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Archive for June, 2012

Today my set of Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin Family Chronicles arrived in the mail.  My husband, who opposes buying books, wanted to know if they were new.  “No,” I said deadpan, and it’s true, because they were published long ago.

A gorgeous set, isn’t it?  It consists of  Meet the Austins, the Moon by Night, The Young Unicorns, A Ring of Endless Night, and Troubling a Star.  

L’Engle is in back in my pantheon since rereading The Young Unicorns and reading for the first time her adult novel A Live Coal in the Sea (loved it!), which I wrote about here.

And so I am having a Madeleine L’Engle-thon, what with the Austins and all her adult books.

Here is a link to the Madeleine L’Engle website if you want to find out more about her books.  It is the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Wrinkle in Time.

And now, links to five engrossing articles, essays, and blogs.

1.  Julian Barnes on  “My Life As a Bibliophile” at The Guardian.

“I have lived in books, for books, and by and with books…”

Julian Barnes

2.   Vintage Books on John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen – Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved.

3.  The Fiction Desk on “How Travel Can Damage Your Prose.”  (Very funny!)

4.  Pages Turned on “Methods of Discovery”: how she came to find out about the books she read in June.

Junot Díaz

5.  “The Search for Decolonial Love, Part I:  An Interview with Junot Díaz” in
The Boston Review focuses on “Díaz’s concern with race, his debt to the writings of women of color, and his fictional explorations of psychic and emotional decolonization.”  I usually slate such articles for my intellectual next lifetime, but The Boston Review is readable and a little offbeat, and Diaz’s take on women writers is fascinating. How often do men talk about women writers?

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Madeleine L’Engle

We were raised on Madeleine L’Engle.

We read and reread the Austin Family Chronicles, A Wrinkle in Time, and Camilla.  We identified with the characters, whether they were awkward, brilliant adolescents like Meg in A Wrinkle in Time or Camilla in Camilla, the brooding daughter of a promiscuous mother.  There is an intensity about L’Engle’s graceful novels that appealed to me as a child : her skillfully-plotted stories are interwoven with fervent discussions of ethics, religion, and poetry and music.

Yes, her characters quoted Shakespeare and listened to Bach.  It gave me something to live up to.

A description I read recently of a  cathedral led me back to L’Engle’s novel The Young Unicorns.  Odd how it suddenly popped into my mind:   published in 1968 and set in the future (though it’s not so different from then or now),  The Young Unicorns is a terrifying page-turner, as the characters fight a battle of good vs. evil in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York without quite understanding what is going on.  The cast comprises both children and adults:  Dave, a brilliant musician, former gang member, and son of the Cathedral carpenter, has a set of illicit keys to the Cathedral that play an important role in the novel; the Austin family, who nurture Dave and other lost waifs, have moved to New York for Dr. Austin’s research  (the family consists of 15-year-old Vicky, who has matured since The Moon by Night; the loud, pretty 13-year-old Suzy, who wants to be a doctor; Rob, the friendly seven-year-old whom his parents regard as safest of them in New York because he has so many friends on the streets; and Dr. Austin  and Mrs. Austin, a former singer) ;  their landlord’s daughter, a blind girl named Emily, who is a talented pianist; Canon Tallis, who is in New York to solve a mystery; Mr. Theo, a music teacher who loves Emily and Dave; and the Dean who was a gang member as a boy in Puerto Rico.

The Dean and Canon Tallis know something new is happening on the street.  They’ve heard that the neighborhood gang, the Alphabats, is  now controlled by someone on the outside.  Canon Tallis thinks gangs are an epidemic and members show “the classic symptoms of psychosis.” But Dave, a former gang member, has problems with trust, and doesn’t know whether to trust them when the gang goes after him again.

Although they don’t understand what they’re confronting, they inadvertently work together to destroy a plot to take over New York by mind control, via a laser used in brain surgery that can be used to stimulate the pleasure center of the brain.

The frightening plot may seem simple and far-fetched, but it’s not.  The future is today, no?

It’s a very moving novel.  Simple, yes, as we expect of a children’s book, but there is powerful stuff here.

I have never had much luck with L’Engle’s adult novels, but decided it was time to continue my relationship with her.   So I read A Live Coal in the Sea, a sequel to Camilla.  I really love and admire A Live Coal in the Sea, a complex, painful novel about family secrets.  It is not perfect, the structure is sometimes clumsy, but L’Engle’s style is elegant, her characters are thoughtful and unusual, her ideas are brilliant, and she has a vision of humanity that will amaze you.

