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!

Woodswoman IIII: Book Four of the Woodswoman’s Adventures

It appears that I skimmed so quickly through the previous book (Woodswoman 3) that I didn’t bother to write up a review. In this fourth and final book of the series, Anne returns to her cabin on Black Bear Lake occasionally, appreciating the changes that have happened in the 35 years that she’s been living there and writing about it. Much like her other books, she spends way too much time digressing into tales about her pets (this time she picks up a stray kitten along with her usual German shepherds.) There’s also a somewhat bizarre tale about being a visiting professor at a Southern college trying to get her class permission to do a 24-hour nature solo trip; on the reconnaissance mission she encounters a bunch of drunk dudes on horseback who shoot at her?? It’s a quick read and now I’m finally finished with Anne’s musings on life in the woods.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

I, like Sarah Glidden, was looking for some sort of unbiased glimpse into the Israel-Palestine conflict. This graphic novel is a great glimpse into the propaganda that Israel feeds its tourists (Glidden went on a free birthright tour that Israel makes available to all Jews), along with questions that she has about what information is missing. It ends up being a pretty useful guide to understanding more about the conflict in a few hours or less.

Hangsaman

Spooky novel from Shirley Jackson about a 17-year-old girl who’s off to college and who loses her grip on reality somewhat, plus the disappearance of her friend Tony. It’s structured in three sections: Natalie on the cusp of leaving for school, at her parent’s house, possibly/definitely assaulted by a friend of her father’s at a party; Natalie at school, discovering that she’s drinking more than reading and that her English prof has married an ex-student but who still has affairs with current students, letters back and forth to her writer dad with advice and assignments; the final section she returns home and can’t wait to head back to school, when she does it’s an unreal unraveling where she and Tony hide from the college, go eat in town hanging in the railway station, then at a diner where a one-armed man asks for help buttering his roll, then they take a bus to the end of the line and Tony disappears.

Doris: An Anthology 1991-2001

Wonderful time capsule of the 90s, packed with typewriters, anarchists, midnight bike rides, living in tree houses and squats, roaming from Asheville to Vermont to Berkeley to Eureka to NYC, advice about surviving abuse, herbal remedies, recipes, scenes from punk life, basement shows, lists of books and 101 ways to get romance, her sister Caty and farming and building greenhouses, resources for depression (including herbs: guarana, damiana, peppermint, rosemary, gotu kola). Doris is one of my favorite zines and I was lucky to be able to catch up on these early issues via the anthology. Amazing amazing amazing.

The Allure of the Archives

This book will delight anyone who has spent any time doing research. Translated from the French by Thomas Scott-Railton, this was originally published in 1989 before the vast digitization of archives had begun in earnest. Farge leads us through the Parisian archives of criminal complaints from the 18th century, peppering her account with scenes from her own time—racing other researchers to get the best spot, shivering with the cold, hoping that the lights stayed on. She also brings to life those characters she encounters on the page, the man who embroidered a letter to his wife on a handkerchief while in jail, a packet of seeds that had not been opened in 2 centuries.

Girls Gone Old

Fiona Helmsley’s collection of essays is sometimes satisfying. Best are the recollections of her first experience of writing on the internet for Livejournal in 2002, early pioneer blogging, creating a new identity from her mom’s home in Connecticut as she detoxed from drugs. Also the essay on the power of saying no, w/r/t Elliot Rodger and his idiotic manifesto and massacre because women wouldn’t sleep with him. Overall, it wasn’t terribly inspiring. I think I’d like it better couched as short stories, reality masquerading behind a thin film of fiction.

London Fog: The Biography

If you’re wondering how it’s possible to write over 300 pages about London’s fog, I’m just as perplexed. Corton relies heavily on quotes from Dickens (primarily Bleak House, but also Pickwick and The Old Curiosity Shop), interspersed with illustrations from Cruikshank, Claude Monet, Punch, and stills from Hitchcock. She also uses a lot of American authors to make her point, noting that Melville is quoted in the OED’s citation for the first expression of “pea soup” to describe the fog in 1849 (Corton offhandedly sums up Moby-Dick as “vast, baggy, and iconic”), in addition to Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain’s impressions of the fog.

