Archive for September, 2010

Diary of the Month

There’s something charming about reading diaries.  We all kept diaries when we were young:  little pink or blue diaries with keys, which chronicled our infatuation with Herman’s Hermits, birthday parties (dancing to Paul Revere and the Raiders), the witch’s club that met after school, and walking on stilts on the playground. 

Of course I gave up diaries long ago, but I’m fascinated by the diaries and journals of writers:  James Boswell, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Emma Hardy (Thomas Hardy’s first wife), and Sylvia Plath.  Then there are of course historical diaries:  Jimmy Carter published The White House Diaries this month (I’m fascinated by that time and would love to read it).  A couple of years ago Nikki Sixx, the bassist for Motley Crue, wrote The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star. Ever since I read the novels of Anna Kavan (a heroin addict who wrote beautiful surreal prose), I’ve been more sympathetic to drug addicts.  I’ll never understand–I’m not an addictive personality–but it helps to read historical records of these illnesses.  

All of these books are going on my list because I plan to read a diary each month for the next year.

I’m starting with The Diary of Samuel Pepys, perhaps the most famous diary of all time.   From 1660-1669, Pepys (pronounced “Peeps”), a secretary and naval administrator, kept a diary in code of his work, music (practicing his flagelot), love affairs, reading of bawdy novels (destroyed after reading), drinking, travels, and political struggles of the day. It’s personable, gossipy, and consistently entertaining.  He describes what it’s like to be awake at 1 in the morning, listening to the bells of London and the herald announcing the time below his window.  He witnessed the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.

He recorded a flood on March 20, 1660.  This fascinates me because we have had floods here for two years now.

“…the water was so high that there was boats rowed in King Street and all our yard was drowned, that one could not go to my house, so as no man has seen the like almost, most houses full of water.”

 Unfortunately I have the Modern Library edition, which has a sardonic, rambling introduction by Robert Louis Stevenson, who gives almost no information about Pepys and seems to despise him. There are no notes. I really could use some background.  Everything I know about Samuel Pepys I learned from Wikipedia and The Diary of Samuel Pepys website.  Pepys rose by patronage, the “rump” he mentions is Parliament, Monk is a general, etc.  

So the internet can sometimes be a help.   

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Lately I’ve been reading snippets of several books and have realized with dismay that I’ve finished only eight books this month.  Two of these were mysteries, two fantasies, two contemporary novels, and two “vintage” women’s novels.  In other words, not exactly challenging material.  I feel slightly ashamed.  Where is my Dickens?  Where is my Gogol?

How do working people do it?

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve gone back to work and suddenly I’m freaking out because I’m not perfect enough.  I jump up in the middle of the night to reread classical poetry and make worksheets.  The poetry probably won’t make it into class but my perfect worksheets illuminate the grammar described cryptically in the texts.  Relieved faces afterwards and the knowledge that, even if I’m a boring teacher, I am able to pass on the ancient languages. 

When one is working, there is limited time, and genre books definitely have more appeal. I love the mysteries of Dorothy Sayers.  Suddenly I feel a need to spend a lot of time with Peter Wimsey.   I am also eagerly awaiting Celine Kiernan’s The Rebel Prince, the third volume in her Moorhawke trilogy.  I very much like this fantasy series set in a politically volatile medieval world, and the first novel, The Poison Throne, is especially good.  As usual, the second is not quite as good.  All the effort goes into the first book?  But if you liked Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and were disappointed in the sequels, you might try The Poison Throne.  It’s a much better book, though not quite as fast-paced.

Back to more serious literature.  I managed to read a little this morning of Louise Erdrich’s perfect first novel, Love Medicine.  The novel begins with the story of June Kashpaw, “a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved,” walking into a blizzard after a one-night stand, heading cross-country to her hometown.  June’s death in the snow introduces the interwoven stories of two Native American families, the Kaspaws and the Lamartines.  Her sisters recall the time June was almost hanged as a child.  This is a strange, brutal scene, in which June tells the other children she must be hanged for a crime and the noose is actually tied around her neck.  One of the children goes back to get their mother, Marie, just in time.  June calls her a bitch and insists she wanted to be hanged.  Erdrich uses a lot of Catholic symbolism, as her characters struggle with the nuns and priests who work on the reservation, though I’m not sure this is Catholic imagery here:  honestly I’m too exhausted. The noves goes back and forth in time and we learn the love stories and tragedies of the interrelated characters.   Erdrich’s beautiful prose and almost dizzyingly baroque delineation of  characters make Love Medicine a classic.  I read this in 1984, it has stood up, and I hope to read the rest of her novels soon.

