Reading through Pain: Crime Fiction, a Booker-Longlisted Novel, & Humor


The planet is so hot, it’s hard to imagine its getting hotter.   It was 100 degrees today, and it feels blazing, impossible.  
But in addition to suffering the heat, I’ve  been in a lot of pain this summer.  I  injured myself during a power yoga session.  Remember aerobic dance classes?  This was similar, only with yoga moves. I felt my ribcage rattling at one point.  For over a month, my ankles were swollen, and I could hardly bend my knees or  wrists.
I am now the queen of modified calisthenics:  leg stretches and gentle weight-lifting. Some days I managed to walk a mile (in pain), other days I could barely make it around the block.  One day I considered crawling home, but my knees weren’t bending properly.
I am almost 100 percent, but I couldn’t have gotten through it without Advil, calcium pills, gentle workouts, and some great books.

CRIME FICTION:  The greatest American fiction being written today is crime fiction. (I’m not the first to say this.)  And Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawki series,  is the best American writer working today, says I.  
Her savvy, tough P.I. is V.I. Warshawski, a native Chicagoan and a cop’s daughter who became a lawyer and then opened her own P.I. office.  In Paretsky’s latest novel,  Overboard, V.I.’s  dogs run away from her on a walk along Lake Michigan and find an injured girl in a cave. The girl is taken to a hospital, and the case is turned over to the police, but it keeps coming back to haunt V.I.  The police thinks she’s holding out on them.  Really great writing, and if you know Chicago, or even if you don’t, her precise, deft prose will vividly recreate it.                       

BOOKER PRIZE NOMINEE:  I reread Elizabeth Strout’s stunning novel, Oh William!, longlisted for the Booker.  Her sentences are so graceful that they give a new meaning to the word “grace.”  Yet her characters have lived through a  lot of pain, and her lyrical sentences balance that in a way, not to make it palatable, but so that we can see their complexity more clearly.

Oh William! is a sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton.  Lucy’s ex-husband William’s second wife and their daughter have left him, and he  invites Lucy to accompany him on a road trip to investigate his mother’s past.  He has just learned that before his mother left her first husband, a farmer, to marry William’s father, a German P.O.W., she had had a baby daughter. He never knew he had a sister. Can anything good come out of such a trip?  It’s not a Hallmark movie.   
Do read this because Lucy is good company.

 HUMOR WRITING:  I had read very few of P.G. Wodehouse‘s standalone novels, until I found a “Best of” list by Robert McCrum, one of Wodehouse’s biographers.  Piccadilly Jim is hilarious.   There are the usual imposters –  Jim, a practical joker  always in the society columns, changes his name so he can have a chance with a beautiful, bright American girl who scorns the antics of Piccadilly Jim. Imagine his surprise when he meets her family’s new butler – and it is his father, who has fled his wife in England because he couldn’t  bear to miss another baseball season.  I kept tipping back my head and laughing.  I don’t remember ever tipping my head before – that shows how funny Wodehouse is, I guess!

Good Coffee to Go: Reading Gail Godwin and P. G. Wodehouse with Caffeine

Until March 16, 2020, I associated coffee with books.  I got in the habit of drinking coffee while reading when I forgot how to sleep in grad school. The caffeine may not have helped me sleep, but I wasn’t sleeping anyway.  And, natch, I haven’t had a decent cup of coffee since informal lockdown (which, of course, the governor wants to lift now that record numbers of people are sick and dying) . 

It is not as easy as you might think to get good coffee these days.  The poor girl at the coffeehouse is enclosed in a giant flexiglass cube.  In fact, I couldn’t find the gap until she gestured me over to a narrow space above the cash register. 

I needed this coffee to write about books, though.  So this is a catch-up post.

GAIL GODWIN’S OLD LOVEGOOD GIRLS.  If you haven’t read Gail Godwin’s beautifully-written realistic novels about Southern women, now is the time to do so.  Godwin, a writer well-loved by readers and critics, has won the Award from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and thrice been  a finalist for the National Book Award.  One of my favorites is The Odd Woman, her novel about an untenured English professor at a midwestern college; the title refers to George Gissing’s famous 19th-century novel, The Odd Women.  

