Well, dear readers, here we are in cold, chilly east coast North America on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the U.S.’s national holiday to honor one of the very greatest of its citizens. The day has put Janakay in a reflective, if not weepy mood. What would Dr. King make of today’s America? Would he see progress from the days of Jim Crow and legalized apartheid, or a steady diminishment of the civil and voting rights laws he and others fought so hard to enact? Does a national decision to honor his greatness by a day of service outweigh its dismemberment of the fragile protections for its poorest citizens and its increasing celebration of material excess? Can Dr. King’s teachings of tolerance and justice survive in the face of increasingly ugly and divisive racial rhetoric?
I continually struggle in what I regard as very dark days indeed to answer my own questions; my answers vary depending on my level of hope. Janakay’s mood was darkened by the fact that, on a day honoring a national hero who celebrated non-violence (and who died by an assassin’s bullet), a few miles away a huge “gun rights” rally is being conducted under the aegis of a group associated with a resurgent white supremacist movement. I click away on the internet, searching for comfort, and happen upon clips from a speech given by Barack Obama honoring the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march at Selma, Alabama. If only for this MLK Day, because in my own little way I want to honor a man who continued the struggle while knowing he’d never reach the Promised Land, I decided to reject despair and agree with Obama that the American experiment is not yet finished and that we still hold the power to remake our nation to align more closely with our highest ideals.
Well, dear readers, here you are, well into the new year while Janakay is still piddling around with the old! Time just seemed to gallop away from me, there at the old year’s end, what with the “Big Book Sort,” the holidays and a (very) little recreational travel. One day it was early December and I rather unrealistically thought I might actually catch up with my 2019 Challenges; then I blinked and it was mid-January! No matter how many times this has happened to Janakay, she’s always surprised! I suppose it’s that child-like sense of wonder that keeps her going!
2019 was a big year for me as far as bookish matters are concerned. After literally years of thinking it would be fun to write about some of the great books I was reading, and to connect with others who shared my passions, I (finally) launched my blog and — gasp — participated in not one, but two Challenges! (the first was Karen’s “Back to the Classics” Challenge; the second was the TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader). Now, a year later, what do I think of the whole enterprise?
The blog itself has been rewarding, even if it’s been on life support at times; my “launch year” unfortunately coincided with a final, rather intensive year of academic work on my art history degree. As for the Challenges, well . . . . Janakay isn’t always into completion! It’s a kind of glass half–empty, glass half-full thing and, since Janakay has a naturally sunny disposition she regards both her Challenges as having been very worthwhile exercises. Even if the total number of reviews and books read were somewhat less than ideal, the Challenges ensured that reading in 2019 was quite stimulating and definitely more challenging than the previous year’s when, sad to say, I was in a bit of a science fiction-fantasy rut. Regrettably, however, around midyear my reviews fell far short of my reading; so much so that I didn’t see the point of a final linkup post for either my TBR or Classics Challenge. Because this is the month named for the god who gazes into the past as much as the future, however, and I haven’t posted in quite some time, I thought it would be interesting, at least to me (you, dear reader, can always click elsewhere for entertainment!) to do a sort of informal tally of the results of my Challenge participation.
I’ll begin with the “Back to the Classics Challenge,” as the books I selected were generally more of a stretch for me to complete than my TBR selections. The final sum of my posted reviews — five — was pretty bad. The number of books (eight) I read for the Challenge, however, wasn’t too horrible, particularly when I consider that the Challenge required me to read books from genres (such as translated literature) that I normally avoid because they’re too much work! Here’s my thumbnail tally by category:
19th century classic: For this category I rather ambitiously selected Henry James’ 1890 The Tragic Muse, written right before HJ’s disastrous stint as a playwright. Although Muse displays the realism so characteristic of 19th century literature in general, it’s also quite philosophical in a sense; James uses his characters to debate various opinions regarding the nature of dramatic art and the plot turns on the conflict between pursuing art and meeting the expectations and obligations imposed by society. One plot strand centers around Nick Dormer and his decision to pursue painting rather than the political career expected by his family, while the other revolves around Miriam Rooth, a fiercely dedicated actress who rejects a conventional life in favor of the stage. Since Muse is mid-period James, its syntax is much more manageable than HJ’s late masterpieces (Wings of the Dove, for example). As with any novel by HJ, one shouldn’t expect thrills and chills. Although Muse does have some extended discussions on the nature of art, particularly dramatic art (one senses that James is working through his ideas regarding his upcoming career switch), the major characters’ choices, along with their resulting complications, do create a bit of tension in the plot. Like the great artist he is, James creates complicated and subtle characters. While I found Nick a bit bland, James does wonderful female characters and Miriam is one of the great creations of 19th century English literature. How many novels of this era portray a strong and supremely gifted woman who navigates considerable practical obstacles and arranges her life to allow the full exercise of her talents? Miriam is not only unusual, she and her choices are fully believable. Although I liked this novel very much, it’s not one of HJ’s masterpieces and I’d hesitate to recommend it to someone who only intended to read one or two of HJ’s novels. I obviously love James’ work and actually managed to review Muse in some (well, too much) detail; if you’re interested you may check out my post.
