Do Awards Matter? Musings on Joan Silber’s “Improvement” & the Man Booker International Prize Shortlist

Do awards matter? I gloried in winning the college Latin Prize, but in my thirties I was blasé about winning awards for freelance articles.  There were two good things about grown-up award ceremonies:  (a) I always bought a new dress, and (b) there was always a catered dinner.

Book award ceremonies probably proceed along the same lines.  I depend on Margaret Drabble for details:  in the opening chapter of her brilliant novel The Sea Lady, the heroine, Ailsa, who is the chair of a panel of judges for a science book award, buys a new silvery mermaid dress, which coincidentally matches the fish theme of the winning book.  And she describes the venue, if not the menu, of the awards dinner.

The venue of the dinner might also shortly be observed to be something of a happy accident.  The diners were seated at elegantly laid round tables beneath a large grey-blue fiberglass model of a manta ray which hung suspended above them like a primeval spaceship or an ultra-modern mass-people-carrier.  They could look nervously up at is grey-white underbelly, at its wide wings, at its long whip-like tail, as though they were dining on the ocean floor….  The dominant theme of fish had prevailed by chance.

I wish I could write about  book award dinners, but alas!….   Still, I’m game to write about the awards.  Let me start with Joan Silber, who won two prizes this year, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, for her novel, Improvement.  She must have attended two dinners, but did she have two dresses?

I have long been a fan of  Silber, but I am 10 years behind on her books. (That’s because I don’t keep up with new fiction.)   I recently read Improvement, which I missed when it was published last year.   It is not quite a novel: it is really a collection of linked stories. Think Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible.  At a stretch, think George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

Silber is always graceful and witty, astute and entertaining.  And her characterization is spot-on.  My two favorite characters are linked by kinship: Reyna, a single mother in Harlem whose boyfriend is in prison for selling five ounces of weed, and her aunt Kiki, a former classics major who went to Istanbul in 1970 and stayed after she fell in love with Osman, a rug seller. In the first chapter, Reyna muses about Kiki,  who eventually left Osman and returned to the U.S.    Reyna recalls her surprise that Kiki was so normal.

Everybody wondered what she would look like when she arrived. Would she be sun-dried and weather-beaten, would she wear billowing silk trousers like a belly dancer, would the newer buildings of New York amaze her, would she gape at the Twin Towers? None of the above. She looked like the same old Kiki, thirty-one with very good skin, and she was wearing jeans and a turtleneck, possibly the same ones she’d left home with. She said, “God! Look at YOU!” when she saw her brother, grown from a scrawny teenager to a man in a sport jacket. She said, “Been a while, hasn’t it?” to her dad.

Silber is an excellent stylist. I love the anaphora in the second sentence of that passage, the repetition of “would” at the beginning of three clauses.

And she is insightful about a broad range of characters.  Kiki, who reads Marcus Aurelius, couldn’t be more different from Reyna, a high school graduate who seldom reads.  But Reyna and Kiki become closer after Hurricane Sandy, when Reyna’s father calls her and tells her to check on Kiki, who has lost power.  It’s a long walk for Reyna and her son Oliver, but Kiki is fine:  she’s rereading The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton, and and she wins over Oliver by feeding him melted chocolate ice cream.   And she agrees to babysit for Oliver while Reyna visits Boyce in prison.  She encourages Reyna to read and travel, trying to encourage her to change her life.  Reyna realizes Kiki doesn’t approve of her life-style, but she is mad about Boyce.

Kiki is right to be concerned about Reyna, whose life takes a dark turn after Boyce gets out of prison.  Boyce and his friends form a cigarette-smuggling gang.  Reyna disapproves, but Boyce and his ne’er-do-well friends are so happy with money!  And Reyna, a receptionist for a vet, enjoys the money, too,  and realizes that neither she nor her friends are qualified for good-paying jobs.  She relaxes her standards, and is briefly persuaded to drive them to Virginia on a smuggling trip, but backs out sensibly at the last minute.  And when the foolish young man who drives has a tragic accident and dies, she is blamed by Boyce and his friends.  It makes no sense, but that’s the way it is.

