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.

The Blogger Life-Style: Compiling a TBR List

Compiling a TBR list is part of “the blogger life-style.”  All over the world, I imagine bloggers hunched over their desks at the beginning of the month, staining their fingers with ink as they jot down dates on a calendar and the list of books they plan to read.

Having a TBR makes me feel like a legitimate blogger.  I fill a planner with titles and dates, as though I might be launched on an important wave of social media any minute.  You know, Oprah might want me to select her next book pick! Or I might get a message from a charismatic book group leader:  “We will meet on Facebook to discuss Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad.” And then we will take the hemlock together because we’ll be so depressed!

Actually, my whimsical TBR list reminds me more than anything of those odd employee picks at indie bookstores. The rookie booksellers enthuse about their favorite new books, scrawling a sentence or two on index cards scotch-taped to the shelf.   “YOU WILL LOVE THIS POIGNANT NOVEL ABOUT A BIPOLAR DEAF QUEER WAITRESS WHO MEETS THE WOMAN OF HER DREAM IN REHAB.” 

Do the index cards facilitate communication between buyers and sellers?  A friend who is a longtime bookstore manager (a melancholy woman who thinks independent bookstores are “doomed”), says employee picks are a hopeless sales pitch :  not once in seven years has a customer bought one of her picks (though I did tell her Stalingrad might not be everyone’s cup of tea), nor do any of those more frivolous titles chosen by her underlings sell.

I am immune to bookstore picks.  But on the rare occasions when I allow myself to visit BookTube (Youtube channels for readers), I am mesmerized.  I write down the title of every book the presenter holds up in front of the camera.   Most recently I have added Summer Pudding by Susan Scarlet (Noel Streatfeild’) and Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott.  Neither of these books is available in the U.S., so we’ll hope the titles  sink to the bottom of the TBR before I have an opportunity to buy them.

Last year I bought Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines, after a vlogger said she hoped it would make the Women’s Prize longlist (it did not). When I bought this novel at a store, the cashier said, “You must have read my index card!”  She was all smiles, and I told her how great her index card was, though of course I had discovered the book at a different venue. Although I didn’t find Danforth’s book particularly well-written, I did finish it, and that’s something.

Finally, let me share my TBR for July.  I might read one of these six books this month. Or all six. We shall see.

  1. The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield:  A Selection.  I carry this in my purse and have read some  diary entries and letters at the doctor’s office.  But I do need to sit down and read this short book cover to cover. 

 2.  Ship of Fools, by Katherine Anne Porter.  I love Porter’s short stories – she truly is a great American writer – and I hope I’ll enjoy her only  novel, which takes place in 27 days in 1931 on a freighter-passenger ship traveling from Veracruz, Mexico, to Bremerhaven, Germany.

3.  We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin.  A Russian dystopian novel that, according to the jacket copy, “accurately predicted the horrors of Stalinism. ” Why do I think I’ve read this before?  Have I read it before? 

4.  Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong.  In this comic pop feminist novel, Isadora Wing, who is afraid of flyint, is on a plane with 127 analysts , one of whom she is married to and six of whom have treated her for fear of flying. They will all be attending a conference in Vienna.   But Isadora’s done with analysis.  She wants freedom, feelings, and what she calls “the zipless fuck.  I read this when I was very young, and hope I’ll appreciate it more now. Henry Miller influenced Jong. I loved her recent novel, Fear of Dying

5.  Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.  Why?  You may ask.  Why? You may ask again.  Well, I can’t find my Collected Poems of Tennyson, so I found these Arthurian poems on a bookshelf.   I am enjoying some of it immensely, though some of it is stodgy.  You know who’s really annoying?  Lynette of Gareth and Lynette. She is the most annoying character in the book – I swear.

6.   The Wrath of Dionysus, by Evdokia Nagrodskaia.  A Russian best-seller in 1910, according to the book jacket: “Long before post-modernism suggested that gender was a social construct rather than a biological absolute, Nagrodskaia’s novel put this issue before middle-class Russian audiences hungry for popular fiction.”  All I can say a is:  We’ll see!

What are you reading in July?  Are you ticking things off a TBR list?  Inquiring minds want to know!

Why Is an Indian Sufi Master on My TBR? and Three Literary Links

I often surf the net and jot down titles of books I want to read. And then I look at the list and wonder why these particular books seemed so interesting.

Some books on the list do survive my next-day scrutiny. I yearn to read The Magic Doe by Qutban Suhravardi, translated by Aditya Behl. The book description says it is “an excellent introduction to Sufism and one of the true literary classics of pre-modern India.” I am mostly interested in the literary aspect of The Magic Doe: I am too practical for mysticism, and indeed I once started laughing during a lecture on Transcendental Meditation and had to leave. It seemed slightly cultish: some of my acquaintances moved to the lovely town of Fairfax, Iowa, home of Maharishi University. And I vaguely worried–some had donated money to the university–and I sometimes checked on them at social media to make sure they’re all right. (They always look radiant.) Like Kurt Vonnegut in his essay “Yes, We Have No Nirvana,” I am skeptical of TM, though I don’t doubt it has benefits for certain people.

And Now Three Literary Links

Something about Hester Prynne looks a little off!

  1. I am sure you will enjoy the following article: 50 Very Bad Covers for Literary Classics at Lit Hub. Emily Temple writes:

When a book passes into the public domain, it means not only that it’s available for adapting and remixing, but for reprinting and reselling with a brand new cover. Some of these covers are . . . pretty bad. Which, obviously, makes them very fun to look at.

I have collected a number of these very fun, very bad covers below. All of these covers are “real,” that is, attached to books that are at least nominally available for purchase, though many are digital covers for digital editions. You’ll find a number of covers from Wordsworth Classics, premier publisher of badly Photoshopped book covers, but many more from the wilds of digital independent publishing. Some are merely ugly; others make it clear that no one involved in the creation of the cover cracked open the book.

2. At The Guardian, I enjoyed the Top 10 Literary Matriarchs list compiled by A. K. Blakemore. I was pleased to see Livia from I, Claudius on the list. Now there’s a matriarch you couldn’t trust, if the rumors are true about the poisonings, etc,. but she was certainly powerful. To see her on the list shakes it up a bit!

Sian Phillips as Livia Drusilla in I, Claudius

3. Are you thinking about spring cleaning? The writer Helen Carefoot at The Washington Post says we are dealing l with enough pressure at home during the pandemic, and suggests we go easy on the deep cleaning.

She writes,

In a normal year, this might be the time to block out a weekend, pull up your sleeves, and lift a season’s worth of dust and grime off of every surface in your house. But with the emotional and financial tolls the pandemic has inflicted on so many, and with home having to function as a space for work, play and everything in between, it might be worth rethinking the mammoth spring-cleaning operation.

I agree!

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