Category: British writers

2019’s Reading Wrap-Up (or It’s Better Late than Never)

 

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New Year’s Eve in Dogville (1903) by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (a/k/a Kash Coolidge)

 

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?

 

 

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?”

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 . . . .

Book Prizes and Baltimore Reading

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Just kidding — I’m sure the winner of the Man Booker prize receives something far less glittery (i.e., literary glory and a cash award roughly equivalent to $62,000)

Do any of you out there “do” book prizes, i.e., follow the various competitions, note the winners, and even sometimes (gasp!) read the nominees?  If so, yesterday was a significant one on your calendar, as the long list for 2019’s Man Booker prize (self-described as “fiction at its finest”) was announced.  As you may know from previous posts of mine, my reading choices tilt mildly toward British authors, mainly because I get so many of my recommendations from The Guardian’s excellent book section.  In line with this slight preference, I tend to follow the nominees for, and the ultimate winner of, the Booker; more so than, say, the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, which are the big literary events in the U.S. or even the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which honors “fiction written by women.  For everyone” (my bad! The  2019 winner was Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, now a fresh entry on my TBR list).    The extent of my “involvement” varies by year; a few times I’ve read all thirteen nominees before the prize was awarded in October; I usually read at least the short list of six finalists (announced in September); in a really bad year I may read just two or three of the nominated books.

Following the Booker process has become one of my beloved summer rituals, from the July announcement of the long list (all thirteen nominees), to September’s short list of six, to October’s big enchilada, when the winner is announced.  It’s a fun little activity that ties in nicely with my love of lists and reading projects, as well as a very pleasant way of staying somewhat current with contemporary literary fiction, particularly that of non-U.S. writers (by reading the Booker nominees I’ve discovered some great writers I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered).  Do you have any literary contests or rituals to which you are similarly attached?  Or do you just generally ignore the whole literary contest thing, feeling that artistic competition is inappropriate or that the nominated books generally don’t interest you very much?

As much as I’ve enjoyed my pleasant little summer ritual, however, in the last year or so it has taken a back seat to other activities.  Dominating everything else for the past two years has been my course work for an undergraduate degree in art history (I refer to it alternatively as my “vanity” degree or “my second childhood folly” as I have no sane reason for being an undergraduate at this point in my life); this has required, oh, ever so much non-fiction reading which has soaked up my spare time like a sponge.  In addition to this limitation, my reading choices this past year have returned somewhat to the classics, leaving me a bit less interested in contemporary writers.  Last year I read only three of the nominated books (in addition to getting about half-way through two others) and never quite got around to reading the actual winner (Anna Burns’ The Milkman).  This year —- gasp! — I even forgot that yesterday was the big day for announcing the long list (in some years, I’ve been online at the big moment because I want to see the list as quickly as possible, get a jump on obtaining copies of the more obscure works and draw up my rough reading schedule.  Janakay, dear readers, can be obsessive about her hobbies!)

Before I roll out the list, do keep two things in mind if you’re not familiar with the Booker rules (if you’re British and/or know the rules, please forgive me if I get something wrong).  For much of its history,  the competition was open only to writers from Britain, Ireland and Commonwealth countries (plus South Africa and Zimbabwe); a rules change in 2014, however, opened the contest to writers from the U.S. (this change has been quite controversial in the British literary world).  Additionally, a book may be eligible for consideration provided that it is published by September 30 of the relevant year; the judges have read all the novels included in the July long list because they get advance copies, but ordinary folk have to wait  (also, if you don’t live in the U.K. you may have to wait for your country’s publication date unless you’re willing to do an international order).  This can at times be very frustrating if you’re obsessive about completeness (believe me, I know).   Keeping this in mind, along with an imaginary drum roll, here’s the long list:

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Margaret Atwood:  The Testaments (the eagerly awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale; set 15 years afterwards and follows the lives of three women of Gilead.  It will be “out” on September 10.  Remember what I said about the judges’ advance copies?)

