London Is Full of Loebs & Tips for American Booksellers

My first trip to London was fun but bewildering. I got lost a lot.  When in doubt, I went to a bookstore.

“London is full of Loebs,” I wrote in an email.

If you don’t know the Loebs, you are not a classicist, but anybody can use a Loeb, which is why they’re popular.  The Loebs are a series of Greek and Latin classics with the Greek or Latin text on the left page and the English translation on the right.  I have reservations about the excessively old-fashioned literal translations, but where else can you find an edition of Manetho, an Egyptian priest in the third century B.C.E. who wrote in Greek?

Manetho’s History of Egypt and Other Works

The Loebs would be superfluous at our house–we have a bookcase full of Greek and Latin books– but I know I’m in civilization when I find them.  I let out a sigh of relief when I saw Loebs at Prairie Lights in Iowa City 10 years ago.  Just to be in a town where people read classics…I was in a daze.  Alas, the store’s stock has shrunk, and the Loebs have vanished.  So now I go to the used bookstores, where I find more scholarly texts.

Waterstones Piccadilly

Not to get carried away, but Barnes and Noble could use some Loebs:  just one or two to look classy. And that’s not all.  My serious advice:  the CEO and the Managers of Books (MOBs?) should take a trip to London bookstores.  Why not copy the attractive display tables at Waterstones and Foyles?  Some of them are even themed.  I remember an alluring table of Booker Prize-winning paperbacks at Waterstones. B&N could surely do a National Book Awards table.  Right now B&N is in financial trouble: it mostly pushes best-sellers, and, oh yes, they have what I call the Lord of the Flies table: you know, books you read in school.  A little more quirky, a little less predictable–it could be win-win for everybody.


London without a Shovel

Some of the books I bought in London.

Take the 5 pence,” I said at Oxfam.  Snow was falling, and I needed a bag for my books.  (You pay 5 pence per bag in London, as a way to reduce the use of plastic bags.)

Mind you, I had a Waitrose bag, a Foyles bag, and a Westminster Abbey bag in my hotel room.

There wasn’t much snow in London. Possibly an inch or two.  But it was packed down, slushy, and slippery.   Nobody shoveled the sidewalks.  I saw nary a snow plow nor a snow blower. It took me a day to realize the city seemed empty because the snow had shut it down.  (N.B. Other parts of the UK really got a lot of snow, but London just expected snow.)

Even though Londoners are wusses about the snow, I’m a wuss about the cold. My mother taught me always to take off my coat inside,  but that wasn’t possible in cathedrals.   I froze my ass off at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, though I kept my jacket zipped.  I also visited Waterstones on the day the furnace broke.  At the lovely, warm, almost-empty National Portrait Gallery I sat on a bench and was amazed to find myself looking at  portraits of Andrew Marvell and a very young Milton. Later, at an almost empty Pret a Manger, I ate a fruit cup, drank coffee, and enjoyed Virginia Woolf’s essays on London.

Definitely not an ideal season for tourism, but I loved making the rounds of the bookstores.

In the window of a used bookstore on Charing Cross Road, (possibly) Any Amount of Books, I saw a very old copy of Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?,  but knew there wouldn’t be room in my suitcase.

At Foyles, I browsed in the fiction, essays, and  foreign language sections.   I bought a copy of Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books, which is very much like her previous book about books, Howards End Is on the Landing. I couldn’t fit it in my suitcase, alas!  but read it in the hotel.   I also bought E. Nesbit’s The Lark, (which I read as an e-book a few years ago and wrote about here), with an introduction by Penelope Lively.

I came across Hatchards,  the UK’s oldest bookstore, which was founded in 1797, in a very elegant building on Picadilly (the original building). It is my new favorite bookstore in London.   I bought a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s Heritage.


I bought used  paperbacks at Oxfam and  Skoob.  Here’s a list:

Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness

The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West

Daughters of Decadence, edited by Elaine Showalter.

Hermann Hesse’s Rosshalde

William Plomer’s Museum Pieces (looked interesting: I’ll let you know)

H. E. Bates’s Death of a Huntsman (I’m very fond of H. E. Bates)

The Minister by Maurice Edelman. (Never heard of it:  looks amusing)

So did I buy great books or junk?  Only time will tell.

And I hope you have all thawed in London.

Can Bad Bookstores Sell Good Books? & Four Literary Links

pile of books open_booksThis year I made two resolutions:

  1. I would no longer accept “free” books from publishers.
  2. I would buy books only at bricks-and-mortar stores.

Guess which one I’ve kept?  The first.  I’m gobsmacked as to how anyone can keep the second.

It’s hip, it’s chic, and, according to all book publications, it’s revolutionary to shop at bricks-and-mortar stores.  Support local businesses!  Support writers!  Where’s my Che Guevara beret? Do they even give their employees health insurance?   Well, you can shop for books in London. There are good bookstores in London.  It can be done in Portland. It can be done in Nashville.  But in the Midwest it’s a challenge. It comes down to:  what on earth do they have that I want to buy?

The bookstores here are in a decline.  The indies are often owned by rich hobbyists–tax write-offs, I suppose.  The Bookworm in Omaha used to be a pretty good store,  located in a rather pretty strip mall, with trees growing along the side of the parking lot.  The store’s displays were clever:   Dan Brown’s Inferno surrounded by Dante’s Inferno (and the rest of The Divine Comedy).  An attractive shelf of  the small-press Pharos Editions’ reissues of American classics like Brian Kittredge’s Still Life with Insects.  A display of copies of Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, a novel about Louise Brooks, next to a flapper dress.

But then…

I love you, Charlotte, but I've already read so many biographies of you!

I love you, Charlotte, but I don’t need another biography of you!

It moved. Why?  According to hearsay, the  landlord of the old building didn’t keep up the maintenance.   The store at the new mall is ugly.  And what happened to the new fiction and new nonfiction sections?  A few new hardbacks are mixed in with the paperbacks, but the new titles are missing.  And they have lost their oomph:  no more displays or small press books.  I thought of buying last year’s biography of Charlotte Bronte , but you know what?  I have already read biographies of the Brontes.

And then there are the chain stores. I would say, thank God we have chains, but I am doomed to live in a region with moribund chains.  It’s like going to the Scotch tape store in the dying mall on Saturday Night Live. When I wanted to buy Doris Lessing’s last novel, Alfred and Emily, Barnes and Noble had never heard of it and I went to Borders.  When I wanted to buy John Sayles’s A Moment in the Sun, B&N had never heard of it and I had to go to Borders.  When I looked for the new translation of Pushkin before Christmas, they didn’t have it, and I didn’t ask.

To be fair, I doubt the local Barnes and Noble has an individual buyer or any control over which books are shipped there.  I heard, or read, they are given maps of what to display where.  I am doomed to live in a region where it is assumed the readers read junk.  Perhaps they do, judging from the Little Free Libraries.   But, alas, we need  good books, too.  And what IS the point of NOT carrying the latest books?  It’s Barnes and Noble!

Oh, dear, I miss Borders, but we need our Barnes and Noble. Desperately.



emma-tennant-2356009092_b8de2754ce1.  The writer Emma Tennant died on January 21 at age 79.  (I wrote about her novel Confessions of a Sugar Mummy here.)  She was the author of comic fiction, women’s fiction,  surreal fantasy and  science fiction (The Crack, Wild Nights), autobiography, and sequels to Austen, Hardy, Stevenson, and others. I very much enjoyed The Crack and Wild Nights.   Here is a link to the obituary at the New York Times .

2.  At the blog Leaves and Pages, I read about a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim I have never heard of, Introduction to Sally:

 Oh joy! Oh bliss! What a sweet romp of a thing. I loved it. What happens when an unbelievably beautiful girl is born into a modestly situated, working class, strictly God-fearing family, unable to fathom how best to protect their jewel of a child from the increasingly lecherous gaze of every man who sees her? By marrying her off, of course, to the first man who offers for her, thereby shifting the responsibility to other shoulders. Beauty as burden is the theme of this little novel, with a dash of reluctant Eliza Doolittle-ism thrown in.

3. At the Guardian Lorraine Berry writes about “Bibliomania: the strange history of compulsive book buying.”  Here’s an excerpt:

When I was a young woman, I drew a sort of perverse pride from my willingness to skip a meal or two in order to afford books. Soon enough, with the ubiquity of credit card touts on campus, I could buy both books and meals. I justified my increasing debt as necessary for my education, and joked with friends that while others spent their money on cars and expensive clothes, anything of value that I owned was on my bookcases.

4.  And at Tor, Steven Brust writes, “Five Roger Zelazny Books that Changed My Life by Being Awesome.”

You always get asked, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” And, of course, there’s no answer, or a thousand answers that are all equally valid. But I usually say, “In high school, when I read Zelazny’s Lord of Light.”

