Book Stats of 2017 and Best Film & TV of the Year

Happy New Year’s Eve!  It’s 10 below and we are not going out.  And so I  have calculated my book stats of the year.


Number of books read:  148

Gender divide:  62% by women and 38% by men

Percentage of books in translation:  16%

Where or how did I find out about the books I read?

  • From my own shelves:  60%
  • At Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or used bookstores:  30%
  • Review copies: 6%
  • From reviews in book review publications:  4%

And here are the most  shocking statistics:

  • From Goodreads:  0%
  • From blogs: 0%
  • From social media:  0%

What happened there?

You can read my Favorite Books of the Year list here.


Best movie:  The Darkest Hour.  I associate biopics with drug-addled rock stars on the fast track to suicide, but my husband dragged me to The Darkest Hour  and it is THE sole masterpiece I saw in a theater.   In his first month as prime minister, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) strives to persuade his party that Hitler cannot be negotiated with,  as Belgium falls and men die at Dunkirk.  The always superb Kristin Scott Thomas has a tiny role as his charming, supportive wife. In this dark, muted film, Churchill’s humor shines through.  And I suppose the moving scene on the tube is not historical?

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “The Darkest Hour”

Best TV Series:  Halt and Catch Fire.  I know, I know.  A TV series about building the first affordable PC in the ’80s sounds dreary and dull.   But Halt and Catch Fire is better-written than most movies.  The characters range from geeky to sociopathic  to rebellious to good moms:  Joe McMillan (Lee Pace) hijacks Cardiff Computers in Texas and persuades Gordon Clark (Scott McNairy) to build the PC he has envisioned after years at IBM.  After IBM  sets its legal team on Cardiff, Joe recruits Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a 22-year-old college dropout, to write the code. Eventually Gordon’s deceptively stable-seeming computer engineer wife, Donna, the perfect mom, gets in on the act: she is ambitious and, eventually, greedy.  The show has the three “S”s:  Sabotage, sex, and insurrection. Over 10 years, they go on to start a computer game company and an internet browser.  I was on tenterhooks.

Scott McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Mackenzie Davis, and Joe Pace in “Halt and Catch Fire”

Happy New Year!

The Greeks & Raney

I found the following entry in my 2010 book journal.  Enjoy!

My regimen, now that teaching is over (“No more pencils, no more books, no more students’ dirty looks!”), is to read 200 pages of Greek history a week (for maybe two weeks). Why, I can’t tell you. I’m a language teacher, not a historian.  Classical literature is my passion and, as far as I’m concerned, the reason to read Greek.

But I’ve got my schedule:  a bit of Paul Cartledge’s Ancient Greece: A History of Eleven Cities, followed by a smidgen of H. D. F. Kitto’s The Greeks. These two are good companion volumes:  Cartledge is modern and brisk, concisely attempting to explain the bare necessities; Kitto is more leisurely and fills in the gaps of what you need to know, because Cartledge’s book, for all its brevity, is not very well-organized.

Dear me!  Next thing you know I’ll be reading Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way.  No, Kitto is actually very good.  This may be one of my favorite books of the year.  I have some scholarly books on reserve at the library and hope one of them will be lucidly-written.  (It’s very tough to find a classicist who can actually write.)

Today I got sidetracked by a box of books on my porch.  Yes, I was lolling on the porch drinking green tea, perusing my Kitto, when a pink book caught my eye–have you noticed how everything is pink these days?–a novel, Raney, by Clyde Edgerton, which came out in 1985 (so the pink was probably not a style indicator).  And, of course, I’m terribly carried away by this Southern small-town novel. Edgerton’s voice reminds me slightly of James Wilcox’s.  That Southern humor is strong.  I can’t resist it.

The heroine, Raney, is a 24-year-old musician, a Baptist, a community college student, a teetotaler, and the daughter of a general store owner.  She is in love with Charles, a sophisticated assistant librarian from Atlanta at the community college, but they have many differences, as becomes clear before their wedding.  She is so upset by his drinking at the wedding rehearsal that she says she will never forget it.  Charles’ propensity for social drinking and serving wine to guests continues to be a major conflict. Raney is a simple soul:  her straightforward, honest, slightly ungrammatical voice is touching and comical.