Salman Rushdie:  Quichotte (inspired by Don Quixote; a tale of an aging salesman who falls in love with a TV star and travels across America to win her hand; U.K. publication in August; remember! Judges get advance copies)

Elif Shafak:  10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (dark tale of sexual violence set in Istanbul; told through eyes of dying prostitue; in “real life” the author herself is currently under attack by the Turkish goverment)

John Lanchester:  The Wall (a dystopian novel set on an unnamed island isolated from the rest of the world by a concrete barrier; the New York Times liked it and thought few readers would “stop until they reach the final page”)

Valeria Luiselli:  Lost Children Archive (a re-telling of the American road novel; compares a family journey south from New York to a journey north undertaken by child migrants)

Oyinkan Braithwaite:  My Sister, the Serial Killer (about two siblings in Lagos, one a nurse and the other with an unusual way of dealing with her boyfriends; described by the NYT as a “bombshell of a book” dealing with sibling bonds and female survival)

Lucy Ellmann:  Ducks, Newburyport (tale of an angst-ridden Ohio homemaker; described by The Guardian as “Anne Tyler meets Gertrude Stein”)

Kevin Barry:  Night Boat to Tangier (two aging Irish gangsters exchange banter as they keep vigil at the Algeciras ferry terminal in Spain; The Guardian loved it).

Deborah Levy:  The Man Who Saw Everything (U.K. publication is in August; remember! Booker judges get advance copies).

Bernardine Evaristo:  Girl, Woman, Other (a verse novel raising questions of race and gender through interconnected stories of a group of British women of color)

Chigozie Obioma: An Orchestra of Minorities (based partly on a true story and partly on Homer’s Odyssey; it’s set in modern Nigeria & uses a love story to examine issues of class, male rage and static social mobility )

Max Porter:  Lanny (described as a “rich, twisted, gloriously cacophonous novel of village life;” plot involves a missing five year old and a sinister character rooted in English folklore)

Jeanette Winterson:  Frankisstein (described by The Guardian as a “playful reanimation” of Mary Shelley’s classic)

Do you have any thoughts on the books and writers up for the prize?  If so, please share! Although I’m somewhat familiar with a few of the writers (I’ve read previous novels by Lanchester, Levy, Barry, Rushdie & Obioma), this is the first time in many years that I haven’t read a single one of the nominated works.  I love Atwood (and anything associated with her) but despite this I hadn’t included even Testaments on my own little list of books I’d like to read in 2019 (check it out if you’re interested!  The only criterion for inclusion was — I just wanted to read it! If you really, really enjoy lists you may want to check a Goodreads list of the books that readers thought merited the award or nominate your own favorite novel for The Guardian’s 2019 “Not The Booker Award” (grand prize is a coffee mug rather than $62,000)).  Quite honestly, I was a bit unenthused about this year’s long list, but perhaps that’s due to its including so many novels dealing with current world crises, as I’m in a bit of an escape mode right now (also, I have some distressing and potentially tragic academic deadlines to meet in the next couple of months, so can’t get too engrossed with new novels!).  Do you feel differently right now about socially relevant books or do you think that now more than ever it’s critical for fiction and literation to focus on social, environmental and economic issues?

Because I do tend to natter on, as certain characters in my beloved old novels say, I’ll keep the Baltimore portion of my post brief.  The Guardian has a wonderful reoccurring feature (honestly, I don’t work for The Guardian, I just read its book section on a daily basis) called “The Top Ten Books” about a variety of topics (past lists have ranged from “top ten queer rural books,” to works about Burma, the river Thames, cults and houseguests.  Utterly addictive!)  This week’s “Top Ten” is about Baltimore, a wonderful old east coast (U.S.) city that has a rich history, great art and fabulous writers.  I’m very fond of Baltimore, which I visit pretty frequently and feel somewhat protective about, as I don’t think many people realize how much the city has to offer.  Laura Lipman, one of the best thriller writers around, has strong ties to Baltimore and compiled this week’s list, which includes works by Frederick Douglass (an enslaved child in rural Maryland, he learned to read and write only after he was sent to Baltimore); Ta-Nehisi Coates (who grew up there);  Madison Smart Bell (a Baltimore resident who formerly ran the creative writing program at a local college); film maker John Waters (another Baltimore resident); and Anne Tyler (whose Accidental Tourist is a “classic Baltimore novel”).  And, of course, you can read Lipman herself, who gives many of her superb novels a Baltimore setting.

