Hello there, dear readers, assuming there are any of you left after my months of silence! Never one to overburden others with my written words (many, many years of turning out legal tootle on schedule finally induced me to take pity on myself and others in this respect), I was nevertheless shocked, positively shocked, to see that it’s been almost three months since I’ve posted anything on my moribund little blog. However did the blogosphere survive my absence? (Rest assured that my question here is satirical!) Although I’ve not been posting I have spent the last few weeks catching up on my blog reading and have no doubt annoyed some of you very much indeed by leaving long, rambling comments on your blogs. You may consider yourself revenged by the fact that your excellent reviews have caused me to add several new peaks to my own Mount TBR of unread books. I’ve simply lacked the energy and concentration, however, to contribute to the online bookish discussion by writing my own reviews. But all this is slowly, slowly changing, now that life is settling down and the boxes are (mostly) unpacked. Because I’ve practically forgotten how to type, much less arrange my thoughts in a coherent structure, I thought I’d ease myself back into things through the forgiving medium of a “miscellany” rather than a formal book review (hopefully the latter will start trickling in during the next few weeks, as I’ve been reading some lovely things).
Because the following sections are totally unrelated to each other, if you find one boring you aren’t missing a thing by scrolling down to the next.
A. MOVING (of most interest to those having a sadistic turn of mind)
Have you ever moved, dear reader? I don’t mean a student move, where you leave the plant at your mom’s, stuff the dirty undies (would one say “knickers” in the U.K. or is this term dated? If you’re British, please enlighten me here) in your backpack and — presto! — off you go! I mean a real, honest-to-god move involving a houseful of furniture; several thousand books; three snarling, foul-tempered cats who were perfectly happy in their old home and a stressed out Mr. Janakay. If you’ve done this, or something comparable, you can understand the trauma of my last twelve months, in which I’ve moved twice, the first a long-distance move to temporary quarters followed just recently by a move to my new and hopefully permanent home, thankfully located in the same city as my temporary abode. After surviving these physical relocations, and living out of boxes and suitcases for almost fourteen months, I can truthfully say “never again, dear reader, never again!”
B. Books Old and Books New; Books Read, Unread and (Maybe) Never to be Read
Despite the difficulties of the last two months or so, I did manage to keep reading. After all, isn’t that what we’re all about? Admittedly, there were disappointments; these primarily centered on my sheer inability to write any reviews for the Japanese Literature in Translation or Independent Publishers months despite reading a few books for both events. Ah, well, that’s what next year is for, isn’t it? My reading choices this year have been all over the place, or perhaps more accurately, more all over the plan than usual (if you’ve read my blog at all, you can see that my taste tends to be, ahem, “eclectic”). As my opening photo demonstrates, my little pile of completed books includes pop pulp (The Godfather, special 50th anniversary edition); a few classics (Henry James’ Spoils of Poynton and Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington); a little literature in translation (Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, for example) and a few fairly obscure offerings from an independent publisher or two, prompted by Kaggsy’s February event (Doon Arbus’ The Caretaker, published by New Directions, is a good example here). During the worst of my move I spent a great deal of time with Joe Abercrombie, an inexplicable choice, no doubt, to those who don’t share my taste for his fantastical grimdark world. What can I say? You either like this stuff or you don’t and, honestly, it was light relief to turn from movers, boxes and home contractors with Covid-19 problems to the exploits of Glotka the torturer. Although I generally enjoyed everything in my pile, some choices were particularly rewarding:
Although I have (almost literally) tons of books I want to get through this year as a result of various challenges, I have two or three in particular that I’ve added to my 2021 list:
Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Proust? If so, you absolutely owe it to yourself to at least spend an hour or so with:
Visual art was very important to Proust (“My book is a painting”), which is readily apparent from the literally hundreds of artists and paintings discussed at various points by the many, many characters who appear, disappear and reappear in In Search of Lost Time. Karpeles’ “visual companion” groups these many art works into chapters that correspond to Proust’s volumes; each entry has a brief introduction, a long quotation from the relevant passage in Proust and an illustration of the art, usually in color. Did you know, for example, that Swann “had the nerve to try and make” the Duc de Guermantes buy a painting “of a bundle of asparagus . . . exactly like the ones” the Duc and his guest were having for dinner? Quelle horreur! Thanks to Karpeles, you can see (and compare) Manet’s rejected Bundle of Asparagus with the Duc’s preferred painting, a “little study by M. Vibert” of a “sleek prelate who’s making his little dog do tricks.” Guess what, dear readers? The Duc should have followed Swann’s advice!
