Home Cooking (and a little brief introspection)

home cookingShelf Love has been around since 2008, and until this year it was never difficult for me to post whatever I wanted to about what I was reading. Teresa and I have both always taken the view that we do this because it’s fun, so if it stops being fun, we don’t do it. In many ways our delightful laziness aligns, and we are in agreement on this score. No challenges, no pressures, no stacks of books looming over us, no certain number of words a day, nothing we must read in order to please our hordes of fans. (Er… hello, is this thing on?) We just… read what we want to read, and then we write about it.

This year has been a little different for me. My book count is way down this year, and I’ve been faux-destressing with television instead. The books I’ve read, I haven’t written about. I’ve got at least ten or twelve wonderful books I’d genuinely like to write reviews of — I’m totally convinced you’d love them as much as I did — but I can’t seem to muster the energy to talk about them, even briefly. For some reason, this year is swallowing my reading.

So I’m going to let that go. I’m going to start fresh, and write about the books I’m reading now, and get to the ones I get to. Something is better than nothing. If I have some kind of miraculous infusion of extra time, I might even get to the books I read earlier! (Whew. I feel better already.)

Some of you may already know that Laurie Colwin is one of my favorite authors. Her novels are perfect: funny without being farces, serious without being heavy. Besides her novels and short stories, she also wrote a column for Gourmet magazine. Home Cooking (and its sequel, More Home Cooking) is a collection of these columns, and it, too, is exactly right: funny, touching, practical, wise. She has chapters on many of the food situations we all find ourselves in, whether we like it or not: food disasters, finding ourselves alone in the kitchen with an eggplant, cooking for a crowd, making our own version of comfort food. The book is half memoir and half practical application, and Colwin talks about her days in a tiny kitchen in Manhattan, draining her pasta in her bathtub because her kitchen sink was too small, or making hundreds of tuna fish sandwiches at a protest for the SDS in the sixties. Most of the chapters contain a recipe for something you might not expect: toasted cheese, beef tea, rosti, shepherd’s pie for 150 people. By the time you read the recipe, you’ll be expecting the unexpected, though. In fact, you’ll wonder how you did without it.

This was a re-read for me, and as many re-reads can be, it was deeply comforting and pleasurable. Not only is Laurie Colwin a wonderful writer, she reassured me that I’m still capable of deriving pleasure from the books I love, and that I still belong here on the blog.

Posted in Food, Memoir, Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 30 Comments

Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading

shelfdiscoverySomehow in my recent Internet wanderings I stumbled on a blog (the link now lost to me) that was devoted to old-school young adult and middle grade books, the kinds of books I found in the small young adult section at the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks at the mall in the early 1980s and the ones featured in the Scholastic book catalog—the books I read when I wasn’t quite a teenager but wildly curious about what being a teenager would be like. Books by Ellen Conford, Lois Duncan, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Willo Davis Roberts in her Sunfire-writing days. From what I remember, these weren’t books that adults typically read, unless they were librarians, teachers, or curious parents. And although I continued to reread this books throughout high school, I too stopped reading these books when I became an adult. I might pick up a highly recommended new YA book by the likes of Maggie Stiefvater or Diane Wynne Jones or an esteemed classic by Susan Cooper but those particular books that got me through my preteen years have remained in my past.

Yet even though I can’t quite cop to the “we never stopped reading” part of the title of this book by Lizzie Skurnick, those books I read over and over at age 11 or so are imprinted in my brain. And seeing those covers again on that blog I’ve already lost track off brought back all those intense preteen feelings. I decided it might be fun to indulge that nostalgia by reading this collection of essays, many of them originally featured in the Fine Lines column at Jezebel.

Skurnick describes her own memory of these books in the introduction:

It might have begun with the covers. Most were either snapshots or looked like soft paintings of snapshots (whither, whither the painted cover?), with girls who were neither good-looking nor not-good-looking, girls in glasses, with braces, standing in front of the mirror or smiling happily in the arms of a boy, glowering in front of a locker, standing with bonnet and hoop skirt on a lonely plane, girls with head, feet, and body miraculously intact. There they were, waiting for the tug on the string that would start them moving and speaking.

In them, I found a window, a scrying glass, into a complex consciousness, a life like my own, but writ large in all of its messy ambiguity. Nothing, as of yet, had happened to me. But there was the world, and everything happening in it, right in the bright row of spines. It was waiting for me to pull out the next chapter, to turn the book over, to open the first page and read.

