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Archive for December, 2011

Happy New Year!

Best Out-of-Print Novel Due for a Revival

Just one more day of holidays!

I’m doing my nails and making my Most Memorable of 2011 list tonight while I recover from celebrating New Year’s Eve a night early.

FUN FACT:  Only 28.378% of the books I read this year were by men.

MY MOST VISITED PLACE ON THE WEB:  seems to be my own blog.  Now that’s embarrassing.

FAVORITE NEWSPAPER: The Guardian, but I only read the Culture section.  It is, however, where I find out about American book news.  Why is that?

FAVORITE BOOK JOURNALISTS:  Alison Flood of The Guardian, Michael Dirda of The Washington Post, and Carolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy.

FAVORITE BLOGGER:  Dovegreyreader Scribbles, for hours of enjoyment of her funny almost-daily essays and good book reviews, envy of her life (she knits and sings in a chorus and…), and a constant fount of conversation on bike rides with my husband, who doesn’t understand blogs unless they’re about sports, but knows everything about Dovegreyreader, Bookhound, etc., without ever visiting her blog.

FAVORITE AUTHOR WITH A BOOK OUT THIS YEAR:  Jonathan Lethem, author of Chronic City and The Fortress of Solitude. For Christmas I wanted his new book, a collection of essays, but my Christmas wish list got lost and other books appeared in classic confusion.

FAVORITE POET OF THE YEAR:  Sonya Sones, author of the charming novel in verse, The Hunchback of Nieman Marcus.

FAVORITE OUT-OF-PRINT NOVEL DUE FOR A REVIVAL:  Mrs. Daffodil by Gladys Taber

FAVORITE SERIES READ THIS YEAR:  Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence 

FAVORITE SCIENCE FICTION READ THIS YEAR:  Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Heritage of Hastur and Clifford D. Simak’s Ring around the Sun

FAVORITE FANTASY READ THIS YEAR:  Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

FAVORITE BOOKSTORE:  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha.

FAVORITE MUSIC OF THE YEAR:  R.E.M.’S Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011. 

BEST BOOK AWARD OF THE YEAR:  The Orange Prize.  I wasn’t THAT crazy about The Tiger’s Wife, but the longlist was excellent and the judges never seem to sell out.  All of them I read were worthy.  (And, yes, The Tiger’s Wife is very good, just not for me.)

BEST BOOK WITH “TIGER” IN IT OF THE YEAR:  There were so many.  I’m going to say Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna,  a harrowing family saga set in India, because it got less attention in the U.S. than the others.

BIGGEST BOOK SCANDAL OF THE YEAR:  Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry, which apparently left out many good poets and infuriated many writers and reviewers.  I haven’t even seen it yet, so I don’t know.

BEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR:  Sorry, I saw hardly any, so I am going to say Planet of the Apes and Bridesmaids.

BOOKS THAT SHOULD BE MADE INTO A MOVIE:  Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel and Diana Abu-Jaber’s Birds of Paradise

BEST TV SHOW OF THE YEAR:  Mary Tyler Moore in reruns.

BEST TV SHOW ON DVD WATCHED THIS YEAR:  24, Season 7.  They’re all dark, but this one is really dark, about what happens when CTU is shut down, the FBI’s amateurism, agents’ ethics, and good-bad and bad-good choices.  There are no good choices here…

BEST NEWS EVENT OF THE YEAR:  A cat was summoned for jury duty in Boston.

UNDERRATED ACTOR WHO DESERVES AN ACADEMY AWARD:  Carmen Diaz.  Sure, Bad Teacher isn’t her best, but she’s a brilliant comedian.  Try In Her Shoes and The Holiday.

MOST INTERESTING PEOPLE OF THE YEAR: I would have to say Prince Harry and Kate Middleton.  I loved their wedding.

And that’s all till another year.

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Alice Oswald's Memorial and Various Editions of The Iliad

I very much wanted to read Alice Oswald’s Memorial:  An Excavation of the Iliad, a poem based on The Iliad. 

It topped my wish list, but it didn’t appear on Christmas.  When you order something from England–it is not yet available in the U.S.–it takes a while to get here.

