Quick Reviews, Part IV

#63 An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser 

It was, I think, Mignon McLaughlin who once said:

It’s innocence when it charms us, ignorance when it doesn’t.

This pretty much sums up my hatred for An American Tragedy (1925).

Everyone in this book is insufferable. Everyone. There’s Asa and Elvira Griffiths, hapless and helpless to the tips of their fingers. There’s Hortense Briggs, and her whining, and her shopping addiction. There’s Roberta Alden and her drab insecurity, Gilbert Griffiths and his pointless grudge, Sondra Finchley and her baby-talk, and the rest of the Lycurgus social elite. All of these people make Voldemort seem warmhearted and vivacious by comparison.

Most of all, there’s Clyde Griffiths, our watered-down protagonist, who pairs an insipid personality with a cutthroat sense of greed. THESE ARE A FEW NONE OF MY FAV-O-RITE THINGS.

There is, frankly, nothing and no one to like here. Dreiser’s plot is tedious, and his writing simplistic. The moral of the story seems to be that chasing the American Dream will get you strapped into an electric chair… but so will being a murderous asshole.

By my estimation, we, the readers, are the real victims here—so Clyde can close his sniveling gripe-hole any time now.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It wouldn’t be the greatest book of all time if it were the only book ever written. Stick to your day job, Dreiser.

Favorite Quotes:

As they sang, this nondescript and indifferent street audience gazed, held by the peculiarity of such an unimportant-looking family publicly raising its collective voice against the vast skepticism and apathy of life.

Read: 2016

#85 The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Now we’re talking. What do you get when you try to write four books at once?

A fifth book, apparently. A golden one.

At least, that’s how the story goes for Anna Wulf, who fills four color-coded notebooks with the most intimate of details: black for her childhood in Southern Rhodesia, red for her time in the Communist Party, yellow for her manuscripts, and blue for her personal diary. Anna decides, ultimately, to unite this fragmented rendering of her life into one final notebookThe Golden Notebook (1962).

This, folks, is what we call postmodernism.

Among Lessing’s more prominent themes are mental and societal breakdown, anti-war protest and communism, women’s liberation, romantic love, and parenthood. This takes it, inevitably, quite far from being a light read, but it is a compelling one. There is something raw and fearless about it, something deeply honest but carefully engineered—something that tells me I’ll pick this book up again someday to take another ride.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I wouldn’t jump right to “Greatest” from a preliminary read, but there’s nothing else quite like it on The List.

Favorite Quotes:

I was filled with such a dangerous delicious intoxication that I could have walked straight off the steps into the air, climbing on the strength of my own drunkenness into the stars. And the intoxication, as I knew even then, was the recklessness of infinite possibility, of danger, the secret ugly frightening pulse of war itself, of the death that we all wanted, for each other and for ourselves. 

Time is the River on which the leaves of our thoughts are carried into oblivion.

People don’t mind immoral messages. They don’t mind art which says that murder is good, cruelty is good, sex for sex’s sake is good. They like it, provided the message is wrapped up a little. And they like messages saying that murder is bad, cruelty is bad, and love is love is love. What they can’t stand is to be told it all doesn’t matter, they can’t stand the formlessness. 

“For Christ’s sake, you must understand sex isn’t important to me, it just isn’t important.”
I said: “You mean sex is important but who you have it with isn’t.”

Read: 2014

#56 Animal Farm, George Orwell

George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) came out of left field and blew me away, to the point that I was disappointed when it ended.

Well, OK, almost disappointed. The List is really long, guys.

Orwell intended Animal Farm as an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Stalin regime, and he was NOT subtle about it. Stalin is literally depicted as a tyrannical pig named Napoleon. Following a farm-wide rebellion against their cruel human caretakers, the crafty Napoleon wrests power away from his fellow leaders with an army of dogs. All the ideals of their revolution, from equality to loyalty, are either crushed or forgotten as time passes and oppression soars. In the chilling final pages of the story, the pigs begin to walk on two legs… much like their human masters of old.

A democratic socialist, Orwell opposed communism, along with the totalitarian propaganda that so often fuels it. He described Animal Farm as an effort “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole,” which sounds boring but isn’t. Take it from me—someone who is, broadly speaking, repulsed by politics—that this is worth a read anyway. Orwell’s writing style is simple but riveting, and his farm animal cast makes a play-by-play of totalitarianism surprisingly readable.