It is not as smooth as L’Engle’s children’s books.  It is not plot-oriented.  It unfolds like a Greek tragedy, centered on emotion, with relationships between mothers and children broken, boundaries blurred, and shocking, unforeseen events.

There are plenty of the sophisticated discussions of religion and philosophy I love.  (By the way, L’Engle also writes about mind-control here:  the torture used in the Korean War for brainwashing.  We forget that this issue has been around for a long time.)

Camilla, who in old age is  an astronomer and a professor at her alma mater, has had a fulfilling life with her much-loved late husband, Mac, their children, Taxi and Frankie, and granddaughter, Raffi.  But underneath the surface emotions are boiling up.  After Camilla wins an award for astronomy, her son, Taxi, a neurotic actor, hints to Raffi that Camilla is not really her grandmother.  Camilla has to figure out how to reassure Raffi about her complicated origins.

In a narrative that goes back and forth in time, L’Engle delineates the relationships that define Camilla’s life.  They go back to her relationship with her mother, Rose, a promiscuous woman who shattered Camilla’s trust by having an affair with Camilla’s favorite college astronomy professor, Red Grange.

As a result of her mother’s affair with Red, which continues over the years, Camilla meets her husband, Mac, a young assistant minister.  After she learns about her mother’s latest debaucherie, Camilla walks around the campus crying, and Mac takes her back to the church hall for coffee.  They spend time together, they fall in love, and Camilla helps him with the youth group. But  Mac is frightened by closeness:  he was a prisoner in Korea, where he was almost brainwashed by mind control techniques, and he fears relationships.  So he takes a job in Sudan.

Running away is what Mac does when things get complicated.  But when he returns, they get married, and Camilla loves his parents, also a minister and his wife.

Then her mother gets pregnant when Camilla does.  When Rose dies in an accident, the baby is delivered by Caesarian section, but Camilla’s father refuses to raise him after a DNA test discloses that Taxi is not his son.  Camilla and Mac, badgered by her father, decide to raise him with their daughter, Frankie.  But then a tragedy occurs:  Red shows up with a note from Rose saying he is Taxi’s father.  Red and his new rich wife, who can’t have children, use expensive lawyers to take Taxi away.

By the time he is returned to Camilla and Mac, he is a mess.

What is fascinating is how this family rises above it.  They keep going, though Taxi never overcomes his problems.  They can’t be perfect, but they are a unit.  Their faith and work help them.  They do their best.

Camilla’s friend, Luisa, a psychiatrist, says, “A lot of people get terribly wounded.  The media saturates us with false images of happiness and securtiy, but it’s a lie.  That’s why I and the rest of my ilk stay in business.”

And that’s what this novel is about.  Dealing with real life, a little bit at a time.

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Nora Ephron, 1941-2012

It’s very odd how we sometimes feel we know celebrities.  I’ve read all of Nora Ephron’s  journalism and humor books and have seen all her movies.

We’ll miss her.

My favorite book of  ’70s journalism:  Crazy Salad:  Some Things about Women

My favorite movie:  You’ve Got Mail

Here are a few good essays about Nora Ephron:

“Nora Ephron’s Crazy Salad:  Still Crisp” in The Washington Post

“Hollywood Ending” in The New York Times

“Nora Ephron: the Heroine of Her Life, Not the Victim” in The Telegraph

“Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Meryl Streep, Others Share Thoughts about Nora Ephron” in EW.

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“Woman Reading” by Alexander Deineka

I try to read one contemporary novel a week, but often curl up with “old” books instead:  classics, out-or-print science fiction, or a middlebrow novel by Nancy Hale.  And then I don’t look up for days and forget about the new books piled on my floor.

This summer, however, I’ve tackled several new books and enjoyed them. Either better books are being published, or my new system of skipping reviews and picking up what looks interesting is more stimulating.  I am reading what I call “Tier-Two” novels instead of “Tier-One”: in other words, books by writers I don’t know instead of the latest by Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, Peter Carey, and Anne Tyler (which I’ll get to eventually).

I just finished Kim Barnes’s In the Kingdom of Men.  It is compelling and well-written, if uneven:  it’s Carson McCullers’ Frankie in Member of the Wedding meets Ginny Babcock in Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks meets Real Housewives of Saudi Arabia.   The narrator, Gin, a fundamentalist minister’s granddaughter raised in poverty in Oklahoma, is one of those likable, smart, passionate characters we like to spend time with.  But if you thought you’d like to grow up and be the wife of an oil man in Saudi Arabia in 1967, think again.

