Archive for April, 2010


The Pentacrest, University of Iowa


I’m rereading Anna Karenina, inspired by the blogger A Work in Progress, who is on her first read of the masterpiece–lucky gal!  I’ve read this several times and will seize any excuse to read it again.  When I first discovered it, I neglected all my classes for a month and toted it along with my heavy lexicons so I could read it on the Pentacrest between classes.  I gushed about AK to all my friends, but the only fellow Tolstoy nut I met was a library circulation clerk who recommended the great Maude translation, which had been condoned by Tolstoy. 

The first 100 pages are so exquisitely symmetrical and balanced, pellucid with vibrant portraits of  the dozens of characters, rich with episodes of daily life, and baroque with romantic complications intertwined with foreshadowings of tragedy, that I see no reason to dabble in Joyce or Broch:  Tolstoy is the great pre-modern artist;  I just keep reading Tolstoy.

The novel opens with Tolstoy’s vivid rendering of the chaos in the Oblonsky household caused by Stiva’s affair with the ex-governess.  His wife Dolly has discovered a note from the governess in a pocket and says she will leave him.  

There’s the famous beginning sentence:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The household is in confusion.  Anna Karenina, Stiva’s sister, travels to Moscow to negotiate peace between the husband and wife.  And she is such a lovely person that all are charmed by her:  Dolly, who appreciates her kindness, is won over, though there is something in the Karenina household she dislikes; the Oblonsky children crawl all over their aunt, either because they love her or because she is nice to their mother; and Dolly’s sister, Kitty, a beautiful, lively young woman who has just declined a proposal from a kind, honest, blunt landowner, regards Anna as an ideal older sister/ role model.  Dolly and Stiva make peace due to Anna’s efforts.

Kitty expects Vronsky, a charming rake, to propose to her at the next ball.  Vronsky, alas, is infatuated with Anna.  When the charming, naive Kitty  arrives at the ball, she senses there is something wrong between Anna and Vronsky.  Anna seems displeased, rushes off with the dancing director, and snubs Vronsky.  But later Kitty perceives their intimacy and is crushed.

Although Tolstoy disapproved of Anna, the rest of us do not.  He drew a rich, complicated, intelligent, sensual woman whose sad marriage sends her into the underworld of 19th century women who live with lovers.  

I have three translations of AK:  my old Constance Garnett edition is illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg.

Oh dear:  which translation to read?


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I keep a list of Midwestern novels.  There are fewer than you’d think, considering the vast spaces in the middle of the country.  Most American novels seem to be set in New York or California, written by an Ivy League elite, and chronicle a coastal experience. (I don’t have statistics, so take this complaint with a grain of salt.)  It’s not that I don’t love novels set in the East and West–perhaps I even prefer them–but there’s a whole other spectrum of experience that is largely ignored.  Midwestern and Southern novels constitute their own genres.  There’s New York and then there’s…

David Rhodes’ novel,  Driftless, won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize.  It is also the book for this year’s All Iowa Reads program, sponsored by the Iowa Center for the Book.  Rhodes, a  Wisconsin writer who graduated in 1971 from the Iowa Writers Workshop, published three novels in succession and then had the motorcycle accident that paralyzed him from the chest down.  This is the first novel he’s published in over 30 years.  He is a Guggenheim Fellow in 2010.

Driftless isn’t an easy novel.  It’s touching, well-written, realistic, and sometimes sentimental, but also very bleak, and I’ve cried over a few scenes (I cry over everything).  Set in Words, Wisconsin, one of the many dying small towns in Wisconsin, Driftless interweaves the stories of several of the town’s inhabitants:  July, who arrived in Words 20 years ago while hitchhiking and decided it was time to stop drifting and make a life;  Grahm, a simple dairy farmer, and his smarter wife, Cora, an accountant, whose lives change when Cora discovers the Dairy Board is keeping two sets of books; Gail Shotwell, a factory worker who is the bass player in a rock band; and Russell, a retired farmer who is  fixing up the house before his wife’s relatives descend and reluctantly hires Amish laborers, against whom he has always had a prejudice.

