Happy Weirdo Families: The Art Of Choosing What to Read

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.

Lady Dedlock (Diana Rigg) and Sir Leicester Dedlock (Robin Bailey) in Bleak House

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.

Five Favorite Books of 2020 & A Reader’s Year of Isolation

“Antiquarian Cat Reading,” by Edward Gorey

Things WILL be better in 2021.

And so I will end the blogging year with a frivolous list. At this point you don’t need another Best Books of the Year list, but here are FIVE FAVORITES of 2020. (Click on the titles to read my reviews.)

FIVE OF MY FAVORITES OF THE YEAR

The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Desire by Una L. Silberrad

A Reader’s Year of Isolation

This has been, in many ways, a terrifying year. Not THE most terrifying year, but a very dangerous one. In March when Covid-19 erupted here, I was terrified, especially for my husband, who thought the coronavirus was just the flu. I yanked him into the street when pedestrians approached us on the sidewalk. And in the first weeks of the brief shutdown (not an official lockdown), people loitered on the lawns and sidewalks, chatting and standing too close together, while I grimly walked in the street to avoid them.

I wanted to say, “The virus is airborne, people. That’s what social distancing is for!”

But they couldn’t get their heads around the airborne virus that also required washing hands. And we didn’t even have masks in those early days.

People asked, What will you do with all the leisure while working at home? Well, it wasn’t a holiday. So hard to explain…

Of course we read a lot in 2020, but no more than usual. Many have written about a lowgrade depression that interfered with reading, and in the beginning I was so distracted that I read only classics. There was much reading of Chekhov, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, James M. Cain, George Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence. Did I have no time to waste? Well, I would not go that far, but I needed well-wrought words to hold my attention. It was an antidote to daily reading about what was happening in China, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and of course the U.S. I was sick from reading about Covid.

A public library in the 1960s.

And then the public libraries closed.

It did feel in those early days as if the government used Covid to deny books and knowledge to citizens. That conspiracy theory doesn’t work during a pandemic, but I do read a lot of science fiction, so it crossed my mind. The closing of libraries and schools has been an unfortunate consequence of managing the pandemic. Even for a stay-at-home, staying home gets old.

Somehow we thought the public libraries would stay open, because they are community centers these days. The avid readers, the lonely, the elderly, the poor, and the homeless gather to read newspapers, use the computers, photocopy documents, and borrow books. The library book clubs are the refuge of middle-aged women, and the lectures provide mental stimulation for the “seniors” (now that’s a ghastly sobriquet!). It is also where you pick up your special dark glasses for viewing the eclipse.

And so when they slammed the library doors in mid-March we were shocked. Mind you, I don’t consider librarians social workers, but surely with the appropriate plexiglass barriers, limited browsing, and their many, many self-checkout machines, they could stay open a few hours a day. Okay, curbside pickup was better than nothing. And then the libraries opened again briefly in October. Too briefly. The number of Covid cases and deaths dramatically rose, and they slammed the doors again.

Naturally, we are not completely isolated. We have many books. And we have our blogs, our online book clubs, our Novellas in November and our Women in Translation Months, our Zoom (shudder!), and other virtual substitutes.

But if I lived alone I might indeed go bonkers. So would I have ignored the restrictions and go out? Well, not entirely, but I might have gone shopping more often. I haven’t been to a box store in months. I miss them.

I do envy those writers who don’t believe Covid is dangerous. Some of them think the numbers are nothing! I do think the danger is real, and will continue to wear a mask after I get my vaccine, until the infectious disease experts tell us we’re safe. But guess who’s probably having more fun? The non-believers (unless they get sick, and I hope they do not)!

So Happy New Year! Be safe, stay home, drink your chosen drink (I recommend Darjeeling tea), wash your hands, wear a mask, and celebrate virtually!

2021 will be much better!

Quarantining “Claudius the God”

Book quarantine at Baltimore library.

I stare at a used copy of Claudius the God. I have stared at it for 24 hours. At least it feels like it. I’m waiting for a sign.

I called my cousin the librarian. “When will it be decontaminated?”

“No one dies from reading a book,” she said.

The official library book quarantine time is 72 hours here. Then patrons pick up their library books, and the most careful may quarantine them for another 72 hours. With all that quarantining, there isn’t much time for reading, is there?  We’re scared to read our own books.

“Quarantine theory” isn’t my cousin’s department, and she doesn’t have much confidence in her colleagues’ calculations. Although the ALA (American Library Association) site provides links to scientific studies of COVID-19 at the New England Journal of Medicine and the CDC, there is remarkably little information about the virus on paper. The virus lives on cardboard for 24 hours.

