Some of you may know me as the Book Sibyl. Actually you do not, because I have never used that soubriquet, but I truly am sibylline, favored with the power to pluck the right book from the shelf. Whether you need to relax or challenge yourself, the right book can balance your mood, and provide solace from the muddle of a work week.
What do you need this weekend? These are on my shelf.
CAMBRIDGE AND CONSEQUENCES. In Christopher Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties, he charmingly mixes autobiography and fiction to describe his life in the ’20’s. Isherwood is very funny: he was bored at Cambridge, where he was determined to do no work, and schemed to get expelled. After his glorious, comical expulsion, he is qualified to do nothing but has many jobs. He is briefly a secretary to a charming but disorganized professional musician, misses out on the fun of the Great Strike, joins his bohemian friends on Romilly Road in what they sardonically call “the Romilly Group,” writes his first novel, and attends medical school. Isherwood advises us to read this as a novel, though some consider it autobiography. By the way, I do not consider it “autofiction.” Great fun to read!
ARE YOU A FAN OF “LOAM AND LOVECHILD” FICTION? If you enjoy Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Mary Webb, you will be smitten with The Hurly Burly and Other Stories by the neglected writer A. E. Coppard (1875-1957), published recently by Ecco. In my favorite story, “The Higgler,” Harvey Witlow drives his cart along country roads to buy whatever is for sale , eggs, bags of apples, odds and ends, and then he resells it. But times are hard, and he is thinking of quitting, when he comes upon a farm owned by a middle-aged woman who becomes his best client. Her beautiful daughter fascinates him, but she is completely silent. One day Mrs. Sadgrove proposes that Harvey marry her daughter, but Harvey shies away. What was the young woman’s secret? Should he or shouldn’t he marry her? Coppard’s lyrical, beautifully-crafted stories, set mostly in rural areas, are among the best of the 20th century.
POP WOMEN’S FICTION. Oh my God, I was so grateful on a truly awful day to kick off my shoes and get lost in Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary. Set in London, this entertaining novel straddles two timelines and three points-of-view. Caroline, an amateur historian in the present, arrives in London on her anniversary trip without her husband because she has learned he had an affair. By chance, she discovers an old glass vial in the Thames, and a librarian at the British Library helps her trace it to the 18th century. In 1791, Nella, an apothecary, prepares poisons for women who want to kill abusive men and puts them in vials. As her life becomes intertwined with that of Eliza, a 12-year-old maid who collects the poison for her mistress to administer to her husband, Nella comes to terms with the good and the bad she has done. Although the three women are only loosely connected, Sarah Penner holds the threads together. A fun read.
HOW ABOUT A COUNTERCULTURE CLASSIC? Treat yourself to Nathaniel Hawthorne’ charming novel, The Blithedale Romance. A group of idealists move to the country, grow their own vegetables, and escape the capitalist grind. The narrator, Miles Coverdale, a poet, is skeptical about the commune, but expects to find time to write there. Naturally, there is way more farm work than he had anticipated. And it is galling that two attractive women, the dark lady, Zenobia, a professional storyteller, and the light lady, Priscilla, a wan blonde who has been ill, have no eyes for any man but Hollingsworth. Coverdale takes to spying on his friends from a tree (the bower is so lovely he’d like to spend his honeymoon there, he tells us). Hawthorne himself was painfully shy, so perhaps he too escaped communal life at Brook Farm by sitting in trees! This novel is loosely based on his brief experiences of the failed commune.
Happy Weekend Reading!