Recommended Weekend Reading:  Martha McPhee’s “An Elegant Woman”

Martha McPhee’s fifth novel is a lyrical, elegant family saga, based partly on her own family history.  The narrator, Isadora, is a writer and novelist whose grandmother (Grammy) has recently died. Isadora, one of four sisters, is the only family member who is interested in the past.  She sifts  through a web of Grammy’s papers in a trunk to recereate her complex life. 

As a child, Grammy was known as  Tommy, an eccentric, boyish pioneer girl who once skinned coyotes in Montana but later stole her sister Katherine’s identity to apply to nursing school in New York, using Katherine’s high school diploma. (Tommy had dropped out of school and supported Katherine financially.).  Isabella tries to explore what is tangled truth and what is false in Grammy’s stories about scrambling up the ladder of class.

I love Isadora’s distant, graceful voice, but Tommy/Katherine outshines all of her descendants.  Her mother, Glenna, a suffragist and leftist,  deserts Tommy, age 6, and her younger sister Katherine on a train in the custody of a group of nuns and does not return.   Days later, the nuns find Glenna, but Glenna does many disappearing tricks during the girls’ childhood. She prefers politics and men to motherhood.  Tommy and Katherine often live alone, and Tommy raises Katherine, pushing her to do well in school, while she makes a living skinning and trading coyote skins.  Katherine decides to change her name to Patricia and move west to become a movie star.  And so Tommy becomes Katherine.  

The situation sounds melodramatic, but the cadences of McPhee’s poetic prose , the rugged fascination with the past, and her humor  make us believe in the importance of Katherine/Tommy’s family stories, even when they are false.

Isabella writes,

If Grammy was our version of Homer, I was Herodotus. I wanted to tell a history, but my allegiances were more toward providing a sense of character. My sisters, on the other hand, were straight-up historians in the mode and model of Thucydides. They required the documentation, the verification, the proof. They were fully possessed of the world’s cynicism, of the fact of realpolitik as the true measure of how things happen in human affairs. Long before she died, thus, they had stopped paying attention to Grammy’s tales. It fell to me, therefore, to be the keeper of the family stories, my inheritance from Grammy.

And, in case you’re interested, McPhee is the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee.

An enjoyable, gracefully-written novel.

Alone, Together: Joining the NYRB Classics Club

I have a shelf of unread NYRBs.  When you throw a party and an English professor wearing a bowtie, leather jacket, and owlish glasses pauses to admire  them, it is best not to admit absent-mindedly, “I haven’t read any of those.” 

A  friend whispered,  “For God’s sake, pretend.  He would!”

“Maybe I could say I’ve perused them?” I said thoughtfully.

One of my favorite NYRB books.

Mind you, I have enjoyed many NYRB classics and quasi-classics over the years, among them John Williams’s Augustus, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows,  Shchedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, and a new translation of Balzac’s The Memoirs of Two Young Wives. They have also reissued some of my favorite books by Dorothy Baker, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Kingsley Amis, and Jessica Mitford, all of which deserve to be in print.

On the far left is Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate” (photo from NYRB facebook page)

The unread NYRB shelf, however, is an entity unto itself.  It houses several grim Soviet tomes, which stare at me accusingly. I have begun most of them and put them down shuddering.  How is it possible for a lover of 19th-century Russian literature like myself (I have read War and Peace  perhaps 11 times) to dislike Soviet lit?   But I don’t find the same lyrical qualities of language in the Soviet novels.   As my husband says, the wonder is that they were able to write at all under those conditions, and we should not expect them to have written well.  The cranky Nabokov was also critical of Soviet literature.

The Soviet shelf reminds me of suffering and the seriousness of life.  Still, I have a hankering for other NYRBs, so I recently joined the NYRB Classics Book Club.  Why? One wonders. Perhaps it is a question of belonging.  We have all had enough of Zoom during the pandemic.  We have had enough of #Tolstoy. (I could only find the first day’s discussion and coudn’t decode the simplistic tweeted criticism, some of which may have been ads!)  We have had enough of noble book videos filmed from the confinement of apartments all over the world.  Somehow, I’m reminded of, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”  Princess Leia isn’t in any of my book clubs, alas.

Recently I have had blogging angst (too much bad news 24/7) so I have begun to dabble in book clubs.  I loved the May selection for the Barnes and Noble Book Club, Emma Straub’s All Adults Here, which is light and bubbly but also literary fiction.  I inadvertently read the Today Book Club selection for June, A Burning, because everybody is reading it this summer.  I do feel I’m keeping up with modern literature.

But the NYRB Classics Book Club is different from the book clubs described above.  It has a certain cachet.  The selection of the month arrived a few days ago:    I was overjoyed to find Diane Johnson’s 1972  biography, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives.  I am a great fan of Diane Johnson, and George Meredith is one of my favorite Victorians.  I’ve read all of Meredith’s fiction:  The Egoist and perhaps Diana of the Crossways are still in print, but I went so far in the days before the Kindle and the Nook as to purchase print-on-demand copies of the others.  Johnson wrote this biography of Meredith’s wife because she was tired of Meredith’s biographers’ pegging her as the unhappy wife. I did read a biography of Meredith sometime in the zips, and remember nothing about his wife, so she’s right.  Writers’ wives tend to be fascinating.   I loved a biography of Jane Walsh Carlyle, another underrated wife, but she was popular, because she wrote excellent letters.  

So are you joining book clubs this summer?  Quitting book clubs?  

I have about six books going right now and will finish one of them soon.  And then perhaps I’ll get back to my blog.  Something about this summer…  it’s depressing that human beings just can’t get it together and stay home during the Covid-19 pandemic.  And are we really abandoning WHO?  The UK has Brexit; we have Whosit.

I have book clubs!