Sunday, February 27, 2022

Book-Burning & Bonfires: Catherine Nixey's "The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World"


Catherine Nixey's history of the rise of Christianity and the conquest of the West is a clear, compelling, and lively book.  For anyone who is curious about the transition of Paganism to Christianity in the Roman empire, her book The Darkening Age:  The Christian Destruction of the Classical World is a brilliant, if controversial, analysis of religious clashes in the ancient world.  

For my purposes, I will focus not on Nixey's account of the struggle between the two religions or the question of who persecuted whom, but on the widespread obliteration of Greek and Roman books as Christians began to dominate the West.   I was aware that the art and statues of Rome and Greece were looted and mutilated, that the Library of Alexandria was burned down in 391 A.D, and that the majority of classical literature was"lost," but I did not realize it was Christian policy to destroy all traces of Paganism.


Disney's Friar Tuck

Perhaps it was  my religious upbringing, but I had a mental picture of vague, well-meaning, incompetent Disney-cartoon monks blundering as they absent-mindedly copied scrolls and accidentally discarded the important ones.  ("Whoops!  Was I supposed to save that?")  Anyone who has worked in an office - or even watched The Office - will have an inkling of the listless ineptitude that dominates the culture of the workplace.  Scribes made extraordinary errors that rendered occasional sentences and whole passages in Greek or Latin literature nonsense.  Scholars still write commentaries on the texts, but sometimes wave us on with the acknowledgement that the abstruse garble is beyond emendation.

According to Nixey, the destruction of classical literature was  political and purposeful.   The Christian bishops and authorities practiced censorship and were determined to wipe out the influence of Paganism.  They ordered Christians to tear down shrines and temples, even to the point of removing roof tiles, and to make bonfires of pagan books.  

 Charges of magic often accompanied the bonfires,  Nixey writes,

An accusation of "magic" was frequently the prelude to a spate of burnings.  In Beirut, at the turn of the sixth century, a bishop ordered Christians, in the company of civil servants, to examine the books of those suspected of this.  Searches were made, books were seized from suspects and then brought to the center of the city and placed in a pyre.  A crowd was ordered to come and watch as the Christians lit this bonfire in front of the church of the Virgin Mary.  The demonic deceptions and "barbarous and atheistic arrogance" of these books were condemned as "everybody" watched "the magic books and the demonic signs burn."

 With the rise of Christianity,
literacy rates dropped and the public libraries were closed.   Politically, it did not make sense for the bishops to let Christians read. In the third century,  there were 28 public libraries in Rome and many private libraries, but in the fourth century the libraries had vanished, according to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who said they were "like tombs, permanently shut."

Nixey has a unique background:  the daughter of a former nun and a former monk, she was raised Catholic, studied classics at Cambridge, taught classics,  and became a journalist. Whether or not you agree with her conclusions, her research is impressive. 

I would say book burnings can't happen here, but there is always talk about banning books. So far, America has survived influenza, the McCarthy era, the mini-skirt, Billy beer, witchcraft, the Moonies, padded shoulders, Contragate, heavy metal bands,  the marketing of E. L. James's S/M romances, Dancing with the Stars,  election recounts, the Kardashians, and the retraction of books by publishers intimidated by, of all people, the new censorious left-wingers - but thank God the libraries and bookstores have reopened during the pandemic.


Saturday, February 26, 2022

What to Read after Literary Disappointment: E. H. Young's Novel of Middle Age, "Celia"


There are few things more painful than reading a bad book.  Do you curse as you turn poorly-written pages and wonder why you continue?  Here is my logic:  "I've read 300 pages so I should go on."  I put a book aside only if I become disillusioned early enough.

After plowing through two mind-numbing minor Victorian novels, Mary Shelley's The Last Man and Geraldine Jewsbury's The Half Sisters, I questioned my sanity and wanted those hours back.  I decided to buoy my spirits by rereading a classic, or at any rate an excellent book.  Great books regenerate the soul, wit buoys us, polished language is a miracle, and on each reading we discover new details.


