Humor & Humility: A Jane Austen Anniversary Overdose

Were you gobsmacked by the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death?

I certainly was. And the more articles I read about Austen, the sillier I felt for buying into it in the first place.  Because there is no question that I, along with many others,  “bought.”  I took my beautiful  Folio Society edition of Pride and Prejudice out of the box only to discover I have read this comedy of love and money far too often to enjoy it.  Godspeed, Elizabeth and Darcy!

So am I a fan of Jane Austen?  To be exact, I am a  fan of Emma and Persuasion.  The rest–I can take them or leave them, but I usually take them because she wrote better than anyone else.

Our scholarly blogger friend Ellen Moody wrote at Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two about the press coverage of the “anniversary hoopla.” She especially admired the articles in the Jane Austen issue of the TLS, and her favorite was “Passages to India,” by Charlotte and Gwendolyn Mitchell, about the  identification of a few of Austen’s relatives in a painting by Reynolds.

Amid all the hoopla 200 years on from Jane Austen’s death on July 18, 1817, one essay stands out: Charlotte and Gwendolen Mitchell’s identification of Austen’s aunt, her cousin, and their husband/father and maid in a painting by Reynolds. The essay comes at the end of a series of articles discussing the celebrity status of Austen, recent and older books on her, the films, and fandom (as it’s called) in the July 21, 2017 issue of Times Literary Supplement, a compilation resembling the one I described found in the New York Times Book Review (and doubtless countless others in other magazines, periodicals, websites, blogs, video media), in this case closely as to pages (16). The quality of the articles, the tone, and (by virtue of this essay alone) substance is much better than the NYTimes Book Review. I’ll review these briefly before turning to the pièce de résistance of the set, original research on a painting hanging in a gallery in Berlin.

Ellen’s scholarly article is excellent and I highly recommend it.  It was refreshing to read her analysis of this  “celebration” of Austen.  (Clearly they have run out of anniversaries when they get to the death one!)

But this  year the humor eclipsed the scholarly, as far as I was concerned. Ellen was much less keen than I on the lead essay at the TLS by Ian Sansom, “Jane Austen on the Money.” In some ways,  Sansom’s amusing essay is  an odd choice for the lead article in a scholarly publication. But in other ways it makes perfect sense.  The editors must have asked, “What can we do that is different?  How can the TLS steal attention from every other British and American publication on the same topic?”

Certainly the TLS essay is witty. Sansom, a mystery writer and a comparative literature professor, read and reread Austen’s books for the first time since he was “at university.” He  hilariously muses on his reactions to the books–Emma is his favorite–as well as writing about Austen’s obsession with money and the Austen industry.  He is well-organized, and a good storyteller.

Like Ellen, I did feel slightly taken aback that the essay was written by someone who is not an Austen enthusiast.  (Perhaps it was Sansom’s idea in the first place, though.)  But I thoroughly enjoyed it, because he is clearly a professional writer.  After reading so many serious Austen reviews and articles, I was happy to have a chance to laugh.  The only other writer as witty as Sansom is the novelist Emma Straub at The Washington Post on her favorite book, Emma.  Coincidentally, Sansom, Straub, and I are all mad about Emma.

Although I am a blogger and read many thoughtful Austen blogs, I must admit I laughed at the following.

Sansom writes,

These days it might be possible for someone to spend their entire time studying and thinking about the many blogs and social media posts devoted to Austen without ever having to study or think about Austen herself – indeed, some PhD student at Poppleton is doubtless doing so even now. So, tweet me. “Jane Austen” has become a signifier of such high semiotic intensity, possessing such incredible power both within and outside the academy that it has finally become the ultimate fiction: money. As if she weren’t already ubiquitous enough, you can now find Jane lurking in your pocket, on the £10 note, and also on commemorative £2 coins. When the new £5 notes were recently released, a small number were engraved with a special Austen micro-portrait, making each fiver, according to the Daily Mail, and my mother, worth approximately £50,000. Thus, men and women up and down the land were finally reduced to searching for Jane Austen with a magnifying glass.

Oh, no, more indecipherable English money!

And in Straub’s essay at the Washington Post, “Is it too late to read your first Jane Austen novel?” she describes her joy when a customer at her bookstore comes up to the register with a copy of Emma. Straub adds, “…and one of my chattiest, most wonderful booksellers yelped, ‘This is my favorite book!’ which I happily seconded.”