Monday Miscellany: One Barrier Island, Eight Books and Exciting News for Austen Lovers

If  you’re a visitor to my blog, you may have noticed that my postings have been a little, ahem, erratic in the last month or so.  What I have posted has perhaps been more visual and nature oriented than literary or bookish, which isn’t to say that my interests have shifted.  As much as I love my nature viewing and museum visiting (I’ve at least two very nice regional museums to share with you, so watch out!) my life remains centered on books and the printed word, as it has been since I learned to read around the usual age of six or so.  While I’ve been nature viewing, I’ve also been reading as much as ever (perhaps even more so) but — I hide nothing from you, dear reader — Janakay is just a teensy-weensy bit lazy!  And it’s so much easier to read the wonderful books than to organize my thoughts and string them together in coherent sentences!  Although I’m actually on track as far as the reading goes to meet my two challenges (Roofbeam Reader’s TBR, and Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics), I’m woefully behind in writing and posting the reviews of all that I’ve read.  Monday is “Miscellany Day,” however, so I’m doing a hodgepodge of related topics; because the relationship is a rather loose one, feel free to skip around!

My first Miscellany is —  Anna Maria, a barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, and its nearby areas (I’m just back from a visit and sorting through photos).

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This certainly isn’t the tourist board’s presentation of Florida, is it?  I love summer visits to the Gulf Coast, partially for the opportunity to see drama such as this.
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A favorite activity for many visitors is simply watching the sunset, which can be truly spectacular.
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These large pink birds are Roseate Spoonbills, which are generally not seen in large numbers. Finding this little flock on an early morning walk at a nearby nature preserve was quite a treat; catching the reflections made the view even better.
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Anna Maria’s Rod & Reel Pier, a community gathering spot.  Do you see the line waiting to get into the yellow building, which is a restaurant?  If you look closely, you can see everyone is facing in the same direction because they’re watching a couple of dolphins hunt fish.  EVERYONE goes to dinner at the Rod & Reel Pier!
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A roosting tree, loaded with White Ibises waking up for the day . . . . .
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In keeping with my interest in food, I couldn’t resist a shot of Minnie’s Beach Cafe!  You’d never guess it was in a small shopping center would you?  Anna Maria frequently throws visitors this kind of curve ball!

While I was visiting Anna Maria, I did lots and lots of reading, which brings me to my second Miscellany:  books that I started, stopped or finished during my time there:

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One of my TBR Challenge books, which I FINALLY finished!  An absolutely stunning read by Esther Freud, a British novelist I like very much.  I honestly can’t understand why it took me EIGHT years to get around to this book.
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One of my Back to Classics selections (category: novel from a place where you’ve lived) and my first novel by Walker Percy. I’m still mulling over my rather complicated reaction . . . .
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A debut novel, sitting on my shelf since 2012.  Can you guess it’s part of my TBR Challenge?  A truly searing tale of a transgressive relationship, not for the faint of heart.
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Harrison’s beautifully written but intensely troubling memoir; a non-fictional treatment of a relationship similar to that depicted in Peile’s novel.
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Although I love science fiction and fantasy novels, I’m not reading many these days.  This tale of operatives Red and Blue, locked in a centuries old struggle through time, is a wild mix of genres rendered in beautifully poetic language.
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One of my TBR challenge books, reprinted in a beautiful new edition as part of the NYRB Classics series.  A blackly funny look at Cassandra’s descent to chaos at her twin sister’s wedding, with some serious thoughts about sibling bonds and “unconventional” life styles (my review will come, eventually!)
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Bánffy’s “They Were Counted” was my “very long classic” Challenge read.  One chapter in and I know I’m in trouble — I need Plan B!  I will not be reading this book in 2019!
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Some times (and a stressful travel day is one) NO ONE but Georgette Heyer will do! This one isn’t my favorite of her regency romances (that honor probably goes to “These Old Shades”) but it’s still wonderful!

