Feeling Melancholy? What to Read in Inclement Weather

Are you feeling melancholy?  Perhaps because of inclement weather?

Here are mini-reviews of three very light books I recently read to lift my spirits.   And I’m including “pop” star ratings for the fun of it!

THE BEST:  Rose Macaulay’s Dangerous Ages.

Rose Macaulay’s Towers of Trebizond is a masterpiece.  I wish I could say the same of her other books.

Dangerous Ages, however, is a moving, deftly-written novel, characterized by charming, meticulous sketches of four generations of women.  Macaulay observes that all ages are dangerous,  but some are more dangerous than others.

The main character is Neville, age 43, and my guess is you’ll identify with her whatever age you are.  She is a lovely, generous, sensitive, thoughtful woman,  whom Macaulay compares to “an ageless wood-dryad.”  When Neville wakes up on her forty-third birthday, she thinks, “Another year gone, and nothing done yet.  Soon all the years will be gone, and nothing ever will be done.”

That’s the mid-life crisis.

Macaulay’s writing is plain but smooth.  The book is mostly a novel of ideas, a kind of philosophical fable about ages.  Now that Neville’s two children, Kay and Gerda (yes, The Snow Queen), who were raised during the Great War and are readers of Freud, are in their twenties, Neville is determined to become a doctor.  In her twenties, she dropped out of medical school to marry Rodney, a politician, and have children.

Alas, she has trouble concentrating on her medical books.  She envies her children’s absorption in writing and drawing.  Macaulay, who was forty in 1921 when Dangerous Ages was published, clearly feels this is the wrong age to pursue such a demanding profession.  (We women have different attitudes toward age now. Modern medicine?)

Neville is in the middle of four generations.  She is not only a mother but the favorite daughter of 63-year old Mrs. Hilary, a malcontent who wants to be the center of attention.  Mrs. Hilary lives with her 84-year-old mother, known as Grandmother, a serene, intelligent, religious woman who laments her daughter’s lack of interests.  And it is Neville who must soothe Mrs. Hilary when she sulks on her sixty-third birthday because her children swim out  and leave her in the shallows.

Mrs. Hilary resents her other daughters.  Thirty-nine-year-old  Pamela,  a lesbian who lives with an old friend from Cambridge, seems the happiest of the bunch.  Needless to say, Mrs. Hilary finds Pamela’s devotion to her partner “annoying” and “immoral.”  But Mrs. Hilary’s least favorite daughter is 33-year-old Nan, an unmarried bohemian novelist.  Nan has just decided  that she will let her lover know she is finally ready to marry after she finishes her book.  But then 20-year-old Gerda gets in the way, falling in love with Nan’s boyfriend.  And  Neville is appalled as she watches this romance between her seductive daughter and a thirtyish man unfold.

Mrs. Hilary is also at a dangerous age, and maliciously meddles with Nan when she hears gossip about her sexuality.  One sees some appalling similarities between the selfish beauty in her twenties and the idle woman in her sixties.

All the women must come to terms with their dangerous ages.

Fascinating, but out of print. It is available as an e-book, though .

 

AN ENTERTAINING BOOK CLUB-TYPE NOVEL,  The Great Passage by Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.  This charming, feather-light Japanese novel centers on lexicography.   Three generations of dedicated eccentrics work  passionately on a new dictionary that will be “the great passage” between words of the past and present.  My favorite character, Mitsuya Majime, is a social misfit who loves old books and has a hint of OCD when it comes to asking the right questions about words.  You’ll love his “dictionary camp,” a camp-out in the office with 40 temporary employees to finish the dictionary.  Yes, everyone sleeps over for many night, and some are assigned to laundromat duty.  There is much proofreading, editing, and other joys!

 

A COZY QUASI-GOLDEN AGE MYSTERY, Patricia Moyes’s Black Widower.   This mystery, published in 1985, is too late for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but Moyes’s Inspector Henry Tibbett bears a striking resemblance to detectives of the past.  When Mavis, the beautiful, promiscuous wife of ambassador Sir Edward Ironmonger, is murdered at an embassy party in Washington, D.C., Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard is called in.  That’s because Sir Edward of Tampica, a newly independent island country, does not want the American police involved–it might ruin the country’s reputation.  Loved the details:  there is even a dangerous garden tour. It’s spring!