You see, until then, I had never known you could do that. I never knew you could make someone feel all those different things at the same time, with all of that intensity, just by how you used 26 characters and a few punctuation marks. What was it? Well, everything: Sam and Yama were the most compelling characters I’d come across; it was the first time I’d ever stopped reading to just admire a sentence; it gave me the feeling (which proved correct) that there were layers I wouldn’t get without a few rereadings; and, above all, it was when I became of what could be done with voice—how much could be done with just the way the author addressed the reader. I remember putting that book down and thinking, “If I could make someone feel like this, how cool would that be?” Then I started reading it again. And then I went and grabbed everything else of his I could find.

The Love of the Canon: The 150th Anniversary of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment & Do We Need Booksellers’ Recommendations?

Dostoevsky at the Iowa City Writers' Festival.

A Dostoevsky reading at the Iowa City Writers’ Festival.

The lineup for the Iowa City Book Festival, Oct. 4-9, is stunning:   Robert Olen Butler, Leslie Jamison, Roxanne Gay, Nathan Hill, Michelle Hoover, Suki Kim, and many international writers.  And, Russian literature fans, there will be a celebration of Dostoevsky.

Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, is a natural for literary festivals. It is  home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, founded in 1936, the first MFA program in creative writing.  Growing up in Iowa City I took the literary culture for granted.  The writers were there, their readings were boring (my mind still wanders during readings), I missed Stephen Spender (I know!), but we kept up with the work of the faculty:  John Irving, Gail Godwin, Kurt Vonnegut,  T. C. Boyle, Jane Smiley, John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut…

One of the best things about the University of Iowa was taking multiple creative writing classes for credit. I loved my Fiction Writing class from T. C. Boyle, a helpful teacher and a very kind grader indeed. (It was before all the creativity was slapped out of me in the workplace.)  A lesbian with a quirky sense of humor confided over coffee that her girlfriend wrote her stories for her:  she needed an A!   Shocking, but fascinating.

If I  attend the Iowa City Book Festival this year, it will not be for the authors’ readings. Instead, I will support the canon:  I want to attend the three-day public reading of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in honor of the classic’s 150th anniversary.  It is organized by Anna Barker, an adjunct who teaches the “Tolstoyevsky” course (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), and, yes, they will read the whole book.  The reading will take place at the Old Capitol,  Oct. 4 and 5, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Oct. 6, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. (or until finished). There is also  a panel discussion, “Dostoevsky’s Notions of Criminality and Redemption for 21st Century Readers,” at the Public Library on Thursday, Oct. 6.

I probably won’t go, though.  Well, maybe for an hour.

ARE YOU MESMERIZED BY BOOKSELLERS? We all miss Doug (1949-2012), who worked at Borders and chatted endlessly with lonely readers.  Sometimes, in my Anita Brookner moods, I wasn’t in the mood for conversation and ducked him.

Perhaps there are “Doug”s at Heywood Hill, an independent bookseller in Mayfair I read about in The Guardian this morning.  It is sponsoring a “Library of a Lifetime Prize Draw” to mark its 80th anniversary, with a free book of the month, chosen after interviews with the customer-winner.

According to the website:

Enter our spectacular 80th anniversary prize draw for the chance to win one of three incredible literary prizes. First prize is a lifetime’s subscription to our famous A Year in Books service. The lucky winner will never need to buy a book again. They will be sent a new hardback book, individually chosen to suit their particular reading taste, every month FOR LIFE. This competition is a free to enter prize draw. To enter simply tell us which single book has meant the most to you, published in English since Heywood Hill opened in 1936. You can enter the prize draw by filling in the form below. This prize draw closes at midnight on Monday 31 October 2016. Scroll down to find out more about the fantastic prizes on offer and our famous book subscriptions, A Year in Books.

Oh dear, why didn’t I know about this bookstore in London?

There are other bookstore clubs with similar programs.  I’m thinking of the The Apple-a-Month Club at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.

Here’s how it works: We pore over stacks of soon-to-be-released fiction to find the paperback original we’re most excited about. The only guiding policy is that every book we pick will be new, fiction and what we think will be appealing to all types of readers. Why take the risk? Well, we’re hoping you might discover something you never would have picked up elsewhere. You can then look forward to getting a new book with a handwritten note about why we love it in the mail once a month. As publication dates vary, so will the delivery date — that’s part of the fun.