Although she’s a fervent conservative Baptist, with prejudices against the Episcopal church and Charles’ liberal ideas, she’s very likable, as is her dysfunctional family. But she can’t understand why Charles would drink alcohol at their own wedding.  And she has her reasons.

You would think a man could get married without getting drunk, especially after I explained that nobody in my family drunk alcohol except Uncle Nate, who was in the Navy in World War II, but got burned in combat on over fifty percent of his body, and caught pneumonia and had to be discharged from the Pacific….

Uncle Nate comes to our house in a taxi at any hour of the day or night, drunk, cussing his former wife, who’s dead–Joanne.  And when I say drunk, I mean so drunk he can’t get up the front steps without me and Mama and sometimes the taxi driver helping him…

Raney and Charles have other conflicts:  he is furious when her homey mother visits the house when they are out,  fights with Raney about her naive comments about “blacks” (she has never known a black person), and writes letters to the editor about the dangers of nuclear power plants.  Charles also has his prejudices:  he  dislikes Raney’s simple small-town family, though they include him in family activities, like fishing and camping, and ply him with fried okra and pie .

But their marriage is basically sound, and both parties will learn to accommodate the other.

This charming novel got passed around by my friends in the ’80s  but somehow I never got around to it. In a way it’s nice to have postponed the pleasure.  Now I can look forward to all of Edgerton’s books.

My Favorite Books of 2017


Are you exhausted by Best Books of the Year lists?

Hundreds of critics’ lists were published after Thanksgiving to promote Christmas shopping.   One wonders what happens to the books published in December.  Laura Lee Smith’s wonderful new novel, The Ice House, would have made a great gift had anyone known about it.

I have waited till the end of the year to avoid the commercial aspects of “Best of'”s.   But never fear:  I am knuckling under by limiting the list to 10.   Last year I  far exceeded that number.

MY FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2017.  (Click on the titles to read my posts.)

FAVORITE NEW NOVEL.   Jonathan Dee’s The Locals


FAVORITE NOVEL IN TRANSLATION. Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits

FAVORITE REDISCOVERED FEMINIST NOVEL.  Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions

FAVORITE REDISCOVERED CLASSIC. Amber Reeves’s A Lady and Her Husband

FAVORITE NONFICTION BOOK. Yopie Prins’s Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedies

FAVORITE COMEDY. Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love

FAVORITE SATIRE. Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America

FAVORITE CLASSIC. Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders


And I’m done!  Do tell me what your favorites of the year is, or leave us a link to your list.

Three Review-ettes: Zola’s The Drinking Den, George Moore’s Esther Waters, & Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury

Merry Christmas (two days late)!   We ate Laurie Colwin’s roast chicken, watched a Grade-B movie, Christmas with the Cranks, and skipped our walk because it was very cold.   And now it is almost the New Year, and my journal tells me I have neglected to write about three of my favorite books of the year.   So here are three review-ettes.

 1 L’Assomoir, or The Drinking Den,  by Emile Zola.  Influenced by Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, Zola wrote the Rougon-Macquart series of 20 connected novels to explore the effects of heredity and environment on a family inclined to dissipation and madness.  The plots of these brilliant naturalistic novels are sometimes over-the-top,  but that makes them all the more entertaining. In The Drinking Den, Zola charts the descent of a hard-working family into alcoholism and poverty.

Gervaise Macquart, the engaging heroine, is a cheerful, industrious woman who works as a laundress to support her children after her alcoholic lover deserts them.  She is my one of Zola’s most likable characters, and in fact the original title of this novel was Gervaise.  Her neighbor, the decent, hard-working roofer, Coupeau, wants to marry her, and eventually she gives in.   They do not drink hard liquor, and they are happy and respectable in a neighborhood where others are crushed by poverty and alcohol. Gervaise saves money to open her own laundry, but after Coupeau has an accident, he becomes an alcoholic and she must support him.  Gervaise is indulgent:  she opens the laundry, and the business is successful.  Things do decline, but Zola’s detailed descriptions of the work, gossip, and smells at the steaming, hot laundry are utterly engrossing. How can Gervaise and Coupeau resist the degradation of their poor neighborhood? This is one of the grimmest of Zola’s  novels, but it paints a very accurate picture of alcoholism.