Skurnick—and a few notable authors like Jennifer Weiner, Meg Cabot, and Tayari Jones—revisit books that meant something to them when they were young. The essays largely look at the books from both the adult and young adult perspective, as Skurnick considers why the book appealed to her back then and what she sees in it now. She gushes about the kinds of things that seemed gushy-worthy to her younger self—roasting a pig’s tail in Little House in the Big Woods—and comments on the mature themes she missed as a child (and the mature content she pored over in wonder). There are exclamation marks and ALL CAPS!!! when the situation warrants, but the book is more than a squee-fest. Skurnick is thoughtful in her approach to these books.

So many of my favorites came up, and I enjoyed the essays on all of them, if only for the pleasing shiver of recognition when Skurnick mentions incidents like Davey’s searching for a rock when she first encounters Wolf in the canyon in Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. (Tiger Eyes was my favorite Judy Blume book.) Blume makes frequent appearances here, and reading Skurnick’s essays helped me remember why I loved her books so much. I needed It’s Not the End of the World, for example, when my parents got divorced. Her books consistently let kids know they’re not alone in their worries and fears, and they take those worries seriously without offering pat answers or pretending that everything will be fine while also sending a clear message that even if life isn’t what you want, you’ll find a way through. It hadn’t even occurred to me until reading this how few of Blume’s book have a proper happy ending—they tend to end with the main characters moving on to a new phase, having found some new strength.

Other beloved books I revisited through Skurnick were Caroline by Willo Davis Roberts, Fifteen by Beverly Cleary, Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (one of the few books Skurnick acknowledges is terrible in hindsight), Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt, Stranger with My Face by Lois Duncan, and Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. These are the books that are seared into my brain. There were lots of others that I remember reading and enjoying: Bridge of Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, and Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan.

I thought I had read  Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck, My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger, and The Grounding of Group Six by Julian F. Thompson, but those plots didn’t sound even a little bit familiar. And a quote involving six yellow pencils and three stenographic pads convinced me that I read The Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene even though I have no other memory of it. (That image, though! Seared into my brain!)

I enjoyed many of the pieces about books I hadn’t read, many of them well-known classics I should have read (there’s Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh and The Secret Garden and The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett). But a few of the essays were well-nigh incomprehensible. For some reason, the books by Madeleine L’Engle seemed completely nuts. (There are pieces on A Wrinkle in Time, which I’ve read, and The Arm of the Starfish, The Moon by Night, and A Ring of Endless Night, which I have not.) There was something about talking to dolphins in one and a whole bunch of overlapping relationships—I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but it sounded weirdly good.

Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough, but I couldn’t resist letting this go without leaving you a collage of some of the covers that I remember so vividly from my preteen and early teen reading. What are some of the books you can’t forget? Do any of these ring a bell?

Incidentally, Lizzie Skurnick has her own imprint now, dedicated to putting classic young adult books back in print. I don’t see any of my particular favorite books there, but I do see some beloved authors. Part of me would really enjoy revisiting some of them to see if they hold up to my adult sensibilities, and another part would rather bask in my memories.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Nonfiction | 26 Comments

The Poisoned Chocolates Case

Poisoned ChocolatesThe Crimes Circle had been meeting for about five months when the group’s president, Roger Sheringham, brought a special guest to one of their dinners. The guest, Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard, provided the evening’s entertainment in the form of a problem that had been vexing the police. Joan Bendix had recently died after eating some poisoned chocolates. The chocolates had been given to her by her husband, Graham, who had obtained them from Sir Eustace Pennefather when they happened to meet at their club. Sir Eustace received the chocolates in the mail as a free sample—a free sample that in retrospect looks awfully suspicious. Sir Eustace has plenty of enemies, but the police cannot figure out which of them might have sent the chocolates, and so Moresby is bringing the case to the Crimes Circle. And so we have the problem of the 1929 novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley.

Sheringham was confident that this group offered “more solid criminological genius” that you would be likely to find anywhere. After all, “entry into the charmed Crimes Circle’s dinners was not to be gained by all and hungry. It was not enough for a would-be member to profess an adoration for murder and let it go at that; he or she had got to prove that they were capable of worthily wearing their criminological spurs.” So far, only six people had met the requirements for entry.