It does sound like fun, doesn’t it?

But I must admit, I’ve read widely in the canon, and I don’t need anyone to curate my reading for me.  I have enough trouble not buying every book that gets a good review.  I also have a weakness for the blogger Jacqui Wine, and thus cannot regularly visit these fabulous book sites.

The Anglophile Abroad: On the Bookish Grid

Virginia Woolf lived here.

Virginia Woolf lived here.

London is not laid out on a grid: it is organic. It grew out of chaos, and it is still chaos for many of us Americans.  But I am getting the hang of it. On a recent trip, I was able to find my favorite sites without a map.

Lytton Strachey

Portrait of Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington

In Bloomsbury I took a self-guided Virginia Woolf walk.  That was rather a let-down, as it is essentially looking at blue plaques on row houses.  Still,  I loved the views of Tavistock Square and Gordon Square, where Virginia and, indeed, almost the whole Bloomsbury group, lived at one time or another in the early 20th century.  And then to make it even more thrilling, I saw portraits and busts of the Bloomsbury Group at the National Portrait Gallery including paintings by Vanessa Bell  and Dora Carrington.  There are portraits or busts of Virginia, Violet Trefusis, Lytton Strachey, Vanessa, Duncan Grant,  and E. M. Forster. What an incestuous group they were!  Brilliant, but always sleeping with each other.

At the British Museum in Bloomsbury, I felt  like a Barbara Pym character: her characters sometimes work or live in Bloomsbury, and surely that’s where all her strange little  anthropological societies are housed. Think of “Less Than Angels” and “Quartet in Autumn.”

Here’s how I know I have a better feel for it than I used to.  I was able to find every bookstore in London by instinct.

London review bookshopBut where  are the signs? Tiny almost organic signs are posted high on buildings.  It is easy to miss Bury Place across from the British Museum, and you don’t want to miss it because the London Review Bookshop is there.

The London Review Bookshop is the perfect size for an independent bookstore.  Not too big, not too small, with every book carefully chosen and arranged (by whom?  The manager?  The booksellers  together?  The LRB itself?). I almost bought an edition of Keats, because it had an intro by Jane Campion.  But I have my Keats at home.  And, naturally I went crazy in the fiction section, where there were fascinating small press books on a table, and I was able to find new books not available in the U. S., among them “The Essex Serpent.” There are also Turkish books on a table, since they are having a Turkish month.


Waterstones Picadilly

I love the booksellers’ culture in London. We don’t have that much in the U. S. anymore, except in big cities and a few university towns. Waterstones  in Picadilly reminds me of the original Borders chain in the ’90s, which had everything you could imagine.  Waterstones is breathtaking.  The tables are cleverly organized:  at the moment they are displaying paperback novels from different decades, the 60s, the ’70s, etc.  Lots of small-press books and I was very amused by arrangement of the historical fiction titles on a table, “Gladiators & (Somethings)”  (Oops, I should have taken notes.)

Foyles is also stunning, and I couldn’t decide if I preferred it or Waterstones. They are competitors.

As for used bookstores, Cecil Court near the Trafalgar Square imagestop has many charming shops, but they are pricey.  I would have loved a first edition of a collection of Kay Boyle’s stories , but I couldn’t justify it.  I have her Complete Stories at home.

There are also some remarkable used bookstores on Charing Cross Road, and others not.

Don’t forget Skoob in Bloomsbury,  the best used bookstore for the common reader (and collectors).

TIP. And so I have discovered it is much more fun to see the sights than to take self-guided walks from the guidebook, or even walks with experts,  I love getting off the tube and seeing Buckingham Palace.

At the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, you can see an excellent exhibition of the Royal Collection of Scottish paintings.

I drroled over Westminster Abbey and sat peacefully in one of the small gardens.  I never cared much about royal weddings but I was ecstatic at the National Portrait Gallery to see the portraits of Princess Diana and Kate.  Oh my goodness!  There is a royal-loving gene in me after all, and I did love both of Obama’s inaugurations.

The trip ended in hilarity at the National Gallery when I had looked at so much art that Velasquez’s Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos looked EXACTLY like James Franco.  Well, maybe there is a slight resemblance.

Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos by Diego Velasquez

Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos by Diego Velasquez

Memories of Bookstores and The Guardian on Prairie Lights

Prairie Lights Books

Prairie Lights Books

Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City is featured in The Guardian’s “Interview with a Bookstore.” Not only do I sometimes shop at Prairie Lights, but so does Obama (see YouTube, March 25, 2010).