And since I’m doing books, make sure your visit to Anna Maria includes a side excursion to nearby St. Petersburg (the drive is lovely) and the wonderful:

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Are you surprised to learn that I’ve added to my TBR pile?

My third and final miscellany: Jane Austen’s Sanditon, the novel left unfinished at her death.  Has anyone read this?  Or, unlike myself, realized the importance in Austen’s fiction of seaside resorts and beach villages?  Today’s Guardian has a wonderful article discussing Austen’s use of seaside resorts — a key scene in Persuasion occurs in Lime Regis; Lydia Bennet elopes from Brighton and Austen herself may have enjoyed a seaside romance.  The article suggests that in Sanditon, Austen may have written the first seaside novel; at any rate, she certainly anticipated “what the seaside has come to represent in later modern fiction,” such as Chopin’s The Awakening, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or Banville’s The Sea.   

The exciting news?  Sanditon is being adapted for an eight part series on ITV, which will air this autumn! Thoughts anyone, about Anna Maria Island, Sanditon or any of my other reads?

Isabel Colegate’s “The Blackmailer:” What would YOU pay to have YOUR secrets kept?

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Has anyone out there read Isabel Colegate?  I don’t intend my question to be either cruel or facetious — I adore Isobel Colgate and think (I hope incorrectly — after all, I’m not a professional literary type and I base my opinion on absolutely nothing objective) that her work deserves more readers than it gets.  I’ve been a big Colegate fan since I first read her novel Winter’s Journey a number of years ago; I liked it so much I immediately bought copies of several of her other books with the idea that I’d work my way through the eight remaining novels that I hadn’t yet read.  These books have rested, peacefully, undisturbed and unread, on my shelves for quite some time now!  What can I say, except that life and more current writers intervened?

The 2019 Back To The Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate provided me with a dual incentive — I could not only discover whether I continued to regard Colegate’s writing so highly but I’d also dust off at least one pretty grungy bookshelf and the novels it contained.  After a great deal of thought (I love going through all my unread books) I decided to read Colegate’s debut nove, The Blackmailer (published in 1958), as my selection for the “Classics by a Woman Author” category.  I think I chose it over Colegate’s far better known novel, The Shooting Party, because I was intrigued by its title (I confess that I’ve also purchased books on the basis of their cover art!  I love book covers and have been known to purchase a second copy of a book simply because I liked the cover of a different edition!).  I also passed over, with some reluctance, Colegate’s A Pelican in the Wilderness, a well regarded non-fiction work in which she examines the value of solitude and the lives of certain individuals, ancient and modern, St. Anthony to Howard Hughes, who have chosen to live apart from others.  In other words, I took a gamble on choosing a much less well known and very early work.  You’ll have to read my post to the end (or skip to the last two paragraphs) to see whether I think my gamble paid off!

The Blackmailer is set in 1950s London and revolves around the relationship between Judith, the young widow of Anthony Lane, and Baldwin Reeves, an up-by-his bootstraps barrister who aspires to a political career, financial success and social acceptance by the landed gentry.  Judith’s deceased husband Anthony was not only handsome, intelligent and charming, but also endowed with fortune and birth, being the heir to an large estate and the son of a prominent family.  To top it off, Anthony was a renowned war hero, taken prisoner and executed by the enemy during the Korean War.  Could any mortal man possess more virtues?