The group members agreed to each take a turn a proposing a solution to the poisoned chocolates mystery, and over the course of the next six weeks, they each shared their solution with the group. The book’s charm is not so much in the mystery but in the unveiling of each character’s approach to solving it and the tearing down of each solution in turn as the members of the Circle react to each proposed solution. Each suggestion seems plausible, yet each one contains some flaw. As the book goes on, group members build on others’ findings, and the discussion gets contentious. It doesn’t help that a few of the members have a personal connection to the case.

A few aspects of the story are quite predictable. The way it’s structured makes one aspect of the ending nearly inevitable. But the fun of the book is in watching the club members tussle over the case. I had a vague sort of theory about the case myself after reading the set-up, and I enjoyed seeing the club members hover over some of the same ideas I considered.

Anthony Berkeley is actually the pen name for Anthony Berkeley Cox, a Golden Age mystery writer who also wrote under the pseudonyms Francis Iles and A Monmouth Platts. As Francis Iles, he wrote the marvelous Before the Fact, which was the basis of the Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion. (It occurs to me, having just seen Gone Girl this weekend, that Before the Fact and Gone Girl would make interesting companion reads. They have a lot of themes in common.) This book doesn’t have a lot in common with Before the Fact, but it’s excellent in a different way. If these two books are representative of the quality of Cox’s work, it’s unfortunate that he’s not more widely known today.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries | 10 Comments

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine

GodsHotelFor the last couple of years, I’ve been dealing with a handful of minor but annoying health issues—the kinds of things that I can live with as they are now but want to deal with so they don’t get worse. I’ve had good medical care in general, but I’ve sometimes been aggravated at how each symptom is treated as a discrete problem, unconnected to my other complaints. I’ve kind of wished for someone to sit down and really look over my whole history and see which problems might link up and point to a particular root cause.

I thought a lot about this when I was reading Victoria Sweet’s memoir about her years as a doctor at the Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. This old-fashioned hospital, in which patients stayed in large open wards, was actually an almshouse, a place where the elderly or poor who needed long-term care were sent. She worked at Laguna Honda for more than 20 years, and during that time, she also was studying the medieval medical practices of Hildegard of Bingen. What could a 12th-century nun teach a modern medical doctor about healing the body? Sweet found value in what she saw of Hildegard’s mind-set:

I began to understand that the premodern system was based on the gardener’s understanding of the world, and that Hildegard took a gardener’s approach to the body, not a mechanic’s or a computer programmer’s. She did not focus down to the cellular level of the body; instead, she stood back from her patient and looked around. She calculated in her mind not just the internal balance of the four humors, but the whole balance of her patient within and as part of his environment. With that numberless measure, she manipulated and rebalanced the environment inside of and outside her patient. She did so slowly, like a gardener, by fussing and fiddling, doing a little of this and a little of that. Then she waited to see what would happen. Which is to say that she followed the patient’s body; she did not lead.

Through her study and her work at Laguna Honda, Sweet came to believe that something that she calls slow medicine might have answers for us today. Slow medicine involves not just doctors taking time to give patients a thorough work-up but also patients having time to rest and heal in a calm setting with good food and good cheer (or as she calls them, Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merryman).

Sweet does not deny the value of modern medicine—far from it. Modern drugs and tests and treatments are important tools, and she uses them. But her focus is not just on applying those treatments to solve a pressing problem; she also looks for ways to remove obstructions that prevent healing. The modern and premodern are both tools in her toolkit.

The kind of treatment offered at Laguna Honda was not clearly cost-effective—although one wonders if it could be in the long-term—and the hospital was often under attack from efficiency experts and money crunchers who wanted the hospital to follow more standard practices. Sweet describes some of the struggles the staff faced as administrators came and went and new rules came down. Eventually, the old hospital building closed, replaced by a more modern building, but Sweet’s initial tour of the facility left her less than confident that the update was a true step forward.

The book follows these multiple threads, with most chapters looking at a lesson from Hildegard or Sweet’s later pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the administrative issues at Laguna Honda, and a patient whose story seemed relevant. The story follows what seems to be a chronological order, although I was vexed at the lack of dates in the book. Particularly when looking at the hospital’s evolution over time, I really wanted to know how quickly things were happening. I suspect that the timeline of patients and the hospital timeline didn’t dovetail neatly, but I don’t think that would necessarily be a problem. The lack of dates, on the other hand, was. The administrative issues were the least interesting part of the book, but the confusion wrought by the lack of dates made the already bewildering process of change even harder to follow.