Today it arrived.  Hurrah!  (Thanks, X!)

This beautiful, intense, brief poem is not an epillion (“little epic”), as I had somehow expected, but, as the author says, it is a lament, “a kind of oral cemetery.” Her powerful anti-war poem is a memorial to the dead soldiers of The Iliad.  It begins with an eight-page list of the dead, Greeks and Trojans, their names written in capital letters.  This stark poem reminds me of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, a black wall engraved with the names of those who died in the war.

Oswald writes:

PROTESILAUS

ECHEPOLUS

ELEPHENOR

SIMOSIOS

LEUKOS

DEMOCOON

and on for eight pages

Here is a photo of part of The Vietnam War Memorial Wall.

Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington

In the body of the poem, Oswald creates her own stories based on Homer’s.  She briefly eulogizes each soldier by describing his death, followed by a simile repeated twice as a refrain.

Memorial, as Oswald says in the introduction, is “a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story….  This version, trying to retrieve the poem’s enargeia, takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping.”

Yes, you do have to read Homer to understand this. If you haven’t read The Iliad, I strongly recommend using a good translation of the Iliad as a reference.

It’s worth it.

Here is Oswald’s passage about Hypsenor:

Brave HYPSENOR the stump of whose hand
Lies somewhere on the battlefield
He was the son of Dolopian the river-priest
Now he belongs to a great red emptiness”

Then she follows it with a simile, a refrain, repeated twice:

Like when the rainy fog pulls down its hood on the mountains
Misery for the herdsman better than night for the thief
You can see no further than you can throw a stone

“Like when the rainy fog pulls down its hood on the mountains
Misery for the herdsman better than night for the thief
You can see no further than you can throw a stone”

Compare it with this excerpt from Lattimore’s translation of The Iliad (which is very close to the Greek) about Hypsenor.

Eurypolos, Euaimon’s son, killed brilliant Hypsenor,
son of high-hearted Dolopion, he who was made Skamondros’
priest, and was honored about the countryside as a god is.
This man Eurypylos, the shining son of Euaimon,
running in chase as he fled before him struck in the shoulder
with a blow swept from the sword and cut the arm’s weight from him,
so that the arm dripping bleeding to the ground, and the red death
and destiny the powerful took hold of both eyes.”

Note how Oswald makes slight changes.  The cut-off arm becomes  “the stump of the hand.”   Why?  Perhaps “stump of a hand” sounds more colloquial.  Or perhaps it is alliteration:  Hypsenor…hand.  Or it is  understatement?  A hand is shorter…?  She prefers the image of a stump of a hand to a dripping bleeding arm.

There are lots of “hands” and “arms” in Oswald’s poem.  “His accurate firing arm is useless” (Scamandrius the hunter, p. 18).  “Like when a mother is rushing/And a little girl clings to her hands/Wants help wants arms…” (p. 19).  “PHERECLES…Brilliant with his hands and born of a long line of craftsmen” (p. 20).  “May a stranger cut off my head if I don’t/Smash this bow and throw it with my own hands” (Pandarus, p. 22).  Paris goes out to fight with the smell of Helen on his hand (sorry, I can’t find this image, but I remember it).

And on and on.

The repetition of each gorgeous simile, as a refrain, or almost a chorus, is powerful.

One criticism.  Since she is a classicist, she of course knows this and does this deliberately:  she begins each simile with “like,” never “as.” “Like” should be used as a preposition and “as” to introduce a clause.  Does she want to use very modern English?  Like a pop song?  Is the repetition of “like” for the sound?  I think so.

The language of Memorial is spare and effective.  The simplicity of the soldiers, some of whom are farmers,  all of whom are non-professional soldiers, is contrasted in plain language with the bloodiness of the war.  Their deaths have no meaning.

It is significant that the Trojans lose the war, and their civilization crumbles because of the Greek fury.  A war can wipe out a people.  A vicious war, fought over a woman, and all are gone.

Of course not all dead soldiers are innocent.  Some were murderers in ordinary life, as Oswald reminds us.