She writes,

I don’t often admit that “Emma” is one of my favorite books because it’s sort of embarrassing to love a book named for a character whose name you share — especially because Emma Woodhouse is thought of so dismissively within the Austen canon. Elizabeth Bennet she’s not. On the face of it, “Emma” is a novel about a bored rich girl with too much time on her hands, and yet it was the final paragraph of “Emma” that my husband and I typed by hand over and over again and set at each guest’s table setting at our tiny wedding. It’s Jane Austen’s mix of irony and satire and true generosity to her characters that makes Emma Woodhouse so charming, and what makes the book so pleasurable to read.

So on both sides of the pond you can find some humorous essays of interest , if you so inclined.   And, by the way, you can order a special book collection of the TLS articles on Jane Austen.

Between bloggers and professional writers, I have made  a long TBR of Austen books.   At the moment I am reading  Lucy Worsely’s Austen at Home, one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read on Austen this year.   Thanks to Nicola at Vintage Reads for recommending it!

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Butter Sculpture & Margaret Millar’s Domestic Suspense

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Summer is vacation time.  Now if you can just agree on where to spend it…

Some hike the Appalachian Trail.  Others travel to Yosemite or Yellowstone, wanting to see the parks before they are fried by global warming.  Others go to cultural events, Shakespeare in the park (in whatever city), or a music festival. And still others go to Dollywood or Graceland.

I hope your vacation was better than ours.

We spent our (one-day) vacation in Clear Lake, where I was stricken by a piercing headache/migraine in a hot car en route to a Shakespeare Festival in Winona.  We never got to Winona, because we were too busy sightseeing in Clear Lake:  the convenience store where we bought Advil, the park where I lay on a picnic table, and the coffee shop, Coffee Cabin, where I attempted a caffeine cure.  Once home, I remembered that my parents met at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.  Oh, my!  That marriage ended in divorce. But my mother and her best friend told me years later that they enjoyed the train trip.

Oh, well.  Missed the Surf Ballroom, but in August there is much, much more fun ahead.  The Iowa State Fair.

Why should the bookish go to the fair?   The fair is not just rides and fried food.   This year there will be a butter sculpture of Laura Ingalls Wilder beside the traditional sculpted butter cow.

And why is Laura sculpted in butter? you may ask.

It is her 150th birthday, and, since the Ingalls family moved frequently and lived all over the Midwest,  almost every Midwestern state claims her as its own.  She and her family  lived in Burr Oak, Iowa, for a few years, after a grasshopper plague drove them out of Minnesota.  And so she’s a butter sculpture.

Am I a great fan of Wilder? Well, no.   By the time I discovered her books I was nine or ten, and they  seemed too stylistically simple.  The only one I enjoyed was These Happy Golden Years, the story of Laura’s struggles to teach in a one-room school. I was interested because both of my grandmothers were one-room school teachers.  And they never talked about it.  Oral narrative isn’t big in Iowa.

All right, we will never go to the State Fair.  But we will watch the 1945 movie, State Fair, with Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews.

And that’s the news in Iowa.

COLLECTED MILLAR:  DAWN OF DOMESTIC SUSPENSE

Syndicate Books is reissuing the classic crime fiction of the award-winning American-Canadian writer, Margaret Millar, who won the Edgar for her novel Beast in View in 1956. She was the wife of Kenneth Millar, who wrote the Lew Archer mysteries under the name Ross MacDonald.   I found this big pink volume in the mystery section, Collected Millar:  Dawn of Domestic Suspense, and couldn’t resist.

The first novel in the volume, Fire Will Freeze (1944), is a fast-paced locked-room mystery.  A group of people on a bus headed for a ski resort end up spending the night in a big, isolated house when the bus breaks down.  Bizarrely, people keep disappearing and dying. Could the killer be the mad woman whose keeper locks her in her bedroom?  And Miss Isabel Seton, a smart spinster in her thirties, is more observant than the others, but she is hardly a detective.  The plot thickens, and her intelligence works overtime.

A locked-room mystery is always fun.  But I really loved Experiment in Springtime (1947), one of the eeriest  psychological novels I’ve ever read.  It is not exactly a mystery, but as we get to know the personalities of the characters, their strengths and weaknesses, their instability and hysteria, we can tell that something is going to happen.  And the woman, Martha,  is at the center of a triangle.

