Isn’t it a relief, dear readers, to have 2020 behind us? Unlike so many in this year of the plague, my personal situation was relatively benign (I had tons of great books, good internet access & my near and dear remained healthy) but even we lucky ones can agree that it’s quite the relief to have 2020 in the rearview mirror. One of the more pleasant annual rituals for a book blogger is the annual summary of books read and enjoyed (or not); it’s especially pleasant this year, where there’s sometimes been little else to enjoy other than books. Being, as usual, just a tiny bit behind the curve in looking over the past year (if you’ve read my blog in the past you may recall that I was several weeks late for Margaret Atwood month), my tally is accordingly
coming somewhat after most of the others. This is partly because I didn’t post very much this year and didn’t formally review many books. The pandemic and a long-distance move took their toll; for much of the year my brain was in a state analogous to the slumber mode of a bad computer, making it almost impossible to read anything very long or demanding. I’m not a big numbers cruncher, especially when it comes to books, but I do keep an informal tally and I was shocked to discover that I had read large portions of, and subsequently abandoned, over eleven books. I’ve never been adverse to abandoning or postponing books that didn’t work for me at a particular moment but I’m certainly not quick to do so, especially when, as here, I was actually reading some pretty good things. It was a very odd experience — about halfway through one of the Abandoned Eleven, it was “Bing! I’m done” and off I’d go to another book, which usually met the same fate (if my binger went off in a particularly intriguing work, such as Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water, I’d skim the end. Sometimes I wouldn’t bother.) What can I say, dear readers? This was the year I just couldn’t focus.
This was also the year when I received several visits from the Ghost of Books Past (envision, dear readers, a bookish version of Dickens’ famous spectre, only in my case toting bags of gaudy mass market paperbacks and brandishing bookish gift cards — I believe these are called “book tokens” in the U.K.), who insisted that I re-visit various reading adventures of yesteryear. This apparition first appeared in September (here in the U.S., we start commercializing Christmas pretty early). Immediately after I finished John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara (BTW many thanks, Dolce Bellezza, for that read-along, otherwise Samara would still be adorning Mount TBR) I became absolutely fixated on locating and re-reading books that I hadn’t thought about for literally decades. Seemingly out of the blue (but we know whose doing it was, right?) I suddenly remembered enough information to locate and obtain a yellowing, mass market paperback of Gwendoline Butler’s Sarsen Place, a novel I had read decades ago, as well as a copy of The Vesey Inheritance, another read by Butler from days gone by. Sarsen Place, now sadly out of print, was worth the effort. The Vesey Inheritance was slightly less so but still a fun read.
Through sheer force of will I resisted the compulsion to spend October re-reading my ten favorite Georgette Heyer novels (it helped that I already knew several of them by heart), but ah, the Ghost of Books Past was far from done with me. The high school I attended several lifetimes ago had a sort of hit or miss library, mostly dull old classics (Tolstoy isn’t terribly interesting to most fifteen year olds) and the librarian had the maddening habit of only ordering one or two books from a series. At that time in my life I had particularly enjoyed one such incomplete series; I won’t identify it except to say it didn’t concern the adventures of either Trixie Belden or Bomba the Jungle Boy. But my school library had only two books from the series, and odd numbered ones at that, so I never learned either the beginning or end of the saga! Imagine the frustration and grief of my little teenybopper self! It was high time, the Ghost whispered, to atone for The Wrong of Reading Only A Few Books From A Series! Heeding my supernatural warning, I started obsessively locating and reading the entire series, seven books total, following the adventures of the main guy, his brother (who pops up around the third book) and then, for gosh sakes, the main guy’s nephew, who’s born somewhere around book five and who carries the saga forward to a new century and a new place (this author clearly knew how to hook a kid in). Ah, dear readers, the joys of completion, all the sweeter for being so long delayed!