From the beginning of the novel, Gin has trouble with domineering men.  She loves to read as a child, but it is forbidden by her grandfather.  A kind teacher allows Gin to sit and read on her first day while the other children do arithmetic because she was mocked for being brought to school by her grandfather on a mule.  Gin gets hooked on books.

From that point on, books became my solace, my escape.  I brought them home from the library, hid them from the eyes of my grandfather, who believed that only the word of God had a place in his house, that stories outside of the scripture might lead me astray.”

Gin is a strong character, whipped by her grandfather for sneaking out to chorus and social events, but she continues to go out.

Then she meets charming Mason, a college student, and when she gets pregnant, he insists on marrying her and drops out of college.  She is thrilled to leave Shawnee, but then the fetus dies inside her, and she is shattered.  After working for an oil company in Texas, Mason takes a job in Saudi Arabia, where they are required to live in an American compound.

The portrayal of American and Arab oil politics is grueling and realistic.  It’s a quick education for Gin in chauvinism, sexism, and racism.  Women aren’t allowed to leave the compound without their husband’s permission, though Gin soon finds her way around that.   Books are censored:   her copy of Gone with the Wind is confiscated at customs, but she manages to pick up a censored edition of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo at a store.  Her Indian houseboy, Yash, and the Bedu driver, Abdullah, are well-educated but terribly oppressed. Both men must work at jobs well beneath their potential, because they understand Arabian politics and culture.   Yash keeps referring to “the education of Mrs. Gin” as she is constantly censured for breaking rules.  And Abdullah, a former engineer who had attempted to intervene on behalf of Arab oil workers, has problems that she cannot understand.

Gin’s friend, Ruthie, a Jewish rebel who does not fit in with the other wives, teaches her to lighten up:  they leave the compound illicitly, do a lot of shopping in town, wear bikinis, and paint their toenails.  Ruthie gets Gin a job working for a small American paper.

But Gin’s metamorphosis from an intense and bewildered housewife to social butterfly is a little jarring.   And then a little too suddenly she begins to understand oppression. She starts to take photographs of things she is not supposed to see.  Her husband gets involved in whistleblower politics, trying to improve safety for Arab workers.  They don’t understand what they’re up against.  And it is this American innocence abroad that is Jamesian and compelling.

It’s not a simple book, though it sometimes seems simple.  Barnes did an enormous amount of research, and her list of sources goes on for pages and pages.

My only real criticism is that the narrative is too straightforward.  It begins with Gin’s looking back at the past, and then proceeds absolutely chronolgocially.  I think it might have been more interesting if it were broken up a little. Still, it is a very enjoyable, well-written novel.

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Pie and Rain

We’ve bicycled to Jefferson on the Raccoon River Trail before, but usually we’re late and everything is closed: the cafe, the tea room, the doughnut shop, the Chinese restaurant…so we go to the Dairy Queen.

On Saturday we hovered on the street in front of the Uptown Cafe and looked at the sign.

“It’s open.  Yeah!  I thought so.”  He has ESP.

“Do we want pie?”

We want pie.  Let us have pie.

We haven’t been to the Uptown since 2001.  Then we rode 50 miles, spent a night at the Super 8, and ate breakfast at the cafe before riding back. Everybody wanted to know if we rode RAGBRAI, the week-long cross-state ride.  No, no, we don’t do RAGBRAI.   But a man eating pancakes at an adjacent table had ridden for one day of RAGBRAI.  A lot of rain and mud, just like Woodstock, he said.  Pushing sag-wagons out of the mud.

It’s a little dark inside, with curvy BON APPETIT signs on the wood-paneled walls.  We grabbed a booth, thought about coming back for the chicken and noodles, but it was only mid-afternoon.  So we ordered peach pie and pecan pie.  “You want that warmed?”  Does anybody get his pie warmed?  We like our pie cold.  No, no ice cream.

We forgot to take a picture of our pie.  It’s our goal to eat pie at a cafe in a little town every time we ride a trail, and sometimes we take pictures of the pie.

