Monday, November 29, 2010

Gish Jen's World and Town

Gish Jen's World and Town is a favorite novel of the year--this on the basis of the first 100 pages.  It's beautifully written, absorbing, peopled with engaging, distinctive characters, and also manages to document some of the intricacies of modern life:   the role of town meetings in New England, community responsibility, cell phone towers, environmental concerns, cancer, old age, friendships with difficult people, and helping Cambodian immigrants in trouble.  One of the reasons I love this is that it is about contemporary life, as opposed to the careful detailing of important events of many good, well-researched historical novels this year.  Jen dares to tell us what's happening now.

World and Town is very different from Jen's 1996 novel, Mona in the Promised Land, the hilarious story of a Chinese-American teenager who decides to convert to Judaism. Hattie Kong, the half-Chinese, half-American heroine of World and Town, is is one of the most dignified, original, and politically liberal women I've met in fiction.  She is sixty-eight years old and has a broad perspective on life, as a woman raised in China, the daughter of a Chinese man and an American missionary who rejected her religion and settled in China.  Personal reasons have led Hattie to Riverlake, a small northern New England town, where she hopes to find calm and quiet and make a new life for herself.  Her husband and best friend have died of cancer.  A retired science teacher, she now paints and does yoga.  She is also politically active.

One of the first political conflicts of the book revolves around a cell phone tower. At a Town Hall meeting, a huge crowd of people from different backgrounds opposes a local family's plans to make money from leasing land to the cell phone company. They raise concerns about radiation and holes in the service.  Hattie speaks at the meeting.

"It's hard not to notice the convenience of cell phones," she says, her voice clear and strong; she can feel the vibration in her thoracic cavity.  "But ought there not be one place on earth that cell phones can't reach?" 

One has a strong feeling of the passionate involvement of the townspeople, and the liberal voices seem real.  It reminds me of my youth, not in a New England town.  And doesn't one really feel this about cell phones?  Shouldn't there be some quiet places?

Hattie also is ambivalent about e-mail.  Old friends and relatives in China contact her. She isn't always happy about these messages from the past.  The email can be burdensome: the relatives want her to send her parents' bodies back to China.  "She half expects to be hearing from the dead direct, pretty soon..."

She attends a yoga class and has a walking group.  How I'd love to join these!  It's been years since I took yoga, and, who knows?  Maybe Jen's book will inspire me to take it up again. 

The delineation of Hattie's friendship with the Cambodian neighbors is also fascinating.  She is a good neighbor:  brings them cookies, gives them an old wheelbarrow, takes the daughter, the designated English translator of the family, to the farmer's market, and helps them out in a health crisis.  She is not the kind of person who gets overly involved personally, or so it seems so far, but she sees what needs to be done.  And the family has a troubled history:  the father, traumatized by the war, cannot work; the mother can't speak English; the son has money, having been involved with a gang in the city.  

More later.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean in "Giant"
Although Edna Ferber's Giant is less entertaining than her Pulitzer-winning grand Cather-mixed-with-Upton-Sinclairish novel,  So Big, it certainly has its great moments. Some of Ferber's novels--Giant and Ice Palace--are thinly disguised sociological studies, the former of Texas, the latter of Alaska.  In Giant, the elaborate underpinnings of her research reveal a history of exploitation and dirty secrets. Giant infuriated Texans when it was published in 1952.  It  is impressive in a way: she describes the rich ranchers' pride in the state's bigness, their exploitation of Mexicans, the history of illegal immigration (yes, it has long been a problem), the ranchers' frightening conspiracy to lock up Mexicans during elections unless they vote according to their employers' orders, the nouveau riche oilmen, and the (no pun intended) crudeness of the barren culture.  Ferber's lively, charming heroine, Leslie, a Virginian intellectual who falls in love with a charming rancher, is appalled by much that she sees in her husband's Texas.  And so are we.

In the holiday season I like to read old novels.  1952?  Old enough.  Although many people are genuinely absorbed by family reunions and holiday preparations, I personally find the fuss a bit excessive.  Read old novels--a good way to escape the pressured culture.  I certainly enjoy giving and getting gifts but perhaps Thanksgiving and Christmas are too close together. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Barbarians and Languages

Only an idiot would destroy a foreign language program, but that is exactly what is going on at state universities.

In the Nov. 7 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rosemary G. Feal wrote:

"Throughout my career, I have observed that the advanced study of languages is not universally valued in the American educational system. Even so, I was stunned by the announcement this fall that the State University of New York at Albany will eliminate major, minor, and graduate programs in French, Italian, Russian, and the classics (the German program was already reduced), along with theater. When financial exigencies hit, decisions to cut services and programs (and not just academic ones) must be made, but the Albany plan is astoundingly draconian: No European languages except Spanish will be taught beyond the early semesters, and 10 tenure-line faculty members will be let go."