So I checked WebMD. It’s where I diagnose all my illnesses (usually correctly). WebMD says of paper like newspapers and mail: “The length of time varies. Some strains of coronavirus live for only a few minutes on paper, while others live for up to 5 days.”

Not very specific, is it?

“Reading Woman on a Couch,” by Isaac Israels

I’ve dutifully stayed home, washed my hands, worn masks at stores, and now I just want to read my book.  Is this COVID-fatigue?

According to UCDavis Health, COVID fatigue is born of constant stress and anxiety. And then we get careless about the precautions.

Kaye Hermanson, UC Davis Health psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. says, “We’re tired of being cooped up, tired of being careful, tired of being scared. Our collective fatigue is making some people careless – one reason COVID-19 is rising sharply again in California and throughout the U.S.”…

“We can help ourselves,” Hermanson said. “We’ve heard this before, but it’s true: It’s time to develop coping skills.” Those include:

  1. Exercise: “It’s the No. 1 best thing we can do for coping,” she said. “Any exercise – even a simple walk – helps. It releases endorphins, gets some of the adrenaline out when the frustration builds up. Just getting out and moving can be really helpful for people.”
  2. Talking: “This really helps, too. Just saying it out loud is important,” Hermanson said. “Find the right places and times, but do it. Ignoring feelings doesn’t make them go away. It’s like trying to hold a beachball underwater – eventually you lose control and it pops out. You can’t control where it goes or who it hits.
  3. Constructive thinking: “We may think it is the situation that causes our feelings, but actually, our feelings come from our thoughts about the situation,” she said. “We can’t change the situation, but we can adjust our thinking. Be compassionate with yourself and others. Remind yourself, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’”
  4. Mindfulness and gratitude: “The more you do this, the easier it gets,” she said. “Try being in the moment. You’re right here, in this chair, breathing and looking around. We put ourselves through a lot of unnecessary misery projecting into the future or ruminating about the past. For now, just take life day by day.”

I’ve decided I will read Claudius the God.

I hope this is as reckless as I get.

Coupons, Coffee, & Quarantine

VISIT THE CAFE FOR 1 FREE TALL STARBUCKS BREWED HOT OR ICED COFFEE!!!

 Is this Barnes and Noble coupon the most exciting thing that has happened in months?  You would think so. I went to Barnes and Noble to buy a book, and though  I suppose I should have  quarantined it when I got home,  I did not.  And the coupon fell out!  (The whimsical laws of “quarantined”objects in my home differ from those of the super-hygenic humans.)

For years B&N has given me coupons for a free cookie–perhaps you have to buy a cookie first; I don’t know.

But coffee!  If only I’d known the cafe was open.  I saw chairs piled on top of tables from afar… 

But is drinking coffee at B&N going too far? 

I would have taken the coffee outside, of course.  

WHY DO I WISH THE  LIBRARIES WOULD OPEN?  I have amused myself in the last few months by making  a list of scholarly books I might like to read.  The samples at Amazon have that slightly overstuffed-chair style, as if the writers are afraid they will be mistaken for Georgette Heyer. But you can’t judge a book by its sample.

For $126.99, you can buy Cupid and Psyche: the reception of Apuleius’ Love Story since 1600, edited by Stephen Harrison and  Regine May.  Apuleius is one of my favorite novelists (yes, there were novels in ancient times), and we’ve all taught the Cupid and Psyche myth.  But the public library would never buy this one. 

I am also intrigued by Jana Norton’s The Tragic Life Story of Medea as Mother, Monster, and Muse ( $99).  I love the title!  The description says,  “This volume offers a critical yet empathic exploration of the ancient myth of Medea as immortalized by early Greek and Roman dramatists to showcase the tragic forces afoot when relational suffering remains unresolved in the lives of individuals, families and communities…)

And soon I will offer you “a critical yet empathic exploration” of  a book I just read.

Happy reading!  And have you ventured out to a bookstore yet?

Losing It!  A Bibliophile and Her Coffee

I took a brisk walk in the slush.  My motto in winter is:  Worse is on the way, so get out while you can. 

I happened, by accident, of course, with no intention of reading, skimming, buying, perusing, and did I say buying?, to walk to a bookstore.

The bookstore coffee is awful, though, so I stopped at a coffee shop.  And here’s the first sign I was losing it: I PICKED UP THE WRONG COFFEE DRINK.  

It was so bad, I almost spat it out.  Who, I wondered, would order coffee sickeningly sweetened with artificial syrup?  I drink mine black. I take it seriously.  That’s how it’s done. Halfway down the street, I threw it in the trash. 