Just keep in mind that this is not “a fairy story” with a happy ending. After all, this is the book that gave us the famous saying “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Absolutely. It meets my two criteria—originality + expert craftsmanship—and then some.

Favorite Quotes:

Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Read: 2015


#18 On the Road, Jack Kerouac

I’ve always understood On the Road (1957) to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of phenomenon, like Taylor Swift or Marmite.

My take? It’s the same for all three, actually: something in between. I love them, sure, but only in small doses. I love them in spite of their flaws, and sometimes because of them. And I love them most of all for their ability to provoke, despite being pretty damn harmless.

The ultimate road trip narrative, On the Road is perhaps less about purpose or destination than the feeling of adventure. This book evokes travel, and the American landscape, like no other. There’s an undeniable appeal in the vitality of it—the anarchy of it—as it matches stroke for stroke, in form and function, the feel of being young, and wild, and free, and stupid. The manifesto of the Beat movement characterized by hedonism and experimentation, On the Road invites us on a spontaneous journey to rescue ourselves from tradition and conformity, all for the cost of paper and petrol.

Jack Kerouac famously drafted On the Road on one continuous scroll of paper over the course of three weeks in 1951. The story follows Sal Paradise (based on the author) and Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady) on a series of cross-country jaunts marked by sex, drugs, and jazz. Controversial at the time of publication, On the Road still marches to the beat of its own drum, occupying a unique corner in the American imagination.

As much as I admire Kerouac’s monument to freedom and Americana, I felt a restlessness reading On the Road that had less to do with my own life than the choices Sal and Dean made with theirs. As it turns out, even adventure can become monotonous. Which is why I’ll say it again: The best way to fall in love, with On the Road or with your own soul mate, is carefully, in small doses.


Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’m going to go with yes. It’s not perfect, but few classics are.

Favorite Quotes:

The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then.

I have finally taught him that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of Denver, marry a millionairess, or become the greatest poet since Rimbaud. But he keeps rushing out to see the midget auto races.

I told Terry I was leaving. She had been thinking about it all night and was resigned to it. Emotionlessly she kissed me in the vineyard and walked off down the row. We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.

If nobody’s home, climb in through the window. Signed, Remi Boncoeur

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

So I went up and there she was, the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long. We agreed to love each other madly.

“We gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”

Read: 2014

#59 Gargantua & Pantagruel, François Rabelais 

Don’t be fooled by those back-cover references to the “dazzling and exuberant comic Chronicles of Rabelais,” or the “ingenious wordplay and mastery of language” evoked by Gargantua & Pantagruel (1532–1564).

This book is so, so boring.

Listen to some of these chapter titles:

  • On the Origins and Lineage of the great Pantagruel
  • How Pantagruel fairly judged an amazingly hard and obscure controversy so equitably that his judgement was termed more wonderful than that of Solomon’s
  • How Pantagruel departed from Paris on hearing news that the Dipsodes were invading the land of the Amaurots. And why the leagues are so short in France. And the Exposition of a saying inscribed upon a ring
  • How Gargamelle, when carrying Gargantua, took to eating a great profusion of tripe
  • How Gargantua was dressed
  • Gargantua’s colours and livery
  • What the colours white and blue do signify
  • How Gargantua spent his time when it was rainy
  • Why everyone avoids monks: and why some men have noses which are bigger than others
  • How Panurge had a flea in his ear and gave up sporting his magnificent codpiece
  • The Excuse of Panurge; and an exegesis of a monastical cabbala concerning salted beef
  • How lawsuits are born and how they grow to perfection
  • How Xenomanes describes Quarêmeprenant anatomically
  • How in the Court of the Master-Inventor Pantagruel denounced the Engastrimyths and the Gastrolaters

You’re already bored, aren’t you? I’m bored all over again just looking at this book.

It had potential. I’ll give Rabelais that much. This 16th-century pentalogy follows two giants (a father and son) on their many misadventures in Medieval/Renaissance France. Much is made of the book’s satirical, scatological, and violent themes, but even these could not deliver me from indifference. And just in case you don’t believe me, and want to try it out for yourself: Give those chapter titles one more read.

I think we’ll see eye to eye in no time.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I don’t even know—I only half-paid attention.

Favorite Quotes:

Then they gave us heartfelt advice: if we wanted to rise in the courts of great noblemen, to be as economical as possible of the truth.

