Transported to Wessex: Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders

Thomas Hardy’s cottage

Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite writers.  I frequently reread him and am mentally transported to Wessex, the fictional countryside of his novels based on his native Dorset and other parts of southwestern England.

This week I reread The Woodlanders, a masterpiece, and A Laodicean, which is quite a page-turner.  (I’ll write about A Laodicean later.)  There is a curious modernity to Hardy’s sharp observations, his sexy characters, and understanding of psychology. (It is easy to see why D. H. Lawrence considered Hardy the only great 19th-century writer.) Hardy’s spare lyricism and modern treatment of classical themes move us in the direction of twentieth-century literature, away from the verbose satire of Dickens  and the Gothicism of  Charlotte Bronte.  Hardy was always being accused of writing too much about sex. Some critics thought Tess of the d’Urbervilles pornography. (I cannot imagine!)

This is my third reading of The Woodlanders, and the first time I’ve loved it.  The language is lyrical, the dialogue lively, and the plot revolves around two inter-class love triangles.   Set in Little Hintock, a tiny woodland village that is fantastically hard for outsiders to find, this brilliant novel is one of Hardy’s best explorations of class struggle.   The upper-class characters, Mr. Fitzpiers, a doctor who comes of an aristocratic, if impecunious, family, and Mrs. Charmond, a rich, self-absorbed widow who lives at the Manor, are charming when they want to be, but also deceptive and promiscuous.

Is the middle class any better?  Well, yes, they have better morals. The  timber merchant,  Mr. Melbury, and his wife are decent people who have worked hard for what they have.  They are proud of their well-educated daughter Grace, just home from boarding school.

And what about the working-class?  Are they the best of all?  Well, not quite; they have too many problems.  Two of Hardy’s most memorable  characters, the clever Marty South, who takes over her father’s work making “wood-spars” for thatch when he becomes ill, and the level-headed Giles Winterborne, a woodsman and smart businessman, should be well-matched but are doomed to unhappiness.  Marty loves  Giles, but Giles prefers  Grace Melbury, whom Mr. Melbury promised to him long ago.  While Grace is educated above her class, Giles loses his property and falls down a few class levels.

I love Hardy’s description of Little Hintock, the tiny woodland village that is so very hard to find:  in the first chapter, Hardy humorously describes Barber Percomb’s arrival near the village after dark and his search for Marty South, so he can buy her beautiful hair for the lady of the manor, Mrs. Charmond, who wants to supplement her thinning locks.  He alights from a van and “plunged towards the umbrageous nook, and paced cautiously over the dead leaves which nearly buried the road or street of the hamlet.”

Life is slow, unbelievably slow, in Little Hintock, but it is  picturesque .

It was one of those sequestered spots outside the gates of the world where may usually be found more meditation than action, and more passivity than meditation; where reasoning proceeds on narrow premises, and results in inferences wildly imaginative; yet where, from time to time, no less than in other places, dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean are enacted in the real, by virtue of the concentrated passions and closely knit interdependence of the lives therein.

Though there’s not much action, the character have powerful emotions.   Fitzpiers courts Grace Melbury but thinks nothing of giving a tumble one night to Suke, a voluptuous gal who is happy to make love in a field.  Grace has her doubts about Fitzpiers, but her father thinks he is a good catch.  Anything to elevate Grace’s status!

Oddly, the last time I read this I thought the book was dull and the characters anemic. This time, I  found it very quiet but beautifully-written, and the characters well-drawn.  I very much like thoughtful Grace Melbury, who is kind to Giles when he throws a Christmas party where everything goes wrong:  the Melburys arrive too early, and end up helping make the pies.   Mind you, Grace likes Giles anyway.  But she does doubt that he is her ideal beau.

In the late 19th century, when a marriage falls apart, is divorce possible?  The law did not favor women.  Life would have turned out very differently for several of our characters if the laws were just.

But what about Mary South?  She is a strong character, as likable as Grace, but Hardy gives her short shrift.  She is important in the opening chapters, and then disappears until the end, except  to interfere occasionally when Giles is hurt.  Why doesn’t Marty get Giles?  Or get a man?  Is it because she does sell her hair (like Jo in Little Women) when her father is sick, and her hair is her one beauty?  Would Fitzpiers have loved Mrs. Charmond if she didn’t have Marty’s hair?

