Midweek Miscellany: Percy Murdered My Library (apologies to Linda Grant!)

Have you found, dear reader, that there has come a time in your life when you’re forced to cull your beloved treasures?  Have you ever realized that it’s time to say “adieu” to your yellowing edition of Catcher in the Rye, once read so eagerly but untouched since age fifteen, or your grubby copy of Catch 22, replete with (traumatic) memories of boot camp and bearing an almost illegible name tag and serial number?  That perhaps you don’t need all three copies of Wings of the Dove, acquired because each has a different cover illustation, or that your ten Georgette Heyer novels are now available (and easier to read) on kindle and no longer need shelf room?

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Here’s Percy, caught red-pawed in the act of novelicide (actually, I’m being a bit unfair. His role was more that of an extremely willing accomplice!)

Propelled by the possibility of a long-distance move, Janakay is now in that time of reevaluation and has spent a harrowing few weeks deciding who (so to speak) lives and dies in her book collection.  Fortunately, as you can see from my photo, I have not been without assistance!

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Percy supervising Pooh Bear in box assembly.
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Maxine at work on the upstairs trove.  Percy isn’t the only cat in the house who doesn’t see the point of all these things on the shelves.

 

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More work for Maxine . . .
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and more . . .

 

 

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… and yet more … Maxine’s going to be a busy cat!

 

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Back to downstairs and Percy’s domain . . . he’s a particularly dedicated ornithologist, so many of these birding books are right up his alley!

 

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Not sure who should handle art books, Henry James and Mr. Janakay’s military history . . . this might be a job for Pooh Bear, who by nature is a very serious cat  . . .
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Speaking of serious, who best to tackle all these non-fiction books, including Runciman’s History of the Crusades and a three-volume history of Byzantium?  Do any of the cats speak Greek?
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Who best to tackle (more) art books and museum guides?
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Short stories, bibliographies and memoirs (to the right) and poetry (to the left) . . . hmmm . . .  who’s the most poetical cat?

 

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(Yet) more art books, Persephone editions and literary criticism.  Someone’s been investigating these areas, to judge by the cat toy on the top of the book case (it’s the little yellow striped thing to the left of the towering pile).

 

If you’ve visited my blog in the past, when I did occasionally manage to stay somewhat current, I’m sure by now you understand why I haven’t been posting for  — my goodness,  gracious me —  can it be almost five weeks now?  No posts since Halloween?  Of course, I haven’t been sorting books for the entire last five weeks — there were some minor academic matters to wrap up, some lovely light reading to do (Louis Auchincloss is always good for this) and movies to see (if you’re a Scorsese fan you can’t miss “The Irishman;” “Parasite” is great and “Knives Out” isn’t bad but I’d advise you to skip “The Lighthouse”).  Also, after I decided to at least consider a move, I fell into a period of near-catatonia, triggered by the very notion of discarding any of my beloved book collection (at the risk of sounding heartless, I can say that I’ve  experienced the death of blood relations — well, some of them anyway — with less emotion!)

But amusements and psychological trauma aside, the past month or so has seen a great deal of bookish exertion on my part, with rivers of books (so to speak) flowing up and down my house’s too many stairs.  I did (briefly) consider keeping everything, but quickly discarded that notion —  there are just too many multiple copies and books that I no longer need (do those twenty odd books on Vermeer, Rubens and van Dyck deserve shelf room, now that I’ve finished my class work on Baroque art?); that I’ve read and enjoyed but don’t plan on revisiting (Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, for example, a fabulous novel but not one on my re-read list ) or that I’ve outgrown along with the hobby or activity that prompted their acquisition.

It’s been an emotional process, no doubt about it, saying good-bye to certain old friends, many of which are associated with very specific periods in my life (yes, I did read that copy of Catch 22 when I was not otherwise occupied in surviving boot camp and that battered old copy of Alice in Wonderland is still sticky with the adhesive tape a nine-year-old me used to repair it).  There’s also the angst involved in acknowledging that most of my unread books will stay unread, at least by me, and facing up to the lost opportunities for pleasure and enrichment those books represent, of accepting that one is a finite creature who will spend her allotted time to read with other companions.   And, of course, there’s always a certain chagrin in facing one’s mistakes . . . the “why did I buy that book” combined with the “why ever haven’t I gotten rid of it before now” moments!  Have any of you ever faced such moments of truth or had to confront such bookish vulnerabilities?  If so, how did you handle it?

Janakay, however, doesn’t want to be a weepy rain cloud here and mire us all in gloom, doom and desolation.  Honesty compels me to admit that the sorting out process does have a positive aspect.  In the broadest sense, I had to answer some very basic questions concerning why I read, as well as why I’d bother to have my very own personal library.  What purpose does it serve?  Home decor?  Self-improvement?  Laziness?  (It’s easier to let the books breed in corners than adopt them out to good homes.)  The desire to impress the neighbors with my two different translations of Rembrance of Things Past?  None of the above?

Along the same lines, I necessarily had to formulate some standards (much harder to do than you might suppose) in order to decide what to keep or to discard.  Should I, for example, toss classics by great writers such as Dostoevsky and Dickens (neither are big favorites of mine) to leave space for beloved fun reads by Georgette Heyer or Joe Abercrombie?  (If you haven’t met Logan Nine-Fingers, you should.  He’s one of the great anti-heroes of fantasy literature.)  Should I keep a book I might read at some unspecified time if it means discarding something I’ve read and loved, but which is now out of print or otherwise unavailable?  Is it better to keep an author’s “best” novel that I’ve read or her most obscure, which I haven’t?

Yes, dear reader, I’ve had a month of heavy thinking about basic aspects of reading and retaining books, activities that have occupied most of my energy since I first grasped that those little black squiggles on white paper actually meant something.  On a lighter note, it’s been a lot of fun to read or skim big chunks of things I hadn’t thought about in years and to research authors as I’ve made my decisions (electronic availability for discards was an important factor).  And, shameful though it is to admit, there’s also a Christmas morning element to the process, as I discovered some great stuff that I had totally forgotten about (that light green blob at the back of a shelf turned out to be a(n unopened) box set of Penguin Modern novellas!)

So how does Linda Grant, a British writer I admire more than I’ve read (some of her books were rather difficult “keep or toss” decisions) come into all this?  In the middle of my winnowing process I was lucky enough to stumble across her essay, “I Murdered My Library,” published as a kindle single and worth every penny of its $2.99 (U.S.) price.  Around 2013 Grant was forced to downsize her huge personal library (the product of a lifetime of reading) when she moved into a relatively small flat.  All my emotions and thoughts — the grief, the guilt, the difficulty of choosing, the (yes) relief at imposing some type of order on an overwhelming number of physical objects — are there, expressed far, far more eloquently that I ever could.  These are interspaced with Grant’s love of literature and reading, her thoughts on independent book stores and the effect of e-books on conventional print, and a great deal of humor and wry acceptance of the fact that we, as readers, are as finite as the texts that we love.  Grant’s essay is a treasure for anyone who likes to read about books; if you’re downsizing or reevaluating your own book stash, it’s a necessity.  I was so impressed by it, in short, I immediately moved two of Grant’s unread novels from my “discard” to my “keep” pile! (and, yes, I am aware of the irony of my action!).

After recounting her “crime” of book homicide, Grant ends her essay with the cry of “What have I done?”  Since it’s time for me to sign off, I’ll end my little tale by showing you a visual of my very recent response to my own act of murder  . . . . .

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My latest acquisitions! A newly published read (Evaristo’s Booker co-winner); a vintage find (Pamela Frankau, an interesting mid-century writer) and a haul of nine new books from an NYRB Classics  flash sale that I couldn’t be expected to pass up (the books were HALF-PRICE, with FREE shipping!). There’s also a wonderful Pushkin Press translation of Isolde (it’s all Kaggsy’s fault for recommending it so highly) and I have a vintage Sackville-West that I haven’t yet read on its way and . . . . . . .

What’s that old saw, about the “more things change, the more they remain the same?”

Halloween Miscellany! Scary Reads and Pop Culture!

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Isn’t this print wonderfully creepy and compelling? I’m a big fan of Gustave Doré; this is one of his illustrators for Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”

Greetings to all you denizens of the internet, on this dark and ghastly time of year!  Do you celebrate the Day, complete with your “sexy witch” costume or Freddy Kruger mask, lawn bestrown with cobwebs, plastic skeletons and those huge truly yucky fake spiders that are so unfortunately popular with Janakay’s neighbors?

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Janakay is severely arachnophobic and doesn’t like walking past certain houses in her neighborhood during Halloween week! Needless to say, these folks did NOT consult HER about their Halloween decorations . . .

In my neck of the woods (North American, mid-Atlantic suburban) Halloween decorations have become increasingly common.  They range from folks who clearly regard Halloween as a very, very important milestone in their shopping and celebratory life . . .

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In dawn’s early light, those giant spiders are rather unpleasantly realistic!

to those of a minimalist bent who nevertheless want to mark the occasion . . . .

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The pumpkin face didn’t come out well in this photo — it’s actually pretty sinister, even if the “ghost” hanging on the porch is a bit laid back!

to the oh so tasteful, who actually changed the permanent outdoor light fixtures (on the left of the gate and the right of the porch) to match their purple Halloween lights!

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A bit blurry (Halloween night here is appropriately rainy and stormy) but you get the idea  . . .

And — the neighborhood’s pièce de résistance!

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To paraphrase that eminent stylist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Halloween here is “a dark and stormy night!”  Great for ghostly atmosphere but lousy for photos! Still, squint hard and you can see the red thing on the right is a dragon!  With movable wings!  What will they think of next?

Just as Halloween decorations are becoming more common and elaborate, Halloween costumes have taken a giant leap forward from the cardboard witches’ hats and superman masks of my childhood!  Now we have the adorably traditional:

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Grandma is really rocking this one!

The “traditional with a twist”:

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Jon Snow White!

And — the Topical:

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This company also offers a “Miss Impeachment” costume (includes a tiara, beauty queen sash and a whistle blower necklace) as well as a sexy “Beyond Burger” getup, complete with a headband bearing the label “Plant Based!”

Well, it’s all certainly very interesting, isn’t it?  Do you follow the lead of these festive folks or do you (like Janakay on a bad year) pretend the day just isn’t happening, as you close the blinds, turn on the TV and ignore the trick or treaters ringing your door bell so you can eat all the best candy yourself in blessed solitude?  Do you have your very own Halloween rituals involving none of the above or do you perhaps hail from a country or follow a tradition that doesn’t acknowledge Halloween?  This space is all about sharing, so — please share with the rest of us how, or even if, you mark the day!

PART SECOND: SCARY READS IN GENERAL.  THOUGHTS, ANYONE?

I bet you never thought I’d get around to the books, did you?  Ha!  Tricked you!  With Jankay, it’s always about the books; no matter how meandering the path, it always comes back to the books; books underlie everything!  And there are such wonderful books associated with this time of year, aren’t there?  And don’t we all have our favorite reads? My own preferred brand of horror tends towards the classic, away from gore and slasher (so very, very unsubtle, don’t you think?) towards the “oh my god, something moved in the corner of my eye” variety.  In other words, away from the Freddy Kruger/Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more towards the Shirley Jackson, Haunting of Hill House end of the horror scale.   In fact, isn’t the whole horror phenomenon fascinating?  Why is it that we humans love so much to scare ourselves and isn’t it interesting how we all vary in what we regard as particularly horrifying?  I was actually settling in to spend some happy hours researching this topic when I realized that I’d be posting this on Christmas if I didn’t wrap it up (speaking of which, have you seen Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas?  If not, stop reading this instance and go watch!)  Without further ado, here’s a few selections from my short list of creepy reads; these are just things I thought of, fairly quickly and are listed in no particular order:

Bram Stoker’s Dracula: All the ornate Victorian prose can’t obscure one of the scariest stories every written.  I re-read it every now and then and it scares me almost as much as it did when I was fifteen years old, alone for the weekend and very unwisely deciding to try this old 19th century thing.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House.  Some houses are indeed born evil and some writers were born to tell us about them.  Truly one of the most terrifying tales ever conceived, written by an author of breathtaking talent working at the height of her powers.  It would be a shame not to read the book but if you’re in a visual mood Netflix did a recent series that’s sort of o.k.  Far better IMO is the 1963 black and white movie, starring Claire Bloom and Julie Harris.

Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire.  Anne Rice has built up such a fan base and churned out so much over-written drivel over her long career (my apologies to any fans out there, but we are sharing our honest opinions aren’t we?) that it’s easy to forget just how very good she can be.  This is my favorite Anne Rice novel, an incredibly atmospheric take on the vampire mythos, set in French colonial New Orleans and 19th century Paris.  Erotic, baroque, stomach churning and beautiful, it isn’t easy to forget (the Theatre des Vampires, where vampires feed on victims for the audience’s amusement, is as horrifying as anything I’ve ever read).  Rice’s The Witching Hour, a tale of two centuries of the Mayfair Witch family and its attendant demon Lasher, ranging from its origin in medieval Scotland to its dark doings in contemporary San Francisco & New Orleans, is also pretty good.  Word of advice: avoid the numerous sequels and spinoffs of both novels.

H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories:  H.P. has fallen out of favor these days because he is, let’s face it, a racist, a fact that’s painfully obvious when you start examining his work.  In this area and with this writer, I agree with Victor LaValle (an award winning African American horror writer) that you can reject Lovecraft’s views while still appreciating his work (if you’re new to Lovecraft, the NY Times’ recent review of his annotated works is pretty useful).  I think Lovecraft is at his best when writing short stories, which he mostly sets in a frightening cosmos in which humanity is largely irrelevant to the ancient and terrifying gods who are attempting to reenter the human dimensions.  My own personal favorites among Lovecraft’s stories are “Pickman’s Model;” “The Dunwich Horror;” “The Thing On the Door Step;” and “The Rats in the Walls.”

Additional “dark writings” I’ve enjoyed (and still periodically re-read), without experiencing quite the visceral feelings evoked by Jackson, Lovecraft and Stoker:

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla:  another vampire tale (I’m particularly fond of vampires, obviously).  My immediate reaction after reading this for the first time was –“what’s the big deal?”  Then I had nightmares for a week.  A classic, whether you give it the psychological interpretation or not.

Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby:  devil worship for our era and a very shrewd commentary on a certain 20th century milieu.  I’ve never read the sequel — why tamper with perfection?

Edgar Allan Poe: anything, really.  If you go for his long poem “The Raven,” try to find Doré’s illustrations (I included one at the beginning of the post.  They’re all great).  For sheer horror, my pick is his short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Stephen King’s The Shining:  I’m ordinarily not a big Stephen King fan, but I’ve read this one twice.  Despite the re-read, however, this is one of the rare cases where I prefer the film (a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece) to its source material.  Although I didn’t much care for King’s sequel, Doctor Sleep, nothing will keep me away from seeing the film, which will be released November 8th.

William Blatty’s The Exorcist.  I loved it when I read it; a second re-read about twenty years ago left me a bit cold so it’s ripe for a third review.  About the movie there’s no doubt at all — it’s really, really scary.  In fact Mr. Janakay and I are having our own little Halloween celebration tonight (too bad for the trick or treaters who come by after 7 PM!) by watching the director’s cut at our nearby cinema art house!

Poppy Z. Brite’s 1990’s work (she later ventured into dark comedy):  have any of you read this very interesting writer?  She’s so, so southern Gothic and so off-beat; naturally enough she’s a resident of New Orleans!  I have to admit I literally couldn’t read Exquisite Corpse, a novel centering on a homosexual, necrophiliac, cannibalistic serial killer (even for something that could be interpreted as a political metaphor, I do set some limits), but I found her early novels, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, atmospheric (she’s got the lost, southern hippy thing down pat) atmospheric and absorbing.  Poppy’s appeal is no doubt a bit limited, but if you’re into over the top, you may find her worth checking out.

Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.  This one barely made my cut, as it’s more of a mystery-thriller than a proper horror novel but still — it was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award.  The book begins with a suicide and continues with an investigation into the dark and violent work of a reclusive horror film director.  I’m a sucker for novels implying that our perceived “reality” rests on dark and unperceived secrets; I also found the interactive aspects of the story, which drive some readers nuts, wildly inventive and interesting.

My list, as I said at the beginning, is short and I’d love to expand it.  Do you have any dark reads you’d like to share?

PART THIRD:  MY 2019 HALLOWEEN READ(S)

My own little Halloween tradition (it actually relates more to autumn in general, than to Halloween per se) is to read something a little dark, a little eerie; something that reminds me that the universe encompasses more than we ordinarily see or perceive; that perhaps our “reality” isn’t the only reality out there.  A bit mystical, I know, but then rationality, while explaining much, doesn’t quite cover it all, does it?  It always seems appropriate to me, as the darkness literally closes in with the year’s waning, to read something a little dark.  What better time than Halloween?  It’s a time to forget the cute costumes and the fake spiders and remember that every culture I can think of had some ritual for celebrating the harvest, the time of bounty before nature’s (temporary) death.  I didn’t have a lot of time this year, but in my energetic and continuing effort to evade the art work of the Italian Renaissance I decided I absolutely was not going to forego my Halloween read!  The deciding factor here was a really odd compulsion to return to a novel I first read many years ago, The Night Country by the American writer Stewart O’Nan.

Have any of you read or reviewed O’Nan’s novels?  O’Nan appears to be one of those writers who’s hard to classify because he seems able to write about very diverse subjects in an equally convincingly way and — he’s written a lot!  A quick trip to Wiki discloses that in 1996 O’Nan was named by Granta as one of “America’s Best Young Novelists” and he’s been very respectfully reviewed by such publications as the New York Times.  I’ve always meant to read O’Nan’s novels (I’ve a couple languishing now on the shelf) but, sad to say, the only one I’ve gotten around to is Night Country, which I first read shortly after it was published in 2004.  I was drawn to Night Country because — you guessed it — it’s a ghost story and I was looking for a dark read.  I both got, and didn’t get, what I was looking for.  Night Country is a ghost story, but it’s a haunting without the chains.  Along with its supernatural elements, it’s also a beautifully written (and occasionally very funny) tale of disappointment and regret; a realistic slice of life in a small town and of bad choices and bad luck.  The whole thing was a bit too subtle for me and very much not what I was looking for at the time, i.e., a second Shirley Jackson Haunting of Hill House type read.  And yet, it stayed with me, and this year just seemed to pop into my mind, along with the return of rain, falling leaves and the chill of dark mornings.

O’Nan sets his novel in the small Connecticut town of Avondale.  It is Halloween night and his three protagonists are the ghosts of three teenagers who died the previous Halloween, victims of a terrible car crash resulting from a high speed pursuit by a local traffic cop.  Two teenagers survived the crash — Tim who can’t forgive himself for having lived when his girlfriend and buddies did not, and Kyle, a once arrogant bad boy reduced by severe brain damage to a shell of his former self.  The three ghosts have their own agenda, which plays out in the course of the novel as we see the effect of the tragedy on the cop, Kyle’s Mother (her proper name is never given) and a community that is still coming to terms with its grief.

As one of its contemporary reviews noted, Night Country, despite its “goblin-like atmosphere,” is a chilling, rather than a scary, read.  It’s a wonderful depiction of a closely knit and prosperous community, where all appears safe.  Or, this disquieting novel asks, is it safe, really?  The woods surrounding Avondale are mighty dark and mysterious, its creeks and marshlands are dangerous and one chance act can affect the beautifully ordered rationality of many lives.  It was amazing how much I liked this book the second time around, how beautiful, subtle and — haunting —  I found the story.  If, like me in 2004, you’re looking for a purely traditional and scary read, best avoid Night Country, particularly as it’s a quiet book that requires patience and time.  If, on the other hand, you enjoy a Ray Bradbury type mix of the strange and the quotidian, Night Country just might be your next great autumn read.

If you’ve the patience, bear with me for one more paragraph and I’ll mention a very creepy book indeed, a fantastical (and fantastic) mixture of horror, fantasy and fairy tale called Follow Me To Ground, a debut novel by Sue Rainesford.  I found this one through a review in The Guardian, which described it far better than I can here.  It’s a dark, unnerving story of Ada and her father, non-humans who live and work their healing magic on nearby villagers, whom they refer to as “Cures.”  The Cures are grateful but wary (their perspective is given from time to time, in brief shifts away from Ada’s); the setting is realistic with overtones of myth (everyone, including Ada, is terrified of Sister Eel Lake, the home of carnivorous serpents) and the tale can be read on a number of levels.  All goes well, however, until Ada begins a sexual relationship with a human Cure of whom her father disapproves.  I know what you’re thinking but trust me — Romeo and Juliet this is not.  It’s a pretty brief novel (slightly less than 200 pages) and a perfect quick read for those dark autumn nights when the rain is beating against the window.

PART FOURTH: FUN LINKS

The Guardian’s List of Ten Books About Cemeteries (I may check out a couple of these!)

“I was so scared I took it back to the library: the books that scare horror authors” (amusing note: Anne Rice was too frightened to finish Dracula!)

“I didn’t sleep well for months:” the films that terrified The Guardian’s writers as kids

And, just to prove that I occasionally read something other than The Guardian’s take on books, “Globetrotting:” the New York Times sneak preview of books coming out in 2019 from around the world

 

 

 

Monday Miscellany: Books, Birds, Movie(s) and Art, In Whatever Order You Choose

Well, dear readers, since I’ve now reached page eleven of my paper on Renaissance child portraiture, I’ve decided to break from the 16th century for (imagine a drum roll here) — Monday Miscellany!  This week’s miscellany will be more of a miscellaneous mess than it usually is, as the unofficial deadline for my paper is next Friday (that scream you just heard, dear readers, is Janakay having a weensy little panic attack.  Not to worry! I’m doing some deep breathing, so I’m much better now).  Because this post is largely a quick stream of consciousness, with its various parts having absolutely nothing in common with each other, feel even freer than usual to click hither and yon.  To suit my current mood, which is a visual mood, I’ll begin with photos and a quick trip down memory lane:

MISCELLANY FIRST:  BIRDS!

Back when Janakay and Mr. Janakay were busily, if not happily, employed turning out thousands (well, maybe hundreds) of pages of legal tootle, those breaks away from the law books and the bustle were made as frequently and exotically as possible.  If you want remote, exotic and sometimes (very) uncomfortable travel, then you were born to go on a professional bird tour (don’t dare ask Janakay about her camping experience on that mountainside in central Peru.  She might tell you, complete with scatological details!)  Here are a few colorful little mementos of trips past, thanks to Mr. Janakay’s awesome photographic skills (Janakay herself is far too lazy to carry that big old camera lens):

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A Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, from Ecuador.  A common bird in the rain forest of the lower Andes, one of its most endearing characteristics (aside from its color) is its habit of traveling in flocks.  If you see one, it’s usually in the midst of a group of equally colorful little friends!
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The big red one is a Scarlet Ibis, from Venezuela.  This species is widespread in South America and the Caribbean, not rare at all and who cares?  They’re living proof that beauty doesn’t depend on rarity!  P.S.  Standing behind our colorful friend is a Cocoi Heron, the South American equivalent of Europe’s Grey Heron and North America’s Great Blue.
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A Crimson-rumped Toucanet, small but breath-taking, particularly when he has the taste to roost in an interesting bit of foliage.   The unusual tree compensates for the fact that you can’t see the bright red patch on this guy’s tail because he’s facing the wrong way.  This particular toucanet lived in Ecuador.
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This serious looking fellow is a Feruginous Pygmy-owl; these are pretty wide-spread in the neotropics (this one is Venezuelan).  The photo makes him look deceptively large; as the name denotes, these are tiny little owls.  I also saw one in Texas, at a place called the King Ranch, but they’re rare in the U.S. and usually quite difficult to see.
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An Orange-breasted Fruiteater, from Ecuador.  Unfortunately, he just wouldn’t turn around . . . . so you don’t get the full effect of the orange.
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A Yellow-headed Caracara from Venezuela.  The U.S. has a different species of caracara, mostly in Texas.  They’re nice, but Venezuela’s is prettier, at least IMO!

And, the rarest of them all — the Kagu!  One of the most endangered birds on the planet, the Kagu lives in a small patch of preserved habitat on New Caledonia, a Pacific island (located about 750 miles or 1,210 km east of Australia) that is still affiliated with France (New Caledonia was a French territory that, I believe, rejected independence in a fairly recent vote).

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Isn’t he gorgeous?  That silvery gray color has earned this species the soubriquet “the ghost of the forest.”  Since Kagus can’t fly and live on an island, they were really out of luck when people, cats, dogs and pigs moved in.  They’re hanging on, thanks to major conservation efforts, but the entire species now numbers less than a thousand birds.

MISCELLANY SECOND: DONNA TARTT:  BOOK vs MOVIE

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Does anyone out there besides myself adore Donna Tartt’s novels?  I came late to the DT bandwagon and probably would never have read The Secret History, her first novel, had I been left to my own devices, as I had somehow gotten the impression that it was one of those sensationalist, potboiler, best-seller things.  Well, fortunately, I wasn’t — left to my own devices, that is — I had an incredibly persistent literary-minded friend who talked me into trying it.  Ten pages in and I’m a fan of Tartt and all her works!  For life!  I have totally drunk the Kool Aid (if you don’t understand this metaphor, it’s just as well).  Where has this woman been my entire reading life?  When is her next book coming out and how do I survive until it does?  Can I join her fan club?  I’m exaggerating, but not by much!

To be fair, Secret History is a bit of a sensationalist potboiler (and it did sell off the charts) but oh, my stars and whiskers, good gracious me — can that woman write!  Throw in the fact that the plot concerns a group of oddball misfits who are studying classics at an elite New England school (I studied Latin and classics, among other things, at a much more plebian state university in the New England area, so I could identify.  I and my fellow Latin students were weird!  But harmless!) and I don’t mind admitting that I was not only hooked but mainlining!  Unfortunately for those (like myself) who have addictive personalities, Tartt is not a prolific novelist.  I had to wait over a decade for her second novel, The Little Friend.  Was the wait worth it?  Weeeeell …….. sort of; not really; maybe. The incredible way with words and literary skill were as great as ever but the narrative, for me at least, was a flop.  Still — that brilliant writing, the creepy sense of atmosphere, the characters  . . . .

Another long (very long) wait and then comes — The Goldfinch!  The New York Times’ assessment (a “smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind”) was an vast understatement, in my opinion.  I was powerless before a novel named for one of my favorite paintings, particularly one with the message that “art may addict, but art also saves us from ‘the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.'”  This is one long book — almost 800 pages  — and while I read it I lived in Tartt’s world and not my own.  I only wish I could read it again, for the first time, but we don’t get the same gift twice, do we?  Given my reaction to the book, you can imagine my excitement when I learned last winter that a movie was coming out in September!  Dread (“this book can’t be filmed”) warred with excitement (“I don’t care — I have to see what they do with Boris!”) and neither won.  With trepidation mixed with longing and seasoned with hope (forgive my purplish prose, dear reader, but I was très excited) I marked the opening day on my calendar with a very large red “X” and started counting down the days until the movie came to a theater near me.

You can imagine my dismay when, a week or so before the opening day, the very negative reviews started rolling in.  Strictly for the birds (so clever, the New York Times).  A movie that “lies as flat as a painting.”  (Oh, those critics! so entertaining!)  The Washington Post critic, not to be outdone by her colleagues, didn’t like the movie either but couldn’t come up with anything clever to say; she had to settle on being offended by its “unmistakable air of unexamined privilege” and the WASPY sounding names of several of the characters (the novel is partly set in New York City’s Upper East Side, for gosh sakes!  Of course the characters are privileged! Do we need to examine the socio-politico basis for it?)  Oh, and she couldn’t sympathize with the main character, whom she found to be self-pitying (in case you can’t tell, I have severe reservations about WaPo’s movie critic, whom I’ve been stuck with reading for years).   Perhaps I am being just a little unfair; no one, but no one, had a kind word to say about Goldfinch: the Movie.  Critical opinion was so unanimous that the movie was an awful waste of time that even I, much as I loved the story, almost decided to skip the movie.

Last Friday, however, flush with the triumph of finishing page eight of my draft (did I mention I have a paper due this week? Oh, I did!) I made my way to the nearest art house theater that served alcohol and settled in for two hours and thirty minutes of “fabulous book into lousy movie” disappointment.  And — I wasn’t disappointed!  Was the movie as good as the novel?  Of course not; it never is!  Did it have faults?  Oh yes — it was definitely a bit slow at times, and there were certainly things I didn’t like (some of the casting; the fragmented narrative) but on the whole I thought it was, actually, pretty good.  And definitely worth seeing despite the flaws.  But then, what do I know, compared to all the professional critics who panned it?  My reaction was possibly due to a case of reverse expectations, i.e., the reviews were so very bad, my expectations were so very low, that anything short of a disaster would have made me happy.  Perhaps I simply liked the novel so much that I’d put up with anything, just to see the characters on a screen in front of me.  A mystery inside an enigma, to misquote a great man.

Have any of you, dear readers, seen the movie? If so, I’d really like to hear your reaction.  Has anyone read The Goldfinch, or either of Tartt’s other two novels?  Ditto! (and it’s o.k. if you’re not a fan!  Despite my DT worship I can understand how others might be less smitten by her art.  How very boring it would be, if we all liked the same things, wouldn’t it?)  It’s almost a truism to say we’re always disappointed when a favorite book is made into a movie — what’s been your experience?  Mine is usually “I hate, hate, hate the movie,” which is why I’m so interested in the fact that this time my reaction was actually quite different.  The only comparable situation I can think of personally was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas; a complex and wonderful novel made into a sort of C+ movie that I sort of C+ liked!  Any thoughts?

MISCELLANY THIRD: ART

Any René Magritte fans out there? (as I recall, Silvia likes his work!).  I don’t know much about 20th century art but it’s hard to resist Magritte.  Don’t we all need to have our world view shifted just a little at times?  Magritte is very, very good at that!  This painting is titled, for no particular reason that I know of, Sixteenth of September, which just happens to be today’s date (from where I’m typing at least).  I’d like to say I thought of the painting myself, but truth compels me to give credit where it’s due — the New York Times’ daily cooking newsletter!  Thrown in gratis, along with a recipe for meatloaf with carmelized cabbage!  (If you’re interested, the newsletter also recommended Lara Prescott’s debut thriller, The Secrets We Keep.  Has anyone read it yet?)

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Rene Magritte’s “Sixteenth of September,” painted in 1956.

Enjoy!

 

The Handmaid’s Tale and Its Sequel: News and Reflections

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On the left is my treasured copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, yellow with age.  On the right is the “book card” (far less yellow) that the publisher added to certain of its  “special books” for jotting down thoughts about the novel.  Wasn’t it nice when publishers bothered with these little touches?

 

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My autographed copy (more about this, below)

If you’re a bookish  type (and if you aren’t, I’m surprised but very pleased that you’ve found my blog), you’re no doubt aware that we’re only days away from the September 10th publication of  Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to her iconic The Handmaid’s Tale.  The book’s publication must surely be the most hyped literary happening of the year.  In July, months before its publication, Testaments was already long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker prize (judges get advance copies) and only this week it made the award’s short list.  On the publication day itself, Atwood will speak at London’s National Theatre and her sold-out appearance will be live-broadcasted to over thirteen hundred cinemas from Canada to Malta.  Increasing the hype is the measures Atwood’s publisher has imposed to prevent any pre-publication leaks:  the Booker judges were bound by non-disclosure agreements and advance review copies (in some cases at least) were printed with a false title and author (perhaps to prevent them from falling into enemy hands? smiley face here!).  In short, Testaments‘ publication is a very big deal.

I really hadn’t planned on posting anything today (have I mentioned that I have a research paper due, so very, very shortly? Oh, I did!) but as Fortuna would have it (please forgive, but I’m still on a classical kick from my last post), when I clicked on The Guardian this morning I discovered that its book section contained an exclusive advance excerpt from Testaments.  I thought I’d share the wealth, so if you’re interested, click here.  If, like me, you enjoy reviews, you may want to check out what critics in the Washington Post  and the New York Times had to say (both have pay walls, so hopefully you haven’t used up all your clicks this month!)  And, late-breaking news, I’ve just discovered that Amazon goofed, broke security and in the U.S. prematurely mailed out several hundred copies of Testaments when it wasn’t supposed to!  Isn’t it all terribly exciting?

Hoopla aside, I have a substantive question to ask: how do you, dear reader, feel about Testaments’ impending publication?  Were you so unimpressed by Handmaid’s that you greeted the news of a sequel with a yawn and a “why is she bothering” thought?  Or did you pre-order your copy a year ago and make plans to be “sick” on September 11th to settle in and enjoy your exciting new acquisition?  (I don’t know about you, dear reader, but Janakay always reads in bed when she’s sick!  Janakay would have to be dying — very, very painfully so — to waste a perfectly good sick day by not reading!)  Or, if you’re more digitally minded, do you plan to have your finger suspended over your kindle, waiting to download the minute the clock strikes 12:01 on September the 10th?