20th century classic: Decisions, decisions! So much to choose from! I finally settled on Elizabeth Bowen’s debut novel, Friends and Relations (another one of my rather rare reviews; you may find it here.) Friends is a deceptively brief but stylistically rather complex novel involving the secrets and shifting relationships of two very different sisters and their respective husbands. Although I found some of the novel’s characters rather two dimensional and its ultimate plot twist unnecessarily melodramatic, it also contained moments of real emotional insight and tenderness, as well as some wonderful comedy. A detailed and seemingly believable depiction of upper class English life between the wars is an added bonus. And, of course, the novel is beautifully written. Friends is definitely worth reading, if not quite equal to Bowen’s later work, such as The Last September or The Death of the Heart.
Classic Tragic Novel: For this category, I read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, published in 1949, but, alas, failed to post a review. I found this category quite interesting because it made me question the very definition of a “tragic” protagonist. Must s/he be Aristotle’s person of noble qualities, subject to adverse circumstances and brought low by an inner flaw? Or can our tragic protagonist be some poor schlub in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or a couple of rich, educated, culturally blind Americans who traipse around Algeria, carrying too much emotional baggage and descending into their own hell of utter darkness? If you answered my third question affirmatively, well, Sky is the very defintion of a tragic novel. Kit and Port Moresby, the couple in question, are the ultimate adventure tourists, scorning the mundane; Port is intent on seeking out the increasingly remote and isolated while Kit becomes more terrified as they leave “civilization” further and further behind. Neither Port nor Kit understands or is interested in understanding anything about the people or cultures they encounter, and both are totally unsympathetic characters; if you want warm and fuzzy, this is not your novel. The couple’s journey is bleak, the north African landscape is tortured and the prose is gorgeous, as Bowles describes a terrifying and empty universe in which civilization does not triumph. This novel is bleak, bleak, bleak. Janakay loved it and wants to read more Paul Bowles, but is afraid to; she has also vowed to travel exclusively with guided tour groups in the future. Sky has been my “jinx” book for ages; without the Classics Challenge it would have continued languishing unread and I would have missed a great read (many thanks, BooksandChocolate!).
Classic from a Place You’ve Lived: One of the more interesting places I’ve lived is New Orleans, Louisiana. From the abundance of myth, legend and literature associated with this oh-so-special city I picked The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, a white, male, southern novelist I had successful avoided for most of my life. Percy was quite the flavor, back in the day; did you know The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award over such contenders as J.D. Salinger (Franny and Zooey), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), William Maxwell (The Chateau) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (The Spinoza of Market Street)? Although Percy’s luster has faded a bit in subsequent years, Moviegoer continues to be regarded as one of the greatest U.S. novels of the 20th century; early last year The New Yorker made a persuasive argument that it continues to remain as relevant as ever.
