During August I was immersed in a line-editing project, a memoir by a physician who shares a practice with her husband in rural upstate New York. Her story of how she got there after running away from home at 16 to study sculpture in New York City and how she has lived her life serving an under-served community is fascinating. For someone like me who loves to play with grammar and punctuation and word choice, line editing is fun. It is also very time- and attention-intensive. To give my brain the occasional break, I read a bunch of novels, several of them on the light side. (More about all of them when I eventually get to writing about August.) I do want to share now, though, a passage from one of the funniest of the books, Dear Committee Members (Julie Schumacher). The “hero” is an English professor at a liberal arts college where the liberal arts are now getting short shrift. He often has to write letters of recommendation for his students who are seeking jobs far afield from literature. For all my fellow English majors out there, this recommendation is for you:
“Belatedly it occurs to me that some members of your HR committee, a few skeptical souls, may be clutching a double strand of worry beads and wondering aloud about the practicality or usefulness of a degree in English rather than, say, computers. Be assured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express. His intellect can be put to broad use. The computer major, by contrast, is a technician—a plumber clutching a single, albeit shining, box of tools.”
And now to the books this English major read during June…
Late in the Day (2019) – Tessa Hadley
The Grammarians (2019) – Cathleen Schine
The Art of the Wasted Day (2018) – Patricia Hampl
Save Me the Plums (2019) – Ruth Reichl
Reviewers had lots of praise for Late in the Day, so I am definitively in the minority in finding this novel a disappointment. (I am usually a fan of Tessa Hadley. This is #7 for me.) The main characters are two couples (Christine and Alec, Lydia and Zach) who have been close friends since their school days, and the only character that I found sympathetic dies in the first chapter. That’s not a spoiler. Zach has to die at the beginning of the book as the two story lines braided through the book are how they all interacted as a foursome for the decades before Zach’s death and how the remaining three interacted after Zach’s death. They all lived in a gentrified area of London and moved around in the arts & letters world. Alec, a poet who is now teaching, is a bit of a whiner; Christine is an excellent painter who struggles to see her own worth and worries a lot; and Lydia is chronically lazy and relentlessly melodramatic. Even the Guardian’s reviewer had to admit that Lydia was “sometimes grating.” Zach, who had owned an art gallery, seemed to be the only who was comfortable in his own skin. They wrestle with aging and with adultery, both sexual and emotional, and mostly just seem to have a hard time understanding themselves and each other. And I had a hard time caring about them. The minor characters are the children of the couples and two of the mothers-in-law. The children aren’t given enough depth to be interesting. The two mothers-in-law, however, had lots of personality, saw the various stages of the couples’ interactions more clearly than the four characters did, and consistently gave sound advice. If only their children had listened to them. In fact, I think that may be the key to my frustration with the couples: they don’t seem to have matured very much over the years. Perhaps that’s what Hadley was communicating in the title: it was a bit late in the day for them to start to grow up.
Cathleen Schine is also one of my most favorite authors. (The Grammarians is #10 for me.) I was lucky enough to “win” my copy through one of those Goodreads giveaway/publisher promotion contests. My uncorrected proof copy arrived early in June, three months before the official publication date. (If I had been more disciplined in producing my monthly reviews in a timely way, I could have scooped the New York Times, like I did with Coe’s Middle England. The Times reviewed Coe on Aug. 21 and Schine on Aug. 31.) This novel is a treat, especially for writers, English majors, and all the rest of us grammarians. A laugh-out-loud funny and warm portrayal, from cradle to late middle age, of twin girls Laurel and Daphne Wolf. Both have been enamored of words and wordplay since before they could even speak a word. (Illustrating this capability is a particularly clever trick on Schine’s part.) Their love of language defines them. Having done everything together when young, Laurel and Daphne do eventually differentiate themselves by how each makes their love of language integral to their lives. Yes, there’s a time as grown-ups when they fall out over their differences, but the rupture is not ultimately tragic (despite what pre-sale book blurbs and even the first chapter may have you believe). In fact, the Wolf family, immediate and extended, is enviable in its members’ clear affection for and support of each other. How delightful to read a story about (generally) happy, loving people. Schine’s own delight in playing with language is a bonus.
I should have liked Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day better than I did. All of its elements appeal (especially the notion that wasting a day should be a revered art form). Part travelogue, part memoir, part contemplation on the writing life, it is a 270-page ode to the essay form. Her interest in Michel Montaigne (born in 1533 and generally considered the first practitioner of the essay) leads her on a circuitous pilgrimage to his chateau near Bordeaux. She weaves elements of Montaigne’s life and of her pilgrimage throughout all her reflections in this volume, whether those are of her Midwest childhood or her current life in Minneapolis, where she is a professor in the English Department at the University of Minnesota. She has an elegant yet very accessible style, with evocative descriptions. However…about one-third of the way into the book, she starts to address a specific reader as “you,” first occasionally, then with greater frequency and in longer passages. It becomes clear that she is addressing a loved one who is no longer alive, and by the end, we know that she is addressing her late husband, Terrence Williams. (I looked him up and found he had died of heart failure in 2015). If I had known from the start that the book was also a kind of conversation with a dearly missed spouse, I might have had a different reaction. But instead I found the technique distracting, and I felt uncomfortable, as though I were reading something meant as private correspondence.
Nothing private in Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums. Subtitled “My Gourmet Memoir,” this is the tell-all tale of Reichl’s tenure as editor-in-chief of the upscale food magazine Gourmet, from the fanfare of her tenure’s beginning in 1998 to the infamy of its ending ten years later. The New York Times called the book “poignant and hilarious.” I’ll give you poignant, but hilarious? More like hair-raising, as might happen if you were riding in an out-of-control roller coaster car that careens from a great height to crash to earth, sending all occupants flying and destroying the car. Any entertainment is provided by Reichl’s unvarnished, if at the same time embellished, descriptions of people, places, things. The good, the bad, and the ugly. From the gross extravagance of perks and publicity at the beginning to the sad scramble at trying, and failing, to keep the magazine alive, she names names, starting right at the top with S. I. Newhouse, and then right down the line of Condé Nast publishing executives, major and minor. Reichl’s exposure of some of the nastiest temperaments and ugliest antics must have raised eyebrows when the book came out. The book also captures a key decade spanning: (1) the prosperity of the Bill Clinton years to the Bush legacy of the Great Recession of 2008; (2) the rise of e-publications and the fall of print; and (3) the changes in Reichl’s family life as her son grows from a kid in elementary school to a college student at Wesleyan. Reichl manages to stir all of this into a delicious stew of a story. (Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.)
If you are wondering about the title…
“This Is Just to Say” (William Carlos Williams)
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold