Aegypt, or The Solitudes, by John Crowley

John Crowley is an underread American writer whose Aegypt series is one of my favorite tetralogies.  I am not alone:  Michael Dirda has written about it in The American Scholar and Harold Bloom includes it in his  Western canon.   The quartet consists of  Aegypt (reissued as The Solitudes), Love and Sleep, Daemonomania, and Endless Things.

I recently returned to Aegypt, the first novel in the quartet, and loved it.  In fact I enjoyed it much more, because the first time I read the books out of order.  I began with the last book, Endless Things, because it was widely reviewed  in 2007. And then I scrambled to find used copies of the other books.  I do not think all were in print then.

Aegypt manages to be one of the most intricate novels of the 20th century, and yet it is also lucid, accessible, and delightfully imaginative.  It begins  in the late 1970s, but it shifts back and forth in time, even to the Renaissance, and the influence of the 1960s as experienced by the hero Pierce Moffett is powerful.  Pierce, a lazy historian who has never finished his Ph.D. dissertation,  has been a popular history instructor at Barnabas College in New York.  But he  has lost both his vocation and teaching job after a mind-blowing affair with a drug-dealing diva. Needless to say, he did not do his best work on cocaine.

Those of us who grew up in the ’60s or ’70s will recognize the experimental history curriculum at Barnabas College. Pierce is encouraged to change the syllabus to accommodate students of the Age of Aquarius. (By the time I was in college, I was so bored by experimental education that I studied classics.).  And reading about Barnabas  College reminds me not to take too seriously the changing college curricula today. Everything will change again in 20 years to accommodate a generation who will revolt against political correctness.

Crowley writes amusingly of the college in the ’60s,

Barnabas College, like a fast little yacht, had quickly tacked with the new winds that were blowing, even while old galleons like Noate were wallowing in the breakers.  Courses in the history, chemistry, and languages of the old everyday world were semester by semester cut to a minimum (Pierce’s History 101 course would, eventually, very nearly reach the present day from time-out-of-mind, even as the 200-level courses, out of his provenance, came to deal chiefly not with the past at all but in possibilities, in the utopias and armageddons that all adolescents love).  The old standard textbooks were chucked, replaced by decks of slim paperbacks, often the students’ own choices, they are after all (said Doctor Socrabasco) paying the bills.  Veteran teachers faced with this fell tongue-tied or turned coats garishly; young ones like Pierce,  his students’ coeval almost, still had trouble facing children who seemed to have come to Barnabas chiefly to be instructed in a world of their own imagining.

And so, having lost his job, Pierce has to find a new job outside of New York, and he can hardly imagine living out of New York.  He rides a Greyhound bus to another small college where he has an interview.  But when the bus breaks down in the Faraway Hills, he by chance meets his former student Spofford, a Vietnam vet who now raises sheep.  And Spofford hosts an outdoor party which has the effervescence of a modern Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And then the next day Pierce learns he doesn’t have a job interview after all–the letter was some kind of automated mistake, sent after someone else was hired for the job.  Spofford suggests that Pierce stay  and research regional history.  But  Pierce returns to New York and gets his old teaching job back, partly because he is inspired to try a new line on history inspired by the alternative culture of the Faraway Hills.

A scholar of  the Renaissance, Pierce lands a book contract to write an alternative history of the Renaissance dominated by gypsies, myth, astrology, crystal balls, Shakespeare,  hermeticism, the Italian heretic Giordano Bruno, and the occultist John Dee. And he refers to the source of this non-traditional magical history as Aegpt, an imaginary country.  And of course he moves to the Faraway Hills to write his book.

The other main character, Rosie Rasmussen, has left her husband and moved with her daughter into  an eccentric uncle’s house. They run a family foundation, and she is hired to work on some projects, including putting local historical novelist Fellowes Kraft’s papers in order .  And she is connected to Pierce through Spofford, who is in love with her, and also through Pierce’s  love of  Fellowes Kraft.  Rosie is escaping from her problems through reading the complete works of Fellowes Kraft  which she finds surprisingly good.  (I like the excerpts, too, especially the chapters from a novel about Shakespeare’s boyhood.)