One wonders.  Maybe it is that simple.

The Non-Ivy League Geek Dream Courses!

Where did you go to school?  Harvard?

No, because it’s expensive!  It costs more than $60,000 a year.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 0.4 percent of American undergraduates go to Ivy League schools.  Seventy-three percent are educated at state universities and public colleges.

But New York publications continue to–excuse this nasty phrase–suck Ivy League d—.   In a recent article at the Literary Hub,  Emily Temple felt nostalgic for her school days,  so selected 10  courses  from university syllabi she’d like to take “from her couch.”  I raised an eyebrow when I noticed that seven of the 10 are offered by Ivy League schools, because isn’t Literary Hub supposed to be hipper than that?

Here are the Lit Hub stats.

  • Princeton:  3 courses.
  • Harvard:  1 course
  • Stanford:  1 course
  • Cornell:  1 course
  • Northwestern (the only Midwestern school, an elite private university):  1 course
  • Williams College (junior Ivy League):  1 course
  • Berkeley (a very cool state university, but very elite):  1 course
  • University of Florida (a state university, perhaps chosen to balance the others?):  1 course

And, to remind you-all that there are affordable schools between the east and west coasts,  I have selected three fascinating courses offered by the University of Iowa and University of Illinois.

THREE DREAM COURSES.

University of Iowa, Comparative Literature:  The Tale of Genji

Close reading of Murasaki Shikibu’s classic Tale of Genji; students come to know the characters by exploring the social and cultural context of the tale and discover the art, literature, and film that the Tale of Genji has inspired while tracking its reception through the history of Japan and across the globe. Taught in English.

(Some of you remember I read Tale of Genji the summer of 2016.  I’d love to do it right:  all the notes in the world can’t make up for not having a professor.)

University of Iowa, Comparative Literature:  Wonder Woman Unleashed: A Hero for Our Times

Development of the woman warrior archetype in mythology (Athena/Minerva and Artemis/Diana), literature (Camilla from The Aeneid by Virgil), and history (Artemisia and Joan of Arc); focus on the development of Amazon narratives in Metamorphoses by Ovid, The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizzan, and On Famous Women by Boccaccio; students read Wonder Woman Chronicles and one or two critical studies on the subject, which may include The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.

University of Illinois, English: Literature of Fantasy, From Mordor to Gormenghast: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings  and Peake’s Gormenghast

If J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955, rev. 1966) established the dominant paradigm for the genre of secondary-world fantasy fiction, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy(1946-1959) established a rival paradigm that, while less influential, has been all the more important for defining an alternative to hobbitry—so much so that Peake has sometimes been described as “the anti-Tolkien.” Among contemporary fantasy writers who have preferred Peake’s vision, China Miéville has gone so far as to say that “The nicest thing anyone ever said about [his novel] was that it read like a fantasy book written in an alternate world where the Gormenghast trilogy rather than Lord of the Rings  was the most influential work in the genre.” …

There are so many great courses and creative professors out there!

What to Read When You’re Ill: Mary Wesley, Muriel Spark, Dodie Smith, Jacqueline Susann, Mary McCarthy, & Pushkin

Many years ago, on an idyllic vacation in the northern woods, a spider bit me My swollen ankle turned black with necrosis, I developed clonus (involuntary muscle spasms, symptomatic of neurological disease),  became delirious, and spent three weeks in the infectious disease ward of a hospital.  I was given every test:  MRIs, EMGs, EKGs, etc., etc.   Was it encephalitis?  I did not respond to the medications at first.

Slowly, I recovered.  Very slowly.  One afternoon, encouraged by a kind nurse, I ventured down to the  cafeteria, forgetting to change out of my pajamas.  When I scooped the money out of my pink bathrobe pocket, I was embarrassed to realized I wasn’t dressed. In pajamas, not fully cognizant.   I consoled myself : Who cares?  I’m a sick person in pajamas at a hospital.  And I ate my sandwich in front of a fountain, marveling at the rush and flow of water.