PIoneer Woman’s Pecan Pie

Pecan pie is very rich.  Later I looked up a recipe at Pioneer Woman (see picture): LOTS of butter, sugar, brown sugar, a whole cup of corn syrup, a cup of pecans. Hers looks good, but my friend’s homemade pecan pie is the best thing on the planet.  SHE gets HER pecans from a friend on a pecan farm.

Well, the Uptown’s wasn’t QUITE in that class, but it was good.  After a couple of bites, however, I probably should have traded my pecan for his peach.  I found out pecan pie is 500 calories a piece.  If my metabolism were normal, I’d have burned off 1,000 calories on our ride, but instead I gained back the four pounds it took me two months to lose… typical.

When we finish our pie, we’re ready to ride back.  We stop and take a picture of somebody’s garden.

Then it starts to rain.  It drizzles in the woods, it stops, it starts, it stops, it rains some more, then we’re riding by the cornfields and it thunders and starts to pour.  Soon our shorts and sweatshirts are soaked.  But there’s nowhere to stop, except at the restroom in Cooper, so we ride in the rain.

It’s really not so bad.

Except today I have a cold.

Now I know you can’t get a cold in the rain.  This must have been coming on for a week.  But I woke up at 5 a.m. shivering, have spent the day alternately sweating and shivering, have gone through half a box of Kleenex.

And I’m blaming it on the rain.

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It is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.  

Lessing, the Nobel Prize-winning writer whose brilliant novels rely as much on her interpretation of history as on the delineation of the lives of modern women, has always denied it is a feminist novel.  But for many feminists,  its publication dwarfed other historical events of 1962:  it had more impact on me than did the Cuban Missile Crisis,  the Rolling Stones’ debut, and The United Nations General Assembly’s  resolution condemning South Africa’s racist apartheid.

Her powerful novel centers on Anna, a writer and single mother whose life is fragmented because she somehow cannot write the truth.  She has contempt for her best-selling novel about an interracial relationship in Africa, is disillusioned by the reports of communist torture and anti-Zionism in the Soviet Union, and seemingly  falls in love only with men who cannot love deeply.  But this painful, honest novel suggested alternative futures for women who had decided that society was breaking down, that marriage wasn’t viable, and that they needed to experiment. Lessing chronicles a collapsed society, broken by the trauma of war, fear of the bomb, and emotional frigidity.

So has The Golden Notebook stood the test of time?

It was my favorite novel when I was 15.  For some reason, though I had had no sexual experience, I identified with Anna.  When I reread it in my 30s I understood Anna’s difficulties with writing (I had sold out as  a “pop-culture” freelance writer, and enjoyed writing trivial nonsense), her encounters with men (when you’re divorced in your 30s, you’re lucky if you ever meet a normal unmarried man again), and her radical politics.

The experimental structure of the novel is bold.  Lessing alternates sections of a short traditional novel about Anna, “Free Women,” with Anna’s writings in four notebooks–black, red, yellow, and blue–in which she tries to measure out the truth about her life of organized chaos, often writing in fragments, experimenting with different styles, chronicling her experience straightforwardly in the communist party in Africa,  her marriage and love affairs, her difficulty with writing.  She also writes a novel about an alter ego, Ella, who is more brittle than Anna, but undergoes similar emotional upheaval.

Musing on the post-war fragmentation, Anna observes:

But it isn’t only the terror everywhere, and the fear of being conscious of it, that freezes people.  It’s more than that.  People know they are in a society dead or dying.  They are refusing emotion because at the end of every emotion are property, money, power  they work and despise their work, and so freeze themselves.  They love but know that it’s a half-love or a twisted love, and so they freeze themselves.”

I recognize that emotional freezing.

In some ways, this was a novel for its time.  Anna’s quest for sexual freedom is commonplace in the 21st century, although it often occurs without  intelligence or self-respect:  just a “hook-up.”  Freudian analysis–Anna has been in analysis with a psychiatrist she calls Mother Sugar, who keeps trying to get her to write–has been replaced by pharmaceutical remedies (at least in the U.S.).  Anna’s portrait of her misogynistic gay lodger, Ivor, seems believable in the context of the book–he and his lover mock her, refer to her as a cow, and so she has to throw them out–but many would feel more comfortable if Ivor were rewritten as Paul Rudd’s character in that movie with Jennifer Anniston.