The novel’s non-linear plot centers on the travails of Binx Bolling, a well-connected New Orleans stockbroker with a knack for making money, who occasionally (please forgive Janakay’s snark) attends an afternoon movie, which he finds more “real” than his quotidian routine. In addition to (occasionally) watching movies, making money and seducing his secretaries, Binx wanders around New Orleans, the Gulf Coast and Chicago seeking god and spouting thinnly disguised existentialist philosophy. By novel’s end, Binx accepts reality, marries the neurotic rich girl and decides to attend medical school, which he will have no trouble getting into and which his family will pay for. Despite Percy’s skill with dialogue and description, his frequently lovely prose and his sincerity, Janakay did not like Moviegoer, which she considers enormously overrated (lots of guilt here! When I lived in New Orleans, I patronized a nice little bookshop that had a candid photo of Percy browsing its stacks and I heard, first hand, that he was a very nice guy!). Are any of you cyberspace wanderers familiar with Moviegoer? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts, as I’m afraid my own cultural bias may be blinding me to the novel’s virtues (I’m highly resistant to the woes of privileged southern white boys). It’s worth noting that Moviegoer reflects the racial and sexual attitudes of its time and place, which have thankfully improved somewhat over the fifty-odd years since its publication. Also, before I forget — this is one of the novels I read but never got around to reviewing.
Very Long Classic: I’m afraid I totally bombed out in this category. I had originally intended to read Miklòs Bánfly’s They Were Counted, volume I of his Transylvanian Trilogy, an unsung classic from eastern Europe. Last July and fifty pages in, I realized this was not going to happen (at least not in this lifetime); I opted instead for a nature walk in Corkscrew Swamp, a wonderful nature preserve located in the western portion of Florida’s Everglades (boardwalks! birds! river otters! ghost orchids!) Of course, I could have switched selections, made Tragic Muse my “very long classic” and reviewed Jane Eyre or Great Expectations (both of which I re-read last spring) for my 19th century category. Oh, well …………………. those river otters at Corkscrew were wonderful!
Classic Comic Novel: Another bomb! I intended to read something by Ivy Compton-Burnett, who’s a favorite author of mine (her humor is so very black and her dialogue is so very, very funny) but kept saving it as a treat. Then — it was December and I decided to read a couple of contemporary detective novels instead! (If you haven’t yet met detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, devout Buddhist cop and half-caste son of a Thai bar girl, stop now and read John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 immediately! Provided, that is, you’re not offended by an unflinching look at Bangkok’s sex trade). Remember what Janakay said about her addiction to non-completion?
Classic in Translation: The Challenge was just what I needed to get me reading some of those wonderful translations out there, particularly as I tend to confine myself to anglophone writers. Thanks to the NYRB Classics, I had several novels by Guy de Maupassant gathering dust on the shelf so I took this opportunity to read Like Death. Set in Belle Epoch Paris, it involves a simple but piquant situation: noted society painter Olivier Bertin is beginning to feel his age when the lovely young daughter of Anne de Gilleroy, his longtime mistress, appears in his life. The novel follows the growing realization of both Bertine and Anne that the former is subsuming his love for Anne into a passion for her daughter. Although I thought the story might work better as a novella than a full-length novel, it was psychologically quite acute and offered a wonderful look at the aristocratic Paris of the late 19th century. I did manage to review this one; follow the link if you want details.
Classic novella: I literally have hundreds of these in a very special, very neglected corner of a very large book case and hardly ever read one! 2019 and a Challenge — here I come! I really, really meant to read one in 2019 — one little afternoon in December would have done it — but Bangkok 8 was so exciting I simply had to follow it with Bankgok Tattoo, the second book in the series! And, after all, there’s always 2020 . . . . I did read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein last spring, which technically qualifies (it’s less than 250 pages) but just didn’t feel like writing about it! Janakay has to wait for inspiration!