Since I could not yet go home, I found refuge in books. One afternoon,  as I sat in a chair by the window with its gloomy view of the hospital complex, I became lost in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, one of my favorite books.   A doctor  came in, asked me what I was reading, and was obviously relieved to see me becoming human again.  He said I was well enough to go home.

“But what was the disease?” I asked.

He said that it is not always necessary to identify the disease.  Not all diseases follow a typical course. They had tried different medications until I responded.  They did not think I’d had encephalitis.  I’d had a serious infection.  I did not have brain damage.  I should not worry.

Many years later, I try not to think of this illness.   Everything was much harder for me for a month or two than it had ever been.  At first I could barely walk to the corner and back. nd, paradoxically, I was hesitant about lying down, because I had trouble getting up again.  I was in my thirties.  I regained my health, little by little.

Books help with pain.   One day after coming home, I lost myself in Mary Wesley’s novel, An Imaginative Experience The novel opens with a stopped train: a sheep is lying on its back in a field, and a young woman, Julia Piper,  who is returning from the funeral of her young child and estranged husband,  pulls the emergency cord on the  train so she can help the sheep. Two men watch her from the window:  Sylvester Sykes, a charming editor whose wife is divorcing him, and  Maurice, a  sinister birdwatcher/stalker (yes, really) who reeks of tobacco and alcohol.

Although the novel is a love story, the prospective lovers, Julia and Sylvester, do not meet till near the end of the novel.  Sylvester wonders who the plucky sheep rescuer is, but Julia is not thinking of men.  Her young son Christy was the love of her life;  her irresponsible husband, Giles, whom she had veen in the process of divorcing, had had his license revoked and should not have been driving.  Her mother had lent Giles the car.

Sylvester’s pain is less intense, but it is still pain. His  wife  has left him to return to her first husband, who has grown very rich.  Sylvester once loved her, but has a slightly comedic attitude toward their five-year marriage:  sex had been their only connection, and she had dreadful taste. He  especially hated a plaster cupid in the garden.   When he comes home from the train, he smiles to see a taxi in front of the house, and his wife heaving the TV  into the trunk, cursing  the driver for not helping.    Although she has taken almost everything he owns, he is glad to start over again, with his own things.

Sylvester and Julia come together accidentally:  Sylvester needs a cleaner for her house, and Julia responds to his  ad at the grocery store they frequent.  Julia has a key and cleans when he is at work: they communicate by note, and never meet.  And when he writes that he would like his garden tidied up, she creates a kind of secret garden.  Each had assumed the other was old:  when they meet, they are startled.

The now underrated Mary Wesely, who published her first novel when she was 71, had a reputation for perspicuity, a graceful style, and sharply drawn characters.  Her witty novels are short and well-plotted. As a writer, her work falls somewhere between the very literary short novels of Penelope Lively and the buoyant popular fiction of Elizabeth Jane Howard.  Second Fiddle is my favorite Wesley novel:  I wrote about it here.

 BOOKS TO READ AFTER AN ILLNESS.    HERE ARE SOME RECOMMENDATIONS.

1  Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (which I posted about here.)

Muriel Spark’s mordant comedies are the flip side of P. G. Wodehouse’s featherlight farces.  Ballad, published in 1960, makes you wonder who exactly the angels and the devils are in Spark’s light satire. The hero, Dougal Douglas, a Scottish trickster, moves to Peckham and, without a twinge of conscience, accepts two jobs from rival textile companies.  The company directors, Mr. Druce at Meadows, Meade & Grindley, and Mr. Willis at Drover Willis, say they want him to bridge the gap between art and industry in his new position as assistant personnel manager.

Dougal is so outrageous that the reader cannot feel sympathy for him.  Although he has a deformed shoulder–I kept thinking of Richard III– he uses it to get sympathy from women.   He has no compassion:  he refuses to visit his fiancee, Ginny, when she is ill, especially when she is in the hospital, because his “fatal flaw” is an intolerance of illness. Ginny doesn’t think much of his fatal flaw, and drops him. But Dougal uses this breakup with Ginny to get to know women at work:  he has a crying breakdown in the canteen, and the women pity him, comb his hair,  and tell him their stories.

