The Enchanted April

Another lovely tale of escape from Katherine Mansfield’s cousin Elizabeth. In this story, an Italian castle is rented out for the month of April and two youngish women having problems with their husbands meet and decide to take it as a rare treat to themselves. They recruit two other women, one an impossibly gorgeous blue blood with pots of money and the other a stiff old woman (also with pots of money) who is unbearable in her insistence on name-dropping all the literary celebrities she knew in her lifetime. Lotty (one of the wives) changes overnight in the fresh Italian spring air, blossoming and insisting on inviting her disapproving husband immediately. He shows up and is actually decent because he plots to recruit the rich ladies as clients for his business. The other wife, Ruth, moons about hopelessly about her memoir-writing husband who’s been living an alternative life in London away from her, decides to invite him at the last minute, and he shows up in pursuit of Lady Caroline not having received Ruth’s letter. The castle’s owner shows up and falls for Caroline and in the end it’s happily ever after with couples abounding.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This classic work from Betty Smith should be a must-read for anyone with command of the English language. Her brilliant portrayal of Brooklyn around the turn of the 20th century is vivid, detailed, and somehow uplifting in its poverty. Frannie’s mother cleans homes to keep the family afloat while her charismatic father occasionally picks up singing waiter gigs and spends his tips on drink; the family plays a game they call North Pole Explorer where they have to subsist on whatever is in the cabinets for days, sometimes approaching utter starvation. Frannie and brother Neely collect junk and carefully count their pennies. The mom (who prefers Neely over Frannie) has an idea that education will get them out of poverty, so she makes the two of them read pages from Shakespeare and from the Bible every night, starting over again once they finish. Frannie says she prefers eating a raw potato to a raw apple?!

After the dad (Johnny) dies, Frannie must leave school to bring in money to help the family, including her pregnant mother. First employed in a factory making artificial flower stems, when that work dries up she lands a gig at a press clippings agency and later as a telegraph operator. There’s heartbreak and squalor and soaring spirits and everything in between, like Frannie’s life lessons of becoming a woman and her writing that sustains her (despite a teacher calling her stories “sordid” because the poverty was too realistic). Everything happy-endings as you would expect, with Frannie’s pretty mother remarrying an upstanding wealthy citizen and Frannie happily-ever-aftering herself into college at Univ of Michigan.

The Female Persuasion

Occasionally good but not worth losing your mind over. Wolitzer excels at packing a novel full of characters you want to know more about, whose threads you eagerly follow to the end of the book. Fascinating to see your own response to the twists, like when Greer is handed a letter by her friend Zee to Faith Frank but she doesn’t want to give it to Faith because Greer is just starting at the foundation and wants to swim on her own without the weight of her friend tagging along (but would Zee do that in real life? I’m unconvinced). Or when Cory (Greer’s boyfriend) gets shipped to Asia for a consulting job, you completely expect things to fall apart, but not in the way it happens (Cory’s brother gets killed by his mom running him over accidentally, Cory abandons job and tends to distraught mom).

Jumbled thoughts on a luxurious, slow read of Proust

Reading Remembrance of Things Past—I prefer Moncrieff’s translation and not the In Search of Lost Time translations that attempt to correct his lyrical embellishments, but perhaps I should just say À la recherche du temps perdu to avoid any confusion—I’ve granted myself the luxury and extreme pleasure of a long, slow read.

The work is lengthy, a novel in seven parts spread across three volumes. I’m still sipping Swann’s Way (which itself is broken into four pieces: Overture, Combray, Swann in Love, and Place-Names) but having fought my way through Swann in Love, I needed to come up for air and note just a few things. SIL was hard to get through, excruciatingly painful to see Swann’s discomfort of being in love with the odious Odette. But that’s the point, the sharp jealousies and ecstasies of love, the pitfalls and triumphs, the heady early days melting into tedium and apathy.

Luckily, there are bits of humor tucked in along the way that act as breadcrumbs leading you on. And the insults reach art form, as Swann says to Odette’s face:

You are a formless water that will trickle down any slope that it may come upon, a fish devoid of memory, incapable of thought, which all its life long in its aquarium will continue to dash itself, a hundred times a day, against a wall of glass, always mistaking it for water.