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Daphne du Maurier


Few 20th-century authors could be more different in style than Daphne du Maurier and Dorothy Canfield Fisher. The one is a British writer best-known for her 1938 Gothic masterpiece, Rebecca, a complex romance riddled with references to Jane Eyre, and two short stories adapted for movies, The Birds and Don’t Look Now.   The other is an American writer of uneven stature, some of her novels near-masterpieces like The Brimming Cup, others entertaining but flawed like Rough-Hewn, a coming-of-age novel whose title matches its style.

I purchased Don’t Look Now and Rough-Hewn at the recent book sale.  I’m very much enjoying the Canfield Fisher but must admit I’ve never liked anything by du Maurier except Rebecca.  A few years ago All the Really Nice Bloggers I Like were praising her novels, perhaps inspired because Virago reissued them.   At that time I bought too many books recommended by bloggers, Amazon became much richer, and I gradually realized that I enjoyed the blogs but had to follow my own taste.  I did reread a few of du Maurier’s novels, Frenchman’s Creek and My Cousin Rachel, but found both as bad as I’d remembered from the first time I’d read them.  

I thought Don’t Look Now might  fit in with the Ghost Story Challenges of Halloween and of course it does.  I should say right now that du Maurier’s original collection entitled Don’t Look Now (1966)  is a completely different collection from the NYBR book of the same title.  Both feature the title story, “Don’t Look Now,” and then the selections diverge.  They do not share a single other story.

Both “Don’t Look Now” and “The Breakthrough,” the two stories I’ve read in the 1966 book, are horror stories.  Each features a ghost. In “Don’t Look Now,” John and Laura are on vacation in Venice after their daughter has died from meningitis.  They meet two sisters, one a blind psychic, and Laura is relieved when told that her dead daughter is well and wants them to be happy.  It seems though, that Christine has a solemn message of warning for them:  they must leave Venice.   Ironically, the meeting with the psychics complicates matters for Laura and John. I’m just sorry that du Maurier’s  writing did not complement this very good idea.  That is the problem I always have with du Maurier.  Very good ideas, but terrible execution.

“The Breakthrough” is a bad science fiction horror story in which an insane scientist is working on a Frankensteinian project to capture the soul-mind of a dying man.  I just can’t read any more of these badly-written stories.  Can you blame me?

Dorothy Canfield Fisher


Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Rough-Hewn is addictably readable but also not a good book.  I am, however, very intrigued by the hero Neale’s discovery of literature as a teenager.  He starts reading Dickens and can’t stop.

But for the next three days he did nothing but live with Pip, and feel intolerable sympathy, far deeper than anything he had ever felt in his own healthy life, for the convict victim of society.  On the afternoon of the third day, his heart pounding hard with hope, he was in the rowboat, in the track of the steamer.  The Morris chair in which he sat swayed up and down to the ocean rhythm of the great deeps which bore him along….”


Dorothy Canfield Fisher definitely has more depth than du Maurier.  I’m sure I’ll finish Rough-Hewn.

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I lived completely in a Roman world last year.

I offered Latin through Adult Education.  Who would sign up?  I was sure no one would.  No one was more surprised than I when I had a class. The next few months were a whirl of Wheelock’s Latin, wheedling busy students to memorize vocabulary, eventually realizing some enjoyed their dilettantism, and adjusting the pace to suit students of all backgrounds.  

It was overall a good experience, though very tiring.  I met some lovely people who wanted to study a “different” language, loved Roman culture, or longed for a mental challenge.  Others were interested in the Latin Mass, which I gabble off like a priest though I haven’t heard it since childhood.  (Dominus vobiscum et cum spiritu tuo.)  There were a few students whom I heartily wished elsewhere, but that is the case with all teachers.    