Millar begins,

In April, Charles almost died.  His wife, Martha, nursed him assiduously and with a certain grim efficiency that Charles, in his moments of clarity, found amusing. Even on the point of death, he knew he bored her.

Charles is a rich 36-year-old businessman, and Martha  a beautiful, voluptuous young woman who married him for money.  Martha has accidentally poisoned him with aspirin, and Charles wonders if she did it on purpose.  He had a headache, and she didn’t know he was allergic to aspirin.  But Charles is so weak and sick that he  broods and becomes increasingly paranoid.  Even the doctor has some doubts, though he believes Charles has psychological problems. It is tough to feel sympathetic to Charles, who is quite misogynistic.   Finally, the doctor lends Charles a cottage by the lake. And Charles  won’t give Martha the address.

Margaret Millar

Martha is relieved that he’s gone.  She cannot bear sex with Charles.  Is she frigid?  That’s what we think at first.  She dresses in black tailored suits to mask her sexuality, and buys pretty things only for her mother and sister, who live with them in their big new house.  Martha loves to shop: it is her only solace for having married Charles.  The chauffeur drives her downtown, and we follow her through a giddy shopping trip, and see her delight as she accumulates bags of presents.  (Don’t all us shopaholics feel that way?)  Then on her way back to the car, she meets her handsome ex-boyfriend, Steve, just back from the war. It is awkward.  They used to be engaged, and Steve broke it off.   And we see a different side of Martha, an uncertain side.  And when Steve, a former reporter who is suffering from PTSD, moves from a sleazy hotel into the apartment above Martha’s garage, it’s only a matter of time before Martha undergoes a complete personality change and begins to wear colorful clothes.

So what will happen?

Not what you think, because I thought it too.  The ending is a complete surprise.

I can’t get enough of Margaret Millar.  When I finish this volume, with six novels, I may have to read the others.

Eleanor Cameron’s “A Spell Is Cast”

 The other day I decided to reread Eleanor Cameron’s beautifully-written novel, The Spell Is Cast.   It is that rarity, a  children’s book that can be read with as much interest by adults as children.  There is even a Dali-esque dream sequence, just as vivid as the dream in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Spellbound.  And the book won the Silver Medal, 1964 Commonwealth Awards; was nominated for the Edgar; and was a Horn Book Fanfare Best Book of 1964.

I wrote this book journal entry in 2010.

October 17, 2010

I spent most of the afternoon sitting in a lawn chair reading Eleanor Cameron’s A Spell Is Cast.  Cameron is a children’s author, best known for her Mushroom Planet series, but her realistic novels are my favorites.  I especially have wonderful memories of A Spell of Cast, one of the remarkable novels my fifth-grade teacher read aloud to us.  Mrs. W. loved reading, and I am awed by her taste as I think back.  We were mesmerized by The Pushcart War, Snow Treasure, A Long Way to Go, The Alley, and Rascal, to name a few. She was very quiet, but looking back, I realize her reading aloud had an intense influence on me.  I have only to open A Spell Is Cast to recapture warm, rainy afternoons, with the windows open, and that muddy scent that is  redolent of storms in the midwest.  And of course I could never wait for Mrs.W. to finish the novels before I read them myself. I usually ran over to the public library and checked them out.

A Spell Is Cast is the story of Cory Winterslow’s stay with her grandmother and Uncle Dirk in California.  Her adoptive mother, Stephanie Van Heusen, an actress, is always on tour, and leaves Cory with a series of hired helps.  But during this tour, she has sent Cory to California, and Cory has looked forward eagerly to being part of a family. She is intensely disappointed when Uncle Dirk, who has written charming letters, doesn’t show up at the airport.  This is the first of her adventures. A neighbor gives her a ride part of the way home, and when the car runs out of gas, a boy her own age, Peter, leads her on a short cut across the beach. A storm breaks and they shelter in a cave.  At home she learns that her mother sent the wrong date to her family and that they had expected her tomorrow.  And she learns from her grim grandmother that Stephanie has never legally adopted her, which is a blow.

The Van Heusen relatives have many family secrets.  During a long dream sequence when Cory has a fever–have I ever read a dream sequence in another children’s book?–she finds herself in a music room where there is a chess set with carved unicorns instead of horses.  It turns out later that this part of the long dream is true.  It is atmospheric moments like this that made this novel such an intense experience when I was young.