Fortunately, the atmosphere at the bookstore made me mellow. If you’re a bibliophile, it is a bit like going to an opium den, or perhaps that’s the wrong simile, since I was in my right mind–sort of–but I’m also a biblio-addict.  The issue in a bookstore, as always, is:  Should I buy a book? Well,  I have resolved to buy no books at all in 2020.  But who takes that seriously?

My goodness, there are so many books I’d love to read.  There’s the  new Isabel Allende.  There is The Colours by Robyn Cadwallader, author of The Anchoress, which I loved.  Then there is Amina Cain’s Indelicacy, the selection for a New York Times Text Book Club.  I also flipped through Clare Pooley’s The Authenticity Project, because the cover told me it is very light, but it looked a little, well, sentimental.  

 My husband is so enthralled by my resolution he actually thinks I’ll use the library!  But of course I did buy something.  And I was so absorbed in it on the bus that I got off at the wrong stop.

And on the long(er) walk home, I slipped on an unshoveled sidewalk, and I caught myself talking to myself.  Whining about the weather OUT LOUD in public.

Yes, I am definitely losing it.

Reading on the Plane: Where to Park Your Books

The demise of the Elizabeth Bowen during travel.

On a recent plane trip, I could not keep track of my books. I had stuffed two paperbacks into a carry-on bag:  Elizabeth Bowen’s Friends and Relations and a mystery.  One of the other would keep me occupied on the trip, I thought.

The bag was a tight fit under the seat.  I had to crouch in the aisle to drag it out.  With much flexing of knees, I managed this triumphantly.  The Elizabeth Bowen, however, was not in a zippered compartment marked BOOKS. It was with meds, toiletries, and a cardigan sweater.  

Once the book was out of the bag, it was out for the rest of the trip. Usually there is an empty seat next to me, and I fling the book down when I don’t want to read.  This time the plane was full.  And during the multiple meals and snacks that keep us from going crazy on planes, the old paperback became more and more brittle. I tried holding it on my knees under the tray. It emerged bent.  During a later snack, I stuffed it into the pocket on the back of the chair.  A corner of the cover tore off.

Turned out this book was no longer meant for reading.  The type was dim against the tan, crackling pages. I alternately had to hold it close to my face or at arm’s length. That’s the beauty of bifocals:  you are both near-sighted and short-sighted at the same time. 

I finally read my mystery, which was perfect for the plane.  I can’t recommend Patricia Moyes’s The Curious Affair of the Third Dog too strongly.  I  am so thankful I didn’t bring Proust, which I had originally considered the ultimate vacation reading.  (Not on this plane.)

The Bowen fell apart completely the next day in a cafe.

Anyone have good travel tips for plane reading (and for keeping books in one piece)?    I’m thinking about buying a tablet case, which would give the books some extra protection.  And it would fit in my bag.

I returned home with some new sturdy paperbacks.  They were unharmed by travel.

Would a tablet case do the trick?

What We’d Like to Read in September and What We’d Prefer Not to

I am not quite sure how many books we own.  One thousand?   Two thousand?  We have a lot of books.

Naturally, we could not have accumulated this quantity if we had not traded our gypsy mode of life for a house with bookshelves.  “Are you professors?” the movers asked as they lugged in the boxes of books.

It’s only when you have a mudroom, a study, an attic, and an extra bedroom that you can finally hoard books.  I stopped weeding our books this weekend when I realized, “We have all this stuff because we’re adults!”

No, we haven’t read them all, but we get around to them eventually. In August, I finally read the Spanish novel Nada, by Carmen Laforet, which was published in 1944 and reissued in 2007 by Modern Library in Edith Grossman’s translation.  This coming-of-age novel, set in  post-Civil War Spain, is narrated by a college student who moves into her grandmother’s apartment in Barcelona.  The household also includes the narrator’s controlling Catholic aunt, two uncles, both painters, and one of their wives, a gambler, all slowly starving in poverty.   My husband asked me where I got this book:  I laughed because I gave it to him for Christmas in 2007, after Jonathan Yardley praised it in the Washington Post.  

What should I read in September? Since I managed to read 11 new books this summer  (only one stinker in the lot), I’m thinking I should continue to mix new books with classics and old books.  But do I have room for any more on the shelves?

Here are two very short lists:  What I’d Like to Read in September, and What I’d Prefer Not to.

What I’d Like to Read in September

The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves. Marily Stasio recommended this gripping mystery in her column in The New York Times.  I picked up a copy and, honestly, I can hardly put it down.  More later.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, by Leah Price. This sounds like my kind of book:  Leah Price, a professor of literature, explores the history of books, the future of reading, and even examines the marginalia in old library books.

Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie.  Longlisted for the Booker Prize, this modern-day Don Quixote is set in America.  I loved Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children, and I  have a vague notion I should read Quichotte along with Cervantes’ classic, which I read half of decades ago.