There’s a very good introduction, notes and an index listing the artists alphabetically and keyed to three different Proust editions. It’s been many years since I’ve read Proust and I’d forgotten the wonders of InSearch of Lost Time. After a few hours of browsing Karpeles, however, I’m tempted to re-read at least a volume or two. After all, there are several different editions!
On a last Proustian note: The New Yorker recently did a very good piece on “Conjuring the Music of Proust’s Salons,” in which Alex Ross reviews two recent recordings paying homage to an actual concert organized by Proust on July 1, 1907. Since Proust was as attuned to music as he was to literature and visual art, both recordings sound very interesting indeed. The New Yorker has, alas, a pay wall, but if you haven’t clicked too much this month the article is available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/22/conjuring-the-music-of-prousts-salons.
What’s a miscellany without a few nature photos, thanks to Mr. J? Although I miss some of the parks and preserves that were reasonably accessible to my old home, my new one is located little more than a mile (about 1.5 km) from a nature preserve and some very lovely scenery. Nothing dramatic, you understand, or particularly historic (if you crave history and/or dramatic scenery, you should pop over and read about some of Simon’s lovely excursions) but still — nice.
If you’ve read this far, dear readers, you no doubt agree with me that it’s time for this particular miscellany to end. I hope to post a real review later on in the week; until then au revoir.
If you spend any time at all in the bookish area of the blogosphere, it cannot have escaped your attention that November was Margaret Atwood reading month (#MARM). Although sheer disorganization prevented me from participating (I’m afraid I’m still much like my nine-year old self, who once showed up two days late to her little friend’s birthday party), Atwood is one of my very, very favorite writers and I did in some way want to demonstrate how much her work has meant to me. I can’t claim that I was a fan from the beginning of her career (I can be a bit slow about these things), as I only began reading her work with Life Before Man, which came after Atwood had published several other novels and a great deal of very highly regarded poetry. I also can’t say I was a die-hard Atwood fan from my first read. I liked the novel but . . . wasn’t it a bit too realistic in spots? Did I really like these characters? Wasn’t the tone just a bit too ironic at times? Reader, what can I say? I was very, very young at the time, salad days so to speak, blood like ice water and judgment as green as a head of lettuce. Even laboring under the weight of these disadvantages, however, I was drawn from the beginning to Atwood’s writing without quite having the savvy to understand why; although I had some reservations about my first Atwood novel, its characters lingered in my mind and I remembered certain scenes and phrases long after I finished reading. Without being fanatical about it, I began catching up on Atwood’s backlist and reading her new work pretty quickly after it came out. An added bonus in this respect was discovering a writer who actually published with such pleasing regularity, so there were many wonderful new things to read. (I adore Donna Tartt but . . . only one novel every decade or so? So very frustrating at times.)
And then, after several years of an every increasing appreciation of Atwood’s work, I read The Handmaid’s Tale. I previously wrote about the experience and won’t repeat myself (click here if you’re interested); suffice it to say that I became the equivalent of a sports fan who dresses in her team’s jersey and shows up at games wearing a silly hat and chanting the star player’s name (imagine, if you can, my standing outside a small independent bookstore, chanting “Atwood! Atwood! rah, rah, rah!”) I had grown up on the fringes of an intensely fundamentalist and traditional culture; did time (and that’s exactly how it felt) in an almost exclusively male environment and was making my living working in another when Handmaid was published. I found Atwood’s ability to recognize certain trends that I had experienced at first hand, and to extrapolate those trends to their logical conclusion intensely real and very, very frightening. I went from a warm appreciation of Atwood’s work to rabid fandom, so to speak. On a chilly October evening a few years after my conversion, I took a great deal of trouble to be one of the lucky attendees who heard Atwood read from Cat’s Eye, her then-most-recent novel. Afterwards I and a couple of hundred other enthusiasts stood more or less patiently in line to have Atwood sign a copy of her work (since most of us were reading an Atwood novel while we waited, the patience part wasn’t too difficult). To grasp the personal significance of my attendance and participation at this event, dear reader, please understand that my actions on that oh-so-long ago October directly contravened principles that have guided my life, i.e., always avoid crowds, never stand in line and never, ever attend literary events on cold nights.