Founded in 1978, it is the oldest bookstore in town except for Iowa Book (founded in 1920). It stocks classics, literary fiction, poetry, history, local history, biography, nonfiction, SF, mysteries, travel, small press books, and journals.  Until recently, it even stocked Loebs.  It hosts readings three or four times a week.  We have attended readings by Joy Williams, Tobias Wolff, and Sherman Alexie.

What I like most about the Guardian piece  is the quotes from the staff.

If you weren’t working in a bookstore, what would you be doing?

Kathleen: Writing the books? Would rather sell the books. It’s easier, and the quality is better.

Don’t you love that answer?   I’ve always dreamed of owning a bookstore, but not ardently enough!

And Kathleen says her favorite regular is IndieBob, who has an excellent blog, The Indie Bob Spot, about visiting independent bookstores in the U.S.

Here are two more staffers’ answers to the question about what they would do if they didn’t work at a bookstore:

Terry: Night watchman at a cranberry silo.

Tim: I’d probably still be in the restaurant business, either waiting tables or tending bar, bemoaning my existence and spending too much money on books.

A fun article!


The Epstein brothers at Epstein’s Books in a temporary module in 1974.  (I have no idea why Harry is holding a lamp.)

MEMORIES OF BOOKSTORES IN IOWA CITY.   Growing up in I.C., I loved Iowa Book and Supply (then saucily referred to as Iowa Book & Crook, and even looted once in the ’60s).   There I discovered E. Nesbit, Catcher in the Rye, Tolstoy, Doris Lessing, Robertson Davies, Sisterhood Is Powerful (edited by Robin Morgan),and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. On Career Day, when my non-career-oriented friends and I claimed we wanted to own a bookstore in Scotland (were we absurdists, or just absurd?), we spent 20 minutes at The Paper Place, a now defunct paperback bookstore, and then decamped to Burger Palace.  Later,  Epstein’s was the hip place to buy  small-press books,  poetry chapbooks, and paperback classics, and attend readings by the Actualist poets:  Ansel Hollo, Darrell Grey, Allan Kornblum (later founder of Coffee House Press), Dave Morice, and Morty Sklar.   Alas, urban renewal and a relocation to a temporary building on a torn-up street drove Epstein’s out of business in 1977.

I have so many bookstore memories!  I just wish more bookstores were still in business.

Hanging on by a Thread: Bookstores, Translation, & Literary Links


O tempora!  O mores!”–Cicero

It’s the end of the world as I know it, and I feel fine.–R.E.M.

We are hanging on by a thread, whether because of political anxiety, bad hairdos, global warming, or the uselessness of melatonin on hot nights. And we book junkies wonder what direction our lives will take if the printed word is censored in the new isolationist frenzy at home and abroad:  newspapers (dying or dead),  magazines (dying or dead), proofreading (dying or dead: I found a Latin error the other day in a great new novel),  foreign language study (budget cuts have eliminated many language departments), and communication via misspelled texts instead of letters on stationery (oh, long done!).

the swerve 51chpVixqKL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Well, thank God there’s a wide selection of backlisted and used books for sale online.  It is a vast improvement over having to travel hundreds of miles to find out-of-print books or obscure classics. I am not Poggio Bracciolini, the book scout who discovered the manuscript of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) in a German monastery (The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt).  Travel is expensive.

Nor do I romanticize independent bookstores, which are and always have been rich people’s hobbies. Some are good and some are bad, and there are few in these parts, but I hear they’re coming back.  Print book sales are up, they say, but since an e-book now costs almost as much as a paperback, isn’t that a deciding factor?  Well, they don’t admit that, but they are admitting to a coloring book boom.

Many years ago, an independent bookseller told me that if a book review ran in the newspaper before the book’s publication date, it hurt his business.  If the buyer couldn’t find it right away, he or she usually forgot about it and the bookseller lost a sale.  Now that we can “pre-order,” it must be even more disheartening.  I do quite often read reviews of books a week or month ahead of publication.

But not all is lost! We still have contact with the world.   Here are literary links to three articles about literature in translation. Let’s bring back language study, too.

1. Sam Jordison mentioned the rise of translated fiction in the UK when he asked The Guardian book club to choose a book in translation for  June.  (They chose The Master and Margarita.)