After reading/skimming seven books from a Young Adult series (comparatively well written but, let’s face it, with rather immature characters), I could feel the Ghost beginning to fade. In late November and December I really intended to make a final push to read a few more books from my “Back to the Classics Challenge;” I really did, but the past wasn’t yet past, so to speak. Are any of you, dear readers, fans of grimdark, described by N.K. Jemison as fantasy’s equivalent to sci-fi’s dystopia sub-genre? If so, you’ll understand why, when Logen Ninefingers (aka “the Bloody Nine”) summoned me for a re-read, I hastened to obey. In a bit of severe counter-programing to the holiday season, I spent half of December re-reading Joe Abercrombie’s magnificent First Law Trilogy (the Guardian has referred to Abercrombie’s work as “delightfully twisted and evil” and it’s been proclaimed by no less than Forbes as “fantasy at its finest”). Less pompous and far funnier than Martin’s Game of Thrones, and much more attuned to human frailty than Tolkien, Abercrombie’s realpolitik, double dealing and dark humor seemed perfectly attuned to this horrible year. If you liked GOT you’d probably like the First Law Trilogy, provided you aren’t adverse to (very) naughty language and more graphic depictions of the old ultraviolence than you’d find even in Burgess’ Clockwork Orange. Don’t judge me too harshly, dear readers, we all have our moods; sometimes one longs to attend a jumble sale with Pym’s excellent women and at others simply to wander the Circle of the World with the Bloody Nine. Say one thing for Abercrombie’s morally ambiguous characters, say they’re most compelling.
Although I spent the last half of 2020 more or less successfully escaping the present, my reading year did in fact include some forward momentum. Two very bright spots indeed were my increased respect for shorter fiction and a growing interest in translated literature. Prior to this year, I had only occasionally read short fiction and then largely on the theory that it was “good for me,” a type of literary equivalent of “eat your broccoli.” I’ve noticed, however, that my fragmented attention span seems fairly widespread this year and that many of my fellow bloggers as well as myself have taken to reading short stories and novellas. Among several outstanding novellas that came my way, the following three, very different works particularly stand out:
Ah, I hear the murmur through cyber space, did she read no novels during 2020? I did, actually, and although there were far fewer in number than in prior years, they included some wonderful works. In ascending order, the three that have stayed with me the longest are:
Well, dear readers, that’s pretty much it for my 2020 reading year. How did yours go? Anyone else out there, haunted by comfort reads and cursed with fragmented attention spans?
Although I’ve been blogging very little in this our year of the plague, I have (as I noted in my last post) been reading fairly steadily since 2020 rolled around. Because there wasn’t a dud book in the bunch (isn’t it gratifying, dear reader, when one is on a streak of reading good books?) I thought I’d share a quick recap of some of the excellent works of fiction that have come my way in this year. What I’m offering are quick impressionistic snapshots rather than in-depth reviews (Janakay is not by nature profound, and constant handwashing and unpacking make it so very difficult to concentrate right now). In making my list I noticed the emergence of a monthly sort-of pattern to my reading. One month was heavy on thrillers & science fiction while another tended towards “serious” novels; one month tilted to the classics and another to the contemporary, and every month included a comfort read, which generally coincided with a stressful key moment in my long-distance move! Have you, dear reader, in your great journey through the universe of literature, noted any similar tendencies or patterns in your own seasonal reading? Do you read classics when it’s cold and drippy outside or eagerly head towards light bubbly froth for those delightful days of lying on the beach? Or do you, like Janakay, indulge in counter-programing, saving all those serious literary chunksters for your lazy summer afternoons? Well, enough with the philosophical musings and on to my list!
As befitting a month associated with endings and beginnings, my January reading contained both old and new, as well as one of Janakay’s own very special little rituals. Are any of you, dear readers of mine, superstitious about books? (If so, don’t be embarrassed — do share your little kink. Janakay won’t tell!) I’m quite superstititious myself, especially about the first book I start in any new year (books I’m finishing don’t count). I regard my first new book in January as an omen for the upcoming year; if it’s a really good book, well, the gods have spoken, haven’t they? They have promised I’ll have a great year of reading ahead of me!
To increase my chances that my January ritual will have a favorable outcome I tend to go with a classic when a new year rolls around or, gasp, even reread something I’ve loved in the past (Janakay regards this as a prudent precaution rather than a cheat. Honestly, don’t we all load the dice, when we can?) This year, however, I decided to gamble a bit on Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a modern fairy tale of two siblings, a wicked stepmother and the enchanted house they all longed to possess. I really like Ann Patchett’s work (I think I’ve read almost all of her novels) and I’d had my eye on this one since I read the advance notices. I’m happy to report that my gamble paid off; the novel was every bit as good as it was reported to be.