Frightening, isn't it?  State universities have sucessfully disseminated foreign languages and culture to the middle and lower classes.  Where else does an ordinary person fall in love with Russian, turn into a French major, or become so enchanted by classics one doesn't come up for air for six years?   The elite do not as yet do not have an educational advantage, except in networking opportunities.  We can study everything at state universities that is offered at Ivy League schools.   If languages are cut from the state university curriculum, we no longer have equal educational choices.  For most of us an expensive school is/was not an option.  I went to school on loans, grants, jobs and assistantships. What if I had been unable to study classics? 

When I was a student, I was determined to get a good education.  I wanted to learn subjects the "privileged" had access to. Friends had gone to prep schools and studied two languages.  It seemed like an excellent idea, and at the university I worked like a bat out of hell to catch up.

In Greek, a barbarian was a foreigner whose language sounded like "bar-bar-bar."  Apparently the budget cutters think other languages are "bar-bar-bar." 

On a small personal note, my adult education classics program was decimated on the basis of one complaint. The complainer was a control freak.  To give you an idea of her personality, here's a true story.  After taking my beginning Latin class, she left a five-minute rambling message on my answering machine on Easter Sunday (drunk or nutty?) encouraging me to apply for a high-school Latin teaching job.  She insisted that she knew "ways to get around the certification."  I was surprised and thought she must be incredibly lonely to call on Easter.  Although I wasn't interested in the job, and doubted she single-handedly could waive the certification, I called her back the next day and thanked her.

Then she called me again before I started teaching Greek to insist that it was impossible to get the book and was I sure that I had the right copyright?  Yes, I was sure, and no one else had trouble ordering it.  But this was a very, very big deal in her mind. 

Latin is difficult. The Greek, however, is more difficult.  It was the Class from Hell.  My husband says this was my first "public school teaching experience."  I'm not a snob, but that would be accurate.  Some didn't learn the alphabet, others sat in the back and talked, the complainer walked blithely about the room and chatted. I finally asked the stoned couple to leave, since some people really did want to listen and learn--the guy sat there mockingly with his hand held permanently up in the air after he asked a question and chatted while I embarked on the long explanation only for him.  The complainer told me she didn't do the homework (well, she hadn't in Latin, either).  I asked her politely to be quiet.  "It might help if everybody sat down and was quiet," I suggested desperately.

She complained to my supervisor. (The two I asked to leave didn't call to complain.) She told her "there had been a little bit of grandstanding" but nothing that merited my asking students to leave, that she couldn't read my handwriting (I mildly suggested to my supervisor that it would have helped her to learn the alphabet), and that she wanted her money back.  

"A little bit of of grandstanding," I repeated.  (The guy actually came up and got in my face.)

Now to make you understand this situation better, my supervisor doesn't know what Latin and Greek are. She's a bureaucrat.  No one was more surprised than she to be talked into Latin.  She isn't the kind of person who's in your corner.  Last year, when someone complained that I was teaching Latin grammar, though, as I tried to explain to her, in ancient languages it is necessary to analyze literary grammar in order to translate, she told me to change my approach. I added a lot of derivative study, hours of typing extra exercises, which I paid to photocopy, but it turned out that most were there to learn the language and didn't see the point of the derivative study. Half an hour of each of my two-hour classes was aimed at someone who quit.

Anyway, I didn't feel like going through this frantic reconstruction of lesson plans because one sour old woman couldn't bear to be asked to be quiet.  So I resigned.  There were, of course, students who wanted to learn. One student sent me an email saying I was an excellent teacher and that she was sorry about the situation. (I really am a very good teacher and got stellar evaluations from my Latin classes.) She said she thought some of the people in the class were "if I may say so, crazy." Another told me there was nothing I could have done but ask the two to leave, that it was absurd for those who didn't know the alphabet to stop and ask me every letter.  I was very grateful to have my version of reality supported. 

I can only imagine how serious professors of languages must feel when their programs are deemed unnecessary because of numbers of students and because they haven't been able to win a popularity contest. (Since when has liberal arts been about numbers?  This is very much a business attitude.  We need some people to know languages). Many professors have already jumped through hoops trying to popularize their subjects.

in my own case, the "classics program" was an experiment.  I had a rather sweet idea of offering classics through a program that concentrates on crafts and "fun" activities.  This program offers a few languages, lots and lots of Spanish, as you can imagine.  The Latin class was successful.  My evaluations were excellent. Most know Latin is "dead" and expected to do some work.  The Greek class...well, my guess is that most had no idea what the book was about and why I wasn't teaching  fun little phrases.  Some may not quite have understood it was the Greek of fifth century Athens, not the 21st century.  Instead of declensions of barbaros (barbarian) and agora (marketplace), I should have composed meaningless dialogues like those in language books of yore. "Plato, order a drink for me, okay?"  "I have to take this call, Socrates." "Aeschylus, where is the nearest theater festival?"  "Medea, wow, are you always so impulsive?"  "Orpheus, it was selfish to look back."

