Archive for May, 2012

Madeline Miller won the Orange Prize for her first novel, The Song of Achilles, a retelling of the story of Achilles and Patroclus.  She is a classicist, a teacher and tutor of Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare to high school students.

So of course I like her, because I’ve never met a Latin teacher I didn’t like.

I haven’t read The Song of Achilles, but it’s on my Nook.

Meanwhile, let me recommend another retelling of myth,  David Malouf’s beautiful novel, Ransom, the story of King Priam’s ransoming Hector from Achilles.

THE NEW YORKER SCIENCE FICTION ISSUE.  I was looking forward to this. 

But damn, it’s same old, same old.  Perhaps I was the only subscriber disappointed to see science fiction by literary writers Jonathan Lethem (the only one with SF credentials),  Jennifer Egan, and Junot Diaz.   My husband and I glanced at Egan’s Twitter story, which was much touted on the internet, and agree it’s an old poem she had on her computer.

There are several very short essays by legitimate science fiction writers, such as Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, China Mieville, and William Gibson.  But it’s a very, very tony party, if you get my meaning.

Anyway I’m not criticizing it, because I haven’t read much of it yet.  I’m only saying…

Ryan Britt at the Tor blog has written an excellent article about it, “Genre in the Mainstream: The New Yorker’s Science Fiction Issue.”  He is an avid New Yorker reader, but isn’t sure how much The New Yorker actually respects science fiction.

He writes:

Ursula K. Le Guin points out in the “Golden Age” essay, people like Michael Chabon have supposedly helped to destroy the gates separating the genre ghettos. But if this were true, why not have China Mieville write a short story for the science fiction issue? Or Charlie Jane Anders? Or winner of this year’s Best Novel Nebula Award Jo Walton? Or Lev Grossman? Or Paul Park?

China Mieville

I very much agree with this.  They are all first-rate writers.

“Shall we cancel our subscription?”  my husband asked.

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There are so many great out-of-print books:  books that have their moment and then vanish.  When I was at Murphy-Brookfield Books in Iowa City a few weeks ago, I realized I would be happy reading only out-of-print books.

Some out-of-print books are reissued by NYRB, Virago, small presses and university presses. Many more deserve to be revived.

Susan Cheever’s Doctors & Women is my choice for the week. This quiet novel, published in 1987, seems to have fallen off the map.  This weekend, when I was reading it in the car on a trip west, it completely took me out of myself.  Cheever captures perfectly the “yuppie” angst of the 1980s in this perceptive novel about four upper-class professionals whose lives are linked by the treatment of cancer:   Kate, a moody freelance journalist whose mother has uterine cancer; Macklin Riley, her mother’s oncologist who cares more about his patients than the research demanded by the high-powered hospital; Ann, a multi-millionaire businesswoman whose mother is also being treated for cancer by Riley; and Riley’s boss, Mallory, a cold, first-rate surgeon who doesn’t emotionally connect with his patients or residents and who is irritated by Riley’s bending of the rules.

Cheever describes in crystalline detail the cancer treatment of the 1980s and the grimness of hospitals.  Kate’s parents are both treated at “one of the world’s foremost cancer research and treatment institutes,” and she evokes its atmosphere.

Kate hadn’t been there since her father’s last visit.  She and her father had waited hours together in the dim light of the third-floor, outpatient lounge.  time had another quality in the hospital, as if the world outside with its grandfather clocks and slim gold watches had ceased to exist.  It was always a shock to walk out the double glass doors and find that a day or a season had passed.”

The novel focuses on tense Kate:  her father died a few years ago of cancer and she is trying to calm her mother, who can’t quite believe her cancer is treatable.  But in addition to her anxiety about her mother’s cancer, Kate’s marriage is falling apart–she married David, a man she grew up with, and she knows him too well and is bored with him.  (The first line of the novel is:  “You know, we don’t talk much anymore,” Kate said.)  Her job as a freelancer is insecure:  an editor rejects an article she wrote on a German artist and decides she should write instead on the “Picasso business,” in which she has no interest.

No wonder Dr. Macklin Riley, her mother’s caring oncologist, looks so good.  Kate is determined to have an affair with him, and I like it that Cheever makes her the aggressor.   He doesn’t really want it, because it is against the rules to get involved with a patient or a patient’s family member.

Susan Cheever

In the chapters about Riley, we learn about the history of cancer treatment, his love of his patients, and his agony about not being able to save them all.  Every day he visits a little boy dying of leukemia who is not his patient, and his boss doesn’t understand why he looks for this pain.  Riley is completely absorbed in his work, and he likes Kate because she is so interested in his work.

In the chapters about Mallory, Riley’s boss, we see an energetic man who is annoyed by anything less than perfection, who runs up and down stairs chased by out-of-breath powerless residents, whom he despises, and who recognizes the patients only by the name on their charts (if the name is wrong, he sends back for another chart).  But Mallory is a brilliant surgeon who saves whomever he can, and even when he cannot remove all the tumors, he is positive about buying time.  So the patients are lucky to have him.

