What I’ve Been Reading: Allende, Austen, Anders, & Literary Links

You may ask, Is Mirabile Dictu finally done with Ladies’ Greek?

Yes, I am reading, reading, and reading novels again!

Here are brief remarks on a South American masterpiece by Isabel Allende, Jane Austen’s first novel, and and Charlie Jane Ander’s acclaimed science fiction.

1. The Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende’s stunning  first novel, The House of the Spirits, was translated by Magda Bogin and published in the U.S.  in 1985. This lush, witty, poetic masterpiece is laced with magic realism, and  reminiscent of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Allende narrates the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trueba family in a politically unstable  country in South America.  The strong women of the family ignore Esteban Trueba, the volatile family patriarch, and live their own lives. I am especially fond of Clara, the  psychic matriarch who opens their enormous house to eccentrics and adds on rooms and staircases that go nowhere; her daughter, Blanca, a potter who teaches Mongoloids; and her radical granddaughter, Alba, who  feeds the homeless and hides refugees in the wake of a fascist coup. Even the tyrannical patriarch, Esteban Trueba, a landowner and far-right politician, is appalled in old age by violence of the new regime and begins to understand the women. Not only was I reminded of how very great Allende is, but I am eagerly looking forward to her new novel, In the Midst of Winter (October).

2. A rereading of Jane Austen’s Northanger AbbeyThe heroine, Catherine Morland, is one of Austen’s most comical characters, and I enjoyed my rereading of this charming little book.  Catherine, a fan of Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and other “horrid” Gothic novel, hopes to find a ghost or secret manuscript when she visits the Tilneys at the elegant  Northanger Abbey. Her witty boyfriend, Henry Tilney, one of the very few of Austen’s heroes I heartily approve, brings Catherine down to earth when she gets carried away.  He, too, is a novel reader, and has a good sense of humor.  He says,

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  I have read all Mrs. Radliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure.  The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again,–I remember finishing it in two days–my hair standing on end the whole time.”

3.  Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky.  A nominee for the Hugo Award, this  science fiction novel was highly lauded.   Parts are charming, parts are a bit awkward and rambling, but it should appeal to fans of Harry Potter and Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy.  The story of the relationship between Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a brilliant techie, includes lots of magic, science, sex, and global warming.  Though this novel seems to me very slight, it is a good weekend read.


AND NOW FOR TWO LITERARY LINKS.  When I spotted an online review at the TLS of Ann Hood’s bibliomemoir, Morningstar,I paid a month’s subscription fee to read the review.  Well, I will also benefit by reading other reviews for subscribers only.   I loved Hood’s memoir, and hope others will enjoy it, too.  (You can read my post on Morningstar here.)

Jenny Hendrix writes in the TLS,

…[Hood] credits her childhood bookishness with setting her on a path to the literary life of her dreams. Hood reflects on ten works of fiction that guided her through adolescence in the late 1960s and early 70s, and her discovery through them of how to live “the mysterious, unnam­able, big dream life I wanted”: “My parents learned about life from hardship”, she writes. “Me? I learned from books.”

In her blue-collar Rhode Island mill town, Hood was an oddity in a household of non-readers; in her hard-working Italian immigrant family, books were seen as a waste of time and money. But, after she had enjoyed a chance encounter with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, literature opened Hood’s eyes to possibilities beyond her immediate milieu. She learnt what it meant to be a writer from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; learnt to love language via the poet Rod McKuen; and credits John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with teaching her how to write. There were other, extra-literary lessons as well, in subjects her family didn’t discuss. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, the novel Johnny Got His Gun sharpened her political thinking; the free-loving teens of The Harrad Experiment opened her eyes to the mechanics of sex. Together, these books built Hood an off-ramp from what she experienced as the dull and uninspiring trajectory of her peers: baptized in the church at one end of the town’s main street, married at the club in the middle, and buried by the funeral parlour at the same street’s far end.

The tough women criticizing women at the TLS always find a few negative things to say, and so Hendrix calls the book “heart-warming,” which is not the worst thing I’ve ever heard!  Overall, she liked the book.