Would you say (as one may indeed logically infer) that the world was heretofore daft but now become wise? How many and what conditions were required to make it daft? And how many and wise to make it wise? And why was it daft? And why should it now be wise? By what qualities did you recognize its former folly? By what qualities, its present wisdom? Who made it daft? Who made it wise? Who form the greater number: those who liked it daft or those who like it wise? For how long was it daft? How long has it been wise? Whence proceeded its antecedent folly and whence its subsequent wisdom? Why did its antecedent folly end now and not later? Why did its present wisdom begin now and not earlier? What ill did that antecedent folly do to us? And what good, the subsequent wisdom? How could that old folly have been abolished? And how could the present wisdom be restored? 

Nothing is more dear nor more precious than time: let us spend it on good works.

Read: 2016

Check out Quick Reviews: Part I, Part II, and Part III for more fun and games whining and mocking.

Oh, and here’s the premise behind the Quick Reviews series. (I’ll give you a hint: It’s laziness.)

Quote of the Week

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

#8 In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust


Proust: The writer who would rather die than edit

Guys, I did it. I finished Proust. All six volumes and 4,217 pages of him. I did it.

And it didn’t comprehensively suck.

Some of it sucked, I’ll admit. Proust is a true test of reader stamina, especially when he veers into complex and (occasionally) nonsensical musings on philosophy and social interaction. In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927) is dense, and abstract, and low on both action and dialogue.

But it’s also thoughtful, and insightful, and extraordinarily crafted. And when Proust veers into relatable and (thankfully) sensical musings on philosophy and social interaction, it’s mesmerizing in a way I had never encountered before.

In Search of Lost Time is, at its core, a reflection on the nature of time and memory. One of Proust’s central themes is what he calls “involuntary memory,” a phenomenon in which an everyday object or activity evokes a specific memory of the past. (Involuntary memory occurs in contrast with voluntary memory, or the deliberate recollection of past events.) The most famous scene of the novel occurs early on, when the narrator dips a madeleine into his tea and suddenly remembers doing so years earlier, as a child, at his family’s country home in Combray.

But there’s much more, of course, filling up Proust’s 4,000+ pages. Proust ruminates, alternately, on snobbery, jealousy, deceit, grief, art, identity, and homosexuality. His tone is intensely intimate and immersive—a sort of six-volume showcase of introversion and introspection. For all that, though, Proust’s style is largely accessible; it’s the sheer length of the average sentence, and the work as a whole, that poses the greatest challenge.

Because, yes, In Search of Lost Time is mercilessly long. Proust died, apparently, not before he finished writing it, but before he finished revising it—otherwise he might have seen, and fixed, some of those “tl;dr” notes his editor surely left in the margins. ISoLT contains one of the longest sentences in literature, at over 900 words, and Proust doesn’t hesitate to spend the better part of an entire volume on just one or two scenes.

So, yeah—it’s long. It’s slow. It’s the opposite of a Tweet, or a meme, or a soundbite, or really anything we love about 21st-century communication. I spent a year reading it, off and on, charging through two volumes in 2-3 months and then taking a much-needed breather before diving back in to the next two. Take it from me that your ROI will be disappointing unless you’re prepared to sit down with it, in a quiet space short on distractions, where your thoughts and Proust’s can mingle freely, over and over and over again. This is not a book to take on the subway, or squeeze into the odd spare moment. (Believe me; I’ve tried.)

But if you’re patient with it, and persevere, and unplug, and give it the time and energy it’s due, it just might be worth it. (You might still hate it, of course, but at least you made a legit attempt.)

As I mentioned, there’s not much plot in ISoLT, but here are a few highlights of Proust’s masterpiece of anti-plot:

  • The narrator recalls his anxiety when, as a child, his mother couldn’t come upstairs to kiss him goodnight.
  • The narrator eats a madeleine dipped in tea and experiences his first “involuntary memory.”
  • The narrator learns that a family friend, Swann, married the “unsuitable” Odette.
  • The narrator, as a teenager, falls in love with Swann and Odette’s daughter, Gilberte.
  • The narrator, suspecting Gilberte does not love him back, pretends to fall out of love with her, and then actually does.
  • The narrator befriends Robert de Saint-Loup, the nephew of another family friend.
  • The narrator falls in love with Albertine during a summer holiday on the coast of Normandy.
  • The narrator stalks Madame de Guermantes, a member of the aristocracy with whom he is fascinated.
  • Everyone discusses the Dreyfus Affair.
  • The narrator attends various social gatherings characterized by incessant gossip.
  • The narrator’s grandmother dies.
  • Swann dies.
  • The narrator brings Albertine to live in his family’s Paris apartment.
  • The narrator alternates between boredom with Albertine and jealous suspicion over her lesbian love affairs.
  • The narrator pretends to break up with Albertine, then backpedals, only to find her gone in the morning.
  • The narrator contrives ways to persuade Albertine to return of her own accord, fails, and eventually falls out of love with her too.
  • The narrator discovers the truth about Albertine (that is, that she’s a lesbian, which was obvious from the beginning).
  • The narrator visits Venice with his mother.
  • Gilberte, the narrator’s first love, announces her engagement to his friend Robert de Saint-Loup.
  • World War I happens (the narrator spends most of it in a sanatorium for his health).
  • The narrator returns to Paris, attends a party, barely recognizes anyone, and realizes he is old.
  • The narrator finally finds the inspiration and motivation to write his novel/life story.

I felt largely neutral toward the narrator in the early volumes, but came to loathe him in the later ones. He is narcissistic, manipulative, obsessive, and judgmental, not to mention a bit of a whiner. He repeatedly finds himself “unable to write,” despite his ambition to become a writer and the necessity of actually writing something in order to do so. He is also psychotically controlling of Albertine even when he’s bored with her, keeping her prisoner in his apartment and then complaining that she’s there. MAKE UP YOUR MIND, DIPSHIT. MARRY HER OR MOVE ON, AND ALSO STFU.

Heavily influenced by Monet, Proust wanted his work to evoke an impressionist painting. Some critics have likened it to a symphony. And it is, no doubt, an unprecedented depiction of the minutiae of social life and the natural environment.

I disagree, however, with Graham Greene’s veneration of Proust as “the greatest novelist of the twentieth century”—not just because it’s silly to quantify or rank something as subjective and abstract as “greatness,” but also because I don’t think of Proust as a novelist. I think of him more as a literary philosopher, less concerned with character and plot than with theories and their contemplation. (A routine perusal of SparkNotes actually proved me right on this, at least in part: Proust himself, apparently, “had trouble deciding whether Swann’s Way should be a fictional account or an explicit discussion about his philosophical interests.”)

Still. Whether fiction or philosophy, In Search of Lost Time is indisputably the work of a master. A master with way too much time on his hands, mommy issues, and a criminal streak of snobbery, yes—but let’s forgive him where he never forgave us.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?


(See, Proust? It is possible to express an idea in a single word.)

Favorite Quotes:

Swann’s Way

In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses the heart of a woman may be enough to make him fall in love with her.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind.

My intelligence might have told me the opposite. But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through—awkward indeed but by no means infertile—is that we do not consult our intelligence.

Life is strewn with these miracles for which people who love can always hope.

The Guermantes Way

He admitted the possibility that she did not love him. No doubt the general malady called love must have forced him—as it forces all men—to believe at times that she did.

“In fact, it was drolatic,” put in M. de Guermantes, whose odd vocabulary enabled society people to declare that he was no fool and literary people, at the same time, to regard him as a complete imbecile.

But we shall see how certain fugitive and fortuitous impressions carry us back even more effectively to the past, with a more delicate precision, with a more light-winged, more immaterial, more headlong, more unerring, more immortal flight.

Sodom and Gomorrah

It is, no doubt, the existence of our body, which we may compare to a vase enclosing our spiritual nature, that induces us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession.

That sorrow tried to reconstruct itself in my heart, threw up vast pillars there; but my heart was doubtless too small for it.

The Prisoner and the Fugitive

Love is no more perhaps than the diffusion of those eddies which, in the wake of an emotion, stir the soul.

It is terrible to have the life of another person attached to one’s own like a bomb which one holds in one’s hands, unable to get rid of it without committing a crime.

The truth is the most cunning of enemies.

When I was young, people used to tell me that one had to put up with a bit of boredom, so I made an effort; but now, ah! no, I just can’t help it, I’m old enough to do as I please, life’s too short. Allow myself to be bored stiff, listen to idiots, smile, pretend to think them intelligent—no, I simply can’t do it.

It was as though, reincarnate, the composer lived for all time in his music.

We picture the future as a reflexion of the present projected into an empty space, whereas it is the result, often almost immediate, of causes which for the most part escape our notice.

