Adult Fables and Literary Essays | Classic Returns

Spring is on the horizon, and what better way to get ready for warmer weather than with some new old books? There are some new translations of iconic works: the bawdy Fabliaux, Tacitus’s stern Annals, and a slim retelling of One Thousand and One Nights. The centennial of Swann’s Way has prompted a new collection of Proust’s poems from Penguin; New Directions has compiled several of Borges’s lectures on English literature; and new volumes of Thomas Merton essays and H.P. Lovecraft short stories can be expected in the coming months. A promising season!


Homes, A. M. The Safety of Objects. Penguin. 2013. 171p. ISBN 9780143122708. pap. $15. F

If Homes’s recent novel, All Shall Be Forgiven, was about as American as apple pie, this 1990 collection of stories (her first), is just as unsettlingly familiar and thoroughly deviant. With all of her characteristic wit and curdling humor, Homes tells the story of a boy’s very sexual relationship with his sister’s Barbie doll. “I’m dating Barbie,” it begins, “I’m practicing for the future.” The germ of Homes’s acclaimed 1999 novel Music for Torching can also be found here. In “Adults Alone,” Elaine and Paul celebrate a week away from their children with porn, video games, and crack. This is a book for people who like to snicker, to cringe, and to scrunch up their noses in satisfaction.

Lovecraft, H. P. The Classic Horror Stories. Oxford Univ. Jul. 2013. 496p. ed. by Roger Luckhurst. ISBN 9780199639571. $24.95. HORROR

New Cthulhu! Oxford has a pleasantly fat volume of this master of horror’s short fiction. Lovecraft’s stories are populated by hidden knowledge, slumbering giants, and lost civilizations. Collected and introduced by Luckhurst (modern literature, Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy), the fiction slithers across genres:too pessimistic for standard science fiction, too secular for Gothic-influenced horror, and thoroughly (perhaps definitively) weird. These nine stories and novellas, all written between 1926 and 1931, include the core of Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos,” a cosmology of monstrous extraterrestrials. From the iconic octopus-headed Cthulhu themselves to the barrel-shaped Elder Things, they are often worshiped as deities by human communities, and inhabit a fictional universe that Lovecraft’s fans and followers have expanded since his death. This volume also includes a selection from Lovecraft’s essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” a great critical resource.

O’Hara, John. Appointment in Samarra. Penguin. (Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions) Apr. 2013. 240p. ISBN 9780143107071. pap. $14. F

O’Hara is famous almost as much for the writers he influenced as for his own writing (Updike, in particular, championed him). Here the author of BUtterfield 8 sees his first and perhaps greatest novel reprinted for a new audience: a story of one man’s spiraling path towards self-destruction, played out over three days during Christmas. Charles McGrath (writer at large, New York Times Magazine) in his introduction calls O’Hara “more Hemingwayesque than Hemingway,” and a writer who paved the way for “such great American story writers as Salinger, Cheever, Updike, and Carver.” All of those authors’ familiar themes are here: alcoholism, adultery, a paranoid attention to status, the seamy underbelly of American small towns and suburbs, the desperate misery of the upper middle class.

One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling. Pantheon. Jun. 2013. 320p. tr. from Arabic by Hanan Al-Shaykh. ISBN 9780307958860. F

The kernel of One Thousand and One Nights has existed since at least the 10th century CE, and the collection of folk tales and fables grew larger as it moved from Persia to Arabia and on to Syria and Egypt over the centuries. In 1705, Antoine Galland drew from these sources (and added a few new stories from elsewhere) to present the collection Western readers know today, smoothed and shaped for a European audience. In the centuries since, this version of One Thousand and One Nights has functioned less as a window on Islamic culture than as a device with which Europe imagined itself. (This kind of orientalism, so lambasted by cultural critics like Edward Said, is always more about the viewer than what is viewed.) Here Lebanese novelist Al-Shaykh (The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story) reclaims 19 of the One Thousand and One Nights, and found “that women in those forgotten ancient societies were far from passive and fearful; they showed their strong will and intelligence and wit.” An exciting new collection.


Borges, Jorge Luis. Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. New Directions. May. 2013. 320p. ed. by Martin Arias. tr. from Spanish by Katherine Silver. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780811218757. $24.95. LIT

Borges was famous for his love of British literature and especially its Anglo-Saxon guts, the thorny, Germanic, Viking-inflected language he learned in his childhood. Here Borges scholars Arias and Hadis have collected 25 of his lectures on English literature, covering Beowulf to Robert Louis Stevenson, which he delivered at the University of Buenos Aires in 1966. The book’s thorough notes prove Arias’s assertion that “editing this book was like running after a Borges who was constantly getting lost among the books in a library.” As much as these lectures are shaped by Borges’s wide-ranging, omnivorous mind, they are also a demonstration of the great pleasure he found in these works of literature. This dense thicket of allusions (as only Borges could perform them) is also a profound testament of love.

