Favorite Book Columnists & The Slog of Self-Publishing

The other day I was thinking about book columns.  I have always preferred columns to reviews.   And then I was startled to realize I read only two book columns now, “NB” by J.C. at the TLS and “Well Read” by Robert Weibezahl at BookPage.

There must be more than two book columns.  Do you know of any?  We like the personal voice.  When a writer publishes a column, we get to know his or her taste. No pretense of being objective:  columnists are  allowed to speak out.

There are witty columnists, and there are serious columnists.  J.C., the author of NB, falls into the witty category.   In a recent column, one of the items he wrote about was “the George Gissing Book Club.”  He says, “We do our bit for the cause. Most recently (NB, October 20), we listed the works of Gissing available in Italian, mentioning in passing a short novel we admire, Eve’s Ransom (Il riscatto di Eva, in case you’ve forgotten). It is, we suggested, ‘hard to find in English.’”

Then an irate reader wrote a note to him claiming Eve’s Ransom was not hard to find: the Idle Bookshop in Bradford had seven copies.   J.C. pointed out that Bradford is four hours away  by train.   I myself have now ordered a copy of Eve’s Ransom (Dover, 1980) online:  it’s cheaper than Bradford.

Robert Weibesazhl, on the other hand, devotes his literary columns to criticism:   Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays, Russian translations by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and James Wright’s poetry.  He does not write in a personal voice, but I take his criticism as seriously as I do  The New York Times.

Who are your favorite book columnists?  There must be more columnists out there.

THE SLOG OF SELF-PUBLISHING. Poets publish chapbooks.  Self-published memoirists take control of their  lives.  There is always a local writers’ section at bookstores.  One day I was buying a copy of a novel by the Native American writer James Welch when a man briskly entered the bookstore and asked if anyone had bought his self-published book.

He said to me, “You look like someone who would enjoy it.”

“Thank you,” I said, for no reason I can fathom. I hurried out of the store.

I did not fall into that trap with my own book,  Between the Pages:  Reflections on Reading, by Kathleen Adelaide.  (You can find it by typing  in Kathleen Adelaide at Amazon.)  I published it only as a Kindle e-book, because the readers would be family, friends, and a few bloggers.  My husband has given me my first blurb, “A good book to read at the gym.”  And he is now reading Pamela Hansford Johnson, as a result of reading at the gym.

The book is very short, really a pamphlet.  Most of my reviews and essays were published in the 20th century in little magazines and newspapers.  Most of the books are now forgotten or out-of-print.

The  process of self-publishing was difficult for me, a techno-primitive.   How could I upload the manuscript at Kindle Direct Publishing?  I had to convert the document into plain text or epub or something.  I had no idea how to do it. I got it after a couple of hours.  My husband thought I should change the cover.  I found a nicer image, but it took an hour to adjust the pixels.  And now I am far too tired to figure out how to superimpose the title on the cover. The Amazon-generated cover is fine.

The cheapest price for an ebook is now $2.99.  I had thought more in the spirit of alternative papers:  I do wish it were free.  I used to organize readings by novelists at conferences and colleges.  My students would attend for extra credit, but hardly anyone bought the books.

The best thing about publishing my book? I want to reread all these old books I loved. And I recently reread Susan Richards Shreve’s Queen of Hearts, and it is even better than I thought in 1986.  Why is it out-of-print?

Here is an excerpt from my review of Shreve’s novel.

In The Arabian Nights, cunning Scheherazade tells a thousand and one magical tales that divert a bloodthirsty sultan’s murderous intentions.

If the legendary Scheherazade were cast as the heroine of a contemporary novel, she might be a lot like Francesca Woodbine, the pop singer with second sight who stars in Susan Richards Shreve’s enchanting novel.

