You could easily be forgiven for never having heard of City Folk and Country Folk by Russian author Sofia Khvoshchinskaya. It’s only seeing the light of day in the English-speaking world this year, thanks to a translation by Nora Seligman Favorov, having first been published in the 1860s under a male pseudonym. Still, the timing of its arrival in translation (thanks to Columbia University Press’s Russian Library) seems felicitous.
James Thurber’s The Wonderful O, first published 60 years ago and now reissued in a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition with an introduction by Ransom Riggs, is a humorous fairytale about a couple of sailors who team up to hunt for treasure. One of them, Black, hates the letter O and makes an attempt to obliterate it from the alphabet. The concept is ridiculous—of course you can’t get rid of a letter—and so the story is hilarious, but Thurber uses humor to explore what becomes of a society when something we use to communicate—to understand and to be understood—is taken away.
Didion, as narrator, is aware of her own quirks, in ways that most of us are blissfully not; I am too often content to allow the pictures in my mind to remain unsullied if inaccurate, whereas Didion felt compelled to return and look again. She had visited the South once before, as a child, when her father was stationed in South Carolina during World War II. She notes that in her childish egocentricity (“which then approached autism”) she imagined the war as a punishment designed specifically to deprive her of her father.
The book is . . . particularly good medicine for the times we find ourselves in, where there exists a burgeoning faction in American Internet Letters wishing to claim the Greek world as a sort of masculine daydream, and one in eminent need of recovery as such. Reading Ladies’ Greek, one immediately stumbles into a momentum that amounts to zeitgeist, into a world peopled by women thinking through their encounter with everything from irregular verbs to Pindar, making alphabet puns, writing doggerel poetry (in Greek of course), being praised as the sex with more skill in translation (so hinted The Athenaeum in 1865). If you didn’t know better, you could wonder how you could have missed it all until now.
Coneys, they were once called—
and kittens were their young.
Rodents they were believed to be,
though herbivorous, cute,
and gregarious burrowers,
they actually were lagomorphs.
Are they pets? To say a coney
is gregarious is to note
it roves in vaguely defined herds,
not that it shows up in top hat
and waistcoat twirling its pocket
watch like an overzealous
New Orleans antiques dealer.
Empson’s academic career in England was over, at least for the time being, and the best job he could find . . . was a teaching position in the booming city of Tokyo. And it was while teaching there, in 1932, that he visited the old city of Nara, where, as Rupert Arrowsmith says in his introduction to The Face of the Buddha, “the beauty of a particular set of Buddhist sculptures struck Empson with a revelatory force.” And thus began a curious detour in his career, a project that occupied him off and on for more than a decade before it eventuated in a book whose manuscript was promptly lost, by a drunkenly careless friend, and only recovered twenty years after Empson’s death.
So what are we to make of a science fiction author of the 1960s and ’70s who sends his heroes to fight for the reactionary Spanish Carlists? Who believes in the literal reality of the Devil, who patterns an entire novel after the Interior Castle of Saint Teresa of Avila, who takes what he calls “the secular-liberal imposture” as his avowed and constant enemy?
The novel is based on the story of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. For 18 years in the mid 1800’s, this woman lived alone on the outermost of the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast. O’Dell made his heroine younger (to appeal to a child audience) and filled in many gaps in the sources which he consulted . . . . The result of O’Dell’s imaginative re-creation of the Lone Woman was a compelling story of survival and forgiveness that garnered a Newbery Medal in 1961 and has remained popular with teachers, librarians, and young people (and thus in print) ever since.
I write this on the Christian Day of Pentecost and on this holy afternoon hear echoes of the question this day asks about all strange goings-on: What does it mean? Is this a parody? (If so, I do not know of what.) Or, might it be—intended or not (a tricky call)—a pedestrian description of a certain kind of life? This life, one long journey, walked all the way, with stops to admire this and that: the drinks, the steak—just right—the chat, the darkened city of a long familiarity. Going nowhere really. In the dark. . . . And, its crowning glory, why, the whole thing was lived with pluck. Ignore the shadows, the loneliness demanding conversation with every passer-by, the winds that chill the caverned avenues. For there is Frank Sinatra somewhere crooning I Did It My Way.
There’s Jonah’s piscine disappearing trick,
Legs vanishing inside the Lord God’s whale,
As neatly clasped as ships in tiny bottles:
Unlucky, grumpy Jonah, gulped and left
To ponder man’s first disobedience
Again (we never get it right, it seems,
Even when mortal limbs are stitched in place).