Heaney, Russo, Barker: Books!

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.


Cute, yes, but his uncle is savaging my garden.

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.


It was quiet along the canal, not even a runner…

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.


Fledglings are everywhere. This one looked particularly helpless.

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.


Its mother was nearby, though, searching for tasty morsels to offer.

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.


This young robin, whose parental unit was nearby, looks like nobody’s fool and in fact, was a good flyer already.

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).


With small town life, there are flowers, and there is poison ivy. All mixed up.

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.


Sometimes, you don’t know what’s around the corner. Barker is good at showing that.

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.


Perhaps I should garden in rock walls where rabbits can’t climb…

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53 Responses to Heaney, Russo, Barker: Books!

  1. Lisa, I’m impressed with the volume of reading you get through. I read so much online these days, that I find it eats into my book-reading time. I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Station Eleven and I’m now reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home. My son also gave me a copy of Hillary Clinton’s book for Mother’s Day.

    I’m sorry to hear that the rabbits have chomped on your garden. It must be quite challenging gardening in such an open space. I have a friend that gardens in dear country and he’s had to build a six foot tall iron gate to surround his narrow vegetable garden. I think rabbits are even harder, although as you say, they don’t climb. Rats and squirrels are nibbling and then discarding the not yet rip fruit on our plum and nectarine tree. They litter the ground with small, hard fruit with small bites out of each one. Sigh. Your photos are lovely. I can picture you walking on that path in Georgetown. Are you expecting a hot summer? Best of luck sorting out the garden.


    • arlingwoman says:

      Predictions here are for hot and perhaps dry. I’m glad of the warmth, but prove a bad waterer of gardens. I don’t know Station Eleven, but have Tell the Wolves I’m Home, which I liked enough to keep (many books go straight out the door). I liked the characterization of the girls and found the parents reaction to the uncle’s death a bit inscrutable. In any event, I enjoyed it and would be interested in your reaction. For the rabbits, I’m thinking some crossed poles and bird netting anchored with landscape cloth staples. We’ll see…


  2. What an enjoyable post this is Lisa. I like the way your book reviews are found intertwining with photos and walks and garden catastrophes. You have such a talent with the written word! I read The Aeneid hard on the heels of The Odyssey and it paled in comparison. I cannot remember much of the story now – while I feel very familiar with The Odyssey….. Sometimes the translation makes a difference, but I no longer recall who was responsible for my volumes, it was many, many years ago.

    I’m sorry to hear that durn rabbit family weren’t courteous enough to leave you some seedlings to grow up into proper greens – obviously a rabbit proof fence is required. Or Farmer MacGregor and his gun ……..

    The canal walk looks lovely. I hope your rains ease off soon and summer shows her face for you. We currently have rain too – of the forty days and forty nights kind – only its been just four days and nights….. I’m wondering if I should move to higher ground, or buy a boat.


    • arlingwoman says:

      Oh, I hope you don’t experience the same sort of thing as last winter!!! We’ve had three days of sun and lovely warmth, so I shouldn’t complain. It’s supposed to rain tonight and into tomorrow morning and then clear–the second named hurricane of the season (which starts June 1, but hey, they’re like early dinner guests). I feel the same way–loved the Odyssey, which felt modern in its emotions and symbols. The Aeneid feels like a bunch of high school football players who can’t let go of their glory days (I’ve never actually known someone from a war who longed to be back in combat, though as a metaphor that might work too). Glad you like the photos! I sat outside last evening to get the robin and baby rabbit.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. An excellent, wide-ranging post, Lisa. I like the way you write about the books, and love the photographs, especially the paths which set us thinking about where they are leading. That canal shot is so like stretches of London’s Regent’s Canal, along which I have run many a mile. Let’s hope the rain will keep off for a while


    • arlingwoman says:

      Thanks, Derrick. I was surprised not to see runners. Is it Regent’s that runs through Camden? I enjoyed watching boats go through the locks there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, Regent’s does go through Camden. Actually there weren’t that many runners when I did it in the 80s and 90s. I would get off the train from Newark at Kings Cross, run up Caledonian Road to the canal entrance, then run five miles to my counselling room. I would be in running gear with clothes etc. in a back back, and have shower when I got there. I would overhaul the narrow boats – slowly 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • arlingwoman says:

        Sounds like a nice commute. I may have to start cycling to work, what with the Metro catching fire and breaking down all the time…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Good grief. That doesn’t sound too good.


  4. Yvonne says:

    And now I know what a lagomorph barrier is. Good luck with that.