Art is not alone in imparting charm and mystery to the most insignificant things; pain is endowed with the same power.

Let us leave pretty women to men with no imagination.

Even if one love has passed into oblivion, it may determine the form of the love that is to follow it.

Time Regained

So rarely do we meet either with easy success or with irreversible defeat.

People away from the front imagine that the war is no more than a gigantic boxing match, of which, thanks to the newspapers, they are spectators at a comfortable distance. But it is nothing of the sort. It is an illness which, when it seems to have been defeated at one point, returns at another.

The creation of the world did not take place once and for all, you said, it is, of necessity, taking place every day.

Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature.

Time, colourless and inapprehensible Time, so that I was almost able to see it and touch it, had materialised itself in this girl, moulding her into a masterpiece.

Read: 2015–2016

Literary New England

I spent the first half of October on a long-planned road trip through New England, unable to decide what I was enjoying most: the foliage, the history, the food, or the (not-so-)simple fact of taking two weeks’ vacation. I took turns driving a cozy rental car with Spiderman (the alias I’ve bestowed upon my husband in this blog) across Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts, and this is what I have to show for it:


…Because, of course, New England is one of the most densely packed literary hubs on the planet, and has been ever since the birth of this beautiful, optimistic, imperfect nation. And I had plenty of room on my bookshelf (OK, not really) to add to my Travel Collection.

Here’s what I learned along the way—besides the fact that the Massachusetts State House’s Sacred Cod was once “Cod-napped” by the staff of the Harvard Lampoon.

Amherst, MA

Our first literary stop was Amherst, Massachusetts, where Emily Dickinson lived and wrote some 1,800 poems in determined solitude.


Hello yellow.

Influenced by the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century as well as the Book of Revelation, Dickinson tackled love, death, immortality, and nature among other themes. Almost all of her work was published posthumously, but her reputation as an original and insightful artist has since earned her a place in the American canon.

Here are a few excerpts from the Selected Poems & Letters I picked up at her house:

Heart, we will forget him!
You and I, to-night!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.

When you have done, pray tell me,
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you’re lagging,
I may remember him!

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any courses like a page
Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

“The chariot that bears a human soul”… and I thought I didn’t like poetry. WELL PLAYED, Dickinson. Well played.

Portland, ME

After a handful of illiterate stops in Vermont, New Hampshire, and the northeast coast, we made our way down to Portland, Maine. Portland’s literary legacy owes much to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of Paul Revere’s Ride fame.


The Wadsworth-Longfellow House, where brick-on-brick is worn as proudly as denim-on-denim.

Remember “One, if by land, and two, if by sea”? That was Longfellow, almost 100 years later, describing the moment when two lanterns were hung in Boston’s Old North Church to signal the advance of the British army.

Modern scholars/killjoys emphasize the poem’s many historical inaccuracies. But in Longfellow’s (and, frankly, every writer’s) defense, IT SOUNDED GOOD, OK?

Here are the opening stanzas to his legendary commemorative poem:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, — “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light, —
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”

Sometimes I am glad I have so few occasions to meet famous dead people. Right now I’m picturing myself meeting Longfellow, stuttering out a hello, reaching over to shake his hand, and saying, “YOU DID A GOOD POEM, SIR.”

Longfellow is not, however, Portland’s only household name. Stephen King was also born in Portland and still spends most of the year in Maine.

Somehow, to this day, I have yet to read King. But hopefully—with The Shining now sitting patiently on my shelf, and only 6 books left on The List (!)—I’ll find the time soon.

I found this copy at one of Portland’s many bookstores, our favorite feature of the city by far. In addition to the Maine Historical Society gift shop, two perfect indie bookstores grace the compact Old Port: Longfellow Books on Monument Way, and a branch of the Maine-only chain Sherman’s on Exchange Street.


Why not SherMaine’s??? Such a missed opportunity.

Salem, MA

It poured down rain on the day we traveled to Salem, Massachusetts, but this bewitching little city still made a great first impression. Among its more notable residents was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote The Scarlet Letter while living in Salem’s harbor-facing Custom House.


Yeah, I took this photo on Day 2, after the rain cleared.

Unable to find an edition of The Scarlet Letter that did not scare the bejesus out of me, I opted instead to buy The House of the Seven Gables:

Inspired by a real mansion built in 1668 (still open today to the fee-paying public), The House of the Seven Gables is a 19th-century Gothic novel compared by one reviewer to “a passage through the wards of an insane asylum.”