There is a triangular relationship between Kate, Riley, and Ann.  Riley does this annoying thing:  he keeps inviting both women to lunch.  (He’s trouble, Kate.  Stay away!)

There are a few chapters from Ann’s point of view, and they are not quite as good as the others.  Still, I read this book as though it were a delicious truffle.

This good novel seems to have been misunderstood by reviewers of the time.   I skimmed a review in the New York Times, in which the reviewer seemed to dismiss it because the women characters weren’t feminist enough.

Needless to say, I didn’t read it that way at all, and I am putting out a Virago alert on this one.  Yes, for God’s sake, if they can reissue Kinflicks and Valley of the Dolls, both novels I liked, Doctors & Women should be added to the list.

Susan Cheever is John Cheever’s daughter.  She has written novels, memoirs, and nonfiction, and most recently Louisa May Alcott:  A Personal Biography.

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April Bernard’s Miss Fuller, a very short, energetic novel, centers on the feminist writer Margaret Fuller.  It begins with the Thoreaus of Concord learning of her death by shipwreck with her husband and son.

The first paragraph made me want to read this in one sitting.

News of the wreck made everyone want to be up and going, doing something, talking, moving, to keep the knowledge from puddling and festering.  It was a hot July, in the year 1850.  Margaret Fuller, their old friend, together with her husband and young son, had been shipwrecked and drowned, on their voyage home from Europe.  No one in the Thoreau house had slept.”


Bernard’s bold prose is compelling, and it helps that Henry David Thoreau is a character in the first scene.  Emerson has asked Thoreau to go with him to Fire Island, New York, to claim the bodies of Margaret and her family.

But the novel isn’t about Thoreau and Emerson; it focuses on Fuller’s influence on Thoreau’s younger adopted cousin, Anne (a fictional character).   Anne disliked Margaret when she first heard Fuller speak at a “Conversation” in Boston.  Margaret’s conversations, for which people bought tickets, were usually held at the famous Peabody sisters’ house, and they were Fuller’s only means of income after she gave up teaching.

Bernard cleverly introduces us to Margaret through “conversations.”   The Thoreau girls’ friend Mrs. Deaver tells them on the way to the “Conversation,”

Dear me, yes, her father trained her as if she had been a boy.  It’s made her goggle-eyed and very odd, of course, but she is a female genius, certainly, though I can’t say if I know that she is the model of the New Woman, as Elizabeth Peabody claims, or something simply unique…”

Margaret Fuller

Thoreau’s older sister, Helen, and Anne find fault with Margaret Fuller’s “conversation” on the influence of classical culture on modern women.  Helen finds factual errors, and Anne priggishly dislikes the references to pagan goddesses.  Margaret talks about the position of women, the need to explore the capabilities of men and women, and abolition.  She was very well-educated:  knew Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, and Hebrew, studied philosophy with Emerson, taught school, edited The Dial, a Transcendentalist magazine, and became a columnist for The New York Tribune edited by the liberal Horace Greeley, who also published Karl Marx.

The crux of the novel, and the inspiration for Anne’s meditations and research on Margaret, is a long letter Henry brings home from the wreck.  Margaret wrote it to Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife), but Hawthorne refuses to accept it; he regards Fuller as a fallen woman (the sexy, dominating Zenobia in his novel The Blithedale Romance is said to be based on Fuller), and doesn’t want his wife to read the letter.

In fact, Emerson, Hawthorne, and some of her other friends disliked her in ways that contributed to her death.  They refused to give her money to stay in Europe, believing she was immoral, and so she and her family returned to America on the merchant ship that wrecked.

The second part of the novel consists of the long letter from Fuller to Sophia, and makes an interesting biography for those of us who don’t know much about Margaret.  We learn of her adventures in New York working for editor Horace Greeley and living with his vegetarian family (she occasionally outrages them by eating meat), her love affair, not consummated, with a man who was two-timing her, her trip to Europe, involvement with Italian revolutionaries, a love affair and a child born out of wedlock who dies, and eventual marriage to Marchese Giovanni Ossoli, a lieutenant in the Italian Unification Movement, and the birth of their child.

The style in the letter is very different from the style of the first chapter.  It is chatty, rambling, thoughtful, & a little manicky, more like a diary than a letter, & filled with ampersands (which drive me a little crazy).  It is also slightly awkward, & though I know it’s supposed to be a letter, it’s a little disappointing after the beautiful prose of the first section.

Then in the third chapter we return to Anne, an artist, in 1882.  She rediscovers the letter, and does research on Margaret at the Harvard Library.  Her summing up of Margaret is brilliant, but I’ll leave that to you to discover.

I loved two-thirds of this novel, and may read it again.

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Doris Lessing

Martha Quest, the heroine of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, is my hero.  There are Martha Quest people, and there are non-Martha Quest people.  Even though millions of women were obviously reading Doris Lessing when I discovered her, I didn’t know any until a librarian walked into the bar where I worked and caught me surreptitiously reading A Proper Marriage.  “I LOVE  Martha Quest,” she said.

