by Campbell Geeslin
Some ancient lines by Sappho, the seventh-century, B.C., poet, have surfaced recently and are included in Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works.
An article about Sappho, “Girl, Interrupted,” by Daniel Mendelsohn appeared in the March 16 New Yorker. He wrote, “The greatest problem for Sappho studies is that there’s so little Sappho to study. It would be hard to think of another poet whose status is so disproportionate to the size of her surviving body of work.”
Scholars have catalogued only about 250 fragments, and fewer than 70 of them contain complete lines. Some are just a single word. One line was discovered on a clay pot.
Mendelsohn provided his own translation of “one fine example” of four Sapphic stanzas. A brief sample, in which "the speaker expresses her envy of the men who…have a chance to talk to the girl she yearns for":
He seems to me an equal of the gods—
whoever gets to sit across from you
and listen to the sound of your sweet
so close to him
MEMOIR: George Hodgman, 40, is the author of a memoir, Bettyville. He looks after his mother in Paris, Mo. Cathy Horyn of The New York Times interviewed him at home. She found both his book and his 92-year-old mother, Betty Baker Hodgman, to be “laugh-out-loud.”
Horyn had observed “a spike in the memoir genre recently with writers lifting the veil on their eccentric families (Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle) or confronting the loopy reality of caring for an aging parent or one who has Alzheimer’s (Elinor Fuchs’s Making an Exit, Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”)
Hodgman is on a book tour, rare for a first-time author, and Amazon and the Books-a-Million Chain have named Bettyville a top pick.
ON THE WALL: Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in Roth Unbound that on the wall of Philip Roth’s studio was a chart of the alphabet “to remind myself that it’s only the alphabet, stupid—it’s just the letters that you know and they make words.” Still, he said, “I have to fight for my fluency, every paragraph, every sentence.”
BEGINNING WITH OX: Henry Hitchings is the author of The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English. He wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “Invert a capital A and you will see something that looks like an ox’s head—a triangle with two impressively protruding horns. This is no coincidence. The letter A’s earliest certain ancestor, in the alphabet used by the Phoenicians around 3,000 years ago, is aleph, which derived its name from the Western Semitic word for an ox.”
Hitchings was reviewing Michael Rosen’s Alphabetical.
AFRAID: Lynsey Addario, a photojournalist and war photographer, is author of a memoir, It’s What I Do. She was quoted in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review: “I feel fear the entire time I’m on the ground usually, because the proximity to the possibility of dying is so obvious. And when there are bullets flying everywhere, of course it’s terrifying. When I’m actually in that situation, and I initially feel the fear, I forget to photograph, because I’m trying to figure out how to stay alive.”
Steven Spielberg is working on a movie adaptation of the book.
WORD MAN: Fintan O’Toole is the author of A History of Ireland in 100 Objects and a lecturer at Princeton. He opened an essay in The New York Review of Books with a quote from the late critic Kenneth Tynan: “The English hoard words like misers; the Irish spend them like sailors.” He cited Seamus Heaney on the Irish struggle to "govern the tongue."
“Volubility, garrulousness, lushness and lyricism,” O'Toole wrote, are “the clear and present dangers against which the writers have to arm themselves. What can they do with the drunken sailor of Irish speech, heady with elaborations, exaggerations, and evasions? They must lock it in the hold. . . . Their quest is not so much articulation as disarticulation, the wrenching of overly easy words into some kind of hard syntax.”
The book being reviewed was A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. It won the Irish Novel of the Year Award and the Goldsmith's prize for "boldly original fiction."
HOT: Umberto Eco, author of mega-seller The Name of the Rose, has a new novel, Numero Zero, due out in November from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The New York Times said the book, set in 1992, “tells the story of a struggling ghostwriter, hired to write a memoir of a journalist.” The journalist works at a paper backed by a Berlusconi-sort of magnate, and the CIA and Mussolini figure in the story—"vintage Eco" said Houghton general interest publisher Bruce Nichols.
The book is already a bestseller in Italy, and foreign rights have been sold in 34 countries.
HISTORICAL MYSTERY: Erik Larson, 62, has a new book, Dead Wake, out last week. His six previous books have sold 5.5 million copies. The most popular, Devil in the White City, sold more than 3.3 million. Dead Wake was the number one bestseller on Amazon several days before publication. Larson is going on a 25-city tour.
Larson decided to write about the sinking of the Lusitania, per The New York Times’s account, after he came across the journal of the German submarine captain who fired a torpedo into the ship's hull. He wasn't sure whether there was a book in it until an archivist brought him a plank from the ship’s lifeboat. “He took it as encouragement to keep digging.”
“I’m always looking for a sign," Larson said. "Not in a spooky supernatural way, but in a neurotic writer kind of way.”
BOTH REQUIRED: William Anthony Hay, author of The Whig Revival: 1808-1830, began a review in The Wall Street Journal with a question: “Does the writing of history stand alongside literature in the realm of culture or within the very different sphere of social science?”
Hay was reviewing Bernard Bailyn’s Sometime an Art: Nine Essays on History. Hay wrote “that the task of interpreting the past requires not only a careful search for evidence but also a kind of literary imagination.”
Like a novelist, Bailyn noted, the historian must be able to conjure “a nonexistent, an impalpable world in all its living comprehension, and yet to do this within the constraints of certifiable facts.”
PROLIFIC: Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa is the author of a new novel, The Discrete Hero. In the March 16 New Yorker, Thomas Mallon wrote about how history has been part of Llosa’s many books. “Vargas Llosa,” Mallon wrote, “must keenly have felt the truth of his own repeated assertion that the writer of fiction wishes to replace the world as it is with another one entirely.”
Mallon said that the hero of the new novel is an ordinary businessman, “someone insufficiently larger than life, but such a figure is the essential component of a modest meliorist dream, one Vargas Llosa has sustained in times even darker than the present by noting that 'a novel is something, while despair is nothing.'”
OLD SELLS: A book doesn’t have to be new to make the bestseller lists. In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, it was noted that Alan Turning: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges came out in 1983. What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel came out in 1984 (now in its fourth edition), and Batman, the Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland was published in 1988.
MAJOR LOSS: Historians and biographers were upset when Hillary Clinton said that she had destroyed more than 30,000 e-mails about personal matters. She told reporters, “No one wants their personal e-mails made public, and I think most people understand that and respect that privacy.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, told The New York Times that politicians “have marriages and children and rich private lives that are all mixed up with their public lives. As a biographer, that’s what you want.”
GOOD WITCH: John Lithgow, the actor, is the author of nine children’s books. The most recent is Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo.
He wrote in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, “Margaret Wise Brown firmly believed that home is where the heart is. For nearly 70 years, her classic bedtime story Goodnight Moon has lulled children to sleep with a picture of the warm comforts of home. But if the book is disarmingly heartfelt, it is also undeniably strange. It is set in a mysterious ‘great green room’ where, page by page, the light grows more weirdly crepuscular. . . . Its most memorable line, ‘Goodnight nobody,’ could have been written by Samuel Beckett. . . . Like a good witch, Brown weaves a kindly spell, and children succumb.”
DEATH: Terry Pratchett, 66, author of more than 70 novels (including the Discworld series), died March 12 in Somerset, England. Eighty-five million copies of his books have been sold.
Death was one of his comic characters. His fictional Death was a skeleton with eyes like tiny blue stars. He spoke in capital letters, no quote marks. Death’s horse was named Binky. The Guardian obituary listed 15 quotes including, “Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can.”