In This House of Brede (1969) – Rumer Godden
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994) – Lorrie Moore
Warlight (2018) – Michael Ondaatje
I Wrote This Book Because I Love You (2018) – Tim Kreider (essays)
In June, a friend recommended Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, and a long dormant memory cell lit up. I had read The River when I was in 8th or 9th grade. Although I couldn’t remember the story, I did remember the pleasure in reading it, an exotic author taking me to India, a land of lush greens and brilliant colors.
Well, a quick search on Rumer Godden revealed that she was Margaret Rumer Godden, and while she was living in India as an expat she ran “Peggy’s School of Dance.” So much for exotic author. But she was a prolific British writer who received the OBE, so I carried on with the book, which depicted a world that could not have been farther from the India of The River. The quick Wikipedia synopsis is “Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her comfortable life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community of contemplative nuns.” Frankly, the book was more of a chronicle than a novel, setting out details of liturgical life and relating high and low moments for the order, without much of an engaging narrative arc. I couldn’t generate a lively interest in a closed order in an abbey near an English country town. I couldn’t keep track of the various nuns and their titles. And I couldn’t shake a sense of claustrophobia while I read. Having said that, the first chapter, describing Philippa’s preparations for leaving the outside world and the people who loved her, and the last chapter, describing Philippa’s departure for a new community even farther removed from Worcestershire are so exquisite that reading the whole book was almost worth it. It was a reverse Wizard of Oz. The first and last chapters are written in Technicolor, while the main story is all grey tones
The other two novels are works by a new favorite writer and an old favorite writer.
In Moore’s second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, narrator Berie Carr, vacationing in Paris with her husband, reflects back on the summer she was 15, when she and her best friend Sils worked at Storyland in Horsehearts, their small town in upstate New York. Moore captures the desultory pace of a small town in the summer of 1972, the close friendships teenage girls develop, the uncertain sexual ground the girls walk, and the reckless paths that they can choose without thinking. When Sils gets into trouble, Berie crosses a line in order to help her and is caught. The summer is shattered, with Berie effectively banished from Horsehearts. Berie goes on to private school and college, to a career as a photographic curator and marriage to a physician—surely what ought to be considered a successful escape from a small town. Yet none of these later stages brings Berie any joy, and her marriage is tense. For Berie, that small-town time, not only with her best friend but also with other girls in her class, shimmers golden, as is captured in a beautiful elegy to her high school’s Girls Choir. While it might not sound like the jolliest story, this slim volume is a gem and a joy to read. Moore’s humor and humanity shine through her elegant prose.
I loved The English Patient. I read it slowly, savoring the writing as well the romance of the story. When the movie came out, I refused to see it—in spite of its illustrious cast. I didn’t want the movie on the screen to disturb the movie in my head. I liked Warlight, which came out a couple months ago, but it is no English Patient. I have to confess, I may have read it too fast to really take it all in. Set in London and in the nearby counties, the novel is a mystery story. Why do the parents of 14-year-old Nathaniel and 16-year-old Rachel take off during the last days of World War II and leave them in the care of a disreputable cast of characters? Nathaniel narrates from a vantage point of 14 years later, so it is also a bit of a coming of age novel. The first section focuses on the immediate year or so after his parents disappear, with later sections going back and forth between those teen years and his perspective as an adult. He does eventually unravel the mystery and, without giving too much away, it turns out that the mother is more hero than villain. Yet Nathaniel always remains detached from her story. And I remained detached from Nathaniel, just wanting to get to the solution of the mystery. Even then the facts resist clarity, and perhaps that was Ondaatje’s goal: to tell a tale only partially visible through “warlight”— the dim, foggy light of a London night during the blitz when black-out curtains were drawn. One could only see events cloaked in mist. They could never be discerned clearly.
I fell for Tim Kreider on August 4, 2014, the day I read his essay “A Man and His Cat” in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. The essay opens with, “I lived with the same cat for 19 years — by far the longest relationship of my adult life. Under common law, this cat was my wife.” The essay touches on how people over-invest in their pets, the money we over-spend on pets, the pathological syndrome of over-attachment to an inappropriate object. Mostly it’s about how Tim Kreider loves his cat. Not how much he loves his cat, but funny, self-effacing examples of how he loves his cat. I immediately Googled him and found he had published a collection of essays in 2012, We Learn Nothing. Amazon Prime delivered it two days later, and I had gobbled it up by the next afternoon. The essays were wide-ranging – personal stories, comic sketches, astute observations — with the same funny, self-effacing, voice, but sometimes with a touch of pleasant snark and often with salty language that must have been held in check for the NYT. I added the book to my “saved” essay collections that I keep within an arm’s length of my writing desk.
When his next collection, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You, came out earlier this year, I gobbled that one up, too. In each essay, Kreider limns an affectionate, often loopy, occasionally learned look at an episode in which a different dearly loved woman — ex-girlfriend, close friend (sometimes with benefits), confidant, counselor, co-conspirator — has a starring role. The cast includes an actress and an artist, a schoolteacher and a sex worker, a child development researcher and a pastor of a Brooklyn church, his mother… and his cat (in a revised version of the NYT piece). For an epigraph, Kreider quotes Fred (“Mister”) Rogers: “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.” While Kreider may be a self-professed failure at making romantic commitment, he excels at giving this best gift, the gift of his honest self. He has given this to the women and to the readers. He can be “hilarious and profound,” witty and wry. He is sentimental without being sappy, and he wears his heart on his sleeve as often as he holds his head in his hands in reaction his own faults and fancies. Reading the essays made me wish that I could be one of Tim Kreider’s friends.