Esther Waters by George Moore.  Influenced by Zola, George Moore is best remembered for  his naturalistic novel, Esther Waters, praised by Gladstone when it was published in 1894.  Esther, a religious, illiterate kitchen maid, witnesses the appalling consequences of betting and horse-racing when the owner of the estate, who raises and races horses, goes broke.   The cook’s son, William, had seduced Esther before running off with another woman, and now pregnant Esther must leave and fend for herself in poverty.   Moore unflinchingly details her struggles to stay out of the workhouse, find a job, and raise her illegitimate son. Esther survives, but the racetrack comes back to haunt her when she falls in love again.

American Bloomsbury:  Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work.  This compelling, readable history of the 19th-century writers who inhabited  Concord, Mass., is aptly named. Concord really was the American Bloomsbury.   Cheever’s study of Concord’s group of liberal, intellectual,  bohemian writers, most of whom  the generous Emerson supported, illuminates the development of their work, novels, and philosphy.   The relationships in this community were intricate, almost incestuous.  Margaret Fuller was not only a feminist journalist, but a vamp.  Who knew?   I did hastily tour Louisa May Alcott’s house many, many years ago, but now want to go back and walk all over Concord.

Ovid in the 21st Century: Jane Alison’s Novel “Nine Island” & Laurel Fulkerson’s “Ovid: A Poet on the Margins”

Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne

I came of literary age with a close reading of Metamorphoses.  If I had not taken an Ovid class, I would have been a Greek snob forever.  I loved Greek; I still love Greek. I was an avid Greek student. But after studying Latin at the urging of a classics professor, I fell in love with this resonant, elliptical language.

In a seminar room with a clanking radiator, a small group of us translated  Metamorphoses. I had never read a poem so elegant and loopy, fluid and witty.  I spent evenings with Lewis and Short (the dictionary) and Allen and Greenough (the grammar) as I translated Ovid’s myths about nymphs who turned into trees,  beautiful women seduced by Jupiter and transformed into cows, a hunter turned into a stag and killed by his own hounds.

In Ovid’s tragicomic epic poem, Metamorphoses, the  meaning of the transformation is sometimes ambiguous and baffles. One of the most famous is the story of  Daphne and Apollo.  Pursued by Apollo, the nymph Daphne runs away and prays to her father to save her.  Her father transforms her into a tree, but Apollo still claims her as his own:  the laurel tree.  Is this myth about empire? There are many interpretations.

Ovid is my favorite poet.  And so you will not be surprised that I recently enjoyed two books centered on Ovid: Jane Alison’s nonfiction novel, Nine Island, is narrated by a woman who is translating Ovid, and Laurel Fulkerson’s Ovid: A Poet on the Margins, is a scholarly guide to his poetry.

In Alison’s Nine Island, which won the Independent Publishers Award in 2017, J, the narrator, is Jane Alison, or someone like her:  both are translators of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  J is on deadline:  she has 124 days to finish her book. J writes elliptically, “Sort of translation, but only to start:  am changing his stories around.  I don’t think Ovid of all people would mind.”

J is divorced. A series of futile infertility treatments destroyed her marriage. And so she is having sex with old boyfriends, and trying to meet someone new.  When we first meet her, she is driving back to Miami  after spending a month with a man she calls Sir Gold, the best of her old boyfriends.  Sir Gold told her it was over, to leave.  Now she is alone in her high-rise apartment, with her ancient cat Buster (who wears diapers) and Ovid for company.  She spends much of her time by the pool, alternately swimming and translating.

Alison’s style is lyrical, elliptical. She writes,

No, I’ve sailed no seas.  I’ve driven south down I-95, driven south for days, until 95 stopped, and I was back in Miami.

No country for old women.