I can't take it seriously.  What shocks me is the malice of the woman who complained.  

That's life.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving: A Day of Reading

The Thanksgiving feast is so easy to prepare that I spent five hours reading.  
9-10:  Drank coffee and read Edna Ferber's Giant.  This old-fashioned novel delineates the story of three generations of the Benedicts, wealthy ranchers who live simply but eventually fly around Texas, hobnobbing with oil millionaires.  The spunky heroine, Leslie, an intellectual Virginian (originally from Ohio), has beautiful manners, a strong will, and a civilizing influence on the family.  After Bick visits her father's farm in the Washington area to buy a racehorse, the young Leslie stays up all night reading about Texas (a woman after my own heart).  She quickly wins him with her knowledge, though at first he thinks she's too radical in her criticism of Texans' cheating Mexicans out of their land.  Ferber gives us a long history lesson in the course of this conversation.

 After their quick wedding and a brisk New York honeymoon, Leslie is shocked by the stark ranch and bookless house.  Her trousseau is a little too fancy.  She doesn't fit in. She tells him:
"Uh--look, dear, I must order a lot of books from Brentano's in Washington."
 "Oh, you won't do much reading here."

"But I always read.  I read a lot.  It's like saying you won't do much breathing out here."  Her tone was a trifle sharp for a bride.
She's going to need a LOT of books over the years.

I had been thinking about reading Peyton Place, but didn't have a copy, so I started reading Giant.  If you want to read Ferber at her best, read her 1924 Pulitzer-winning novel So Big or her Emma McChesney stories (Roast Beef, Rare, etc.).

10-3.  Prepared turkey and stuffing.   Yes, and some of those things in the picture below.
Shed pajamas in cold house and donned jeans and a warm autumnal-looking sweater (it has a design of embroidered leaves, is very thick, and is a stand-by for cold weather).  Read more of Giant and occasionally get up to clear table surfaces, polish tables, and clean kitchen.


Mmm, this turkey is delicious.   
The secret is...
[They've heard this before and chorus...]  Roasting it in a slow oven.
...And fresh ingredients.
Ha ha ha.
[There is much mimicry of restaurant talk around here, everybody having worked at a restaurant.]
I kind of like the green bean casserole.  

[General lack of enthusiasm, though. We've never had this traditional dish before, but I did use fresh green beans.  The recipe is at the Campbell's soup website.]
The pie is fantastic.
Best I ever had.
[Everybody had two pieces.]
[Lots of gossip about entertainment news.  We talked about the women on The View.]
Did you know that Whoopi Goldberg is a grandmother?
I really wish we had a copy of Ghost.
Yeah, Whoopi won the academy award for that.
My favorite is The Food Network. Did you see the sauerkraut and turkey?
[Everybody is properly grossed out.]

And so another Thanksgiving ends.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Do You Want to Buy a Turkey, Shut up, or Just Read?

No, sorry, we can't have this.
Thanksgiving is a big deal.  People have already purchased their "supplies" for the holiday.  A Thanksgiving feast is a bit like joining a super-familial militia for the weekend.  There are several rules, and if you don't like it, just shut up about it.  It's easier to subvert the rules slightly than to change them altogether.

1.  You're required to spend time with your family. Actually, that's not so hard because Thanksgiving is a low-pressure holiday. If you know someone alone, this is obviously a very good time to invite him or her to the festivities. I'm very grateful to friends who hung out with me on Thanksgiving when I was single and divorced. (Okay, we cheated and went to a buffet.) The problem with family holidays:  there is a lot of football and that can be irritating. Men tend to sprawl in front of the TV; women to cook and clean. Cards can trump football after awhile if you're lucky.  Take a walk if it's possible.  It's very important to get the men away from the football or your Thanksgiving can be RUINED.

2.  You're required to cook a lot. Fortunately it's all very easyYou can use Pepperidge Farm stuffing, bags of salad, Ocean Spray cranberries, and various other cheating.    It's the one time of year when we buy name-brands.  As for me, I'm wondering whether to buy the turkey at Trader Joe's--I got the leaflet in the mail and want the organic turkey and am inspired by the ads to make my own garlic mashed potatoes and cranberry-apple pie--or at the supermarket? It's much, much better to buy organic, but Trader Joe's is way out in the suburbs.   We can't buy Butterball--I've heard very, very bad things.  This is an occasion when you have to take charge and make decisions about your family's nutrition.