What happens?  Well, I hoped to keep reading about Reyna and Kiki, but Silber switches to other characters affected by the accident, a home health aide in Richmond, VA, who dated the driver, and the truck driver who survived the accident.

And I admit I found the transitions jarring.  I felt the same way when I read George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and he’d switch from one group of characters to another, just as I became interested in one group.  So I was relieved when Silber returned to Kiki, and we learned about her experiences in Turkey, how  Osman lost his business and they moved to the family farm,  where Kiki was so miserable that she became fascinated by three Germans who smuggled antiquities out of Turkey.  (She briefly considered traveling with them, because she loved the amphora and old coins so much.)  Kiki, too, has the sense not to do it. But later we also meet the daughter of two of the smugglers, who now establishes the provenance of art at the Met.

And so everybody is linked together.

What struck me about this deceptively simple book was Silber’s humor. Even in the depths of despair, she has a positive outlook:  her characters are never quite down and out.

There is a flow to the book that we don’t see much in contemporary fiction.  If you like linked stories, this is as good as it gets–better, I think, than Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible.


I haven’t read any of the books on the Man Booker International Prize shortlist, but Tony at Tony’s Reading List has.  Is he impressed with the shortlist?  Not particularly.  He writes,  “Well, without wanting to give too much away, let’s just say that there was definitely a raise of the eyebrow when I saw the list.  There are several big names there, but are they big books?”

Tony is a member of the “Shadow Panel of Judges,” a group of  bloggers reading and writing about this award list. Another of the Shadow Judges is the excellent blogger Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

Have you read Silber’s book or the Man Booker International Prize shortlist?  Do awards matter?

On Not Wanting to Read Madeline Miller’s “Circe”

Last summer I became aware that Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe, a retelling of the Circe myth from the Odyssey, would be published this month.   Netgalley, a site where reviewers and bloggers can request e-galleys, posted a picture of the beautiful cover, along with the tantalizing news that the book was not yet available for request.

It’s just as well that it was not available, since I was behind on Netgalley books.  (The last one I read was Isabelle Allende’s In the Midst of Winter in October, and it may be October 2027 before I read the others.)

Last week I almost bought Circe, carried away by the excitement of reviews.  Then I remembered something.  I did not finish Madeline Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles.

I wrote in 2012:

Madeline Miller won the Orange Prize for her first novel, The Song of Achilles, a retelling of the story of Achilles and Patroclus.  She is a classicist, a teacher and tutor of Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare to high school students.

So of course I like her, because I’ve never met a Latin teacher I didn’t like.

I haven’t read The Song of Achilles, but it’s on my Nook.

My guess is you’d be less critical of the book if your background is not in classics, but I gave up on page 130.  I was put off by the clichés (“I watched him hang on the other man’s words”) and hackneyed pseudo-poetic dialogue (“Your honor could be darkened by it.”  “It’s darkened.”)

Nonetheless, I am dying to read Circe.  Will Miller’s second novel be the charm? And yet I’m saying NO to myself.  I have a couple of retellings of the Odyssey to read first:  Zachary Mason’s The Last Books of the Odyssey and Patrick Dillon’s Ithaka.

Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s Circe Mud/Poems.

I made no choice
I decided nothing

One day you simply appeared in your stupid boat,
your killer's hands, your disjointed body, jagged
    as a shipwreck,
skinny-ribbed, blue-eyed, scorched, thirsty, the usual,
pretending to be-what? a survivor?

Those who say they want nothing
want everything.
It was not this greed
that offended me, it was the lies.

Nevertheless I gave you
the food you demanded for the journey
you said you planned; but you planned no journey
and we both knew it.
You've forgotten that,
you made the right decision.
You're having a good time here,
the trees bend in the wind, you eat, you rest,
you think of nothing,
your mind, you say,
is like your hands, vacant:

vacant is not innocent.

In Which Juvenal & Dostoevsky Lampoon Poets

Writers love to lampoon poets.  They’re easy targets:  the disheveled hair, heavy drinking, unconventional manners, and thrift-shop tweeds…  Are the stereotypes true?