I’m not old yet, but my heart is sick with old desire, and I’m back in this place of sensual music to see if it’s time to retire from love.

J compares women’s lives to those of Ovid’s women turned into trees.

A girl appears. Not the girl turned into a tree, but the trees she passes might have recently been girls like herself:  that’s the kind of world we’re in.  Sighing trees, fingering with green sprigs the air they adore.  Their trunks might someday be cut down but will never be fucked, and for this they shiver in relief.

The spare narrative is exquisite. J’s days are uneventful:  she takes walks under a pink umbrella, makes friends at the pool with an older white-blond woman (her older alter ego?) who swims to numb pain, and visits her mother, who falls and must sell her house. Back in Miami,  the members of the board at J’s condo insist that the pool must  be rebuilt at great expense.  It has to do with shady deals with concrete companies, and the mob is involved.

This is the kind of novel you read for the style and only later realize the depth of character.

I very much enjoyed Alison’s earlier novel about Ovid, An Artist in Love. She is also the author of Change Me:  Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid.  

Laurel Fulkerson’s Ovid: A Poet on the MarginsThis short book is an excellent guide to Ovid.  Fulkerson sketches his life and emphasizes the ambiguity and paradox in his poetry.  In Metamorphoses, what does it mean that so many gods are rapists?  In a weaving competition with Athena/Minerva, Arachne’s tapestry depicts 21 rapes committed by gods.  Is Ovid just trying to tell us gods are rapists, or is it political?  The poem Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a light guide to how to pick up men or women, may have led to his exile from Rome.  According to Ovid in his poem written in exile, Tristia (Sad Things),  he was exiled because of  carmen et error, a poem and an error.  Fulkerson writes, “We never do learn what happened, though many historians and novelists have put together the intriguing hints in a variety of ways, some connecting the relegation to political scheming, some to adultery with imperial women, and some to a combination of the two.”

There is much crammed into this fascinating book, which has only 101 pages–just the right size for an introduction or a review.

Library Closings & Little Free Libraries

An article at the BBC website reported last year that 343 public libraries have closed in the UK.  That is a disturbing statistic.  Will our libraries follow?

Perhaps I’m too pessimistic: the library closures in the U.S. have not been on that scale.  The  ALA (American Library Association) reported in 2016 that the number of closures of American libraries had dropped.  Five states closed library branches in 2016, as opposed to 10 states in 2015.

A Little Free Library.

You know who’s pessimistic?  Canadian librarians. They are fuming not about a lack of government funding, but about the populist Little Free Library movement.  They reason that  if Little Free Libraries, those cute bookshelves-on-sticks planted in people’s front yards, pop up in every upper-middle-class neighborhood, public libraries will lose their clientele.

I have to laugh:  if the Little Free Library is their competition, librarians need to upgrade their collections.  But some  Canadian librarians have anxiously studied the LFL trend in Toronto and Calgary and published  results in The Journal of Radical Librarianship.  You can read a mocking American editorial of the panic at Library Journal.  And the LFL movement seems to me to be a good thing for librarians to back:  there is a Little Free Library inside the Iowa City Public Library.

There are 60,000 registered Little Free Libraries internationally, and at least 15  on my urban walks.  Today I went on a Little Free Library hike, carrying a bag of discarded books.  I planned to visit six, but, Lord, it was almost the Equinox,  and the sun went down just as I left books in the fifth. On another day I’ll visit the sixth.

Here’s what I saw:

FIRST STOP, in a residential neighborhood.  I left a copy of Trollope’s The Prime Minister, the last in the Palliser series  This well-curated LFL  has a mix of literary fiction and best-sellers: it is as good as it gets with LFLs.  Today the shelf has Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, Elizabeth McCracken’s Niagara Falls All Over Again, a yoga book, a Maeve Binchy book, mysteries, and more.

SECOND STOP, outside of Snookies Malt Shop.  Snookies  is open just five months a year, so there has been no traffic  in months.  The majority of the books are romances and Y.A. books, among them the despicable Fifty Shades series. I left a copy of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover as a joke, hoping someone will mistake it for a romance.