  5. Sylvie G says:

    You made me want to read Richard Rousse au. It is the kind of storis I am likely to like. The photos are great and the comments even better.Thank you.


  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this lovely post, Lisa. You review books just the way I like, and to intersperse your musings with natural scenes—-especially pathways through refreshing greenery and the canal— makes it seem as if we are taking a nice walk together and quietly talking about books. I pretty much agree with what you say about these readings, especially the Aeneid. It’s difficult for me to get interested in manly adventures or fixations about posterity, ancient or now, and I agree that not even Heaney could change that for me. Thank you for a very pleasurable visit on this damp and dismal morning.

    p.s. I hope da wain and da wabbits quit pestering you!


    • arlingwoman says:

      I’m going to seize the day today–third day of no rain and lovely sun–but it’s apparently coming back tonight. The rabbits I have a plan for that involves bird netting. You know I didn’t like the Iliad much either, although it’s miles better than the Aeneid. The Odyssey is another thing entirely however–riveting in the right translation. Glad we could have a walk together!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m always thrilled to learn a new word! Lagomorph! Those us with a taste for Pâté de lièvre and Lapin à la moutarde have no trouble keeping the lagomorph population at bay! Your reviews make me want to read – especially Beowulf which I’ve never read.


    • arlingwoman says:

      I can throughly recommend Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. So many insights I never had before, and such a pleasure to read for the poetry of it. Oh, my, I think I might be able to eat one of the rabbits with pleasure, but they look a bit bony to me–perhaps not worth the work, given access to a grocery store…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Lisa, I felt I had a cup of tea with you! Talking about books, gardening and Lagomorpha (thank you for that wonderful word!!!) . The photos are amazing and ys, please, more inspiring book reports. btw, I use granules that smell of fox urine and they work wonders. From time to time I need to repeat it. And do not what I did…smell it. I was miserable for whole day ;o)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. KerryCan says:

    What a great post! The interspersing of photos and book reviews was such fun and the photos, by themselves, are great. I love the picture of the flagstone path just meandering. I haven’t read Russo yet but my husband loves him and just got the new book, too!


  10. Brenda says:

    I love the photo of feeding the fledgling. It looks like a cardinal with a baby cardinal crest! I’ll have to read some Russo, now that I’m living in Maine.


  11. Lovely post. Thank you for the great book reviews, and for the virtual nature walk!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. badfish says:

    Is there anyone still alive who loves the Aeneid? Have you ever read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry? I love her lines and style.


    • arlingwoman says:

      Yes, I like her as well. Which volume do you recommend? Yes, there are people alive who like the Aeneid, but it’s usually a war/nationalism glorification thing (which is exactly what doesn’t speak to me).


  13. LB says:

    Well, Lisa, your surely have a hit with this post! I enjoyed the comment section almost as much as the post 🙂
    Are these photos with your new camera? i love that third photo down of the curved walkway. And the mother bird feeding the baby bird! Wonderful!
    And thank you for the book reviews. I’ve only read Russo’s Empire Falls, but very much liked it. Perhaps Nobody’s Fool next.
    It is such a joy to be back and reading after not being able to read at all during the campaign.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. arlingwoman says:

    The bird pictures are the ne camera, as is the bunny. The path is the Nikon Coolpix. I’m glad you can read again. Nobody’s Fool was quite good. The characters stayed with me, which made the new one so interesting!


  15. Maria F. says:

    Great post! I suppose you bought one of those super zoom cameras! They are great for catching those moments with the fledgelings!. I love your last shot. I like seeing all that greenery though the rocks.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I love your post. Interesting references to books and your writing is lovely. Nice bird photos too, especially that second one! And I hear you plan to make rabbit stew….


  17. Karen says:

    Your reading is impressive…wish I had more time. The Russo book you spoke of sounds interesting. Sorry at the rabbits. We never had any at our homes in New Hampshire or Maine but I’ve seen several at our home here in Florida. I don’t know what they like around our home, it is just grass and hedges.


  18. Robin says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Lisa. The photos are wonderful, especially your captures of the fledglings. You’ve introduced me to new authors and I’ve already checked with the library and ordered two of the books. As for the rabbits, they sure are numerous and bold this year!


  19. I thought I was following your blog, but now I’m not sure. And I can’t seem to find the ‘follow’ icon. Yes, I know – it must be there somewhere. Directions, please?

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Pingback: If we were having coffee: Out, about, and in the garden edition – breezes at dawn

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