Weekend Reading: What’s on the Shelf?

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!

One Fell Swoop & Claire Fuller’s “Unsettled Ground”

Our book club met for the first time in a year. We discussed Claire Fuller’s superb novel, Unsettled Ground, which is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year. Perhaps Fuller will win: her style is lyrical, the plot is engrossing, and I ached for the characters, fifty-one-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who are shattered when their mother dies. They have always lived in their childhood home – and now they are evicted. The mood is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though Unsettled Ground is not a horror novel. Fuller’s prose is hypnotic and sometimes devastating. A slightly surreal atmosphere permeates the pages due to the twins’ perplexity about the simplest actions in society.

The novel is so resonant that the group discussed a real-life problem, and thus broke all the rules of etiquette in one fell swoop.

“Lynn is on GoFundMe,” Sue said. “She needs a hot water heater.”

In a dim corner of my mind, I had realized Lynn might face poverty, but this flash of insight rarely visited. Lynn was Emily Dickinson-ish, a sweet woman who stayed home and wrote poetry. She was one of those intelligent but withdrawn people who cannot quite cope, so she lived with her parents. When they died, things must have been very hard for her. She was so secure she never wanted to leave – and so she never did.

Tears were in Sue’s eyes, Lori whispered,”Shit,” Janet distributed Kleenex, I blew my nose, and Megan demanded, “How did this happen?”

“I heard she wasn’t doing well, so I cyberstalked her,” Sue admitted.
We knew poverty could happen – and yet it is dizzyingly unreal. Lynn had become convinced that we all looked down on her, and hung up when we called. Only Sue broke through that barrier.

We decided to give some money, whatever we can.

We did not dwell on Lynn’s plight after we formed our plan of action, and so we did enjoy our book discussion. Illiteracy is Jeanie’s biggest problem, one that allows others to take advantage of her. Jeanie cannot read, and when she finds a job as a part-time gardener the checks pile up, because she does not know how to cash them. Julius does odd jobs for cash, but spends most of it at the pub.

But savvy Jeanie must solve their problems. She is appalled when Julius decides they should live in a dumpy trailer in a no man’s land. Hooligans stalk and victimize the twins in the woods. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel as smart Jeanie learns how to navigate society, despite her learning disability.

This resonant novel will make you think about poverty and homelessness, you will find hope through Jeanie’s quick learning, and you will race through the well-written pages.

A Simpler Time: Bridge Clubs & Borges

We are, in a way, lucky to live in the U.S. this spring. According to the White House, approximately one-third of the U.S. population, 100 million American adults, are now fully vaccinated. The number of Covid cases has fallen to pre-October levels, except in a few hotspots like Oregon (a hip state – so there’s a surprise!) and Wisconsin.

It has been a dangerous time, with the U.S. suffering an unnecessary number of deaths, due to the lack of consistency in mask mandates and health precautions from state to state. Now we breathe a sigh of relief because we have been vaccinated. We wear masks in public, but not always double masks, and we feel relatively safe, as compared to always in danger.

The greatest problem here: to persuade anti-vaxxers and the too-hip-to-get-sick to get vaccinated (no appointment necessary at many sites). This negotiation process will apparently be slow. According to the Washington Post, about one-fourth of Americans say they won’t get the vaccine – and many of them are white Republican males.

Last year was disastrous. We knew little about the virus, we were afraid of library books (some people quarantined them), some states were under lockdown, others not, and, at the height of housewifely insanity, we disinfected doorknobs several times a day.

Maybe it is because of spring, but suddenly I have a more positive outlook. I try to appreciate the slower pace of life and match it to my mother’s: her favorite decade was the ’60’s, when she was home full-time, standing there ironing (like the woman in Tillie Olsen’s story) in front of her favorite soap, As the World Turns. With no internet and no constant connection of the cell phone, she had more time to be present with us, to sit on the back stoop with neighbors. (When she was old, she lamented that people didn’t “neighbor” anymore.) She and her friends, to an extent, made their own entertainment: she enjoyed hosting bridge clubs, fussing about the decorations and prizes, worrying about making coffee in the percolator (she didn’t drink it herself, and didn’t know whether it was good or bad, but it had to be served!).