From contemporary I went to classic, spending the latter half of January with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them. I had tried many years ago to read Corner, but had given it up after less than fifty of its three hundred plus pages; to put it mildly I had been totally unimpressed. How that Warner woman could dribble on! Had she no editor? Why was this book so different from her delightful Lolly Willowes? Whatever was Warner up to in this yawn-inducing tome? Was Corner a history or was it a novel? Either way, it was BORING and Janakay loathes being bored. Back on the shelf it went, to gather many layers of dust. Given my strong negative reaction, I naturally selected Corner for the “Abandoned Classic” category in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate. And — please note, dear readers, Janakay conceals nothing from you, no matter how embarrassing — her initial reaction to Warner’s novel was quite mistaken! In fact, you might say that Janakay missed the boat on this one or, if you were being particularly unkind, conclude that she even fell off the pier! Oh, my good gracious me, how the years can alter one’s judgment! Even in my callow youth, however could I have abandoned this wonderful novel? The Corner that Held Them really is a masterpiece and absolutely one of the best things Janakay has read in years — she was absolutely glued to the pages and bereft when the story ended. Hopefully, I’ll be posting a review later on, before all the details have totally faded but . . . the weather is so very nice right now, Janakay’s new house has its very own hammock and there are a great many interesting new books to read (Janakay adores novelty) ….
and, for particularly low energy days, an overwhelming temptation to browse in that most addictive of sources . . .
But, despite these considerable temptations, Janakay will heroically summon her energy and get busy writing a serious review! (at some point)
Before leaving January entirely, the month’s comfort read deserves a mention, being an early novel by Rumer Godden, The Lady and the Unicorn. Any Rumer Godden readers out there? Godden is one of Janakay’s favorites for those times when she’s in the mood for a well-written novel, an exotic setting and at least one psychologically interesting character. Godden’s technique is traditional (which is fine with Janakay) and she can be surprisingly perceptive on issues of class and race, an important trait when writing about the British Raj, which Godden so very frequently does. The Lady and the Unicorn centers on the three daughters of an Anglo-Indian family and their struggle to establish themselves in a world that regarded them as neither British nor Indian. Although the novel’s strong supernatural element distracted a bit from Godden’s sharp social observations, the ghost story was fun and was skillfully incorporated into the main story line. All in all, The Lady and the Unicorn was a great way to pass an afternoon and a welcome distraction from packing boxes.
February was a discovery month, bringing several new and wonderful novels in translation, thanks largely to Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 13. This was especially gratifying as Janakay is just the teeniest bit parochial in her reading, mostly sticking as she does to anglophone writers. Participating in Doce Bellezza’s challenge, however, demonstrated just how much Janakay has been missing in her rather narrow approach. What treasures are contained in even the sketchiest sample of Japanese writing! Looking for a terse and elegant story of doomed love, set in one of the most poetic and deeply atmospheric novels I’ve ever read? Try Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country. More into a contemporary tale of the ultimate non-conformist? You couldn’t do better than Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, a chronicle of the deeply weird life and times of a very contented employee in one of Tokyo’s many “Smile Marts.” (I’d been intending to read this one for over a year. I’m happy to report it was definitely worth the wait). I also spent a few pleasant hours in which I finally got around to reading Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, which I had come to regard as a permanent resident on my TBR list; while a little sentimental for my taste it was definitely worth the time I spent reading it.
And then, of course, there was Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, another book I had tried but abandoned several years ago. What a loss that would have been, never to have read it, especially since I had the added benefit of DB’s wonderful commentary. All of these great novels deserve far more than my brief nods, and Janakay was fully intending to share her thoughts and opinions with you, but, well, life intervened. Movers were a’ comin’ and she simply had to clean out her basement (a word of unsolicited advice, dear readers! Never, ever go twenty-eight years without cleaning out your basement!)
To a lesser extent, February was also short story month. Although I do respect the genre I ordinarily tend to avoid actually reading short stories, as I regard them as a bit of a tease — just when I’m getting interested, poof! They’re over! This year, however, I began seeking them out, as they seemed to lend themselves to my currently fractured attention span (so difficult to concentrate, don’t you find, with all this constant hand washing and disinfecting?). One of my rewards was re-discovering Daphne DuMaurier’s fantastic novella Don’t Look Now. Have any of you read it? If not, why are you wasting time on my blog? Click off instantly and read it now. Afterwards, settle in for a wonderfully creepy afternoon of watching Nicholas Roeg’s 1974 film version, with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland making their doomed way through a darkly beautiful and sinister Venice.
