Shabby Books & Replacement Copies

Some of my old books are so excessively seedy that, along with old newspaper and New Yorkers, they should be recycled.   The question? Do these books deserve replacement? Or should I hang on to the old copies?

Take Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall.  The one on the left (below) was my first copy, and it survived two reads.  That’s Drabble on the cover:  several in this series have photos of Drabble as cover art.   A few years ago, I bought a second reading copy for $1 at the Planned Parenthood book sale.  To be honest, this one is shabby, too, and I’m not sure it will survive another read!  (And, by the way, this is a very good but neglected novel. I posted about The Waterfall here in 2013.)

How about Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd?  The new movie has spoiled it for me temporarily, alas, because  I keep picturing Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba and Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel! And that just doesn’t work in a book.  Below is the  battered Signet edition, either mine or my husband’s, because we had many duplicates.  When it became disgracefully worn, I bought this Heritage Press edition with illustrations, and also a very cheap Modern Library hardback, which can knock around in my bike pannier without damage.   I do dislike the TV-series tie-in dust jacket, but this hardcover will last.  And I can take off the dust jacket.

One of my favorite novels is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The Norton was my first “grown-up” edition of Wuthering Heights.  I bought it used, and though it is still readable, it has been read in the bathtub a few times too many. And so when I found the illustrated Heritage Press edition at a used bookstore, I had to have it.  It is a sturdy  book, with lovely illustrations, and has survived many reads!

Here are some pix of books that have seen better days.

This 1956 edition of Horace:  The Complete Works lasted four generations.  My husband and I both used it in our Horace classes (different years).  But, as you can see, the 21st-century has been too much for it.

My Modern Library paperback of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady finally fell apart. The Heritage Press edition (left) is oversized and too hefty for a comfortable read, so I bought this mint-condition 1983 Modern Library hardback (right),  from a local dealer, who delivered it to my house.  Now that’s good service.

I can’t enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford because the spine is cocked!  Should I read it?  The pages of My Lady Ludlow and Other Stories show some signs of wear, but the Oxford is still readable.  Go figure!

When, if ever, do you replace your books?And if you buy used, what condition do you look for:  Like New, Very Good, Good, or Acceptable?  (I often find that “acceptable” is the same as “nightmarish.”)

Are University Towns Paradise? Jude the Obscure, Lucky Jim, The Groves of Academe, and Me

Iowa City

I grew up in Iowa City, a midwestern university town.  Was it Paradise?  Charles R. Frederick Jr., director of the Academic Student Center at Indiana University, thinks so.   In his fascinating essay, “Growing up Mennonite, Growing up Hawkeye,” he describes growing up in Iowa City.  He says,

I often tell my own children that they grew up ‘in Paradise.’  Their version of the place is Bloomington, Indiana. But I was there first; Iowa City was a great place to grow up.

Bloomington, Indiana

I yearned to move to a big city. But, coincidentally, like Frederick, I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, which is leafy, green, lush, and more paradisiacal in terms of climate.  In both towns, there are great libraries, beautiful tree-lined streets, lush gardens, a food co-op, foreign films at the Union, museums, poetry and fiction readings (Borges, Tillie Olsen…), and you didn’t need a car.   I didn’t realize what I had till I left.

But university towns, whether the schools are state-funded or posh, aren’t for every literary hero. I have just reread Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and am musing on how Christminster, the Oxford of Hardy’s novel, did not prove to be Paradise for  Jude.  A stone-mason and an autodidact, he taught himself Greek and Latin.   When he moves to Christminster, he is told he will never be admitted to the university, could not possibly compete with men educated at Eton, and should stick to stone.  And then things go from bad to worse…so bad, so much worse.  His girlfriend, the brilliant, pretty Sue Bridehead, who doesn’t like to have sex, finally leaves her husband, with whom she also did not like to have sex, and commits herself to Jude only after  his wife, Arabella, a voluptuous barmaid, returns from Australia and tries to get him back.  Later, their son, Father Time (yes, really), kills his siblings and commits suicide, because he understands they are a burden to Jude and Sue.  And that’s the end of Jude.

Might I have been a Jude if I hadn’t grown up in Iowa City?  Well, no, I don’t see myself as the heroine of a gloomy novel (not Hardy’s masterpiece, whatever people tell you), but I studied classics, like Jude.  And I climbed a class or two by getting degrees in literature and classics.   So God bless midwestern university towns, and all the loans, grants, and assistantships!