3.  You have to eat a lot.  I've already had one Thanksgiving dinner.  Many of us attend more than one.  I've already put on some of those pounds I lost last summer.  Yesterday I had turkey, stuffing, and pie.  On Thursday the same thing...

4.  Personally I plan to read a lot Thursday.  I'll read between basting the turkey, and I've got my reading lined up.  I'm in the mood to read Grace Metallious's Peyton Place or maybe The Thorn Birds. Fast-moving sagas.  Yes.  My mother and I used to watch Peyton Place on TV.  I've never seen The Thorn Birds but maybe that's the kind of thing for women to curl up in front of on the holidays.  

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Which Writer Has the Best Latin?

Aeneas in the Underworld (Brueghel)
The best writers quote Latin.  They pay homage to the rich language and culture which had the greatest influence on the English language, Western literature, law, mythology, grammar, and history.

Yet there are a zillion errors in Latin phrases and quotations in books. 

A. S. Byatt made a mistake in her excellent novel, The Children's Book" his et omnis donis tuis." The ablative plural of omnis is omnibus. It's a third-declension adjective, not a second-declension, and, yes, the ending is -ibus, not -is.

Paul Fussell, in his clever 1980s book, Class: A Guide to the American Status System, also made a basic declension error. Latin can be about class, but sometimes even the classiest go astray.

I recently found an error in the excellent Y.A. fantasy novel, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare.  (Thank you, onliners, for recommending this book.)  Clare uses the phrase invictus nox ("invincible night"), but the correct form of the adjective is invicta, not invictus.  The adjective modifies a feminine singular nominative noun; therefore, the correct ending is  "a."

Writers of historical novels like Robert Harris (Imperium and Pompeii), Steven Saylor (Roma), and Helen Dunmore (Counting the Stars) are very careful about their Latin quotes.

Margaret Drabble is also an excellent Latinist.  The heroine of her wonderful novel, The Seven Sisters, respects Latin and refuses to teach it even as a sub because she knows she's not qualified.  Candida is a student of The Aeneid who feels drawn to Virgil's underworld (Book VI).  Drabble doesn't mess around with the Latin any more than her heroine does.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Vera Wright Trilogy

I am reading Elizabeth Jolley's The Vera Wright Trilogy with great admiration. The book must be overdue by now, but I can't return it until I've finished the third novel.  This is why I often buy books:  I pay for the library books with my fines anyway. 

Jolley, an award-winning Australian writer whose work was briefly feted in the U.S. in the '80s and early '90s, was praised by Robert Coover, Peter Ackroyd, and Frederich Busch. Then she suddenly disappeared.  Her work went out of print here.  She kept on writing in Australia until her death in 2007.

Persea has reissued the award-winning trilogy and what a pleasure it is to find these stunning novels, My Father's Moon, Cabin Fever, and The Georges' Wife.  Elizabeth Jolley's style is Virginia-Woolf-meets-D.-H.-Lawrence, a poetic yet blunt stream-of-consciousness mixed with erotic strangeness and lies.  I can't pretend I like Vera, a hero-worshipping-nursing-student-adulterer-false-friend-unwed-mother-housekeeper who lies and cheats to get attention and makes weird lateral and downward career moves. But  I finished the first two dazzling novels, My Father's Moon and Cabin Fever, and am fascinated by the adventures of the brilliant if unreliable narrator.

In My Father's Moon, set during World War II, Vera is an unwed mother on the verge of leaving home with her daughter to work in a boarding school.  We learn this in bits and pieces in a first page of cryptic dialogue:
"Why can't the father, the father of your--what I mean is why can't he do something?"
"I've told you, he's dead."
Gradually she reveals her unadmirable story:  her school days and cruelty to a girl she calls Bulge, her often lesbian friendships in nursing school, her stealing food to gain popularity, her involvement in a strange sexual menage with a doctor and his wife, her love of music, her admiration of intellectuals, and the mess her pregnancy lands her in.  She hides her pregnancy.  Then she leaves the hospital, has her baby in a nursing home, and stays on as an unpaid maid-cook-nurse (encouraged to leave but determined to stay).

In Cabin Fever, Vera is a doctor suffering a bout of agoraphobia in a New York hotel. Looking back over her life, she retells her story, sometimes using the same words, sometimes changing some of the details, and makes us care about her survival with her baby, Helena. She scrabbles monotonously from bad job to bad job and yet the jobs are as good as she can get if she wants to keep her daughter with her.  The mundane details of work mixed with Vera's fantasies are entertaining and also grueling.  Vera grows as a person.  She understands the weave of her own stories with other people's as she did not in the first novel.