The poem ends with a series of similes.  One of my favorites is:

Like leaves who could write a history of leaves
The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matters no more than the leaves

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The weather has been unusually warm, and though I’m not complaining, it’s odd no one mentions global warming.  There has been no snow to speak of, none of the usual blizzards that shut the city down.  I was out on my bike today, and some people were out in shorts.  I’ve always longed to live in the South, and now I do, because the weather is changing, the polar caps are melting.  That isn’t what I had in mind.

This isn’t the Iowa the politicians and journalists know–usually they shiver and battle wind and snow before the caucuses.  Yes, the Republican caucuses are on Jan. 3, and the presidential candidates and journalists are swarming all over the state.  The Republicans have little of substance to say:  they are attacking Obama, because he says “Happy holidays”and this undermines their religion (I don’t follow that); they want to make abortion illegal even (or especially?) for rape victims, no more loopholes, and found some crazy woman to say she was conceived by a rape and was happy about it.   I don’t know which candidate is crazier.  Fortunately the Iowa Republican caucuses rarely predict the winners (though the Democratic caucuses do), and there’s not much action in my neighborhood.  One year a Republican put up a sign in our yard, but that hasn’t happened this year.  (We have to think it was a boundary mistake.)

The Occupy the Caucus Movement

The Occupy the Caucus demonstrators have firmly taken a stand this week and been arrested at Ron Paul’s and Mitt Romney’s headquarters.  Some were also arrested at Wells Fargo, whose employees have given $49,250 to Romney’s campaign.

I feel empathetic, but  I’m no longer a protester.  I’ll just vote in the election in 2012.

Much as I love the Occupy the Caucus movement,  I disapprove of their protesting at Obama’s headquarters.  They even got arrested there.  I despair.  Are they the Republican protesters?  Well, no, it’s supposed to show that all politicians are corrupt.  But one wonders….  Frankly there is such a gap between the Republicans and Obama that I wish the Occupiers would consolidate their forces where they will do the most good.  Obama is as liberal as we’re going to get.  He wasn’t my first Democratic choice in 2008, though of course I voted for him and will vote for him again.  But, yes,  he was the first choice of many of the protesters.  Yes, every liberal in America (except those of us who supported other Democrats), the writers at The Nation and other left papers, was mad for Obama, and now they’re unhappy because he couldn’t fix the economy quickly and his health care plan has been weakened by Republicans.  He ended the war in Iraq.  He has been a great statesman.  And let’s not be naive, and think Hillary (a great stateswoman, too) or Edwards or Whoever Else Was Running would have done better.

But I’m not usually thinking about politics, and I wasn’t today.  I went out on the bike trail in a lightweight coat, pedaling through the woods, admiring the dry brown grass and trees, and happy to see the sun.  I haven’t ridden my bike since Thanksgiving.

It was good day to sit outside and read Adam Bede, which was George Eliot’s first full-length novel, and very popular.  Her descriptions of nature are beautiful, and the fine craftsmanship of this impressive novel, though not in the class of Middlemarch, is admirable.  I love the characters, though she doesn’t convey the lower classes as realistically as she does the middle class in Middlemarch.  The hero, Adam Bede, a carpenter, is based loosely on Eliot’s father.  He is a natural leader, recruited to manage a farm, but he wastes his emotions on Hetty, a pretty but empty-headed and heartless farmer’s niece and dairymaid, who spends most of her time looking in a mirror.  There are so many mirror scenes in this novel.  In fact, the novel begins with a mirror:

“With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer attempts to reveal to any chance-comer far-reaching visions of the past.  This is what I undertake to do for you, reader.”

George Eliot’s mirror is her writing, but Hetty’s mirrors–she has more than one–display only her pretty pink-and-white complexion.

My favorite character is Dinah, a Methody preacher who works in a factory.  Now why isn’t Adam in love with her?

Adam Bede, a rural novel about working people, forms a link between the working-class factory novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton and North and South, and the later rural novels of Thomas Hardy, especially Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

More on this another time.