I love everything Spark wrote, and this satire is perfect light reading.

2.  Dodie Smith’s The New Moon with the OldFans of Smith’s charming novel, I Capture the Castle, will love  The New Moon With the Old, a kind of fairy tale of work.   It begins when  Jane Minton, the new secretary of busineesman Rupert Carrington, arrives at Dome House to take up her duties. His four children are charming:  Richard, a composer; Claire, 21, whose only ambition, she light-heartedly insists, is to  be “a king’s mistress,” a la the women in Dumas books; Drew, 19, who is writing an Edwardian novel; and Merry, 14, an aspiring and very talented actress.

But a few days after Jane arrives,  Rupert flees the country because he is guilty of fraud, and Jane is left to cope with the household.  The novel is a fairy tale of work:  all  the Carringtons must cope with their work, and the story is fascinating.

You can read the rest of my post here.

3.  Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls.  Believe it or not, this is available in a Virago edition, but the cover of the 50th Anniversary Grove Press edition is more fun!  Susann’s pop classic proceeds along the lines of Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women and Mary McCarthy’s The Group: it is the story of three young women who move to New York, become friends at the beginning of their careers, and climb the ladder of the entertainment industry, not without much popping of pills.  Anne, the emotionally stable one from New England, works as a secretary and then becomes a model.  She doesn’t need pills (well, only very briefly).    But you can imagine what the pills do to Neely, the Broadway star who becomes a screaming home-wrecking harridan, and Jennifer, the lovely, sweet,  pill-dependent woman who decides to act in French art films because no one values her for anything except her body.

4.  Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life, a satiric novel, published in 1955,  centered on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village. Is this a comedy or a tragedy?  I loved every minute of it, and it is time to rediscover Mary McCarthy:  her complete works are now available in Library of America editions.  You can read my post here.

5.  Pushkin’s Eugene OneginIn this brilliant novel in verse, Pushkin tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a rakish Byronic hero who, bored by carousing, wine, women, song, writing, and even books, moves from St. Petersburg to the country after inheriting an estate.  He befriends a young poet, Lensky, to whom he is very devoted, but thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting  at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée.  The fiasco results in a duel with Lensky.  (Eugene doesn’t want it, and yet somehow he doesn’t say no.)  And the whole thing is complicated by Eugene”s rejection of Olga’s sister, Tataina, who writes a love letter to him.

You can read the rest of my post here.

AND DO RECOMMEND BOOKS YOU LIKE TO READ WHEN OR AFTER YOU’RE ILL!

Books in Omaha: Four for Me, One for Him

Books I bought in Omaha.

We’d love to live in Omaha. It’s fun to visit a big city, and we like the understated Midwestern hipness. You can shop in the Old Market area, visit the Joslyn Art Museum, go to concerts, and, best of all, browse at Jackson Street Booksellers.

Will we drive three hours to a bookstore?  Yes, we will. We passed yellow soybean fields and  windmill farms and finally crossed the bridge from Council Bluffs to Omaha. We headed straight to the Old Market so we could browse at Jackson Street Booksellers, a great used bookstore.

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha

I picked up several books and carried them around the store because I couldn’t decide which to buy–a lot of Anita Brookner, an adorable Penguin omnibus of mysteries, and some nice editions of Trollope–but iI limited myself to four books. I am so disciplined!

So here’s what I bought!

1.  I’d never heard of the Brazilian writer Rachel de Queiroz, but was intrigued by the cover art on this 1975 paperback of Dora, Doralina,  translated by Dorothy Scott Loos.  De Queiroz (1910-2003) was a novelist, journalist, and translator who, in 1966, was a Brazilian delegate to the UN.  She won many awards, including the Camões Prize in 1993.

And she has a statue in Brazil!  I do want to go to Brazil.

Kate Braverman is a poet and fiction writer.  Her 1979 novel, Lithium for Medea, used to be in every bookstore. Somehow it never appealed to me.  Did I even know what Lithium was?

Anyway, I was drawn by this 1989 Penguin Contemporary American Fiction edition, because I was always fond of this “yuppieback” series.  And her prose is stunning!  I’m racing through it.