In the interest of encouraging group candor in responses to my little question, I’ll share my reaction first.  I really wasn’t that interested in Testaments; in fact, I hadn’t planned on even reading it, at least not this year.  Have I embarrassed myself?  Are you so horrified you’ve relegated me to your list of bookish troglodytes, vowing never to read my blog again?  I certainly hope not!  I was a little puzzled myself at my lack of enthusiasm, especially given the fact that I adore Atwood’s work (I’ve read almost all of it, including some of her very good poetry) and regard her as one of the very greatest living novelists.  As for Handmaid’s itself, I loved it!  Aside from its narrative power, it’s one of those books that is very much bound up with my memories of a certain time and place, which increases its emotional impact for me.  (Don’t we all have a few of these?)  For me, Handmaid’s Tale is a cold, snowy day in early 1986 and apartment hunting in a new city with a (relatively) new Mr. Janakay, preparing for a demanding new job and a cross-country move (how can I possibly break the news to the cats?  They hate to travel.).  Just when I think my feet must surely be turning blue (my shoes are getting soaked), I spot one of those delightful small bookstores that doesn’t exist any more.  It’s in an old brownstone with a large bay window, which has a fetching display featuring shiny, newly published copies of Atwood’s latest.  I won’t say that I took my rent money, exactly, to buy it, but in those days newly published hardback books were not everyday occurrences in Janakay’s life!  Nor did I regret my purchase.  Atwood’s story was so gripping that I stayed up most of the night reading and couldn’t focus on much of anything else until I finished the novel a day or so later.

Given my intense reaction to Handmaid’s, why so little excitement now about its sequel?  Perhaps it’s precisely because Handmaid’s Tale did have such a powerful effect on me.  I found Handmaid’s so perfect and complete in itself I didn’t see any need to continue the story.  Its ambiguities didn’t trouble me; in fact, I thought the mystery surrounding Offred’s unknown fate actually increased the power of her fragmentary narrative.  On a less lofty level, perhaps Handmaid’s impact has simply faded over the years since I’ve read it, particularly since I haven’t watched the (so I hear) very powerful TV series.  Have any of you had a similar experience of closure, either with Handmaid’s Tale or another book?

When I was writing this post, I pulled down my (very) old copy of Handmaid’s Tale to check out a few details.  You can imagine my surprised delight (my heart actually started pounding) when I re-discovered the fact that I’d had my copy autographed by Atwood.  I very much remembered hearing her speak (in fact, I went to a good deal of trouble to attend) but I had forgotten the autograph, as I’m almost always too lazy to stand in line for them.  In this, however, as in all else, Atwood was so special I made the effort.

Maybe I’ll pre-order a copy of Testaments after all.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Miscellany: Books, Veggies and Ancient Rome (not in that order)

Have I mentioned that I have a big research paper to write on Renaissance child portraiture?  Oh, I have!!!  Since making that communique I’ve actually managed to complete a few pages at an astonishingly slow rate of production, so slow it would have gotten me promptly fired from my old brief-writing job, pleading (with utter sincerity) for truth, justice and the American way of life, not to mention the government’s right to collect its trust fund taxes or to impose appropriate market designs on various energy exchanges.  (If you’re unfamiliar with trust fund taxes, market design or energy exchanges consider yourself  very, very fortunate.  I thought I had mercifully blanked it out, but I do believe the pressure of writing my portraiture paper is giving me stress induced flashbacks.  I suppose it’s the equivalent of PTSD for a Vietnam vet).  Anyways . . . . since I’ve just completed a paragraph or two on Renaissance family life (nutshell summary: father knew best) I felt totally justified in taking a teensy, weensy little break this morning involving breakfast out (i.e., someone else cooked), a farmer’s market and new (to me anyway) books.  And, since it’s Monday, I have a perfect recipe (so to speak) for a Miscellany!

Miscellany first:  Veggies!

Since I do love a farmer’s market, and summer is drawing to a close, I thought I’d make one last batch of gazpacho.  Inspired by Sylvia’s pumpkins (have you seen them?  If not, stop reading now and click over immediately to marvel!  They’re awesome!), I thought I’d share a quick snap of some of the fixings:

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Hopefully, not quite the end of the seasonal produce.  This is destined for my next (and probably last) batch of gazpacho!

Miscellany second:  Book binge!

In a truly rare work break (smiley face here) from my Renaissance research this morning, I decided to catch up with my blog reading.  My very first (and, as it happened, last) click of the day landed me here, where “Stuck in a Book” described in voluptuous detail a very recent and quite major book haul.  Well, dear reader, Janakay has been a very good (and fiscally responsible) girl this summer vis à vis book purchases (interlibrary loan works quite well thank you) but . . . it’s just never safe, dangling temptation in front of an addict!  And the combined omens were just so overwhelming — my very first blog stop discussing a book binge; the absolute necessity for a reward after all my hard work; the fact that my favorite breakfast spot is practically on the way to:

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Second Story books is a local chain of used, rare and out-of-print books;  described by USA Today as one of the ten best bookstores in the country.

Well, it just all came together!

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In pre-internet days Second Story had several brick and mortar stores; now it’s down to two.  This is the warehouse store — 16,000 square feet of books.  Is there a better definition of heaven?

 

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A (very) small portion of the interior . . .

 

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More interior.  A little deceptive — most of the aisles aren’t this open (lots of stacks on the floor)!  This was my first trip to the Warehouse Store, which I found quite impressive.

 

When I first drove up I thought the yellow “50% Off” sign was hyperbole but no!  These guys were really discounting everything in the store by FIFTY PERCENT!!!  What did I tell you about those omens?  I mean — it was so obviously MEANT to be!  I headed for the fiction section straightaway, but (another intervention by Divine Fortuna.  If you follow my post to the end, you’ll see I’m in a Roman mood) I first had to pass through “Art History.”  This section was pretty tightly packed (I had to move a few piles to get to stuff) and space was a bit limited, requiring me to sit on the floor to examine the treasures.  The effort, however, was more than worth it, as I scored some major finds.  (A tip for the temperate  — you know it’s a binge when the cashier gives you a box and offers to help you carry your books to your car!).

 

 

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The haul, a combination of art history and fiction (only from authors whose last names began A – J; my arms were so full I was tragically unable to add anything from the K – Z  section!)

 

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The haul, after it’s been de-boxed but prior to being shelved (there has to be some space somewhere in the house  . . .)

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The fiction portion of my newly acquired  treasures . . . .

 

 

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Isn’t this cover fabulous? I’ve used Auchincloss in the past as a “go to” guy when I’ve wanted character driven fiction and a high degree of literary skill.  It doesn’t hurt that he also sets his novels among the rich and aristocratic, U.S. style!

 

 

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I already had a paperback copy, but I like the cover of this hard back edition better! Anyway, since I never got around to reading the second novella of this two novella collection.  I think it’s perfectly logical to have two copies!

 

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A headlong rush into nostalgia — this was one of my favorite (subversive) reads in my oh-so-conformist high school days!  As this is one of those books that actually did influence my thinking, I was morally obligated to replace my moldy old copy, especially for a mere $3!

 

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Another nod to the past.  I suspect Pearl Buck is one of those writers who’s out of favor these days, but many years ago I loved this novel about an upper class Chinese family in the 1940s.  I only wish the publisher had opted for more colorful cover art.

 

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Although my last re-read was some years back, I’m a fan of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, so much so I decided to take a chance on Book 1 of his Avignon Quartet.  Taking risks such as this is a moral obligation when a book sale is on!
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I was ignoring this art book, until I remembered from class that Michelangelo almost certainly saw these frescoes before he painted his “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel.  Since there’s nothing more fun that looking at great depictions of hell . . . . I sat on the floor and started reading!

 

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G vs E, or Good vs Evil!  Fortunately, the good guys appear to be winning, although the bad guys look a lot more animated.  How do you like the woman in the lower right who’s getting a piggy-back ride from a demon?

My last art image, I promise, but I couldn’t resist just one more!

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Hell certainly looks pretty lively!  Sometimes I wonder why artists seem to put more energy into depicting hell and sin than heaven and good deeds.  I found Dante’s Inferno & Purgatorio, for example, much more gripping than his Paradiso.  Hmmm . . . perhaps says something more about me than Dante?

Miscellany third:  Ancient Rome

At this point, I  bet you thought I’d never get around to ancient Rome but ha! fooled you.  I was headed that way all the time!