I very much look forward to reading The Georges' Wife.  

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Doctor Zhivago and Possible Conflict of Interest

I finished the new translation of Doctor Zhivago.  It's lovely and lyrical and enjoyable.  I don't always believe the newest translation is best, but this one is excellent.   
I was disconcerted a few weeks ago--even doubted my taste--when Ann Pasternak Slater, Boris Pasternak's niece, attacked the new translation in The Guardian.  It seemed a bit sensational  for a niece to shred Pevear and Volokhonsky's credibility. Possibly it's even conflict of interest.   Other reveiwers may have better qualifications than a relative, because a niece, even when she's a Russian translator, is unlikely to be objective.  
I love both translations.  As I compared them, I decided that I prefer the poeticism of the new Pevear-Volokhnosly translation.  
You can read a good review of the new Doctor Zhivago in the Globe and Mail by Caroline Adderson, an award-winning novelist.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Independence & Zombies

I go to the neighborhood indie.  

Somebody weird will pounce on me. Just watch. Just listen.  Will it be that person in the preppy tweeds?  Or the one in the cashmere and pearls?

Sure, they look normal. 

So I was in the middle of a thee-mile run, hovering over Kate Morton's The Distant Hours.  I had slung a small leather bag over my shoulders so I could stop and shop at the strip mall. I walked up to the cash register.  

I was handing over money when Woman # 2 appeared, very tweedy-chic like the cashier (this is the look here).  

The cashier said to # 2, "You've read this, haven't you?"

# 2 explained she didn't like it. "It went on and on and I wanted to say, 'Listen to your mother.'"

Oh dear, I never want to say that to fictional characters.

The book cost me $27.  I would have paid $10 less at B&N or Amazon.  I wasn't sure I wanted to buy the book from the indie anymore.

But then I cheered up.  I'm preppy-looking myself, always have been, but I do avoid tweeds.  I wondered, Why don't they wear jeans like other bookstore people?  Haute prep sends out a message I don't care for.  What are they saying by their clothes?  It kind of screams, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."  And a kind of, "We're rich but oh so incompetent as booksellers."

The cashier did look as though she wanted to kill Woman # 2, though.

I've hung onto the receipt and if I don't like it I'm taking it back.  


I love the new translation of Doctor Zhivago.  I also love the old translation of Doctor Zhivago.  It seems selfish to keep both, so I'm giving away my old copy of the original translation (which is considered better than the new by Pasternak's niece in this review in The Guardian), a hardcover Everyman edition.  It's so readable, and really a lovely book.

If you'd like it (in exchange for stamps to cover the postage, but otherwise free), leave a comment. If you're the only one who wants it, it's yours.  Otherwise, I'll wait till tomorrow night to announce the winner.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


I don't know what's gotten into me. Ennui.

I think it had something to do with arranging my classics books--double-stacking all the Latin on two shelves--and discovering innumerable forgotten books.  Joyce Carol Oates among the Cicero, a biography of Emily Dickinson among the elegiac poets, and a rousing historical novel about Cassandra with the Virgil.

So many good books to read.  But when?  

Conscious of this, and also of the fact that I will read most new books only once, like John Casey's well-written new novel, Compass Rose, I have cut back.

So I've declared a moratorium on books...but I really do want a new book.

At Borders:  nothing. I bicycled out there the other day.  I carried several books over to one of the comfortable chairs and dipped into Kate Morton's new novel and a biography of Cleopatra.

But I wasn't sure I would read them.  I wasn't in the mood.

I almost bought Susan Cheever's new biography of Louisa May Alcott.  But at the last minute I needed to avoid somebody:  you know, somebody very nice, but sometimes you're just not in the mood.  So I raced out the door, sans book, of course, and rode home. 

At B&N:  I thought about buying Tales of the City.  Good thing I didn't because I found my copy at home.  I want to reread the Tales of the City series so I can catch up before reading Maupin's latest novel about Mary Ann Singleton. Many of us in an office years ago passed these novels around and exchanged humorous observations about Mary Ann, Anna Madrigal, and Michael Tolliver.

Then I almost bought Susan Cheever's new biography of Louisa May Alcott but they didn't have it.  A clerk probably could have found it for me, but there was someone I wanted to avoid again.  I'm haunted these days by people I want to avoid.  

This is called Teaching and Running.

Amazon. I've put some books in my cart lately and not bought them. Do you think I should buy Susan Cheever's biography of Louisa May Alcott? Or pass.  Or maybe some science fiction; I've been craving science fiction lately.  Any suggestions?

