Friday, December 31, 2021

New Year's Eve Catch-up: Three Novels, an Annotated Classic, and a Memoir

I hedonistically devoured three short novels, an annotated classic, and a memoir over Christmas vacation.

Here are brief reviews of my final five books of the year.


  The Snow-Woman by Stella Gibbons. Years ago I chortled over Cold Comfort Farm, Gibbons' satire of "loam-and-love-child" novels, and now I take joy in her later comic novels.  I inhaled her charming 1969 novel,  The Snow-Woman.  The icily well-mannered heroine, Maude Barrington, a septuagenarian, never recovered from the deaths of her brothers in the Great War, and has clung to the culture of her youth. She hates modern art, reads mostly Victorian literature, and prefers classical music (she is a pianist) to pop.  But suddenly it is the sixties, and values are topsy-turvy: when her friend Lionel invites himself to tea, he shows up with a hugely pregnant young woman, who gives birth on the sofa.  Then, on a trip to France with Lionel, she encounters her old enemy, Frances, whom it turns out she has misunderstood and been prejudiced against.  She returns home to find that her maid Millie has invited Teddie, the woman who gave birth on the sofa, to tea.  What is happening?  A very light, fun read.



I admired and enjoyed Sarah Hall's dystopian novel, Burntcoat, the story of a dying sculptor, Edith Harkness, who survived a Covid-like pandemic only to be beaten by it 20 years later.  Trust an artist to tell a good story: "Those who tell stories survive," her mother, a writer, told her when she was a child.  Edith's pared-down narrative reflects the magnificent creativity of her art as she sculpts a haunting narrative of family, art, and love:  she lost her boyfriend, Halit, a restaurateur, to the pandemic. Beautifully-written, and unfortunately we can all relate to it.


The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf and edited by Merve Emre.  What a treat for Virginia Woolf fans!  The book design is gorgeous, and the mesmerizing introduction interweaves Emre's personal and critical reactions to Mrs. Dalloway. The notes provide glosses on literary history, people and places, and the text is illustrated with photos of Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, a map of Mrs. Dalloway's walk, portraits of famous people, and early 20th-century photos of London landmarks.  


Meg Mason's Sorrow and Bliss made countless Best Books of the Year lists.  It is a brilliant comedy - says everyone except me.  Mason's prose is spare and clever but the dark musings of Martha, the mentally ill narrator who disappoints friends and who cannot even be civil to her adoring husband, ramble and often seem mundane. And when a psychiatrist makes a life-changing diagnosis, it is apparently so shameful that it cannot be revealed to the reader:  Mason leaves a blank space every time it is mentioned.  I wonder what Martha had? Overall, this is a dark rom-com, with a twist of chick lit. The moral:  the lovely Martha copes better on the new meds, but her character does not change.


The memoirs of the 19th-century Russian socialist Alexander Herzen provide a lucid window into history, but he wrote so many volumes of his memoirs that they could be expensive to collect.   I finally tracked down a cheap old Folio Society edition of Childhood, Youth & Exile,  Volumes I and II, translated by J. D. Duff. And it reads like a brilliant novel by Leo Tolstoy, combined with the philosophical dialogue of Turgenev's characters and the grotesque absurdism of Gogol.

We are captivated by the first sentence.  "Oh, please, Nurse, tell me again how the French came to Moscow!" The subsequent story confirms Tolstoy's version of the fall of Moscow in War and Peace. Herzen's delineation of the upbringing and education that radicalized him is a superlative coming-of-age story.  He and his university friends were followers of the French social philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon,  and were arrested, basically for nothing, in 1834.  Herzen was imprisoned for nine months and then exiled fto Siberia where he worked as a government official under universally corrupt governers.  Herzen retains his cool and even his sense of humor:  he's the kind of radical we'd all like to hang out with.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Balzac and Book Journals: What We Talk about When We Talk about Stats


Raymond Carver wrote a short story, "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love."  Today's post is called "What We Talk about When We Talk about Stats."

