We’ve opened our gifts, and we’re feeling jolly.Well, of course we are. We picked out our own books, so everything is perfect.I now have a copy of Lucy Ellmann’s controversial novel, Ducks, Newburyport, which won the Goldsmiths Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. And I have begun Eleanor Fitzsimons’s well-reviewed new biography, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, which is very good indeed.
I’m sure you have heard of Ellmann’s novel, which is 1,000 pages long, published by a small press, and written in one sentence from the point-of-view of an American housewife.The critics love it. I hope I will.
You may not be familiar with E. Nesbit (1858-1924), who was best-known for her children’s fantasy novels. When I was a child she was my favorite writer, so my sensible mother gave me her books for Christmas and birthdays. I read these books over and over from the ages of 10-12. The Enchanted Castle was my favorite.
Although I didn’t know it then, Nesbit also wrote for adults. You can very cheaply buy an e-book edition of her Complete Works, which contains all her adult books as well as the children’s books. Nesbit is undergoing a revival: Penelope Lively selected Nesbit’s delightful adult novel The Lark for the Penguin Women Writers’ series in 2018. Furrowed Middlebrow has also published an American edition of The Lark. And for those of you who love trivia, Nesbit and her circle were thinly-veiled characters in A. S. Byatt’s Booker-shortlisted novel, The Children’s Book.
I am loving Fitzsimon’s biography, because Nesbit was absolutely fascinating and very “progressive.” She was a Fabian socialist who hung out with H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and other famous writers; she was willing to write anything, from newspaper articles to books, to support her unemployable husband, Hubert Bland, along with their five children, Hubert’s mistress, and his two children with her.
Well, enough about my good books! I love the bio, and will start the Ellmann soon.
We powered through Christmas. Now we can relax and forget it. I plan to spend the rest of the week bingeing on the Outlander series.
The house smells of burned butter, a scent emitted while I made Shrimp Scampi for the Christmas feast. I can’t say I’m much of a chef, but I blame this tragedy on our electric stove. The burners heat up so fast it’s like trying to control a racecar in downtown Oskaloosa.
While the shrimp was sauteing, I couldn’t find the lemon. “Can you help?” My husband has a sixth sense for hunting and gathering. The lemon was behind the Harry and David box of pears. Everything came together, sort of, just in time. And so the carol was written: “God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.”
I’m just glad we didn’t have a breakdown.
Honestly, I haven’t had a stress-free Christmas since 1969. My grandmother kept everything together, possibly because she was the only one who could cook. When she was a young farm wife, she cooked three meals a day for the hired hands. On Christmas she prepared turkey, ham, three kinds of potatoes, green beans, dressing, homemade noodles, pie…. but her culinary secrets died with her.
My mother was a fan of frozen foods and eating out. She cried at the table the year the frozen turkey breast was underdone.… and everybody got a little dysfunctional. I wept the year I opened the refrigerator only to find that my husband had bought, instead of a whole turkey breast from Whole Foods, a lone turkey breast in a shrink-wrapped package.
And those were mild Christmases, not tragic.
There was the year my cousin, a middle-class librarian, went manic and did “performance art” in her yard. The police came and hauled her away in cuffs in the locked back seat of a black-and-white to the county mental hospital. It was traumatic for her, but she was a routine Christmas mental case to the police. She needed meds, and she was released the next day.
And the moral is: Don’t do performance art in your yard!
After this relatively excellent Christmas, I still feel a bit melancholy. And so I turned to this article in Psychology Today.
So many of us have an idealized version of what the holidays should be like and are very disappointed when they don’t live up to those expectations. Try to be realistic. Remember, nobody has a perfect holiday or perfect family.
Yes, it will never be 1969 again. But every time Christmas comes around, I expect perfection.
Happy Christmas! And let’s hope I can find my Gabaldon books, or the DVDs. What escape reading do you recommend????!!!!!
If you’ve been to a reader’s fashion show, you know what I mean.
On the runway you will see a bespectacled model dressed in a Jane Austen sweatshirt and composition-book print yoga pants. She holds a copy of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and sips from a mug that says, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.”
But, dear reader, you can have a chic Christmas without the latest fashions! JUST TREAT YOURSELF (OR FRIENDS) TO ONE ITEM BELOW.
1 A reference book. A good reference book has the advantage of being written by experts and researchers. Wikipedia is fun, but there are mistakes. I recommend an old set of encyclopedias (cheap at used bookstores), James Audubon’s Birds of America, or anything else that interests you.
2 A dictionary (the biggest you can afford). You will enjoy the detailed entries, love the etymology, and when you look up “ineffable,” you will see pages and page of words beginning with “i.” (On the internet you see only what you look up.)
3 A thesaurus. So many synonyms!
4. A slim volume of poetry. Everyone should have one. You might read A. E. Stalling’s new translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin, 33 pages) but you will never open that huge anthology of classical poetry.