Lessing’s Children of Violence series, about the heroine Martha Quest, treats similar material.  The first three novels, Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, and A Ripple from the Storm are traditional in form, the fourth, Landlocked, is slightly experimental, and the fifth, The Four-Gated City, is so over-the-top that it  makes The Golden Notebook look conservative; parts of The Four-Gated are science fiction.    Martha is altogether a harder character than Anna–she leaves one unloved husband and daughter, then marries another man she doesn’t love just because they’re in the communist party together, works hard as a communist until the reports of concentrations camps come in, divorces her second husband, and then escapes to England…where I must say unexpected things happen.

Some of you will prefer The Golden Notebook.  Political attitudes have changed in the last 50 years, and you have to respect those attitudes of the ’50s and learn from them while you inhabit the book.  You must also live with Martha Quest if you read the Children of Violence series, which I wrote about recently here.

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Drawing from the blog, “Andree’s Illustrations”

There’s a level of panic when you’ve mapped out your trail, you’re riding in the woods, and you get a flat tire.

I didn’t feel like pushing my bike five miles.

So I kept riding.  Did I ruin the wheel?  Probably. Eventually I glided downhill to my destination, a friend’s nursing home.  Hello!  The people in wheelchairs in the lobby couldn’t help me.  My friend couldn’t help me.  I certainly didn’t ask the nurses or activity director.

I rode most of the way home, too, because I couldn’t face wheeling my bike out of the inner city, locking it up somewhere more visible, and then taking the bus.

The bike broke down eventually, but I made it most of the way.

So I’m lounging around tonight, drinking iced tea instead of blogging, and posting links to the Five Most Intriguing Articles on the Web.

1.  If you haven’t studied literature or languages, chances are you don’t know English grammar.  Do you know what a participle is?  Do you know when to use “I” and when to use “me”?   In an article in The Wall Street Journal, “This Embarrasses You and I: Grammar Gaffes Invade the Office in an  Age of Informal E-Mail, Texting, and Twitter,” Sue Shellenbarger reports that “about 45% of 430 employers said they were increasing employee-training programs to improve employees’ grammar and other skills, according to the Society for Human Resource Management and AARP.”

2.  I was happy to read Christopher Fowler’s article in The Independent, ” Invisible Ink: No 128 – Pamela Hansford Johnson,” about Bello Pan Macmillan’s reissue of Pamela Hanford Johnson’s books as e-books.   Fowler says, “…lucid writing is once more being recognised as a desirable literary trait, which may partly explain why Pamela Hansford Johnson’s work is coming back into print (the other reason is that ebooks provide an affordable route to republication).”

3.  Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) has reissued new editions of Philip K. Dick’s novels with attractive covers.

4.  I love The San Francisco Chronicle’s series of articles, “First Sentences in New Books.”

5.  An article in The Chicago Tribune, “The type rider’s tour:  Maya Stein stops in Chicago on her 40-day bike trip to write a collaborative book,” describes the writer Stein’s stop in Chicago at a lit fest on her  40-day ride from Amherst, Mass., to Milwaukee.  Stein sets up her typewriter and asks people to type their memories for her collaborative book.

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I’m always bitching about e-readers.  “If we could get back to the book…”

Do I sound like an old hippie crooning:  “And we got to get ourselves back to the garden”?

By the time we got to Woodstock… I was too young for Woodstock.

I’m not averse to e-readers.  I have a Nook.  It is my friend, in a way. It doesn’t surf the net very well…thank God.  It allows me to read out-of-print books I wouldn’t otherwise have access to.  How many free books have I read from Project Gutenberg?

One of the best things about having an e-reader has been Bloomsbury Reader, the independent publisher Boomsbury’s collection of out-of-print novels now available as e-books.  If possible, the list is better than the list of Viragos and Persephone:  Monica Dickens, Angela Huth, Dirk Bogarde, E. M. Delafield, V. S. Pritchett…

And this winter I discovered Pamela Haines.

I should have written about Haines’s Men on White Horses earlier.   The problem with e-books, or at least with my Nook, is that if I don’t write about it right away,  I can never find anything afterwards.  Highlighting and bookmarks?  Maybe newer e-readers can tell you exactly where you highlighted that passage.

So here goes.  And I hope I’m remembering it accurately.

Men on White Horses is an intelligent, beautifully-written coming-of-age novel.  it reminds me slightly of E. M. Delafield’s Consequences and HumbugA Study in Education, though I think Haines is a better writer.

It is divided into three parts:  1907, 1911, and 1920.  As a young child in 1907, Edwina is musical, but her mother, Helen, doesn’t take it seriously.  When Uncle Frederick arrives, he notices Edwina’s intensity and persuades Helen to arrange music lessons.