Dear Reader, we talk about book statistics on New Year's Eve.  We log our humble reading stats in a book journal.  We could, if we wanted, go deeply into "the numbers." (But we prefer words.)  How many books did we read this year?  A great many, is the answer. How many books by women did we read, how many by men? Let's not go there, because it bores us. Instead, I prefer to reflect on my experience rereading War and Peace, the great classic
that captures the details of quotidan life in high society and military life in Russia during the Napoleonic wars.  (And I will never forget the 1812 fire of Moscow, when ordinary life is shattered. )  And I also enjoyed other brilliant books, some light, some serious, of varying lengths.

I plan before the New Year to write a couple of catch-up posts on  five novels and a memoir.  Wish me luck on getting them done!   

The book today is Balzac's A Daughter of Eve.

The Comtesse de Vandenesse in "A Daughter of Eve"

As a fan of Balzac, I have read most of the Penguin and Oxford editions of his famous novels. But, alas, the majority of the approximately 95 stories and novels in La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy) are out-of-print and have not been translated since the19th century.  Some publisher should hire a troupe of translators and get on with this project!  Oxford has published new translations of almost all of Zola.  Surely there is a similar market for Balzac.

And so, while dawdling in a bookstore, I recently picked up an old edition of Balzac's A Daughter of Eve (1838), translated by George Burnham Ives.  Let me begin by saying that the style of Ives's translation is not particularly interesting, but on the other hand it doesn't get in the way.  Like so many of Balzac's novels, this one focuses on love and money. They are, after all, the main requirements of life, though a daughter of Eve must struggle to obtain them:  one cannot help but recall anti-heroines like Cousin Bette, who falls in love with a young artist  and strives to destroy her family when she doesn't get what she wants.  I shiver to recall her destruction of her cousin Adeline, who is one of Balzac's "good" women.  (She really is good.)


I don't have a set, but I feel I should have one!


A Daughter of Eve is a less complicated work.  In the first scene, we meet two married sisters, Marie-Angelique and Marie-Eugenie.  After a strict upbringing by a cold mother who played Divide-and-Conquer by separating them from their brothers and other companions, these attractive girls make their debuts, quickly make brilliant marriages, and  plunge into high society in Paris. The charming Eugenie is now the worldly Madame du Tillet, the wife of one of the wealthiest bankers in Paris - and a soulless man he is.  Angelique has married the  Comte de Vandenesse, a Pygmalion who amuses himself by educating his innocent wife in manners, fashion, dancing, even polite conversation. The Comtesse is happy to be led into society on her husband's leash, until she falls in love with Raoul Nathan, a saturnine journalist. 

Raoul Nathan is bad news.  You'll know this if you've met him in Balzac's other books. (The same characters tend to appear and reappear in his novels.) Nathan  is a radical journalist and a hack playwright, who lives with Florine, an actress who  entertains all the most brilliant men at her salon and who will do anything for Nathan. As the editor of a political journal, Nathan is not adverse to accepting money from women.  He takes all from Florine, and when his new lover, Angelique, learns of his troublels, she schemes to procure money by deception. 

 There are romantic declarations, masked balls, desperate stratagems, political rivalry, jealousy, bankruptcy, suicide attempts,  and more.  No, it's not a great book, but it is entertaining, and if you love Balzac, you will at least want to give this a try and "like" it somewhere on the internet!

I enjoy even moderately good Balzac, and this falls into that category.  The ending was a bit of a let-down, but I devoured this book, and other Balzac fans probably will, too.

Monday, December 27, 2021

The End of Christmas


Ripley's last battle with the alien in the space capsule.


 Christmas has come and gone.  I exhale with relief as I cross the holiday off the calendar.  Is it really over?  I feel like Ripley at the end of Alien - out of the shower and relaxed only to discover the alien is lurking in the space capsule.  Have I completed all the Christmas rites?  Or is there some nagging detail...?

But it is over, all over, finished until next year, I aver.   I cooked a solid three-and-a-half-star meal, and  I give myself a literal foil star from the mini-tree as a souvenir of improvising at a touch-and-go holiday gathering.

It began well. Christmas Eve was very merry.  How did I manage it? You see, I ordered the new Library of America anthology, American Christmas Stories, edited by Connie Willis.  We read aloud two hilarious pieces,  Dorothy  Parker's satiric essay, "The Christmas Magazines: and The Inevitable Story of the Snowbound Train," and Robert Benchley's "Christmas Afternoon," a riotously funny story about an irascible family Christmas gathering. 