Last week I was very excited to have my first class in Roman art and archaeology.  Back in the day, i.e., when I was a “real” student (trying very hard not to think about getting a job) I was very interested in classical subjects. Although my interest has waned over the years I still love classical culture and was thrilled when I was finally able to enroll in this course;

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As I long ago discovered, however, one can love a subject and still find one’s mind wandering down wayward paths, particularly when one is trying to distinguish between two early Roman temples that look distressingly similar!  During one such detour from required learning I found myself thinking about what a presence, still, ancient Rome holds in popular culture; from there I began mentally listing movies and books with a Roman theme (perhaps the equivalent of counting sheep?)  Because there are literally hundreds and hundreds of these, I established the following parameters to keep my list manageable:  (1) I allowed only 30-40 minutes to come up with titles (and a little longer to research a few); (2) I listed only items about which I had personal knowledge (i.e., I’ve either read it, read a review of it or have it on a TBR list) and (3) I attempted not to annotate (that part wasn’t very realistic, as you can see below).  Since I may actually get around to making this into a real bibliography one day, I’d love to have additional recommendations or reactions to the titles.  Also, as you’ll see, most of the listed books are pretty dated, so if you know more recent titles, please share!

Historical novels about ancient Rome (alphabetical by author):

Bulwer-Lytton, Edward.  The Last Days of Pompeii.  Perhaps the best known novel by an unfortunately prolific Victorian novelist.  You may not know that Bulwer-Lytton penned the immortal opening lines, “It was a dark and stormy night.”  His greatest claim to contemporary fame is that lines such as this inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants compete to see who can write the worst possible opening sentence for a novel.  If all this doesn’t scare you off from reading Pompeii, I say  — go for it!  (You’ll be sorry.)

Caldwell, Taylor.  A Pillar of Iron.  The novel gives star treatment to Cicero; Caesar is a vaguely sinister character.  I can’t believe it’s still in print, but life is full of such mysteries.  Since my assessment may be inaccurate (it’s certainly biased.  I spent a miserable semester trying to translate one of Cicero’s speeches) I feel compelled to note that one reviewer on Amazon refers to it as “one of the best books I’ve ever read.”  Don’t you think that it’s differences in taste such as this that make our big beautiful planet so very interesting?

Dolan, Mary.  Hannibal: Scourge of Imperial Rome (also published as Hannibal of Carthage).  The Romans are the bad guys in this fictionalized recreation of the lost account of Sosylos, a real-life Greek historian (probably a freedman) who accompanied Hannibal over the Alps and into Italy in the Second Punic War.  I read this novel several times as a kid and loved it.  Tragically out of print.

Douglas, Lloyd.  The Robe.  A 1940s? 1950s? best seller with a religious theme (Roman soldier is present at the crucifixion); the stuff many movies are made of.  Watch them and skip the book.

Duggan, Alfred.  Family Favorites (not the warm and fuzzy kind!  Set in the reign of an emperor who made Nero look like Santa Claus) & Three’s Company (the second Triumvirate of Mark Anthony, Octavian & Marcus Lepidus; told, in a typically Duggan touch, from the point of view of the non-entity Lepidus).  I don’t think Duggan is much read these days; a pity as his wit is dry and his historical research impeccable.  I prefer his novels set in Medieval times (Count Bohemund is great) but these are definitely worth checking out (Favorites at least is available on Kindle).

Fast, Howard.  Spartacus.  A best-seller from the 1950s; the movie, I suspect, is better known.  Haven’t read it in years, so I’m not sure how it’s aged.

Flaubert, Gustave.  Salammbo.  I was so intrigued to learn that Flaubert wrote an historical novel set in the time of the first Punic War I bought a copy.  What are TBR lists for?

Graves, Robert.  I, Claudius & Claudius the God.  Fabulous books, thankfully well known and readily available. Less well known but worth checking out if you like late empire (I do) is Graves’ Count Belisarius.

Harris, Robert.  Pompeii.  The title rather explains what’s going on, doesn’t it?  My reaction was “meh” although Harris has a lot of fans out there.  Are you one?  If so, speak up!  Janakay is open-minded (about books, that is!)

Shakespeare, William.  Anthony & Cleopatra.  O.K., I know it’s a play (I could have also listed Julius Caesar, but I like this one better).  Worth it just to read Anthony’s “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch Of the ranged empire fall.  Here is my space.”  If the story didn’t happen this way, it should have!

Sienkiewicz, Henryk.  Quo Vadis?  Did you know that Sienkiewicz won the 1905 Nobel Prize for literature?  Neither did I, until I did this list!  I do know that this novel has been the basis for a couple of movies.  And — one of the novel’s great characters, Petronius the Arbiter, was “real;” Tacitus wrote all about him!  (spoiler alert: Petronius comes to a tragic end when he falls out of favor with Nero).  Petronius turns up again (below) as the author of the Satyricon.

Sutcliff, Rosemary.  A wonderful English novelist who specialized in writing about Roman Britain (her Sword at Sunset is a wonderful, very realistic re-telling of the Arthurian legend).  She did several novels classified as YA that, depending on your mood, are well worth reading regardless of your age (hey! I’m ancient and I just finished re-reading one); the best, IMO being The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers and The Eagle of the Ninth.  I loved these books so much I’m seriously considering a nostalgia purchase of the reprints (with original illustrations) offered by the folks at Slightly Foxed (a wonderful quarterly publication for those who read BTW).

Waltari, Mika.  The Etruscan & The Roman.  Waltari was a Finnish writer who did several of these single title thingeys; perhaps the best known is The Egyptian.  I’m not sure I’d like them now, several thousand books after I first encountered them, but I do recall particularly enjoying The Etruscan, perhaps because that pre-Roman culture is just so very mysterious.

Vidal, Gore.  Julian.  The life of this last pagan emperor of Rome (and enemy of the emerging Christian faith) was grist for Vidal’s pen.  If you like Vidal, you’ll probably like this.  If not, stay away, life is short.

Wallace, Lew.  Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.  Did you know that Wallace was a general (Union variety) in the U.S. Civil War?  Mr. Janakay, who knows quite a bit about the subject, informs me that Wallace was “not bad” as a military commander and that he rather unfairly took the fall for the Union’s first-day losses at the battle of Shiloh.  As for his literary ability — well, I’d probably just watch the movie (particularly if you like mega-Hollywood, old-timey Charlton Heston things).

Warner, Rex.  The Young Caesar and Imperial Caesar.  Warner was an English classicist; these two books are fictionalized first person accounts of Julius Caesar’s life.  Although they’re stand alones, you’ll need to read both to get Caesar’s entire life.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn they’re available on kindle for a modest price; they’re now on my “will one day re-read them” list.  When I do so, I’ll let you know if they’ve held up well!

White, Edward Lucas.  The Unwilling Vestal (a Tale of Rome Under the Caesars).  A former professor of mine (“The Classical Epic in Translation”) spent much class time raving about this old novel’s whimsical charm.  Being an impressionable child, I wasted a couple of days discovering the guy had lousy taste for novels originally written in English.  Learn from my example, grasshopper!

Wilder, Thorton.  Ides of March.  Set in the last days of the Roman Republic & a very popular read in the 1950s, when (I believe) it reached best seller status.  Not sure how it would date; if you’ve read it — let me know!

Williams,  John.  Augustus.  Re-issued fairly recently in one of those nice NYRB classics editions.  This is one that’s been on my TBR list for some time.  Williams BTW is also the author of Stoner, the newly re-discovered lost classic du jour.

Yourcenar, Marguerite.  Memoirs of Hadrian.  Another permanent resident on my TBR list.

Contemporary (and popular) mystery series set in ancient Rome:

Davis, Lindsey.   Marcus Didius Falco mysteries.  I started reading these as they were being published and lasted through the first four or five.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderfully funny, well-plotted and entertaining series but . . . we all have to say good-bye sometimes.

Saylor, Steven.  His Sub-Rosa series is set in the time of the late Republic and centers on the exploits of a detective known as Gordianus the Finder.  There are a lot of books in this series (twelve? fourteen? difficult to count, as I believe there’s also a novella or two); the few I read back when were quite good but — three was enough!

Science Fiction directly inspired by Roman history:

Asimove, Isaac.  The Foundation Series.  An incredibly influential sci-fi classic (Elon Musk & Paul Krugman cite it as inspiration); the ancient Galactic empire is dying and humanity faces centuries of barbarism.  Edward Gibbon’s Decline & Fall, anyone?  I read this work repeatedly in my teens; my attempted re-read about twenty years ago was a tragic failure.  Like much of early sci-fi, brilliant ideas combine with a clunky style, which I can no longer handle (after a similar experience with another Asimov novel, I’ve decided my love affair is over!).  Others, however, have had different reactions, so check it out for yourself.