Grahm and Cora’s story especially touches me.  They’re such innocents.  Cora believes that as a whistle blower she’ll be rewarded.  July, more or less the sophisticated man of Words, tells them to forget it  because you can’t fight a corporation.  The dairy board fires Cora on a trumped-up excuse, Grahm’s milk is contaminated with antibiotics so he loses his living, and someone breaks into their house and steals only the copies of the records.  They write a letter to the editor, and after it is published, they are summoned to court and a gag order slapped on them.  But during a snowstorm, they learn what is important when they almost lose their children, who, unbeknownst to the parents, went sledding.  

Rhode’s description of the weather will especially resonate with midwesterners.  I know–the weather.  But the winters are hard and terrifying.  In the chapter called “Snow,” Rhodes portrays the rural people’s stoicism in the face of subzero temperatures and their gradual defeat by a blizzard.

The novel is called Driftless after its setting, a hilly region of Wisconsin known as the Driftless area.  

Rhodes’ plain style tempers the occasionally sentimental scenes.  This novel reminds me a bit of Frederich Busch’s excellent work.  Note:  Rhodes’ characters seem perhaps more refined and tolerant than many of the small-town people I know.  I’m halfway through:  I’m expecting the ending of this novel to pull everything together.

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The most exciting publishing event of 2009 was the reissuing of six books of the Betsy-Tacy series. When I found them in the adult section of Barnes & Noble, three volumes containing two novels each, I could hardly suppress my excitement.   Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books,  a series of children’s classics based on the author’s childhood in Mankato, Minnesota, were among the iconic novels of my childhood. I grew up  in Iowa City, a small town not unlike Mankato, but Lovelace’s books, set at the turn of the 20th century, seemed to depict a much more glamorous world than my own. This charming 10-book series follows the adventures of Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly from kindergarten through Betsy’s marriage.  Betsy wants to be a writer, and Lovelace has a winsome talent for transforming ordinary events, like Betsy and Tacy’s Cat Duet in the school program and their struggle freshman year to stake out the back seats in homeroom , into memorable, hysterically funny and adeptly-written adventures.  I am not the only fan: Bette Midler, Anna Quindlan, Laura Lippman, and Meg Cabot also grew up on the series.  There is even a Betsy-Tacy Society.  

Naturally, my favorites among the novels are the last six, which cover Betsy’s high school years through her wedding, though the early ones are also fun and adorable.  A friend told me about them when I was 10; her mother had passed them onto her and we read them again and again.   When I was 16, my friends and I had “Betsy-Tacy revivals” on my porch. This meant we skipped school, ate peanut butter cookies, and read Betsy-Tacy books.  We were wearing jeans or peasant skirts, flannel shirts, and peace symbol necklaces, while Betsy in the early 1900s seemed far more sophisticated, wearing the latest fashions, though her blouses would never stay tucked into her skirts and her teeth were “parted in the middle.”

Here is a hilarious excerpt from Chapter 16, “Hic, Haec, Hoc,” of Heaven, Lovelace’s novel about Betsy’s freshman year of high school.  I read this to my Latin class because I thought they would enjoy it (they did).

“By the time November was under way, homework reared its ugly head.  At first Betsy had managed very well with study periods but the habit, now flourishing, of writing notes to Herbert had interfered considerably.  A forty-six in an algebra test brought her up short.

“And not only was her algebra teacher depressingly uncomplimentary.  Her Latin teacher was plainly not impressed.  Betsy and Tacy were delighted when they were introduced to “Hic, haec, hoc.”  They took the declesnion for a slogan, and when Betsy called Tachy on the telephone she said, “Hic, haec, hoc,” and Betsy answered, “Hujus, hujus, hujus,” and they shouted in unison, “Huic, huic, huic.”  This was undeniably very bright, but its good effects were not apparent in the classroom.”

