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!

Reading with a Cold: Alice Hoffman’s “The Red Garden” and Christopher Isherwood’s “Down There on a Visit”

Here I am on a lovely spring day, stricken with catarrh. Never mind, I am an expert on the common cold. Apply Vicks to throat and chest, and then to the nostrils (forbidden on the label, but it facilitates breathing). Then choose some multi-symptom cold pills: make sure the label claims it treats EVERY symptom. You need a cure for the cough, the congestion, the body aches, the headaches, the dreaded flu, and hypochondria.

You also need herbal tea, which, if possible, somebody else should prepare. You don’t want to spend much time away from the vaporizer.

And if you’re lucky, you’re well enough to read. Here are two “reviewettes” of what I’ve been reading.

Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden. Hoffman, who is the American mistress of magic realism, is a critically-acclaimed writer with millions of fans. (Here on Earth was a selection for the Oprah Book Club.) According to a bookish newsletter in my email, The Red Garden is Hoffman’s favorite of her books. And it really is a masterpiece. I was charmed by this collection of graceful, delightful linked stories about the small town of Blackwell, Massachusetts. Over the centuries, the town is populated by strong, romantic women and handsome men, beginning with the founder, Hallie. In 1750, Hallie saves the first group of settlers during a glacial winter by milking a hibernating mother bear in a cave while the others quiver in a makeshift shelter. (She tells the pathetic group that it is deer milk, because they are such wimps.) And Hallie has a preternatural link with bears afterwards, as do some of her descendants.

Christopher Isherwood’s Down There on a Visit (1959). Isherwood planned to interweave these brilliant writings with The Berlin Stories (on which the film Cabaret was based), but these perfect sketches work brilliantly as a standalone novel. In four settings, from 1928 to the 1950s, this record of Christopher’s observations focuses on pivotal characters. In 1928, 23-year-old Christopher is dared by a distant cousin, Mr. Lancaster, to travel to Germany on a steamboat. Christopher has just published his first novel, and wants to prove his masculinity and gather more material for novels. And gruff Mr Lancaster has a soft spot for him. In 1932 in Berlin, Christopher has an eclectic social life, a memorable orgy, and many gay friends, whom he follows to a primitive Greek island owned by an eccentric, solitary rich man. In 1938 in London, waiting for the war to begin, Christopher is appalled when his gay working-class German friend Waldemar shows up in exile with an English wife. Waldemar does not fit in with the Christopher of the late thirties. In 1940 in Hollywood, Christopher writes movie scripts and meditates with an English guru. Then an acquaintance, the exotic, stubborn, infuriating Paul, telephones to say he is about to commit suicide. Paul, who has alienated and disappointed everybody, is a lost soul. Christopher lets him move in and introduces Paul to his English guru. They spend hours meditating together and, for a while, Christopher and Paul follow an extreme vegetarian regimen. I love Christopher’s character, so charming and accepting of people. Fascinating structure, perfect writing, an experimental novel but at the same time easy to read. A book to read and reread.

Stay Well, and Happy Reading!