Ladder of Years

One of the joys of reading several books by a writer is picking up the patterns between them. This one expands on the interesting scene that happens in Breathing Lessons where a woman leaves her husband’s car during a spat and imagines setting out a new life for herself. Ladder of Years begins with the ominous news clipping about the disappearance of a Baltimore housewife and we learn that Delia simply walks away from her unappreciative family to slip into a new life. First she gets a room in a boarding house and is a secretary to a lawyer in town. Then she answers an ad for a live-in woman to care for a young son and a bachelor ex-husband. Letters from her mother-in-law arrive with more sympathy than nagging to get back to her own husband. Her grumpy teenage son shows up in town one day looking for her, but she’s disappointed that husband Sam never makes much of an effort to win her back. Eventually, her daughter Susie gets married and she heads back to Baltimore for the festivities, slipping back into her old life. The writing is incredible and almost timeless—I was jolted by the appearance of a computer in the lawyer’s office, otherwise this could have been set in the 1950s or 60s. Delia’s father had died the previous year, leading to this poignant thought:

Didn’t it often happen, she thought, that aged parents die exactly at the moment when other people (your husband, your adolescent children) have stopped being thrilled to see you coming? But a parent is always thrilled, always dwells so lovingly on your face as you are speaking. One of life’s many ironies.


The Perfect Nanny

An easily digested beach-read-y type book that was actually quite good for the nanny genre it’s in. This French novel (translated to English by Sam Taylor) was a re-telling of the real life nanny murders that happened in NYC a few years ago, but Slimani shapes the psyche of Louise the nanny in such a way that doesn’t cheapen her motives, doesn’t suggest envy of her employers’ barely middle class possessions, but rather her complicated child-like state and total neglect of her own life subsumed by her employers’ kids. As Jessa Crispin noted in her Baffler review of the book, “But if one can’t reach a person’s inner world via journalism or a court of law, fiction seems like the ideal place from which to attempt radical empathy and reach a consciousness that is capable of monstrous acts.” It is “a novel about internalized post-feminist anxiety,” when women try to have both successful career and happy family.

Breathing Lessons

Another from Anne Tyler, but a step down from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. A mother meddles in her son’s failed marriage, trying to engineer them back together by telling each what they want to hear. This comes after a trip to a friend’s husband’s funeral where they’re required to sing the same songs they sang at her wedding 30+ years earlier. Add in a dash of eating disorder (she’s constantly worrying about her weight), falsely telling an old man he had a wobbly tire to force him off the road after he nearly ran them off, and an incident where she demands to be let out of the car and walks back to the diner where she imagines she starts her life all over again. It’s odd, but quick.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

I discovered Anne Tyler by way of John McPhee and can’t believe I hadn’t heard of her before. This was a book that wrapped you in its arms and treated you like family, letting you in on all the secrets of Pearl and her three children. Her traveling salesman husband left one day and she raised Cody, Ezra, and Jenny by herself, never announcing that he was gone but simply getting a job as a cashier at a grocery store in Baltimore. Cody grows up to be a time management consultant, wildly successful but jealous of his brother Ezra for whom everything comes easily (most especially his mother’s love and admiration). Ezra, the dreamer, is happy running a restaurant in town (Homesick) although he gets a bit gloomy after Cody steals his fiancee Ruth away and marries her. Jenny becomes a pediatrician and goes through a few divorces before marrying a man with a large brood of children. In the end, Pearl dies, Ezra finds his father’s contact information and invites him to the funeral. Happily ever after, a grand way to lose yourself from the world for a few hours.