Cory discovers the unicorn chess set she dreamed about.

The descriptions of the beach made me quite desperately want to leave the midwest, and perhaps my frequent vacations at the beach as an adult were inspired by this.

…Cory explored the whole beach, keeping a watch on Peter’s house to see if she might catch sight of him, but he did not appear.  Gradually, she began humming to herself as she searched for treasures.  She found a small bleached bird’s skull, ivory-colored and perfect and not in the least fragile.  She found a curiously shaped piece of driftwood with peaked shells clinging to it, and another shell among a pile of seaweed.  It was oval, like a little saucer, a rough, dull greeny-yellow, the precise color of the seaweed to which it was stuck.  But when she finally managed to pry it off and turn it over, she discovered that on the inside it was glistening smooth as glass, pearly around the outside and with a pool of rich color in the center like frozen sea water.

It is a breathaking novel! I also like the illustrations by Joe and Beth Krush.

Alas, this book is out-of-print: let’s hope some publisher rediscovers and reissues it.

“Jane Austen” by Jill Bialosky

The bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death was on Tuesday, July 18.  Here is a lovely poem by the American poet, Jill Bialosky.

“Jane Austen”
By Jill Bialosky

“A fine Sunday in Bath empties every house of its inhabitants, and all the world appears on such an occasion to walk about and tell their acquaintance what a charming day it is.” —northanger abbey

I awoke from the tunnel
to the fields of yellow rape,
seventeenth-century buildings, and cobbled
streets as she would have seen them.
It was rainy; the rain came and went,
came and went so that you could not escape
its dampness. I understood the need for tea
and the luxury of cremes and pastries
and why the ladies longed for a strong shoulder
to see them through the winter.
The seagulls cried overhead,
though there was no sea, only a muddy river
from Bath to Bristol. The scavengers
lived on the rooftops and if desperate
enough would swoop down and take
a sandwich from your hand.
I secured my room at the Royal Bath Hotel.
It was a hovel, really, with a carpet
as old as the early century.
Walking through the hotel,
I sensed something lurid
in the air, every eye upon me as if they knew
I was a foreigner in a strange land.
Over the bed, a burgundy bedspread
dusty and faded as vintage wine,
made me long for the bright color of red.
In the next room, sleepless, I heard
through thin walls the sounds
of an un-tender coupling.
I looked in the warped mirror
and found myself ugly
and when I turned from it,
could not escape the vision.
It lingered. The rain came and went,
came and went. I took an umbrella
and began my walk, hoping to come upon
her quarters. I passed the Roman Baths,
the statues not beautiful,
but puckered and fossilled
and the Pump Room where her protagonist,
other self, doppelgänger,
good, strong, loyal Catherine,
longing for companionship, fell
under the seduction of Isabella
and her reprehensible brother.
Even then her coming out
seemed less magisterial,
and Bath a representation of the emptiness
and evils of society where a woman’s dowry
might confine her forever,
than a reprieve from country life.
I gave up my search.
Images were everywhere.
And my mind had been made up.
I perceived no romance
in the wind, no comfort in the hard
glances of strangers, girls with chipped nail polish,
lads unkempt as if there were no hope of glory.
The next morning I boarded the train
to the modern world and it wasn’t until a sheet
of blue slipped out like a love letter
from its envelope of dark gray sky
that I knew the journey had ended
and, like Catherine, I was finally safe.

What to Read in the Heat!

“Reading Woman” by Matthieu Wiegman

Drink a glass of water before you read this, because it’s very, very hot.

So far this month we have had 13 days in the nineties.   It was 90 degrees when I took my bike ride this morning and it was 95 when I got home.  And so I flopped down in the decadent air conditioning and made a list of:

WHAT TO READ IN THE HEAT!

1. Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  Jhabvala won the Booker Prize for this stunning novel. I am lazily borrowing the Goodreads description:

“Set in colonial India during the 1920s, Heat and Dust tells the story of Olivia, a beautiful woman suffocated by the propriety and social constraints of her position as the wife of an important English civil servant. Longing for passion and independence, Olivia is drawn into the spell of the Nawab, a minor Indian prince deeply involved in gang raids and criminal plots. She is intrigued by the Nawab’s charm and aggressive courtship, and soon begins to spend most of her days in his company. But then she becomes pregnant, and unsure of the child’s paternity, she is faced with a wrenching dilemma. Her reaction to the crisis humiliates her husband and outrages the British community, breeding a scandal that lives in collective memory long after her death.”