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Influence of Latin on Margaret Drabble, Marilynne Robinson, Mark Zuckerberg, & Tom Holland

My favorite novel:  a Virgil class plays a starring role.
I'm rereading Margaret Drabble's The Seven Sisters, easily my favorite novel.  There are a few slight eerie similarities between the narrator Candida and myself.  Candida takes an evening adult class on Virgil, mostly in translation but with access to the Latin, and becomes fascinated by Aeneas' visit to the underworld (Aeneid, Book VI). She learned her Latin at a girls' school, where she had an excellent teacher,  and very much respects her elderly arty teacher at the Further Education college, Mrs. Jerrold.

I didn't learn my Latin at a girls' school.  I studied Latin at the university and I taught Virgil's Aeneid in Latin eight or nine times in my early career.  I also snuck it into an adult education class (in English).  I feel a strong affection for the unconventional Mrs. Jerrold, a teacher and a poet, with her dyed black hair, bandeaux, "red lipstick, green eyeshadow, and magenta earrings."

"She was a parrot, a macaw.  She was a sprightly old thing, and she knew her Virgil.  I wonder how she is now.  I wonder if she needed the money.  Those classes pay terribly, I know, but they do pay something."

Candida affirms herself and grows through her experiences reading Virgil.  A superannuated housewife, she leaves her husband, a headmaster who has an affair with the mother of a child who committed suicide at the school. He manages somehow to get everyone's sympathy, or so Candida thinks.  Candida exiles herself from Suffolk to a neighborhood in London that is neither quite going up or going down.  She has never worked, except as a substitute at her husband's school (which sounds like very hard work, by the way) and does not have a job now or feel that she has the capacity to take a job.  She writes her diary on the computer and sees herself as gray and aging, though she is only in her 50s, unnoticeable.  The Aeneid fascinates her as she feels on the edge of the underworld herself--"Book VI is an invitation," she says at one point.  She is also like Dido (Book IV, the other book that fascinates her), jilted by the leader Aeneas, her use over now that her "husband" has left the marriage.

"Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again.  But that should not prevent me from trying to write about it.  I cannot help but feel that there is something important about this nothingness.  It should represent a lack of hope, and yet I think that, somewhere, hope may yet be with me.  This nothingness is significant.  If I immerse myself in it, perhaps it will turn itself int o something else.  Into something terrible, into something transformed....I will have faith that something or someone is waiting for me on the far shore."

Candida is completely alone in her bleak flat in London.  She is not unhappy, though.  She plays solitaire on the computer.  In her early days in London, she looks forward to her weekly Virgil class as an anchor.  They do only a few lines a time, comparing translations and looking at the Latin closely.  I'd love to take this class.

"We were a nice class.  We were nice even to our own mad member, an old man called Mr. Wormald, who had a fixation on poor Mrs. Jerrold.  He tormented her.  We were all very tolerant with him....  He was a terrible man.  He was the only man in the class.  But we were kind to him, we made a space for him amongst us.  I can't imagine why he was interested in Virgil.  I don't think he was, really."

There is sometimes a "mad" member in these Latin classes.  I very much like some mad people, but there's something about ancient languages that attracts them--and then the classes turn out not to be like Dungeons and Dragons, as they'd hoped, and they want to digress all the time, or turn on the teacher, or secretly think they could teach the class themselves, but there's one problem:  they don't know the Latin. 

The majority of students are charming, though, and come from all walks of life to learn the Latin. 

After the Further Education College is turned into a health club, Candida eventually manages to reunite the Latin class.  She plans a group trip to Carthage and to Naples, following the route of Aeneas, and liberates herself. This is so exciting for me.  How I'd love to go on Candida's tour.  Latin is liberating.  Virgil is the key to so much...  As I always point out, T. S. Eliot says he's the best poet in any language.

And every time I read The Seven Sisters I see more in this novel, though I have written only a little here. There is more than Virgil, by the way.  But without Virgil, there'd be no novel.

More about this later.  For the moment, I want to point out that Everybody's Talking about Latin These Days.   

Marilynne Robinson recently gave a speech at Skidmore College  and discussed "the great influence that Latin has had on her writing. Robinson said that she considers Latin to be an important subject that is increasingly overlooked. 'If you want your prose to be good, studying Latin is good for you,' she said."

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has been recommending the Aeneid lately. Columnist Alex Beam commented in The Boston Globe:

"Of course you have noticed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s uncontrollable tic — quoting from Virgil’s Aeneid.’ He did it twice during a long New Yorker interview and more recently in Wired magazine, where he popped — in Latin — what might be the epic’s most famous line: 'A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this’' (trans. Robert Fagles). Those are Aeneas’s consoling words to his battered, shipwrecked comrades. In the poem, various gods assure the Trojan hero that he will found 'an empire without bound,’' i.e. Rome, which is more or less what Zuckerberg has done. Facebook has more than 500 million active users and counting."