Don’t get too excited, though; another reviewer called it “I’m so glad you’re dead, Nathaniel Hawthorne.”

Boston, MA

Most of the renowned authors who’ve lived in the Boston/Cambridge area were only temporary residents, so I opted against making a “sort-of-Boston” book purchase. I did, however, want to see the Old Corner Bookstore, where Ticknor and Fields published almost all of the authors in this blog post during the 1800s.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been a bookstore or a publisher for quite some time. It is now, of all things, a Chipotle Mexican Grill:


What’s wrong with this picture?

My first impulse, upon seeing this Chipotle, was to boycott it on behalf of the publishing industry. But I also really wanted some tacos.

The tacos ultimately won out, much like democracy, and they were delicious.

Concord, MA

Nowhere in New England is more literary than Concord, Massachusetts, home to approximately all (but, more accurately, four) of the “Late and Great” American writers. Here we go, in accidental alphabetical order:

Louisa May Alcott wrote her semi-autobiographical Little Women at the Alcott family home known as “Orchard House.” Her own sisters were the inspiration for Meg, Beth, and Amy March, and Alcott wrote much of herself into the beloved Jo March.

I remember being crushed by Little Women long ago, but this Penguin Threads edition was too beautiful to exclude from my Travel Collection:

While living in Concord in the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson made significant contributions to the Transcendentalist movement, publishing essays including “Nature” and “Self-Reliance” and lecturing across New England. His first Concord residence, known today as the Old Manse, is directly adjacent to the Old North Bridge, where the Battle of Concord took place in 1775. Emerson’s grandfather, the Rev. William Emerson, watched from the house as 400 Minutemen fired upon the British light infantry.


Nasty Redcoats, we hates them!

Emerson wrote his “Concord Hymn” as part of the dedication ceremony for a memorial obelisk erected on the site in 1837, famously referring to the Americans’ first round of fire as “the shot heard round the world”:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

I played my own small role in history by purchasing this poetry collection from a 17-year-old hippie at the Old Manse gift shop:


Fun fact: Nathaniel Hawthorne lived at the Old Manse from 1842-1845, after Emerson moved into another home in Concord. Nathaniel Hawthorne also lived in a Concord house called the Wayside, which he bought from the Alcott family when they moved in to Orchard House next door.

This is, of course, the same Nathaniel Hawthorne we met earlier in Salem. Was he nomadic? Restless? Or just poor? you ask.

The answer is: I dunno, go ask Wikipedia.

Henry David Thoreau, that famous anarchist freethinker, was born in Concord and returned to his hometown after graduating from Harvard in 1837. Of course, he famously left Concord again in 1845 to live in a one-bedroom cabin on the north shore of Walden Pond.


Tiny House Hunters: 1840s edition.

…Or did he? Walden Pond sits just two miles outside of Concord, meaning Thoreau could walk home anytime he wanted—and did, several times a week, for company and baked goods.

Nevertheless, Thoreau’s Walden has come to occupy a unique place in the American imagination, promoting principles such as self-sufficiency, simple living, and the conservation of nature and the wilderness.

Lenox, MA

We spent our final day in New England at The Mount, the Berkshires home designed by Edith Wharton in 1901.


On your right you’ll observe the grass steps of The Mount, oft-noted for their grassiness.

On a two-hour tour of the house and gardens, we learned how Wharton used decidedly literary principles in modeling the home to her tastes. She applied a concept analogous to “parallel structure” to the interior, for example, repeating patterns as often as possible.

She also insisted on a smooth transition between the house and the countryside beyond, which she achieved via a large, grassy lawn, a tree-lined promenade, and even a gradual change in building materials from least to most natural.

Wharton famously said in letter to her lover that she was “a better landscape gardener than novelist,” but I’m guessing her Pulitzer Prize would disagree.

Wharton’s library at The Mount is filled with her own collection of novels, annotated by Wharton herself, as well as works on gardening, travel, history, philosophy, religion, and science in English, French, Italian, and German.


Life = unfair.

Wharton wrote 40 books in 40 years before her death in 1937, so I didn’t have an easy choice of gift shop souvenirs:


How? WHY?

I finally settled on The House of Mirth, a book I read (and loved) years ago but do not own for some reason. Wharton wrote The House of Mirth during her 10 years at The Mount, mostly from her comfortable, sunny bedroom.