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I didn’t read science fiction when I was growing up.  I couldn’t read Asimov and the boys, despite assurances that they were the sine qua non.  The writing was just SO BAD, so sine (Latin for “without”) style.

Take the opening of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which in 1966 received a Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series:

His name was Gael and Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before.  That is, not in real life.  He had seen it many time before on the hyper-video, and and occasionally in tremendous three-dimensional newscasts covering an imperial coronation or the opening of a galactic council.

It’s corny hyper-tech geek.  It’s a novel of “psycho-history,” decline, and dystopia.  A lot of SF is like this:  ideas instead of style.

But then in college I had intelligent friends who read and even wrote SF.   You’d think students of classics would read literature for relaxation (well, often we did), but actually they were reading science fiction classics like Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, a novel about a language used as a weapon, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, set in a winter world where people biologically change gender according to some scientific law or other (which I’ve long forgotten).  And these books are good.  Forget Asimov.

So I tentatively started reading in the genre:  C. L. Moore, Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree, Jr., Clifford D. Simak, John Wyndham, Jonathan Lethem, Guy Gavriel Kay, Connie Willis, and Karen Joy Fowler.  And the best of these books aere SO GOOD.

Then, about a decade ago, a blogger  recommended Marion Zimmer Bradley.  She had impeccable taste, and I still miss her blog, which she deleted when she decided it was too personal.  I was surprised she liked Bradley, an SF and fantasy writer famous for The Mists of Avalon, an Arthurian saga written from the point of view of Morgaine (Morgana le Fay). (The book was made into a movie starring Angelica Huston, Julianna Margulies, and Joan Allen.)  But it’s one of those good-bad books, which you can read when you’re traveling, where the writing is uneven, but the characters are fascinating and so are the feminist interpretations of the legend.  Definitely the kind of thing you can read at a coffeehouse in Dubuque, a city on the Mississippi, where you stop for sandwiches when you’re driving across the midwest.

And then, perhaps a year later, I moved on to her Darkover series, by accident, because I wanted more SF and found she’d written some.  I adore these novels because the characters are so vivid and the narratives are pretty well-wrought and very enjoyable.

Darkover is a colony of the Terrans (Terra is Latin for Earth), a world colonized when a spaceship crashed.  Eventually, many inhabitants forget their history, or do not know that their society and language are related to Terra.  It is a medieval culture of horses, fencing, and fireplaces, due to lack of technology, though the Terrans have technology in their spaceports.  Many of the people on Darkover have something called laran, telepathic powers, which they have developed as Terrans have lost them.  In addition to conflicts with Terra over weapons and culture, there are long political and philosophical dialogues about law reminiscent of Plato and…well, not as complex as Plato, but…

I recently found a copy of Children of Hastur, an omnibus editon of Heritage of Hastur and Sharra’s Exile for $2.  I am absolutely mesmerized by this un-put-downable SF after my enjoyable marathon of George Eliot and Turgenev.

The Heritage of Hastur, which I’m reading, delineates in alternating chapters  the stories of  two young men bound by heritage to be leaders, despite their fury and feelings of not belonging.  From the third-person point of view, Bradley introduces us to Regis, the unhappy young heir of Hastur, who agonizes because he does not have Laran, the gift of telepathy so important to his people.  He longs to escape via spaceship to Terra or another planet. This part of the novel is interesting but unremarkable. But the book comes to life when  Zimmer switches to the first-person point of view in the chapters about our other hero, Lew, a legitimized bastard son of a commander, who was not officially recognized by the Comyn Council until he was given a test for Laran that could have killed him.  Because he is part Terran, he is frequently snubbed and, though he has an aptitude for his work, he only reluctantly is a politician and soldier.  TBut he has been raised with a sense of strong duty, similar to the Roman pietas, that makes him unable to break from his expected role until…

Well, that’s how I think it’s going to work anyway.  I love Lew.  This is so much fun!

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Today is the Day of Happy Returns.

There are sweaters in the wrong size, an organic watch that is not organic (the corn resin somehow…something), and the kind of herbal “smelly socks”-flavor tea that no one will drink.