THIRD STOP, in a residential neighborhood.  As you can see, there is almost nothing there.   I dropped off Hans Christian Andersen’s adult novella, The Ice Virgin. which, alas! was not for me.  Surely someone else will like to continue his or her reading of Hans Christian Andersen.

FOURTH STOP, in a residential neighborhood. This LFL is very visible, strung with Christmas lights and in a high-traffic area.  People take books but tend not to leave them.   And so  I donated two books, Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, a nonfiction novel about the March on the Pentagon in 1967, and Jon Hassler’s novel, Dear James

FIFTH STOP, in a residential neighborhood.  This is one of the loveliest of the LFLs, because the family keeps it neat and well-stocked.  The choices in general would not be mine: Robert Ludlum, Mary Daheim, and a business book called Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t.  But they also have a Jane Austen and a Dickens, so I left Trollope’s Barchester Towers.

What are your Little Free Libraries like?  Are they better stocked than the rather scatty collections in Iowa City, Des Moines, Adel, and Winona, Minnesota?  Do let me know.

A Homage to the TBR

Someone else’s reading journal.

I keep a book journal, but do not have a TBR.  I buy books, I put them on shelves, I take them off shelves, I find I am not in the mood, I put them back for a year or ten years, I take them off the shelves again, and eventually I read them. Are people with TBRs more organized?  When I do plan, the dates are flexible.  Last spring I meant to reread Daniel Deronda, but didn’t get around to it till  fall.  Did it matter?  Not at all.  And did I hurry through 800 pages?  I did not.  George Eliot’s prose is buoyant and rich in texture, lush and leisurely.  Festina lente (“Hurry slowly”),as the Roman proverb says.

Not everyone shares my serendipitous style of selection, though. We don’t all have to be the same:  I very much like other people’s TBRs!  And so this post is a homage to pictures of  bloggers’ TBRs, which I always love, and to the “vloggers” at Booktube who show books to the camera and say they plan to read them. (Now that is a bit weird!)  The photo above is of what passes for my TBR (though I am committed to reading other books currently, so this TBR is in flux).  I have started some of these, so I can decide which to finish, and which to reject.

1.  Gail Honeymoon’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.  Everybody has read this except me, yes?  I have read 50 pages, and it is well-written.  Initially I thought it might be like Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, only Eleanor Oliphant is a 30ish eccentric heroine with a dead-end job in an office, not an elderly woman about to retire. But Honeymoon’s novel is both lighter and more issue-oriented:   The victim of some kind of abuse, Eleanor has scars all over her face but says she “is completely fine” without having any friends. And then, at  a concert, she is smitten by a musician, and buys a computer to stalk him online.  She plans to meet and seduce him and even gets a bikini wax.  But her most likely friend?  The nice, dull guy from the IT department.

I’m of two minds about this:   I do feel I read a very similar American novel in 2015 or 2016.  I actually blogged about it, but don’t remember the title.  It wasn’t very good:   the story of a obese woman who is completely alone until a kind woman befriends her–and naturally she blooms.  Gail Honeymoon’s novel is much more sophisticated.  I am not very intrigued by the story, though.

2.  Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun.  This is a Christmas present from a friend with very good taste.   And I loved Stewart’s nonfiction book about earthworms, The Earth Moved.  This mystery, set in 1914,  is based on the real-life Kopp sisters: Constance Kopp became of the nation’s first female sheriffs, after the sisters survived a shoot-out at their farm.  This is another of those books everyone loves, and  the opening pages are addictive.  AND SO IT WILL BE READ.

3.  Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. I read an article in The Guardian about publishers’ favorite books of the year:  Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury recommended Conversations with Friends.  I’ve read 62 pages of this beautifully-written little book, and it slightly reminds me of Barbara Trapido’s comic novels, only it’s aimed at Millennials and written by a Millennial.  The narrator, Frances, a poet who performs poetry at bars with her best friend Bobbi, develops a tangled relationship with a married actor, the husband of a woman who is writing a profile about Frances and Bobbi.   I’m of two minds about this:  I’m not its target audience, and I do not relate to the characters.  But  I will PROBABLY finish it because it’s blessedly short.