This Little Art

Disappointing read on one of my favorite topics— the art and difficulties of translation. Kate Briggs muses on the choices made during translation, holds up other translators as examples, gives us a peek inside the kimono of her own translation of Barthes. Throw in a heavy helping of Robinson Crusoe’s table making, a few obligatory references to Virginia Woolf, and an extremely protective stance about Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation of Thomas Mann, and you’ve got your book. Perhaps I was too annoyed by the structure—each thought bundled onto a separate page, sometimes several pages at a stretch with only a sentence on them. It wasn’t all rubbish, I did mark a few spots that were especially poignant. She also got me interested in comparing Lowe-Porter’s translation to James Woods (which I own), so another reading of The Magic Mountain is forthcoming. I’m also nosing around in Goethe’s Faust and have Barthes’ Preparation of the Novel headed my way. If anything, this book was successful in bread-crumbing me into the arms of better writers.

“When I tell you that I have read The Magic Mountain is this a quick small-part-for-the-whole way for me to tell you that I’ve read The Magic Mountain in English translation? The title here standing in for the original — each slightly smaller, reduced part (the title, the translation) pointing to some further, just out of reach and more expansive aesthetic experience (the real one this time, the authentic one)?”

“… How, in fact, the font does matter, or it can — likewise the timing and circumstances of my reading, the books I am reading the book with, the people I am talking to about it, who might make me think differently; the difference between reading a book for the first time and for the third.”

“For Barthes, preparing for the novel also means establishing what he calls a daily practice of notation, a mode of attending to and recording the detail of everyday life. These notes are what his projected novel will be made from. Preparing, then, in the way you might ready your ingredients before making a meal… In this manner, the preparation for the novel starts touching at and partaking in preparation of the novel. In other words, preparing as a means of pracising, exercising, learning—of readying oneself for the writing-to-still-come—and at the same time, preparing as already its own form of writing, as already taking the form of writing.”

Just remembered another good tidbit – apparently Barthes was pretty lax about people translating his work. “Just make it up!” he instructed them if the translators were unable to verify something he had written.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 1, 1888-1912

I struck gold by finding all six volumes of VW’s letters at the (now defunct) Logos bookstore in Santa Cruz last year, staggering out to the car with the books stacked up to my chin. A month ago I decided it was time to stop postponing the luxurious treat of diving into her life and began reading the letters, alternating with Vol 1 of her essays to read the finished product of the writing she casually bitched about to her friends in the letters. I plan to continue this, layering in her diaries and completed novels or other books once I reach that point in the timeline where they come in. Immersing myself in the world of Virginia Woolf is the best form of escapism I know.

It would be foolish to try and capture the 30? 40? notations that I tagged in this volume as especially resonating with me. Most of them are about reading and letter writing and the craft of writing and her love of London and her love of nature. Her letters are wickedly, wildly funny, gossipy, brilliant, irreverent, endearing. Her letter to Leonard brutally weighing the pros/cons of marriage is stunning (p 496).

There are some gaspingly gorgeous lines like, “I despair of my brains, which seem to be guttering like a tallow candle.” (p 182) Also “A true letter, so my theory runs, should be as a film of wax pressed close to the graving in the mind…” (p 282) and “… I run to a book as a child to its mother.” (p 274)

“I begin to believe that I shall write rather well one of these days.” (p 368)

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1: 1904-1912

VW started writing journalism (mostly book reviews) in 1904 at age 22 after her father died, determined to make a living by her pen and becoming more and more confident in her writing skills. This volume of early essays collects the work she published in the Times Literary Supplement, Guardian, Speaker, Cornhill, and the Academy. Essays that stand out are on Jane Carlyle, Boswell, Henry James, George Gissing, her father (Leslie Stephen), Charles Lamb, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Richard Hakluyt, and scores of obscure women writers.

The best quote I got from this applies to several books that I read and think would be better off as articles: “The ordinary reader… will doubt whether this vagrant air is potent enough to steep three-hundred-and-fifty-odd pages in its fragrance. A magazine article or a sonnet were the proper vessel for such sweetness.”

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

I’m not one for true crime books but Michelle McNamara’s work was exceptionally well-written, meticulously detailed, and powerful. It’s also a bit eerie to consume alongside real world news of his arrest (Joseph James DeAngelo, former police officer who’s now 72 years old) this April near Sacramento. He tallied over 10 murders and nearly 50 rapes, leaving communities across California terrified in the 1970s and 1980s. He left DNA at the crime scenes, but went underground for decades until his DNA matched one of his relatives who was innocently searching for his own ancestry via one of the ubiquitous sites that now tells you in minute details everything you’d want to know about your heritage. I hope they got him.