And then Pierce discovers a lost manuscript by Kraft about Giordano Bruno, which complements and changes his own work.

Mind you, this book is weird.  You’ll be happily reading about one character or another, and then suddenly you’re reading about Giordano Bruno (and I admit I was not entirely fascinated by him).  Overall this is a very enjoyable book.  But there are many, many threads, and it is not for everyone.

Crowley has a distinctive American voice. He occasionally descends into sentimentality, and I do think that’s an American thing, but he also has an enormous vocabulary and arranges words in beautiful sentences.  He is an intellectual who  reminds me of Robertson Davies, not in style, but in wide-ranging knowledge of hermeticism. In  Davies’ The Rebel Angels (which I wrote about here), Renaissance scholars are scrambling and competing to find documents by Rabelais, and there is much involvement with gypsies, tarot cards, and the occult.

The eclectic Crowley has won an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Literary  Award and a World Fantasy Award .  This  year his novel Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (which I wrote about here) has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award for best novel.  I am rooting for him.


A Little Fanfare: Four Books You May Have Missed in 2017

An intense commuter-reader!

No one has time to read everything.  If you work full-time, perhaps you read 50 books a year.  And that’s if you manage to read on the bus or the subway.

After  a certain age, I wanted to emulate Thomas Hardy, who, I believe, spent six hours reading every night.  And the more I read, the fussier I became.  In my forties, it seemed that either (a) much worse books were suddenly being published, or  (b) my taste was so honed that fewer books passed my standards.  (N.B.  The less exhausted you are when you read, the pickier.)

Here’s the good news:  I have read some outstanding new books  in 2017. And here’s some curious news:  I happened upon some stunning new books that were published with little fanfare. So here are four great finds you may have missed in 2017.


Ellen Klages crafts one perfect sentence after another in her  dazzling new collection of short stories, Wicked Wonders.  Published by Tachyon, a small press in San Francisco, this extraordinary collection is introduced by PEN/Faulkner Award winner Karen Joy Fowler.   Klages has a reputation for eclecticism:  she won the Nebula Award in 2005 for her novelette “Basement Magic” and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2007 for her Y.A. novel, The Green Glass Sea.  This pitch-perfect, genre-crossing collection demonstrates her diverse gifts:   magic realism, retold fairy tales, and some smart homages to Ray Bradbury’s brilliant work.   (You can read my entire post here.)


Crystal King’s clever, entertaining historical novel, Feast of Sorrow, was my favorite pop fiction read of the year.  Set in ancient Rome in the first century A.D., it is narrated by the slave Thrassius, who is the gourmet cook (coquus) for the household of  Apicius, a Roman gourmet after whom an actual Roman cookbook was named.  In King’s  novel, Thrassius is the author of the cookbook, though  Apicius takes credit for it.  It is great fun to read about the dinners (cenae), but there are also fascinating political intrigues and personal feuds. And King is a witty writer, she creates  believable characters,  and has a great sense of humor.  The pages fly.


The award-winning writer John Crowley’s new novel, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr,  is brilliant and beautiful, a perfect book for  lovers of myths, legends, and epic poetry.  In this novel about a  crow who learns human language and steals immortality,  there are allusions to Dante and Virgil.  On one level,  I love the bird’s-eye view of history, and the mythic journeys of the crow Dar Oakley over 2,000 years.  On another level, it explores the meaning, or lack thereof, of  life and death.  And the crow’s autobiography is occasionally interrupted by a dying human narrator,  who is reconstructing the story from his own conversations with Dar Oakley.  I found this an enthralling read, really hypnotic.  It reminds me slightly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary fantasy, The Buried Giant.  You can read my entire post here.