And we failed to give the right books, as always. He still hasn’t read the Green from last year; I haven’t read the biography of Cleopatra. This year there were duplicate copies of 1Q84, a Penguin Deluxe Moby Dick to supplement our other copies of Moby Dick (I ordered it because I thought it would have notes, and it didn’t),  and various “Best of”s that were given to millions of people across the country.

Hello, we have a Murakami for a biography of Dante, and a Moby Dick for a Gunter Grass.

We should have returned the e-reader tablet. I considered it an inspired “big” gift–in fact, I’d never bought such an expensive gift, because we are fairly modest in our spending–and knew it was something he’d never buy for himself.  Not only was it something he wouldn’t buy for himself, but he explained it will destroy the book.

But he kindly sent me an email from it, and says he loves me anyway.

We went to B&N late in the day. It has been two weeks since I’ve been to a bookstore!   I was delighted to see that, yes, they HAVE the Dante biography.  And new annotated versions of practically every classic.

We hung out for a while, drinking coffee.  The cafe was full.  There were lots of items 50% off.

So one bookstore still thrives.  It’s almost the last in town.

At least they sell something besides 1Q84.

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The Single Female Bookseller didn’t really ruin Christmas.

Christmas was unusually civilized this year.  So often it goes on all month, as divorced parents and stepparents give parties every weekend to ensure seeing all their children and grandchildren.  It means driving all over the state in snowstorms,  eating pie in front of football games on TV, and making small talk about Stephen Bloom’s article about Iowa in The Atlantic (we’re all indignant).

This year Christmas only lasted two days:  Christmas Eve and Christmas.  It was ideal.  Somehow everybody who likes one other was in the same place on one day, and everybody who dislikes one other managed to get together on the OTHER day.  It was actually very nice.  We should do this every year:  it’s a little like signing up for a gym membership.

On the home front, we put up our Christmas tree Friday night.  I can look at a Christmas tree in my living room on the Eve of Christmas Eve without having an asthma attack.

The tree evoked no dark thoughts of the winter solstice, because it is over, and the lights are bright and consoling, though the artificial branches are sagging in the middle, and we had to put up a bunch of ornaments to hide it.  It looks pretty good, though not so good that I’m going to photograph it.

We made delicious beef stew (Laurie Colwin’s recipe in Home Cooking) and apple pie and ate our Christmas dinner in front of the TV. It was very cozy.

And we got lots of presents, because Christmas at our house is about presents.  Among the loot was an organic watch, a computer tablet, and oven mitts.

Books are what we all love but are the hardest things to buy for others.  I tried to solve the problem by giving my husband a couple of books on his wish list and the Nook tablet, which I decided he needed when I lost my mind in the electronics dept. of a superstore.

Now here’s how the Single Female Bookseller ruined Christmas.

I looked with dismay at my new copy of Radioactive:  Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout.  Why?  Because I already read it, disliked it, and sold it online, and my husband was the one who actually packed it up and mailed it.  So here it was, back again.

My husband said with a silly smile:  “It’s a little bit different, a graphic biography, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award.”

Oh, dear.

“But we sold it last fall,” I said.

I recognized his spiel as a quote from the always vague ramblings of the SFB  (Single Female Bookseller).  When I taught a class at the bookstore, one of the middle-aged men went gaga for her.   He was there drinking lattes before class and after class.  She could sell him two, three, five books in an evening easily.

A man who despises graphic novels will buy any old thing recommended by an SFB.

And then we wives are stuck with their bookselling.

Why doesn’t she just sell gift cards?????!!!!

Okay, here was the other book.  Are you ready?

Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84.

I have it on my Nook.

It was the book of the fall, and then my husband told me, “Don’t get sucked in.”  But I LOVE science fiction, and everybody knows it.

I didn’t tell him I already had it.  The book is beautifully designed.  But, as I said here on Dec. 6, “I think it’s junk.”