If February was short stories & Japanese novels, March was packing boxes and saying good-byes; physically it was a long distance move and literature-wise a much quicker journey to some fun and distracting reads. I was particularly happy to (finally) sample the work of the very talented sci-fi writer N.K. Jemisin. Behind the curve as usual I had totally missed her acclaimed Broken Earth series, so I was particularly happy to read The City We Became, the first book in a new trilogy. Aside from being an unusual and gripping story, City’s view that cultural and ethnic diversity are necessary for our very survival made Janakay positively weep with gratitude, being such a refreshing respite from the jingoistic blather that seems so omnipresent these days. If you’d prefer an interior journey through a dark and twisted psyche to humanity’s struggle against an alien threat, I can happily recommend Flynn Berry’s A Double Life, loosely based on Britain’s Lord Lucan murder scandal. For a noir thriller with an interesting take on class, race and gender, check out Christopher Bollen’s A Beautiful Crime, an elegant tale of intrigue set mostly in Venice, (Janakay adores Venice, even though it’s been years and years since she visited). I also dipped a toe into some grimly funny Scandinavian fare, with Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good (Janakay was looking for inspiration and did find it there, although — reluctantly — she draws the line at offing those annoying neighbors of hers). As a bonus, it has an absolutely wonderful cover:
In April, it was back to more serious, albeit still contemporary, fare. As you may surmise from my most recent post, I’m a big fan of Emily St. John Mandel. Do any of you share my enthusiasm? After it became sadly evident that our current pandemic was not, suddenly, just going to “disappear” (and Janakay absolutely draws the line at injecting herself with bleach or swallowing light beams or whatever), I seriously considered re-reading Mandel’s Station Eleven, one of my highlight books from a few years ago. I decided, however, that until we see how Covid-19 plays out, I couldn’t emotionally handle Mandel’s story of a vicious, highly contagious disease that ended current civilization (isn’t it spooky, how great writers have their fingers on the zeitgeist?). I settled instead on Mandel’s latest, The Glass Hotel, published at the end of March. Somewhat to my surprise (Mandel’s incredibly talented, but how many great books can anyone, even Hilary Mantel, produce in one lifetime?) Glass Hotel was very nearly as good as its immediate predecessor. Admittedly, the novel has no feel-good characters (it’s based loosely on Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme), so if you want warm and fuzzy, you’ll need to look elsewhere. What it does have is beautiful writing, a wonderfully complex structure that uses shifts in time and point of view to reinforce and enrich the story, and an utterly believable, complicated and heartbreaking cast of characters, all of whom are, morally, some shade of grey. I was hooked in from the beginning and absolutely couldn’t put it down for the two days or so it took me to read. The only downside was that I had to wait for its impact to fade a bit before I could start another novel, because I knew that nothing I could read would be anywhere nearly as good. Have any of you read Glass Hotel? Or any other Mandel novel, for that matter? If so, I’d love to hear your opinions. I’d also be interested in hearing how you handle that period of time after you’ve read a novel that just blows you away. Do you read non-fiction? Play solitaire? Immediately go on to the next novel on your list? Do share your secret of survival!
After a few days of absorbing Glass Hotel and letting its impact fade, I settled in to enjoy another contemporary novel, this time by Lily King. Although I’d avoided reading Euphoria, King’s highly touted previous novel (I believe it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), I was curious about her work and decided to give her latest novel, Writers and Lovers, a try. Writers’ ostensible subject is the story of Casey, a thirty-something wannabe writer and part-time waitress; dealing with grief over her mother’s death, Casey struggles with her novel, works in a restaurant and becomes entangled with two very different men. Writers‘ real subject (IMO at least, don’t know if the critics would agree) is the creative process and the demands that it places on its devotees. I enjoyed the novel, without being overwhelmed by it; I was particularly taken with Casey’s criteria for determining a real bookstore and picked up several useful titles to add to my TBR list! (Knut Hamsun’s Hunger; Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters and, what I’m far more likely to actually read, Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday.) Prompted by an excellent review, I then sneaked in a quickie read of Camilla Bruce’s You Let Me In, a debut novel accurately described by The Guardian as a “smart, creepy fairy story” with a twist. If you, like Janakay, love Gothic horror and ambivalent endings, not to mention nasty malevolent fairies with a taste for human blood (not to mention hearts), then waste no time, dear reader! This is your book! Janakay’s one regret is that she didn’t save it for Halloween.