Francesca is no ordinary pop singer. It takes an artist as intuitive as she to penetrate “the secret lives of ordinary people.” Thwarted composers, teenage Don Juans, would-be snake charmers, and lion tamers range the streets of her seemingly humdrum hometown in the guise of housewives, sexy boys, harmless booksellers, and cat lovers. In her songs, Francesca unveils their hidden passions and crimes.

Let me know about your own experiences in self-publishing.  Isn’t it wonderful that we can all have our own books now for family and friends?

Our Winter of the Aeneid: Self-Narration & Serpents in Book 2

Detail from “The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy” by Domenico Tiepolo (1773)

Welcome back to the readalong of Virgil’s Aeneid.   Since it’s a holiday weekend, I’ll write briefly about Book 2 today and try to get to 3 later this week.  (The schedule is printed at the bottom of this post: Book 3 is “optional”in our readalong.)

BOOK 2

At the end of Book I, Dido urged Aeneas to tell the story of the fall of Troy.   And, by the way, the heroine Dido is based on Cleopatra, the powerful Egyptian queen.  More about this later.

In Book 2, Aeneas relates the story of the fall from his personal point-of-view.  And it is the poignancy of  his “self-narration” that makes Book 2 unique.   Homeric heroes like Odysseus may express pain and grief in order to manipulate others’ emotions, but Aeneas is a “counter-epical hero” who reveals his very real desolation, doubts, loss, and regrets.

And yet Aeneas is the cultured hero of a lost Trojan civilization, and the story is shaped for reception at a banquet.   Of course he is  trying to win her compassion.

Here is the first line of Aeneas’s speech, in Latin and three translations.

The Latin:

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem

Allan Mandelbaum’s translation:

“O Queen—too terrible for tongues the pain/you ask me to renew”-

Robert Fagles’ translation:

“….Sorrow, unspeakable sorrow,/ my queen, you ask me to bring to life once more”

My literal translation:  “Queen, you bid me to renew pain.”

The arrangement of the Latin words is very  clever, and not quite translatable:  I have color-coded two Latin words  in blue, infandum (unspeakable, unutterable, shocking), the first word in the line, and dolorem (pain), the last word in the line. These two words belong together:   Infandum… dolorem (unspeakable pain). The arrangement emphasizes the unspeakable pain that surrounds  Aeneas and Dido:  the queen (regina), the command/question (iubet) and the renewal (renovare) are encircled by the phrase “unspeakable pain.”

Laocoon and his sons.

And then Aeneas tells the story of the fall of Troy. The great Bernard Knox, in his essay, “The Serpent and the Flame:  The Imagery of the Second Book of the Aeneid,”  analyzes the imagery  that dominates Book 2.  The priest Laocoon, who  says the famous words, “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis” (“I fear Greeks even bearing gifts”), warns the Trojans not to bring the strange gigantic wooden horse left by the Greeks  into the city. Then two huge serpents glide across the sea from Tenedos, and stangle Laocoon and his two sons.

And a Greek trickster, Sinon, whose name means “destruction,” claims the Greeks have sailed away due to an oracle and built the Trojan horse to appease the gods.  He  insinuates himself in their midst.  His name recalls the Latin words sinuo (wind, curve) and sinus (fold, curve).  The words serpentes (serpents, snakes) and serpere (creeps) recur.  A new fear insinuat (winds) into their hearts after Laocoon and his sons died, but they take the horse into Troy anyway. The flames also take on snakey shapes.  At one point they are described as serpentes (winding).

 

I do feel Aeneas’s unspeakable pain (infandum dolorem)  as  I read Book 2. I am especially moved by the loss of his wife Creusa. Do let me know what interests you in Book 2:  particular scenes, poetic details, any effects characters.  There are many, many interpretations of this poem, so all comments are welcome.

N.B. I promised to write about Sarah Ruden’s translation today, but, alas, I have misplaced the book.  I organized my classics books–all except this one apparently.

SCHEDULE:

Jan. 15-21:  Books II and III (the “short version” is Book II)

Jan. 22-28:  Book IV

Jan. 29-Feb. 4:  Books V and VI (the “short version” is Book VI)

The schedule for February, including the “short version,”  will be announced later.