Here are a few House of Mirth excerpts, in case you haven’t come across her and need a little encouragement:

She had been bored all the afternoon by [him]—the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice—but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.

That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.

Every step she took seemed in fact to carry her farther from the region where, once or twice, he and she had met for an illumined moment.

And, finally, in the wake of a Trump presidency:

Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions, and the mean ones truths?

The last photos I’ll share with you today are autumnal snapshots of Edith Wharton’s pet cemetery:

I realize this has nothing whatsoever to do with books. I just thought it was funny.

RIP, Toto—you will not be forgotten.

That’s all, folks! I hope you enjoyed your tour of Literary New England, and the newest books on my shelf.

Happy reading!

Not a Literary Post, But a Necessary One


Well, the unthinkable has happened. The United States has elected reality TV star Donald Trump as our next president, following an unconscionable, hate-filled campaign that has turned us from an international laughingstock into an international nightmare.

Even if you voted for Trump in spite of his ignorant, bigoted rhetoric, and not because of it, it’s important to understand the message you have sent to family, friends, neighbors, and strangers across the country:

that you will tolerate both incompetence and abuse in your leader(s),
that you accept a nationalist and backward-looking ideology,
and that you are willing to overlook, among other things, Trump’s:

  • total lack of government or military experience
  • total lack of policy knowledge
  • half-assed and ever-shifting platform
  • refusal to release his tax returns
  • unabashed pride in avoiding federal income taxes
  • support for military torture and war crimes
  • attacks on Latinos
  • attacks on Muslims
  • attacks on immigrants
  • attacks on Jews
  • attacks on African Americans
  • attacks on the disabled
  • attacks on veterans and their families
  • attacks on women
  • boasts of committing sexual assault
  • actual sexual assault/harassment accusations from at least 10 women
  • encouragement of the “birther” movement questioning Obama’s nationality
  • fraudulent university and foundation
  • rejection of common sense gun control measures
  • business failures large and small
  • diverse personal hobbies, including bullying and belittlement
  • threats to the Constitution and the peaceful transfer of power
  • incitement of political violence, and
  • lies, lies, and more lies.

What’s left to say? Apparently all of Trump’s ridiculous masculine posturing worked. Apparently Trump’s violations of nearly every Christian value didn’t cost him many votes among white evangelicals. Apparently Trump’s supporters truly believe an elitist multi-billionaire will be the champion of the working class despite his long history of cheating them. Apparently even facts, from climate change to crime statistics, are irrelevant these days.

If you voted for Trump, know this: Your vote feels like a “fuck you” to everyone Trump has alienated during his campaign. It feels like a personal, to-my-face “fuck you” as a woman, and to my husband as an immigrant. It feels like 48% of the nation saying “You don’t matter.” It feels like hearing you insist that this is your America—a white supremacist patriarchy through and through—and that we’re not welcome here.

It feels like fear.

Please, please prove us wrong. Until then, Donald Trump may represent you—but he does not represent me.

I wanted to end this post on an uplifting note, because many of us could use one right now. And I couldn’t find anything more inspiring than this Monday-night Facebook update from George Takei, legendary actor and activist:

Many fans have written asking for some words of advice, solace, or perhaps even hope as we find ourselves here, the night before the election. Indulge a fellow of my more advanced years, and permit me to convey some perspective and to expand upon a theme I have spoken of before. From where I stand, progress may be painful, but in the end, the forces of reason, compassion, and equality always prevail. Yes, we will win.

When I was a boy of four, my family and I were interned for years inside barbed wire prison camps because we happened to look like the enemy who had bombed Pearl Harbor. Today, Japanese Americans are a proud part of our national heritage, and we were the first to stand with Muslim Americans after 9/11 to decry calls for racial and religious profiling. We came from a dark place, but we remember, and we carry a bright torch. Tolerance and acceptance will flourish in America. We will win.

When I was a young man, in many states I could not by law even marry a Caucasian because of strict anti-miscegenation laws. Today, after decades of struggle to gain recognition and equality, for both biracial and same sex couples, I am legally married to my gay, white, male spouse, Brad. What once was the love that dare not speak its name can now shout itself freely from the chapel. Love and understanding took root across the land, and young people today can be with whomever they were destined to love. We will win.

I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during an era where the most basic rights of association, voting and participation in civil society were denied in Jim Crow America. But Dr. King inspired and reminded America of its promise. And while we still have far, far to go, I am always amazed that I lived to see the election of our first African American president. The road to true equal rights and justice is not, and has never been, an easy one. But despite its many twists and turns, we will continue to march along it. We will win.