Horace thought so. He caricatured pretentious poets in Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). (You can read my posts here and here.)  And I was astonished this week to find similar observations about poets in Juvenal’s Satires and  Dostoevsky’s Demons.

I’ll start with Juvenal, who wrote in the second century A.D.

He explains in his first poem why he writes satire. He begins by mocking poetry readings in Rome:  he wants to get revenge after sitting through so many bad ones.  He criticizes hackneyed poems about mythical heroes, Theseus, Telephus, and Orestes.  He writes (this is my rough prose translation):

Will I always be in the audience? Will I never get revenge, after being tormented so many times by the Thesiad of hoarse Cordus? Will one poet have recited dull comedies, another elegies, and go unpunished? Will a poet have wasted my whole day by reciting his great Telephus or Orestes, which he scrawled in the margins and then continued unfinished on the back of the book?

I have been to a few readings like that.  And Juvenal is so funny!

Dostoevsky also raves and rants in his novel Demons about bad poets, who he says flourish in times of social unrest.  He wrote Demons partly to respond to what he regarded as romantic portrayals of the nihilists in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and the revolutionaries in Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?

Dostoevsky fulminates about the times and the mores.

Yet the most worthless fellows suddenly gained predominant influence, began loudly criticising everything sacred, though till then they had not dared to open their mouths, while the leading people, who had till then so satisfactorily kept the upper hand, began listening to them and holding their peace, some even simpered approval in a most shameless way.

He then lists many, many different kinds of people who offend him, the military, the lawyers, the divinity students, and the feminists, and here’s what he says about writers and poets.

People like… Gogol’s Tentyotnikov, drivelling home-bred editions of Radishtchev,….poets of advanced tendencies from the capital, poets who made up with peasant coats and tarred boots for the lack of tendencies or talents…—all these suddenly gained complete sway among us and over whom?

At a literary fete, the pompous Karmazinov, a caricature of Turgenev, gives a long, monotonous reading from his new bad book.  This is followed by an incendiary speech by a liberal humanist of the older generation, and then a revolutionary poem by a drunken madman.

Watch out for those literary readings!

A Pop-Literary Wallow: Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women

If you know my blog, you know I am a great rereader.

My mother and I shared a propensity for rereading.  She wallowed in Gone with the Wind, her favorite book:   it was her fount of personal wisdom.  She advised me when I was breaking up with a boyfriend “not to let him go!  There must be some way!”  It wasn’t bad advice: it is a quotation from Scarlett O’Hara.

Nancy Hale’s 1942 bestseller, The Prodigal Women, has become my favorite pop wallow.  After reading a short story by Nancy Hale in an old volume of Best Stories from The New Yorker, I went on a Hale bender.  A few years ago I described  The Prodigal Women  as “a fusion of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.”   Set between 1922 and 1940, it is the story of three women whose interests diverge as the years go by but whose lives remain entwined.  And though it is melodramatic, I certainly recognized these characters.

The first part of the novel is the most readable, because it is so resonant of women’s lives:  we  have a literary language to describe the problems of loneliness and friendship. Leda March, the intellectual daughter of a well-to-do Boston family,  is friendless and longs to fit in with other girls:  she is victimized first at the Country Day School in Hampton and later at a girls’ schools in Boston.  Her life changes when the Jekylls, a Southern family, move to Massachusetts because Mrs. Jekyll wants culture:  the youngest daughter, Betsy, takes Leda under her wing, they spend hours giggling and putting on makeup, and both adore Betsy’s lovely older sister, Maizie, who is surrounded by men.  Maizie is their role model.

As the book goes on, the women grow apart and fall into dysfunctional relationships for which literary language seems inadequate.  Leda becomes a successful, and very snobbish, writer in New York, but the nice Jekyll girls don’t fare so well.

Maizie falls in love with Lambert, an artist who is  sadistic in his treatment of this Southern belle. When Maizie gets pregnant she refuses to have an abortion:  Lambert agrees to marry her, though he says she is ruining his life. She is thrilled to marry him, under any circumstances.  But on a cruise to South America he is so  cruel that she agrees to have an abortion. And then the abortion is botched, and her health breaks down completely.  So does her mental health.  And yet Lambert continues to badger her.