The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch

Liz Dexter of the blog Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working at Home has organized an Iris Murdoch readalong this year.  What a fabulous idea!   My favorite Murdoch is The Sea, the Sea, which won the Booker Prize in 1978.  This lyrical, philosophical novel about a retired actor and his obsessions won the Booker Prize in 1978 and is truly a classic.

I plan to catch up on the reading next month,  but meanwhile here is a journal entry I wrote in 2011 about her 1987 novel The Book and the Brotherhood.

Much of Murdoch’s clever, fast-paced novel takes the form of intellectual conversations among a group of radical middle-aged friends who have long financially supported their friend Crimond, a brilliant political writer whom they knew years ago at Oxford.  He has been working on a book forever, and will he ever publish?  One of the friends wonders if they should continue to support him.

It all begins at Commem Ball at Oxford, many years after their graduation. For the first 53 pages we observe their intricate relationships and learn their history. There is dancing, but they jabber a lot. They discuss Marxists, Platonists, Liberation theology, and the New Philosophy.

The group’s obsessions, interactions, and love affairs are described with intellectual clarity, but their talk can also be wearing. Their relationships are intricate, and their sexual connections are a bit off.   The intelligent, wealthy Rose is in love with their “leader,” Gerard, a gay retired civil servant. (Murdoch often describes such relationships, as I recall.)  . Jenkin, an unmarried schoolteacher, is completely sexless, and Duncan, a diplomat, was half-blinded years ago in a fight with Crimond over his wife Jean.

Crimond, who is mad, vicious, and enjoys Russian roulette,  betrays their trust and ruins a few lives.  After he dances with Jean at the ball, he runs away with her, repeating his first betrayal. He tries to persuade Jean to drive her car into his at top-speed so they can preserve their happiness in death.

Murdoch also describes the younger generation: Tamar, Gerard’s young cousin, is persuaded by her mother, Violet, to leave Oxford; Gulliver, a failed writer, is slightly older and self-destructive; and Lily, a wealthy woman, wants to get to know the intellectual group.

What is to be done now that Crimond has destroyed Duncan’s marriage?  Will Crimond’s book ever be finished?  The committee meets and cannot decide what to do with him.

Murdoch’s writing is excellent, but 607 pages is too long.   You have to read a lot of dialogue like this:  “I am left to burn, I am left to die…For God’s sake, Tamar, don’t leave me, stay with me, tell those wicked people to go away!  What have they to do with us?  You’re all I have–I’ve given you my life!”

It is brilliant, though talky. Not my favorite, but Murdoch cannot write a bad book.

A Good Read: Zola’s A Love Story

When I was growing up, you could pick up Penguins of Zola’s novels in the superb Rougon-Macquart series at every bookstore.  Mind you, not all 20 were in print; not all are in print today.  Still, I was spellbound by L’Assoimoir (The Drinking Den), Nana, Germinal, The Earth,  and La Bête humaine (The Beast Within).

Today you can buy all of Zola’s books at Amazon and Abebooks.   There are modern paperback translations, and there are 19th-century translations in e-book editions.  Zola is very like Balzac, but  grittier and more explicit. His urgently entertaining, sometimes shocking  Rougon-Macquart series explores the effects of heredity and environment and the decline of two branches of a family in the late 19th century.

I still love the Penguins best, but in recent years Oxford has published new translations of Zola novels not available before in modern translations. The latest is A Love Story, translated by Helen Constantine.  This brilliant novel about motherhood, adultery, and a child’s jealousy is more like The Awakening or The Forstye Saga than Zola.  Here Zola gives us a break from the grotesque realities of  alcoholism, murder, prostitution,  mining strikes, starvation, and madness.  In the introduction to the Oxford edition, Brian Nelson writes, “Its muted tone and style reflect the writer’s aim to produce a relatively inoffensive work after the provocative hyperrrealism of L’Assommoir.”  (Even I was shocked by that one:  I wrote about it here.)