Wouldn’t working at a university be idyllic?  In 20th-century literature, many professor-heroes hate college towns.  In Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Jim Dixon, who teaches medieval history at a provincial university, has no interest in his subject, makes faces behind the back of the department chair, gets drunk at parties, and is aware of the absurdity of an article he is trying to publish, with the farcical title, ” The economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.”   He gets  fired–and that’s a blessing!  You can’t live a good life at a provincial university in Amis’s world.

In Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, a satire of an experimental college during the McCarthy era, the hero, Henry Mulcahy, a Joyce scholar and instructor at a small “progressive” college in Pennsylvania, learns that his contract will not be renewed.  It is not a good time to be a leftist:  he was fired from a university in California because of his radical writings in The Nation.   Hen manipulates his friends to intercede on his behalf:  he says his wife Cathy has a severe heart condition and that any shock could kill her, and he implies that the FBI is out to get him and that Hoar has caved to pressure.   When his friends  learn that Hen has lied (Cathy was ill after her last pregnancy, but isn’t now, and Hen was never a member of the Communist party), the group is furious.  Although Hen  is brilliant and popular, how far must they go to protect him?  (I wrote more about this here.)

Ah, well, university towns are not ideal for everyone.  And since my mother died, I go less often to Iowa City.  My hometown has changed:   the downtown is undergoing a second urban renewal, there is ugly  development south of downtown, but most of the town survives intact, and is still very pretty.   It was a great place to grow up:   bicycling to the quarry to swim, looking at the Jackson Pollack at the art museum, co-writing satires of the classics department with my fellow Greek students, sitting by the river, eating at the  Pagliai’s Pizza, and hiking through Hickory Hill Park.

I had so much fun!

And that’s important, as life goes on.

Beyond Words & Bookish Catalogues

Political discussions can wreck online book groups.  Even if you’re on the same side, and you, like me, are a liberal,  I don’t want to talk politics with you.  We’re not political commentators, and anyway, just you wait, it will turn out we supported Bernie Sanders for completely different reasons.

I used to be a co-moderator of an online book group that splintered over the critic Edward Said’s brilliant memoir, Out of Place. Those of us who loved it as a memoir of growing up in Palestine were baffled, and the crazy thing was that only three or four  had even read the book.  As soon as they heard the word Palestine, a pro-Palestine faction and a pro-Israel faction emerged, accusing each other of genocide and anti-Semitism.  We co-moderators tried to get back to literature, but the group never recovered from this horrifying battle.

One of my favorite memoirs: who knew it would be controversial?

Dissension occurs in Goodreads groups and Yahoo groups.  One group was discussing, I believe, Tennyson, when the members began to fight about climate change. Every time I read the posts, I thought, “Yeah, climate change is happening:  deal with it!” And so I learned to skip the posts by the more irascible participants, because they upset me (and anybody else who has lived through Midwestern floods, Texas hurricanes, Mexican earthquakes, and more.)..

Another group became obsessed with racism in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gone with the Wind during a discussion of a Russian novel. How did that come up?   If you like Margaret Mitchell’s trashy 1936 best-seller, and I’m not a big fan, you realize that the book is not in the least literary, that it is a romance set during the Civil War, that the heroine is a very nasty woman named Scarlett O’Hara, and, yes, many of the black slaves are stereotypical. It’s not Uncle Tom’s Cabin!


I wonder if we blog these days to avoid  inimical online conversations.


I love book catalogues.  There are so few these days.

The Autumn 2017 Folio Society catalogue recently came in the mail.  This 99-page catalogue is almost as good as one of the books.  The paper is high-quality and the catalogue includes illustrations from the books.  I am not buying at the moment, having shot my wad, but some of you might like the following.

Virginia Woolf fans might be interested in the new edition of A Room of One’s Own,  with the original woodcuts by Vanessa Bell.

And how about the new edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, illustrated by Jonathan Burton?  But honestly I already have three copies of Northanger Abbey!

I also like the Persephone catalogue, the Dover catalogue, and the Dedalus catalogue.  The Dover and the Dedalus offer cheap, and often very strange  books we can all afford! I especially like to support the Dover catalogue, with its unusual collection of of  obscure mysteries, science fiction, classics, and coloring books.  Few bookstores stock them anymore, so I sometimes order at the Dover book site.

What are your favorite book catalogues?

Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America

Mary McCarthy’s 1971 satire, Birds of America, is a tour de force.  Set in New England, Paris, and Rome in the 1960s, it skewers both American innocence and hypocrisy.

I chortled over this comic novel, which is still pertinent today, but, bizarrely, it seems little-known.   You don’t have to know about the 1960s to be amused by her mockery of frozen foods, a pious Thanksgiving abroad (which the hero calls “a harvest fest”), the faux-historicism of New England villages, and tourism in Europe (the protagonist thinks tourists should be licensed to go to art museums).

