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

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

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

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

I wrote in 2012:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I made no choice
I decided nothing

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

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

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

vacant is not innocent.

In Which Juvenal & Dostoevsky Lampoon Poets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dostoevsky fulminates about the times and the mores.

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

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

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

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

Watch out for those literary readings!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not how I pictured the prodigal women…

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

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

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

Dostoevsky in the Springtime

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

I planned to sit outside and read Dostoevsky.

But alas!

The cat objects to Dostoevsky.

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

I cannot read a book in this condition.

I’m disappointed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Art of Bad Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Octavio Paz, 19141998

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

Syllables seeds.

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

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

And so here goes!  I AM JUST FINISHING:

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

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

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

And the Lord decides to change the penguins into humans.

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

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


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