The Goodreads description says,

“Lithium for Medea is a tale of addiction: to drugs, physical love, and dysfunctional family chains. It is also a tale of mothers and daughters, their mutual rebellion and unconscious mimicry. Rose grew up with an emotionally crippled, narcissistic mother while her father, a veteran gambler, spent his waking hours in the garden cut off from his wife’s harangues. Now an adult, Rose works her way through a string of unhealthy love(less) affairs. After a brief, unhappy marriage, she slips more deeply and dangerously into the lair of a parasitic, cocaine-fed artist whose sensual and manipulative ways she grows addicted to in the bohemian squalor of Venice.”

It is depressing, but somehow I can take this now that I’ve Lived a While and Seen a Few Things I Would Rather Have Not.

3.  I missed Virago Month, but here’s the good news:  I found a Virago at the bookstore, Fanny Burney’s Cecilia.  I am fond of 18th-century novels, and enjoyed Burney’s Evelina, so look forward to this.

4.  We were  very excited to find an Everyman copy of John Updike’s The Complete Henry Bech, sans book jacket, for $6:   Bech: A Book (1970), Bech Is Back (1982), Bech at Bay (1998), and the short story His Oeuvre (2000).  My husband and I are both fans of Updike.

Here’s the Goodreads description:

“From his birth in 1923 to his belated paternity and public apotheosis as a spry septuagenarian in 1999, Bech plugs away, globetrotting in the company of foreign dignitaries one day and schlepping in tattered tweeds on the college lecture circuit the next. By turns cynical and naïve, wry and avuncular, and always amorous, he is Updike’s most endearing confection-a Lothario, a curmudgeon, and a winsome literary icon all in one. A perfect forum for Updike’s limber prose, The Complete Henry Bech is an arch portrait of the literary life in America from an incomparable American writer.”

HERE’S WHAT MY HUSBAND BOUGHT IN OMAHA!  Only one book.

1.  Uwe Johnson’s Speculations about Jakob.  My husband is mad about this award-winning German writer, and recommends Arrivals. Here is a link to an article about Johnson in The Millions.

Susan Power on Reading in “Sacred Wilderness”

I am a longtime fan of the Native American writer Susan Power, whose debut novel The Grass Dancer won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Fiction in 1995.   And I am loving her third novel, Sacred Wilderness, published by Michigan State Press in the American Indian Studies series in 2014.

Power interweaves the stories of two women, Gladys Swan, an Ojibwe elder, and Candace Jensen, a wealthy woman who has lost herself in consumerism.   When Maryam, the Virgin Mary, arrives to help Candace reconnect with her Mohawk ancestors, Candace refuses to believe in her. Gladys, Candace’s new housekeeper, can also see Maryam, who is grateful when Gladys offers to let her stay in a luxurious room in the mansion.   Candace is so oblivious that she does not even sense the growing rage of a mask in her personal American Indian Museum, which is housed in a room in another wing of the mansion.  Candace is in crisis, though Gladys and Maryam do what they can to help.

Susan Power

But on to bookishness:  there are many literary bonds between the characters.  Even Maryam likes a good book, and Candace and Gladys  attend a reading  at Louise Erdrich’s bookstore, Birchback Books, in Minneapolis.

But I especially love this description of Candace’s love of reading.  To many of you, this will sound familiar.

Candace was a hungry reader who hoarded books and could not feel safe or relaxed unless a visible stack of waiting volumes perched on the table beside her favorite armchair–the only disorder allowed in her domain.  She favored women authors, though quite unconsciously; there was nothing political in her choices.  Louise Erdrich was the reigning queen of her literary heart, but she also pounced on every Alice Munro story she could find, for each one was a world onto itself, every bit as satisfying as a novel.  She’d read Byatt’s Possession and Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant so many times she’d had to buy replacement copies, for she’d read the originals to disintegrating rags.

She needed to hold a book in her hands, touch the pages that were warm in summer, damp with humidity, cool and slippery in frozen January.  No Kindle for her.  That would be like hiring a stiff robot to give one a deep massage.  Plus, she liked to breathe in the book, dip her nose toward the seam where the pages met and smell the sharp spice of a new book, the dusty paper of an old one.