Instant bonding.  That often happens with reading.

Last August, I started rereading Lessing’s Children of Violence series, and hope some of you have enjoyed it, too. I began with the last novel, The Four-Gated City, a strange, labyrinthine masterpiece which has a distinct science fiction tone near the end, and then I backtracked to the other realistic novels in order, Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, and Landlocked.

I wrote about The Four-Gated City here and here.  I said:

Her analysis of 20th-century politics, history, class, and the socialization of women is so lucid that we apply it to ourselves and feel that we are reading about ourselves.

“The Four-Gated City is…a stunning portrait of a woman in her thirties, Martha Quest, who, leaves family, friends, and the Communist party to immigrate to England from Africa.  It is not just a personal portrait, though.  It also examines post-war London torn by the Cold War, persecutions of Communist Party members, fear of the McCarthy era, terror of war, women breaking down from pressures, and more.”

The five novels cover a lifetime–Martha from age 15 till old age.

I have just finished Landlocked, and I am sad because I will miss Martha Quest.  Landlocked is my favorite of these four and I will write a more detailed “review” at the end of this post, but first I will summarize the plots of the first three.

MARTHA QUEST, A PROPER MARRIAGE, AND A RIPPLE FROM THE STORM.  Set in Southern Africa on the verge of World War II, Lessing in  Martha Quest introduces the heroine as a furious teenager living on a farm on the veld.  Martha has dropped out of school to educate herself, and is desultorily reading Communist tracts, Freud, and other intellectual books lent by her friends, the Cohen brothers.  She longs to get off the farm, and knows from books there are other worlds.  She  hates her fastidious mother, who is neurotically jealous of Martha and fights with her about every detail of her life.  She gets along with her father,  but he is delicate and uninvolved with the family, shell-shocked during World War I and never recovered.  Meanwhile, stuck at home, Martha experiments with femininity:  making dresses her mother doesn’t approve of, going to dances, necking with boys she doesn’t like much, and trying to fit in with the people of different nationalities who have settled here. Eventually she finds a job in the city as a typist, where she attends sundowner parties and gets drunk every night, and  gets involved with all the wrong men.

In A Proper Marriage, Martha is married to Douglas Knowell, a successful, dull, hard-drinking young man with no political views, and she doesn’t quite know how she became married to him, except that everyone was getting married.  She has violated her principles and is doing all the conventional things young women do, as if she can’t help herself.  She gets pregnant, though she doesn’t want to and goes to a condescending doctor to get a Dutch cap (or was it a diaphragm?), and we hear his thoughts on how she will soon be pregnant if she is not already.  Martha simply cannot believe she is going to be a mother.  She has a child, Caroline, whom she doesn’t much love.  And she agonizes over how she sold out her socialist principles for a marriage she didn’t want, and her old friends the Cohens quietly sneer.  Martha longs to get involved with the commune one of them has formed.

In A Ripple from the Storm, set in the early 1940s, Martha has finally matured, is divorced from Douglas, and is very active in a Communist group.  This is a much more focused, energetic novel, because Martha is finally doing something she intended to do.  The novel describes her political activities during World War II–her social life revolves around lectures, study groups, and attempting to help the Africans. I found this utterly absorbing, and somehow understand when Martha makes her next mistake:  she marries a German “comrade,” Anton Hesse, a refugee who works as a clerk but puts all his energy into the Communist group.  She knows that there is something sexually wrong between them, and says she will not marry him.  But then she feels sorry for him, and suddenly they are married.

(Don’t you all know how this goes?  Marriages that everybody knows are doomed, but what can you do except go to the party and drink champagne?)

LANDLOCKED is my favorite after A Four-Gated City.  Set near the end of World War II and just after it, Landlocked centers on the disintegration of their Communist group, and describes Martha’s own feeling of being ripped apart and landlocked as she tries to compartmentalize her life:  she balances secretarial work (she becomes a freelance typist and makes more money), her work for the Communist group, her cold marriage to Anton, visiting her ill father, and having an affair with Thomas, while what she really wants to do is go to England.  She dreams again and again of the sea, dreams where she can’t get there.

Politics change rapidly at the end of the war as people try to cope with the realization that 40 million people have died.  The townspeople long for normalcy and need a scapegoat:  the  Communist group, which had been tolerated when everyone was pulling together during the war,  is execrated.  Even Mrs. Van, a popular, liberal activist who has served on the town council and in Parliament (not a communist), and Jack, a trade union leader and member of Parliament, are ostracized.  Jasmine, a sort of secretary of the group, goes to Johannesburg, and Martha is stuck in her place.  Athen, the earnest Greek member, prepares to go home, though Greece is in a civil war. Anton starts to lose control and becomes involved with a wealthy businessman’s family.  And the Africans believe the communist group is condescending.  Then the group begins to learn of the Russian persecutions and imprisonments.

Martha is still married to Anton, but they have decided they will get divorced at the end of the war, when he will be “naturalized.” They decide they can have affairs, but Anton is still in love with Martha, and she is incredulous.  It was the same with Douglas.  It’s as though neither knew there was anything sexually wrong.

