Did you spend July slapping deerflies and reading on the dock? Is it time for an urban vacation? I considered going to New York: I wanted to see Mandy Patinkin in Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, a musical based on War and Peace. Unfortunately, Patinkin canceled his three-week run as Pierre after a Twitter hubbub, and now the show is closing!
Oh, well, if I went to New York, I’d buy too many books anyway.
And I have not read all the Penguins I bought on my trip to London last year.
The three most likely Penguin candidates for my August reading are: Arnold Bennett’s The Card (I love Bennett!), Merle Miller’s The Sure Thing (he’s an Iowa writer!), and Travels with Herodotus (I’m a Herodotus fan!)
I am not sure why I bought a novel with mountain-climbing in it. That will stay on the shelf.
No urban vacation for me till they’re all read.
WHAT HAVE I BEEN READING?
Ann Beattie’s new book, The Accomplished Guest, is one of my favorite short story collections of the year. I thought the Man Booker Prize judges might consider it, but, alas! they did not include any books on my list. (And that’s why I’m not Ladbrokes.)
I’m a longtime fan of Beattie, who has chronicled the quirks of American life since the simultaneous publication in 1976 of Distortions, her first collection of stories, and Chilly Scenes of Winter, her first novel. Critics used to label her a minimalist, but her lyrical style has evolved over the years, and her elegant stories have grown longer and fuller.
Beattie’s voice can be flamboyant: she balances her canny perceptions with witty dialogue.
In my favorite story, “Hoodie in Xanadu,” Beattie’s originality and charm dazzle. The narrator, a flower arranger in her sixties in Key West, becomes acquainted with her eccentric, obese, agoraphobic neighbor. She has signed for packages for him for years, but they haven’t chatted. Finally he invites her for tea: he has turned his front room into Xanadu, which she describes as an “enormous, vibrant, multicolored tent. The materials were radiant: some sparkled with tiny mirrors that threw off light…” And he rents it out to celebrities for private parties. He asks her to do the flowers for her
Here is one of Beattie’s joyful, funny observations when he tells her she mustn’t tell anyone about the celebrities.
In the second before he whispered their names, I wondered: Might they be the Queen of Hearts and the White Rabbit? The first name, the woman’s, I recognized, but I wasn’t sure I could pick her out of a lineup. The man’s name meant nothing to me, but he was apparently the husband.
Beattie is also astute about the vicissitudes of old age. In “The Indian Uprising,” the kind narrator, Maude, a writer, takes Franklin, her 71-year-old retired English professor, to lunch at a Mexican restaurant. It is snowing, and he is not in good health–he has had a triple bypass and has diabetes –but she helps him put on his velcro shoes, and after closing one with a paperclip, out they go.
Franklin mocks his old age. He tells her,
“An old man like me, and I’ve got no scarf, no hat, only gloves I bought from a street vendor, the same day I had a roasted chestnut and bought another one for a squirrel. I can tell you which one of us was happier.” He was holding the crook of my arm. “Only you would take me out in the snow for a meal. Promise me one thing: You won’t make me watch you make a snowball and throw it in a wintry way. You can make an anecdote of that request and use it later at my memorial service.”
At the restaurant, she sees her ex-husband sitting with a pretty woman. And then she faints after she spots blood on Franklin’s foot. Much to her chagrin, her ex- and his girlfriend come to her aid, but at least they help persuade Franklin go to the hospital. He steals a sombrero on his way out. On the phone he claims that they want to amputate his legs, and he says, “You’re the ugly stepsister who crammed my foot into the slipper.” After Franklin’s death a few months later, there is no memorial service, and she turns this remembrance into a story.
The other stories are equally entertaining and unexpected. In “The Gypsy Chooses the Whatever Card,” the 80-year-old narrator, Pookie, accompanies Pru, a bubbly sorority girl who runs her errands, and Pru’s friend Carrie to a coffeehouse where Carrie’s bankrupt mother sells her Avon makeup. In “The Astonished Woodchopper,” John attends a complicated family wedding . In “The Cloud,” Candace visits her Uncle Sterling on a business trip, and learns he secretly married a young Hispanic woman who, it turned out, preferred her ex-.
This is great fun, a good place to start reading her work. I very much enjoyed the 13 stories and could go on and on…but this is enough!
Beattie has won an award for excellence from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story form.