4.  Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke It’s a Golden Age Detective Story, and I love Allingham.  It is not her best but very exciting!  I’m a fan of her hero Albert Campion, so I’ll finish it.

5.  Browsings, by Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post, is a collection of essays which he wrote originally for the homepage at The American Scholar. He is obsessed with collecting books, carries a notebook on walks, and tells us which notebooks he prefers (not Moleskines), lists titles of books about books, and guides browsers at a famous book sale at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart to learn which books are collectible and valuable.   Yes, I will finish this book, and it would make a great Christmas gift.

6.  Susan Richards Shreve’s Queen of Hearts.  I absolutely loved this well-written novel when I read it in the ’80s, and am loving it again.  It’s a moving tale with a hint of magic realism, set in a small town in Massachusetts.  The heroine is beautiful, kind, and has second sight, but on the eve of her wedding, an unforeseen incident occurs: she finds her fiance with another woman, and she kills him. What will she do with this secret?   The very talented Susan Richard Shreves is one of my favorite novelists. She bridges the gap between literary and popular fiction, and this is thoroughly enjoyable.

So, do you have a TBR?  Do you plan your readign?  Or do you read as you go? What’s on your TBR?   Let me know!

Which Translators Changed Your Life?

In the 1990s you probably attended at least one poetry slam. You did not intend to: you would be at a pub or coffeehouse when suddenly an emcee would announce the Boston Slam team vs. Hyannis.  (It was fun.)  In a recent essay at  the NYR Daily, “Gained in Translation,” Tim Parks describes an event I never dreamed of:  a translation slam.  At this particular slam, two writers translated passages from Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island,  and then discussed their very different word choices with a moderator.

Readers of translations do not have to be language buffs.  Still, even if the last time you read a foreign language was in college, you will have noticed that the literature did not have an exact word-for-word match in English. I am a keen reader of Greek and Latin poetry (master’s in classics, former Latin teacher), but translations are imperfect.  The cognate languages Greek and Latin are more economical than the English language, and the word order is more flexible:  the order does not have to go Subject – verb – direct object, as it does in English, so the way you think actually changes.

Virgil’s Aeneid is in vogue because of the many reviews of the poet David Ferry’s new translation. I do not often read translations of Latin, so it was a strange experience to sit down with Ferry’s book.  His version of the Aeneid reads very well: the language is beautiful, the  translation is sometimes very precise, then goes astray, then returns. Robert Fagles’s translation is more exact, but less elegant.  My inner Latin teacher chooses the Fagles.  Would a poet prefer Ferry?

Yes, I read classics but depend on translators for other languages. And translators of 19th-century Russian and French literature transformed my life when I was a young woman.  Can I  express the joy I felt  in discovering Louise and Aylmer Maude‘s graceful translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace?  (The Maudes really are the best! says she who does not know Russian.)   And the English poet Kathleen Raine brought Balzac into my life, with her engrossing translations of Lost Illusions and Cousin Bette.

In “Gained in Translation,” Parks brilliantly describes the gift of translators.  He writes,

Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language. Since the book will be fuller and richer the more experience a reader brings to it, we would want our translator, as he or she reads, to be aware of as much as possible, aware of cultural references, aware of lexical patterns, aware of geographical setting and historical moment. Aware, too, of our own language and its many resources. Far from being “just subjective,” these differences will be a function of the different experiences these readers bring to the book, since none of us accumulates the same experience. Even then, of course, two expert translators will very likely produce two quite different versions. But if what we want is a translation of Tolstoy, rather than just something that sounds good enough sentence by sentence, it would seem preferable to have our reading done for us by people who can bring more, rather than less, to the work.

What a lovely essay!

Which translators have changed your life?

George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda & the Myth of Actaeon and Diana

Is George Eliot the most elegant writer of the nineteenth century?

Many of you have doubtless read Middlemarch, her superb novel about provincial life.  Some of you may have been introduced to Eliot in high school by  Silas Marner, her sentimental novel about a miser redeemed by a child.  Not the best introduction!