Contemporary essays about the classics (includes Greek classics): 

Mendelsohn, Daniel.  How Beautiful It is and How Easily It is Broken.  Mendelsohn is a scholar steeped in the classics; he has the rare and wonderful ability to link classical themes to current pop culture.  I’m not a big reader of essays, but I loved this collection.

Beard, Mary.  Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. Your very own tour of the ancient world, with one of the greatest classical scholars on the planet as your guide. And — she can write!  If you’re at all interested in the classics, this is a necessity.

Hamilton, Edith.  The Roman Way.  An oldy, but a goody; very readable essays on the major Roman authors.  Hamilton gives non-Latinist a wonderful sense of the various authors’ styles, as well as lots of substantive information about the works’ contents.  Hamilton’s The Greek Way is even better, but that’s off topic!

Writings by actual, real life ancient Romans that are worth checking out:

Please keep in mind that I’ve only read a smidgen of the vast amount of available material, and did that years and years ago.  (In other words, additional suggestions are welcome.)  But since I’m nothing if not foolhardy, here’s my very selective, highly idiosyncratic and very limited list.  Do you have any Latin favorites? If so, share, share!

Apuleius.  The Golden Ass.  The only Latin novel to survive in complete form; adventures of a would-be sorcerer who mistakenly turns himself into a jackass (if memory serves, I think he wanted to change into a bird but got the spell wrong).  Aside from its considerable literary merits, I have a soft spot for this one.  Back in the day, I loaned my copy to a friend who was driving home for Christmas.  When she was pulled over for speeding (hey! we all want to get home quickly for the holidays!), my loaner was clearly visible in the empty passenger seat.  The cop who flagged her down not only found the title hilarious, he also thought it perfectly described his patrol partner.  The cop was so amused, in fact, that my friend got off with a warning rather than a ticket!  Never say reading great literature doesn’t pay off!

Petronius.  Satyricon.  The author was a favorite courtier of Nero’s until he criticized the imperial poet’s rhymes (not to mention his musical skills) once too often (see Henryk Sienkiewicz, above).  Only fragments survive, but as one of them is Trimalchio’s Feast, it’s a must-read.  Warning: not for the squeamish or puritanical (I learned lots of interesting Latin verbs the semester we read this).  The translation you choose is everything for this particular classic; look for the liveliest, most irreverent possible.  You could always watch the Fellini movie of the same name if you don’t feel like reading (it’s filled with arresting images) but the book is better.

Virgil.  Aeneid.  If you like epics, only the Iliad is better (well, maybe Beowulf, but that’s a different culture).  Read the poem and you’ll discover why Dante made Virgil his guide through the afterlife, the poetry is that good (particularly the chapters about Dido, one of the best female characters in all of classical lit).

Catullus.  If lyric poetry’s your thing, it doesn’t get much better.  Catullus was probably the only guy of his day and time who didn’t realize his beloved Clodia was the most sexually promiscuous woman in Rome and a husband-poisoner to boot; but it’s that kind of blindness that makes great love poetry.  Although the Clodia poems (he calls her “Lesbia” but no one was fooled) are probably his best known work, Catullus’ poetry covers much more ground.  His poem on Attis, who joins the priesthood of the savage goddess Cybele, is incredible (not, not, not for the faint at heart) and there’s the wonderful poem written when Catullus visited his brother’s grave (“now and forever, brother, hail and farewell”).  Many, many translations are available.

Ovid.  Metamorphoses.  A prime source for every myth you ever wanted, or needed, to read.  Trust me, reading Ovid will make it much easier for you to enjoy the artwork the next time you visit the museum (when in doubt European artists have always turned to Ovid for a subject).

Histories:  if you’re into the (technically) non-fiction, there’s lots and lots to chose from.  A “you were there” account from the front:  Caesar’s Gallic Wars, perhaps the oldest surviving piece of cleverly disguised political propaganda (Caesar wrote it to convince the folks back home that he was a serious military commander).  Juicy, filthy, wonderful gossip (in the 21st century, this guy would be working for the tabloids):  Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars.  Stern, republican, “this is what made us great” virtue:  Livy (in our day, he’d probably be writing political speeches).

Well, that’s it for tonight folks!  I’d love to hear comments, or additions to my list, but for now it’s back to those two very similar, early Roman temples . . . I think one of them has a few more columns on the left side . . . .

Monday Miscellany: Back to School, Movies, Books & History (not in that order)

Those of you who check out my blog now and again may have noticed that it’s been quite some time since my last post.  Three weeks!  How can that be?  Where has all that time gone?  My fall semester classes officially begin tomorrow, but I’ve actually been at it for most of August, frantically working on the second part of a two semester project that I began last spring, on 16th century Italian portraits of children.  I’ve spent several months doing research and I’m now at the point where I simply MUST begin writing!  I’ve made outlines, collated notes, requested ten more books from the interlibrary loan department, read many interesting art history articles (some even tangentially related to my topic), went to the movies, went shopping for novels on Amazon, made banana bread, went to more movies, bought more novels, made cranberry bread, started this post  . . . . . wait! wait! Something’s wrong!  I simply must begin writing about Italian Renaissance portraits!  Oh well, I think I’ll do this post instead (then check out the movie schedule and catch up on some book blogs).

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Well, maybe my class rooms don’t look quite like this, but the idea’s the same . . .

MISCELLANY PART  I: BACK TO SCHOOL READING

Since this is Monday, my post will be a miscellany that’s more of a “mess–allany” than usual!  It’s in several parts, so if you get bored (now, honestly, how could that be? Please do realize I am being sarcastic here!) you won’t lose content by scrolling through the dull parts.

Since this is a book blog, I’ll begin with – – – reading!  Although I’ve done a tremendous amount of it this month, most of my reading has been very narrowly focused —- of the “I simply must begin writing my paper but first I’ll skim another article” type  — which is not to say it’s been dull (if I weren’t the type to find Renaissance Italy interesting, I wouldn’t have used August to read about it!)  I am stuffed, positively stuffed, with interesting factoids about the Italian Renaissance!  Did you know, for example, that families in 16th century Florence recorded their sons’ births in the family account books but often didn’t bother recording the daughters’?  That children of both genders were farmed out to wet nurses almost immediately after birth and only rejoined their biological families around the age of three or so (some even stayed with the nurse until age seven)?  That couples who wanted to conceive a son were advised to tie the guy’s left testicle with string and to eat lots of hot food (I’ll spare you the theory behind this)?  Did you know that some scholars estimate that half of the children born during this period died before their first birthday, and that half of these survivors died before age thirteen?  Although scholars only begin studying the history of “childhood” around 1960 or so,  they’ve produced some incredibly interesting and very accessible work since that time on families, marriage, childhood and women’s roles in Renaissance Italy.  If you’re up for non-fiction, some of these are definitely worth reading, such as  . . .

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Described (accurately) by one reviewer as an “elegant and accessible” survey of ideas about childhood in western culture … but … illustrations are in black and white!
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Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous! Painting, furniture, clothing, interiors, sculpture, musical instruments! And, oh yeah, a highly readable text by one of the English-speaking world’s great Renaissance scholars . . .

As for my own particular Renaissance woman and her depictions of certain Renaissance kids (the topic of my paper and my excuse for all that reading about childhood and family life):

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Sofonisba Anguissola, the first generally acknowledged female artist of the Italian Renaissance (there have always been woman artists, they just haven’t been acknowledged).  Sofonisba painted this self-portrait when she was about twenty years old.

And — here’s the kids!

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Little Massimiliano Stampa, aged twelve or so and already the ruler of a small town in northern Italy.  I just discovered a few days ago that Massimiliano grew up to have ten children himself and ultimately renounced his title to become a monk!  His portrait was one of Sofonisba’s first commissions.

 

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Not a great deal is known about this painting, including the identity of the sitters.  Most likely they’re siblings from a rich Florentine family whom Sofonisba painted in the 1580s, towards the end of her career.

 

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San Diego’s Museum of Art, where this painting is now located, calls it  “Portrait of a Prince at the Spanish Court.”  Isn’t he adorable, in his little miniature hunting costume?  This was painted around 1562, when Sofonisba was a lady-in-waiting at the court of Philip II of Spain.  Again, lots of unknowns; the child’s identity is disputed and at least one major scholar thinks the painting is by someone other than Sofonisba.