The Fabliaux. Liveright: Norton. Jun. 2013. 1024p. tr. by Dubin, Nathaniel E. ISBN 9780871403575. $29.95. POETRY

Bawdy is an understatement when it comes to these dirty late-medieval tales. This first major English translation, undertaken by Dubin (modern classical languages, St. John’s Univ., MN), contains 69 poems with parallel Old French text with titles like “The Mourner Who Got Fucked at the Grave Site,” “The Piece of Shit,” and “Trial By Cunt”—not for the faint of heart. Dubin has translated these tales into rhyming verse, which (depending on your tastes) could be great (or terrible) news. Both The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales borrow from one or more of the fabliaux, and their short, snappy verse format served as a precursor to prose short stories. Less concerned with moral instruction than the fables they are related to, these stories—most are anonymous compositions by French minstrels—are thoroughly comic, poking fun at the moneyed, the powerful, the holy, and, well, women. Gird your loins.

Merton, Thomas. Selected Essays. Orbis. Jun. 2013. 512p. bibliog. ISBN 9781626980235. $50. LIT

What better way to celebrate a new pope than by reading everyone’s favorite writer-monk, Thomas Merton. Here, 33 of the famous Trappist’s essays (he wrote roughly 250 in his lifetime) are collected by O’Connell (English & theology, Gannon Univ.; coauthor, The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia) on a wide range of subjects, from Zen Buddism to Boris Pasternak, peace studies to poetry, and nuclear war to the nation’s overriding problems with racism. Made famous by his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which was published when Merton was 30, Merton’s poetry and essays made up the bulk of his later writing life. His persistent interest in interfaith dialog, Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, and questions of peace and war, as well as literature and Church history, are on full display here. This collection is the first take a comprehensive look at his body of work—both secular and spiritual; it’s a great primer for readers new to his writing or, at the very least, his essays.

Müller, Melissa. Anne Frank: The Biography. Metropolitan: Holt. Jun. 2013. 480p. tr. by Rita Kimber. ISBN 9780805087314. $32.50. BIOG

Müller’s (Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice) 1998 biography of Anne Frank helped fill out the contours of the famous diarist’s life. It formed not a substitute but a complement to Frank’s moving narrative of her life in the shadow of Nazi anti-Semitism and confined within the annex rooms behind her father’s offices. This new edition, with more than 30 per cent new material, reexamines the question of who alerted the authorities to the presence of the Franks and van Pels in the secret annex, addressing new information Müller unearthed following the digitization of archives all over the world, and summarizing the ownership struggle ignited by the biography’s initial publication of pages from Frank’s diary that her father had suppressed.

Proust, Marcel. The Collected Poems: A Dual-Language Edition with Parallel Text. Penguin. 2013. 384p. notes. ISBN 9780143106906. pap. $25. POETRY

This year is the sesquicentennial of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s epic (and extraordinarily lengthy) novel, In Search of Lost Time. To help commemorate the occasion, Penguin has gathered up all of the novelist’s poems—sonnets, snippets, and lengthier verse—into this handsome collection. With translations by Lydia Davis (who translated Swann’s Way for Viking in 2003 to great acclaim) and poets Richard Howard, Susan Stewart, and Rosanna Warren, among others, this collection of just over 100 poems (with French on facing pages) leans in a more romantic, more traditional direction than his gargantuan modernist novel. In his introduction, translator Harold Augenbraum says that, for Proust, “writing poetry was akin to taking a busman’s holiday from literature,” and his poems are certainly more immediate than his obsessively revised fiction. An essential title for Proust completists.

Tacitus. Annals. Penguin Classics: Penguin. 2013. 468p. tr. by Cynthia Damon. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780140455649. pap. $18. HISTORY

Tacitus’s Latin is famously pithy, efficient, and sharp; his English translators have—for centuries—struggled to replicate that economy of style. Damon (classics, Univ. Pennsylvania; coauthor, Caesar’s Civil War) is one of the first women to translate Tacitus for a major publisher and I expect she might bring a slightly different perspective to Tacitus’s often venomous descriptions of its larger-than-life imperial women: Livia, Messalina, Poppea. What’s to look forward to in a 2,000-year-old book, the title of which many people mispronounce without the second “n”? The decades-long moral degradation of Tiberius (once an honorable imperial step-son but in the end a rotten, ruined emperor) for one thing. If that isn’t enough, add to it the death of Agrippina (poor Claudius’s fourth wife), whose boat was specially constructed at her son, the Emperor Nero’s, instructions to collapse at sea, and who, when she failed to die, demanded that her assassins stab her womb, from where her ne’er-do-well son sprung.

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Molly McArdle About Molly McArdle

Molly McArdle (, @mollitudo on Twitter) is Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review. She also manages the Library Journal tumblr.