A Love Story is short, fast, and unpredictable.  The heroine, Helene Grandjean, a widow, lives a  quiet life with her 11-year-old daughter Jeanne in Paris.  Bewildered when her husband died, she was helped by Abbe Jouve and his half-brother, Rambaud, to find an apartment in a nice neighborhood. She and Jeanne seldom go out, but have a nice view from their window. Their maid, Rosalie, and her comical boyfriend, Zephyrin, are their main contacts in Paris aside from the priest and his brother. But when Jeanne, a sickly child, has a seizure, the next-door neighbor, Dr.Deberle, saves her life. For a long time she refuses to let Dr. Deberle attend her. The doctor’s wife invites Helene and Jeanne to sit in their garden. And soon Dr. Deberle falls in love with Helene.  Helene is determined not to act on her feelings.  And Jeanne becomes very jealous and ill.

Zola suggests that Jeanne is psychologically ill as well as physically ill.  Jeanne brings the doctor and her mother together, but then drives them apart. IThen Jeanne refuses to let Dr. Deberle attend her. Helene suffers horribly, but she survives, unlike Anna Karenina.

C. C. Starkweather writes in the introduction of his 1905 translation:   “The idea of destiny or heredity permeates all the works of this portentously ambitious series. Details may be repellent.  One should not ‘smell’ a picture, as the artists say.  If one does, he gets an impression of merely a blot of paint.  The vast canvas should be studied as a whole.”

A Love Story doesn’t “smell.” It is very disturbing, but finely-written.  If you don’t want to commit to Zola, it’s a place to start.  Very different from his others, though.

Balzac, Blond Love, & Book Clubs

An 1898 copy of a Balzac

I have read the the Penguin translations of Balzac, and a couple by Modern Library, but where are the translations of the other novels, novellas, and short stories in La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy)? I own a few tattered 19th-century editions with translations by Ellen Marriage and R. S. Scott, but the pages flake and the paper is yellow.

I am delighted that NYRB has published a new translation of Balzac’s The Memoirs of Two Young Wives. Morris Dickstein writes at The NYR Daily:  “While complete sets of Balzac’s work in English translation were once common, few contemporary readers have sought out many of his lesser-known books. Graham Robb concludes his prodigious 1994 biography of Balzac with the terse suggestion that “unknown masterpieces are waiting to be rediscovered.” The Memoirs of Two Young Wives, first published in 1842, is not exactly a masterpiece, but it’s a singular work, one of Balzac’s Scenes of Private Life, full of arresting detail yet cutting against the grain of his received image as a social realist. James himself wrote a long preface to a 1902 translation, but the novel soon dropped without a trace from the English-speaking world. It’s a gem of a book, occasionally florid and schematic yet engrossing, and this new translation by Jordan Stump makes for precisely the kind of rediscovery that Robb invited.”

I had a feeling I might have an 1898 copy published by the Gebbie Publishing Company. Sure enough, it was published as Letters of Two Brides in a volume with A Daughter of Eve (which I wrote about here). Since I have it, I will try the R. S. Scott first.  But I will probably end up buying the NYRB.

An illustration for Letters of Two Brides (Gebbie Publishing Compay)

 ANACREON AND BLOND LOVE.

Long ago, when I was young, I was in the evil thrall of Love. As the Greek poet Anacreon put it,

Love struck me like a smith with a big hammer,
then washed me in an icy stream.

Not a very poetic translation, but that’s the gist.  (It is my literal translation.)