Mind you, I will not join a bridge club: the only clubs I join are book clubs, since the Drones Club (in Wodehouse) is not open to women (ha ha). But it is calming to avoid the crowd at the mall, unplug the computer occasionally, and read the books on our shelves while we wait for the latest Jhumpa Lahira, which I long to read, but have decided to wait for the paperback instead.

I am not exactly trying to be “mindful,” because I doubt that I can be mindful – but slow time is not necessarily empty. Perhaps I am trying to say, We need boredom? That’s what they say.

Jorge Luis Borges à Biarritz le 27 septembre 1980, France.

My husband and I had a sad conversation the other night. “Do you remember when we attended literary readings in person?”

Yes, we even saw Borges, though we don’t remember what he said or read. We should have taken notes. Why didn’t someone tell us?

So very, very many opportunities. And that was normal life!

We do not know what the future holds, but it is too late to roll it back.

Carpe diem! Horace said it, and so do we.

May Day Musings & The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Such a lovely May Day! Almost too lovely – and too hot! I sweated in front of the fan as I mused on May-Day traditions. In the twentieth century, we used to rise at dawn to make paper cones, fill them with violets and flowering weeds, add tiny scrolls on which we had copied poems, and drop the “May baskets” on friends’ porches. A charming custom, which has faded into oblivion.

It was hot when I got up – much too hot to believe it was May: eighty-seven degrees. And so I devoted myself to sitting still and reading a remarkable book, At the End of the Century: The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Readers of this blog will already know my fondness for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won the Booker Prize in 1975 for Heat and Dust. A writer of Polish and German descent, she married an Indian architect, Cyrus Jhabvala, and lived in India for many years; later she lived in New York and wrote screenplays for Merchant Ivory films. I am especially captivated by her exceptional short stories, some set in India, others in England and the U.S. They have the best features of her novels: a simple but percipient voice and style; a compassion for displaced characters; and perfectly-etched descriptions of scenery.

Jhabvala’s characters become our friends and relatives as we read. We understand the comic determination of Nalini, the homesick Indian girl in “A Course of English Studies,” who seduces her married professor at a Midlands college in England; and the exhilaration of Sofia, the depressed wife in “Desecration,” who falls in love with the corrupt Superintendent of Police.

Many of Jhabvala’s stories reflect aspects of Western masterpieces, as seen through a mirror of Indian culture. The first sentence of “Desecration” conjures the tragedy of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary: “It is more than ten years since Sofia committed suicide in the hotel room in Mohabbatur.” Sofia is a vibrant, pretty woman who comes from nowhere. No one knows her background or who she is – she looks to be part Afghan “with a dash of Russian”- and her only talent is for entertaining important guests at dinner parties. Her husband, Raja Sahib, is thirty years older, so we understand why she falls for the dynamic, much younger SP (Superintendent of Police). And then she blinds herself to the degradation of their meetings in a sleazy hotel. In this short pitch-perfect narrative, we feel both sympathetic and annoyed by Sofia on her downward path.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Sofia is not the only woman in Jhabvala’s stories to fall in love with a cad. In “A Spiritual Call,” Daphne meets an Indian swami in London. After traveling to his ashram in India, she becomes disillusioned with his hypocrisy and fakery, yet she cannot break away. And even I cannot help but be charmed by Swamiji when he says, “Can I talk to you? You won’t turn into a laurel tree?” (You know me, the Ovidian.)

Sometimes even female characters become spellbound by female dissemblers. In “Great Expectations,” the solitary, self-satisfied Pauline, a canny real estate agent, has shown many properties to Sylvie, a blond, wan, indecisive client, and her daughter Amy, but Sylvie never signs a lease. The two are kicked out of a friends’ apartment, so Pauline allows them grudgingly to stay at her house for a few days… which turn into many days. We cannot help but think of Daphne and Swamiji when Pauline becomes mesmerized by Sylvie and Amy and their dream of going to India.

The stories in At the End of the Century were chosen by Jhabvala’s family, and span the time from 1963 to 2013 (the year she died). I had read many of these stories before, but I found them mesmerizing a second time.

And that is the test of a great book, don’t you think? Good books are fine for one reading, but great books delight again and again.

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