Tom Holland, author of Rubicon, Persian Fire, and Millennium, writes about the rise and fall of the  Roman Empire in  The Guardian.

And he mentions Virgil.  "Virgil, the great laureate of his people's achievement, saw in it the fulfilment of a mission entrusted to them by the gods. "Your task, O Roman," he wrote in celebrated lines, "is to rule and bring to men the arts of government, to impose upon them the arts of peace, to spare those who submit, to subdue the arrogant."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ron Charles: National Book Awards

Ron Charles of The Washington Post is hilarious in this video  about the National Book Awards.  Sorry, I can't figure out how to embed a video, but follow the link.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Compass Rose

John Casey's novel, Spartina, won the National Book Award in 1989. His new novel, Compass Rose, the sequel, can be read on its own, but of course it is helpful to have some background. I did not reread it, but I've done a little research for you: in Spartina, Casey explores class issues and the conflict between fishermen and developers in a town in Rhode Island.  The hero, Dick Pierce, a fisherman, builds a boat in an attempt to control his life and business. He also has an affair with upper-class Elsie Buttrick, who has his baby. Naturally, this causes anguish to his wife, May.

These details are quickly recounted at the beginning of the new novel, Compass Rose, but the perspective is entirely different.  Casey relegates Dick to the background and focuses on the relationships between the women:  Elsie, a natural resources officer for the state who spends most of her time thinking about sex even when she is patrolling the marshes; her daughter, Rose, who grows up to be a talented singer; Dick's wife, May, a rather shadowy character whose life with Dick has been shattered by Elsie, but who kindly becomes a second mother to Rose; and Mary Scanlon, a chef who lives with Elsie to help take care of Rose.  

This arresting, traditional novel is written very much in the style of the fiction of the '70s and '80s, before the passion for overstuffed historical novels swept  American writers and changed the show-don't-tell style of writing to what I call tell-and-show.  One can breathe deeply and enjoy the immediacy of a novel like Compass Rose, which refreshingly isn't crammed with historical information between the lines.  Set in the late 20th century, sometime before cell phones and computers fractured attention, the scenes of Casey's new novel are simply but luxuriantly developed, unfolding at a slow pace that reflects a more concentrated attention.  The quotidian details of the women's lives are beautifully revealed. 

But here is my problem. I love Casey's writing, but I don't believe in Elsie.  Casey is in love with Elsie, who seems very much a male fantasy to me, sportswoman-dominatrix by day, trollop by night (at least in her youth).  She has a "trailer-park trash" air, and I have to keep reminding myself that she is upper-class, has rich relatives, and owns the house she shares with Mary.  She is a self-centered woman who dislikes other women, whose idea of sexiness is to wear a red dress and have sex clandestinely in the bushes, who enjoys seducing men but does not want a relationship. Yet she wants to be at the center at all times.  She does not have friends. In one scene, while she is doing her ranger stuff, she spies on a fisherman breaking some rules and has a voyeuristic sexual fantasy. I wish this were sexy: I found it simply bad sex.  Elsie is not the kind of women women like: we prefer a little loyalty.  Poor May!  In fact, I know very few like Elsie--thank God!

But, as Casey reminds us, she is a bright woman who attended an exclusive school and studied Latin. (Latin stands for all good things, as it should.)  The Latin is mentioned again, again, and again, because Elsie was the favorite student of one of the most fascinating characters in the book, Miss Perry, a prim, eccentric, philosophical retired Latin teacher, who has a strong bond to Dick and his family.  

I am very impressed by Miss Perry's vision of death:  she has a dream in which death is the loss of grammar.  She very much does not want this.  A nightmare for Latin teachers.  Elsie takes care of Miss Perry after she has a stroke.  Elsie's love of Miss Perry is probably her most likable quality.  I wanted to see what Miss Perry saw in her.

So this is a mix of perfect sentences, marred for me by a post-feminist cartoonish heroine who I rather think some other women will have a difficult time accepting, too.  I am not yet finished, however, and if Elsie becomes real to me I'll let you know.

Saturday, November 06, 2010


Dickens' Dream
Matt Damon's performance in Hereafter, the brilliant Clint Eastwood movie that opened to mixed reviews last month, is understated but dazzling.  The 39-year-old actor, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Invictus, does not allow himself to be seduced by the histrionic potential of Eastwood's exploration of the supernatural aspect of death.  Damon has a talent for conveying the unglamorous side of life.  He plays George as a quiet, ordinary man who is saddened and numbed by his psychic talent to communicate with the dead. George is unable to lead an ordinary life. He touches a woman's hands and is instantly in touch with her sorrow. Women freak out; the bereaved pursue George even after he gives up readings.