 I turned to Celia by E. H. Young, an author best known for Miss Mole, which won The James Black Tait Memorial Prize in 1930.  I have read most of Young's books -- all of those published by Virago - and yet I have been ambivalent. Does she or doesn't she belong in the women's canon?  On this rereading of Celia (1937), I decided,  She is a  high middlebrow writer.  And this is a minor classic of middle age.


In this fascinating, nuanced novel, the heroine, Celia, a middle-aged housewife, drifts and daydreams as she cleans her top-floor apartment, whose windows are too high to afford a view.  Celia is contented -  more so than if they moved into one of the tacky little houses designed by her husband, Gerald, an unsuccessful architect. She despises Gerald, but her domestic life is not unrewarding.   She is close to their two children, grown-up Jimmy and a teenage daughter, Catherine, who greatly admires her mother.   

 Sex is another question.  Celia is repulsed by Gerald: she dreads sex with him. I was reminded of Irene's horror of Soames in The Forsyte Saga.  Celia accepts the situation. But for years she has been in love with her wealthy friend Pauline's brother, who has never married, and, as far as she knows, still carries a torch for her.   

In this domestic novel, there are no big changes, but characters confront their illusions.  Celia's sister, May, a spoiled, talkative woman, is shattered when her husband Stephen embarks on a trip alone; he says he doesn't know where he is going. And May's constant companion, their smug, superficially sweet sister-in-law, Julia, is in a frenzy of schadenfreude:  she poisonously points out that Stephen may be with another woman.  

Julia is the quasi-villainess, though Young does not exaggerate her  power. Julia tries to control people with sententious remarks and saccharin cliches.  On one occasion, Julia refuses a bouquet Celia brings from Pauline's garden.  Julia says it is stolen, because Pauline is out of town and Celia did not have permission. She absurdly lectures Celia on her morals and orders her to return the flowers. (One wonders:  did she think Celia could replant them?) Bored by Julia's rant, Celia  drops the flowers over a wall.  Julia is beside herself.  


"And wasting those lovely roses after you'd stolen them!" Julia said, and her pertly defiant expression, that of a schoolgirl quarreling with another, that of a meek maidservant suddenly turning on her mistress, startled Celia a little with the possibilities it suggested.


"Run home, my dear," she said coolly,  "and as you go you can make up a little parable about the roses to give the children with their dinner.  I don't quite see the moral at the moment, but I expect you'll find one.  And if I don't hurry, Catherine won't have a dinner at all, let alone any sauce with it."

I admire Celia's tranquility and optimism about middle age. She, too, conquers illusions in the course of the novel.

And I love this sentiment:

...she had a feeling that, after years of personal uneventfulness since the War ended, all the middle-aged people who made the chief part of her world, who had reached the age at which [her daughter] Catherine believed that nothing could matter very much, were aware of some yeasty element working in them, as it used to in the bread made in her mother's kitchen.
I will end with two questions.  Do you ever give up on a book?  And what is the book you're proudest of not finishing?  The book I'm proudest of flinging away is Lorna Doone. My God, I read 300 pages before I put it in the donation box!

Friday, February 25, 2022

The Executor & Classic Crime: Patricia Wentworth's "Ladies' Bane"


This morning I woke up with a headache.  For weeks, I have awakened with a headache.  Every day I wonder,  When will this experience with the executor of my relative's estate end?  Did the executor technically embezzle?  At the very least, he was unethical.  But this isn't Bleak House, or a reenactment of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, and John Jarndyce taught me the perils of litigation. At some point, you walk away. 

For several months, the executor has peppered us with  disorganized e-mails, in which he/she has misrepresented and underestimated the value of my relatives' assets. He/she informed me of only one-third of the assets -  and lowballed the value of that third.  So I was astonished to receive a legal document this week that listed all the assets and their value.  These were concealed from us, for no apparent reason.

Some of the e-mails seemed so ditzy that, if I were a mystery writer, I'd regard it as a deliberate cover for dishonesty.   But perhaps he/she is just a ditz?  Behind our backs, this executor contacted a person who had been DISINHERITED IN THE  WILL and offered him money or property. Fortunately, that person declined.  But this was definitely a breach of ethics, on the executor's part, if not positively illegal.

Okay, we're done.  We expressed our concerns. Some things were corrected.

What I've learned:  Don't deal with the devil: it's cheaper to hire a lawyer!  