In  her brilliant new novel, Old Lovegood Girls, Godwin tells the engrossing story of  two women writers who become friends at Lovegood College, an elite Southern women’s college.   The book begins at a slight distance from the two main characters–crucial for the introduction of two heroines who experiment with different forms of literary fiction and New Journalism. The  dean  and the dorm mistress  converse about the problem of a suitable roommate for Feron Hood, a student accepted at the last minute. Her uncle, a lawyer, is the grandson of one of the first Lovegood alumnae, and he says Feron needs a safe environment:   she has run away from an abusive stepfather, lived on the streets of Chicago, and then taken a bus to  North Carolina, where she showed up in his office unannounced.

Who would feel at home with Feron?  Finally they decide that charming Meredith Grace Jellicoe, a rich tobacco farmer’s daughter, would be a good match.  And this pairing is in a way like writing a story: the dean and dorm mistress set them on a lifelong course of friendship and storytelling.

Class matters:  you can’t pair a girl from a working-class family shaped by a mother’s alcoholism and stepfather’s violence with a privileged young woman like Merry Grace unless you expect complications. On the surface, everything is fine. Feron likes Merry Grace, but is envious of her background.  Merry Grace is not only from a happy family but is lovely with her honey-gold hair and unselfconsiousness.  Feron thinks enviously: “Everything was contained in her.  As though God, when making her, took great pains to color all of her inside the lines.”

Their mutual love of Chekhov, and Godwin’s own analysis of his graceful style, help us understand the shaping of the Feron’s and Merry Grace’s writing careers. For a creative writing assignment in English class, Merry Grace uses Chekhov’s “Typhus,” the story of a young Russian soldier who becomes ill and infects his sister, as the template of a story she writes about a girl who comes down with influenza in 1918. After reading this, Feron hones her own autographical short story about a middle-aged woman who pours out her problems to a girl on the bus.  But Feron doesn’t begin to write seriously until years later in New York when she sees a short story by Merry Grace in The Atlantic Monthly.  

Godwin’s characterization of their contrasting personalities gives us insight into the anger and haughtiness of Feron, who  prefers house-sitting in New York City to renting an apartment, and writes novels that are retellings of very dark fairy tales.  Sometimes I thought, “Feron, do you have to be so weird?”   Merry Grace, who is the much better friend,  turned out to be the unlucky one in a way: her parents died in the middle of her freshman year, and Merry Grace had to leave school and take over the tobacco business.  Merry Grace is truly supportive of reserved Feron, who is seldom, if ever, there for her, but even Merry Grace is exasperated at one point.  But their correspondence helps them work out their approaches to writing. And Merry Grace’s involvement with a black church while she is researching a freed slave’s invention of a tobacco process is life-changing.  Though Godwin never comes out and says this, it is the African-American women in this Bible study group who are Merry Grace’s true friends. 

In case you’re wondering, Old Lovegood Girls is nothing like Mary McCarthy’s The Group–but brilliant in a different way. Godwin is fascinated by the process of writing, and shows us how it’s done.

I RECOMMEND ANYTHING BY THE INIMITABLE P. G. WODEHOUSE DURING LOCKDOWN.  I recently read a big chunk of Joy in the Morning, a Jeeves and Bertie Wooster novel, at the hospital.  The silly hero,  Bertie Wooster, is dependent on his butler Jeeves for everything, and when his Uncle Percy, for reasons too absurd to explain, insists Bertie must take a cottage in Steepleigh Bumpleigh to facilitate a top-secret business deal, everything that could go wrong  goes wrong.  Bertie’s ex-fiancee, Florence, believes mistakenly that Bertie has become an intellectual (she saw him buying Kirkegaarde at a bookstore–for Jeeves!); Florence’s fiance, Stilton Cheesewright, a policeman, jealously stalks Bertie; and then there is Berite’s writer friend Boko, who is in love with Uncle Percy’s ward, Nobby,  needs Berties’s help.  Very enjoyable!

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