Lovelace has an unerring gift for humor, though we also see Betsy’s struggles.  She wants to be a writer and Tacy is the perfect audience for her stories, but the start of high school interferes with her writing and Uncle Keith’s trunk (her desk) is banished to the attic in her new house.  She and Julia also struggle with religon:  they love the Episcopal church, where they sing in the choir, but their parents are Baptists and they don’t know how to tell them they want to be confirmed as Episcopalians.  

A few years ago we toured Mankato, the original Deep Valley of the Betsy-Tacy books, when we happened to be in Minnesota.  At the Mankato library, you can pick up a copy of the Betsy-Tacy Society’s self-guided tour.  We walked past Maud/Betsy’s childhood house, Tacy’s house, and even went up the Big Hill and had our photo taken on the bench.  We also bicycled past Murmuring Lake–well, one of them had to be Murmuring Lake– Minnesota is the land of lakes.

The rather eccentric woman who took our photo–she came out of her house barefoot and delivered an enthusiastic monologue on Betsy-Tacy –suggested hat a character in the Betsy-Tacy books smoked hashish.  Obviously this was not something that occurred to me when I was 10.  Betsy and Tacy do meet someone’s grandfather, perhaps in Little Syria, who smokes a hookah.  Egad–was he really smoking dope?  Nobody drinks in the Betsy-Tacy books, so I’m inclined to say no.  But they really know their Betsy-Tacy in Mankato.

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 It’s been a rainy Sunday and I settled in first thing this morning with D. H. Lawrence’s stunning novel, Sons and Lovers. As you can see, I’m also drinking tea out of my D. H. Lawrence cup.  Did I need the mug?  No, but I bought some of these Penguin anniversary mugs one Christmas.  James Joyce’s Dubliners was supposed to be for my husband, but guess what?  He doesn’t notice what he drinks out of.

I’ve long been a fan of Lawrence–ever since I saw the Ken Russell movie of Women in Love and gobbled up a mass-market novel with pictures of Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed on the cover.  I’m also fond of  Sons and Lovers, which is fast-paced, beautifully written, and engrossing, the stuff of best-sellers, though perhaps it never quite made that list.  Lawrence tells the story of two generations of the Morel family:  the mother, Gertrude, is a passionate, well-educated woman who has gone down a class by marrying a handsome miner.  Morel is a drunkard, a lout who strikes his wife and children.  Gertrude remains proud, however, and despises him, transfers all her love to her children, and tries to protect them.  As they grow up, she can’t let go.  The oldest boy, William, takes up with a beautiful, shallow, silly girl and complains that she’ll forget him completely if he dies.  Gertrude begs him not to marry her.  In this case her judgment is right. 

Paul, the younger, brilliant, artistic son, who draws everything and even sees beauty in the coal mines, also has a conflict with his mother.  She is so possessive that she can’t bear see him “courting” a farmer’s daughter, the intense Miriam.  Although Paul does not regard Miriam as his girlfriend,  she is one of his best friends.  She says she wishes she were a man so she could be well-educated, and so he teaches her algebra.  They also meet every week at the library in town and he walks her home.  They discuss abstractions, nature, philosophy:  Miriam needs to escape the commonplace world of the family farm.

Lawrence sketches their meetings with lyricism and insight.

“One evening in the summer Miriam and he went over the fields by Herod’s Farm on their way from the library home.  so, it was only three miles to Willey Farm.  There was a yellow glow over the mowing grass, and the sorrel heads burned crimson.  Gradually as they walked along the high land the gold in the west sank down to red, the red to crimson, and then the chill blue crept up against the glow.” 

This is typical of Lawrence’s exquisite prose.  There is nothing Victorian about his sentences.  Hardy was his hero, but Lawrence seems much more modern.  The lives of the Morels are not so very different from the lives of people today.  And the conversations between Gertrude and Paul are intellectual but light, except when he is objecting to Miriam or some other woman.