Sometimes, too, the connections between the particular patients, Hildegard, and Laguna Honda weren’t as clear as they could be—they seemed chosen to fit the structure, rather than to illustrate a point. It’s a hard balance. I wouldn’t want the examples to be too pat or obvious, but I do want to understand what the various bits and pieces have to do with each other. If the book had been shorter, there might have been less of this seemingly off-point wandering, and the main points of the book would still have been explored. This is not quite an article expanded to the length of a book, but that doesn’t mean the book wouldn’t have benefited from some trimming.

Still, I appreciated Sweet’s approach to medicine very much. It seems like we’d all be better off if our doctors really could take time to listen to our whole story and not just look for patches to cover the latest symptom.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 4 Comments

Joe Cinque’s Consolation

joe_cinques_consolationIn October 1997, a young man named Joe Cinque died of an apparent heroin overdose in his house outside Canberra. His girlfriend, a law student named Anu Singh, was arrested for giving him the heroin, as well as a large dose of Rohypnol, as part of what appeared to be a murder/suicide. Two days later, Anu’s friend Madhavi Rao was also charged with murder for her involvement in the plot.

Helen Garner learned of the case in 1999, after the trial had begun. A friend put her onto it, thinking that she was interested in stories like this, stories of women at “the end of their tether.” At the time, Garner herself was at the end of her tether, having just divorced and lacking a job. So she decided to look into the story:

I understand now that I went to Canberra because the breakup of my marriage had left me humiliated and angry. I wanted to look at women who were accused of murder. I wanted to gaze at them and hear their voices, to see the shape of their bodies and how they moved and gestured, to watch the expressions on their faces. I needed to find out if anything made them different from me: whether I could trust myself to keep the lid on the vengeful, punitive force that was in me, as it is in everyone—the wildness that one keeps in a cage, releasing it only in dreams and fantasy.

The story Garner tells morphs over the course of her telling. She begins with an account of the case as presented in court, where we learn of Joe and Anu and their circle of friends and acquaintances—this circle that stood by and didn’t do anything despite hearing the whispers of Anu’s plans to commit suicide, possibly taking Joe with her. Some even attended a dinner party rumored to be Anu’s farewell, yet they remained silent until after the fact, talking only with one another, if they talked at all.

Anu’s case was built on the notion that she was mentally ill and thus had diminished responsibility for her actions. Her history showed signs of eating disorders, drug abuse, mental instability, and some sort of personality disorder. Her parents, both doctors who had immigrated to Australia from India, had tried to get her some help. But there was no help to be had; in fact, it seemed that most people around Anu just gave her what she wanted, even when it was obviously a bad idea. Her father actually paid a deposit for her to get liposuction, even though she was extremely thin.

Garner’s account of these events is as much an account of her investigation as it is the story of Joe, Anu, and Madhavi. By structuring her book this way, she seems to be trying to follow in the footsteps of Janet Malcolm in The Silent Womanmy hunch about that was pretty much confirmed when she eventually mention Malcolm’s book. Malcolm’s book is brilliant, and I can see why Garner would want to follow her approach, but it doesn’t work so well here. In writing about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Malcolm was taking on a story that had been told and retold to the point that all those tellings were now part of the story. While the Cinque case was well-known in Australia at the time, it hadn’t been talked about for decades, nor did Garner spend much time discussing public opinion. Her descriptions of who she ate lunch with at the trial seem less compelling than Malcolm’s accounts of tea with a known Plath supporter. I appreciated some of Garner’s introspection about the story and the direction it was taking, especially toward the end, but her approach left a lot of holes that I really wanted to see filled.

Garner’s way of crafting her story works best toward the end, when she turns the story toward Joe himself. Whatever Anu’s reasons were for doing what she did, Joe was gone, and friends and family was grieving. And focusing on Anu’s perspective meant Joe was lost yet again. Seeing Garner’s process of making this decision to look into Joe’s life and leave Anu alone was helpful, yet tacking on a couple of chapters at the end seems small, almost like she needed an ending and this was what she was left with.