I am still reading it, but it is one of the loveliest novels I’ve read this summer. I plan to recommend it to my “real-life” book club.

Bibliobits: Book Clubs & BookTube

I’m not unsociable. I am chatty.  Sure, I’m a bit prim.   My idea of fun is going to the library, or reading Juvenal in Latin with my husband at Cafe Diem, a coffeehouse in Ames.

I do think my diversions are comical.  Who in this day and age has a Latin club?

And I belong to many other book clubs, too, because I’m kind of geeky.

My “real-life” book club is currently reading Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now, Voyager (in the Femmes Fatales series at the Feminist Press).

I also love online book groups, and have read dozens (literally) of Trollope’s books for groups.  But for the next few months, many excellent groups are reading books I’ve already read.  For instance,

  1. Ellen Moody’s Trollope19thCStudies group at Yahoo Groups is reading Anna Karenina.  I love this brilliant novel, but have already reread it this year, and  have posted about it at this blog seven times.
  2. The Inimitable-Boz group at Yahoo Groups is reading Bleak House, my favorite Dickens novel, which I  have read at least seven times.
  3. The European Literature in Translation group at Goodreads recently read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualites, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.  Unfortunately, I joined too late.  They are currently reading Balzac’s Grand Illusions, which I have read three times and blogged about once.  And in October they’re reading Celine’s Journey into Night, which I’ve also read.
  4. Blogger readalongs are problematic for me, because so often they discuss books I’ve already read.  Several bloggers read Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, all three trilogies, a few years ago.  It’s not that I’m not crazy about Galsworthy, but I’ve read the saga three times.
  5. I do participate in Women in Translation Month (August), an annual event celebrated by booksellers, librarians, reviewers, publishers, bloggers, and journalists.  Only 30% of new books in English translation are by women.  And so we try to read women writers.

I wish I’d read this with the group!

But I may participate in Emily Asher-Perrin’s  Dune reread at Tor (the science fiction site).  I reread Dune last year (a  classic), and the group is now on the third book, Children of Dune.

Please let me know of other good online book groups.  The ones I mentioned are excellent.

Is BookTube the Next Worst Thing?

The very good blogger, I Prefer Reading, mentioned BookTube before  she went on break last spring.

Well, I love I Prefer Reading, but BookTube is not for me. I  couldn’t find anything!   My heart sank as I watched monotonous videos that make PBS look like action films.  BookTube is like very, very bad TV.  The “vloggers” ramble, there is often no script, and obviously no editing.  It’s Narcissist City!

The sincerity is evident, but the segments are too long:   eight to twelve minutes of  babbling. My advice: Cut the first three or four minutes and get straight to the books.  And, if you’re chatting about seven books (and seven is the magic number in “vlogs” about “Favorite Books of the Year So Far”),  limit the chat to 30 seconds per book.  Let your model be the PBS “Summer Reading” interview with writers and bookstore owners Louise Erdrich and Emma Straub, who recommend 19 books in eight minutes.  Sure, Jeffrey Brown asks a few questions, but both these writers are very well prepared.

Louise Erdrich at her bookstore, Birchbark Books.

Here’s an excerpt from the superb PBS transcript of this superb video, which you can watch here:

LOUISE ERDRICH:  I don’t think people usually take poetry to the beach to read, but this book has been sold by its cover for quite some time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we should say, it’s called “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” right, by Natalie Diaz.

LOUISE ERDRICH: It is.

Natalie Diaz is a powerhouse of a writer. And this book is a wild ride. It has headlong rushes of ecstatic, beautiful language, small details about life on Mojave Reservation. Natalie Diaz is Mojave.

And this is set in Arizona mainly, but it’s also, of course, set in her heart and her head. And there’s a sensibility that is so dark, but so funny. It’s just such a rich, compelling piece of literature. You know, it’s just the kind of book that you want to live with each poem for a while.

I’ve got it on reserve at the library.

A Genre-Mix Post: Louise Glück’s Averno & Louise Penny’s Still Life

Yes, it’s a genre-mix post.