Then she has an affair with Thomas, a member of the group, a Polish farmer, a Jew who escaped with his wife to Africa.  Thomas has had affairs with many women, always painfully thin women.  He falls “in love” with Martha when she is ill (later she has a fat phase and he tells her she looked better when he was with her).  It is the most sexual love affair of both their lives.  But love is far too inexact a word for these two Communists, who view personal lives with distance and don’t use that word.

Doris Lessing always steps away and lets us know what Martha, apart from her actions, is thinking and feeling.  And it is these original thoughts that make the reader look at a situation differently.  Lessing writes beautifully and intelligently, and Landlocked is a stunning novel in the tradition of the big, detailed, exhilarating bildungsromans of Thomas Mann and Henry Handel Richardson.

In the beginning of the novel, Martha is in a thin, blonde phase because she is so busy, and people respond to her looks.  The “real” Martha is cynical.

And besides, what was real in her, underneath these metamorphoses of style or shape or–even, apparently–personality, remained and intensified.  The continuity of Martha now was in a determination to survive–like everyone else in the world, these days, as she told herself; it was in a watchfulness, a tension of the will that was like a small flickering of light, like the perpetual tiny dance of lightning on the horizon from a storm so far over the earht’s curve it could only show reflected on the sky.  Martha was holding herself together–like everybody else.  She was a lighthouse of watchfulness; she was a being totally on the defensive.  This was her reality, not the ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive’ Martha Hesse, a blondish, dark-eyed young woman who smiled back at her from the mirror where she was becomingly set off in pink cotton that showed a dark shadow in the angle of her hips.”

Martha doesn’t get to England till the last book, and that is her “real” life.  But I understand the life she leads in Africa, wanting to leave, but stuck because of her relationships.

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Classics used to sell themselves.

You would go into a bookstore, see a paperback of Crime and Punishment and start to read it, and then because you couldn’t finish it while sitting cross-legged on the floor, you would buy it for a dollar and go off with your ragged friends to the Union and do your homework, or read your Dostoevsky…probably read your Dostoevsky.

You had your priorities.

Thus we all read the classics.

We were gung-ho on the Russians.  You could buy them anywhere.  One of my friends was pretty much a Gogol person:  she was always laughing, “Oh, no, no…” over “The Overcoat” or Dead Souls.  Another was a true Chekhovian, who grew a Chekhov-style beard and read “The Lady with the Dog” over and over.  I was a Tolstoy person.  I read the Signet paperback of Anna Karenina on a cot under a workbench in the basement of a writer friend’s where I lived free for a few months.  “You’re the only person who can say you literally sleep under a workbench,” he quipped.  Well, I don’t know about that… but I certainly read Anna Karenina under a workbench.

What wouldn’t I give to be able to find Gogol, Gorky, or Goncharov at my local bookstore?

Barnes and Noble is the last bookstore in our town, except for a tiny indie with hardly any books that is an obvious tax write-off, and which I refuse to support.  And, yes, B&N here has Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but only in the Barnes & Noble classics editions.  (Those are fine, but I prefer Penguins, Modern Library, or Oxford.)

Do people read classics if they can’t find the classics? Dartmouth College recently did some study that found contemporary writers are less influenced by the canon than they used to be.  Is that because they can’t find the classics?

I’m sure some classics sell themselves.  Jane Austen must fly out the door, there are so many movies and TV miniseries.  I would think the same of Dickens.

One has to go to used bookstores for the more obscure classics.  Or to Iowa City, which still has good used and new bookstores.

Of course there’s always online.

I think of the days when my friend bought copies of Dead Souls for all of us on her father’s charge card at Brentano’s, and wish I could still walk into a bookstore and guarantee finding a copy of Dead Souls, or anything by Gogol.

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Chang-rae Lee

Chang-rae Lee, 46, is one of our great American writers.  He won the PEN/Hemingway award for his first novel,  Native Speaker.   His second novel A Gesture Life, is a masterpiece, centering on a  Japanese immigrant in New York who represses his emotions so he can lead a decorous lifeHis third novel, Aloft, charts the life of 59-year-old Jerry Battle, a man happiest when flying a small plane who must come to terms with his unhappy, disintegrating family in the suburbs.

The Surrendered, published in 2010, is a very good, maybe even a great, novel about the Korean War.  I read this excellent novel little by little over a period of a month, because there was so much to absorb and because so much of it is horrifying.  It describes the impact of war not only on refugees and veterans, but on the next generation.  And it is this heartbreaking look at the future curve of the outcome of war that is most terrifying, as Lee delineates the lives and losses of two emotionally crippled characters, June, a Korean refugee who became a successful antique dealer and single mother in New York, and Hector, a hard-drinking American veteran and drifter.  The overspill of their brief liaison is Nicholas, a sociopathic son who becomes a ne’er-do-well criminal in the European antiques world.