Here is an example of the dialogue between Maizie and Lambert.

“Oh, darling, I just can’t bear to have you talk like that.  I’ll be well so soon, now.  It was only for a short time, all this…. You don’t think I’ve enjoyed being sick, do you?”

“I know damned well you’ve enjoyed it.”

“No, I haven’t.  I hate feeling old, and tired, all the time.  I’m young, and I hate not feeling young.  The only way I can stand it is to realize that if I’m careful I’ll be well soon and then everything will be lovely.”

“Hell, you’re too optimistic.  You aren’t going to get well.  You’re a born invalid.  You’ll be sick all the rest of your life, and I’ll take care of you.  That’s the schedule.”

And on and on it goes.  Can you imagine?  Poor Maizie!  What a son of a bitch that Lambert is.

Not how I pictured the prodigal women…

At this point in my rereading,  I wondered, Do I want to reread this whole book?  (I’ve decided to skip the saddest parts.)  Maizie never recovers her health, and spends time in a mental hospital.  Cold, self-centered Leda has an affair with Lambert–they are very alike in their artistic ruthlessness–and coolly sets out to steal him from Maizie, until a socially prominent quasi-friend accuses her of adultery.  Leda marries a doctor she doesn’t love, but she and Lambert eventually become involved again.

Of the three women, Betsy is the most level-headed, happily working for a fashion magazine in New York and going out every night, but she becomes involved with a man who is sometimes violent.  And she sticks by him, because she understands his mental health problems.  We all know about abusive relationships, and know the women should leave as they do in magazine articles and made-for-TV movies.  But does the “should” always happen?  Hale shows that, unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Hale went in this novel where few women dared to go in the 1940s.  And when I think about it, not many women dare to now.  We all prefer something less melodramatic–or do I mean less real?  The ends are not tied up neatly here, but it is a great out-of-print pop literary novel.

Dostoevsky in the Springtime

Imagine a town of wretched winter-blitzed people!  It has been a very cold April, and we were relieved to see signs of spring today.

I planned to sit outside and read Dostoevsky.

But alas!

The cat objects to Dostoevsky.

Shocking, isn’t it?  The cat did it. She has no idea that chewing books is forbidden.  She’s sweet, but clueless.  And apparently she does not like Dostoevsky.

I cannot read a book in this condition.

I’m disappointed.

I was thoroughly enjoying Demons (also called The Possessed, or Devils).  I started reading it after I finished Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, because the translator Michael R. Katz wrote that it is partly Dostoevsky’s response to What Is to Be Done? and to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. (There are also references to other books by Turgenev.)

Demons is a milder psychological novel than, say, Crime and Punishment.  Set in a provincial town, Demons has an almost Turgenev-like atmosphere at first:  much  tea is drunk, characters discuss poetry and politics, and the jockeying for social power is constant.  But then the revolutionaries arrive, and beware!

As in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, there is a conflict between a father and son:  Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensk, a liberal humanist of the 1840s generation, has long been a tutor and hanger-on in the household of the wealthy Varvara Petrovna Stravrogin.  His son, Pyotr Stepanovitch, who has been raised by relatives, is a nihilist–only with none of the nobility of Turgenev’s Bazarov.  And when he shows up at Varvara Petrovna’s, his father does not at first recognize him.

At the same time, the moody, gorgeous Nikolai Vsvelodovich Stravrogin arrives to visit his mother, Varvara Petrovna.  She adores him, but there is gossip about him and a mad woman…and is any of it true? Meanwhile Pyotr Stepanovitch is sowing dissension as part of the revolutionary plot.

The social rivalry and political tension increase as Pyotr Stepanovitch destroys reputations.  There is much decadence–a group of young people go into a hotel room to look at a suicide–and Pyotr Stepanovitch discredits a local politician.

Stepan Trofimovich, who tries to keep up with modern culture,  reads Fathers and Sons and What Is to Be Done?  He (and the cranky Dostoevsky) find Bazarov a completely unbelievable character.