Ah, but there’s a secret, you see!  In the parlance of a bygone era, Anthony was actually a bit of a bounder — or is it a rotter or maybe pigeon-hearted?  (It’s so difficult for us Americans to get the slang right; I’d welcome a correction if anyone from the U.K. ventures by!)  It seems that while commanding his company in Korea, Anthony bungled a retreat order; thinking it was a command to advance, which he didn’t want to do because he might get wounded or killed, he kept it to himself.  By the time his mistake was discovered, Anthony and his men were in a hopeless position and were taken prisoner by the North Koreans.  As if that wasn’t enough, in the prisoner of war camp Anthony collaborated to the extent of betraying his men’s escape plan, getting one of them shot.  This being too much for even the famed stoicism of the British soldier, Anthony’s justly exasperated subordinates executed him by hanging after holding an informal trial among themselves (during the Vietnam war, American soldiers used the term “fragging” to describe their own version of this activity vis à vis their officers).  None of this is ever disclosed, however, and after the war Anthony Lane is regarded by the British public as a national hero (one of Colegate’s nice touches is her brief allusion, towards the end of her novel, to an “upcoming film project” about Anthony’s heroic life).  For anyone ready to attack me for spoilers, hold your fire — Colegate tells you all about Anthony and his disreputable military career in the first page or two.  Rather than being about Anthony, Colgate is interested in the effect of his “secret” on his survivors and how they handle the truth.  For Baldwin Reeves, you see, was Anthony’s second in command; and although he has remained silent he knows all about the bungled order, the betrayal and Anthony’s trial and execution by his men.

The novel begins a few years after Anthony’s death, when Judith has established herself as a partner in a (very) small publishing house; she’s successful, maintains close ties with her deceased husband’s mother and grandfather and is reasonably content with her life.  While ignorant of the true facts of Anthony’s death, Judith is an intelligent and pragmatic woman who is well aware that Anthony was not what others perceived him to be; although she loved him, her marriage (unbeknowst to others) was less than happy.  Reeves by contrast is scrambling to make ends meet; although he’s justly confident of his ultimate success, he’s in the early stages of getting there and he needs money.  He also has a lingering resentment of Anthony Lane, war hero and golden boy, who had everything — money, family, social position — that Reeves is struggling so hard to get for himself.  So far, so predictable, right?  Reeves approaches Judith, threatens to tell all and begins extorting money from her.  What isn’t predictable is where Colegate takes the story, setting up an intricate game of cat and mouse, where Judith and Reeves exchange roles as victim and each gets off on the power he or she has over the other.

I’ve made The Blackmailer sound terribly grim and serious but it isn’t at all — the dialogue is crisp and witty, it has some incredibly funny passages and Colegate has a wonderful knack for creating marvelous supporting characters (if you like dogs, the novel’s worth reading just for Bertie, Judith’s pet spaniel, whose personality is depicted as vividly as that of the human actors.  If you don’t, read it to enjoy Anthony’s hilarious old nightmare of a Nanny, or Feliks, Judith’s very funny friend, publishing partner and social climber extraordinaire).  As I hope I’ve made clear, The Blackmailer is primarily a book for those who enjoy dialogue and relationships; readers who demand a lot of action in their novels will most probably find it a bit dull.  Keep in mind, as well, that The Blackmailer is a debut effort and, although I was satisfied with Colegate’s depiction of Reeves and Judith, I did wish she’d given a bit more space to their inner psychology.  I have a few other quibbles not worth mentioning, none of which detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

Because I don’t have a lot of time right now, I’m sticking mostly to Challenge books for my pleasure reading, so I’ve gone through a lot of mid-century British fiction in my recent postings (Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, Bowen’s Friends and Relations and Kate O’Brien’s The Last of Summer; when you add to these my reading for my class in the 19th century English novel I really feel it’s time to return to my native land for a book or two.  Perhaps a gangster novel set in New Jersey?)  Of these, I believe The Blackmailer has aged the best, perhaps because the “secret” that propels the action — the falsity of a “war hero’s” glorious reputation — is one that a person of our own era might still wish to conceal.  There’s also something very modern about the psychological struggle between Reeves and Judith; she, as much as he, is intent on exerting power in their relationship. Add in the fact that the novel is extremely well written and contains a very rare portrayal of an independent woman, in the 1950s, who works at a real job and actually enjoys doing so and, well, I’d say you have a gem.

Several years after it was originally published, Penguin reissued The Blackmailer in an omnibus volume with two other of Colgate’s early novels, A Man of Power and The Great Occasion (you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for $2 or less; although it’s delightful to get such a bargain, it’s sad that work of such quality appears to be so little read or valued).  Although it will have to wait for a month of two, I look forward eagerly to reading them both.  Who knows, maybe I’ll continue to keep the dust off the shelf holding my Colgate novels . . . . . .