The 19-year-old hero, Peter Levi, an amateur ornithologist, is the son of the twice-divorced Rosamund, a harpsichordist with old-fashioned WASP values, and his father, “Babbo,”  a Jewish-Italian art historian who teaches at Wellesley.   Peter’s bird-watching is the ideal training for observing his elders and criticizing society, though his point of view is very odd.

McCarthy can eviscerate with a few well-chosen images.  Take the scarcity of bean pots.  In Rocky Port, a small New England town where Rosamund and Peter live for a short time after she leaves her second husband, Rosamund has decided to cook only American dishes from an old Fannie Farmer cookbook. But she cannot find a bean pot at the grocery store.

“How extraordinary, Peter!  The man says they don’t make them any more.  Do you think that can be true?”  She was always asking him wide-eyed, troubled questions like that one, to which he could not possibly, at his age,  know the answer; it was a kind of flattery, applied to the male ego. The only bean pot Peter was familiar with was pictured on a can.  But the saw that for his mother this was a truly upsetting discovery, tantamount to finding that the American eagle was extinct.  She was even more ruffled when she returned from her weekly shopping trip with the report that the two hardware stores in the neighboring town did not carry bean pots either.

Now Rosamund is my favorite character in the book, but I also see Peter’s point of view: why not just use a casserole?  And after she searches hardware stores in neighboring towns and comes up with nada, their landlady gives her a bean pot she had used as vase for dried grasses.  And that is the fate of bean pots and other old things:  they are used decoratively, or stuck  in the attic.

In college, Peter becomes a radical, but his parents won’t allow him to go to Mississippi with a Students for Civil Rights group.  Ironically, during a summer vacation in Rocky Port, Rosamund and Peter are arrested when Rosamund refuses to put up a fake historical sign on the rented house (long story!) for a parade and festival for tourists.

Most of the book takes place during Peter’s junior year abroad in Paris, and it is very funny indeed.   Peter is genuinely concerned about politics, but he doesn’t quite get the protocol of French student protests, where there is a tacit agreement between police and students that those arrested  will be let go in a few hours.  His attempt to intercede in an arrest annoys one of his acquaintances, but Peter’s complaint at the embassy is so ridiculous that  he does eventually get them to make inquiries:  of course the boy had been let go almost immediately!

Peter and his fellow American students, annoyed by the dumbed-down American program at the Sorbonne, have little practice speaking French, because the French ignore them.  His most satisfying interactions are with a French bird-watching group.

So how does Peter spend his time?  He argues about politics. He travels to Rome.  He spends a lot of time furtively scrubbing the shared toilets in French and Italian hotels (in Rome a group of German tourists dominate the toilet all morning). And, not surprisingly, a quixotic  attempt in Paris to help a homeless drunkard by letting her stay on his couch ends in disaster. (She vomits on the couch and steals his doorknob.)

I thoroughly enjoyed Birds of America, which was published in 1971. And  I hope McCarthy is having a comeback:  the Library of America just published her complete fiction.  My own favorite McCarthy novel is A Charmed Life, a satire of an artists’ colony in a New England village.  You can read my post here.  But I have read several of her books, and enjoyed them all.

David Ferry’s New Translation of Virgil’s Aeneid

David Ferry’s new translation of  Virgil’s Aeneid  has just been published by University of Chicago Press.

Are you excited?  I am.

That’s because I know Ferry’s poetry.  In his National Book Award-winning collection, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, he included excerpts from his translation of the Aeneid.  Ferry is not only a translator, but a poet in his own right.

I reread Virgil in Latin every year (yes, I’m a classicist), but not everybody is so lucky. When I taught the Aeneid in Latin,  I also assigned parts of Robert Fagles’ translation, because intermediate students could not read the poem in entirety in Latin in a semester.   The translation gave them a broader perspective on the poem as a whole.

Michael Dirda of The Washington Post is enthusiastic about Ferry’s new translation, and about Virgil in general.  He writes,

Ours is a great age for classical translation. Just in the past dozen years, Virgil’s “Aeneid” has been tackled by Robert Fagles, Stanley Lombardo, Frederick Ahl, Sarah Ruden and, now, David Ferry, who previously gave us the best modern English version of Horace’s odes . Being the work of an award-winning poet, Ferry’s “Aeneid” can be read with excitement and pleasure — but so can all those other translations. What really matters is to read at least one of them.