The fact that translated fiction now accounts for 7% of sales in the UK market is a welcome change. It feels like a long time since I wrote an article lamenting the lack of traction that foreign fiction had in the UK. If I were to attempt a similar provocation now, I might be tempted to suggest things are heating up too much. Every other book that publishers send me for review at the moment seems to be translated. On the one hand, this stream of books makes me worry about the thoughtless following of fashion and the many-limbed, no-headed mass of the mainstream publishing industry. On the other hand, it’s a heck of a lot better than books on mindfulness or beating titles like The Man Who Caught the Smugsmug Train to Cozylandia.

2. Words Without Borders recently published an interview with Lydia Davis on translation.  Her is an excerpt.

Q.  Does a translator need to dominate the culture of both the language she is translating to and the culture of the language she is translating from?

madame bovary lydia davis 515JL42NLCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_LD: By “dominate,” do you mean “master”? Or, even better: “have a deep and thorough understanding of it”? I want to clarify, because the attitude of a writer, including a translator, toward his or her own culture, as well as the culture of the original text, should be that of a seeker rather than a dominator. One is always seeking to understand. One gains some understanding, but one never understands completely—true of any culture in which one is working or living.

But to answer more simply: let’s assume that the translator has a good, deep understanding of her own culture. Then the question is how deep does her understanding of the other culture need to be? I found, in translating Madame Bovary, that a good deal of the text was understandable, and translatable, without that deeper knowledge of nineteenth-century French culture in a provincial town. Certain human behavior seems to be fairly universal, or at least common, to Western civilizations of the last couple of centuries. (I should beware of generalizations—there are always exceptions!) Other habits, customs, expressions are not as familiar to us in the twenty-first century. Still, translating the way I do, staying close to the original—even when it comes to expressions such as “to put straw in one’s boots” or “other dogs to beat” (yes? is that what Homais says to the beggar?)—rather than seeking equivalent expressions in English, the customs, habits, even modes of thinking of Flaubert’s time come through quite well. But I may translate accurately what is on Emma’s mantelpiece without knowing what her taste in decor “means”—and it would be good to know, even though that wouldn’t change my translation, in this case. For Flaubert, of course, what she had on her mantelpiece indicated her slavish following of current fashion, her striving for bourgeois gentility. His readers at the time would have known that. I use many reference books, learn what I can, write endnotes to help readers of the translation, but I do not feel I have to become a scholar of the culture Flaubert was writing about, or within. (Long answer! Third cup of coffee!)

3. At Words without Borders, Aaron Poochigian speculates in “Have We Lost The Lofty? Virgil’s Aeneid and the History of English Poetry” about changing literary tastes and new translations of the Aeneid.  Here is the opening paragraph.

aeneid dryden e2cde76d4ee8730e958f4bd11f157370.600x510x1In two months’ time Farrar, Straus and Giroux will release Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book Six of the Aeneid. In the same way as the epic was, in the words of his daughter Catherine Heaney, “a touchstone . . . to which he would return time and time again through his life,” so the often-translated epic itself has been a touchstone for changing literary and cultural tastes throughout the course of English literature. Translations of the Aeneid have, in fact, inaugurated major literary movements. Now seems a good time to review the history of this very Roman poem in English. Translations and re-translations are fascinating because they reveal the tastes (and limitations) of past ages and our own. Though poets of yore found in it a justification for British imperial ambition, the epic feels in places as if it were written with the express purpose of turning off contemporary readers—the hero’s great virtue is the Roman ideal of pietas (“piety, dutiful respect”), and the narrative is a kind of literary empire-building. We here in the twenty-first century want heroes with a rebellious spirit and abhor empires for their oppression of native peoples. No, the Aeneid’s politics are not for us.

By the way, I love Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary, and of course I read The Aeneid in Latin.

Bookstores in Omaha & a Ride on the T-Bone Trail

Old Market, Omaha

Old Market, Omaha

Omaha is our favorite city in the Midwest.

It’s not Chicago or Minneapolis.  It doesn’t try to be.

It is a good place to visit on the fifth of July.  After being kept awake by fireworks in our small city in Iowa on the Fourth–could there have been any more firecrackers?–we woke up bleary-eyed and decided to travel to Omaha for relaxation.

Sometimes you have to go to a big city to find quiet.

We  love the Old Market area, a lovely, hip downtown Omaha neighborhood with a world-class used bookstore,  an artists’ co-op, antique shops, many restaurants with attractive verandas, and a lawn ornament shop that sells iron sculptures of pigs.

