Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Anna Karenina
Everyone is enchanted by the opening of Anna Karenina. The sentence is balanced, with the strong, clever juxtaposition of happy and unhappy. It is resonant. We all think: Yes, that’s the way it is. But I wonder in retrospect: how on earth would I know? In my experience, all families are weirdos; normalcy is the goal, happiness a chimera.
I come from a family of weirdos, or so they say. A friend’s mother described me as the normal child in The Addams Family. Well, I adored my mother, but the family unit was odd, I admit. My mother held things together as best she could, but dealing with my impulsive, handsome father was exhausting. The divorce shattered her; she was a devout Catholic and divorce was against the tenets of the church. But I privately think the divorce added years to her life. Life with an unpredictable person is nerve-racking. Perhaps without knowing it, she was lucky to lose him.
On the other hand, my attractive in-laws were glamorous weirdos. They were not the Addams family; they were more like Dickens’ Lady Dedlock and Sir Leicester Dedlock, only with a family! I am sure they were popular and charming people, though I did not see that side of them often. It was the in-law dynamic that made them weird.
On the occasion of my first meeting with the Dedlocks, I was exuberant and expected them to be as charming as their son. Well, no, the atmosphere was chilly. I was about as welcome as Sidney Potier when he is brought home to meet Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner? Yes, I am white – but I was an outsider from the midwest, of all absurd places. Did I like it there? Really? Pa-in-law was cold but polite – okay, I’ll take polite! I was grateful for polite! But Ma-in-law waged a war of snubs. She would make pancakes for Mr. Nemo, while I had to help myself to cereal. I had never (at that point) met anyone with such bad manners. But Mr. Nemo and his brothers figured it out: I was in a three-way tie with their wives for least popular daughter-in-law. Now that was funny!
All families are weird, but I must interject at this point that Mom was CRAZY about my husband. She and my in-laws had very different attitudes toward marriage, manners, and even books. For instance, my TV-watching mother let me stay home from school and finish Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. My in-laws had never HEARD of Lord of the Rings. In that family, there was a lot of judging a book by its cover – and Tolkien would never measure up.
Since I have straddled two worlds- the world of the weird and the world of the elite – I am familiar with the prerequisites for judging books. In the real world today, genre reading is more acceptable than it once was. I am keen on the classics, but I like to mix it up. The Dedlocks never, never would read genre.
HERE ARE THE ESSENTIALS. RULE NO. 1 Is the book in the canon? Is it published as a Penguin Hardcover Classic? There shall be no reading of Lord of the Rings or Ngaio Marsh.. Dorothy Sayers maybe: the BBC has adapted her books nd the films shown on Masterpiece!
RULE NO. 2. Is the book acclaimed in The New York Times or The New Yorker? No? Then why waste your time on it? The gods have spoken. The readers do not need to think.
RULE NO. 3. The BBC is sacred. Anything the BBC commentators say about books or anything is correct. Not only is it correct, it is superior to anything American. I’m an anglophile – but let’s not get carried away.
RULE NO. 4. What you read should be tasteful. So tasteful! Excluded from this category: Norman Mailer, Anais Nin, Will Self, Nicholson Baker, Jenny Diski, Lucy Ellmann, Donald Barthleme, Erica Jong… But James Joyce is okay!
RULE NO. 5. Science fiction is banned. Just look at the covers! Yes, the covers ARE terrible. And that’s why you never judge a book by its cover.
RULE NO. 6. Why don’t we all read nice library books?
By the way, I am reading Gene Wolfe’s critically-acclaimed science fantasy classic, The Book of the New Sun quartet, and poor Mr. Nemo thinks it must be trash. He has never read a science fiction book! So I told him James Wood had written a critical piece about it in The New Yorker. Well, it was someone else – but I knew the name James Wood would impress him.
When in doubt, say James Wood reviewed it.
Yes, these covers are terrible! There’s no denying it.