There is a huge cast of characters, and it is a page-turner.  It rambles a bit, but maybe it will all come together in the end.

I found an old Oxford paperback, Devils, to replace the Dover, so I will be able to finish the book.

I swear I used to have a copy called The Possessed, and I think that’s a better title.  Probably less accurate…

The Infantilization of Women: Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion”

When a book is hyped as “ultra-readable” by Vogue, we know the reader is in trouble. When it is lauded by People as “equal parts cotton candy and red meat,”  the reader is in more trouble.

And yet I bought a copy of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, even though I had doubts.  I wanted to tune out mindlessly for an entire freezing-cold April Sunday by escaping into a book, and why not the latest must-read best-seller?

Mind you, The Female Persuasion is hailed as  the novel that represents the #MeToo movement, which at our house we call#WhoHasn’tBeen?  Yes, sexual harassment is a terrible thing, but  #MeToo has resulted in the mass infantilization of American women.   Rather than organize assertiveness training, self-defense classes, and lobbying to change laws, sniveling on Twitter is the new vogue. Do you feel that you’re living through the Russian Revolution?  (I’ve been reading Janet Fitch’s stunning novel, The Revolution of Marina M.)

Wolitzer is usually a very smart writer, but The Female Persuasion is uneven and sometimes preachy.  We meet the heroine, Greer, when she is a whiny college freshman.  One of the two smartest students at her high school (the other was her boyfriend, Cory), she got into Yale but received no financial aid, because her stoner father hadn’t known how to fill out the application properly and left parts blank.  She ends up at Ryland College with a full scholarship, disappointed and angry.  It’s  like the Gilmore Girls, when Rory doesn’t get into Harvard and has to go to Yale instead as a legacy student.  Except the fictional Ryland College is really nowhere, I guess.  Life is hard!  As Greer sulks and fumes, I figured out what no reviewer told me: THE FEMALE PERSUASION IS A CHILDREN’S BOOK!

The first chapter starts well, as Wolitzer, with her trademark wit, reveals that a Gloria Steinem-style feminist named Faith Frank gives a lecture at the college and is impressed with Greer when they chat afterwards. But then Wolitzer backpedals away from adulthood, and we spend 100 pages stuck in an adolescent novel, where sulky Greer, who has no social skills and mopes in the lounge on Saturday night, has an epiphany at a frat party when an obnoxious frat boy, Darren, gropes her.

She is drunk, she tells Darren that she was supposed to be at Yale instead of Ryland, he thinks she’s joking, and then he runs his hand up her shirt and encircles her breasts.  When she jerks away and says No,  he tweaks her breasts painfully.  And she is stunned, because no one has ever touched her like this.

And Darren, the nasty groper, goes on to grope other women as the semester progresses, and eventually assaults a woman.  The college does not deal with this satisfactorily, in the women’s eyes–he must attend some counseling session–and Greer and Zee try to keep a movement going to expel him.  The girls make T-shirts with pictures of Darrell but everybody except Greer and Zee have moved on:  only five people accept the free t-shirts.

The feminist Faith Frank gives Greer the advice I would have given.

“It sounds like you already did what you could. You made your point. If you seem to be hounding this person, then sympathy will redound to him. It’s too much of a risk to take.” She took a second. “And also, what about the other women who are involved? Do they want this revisited?”

“Two of them said they definitely don’t,” Greer admitted. She hadn’t thought about this much, but now she remembered what Ariel Diski had said. “They just want to forget about it and move on.”

“Well, they get a say, don’t they? Look, there’s a whole world out there. Lots to see, lots to be angry about and cry about and do something about, well beyond the bounds of this campus.”

And then, instead of going forward, Wolitzer retraces Greer’s career in elementary school and  high school. (We’re really in Y.A. territory.)  In elementary school, the teachers  tell the boys to use their “inside voices,” not their “outside voices”  in the classroom.  Greer says she has never had an “outside voice.”