Lee goes back and forth in time, interweaving the lives of June and Hector in the ’50s and 1986.  The novel begins with June at age 11 in 1950 in Korea, as she travels on top of a train with her younger brother and sister, who are twins. Since the death of the rest of the family, she has desperately tried to take care of them.  They march with other refugees on the road, trying to survive, trying to avoid violence, trying to find food, and sometimes manage to ride on trains.

June knew they could have waited in the hope of another train with room inside but it hadn’t been cold when they stopped just before dusk and she decided they ought to keep moving while they had the chance.  To keep moving was always safer than lingering in one place, and there was nothing back at the depot to eat, anyway.”

The twins fall off the top of the train and die horrible deaths.  June goes on.  And Hector, an American soldier who takes care of picking up dead bodies and burying them during the war, ends up later working as a handyman in the orphanage where June lives.

[Just so you'll know:  Lee's hero Hector, who is an enormous, strong, kind, but hopeless man, often used by others, grew up in a small town called Ilion.  The name Ilion means Troy, and Hector was the greatest warrior of Troy in Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid.  I don't know if June is an allusion to any character--maybe in Korean literature? or a date in the Korean War?--but maybe some of you know...]

Lee concisely and perfectly depicts Hector’s character:

“He had been given his separation from the army for ‘a pattern of discreditable conduct’ that included charges of chronic fighting, trading in contraband, and assaulting an officer.  The fighting he was certainly guilty of, but the other charges were debatable, the black-market dealing a case of his being an unwitting courier for a friend, and then the one of striking an officer outside a bar in Itaewon completely bogus…”

And at the orphanage, Hector and June both fall in love with Sylvie, a missionary’s wife who survived the war in China, rape, and torture, and who takes heroin, unbeknownst to her cold husband, Tanner.  Hector has an affair with Sylvie, and June, desperately jealous, wants Sylvie to adopt her.

June and Hector marry briefly for convenience and then divorce.   When June is dying of cancer, she wants to find their son,  Nicholas, who took off for Europe years ago and has been in touch with her only when he needs money.  She wants Hector to go with her and a private detective to Italy, because Nicholas has never known his father and she thinks that might help him. In June’s search for Hector, who is living in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and working as a janitor because prevented from good jobs by debts to the Mob, she inadvertently causes another disaster.  Wherever poor June goes, there are accidents, and this one is too much–a flaw in the novel.

How can you make peace with war?  You cannot.  June tries to find her son.  Hector knows that nothing good can come of this search.  And the simple life he longed for is destroyed.

Over and over the same patterns…

I felt really torn up reading this.

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War and Peace in helmet Here is the traditional Frisbee summer picture of a book in a bicycle helmet.  This enormous, 4-pound, 1,273-page Vintage Classics edition of War and Peace tipped the helmet. Next week, I’ll carry a different, slightly smaller  Oxford edition, hoping it will balance at 2 pounds.

I’m fascinated by different editions and translations anyway.  The word “translation” comes from the Latin transfero, “to carry across,” and if you have ever attempted to translate the literature of one language into another, you will understand the difficulties.  Structures of languages are sometimes incompatible: English depends on word order, while inflected languages depend instead on word endings, with a more flexible arrangement of words that can’t quite be conveyed in English.  This is especially a problem with poetry.  Since I don’t know Russian, and am totally dependent on translations, I’m just relieved I’m reading prose.  And War and Peace is such an engrossing novel that it reads easily in any translation.

This year my goal is to alternate reading the four translations I have and to  finish the translation I like best.  Here are a few preliminary words about them, in order of the date of translation: Constance Garnett, Louise and Aylmer Maude, Anthony Briggs, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

1.  Constance Garnett’s translation (1903). I am very fond of Garnett, who translated 70 Russian works in the late 19th century and early 20th, among them Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol, and Chekhov.  It is said that she wrote very quickly and if she didn’t understand a paragraph, she skipped it and went on.  It reads very well anyway, and her translation of War and Peace was praised by Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence.

Orlando Figes in The New York Review of Books said of Garnett in 2007:

“No one did more to introduce the English-speaking world to Russian literature than Constance Garnett (1862– 1946)…. A friend of Garnett’s, D.H. Lawrence, recalled her ‘sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. The pile would be this high…really almost up to her knees, and all magical.'”

And you may have read it, too.  The Garnett translation is available in the Modern Library edition and countless others.

2.  Louise and Aylmer Maude (1922-23).  Like Garnett, the Maudes were determined to promulgate Tolstoy’s writings, and Maude’s translation of War and Peace was considered the best.  Tolstoy gave the Maude translation his seal of approval. It is my favorite, and it is available free at Project Gutenberg.

There is a new revision of the Maude translation, by Amy Mandelkar, published in 2010. I’m content with the original Maude, but perhaps this will turn up in the used bookstore eventually.  Yes, I want this one, too.

According to the Oxford University Press catalogue:

“The Maudes’ translation of Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece has long been considered the best English version, and now for the first time it has been revised to bring it fully into line with modern approaches to the text. French passages are restored, Anglicization of Russian names removed, and outmoded expressions updated.”