The thing is, Anu’s case raises some huge questions that Garner barely touches on. Anu’s crime seems largely to stem from her mental illness, the nature of which is never entirely clear. Her sentence is based on the idea that her mental illness gave her diminished responsibility, which makes sense while also seeming dreadfully wrong. There are so many layers to this question, and I really wanted to hear from more experts on mental illness and personality disorders, perhaps even to hear about similar cases and how they panned out. Joe’s parents are horrified at the injustice, and Garner spends a lot of time on their grief. It would have been interesting, though, to have heard from other grieving survivors, perhaps even some who saw the killer of their loved one facing more serious punishment.

Another big question has to do with bystanders and conspirators. Madhavi’s case gets into this question, but not very deeply. I wanted more about the group psychology that would cause people to come to a supposed farewell/suicide party like it was no big deal. At a couple of points, after the long process of killing Joe began, Anu talked to people who told her she needed to call an ambulance and get help. Why did they leave it to Anu? Even if Garner couldn’t get answers for this specific case—and there probably aren’t good answers—it would have been fascinating to put these people’s actions in a larger context of how group dynamics can cause terrible things like this to happen.

I wasn’t at all familiar with this case, and that made the story on its own interesting, but the limited commentary connecting it to other cases or to larger issues made it feel slight, even self-indulgent. It felt like Garner was just writing it as she went along, without taking any steps outside the narrative that presented itself. A missed opportunity for some good, hard-hitting journalism.

Posted in Nonfiction | 6 Comments

Under My Skin

UnderMySkinIt took me a few weeks to get through this book, the first volume of Doris Lessing’s autobiography, published in 1994. This wasn’t because the book is particularly long or difficult, nor is it because I didn’t like reading it. It’s because Lessing’s writing here is the type that I needed to spend time with to appreciate it. I couldn’t read it in a hurry.

Doris Lessing was born in 1919 to a former World War I soldier and the nurse who took care of him during his hospitalization after losing a leg. The couple was living in Persia when Doris was born, but in 1925 they moved to Rhodesia, where Doris lived until 1949, when she moved to London and this autobiography ends.

Early in the book, Lessing acknowledges the difficultly inherent in autobiography:

Telling the truth or not telling it, and how much, is a lesser problem than the one of shifting perspectives, for you see your life differently at different stages, like climbing a mountain while the landscape changes with every turn in the path. Had I written the when I was thirty, it would have been a pretty combative document. In my forties, a wail of despair and guilt: oh my God, how could I have done this or that? Now I look back at that child, that girl, that young woman, with a more and more detached curiosity. Old people may be observed peering into their pasts, Why?—they are asking themselves. How did that happen? I try to see my past selves as someone else might, and then put myself back inside one of them, and am at once submerged in a hot struggle of emotion, justified by thoughts and ideas I now judge wrong.

Besides, the landscape itself is a tricky thing. As you start to write at once the question begins to insist: Why do you remember this and not that? Why do you remember every detail a whole week, month, more, of a long ago year, but then complete dark, a blank? How do you know that what you remember is more important than what you don’t?

Good questions all, though Lessing does not answer them in this book. She just gets on with the work of telling her own story as she remembers it.

Much of the book involves her early hunger to break free from her parents. From an early age, she harbors a lot of anger toward them, especially her mother, although she never quite identifies a clear reason for her anger. Some of it has to do with her mother’s desire to live an upper-class English life in Africa, where such a life is neither feasible nor desirable. There are also her parents’ physical and mental health problems. Not long after the family finished their farmhouse, Doris’s mother took to her bed with what she called a bad heart. Doris was enraged at the time, but looking back, she’s more sympathetic:

Now I understand why she went to bed. In that year she underwent that inner reconstruction which most of us have to do at least once in a life. You relinquish what you had believed you must have to live at all.

Some of Doris’s feelings toward her parents probably arose from fear, from seeing herself in them. Here, she considers her attitude at age 14:

Oh my God, the unforgiving clarity of the adolescent, sharpened by fear that this might be your fate too. “I will not, I will not,” I kept repeating to myself, like a mantra.

Eventually, her desire to be free led her to leave school and live with other families as often as she could, getting work as a nursemaid.

Getting free from her family, however, did not mean getting the freedom she craved. By 1939, she was married. She adored her babies, but she didn’t adore being part of the circle of young mothers. Something else to break free from.

Her next move took her into the world of left-wing politics, where she met Gottfried Lessing. The chapters describing her work with the Communist groups of Rhodesia are among the most interesting in the book, not because of the politics but because of the group dynamics that could apply to almost any group of impassioned people. She writes about the power struggles within the group, the shifting allegiances and priorities, and the tendency to become insular and suspicious of everyone not on the inside.

