A Month of Books: January 2018

Books Read:

Winter (2017) – Ali Smith

Everything Will Be All Right (2003) – Tessa Hadley

Clever Girl (2014) – Tessa Hadley

What She Ate (2017) – Laura Shapiro

This Is the Place: Women Writing about Home(2017) – Margot Kahn and Kelly                       McMasters, editors

My Mistake (2013) – Daniel Menaker

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No, I did not spend the month of January lounging on the couch, reading by the fire. The essay collections What She Ate and This Is the Place were begun in December, and I didn’t get around to finishing them until into January. Two airplane flights in mid January gave me five to six hours with nothing to do but read. Don’t be envious (or possibly judgmental) about my knocking off six books. It probably won’t happen again.

I am going to focus on the three novels by two British authors. The best of the three is Winter by Ali Smith. I sheepishly admit that I had never heard of her until just this past October. While doing the tourist thing at the Notting Hill Book Shop in London, I saw the magic words “Man Booker Prize” on a paperback with a pretty cover picture of a country lane. So for completely superficial reasons I bought Autumn by Ali Smith – and it turned out to be an extraordinary novel. Since I didn’t read it in January, I’ll save it to talk about in a future month when I might be a little lax in my reading. But it was so good, I immediately started researching (that is to say, Googling) Ali Smith to see if she had written other books I could read. Turns out she is a Scottish writer who has been producing award-winning short story collections, plays and novels for twenty years! Autumn was the fourth(!)of her nine novels to get short-listed for the Booker. How had I missed this writer? (It also turns out that what I was calling a “pretty cover” was a photo of a David Hockney oil titled “Early November Tunnel.” The whole experience was a bit of a comeuppance.)

Putting aside my artistic cluelessness for now… When Autumn was published in 2016, Smith announced that it was the first of a quartet of novels she was working on. On January 17, I was walking around the Books & Books bookstore in Key West (where I was taking a writing workshop) and I spied Winter on a display table. I began reading it on the flight home. Winter is also a gem, and maybe more accessible than Autumn. The premise sounds like a British novel set piece: dysfunctional family members end up together at a rambling house in Cornwall for the Christmas holidays. But Smith moves around the pieces of this novel in a wholly original way. The elderly mother (Sophia), who lives in the house chats with a disembodied head that has appeared; the London-based neglectful son (Art) picks up a young woman from the street and pays her to impersonate his girlfriend who was to visit his mother with him but who has dumped him instead; the mother’s estranged sister (Iris), who has been an environmental activist dating back to the ’60’s, shows up (as does a busload of birders). Smith takes real delight in upending expectations, pushing limits of reality, and allowing her characters to emerge into fully rounded and cherished figures through dialogue and deeds – never telling you what you should be thinking when. She does all this through an extraordinary facility with language and a love of wordplay and comic scene-setting that is a joy to read.

Now on to Tessa Hadley. She writes what might be thought of as traditional, family-driven novels. Both of these books follow women living through the cultural changes in England from c. 1950 to c. 201O. Everything Will Be All Right follows four generations of women in the same family; Clever Girl follows one woman through the same time span. I confess that I inadvertently did the second book a disservice. Hadley wrote the books more than a decade apart, publishing four other novels in between. If I had had that ten-year break between them, I might have written, “Hadley returns to familiar themes.” Instead my reaction was, “This again?” I found myself just pushing along to get to the end. In addition, Meg Wolitzer, reviewing Clever Girl in the New York Times Book Review, wrote, “A story that doesn’t overreach…told in prose that isn’t ornate yet is startingly exact.” Damning with faint praise?

To shift gears, I did get a surprising history lesson by reading all three novels. In each, one of the main characters plays an active part in the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Starting in 1981 and going until 2000, nineteen years, women chained themselves to fences, camped out, and marched at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire to protest the British government’s decision to use it as a site for nuclear missiles. While the protest didn’t stop the government from going ahead with its plans (surprise), an article in the Guardian gives it credit for changing “the nature of protest,” with that kind of protest apparently having some success in recently saving a British village from fracking.