Instead, he reads Charles Dickens obsessively.  

Of course I was thrilled to have this bond with George.  What could be more charming than another fan of Dickens, even in a film? He listens to the audiobook of David Copperfield in his apartment in San Francisco and later has a chance to hear Derek Jacobi give a reading of David Copperfield at a book fair in London.  (By the way, there is no Derek Jacobi audiobook of David C.  Perhaps they should rethink that.  Certainly fans will want to buy it.)

Book fairs!  London!  Yes, of course you have to see this movie.

And there is a scene in the Dickens Museum.  Damon touches Dickens' desk and looks serenely thrilled when he sees Robert Buss's painting, "Dickens' Dream,"  a painting of Dickens surrounded by his characters.

There are other characters in this movie, but Damon is the center and the glue that holds it together.  

In real life does he like Dickens? 

Film critic James Rocchi, in an interview at the blog, the Rocchi Report, asked Damon if working on Hereafter made him a Dickens fan. 

“No, I always liked him. It was interesting, actually. Peter (Morgan) actually even wrote it in the script, and I talked to him about it. He says, ‘Most people would say Shakespeare, but Dickens for me is really the guy.’ We went and shot at the Dickens museum and (at) that picture, the Dickens dream picture. When you see it, it’s Dickens sitting at his desk and all of these characters in his books kind of bent around him; they’re in his imagination, but they’re like these ghosts that are haunting him, almost. So it’s like a perfect parallel for George, for the character who has these visions. And so it’s like in that moment George realizes maybe that’s the reason he’s always felt so connected to Dickens — because in fact he may have been having a similar type of experience on Earth.”

Fascinating movie--do see it for the stunning acting. It's like M. Night Shyamolon, only through the lens of Clint Eastwood.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Pasternak, Maupin, Morton, & More

BORIS PASTERNAK:  Ann Pasternak Slater, a writer, translator of Tolstoy, and the niece of Boris Pasternak, crucifies the new translation of Dr. Zhivago in her hard-assed review in The Guardian.  Since no one dares to question the superiority of award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky, her declaration that their new translation is clumsy and too literal is shocking.

Slater says:

"It's instructive to check Volokhonsky-Pevear's English against the Russian. Its painful ineptitudes can regularly be defended by a Russian source. Yet the original isn't inept. It's simply been badly translated. Pasternak's Russian is packed, concise, colloquial and muscular. Volokhonsky-Pevear's English is prosaic, flabby and verbose. It often renders Pasternak's more philosophical passages incomprehensible. It's far worse than the compact, natural and always lucid prose of Hayward and Harari."

I am enjoying this new translation but do find it dense in parts. Occasionally I skip back to the old Haward-Harari translation.

My main problem, however, is not with the translation but with the design of the Pantheon edition:  the 513-page book is enormous, there is too much print on the huge pages, and I would much prefer, though this sounds trivial, to see more readable print on, say, 1,000 pages.

TALES OF THE CITY:  Armistead Maupin's Mary Ann in Autumn:  a Tales of the City Novel is new on the bookshelves.  I love this series; maybe it's time to reread it.  In this review in The San Francisco Chronicle, the reviewer, however, has a few problems with the characters' age.

"The Castro in 2010 isn't nearly as much fun as Russian Hill in 1978, and Collingwood Street cannot compare with Macondray Lane. To make matters worse, Anna Madrigal in Armistead Maupin's new book, "Mary Ann in Autumn," is old - when we first meet her she is lying on the kitchen floor having what she calls a little snooze - and Mary Ann Singleton is 57. Lord, what would Laura Linney think of that?"

Of course we loved fresh-faced Mary Ann from Cleveland and her rapturous adjustment to the mores of San Francisco in the '70s, but the change is inevitable.  I personally am looking forward to her middle age. 

KATE MORTON:  Kate Morton's The Distant Hours will be out next week.  I loved The Forgotten Garden, a mystery with fairy-tale overtones about three generations of women, which was also partly a homage to The Secret Garden. I am looking forward to this new one.  Publisher's Weekly says:

"A letter posted in 1941 finally reaches its destination in 1992 with powerful repercussions for Edie Burchill, a London book editor, in this enthralling romantic thriller from Australian author Morton (The Forgotten Garden)."

CLEOPATRA:  Reviewers in The Washington Post and The New York Times have praised Stacy Schiff's new biography,  Cleopatra:  A Life , but two other biographies were published earlier this year, Duane W. Roller's  Cleopatra:  A Biography, and Joyce Tyldesley's Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.  Too many biographies means I won't get around to any of them.  

And that's all for this week, folks!