I’m also rereading Anna Karenina, inspired by A Work in Progress, who is posting about it at her blog once a week. Because I’m a great fan of AK, I own the Constance Garnett translation (the earliest), the Maude translation (read in Russian literature classes for many years), and the new Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation (an Oprah book a few years ago).  Right now I’m reading the latter for the second time and it is a very emotional, ecstatic experience for me.  I feel such empathy for all the characters: Anna, who is so good, beautiful, and kind, stuck in a dismal marriage to Karenina, a bureaucrat, putting her brother’s marriage back together after his wife discovers he has been having an affair.  At the same time she longs for romance.  I also adore Levin, so rough, so honest, so humorous. 

All in all, it’s been a classics Sunday.


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There was a big sale and we had to buy pajamas.  Well, to tell you the truth, we wear any old t-shirt with the mix-and-match pajama bottoms, so we bought a couple of pairs of pajamas pants. I favor a bookish-theme t-shirt with the typical plaid or flower-sprigged pajama pants.  As a book review blogger, I also want to go on record saying that pajamas should be tax-deductible, as they are the ideal reading outfit. 

Bookish Pajama Shirt

Here’s my challenge:  can I stay in my pajamas for an entire weekend? Right now I’m wearing a pair of plaids that seem to have polka dots on the bottom, and my Edward Gorey t-shirt expresses my intent to read.  They’re infinitely comfortable and could probably double as bicycling clothes..  I’ve also found an old velour shirt with a hole in it to wear for a robe.  

I’ve got several books going this weekend, so I’m just going to gab about them.  I am halfway through Penelope Mortimer’s About Time:  An Aspect of Autobiography, which won the Whitbread Literary Award in 1980.  It’s a little disappointing. Her fiction is so great, I’m absolutely in love with her novels The Pumpkin Eater and Long Distance, but I’ve discovered to my astonishment that some of the chapters of About Time are quoted almost word-for-word from her exquisite short stories in Saturday Lunch at the Brownings (reviewed here).  I don’t want to read them twice.  My guess is that those not familiar with her short stories would enjoy this.

I’m also still slowly, desultorily reading The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg.  

And here are some other books that have just arrived through the mail (yes, I’m buying books again) or come home with me from the library.

1.  Tinkers by Paul Harding.  It just won the Pulitzer for fiction, the first page is lyrical and pitch-perfect,  and Harding lives in Iowa City, my hometown, so I couldn’t resist.  It’s published by a small press  (Bellevue Literary Press), and I love to support small presses.

2.  Peter Carey’s Parrot & Olivier in America.  Carey’s one of the smartest writers around, and his witty novel Theft, in which an artist manufactures paintings and attributes them to a famous artist, is gripping and astonishing, one of the best books i read whatever that year was.   A few years ago I voted for him during the Booker of Bookers competition at the Booker website (Salman Rushdie won).  Carey is best known for his historical novels, and his new novel,  based on the life of Alexis de Toqueville,  is beautifully written and fast-paced, as  I know because I started reading it this afternoon. 

3.  Driftless by David Rhodes.  Written by a Wisconsin writer, this won the Milkweed (another small press) National Fiction Prize and is very popular here in the midwest.  I began reading it (in my pajamas) and two hours flew by.  Set in a very small town, it interweaves the stories of several of the inhabitants, some of whom are natives, others refugees from cities, who are concerned with farming, rock bands, government corruption, militias, and more.

Well, that’s all from Pajama Land right now.

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In 1969 the Cuyahoga River caught on fire.  It was not the first time.  It was, as far as I know, the last. The river had a history of combustion.   It also caught on fire in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and in 1952.  Cleveland was undoubtedly one of the most polluted manufacturing cities in the nation.

