.

Would that our garage had been this organized!

We stored our books in the garage behind the teeny-tiny house. We had given away 350 books to a public library before the move, but we still had 2,000 books.   I would sit in the garage  in my tweed coat and fingerless gloves, trying to find specific books.   I told my doctor, “I’ve read 120 books since I moved here five months ago.  Don’t you think that’s odd?”  “I just think it’s odd that you write them down.”

I knew no one, didn’t click with the very nice women at the Oprah book club at a bookstore, and I spent most of my time reading and writing a bad novel.  One day I went to a mall, stocked up on classics at Walden, and gave away copies of Willa Cather’s My Antonia (Signet) to two women who worked at the Clinique counter at a department store.  “We love books,” said the beautiful women.  And they refused to sell me the extra-special miracle cream that was supposed to erase wrinkles and rejuvenate my sunburned skin.  “It’s too expensive.  This will work just as well,” they said.  They were honest women.  Readers, unite.

After searching in vain for my lost Latin dictionary, I ordered a new one from Amazon.  Tada!  It arrived very fast. And then I spent days reading Virgil’s  Aeneid, empathizing with the hero’s horrible situation. When Troy falls to the Greeks, Aeneas is by default the leader.  He is the last man standing.  Everybody’s dead. And he has to lead the survivors to a new homeland.  Where?  He tries, and tries again, and they are always driven away…  And he so doesn’t want this job. He is  half man, half god, the son of Anchises and Venus, and  should be up to the task. But he needs lots and lots of guidance.  He would rather take orders from  his father, or  from Dido, the queen of Carthage, also a refugee, than complete his weary mission of founding Rome, via war in Italy.  Why can’t they stay put?  What does it matter if Carthage or Rome is built to last?

David Ferry’s new translation of The Aeneid is elegant and very close to the original. He captures the human side of Aeneas.  Ferry and Virgil don’t hurry the poem along, or lose their audience by making Aeneas seem psychotic, but it is clear that he has post-traumatic stress disorder. He is very depressed.  When Juno arranges for Aeolus to whip up a tsunami, Aeneas sees the waves torrentially rising and wishes he were dead.

In Book I, lines 129-137, Ferry translates,

O those others are three-times, four-times blessed
Whose privilege it was to meet their fate,
Watched by their fathers as they died beneath
The high walls of their native city, Troy!
Alas, Tydides, bravest of the Danaans,
That by thy hand I could not fall and pour
My life out on the fields of Ilium ,
Where fierce Hector, helpless, fallen, lies, brought down
By the spear of Aeacides…

Yes. Why did I ever leave the fields of Ilium (Troy), i.e., my hometown, for the ugly, dark northern city?  In his travel book, I See By My Outfit, Peter S. Beagle refers to these cities as Mordor

Escaped from Mordor, by Jove!  That’s difficult.  So why so sad?

Well, I missed our old house.  As the iffy urban neighborhood there got rougher, as a policeman told me not to wait for the bus on that block because the gangs were selling drugs, I switched to a bicycle. But we couldn’t stay. Everybody was moving   to the exurbs.  We moved to a beautiful, smaller, still viable city.

Virgil writes about what it’s like truly to be a refugee.

But Tom Petty’s “Refugee” can be applied to both Virgil’s and my situation.   I danced around the house singing along  to this song.  So I do recommend playing this video and singing along  because “you don’t have to live like a refugee.”


Here are the lyrics to “Refugee.” And, oh, they do apply.

Ain’t no real big secret, all the same, somehow we get around it
Listen, it don’t really matter to me baby
You believe what you want to believe, you see

You don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)

Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Tell me why you want to lay there, revel in your abandon
Honey, it don’t make no difference to me baby
Everybody’s had to fight to be free, you see

You don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
No baby you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)

Baby we ain’t the first
I’m sure a lot of other lovers been burned
Right now this seems real to you, but it’s
One of those things you gotta feel to be true

Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Who knows maybe you were kidnapped tied up,
Taken away and held for ransom
Honey, it don’t really matter to me, baby
Everybody’s had to fight to be free, you see

Don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
No don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
You don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)

I miss Tom Petty.  I feel that Aeneas and I have lots to learn here.