One particularly insightful section discusses the language she and her cohorts used, phrases like “capitalist hyenas, social democratic treachery, running dogs of Fascism, lackeys of the ruling class, and so on.” When she and her friends were first introduced to this kind of language, they couldn’t take it seriously:

We could not use it without laughing … We put the phrases between inverted commas, or exchanged glances while demurely mouthing them. Dorothy Schwartz was particularly good at this, pronouncing that such and such a public figure was a lickspittle of the ruling class with infantile left-wing disorders, while her eyes rolled gently, and her voice fell like an Anglican bishop’s reaching the peroration of his sermon. Slowly, but within months, the abusive rhetoric was set aside.

Lessing remarks that when she wrote The Good Terrorist, which used events from this period, she received many letters from readers who were also part of left-wing groups that did not give up on this rhetoric. In fact, they said, ” ‘The language took them over’ and they became ruthless and efficient killing groups.” Lessing reflects on this with thoughts that seem relevant now:

We should be careful of the company we keep—and the language we use. Regimes, whole countries, have been taken over by language spreading like a virus from minds whose substance is hate and envy. When armies are teaching soldiers to kill, the instructors are careful to put hateful epithets into their mouths: easy to kill a degenerate gook or or black monkey. When torturers teach apprentices their trade, they learn from an ugly lexicon. When revolutionary groups plan coups, their opponents are moral defectives. When they burned witches, it was to the accompaniment of a litany of calumny.

Hateful, dehumanizing language can come from people who are otherwise in the right, and once that kind of language takes over, right becomes wrong. It’s something to be careful of in a time when quippy but mean-spirited terms for people who are different from us can go viral and spread far beyond our immediate circles.

Before reading this, I’d only read Lessing’s final novel, Alfred and Emily, which I didn’t like very much. I did, however, like the writing, and the novel’s use of Lessing’s parents’ histories made me curious about Lessing’s life, which is one reason I decided to read this. I wondered if my lack of familiarity with Lessing’s other work would be a problem, and it wasn’t. When the book ends, she’s still in the process of getting her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, published, so she doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the writing of a bunch of books I don’t know anything about. She mentions her other books when describing people and places that inspired those books, but she doesn’t let the allusion to those works stand in for a full description of those people and places. For me, this book could stand entirely alone as a well-written book by a woman who lived in interesting times. But after reading this, I am interested in reading more of Lessing’s work. If you’ve read Lessing, what would you recommend?

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 14 Comments

The Guide: A #Diversiverse Review

The GuideJust two days after his release from prison, a man named Raju is sitting cross-legged by an ancient shrine when a man named Velan approaches him seeking advice. His sister is supposed to be married, but she has run away. Raju doesn’t know Velan or his sister, nor does he care much about them, but he’s in the habit of giving advice after years as a tour guide. And he’s used to his advice being appreciated, even when it’s completely off-the-mark. So he gives advice and gains a devotee.

This 1958 novel by R. K. Narayan tells the story of Raju’s various rises to power—and what that power does to him. One storyline, told in the third person, shows Raju, the ex-con, winning disciples almost in spite of himself. This narrative alternates with Raju’s first-person account of his life as a tour guide and the relationship that eventually landed him in prison.

The juxtaposition of the two narratives makes the book difficult to follow at first, but it helps to show just how Raju operates—and he is an operator. He may not look for opportunities to be deceitful, but when opportunities arise, he takes them. He plays the part that people expect of him, passively at first, but once he sees an angle the benefits him, he fully immerses himself in the new persona.

But being a spiritual guide is not the same as being a tour guide, and soon the role is out of his hands, and the people are in charge. It’s at this point that the narrative reverts almost entirely to the first-person flashback, as Raju tries to make a clean breast of it and reveal to his most devoted disciple who he really is.

It’s at this point that we sees Raju’s third guide persona, when he takes on the task of guiding a beautiful dancer named Rosie to her future. The relationship began as one of lust but turned into yet another opportunity to play an angle. Raju uses Rosie’s talent to build his own fame and fortune, but he didn’t know when to stop. And so he lost what he had gained.