3.  The Anthony Briggs translation (2005).  I’ve just begun it and am very much enjoying it, though it’s not quite as smooth as Garnett’s or the Maude:  he feels those two are too smooth anyway.  Briggs’ is a controversial translation, because he renders the dialect of the soldiers as working-class slang. So far I’m reading the “peace” parts, and they’re very readable; in fact, I’d like to keep reading it, because the 100 pages I’ve read are absorbing.   We’ll see what I think of the war slang.  It’s a lovely book, with good notes and chapter summaries.

In an article in The New Statesman in 2005, Briggs, a former professor of Russian at the University of Birmingham, wrote about his translation, and said that earlier translations by Garnett and Maude  are good but too grammatical, especially in dialogue.

“The experience of English readers should be as close as possible to that of Russians reading their own language, and this calls for a wider range of speech registers, especially in dialogue, but also in the narrative. To get near the unconstrained flow of the original, ordinariness needs to be infused into the translation. However, this does not mean that Tolstoy’s words should be brutalised. There were occasions when I considered expressions such as “hooliganism”, “between a rock and a hard place” and “we’ve been rumbled”, before rejecting them as too modern.”

4.  The Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation, 2007.  This husband-and-wife team, Pevear an American and Volokhonsky a Russian, live in France, and they began working together on Russian translations when Pevear was reading The Brothers Karamazov and Volokhonsky noticed some inadequacies in the translation.  Volokhonsky does the original literal translation, and Pevear polishes it.

They won the PEN/Book of the Month Club Prize for their translations of The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina.

They have restored the French to War and Peace, so that French dialogue (Russian aristocrats often spoke French, and Tolstoy wrote parts in French) appears on the page and is translated in footnotes.  There is so much French in the first chapter of the P-V edition that I was put off and started with the Maude.  The restoration of the French has been made much of in reviews, but I prefer just getting the flavor with a few French sentences now and then.

It’s a beautifully-designed book, with detailed notes and a historical index.

In an interview in The Millions, they said:

“We turn back to [Tolstoy), we keep reading him, because in his artistic work he deals with universal conditions and almost never with topical issues, and because he has such an extraordinary gift for concrete realization.”

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It’s hard to keep up with the changes in publishing.

In the 1990s, there was a shake-up when a few big corporations bought most of the major publishers in New York.  Then they dropped many of their midlist writers, and there were protests and petitions.

In the 21st century, the changes have continued.  The e-book has become quotidian, and we gaze at our Kindles, Nooks, Sony Readers, and Kobos on buses and planes.  Borders went out of business last year, so Barnes and Noble got rid of its comfortable chairs. Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million are the last storefront chains.

Amazon dominates the book market, and I often shop there.  I’ve found hundreds of out-of-print books, scholarly books, and small-press books I would simply have been unable to acquire elsewhere.

I am not much of an “e” person. But the latest e-book pricing crisis, which may be a bit like what happened when newspapers tried to compete with themselves at their own websites, is a dire problem for publishers.  How can they profit from e-books when Amazon takes such a big cut?  I read with interest about the recent “price-fixing” scandal of the Big Six when they tried to negotiate for higher e-book prices with Amazon on “the agency model” so they could make more money.  The Department of Justice came down on Amazon’s side, and the lawsuits continue, yadda yadda yadda.

When I read about the DOJ decision, I thought, “Thank God,” because it justified my purchasing Anthony Brigg’s short biography of Tolstoy and his translation of War and Peace from Amazon. If Amazon is legally correct, it’s okay for me to buy from them, right?  And though having Amazon isn’t life-changing, it is certainly convenient in the current bookstore culture.  And I shop there because it’s the best bookstore.

My husband told me that he didn’t think it cost much to make e-books. I realized I don’t quite know what an e-book is, and vaguely thought it had something to do with websites.

I suspected the production and pricing might be more complicated for some of the publishers, though.

One of the best explanations of the effect of  cheap e-prices on publishers is at the blog Gone Publishing, written by Curt Matthews, CEO and founder of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), a distributor of independent publishers.  He writes about its effect on IPG, and it turns out terms for the Big Six publishers and IPG’s smaller clients are very different.

…the Big Six used their market power to compel Amazon and other resellers of eBooks to accept 30% of sales while all the other publishers have so far had to give Amazon and most of the others 50% of sales (Apple deals with everybody on agency terms). Obviously, the extent of the market dominated by the Big Six is a fact we need to know.”

He explains that the publishers, writers, etc., are responsible for the content and production of e-books, and of course deserve to be recompensed, while the retailers like Amazon, B&N, etc., sell them digitally, without much human intervention, and with no effort.  He says prices of e-books could be even lower for consumers if retailers didn’t take such a high percentage.

In February, Amazon removed all of IPG’s titles from the store, because IPG dramatically wouldn’t accept the new unprofitable e-book contract, which was even worse than the previous one.

May I admit that I don’t have a Kindle?