If you like free reviews, and don’t we all, you can read the insightful review at  The Minneapolis Star Tribune .  Laurie Hertzel, the book page editor, aptly describes Hood’s graceful book.

In these 10 appealing essays, Hood deftly recounts pivotal moments in her early life, recalling not just what happened, but how she felt and how wonderful it was that the right book seemed to appear at the right time. “Once again,” she writes, “my world had been cracked open by a book.”

Hood’s book is actually one of my favorite books of the year.

Ann Hood’s Morningstar: Growing up with Books

Maybe that’s why I reread it every year. Maybe, as time beats me up and grief or loneliness or a new kind of bittersweet melancholy take hold, I need to remind myself to keep going, keep reaching, to not forget the girl who believed she could have everything and anything at all.
—Ann Hood’s Morningstar: Growing up with Books

I love reading books, and I love reading books about reading books.  As an amateur reader I am fascinated by  bibliomemoirs.

Some writers concentrate on a memoir of a single year or period of personal reading; others focus on a gimmick (reading all the books on one library shelf, or a book a day) or a single author’s influence . One of my favorites is Susan Hill’s Howards End Is on the Landing, a brilliant book about  her year of reading only books on her shelves.  When my mother was in the hospital in 2011, I was so inspired by Hill’s chapter about Iris Murdoch that I dashed around the corner to Murphy-Brookfield, a  used bookstore, to find a copy of The Bell.  And that kept me going through a couple of days when my mother lay in bed watching TV at the loud level she needed to hear anything at all.

In Morningstar:  Growing up with Books, the  novelist Ann Hood has written a graceful, inspiring memoir of her childhood reading.  (The book will be published Aug. 1.)  And she has me searching for my copy of Marjorie Morningstar to read this weekend.  (It’s here, in a box, somewhere.) She  grew up in an Italian-American working-class family in a small town in Rhode Island. Although her parents didn’t own books,  her aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered at the kitchen table on weekends and told stories.   She learned “that you had to earn your place at that table. Your story had to start with a hook, include vivid details, have strong characters, and be full of tension or someone who talked louder and could tell her story better would overpower you.”

But Ann was bookish, and she wanted literary stories, too.  She didn’t have access to many books:  the Italian neighborhood’s library was in a moldy basement, and the school didn’t have a library.  When her cousin lent her a copy of Little Women, it changed Ann’s life.   She lost herself in the story.   She writes, “All these years later I recognize how magical this experience truly was. I wanted to live inside a book, and this was the first time I really did.”

Ann and I are of the same generation, and my parents didn’t read books, either, so I understood her experience perfectly . One thing we absolutely agreed on:  it was necessary to read  the  yellow-spined Nancy Drew books.  Ann saved her allowance and spent it on the Nancy Drews at the second-hand store, much to her mother’s disapproval; and after my mother had a showdown with a librarian who refused to order “badly-written” series books, my mother was determined to save money week after week, so I could gradually  acquire a nearly complete set.

As adolescents in the  early ’70s, Ann and I, in our different parts of the U.S., listened to Simon and Garfunkel, strung a beaded curtain, and were fascinated by the counterculture.  Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar had a powerful effect on Ann .  I love her delicate description of the book’s design.

She wrote,

The summer of the beads, I read The Bell Jar. I remember the cover. A pink so pale it almost looked white. The black letters with their curlicued T and B and J. The red rose stretched across the edge. Unaware as I was of things like book reviews, I didn’t know that the book I’d plucked from the library shelf was a new one, just published in the United States. I didn’t even know—though surely this was in the author’s bio—that Sylvia Plath had committed suicide on February 11, 1963, just a few weeks after The Bell Jar had been published by Harper & Row in Britain under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.

With just a few strokes of the pen she describes a book cover I had forgotten, though I had the same edition, and I was able to identify it on google immediately.  Plath’s heroine Esther, who won a contest to be a Mademoiselle writer, may have inspired Ann,  who became a Marsha Jordan girl, one of eight models for a Boston department store, and then won a contest to be a teen editor for Rhode Island for SEventeen.