The best nonfiction book I read this year was Yopie Prins’s  Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedies.  It is the story of Victorian women writers, poets, and classicists who fell in love with Greek and translated tragedies, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf, H.D., Amy Levy, and Edith Hamilton.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was very keen on Greek, and the phrase “lady’s Greek”  comes from her  novel/poem, Aurora Leigh.  The heroine of the poem, Aurora Leigh, is a passionate reader of Greek who hopes to become a  poet.  Her cousin Romney, who proposes to her on her 20th birthday  cannot resist teasing her, i.e., denigrating her education.  He mocks her Greek marginalia in a book of poems.

I adored this book, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in the education of Victorian women and the role they played (or were allowed to play) in reading and promoting classics.   You can read my entire post here.

Finally, what books do you think were overlooked or underreviewed this year?  I love lists…

Ka by John Crowley, Not Finding Quite What You Want on Black Friday, & Literary Links

The People had stories, but no history; everything that had happened was still happening.
Ka, by John Crowley

The hero of John Crowley’s brilliant new novel,  Ka, is a crow, Dar Oakley, who traverses both the realms of crows and human beings. Dar Oakley is an inquisitive crow, flying farther than most birds, and returning with arcane information about geography and anthropology.  His stories seem fantastic to the other crows, who laugh at him until they finally follow him on a journey.  Dar Oakley is the first crow to give himself a name, and starts the trend of individual naming.

John Crowley is a versatile writer who has won the World Fantasy Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in English.  I am a great fan of his Aegypt, a quartet of novels about philosophy, science, magic, and love. (For more information, follow this  link to Goodreads.)  I also enjoyed his historical novel, Lord Byron’s Novel, in which Bryon’s daughter Ada discovers an unpublished manuscript of a novel by Byron.  But Ka is very different, a kind of prose epic.

On one level,  Ka is an unputdownable story of a talking crow.  I love the bird’s-eye view of history, and the mythic journeys of Dar Oakley.  On another level, it explores the meaning, or lack thereof, of  life and death.  And the crow’s autobiography is occasionally interrupted by a dying human narrator,  who is reconstructing the story from his own conversations with Dar Oakley.  This man, who lives in a dystopian near-future, is dying of a new disease.  He has already lost his wife, and has little to live for.  One day he rescued Dar Oakley from the back yard where he found him ill, near death, he thought.

illustration by Melody Newcomb

Crows have a close relationship with humans, in that they follow them to find  food, the remains of animals they have hunted, their crops, or even human corpses.  But Dar Oakley is not just a scavenger. He learns human language. And he accompanies his human friends to the Underworld, or realm of death, where he steals immortality (which is a burden to him).

Because of the gift/curse of immortality, he lives for 2,000 years.  His companions include a shaman named Fox Cap; a monk; and a Native American storyteller.  Dar Oakley outlives them all; he also outlives his mates and his children.  And, in a brilliant reimagining of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Dar Oakley travels to the Underworld to attempt to rescue his beloved mate, Kits.  Like Orpheus, he fails.

Crowley’s language is beautiful; there are allusions to Dante, Virgil, and doubtless many other books I do not know.   I found this an enthralling read, really hypnotic.  This is one of my favorite books of the year (and why didn’t it make any award shortlists?).  It reminds me slightly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary fantasy, The Buried Giant.

There are also lovely illustrations by Melody Newcomb.

NOT FINDING WHAT YOU WANT ON BLACK FRIDAY.  It was a lovely day yesterday so I bicycled to Barnes and Noble.

What was on my list?  Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey.  In a way it’s a blessing they didn’t have it, because I have three other translations, and anyway I’m an Iliad person.  But I did find another book I wanted, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic.  When his 81-year-old father signs up for Mendelsohn’s class in the Odyssey at Bard College, their relationship undergoes some changes.


1.  I very much enjoyed the Books of the Year list at the Spectator. There are many lists, but  this is the only list from which I copied several titles.   I also listened to a podcast  called Can Anna Karenina Save Your Life?, in which Sam Leith interviews Viv Groskop about her new book, The Anna Karenina Fix:  Lessons from Russian Literature.  