From Selma to Stonewall, Seneca Falls to Standing Rock, the history of America is often forged in a crucible of conflict and courage. Today, it is no different. We may face setback, or we may face triumph, but the direction will remain clear so long as our vision and our convictions do. You need only take measure of the passion of America’s youth—more cosmopolitan, more diverse, more rooted in science, more aware of their responsibilities as stewards of this Earth than any generation before them—to regain confidence in our national future. Look to them. We will win.

So tomorrow, as our nation at last finishes the most wrenching election in recent memory, I cast my own vote with both an eye to our past, where we have already overcome so much, and an eye to our future, where so much promise remains. We will vote, we will get through this. We will win.

#61 The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu

The earliest illustrated handscroll of The Tale of Genji (12th century)

The Tale of Genji takes us back—way back—to 11th century Japan, where the men have all the power and the women have all the problems. “Shining Genji,” son (but not heir) to the Emperor, is the star of the show, and a good two-thirds of this sweeping Tale are spent trailing his personal and political life. We chase him through bedroom after bedroom in town after town, and even into exile and back.

Then, oddly, our leading man dies, and a whole new cast of characters sees us through to the final curtain.

There’s a special sort of satisfaction to be had in following a character—any character—from birth to death. But to follow Genji’s life is also, for modern readers, to follow him into a profoundly unique setting. Heian Japan was marked by rigid political hierarchy, strict social customs, polygamy, and poetry—to name but a few features of this fascinating cultural landscape.

Poetry is, of course, the most welcome fixture of Genji’s world, serving as a primary vehicle of communication (especially in the context of courtship) among the various characters. One exchange sees two lovers invoking love beyond death:

When the end has come, and from my smoldering pyre smoke rises at last,
I know this undying flame even then will burn for you. 

I would rise with you, yes, and vanish forever, that your smoke and mine
might decide which one of us burns with the greater sorrows. 

Though I turn to smoke and forever melt away into the wide sky,
I shall never leave your side, who remain all my desire. 

Other poems rely on nature metaphors and wordplay that make a faithful and lucid Genji translation nearly impossible to render.

17th-century Genji illustrations

For us, though, the biggest challenge of Genji is not the book’s (somewhat excessive) length, but its huge lineup of characters. Few are actually referred to by name, in keeping with the courtly etiquette of the Heian era. Instead, we are given titles, functions, and honorifics… all of which can change throughout a given character’s life/career. Genji, for example, goes from Captain to Consultant to Commander to Counselor to Chancellor, and more. At times he is simply “His Grace.”

Just below this (in terms of challenges) is the sheer feminist fatigue that today’s readers are likely to suffer as they hike the hills and valleys of Genji’s broad lifespan. The women of the Tale are, at every turn, damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They are bestowed as objects, relegated to the domestic sphere, shamed, blamed, coerced, and raped. They live, often, in anxiety, neglect, jealousy, and fear that they are unable to voice, and their only refuge from the whims of men is to become a nun.

Genji’s beloved, Lady Murasaki, says it best shortly before her death:

Ah, she reflected, there is nothing so pitifully confined and constricted as a woman.

Nevertheless, Genji‘s author, Murasaki Shikibu—a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi—proved to be Japan’s own Homer, Shakespeare, or Proust. Her work has spawned movies, plays, operas, and, of course, manga. But the ancient language in which she wrote the Tale around 1000 AD was already unintelligible a mere century later, and it took until 1913 for a modern Japanese translation to be published. No original manuscript survives.

It is to Shikibu’s extraordinary credit, then, that Genji’s legacy lingers on. Limitless in scope, rich in detail, and steady in pace, The Tale of Genji is so many worlds apart from the modern novel that we might as well call it another universe. And yet the myriad emotions and perspectives that make up its bulk remain thoroughly relatable today.

This, then, is Genji’s secret, told for centuries across the world:

Nothing is more real than fiction. 

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Adventures in love and loss among the aristocracy—what more could you ask for?

Favorite Quotes:

It has been her destiny to be caught betwixt and between. 

The heart goes its own way sometimes.

O seer who roams the vastness of the heavens, go and find for me a soul I now seek in vain even when I chance to dream.

There will never come a dawn when you do not have my heart.

Read: 2016