He got me a couple of books on my wish list (good!) and surprised me with one book I loved:  Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections.  I’m hoping Nora Eprhon’s book is WAY too mature for an SFB recommendation, because I’m thinking Bossypants would have been more her speed.  I read Ephron’s book of intelligent essays and humor pieces today with joy, and was reminded of how very, very good she is.  (Now why isn’t her work available in a Library of America edition?)

What we should do is take back the books we don’t want and the Nook tablet tomorrow and get something we like instead.

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I reread Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons every few years.  According to my journal, I last read it in 2006.  The other night I took it to bed with me again, having just finished a marathon rereading of Middlemarch, and wanting to read something short.  I had also read in the introduction of the Everyman edition of Middlemarch that George Eliot was a friend of Turgenev’s.

Fathers and Sons, published in 1861, depicts the timeless tension of relationships between fathers and sons, the inevitably divergent politics of different generations, and the rapid changes of attitudes and emotions that can affect the young during a change of scene.  Turgenev draws the characters so vividly that they seem like your brothers or your scornful old boyfriends.  And their fathers, who don’t understand them, want nothing more than for their restless sons to stay a few weeks or months.

The novel begins simply with Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, a Russian land owner and farmer, awaiting his son’s return home after graduating from college.

A gentleman in the early forties, wearing check trousers and a dusty overcoat, came out on the long low porch of the coaching inn on the ___ highway.  The date was the twentieth of May in the year 1859.

“Well, Piotr, still no sign of them?” he asked his servant, a chubby-faced young fellow with small lack-lustre eyes and a chin that was covered with very fair down.

This waiting is a metaphor for the events of the novel, because no sooner do the young men arrive, first at Arkady’s father’s and then at Bazarov’s parents,  than they take off again and the parents and relatives anxiously await their return.  When Arkady arrives at the inn, Nikolai Petrovich is surprised that he has brought a companion, Bazarov, of whom he had heard nothing.  Bazarov, it turns out, is a fellow graduate and a nihilist, who believes the fabric of society must be destroyed to make way for the new, and under Bazarov’s influence Arkady, too, has become a radical.

In the 1860s in Russia, according to translator Rosemary Edmonds’ introduction to the Penguin, nihilism was the banner under which radicals rebelled.  (Nihilism comes from the Latin nihil, meaning “nothing,” but you’ll have to read about the philosophy elsewhere:  Bazarov, of course, believes in nothing.) In 1963, she compared them to “beatniks”; I suppose today they would “occupy.”

Bazarov says he despises “aristocratism, liberalism, progress, principles–think of it, what a lot of foreign…and useless words!  To a Russian they’re not worth a straw.”     Bazarov believes that the study of the humanities is bourgeois, that only science remains as the backbone of society.  And, though Nilolai Petrovich is tolerant of the young, Arkady’s Uncle Pavel, who is an Anglophile and a humanist, is furious.

Bazarov, a man of science and a doctor, spends most of his time dissecting frogs, but also flirts with Nikolai Petrovich’s live-in girlfriend, the housekeeper, who has given birth to a son.  And  after Pavel sees Bazarov kiss her casually, the conflict escalates.

Battles over a woman also change the relationship of Bazarov and Arkady.  They are both interested in beautiful, intelligent Madame Odintsov, an elegant woman they meet in the country.  Like Bazarov, she is an intellectual, and it is clear whom she likes. Fortunately, she is not the only woman in the novel.

Turgenev wrote in a letter about his hero, Bazarov:  “I dreamed of a sombre, savage and great figure, only half emerged from barbarism, strong, mechant, and honest, but nevertheless doomed to perish because always in advance of the future.”

When the moody Bazarov visits his parents, he treats them much  as Arkady treated his father and uncle, visiting them for a few days before leaving again.  But when he returns to his family, with whom he says he will stay only if they leave him to his studies, it is science and medicine that ironically undo him.

There are triangles, and triangles, and triangles.  And there are at least two mirror-image visits to Arkady’s father’s and to Madame Odintsov’s.  (Maybe more: sorry, I wasn’t paying that tmuch attention, and am just throwing that out here.)

So sad!  I like the attractive, angry Bazarov, even though there is something Heatchliffian about him.

