How to Marry a Man Who Reads Books: A Story in Miniature

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The First DayThe Magic Mountain
You see him for the first time on the subway, a book in his hand. A massive one. The cover is muted, but you see the title: Magic Mountain. Then you look at the man. Not huge, not muscular, but fit, reasonably so (too fit means he spends more time at the gym than in his chair reading). Your heart pounds. This is the man for you. The only problem is getting him to notice you. So you sit beside him and say, “Ein einfacher junger Mensch reiste im Hochsommer von Hamburg. Is that how it begins?” He looks at you at last. You ask if he drinks tea.

First Date
You see him across the table, and he hasn’t stopped talking, except to listen to you. The waiter has to stand there until he finishes that run-on sentence about Ulysses and lemon soap, then yours about the self-parody in the second half. Over dessert, you’re mocking East Lynne together. Too improbable. But wasn’t that nearly all of Dickens?

 

Second Date
It’s your surprise for him, also your test: Nixon in China at the Met. Will he cringe? When he sees the tickets, his eyes fill with tears. You think how lucky you are.

Third through Twentieth Date
Waiting for Godot You see each other every night. Readings. Films. Symphonies. Chamber works. Theater (experimental Chekhov!). Indian food in a bus shelter, eaten with straws because that was all you had in your purse. Riding the subway past both your stops because you can’t stop talking, until it feels like you’re both in Waiting for Godot. Finally, you suggest that he get off with you. The next morning, you suggest that he shouldn’t leave this time.

Seventh MonthItalo-Calvino
One morning you both wake up from odd dreams—you of hiking with Italo Calvino in a desert, without any water, feeling the thirst tear deeply at your throat as you ask question after question about the meaning of life, and all that Calvino does is nod; him of cycling with Kafka and Trotsky in a madcap race to infinite repetitions of Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks from Pictures at the Exhibition. You both say—at the same time—that you want to spend the rest of your lives together.

 

Madame BovaryTwelve Month
Your wedding favor is a bookmark. Your invitation is covered with quotes from Madame Bovary and Jude the Obscure too faded for anyone to read. The service is filled with allusions and poems that no one present understands, not even either of you, at least entirely. And that, you both know, is as it should be; you have a shared lifetime to devote to pages to figure it all out.

A Story of Children: Musings About Claire of the Sea Light

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claireThe theme of children and how they and their parents deal with loss occupies much Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light. The motherless Claire is one character who connects many others, but she is not the only protagonist. The novel has many: Nozias, Claire’s father, who is constantly pained by her mother’s death in childbirth and his own feelings of inadequacy raising a daughter which compel him to want to give her away; Madame Gaëlle, whose daughter Rose died in a terrible car accident and, when the novel begins, has just agreed to adopt Claire; Bernard Dorien, who dreams about a powerful radio show and, through unwilling contact with gang members at his parents’ restaurant, ends up being involved in a murder which then prompts a tragic revenge attack; and Max Ardin Junior, whose youthful rape of his household maid had produced a son that, years later, he dearly wants. There are others, too, who work with children, struggle with decisions or fates involving their own children, or are affected by children.

What children and their parents do rule the novel. Midway through it, Max Junior’s father, Max Senior, thinks about the story of his son’s rape of their maid, which is now all over the local radio, thanks to a gossip show run by a teacher he has dismissed at his school. He thinks of the maid, a hardened woman, who came earlier to show Max Junior their child as if to taunt him with what he’ll never have. Max Senior feels his son’s pain at seeing the boy but also his own pain in attempting to raise his son well. “So if Flore wanted to keep this boy for herself,” he thinks, “let her.” And then he goes on, telling Flore in his mind what she has to expect with the children conceived in such violence, but, in truth, reflecting on his own experience raising the son he loves:

“Let her try to raise a boy and help him become a man. Let her teach him how to tie his shoes, to shake hands properly.… Let her feel proud, then ashamed of him, then proud again. Let her long for him when he is gone and despise him when he’s in her presence. Let her wish for him to be another kind of son and for her to be another kind of mother. … Let her learn one day how to forgive him and eventually to forgive herself.”

Danticat’s style is lyrical and tells a story with small strokes that each have a tremendous impact—from the frog Madame Gaëlle swallows to help hasten her child’s birth to the bitterness and longing Max Junior feels when he sees a drawing that his son has made for him. The narrative does not go obviously deep, but depth is there, just gently done. The impoverished Haitian community she describes is a powerful setting for a seemingly-simple tale; it’s starkly real, and the anguish of its people grips the reader long after the story ends.