So — it’s fair to say that I love Atwood’s fiction and was delighted to learn of November’s Atwood event. I intended to honor the occasion by re-reading one of the early novels but became sidetracked when I started leafing through Dearly, published in the U.S. on November 10 and Atwood’s first book of poetry in almost a decade.
My taste in poetry was formed by the anthologies and collections that are the staple of the undergraduate English courses taught in U.S. universities, which is to say I prefer poems written before 1920, in rhyme and with meanings that are easy to grasp (one notable exception to my criteria is the work of Gerald Manley Hopkins, although I do love his “Spring and Fall”). I have also read very little of Atwood’s poetry, particularly her early work (whose originality and emotional impact are considered superior by at least one critic) nor did I read Dearly with any great intensity, always so necessary with me to fully grasp this very difficult art. So please keep my limitations in mind and don’t hesitate to add your own opinions, comments and corrections to my own remarks.
Although I like most of the Dearly poems very much, do I sink myself beyond redemption, dear reader when I say that I think Atwood’s primarily talent is for her wonderful novels? What I love about Atwood is her wit, her intellect, her sharp observation of the world and its inhabitants, and her uncanny ability to make connections between people and ideas. This makes for interesting, and at times very pleasurable, poetry but it doesn’t quite deliver the emotional impact I look for in the very greatest of poems. In its review of Dearly, the Guardian called Atwood “an undeceived” poet and delicately suggests that a poet, at times, must indulge in a little merciful illusion. I’ve thought about this statement a great deal and while I don’t pretend to fully understand the Guardian’s oracular pronouncement, I sort of get what I think the reviewer meant. Dearly’s poems didn’t give me a transcendent or profound emotional experience (as I had, for example, the first time I read Philip Larkin’s “The Mower”) or cause me to lose myself in their sheer overwhelming gorgeousness of language and imagery (I’m thinking here of a seventeen year old me, reading Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes”). Rather, they were perfect examples of that “undeceived” quality mentioned in the Guardian’s review. I’m going to digress a bit here by quoting some favorite lines from “February,” a poem in a previous Atwood collection (Morning In The Burned House), which I think perfectly conveys this aspect of her poetry:
Winter. Time to eat fat and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat, a black-fur sausage with yellow Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries to get onto my head. It’s his way of telling whether or not I’m dead. If I’m not, he wants to be scratched: if I am he’ll think of something else. He settles on my chest, breathing his breath of burped-up meat and musty sofas purring like a washboard.
Speaking from my own experience, these lines were written by a woman who understands with perfect and unsentimental clarity both the demands of the season and the nature of her feline companion.
Dearly itself, as I said in my caption, is literally a beautiful book, with wonderfully heavy, cream-colored pages that have a marvelous tactile quality. Beware, however, if you have any choice in your editions, which I discovered have different cover art and may differ in some other respects as well. My HarperCollins edition published in the U.S. features a spray of flowers that look like poppies done in muted blues and grey-greens, while the U.K.’s Chatto and Windus edition uses the work of noted British artist Kate MccGwire as the basis of its design, in which the author’s name and the work’s title are nestled among a great, swirling mass of blue and grey bird feathers. Although the cover art of the U.S. edition does give a nod to Atwood’s intense interest in the natural world, I’d go for the Chatto and Windus edition if you have any choice; the feather theme ties in far more directly to the poems (many mention or deal with birds), subtly suggests the uplifting nature of the poems and IMO at least is more visually appealing. Additionally, although Amazon’s U.K. website makes this difficult for me to determine with certainty, the fore pages of the U.K. edition appear to contain facsimiles of Atwood’s handwritten notes.
