The Holiday Emergency: Make a New TBR!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  It was a calm and gently festive day when we were first married, living far away from home.  We spent the day roasting the turkey and sweet potatoes, steaming green beans (my husband hates green bean casserole), and  baking a pie. Then we went to a movie. 

And that is a perfect holiday.

Family makes things harder – especially dysfunctional families.  One Thanksgiving, after hours of holiday cheer, the men dug in to watch football, and the women did not dig in to watch football.  It was that restless hour when pretense falls off the edge.  Our hostess was in tears because the thoughtless relative who had cooked the meal had meted out leftovers to everyone except her.  And when I tore my husband away from football, insisting that we we had a long drive home, that same thoughtless relative said loudly: “Have you ever seen anyone more awkward?”  So then I was in tears, too.  

It is time to prepare for holiday stress emergencies – with a new TBR book list!

And by “book,” I mean something vaguely trashy, completely riveting, or so brilliant and lyrical that it takes us out of ourselves.

Let the book recommendations begin!  The first two are new, the other two old favorites.

1. Starlight Wood:   Walking Back to the Romantic Countryside, by Fiona Sampson.  In her bracingly intelligent, lyrical new book, Fiona Sampson, a British poet and biographer, discurses on the role of walks in the lives of the Romantic poets, artists, and philosophers.  By retracing their country walks, she connects not only to their radical art but to nature. “Romanticism isn’t a cultural artefact: it’s a way for thought to move,” Sampson writes.  I love her meditative, charmingly digressive essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning,  John Constable, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Sampson herself.  You can read the book straight through, or just the chapters that interest you.  A brilliant, calming book for the holidays!

The Complicities, by Stacey D’Erasmo.  This fast-paced, entertaining middlebrow novel has all the components of good escape reading: financial fraud, a beached whale, and a woman’s reinvention of herself. 

This is a plot-oriented beach book, sans romance. When her husband goes to prison for financial fraud, the narrator, Suzanne,  gets divorced and reinvents herself  in a small beach town in Massachusetts.  To me, this seems a sensible decision! She earns a living doing bodywork, stops dyeing her hair, and lives simply in a leaky house hardly bigger than a shack.  

And we see her change from a thoughtless person who previously spent too much money into a mature woman who appreciates nature and is concerned about the environment.  There is a long, poetic section about her spiritual connection to a beached whale, which she tries to save by helping oceanographers and trained volunteers return it to the water. And when the whale dies, she goes every day to the beach to meditate upon its remains.   

 D’Erasmo has a surprising view of Suzanne:  she turns the book around and tries to convince us that Suzanne is immoral.  I couldn’t get my head around this at all.  Suzanne’s ex, Alan, who becomes a shady developer after prison, her son, Noah, who works with his father, Alan’s former business partner, Alan’s second wife, Lydia, and Alan’s birth mother, who only met him once and never met Suzanne, claim that Suzanne knew what he was doing all along.  They blame her for not returning the money I assumed belonged to both, so he could use it for restitution to his victims, among them his rich friends. She donates all the he money to a kind of Save the Whale organization. D’Erasmo agrees with Alan and his second family, and tries to prove that Suzanne was immoral to give the money to a good cause.   What did that long, poetic section about the whale mean then?  Suzanne is the only sympathetic character in the book, the only one who disapproves of  the Ponzi scheme, and I could not take the ending seriously. But the section about the whale makes this novel worth reading. 

3 The Group, by Mary McCarthy. Set in the 1930s, this page-turner follows a group of  eight friends who graduate from Vassar College in 1933.  (McCarthy also graduated from Vassar in 1933. ) They have absorbed that Seven Sisters College moral resolve to make a difference in the world, or at least to work: they teach nursery school, are freelance manuscript readers for publishing companies, work for the New Deal, the National Recovery Administration, Macy’s, etc. Over the years they grow apart, because of geographic differences, or different philosophies, but there is humor as well as drama.  In my favorite scene, two of the women, Kay and Dottie, wear wedding rings when they go to a doctor to get birth control, and when Dottie practices inserting the diaphragm, it pops out of hands and flies across the room.  Dramatic, often funny, realistic, and a perfect escape read! 

How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn. All right, I cried.  So will you!  In this extraordinary, lyrical, sentimental 1939 best-seller,  Llewellyn delineates life in a coal-mining community.  The narrator, Huw Morgan, the youngest son of a Welsh family of coal miners, vividly relates the history of his family in relation to work. As a boy, he witnessed clashes over miners’ rights, unionization, and strikes.  His older brothers were hot-headed radicals, while his father was conservative. With the help of his older sister, Angharad, his strong-minded mother persuades her sons to return home after a devastating quarrel with their father.  The family remains close, bonded by their mother’s mediation and their work in the mines.

There are many tragedies for the miners and their families.  As a child, Huw is crippled after leading  his mother home from a Union meeting on the mountain at night:  some of the radicals had threatened to kill his father, considering him one of the owner’s pets because he gets promoted, and Huw’s mother told them she would kill anyone who hurts her husband.  And then there is Mr. Gryffydd, the radical minister who educates Huw and helps him walk again.  Later in the book, Mr. Gryffydd falls in love with Angharad but devastates her by refusing to marry her because of his poverty – so she makes a marriage in hell with a mine owner.  There is much drama, much melancholy, and moments of poetic happiness. Huw has a hard life, working side-by-side with his brothers, but it is also rewarding.

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