And Dirda beautifully explains the influence of Virgil’s epic on Western culture..  He reminds us that after Virgil’s death in 19 B.C.,

For the next 1,800 years, “The Aeneid” was generally viewed as the preeminent masterpiece of the Western literary tradition. Its famous opening words, “Arma virumque cano” — Ferry translates them straightforwardly as “I sing of arms and the man” — can be found scribbled as graffiti at Pompeii. An awed Dante follows the arch-poet through Hell and Purgatory. In essence, wherever Latin was studied, Virgil’s poetry was revered. An English “Aeneid” first appeared in a 16th-century Scottish version by Gavin Douglas — highly praised by Ezra Pound — and was followed in the 17th century by John Dryden’s classic rendering in heroic couplets.

Robert Fagles’ translation is very good.

I love the Aeneid, and have often tried to sell it as a beach book:  see my post on The Epic As Beach Read.   I said, “The best beach epic of all, and possibly the best epic poem in any language, is Virgil’s Aeneid,  the story of the founding of Rome by a refugee of the Trojan War.”

Every Roman schoolboy read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in Greek, and the Aeneid is in part Virgil’s homage to Homer. The first half of the Aeneid corresponds to the Odyssey, as Aeneas and the survivors of the Trojan War sail from their native country to find a new home in Italy (Rome), their journey as long and tangled and god-thwarted as that of the trickster Odysseus.  And the last half of the Aeneid is a  Roman Iliad, the story of the war between the Trojans and inhabitants of  Italy, before they can found Rome, as the gods prophesied. 

The Aeneid has been read as a celebration of empire; it has also been read as an anti-war poem. Most important, it is a great story, with beautiful imagery and complex figures of speech.

Most translations of Virgil have good introductions. The Fagles has detailed notes, glossaries, character lists, and place lists.  (I do not yet have Ferry’s book, but have already read many excerpts, and assume there are notes. I also recommend his translation of Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics.)

Meanwhile, here is Ferry’s elegant translation of the first 34 lines of Book I of the Aeneid.

Virgil’s Aeneid Translation of Book I. 1-34

I sing of arms and the man whom fate had sent
To exile from the shores of Troy to be
The first to come to Lavinium and the coasts
Of Italy, and who, because of Juno’s
Savage implacable rage, was battered by storms
At sea, and from the heavens above, and also
Tempests of war, until at last he might
Build there his city and bring his gods to Latium,
From which would come the Alban Fathers and
The lofty walls of Rome. Muse, tell me
The cause why Juno the queen of heaven was so
Aggrieved by what offence against her power,
To send this virtuous faithful hero out
To perform so many labors, confront such dangers?
Can anger like this be, in immortal hearts?

There was an ancient city known as Carthage
(Settled by men from Tyre), across the sea
And opposite to Italy and the mouth
Of the Tiber river; very rich, and fierce,
Experienced in warfare. Juno, they say,
Loved Carthage more than any other place
In the whole wide world, more even than Samos.
Here’s where she kept her chariot and her armor.
It was her fierce desire, if fate permitted, that
Carthage should be chief city of the world.
But she had heard that there would come a people,
Engendered of Trojan blood, who would some day
Throw down the Tyrian citadel, a people
Proud in warfare, rulers of many realms,
Destined to bring down Libya. Thus it was
That the Parcae’s turning wheel foretold the story.

Fearful of this and remembering the old
War she had waged at Troy for her dear Greeks,
And remembering too her sorrow and her rage
Because of Paris’s insult to her beauty,
Remembering her hatred of his people,
And the honors paid to ravished Ganymede –
For all these causes her purpose was to keep
The Trojan remnant who’d survived the Greeks
And pitiless Achilles far from Latium,
On turbulent waters wandering, year after year,
Driven by fates across the many seas.

So formidable the task of founding Rome.

The Booker Longlist 2017: Are Any of Them Worth Five Stars?

Tomorrow the Man Booker Prize shortlist is announced.

I’m always excited about the Booker.  It has introduced me to so many brilliant authors over the years:  A. S. Byatt, Anita Brookner, Penelope Fitzgerald, Graham Swift, Peter Carey, Allen Hollingsworth, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, and the list goes on and on. And the nominees are often even better than the winners.

But one of my favorites, William Trevor, never won. And I rooted for him four times.

I kept up with the Booker till 2011, the year nobody liked the longlist.  (And I really didn’t like it.)

But one of my real-life best friends, who asks to be called The Man on the Street, has read six from the longlist this year, and agreed to share his star ratings.

He says flippantly, “We take our Booker very seriously in Des Moines.  What else is there to do after the State Fair?”

