Last Week’s Reading: February 26 – March 4


Pearl, translated by Simon Armitage: One rainy day, three or four years ago, our son had mercifully decided to nap and we, exhaustion-stunned, took to our computers and came across a documentary that featured Simon Armitage talking about walking through England and his verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was so calming and interesting that I’ve never forgotten it (though, alas, I’ve never gotten around to reading the poem, either). This medieval poem is believed to be by the same anonymous author of Sir Gawain, and Mr. Armitage was asked to make a new translation, an exceedingly complicated task given the structure of the original poem (which appears side-by-side with the translation, I was happy to find). Pearl is a parent’s lament for a lost child and also an extended religious dream-vision, and I found it quite moving. Mr. Armitage’s explanatory note that precedes the poem is a model of brevity and regard for readers, too. (If you’d like a longer review, I recommend this one.)

Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton: Somewhere I read the pitch that this novel is like Sense and Sensibility with dragons, but that’s not quite right. To be sure, all the characters in this unusual novel are dragons, but the plot owes more to Dickens and Trollope (the latter mentioned in Ms. Walton’s acknowledgments) than Austen. A family gathers around a dying patriarch, prepared to split his fortune—and his corpse, perhaps even more valuable. Conflicts, confessions, and proposals ensue in this grotesque and cruel society that is not so very different from its nineteenth-century English model. For its twisty-turny plot and confident and playful imagining of a draconian society, recommended.

Praise Song for the Day, by Elizabeth Alexander: This handsome chapbook from Graywolf Press is a bound copy of Ms. Alexander’s 2008 inaugural poem. Occasional poetry always seems like such a tall order, and “Praise Song for the Day” takes on the challenge with finesse. A lovely poem, and a reminder of happier times. You can read it here.

Nabokov’s Butterfly, by Rick Gekoski: This book, titled Tolkien’s Gown (much more appealing, I have to say) in the UK, is a collection of essays and radio talks-turned essays about rare books, the specialty of its author (Mr. Gekoski is also the author of a new novel, Darke; it was Rebecca’s review that led me to this book—thanks, Rebecca!). Nabokov’s Butterfly is amusing and pleasantly inclined toward gossip and name-dropping—I don’t know about you, but I love juicy tidbits about famous authors who’ve departed this realm and as such can’t be said to mind—with plenty of interesting details about particular copies of important and unusual books. I can’t say that I loved every chapter or agreed with every one of Mr. Gekoski’s literary judgments, but I’d recommend this for bibliophiles for a bit of light fun.

And speaking of light fun, and not pictured because I read it in e-book form:

Do You Want to Start a Scandal, by Tessa Dare: Those of you who are long-time readers may remember that I took part in a readalong of a paranormal romance novel in 2013 ( Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3). It did not go well; my exact words at the end were, “I can tell you with assurance, dear readers, that it will be many a year before I read another romance novel.” “Many” in this case seems to be four-ish years, since on Jenny’s recommendation, I have indeed read another romance novel, this time featuring standard humans, bodice ripping, and English country house parties. And it was delightful. Frothy, funny (intentionally funny—like with jokes, not bad writing), feminist in the sense that consent is sought (and enthusiastically granted): just the thing if you need a break from heavy reading and/or the news.

Recommended Reading: Possession, by A.S. Byatt

I was about six when this novel first appeared, but otherwise, I’d be berating myself for taking so long to read it.

The plot, in brief: two contemporary (late-’80s) literary scholars try to work out the relationship between two nineteenth-century poets (both invented by Byatt) they study, using letters, stories, poems, and diaries as evidence.

At 550+ pages, Possession is an investment in reading time, but well worth it. The pace of revelations is steady and exciting, and fits the book’s subtitle: A Romance. By this Byatt means, of course, not the plodding soft-core jumbles of paragraphs you might find in a drugstore, but the old genre-specific versions of Romance: the late medieval chivalric tales of Chretien de Troyes, the later prose romances of Sidney and Aphra Behn, the Gothic re-imagining of romance in novels like Jane Eyre. All of the connotations come together in this dense, beautiful novel.

Byatt’s range of vocabulary alone is stunning; in one fifty-page chapter, comprised of letters between Ash and LaMotte, I found twenty or thirty words and foreign phrases that I needed to look up in a dictionary (examples: menhir, congeries, tergiversation).

I was floored by Byatt’s polyphony, by the sheer weight of the references and subtle allusions. I know I’m picking up most of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century allusions since I spent five years in grad school working on that period, but at the same time, I’m know I must be missing many, many nineteenth-century references. The styling of the two poets’ voices is just incredible; it made me want to go back and read all of Emily Dickinson and Browning.

Byatt’s range of vocabulary alone is stunning; in one fifty-page chapter, comprised of letters between Ash and LaMotte, I found twenty or thirty words and foreign phrases that I needed to look up in a dictionary (examples: menhir, congeries, tergiversation).

[By the way: if you’re an academic (or former academic, or on-hiatus academic), you’ll delight in Byatt’s wickedly funny and sometimes achingly sad portraits of professorial types.]

Possession would bear repeated re-readings, but I’m going to try to hold off until I have more of my to-read books off the shelf. Let me know what you think if you’ve read it!