What’s odd is her complete lack of British voices about London’s fog except for Dickens’ plaintive wail from the 19th century. What of those essential Londoners, Pepys of the 17th century, Defoe of the 18th, and Woolf of the 20th? Corton is eerily silent, smothering their voices which are conspicuously absent from the text.

The book in a nutshell: London’s geography always made it susceptible to natural fog. Coupled with pollution from coal fires, wood fires, and the industrial revolution, things got out of hand. The Clean Air Act of of 1956 solved the problem.

The Middlesteins

Overdosing, or should I say overindulging, in Jami Attenberg lately. This is my least favorite so far, the story of an obese woman whose husband leaves her after a few decades of marriage right as she’s suffering health declines. She’s the star, and supporting cast are the estranged husband, her new lover (Chinese chef), daughter Robin and her boyfriend, son Ben and his wife and kids. Spoiler alert, she dies of a heart attack eating ice cream with the freezer open.

Saint Mazie

Another great read from Jami Attenberg! This one tells the story of Mazie Phillips, a woman who spent most of her life in the “cage” in front of the movie theater she eventually owned in NYC, rescued at age 10 from abusive parents by her sister Rosie along with younger sister Janie. Mazie is adored in the neighborhood but loses her heart only a few times, once to a passing sailor (Captain Ben) who returns to town every year and they meet up, once to the nun Tee whom Mazie cares for as she dies of cancer. She’s well known as the Saint of the neighborhood for taking care of all the homeless and down on their luck people during the Depression. The story is told through snippets of her diary, interspersed with pages from her unpublished memoir, interviews with current Brooklyners and children of those in the story. Well done, an excellent choice for a taste of 1919-1939 NYC life.

Heartburn

Nora Ephron’s book came up as an example of humorous women’s writing so I decided to take a break from serious reading to slurp this up in an afternoon. The narrator is a 7-month-pregnant woman who discovers her husband is having an affair and when she confronts him, he simply says that he loves the other woman. She flees DC for her native NYC, 2 year old child in tow, and tries to make sense of her life. Husband shows up a few days later, not contrite but asking her to come back. She does, and they hang on for a few more weeks, she has the baby early and discovers that he’s purchased an expensive necklace for the other woman while she was recovering from her C-section in the hospital. She sells her diamond ring for $15k and realizes she can walk out now, but not before she tosses a key lime pie in his face. It’s a mediocre book that’s heavy on recipes and light on subtle humor, but a good change from serious brainwork.

Passenger to Teheran

This starts with a beautiful introductory section, worth quoting in full. In addition to dissecting the trouble of capturing one’s travel experience in words, Vita discusses the art of writing (and reading) letters.

One nit-pick I have is with the photo captions; her son, Nigel Nicolson injects unnecessary commentary into the story, saying Vita “unaccountably fails to mention” that Howard Carter was excavating King Tut’s tomb when she was there, and that Dorothy Wellesley “to her disgust” was not mentioned in the book although she traveled with Vita as far as India. In her defense, Vita only started writing the book once she left India, and the passage up to that point in the book is quite solid without the mention of her companions or the specific details at Luxor. She’s poetic in her descriptions, humorous about travel, and contains all the shortcomings of rich travelers of that age—low-key racism and dismissing the various landscapes as being empty sandy vistas. On occasion she makes up for it with interesting observations, such as “To read of Proust’s parties [while one is] in the Persian Gulf is an experience I can recommend, as a paradox which may please the most fastidious taste. Indeed, I came to believe that every book should be read in the most incongruous surroundings possible, for then it imposes its own unity in a way that startles the reader when he has to emerge again into his own world; thus, when I passed from a ball at the hotel de Guermantes into the little dining saloon of the s.s. Varela, Proust’s world was still truer than the ship and I was puzzled to know, really, where I was.”

All Grown Up

I loved this while reading it, then got annoyed with the constant repeating of information, but finally came around to appreciating her structure. She tells the story of a single woman almost in rounds, the same details being sung over and over about her junkie dad overdosing, her brother making it as a musician before marrying an amazing woman and having a severely disabled daughter they raise in New Hampshire, her mother throwing “rent parties” with a bunch of skeezy old men who insist on putting teenage Andrea in their laps and jostling her, and her own narrative arc of leaving Chicago art school to settle back home in NYC where she grew up on the Upper West Side and now lives in Brooklyn but working in advertising instead of as an artist.