The “Finely Tuned Storytelling” of Alice Munro

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HateshipFriendshipCourtshipLoveshipMarriageI’m not one to usually follow trends in literature, but since I had an informal bet with my husband about who would win this year’s Nobel Prize (Margaret Atwood was my pick), I was a bit disappointed to see her lose to her fellow Canadian Alice Munro. That was unfair; I hadn’t read any Munro. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t read any Munro, other than her simply being an author I had on my shelf but hadn’t got around to, so I decided to see what this fuss of “finely tuned storytelling” really meant.

I haven’t even finished my first Munro—Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage—and I wanted to write this post. I’ll read more of her (and I’ll try not to be gluttonous, but I probably will end up reading another, then another, then another in fast succession). I loved the first story I read, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (skipping to the end of the volume as is sometimes my habit), for the world of slow distress it built, and the simple and beautiful solution. I had to read the ending twice to be sure that Grant and Fiona’s world would conclude in that manner when Munro had led me to believe through many well-placed hints that it would end another way. This is not to say that Munro is deceitful in her hints; rather, she writes of real things and real people and the strange and sometimes wondrous things that could actually happen to them.

I’m about halfway through the book now, having read the other stories in order, and thus far my favorites are the first, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”—and the last. They are also two of the most dissimilar stories in the book, with two of the best endings. In all her stories, Munro explores very different kinds of people and the worlds that they consider real: academics, a rural housekeeper and the fading old town leader for whom she works, anti-intellectuals and the writer who comes from that family, a man devoted to environmental and at-risk causes and his sick wife. In my two favorite stories thus far, people’s characters and worlds take fascinating shapes. Grant’s recognition in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” of the massive chasm between intellectual upper- and lower-classes gives him a new, defining loneliness. Johanna’s key feature—her utter practicality and lack of feminine hesitation—contrasts with the romanticism she follows, but their combination is the one thing that can change a hapless man’s life.

I hope that Atwood wins the Nobel another year, but I’m very pleased that the committee chose a writer whose work explores things that truly matter in normal lives, who gives each of her stories the kind of twist we might find in our own lives. It’s refreshing to read this kind of story that doesn’t try to be clever but is tremendously clever by being real.

Now back to my reading.

Savoring is the Only Way to Read “The Namesake”

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The_NamesakeWhen I was in grade school, my local library sponsored reading contests for the summer. Whoever read a certain number of books (maybe 20?) won some sort of recognition. I, judging myself a swift reader, always tried to read more than the goal. But that developed in me a habit of reading quickly. I read much more slowly these days, savoring sentences and word choice (crucial as a writer). I love those Victorians, who don’t let you read quickly if you want to reach the point of their stories. But ironically, when I’m enjoying a novel the most and thus want to savor it, I have to hold myself back and remind myself to read slowly.

This was the case with Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. And the irony was great; this is not at all the kind of novel that a reader should devour in one or two servings, but, like her characters at their table-laden family parties, I felt gluttonous and wanted it all at once.

The beauty of The Namesake is Lahiri’s style: her descriptions of everyday events are ones to savor. The novel follows the life of Gogol Ganguli, starting with his parents and the most formative moments of their youth—for his mother, Ashima, it’s when she slips on the shoes of her suitor Ashoke in the hall, moments before she meets him, a sensual and strangely personal experience; and for his father, Ashoke, it’s when he survives a horrific train wreck, one of the few to live through the accident thanks to the volume of Gogol’s stories he stayed awake to read. (This latter experiences gives to the novel’s protagonist his first name, one that by chance sticks to him far beyond the use of the family nickname it was initially meant to be.)

And these are moments in which Lahiri’s style is simple beautiful. Take a few sentences from the shoe scene, as Ashima, made up and dressed well, is about to step into the room where her suitor with his parents wait, but pauses to admire the American-made shoes that she assumes belong to her visitor.

“And as her mother continued to sing her praises, Ashima, unable to resist a sudden and overwhelming urge, stepped into the shoes at her feet. Lingering sweat from the owner’s feet mingled with hers, causing her heart to race; it was the closest thing she had ever experienced to the touch of a man The leather was creased, heavy, and still warm. On the left shoe she had noticed that one of the crisscrossing laces had missed a hold, and this oversight set her at ease.”

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Oh, the Humanity! Looking Deep Into Dr. John Snow’s Case Books

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Dr. John Snow

Dr. John Snow

Dr. John Snow (1813 – 1858) wasn’t your typical 19th century physician. He grew up with little money in a laboring family that sacrificed and scrounged to ensure he had an education. Apprenticeships during the time of his youth were not always equal and fair; the apprentice was often made to do the physician’s job when the physician didn’t want to get on with it (think a wet, freezing night and a feverish child in another town). Snow was a good enough apprentice and an ambitious enough young man to escape from rural life to formal medical training, and onto more medical school, until he was just about as qualified as anyone of his day. Unlike some other physicians who had trained at University, though, Snow had real world experience on the ground, including with Killingworth Colliery, where he theorized that cholera spread among miners at least in part because hand-washing was entirely absent underground.