By far the dreamiest part is Combray,

And I should have liked to be able to sit down and spend the whole day there, reading and listening to the bells, for it was so charming there and so quiet that, when an hour struck, you would have said not that it broke in upon the calm of the day, but that it relieved the day of its superfluity, and that the steeple, with the indolent, painstaking exactitude of a person who has nothing else to do, had simply, in order to squeeze out and let fall the few golden drops which had slowly and naturally accumulated in the hot sunlight, pressed, at a given moment, the distended surface of the silence.

I naturally gravitate toward the section that is all about long walks and reading.

Overture is delightful as well, with its infamous dipping of madeleine into tea to trigger tidal waves of memory and emotion. I also enjoyed Swann’s comment about the newspaper:

The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.

One more section and I’ve finished the first part of the seven!

A Note of Explanation: An Undiscovered Story from Queen Mary’s Dollhouse

The story of this book is longer and slightly more enchanting than the book itself. It was a previously forgotten story that was recently rediscovered in the miniature library of Queen Mary’s dollhouse in Windsor Castle, written in the 1920s. The dollhouse was a marvel with a working elevator, running water, a tiny Rolls-Royce, jars of marmalade. The best artists of the day decorated its walls, and the popular authors contributed their words to a library of tiny leather-bound books. Vita Sackville-West contributed this story (no bigger than a postage stamp!) wherein the dollhouse is haunted by a ghost-not-ghost who traveled through time and had been a pal to Scheherazade, flown to China to hear the Emperor’s famous nightingale, and generally mucked around in the past before settling in this dollhouse. She got stuck in the elevator, created dirty dishes, left the lights on, and when the guardians of the dollhouse arrived every morning they couldn’t figure out what was going on in the house. The ghost-not-ghost left this note of explanation in the miniature library to explain the enigma, although it would all have disappeared if they’d just hired a maid to clean up after her.

Queen Mary’s Dollhouse library

Manhattan Beach

I need to stop reading books that are popular with the masses, I guess. And yet I couldn’t stop. There were just enough good bits to pull me through the terribly obvious plot as it plodded along. My first clue that this was not going to be good was the overabundance of descriptive period details, like the exact model of some 1930s car or all of the geegaws in the family’s apartment. Over-specific means you’re covering for a lack of something else… soul, perhaps? War work gave Anna something interesting to hang her hat on, measuring widgets then strangely becoming a diver to fix ships underwater. Her dad disappears midway through, leading her into Dexter Style’s arms to find answers. Sex and a baby that is almost aborted but Anna changes her mind just as the chloroform is hitting?! The dad wasn’t dead but ends up alive fighting in WWII and has a lost at sea episode then arrives to re-establish a relationship with Anna in California. Jesus, this book turned a bad corner and never recovered. Avoid.

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury: The First Four Betsy-Tacy Books

I was transported back in time with Maud Lovelace’s Betsy, Tacy, and Tib series, back to my nine-year-old self devouring these books with impish Betsy who aspires to be a writer, shy Tacy, and Tib the dancer. The girls make paper dolls out of catalogs that come to their Minnesota homes, dye sand to put in bottles for sale, go hiking and pretend to be beggars when they get hungry. To pick this collection of books up again after many decades and still squeeze goodness out of it is pure delight. I think I only read the first two books as a wee one, but enjoyed Over the Big Hill and Go Downtown as well, with new characters bursting onto the scene in the form of Betsy’s actor uncle, the kindly Mrs Poppy who invites Betsy to have hot chocolate in her hotel after being caught in a snowstorm, and a fourth girl—Winona—the daughter of the town’s newspaper editor. Hooray for Betsy and Tacy forever!

The Blue Castle

What a fantastic novel from the author of the inimitable Anne of Green Gables series! I had no idea this book existed until it surface on a thread of recommendations. One woman said she liked this better than the Green Gables series and I have to agree—the out-loud laughs (snorts? guffaws) at Valancy’s actions to her family once she awakens from her 29 year lethargy.