We do have a sense we’re in a real city here.  We always feel rather unhip:  It’s a little more bustly than we’re used to.  When we first went to Omaha, I informed my husband I wanted to live there.  It might have been a bit of a commute, though.

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha

Naturally we spent a lot of time at Jackson Street Booksellers, the used bookstore.  I recently promised myself I would buy no more books this summer, but darn it!  What you do when you intend to break your Bibliophiles Anonymous pledge  is park your husband in an easy chair and then spend 40 minutes in the literature section.  AND THEN YOU BUY FOUR BOOKS AND PAY FOR THEM YOURSELF.   In retrospect, I wish I’d bought five books.  There was a novel by the Southern poet Alan Tate. Where will I ever see that again?

Then we went to the Bookworm, an independent bookstore in a strip mall way out on Pacific St.   I love this store.  Every summer they have attractive displays. A couple of years ago, intrigued by a flapper dress next to  piles of an appealing book with a cool blue cover, I discovered Laura Moriarty’s  engaging novel, The Chaperone, the story of a demure 36-year-old Wichita housewife who is coerced into chaperoning 15-year-old Louise Brooks (soon to be a film star) one summer in New York.  Last summer they displayed Dante’s Inferno with Dan Brown’s Inferno. (I went for the Dante.) Now they’re revving up for Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling (to be published July 8), the Number One pick on the IndieNext list this month (an organization of independent bookstores).  I quite like fantasy, and might very well like this novel, but it is a bit odd to have a display without any books.

And then we rode our bikes.  Not in Omaha, however.  We drove to Atlantic in Western Iowa (it’s on our way home, anyway) and rode the T-Bone Trail.

The T-bone Trail, Atlantic to Audubon, Iowa

The T-Bone Trail, Atlantic to Audubon, Iowa

The last time I rode the T-Bone, Nov. 13, 2011, I had a ghastly time.  As I wrote at my old blog:

The temp dropped five degrees in 15 minutes, according to the bank clock, and then we rode into the wind. It was very difficult to make any progress at all. I put my bike in low gear and leaned over the handlebars, but it was very, very cold. After an hour’s riding like that into the wind, I sat down on the trail and rubbed my legs.

But today it was warm and we only rode for two hours. It is absolutely flat, an extremely easy ride unless it is too hot or windy.  Cornfields, woods, prairie, small towns, and finally we rested in a gazebo in Ira, Iowa.   To be honest, I was glad to turn around, because one of my sandals was rubbing against my foot.  Sandals are not good biking shoes.  What was I thinking?

So I’m home, surrounded by lovely books, and I’ll chime in with what I’ve been reading soon.

Happy Long Weekend!

Things I Haven’t Done Before My Trip to London


Photo op: at the library

Things I Haven’t Done Before My Trip to London:

1.  I didn’t lose any weight. Go on Weight Watchers…lose five pounds…gain it back…lose five pounds…gain it back…lose five pounds…decide you can’t live on an apple at dinner, which is the only way you’ve lost five pounds…  Then cook a colossal dinner of Mollie Katzen’s macaroni with mushrooms and spinach for your thin husband, the only one in the house who has lost weight on your diet, and he informs you that you are not going to have a swimsuit photo op in London.   And so I’m back to cooking dinner again.  “Thank God for that!”  he says.

2.  I didn’t dye my hair.  I thought briefly of dyeing my hair.  Yes, I was going to be thin in London…with dyed hair.  When it came right down to it, all I could stand at the salon was having my hair trimmed.

3.  Read a lot of London bloggers so I can have contact with the London blogging community.  News flash: I read no London bloggers.  None!  How did this happen?  Fortunately all the American and English bloggers have been to London and have given me excellent advice about everything. .. especially bookstores.

Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry

4. Figure out how to go to the Oxford Literary Festival to see Sebastian Barry one day and Margaret Drabble on another day.  The festival goes on for a WE-E-E-E-KKKKK and I don’t see how I can possibly go both days. But, wait,  I just found out there is something called the Daunt Books Spring Festival right in London.  Perhaps I can buy tickets for BOTH LITERARY FESTIVALS  just in case.  CAVEAT: You’re not rich, and you’ve seen Borges, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Wolfe, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie…for free in the U.S.