Yes, this is that Dr. John Snow, the one who discovered the link between cholera and Broad Street Pump in London in 1854, the one who revolutionized theories of germs and disease. He was also Queen Victoria’s physician, attending at the births of Leopold and Beatrice. He also introduced and made legitimate the use of chloroform, which did wonders for women’s experience of childbirth (including the Queen’s).

Dr. John Snow was the physician for a wide range of patients in Soho, and he kept meticulous track of his cases. His case books, published in 1994 by the journal Medical History, are a treasure trove of primary source material for anyone researching medical history of the period.

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In Memory of Eileen M. Curran (11 May 1927 to 22 April 2013)

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Pink Lupine, from Eileen's garden to mine. We'd have both enjoyed the dragonfly.

Pink Lupine, from Eileen’s garden to mine. We’d have both enjoyed the dragonfly.

It’s unusual in everyday life to meet a person who feels like someone you’ve known for many years. In July 2004, I met Eileen M. Curran, and felt that I knew her well immediately. I was a new development director and was making the rounds, meeting the donors who would become my responsibilities (and in nearly all cases, my friends), and Eileen was near the top of the list. I rang her doorbell, ready to smile and introduce myself, and while I waited, I noticed the garden surrounding the front steps. It was a mix of flowering oregano, white violets, and enormous yellow Gloriosa Daisies, as well as a few tall blue flowers I didn’t recognize. But it was in a format that I knew well: mixed, weeded, and flowing out of the bed, an English cottage garden if I ever saw one.

As soon as I had a chance to talk with Eileen, who brought me inside with a welcoming smile, plied me with tea (loose leaf Assam from a real China pot with matching cups), I learned that it was indeed an English cottage garden, and that she had put much work into it. The garden extended around her house, joining raised beds for more herbs and vegetables in the back, facing a lawn marked by an English walnut tree, pear and apple trees, and a huge hedge of lilacs.

A proclivity for English cottage gardening was not the only thing Eileen and I had in common, nor our love for fine English teas; we both were Victoriana nuts, only she was far more along than I was. Eileen Curran was the author of The Curran Index: Additions to and Corrections of The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, a detective who parsed through birth, death, and marriage records in small parishes, online, by phone, through microfiche and through mail, to find the little people (and some of the big ones) who wrote for newspapers and journals during the Victorian period. Her reach extended throughout Great Britain. Out of common sense, really, she had mapped out her own genealogy—easy work, Ireland on her father’s side, German on her mother’s—as well as that of hundreds of other families. In my many visits to her house, sitting near framed illustrations from these periodicals, by William Morris curtains and wallpaper, I heard the stories of her “obscures”. I don’t recall all the stories, but I remember some of the names; Alexander Blair was one of the latest, and I heard about his family and his aliases and who he might have been but really was (as far as she knew; she was always open to corrections that might come up in future research, and never made assumptions without being clear that they were just that).

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Spring Cleaning

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We’ve begun a bit of spring cleaning in the house today. The tea kettle, polished with a simple baking soda rub of my own concoction, is shining beautifully. One can buy a commercial mixture for this kind of thing, and I’ve done it before, but I’ve since discovered that the homemade is a very gentle and powerful cleanser, and does a finer job.

Beeton's Book

My facsimile of the 1861 text

That, of course, makes me think of the days when homemade cleansers were far more ordinary, and of Beeton’s Book of Household Management. It’s commonly known as a cookery book, but is really so much more. Isabella Beeton (who died in 1865 at the age of 28) published articles on cookery, handling money, and handling the management of a household in Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a supplement to “The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine” (one of her husband’s publications) between 1859 and 1861. In 1861, it was published in its own volume, designed for middle class consumption, as The Book of Household Management, comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort. While most of the volume boasts recipes, paying attention to both elegance and thrift, it also has a goodly section at the end that spells out quite clearly what the duties are for male and female domestics, as described.

It’s in this later section of the text that I find the ways things were cleaned. I haven’t had a chance to honestly put this in a novel; I refuse to write such a thing if there’s no reason to do so than to show off my erudition (I was dismayed reading a passage in a novel by an author I much admire in which she described a male domestic was watering gravel to keep down the dust, all of which she spelled out including to keep down the dust). So here’s my chance—not to show off (the book is open before me so I can quote)—to share some of my favorites.