This is all so complicated that I wouldn’t be able to understand it adequately without reading  up on the publishing world and spending hours talking to the likes of Curt Matthews, Jeff Bezos, and publishers and booksellers and taping every word they say, which isn’t going to happen, because it’s not my business and I’m not that big an e-person.

And of course I’ll continue to shop at Amazon, because they sell the books I want.

And yet… shouldn’t the smaller publishers be given a break?

In the meantime, let me recommend the IPG website.

A few years ago a publicist introduced me to the website of IPG, a distributor of small presses, independent publishers, and some English publishers.  It is owned by Chicago Review Press, which you may know for its beautiful editions of Anya Seton’s historical novels (Katherine is my favorite) and Mary Stewart’s classic Gothic novels.  Some of IPG’s better-known clients are Hesperus Press, Peter Owen, Little, Brown, and Vintage Classics.

The website gives me ideas for book-shopping, not e-book shopping, though you can do that, too.  For instance, wouldn’t you love the UK Vintage Classic edition of Bleak House?

It’s a good place to browse, and you can actually buy books there, too.

Or you can buy them at Amazon, B&N, an indie store….

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John Irving’s new novel, In One Person, was on my list of Dickens-inspired books to read this month.  He mentions Dickens in the second sentence, and Great Expectations is the hero’s favorite.  But here I am on page 128, and I’m done.

Yes, I’m done.  It’s not because Irving is not an entertaining writer.  Irving has always written entertainingly, and his comic characters are deftly drawn.  It’s because Irving is not Dickensian here, and his bisexual narrator, Billy Abbott, provides too much information about sexuality.

Did you know that gay men used to approach each other in bars and ask, “Are you a top or a bottom?” And that if you don’t enjoy female impersonators, you’re in danger of being labeled “square”?

Are you, too, saying, “Ick!”?  I was brought up to consider sexual roles flexible, not “top” and “bottom,” and female impersonators’ mockery of women to be misogynistic.  I sympathize with Billy’s transgender girlfriend, who sobs with exasperation after being taken to a female impersonator show at a club, unable to explain to Billy why she’s so offended.  Billy thinks it’s a transgender thing.

I admire the novels of gay writers Allan Hollingsworth, Christopher Coe,  Christopher Isherwood, and Jeanette Winterson.    I don’t think I’m homophobic.  But Irving’s reduction of characters to a parade of sexual objects of Billy’s fantasies is hollow and monotonous, and I don’t quite believe in Billy.  He talk-talk-talks about forbidden sexual attractions, cross-dressing, and pick-ups, and it seems to be a turn-on for Irving.   It’s as though Irving, who has always written about kinky sex, is so fascinated by bi-culture that he can’t leave out any of his research. His characters actually have a conversation about when the top/bottom line came into being.

Read “Garp” instead.

This novel is an explicit study of sexuality, but don’t expect D. H. Lawrence or Henry Miller.  It’s a comic Kinsey Institute manual for cross-dressers’ grandsons, like Irving’s protagonist Billy.  Although Irving says the novel is not autobiographical, he admits that he writes about attractions he didn’t act on as a young man.  And, in defense of the author of The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany,  he certainly didn’t write so clumsily when he was a young man.

The narrator, Billy Abbott, a novelist, is almost 70 (like Irving) and thinking back over his life.  He grows up bisexual in the 1950s in the small town of First Sister, Vermont, where his sexual feelings are confused and forbidden.  His mother, the prompter for the local theater, marries an inspiring teacher/theater director at a boys’ school, and they live in a faculty apartment in the school.  As an adolescent, he has  “crushes on the wrong people,” and though Miss Abbott, the town librarian, tells him it’s fine to be attracted in fantasies, he is embarrassed that he fancies Miss Frost herself (who turns out to be a transgender woman), his stepfather, the plain mother of his friend, Elaine, and Kittredge, the most gorgeous boy on the wrestling team.

Irving is fascinated by theater, and uses the production of plays in First Sister to sketch his ideas about sexuality.  All of Billy’s friends and relatives at one time or another act or work in the community theater, and there is a lot of cross-dressing.  But the oddest and most notable feature of the First Sister Players is Grandpa Harry’s ability to land all the good women’s roles, because apparently he can play women better than women (and isn’t that misogynistic?).  (A transgender woman also gets important roles, meaning that anybody can play women better than women.)  Some of this is very funny:  I laughed when later in life Grandpa Harry upsets the assisted living community by wearing women’s clothes to meals.

His stepfather directs Billy as Ariel in The Tempest at school, and there are many long discussions about Ariel’s mutable gender.  Billy and his friend, Elaine, who plays Miranda, both have crushes on Kittredge, the cruel, handsome wrestler who plays Ferdinand.  He reminds me slightly of Steerforth in David Copperfield, but since I haven’t read very far, and don’t intend to go on…

Billy likes small-breasted older women, and fantasizes about Miss Frost and Elaine’s mother apparently because their small breasts make them seem unwomanly.  And, frankly, I am offended by Billy’s obsession, and by the implication that women with small breasts are somehow boyish.  I wonder what Nora Ephron, author of the essay “A Few Words about Breasts,” would say.   I’m annoyed, and I’m sure other women will be, too.