Some of her lines are simply devastating. Throughout, she is wry and funny and real. I was hooked in the first chapter, where she describes her run-down apartment in Brooklyn with a view of the Empire State Building she’d sketch every day:

Still you draw. This is the best part of your day. This is your purest moment. This is when the breath leaves you body and you feel like you are hovering slightly above the ground. On New Year’s, that day of fresh starts, you allow yourself to flip through some of the old sketchbooks. You recognize you have gotten better. You are not not talented. That is a thing that fills you up. You sit with it. You sit with yourself. You allow yourself that pleasure of liking yourself. What if this is enough?

At her therapist she runs through a list of things that she is, besides being single (woman, Jewish, designer, friend, daughter, sister, aunt). In her head she thinks of another list (alone, drinker, former artist, and “the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.”) She dates, usually unsuccessfully. About one encounter: “This is not a date; this is an audition for a play about a terrible date.”

She begins to think about making art again.

What if I did just that? That is the thing I love, that is  the thing I miss the most. For so long I have believed I could never catch up, but now I realize there’s nothing to catch up to, there’s only what I choose to make. There’s still time, I think. I have so much time left.

Knole and the Sackvilles

Vita takes us on a house tour of her ancestral home, the ridiculously large and elegant Knole in Kent. Apparently this is the 3rd largest residential home in England. Rumor has it that there are 52 staircases (for each week of the year) and 365 rooms, but she never could be bothered to count them. Growing up here in the care of her grandfather, you somehow lack pity for Vita when she muses, “after a lifetime of familiarity, I still catch myself pausing to think out the shortest route from one room to another. Four acres of building is no mean matter.”

Having access to hordes of documents locked up in chests on the property, Vita reconstructs its history from the 15th century onward, ignoring the previous centuries due to lack of documentation. In the 16th century it was briefly given to Henry VIII, then granted to the Sackvilles by Queen Elizabeth in 1586. Vita charts the ups and downs of her illustrious family with the help of letters, diaries, speeches, along with contemporary accounts from the likes of Pepys, Macaulay, etc.

The most interesting person to waft from the dusty pages was Lady Anne Clifford, who died in 1624. “It so happens that a remarkably complete record has been left of existence at Knole in the early 17th century—an existence compounded of extreme prodigality of living, tedium, and perpetual domestic quarrels. We have a private diary, in which every squabble and reconciliation between Lord and Lady Dorset is chronicled; every gown she wore; every wager he won or lost (and he made many); every book she read; every game she played at Knole with the steward or with the neighbors; every time she wept; every day she ‘sat still, thinking the time to be very tedious.'” Lady Anne Clifford was an heiress in her own right, married off to the Earl of Dorset, Richard Sackville, who was a spendthrift who wanted access to her fortune which she denied him.

Menu for banquet in July 1636

Also of interest are the myriad of lists of expenses for various items, ranging from armor to banquet menus. Another list is of slang used by thieves in the 17th century that was scribbled on the back of another document with words like “bleating-cheat” (sheep), “tip me my earnest” ( give me my part), “fambles” (hands), “knapper of knappers” (sheep stealer), “lullabye cheat” (child), and “mumpers” (gentile beggars).

 

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Another gem from British author Elizabeth Taylor (I also read her Angel earlier this year). In this one, Mrs Palfrey is a widow who arrives at a London residential hotel because she has nowhere else to go, her daughter not having invited her to live in Scotland with her, ignored by her grandson, Desmond, who works at the British Museum. It’s brimming with tragic descriptions of how barren life can be for an oldster, how the residents cling to their routine and savor the tiny enjoyments like reading the day’s menu, trying to make time pass as quickly as possible.

One day, Mrs Palfrey slips and falls on the street, and is rescued by Ludo, an aspiring author who lives in a basement apartment where she fell. He cleans her up and gives her a cup of tea before calling for a cab. Ludo slips into her life and Palfrey passes him off as her grandson Desmond, whom the residents have been clamoring to meet. In fact, Ludo is a much nicer “grandson” than her actual one.

The lone male resident decides he wants to marry Palfrey and she is horrified by the prospect. But still, she hints at his proposal in a letter home to her daughter, which sends consternation flurrying at the idea that they might not get her money after all.

Clever, charming book, a delightful treat for an afternoon’s reading.