MY GREAT ESCAPE FROM  REALITY has been reading classic crime, or what we Americans call cozy mysteries.


Yes, I needed distraction, so I read Ladies' Bane by Patricia Wentworth, the prolific author of the Miss Silver mystery series.  Miss Silver, an amateur detective, is the stereotypical old woman who looks harmless, knits constantly, has good manners, talks easily to people. and is more observant than the average policeman.  She is similar to Miss Marple, but I prefer Patricia Wentworth's more complex writing to Agatha Christie's clever puzzles. 

Though Ladies' Bane gets off to a slow start, I found it riveting.  It begins with a wealthy young woman, Ione Muir, getting lost in a London fog.  She overhears a whispering person -she cannot tell if it is male or female - attempt to hire a Scotsman to commit a murder.  This conversation comes back to haunt her when she recognizes the voice of the Scotsman in the town of Bleake, where she is visiting her sister, Allegra, at Ladies' Bane, a gloomy old house with secret passages and spy holes.  

The visit starts badly.  Ione is surprised to find Allegra strangely quiet and seemingly indifferent to everything around her.  She discovers Allegra has become a drug addict, but is being treated by a doctor who is slowly weaning her off the drug.  Allegra's husband, the charming, much too good-looking Geoffrey, is concerned about his wife but is obsessed with buying Ladies' Bane, and he has tried in vain to free up Allegra's trust fund so he can do so.   

There are other inmates who make the house uncomfortable, among them  Jacqueline, a former secretary who has a crush on Geoffrey and is now the nurse of Geoffrey's mentally handicapped ward, Margot.   Margot loves practical jokes. and is found dead one afternoon after she attempted a dangerous trick with a rotten rope. Then there is an incident on a traffic island where someone pushes Ione and Allegra, and Allegra is almost hit by a car.  At that point, Allegra's godmother hires Miss Silver to investigate.  Was Margot's death a murder?    Miss Silver helps her friends at Scotland Yard solve the case.

A very traditional mystery, but a great read.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Heiress of a Car

 Well, I'll be damned
Here comes your ghost again
--"Diamonds and Rust, "by Joan Baez, completely out of context.

Rachel in The Moonstone wearing the diamond.


I am an heiress.  Sort of.  There's a car.

Perhaps that isn't being a real heiress. I mean, don't I need diamonds? The heiresses in 19-century novels often wear jewels. In Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds, Lizzy insists that her late husband gave her a gorgeous diamond necklace, a family heirloom. In Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, a young woman inherits a contraband Indian diamond. Henry James's heiresses are bejeweled but earnest and ethical:  their  jewels and money attract suitors of bad character. The mortally ill Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove is less silly than most:  she is saintly but savvy about her friend Kate's manipulations and the ambiguity of Kate's former lover.  She loves them anyway.  

Heiresses need friends - even bad friends.  

When a relative died and named me an heir - what I like to call an heiress -  his affairs were a mess. If I told you the details, you wouldn't believe it. Or you would. It's like being plunged into a pseudo-Victorian novel written in the 21st century: a trace of Trollope, a dollop of Wilkie Collins, a smidgen of Sheridan le Fanu, and a dash of George Eliot.  


I wish I could drive away, but I don't drive.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Roman Emperors in Historical Novels


I used to be bored by historical novels.  My experience of the genre consisted of plowing through Peter Carey's long-winded The True History of the Kelly Gang (a Booker Prize winner) and skimming Jean Plaidy's light novels about Tudor queens.

Then I discovered historical novels set in ancient Greece and Rome; my favorite subset focuses on Roman emperors.  The odd thing is that, with the exception of I, Claudius, I did not read historical novels when I was immersed in classical studies. My emphasis was on Latin literature, and what I knew of general Roman history came from primary sources, like Suetonius's gossipy De Vita Caesarum (The Twelve Caesars).  It was not until my classical afterlife that I found leisure for modern histories and historical novels. 

Most historical novelists do a mad amount of research, keep up with the latest versions of history, and have fascinating takes on the emperors. Some are portrayed as able politicians, others incompetent, still others competent but corrupt, the majority vicious, and many completely mad. 