Now I’m in my second year and have added Greek to my teaching schedule.  I have squashed my heebie-jeebies and entertain a much more fatalistic view of teaching.  It’s a beginning language class, people don’t have time to learn everything, and I now realize it’s more a relaxing outing than a serious Prometheus-like bringing the classics to the people.

What I’ve noticed so far is that my reading has gone by the wayside.  I have to get back to Dead Souls.  This afternoon at Barnes & Noble I considered buying a Cynthia Harrod-Eagles book. I believe I have been inspired by Ellen’s writing about the Poldark books at her excellent blog,  Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Too.   I liked the idea of reading Harrod-Eagles’ 30 books in the Morland Dynasty.  But there is a slight problem.  You know how I really don’t like historical novels?  These didn’t look very good.  I read a page and put the first one back.

Dead Souls, I reminded myself.

What was going on at Barnes & Noble this afternoon?  Coffee and lounging. I am glad the red-shirt phase is over. One day I went in to B&N and a bunch of people in red shirts with dangling name tags were running around the store.  I thought perhaps they were cheap replacements for the experienced workers, but there was no sign of the red-shirts  today.  

Could I have hallucinated the whole damn thing?  

I considered so many books.  Did I want a novel about a 1938 teacher in Georgia, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia by Mary Helen Stephaniak?  Yes, perhaps, though I read a few pages, rejected it, and put it back on the shelf.  Maybe I want to read fiction about teachers, though.

How about Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom?  I did like The Corrections, but I was tired of Freedom before it was even published, since people have been calling it a masterpiece since May, and I don’t want to read it at all now that Oprah has taken him “back” (even though I thought that whole thing was foolish when Oprah banned him from her show after he said something rather stupid on the radio in 2000).

For a while I was dragging around a big anthology of short stories but it would never have fit in my bike pannier.

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I would never have heard of R. M. Dashwood’s Provincial Daughter if not for Rhonda. We got carried away with book giveaways and started swapping books. Somehow personal swaps work better for me than Book Crossing and Bookmooch, where I keep looking up Leonard Woolf and finding the German title Mein Leben mit Virginia.  

Dashwood is the daughter of  E. M. Delafield, the author of The Diary of a Provincial Lady, and her diary-cum-novel about domestic life in England in the ’50s is charming and entertaining.   I could spend all day reading diary novels like Provincial Lady, D. E. Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim books, Joyce Dennys’s Henrietta’s War,  Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, and Bridget Jones’s Diary.  In fact I think I might devote myself to reading diaries for a while.  

Dashwood says in the preface: 

 …if the result seems to any reader too imitative, or even plagiaristic, I can only ask their forgiveness, as the original Provincial Lady would, I am sure, most warmly have given hers.”

 Although Dashwood does not write quite as well as Delafield, in some ways I like her better.  I find her generation easier to understand:  servants are not taken for granted, the narrator is constantly sweeping, mopping,  and cooking badly, and  though she does eventually get an au pair, she is still very much an ordinary housewife.

She has a doctor husband and stays home with three children.   Her clothes no longer fit and she has nothing to say at dinner parties.  When she goes to London to see a friend, she does not know what to wear.

Long-awaited trip to London….  (Only good coat and skirt definitely too tight; which looks worse, odd nylons or laddered matching ones; and do people in London wear hats these days?)  Finally decide that I Will Do, and that boys definitely look nice in clean shirts and ties, and Ben engaging in tweed coat and leggings.”

The narrator wants to write and is very excited when an article is commissioned by a newspaper.  Then the BBC contacts her about a script she sent out a year ago.  Her writing flows so naturally that we want, of course, to read more.  There are no more books, which makes me very sad.

I’m very entertained by Dashwood’s observations about housework, which is such a frustrating job, and clothes that don’t fit.  Like many women, I have a wardrobe in two sizes–and when I had to go back to teaching, everything was too loose or too tight.  The solution?  Grab the loose pants when they are out of the dryer so they won’t fall down for the first hour of moving around the classroom.