What I’d Prefer Not to Read in September

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.  Atwood is a brilliant writer (on the Nobel list perhaps) but I’m not a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is her most popular novel because of the Hulu TV series. My personal favorite is Life Before Man.  Is that because I prefer reality to dystopia?.

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellman.  This book is longlisted for the Booker Prize.  Although I loved Ellman’s earlier short quirky novels, among them Dot in the Universe, I have decided to pass on this 1,000-page novel about an Ohio housewife.  Maybe an Idaho housewife, or an Oregon housewife would be less cliched.

Of course it will be a miracle if I  find time to read Price, Rushdie. and Cervantes, along with all the other books on my TBR, because we know I’ll revert to Mrs. Humphry Ward.

Any September recommendations?  Or any new projects in September?

Caffeine, Books, and “Fireflood”

It’s 10 a.m. and I’m back from the coffeehouse. My “I’D RATHER BE READING” mug overflows with cappuccino. And I’m wearing a Charlotte Bronte sweatshirt (for bookish inspiration) with my jeans and reading socks.

The clock is ticking.

The reading clock, not the biological clock.

It’s time.

It’s reading time!

Does anyone ever have enough time to read?   Whether the books on the TBR are ancient classics or 20th-century best-sellers, all are significant, and I do long to read them. And so I’ve given myself  fifteen  extra minutes a day to read.  And I’m quite happy to find time to finish some disappointing new books, which I shall mention no more.

IN THE DAYS when I was an accomplished woman in a traditional workplace,  all I wanted to do was read.  I never wanted to break the glass ceiling or anything.   I’d come home from work, peel off my nylons, and read my book.

If you read a lot, people resent you. Divorced friends are annoyed if you aren’t available to go to a bar on Saturday night and help them pick up men. (There is never anyone suitable anyway.)  Friends in the mothering stage of life cry because they don’t get to read and you do. All you can do is sympathize.  And everybody thinks you’re a nerd if you attend poetry readings.

All my life I’ve been told reading is a “waste of time and talent.” “If only you would read less…” I wonder how many reading women have been told the same.   What activities are we expected to do instead?

As for wasting…  Talent isn’t everything, nor are awards. I’ve won awards  (plaques, certificates, in a couple of instances money). With the exception of a few women friends, no one has congratulated me on my achievements.  In a competitive world, people are not always happy for your success. Many of us duck out of the most intense competition so we can have  better personal lives.  So isn’t reading just as important as foolish competition?

Right now I’m reading a 1979 science fiction book, Vonda N. McIntyre’s Fireflood and Other Stories.   McIntyre, whose work has been compared to that of Ursula K. Le Guin, died on April 5. Most of McIntyre’s work is out-of-print, but I have a copy of Fireflood.

II am most impressed by the story, “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand,” which was later expanded into a novel, Dreamsnake. McIntyre’s prose is measured and clear, good enough to tell a story, though not elegant. “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” is exceptionally well-plotted, with twists you don’t see coming.  The heroine, Snake, a healer who uses the venom of her snakes to cure illness, must deal with ignorance and fear as she treats a sick child in a remote tribe. The terrified parents kill Grass, the smallest snake, when it wanders out of the tent.  Snake dominates the situation as it spirals out of control.   Even today’s women SF writers aren’t usually this free of gender bias.  There is absolutely nothing feminine about her characters!

Would I be reading this collection of stories if McIntyre hadn’t died?  Well, probably not. She  has excellent ideas, though, and is much lauded by SF writers.  And her background is in biology and genetics.  I’m impressed!

Do You Write Your Name in Books? On Rereading Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”

The other day, while I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, I had an irresistible urge to write my name on the flyleaf.  I hadn’t done that in years.  At 12, I scribbled my name in Jane Eyre.  I also wrote it in  my Latin dictionary.

Then I broke the habit. Some years ago, I was irritated when a librarian wrote my name in a  novel I’d lent her.  It seemed impudent, because it wasn’t her book.

Perhaps I wrote my name in Vanity Fair because I was enjoying it less than I hoped. When I first read it at 17, I  found Becky Sharp hilarious and Dobbins charming, but I was disappointed in the book.   I was a Victorian novel nut, but I  preferred Dickens’s  pyrotechnics and Trollope’s plain style to Thackeray’s pointed wit and stylistic bibelots.  In  the introduction to the Penguin, John Carey compares Vanity Fair to War and Peace.  I do not see the similarities.

I enjoyed Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon and The Newcomes.  So why  does the clever, nimble prose of Vanity Fair not delight me?

I wrote my name in the book, so now I have to like it.

Do you write your name in books?

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