Edwina loves her mother’s Bechstein piano, which no one plays.

But now surely it was Edwina’s piano?  It was she who loved it.  She’d found it, stroked the keys, struck them—what joy that first day when they’d sprung into life.  Looking over now at the piano, silent, she could feel right down inside the terror of delight it had given her.  It had come from her fingers, no, from inside her, no, from inside the machine, the wooden frame.”

No one in her family appreciates her.  Her cruel mother regards her as a nuisance.  Whether Edwina wants to study piano or Italian, her mother undermines her, telling her life is already mapped out for her.

Convent school saves her.  At boarding school, she quickly carves out a place for herself.  Edwina makes friends with the most popular girl in the school, Fanny, an outrageous non-conformist who paradoxically says she wants to be a nun.  These two rebels are always together, which some of the others resent.  They even spend holidays together, usually at Fanny’s, because it’s a more accepting household. When Edwina and Fanny go to Bay, a fishing village, to visit Fanny’s cousins, Edwina falls in love with Ben, a fisherman.  They have an inter-class romance.

But the war comes…there are bombings… there are deaths…Edwina’s mother becomes hysterical and an alcoholic…Edwina is not allowed to go to London to study piano…and we feel the terror and grief.

In 1920, Edwina and Fanny go to Italy to visit Uncle Frederick and his late wife’s family.  Both young women are in turmoil:  they have lost people in the war, and the loud, coquettish Fanny embarrasses Edwina.  It is the flapper era, and though they’re not flappers, Fanny wants to have fun to make up for the past.

Edwina just wants to study piano, but it’s obvious she is expected to marry.

The point is Edwina’s passion, brilliance, talent–and her problem fulfilling herself.

Really well-written. I loved it. I look forward to reading more novels by Haines.

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Looking at Cows

On our recent vacation, we spent hours in the car.  We drove hundreds of miles to bicycle trails, mainly rails-to-trails, because they’re relatively flat and easy to ride.  Once on the trails, we pedaled, looked at cows, rode through avenues of trees, listened to frogs in ponds, and occasionally climbed uphill for what seemed like hours.

So what did I read in the car? I know that’s your first question, since I’m not a poet and can’t describe the beauty of the landscape.  Well, I very much enjoyed Emylia Hall’s The Book of Summers, a novel I bought BECAUSE I LIKED THE COVER.

Honestly?   It’s a (literally) flowery, girlish cover.  This novel is, I would say, for women.

Hall’s engaging first novel is lyrical and heartrending.  Many of us–half?–come from “broken families.”  Although we’re “assimilated,” because divorce is an accepted rite of passage (and, indeed, often a necessary one), we pay an emotional price (not alimony).   This novel is an emotional read, because it is about that price.

In The Book of Summers, Hall delineates the effect of divorce on the likable narrator, Beth, who, at 30, is single, works in an art gallery in London, and is numb about family.  Relationships are hard for Beth.  When she was nine, her hippie-ish mother, Marika, a Hungarian émigré, eagerly planned a family vacation to Hungary after watching the Berlin Wall fall on TV.  On vacation, she walked out on Beth and her father, explaining she finally felt free and would stay in Hungary.

Back in Devon, Beth desperately longs for her mother, because her father is dry and inarticulate.  For the next seven summers she visits Marika and her  lover, Zoltan, an artist, for a week (later two) at their country house in Hungary, Villa Serena.

But then the relationship shatters.

We meet Beth at 30, awaiting a visit from her father.

Family.  A word that has always sat so uneasily with me.  For other people it may mean rambling dinners with elbows on tables and old jokes kneaded and pulled like baking dough.  Or dotty aunts and long-suffering uncles, awkwardly shaped shift dresses and craggy mustaches, the hard press of a well-meant hug. Or just a house on the street.  Handprints pushed into soft cement.  The knotted, fraying ropes of an old swing on an apple bough.  But for me?  None of that.  It’s a word that undoes me.  Like the snagging of a thread on a sweater that runs, unraveling quickly, into the cup of your hands.”

When Beth’s father brings her a parcel from Hungary, she is upset and furious.  She has had no contact with her mother since she was 16.   But after he leaves, she opens a letter from her mother’s lover, Zoltan, informing her that  Marika died of a heart attack.  He has enclosed a beautiful scrapbook made by Marika, entitled The Book of Summers, its cover painted with flowers and flourishes.  The book is a record of Marika’s memories of her seven summers with Beth.  Inside are photos of Beth and Marika, drawings Beth made, and other odds and ends.