5. A used copy of a novel by Balzac (preferably a Penguin). “This old thing? I’ve read it, like, 100 times.” Pere Goriot…Cousin Bette… You’ll be late for work BECAUSE YOU WERE READING but who can fire you for that?
6. A new book journal. Forget the spreadsheet and return to paper when you write your book journal.
7. Reading socks (Barnes and Noble). They’re just socks, but you want them! You can also write your own label, Reading Socks, on an ordinary pair of socks and give them as a gift.
8. An old-fashioned Rolodex to keep track of characters in Proust. Experience the 20th century! It’s fun to write the information on cards!
9. A mug with a bookish slogan. They’re frivolous, but we all like a Jane Austen mug.
10. A totebag doesn’t need a literary slogan, but everyone needs a totebag!
DO LET ME KNOW YOUR FAVORITE RETRO-CHIC BOOK GIFT IDEAS!
This is the time of year when I like to slow down. WAY down.
I don’t participate in the holiday frenzy. In the glossy commercials, attractive nuclear families give orders to their robots, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Am I the only one who doesn’t want texts from my vacuum cleaner on Christmas morning?
I blot out Christmas till it’s actually here. We try to have a nice day rather than a gift exchange.
And the hours formerly devoted to shopping are now spent reading comfort books. Mind you, these are not all classics but they transport you to another world—and then you’re satisfied with this one!
COMFORT BOOKS THAT CALM YOU DOWN .
1 I love D. E. Stevenson’s Bel Lamington, a light, charming novel I inhaled in an afternoon.
Although there is a marriage plot, the heroine does not want to marry. Bel, an orphan from the country, has a good job as a secretary in London. She misses flowers and greenery, so she makes a secret garden on the flat roof outside her window. And this secret garden is so charming that I didn’t care what happened next!
One evening she finds a man sitting on her deck-chair in the garden. Mark is an artist, and almost immediately starts sketching her. He is fun, but impulsive and selfish. I do love Stevenson’s description of the artists’ scene!
The other man in her life is Mr. Brownlee, her boss, who upgrades her job responsibilities before he goes on a business trip to South America. Jealousies in the office escalate, and she ends up out of a job and on vacation in Scotland with her old school friend, Louise. I won’t tell you what happens–but it ends happily for her!
2 The Truth by Terry Pratchett is a witty satire of journalism, set in Pratchett’s fantastical city of Ankh-Pork, where William de Worde starts a newspaper after dwarves invent a printing press.
3 The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale, a writer whose short stories were published in The New Yorker. She was the daughter of painters Lilian Westcott Hale and Philip L. Hale. She was inspired to write this memoir about her unconventional family by relics she found in her mother’s studio when she cleaned it out after Lilian’s death. A classic!
4 Carter Dickson’s And So to Murder, a fast, funny Golden Age Detective novel with no corpses! Set in a movie studio at the beginning of World War II, it focuses on the foibles of movie directors, writers, and actors as well as struggles to close blackout curtains and the fear of Nazi spies.
5. An Orderly Man by Dirk Bogarde. Tired of the hectic life of an actor, Bogarde buys a small run-down house in France. He hires an architect to renovate it. While he is away finishing a film, the contractors make a mess, and everything that can go wrong does. Any home-owner will appreciate these difficulties, even if his or her house is not 500 years old!
6 Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy. This delightful novel is for women of a certain age, or at least for women who know they may someday be that age. The witty Confessions are narrated by a sixtyish interior decorator who falls in love with a 40ish man. She tells us that Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, but failed to invent the Jocasta complex, “to look at the situation from the point of view of…his mother.” In her work as an interior decorator, she meets the gorgeous French tile maker, Alain. An enjoyable light novel!
7 William Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Metropolitan Life. These delightful autobiographical novels about a physics-teacher-turned-civil-servant are the first two in a series of five. They were praised by Kingsley Amis and John Braine. Neglected classics!
8 In Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, moody flappers and free love abound. The narrator, a writer, relates the tragic story of Iris Storm, a languorous , beautiful woman of the 1920s who wears a green hat and drives “a long, low, yellow car which shone like a battle-chariot.”
9 Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, a collection of charming columns she wrote in for the London Times, was published as a novel in 1939. Mrs. Miniver’s domestic life is happy, she loves her children, one of whom is at Eton, and she describes marriage as two crescents bound at the points, with a leaf-shaped space in the middle “for privacy or understanding.” In my favorite scene, she endearingly buys an expensive green lizard engagement diary instead of a hat.
10 Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost. Porter, an Indiana native and environmentalist, is best-known for her children’s books. (You can read an excellent article about her by Janet Malcolm in The New York Review of Books.) I thoroughly enjoyed Girl of the Limberlost, which I recommend to fans of Anne of Green Gables. Determined to get an education, Elnora defies her mother, a reclusive farmer who won’t give her money for new clothes. Mocked by the other students, she walks home crying. Two neighbors discover Elnora’s plight and buy the appropriate clothing and books – and a local expert on natural history, Bird Woman, informs her she can sell moths from her collection. An excellent coming-of-age story.