This stuff about cover art and feathers (not to mention your cats) is all very well, you might say, but what about the contents? Atwood is eighty-one years old and many of the poems, unsurprisingly, reflect the experience of a long life and the passing of time. Atwood dedicates the work to “Graeme, in absentia,” her companion of over forty years who died shortly before the collection was published. Although the work as a whole doesn’t appear to have a common theme, it does contain certain broad subjects that are grouped into five untitled sections. The first begins with the very beautiful “Late Poems,” which introduces the general idea of loss and absence. Like “a letter sent by a sailor, that arrives after he’s drowned,” late poems “wash ashore like flotsam” after “the battle, the sunny day, the moonlit slipping into lust, the farewell kiss” have happened. In Atwood’s view, all poems are “late poems.” The second section deals mainly with various aspects of gender (my current favorite here is “Cassandra Considers Declining the Gift,” in which the doomed prophetess says “no” to “Mr. Musician God”). I particularly enjoyed the third section, which deals with what I can only call “strange creatures;” Atwood’s wit and irony are on full display in poems dealing with, among other things, zombies, aliens, sirens and werewolves. After this come poems about nature (including birds, whales, the arctic and wolves) and the frequently nasty things that happen there. The last section contains the poems about Graeme’s fading away (in his last years he was battling dementia) and death.
My current favorite poem from the entire collection (“Blackberries” is a close second) is “Feather:”
One by handfuls the feathers fell. Windsheer, sun bleach, owlwar, some killer with a shotgun,
who can tell? But I found them here on the quasi-lawn– I don’t know whose torn skin–
calligraphy of wrecked wings, remains of a god that melted too near the moon.
A high flyer once, as we all were. Every life is a failure
at the last hour, the hour of dried blood. But nothing, we like to think,
is wasted, so I picked up one plume from the slaughter sharpened and split the quill, hunted for ink,
and drew this poem with you, dead bird. With your spent flight,
with your fading panic, with your eye spiraling down, with your night.
I’ve gone on many nature walks and have seen these little piles of feathers and bones fairly often; I can’t say that my reactions went much deeper than a passing regret or sadness that soon disappeared. It takes a poet to imagine, and then transform, the panic and exhaustion of that slaughtered creature into the life and beauty of a poem.
Before I end this rather rambling post, a few additional things are worth noting. First is the presence of Atwood’s characteristic wit and sense of humor. While many of the poems are somber, many of the others are very, very funny (I defy anyone to read “Aliens” without a smile). On a more logistical level, the collection contains two poem cycles, “Plasticene Suite,” which deals with the environment and what we’ve done to it, and “Songs for Murdered Sisters,” written for the baritone Joshua Hopkins, whose own sister was murdered (music for this was composed by Jake Heggie). Lastly, and in contrast with my own choices, the collection’s most popular piece appears to be the title poem “Dearly.” The Guardian published a wonderful interview with Atwood, which contains a link to Atwood herself reading the poem; if you’re interested, it’s available here.
Because this posting is a “Miscellany,” I had initially thought I’d include some other, unrelated topics. I became so interested in Dearly, however, things got out a little out of hand and I’m afraid I’ve exceeded my own attention span, not to mention yours as well! So, perhaps a “Monday Miscellany”? Hmmmmmm . . . .
Are you, dear reader, a fan of Halloween? It’s a holiday I remember very fondly from my childhood. Decked out in a cardboard witch’s hat (costumes were much less elaborate back in the day), I’d join one of the packs of neighborhood kids and spend a few glorious hours going door to door, free of adult supervision, with a candy bag getting heavier at each stop. The nighttime wandering was followed by the wonderful, if competitive, ritual of examining and comparing our somewhat grubby spoils and making trades. Did the kid next door get more chocolate than I did? Could I persuade one of my little buddies to swap his M&Ms for my green jelly beans (generally the answer was “no”)? Ah, the memories! A lifetime away from the candy haul, I retain a vestigial fondness for this holiday. So, on Halloween night my lights are always on, the candy bowl by the door filled with primo goodies (no green jelly beans at my house) and the bell is always answered, even when the little goblins and space invaders interrupt a chapter in whatever exciting new book I happen to be reading. In short, Janakay has always honored the season!
This year, however, I am totally not into it. Partly it’s my personal circumstances, which have included a long distance move from this:
Primarily, however, the sparkle and playfulness I’ve always associated with Halloween are totally overshadowed this year by the horrors of an ugly and divisive election, civil unrest created by social injustice and a pandemic that has already killed hundreds of thousands. Who can attend to imaginary terrors, when the real things are so frighteningly close at hand?