When we first meet Valancy, she’s dreary and sad and tiptoes around her imperious relatives who make fun of her for being a spinster, continually bringing up transgressions she did when she was a kid (apparently she ate jam out of a jar without permission). She feels like she might have heart trouble, goes to the doctor who rushes off when he gets a phone call about his son being in an accident but who later writes her a letter saying that she only has a year to live. With this benediction, Valancy flips the table and hulks out on her family, sort of. She stops being polite and tending to their wishes, stops doing her dutiful daughter act, stops being a punchline. The dinner scene at which her family realizes something is “wrong” with her is priceless. She gives it back to them as good as she gets it, and they are shocked. When her uncle suggests that she’s forgotten the 5th commandment, she taunts him with the 9th (I had to look these up—5th is obey parents & 9th is don’t gossip about neighbors).

She hires herself out as a housekeeper to a man and his dying daughter, then proposes marriage to a supposedly evil man, Barney, who the town thinks is variously a thief, a murderer, an escaped convict. She finally begins to live, and loves life on his island in the woods. Of course he’s the author that she also loves, writing under a pseudonym; you pick that up as soon as he turns his nose up at John Foster’s book. Turns out that he’s also a millionaire! Confetti! Nothing like a happy ending with a wealthy husband.

Happy All the Time

A snackable treat from Laurie Colwin discovered by way of a Twitter thread asking for books that help to cocoon you from the world. Ostensibly about a pair of wealthy cousins, Guido and Vincent, it’s actually filled with extremely interesting women. Guido marries Holly, a woman who must go away by herself to think about his marriage proposal and later to a monastic retreat when she gets preggers. Vincent floats through life having various affairs he cares nothing for until he meets Misty, the linguist at his work. She has a job she values, has the audacity to ask her boss for a raise, and manages not to lose her head over Vincent. Ultimately it ends up as a happily ever after sap-fest but still a delightful trip for a few hours.

The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County

Hilarious 100+ page parody of Marin County in the 1970s, poking fun at all the stereotypes by going over the top on every page. I knew when I spotted this at Green Arcade bookstore that I was in for a real treat, and it did not disappoint.

Are you ready for carrot juice drinking yuppies who are into astrology and self discovery and yoga and EST (Erhard Seminars Training) and rebellious daughters who have house parties that allow guests to park their motorcycles inside? Everyone smoking dope and riding their bike from the Sausalito ferry? Consciousness raising and macramé and a world where restaurants didn’t accept credit cards yet? There’s a VW bus and a waterbed, OF COURSE. And kids that don’t get disciplined or who join the Moonies. This perfect bit was from a guy who was looking to escape Marin and move to Indiana: “I can’t take the whole Marin head-set anymore… Natural foods. Cocaine. Woodacre. Flea markets. Pool parties… Plant stores. Kleenraw in the hummingbird feeder. Weekends at Tahoe. Vasectomies. The Fungus Faire, redwood bathtubs, mandalas, compost piles, needlepoint, burglar alarms, acupuncture, saunas, sourdough, macramé…”

Written by Cyra McFadden and wonderfully illustrated by Tom Cervenak, such as this delightful image of a sadomasochist that Kate picks up at the flea market who takes her back to his houseboat. The whole thing got me thinking about doing a similar parody for 2018 San Francisco, the techies and their “communes”, their cryptocurrency and yoga classes and Instacart and rideshares.

Megahex

The Megahex gang is made up of a witch (Megg), her black cat (Mogg), their roommate Owl, a wizard in primary colors (red, blue), and Werewolf Jones. They spend their days smoking weed and dropping acid and playing tricks on each other, and every minute you spend reading this your mind will be spinning dizzily in this alternative universe. There’s lots of punching and smoking and puking and pooping and general mayhem. My favorite from the book was “Megg & Mogg’s horrible party” wherein Owl is drinking beer from a Foam Dome hat that has 2 cans with straws to his mouth, smoking in the yard and Werewolf Jones is chugging beer while running a weed whacker and the wizard finds a trampoline in the neighbor’s yard that Jones bounces on with the whacker still running then decides to use a cheese grater on his privates. It’s funny and terrible and you will sometimes laugh out loud but mostly you’ll feel like you’ve just inhaled some second-hand crack or weed by simply reading the bizarre tale.