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Curling up with the Sony Reader

Nobody really wants to read a beat-up copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s T. Tembarum or Dorothy Canfield’s Rough-Hewn. Some of us go a little overboard when it comes to old books, but when dirt and, yes, feathers stick to the back of one of the illustrations in T. Tembarum (1913), and little brown splints of Dorothy Canfield’s Rough-Hewn (1922) are falling off the pages, the experience is not much like reading.  

Here’s what happened when I started reading Rough-Hewn.  The charming vignettes in this novel quickly entranced me.  But the gritty yellowed pages made my hands powdery. I felt as though some really disgusting unidentified plague were infiltrating my epidermis.  So I crept through the dark into the computer room and downloaded the book off the internet onto my Sony Reader as quietly as possible.  Because once people are awake in this house there is no resting…  You don’t want to deal at 3 a.m. with someone who has to get up at 6 a.m.

I have 66 books on my Sony Reader.  I used it constantly when I first bought it a year ago.  I do not buy books for the Sony Reader.  I download books from Gutenberg and other sites.  I have enjoyed the work of Booth Tarkington, Henry Handel Richardson, Rose Macaulay, E. M. Delafield, and Balzac on my Sony Reader.  I prefer real books, which is why I forgot about my Sony Reader for a while.  But though I could buy a paperback copy of Rough-Hewn, it would be silly to buy every reprint I want.  The Sony Reader can provide some of them.

The problem with the Sony Reader is that one gets that clicking-around feeling one has on the internet.  Do I really want to read Rough-Hewn, or would I rather read E. H. Young’s The Miss Mallets?  There are so many books to choose from at Gutenberg.  I can download all of them without using a credit card.

Now one thing I can say about the old Sony is that it’s not wireless.   Thank God!  I have to hook it up to the computer to download books.  I’m not communicating with Amazon every minute of the day.  I sometimes feel online that I might as well be writing notes to my lover:  “Dear Amazon, I can’t wait to read Lan Samantha Chan’s new book and, yes, how did you know I wanted …One-click!  One-click!”

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Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean, one of Amazon’s Best Books of September, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in Canada (a $25,000 prize).  Promoted on the cover as “a novel of Aristotle and Alexander the Great,” it sparked my curiosity as an itinerant classicist whose memory of Aristotle’s Poetics–read in Greek–is quite foggy.  Lyon’s remarkable short novel, told from the point of view of Aristotle, will please those who enjoy fiction based on classics or classical history.  It also illuminates the man who wrote natural history and analytical philosophy and tutored Alexander the Great.

Aristotle, the narrator of The Golden Mean, has a dry, humorous voice and perceptive eye for detail that precisely evokes Macedonia of the 4th century.  Once a student of Plato, he hopes in middle age to return to Athens with his wife, but is coerced by Philip of Macedon to stay in Pella and tutor his son, Alexander.  Alexander, a brilliant, charming, politically astute adolescent, understands his duties as a leader and warrior at an early age.  But he also has a murderous temperament that frightens even Aristotle at times.  Alexander presents a cut-off head to actors performing The Bacchae.  He has black-outs after battles, when he cannot remember the atrocities he commits.  He seems to suffer from some mental illness.  Aristotle himself suffers from depression–an excess of bile, as Aristotle learned from his doctor father.

Aristotle’s gift as a brilliant natural scientist and philosopher is clear even from a humorous early passage in the book.  He arrives in Pella to deliver a letter to Philip, carts full of animals he studies bedraggled from the rain.

Despite the rain and ankle-sucking mud, we pick up a retinue as we pass through the city’s outskirts, men and women who come out of their houses to stare, and children who run after us, pulling at the skins covering the bulging carts, trying to dislodge some souvenir.  They’re particularly drawn to the cart that carries the cages–a few bedraggled birds and small animals–and they dart at, only to retreat, screaming in pleasure and shaking their hands as if they’ve been nipped…. My men kick idly at a clutch of little beggars to fend them off, while my nephew genially turns out his pockets to them to prove his poverty.”

Lyon’s style is economical and lyrical, the story is fascinating, and I very much enjoyed it.  Too bad it didn’t make the Booker list:  I could have supported this.

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