But in the midst of chaos and civic unrest, we readers always have our books, don’t we? As I noted last year, I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that we humans love to scare ourselves, as well as by our individual differences in what we each find personally terrifying. I’ve always tended, for example, to favor tales of the occult and supernatural rather than the thriller/slasher brand of horror; more Shirley Jackson and less Freddy Krueger, if that makes sense. And, while I don’t read huge quantities of horror fiction, I have accumulated over the years a clutch of “weird tales,” to use a 1930s term. Although most of my books are still packed and awaiting a home on their new shelves, a quick rummage through what’s available disclosed:
Since I’ve been too enervated and apathetic this year to observe my little ritual of including something creepy and dark in my October reading, I thought I’d share some “horrible” reading from earlier in the year. These are three very different works, read at widely spaced intervals; while I enjoyed all three, I did so in varying degrees. In ascending order of appreciation, I’ll begin with:
Have you ever, dear reader, moved approximately four thousand books, seven rooms of furniture, a significant other and three very unhappy cats in the middle of a pandemic? Having (barely) survived the experience, being “swallow[ed] . . . whole” by a horror novel was a piece of cake. I spent a week in May soothing myself in Thomas’ debut novel, which follows the adventures of alienated teen Ines Murillo as she navigates her way through the elite corridors of Catherine House, not a college, exactly, although accredited as such; more (2-3)
a community of minds. A crucible of experimental, reformist liberal arts study. Research-and-development institute for the most radical new materials sciences. A postsecondary school more selective than any Ivy League, and so terrifically endowed that tuition was free to any student lucky enough to be accepted. A tiny, pioneering, fanatically private place that by some miracle of chemistry produced some of the world’s best minds; prizewinning authors, artists and inventors, diplomats, senators, Supreme Court justices, two presidents of the United States. A school and an estate: a complex confection of architecture and design, a house — a magnificent house — miles off the highway, in black woods, behind a long iron gate.
In exchange for all this beneficence, students surrender their cell phones, forgo contact with the outside world (including their families) and spend three years secluded on Catherine’s grounds. Does it surprise you, dear reader, to learn that dark deeds are afoot and that Ines, who spends most of her days drinking and — well, engaged in intimate encounters — may be destined for a dark fate? Unfortunately these things were pretty obvious less than halfway through the novel, but Thomas can write and has a real gift for creating an imaginative and disturbing world that’s inhabited by fairly interesting characters (although Ines was admittedly a little tedious at times). If you forget the over the top comparisons to Donna Tart’s Secret History or Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (some reviewers never know when to stop, do they?), love novels heavy on atmosphere and don’t mind if you can guess the plot twists, Catherine House is a very enjoyable way to spend a day or two (it clocks in at around 300 pages) and would make a great Halloween read.
A step up from Catherine House, in terms of originality and impact, is
I became interested in Schweblin after reading several very enthusiastic reviews of Little Eyes, her latest novel translated from Spanish into English; I wanted to try Schweblin’s work but didn’t feel up to tackling a full-length novel (her short story collection Mouthful of Birds was off limits because I can’t handle anything involving graphic violence to animals). More a novella than a novel proper (it has 150 pages of very, very large type), Fever Dreams seemed the most accessible introduction to Schweblin’s work. (I actually read this in August, for Spanish Literature month, but never got around to writing a review).
It’s fortunate that Fever Dreams is so brief, because it’s almost impossible to put down once you begin reading it, with its combination of doom, horror and mystery. It’s a tightly structured work, told mostly in conversational questions and answers between Amanda, a young woman who lies dying in a remote, rural hospital, and David, the mysterious child who is not Amanda’s son and whose questions, editings and probings create an almost unbearable level of suspense for both Amanda and the reader. David, you see, is interested in nothing beyond the “worms” or “something very much like worms, and the exact moment” when they first “touch your body.” When Amanda’s account deviates into non-essentials, David reminds her that “there is very little time;” when Amanda doubts the accuracy and reality of her memories, David assures her that her nightmare is indeed real. For all its brevity, Fever Dreams is technically quite complex, as it explains the Amanda and David story arc, set in the present, by means of a dialogue between Amanda and Carla, David’s mother, set in the past. Part environmental disaster, part folk horror and all nightmare, Fever Dreams is an incredible accomplishment. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Granta had recently named Schweblin as one of its top young Spanish language writers or that her subsequent novel was long-listed for the 2020 Man Booker International Prize.