Once again I am astonished and abashed at my ignorance. I do not recall ever hearing about the Greenham Common protests, and I was 28 years old when it started and 47 when it ended. How did I miss this obviously seminal moment for the advancement of women in England that surely should have been spotlighted as a primary example of “I am woman, hear me roar”?

Finally, Dan Menaker, author of the memoir My Mistake, was the leader of the writing workshop I took down in Key West. Read it for the inside scoop on days at the New Yorker, from William Shawn to Tina Brown. Dan is a character.

A Month of Books: An Introduction

My kids know me very well. While this means they show no mercy in mocking and mimicking me, it also means they give me presents that are always perfect.

They both had me pegged early: wine and books. When Jay took a Middle School trip to France, he was somehow able to bring me a bottle of white wine from Provence. I was so moved that at 13 he knew just what to get for me, I decided not to ask any questions. (For example: Where was Madame when you were off buying wine?? How did you get this in and out of airports??) Almost 20 years later, the bottle is still intact down in the basement refrigerator. I didn’t wanted to consume it, as then it would be gone. (It did occur to me, many years too late, that I should have consumed the wine and conserved the bottle, thus having my wine and drinking it, too.) This past Christmas, Jay and Erica gave me a case of Brouilly from Louis La Tour — my favorite that, of course, cannot be found in Pennsylvania State Stores. It is, however, accessible to Brooklyn dwellers.

This year Annie gave me note cards, cleverly packed into what looks like a truncated drawer from an old library card catalog. The note cards themselves on one side are replicas of actual old cards, handwritten with penciled notes. The first one is A335 Alcott, Louise May, 1832-1888, Little Women. I want to keep them all intact to show off to my library-loving friends of a certain age who will appreciate Annie’s excellent insight into her mother’s psyche. (However, I’ve also asked Annie to get me another set to use for actually writing notes. I learned my lesson about figuring out how to have my gifts both ways.)

A couple years ago Annie gave me Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books, a collection of the monthly columns that Hornby (About a Boy) wrote for Believer magazine. Each column was headed by two lists: “Books Bought” and “Books Read.” Then followed 1500 to 2000 words of Hornby reacting to, riffing off of, and sometimes ranting about books and the world of books. He rarely touched on all that he read and regularly wandered off on tangents with only the thinnest thread of connection to his starting point. And it all was “hilarious, insightful, and infectious,” to crib from the back cover.

As I made my way through the book, I kept thinking, what a great job! I wish someone would hire me to write about all the books I read in a chatty sort of way! Yet, strangely, no one has asked me.

I have written legitimate book reviews, but here’s the problem: When I am reading a book I like, I read fast. I want to take the whole book in. I don’t want to break up the experience by stopping to take notes. When I get to the end of a book, no matter how much I liked it, I don’t want to have to go back and recreate all those notes I should have taken on character development, use of language, narrative arc, etc., if I had wanted to write a formal book review. I am both too lazy and too eager to get to the next book in my stack of “waiting to be read.” Books pile up that I had intended to review, but never do.

So, since no one is stepping forward to ask me to write a monthly ramble around my reading, I’ve decided I’ll just do it myself on this blog. I will use Hornby’s column as a (loose) model. While we do have some similarities – we both buy more books than we can ever read – the differences are somewhat more noticeable. At the top of my “column” I will list only the books that I have read in the month under examination. I definitely will not go on for 1500 to 2000 words. (I’ll stick closer to 750 or so words.) I will be unlikely to make knowing remarks about an author’s life to rival Hornby’s since often the authors he was reading were also his friends. (But if I happen to know some interesting tidbit, I promise to share it.) And don’t count on my being hilarious, insightful and infectious like Hornby’s work, though I do hope every column will be fun to read.

I plan to publish my look back at a month of reading on the first Sunday following the end of a month. The title of the post will always be “A Month of Books: [month and year]. The first one will be this Sunday, so will read “A Month of Books: January 2018.”