But  he is not, alas, overly-impressed with this year’s longlist.


Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie   ★★★★ (four stars out of five)

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid ★★★★ (four stars out of five)

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry  ★★★1/2   (three-and-a-half stars out of five)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders ★★★  (three stars out of five)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead  ★★★ (three stars out of five)

Autumn by Ali Smith ★★ (two stars out of five)

He says his favorite is Home Fire, which he describes as a well-plotted, well-written retelling of Antigone.

Is anyone else keeping up with the Booker reading this year?  What do you recommend?

Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved

Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite novelists.  In the last week and a half, I have reread three Wessex novels, The Woodlanders. A Laodicean, and The Well-Beloved.  In our mellow golden autumn, Hardy’s fictitious countryside, Wessex (based on his native Dorset), seems particularly vivid to me.  I do wish I could travel to Wessex,  but, no, I’m more likely to watch the film of The Woodlanders.  (Is it any good?)

I loved two of these books, but, alas!  I have never been able to warm up to The Well-Beloved. Considered one of his lightest novels, it has always struck me as very chilly.  Is  it a novel?  Is it a fable?

Hardy is a passionate writer, and though critics attacked the sexuality and sensuality of Tess of the d’Urbervilles  and Jude the Obscure, somehow The Well-Beloved slipped under the radar.

Perhaps Hardy was influenced by Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey in the conception of this odd little book.  The handsome hero, Jocelyn Pierston, a sculptor, is something of a womanizer for decades.  He is always in love,  but “the Well-Beloved,” as he calls his love of the moment, migrates from one woman’s body to another.  And since the Well-Beloved keeps shifting shape, he does not hold himself responsible for hurting rejected lovers.

He muses,

To his Well-Beloved he had always been faithful; but she had had many embodiments. Each individuality known as Lucy, Jane, Flora, Evangeline, or what-not, had been merely a transient condition of her. He did not recognize this as an excuse or as a defence, but as a fact simply. Essentially she was perhaps of no tangible substance; a spirit, a dream, a frenzy, a conception, an aroma, an epitomized sex, a light of the eye, a parting of the lips. God only knew what she really was; Pierston did not. She was indescribable.

In the course of the book,  Jocelyn falls in love with three identical women of different generations of one family: his childhood friend, Avice Caro; her daughter, Ann Avice; and Ann Avice’s daughter, Avice.  And isn’t that the ultimate male fantasy?

At 20,  Jocelyn visits his father on the “Isle of Slingers” (Portland, Dorset), and falls in love with his childhood friend, Avice.  She is sweet, funny, and well-educated, though Jocelyn doesn’t quite approve of the education.  And it turns out she even recites poetry on a platform at the Street of the Wells.

As always, Hardy’s dialogue is humorous.

‘Recite!’ said he. ‘Who’d have thought anybody or anything could recite down here except the reciter we hear away there—the never speechless sea.’

‘O but we are quite intellectual now. In the winter particularly. But, Jocelyn—don’t come to the recitation, will you? It would spoil my performance if you were there, and I want to be as good as the rest.’

Jocelyn and Avice become engaged, but on the eve of his departure, she writes him a letter canceling their evening rendezvous, because she does not want to “carry out the Island Custom in our courting” (pre-marital sex!), nor does she want anyone to think they have.   Ironically, the cancellation means he meets another woman that night, the beautiful, rich, shallow Marcia.  And so he and Marcia get engaged–and he never sees Avice again.  But he and Marcia break up, too.

Hardy ironically underlines Jocelyn’s faults, and with age the course of love does not run smooth.   At 40, Jocelyn, now a famous sculptor and member of the Royal Academy, returns to the island, still single.  Avice ‘s funeral is in progress, but he glimpses her daughter Ann Avice and falls in love: she looks just like Avice, is even prettier, though, it turns out, is entirely uneducated. The family had fallen on hard times, and Ann Avice works as laundresses. Joceyln rents a castle on the island, and flirts with  Ann Avice when she delivers the linen.  But he has met his match in Ann Avice.  Like Jocelyn, she is always in love, but it never lasts. And when she accompanies him to London to work as a servant….It’s not what you think!

And then twenty years later, when Jocelyn is sixty, he meets the new Avice, the original Avice’s granddaughter.  And it’s so ridiculous I won’t even tell you about it.

Hardy does have a sense of humor.  Jocelyn is not a particularly sympathetic hero.  But this book is so light.   Kind of a male fantasy, except that Hardy undercuts that with his wit and irony.

I’m sure someone out there loves this book.  Alas, it is not for me.