The third (and scariest) of my three scary reads is “The Fly Paper,” a short story by Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, that Elizabeth Taylor, the nice British lady whose reputation has undergone something of a Renaissance in recent times. In the years since I’ve first encountered Taylor (I’ve read almost all of her novels and have begun working on her short stories) my own opinion of her work has shifted significantly, from condescension to true admiration. The surface of Taylor’s deceptively cozy, middle class world can conceal some pretty dark stuff, which is nowhere more evident than in “Fly Paper.” The story concerns Sylvia, a plain and sullen child of eleven with “greasy hair fastened back by a pink plastic slide.” The unmusical Sylvia lives with her grandmother, who won’t let her eat sweets and insists on a weekly music lesson, a torment for the child who’s bullied by her exasperated teacher. Sylvia has received all the usual warnings against speaking to strangers, so she’s duly alarmed when, on her weekly bus ride to her music lesson, a strange man strikes up a conversation and tries to buy her an ice. Her fears are assuaged, however, by a motherly woman who intervenes and invites her to tea. About midway through the story, my flash of where Taylor might be taking me almost literally made me ill and I had to stop reading for a bit. Perhaps I was over reacting, perhaps I was having a bad day, perhaps Taylor was simply a brilliant writer who knew, instinctively or otherwise, that horror is heightened when it’s combined, oh so simply, with the perfectly observed quotidian details of an ordinary day.
Well, folks, that’s it for this Halloween! It’s time to take a page from Maxi’s book and call it a night.
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!
Janakay loves a bookish challenge, don’t you? She was incredibly excited to learn (several weeks after the rest of the world, but then, Janakay has always moved at her own pace!) that Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge would be offered again this year. Undeterred by last year’s results (being just a teensy bit better at reading novels than writing reviews, I, alas, didn’t complete quite all of my challenge books), I immediately began the happy task of compiling a book list for the 2020 Classics Challenge. Iadore lists in general; they’re fun to make and give such a sense of accomplishment, don’t you think? In fact, Janakay was so satisfied with her list that she had to remind herself to stop basking in the glory of her accomplishment and to begin actually reading all those lovely books! And this year, they’re all going to be read! What’s a Challenge for, if not to set one’s expectations sky high?
And of all the lists on all the subjects in the universe, what list could possibly be better than a list of books that one intends to read? Making the list is a perfect excuse to leave the dishes in the sink (not that I need an excuse for this, exactly, but I’m sure you understand what I mean) to do what I like best, which is to to “ooh” and “ah” over all my wonderful unread treasures (there was one downside to this, as it did set off my dust allergy! Despite my “big sort,” some of my treasures haven’t been ooh’ed and ah’ed over in quite some time!). No matter how many times January rolls around I always find it a time of wonderful possibilities, particularly when it comes to reading. I think what makes a January book list particularly exciting is that it embodies in a very special way the hope that this year I’ll meet a wonderful new author, or find that rare book I’ll add to my “I’ll read it again” list (told you! I love lists!) or even simply pick up a new idea or new way of looking at a familiar subject, literary or not (Have any of you read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea? After I finished it, I could never think about Jane Eyre in quite the same way). For all its fun, however, compiling my Challenge list was also demanding. A book list bears a dual aspect (so fitting for a month named for a god who has two faces) as it both embodies and limits possibilities. For each book I placed on my list, I rejected two or three others. And Janakay just hates rejecting books, even temporarily! Will I read some of the novels that didn’t make my 2020 list? Absolutely! But it’s far less likely that I’ll do so, particularly in 2020. The list, once made, sets the priorities!
In compiling my own list this month I’ve very much enjoyed peeking just a bit at the 2020 Challenge lists of some of my bookish friends and admiring many of their oh-so-enticing and ingenious choices. It’s been particularly fun this year, since many of the Classic Challenge’s categories are in the nature of open-ended and imaginative prompts, which require some effort to satisfy (“Hmmm, what can I read that has nature in the title? Does a waterfall count?”). It was quite interesting to discover (as Silvia noted in her own list) that so many titles actually fit multiple categories. These cases raise the additional question of which category to use? Oh, such delightful dilemmas!
Without any more blather (please feel free to skip the first two paragraphs of this post; Janakay doesn’t mind!) here are my choices for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.
19th Century Classic: To my surprise, this was one of my toughest categories to fill this year, due to a combination of a picky, impossible-to-please mood and the desire to read someone other than Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Austen, Hardy, Brontes (any and all), James, Gissing, Gaskell and Meredith! I considered reading Disraeli’s Sybille, which the Guardian lists as one the great novels in English, but these days I just don’t want to read anything associated with a politician! I finally settled on Emily Eden’s Semi-Detached House (1859); my copy is a Virago Modern Edition that also contains Eden’s other well-known novel, The Semi-Attached Couple (depending on time and interest, I may read this as well).