There is, improbably, something cozy about books about such improbable humans and such a very distant, different way of life.  Here is a short list of historical novels about Roman emperors. Enjoy!


1.  Augustus, by John Williams.  Best-known for Stoner, a tepid imitation of the lesser work of Willa Cather, Williams is more sophisticated in the execution of his classic novel, Augustus, which won the National Book Award in 1973. Centered on the life of Octavian, the first Roman emperor, later known as Augustus, it unfolds in the form of pitch-perfect letters, documents, memoirs, and journals.

2.   Robert Graves's  I, Claudius is based on Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars, which Graves knew well:  he translated it from Latin into English.   I, Claudius is a fictitious autobiography, which describes the early years of the crippled, stuttering, catarrh-ridden future emperor.  Claudius was underestimated - considered stupid because of his stutter - and that helped him survive the perils of the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula.  After his nephew Caligula was murdered, Claudius reluctantly succeeded to emperor.  In the sequel, Claudius the God, Graves continues the story of Claudius as bureaucrat-emperor. 

3.  Valerio Massimo Manfredi's The Ides of March (Europa). I enjoyed this exciting Italian novel, which is billed as a “political thriller set during the tempestuous final days of Julius Caesar’s Imperial Rome.”  A treat for the Ides of March (March 15).

4.  Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March, a Pulitzer Prize-winning  epistolary novel about Caesar's Rome, struck me as rather dry, but it is certainly worth reading. 

5.  Margaret Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian.  A meditative French classic about the emperor Hadrian. From the book description:
"Marguerite Yourcenar reimagines the Emperor Hadrian's arduous boyhood, his triumphs and reversals, and finally, as emperor, his gradual reordering of a war-torn world, writing with the imaginative insight of a great writer of the twentieth century while crafting a prose style as elegant and precise as those of the Latin stylists of Hadrian's own era."

6.  Margaret George's The Confessions of Young Nero and The Splendor Before the Dark.  In these two novels,
the popular writer George portrays Nero as a sympathetic character. In the afterword of Confessions she says she wrote it to restore his reputation. Her bibliography is long and impressive.  And this reinterpretation of Nero's character seems to be a trend:  Last year The New Yorker (June 14, 2021) published Rebecca Mead's essay,  “How Nasty Was Nero?” about an  exhibition on Nero at the British Museum.  The curator refutes the monstrous image of Nero. 

7,  Allan Massie, who wrote an excellent book column for The Spectator, has written many historical novels, including  a series about Roman emperors:  Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula. They are all on my TBR. 

8.  Gore Vidal's Julian.    This brilliant novel is written in the form of a memoir of Julian the Apostate, the fourth-century Roman emperor who set out to bring back the Hellenistic gods and stop Christianity without persecuting Christians. Julian was a philosopher and essayist who also saw his share of wars.  Vidal's novel is stunning.  I can't call him underrated, because he was a popular and critically-acclaimed writer, but perhaps he has been neglected since his death.

Any recommendations of favorite historical novels set in your favorite period?

Friday, February 18, 2022

Two Reviews and a Skating Commentary: Natsume Soseki's "The Gate," Geraldine Jewsbury's "The Half-Sisters," and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Skater


Tonight I am posting two book reviews and a commentary on the women's figure skating at the Olympics (and, yes, the doping scandal). 

1.  My favorite novel of the year so far is The Gate, by Natsume Soseki, translated by William Sibley.  This graceful, understated, gently comic Japanese classic, published in 1910,  focuses on a couple who enjoy their quiet life of mediocrity.  Sosuke is worn out by his mindless civil servant job ("I wonder if it's my nerves again" ), while his soft-spoken wife Oyone coaxes him to take a stroll outdoors, or at least walk to the baths to unwind. But he goes to the baths less and less often, and he postpones his visit to his uncle and aunt, who have clearly cheated him out of his inheritance. And then, after Sosuke's younger brother, a student, comes to live with them, and a rich neighbor befriends Sosuke, things begin to change. Suddenly Sosuke wants to find meaning in life, though his quest doesn't quite turn out as he expects.  The prose is beautiful, it is often comical, and it  reminds me slightly of  the Russian writer Goncharov's masterpiece,  Oblomov, which is named after its exhausted hero.