And then our actual holiday dawned  - Christmas!  We each got one present - a book we chose ourselves. And so we read and listened to carols, while the cats joyously knocked over the mini-tree and batted decorations around.  We set the tree back up,  they knocked it down, and on and on. 

In the afternoon, while the dinner cooked, we took a Christmas walk. We were unusually mellow, because of global warming. (It was warm on Christmas -  an aspect of planetary doom yet momentarily relaxing!)  No snow, which meant no special gear was needed for the outdoors.  We took a lovely walk in a park - we call it the Trixie Belden walk, because in one of the Trixie Belden mysteries (Trixie is an amateur sleuth like Nancy Drew), she visits her uncle's sheep farm, in the vicinity of this particular park.  (Of course the uncle's farm would have been sold and developed decades ago.) 

 We glowed with health. Back home, my goal was to serve dinner as soon as possible. I removed the lid from the slow cooker,  and was anguished to discover the pot roast was still tough, not yet done.  I did my best to stay cool.

"Just a few more minutes.  We'll have the pie first," I said brightly.  

"We'll have the Brussels sprouts next," I said brightly half an hour later. 

I was wondering desperately if there was anyplace we could order pizza on Christmas.

The thing about men - they have no holiday mood control.  Nada.  They're hungry, and when we women make a snap decision to watch the comic movie, Don't Look Up, while the pot roast cooks, they grunt and glaze over.  Perhaps they would prefer to watch sports, or they crave alcoholic beverages, but we did not think of this.  (The fridge was stocked with Diet Coke and ginger ale, because we are teetotalers, and I forgot to provide strong drink.)

"Damn!" I escaped into the kitchen. "Dinner will be done in 10 minutes," I called as I checked the far from tender pot roast.  Then  I set a couple of timers at random. If timers keep going off, the guests think actual cooking is going on.

 "I'm just cooking noodles," I called.  And it did seem a good idea to have noodles, so I heated up the water. When it finally boiled, I dumped in the noodles and called, "Ten minutes now!"  

And I meant it.  Done or not, we would eat.  In 20 minutes, I declared the meal ready - and the pot roast was tender enough.  

It was a pretty good meal, though very late by midwestern standards.  

Then there was more pie.

Would Christmas never end?  

Finally, we were in our pajamas.  It's over for another year.  As for the dishes,  "We'll think about that tomorrow!"

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Christmas Won't Be Christmas Without ...


Nice-looking bookstore, yes?

The opening sentence of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is comically poignant.  

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

For affluent people of the 21st century, the same could be said of holiday travel.  A blond, permanently sun-tanned acquaintance has effervesced for months about family plans to spend Christmas on a Caribbean island.  She has revealed every tiny detail about the coral reefs, the allegedly fun snorkeling outings, and the incredible shopping. 

She asked about our travel plans. 

"We might go to Barnes and Noble," I said.

It's not that I wouldn't like to travel, but the pandemic has curtailed my plans for two years. On the folly scale, I give myself a 6 out of 10, but I am not quite mad enough to hang out at airports during a pandemic, or enjoy being squeezed hip to hip with masked strangers in a middle seat.  

Where do we glamorous readers go for Christmas if we're not at the airport? That is what we want to know.  To the bookstores, dashing through the snow?  We've already chosen our gift books, which are festively wrapped and stacked under the mini-tinsel  tree.

Of course I long to go to bookshops in other towns. And yet I  recall too well my trip to Iowa City last fall.  Book stalls were set up on the tree lawn outside The Haunted Bookshop, but the store itself was closed to customers - open for browsing by appointment, $25 an hour. 

There are alternatives to haunting local and regional bookstores, of course. If only I could get on a plane...  I would love to spend a day in New York at the Strand.  But my husband hates New York, and Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without my husband.  How about Boston?  No, BOWASH is also prohibited.  Chicago is nearby, he says. But I protest that the raw wind in that gray city could whoosh us right into Lake Michigan.  And I checked the Chicago weather forecast:   GALE WARNING.

As a book lover,  I find solace in reviews and book blogs.   And  I enjoyed a recent book column in the TLS,  with the title, "Secondhand in Church Street, Foyles staff stifled, Rex Warner at the crease." The columnist had visited the Church Street Bookshop in Stoke Newington, London. I love the Russell Hoban quotation she says is posted on a bookcase: “Sometimes I, for example, have the delusion that this shop is a business, then I come back to reality and realise that it’s just an expensive hobby.”