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Bodices Unripped: Let’s Talk Literary Historical Fiction

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In a 2012 article, The Guardian attributes to Hilary Mantel the rank of  “the woman who made historical fiction respectable again, who had freed it from the (often immensely pleasurable) bodice-ripping romps of Philippa Gregory et al, making a derided genre safe again for those readers who consider themselves properly literary and serious.” Several of my favorite authors easily join Mantel in giving historical fiction a special literary identity, showing she was neither the first nor the last in this tradition.

arthur-and-georgeTake Julian Barnes and Arthur and George, Barnes’s exploration of an early 20th century crime and Arthur Conan Doyle’s role in exonerating the accused (indeed, convicted) George Edalji. We writers can be a bit jealous of Barnes’s ability to take a crime story and turn in into a lyrical tale of identity. Even the prison scenes are sensitive and profound.

the_thousand_autumns_of_jacob_de_zoet-david-mitchell-cloud-atlasDavid Mitchell goes for more popular appeal in his linear The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a story of a Dutch clerk in turn-of-the-17th-century Nagasaki and the Japanese midwife he falls in love with. We have samurai attacks, a secret monastic society, and a villain of incomprehensible evil, but also a bildungsroman that depicts the age and the psychology of different cultures within the age masterfully.

pureAnd finally, Andrew Miller in Pure takes a little-known event—the excavation of a Paris cemetery just before the French Revolution—and follows a young man attempting to complete the one big job that will direct his life. This novel seems strangely modern in that aspect, yet it’s fascinating how the backdrop of pre-Revolution foment surrounds all actions.

I’ve listed just three, and if you include either Wolf Hall or Bringing Up the Bodies, you’ll notice an interesting trend: not one of these novels brings the literary aspect powerfully upon a story revolving around women. Even the midwife in Mitchell’s work, around whom much action revolves, is a minor character compared to all else.

There certainly are excellent novels about female characters with a literary bent to them—Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I and Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter are two obvious examples—but I’d love to see more novels with female protagonists that go deep into literary waters. How can we writers write such works when women of our historical periods lived mostly in domestic worlds? Can a primarily psychological and domestic novel, say, match up with those listed above?

And how much can writers bend what’s called “literary?” I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Loyalty, Passion, and Principles: The Sealed Letter

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The_Sealed_Letter_FCMany historical writers find inspiration within a historical event. Often these are significant: a war, a queen’s execution, a plague that grips a village. Sometimes authors choose something lesser known but still historically important, such as the destruction of an important cemetery. And some, like Emma Donoghue, choose something rather small in the great whirl of history—Slammerkin shows the life of a young girl and her path toward the rope in a little-known case—and through full research into the period and a profound understanding of the people involved turn the something small into something grand indeed. Codrington v. Codrington was a celebrated divorce case in 1864, but in today’s world is a spec. Yet The Sealed Letter makes it quite a story once again.

The annals of London divorces in the years shortly following the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act—which gave a husband the right to divorce his spouse with proof of her adultery—are not few. Codrington v. Codrington, however, is of particular interest: not only was it brought about by an admiral in the Royal Navy—Henry Codrington, son to the hero Admiral Sir Edward Codrington—but that it also involved an early women’s rights activist, Emily “Fido” Faithfull.

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A Study of Vulnerabilities: Andrew Miller’s Pure

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pure-andrew-miller-paperback-cover-artNearly halfway through Andrew Miller’s Pure, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the novel’s protagonist, suffers an attack by an insane young woman, which leaves him wounded but not dead. One of the effects is a loss of words from his vocabulary, including simple nouns such as “bat” and “hat.” He is humiliated by this loss and mentions it to no one until late in the novel, where his admittance earns him both help and tenderness.

This is an example of one vulnerability—that ends up leading to a strangely safe place—in this compelling novel of France just before the Reign of Terror. Baratte, a young engineer from Normandy whose only work experience has been the creation of a bridge over “the corner of a lake” for a wealthy patron, is hired by a minister in Versailles to destroy the cemetery and church of Les Innocents, which has created a stink of decomposition so great that it permeates everything—including food and the breath of the cemetery’s neighbors. Early in the novel, Baratte unwittingly shows himself to be a bumpkin and, while drunk, exchanges the well-made suit his dead father left him for a monstrosity of pistachio green that he becomes ashamed to wear. He is clearly uncomfortable in his own skin, reading lofty texts in his hole of a room and feeling no authority in anything, even after he tells his hosts what he is there for—shocking them—and hires a group of miners to dig up the cemetery (the human remains will be transferred to a consecrated space elsewhere). His capacity for authority is something he must force, his coat buttoned tight over his absurd pistachio suit. He seems most vulnerable when standing before the group of toughened foreign miners giving orders.

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