2.  The Half-Sisters, by Geraldine Jewsbury.  I had high hopes of the Victorian writer Geraldine Jewsbury, simply because this book was published by Oxford. And I was keen, as we all are,  to discover a "neglected" writer.  Born in 1812, Jewsbury lived most of her life in industrial Manchester, where her father owned a cotton factory. She was well-connected in the arts world, too, an acquaintance of Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Carlyle, and some of the most famous actors and actresses of her day.

I wish I could recommend The Half Sister. This ultimately trashy book descends from awkward prose into full-blown melodrama.  Two half-sisters, one English and middle-class, Alice, and the other Italian and illegitimate, Bianca, do not know of each other's existence.  Alice is a dull middle-class woman who mopes and reads books and marries an industrialist, while Bianca takes a job as a circus mime after her mother has a nervous breakdown on a trip to England.  Eventually, Bianca goes on the stage and becomes the leading actress of her day, and she remains kind, unspoiled, and hard-working. She is fond of  Alice, who helped her when she was a struggling actress. Unfortunately, Alice is too timid and fearful of her husband to pursue the friendship with Bianca, who figures out that they are half sisters but never tells Alice.  The two women are connected not only by blood but, later, by their love of the same man.  Let me tell you now, because spoilers don't matter here, one of the women dies in the end!  Which do you think is expendable?  I don't believe in either one of them.  The death scene is completely absurd.

This book is terrible! 


 The women's free skate at the Olympics ended in tears. A doping scandal has dominated the coverage of the women's figure skating  since it was revealed on Feb. 8 that Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old Russian figure skater who helped her team win a gold medal,  tested positive in December for the banned heart drug trimetazidine.  And yet the judges have broken all the rules and permitted her to continue in the competition. 

The sports commentator Tara Lipinsky, who won a gold medal for figure skating in 1998, is indignant about the breach of ethics and the ramifications for the sport and the Olympics.  On Tuesday, Valieva was allowed to skate in the short program and, unbelievably, came in first. Lipinsky and the other two American commentators were in despair, because  it was unfair for the other competitors.  But today, during the free skate, things went very differently.   Valieva was clutzy, wobbly, falling, sometimes striking an elegant pose, then seeming to sink into complete indifference.  "I've never seen Kamila make so many mistakes," Tara said. 

And of course Valieva left the floor in tears.  And the coaches gave her no comfort.  They sternly rebuked her.  She came in fourth.  I couldn't believe that performance was so highly ranked.  There were some beautiful skaters there. 

I wondered if she'd thrown the performance because of the pressure of the scandal.   I thought of Alan Silitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.  Was I seeing The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Skater?  (No one has suggested that, so probably not.)

It was a very teary event.  The three medalists were also in tears. The Russian silver medalist, Alexandra Trusova, with her mascara running into her mask, said, "I won't go to the podium." I thought it was out of solidarity for her disgraced team-mate, but according to the news,  she was angry that she hadn't won the gold.  The gold medalist, Anna Shcherbakova, sat forlornly holding a stuffed animal, while the coaches dealt with her fussy teammates. And the Japanese bronze medalist, Kaori Sakamoto, wept in someone's arms and then leaned over the barrier and wept. Perhaps it was relief, but there was no joy to be had on the ice at Beijing.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

When We Used to Read Literary Magazines


When I grew up (I must have been at least 29),  I hoped to get a literary job, though in my circles this meant PR or writing for a small-town paper.  In our town you either became that cynical reporter who believed the worst of everybody, or that desperately perky PR flack who guzzled Lemon Lavender tea while writing annual reports.  Neither line truly appealed to me, but eventually I got a job that combined the two.   I showed up at the office early  (so I could leave early) in whatever crumpled knit dress or billowing rayon pants that caught my fancy; my hair was always freshly washed and wet from the shower.  Because why blow-dry and style your hair if you're just going to the office? 