2. Dune by Frank HerbertDune, the winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards in 1966, is an ecological classic.   As I said here last year:  ” It is, to a large extent, about the politics of water. Water is the most precious commodity on the planet, though the ruling class are never dehydrated and live in luxury.  The native Fremen in the desert must wear “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of sweat and urine while they travel or work in the spice mines.  When someone dies, the water is taken from the body to be reused, because 70% of the body is water.  Plastic dew collectors save every drop of condensation for growing plants. Dangerous sand and dust storms blow up to 700 kilometers an hour and ‘can eat flesh off bones and etch the bones to sliver.’  There are also giant worms.  But the planetologist, who knows exactly how much water is needed to make the planet green over the next few hundred years, teaches the people how to change.”

3. The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers.  This is the 100th anniversary of McCullers’ birth, and this is my favorite of her books. Set in the South during the summer, you will feel the sweltering weather!   The Goodreads description says:  “Here is the story of the inimitable twelve-year-old Frankie, who is utterly, hopelessly bored with life until she hears about her older brother’s wedding. Bolstered by lively conversations with her house servant, Berenice, and her six-year-old male cousin — not to mention her own unbridled imagination — Frankie takes on an overly active role in the wedding, hoping even to go, uninvited, on the honeymoon, so deep is her desire to be the member of something larger, more accepting than herself. “A marvelous study of the agony of adolescence” (Detroit Free Press), The Member of the Wedding showcases Carson McCullers at her most sensitive, astute, and lasting best.”

4.  The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott.  I love Scott’s brilliant quartet!  As Goodreads says, “richly recreates the last days of India under British rule–“two nations locked in an imperial embrace”–as Paul Scott’s historical tour de force, ” The Raj Quartet.” “The Jewel in the Crown” opens in 1942 as the British fear both Japanese invasion and Indian demands for independence.

I blogged briefly about the first book in the quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, here.

 

These are first editions. I wish I had these…

5. The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell.  I wrote about this remarkable tetralogy here in 2015:  “In Durrell’s  gorgeously-written, percipient tetralogy, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, the prose is moody and lush.  The narrative is psychologically-oriented and fragmented. Over the course of the quartet, Durrell’s narrator, Darley, reiterates and augments a series of events in the lives of his lover Justine and a group of friends in Alexandria, Egypt.  Other characters, particularly Balthazar and Clea (Mountolive is the hero of the prequel), contribute their viewpoints, so that a clearer picture is revealed.  Published from 1957 to 1960, these books are elegant but occasionally too flowery.   In the ’50s, Durrell’s poeticism flourished.  I love every word!”

6.  Dante’s Inferno.  The first book of the Divine Comedy is the powerful poetic narrative of Dante’s finding himself in “a dark wood” in the middle of his life, and  Virgil guiding him on a tour of the nine circles of hell.  A good companion book to Dante’s masterpiece is Erich Auerbach’s Dante: Poet of the Secular World (NYRB)

7.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  There’s plenty of heat in Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece.  The Amazon.com review says:

The story follows 100 years in the life of Macondo, a village founded by José Arcadio Buendía and occupied by descendants all sporting variations on their progenitor’s name: his sons, José Arcadio and Aureliano, and grandsons, Aureliano José, Aureliano Segundo, and José Arcadio Segundo. Then there are the women–the two Úrsulas, a handful of Remedios, Fernanda, and Pilar–who struggle to remain grounded even as their menfolk build castles in the air. If it is possible for a novel to be highly comic and deeply tragic at the same time, then One Hundred Years of Solitude does the trick. Civil war rages throughout, hearts break, dreams shatter, and lives are lost, yet the effect is literary pentimento, with sorrow’s outlines bleeding through the vibrant colors of García Márquez’s magical realism. Consider, for example, the ghost of Prudencio Aguilar, whom José Arcadio Buendía has killed in a fight. So lonely is the man’s shade that it haunts Buendía’s house, searching anxiously for water with which to clean its wound. Buendía’s wife, Úrsula, is so moved that “the next time she saw the dead man uncovering the pots on the stove she understood what he was looking for, and from then on she placed water jugs all about the house.”