L’Affaire

Why pick up trashy novels, and what compels me to sometimes read them all the way to the end? At least this one by Diane Johnson doesn’t commit any egregious sins of writing besides moving the plot along the obvious arc. This was actually suggested by someone as a great take-me-away type book, and I admit to the guilty pleasure of reading it through a rainy day. Stereotypes abound. Rich American woman comes to France to work on self-improvement projects, discovers the cultured Europeans, falls in love with a married man. There is an undercurrent of suspense, an avalanche traps a couple, leading to them on life support, the man is transported back to England where he dies, avoiding certain legal constraints on his legacy. It’s all very hocus pocus and strapping healthy tan ski instructors and doddering old English poets and weepy daughters who didn’t know their biological fathers.

Fante Bukowski (volumes 1 & 2)

Noah Van Sciver’s graphic novels about the struggling writer, Fante Bukowski, were a pleasant diversion this morning. He’s a big time loser who, at 23, is berating himself for not having written a great novel. His mom covers his bills until (in volume 2) he pays for a prostitute with a credit card, in addition to buying thousands of copies of his own 6-page zine which he attempts to sell for $8 a copy. The books are peppered with writerly sayings like “For a writer every day is a nervous breakdown” (John Banville) or “The beginning is always today” (Mary Shelley).  Bonus points for jabbing at Dave Eggers writing at an Eggers signing where he says “I’m right here, I can hear you.”

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel

I love Isabel Greenberg’s work. This is an earlier book (2013) but it has the same bones as One Hundred Nights of Hero– layers and layers of story to nestle around you and keep you warm. One tale leads to the next and you’re in deep with the traveling storyteller who weaves stories for his supper. There’s one of an awesome “old crone” who bucks the trend of the elderly slow-shuffling off into the forest when their time to die arrives. Instead, she tells the community that she’ll rid them of the giant who is pillaging and if successful, they must keep her around. To kill him, she invites him to eat some tasty sausages around her bonfire while she tells him stories (which give the sleeping pills time to work on him). When he’s conked out, she saws off his head. Yay for old women!

The Summer Before the Dark

A lackluster title for Doris Lessing’s magnificent book—better options would have been The Journey or An Awakening. It’s a tremendous book tackling the big questions of identity and aging, seen from the perspective of that forgotten character, an older woman.

Kate Brown is a mid-forties woman with husband and four grown children on the precipice of discovery about herself, something that has been sublimated for decades as she cared for her family. She’s given the chance to help an acquaintance of her husband’s by providing emergency Portuguese translation services to a global committee on food that is meeting in London. From there she takes on a summer job for an exorbitant salary and begins to change as she lives on her own in Turkey, taking up a younger lover briefly in Spain, and then recovering from illness hidden away in a stranger’s (Maureen’s) flat in London. The illness is striking—she loses a lot of weight, her clothes no longer fit, her hair starts to grow out of its red dye and her face becomes haggard. Throughout the summer she’s experimented in dribs and drabs with what it takes to disguise herself as an old woman (in order to be ignored) and then flit back into her “normal” self (adored by all).

Working for this Global Food committee, whenever she wants to sit alone and think, she must change her appearance:

It was really extraordinary! There she sat, Kate Brown, just as she always had been, her self, her mind, her awareness, watching the world from behind a façade only very slightly different from the one she had maintained since she was sixteen. It was a matter only of a bad posture, breasts allowed to droop, and a look of “Yes, if you have to” and people did not see her.

This transition is enhanced after her illness and she delights in dressing up in clothes that get her ignored and going out, then in clothes that get her noticed. She even discovers various facial expressions that she never allowed herself to use before:

Kate was now grimacing into the hand glass, trying on different expressions, like an actress—there were hundreds she had never thought of using! She had been limiting herself to a frightfully small range, most of them, of course, creditable to her, and pleasing, or non-abrasive to others; but what of what was going on inside her now, when she was ill, when she was seething and rebelling like an army of ants on a carcass?

The only shortcomings of the book are the usual decent into tangents that Lessing indulges in. The entire section of travel with her younger lover in Spain was dreadfully boring, enduring his illness and travels deeper into the interior. Lessing also insists on including dreams as a way to stitch the story together which I find annoying. Otherwise, a fabulous book detailing this forgotten segment of society—menopausal women!