 

What We Talk about When We Talk about Light Reading

Am I light?  Am I buoyant?

What a joke.

A Greek noun notebook.

Years ago a professor begged me to chat in a class of silent students because I was  “effervescent.” Those bubbles were an act.  Shortly thereafter I had a panic attack while drinking coffee with two pre-law students from that very  class.

I was overwhelmed by their normalcy.  I realized they probably did not have abortions, alcoholic husbands, or inhabit  converted chicken coops like the people I knew.  I truly did want to be their friend.  I smiled glazedly, said I had a class, and went home and memorized irregular Greek verbs instead.

Greek grammar was my light reading. It put me back together. Crosby and Schaeffer, our Greek textbook (called by the authors’ names), was my equivalent of the Valium doctors handed out like candy.  You would have laughed to see me  happily scribbling Greek declensions of nouns in front of a wood-burning stove at a friend’s “country house,” i.e., old farmhouse.  Who needed drugs?

Well, my bubbliness is long gone, but my light reading is a little more traditional.   We all love mysteries and Maeve Binchy, of course, but here are some other favorites.  And I’ll bet you’ve read some or all of them!

1.  EVERYONE LOVES E. F. BENSON’S LUCIA SERIES: 

  • Queen Lucia (1920)
  • Miss Mapp (1922)
  • Lucia in London (1927)
  • Mapp and Lucia (1931)
  • Lucia’s Progress (1935) (published in the U.S. as The Worshipful Lucia)
  • Trouble for Lucia (1939)

 In this satiric series of six novels, the outrageous Lucia dominates a quaint English village (first Riseholme, later Tilling).  She is determined to be the trendiest hostess, whether it means stealing Daisy Quantock’s yoga guru or feigning a knowledge of Italian.  She has rivals, the most famous being Miss Mapp of Tilling.  The books are peopled with quirky characters, including her charming  sidekick, Georgie, with whom she plots social coups and plays the first movement of Chopin’s Moonlight Sonata,

2.  DIARIES.  Whether you prefer a fictional diary such as Gogol’s Diary of a Madman or the diary of a great writer (I am reading Virginia Woolf’s),  you will be privy to secrets and prurient details. And did you know Everyman’s Library just published a new edition of The Diary of Samuel Pepys?

3.  DOROTHY SAYERS’S LORD PETER WIMSEY MYSTERIES.  I adore this series of Golden Age detective novels, and Sayers’s charming, foppish amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey.  In one of my favorites, Have His Carcase, Harriet Vane, a mystery writer, takes a walking tour to escape everyday life–especially Peter’s frequent proposals of marriage.  But she finds a dead body on the beach–wouldn’t you know?–and by the time she gets to a phone, the body has washed out to sea.  How do you investigate a murder without a body? She and Peter Wimsey join forces.

4. Any adventure story by H. RIDER HAGGARD.  His sensational adventure novels are perfect for a rainy day.  In one of my favorites, She,  a Cambridge professor  and his ward  travel to Eastern Africa to investigate the mystery of an ancient pottery shard. They encounter a primitive tribe who pays obeissance to a mysterious white queen, known as She Who Must Be Obeyed. How it fits together I don’t remember!

5. Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love.  This is my favorite novel by Pym.  I love this whimsical quote from the book: “There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.”  We’ve all been there, haven’t we? At least to a writers’ conference…  Dulcie Mainwaring, a whimsical indexer, and snobbish Viola Dace both have crushes on Aylwin Forbes, the editor of a literary journal.  He speaks at the conference on “Some problems of an indexer.”  Really, what could be funnier?  And Dulcie is very good at doing “research” on Aylwin.  Eventually the two women become roommates.

I’m  interested in light reading in the dark autumn, so do recommend some favorites.