My kind-hearted boss hinted I wasn't going to get a promotion if I didn't blow-dry my hair, but I didn't actually want a promotion.  Jobs of this sort were temporary, to my mind.  Eventually I would write a novel or something. The great thing about office life:  after we finished our work, we could read magazines.  In fact, we were encouraged to read magazines for work.   We'd pick up stray gossip at Vogue, learn about current events from Time, delve into politics at The Nation, and glean a little history from The Smithsonian

 Best of all, we got to read expensive little magazines: The Paris Review, Dissent, Tin House, Commentary, The San Francisco Review of Books, The North American Review, The Alaska Quarterly - whatever the corner bookstore had.   By the way, publishing something in a little magazine is the ultimate non-job:  you are paid in copies.  

Little magazines are in trouble financially nowadays.  Some of my favorites have closed.  And I just read an article at CNN about the ways in which they are floundering and  folding.  The Believer has gone out-of-business - I thought that was an institution - and colleges and universities are struggling to fund their little magazines. Actually, some universities are not struggling to fund them:  they've cruelly cut them altogether. 

Leah Asmelash, author of the CNN article, writes,

... in the world of literary arts, they're essential. For early-career poets, essayists and fiction writers, these magazines are a way to get published, find an agent and get paid. They serve as a stepping stone -- no one, after all, just jumps into a book deal. Credits through literary magazines present a pathway.

....It's not just about career building, though. The magazines are a runway, where new literary styles are tested and emerge. New voices break through. If only large, established magazines continue to exist -- like The Paris Review or the New Yorker -- the diversity of the literary world will suffer, as Alaska Quarterly Review co-founder and editor-in-chief Ronald Spatz told CNN.

Literary magazines are a luxury, and I confess I do not subscribe these days. I shall have to remedy that, or at least ask the library to subscribe.  In little magazines, you have the opportunity to read writers you've never heard of, and may never hear of again, as well as the famous writers who draw readers.  The message from the all-powerful publishing moguls and university trustees is clear:  nonfiction matters little, literature less.  Print newspapers and mainstream magazines are also struggling, switching from paper to electronic, where we know in advance they won't survive.  

How will we get by when we're left with Twitter and Instagram?  The mind boggles.  There is much to admire on the internet, but much to lament.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Is Natsume Soseki the Japanese Colette?


Yes, I know, you think I am hallucinating, but there are resemblances between the elegant Japanese writer,  Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) and the lyrical French writer, Colette (1873-1954). 

As I read Soseki's comic novel, Botchan,  I was reminded of Colette's four Claudine books:  Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married, and Claudine and Annie.  Both writers paint vivid portraits of rebellious characters coming of age.  Natsume Soseki, one of Japan's greatest modern writers, himself a teacher-turned-writer, relates the exploits of a hot-headed math teacher who reluctantly leaves Tokyo to take a job in the provinces.  Colette, the most famous French woman writer of her day, explored Claudine's metamorphosis from saucy, wild student at a provincial school into a depressed girl who followed her entomologist father to Paris and then became an unhappy wife and finally an independent woman.  Different characters, different experiences, and Colette devoted more space to Claudine, yet there's a kinship in style and substance between the writers:  spare, graceful, witty writing and unforgettable characterization. 

 In Claudine at School,  the impulsive Claudine misbehaves at a provincial school, fighting a subtle war against two lesbian teachers who dislike her.  If Claudine had been male, she might have been like Botchan, a young man of no particular accomplishments who accepts a teaching job in a provincial town because he has nothing else lined up after he graduates.  Botchan fightw with students and teachers alike.  He can't wait to go back to Tokyo, where, in his view, there are fewer intrigues.

 J. Cohn's translation of Botchan is slangy and entertaining, and though it lacks the elegance of other novels I've read by Soseki, it is very clever and a work of comic genius.  Botchan's absolute honesty and sense of honor are endearing.  He is not at all academic, and wonders if he should return his diploma.  Later, he tries to give his teaching certificate back to the principal. His musings on his self-declared mediocrity are hilarious. 

For three years I studied about as hard as everybody else, but I wasn't particularly good at it and if you looked for my name in the class rankings you would have had an easier time finding it if you started from the bottom.  Still, incredible as it seemed, when the three years were up I managed to graduate.  I couldn't help thinking that it was kind of odd, but since it wouldn't make any sense to lodge a complaint, I accepted the diploma without protest.