Over the years, Eliot’s books have delighted me, perhaps because I started with the best.  I read Middlemarch in an independent reading class in high school, and, then as now, identified with Dorothea Brooke, the bright, fiery, naive young heroine who marries a homely middle-aged scholar, Mr. Casaubon, because she mistakes him for an intellectual.  When I reread Middlemarch in 2010 and again in 2015 (I posted about it here), I channeled my inner good girl  as I pored over the story of Dorothea with bated breath and the crazed hope that Dorothea would not marry Mr. Casaubon.  (Do you ever hope a novel will have changed, too?  But then what would the story be?)

Much as I love Middlemarch, it is not my favorite Eliot, though it is a very great book.  No, I much prefer Daniel Deronda, her last novel, a strange hybrid book which is partly an inversion of the myth of Diana and Actaeon, partly the story of a man’s search for identity and his study of Judaism.

The heroine of Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth, is a spoiled, haughty young woman who marries the wrong man. Gwendolen is over-confident, beautiful, witty, snobbish, and rather lazy, and very much reminds me of Austen’s Emma. Gwendolen is accomplished, but she could be more accomplished if she practiced or studied.  She wins a golden star at an archery contest, but the golden arrow goes to someone else. She is a pleasing singer but hasn’t practiced enough to be proficient. She is a Diana, a chaste huntress, who rides to hounds wildly, and at first seems as cruel and powerful as Diana.  When her male escort falls from his inadequate mount and strains his shoulder, she appallingly thinks it funny and has no sympathy. She does not want to marry, and dreams of doing something great. But her mother loses her money, and Gwendolyn must give up her dreams. She marries the wealthy Grandcourt beause she thinks she will be able to control him–but it is the sadistic Grandcourt who controls her.

The fraught relationship of Gwendolen and Grandcourt is an inverted reinterpretation of the myth of the struggle of Diana and Actaeon. In Ovid’s version in Book III of the Metamorphoses, Diana, goddess of virginity, archery, and the hunt, is omnipotent, while Actaeon, the hunter, is stripped of power for seeing the goddess naked in the bath . She furiously throws water at him and  he metamorphoses into a stag, who then is horribly killed by his own hounds.

Gwendolen’s arrows are less accurate than Diana’s. Grandcourt first sees her at the archery competition; he admires her beauty and wants to crush her power.  Gwendolen refuses his proposal of marriage after she is approached by his mistress, who has children, but changes her mind when her mother loses her money.  Although she marries to support her mother and sisters, she had another option: her uncle had arranged for her to be a governess to a bishop’s family. And so Gwendolen, too, has committed an immoral act.

My much-read Everyman copy, with the lettering on the title fading.

Grandcourt restricts her social contacts and isolates her, forbidding her to develop a friendship with Daniel Deronda and ordering her not to invite her mother for a visit.  Gwendolen/Diana is slowly reduced from huntress to hunted.

Eliot writes,

Of what use was the rebellion within her? She could say nothing that would not hurt her worse than submission. Turning slowing and covering herself again, she went to her dressing-room. As she reached out the diamonds it occurred to her that her unwillingness to wear them might have already raised a suspicion in Grandcourt that she had some knowledge about them which he had not given her. She fancied that his eyes showed a delight in torturing her. How could she be defiant? She had nothing to say that would touch him—nothing but what would give him a more painful grasp on her consciousness.

Grandcourt has many dogs.  They dote on him, but he is indifferent, sometimes cruel.  Gwendolen observes,

“He delights in making the dogs and horses quail: that is half his pleasure in calling them his,” she said to herself, as she opened the jewel-case with a shivering sensation.

“It will come to be so with me; and I shall quail. What else is there for me? I will not say to the world, ‘Pity me.'”

Finally, Grandcourt manages to isolate her completely on a sailing trip off the coast of Italy. She is more trapped, more confined, than she has ever been on land.

But water conquers Grandcourt, as it conquers Actaeon.There is an accident, and Grandcourt  falls into the sea.  There is one moment,  Gwendolen later relates to Daniel,  when delayed throwing him the rope, paralyzed, though whether or not this would have made any difference we do not know. (Daniel says it would not.)  Guiltily, she jumped into the sea after Grandcourt. She is rescued; Grandcourt drowns.