No Fond Return of Love

Mediocre Pym book which I sped-read, trying to avoid the overwhelming scent of lotion that lingered on the library’s copy from a previous patron. I love Pym’s commitment to writing from an elderly spinster’s perspective, but this was too slapstick, with the main character, Dulcie, traipsing about the countryside looking in graveyards and otherwise putting together clues about Dr. Forbes, the man who ultimately shows up at her doorstep to declare his love only a week after Dulcie’s much younger niece has rejected his advances. The best part of reading Pym is for the throwaway lines, like this one that her housekeeper flings at her: “You read too much, that’s your trouble. They [men] don’t like it.” Dulcie replies, “No, I don’t think they do.”

One Day a Year

I’m adding this book even though I skimmed the last 300 pages because I can’t stop thinking about it and perhaps it has inspired me to do a similar project. Christa Wolf wrote extensively about her September 27th of each year. This, in addition to a daily journal. But the Sept 27 pieces each year were vastly expanded, trying to give a real sense of the day itself beyond just jotting down the daily details in shorthand like most journal entries. This book is a collection of 40 of those Sept 27 entries, translated from the German. Inspired to read this after this article about Wolf, which raises some of the same pain points I experienced—her writing is best when highly personal and at its most dreary when describing the day-to-day of living as an East German active in the Communist Party. The introduction might have been the best part, wherein she muses, “Is life identical with time in its unavoidable but mysterious passage? While I write this sentence, time passes; simultaneously a tiny piece of my life comes into being — and passes away.”

Quartet in Autumn

A harmonious tale of four solitary lives interwoven together—the two women and two men work together in some dusty forgotten office, marking the days down as they approach retirement. The men are widowers and the women never married. All live alone and grapple with aging by themselves with the perils that come with that. Each a character unique in their own way—sloppy or trim, religious or haphazard. One woman dies and leaves her house to one of the men in the office that doesn’t have a house; he must spend time clearing out the shed of milk bottles she was hoarding. The other woman’s plans for retirement centered around going to live with an old friend in the country, but those are dashed when the friend decides to marry a village priest. Wry, sparse, occasionally funny. Pym is always a treat.

Typical Pym, nailing the voice of an older narrator:

She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.

Conversations with Friends: A Novel

It’s weird how the same Baffler article could gift me this delight in the same breath as the fairly putrid Asymmetry, but here we are! I very much enjoyed Sally Rooney’s tale of not a love triangle but a love square perhaps? Finishing up college, Frances is our narrator, a strong intelligent poet whose only relationship has been with her best friend Bobbi. Enter a married couple, Nick and Melissa, when Melissa asks to photograph Bobbi and Frances and write up a profile about their spoken word performances. Bobbi pursues Melissa while Nick and Frances sidle up to each other. The couples part, come back together, part again, ending up in a cozy intertwining that is a happy ending of sorts? Along the way Frances is chronically poor from her drunk father not depositing funds for her, fainting due to her newly diagnosed endometriosis, trying to make sense of the Dublin world. Highly entertaining romp.

Asymmetry: A Novel

If only Lisa Halliday had released this as short stories instead of trying to asymmetrically forcing the two stories into a non-coherent whole, I would have enjoyed it more. Hooray for the first part, wherein she writes what she knows, drawing on her relationship with the much older Phillip Roth who plied her with gifts and contrasted wildly to her younger life. But part 2 comes along to remind you of how bad writing can be when so removed from what you know. And then there’s some weird coda that supposedly knits the whole together, an interview with the Roth-ian character. Did literary America all conspire to push this book forward? I did not enjoy the shift off a cliff it never recovered from.