 

MISCELLANY PART II: AUGUST MOVIES

Does anyone besides me like movies?  Although I’m really not addicted (honestly, I can go weeks and weeks without a hit), in times of stress they’re my go-to drug of choice, especially when combined with potato chips!  Like most sane people, I generally watch movies at home, but when piles and piles of (unread) Renaissance art books are staring at me, I resort to a conveniently located local theater, which specializes in current art house, repertory and foreign films (fortunately, it also has a great bonus program, which has come in really useful this month).  In August I hit the jackpot, so to speak — my local guys were celebrating the 1970s, one of my favorite periods for “old” American movies.

I did go current, however, at least at the beginning, by kicking off August with Quentin Tarantino’s latest, “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.”  Has anyone else seen it? If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts, particularly as I’m not a Tarantino fan (I generally think he’s a bit over-rated, and his movies normally are far too bloody for me).  In a sense, I liked this one despite myself, but it was good! (although it is pretty violent).  Anyway, August movie month had what I considered an auspicious beginning:

 

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I followed this current release with lots and lots of repertory, seeing, in no particular order:

“You Only Live Twice” (1975):  Didn’t date well and don’t bother, unless you really, really want to see Sean Connery masquerading as a Japanese fisherman, complete with skin makeup (don’t ask).  I didn’t and left halfway through, as life is short.

“The French Connection” (1971):  I wasn’t a fan when I first saw this, oh so many years past, but it’s held up surprisingly well.

“The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968):  A heist movie totally devoid of suspense; even Steve McQueen couldn’t save it.  High point was Faye Dunaway in a lavender hat (she was lovely).

“Chinatown” (1975):  One of the all time greats; saw this one twice!  Who could forget that closing scene?

“Nashville” (1975):  I love Altman’s movies and this is one of his best.  Surprisingly (and depressingly) still relevant to our sad political times.

“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971):  another Altman (told you I love his movies).  Saw it twice this month, once solo and once with Mr. Janakay (it was necessary for his cultural development!).

“Diary of a Mad Housewife” (1970):  Carrie Snodgress won a Golden Globe (and was nominated for an Oscar) for her work in this comedy-drama.  She is good (makes you wonder what her career might have been had she never met Neil Young) and, despite being a bit of a period piece, the movie still works.

“The Last Picture Show” (1971):  How could I have forgotten how great this was?  Cloris Leachman deserved three oscars!

Does my list include anyone else’s favorites?  Or not-favorites, as the case may be?  Any recommendations?  (I still have lots of Renaissance art to get through, so movie going in the near future is a distinct possibility.)  Has anyone seen “The Farewell”?  If so, please share your opinion, as I’m dying to see whether Awkwafina lives up to her reviews!

MISCELLANY PART III: FUN READ

Humanity has perished, victim of a zombie plague; all that’s left are the animals.  The tale is (mostly) narrated by S.T., a formerly domesticated crow who’s spent his life with his beloved Big Jim, a junk-food eating, beer-drinking redneck, and Dennis, a slobbery but good natured bloodhound.  Aside from being hysterically funny (yes, it is!), there’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple little story.  Take my word for it, this is NOT just another post-apocalypse zombie novel (and if you don’t believe me, check it out on NPR).

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MISCELLANY PART IV:  THE 1619 PROJECT

You may or may be aware that in August 1619 a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans landed in the British colony of Virginia.  The unfortunates aboard were sold to the colonists and “American” history (at least, of the United States variety) was off and running.  To mark the 400th anniversary of this momentous event the New York Times compiled its 1619 Project, which explores the history of slavery (a history that was certainly never taught in any school I attended) and the way in which it’s affected every aspect of life in these sort-of-United States.  The Project uses historical objects from the National Museum of African American History and Culture as a starting point for its scholarly essays and journalistic pieces, and interspaces its factual material with poems and short stories by noted black artists.  Not to be missed; here’s the link to get started.

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A photo from the 1619 Project, showing prisoners from the Ferguson prison (for young men ages 17 to 21) in Huntsville, Texas.  This is 1968 and they’re still picking cotton.

MISCELLANY PART V: CONCLUSION

Did I mention that I have a paper to write on “Changing Concepts of Renaissance Childhood: Three Portraits by Sofonisba Anguissola”?  (note: title is subject to change)  Clearly, it’s time to call in someone who’ll keep me focused  . . .

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He-who-must-be-Obeyed says “follow my example and get back to work!”

 

P.S.  The old-timey school room shown at the beginning of my post is an 1871 painting by Winslow Homer, called, appropriately, “The Old School Room.”  You can see it at the St. Louis Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toni Morrison: 1931-2019

 

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As I’m sure everyone is aware by now, the great Toni Morrison died yesterday at the age of 88.  She was the first (and only) African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and the first American to do so since John Steinbeck.  More than the prizes, she was an utterly transforming voice in contemporary literature.

I’m not going to pretend to recap her incredible accomplishments, as the media is already doing so.  If you’re interested in getting the details of her extraordinary career, check out these pieces in The New York Times and Washington Post.  I’m writing this little piece because I feel I owe it to a writer who transformed my view of the world.

I grew up as a white Southerner under a system that is best described as apartheid: “Whites only” drinking fountains; “White” and “Colored” restrooms; and restaurants and diners that legally refused to serve Black Americans simply because they were Black, to mention only a few things.  I attended public schools that Black children could not attend.  I did not sit in a classroom with an African American student until I was sixteen, when one incredibly brave kid exercised her legal right to attend an all White school and dared, actually dared, to enroll in a Latin class intended to prepare my home town’s elite White kids for admission to the local, and still segregated, state university (our governor, a soul mate and harbinger of the current occupant of the White House, was busily fomenting racial hatred and division by blocking the admission of Black students to its hallowed halls)  The American history I had been taught was that the Civil War was a tragic misunderstanding over states’ rights; that slavery, while “regrettable,” wasn’t really that bad; that the Ku Klux Klan’s tactics may have been a little extreme, but its violence was an understandable response of Confederate veterans deprived of their citizenship; and that Reconstruction’s insistence on Black participation in the political process was an unmitigated evil.

Although I grew up in a system that privileged all Whites over all African Americans, unlike many White southerners I never deluded myself that all Whites were equal; I could see for myself that kids descended from the landed gentry and former plantation owners were  treated with much more respect and consideration than kids from poor backgrounds.  My South wasn’t the Tara Plantation or cotillion balls of Gone With the Wind; it was the hardscrabble south of Norma Rae, of generations of coal miners and sharecroppers and “poor White trash,” of people who died young from malnutrition and overwork, of incredibly bright men and women who could barely read and write because the South they lived in saw no need for them to be educated.  My own mother picked cotton when she was a child (from “can’t see to can’t see”  —  daylight to dusk, for you non-Southerners) and I grew up hearing tales of how frightened she was of the overseer who would ride his horse around the fields and how often she and the others were cheated when the cotton was weighed at the end of the day.  I also knew that for a portion of her adult life my mother was “legally” barred from voting because she was unable to pay the poll tax that kept so many poor Whites, as well as African Americans, from participating in elections.

My family were survivors against the odds — we weren’t intended to flourish, or to survive beyond a subsidence level, but we did.  My blind spot (one of many, I’m afraid) was that I equated my own family’s experience with that of African Americans.  We were both poor, both denied education (poor white kids couldn’t afford to buy the textbooks they needed to learn, faced ridicule from their classmates and were expected to leave school young) and both were cheated economically and politically.  I thought the South’s poor Whites and Blacks were essentially in the same boat. Toni Morrison and her books about the Black experience in America made me realize how foolish was my belief, that White people, even very poor White people,  always had it better simply because they were white.  This truth came home to me when, many years ago (but not soon enough) I read Morrison’s Beloved, her story of Sethe, the slave woman, who kills her own child because being dead is better than being a slave.

Reading Beloved was one of those experiences that don’t come very often in a lifetime, when you’re one person before you read a book and just a little bit different afterwards, that what you have read has shifted your view of your world in a significant way.   My family picked cotton and so did Morrison’s characters, but my mother and grandmother weren’t deprived of knowing each other and they weren’t sold on an auction block; they (or more realistically me) could move into the world of privilege simply because of the color of their skin in a way that African Americans of their (and my) generation could not.  Although it was painful to realize that I was a part of the system that created these horrors, just as much as the arrogant rich kid sitting next to me in that high school Latin class, I wouldn’t trade that insight for my master’s degree, or my law degree or for anything else I have.  Thank you Toni Morrison.