5.  I didn’t reread all of Dickens, or any Dickens.  I’m going on the Dickens tour, right?  Well, probably.  For some reason I am reading Trollope this winter.  I don’t think there’s a Trollope tour, though.  Too bad…

6.  Travel with unstained clothes.  See that lovely spring sweater (above:  photo of me at the library)?  I spilled coffee on it .  It was nice to have coffee at the library…and then it spilled and I had to rush to the restroom and apply soap on a wet paper towel.  I don’t see a stain, do you?  I caught it in time. But I may be turning into Enderby, the tea-stained hero of Anthony Burgess’s Enderby books.

AND NOW I NEED ADVICE. Where do I buy groceries, i.e., lots of vegetables in London?   Grocery stores?  Co-ops?  I know about the markets from my guide books, and I can always find Starbucks…  But it might be nice just to buy some stuff quickly at a store and make sandwiches.


Illustration of bookstore from "Globe and Mail"

Illustration of bookstore from “Globe and Mail”

“If we take this money here…and put it here,” my cousin said, “it might work.”

“I don’t have the faintest idea,” I said.

And I don’t.

I’ve talked about it forever:  my ambition as a young girl to open a bookstore, and I spent Career Week shyly hanging around The Paper Place.  Then there was Cattleman’s Books:  just about the time I’d arranged everything, the Cattleman got sick and his relatives pulped the books.

When my husband said I should blog less, after a marathon of writing featurettes on the pros and cons of blogging, I wistfully came up with the idea of opening a bookstore called Backlisted!   I would carry no new books, only books on publishers’ backlists and used books.  I would order remainders and discount NYRB books. I would buy books at estates.  I would cozy up to writers who live in a 150-mile radius and insist they give readings, and get people to attend with promises of drugs (kidding) or champagne cake from that really good bakery.    I would have Cult Fiction week:  A Confederacy of Dunces , H. D., and Jane Gaskell’s Atlan fantasy quintet. To please the Persephone Junta  and the Virago Junta (and I’m joking: I’m a MEMBER of the Persephone and Virago juntas), I would wear a frilly apron over a skirt, twin set and fake pearls.  Not to mention Dalkey Archive week.  What a good small press that is!

I’ve been sidetracked from my bookstore plans by doing the expected thing:  I taught after being a T.A. in grad school (“You’re a born teacher,” my mom said-ha!), and later writing and editing for various publications (“You’re a good writer,” said a professor of mine gloomily; he didn’t otherwise think highly of my skills. I had to explain that my friend and I turned up at the Boethius lecture because we had read Boethius; heavens, why else would anyone go to anything so boring?).

There are drawbacks to opening a bookstore.  Fourteen or fifteen bookstores have gone bust here since the ’90s. What could I possibly do that they couldn’t? We have to drive 100 or more miles to Iowa City or Omaha to get to a good bookstore.  And even then I’m not sure the stores are thriving.

Here are three fun pluses of opening a bookstore.

1.  You can invent a whole new image of yourself.  New hair, new clothes, smart new glasses:  I see myself playing the intellectual and reciting speeches from the salons in War and Peace.  But I know how these things go.  I’m much more likely to look preppy and sound ditzy than intellectual (the new preppy ditz look!), and even though I’m not ditzy, I might be a little bit preppy, though it’s usually spoiled by a blouse coming untucked.

2.  You can have your own book group.  Naturally you make use of your connections or no one will come:  your cousin and her friends, your friend Janet who lives 200 miles away (“Why CAN’T you come?”) and her friends, and those truly horrible people in the Great Books club.

3.  Let everyone list their favorite books in a beautiful leather notebook and once a week post “So-and-So’s favorite book!” and a small display of one or two copies.   We’re not snobs.  Let it be what it is.  Wuthering Heights or Mistress of Mellyn.  It’s a book!

Minuses or Things to Avoid:

1.  Do not live in your store, microwave Italian dinners so the whole place smells like Stouffer’s, or tell anyone that  you shower at the neighborhood gym.  The very thought of your hanging around sitting on the floor because you can’t afford chairs, or using a box as your desk is enough to sadden anyone.

2.  You want a nice cat in your store, not an attack cat.  After years of loving every cat I met at bookstores (especially Martha at Brookfield-Murphy Books),  I finally met one at a used bookstore that jumped on my bare legs.  I never went back there.

If someone would give me a bookstore, I’d run it.  And, yes, if I don’t open a bookstore soon, I never will.

Amazon is the bookstore of the future.  Or the present.    Who knows what the future holds?  For now, only the online thing can make money, if it can, and I’m not sure of that.

What kind of bookstore would you open if you had a chance?