In all candor, dear readers (and Janakay is usually candid, despite her former profession as an attorney), I was attracted to this novel because of its author, one of those fascinating and influential 19th century women whom we (or at least I) are always surprised to discover. Born into a politically active family of Whig aristocrats, Eden was a prominent political hostess and in 1835 accompanied her brother to India, where for several years he served as Governor-General. The diaries she kept during these years inspired Susannah Moore’s One Last Look, a great contemporary novel I read a few years back. (Side note & utterly irrelevant to the Classics Challenge: I love Susannah Moore and would really recommend her when you, dear reader, want something “modern”!) When I discovered my yellowing copy of Eden’s own novels in a box retrieved last week from my basement, I felt (quite irrationally, I’ll admit) like I was encountering an old friend! My choice was made!
20th Century Classic (originally published between 1900 and 1970): Something by Ivy Compton-Burnett. Although I haven’t visited dear Ivy, metaphorically, in quite some time, I love her work. In fact, I placed her on my 2019 Classics Challenge list, saved her for December as a special little treat and my own personal antidote to the fake cheer of the holiday season (Ms Compton-Burnett is not a writer you turn to for cheer, fake or otherwise) then ran out of time and missed my read! This year, I will do better! My current candidates are Manservant and Maidservant (1947); A House & its Head (1935); or Pastors and Masters (probably this one!).
Classic by a Woman Author: I appear to be the only person in the blogosphere who hasn’t read Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963). 2020 will be the year Janakay joins the crowd! On the (extremely) off chance that I can’t get into it, I’ll probably substitue Spark’s The Mandelbaum Gate for my novel in this category.
Classic in Translation: My acquaintance with German literature is slight, being mostly limited to a few novels by Thomas Mann. The Classics Challenge is a perfect opportunity to finally get around to Theodor Fontane’s Effie Briest (pub. 1895), languishing unread on my shelves since 2010.
Classic by a POC: A couple of years ago, I audited a course on the Harlem Renaissance, that flowering of African-American art, literature and culture that occurred in New York City’s Harlem in the 1920s. It was a wonderful introduction to a group of artists and intellectuals who were long denied the recognition that should have been theirs. One of the most interesting of these figures to me was Nella Larsen, the biracial daughter of a Danish immigrant mother and a father of mixed African and European ancestry. Larsen, who trained as a nurse, published two novels and was regarded by her contemporaries as a talented writer. By the early 1930s, however, she disappeared from the literary scene and her work was out of print until a revival of interest in the late 1990s. I read and admired her second novel, Passing, as part of my course work, finding it a fascinating study of racial and sexual identity. Despite my good intentions, however, I never got around to reading Quicksand, her earlier and more autobiographical work. Thanks to the Classics Challenge, 2020 will be my year! (P.S. the book cover below is based on a very beautiful painting by Archibald Motley, a major artist of the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary of Larsen’s).
A Genre Classic: I grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy, which I lumped in with fairy tales, mythology and novels about life outside my small southern town. So . . . picking a book from this genre was a natural choice. But which book? That’s a bit of a problem. Although I’m quite fond of much of the early stuff, I’ll be the first to admit that its language, style and character development are less appealing to me than in days of yore. (I still love the cover art, however, particularly when it involves aliens or space babes! Does that make Janakay sexist?). I finally settled on Walter M. Miller’s 1959 A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was discussed in an undergraduate “History in Science Fiction” class, which I took many years ago; it was cited as the very embodiment of the cyclical theory of history, i.e., the notion that history is simply a series of repeating cycles or events. I can’t even remember whether I actually read Canticle at the time; if so, it certainly didn’t leave much of an impression on me! Still, it’s considered a foundational work in the field and I’m now curious to see and share my current opinion of it.
Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title: Despite a plethora of possibilities, I instantly settled on Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout (pub. 1968), which I’ve wanted to read for quite some time. (I’ve had a copy, unread, since 2011. My bad!) As I’ve noted before, I have a very ambivalent attitude towards Bowen’s fiction, which at times is a bit too rarefied for me; when I want rarefied, I generally head for Henry James if my energy level is high. Bowen, however, is a beautiful stylist, can be very funny at times, and convincingly portrays mid-20th century upper class English life, a world I find incredibly exotic. Besides, at this point I’ve read seven of her ten novels, and I have to complete my list!