Well, that’s it for my round-up! What about yours? I’d love to compare lists!
Well, hello again, dear readers! After many months of silence, or near silence, I’m finally taking a stab at inserting (or, should I say “inflicting”) a new post on my almost moribund blog. It’s requiring a bit more of an effort than usual, given the enormous and frightening changes in the world since my last post in January. Then I had two major preoccupations, one being the very pleasant task of choosing my books for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate, the other the not-very-enjoyable labor of planning and executing a long-distance move (a task that proved almost, but not quite, too much for Janakay!). In those halcyon, pre-pandemic days, Covid-19 was barely a shadow on the horizon. Now it appears to dominate my life. When I’m not washing my hands or sanitizing hard surfaces with whatever disinfectant’s at hand, or enjoying those very entertaining bird videos with the cats (Birds of Australia is a particular favorite at our house), I spend far too much time reading news accounts and statistics relating to this terrible disease. Covid-19, dear readers, has given Janakay some (very) minor and unwelcome insights into life during those medieval plague years that were the subject of several of her college history courses. Except, of course, medieval plague sufferers lacked both Purell and the internet (how would we all survive without both?)
And yet, however imperfectly, life goes on in this year of the plague. Because it is “insufficient,” however, merely to survive (if, like me, you adore Emily St. John Mandel’s work, you’ll recognize that I’m lifting this line from her great Station Eleven, which in turn borrowed the idea from a Star Trek episode!) literature and art accrue even more value amidst the horrors of our chaotic times. To survive in any meaningful sense of the word in these difficult days one must read! Although I’ve not been sharing my thoughts online, I have been reading steadily, in the time between packing boxes and moving furniture; my reward has been discovering a number of remarkable classic and contemporary novels. Hopefully I’ll be giving you at least some general reactions shortly but only after I finish unpacking the dishes!
If you’ve visited my blog in the past, you are aware that I love novels, which are almost always the subject when I write about bookish things. As I’ve posted before, I’m a little ambivalent about poetry (short stories, too, but for different reasons). Although poetry was very important to me at one time in my life, it’s a difficult and demanding art form that requires time, attention and insight, which for many years were in short supply for anything other than Janakay’s job (kitty kibble is expensive and hungry cats can be positively savage!). Although I don’t focus on poetry these days, I honor the art and do still attempt to save a little time for reading it. I also attempt, in a mild sort of way, to venture beyond my youthful favorites, which included lots of poems about Corinnas and Lucastas gathering rosebuds and knights riding to many-towered Camelot and so on (Janakay obviously adored Cavalier Poets and the Victorians. How could you not? Their stuff all rhymed and was usually easy to understand. “Ah, youth,” as one of my old fav poets might have sighed). My efforts these days don’t amount to much; I read a poem now and then, usually something in a traditional mode and, occasionally, check out The Guardian’s weekly poetry column (for me it’s a great resource for finding unfamiliar work. A bonus feature is Carol Rumens’ commentary, which always accompanies her weekly selection).
My biggest gesture of support for my former love usually comes in April, designated “National Poetry Month” by these squabbling, competing and currently very disunited States of America. Every April I make a point of actually buying a book of poetry; while I don’t have any rules about what I select, I do try to make it a work of a contemporary poet, or at least a poet who’s unfamiliar to me (this includes almost everyone writing poetry after 1900 or so). My choice this year was Nina Maclaughlin’s Wake, Siren
in which Maclaughlin reimagines the stories of several mythical heroines taken from
Metamorphoses, the great narrative poem written by the Latin poet Ovid in the first century CE. Any lovers of Ovid out there, or just anyone who likes good stories? As the name indicates, Ovid describes an unstable universe in which the world and its creatures constantly shift and transform from one shape or substance into another. Chaos morphs into an orderly universe of form and matter; a golden age transforms into one of silver or bronze; male shifts to female and vice versa; humans transform into animals or plants or constellations — well, you get the drift. Many of Ovid’s stories involve human women or nymphs (lesser female divinities associated with nature) who happen to catch a god’s attention, almost always with disasterous results. The women in Ovid don’t get many happy endings, unless you count being changed into a bear, a spider or a laurel tree as such.