And don’t you think Bazarov would have “occupied” Moscow?  Couldn’t that be his picture below?

Russian police officers detain an opposition member after a march along one of the central streets in downtown Moscow on Dec. 5, 2011 (AP)

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A Christmas Carol

I got bogged down in rereading Dickens’s  A Christmas Carol, as I do every year. I lasted through the Ghost of Christmas Past, and then was bored to extinction.  The one good thing about Dickens’ Christmas books is that he blitzes us with the realization that the holiday is supposed to be about philanthropy.

In  Stave I, two portly gentlemen visit Scrooge at his office.

“At this festive time of year, Mr. Scrooge,…it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight Provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

We do give to charities, but mostly at our house Christmas is about materialism.

As I found myself walking around Target with a shopping cart, trying to buy all my gifts in an hour, I realized that in a way I AM Scrooge.  Christmas rites numb me.  We don’t go to Midnight Mass.  We don’t drink eggnog or go to The SantaLand Diaries.  We don’t sing Christmas carols.  The neighbors’ beautiful lights are up, and though we walk around the block at night to admire them, it would never occur to us to string lights. The lights waste a lot of energy, and that is an important factor to environmentalists.

Gifts define Christmas for my family. That is so unhip, but it’s true.  This year our limit was supposed to be $100 a person, and much better to stay under it.  I can only say:  Huh!  But I was determined to buy everything in one store, so I wouldn’t run around for hours and exhaust myself.

FIRST STAVE:  DECORATIONS.  I tossed a tiny sparkling tinsel tree, a couple of snowflake ornaments, and a kitschy pig ornament into the basket.  I pushed my cart through the Christmas tree aisle, admiring the trendy retro-tinsel trees.  We wait to put up our fiberoptic tree till Christmas Eve, thus establishing a time limit to the near-psychotic nostalgia of the Christmas experience.  Otherwise, if it starts too early, Christmas and Seasonal Affective Disorder begin go hand in hand.

SECOND STAVE:  ELECTRONICS.  I could have picked up a Nook, Kindle, or Kobo.  I could have gotten an iPad, but we already have computers, so what’s it for?  One of these things strayed into my cart.  Whoops!  I’m already over $100.

THIRD STAVE: THE END.  Add a trapper hat, thermal underwear, slippers,  some old-fashioned candy, and you’re through.

This year, in an odd way, I feel less pressured about Christmas.  After we open our gifts, we’ll spend the day basting the turkey and reading.

And I’ve made a tradition of reading a trashy women’s book on the holidays.  Over Thanksgiving, it was Valley of the Dolls.  On Christmas, I think it will be Mary McCarthy’s The Group. On holidays I really feel that I’ve gone back in time to another era for women.

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I discovered Gladys Taber’s books last winter.  I was out of town, rather anxiously watching a blizzard in progress.  Yes, the snow was beautiful falling under the street light, but the TV reporters assured us that the next day would be a disaster, the National Guard probably called in to deal with the snow, etc., etc.  And the next day I did find myself falling knee-deep in snowdrifts, gliding across glaciers in the street, and the city closed down around me.

Before the blizzard I decided to fortify myself with comfort books.  No Proust, no Joyce, nothing difficult.  Aha!  Gladys Taber’s The Stillmeadow Road looked soothing.

Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow series, which are collections of columns and essays about her life in a 1690 farmhouse in Connecticut, were published in the ’40s, ’50s,and ’60s.  They still have a cult following.  These slight, charming essays are not in the same league as Wendell Berry’s or Annie Dillard’s, but they are plain, restful observations of the country that will delight readers who understand there is no such thing as a quiet life.  Move to the country and you will appreciate nature, but it will not prevent the well from drying up, the septic tank from leaking, or the dishwasher from breaking. Taber balances her lyrical vignettes about the changing seasons with wry descriptions of skunks living under the storage house, and her forgetting where she buried the jar of homemade brandied peaches (a treatment that was supposed to improve their quality).

