The TV was on all day in my mother’s hospital room. I was horrified to find myself parked in front of The View, The Young and the Restless, General Hospital, The Talk, Rachel Ray, and Dr. Phil. (“His guests must be actors,” my savvy mother insisted.)
Sometimes I would take a break and sit in a chair by the elevator and read Pride and Prejudice. Ding! Ding! the elevator insisted. The hospital cafeteria was the quietest place, so I fetched a lot of snacks and coffee.
Then one night I got hypnotized by pro-Kindle posts by Dovegreyreader and Random Jottings, who, by the way, could have had careers in advertising. I decided an e-reader would be a practical device for reading in the hospital, so I bought a sleek, beautifully-designed Nook.
Well, the TV was still on, so…
I have, well, too many e-books, but I certainly have gotten a lot of use out of my Nook. This year I chose a couple of “summer e-books” to read outdoors, but there were so many mosquitos that I didn’t finish them.
Here are a few notes on two of the books still in progress, Sally Beauman’s The Visitors and Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens.
1. Sally Beauman’s The Visitors. (I’m on p. 371 of 572 pages). Egyptology aficionados will enjoy Beauman’s elegant, diverting, well-plotted novel. The acerbic narrator, Miss Lucy Payne, now in her 90s, traveled in her 1920s childhood to Egypt, and after befriending an archaeologist’s daughter, became acquainted with the famous archaeologists who excavated Tutankhamun’s tomb. In the present, Lucy feels irritated and even hounded by Dr. Fong, an archaeologist who is doing research for a TV show.
Here is one of her amusing reactions to Dr. Fong.
We fenced around for forty-five minutes. I may have divorced two husbands, buried a third, and generally led what has been desired as a rackety life, but for the past two decades I’ve lived alone. I’ve reverted to the solitude of my childhood, and reacquired old habits, one of which is caution. I’m nervous with strangers and suspicious of them. I dislike taking others into my confidence and avoid doing so. As I’ve outlived most of the friends who had gained my trust, there are precious few confidants the days. Dr. Fong did not fail to point this out: he ran through a roll-call of eminent men, including all those involved in the astonishing discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, all those that I first met in Cairo, as a child; those I knew at Luxor and the VAlley of the kings. Evey last one of them was dead as a dodo.
Although the novel goes back and forth in time, most of it is told from the point of view of Lucy as a girl. One of the perks of the book: there are lists of historical characters and notes on their accomplishments in the back of the book.
2. Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens. (I’ve read 178 pages of 381). I often say that Jonathan Lethem is my favorite American author, because I am fascinated by his distinctive, quirky novels, marked by flights of dazzling language and fantasy bordering on magic realism. In Chronic City, a masterpiece, where it has been winter in New York for years, an aging pop cultural critic, Perkus Tooth, and ex-child star, Chase Insteadman, bid obsessively and unsuccessfully on e-bay for beautiful vases that are actually holograms. Lethem includes many comic details: Perkus has dial-up, so it takes forever to get to e-bay.
In Lethem’s latest realistic novel, Dissident Gardens, which is devoid of fantasy, he tells the story of Rose Zimmer, a Jewish Communist who lives at Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, and her brilliant daughter, Miriam, who is more interested in the counterculture of Greenwich Village. Somehow the characterization of the two heroines is less compelling than Lethem’s portraits of the heroes of his recent novels. At times they border on caricature.
I am, however, inclined to think that I picked it up at the wrong time. I simply wasn’t in the mood. Perhaps if I read this later this fall or next winter, I will enjoy it more.
As always, his use of language is bold and breathtaking.