So if I ever travel again....  But I can only go to Church Street Bookshop if I can get there by tube, preferably on the green or blue line - I believe I've navigated those before! 

Monday, December 20, 2021

Darkly Irresistible Writers, A Goodreads Mistake, & Two Literary Links


If I had come of age in the twenty-first century, my taste in literature would be vastly different.  In the last quarter of the twentieth century, many critically-acclaimed books were quite short (200-275 pages): among my favorite writers were Raymond Carver, Laurie Colwin, Marian Thurm, John Updike, Richard Ford, Anita Brookner, Rachel Ingalls, Penelope Lively, Elizabeth Tallent, Deborah Eisenberg, and Margaret Drabble.  Some of these writers wrote equally great long books, but my impression is that their body of work was tightly-plotted and satisfyingly short.  I loved being able to read a book in a day.

So let us wander into the twenty-first century, where there is much maximalism and many hefty books.  Take the award-winning Jonathan Franzen.  I moderately enjoyed his long 2001 novel, The Corrections, though I was sick and befuddled when I read it:  I threw up on the cover.  My husband bought me another copy.  Franzen made some money off me!

I looked forward to his next novel, Freedom, published 10 years later. I didn't finish it; I didn't believe in the characters.  My pet peeve:  Patty Berglund, a liberal suburban mom and former college basketball player, did not seem even vaguely like a woman. Yet I can't say Franzen can't write women:  I believed in the chef, Denise, in The Corrections.  Patty, however, was a stick figure.  Despite her strong convictions about liberal politics and her physical strength - though why I say "despite" I don't' know - Patty is a weak, ineffectual mom.  Her obnoxious teenage son, Joey, moves next-door to live with his girlfriend, Connie Monaghan, and her right-wing family.  Patty is heartbroken.  So why doesn't she go next-door and drag Joey back?  Why don't she and Walter have a stern chat with the Monaghans?  Well, maybe they do:  I didn't finish the book.  Today, the characters would end up on Dr. Phil, and God only knows what Dr. Phil would say.

That said, I read a sample of Franzen's new novel, Crossroads, and it does seem awfully good. 

Now let's look at a much-lauded Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of short novels, Elizabeth Strout, who writes so gracefully she is like a prose ballerina. I loved My Name Is Lucy Barton, a piercingly lyrical novel about a complicated mother-daughter relationship, and Lucy's escape to New York, where she reinvents herself as a writer.  Her new novel,  Oh William!, is a sequel, so I should love it, shouldn't I?  Lucy pities her ex-husband, William, whose second wife has just left him, taking their daughter with her.  Lucy, his first wife, left him years ago, taking their two daughters, and seems to have set a precedent.  She and her daughters are indignant that he has lost his younger wife.  And Lucy tells his story.

And now let us move on to one of our greatest American writers, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Richard Powers, who is neither minimalist nor maximalist, but does something in between. I recently read The Overstory, his remarkable novel about trees and ecologists. What a great read!  And so his new novel, Bewilderment, is at the top of my Christmas list. It is also, by the way, an Oprah book, which I think is a compliment.  She never picks a bad book.  By the way, the two novels I mention by Franzen were also Oprah books.


A MISTAKE AT GOODREADS.  Today Goodreads gave me the following recommendation:  

Because you shelved Pleasure Palace: New and Selected Stories -  Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey

Oh, come on! Really?  Something is amiss...

FOR CAT LOVERS ONLY.  I serendipitously discovered Joseph Epstein's charming essay about cats, "Living in a Cat House:  Confessions of an Ailurophile," at Commentary.  I loved this!

Here is a passage to kindle your interest:

Most people prefer to adopt kittens, but when I first saw her, I found Dolly’s rich coat and intelligent face irresistible and, on a subsequent visit, so did my wife. She is brilliantly tricolored—black, white, marmalade orange, all prettily melding into one another—with a small head and pleasingly plump body. I frequently describe her as one of those fat cats from City Hall. Little is known of her previous history. She was apparently left in a cat carrying case one evening on the steps of the Evanston Animal Shelter. Perhaps her owner had died, or moved, or married an ailurophobe. A college student who was a volunteer at the shelter and who took Dolly home for a brief period left only the information that she, Dolly, liked to be brushed. Adoption, of animals as of humans, is always a crapshoot, but in Dolly, a cat perfectly mated to us, the roll came up a solid seven.