In Anacreon’s poetry, Love is blond.  Why?  I often reflected about incongruous images.  I was reading Anacreon at the kitchen table,  no doubt munching Royal Lunch crackers, when I came across the phrase “Golden-haired Love.” Why wasn’t love brunette?  In the first stanza of this poem, Blond Love hits the poet with a purple ball to call him to play with a girl wearing “multi-colored slippers.” Balls and slippers–the Greeks are strange.  In the second stanza, we learn that the girl with the slippers rejects him because of his white hair, and simultaneously she ogles a woman across the room. An odd poem.  Is Love spitefully twitting the poet for being too old for love? Why is Love blond?  I was blond then.

When I told my students that literature affected me more than reality, I wasn’t exaggerating.  Reality wasn’t great after I’d broken up with my boyfriend.  I  had taken a job at the “Wodehouse School” because I had no idea what else to do. My life was now devoted to teaching Latin to brats who were more rich than gifted. (There were exceptions.)  I  missed my boyfriend so much. The present meant grading papers.  Many, many papers.

Why was I obsessed with my boyfriend?  I wondered if Blond Love had struck me with a hammer, or hit me with a purple ball, or what the deal was.  The hammer was the more apt metaphor, I would say.

Anacreon is very, very strange.  And thank God those days are over.

(You can read Anacreon in Richmond Lattimore’s superb translation, Greek Lyrics.)

The DAVID BOWIE BOOK CLUB & “NOW READ THIS” CLUB.   Several articles at The Guardian and New York Times have recently profiled the David Bowie Book Club.  This month the selection is Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. which does not sound like my kind of thing.  Can you believe a Penguin is going for $899 at Amazon?

I am more interested in the “Now Read This” book club offered by the PBS NewsHour and The New York Times. This month they are reading Sing Unburied Sing by Jessmyn Ward.  Here is a link to the “Now Read This” video at PBS.

MY NEW BOOK: Between the Pages: Reflections on Reading

I have neglected my blog lately. I was busy with a writing project.

And now my first book, Between the Pages:  Reflections on Reading, was published yesterday as a Kindle e-book, under the nom de plume Kathleen Adelaide.

How did this come about?  I’ve written bits and pieces over 30 years.  As a young woman, I preferred reading to writing, but then I began to review books and write essays on bookish topics for little magazines and book review publications (most now defunct). A few months ago, as I sorted through old clippings, I realized that many of the best books I reviewed are now forgotten or out-of-print.

How could I change that? Well, I don’t have that power. But I decided to collect 22 of these reviews and essays in a very short book (43 pages) for my friends.  I hope some of you will read my libellum (what Catullus calls a “little book”)  and  discover or rediscover the dazzling writing of Laurie Colwin, Graham Joyce, Mary Webb, John Thorndike, Carolyn See, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Stephen Dixon, and many others. You can also read four of my essays, including “Confessions of a Book Award Junkie.”

Over the years I have added 500 titles to my TBR list from reviews at blogs, Goodreads, online book clubs, and professional reviews. Now it is payback time!  Readers of the obscure or lost will learn about  many new-old books.

The price of the Kindle e-book is $2.99, or it is free with Kindle Unlimited.  It is available only at Amazon.  By the way, my name is Kathleen Adelaide, but I omitted my surname.

Back to the usual blogging tomorrow!

Our Winter of the Aeneid: Aeneas as Modern Hero & Temple Art

Robert Fagles’ translation

Welcome to the readalong of Virgil’s Aeneid. I will post about this gorgeous epic poem once a week, and do hope that you will comment and share your own reactions.  There is no single interpretation, and every reading or rereading is different.  Whether you read a translation or the Latin, you will travel to the same place.  All the translations are excellent.  From time to time I will say a few words about the Latin.

This week we are discussing Book I.  The schedule is at the bottom of this post.

Today I wrote briefly about Aeneas as a modern hero, and the paintings at Juno’s temple.

AENEAS AS A MODERN HERO

If you have to be a hero, why complain about it?

That is how I responded to Virgil’s Aeneid the first time I read it as a very young woman.