But here’s the thing. It is difficult to understand how a college student who has stoner parents, who has never been coddled, and who is has been sexually active since she was 17, can be so naive. Greer claims she has no outside voice, but this is untrue:   she does have a very strong voice and impresses Faith the famous feminist.  In retrospect, I wonder why young women today are portrayed as less powerful than we felt in the late 20th century.  Who told us it was dangerous for women to go to frat parties?  How did we know this?  Hip feminists simply didn’t want to go to frat parties!  So I have to think this part of the book is didactic: (a) don’t go to frat parties! and if you do (b) file a complaint.

Throughout much of the novel, the issues get in the way of the narrative.   Wolitzer outlines the plot and tell us what to think, instead of developing characters and painting sharp, vivid scenes. (In the “show-don’t-tell” universe, she favors telling rather than showing.)

At the beginning of Part 2, Greer is on her way to interview for a job at Faith’s magazine, which Greer considers outdated. I immediately predicted rightly that Greer would  (a) break with Faith, and (b) develop her own style of feminism.  And I knew somehow  that nasty Darren would be back.  Yes, he is.

Greer writes a best-selling book called Outside Voices.  Can anything be more infantilizing than that title?

As I read this, knocking back a Scotch, I was reminded of Verena Tarrant in Henry James’s The Bostonians.  Verena is the protegée of a feminist, Olive Chancellor. there is a tug of war for her soul between Olive and her cousin Basil Ransom, a handsome man who falls in love with Verena.  The two books aren’t much alike, because James satirized feminism, but  Greer is so naive that she is a kind of Verena.

After finishing The Female Persuasion, I found  myself wanting to revisit college novels about grown-up women:  Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, and Susan Choi’s My Education.

I do think The Female Persuasion would appeal to the Y.A. crowd!  But I wonder how much of this novel was rewritten to fit the #MeToo movement.  I really have enjoyed Wolitzer’s other novels, especially The Interestings.

The Art of Bad Poetry

‘Wait, my Lord! At least stay for the mad, bad and dangerous to know category!’

It is National Poetry Month, and I am musing on bad poetry.

In Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), Horace’s charming guide to classical poetry, he traces the history of the genre and explains the elements of writing good poetry.  He also fulminates against inept poets who lack natural talent or knowledge of the art.

The difference between sports fans and poetry fans, he explains, is that sports fans know that they are unlikely to become professional athletes, while every poetry reader believes he can be a great poet.  Although Horace expresses this sentiment elegantly in Latin hexameters, it doesn’t quite come across in English.  Here’s my rough prose translation.

If a man does not know how to play, he refrains from military sports on the Campus Martius,
And if he is unskilled at sports, at ball, the discus, or the hoop, he doesn’t participate,
lest the crowd of spectators laugh at him.
And yet a man who knows nothing dares to fashion verses!

I did laugh.  It is so true:  everybody’s a poet/novelist/critic!

I used to belong to a poetry group. It was fun and therapeutic.  Only one of us, and it was not I, had talent.   Some thought they were as good as our prima, who’d published a few poems in little magazines, but honestly they (we) had a long way to go.  And there was not much grumbling, because our prima was likable, as is so often the case.

What does one do at a poetry group meeting?  Well, we ate homemade cake, gently critiqued each other’s poems, and sometimes did poetry-writing exercises.  (N.B.  There are good poetry exercises on Tuesdays at Poets & Writers.)  We also attended the readings of the few brave who read on Open Mic nights at the coffeehouse.  The great thing about Open Mic nights is that nobody can tell if your poetry is good or bad if you’re a good actor !

Part of what we like is playing the role of poet:  Horace hated that!  He thought it was absurd to pretend to be a poet by neglecting one’s appearance, not bathing, and growing a beard.  Obviously he didn’t know female poets, who spend a lot of time on hair and clothes!

Anyway, here is a poem about poems by Octavio Paz, translated by Eliot Weinberger.  (I hope Horace would approve.)


