I have been reading a lot as it has been raining so much. I did go to the garden today where the rabbits had been hard at work eating all the seedlings. Still, I got some lettuces for the week and some flowers I didn’t have to pay for. I am going to have to replant, after I figure out how to create a lagomorph barrier.
I took Friday off and coming back from an early morning errand I detoured through Georgetown and enjoyed the shops and the C&O Canal. It was a lovely warm day, not yet hot and the water gleamed.
I have read three books and learned that even Seamus Heaney can’t make me love the Aeneid; I still love Richard Russo’s stories; and Pat Barker can always find something new in a well-explored setting.
I am a fan of poetry. I don’t read vast amounts of it because unlike fiction, I reread poetry collections. It can speak to you on different levels at different times, so that meaning comes through when you’re ready. And then there is the beauty of the language. I have a number of Seamus Heaney’s books of poetry and two of my favorites are The Spirit Level and Seeing Things. He also did translations. His Beowulf was a revelation to me: an astonishing story told in gorgeous language. In some of the poetry books, I saw translations from the Aeneid, but they didn’t speak to me. Apparently, Heaney had worked off and on at Book 6 of the Aeneid, beginning after his father’s death. Book 6 is the one that so much of our mythic imagery comes from: the golden bough, Charon the ferryman, crossing over, Cerberus the three headed dog, the Elysian Fields, and much hellish imagery of souls in eternal punishment. I have never liked the Aeneid; too much boosterism for imperial Rome.
Still, I thought, if anyone could make it sing, Heaney could. And there are lines that soar: the conversation with the sibyl when Aeneas expresses his wish to visit with his father one more time, when she tells him, “It is easy to descend into Avernus. Death’s dark door stands open day and night. But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air, that is the task, that is the undertaking.” Ultimately Aeneas and his guide are let out through a pearly gate to the upper air. In the interim, he sees souls in torment, enters the Elysian Fields, and in a powerful scene, is joyfully greeted by his father, Anchises. But then Anchises starts talking about his descendants and it all goes back to that imperial Rome thing I don’t care for. And I’m left wondering what it was that Aeneas wanted to talk to his father about. Many of us have known someone for whom we might descend to the depths to have one last conversation. For this reason, the 20 lines describing the initial meeting brought tears to my eyes. But Anchises is unembraceable, being a spirit, and eventually he starts talking about his posterity, a lot. If you like The Aeneid, this is undoubtedly a lovely translation of Book 6. If you don’t, it probably won’t change your mind.
I was thrilled a couple weeks ago when I saw that Richard Russo had a new novel out and that it followed up with characters from his earlier novel Nobody’s Fool. This one is called Everybody’s Fool. Russo writes about life in small towns with an attention to detail that comes from growing up in one. His books are about people working more than one job, married to the wrong person, making ends meet as well as they can, and sometimes making a lifetime of wrong decisions. They are leavened by moments of hilarity. One book, Straight Man, I had to stop reading at my desk at lunch because it kept making me laugh out loud. Everybody’s Fool did, too.
I once got in trouble with someone for telling him these books were funny. The people and situations in the books are familiar to me from the place I grew up; while lives weren’t always smooth or on the upswing, people found humor in everyday life. Still, there’s poverty, domestic violence and sheer stupidity, which are not funny. There is enough background in Everybody’s Fool that you don’t need to read Nobody’s Fool (though you could watch the movie from the early nineties with Paul Newman playing Sully). It’s a great story, beginning with a funeral where the chief of police faints into the grave of his nemesis, and weaving together stories of the unidentified stench in the town, a collapsed building, an escaped cobra, and a junk collector with $300,000 in his checking account. It ends well for some people, not so well for others, but it’s a wild ride of a read and I recommend it (or any of the other Russo books except that one I didn’t like, Bridge of Sighs).
The third book I read was Noonday by Pat Barker. It is the third book in a series about characters who were art students at the Slade when the Great War started. The first book was Life Class; the second, Toby’s Room, dealt with some of the human wreckage of the war. Noonday opens in 1940 with the bombings in London. Barker has written about modern England, as in Border Crossing and other books, and extensively about the Great War in the Regeneration trilogy and the books that preceded Noonday. She had not written about the second World War and her description of the work of ambulances and air raid wardens is unlike anything I have read before seen through the eyes of the characters, Paul and Elinor, who are married and still painting. The nightly barrage of bombs and death affects people differently, some turning to a spirit medium, others to more physical comforts. It’s a satisfying read, more so if you’re interested in the time period.
Next up, after a bit of a break, will be Louise Erdrich’s LaRose. I’m looking forward to entering her world again–and will let you know how it was. Meanwhile, I’ll be getting back to gardening.