8. The Sheep Look up by John Brunner.  l wrote last year  (and you can read the rest of the post here):

In this terrifying post-modern literary SF novel,  pollution has rendered the U.S. practically a wasteland.  The poisoned air blows into Canada and sometimes across the ocean to Europe (sound familiar?);  everyone is sick; antibiotics no longer work; fleas and rat infestations in houses and apartment house can no longer be controlled because they are immune to poison; the acid rain in NY is so bad that you need to wear plastic outside; the water is poisoned (there are frequent “no-drink water” days); intelligence levels are dropping (lead in the air and water); a virus causes spontaneous abortion; the oceans are so polluted that people vacation in Colorado rather than California; and big businesses are profiting by selling air filters, water filters, etc.

9.  The Terranauts by T. C. Boyle.  Boyle’s brilliant novel was based on an actual experiment in Arizona.   Here’s a paragraph form the Goodreads description:  “It is 1994, and in the desert near Tillman, Arizona, forty miles from Tucson, a grand experiment involving the future of humanity is underway. As climate change threatens the earth, eight scientists, four men and four women dubbed the “Terranauts,” have been selected to live under glass in E2, a prototype of a possible off-earth colony. Their sealed, three-acre compound comprises five biomes—rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean and marsh—and enough wildlife, water, and vegetation to sustain them.”

10.  Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.  I blogged about this wonderful novelin 2013:  “When Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, was published last fall, critics asked if it was possible to write a good novel about climate change.  Having inhaled this stunning literary novel in two days, I can answer, Yes, it is.  Kingsolver boldly interweaves the science and politics of climate change with the everyday lives of a struggling family.  She creates a plausible fictional overview of a  problem that will not go away.”
You can read the rest of the post here.

And what are your favorite books to read in the heat?

Classical-Themed Pop Fiction for Book Snobs

Are you a book snob?  I used to be.  My knapsack burgeoned with books: Lewis and Short’s Latin dictionary, the Allen and Greenough Latin grammar, Cicero’s Pro Caelio, Camoens’ The Lusiads (a Portuguese epic),  and, just in case I felt like committing suicide, Thomas Hardy’s histrionic Jude the Obscure.

But in my secret life–my leisure, I mean–I read mostly new literary fiction, books reviewed in The New York Times. 

That’s how I met my husband. He, too, was a fiction junkie.  One morning I was standing in line at Burger Palace waiting for coffee, reading a  book by Ann Beattie. Standing behind me in line, my future husband told me he, too, was a Beattie fan; he had read her stories in The New Yorker.

Before long, we were book chat chums.  And, lo and behold!  he was a Latin student.

Our classics professors inhabited another realm of existence, the Upper Ether, where, as far as we could tell, they knew nothing of Burger King, literary fiction, or, God forbid, pop culture.   No, these were guys who talked about dreaming in Latin.   Then, one morning, in Age of Cicero class, the sophisticated professor started talking about Susan Howatch’s best-selling historical  novel, The Rich Are Different. To say we were surprised is an understatement.  He was brilliant, witty, and extremely demanding:  he could be sarcastic if you were less than perfect, so we took care to be. Why was he talking about The Rich Are Different?  It turned out Howatch’s  saga, set in Manhattan in the 1920s, was based on the period of Roman history we were studying, with Julius Caesar cast as a Wall Street banker who quotes Catullus,  Antony as his partner, and  Cleopatra as a British cosmetics tycoon.  (If you plan to read Howatch’s book, here is the list of Howatch’s  characters and their Roman equivalents at Goodreads.)

Naturally, I bought the book and loved it.

Was it reviewed in The New York Times?  Yes, in a round-up of three “novels of power.” The reviewer James R. Frake wrote,”The WASP hierarchy of the Eastern Seaboard move through the pages of this god‐awful ‘saga’ like balloon floats in a Macy’s Parade.”  But he  didn’t catch the connection with ancient Rome, which meant the NYT missed the point altogether. (People magazine got it!)  Years later, Howatch’s six-book Starbridge series about the clergy was so highly respected that one of my English professors taught a class on it.

Nowadays reading pop fiction is more acceptable.  Book review publications used to be aimed at  intellectuals, or, to be more accurate, probably upper-middlebrow readers like myself.   Nowadays, as they attempt to compete with Goodreads and social media, pop and literary overlap, and the lead review is as likely to be of the latest Stephen King as  the new Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Drabble.