Taber (1899-1980), who graduated from Wellesley and earned a master’s at Lawrence, wrote 50 books and was a columnist for Ladies’ Home Journal and Family Circle.  According to one online article, she and her husband bought Stillmeadow, a country house, in 1943 with another couple.

When I recently found a copy of her autobiographical novel Mrs. Daffodil, I was thrilled.  The humor is reminiscent of D. E. Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim books and Cornelia Otis Skinner’s humor books.  I simply fell into this novel and loved every minute of it.

It is obviously autobiographical, or at least parallels the Stillmeadow journals (which may be slightly fictionalized; I can’t find much information about Taber).  Like Taber, the heroine, Mrs. Daffodil, writes a syndicated column called “Butternut Wisdom.”  She also writes short stories about young love, because she has discovered people are less interested in stories about ordinary older people like herself.   And through this writing, she supports herself, her married daughter and graduate student husband, and presumably her housemate, Kay, a widowed college friend who agreed to share the country house after her husband died.  Mrs. Daffodil is not good with money:  sometimes she absent-mindedly sends two checks to the electric company.

Mrs. Daffodil and Kay love food.  Mrs. Daffodil’s weight yo-yos up and down–we live with her through many diets–because she loves to cook and constantly reads recipes in women’s magazines that require a container of sour cream.  When we first meet her,

She was between diets, so she was plump as a partridge.  The dress, bought when she was thinner, barely zippered up.  Her light brown hair had lost last week’s wave and flew about.  Hr round, rosy face was no better, no worse than usual, she thought, dabbing on rouge.  She had to take her glasses off when she put on her make-up.  Being farsighted this meant that she could barely see what she was doing.  Sometimes her short, soft upper lip came out read as fire and her underlip would be spotty.”

Gladys Taber

Mrs. Daffodil and Kay are animal lovers, who, in the beginning of the novel, live with Red Letter Day, an Irish setter, two cockers, and a Siamese cat.  As the novel continues, Mrs. Daffodil also adopts a pheasant, barn cats left behind when a neighbor has to sell his farm (and they even have kittens), and even a baby Blue Jay, which of course she must let go.  She and Kay spend hours preparing bird feed for their many, many bird feeders.

Each chapter is a discrete episode, but cumulatively builds a charming portrait of a smart, disorganized, kind, witty woman, who loses herself in writing and likes her fans so much that she even lets them drop in and tour her house.  Which happens, of course, when she is washing the dogs.

I so much enjoyed this.  Good luck getting a copy!  The cheapest copy I can find online is $29.

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More on Middlemarch

I realized the other day after I posted hastily on “Goodness in Middlemarch” that I left out most of the evidence for my thesis.   I should have remembered Augustus’s adage, Festina lente (“Hurry slowly”),  and waited a day or two to post, but the days go so quickly, and so you write your blog before you go to bed and forget about it.

So, briefly, let me back it up with a few examples.  I was fascinated by Eliot’s  references to Saint Theresa of Avila, and her contention in the Prelude that many Theresas who have not succeeded in influencing the world “have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women.”

She also writes :

The Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago was certainly not the last of her kind.  Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.”

There is also the constant repetition of the word “good” throughout the novel.  In “Sunset and Sunrise,” Dorothea is happy to believe  she can save Lydgate’s reputation. She is joyful to find something positive to do, because her plans for rehousing the poor and other utopian schemes have disintegrated.  She does not have the power as a woman.

So, of Lydgate and his problems,  she thinks:

“The idea of some active good within her reach, ‘haunted her like a passion,’ and another’s need having once come to her as a distinct image, preoccupied her desire with the yearning to give relief, and made her own ease tasteless.”

In the last two paragraphs of the novel, Eliot writes again about “the new Theresa” and sadly acknowledges the blunders and sacrifices of Dorotheas who won’t have the opportunity of reforming conventual life or other work. But our Dorothea’s life is not in vain.

“Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth.  But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive:  for the growing good of the world is party dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

We don’t write about “good” in this way anymore.  It seems distinctly Victorian.  I’m trying to think if any contemporary writer I’ve read this year has written about “goodness.”  Nothing comes to mind at the moment.

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