Billy is also fascinated by cross-dressing, perhaps because of Grandpa Harry.  As an adult, he has relationships with gay men, women, and transgender women.  And…well, obviously I didn’t finish it.

Parts of this are interesting, but Irving is unsubtle–at one point he even tells us that the name Jacques is the male equivalent of Jacqueline–and I wonder if an editor added that, or whether Irving has given up on culture.

I loved Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany; start with those if you haven’t read Irving before.


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Iowa City

The old housewas sold last year, and it looks different already.  The lawn is ragged with dandelions–it’s organic, and how else can you make dandelion wine?–cats squat on top of cars, and the new inhabitants lounge on Adirondack chairs in their Occupy Iowa City t-shirts and shorts.

That house is in bad shape,” my husband said as we drove past a teetering  brick house near the corner.  It was built when I was a child, and I remember playing inside the frame of the house.

My sentimentality about the old neighborhood is gone, but as we drove past houses where we lived as undergraduates at the University of Iowa, I felt nostalgic.  I lived for a few years on the second floor of an old house on Governor St. (upstairs from “the Lodger,” who sometimes sold books out of his efficiency), which is now shabby and surrounded by new apartment houses. There on the enclosed porch I read Anna Karenina for the first time, littered the kitchen with language flashcards, had gourmet dinner parties (cooked by someone else, except for my famous Julia Child rabbit I cooked when everyone else was Under the Influence), entertained friends who were students, teachers, farmers, painters, and well-educated clerks, smoked cigars after dinner because I’d read that Virginia Woolf and Leonard did, and endured the noise of John Leggett’s parties around the block.  I sent my first husband once to ask them to keep it down, and he stayed at the party, of course.

Sculpture on Linn St.

BIG DIFFERENCE:  Iowa City is now a UNESCO City of Literature.  (The others are Edinburgh, Melbourne, Australia, Dublin, Reykjavik, Iceland, and Norwich, England. ) We’re proud of the cultural contributions of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first creative writing program in the nation, and of the superb literature departments.   But there’s a down side.  There are now SO many hokey “bookish” sculptures and quotations from Workshop writers engraved on the sidewalk, as though the public art on Iowa Ave. and Linn St. is one big ad for the Workshop.  Couldn’t they have gone for some abstract?  Above is one of the better sculptures, an open book on top of other books, and on top is Inheritance, a novel by Samantha Lan Chang, director of the Writers’ Workshop.

OTHER BIG DIFFERENCE.  Urban renewal, which took most of the 1970s, changed the character of downtown.  It is now a chic area of restaurants, bars, and boutiques that caters to students.   Downtown used to be a busy center for townspeople, too.  We all shopped at Younkers and Alden’s (department stores), Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, Barbara’s Bakery, Things and Things and Things, Mott’s Drugstore, Osco Drug, Kinney’s, Seiffert’s (a clothing store), Piper’s Candy, The Burger Dungeon, The Huddle, etc. There were three movie theaters, and if you wanted to see the foreign films, you went to the Iowa Theater, you saw Easy Rider or Alice’s Restaurant at the Varsity, and “mainstream” movies at the Englert (which is the only theater that has survived, though it no longer shows movies).

Urban renewal resulted in a facelift for downtown and a partial erasure of history.  Some buildings were knocked down, some streets were closed to build a pedestrian mall, and during the years when the sidewalks and streets were dug up with boards slung across the mud, many people lost the habit of shopping downtown.  The new downtown (now 30-odd years old) emerged glittering and almost glamorous, and it was great to have two blocks closed off to traffic.  It has many lovely features:  a pedestrian mall,  shady, pretty, with tall, luxuriant trees and flowers, and there is much al fresco dining and al fresco drinking.  But a huge mall built in the burb Coralville caused urban sprawl, luring away business from Iowa City.  Downtown struggles to hang on, though it now depends on entertainment rather than retail.  So let’s hope the Japanese restaurants,  sportsbars, and thrift shops can keep the downtown solvent.

Iowa City still has the best bookstores in the state, and that’s why we’ve come today.  Murphy-Brookfield is our favorite used bookstore.  Martha the cat inspected us, but most of the time she napped in a box on the desk.  The store is well-organized: two stories of separate rooms for literature, literary criticism, philosophy and religion, history–and I could have spent the day there.  My husband pulled me away, as we have no room for more books.

I found James McConkey’s Court of Memory, Natalia Ginzburg’s The Manzoni Family (said on the book cover to be her War and Peace), Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape

Then we went down to the river and sat behind the Student Union where we so often sat when we were students.  There was almost no one there except ducks.

By the river (flooded in 2008, back to normal now, though the Art Museum and Hancher Auditorium were destroyed), I talked to the ducks.

Here’s Duck #1.  Duck #1 is sympathetic and loves to chat:

Duck #1

And here’s Duck #2.  Duck #2 doesn’t have time to talk:

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