All cities were, as far as I knew, bad.  In 1970, we read The Environmental Handbook, a book of essays edited by Garrett de Bell.  We learned not to used dyed Kleenex or toilet paper (always use white! the dyes pollute), drive cars as seldom as possible  (bike or take the bus!  I never learned to drive), recycle newspapers and magazines, turn down the heat (or off ), and have no more than two children (does anyone worry about the population growth anymore?).  Earth Day was a day of teach-ins, petitions, Unitarian group outings to clean up the creek, school outings to pick up more trash, and exhilarating belief that education would end pollution.  

This Earth Day we considered cleaning up a woodland area off the bike trail.  Yup,  just we two Baby Boomers, who once lived in a hip class-mixed neighborhood that was going down (nothing like walking past a tenant passed out in the hall of your apartment house to inspire you to move).  it’s a disgrace as you ride the trail from one neighborhood to a poorer one, where the woods are tangled with  McDonald’s cheeseburger wrappers,  paper cups, chip bags, old tires, discarded washing machines, and more.  Many, many neighborhoods were cleaned up on Earth Day, of course, but this one simply rots.  Well, maybe we’ll clean it up this weekend.  If it rains, there’s nothing else to do.

People seem happy about this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, but we’re also sort of lame and clueless. Driving big cars ain’t good and people damn well know it.  And what’s with all the plastic instead of waxed cartons (they’ll be out there, not biodegrading, almost as long as nuclear waste, from what I understand)? We’re the hoi polloi, frequenting the supermarkets.  Who can afford $3 apples at the organic food store?

Can you believe that Nixon was the president who started the EPA?  Wow, he was pretty liberal for a Republican. 

But with a Democrat in power now, perhaps there’s a little more cause for optimism.  A little.

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Deborah Eisenberg is a rock star of short story writers.  Truly.  She’s a cross between R.E.M. and Patti Smith, or whoever your equivalent bands might be:  she has R.E.M.’s humor and intensity, and Patti Smith’s humor and intensity.   I’m not a big short story reader, but I’ve been a fan since I first read Eisenberg in The New Yorker in the ’80s.  Those were years when I lived in an ugly midwestern city and thought my life would be glamorous if I could live in New York.  (Of course none of my friends could afford to live in New York, though some of them managed to live in New Jersey.)

The book came in the mail yesterday–I broke my resolution to stop buying books when I read on Sunday that Picador had published The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg–and now I’m happily ensconced in another world as I read this collection.    

And I identify completely with these characters.  One minute I’m fleeing my sneering professor lover in Buffalo to live in a New York apartment with a woman I’ve never met who owns a vintage clothing store and designs dresses (“Flotsam.”) Then I’m a teenager who falls for a strange guy named Chris who hangs out in a bar across the street from her ophthalmologist’s office (“What It Was Like, Seeing Chris”).  So far I’m most like, or used to be most like, the narrator of “Rafe’s Coat,” a lonely woman whose marriage has fallen apart and whose best friend, Rafe, has fallen in love with a soap opera actress.  This woman, unlike me, works for a foundation doling out grants for artists.  And yet I understand her perfectly.

“I must admit I wasn’t having just the greatest time with men.  I was finding that you have to get to know someone a bit in order to become interested in getting to know him, and that was such a a bore!  The same questions, the little conversations, over and over:  Were you close to your father?  Just think–so, you, too, as a child, were afraid of getting hit by the baseball!  Tell me, do you really believe it’s possible to rid oneself of unconscious concerns over fuel costs when discussing our Middle Eastern policies?  And so on and so forth–just like having to slog through those statistics courses in college before being allowed to register for Abnormal Personality.  I did go out now and again, of course, but in a perfunctory, frog-kissing sort of spirit, and a frog, in my experience, is a frog to the finish.”

How funny and how true!  Although I’m not divorced now, I have been, and it’s  just like that.

I took my Fagles translation of the Aeneid out of the house this afternoon to a coffeehouse because I knew I would read Deborah Eisbenberg if I stayed home.  And, well, I have to TEACH The Aeneid so it’s a priority.  But soon it will be summer, and as teachers have summers off, I’ll finish all 979 pages.

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