I recently read Louise Glück’s collection of poems,  Averno, and Louise Penny’s award-winning  mystery, Still Life, the first in the Chief Inspector Gamache series.

Louise Glück, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollinger Award, often writes poetry based on myths.  The title of her 2006 collection, Averno, refers to a crater lake in Italy, which is the mythic gateway to the underworld of the dead, known as Avernus in Latinyou may remember it from Virgil’s Aeneid.

Glück’s  book is nothing like Virgil’s: it provides a woman’s view of the underworld.  The cycle of poems revolves around Persephone, the goddess of spring and summer, abducted and raped by Hades, her uncle, the god of the underworld.  Her mother, Demeter,  searches the earth for her daughter, and upon discovering her  whereabouts,  makes  a deal with Zeus,  Persephone’s father, to bring Persephone back.  Unfortunately,  Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds in the underworld;  thus she can return above ground only six months a year, in spring and summer.

In Averno, Gluck meditates on the soul, death, and winter.  Sometimes the observations are modern, from the perspective of the poet/artist, an older woman confronting the specter of death, and other times in the form of a narrative of Persephone and the dead.  The persona of the poem doubts the effectiveness of Persephone’s return from the dead, and the magic work with flowers and food.  She wonders if Persephone wouldn’t prefer to be dead. At one point, in “Persephone the Wanderer,” Glück writes that the rift in the human soul “should be read/as an argument between the mother and the lover–/the daughter is just meat.”

She does know the earth
is run by mothers, this much
is certain. She also knows
she is not what is called
a girl any longer. Regarding
incarceration, she believes

she has been a prisoner since she was a daughter.

In “A Myth of Devotion,” she writes about Hades’ creepy plot to abduct Persephone.  He built a duplicate of Earth below the ground, including the meadow where she picks flowers.  And he watched her for years before he took her.

Later in the book, there is a second version of “Persephone the Wanderer,”the emphasis on Demeter’s complicated relationship to her daugher.

In the second version, Persephone
is dead. She dies, her mother grieves–
problems of sexuality need not
trouble us here.

A powerful collection of poems, but very, very bleak.  Beneath the stark language, there is emotion.

Louise Penny’s Still Life.  For years I’ve been hearing about Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache novels. This summer it was a toss-up:   would I try Donna Leon’s mysteries, recommended by Louise Erdrich on NPR, or  Louise Penny’s mysteries, recommended by my friends?

Well, I opted for Penny and loved it:  Still Life, set in Quebec, in the mythical village of Three Pines, is mainly a police procedural, but there are elements of the cozy. The village is charming, hardly the place where you’d expect a murder. The residents are artists, poets, bookstore owners, bed-and-breakfast owners, and other entrepreneurs.

Chief inspector Gamache is philosophical in the manner of Simenon’s Maigret.  He listens very carefully, notes details, speaks little,and quotes poetry. And it all adds up to solving crimes.    Experienced detective though he is, he is shocked to see the body of Miss Jane Neal, a beloved retired teacher,  shot by an arrow in the woods.

Chief Inspector reacts with sorrow as he leans over the body.

The scent of mothballs, his grandmother’s perfume, met him halfway. Jane’s gentle and kindly eyes stared as though surprised to see him.

He was surprised to see her. That was his little secret. Not that he’d ever seen her before. No. His little secret was that in his mid-fifties, at the height of a long and now apparently stalled career, violent death still surprised him. Which was odd, for the head of homicide, and perhaps one of the reasons he hadn’t progressed further in the cynical world of the Sûreté. Gamache always hoped maybe someone had gotten it wrong, and there was no dead body. But there was no mistaking the increasingly rigid Miss Neal. Straightening up with the help of Inspector Beauvoir, he buttoned his lined Burberry against the October chill and wondered.

The mystery is  riveting.  Was it an accident? Was it murder?  There is an archery club in the village. So many opportunities. But oddly it happened only after Jane’s first painting was accepted in the local art show.  Was something stirred up by the painting?

It is well-written and great fun.  But it was very hard to get anything done until I finished it! And I do feel a need to read the second one. But I must be disciplined.  More Penny on the weekend!