Well, there is some good pop lit out there.   Here is a list of pop novels inspired by the classics, which you may or may not have heard of.  Enjoy.

1.  Jo Walton’s The Just City (the first of a trilogy).  In Walton’s brilliant, if very strange, philosophical novel, The Just City, the bookish Athene, goddess of war and wisdom, decides to found a city based on Plato’s Republic.   Her brother, Apollo, bemused by the nymph Daphne’s dramatic rejection of his sexual advances (she prayed  for help and was turned into a tree), decides to participate in the experiment, because he, too, has read Plato, and he wants to be reborn as a mortal to understand the human condition.  Philosophers and other fans of Plato from different centuries are transported from different centuries to build the city.  And  Socrates turns out to be a great big trouble-maker who doesn’t approve of Plato’s republic a tall!

Walton, a Welsh-Canadian science fiction writer who has won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Tiptree Award, the Locus Award, and the Mythopoeic awards, read Plato as a classics major at the University of Lancaster.(You can read my post here.)

2.   The Ides of March  by Valerio Massimo Manfredi (Europa).  This brilliant Italian historical novel is billed as a “political thriller set during the tempestuous final days of Julius Caesar’s Imperial Rome.”

3.  Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King.  This clever, entertaining historical novel is my “to-go” book of the summer:  I carry it everywhere and read it at coffeehouses or in line at the grocery store.  Set in the first century A.D., it is narrated by the slave Thrassius, the cook (coquus) for the household of the wealthy  Apicius, a Roman gourmet thought to have inspired a Roman cookbook called Apicius.  In the novel, Thrassius writes the cookbook, and 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.    So far I am very much enjoying it.  Good pop fiction!

4. Ovid by David Wishart.  There are several historical mystery series set in ancient Rome: David Wishart’s Corvinus series is one fo the best  Here’s the Goodreads description of Ovid:  “Banished by the Emperor Augustus, the great poet Ovid was to die in exile. Years after Ovid’s death, Marcus Corvinus, grandson of the poet’s patron, tries to arrange for the return of his ashes to Rome for burial. When official permission is refused, Corvinus makes the dangerous mistake of asking why the Emperor has forbid it.”

5. Homer’s Daughter by Roberth Graves. In Graves’ feminist novel, The Odyssey was written not by Homer, but by Nausicaa, the intellectual princess  in Book VI of The Odyssey. Graves’s Nausicaa, a priestess of Athena as well as a princess,  has listened all her life to bards’ poems about Odysseus’ homecoming. She narrates a political drama about the disappearance of her brother, her father’s search for  his son, political manipulations of rustic suitors, attempted coups, and homecomings.  As Graves says in his Historical Note:  “Here is the story of a high-spirited and religious-minded Sicilian girl who saves her father’s throne from usurpation, herself from a distasteful marriage, and her two younger brothers from butchery by boldly making things happen, instead of sitting still and hoping for the best.”   It’s not quite a classic, but it’s a splendid novel. 
6.  The Theban Mysteries by Amanda Cross.  The feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun wrote the Kate Fansler mysteries under the name Amanda Cross. Here’s the Goodreads description of this well-written mystery:  “Kate Fansler is lured back to her alma mater to teach a seminar on Antigone. But a hostile note addressed to Kate, the uniform mistrustfulness of her six, bright students, and the Dobermans that patrol the building at night suggest trouble on the spot. As Kate leads her class through the inexorable tragic unfolding of Antigone, a parallel nightmare envelops the school and everyone connected with it. . . .”
7.  Summerlong by Peter. S. Beagle. This strange  urban fantasy, a retelling of the Persephone myth, set in Seattle and on an island on Puget Sound, is about climate change. A divine contretemps between Persephone and Hades results in a magical never-ending spring and summer.  Persephone has left her husband Hades and is hiding out in Seattle, and is working as a waitress. As you can imagine, both Hades and her mother Demeter are searching for her.  But in the forefront of the novel are protagonists who mirror the gods:  Abe, a retired history professor and a blues fan, and  Joanna, a fiftysomething flight attendant who loves basketball and is tired of flight.  (You can read my post here.)
8. Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin.  In Virgil’s Aeneid, a civil war is fought over Lavinia, a princess in Italy.  The hero Aeneas, leader of the Trojan refugees,  must marry her to cement the bond between Trojans and Italians and found what will later be Rome.  Le Guin tells us the story from Lavinia’s point of view.  (Full disclosure:  I’ve tried this twice and not finished it, but perhaps three will be the charm!)