Let me express my enjoyment with the simple word -  Meow.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Ten Best Books of 2021


What a good year for reading!  I have read a multitude of books culled from my shelves,  but I also fit in a few new ones.  I have divided the list into two categories, "New Books" and "Classics," for the sake of sanity. And I have gone slightly off the beaten track, so I hope some of these titles are new to you.  Click on the links to read my reviews.

Enjoy the list!  Happy reading!



1.  NEW NOVEL:  The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig

2.  NEW NOVEL IN TRANSLATION:  The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous

3.  NEW SCIENCE FICTION:  Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

4.  NEW SHORT STORY COLLECTION:  Pleasure Palace:  New and Selected Stories by Marian Thurm


 5.  REISSUED CLASSIC:  The Lifeline by Hugo Charteris

6.  CLASSIC SCIENCE FANTASY.  The Book of the New Sun quartet by Gene Wolfe  (The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch)

7.  CLASSIC GOTHIC NOVEL:  The Rose and the Key by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

8.  CLASSIC MEMOIR:  My Apprenticeships by Colette

9.  CLASSIC MYSTERY:  A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong

10.  CLASSICAL HISTORY & LETTERS:  Cicero's Letters to Friends (Epistulae ad Familiares).


What are your favorites of the year???  Happy List-Making! 

While you're here, remember to subscribe to Thornfield Hall Redux by emailing me at

Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Gift Book List for the Dour and Difficult

 We love the holiday lights and decorations, but Christmas is a time for lowered expectations. If you bake a brilliant pie, someone will ask for Cool Whip.  ("Will ice cream do?")  If you give quirky gifts, the recipients will start trading like stockbrokers.  

Now we limit gifts to one book per person.  We have become expert at choosing books for the dour and difficult, the crotchety curmudgeons, irascible CEOs, restless recluses, vainglorious narcissists, and even the hep-cats, by which I mean the cats. 

Let me be your personal shopper!

The following books should be available at your local bookstore. Nothing too far out here - something for everybody - unless they are attendees of Renaissance Fairs or WorldCon,  in which case you are entirely on your own. I would also appreciate your recommendations, please!

The Gift Book List for the Dour and Difficult


1.   Silverview, by John le Carré.  This gorgeously-written literary thriller is on many critics' Best of Year lists, with good reason.  Le Carré's smooth style - never a wrong word -  puts most contemporary writers to shame.  

The plot of this posthumously-published novel is classic le Carre:  Proctor, an English spy, must investigate a security leak, or at least a blip, after receiving a letter from Deborah, a dying spy and former head of the Middle East office.  Her resentful daughter, Lily, a single mother who wants nothing to do with her mother's secrets, delivers the letter sullenly. But the situation is complicated for Lily:  Deborah has banished Lily's father, Edward, a freelance academic, from their house, Silverview. And Edward roams the town drunkenly, chatting up everybody, including owners of small shops and cafes. 

The plot centers on a bookstore.  Julian Laundsley, a former trader in the City, has bought the town bookstore and hopes to improve it.  Julian is trying to catch up on his  own reading - he did not have a literary education - and when Edward wanders in and suggests the basement could house books by the great thinkers, Julian is thrilled.  He finally has his syllabus. They name the section the Republic of Books.

But not all is right in Edward's life, as the sophisticated Julian discovers. Julian meets Deborah and Lily, and falls in love with the whole family. But something odd is happening at Silverview. You may suspect a few things are wrong, but it is impossible to predict all the twists and turns, and you will gulp this wonderful book in a sitting or two.

2.   Pleasure Palace:  New and Selected Stories, by Marian Thurm.  These delightful short stories, published between 1979 and 2021, are graceful, witty, and vigorously engaging.  In the early stories, characters worry about unfulfilling jobs and the lack of marriage prospects, while in later stories the middle-aged worry about elderly parents and mourn the death of loved ones. In "Banished," Cliff, a widower, bonds with a retired English teacher over a comma. In "Today Is Not Your Day," Lauren falls and breaks her knee immediately after her fiancé Alex breaks up with her. In "Pleasure Palace," the narrator mourns the loss of her husband, Jordan.  She is furious when  Ron, her contractor, botches  the renovation of the bathroom she and Jordan had planned as a "pleasure palace." Even those who dislike short stories will find much to admire:  the details turn them into breathtaking mini-novels.