Finally, I do want to make clear, if it hasn’t been clear already, that I won’t be writing traditional book reviews. I am aiming more for entertainment than enlightenment. I will understand if this way of “chatting” about books is not your cup of tea. If that’s the case, when you see that “Month of Books” post show up in your email, go ahead and delete. (I won’t know anyway!) If you do enjoy hearing about the books and you would like some further discussion, please comment!

H is also for Hopper and Hollidaysburg

I recently read that Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania.

Yes, that Gertrude Stein. Poet of Paris salon fame, hostess to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, author of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook beloved by beatniks decades later for its famous hash-infused fudge recipe. Did she really grow up in a small town in Pennsylvania? And why did I care?

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania: Hollidaysburg, population (then and now) about 5,000. I thought I had found a famous female writer who shared my background. This news was worth a visit to Google!

Well, it is true that Stein was born in Allegheny (in 1874), but she didn’t exactly grow up there. When she was three years old her parents whisked her off to Vienna and then Paris. A year later they returned to the States to settle in Oakland, California. Stein grew up a California girl. (No Allegheny newspaper headlines blaring, “Local girl makes good in Paris writing incomprehensible poems!”)

Plus, Allegheny was more cosmopolitan than one might have suspected for a town that doesn’t  exist anymore. I learned that in the 19th century Allegheny was large and quite prosperous, even having a street known as “Mansion Row.” But on December 9, 1887, against its population’s wishes, Allegheny was annexed by Pittsburgh. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “145,000 people who had gone to sleep the night before in Allegheny woke up in Pittsburgh.” Allegheny was henceforth referred to as Pittsburgh North Side. Not exactly Russia and Crimea, but still.

Discovering all of this was disappointing. I had wanted Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to be like Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t. And Gertrude Stein was not to be the famous female writer who shared my background.

I then researched (for another 15 minutes) “famous writers who came from Hollidaysburg.” What I came up with was Hedda Hopper. This seemed an even more improbable pairing of writer with birthplace. Known for her outrageous headdress and the outrage she provoked during the heyday of her Hollywood columnist years, Hopper was born in Hollidaysburg in 1885 and christened Elda Furry. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.) Like the Steins with Gertrude, Elda’s parents also whisked her away at age three to another location, but that was the end of any similarity: the Furrys had moved their nine children only 7 miles north of Hollidaysburg to Altoona. By her high school years, Elda was studying singing in Pittsburgh and had stars in her eyes for Broadway fame and fortune. She bolted at 18 when her parents refused to let her pursue her dream.

Elda did make it onto Broadway and in 1913 became the fifth wife of a handsome young actor named DeWolf Hopper. Hopper’s four previous wives were inconveniently named Edna, Ella, Nella and Ida. Stories have it that, annoyed by her husband’s unhappy habit of calling her by the wrong name, Elda Hopper went in search of a new name. She consulted a numerologist, who came up with the nicely alliterative Hedda Hopper.

With the rise of the motion picture industry just after World War I, Hedda Hopper moved with her husband to Hollywood where she appeared in almost 100 films. In the mid 1930’s, however, Hopper reinvented herself. By then divorced and facing a fading acting career, she switched to gossip journalism, first on the radio and then in the newspapers.

While her column became wildly popular, appearing in thousands of newspapers large and small and read by millions, her personal nastiness and rumor-mongering made her just as wildly unpopular among many in the celebrity world. Even 50 years after her death, Hollywood still chafes at her name. In a September 2015 issue of Variety, editor Peter Bart wrote, “The best news about Hedda Hopper is that few remember her. Hedda was a journalist (of sorts), who famously wore exotic hats and devoted herself to destroying the careers of anyone she identified as being communist, gay or otherwise reprehensible.”

So, that’s it for my model female writer. Hedda Hopper from Hollidaysburg, a scribbler of screed widely read but generally despised, if remembered at all. At least, Hollidaysburg does have one beloved superstar to call its own, though gender undetermined: the Slinky. But that doesn’t give me much to model myself on. I’m really not limber enough to write while flopping down stairs head over heels…