Botchan has no vocation, and has taken the job only because he needs money. He has discipline problems, because he is only a few years older than his students.  After the boys see him gorging on buckwheat noodles and tempura at a noodle cafe, they start a hazing campaign.  And no one helps the inexperienced teacher:  it is as though the hazing comes from all sides.

The next day I walked into my classroom just as I would any other day, only to find someone had written MISTER TEMPURA in  giant letters on the blackboard.  As soon as the students saw me they burst into raucous laughter....  I asked them what was so funny about tempura.  One of them answered:  "But four bowls is too much, na moshi."  I told them that as long as I paid for them and I ate them, it wasn't any of their business if I ate four, five, or any other number I wanted."

And then there are the difficulties of dealing with the faculty.   Botchan has nicknames for all of them, though the names are puzzling:  they fall flat in translation.  Botchan and his fellow math teacher, aka the Porcupine, battle the hypocrisy of the duplicitous assistant principal, aka Redshirt.  Redshirt has stolent affections of the fiancee of another teacher, and then arranged for this poor cuckold to be transferred to another  school.  Botchan and the Porcupine are indignant:  they know that the scheming Redshirt also sleeps with a local Geisha.  It's Botchan and Redshirt vs. the word!

I loved Botchan, only 144 pages in the Penguin, and I recommend it if you're looking for a laugh.  

Happy Weekend Reading!

Thursday, February 10, 2022

My Middlebrow Year: Nerds, Checklists, and Monica Dickens


The year I read 200 books, I was embarrassed by this accidental achievement.  I love to read, but the number represented excessive couch time.   I asked a friend, "Don't you think it's weird that I read 200 books?"

 "I think it's weird that you kept a list."

That year, my record numbers were boosted by reading "middlebrow" women's classics, most published by Virago and Persephone. I use the term half-facetiously:  some women's books are called middlebrow and may have fallen out of print because they are about women's experiences, or at least that is one theory.

After I read a charming essay in  The New Yorker about  E. M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady series, I was enchanted by Delafield's comic observations of family life. Then I came upon D. E.  Stevenson's Mrs. Tim books, also written in the form of diaries.  And l adore Alice Thomas Ellis's four volumes of irresistible domestic columns, Home Life.


Middlebrow women's literature is fashionable these days. A network of bloggers is dedicated to Viragos and Persephones, and such titles are well-reviewed at Goodreads.  I have my favorites:  Rumer Godden's novels are surely classics; the underrated Pamela Hansford Johnson deserves a revival; and there is Monica Dickens, whose masterpiece The Winds of Heaven was reissued by Persephone with an introduction by A. S. Byatt. 

Monica Dickens, who was Charles Dickens’s great-granddaughter, is due for a revival in my view. I recommend her comic memoirs, One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet, and My Turn to Make the Tea

In One Pair of Hands,  Monica  is at loose ends after she is
expelled from drama school. Dickens's voice is likable from the beginning: "I was fed up.  As I lay awake in the grey small hours of an autumn morning, I reviewed my life.  Three a.m. is not the most propitious time for meditation, as everyone knows, and a deep depression was settling over me." 

And so she takes a job as a cook-general, and her experiences are very funny.

In  One Pair of Feet, she wittily recounts her experiences as a student nurse at a hospital in rural England during World War II, and My Turn to Make the Tea is her hilarious memoir of working for a small-town newspaper.  The idea of writing comic memoirs about work is genius.

And let me add that I am not a sexist:  I also enjoy middlebrow novels by men.  They fall out of print too - and we can't attribute that to gender.  It's mystifying, isn't it?  The vagaries of publishing.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Time Travel Diary: Victorian Novels with Pretty Covers


My love of Victorian literature began with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which my mother bought for me on a "just-us-girls" trip to the bookstore.  I had never read anything like it:  it provided a transition from the whimsical children's fantasies of  E. Nesbit  to the Victorian novels that have at times dominated my adult reading.  And Jane Eyre was followed by the discovery of other masterpieces, the dazzling Villette, Wuthering Heights, and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Even now, I never tire of Bronte's Gothics and Hardy's "loam-and-love-child" tragedies. The tropes are common in the 19th century but spellbinding:  the heroines learn at the altar that their fiancĂ© has a mad wife in the attic; they are terrified when they see the ghost of a nun in a school attic (Charlotte Bronte had a thing about attics);  they abandon a soulmate for a more biddable mate; and are ruined by an unwanted pregnancy out-of-wedlock. Although these books do not center on the marriage plot, the importance of marriage is never far from our consciousness. We are ensorcelled by Jane's defiance and independence, Lucy's quiet determination, Catherine's willful, impulsive spirits, and indignant on behalf of Tess, who, in retrospect, may have inspired my abortion rights work.