Classic from the Americas: This was a category in which I did the reading but didn’t do a review, primarily because it took me so long to make my selection. After several months of dithering I finally settled on Zama, a 1956 novel by the Argentinian writer Antonio Di Benedetto. Di Benedetto (died in 1986) was a contemporary of Borges and Cortázar who never achieved their international fame; Zama has only recently been translated into English and made readily available through the NYRB Classics. As the novel opens, it is circa 1790 and Don Diego de Zama, a midlevel functionary of the Spanish empire, is stuck in a dead end posting in what is now Asunción, Paraguay. Zama longs for everything he doesn’t have: the bright lights of Buenos Aires; promotion (as a Spaniard born in the colonies he faces considerable discrimination in this respect); the wife and children whom he’s too poor to have with him and for a remote, fantasy Europe that he has never seen. The novel falls into three chronological sections (1790, 1794 and 1799); in each period Zama faces, respectively, a serious sexual, financial and existential problem. In each period Zama over-analyzes and misinterprets his situation; essentially he’s so busy presenting his life to an imaginary audience he misses, or is unable to face, the reality in front of him. Zama’s tragedy, perhaps, is that he’s never quite able to lose himself in his fantasies; he retains a neurotic self-awareness that ensures he’s continually disappointed by the realities of his situation. It’s all very existential (Di Benedetto was a great admirer of Dostoevsky) and Janakay isn’t at all sure she grasped everything there was to grasp; in fact, after I finished Zama I was tempted to settle in for a re-read (it’s quite brief). Zama is a challenging, but very worthwhile novel. And, did I mention it’s quite funny at times?
Classic Play: I’ve been meaning to read Ben Johnson’s The Duchess of Malfi for years. I’m still meaning to! Another category where I dropped the ball.
Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania (including Australia): Thanks to NYRB Classics, I had long possessed a copy of Maria Dermôut’s The Ten Thousand Things (1955) sitting unread on my shelf. This highly autobiographical account of life on the remnants of a Dutch spice plantation in Indonesia was one of my favorite reads of the year. Ostensibly the story of a young woman who returns to her grandmother’s garden to raise her child and grow old, the story moves backwards and forwards in time to encompass hundreds of beings, the living and dead, the supernatural and natural, to show in the most subtle way possible the interconnectedness of all things. I reviewed this novel in great detail in a prior post(I’m afraid I became a little carried away with the visuals, having just completed a couple of courses in Dutch art!); there’s a wonderful essay that explains the novel far better than does my review in Lost Classics (edited by Michael Ondaatje), a fascinating little book which is in itself worth tracking down.
Classic by a Woman Author:For this category I read and reviewed The Blackmailer, the first of a number of novels by Isabel Colegate, a wonderful English novelist who’s a favorite of mine. Blackmailer, which is set in the post-war London of the 1950s, is a surprisingly subtle look at the relationship between the blackmailer and his/her prey, and the intricate cat and mouse game in which they indulge. The novel offers crisp dialogue, a great depiction of post-war London’s publishing world and some wonderful supporting characters (including a hilarious old nightmare of a nanny and Bertie the spaniel, portrayed with great vividness and not an ounce of sentimentality). Perhaps best avoided by those demanding a great deal of action in their novels.
I did a bit better with my TBR than with my Classics challenge, completing ten of the twelve books I selected from my enormous TBR pile. Alas, however, I only reviewed four. Regardless of numbers, however, the Challenge really motivated me actually to read some of those very interesting books I’ve been accumulating all these years and was, more importantly, a lot of fun (I’m very sorry to see that the Challenge won’t be offered in 2020). The real standouts for me were Tom Drury’s The Driftless Area, a wonderful noir thriller with supernatural elements, which I reviewed, and Ester Freud’s Summer at Gaglow, which I did not. My real regret is that, once again, I’ve evaded Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat, which has been on my TBR list for years!
Regarding my choice of illustrations — have you ever wondered where those nauseatingly cute paintings of anthropomorphic dogs playing poker and so on came from? For better or worse, we owe them to Kash Coolidge, a graphic artist who created them as part of an advertising campaign in the early part of the 20th century. In the illustration I choose, the canines all look like they’re having a doggedly good time on New Year’s Eve, don’t they?
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?
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!
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 . . . . .
What’s that old saw, about the “more things change, the more they remain the same?”
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?
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 . . .
to those of a minimalist bent who nevertheless want to mark the occasion . . . .
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!
And — the neighborhood’s pièce de résistance!
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:
The “traditional with a twist”:
And — the Topical:
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 Countryis 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 HillHouse 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.
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):
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).
MISCELLANY SECOND: DONNA TARTT: BOOK vs MOVIE
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?)
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 Testamentswhen 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’sTale 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.
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!
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:
Well, it just all came together!
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!).
My last art image, I promise, but I couldn’t resist just one more!
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;
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 . . . .