In a very clever metamorphosis of her own, Nina Maclaughlin transforms the traditional stories recounted by Ovid by taking thirty of Ovid’s female characters and transposing them to a modern setting. Maclaughlin’s women wear jeans, do yoga, go to music festivals and talk to their therapists using language familiar to Janakay from her days as a seaman apprentice (the narrator in “Agave,” for instances, tells her visitor that “there’s some beer in the fridge” and describes — sanitized version — King Pentheus of Thebes as “this asshole jock, this clean-cut rapey beef-brained” guy). Most importantly, they tell their own stories in a series of monologues of varying length, speaking not in verse but in a type of flowing prose-poetry. Maclaughlin’s approach adds depth and richness to Ovid’s tales and while you may not always agree with her take on the characters (who knows? Maybe Pentheus has some fans out there!) it frequently makes you rethink what’s going on in the stories. Considering that these tales have been retold in verse, prose and music for over two millenia, this is a considerable accomplishment.
Maclaughlin’s format (like Ovid’s) is very conducive to reading in small dips and nibbles, which is very congenial to my currently fractured span of attention (so difficult to concentrate, don’t you find, with all this constant hand washing and disinfecting?). It also has the advantage of letting you skip around, from short monologue (Nyctimene, two pages) to long (Tiresias, twelve pages), from happy (Pomona) to sad (Callisto). My favorite piece so far (I’ve been dipping in and out for several days now) is Maclaughlin’s retelling of the Orpheus myth, the ancient and popular story of a divine musician who descends to Hades, charms the very dead with his song and almost, but not quite, retrieves his beloved wife, killed by a serpent’s bite on their wedding day. In Maclaughlin’s version, Eurydice is the neglected daughter of a rock legend with music in her blood and a great deal of talent of her own. After several unsuccessful and demeaning relationships that reinforce her low self-esteem, she hooks up with “O.,” a world famous singer who adds physical to psychological abuse in his attempts to silence her own song. Realizing on her wedding day that she can’t go through with it, Eurydice flees to the Cobra Club, a raunchy honky-tonk located in a basement and run by HayDaze and his relunctant wife Penny, who goes away every summer on tour (the club’s sign features a red snake, naturally, and Eurydice and her friends joke when they go there that they’ve been “bitten by the serpent.”) O. follows and, using his music to charm and bewitch, almost leads Eurydice to the top of the stairs and out of the club. One final act of cruelty, however, gives Eurydice the impetus to free herself from his spell and, with relief, return to her refuge, the club where everyone goes eventually and which always has room for one more (even at the sold-out shows). Rather than being gimmicky, Maclaughlin’s clever inversion of the myth’s plot and visual elements makes the ancient story as relevant to us as it was to Ovid’s original readers. It also makes for a lively, amusing and horrifying piece of work. (For another great take on the Orpheus myth, try Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eurydice,” from her wonderful poetry collection The World’s Wife.)
So, do I recommend Wake, Siren? Oh yes but . . . with a few teeny caveats. Although Janakay adores giving a new spin to old material and is very fond of a feminist slant, she is aware that not every reader shares her taste for this sort of thing. If, unlike her, you prefer your mythology straight, Maclaughlin’s book is obviously not for you (in that case, you might check out the edition of Ovid pictured above. Stanley Lombardo’s translation is great, there’s a wonderful introductory essay discussing the themes underlying Ovid’s work and some helpful additional features, such as a glossary of names and a table grouping the myths into various categories). There’s also the question of language, which is very uninhibited. Again, this is fine with Janakay (any naughty word she didn’t hear in the navy turned up when her college Latin class translated Petronius’ Satyricon) but if it’s an issue for you, well, there are plenty of other sources to choose from. Oh — before I forget — it isn’t necessary to know the traditional form of the myth to enjoy Maclaughlin’s version, but it’s fun if you have the time and energy to read the two in tandem.
Well, that’s it for tonight, dear readers. Stay healthy, keep washing those hands and if you’ve time to honor the muse in her special month by reading a poem or two, share any particular treasures you may find!
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 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 . . . .