3.  The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. A fascinating novel about Climate Change, set in the near future.  The young hero, Frank May, is the sole survivor of a terrifying wet-bulb temperature heat wave in a city in India that kills 20 million people. After the traumatic event, he becomes a radical environmentalist and a catalyst for change.  The book centers on the  Ministry for the Future, established by the U.N. in 2025 to calculate how to keep the planet safe for the next generations. Mary, the chief of the Ministry, is resigned to her role as a talking head, until Frank kidnaps her (just for a few hours) and educates her about the  economics of the environment and how to work the system.  An inspiring book, with a positive spin and a hopeful outcome.  It should please readers of science fiction and literary environmental novels.


4.  What You Can See from Here, by Mariana Leky, translated from the German by Tess Lewis.  This gem-like novel, set in a village in Germany, is narrated by Luisa, whom we first meet at the age of 10.  Picture a group of quirky Anne Tyler characters, only not in Baltimore. In the first chapter, Luisa's grandmother, Selma, divulges her dream of an okapi the night before: she is apprehensive, because it is a portent fo death.  We learn the reactions of neighbors and friends.  The optician, who suffers unrequited love for Selma, assures them that death and the dream are not connected.  Luisa's father, a doctor, says it is utter nonsense.  But the superstitious Elsbeth, Selma's sister-in-law, decides warns the mayor's wife, and soon the news is all over town.  Because of loss - Luisa witnesses her best friend's death, then her father inexplicably leaves Luisa and her mother to travel the world - she is resistant to change,  As an adult she works in a cozy bookstore in a town near her village, so she can keep everyone close.  But life is shaken up when she meets a handsome Buddhist monk.  And we also follow the lives of her family and friends in the village.


5.  Unsettled Ground, by Claire Fuller.  Fuller’s stunning novel, shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize, was my favorite on an excellent list.  Her style is lyrical, the plot is engrossing, and I ached for the characters, fifty-one-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who are shattered when their mother dies. They have always lived in their childhood home – and now they are evicted. The mood is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though Unsettled Ground is not a horror novel. A slightly surreal atmosphere permeates the pages due to the twins’ perplexity about the performance of the simplest actions in society.


6.  Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone, by Diana Gabaldon.  Women love Gabaldon's time-travel historical romances, and the ninth book in the Outlander series is cause for rejoicing.  Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall are reunited with their daughter Brianna during the American Revolution. 


7.  Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Fiona Sampson.  This well-reviewed biography is on my wish list . According to The Washington Post, it "reads like a thriller, a memoir and a provocative piece of literary fiction all at the same time."  Fans of the brilliant poet will be happy to find this book under the tree.  

What books do you give on Christmas?  And may I ask as an aside, when did people begin to use "gift" as a verb ?

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

A Fashionable Pandemic Read: Tolstoy's "War and Peace"


The Maude translation, revised by Amy Mandelker

During this time of plague, fear, lockdown, masks, and tragic death, we have tried to find solace in the classics.  In 2020 and 2021, many people said they were reading War and Peace, according to numerous articles about reading habits in lockdown. 

I am a great fan of War and Peace, and recently read it for the eleventh time, because I caught myself yearning for a broader perspective on life, a more extensive understanding of human beings. War and Peace is, on the surface, a conventional narrative, an elaborate story of high society and military life in Russia during the Napoleonic wars, but it is also a precursor of modernism, interwoven with short discourses on history.  Critics complained about the sprawling hybrid of form, but Tolstoy crankily said, "It is not a novel, even less is it an epic poem, and still less an historical novel."


The Rosemary Edmonds translation


This panorama of war and peace is interspersed with lectures and rants about the oversimplified nature of the history of war.  Tolstoy dissects the plans of battles and explains they are never the battles fought, because the generals cannot foresee every contingency, and men  rarely find their way to the right place on time.  Later, in the two epilogues, he continues to write about history.  He says,

The historians resemble a botanist who, having noticed that some plants grow from seeds cotyledons, should insist that all that grows does so by sprouting into two leaves, and that the palm, the mushroom, and the oak, which blossom in full growth and no longer resemble two leaves, are deviations from the theory.