Octavio Paz, 19141998

   At times poetry is the vertigo of bodies and the vertigo of speech and the vertigo of death;
the walk with eyes closed along the edge of the cliff, and the verbena in submarine gardens;
the laughter that sets on fire the rules and the holy commandments;
the descent of parachuting words onto the sands of the page;
the despair that boards a paper boat and crosses,
for forty nights and forty days, the night-sorrow sea and the day-sorrow desert;
the idolatry of the self and the desecration of the self and the dissipation of the self;
the beheading of epithets, the burial of mirrors;    the recollection of pronouns freshly cut in the garden of Epicurus, and the garden of Netzahualcoyotl;
the flute solo on the terrace of memory and the dance of flames in the cave of thought;
the migrations of millions of verbs, wings and claws, seeds and hands;
the nouns, bony and full of roots, planted on the waves of language;
the love unseen and the love unheard and the love unsaid: the love in love.

Syllables seeds.

Drinking Coffee While Reading Books: Penguin Island & The Confessions of Young Nero

Welcome to “Drinking Coffee While Reading Books,” a  new column at Mirabile Dictu. Here is an opportunity for me to chat about books without writing a full-length post.

And so here goes!  I AM JUST FINISHING:

The  Nobel Prize-winning French novelist Anatole France’s Penguin Island, a whimsical satire published in 1908.  When we passed this hilarious novel around in school, I chortled over it.  Now I am astonished by the radical lampooning of politics, which I took for granted the first time.

The history of the Penguins begins when the nearsighted monk, Mael, baptizes a group of penguins he mistakes for humans.  The Lord and the saints have a comical theological debate about the muddle.

When the baptism of the penguins was known in Paradise, it caused neither joy nor sorrow, but an extreme surprise.  The Lord himself was embarrassed.  He gathered an assembly of clerics and doctors, and asked them whether they regarded the baptism as void.

And the Lord decides to change the penguins into humans.

The historian narrator’s distance from these comical bird-people makes this feel like a charming fable.  He starts with the origins of myths and legends, and how they become  history.   Perhaps the most influential legend is the story of the Eve-like Orberosia, a slut who feigns virginity to “defeat” a dragon (her lover has worn a dragon costume so as to steal chickens with impunity).  She is later deemed a saint, with a cult that goes in and out of fashion.  I laughed at the tactics and strategies of Orberosia and the later characters, but as the book goes on the Penguins become more believable and politics become  horrifyingly realistic:  there is even a satire of the Dreyfuss Affair, incited by prejudice against Jews on the part of the Christian clergy and the government.

Very witty and sometimes prescient.    A must-read!  Dover has reissued it in an attractive paperback, with the original illustrations.


The popular historical novelist Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero.  I have a weakness for historical novels set in ancient Rome, and this one is well-written, fast-paced, and fun. As George says in the Afterword, “This novel is my mission to rescue a gifted and remarkable young ruler, who was only sixteen when he became emperor, from what historian David Braund… calls ‘the extensive fog of hostility, which clouds and surrounds almost all the historical record on Nero…'”


On Not Ruining Writers’ Days & Other Literary Links

I often complain about the internet, but I have recently read some smart essays online.

I was particularly interested in an essay by Chad W. Post at Three Percent, “Thinking About Book Reviews.” He begins by saying he did not much like Clarice Lispector’s second novel, The Chandelier, recently published by New Directions in a translation by Benjamin Moser.  And Post’s reactions serve as a preamble to an essay on the purpose of book reviews.

Post asks whether reviewers of books in translation should hype books.

I think this is a commonly held belief—especially when it comes to reviews of translated books. There are so few opportunities for most of these titles to get any ink-time, so what’s the point in writing about a subpar book that you don’t really like? These opportunities should be maximized by drawing attention to wonderful books that are masterfully translated. If reviews are supposed to bring readers to particular books, shouldn’t we use this opportunity to direct the curious to the masterpieces out there?

Furthermore, what is gained—for the translation profession as a whole—by shitting on a translated title? Just don’t write/tweet/say anything! There are so many good books out there deserving of attention, not to mention all the great translators doing amazing work—so just write about those.

And then he replies to himself (and the reply is in italics):

But is that really what criticism is? How can the translation profession really improve if these books aren’t ever criticized? Translators, not to mention readers of international fiction, can gain a lot from seeing what works, what doesn’t work, witnessing the mind of a sharp reader in action.