Raju presents himself as charming and pleasant and oh, so helpful, but in truth, he’s only out for himself. All his efforts to help others are ways to serve himself. He gives little thought to what people actually want, only how he can make them appreciate his efforts. Sometimes his efforts do some good. He gave many tourists the holiday they wanted, and he gave Rosie massive success although whether Rosie was happy is an open question—and it’s evident that to Raju she’s a possession, not a person. His advice to spiritual seekers isn’t necessarily bad, but that’s mostly because it’s vague enough for people to apply however they see fit.

The book ends with Raju’s final role coming to an end, and readers are left to wonder why he chooses to end his work the way he does (or seems to). Is he repentant and trying to be the guru people want? Is he in despair over the way things turned out? Or is he hoping for greater glory? I can’t quite make up my mind on this point. He seems utterly humbled by the end, but I’m not convinced his final act is one of humility.


DiversiverseI’ve had this book on my shelves for years, but I made a point of reading and reviewing it this week as part of Aarti’s #Diversiverse event. R. K. Narayan is a noted Indian author whose career spanned much of the 20th century. This is the first of his books that I’ve read.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 8 Comments

Meeting Sarah Waters

One of the advantages of living just outside a major city like Washington, DC, is that lots of great authors come through town. If Politics and Prose were around the corner, I’d be there often because they get lots of authors I’m moderately interested in, but driving all across DC requires more than moderate interest. It requires an author to be among my very favorites. It requires an author to be someone like Sarah Waters.

Waters was at Politics and Prose to promote her new book, The Paying Guests, which I thought was quite good, although not a favorite. I’ve liked it more and more as I’ve reflected on it, and hearing her discuss it made me even more appreciative of the characters.

Her visit was set up as an interview with Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress. I have mixed feelings about this set-up. I can see its value in that it keeps the author from having to prepare remarks that could seemed canned after a while. But the last author event I went to (Jhumpa Lahiri) involved an interviewer who gave away multiple plot points to an audience of readers who had only bought the book that night. Blake was much more cautious about what she revealed. At one point her question got kind of long as she waxed eloquent about how great Waters’s books are, but for the most part, it was a good conversation, and there was plenty of time for audience questions.

Sarah Waters reads from The Paying Guests

Sarah Waters reads from The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests was apparently a challenge for Waters to write because she knew less about the period than she did for her previous books. Much of the literature of the time focuses on the upper classes, and she decided she wanted to write about ordinary people. A couple of well-known murder trials from the period gave her the idea of what the story could be. But as she worked on the book, she got stymied about what kind of book it was. Her agent thought it seemed like a crime novel complicated by love, and she realized from that comment that what she wanted was a love story complicated by crime. That latter insight helps me wrap my mind around the ending a bit better. I’m much more of a crime novel reader than a love story reader, so I was looking for a crime novel ending.

Perhaps my favorite moment from the talk was when she mentioned that she started with the end in mind when she wrote The Little Stranger. This is perhaps my favorite of her books, mostly because of the ending. That final paragraph is breath-taking. It sends a chill down my spine to even think of it. I had gone back and forth about whether to bring The Little Stranger or Fingersmith to the signing, so that comment made me especially glad I’d decided on The Little Stranger. (Politics and Prose does not require those attending a signing to buy a book, so I usually bring my favorite book by that author and buy something else if I don’t want or already have the book being promoted.)

2014-09-19 21.28.14When I brought my book to the table I told her how I love it, especially the ending. She seemed pleased to hear it and remarked that she’s gotten lots of complaints from readers who are confused about what was going on. When I told her that I’ve suggested people reread the last paragraph, she said that’s basically what she does too. That was a pretty awesome fangirl moment for me! (Really, the last paragraph unlocks the book. It doesn’t settle every question, but it answers the main one.)

The whole event was a delight. I only wish all my favorites could come to DC. Lucky for me, next month brings Marilynne Robinson. And Stephen King. Marlon James and Colm Toibin might be worth the cross-town trip too. And Stephen Pinker could be pretty interesting. Well, there goes my October!

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle

we-have-always-lived-in-the-castleHere’s what I knew about this novel by Shirley Jackson before I started reading it. It’s creepy. There’s an old house and some sisters, maybe some ghosts, and lots of secrets. And it’s really very creepy. So not much. I’ve seen it mentioned on a lot of blogs, but either I’ve been forgetting the reviews as soon as I read them or the blog reviews are scant on details. (Given that I mostly remember books by blogging about them, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that the blog reviews I’ve read explained the premise in detail but that I forgot. Maybe I need to start a book blog blog so I can better remember reviews.)