Water killed him, but was his drowning her fault?  She believes it is.   If indeed she killed him, as she fears, the motive was her freedom, not his money:   she already knew the money would go to Grandcourt’s mistress and son if she did not produce an heir.

Diana, too,  uses water to kill Actaeon.  Here is a literal translation of Diana’s reactions (Metamorphoses III.188-190)

Though she wished she had her arrows at hand,
she took the water which she had and threw it in his virile face,
sprinkling his hair with avenging waters…

… ut vellet promptas habuisse sagittas,
quas habuit sic hausit aquas vultumque virilem
perfudit spargensque comas ultricibus undis…

Eliot’s novel is in many ways a feminist realist retelling of the myth of Diana and Actaeon. Water can be treacherous; water can be death or rebirth.    Gwendolen’s doppelganger, Mirah, the talented Jewish singer, also wrestles with water:  she is saved by Daniel from suicide by drowning.  Which heroine do we prefer?  The sinful, shattered woman who withholds the rope, or the sinful, shattered woman who tries to obliterate herself because of poverty and solitude? Curiously, Mirah, who as had a much harder life, is portrayed as almost too pure and goody-goody to be true.  Gwendolen is entirely human.  A brilliant, fascinating novel.

A Little Fanfare: Four Books You May Have Missed in 2017

An intense commuter-reader!

No one has time to read everything.  If you work full-time, perhaps you read 50 books a year.  And that’s if you manage to read on the bus or the subway.

After  a certain age, I wanted to emulate Thomas Hardy, who, I believe, spent six hours reading every night.  And the more I read, the fussier I became.  In my forties, it seemed that either (a) much worse books were suddenly being published, or  (b) my taste was so honed that fewer books passed my standards.  (N.B.  The less exhausted you are when you read, the pickier.)

Here’s the good news:  I have read some outstanding new books  in 2017. And here’s some curious news:  I happened upon some stunning new books that were published with little fanfare. So here are four great finds you may have missed in 2017.


Ellen Klages crafts one perfect sentence after another in her  dazzling new collection of short stories, Wicked Wonders.  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.  This pitch-perfect, genre-crossing collection demonstrates her diverse gifts:   magic realism, retold fairy tales, and some smart homages to Ray Bradbury’s brilliant work.   (You can read my entire post here.)


Crystal King’s clever, entertaining historical novel, Feast of Sorrow, was my favorite pop fiction read of the year.  Set in ancient Rome in the first century A.D., it is narrated by the slave Thrassius, who is the gourmet cook (coquus) for the household of  Apicius, a Roman gourmet after whom an actual Roman cookbook was named.  In King’s  novel, Thrassius is the author of the cookbook, though  Apicius takes credit for it.  It is great fun to read about the dinners (cenae), but there are also fascinating political intrigues and personal feuds. And King is a witty writer, she creates  believable characters,  and has a great sense of humor.  The pages fly.


The award-winning writer John Crowley’s new novel, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr,  is brilliant and beautiful, a perfect book for  lovers of myths, legends, and epic poetry.  In this novel about a  crow who learns human language and steals immortality,  there are allusions to Dante and Virgil.  On one level,  I love the bird’s-eye view of history, and the mythic journeys of the crow Dar Oakley over 2,000 years.  On another level, it explores the meaning, or lack thereof, of  life and death.  And the crow’s autobiography is occasionally interrupted by a dying human narrator,  who is reconstructing the story from his own conversations with Dar Oakley.  I found this an enthralling read, really hypnotic.  It reminds me slightly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary fantasy, The Buried Giant.  You can read my entire post here.


The best nonfiction book I read this year was Yopie Prins’s  Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedies.  It is the story of Victorian women writers, poets, and classicists who fell in love with Greek and 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.

I adored this book, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in the education of Victorian women and the role they played (or were allowed to play) in reading and promoting classics.   You can read my entire post here.

Finally, what books do you think were overlooked or underreviewed this year?  I love lists…