9 & 10.  There are many entertaining historical mystery series set in ancient Rome, but let me recommend  Steven Saylor’s witty Roma sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder, a wisecracking private investigator.   Lindsey Davis‘  Marcus Didius Falco series is equally clever, and she has recently embarked on the new Flavia Albia Series, in which Falco’s adopted daughter investigates crimes.

The witty writing is excellent in both  series. Davis’s The Jupiter Myth begins,
 “It depends on what we mean by civilization,” the procurator mused.
Staring at the corpse, I was in no mood to discuss philosophy.  We were in Britain, where the rule of law was administered by the army.  Justice operated in a rough-and-ready fashion so far away from Rome, but special circumstances meant this killing would be difficult to brush aside.

What pop books are you reading this summer?  Not necessarily inspired by classics!

Is Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook” Relevant?

How many times can you read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook?   I  read it once or twice a decade, and always find it brilliant and relevant. Not surprisingly, I respond differently to it every time.

During the Obama years, I read Lessing’s 1962 masterpiece almost as a historical novel.  I admired the experimental structure, and the way it captures the fragmentation of the post-war society, the fragile psyche of a mid-twentieth-century radical woman,  and the difficulty of writing meaningfully.  And, as always, I felt Lessing was expressing my feelings for me.  But would parts seem dated to modern readers, I wondered?  Do women still feel the strain of being “free women,” i.e., living without husbands and raising a family alone?

This summer I am reading the book slowly, and am finding it especially pertinent to our political times.

The heroine, Anna Wulf, a blocked writer, and her friend Molly, an actress, are both single mothers and”free women,” as they ironically call themselves.  They love sex, but their married lovers will never leave their wives, and Anna was shattered when her lover Michael, a psychiatrist with overwhelming personal problems, abruptly left her. Men have ambivalent  attitudes toward Anna and Molly:   sometimes they treat them as equals, sometimes as courtesans.

Anna  lives off the royalties from her popular first novel, the story of an interracial relationship in South Africa.   She considers it sentimental and a failure.  She says she will never write another novel.

But Anna does write.  She writes for hours every day in four notebooks, each a different color. She tries to compartmentalize her life, since the novel didn’t work.  She writes,

I didn’t buy them on a plan. I don’t think I ever… actually said to myself: I keep four notebooks, a black notebook, which is to do with Anna Wulf the writer; a red notebook, concerned with politics; a yellow notebook, in which I make stories out of my experience; and a blue notebook which tries to be a diary. In Molly’s house the notebooks were something I never thought about; and certainly not as work, or a responsibility

This time through, I am paying special attention to the red notebook, her political notebook.  In the red notebook, Anna vividly describes her war years in Africa, her political activities in a small communist group, and her brief incompatible marriage of convenience to  a German communist. In 1950 in London, she has briefly given up on writing her personal reactions, and experiments with recording brief news items from different newspapers.  Is this closer to the truth than recording her personal story, she wonders?

March, 50

The modeller calls this the “H-Bomb Style,” explaining that the “H” is for peroxide of hydrogen, used for colouring. The hair is dressed to rise in waves as from a bomb-burst, at the nape of the neck. Daily Telegraph

July 13th, 50
There were cheers in Congress today when Mr Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat, urged that President Truman should tell the North Koreans to withdraw within a week or their towns would be atom-bombed. Express

July 29th, 50
Britain’s decision to spend £100 millions more on Defence means, as Mr Attlee has made clear, that hoped-for improvements in living standards and social services must be postponed. New Statesman

Aug. 3, 50
America is to go right ahead with the H Bomb, expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Express

Grim, isn’t it?  Why did I never notice how terrifying Anna’s times were?  And not so different from our own.

When I was growing up in a university town, this book seemed utterly real and true, the story not yet of us, the feminist girls in wire-rimmed glasses, but of the radical women who formed collectives, co-ops, and discussed women’s liberation, as it was called then.  The Women’s Liberation Movement faded long ago, but The Golden Notebook is a relevant book for our times.