Classic with a Place in the Title: Has anyone read the Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo (1917-2007)? She was largely unknown in the U.S. until a few years ago, when the New York Review of Books (NYRB) reissued her great novel, TheDoor. I read it on a whim and it blew me away; I thought it was easily one of the best things I had read in years. The Door‘s success (France’s Prix Femina Étrabger; one of the New York Time’s 10 best books of 2015) has led to other NYRB reissues of Katalin Street as well as several other Szabo novels. The tale of three Budapest families during WWII, Katalin Street was originally published in Hungarian in 1969; it just squeaks in under the Classics Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date. My alternative selection (which I may read instead) is Glenway Wescott’s 1945 Apartment in Athens, another NYRB reissue.
Classic with Nature in the Title: This category had me stumped for a day or so; then the titles starting flooding through my mind, so to speak. I was all set to go with Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest (has anyone read Olivia Manning? She’s a wonderful novelist who IMO is sadly neglected) until I checked its publication date — 1974, four years over the Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date! Shucky darn, that one’s out! I finally settled on The Alien Sky (1953), an early novel by Paul Scott, the author of the Raj Quartet. I loved the Quartet (its treatment of the human and political consequences of British colonialism rivals J.G. Farrell’s) and am very curious to see how a stand alone work compares to it. My alternative, if Alien Sky disappoints, is Stella Gibbon’s Nightingale Wood or Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage.
Classic about a Family or with Family Members in the Title: Although my compulsion to re-read Jane Austen is gaining momentum by the day, I firmly rejected Mansfield Park in favor of Daphne du Mauier’s Parasites, a semi-autobiographical tale of three slacker siblings from a notable theatrical family. With its lack of gothic and romantic trappings, I don’t think it’s very representative of du Maurier’s better known works, which is fine. I’m fascinated by tales of dysfunctional families (like Tolstoy said, they’re all different; it’s the happy folks who are boring) and I’ve been intending to read this one for many, many years.
Abandoned Classic: Janakay was so excited to see this category because it gives her so very much to choose from! Most of Dickens! All of Hardy (except for Tess, which wasn’t so bad)! A Brontë or three (or four) — Janakay’s last attempt at Shirley didn’t go well! Should she risk drowning (again) in Ms Woolf’s Waves or getting stomped for the third or fourth time by that nasty moocow thing? (my apologies to you lovers of Joyce. I concede his greatness but even his Portrait of the Artist is a mountain I’ve yet to climb. Don’t even mention Ulysses! Janakay would rather not think about it). No! No! No! Janakay just can’t read any of those things this year — she has to pack boxes and move! Allowances must be made! Luckily, I finally remembered Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of those erudite and interesting British women novelists who always turn up on my list of favorites. Many years ago, I attempted The Corner that Held Them (1948), considered by many to be Warner’s greatest novel; I was quite disappointed in it, however, and gave up the slog about halfway through (it’s long). In retrospect, I think my disappointment was due to timing; I attempted Corner immediately after reading Lolly Willowes and on some level expected the former to be largely the same. In the years since my initial disappointment, however, I’ve read Warner’s Summer Will Show (a tremendous novel); Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (so delightfully malicious! Janakay loved it) and several of her short stories and no longer expect a Warner novel to be a repetition of anything, including an earlier Warner novel (STW is an original writer). With my expectations tempered and under control, I’m now ready to re-evaluate The Corner that Held Them. (P.S.: I’ve already started reading it! It’s wonderful!).
Classic Adaptation: This is a difficult category simply because there are so many great choices! I opted against several tempting ones (Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier; Forster’s Passage to India) in favor of something by Richard Yates, a writer I’ve been intending to sample for quite some time. Published in 1962, Revolutionary Road meets the Challenge’s pre-1970 cutoff date, which Easter Parade does not. Road was also adapted for a 2008 film directed by Sam Mendes that reunited Leonard DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates, all of whom starred in the movie “Titanic.” I missed the film, so it will be fun to compare my initial impressions of it after reading the original source material.
Well, dear readers, that’s it for my post. As you can see, I have an exciting year of Challenge reading ahead of me!