But if you do not care for lectures, never fear. This brilliant, breathtaking novel focuses on two families, the warm, vivacious Rostovs, who laugh, sing, dance, and go hunting, and the more serious, intellectual Bolkonskys.  The hero is the naive Pierre Bezukhov, the natural son of a rich count and the  heir of a large fortune - who is funny as well as kind.  He makes a bad marriage to a beautiful, immoral, and very stupid woman,  but never gives up looking for meaning in life.  His friend Andre Bolkonsky is another intelligent, restless aristocrat looking for meaning.  War turns out not to be the answer.  And yet war dominates Russian life in the early nineteenth century.

Two very different women vie for the title of heroine. Natasha Rostov, a lively, talented girl who sings beautifully and becomes engaged to the intellectual Andre Bolkonsky after his wife's death, loves to hunt, dance, tell fortunes, and dress up with the Mummers at Christmas. She is clearly Tolstoy's favorite. I prefer the more complicated Marya Bolkonsky, a plain 20-year-old young woman who lives at home with her beloved but terrifying father, who gives her geometry lessons every day - which she does not understand. She is religious, and supports religious pilgrims who stop at the estate to rest.  She would like to be a pilgrim herself.  But she blooms after her father's death, when she  falls in love with Natasha's brother, Nikkolai, a soldier who rescues her when the French invade. 

There is a huge cast of characters, and I don't want to give away too much.  Do read this wonderful book!

 I wish I knew Russian.  Well, it's never too late.

Have you read War and Peace?  And do you have  favorite translation? 

Thursday, December 2, 2021

The Plague As We Know It: Drinking Iced Tea Outside and Other Musings

 I sat on the sidewalk slurping an iced tea. I took the heavenly drink outdoors because I do not unmask at stores in Plague Times. While quaffing I noticed the plastic glass was environmentally-unfriendly. ADD TO CHECKLIST: inspect to-go glasses before you order.

My relationship with iced tea goes way back - to the late twentieth century. It used to mean Lipton black, or Lipton knock-offs, with sugar and a lemon slice, served in a frosted glass.  In my opinion, ice is wasted on Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong, and anything herbal.   I still go for iced Lipton and the knock-offs. 

While I drink tea, I eye my shopping bags. I do not shop on Black Friday - for the usual reasons -  but thought I might find some deals later. Of course the half-price stickers had been yanked from the Leuchtturm

I love Leuchtturms, which have the best, softest  paper, but even half off $22 is absurdly expensive, and I'm not paying full price. They would have made nice gifts - that is my regret.  The new Diana Gabaldon was 50% off on Black Friday. Now it is 25% off.  (A friend is 100th on a library hold list so she wants it.)  Nor are the essays by Lydia Davis or
the new Louise Penny on sale.  I waver.

And then there is the Anne Klein coat ($50) that looked so nice in the ad.   In person, it looks like a flannel blanket with buttons. And the store was out of a particular brand of slippers I wanted to buy.   "All gone on Friday!" said a perky saleswoman. 

Should I give up and go to a thrift shop?

But then again, perhaps I should buy everything new and join the twenty-first century. New clothes!  New books! New music!  Nevertheless,  I take my 1973 paperback of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven out of my purse - which I brought along in case I decided to READ WHILE SHOPPING. It is set in a future where climate change has happened, and her insights are startling - because they're so real.

 Here is a passage from the book:

Dr. Haber gazed at the mural and wondered when such a photograph had been taken.  Blue sky, snow from foothills to peak.  Years ago, in the sixties or seventies, no doubt.  The Greenhouse Effect had been quite gradual, and Haber, born in 1962, could clearly remember the blue skies of his childhood.  Nowadays the eternal snows were gone from all the world's mountains, even Everest, even Erebus, fiery-throated on the Antarctic shore.  But of course they might have colored a modern photograph, faked the blue sky and white peak; no telling.
This is not a "starter" Le Guin, meaning it is not a particularly good one.   Iced tea is the one thing we can rely on in a future gone crazy.