2  I am a great fan of Mary Wesley, and was very excited to read a review in the TLS of Darling Pol:  The letters of Mary Wesley and Eric Siepmann, 1944–1967 The reviewer very much enjoyed it–and what a relief that was, since I had just been traumatized by a snotty review of one of my favorite books of the year, Yopie Prins’s Ladies’ Greek!

The reviewer LINDSAY DUGUID writes,

Examining the lives of novelists, especially female novelists, has become an accepted way of approaching their work. The facts unfolded in biographies and the feelings expressed in letters can also be found in their fiction, where they appear again and again in different guises. The long and interesting life of Mary Wesley (1912–2002) can be seen as a rich source for the series of novels she wrote in old age, in which familiar themes recur.

I do hope this is published in the U.S. eventually.

Three New Books & The Scarlet Letter: “B” Is for Bookish

Demi Moore as Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”

I was doing very well at not buying books.

And then the urge struck me.  I bought three books and smuggled them into the house, so as not to be lectured by Himself.

I am not a bookish Puritan, but I felt a bit like Hester in The Scarlet Letter, only with a scarlet “B” for “bookish.”

But really I enjoy books too much to wear the “B.”

Here’s what tempted me:

 John Crowley’s Ka.  Crowley’s books are fantasy/literary fiction, loved by critics Harold Bloom and Michael Dirda as well as by fans of brilliant, entertaining novels.  He has won the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature and the World Fantasy Award.

I have just begun his new novel, Ka.  It is the story of a crow, Dar Oakley, who is our guide through 2000 years of history.  If you loved Watership Down, you’ll find Dar’s account of crow life fascinating, and a bit  post-modern.

Here is a passage from Elizabeth Hand’s review in the L.A. Times.

So yes: John Crowley is a writer’s writer, the rare stylist whose stories can feature both downtown New York City bars and 16th century cosmologist and martyr for science Giordano Bruno. Yet Crowley is also a serious reader’s writer. As with Middle Earth, his imaginary worlds so enchant and entice that many fans read and reread his books obsessively, the closest we can come to inhabiting them. But, unlike Tolkien’s legendarium, most of Crowley’s fiction is resolutely set in our own world. Even those works that venture onto other planets maintain quicksilver ties to this one. Decades before George R.R. Martin’s series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Crowley’s first novel, “The Deep” (1975), recounted an ancient, seemingly endless conflict that evokes the War of the Roses and its precursors. In his second novel, 1976’s “Beasts,” humans and genetically engineered sentient animals make their way across a near-future U.S. devastated by civil wars and a totalitarian government.

Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by David Ferry.  Ferry, a National Book Award winner, is one of my favorite American poets.  He is also a brilliant Latinist who knows his Virgil:  his translations of the Eclogues and the Georgics are lovely.

I reread the Aeneid every year in LatinSo why buy Ferry’s translation?  His style is brilliant, and I am anxious to see how he handles problems in translation.

As I grow older I appreciate the Aeneid more and more, particularly Virgil’s brave characterization of the first weak hero.  (I am calling it the first, but I should say my first.)  I first taught the Aeneid as a T.A. many years ago, and many, many times later as a prep-school Latin teacher.

I’ve been thinking about Latin descriptions of passion.  Virgil often uses the words amens (pronounced ah-mens, and literally meaning “out of one’s mind”).  In Book II, during the fall of Troy, Aeneas is amens  when he loses his wife Creusa as they are running away during the fall of Troy.  Ferry translates it “in my frenzy.” (And that is an excellent, popular translation.)  But I keep visualizing the more pictorial amens   (“a” means “away from” and mens “mind”):  a diagram of  a man outside his mind.  Later, in Book IV, Dido, the queen of Carthage, is amens when she falls madly in love with Aeneas.  So perhaps Aeneas was only really passionate about Creusa?  Poor Aeneas.

Sara Maitland’s Three Times Three.  In Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller, he mentions  Sara Maitland.   Three Times Three was one of my favorite novels of the ’90s.  I ordered a cheap copy online, and it arrived today.  I can’t wait to reread it!