Virgil’s complex characterization of Aeneas as a depressed, reluctant, tragic leader was innovative in epic.  Based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, poems inspired by the Trojan War, the Aeneid has a different Roman slant on the heroic life.  Aeneas is a stretched to his limits by war and exile.  He does not have the perfect confidence of Homer’s heroes, nor the luxury to sulk in his tent, as Achilles did in the Iliad.   Fated to ensure the survival of the Trojan people, Aeneas must sacrifice his personal life to lead the refugees of the Trojan War to Italy, where they will found Rome. Virgil describes him as fessus (tired).   And Aeneas can’t give the job to someone else.

You must understand the Roman concept of pietas to appreciate the AeneidPietas is not quite the same as piousness: it  means duty to the gods, one’s country, and one’s family.  Aeneas is repeatedly called pius Aeneas: such epithets are characteristic of epic, but this one reminds us of why Aeneas does what he must do.

As Virgil explores the conflict between the longings of the personal man and the stoicism of the public figure, he creates a new kind of poem.  Our culture has no comparable concept to pietas, and we have no epic like the Aeneid.

We first meet Aeneas in a shipwreck, when he is very much the personal man, wishing himself dead. He says (and I have given both the Latin and the English):

The Latin:

…’O terque quaterque beati,
quis ante ora patrum Troiae sub moenibus altis
contigit oppetere!

A literal English translation:

“O three and four times blessed, those who happened to meet death before the altars of their fathers under the high walls of Troy!”

Aeneas is tired.  The Trojans are tired.  The ships are described as tired.

But when Aeneas  and only seven of his 20 ships reach the shores of Libya, he must be strong and says (Fagles’s translation):  “My comrades, hardly strangers to pain before now, we have all weathered worse.”

And he delivers one of the most famous lines in the poem:

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.

“Perhaps one day it will be a joy even to remember these things.”

He has lost his wife, friends, and many relatives in the war.  Does he believe what he says?  He knows how to say it.

And doesn’t this remind us all of sadness and disasters we have overcome?

And now on to

ECPHRASIS: THE PICTURES AT THE TEMPLE

David Ferry’s translation

One of the most fascinating features of epic is ecphrasis, a term used to describe the meaning of works of art. When Aeneas stumbles upon a temple to Juno (a goddess who hates him, by the way), he has strong reactions to the paintings on the walls. The paintings depict episodes in the Trojan War. Even he is depicted in one of them, in combat with the Greeks. And so he believes Queen Dido, who is building the city of Carthage, will be friendly to him and his followers.

But what do the pictures really mean? Virgil tells us that Aeneas” feeds his spirit” and cries over pictura inani, which means an “empty picture,” an “idle picture,” or a “worthless picture.”

But Aeneas is so moved by the lasting fame of the Trojan heroes in art that he says the following (another famous line):

Here is the Latin:

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

Literally it means, “These are the tears of things and human woes touch the mind.”

The poet Robert Fagles translates it:

even here, the world is a world of tears and
the burdens of mortality touch the heart.

And Robert Fitgerald translates it: “…they weep here
for how the world goes, and our life that passes
Touches their hearts.”

Many critics question Aeneas’s interpretation that the paintings  show sympathy for the Trojans. Both Greeks and Trojans are portrayed:  often the Trojans are routed by the Greeks.  And the frieze is at the temple of Juno, who  favors the Greeks,.

I  do not have a firm grasp on this: in other words, sometimes it means one thing to me, sometimes another. Dido and Aeneas become friends, which supports Aeneas’s theory, but Juno and Venus (Aeneas’ mother) did some ground work to make this happen.

It’s complicated!

Let me know what interests you about Book I. There is so much here.

THE SCHEDULE FOR JANUARY. 

Jan. 8-14:  Book I

Jan. 15-21:  Books II and III (the “short version” is Book II)

Jan. 22-28:  Book IV

Jan. 29-Feb. 4:  Books V and VI (the “short version” is Book VI)

The schedule for February, including the “short version,”  will be announced later.