I certainly agree with him on the issue of hype, which applies to all reviews, whether of books in English or translation.  Are we under pressure to  hype?  I seldom post about books by living writers these days, because (a) most new books I read are mediocre to bad, and (b) I don’t want to ruin a writer’s day.  (Reviewing was easier before the interactions on the internet.)

American and English literature seem to be in a slump these days.  If I listed all the new books I have abandoned after reading half we’d be here all day.  New books in translation seem to deal with more significant issues:  is that possible?  I loved Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, a brilliant Japanese retelling of Wuthering Heights, which won the Yomiuri Prize For Literature in 2002.  (I wrote about it here.)  But I can’t think of any American or English novel I’ve read in this class lately.

But reviews are problematic anyway.  Hype?  Not hype?  New books?  Old books?  What do you think?


At The New Yorker, Karen Russell writes about Joy Williams’ recently reissued second novel The Changeling.

Like Ovid, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, and God, Williams is interested in metamorphosis, in the “monstrosity of salvation.” Her astonishing second novel, “The Changeling,” first published in 1978, follows Pearl, a young mother on the lam. Pearl’s drink of choice, too, is gin. In the book’s first sentence, she is in a bar, “drinking gin and tonics” while holding “an infant in the crook of her right arm.” Significantly, the booze precedes the infant. His name is Sam; he is two months old. We seem to be in a world of crushing sameness: parking lots and pretzel logs, homogeneous retail. It’s a costume the novel wears for about a paragraph and a half, then shrugs off with a spectacular gesture…

The American Scholar has re-posted a brilliant 2007 essay by Charles Trueheart on Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet

Speak the name Lawrence Durrell, as I have been doing recently, and you will have little trouble prompting the title of his masterwork, the four-novel cycle he called “The Alexandria Quartet.” Yes, everyone read it back when. Or some of it. Justine . . .Balthazar . . . The well of memory tends to run dry about there, leaving only the wistful fragrance of the little remembered but not quite forgotten.

Yet half a century ago, when Justine appeared, it elicited a rush of critical superlatives that announced the birth of a literary classic. Almost at once the novel established an outlandish reputation for Durrell, previously known for a precocious first novel and some sublime travel writing. He was confidently placed in the big shoes of Joyce, Proust, Henry Miller, and D. H. Lawrence, among other modernist forebears. “The novel may indeed be dying,” declared the critic Robert Scholes, “but we need not fear for the future. Durrell and others are leading us in a renaissance of romance.”


The Future Is So Far Away: Why Do We Buy Too Many Books?

In 2012, Gabe Habash, author of the novel Stephen Florida, wrote an amusing article for Publishers Weekly, “The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books.” One weekend, as he browsed at bookstores in Brooklyn, he bought four books he wasn’t looking for.

He writes, “… you could call this either a habit of mine or a problem of mine. Either way, one thing it is is a pattern, something that repeats itself, that exists in its very repetition…”

According to Habash, who read several posts and online articles about book clutter, compulsive book buyers cut back or stop after they trip over stacks in their home libraries, or have some similar troublesome occurrence.  Then they  weed their “library’s duplicates and never-will-reads or already-read-and-didn’t-really-likes.”

Does this sound familiar?  It does to me. After a stack of books, toppled by an oversized Folio Society edition, fell out of a bookcase in January, I began my desperate weeding, giving away books I’d  already read.  My goal?  To weed the equivalent of two bookcases and have one book-free room.

I try to buy only books I will read. I spend less time in bookstores now.   On my trip to London, I bought very few, by my standards.  At Oxfam?  Nothing in the fiction, nothing in nonfiction, a very few in the literature section.  I found myself wishing I had gone instead to the London Review Bookshop, with its tables of interesting new books. But even the ten books I squeezed into my suitcase and shopping bag seemed superfluous when I got home.

My home library is better than most bookstores.  I was surprised to realize that.  But sometimes books are mere commodities–good for their (or our) time, but not for long.  Are those stacks of the new Kristin Hannah, the latest Richard Powers, or the new Meg Wolitzer, which has been so hyped that I’m leery, going to be read in 10 years?

The future is so far away.