Anyway, my review will not be particularly scant on detail, but I will try to avoid big spoilers. I say try because the nature of these characters’ story is revealed slowly, and some people will consider early reveals to be spoilers. I do not.

So I was right in thinking that this book was about sisters. Two sisters. Merricat Blackwood, our narrator, is the younger sister. She’s the one who runs errands into town so that her older sister, Constance, doesn’t have to. Merricat tell us early on that most of her family is dead. Her wheelchair-bound uncle, Julian, still survives and lives with Merricat and Constance. The townspeople have viewed the family, especially Constance, with suspicion ever since the rest of the Blackwoods were poisoned with arsenic that had been mixed in the sugar bowl.

The deaths are the first of the terrible things to happen to the sisters—the terrible thing that happened in the past. But some other terrible thing is looming. Merricat hints at it when the novel opens:

The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf. We rarely moved things; the Blackwoods were never much  of a family for restlessness and stirring.

The Blackwoods seem to live by routine. The routine keeps them safe. It enables them to care for each other. Staying at home is one way to preserve the routine and keep out the suspicions and demands of the outside world. Shirley Jackson was herself agoraphobic, and the Blackwoods’ sense of safety in the home feels both absolutely right and horribly wrong. The world is terrifying, especially when the neighbors are cruel and suspicious. But the world will not be easily turned away.

For the Blackwoods, the world comes to the door in the person of a cousin, Charles. His arrival brings to the surface Constance’s feeling that their current isolation cannot, perhaps should not, last forever. Isolation may be safe, but what would it cost to preserve it?

Of course, a great cataclysm eventually occurs, but I think the bigger cataclysm is internal. Actually, it may be the lack of cataclysm that’s the biggest thing. However you might look at it, the drama of this book is internal. Death and destruction pale in comparison to the breaking of a mind. It’s not houses or neighbors or routines that imprison, it’s minds. It’s minds that are creepy. It’s minds that contain ghosts. The terror of this book is all in the mind.

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A Kid for Two Farthings

Kid for Two FarthingsThis 1953 novel by Wolf Mankowitz is set in a Jewish neighborhood London’s East End, where a little boy named Joe lives with his mother, His father has gone to Africa for reasons that aren’t fully explained (to work in the mines, I assumed), and so Joe’s mother supports them by working in a milliner’s shop. Their downstairs neighbor, a tailor named Mr. Kandinsky, is a central figure in Joe’s life, eating meals with Joe and his mother and keeping a friendly eye on Joe when his mother is away at work and Joe is left free to wander the neighborhood.

It’s Mr. Kandinsky who tells Joe about the power of unicorns to grant wishes, and Joe, who wants to see him and his neighbors all get the things the want, decides that a unicorn would be a much better pet than the day-old chicks he regularly buys at the market only to have them die soon after. So Joe heads to the market in search of a unicorn, and at the end of the market, he finds one. Its horn hasn’t grown in, and its legs are twisted, but Joe must have it. The little goat unicorn, soon named Africana, becomes Joe’s constant companion, as Joe imagines them going to Africa together, finding their parents, and having great adventures.

This is a light little book, meant, I think, to be charming and sweet while also revealing some of the difficulties of working-class life—a celebration of the imagination and innocence of children and the power of hope even in hard times. I, however, couldn’t quite connect with it. Some scenes were amusing. Joe’s imaginings about his African adventures were fun. And the ending, involving a marriage proposal and a bittersweet farewell. And I appreciated the way the adults generally handled Joe’s fantasies with kindness. Yet…

I think part of what was going on for me is that I needed more context. The Bloomsbury edition offers no introduction or background information. Joe’s father’s journey to Africa may have been a common sort of thing at the time of the story, but given the adults’ tendency to feed Joe fantasy, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Africa story was a euphemism for some other abandonment.

I also couldn’t stop fretting about Africana. He’s a sickly baby goat living under a table in a tailor’s shop! Several characters do express concern about his health, observing that a “unicorn” like him should be lively and “full of beans,” but it takes them much too long to do anything about it. I know that standards around animal treatment vary across times and places, and there’s no actual cruelty here. Still, Africana was suffering, and I wanted someone to help, and my worry about him kept me from sinking in to the rest of the story. (Things turn out well on that score—or as well as can be expected.)

Have you ever had niggling worries like this that take you out of a story?

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