America Day by Day

Simone de Beauvoir falls in love with New York on her first visit to America in 1947, spending four months exploring the U.S. from coast to coast. This book was a revision of her diaries, translated by Carol Cosman. It’s always fascinating to travel back in time and get someone’s fresh perspective on the world you currently live in, with buried details that otherwise would go unremarked. Is it true that flophouses in New York had tramps sleep sitting on benches with their arms leaning on a rope and supporting their heads on their arms, then when their time is up, someone pulls the cord and they fall forward awake? Was it the custom in the 1940s that Valentine’s Day was a day when young girls gave gifts to their boyfriends but not vice versa, or did she get that wrong? She did, however, nail this: “There’s always some holiday going on in America; it’s distracting. Even private celebrations, especially birthdays, have the dignity of public ceremonies. It seems that the birth of every citizen is a national event. The other evening at a nightclub, the whole room began to sing, in chorus, ‘Happy Birthday’, while a portly gentleman, flushed and flattered, squeezed his wife’s fingers.”

In Chicago she stays at the Palmer hotel and an old woman guards the entrance to the hallway, pocketing Simone’s hotel room key for her. Arriving in LA, she’s whisked around by a friend of hers who bought a car a few days earlier just so they could get around. Some of the rich, idle characters she encounters get put in their place neatly: “The rest of the time he’s bored, like everyone in America with too much leisure time. He goes off in his big car to meet other people who are also bored, he takes them to other people’s homes, and when he’s managed to get a large enough group together, he thinks he’s really having a good time.”

Her visit to San Francisco is a bit flat since she knows no one here. But she hated Playland at the Beach, calling it “a sad little amusement park like Venice in Los Angeles.” And she mentions that a sign on the Bay Bridge has a $5 fine if you run out of gas on the bridge, and there’s a small device at the beginning of the bridge that discharges cars of any electricity accumulated. Weird!

Back in LA: “The entrance into Los Angeles is a long, burning agony… Above the valley the heat is almost always temperate and bearable, even in summer…. How harsh work must seem in this indolent climate… I understand why, in Hollywood, ambitions weaken, minds grow dull, and only the immediate seems real. The intense blue of this sky is at once too easy and too hard.”

The Odyssey

This is the translation of Homer’s Odyssey I’ve been waiting for—the first English translation of the ancient Greek text by a woman. The retelling of this ancient story from a woman’s perspective is a marvel and I felt closer to the text than in previous readings. The Odyssey is a smorgasbord of entertainment: detailed descriptions of lavish feasts, fantastic adventure tales, a love story, murders, enchantment, a guide to etiquette. The rosy-fingered dawn and wine-dark sea are you constant companions.

A very skillful 80 page introduction lays the groundwork for your appreciation of the book, complemented by a translator’s note that picks apart some of the tangled threads I’ve been thinking about translation over the years. Wilson asserts that the original text is much simpler than the convoluted, highly stylized versions we’ve gotten in the past (“The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption.”)

Her aim is for simple, ordinary, straightforward English in order to highlight the fact that Homeric writing is also not stylistically pompous. Even more impressive, her version is the exact length as the original text with same number of lines. “I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop.”

The best part of her Translator’s Note is calling out that it’s traditional to “bewail one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original, [but she believes] we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation.” Hers is an entirely different work than the original. And her translation avoids the usual sexism brought into the other attempts. It is eye-opening to read Wilson’s translation go toe-to-toe with Fagles’ and this becomes more obvious. For example, after Telemachus’s famous lashing out at Penelope telling her to shut up and leave the talking to men, Wilson has Penelope’s reaction as “That startled her.” Fagles’ reaction for Penelope was that she was “Astonished.” And in Book 3, during Nestor’s sacrifice of a cow to Athena, Wilson has: “Then Nestor’s daughters and his son’s wives, and his own loyal queen, Eurydice, began to chant.” Fagles translation is laughable: “The women shrilled their cry, Nestor’s daughters, sons’ wives and his own loyal wife Eurydice, Clymenus’ eldest daughter.”