Victorian aficionados always have more reading to do.  When I briefly moved in with Dad, who worked the night shift and dated on the weekends, my Victorian lit enthusiasm increased. My unsupervised evenings were divided between baking Pillsbury cookies and reading everything I could find by Hardy and Dickens.
Once an honors student, I gave up homework altogether. (One wonders if Dad even read my report card.) I was too busy with Bleak House and Jude the Obscure to complete more than one school assignment that year:  I  remember grudgingly skimming The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for English class, and comparing it unfavorably with David Copperfield


In my twenties, I fantasized about time travel to an ultra-green 19th-century England, where Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Jude Hawley, Jane Eyre, and Esther Summerson lived in imagination.  I hope to get there one day (after I get my time machine); at the moment, I am that irritating person who collects multiple copies of Victorian novels.  These are not first editions; they are reading copies with pretty covers. There are so many gorgeous covers for Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.  I also have a soft spot for the Heritage Book Club editions of Hardy, illustrated with woodcuts by Agnes Miller Parker.  

Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Heritage Press edition), illustration by Agnes Miller Parker

In general I'm a paperback girl, but a few years ago I acquired a Folio Society edition of Jane Eyre with dramatic illustrations by Santiago Caruso
that I actually find a little eerie.  I also have the Folio Society edition of Wuthering Heights, because Patti Smith wrote the introduction.  A perfect pair.

The Folio Society editions may be collectibles for the shelf, but my original paperback copy of Jane Eyre still has a place of honor.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Don't Look up Till March: Mary Shelley's "The Last Man"


I try to be stoic about winter, and certainly I've lived through some tough times.   When journalists report on record-breaking cold, I scoff and add layers to my ensemble. Or if the temperature is in the single digits,  I huddle under three duvets, two blankets, and an afghan.  I dread winter so much that I hunker down with a good book in December and try not to look up until March. 

But what if you choose the wrong book?  There is such a thing, and I have found it.  Had I not been a fan of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I would not have finished her science fiction novel, The Last Man.  In 2020 it cropped up on several Plague Literature lists.  I did not want to read Plague Lit, but I do love Shelley.

The Last Man is an overwritten romance, plagued not only by the plague but by hyper-lyrical purple passages.  The characters are exceedingly noble and have earnest conversations about poetry, philosophy, the equality of man, and political leadership.  The idealistic Adrian, the principal figure of the group, is based on Percy Bysshe Shelley; and the rugged, action-loving, womanizing Raymond is based on Byron.  

The narrator, Lionel, has written a book in his solitude as the last man on earth, the sole survivor of the plague in the 2090s. Don't expect survivalist science fiction:  the plague does not strike till halfway through the book.  The chronological narrative begins in Lionel's childhood, with the death of his father.  The family money is consumed by debts, then Lionel's mother dies, and he is separated from his sister.  Lionel is put to work as a shepherd.  He is a resentful bully, the leader of a gang. 

And of course gentle Adrian, the son of a willingly deposed king of England, changes Lionel's outlook.  In their late teens, Adrian seeks him out because their fathers were best friends.  Adrian educates him, lends him books, and becomes his closest friend. The first half of the book is devoted to the relationships and marriages of the little circle of friend. 

When Adrian declines a return to the highest position in the government, Raymond becomes the Protector of England, but is so terrified by the plague that he flees.  Adrian takes over as his deputy and tries to rally and lead the small remnant of the English population, who are discouraged by the cold winter, even though infection dwindles in that season.  They cross the sea to France and embark on endless treks through Europe looking for a place that will be safe - and less cold and depressing in winter - than England.  

 I... thought... it ... would... never.... end.

And yet I am very fond of Frankenstein.  What happened, Mary Shelley?