Are you sobbing yet?

The photographs evoke memories, and as Beth looks at The Book of Summers, she remembers each summer in detail.  The memories are vivid, poetic, colorful, and slightly sentimental.

Beth loves Marika’s spontaneity, her arty embroidered clothes and sandals, her attempts at abstract painting, and her ostensible inability to make shopping lists, with the result that she comes home with random groceries, sometimes just wine and flowers.  Beth can be emotional in Hungary, swims in a beautiful pool in the woods, adores the markets and food, and has her first boyfriend.  She wants to be Hungarian, until she learns a family secret.

Marika is a problematic character.  She is free, generous, a hippie type, but she never comes to life on the page the way Zoltan does, the warm, accepting artist who does not resent the disruption of the child’s visit on vacations.  Marika is portrayed as a Hungarian earth mother, an emotional, kind, follow-your-heart type.  (She keeps saying, “Follow your heart.”)   I do understand from this novel how different, how much warmer, Beth finds this culture than England.  Still, I wanted to see what Marika is like beneath the surface.

A little more about Beth’s adult life would also have been welcome, and I’m not quite sure we needed seven summers of childhood.  (Maybe five or six?) But this is not really the kind of book that invites criticism.

It’s a very likable novel, graceful and entertaining, about the very real complications of family life.

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We toured Ruth Suckow’s house in Hawarden on vacation. What did you do?

Every summer, newspapers publish articles on summer reading.  It’s their job to tell us it’s acceptable to read whatever tops the best-seller list, and if it’s Fifty Shades or Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, they’re stuck with it. Of course they also sneak in recommendations of good books, but the tradition is to pretend the reader will spend the whole vacation poolside drinking piña coladas.  (We went to  Hawarden, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska.  No piña coladas in sight.)

Here’s a blast from the past:  if you like light fiction, and I very much do, try a “beach book” from a different era. Though I’ve never been involved with theater, I am fascinated by novels about actors who quit their jobs and move to a house by the sea, or take a seaside vacation.  Did you know there is such a genre?  There is!  My favorite is Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, a Gothic novel in which Lucy, an out-of-work actress, goes on vacation to Corfu, saves a dolphin, and inadvertently becomes involved with a mystery and two men.   Two men are better than one–no, what am I saying?

I also recommend Iris Murdoch’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea, The Sea, an engrossing psychological novel in which the mad Charles, a retired director and actor, moves to a house by the sea, keeps a mad diary, and becomes obsessed with solitude.  He also becomes obsessed with his old girlfriend, Hartley, whom he meets in the village.  Other women with whom he has been romantically involved show up, too: he doesn’t want guests, but they keep arriving.  This is one of Murdoch’s “typically” weird, intense novels, if any of her fiction can be considered “typical.”

D. E. Stevenson’s The House on the Cliff  may not be quite in this league, but it features my required beach-actor motifs, and I loved every minute of it.  The heroine, Elfrida Ware, is a struggling actress who isn’t very good at her job, and when she inherits the family house, Mountain Cliff, she quits her job and moves there.  Nobody recommends this.  She doesn’t have any money.  She had never even visited the house.  But her late mother, who had been disowned for marrying an actor, loved the house, and had told Elfrida every detail.

Elfrida falls in love with Mountain Cliff.  She and a live-in couple, who fortunately want to stay in the house and work part-time for free, rescue the garden, fix up the house, and start raising pigs.  She learns about the tides after a dangerous experience, and narrowly escapes death.  Her neighbors are helpful.   And she also has two men:  one, a reckless, glamorous  actor she had a crush on before she left London, who invites himself to visit with his son; and Ronnie, a lively lawyer who helps her find the money to support Mountain Cliff and much prefers the house to London.

Whom would you marry?

Utterly charming.  A very plain style, but it clips right along.  Here’s a passage:

Elfrida was very sleepy next morning–she was not used to late hours–but she felt better when she had her bath and she was ready for breakfast at nine.  Glen was late; he came down looking rather cross.  Actors are never at their best in the morning, so Elfrida was not surprised; she told him to help himself to grapefruit or bacon and eggs or whatever he would like and did not bother him.”

Nothing fancy, but since I want to live her life, I appreciate every detail.

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