But of all the books she read, Marjorie Morningstar was her touchstone.   She read it when she was 15 in 1972 and reads it every year.  Marjorie’s big Jewish immigrant family reminds Ann of her big emotional Italian immigrant family.  Marjorie defies her parents by becoming an actress and embarking on a sexual relationship with the director, Noel Airman. Ann understood Marjorie’s longings, as Marjorie stood in the snow staring at the apartment of the man she loved. Ann’s heart had been broken by Peter Hayhurst, and she sometimes stops the car and looks at his house.

And I have reread it almost every year since. As an adult, I saw the similarities between the Morgensterns and my own family. Marjorie’s father had come to the United States at the age of fifteen, “a fleck of foam on the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe.” I lived with a dizzying array of Italian immigrant relatives. In the novel, Mr. Morgenstern owned the Arnold Importing Company, “a well-known dealer in feathers, straws, and other materials for ladies’ hats.” Like my own father, who commuted several hours every day to his job in Government Center in Boston so that we could rise above our blue-collar immigrant roots.

I am posting this too early–consider it a pre-review–but it really is the perfect book to read on a holiday weekend.  I also very much like her novels, which are hard to classify.  I think of them as women’s novels, but my husband enjoyed her latest novel, “The Book That Matters Most” (more or less about how reading saves a grieving wife and a drug-addicted daughter).  I have followed her career from the ’80s, and it is always a pleasure to read a new book by her.

Are You Reading New Books? and What I’m Reading

Too many old books?

Too many classics?

My husband and  I have switched genres.  For years we both read the classics.  We met in a classics class.

Then I switched to new books. (It was partly for my job.) He continued to read the classics.

Now he has switched to new books.  I’m back to the classics.

Recently he read the latest Erdrich and The Collected Stories of Barry Hannah. I’m dying to read the Erdrich.  Still, I have a bone to pick.  My wacky theory is that if you’re reading mostly books reviewed in The New Yorker (which I’ve often done), you’re not really reading “new” books.  When  you’re guided by the essays of James Wood, Hilton Als, or Alexandra Schwartz, you’re reading such a tiny percentage of what’s published that it is not “new” but  “New Yorker.” (I’m hoping I’ve deconstructed “new.”)  Every intellectual from coast to coast will read Ferrante, Rachel Cusk, and Katie Kaitamura.  We love Ferrante, but I am quite sure  you need to browse sometimes and try something strange.  Though maybe if I were guided by The New Yorker, I’d strike out less often.

My cousin recently put a hold on my library card (supposedly for fines) but actually because she was sick of my ordering “The Complete Books of Tedious Windbags” through interlibrary loan, as she said.

“Read something new!”

I adore Turgenev and Tolstoy (their names must begin with T), but  even I must take a break from “translatese.”   And I love James, but can’t always be ecstatic over his beautiful use of participles.

So what new books am I reading?

laura-van-den-berg-find-me1. Laura van den Berg’s Find Me.  This literary dystopian novel, published in 2015, is eerie and gorgeous.  A plague of forgetfulness has descended on the U.S. and wiped out much of the population, but the narrator, Joy, is immune, a survivor among empty streets and overflowing garbage.  She has no one:  she grew up in foster homes and group homes , and worked in a convenience store, taking Robitussin for highs.  One day a doctor approaches her and takes her with several survivors to a hospital in Kansas. They are locked in and can’t commune with the outside world, while the doctor and nurse supposedly work on a cure for the outside world.  But eventually Joy escapes, in search of her mother, whom she has googled on the internet.

Van den Berg is s stunning writer, and this is much, much better than most of the dystopian novels that have hit the market in recent years.

ann-hood-book-that-matters-most-268895212. Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most.  Ann Hood is a  “middlebrow” writer, and I very much enjoy her novels.  Her style is simple and clear, which I wish I could say for every writer.  A few years ago I loved The Obituary Writer, which I wrote about here. Recently, looking for a light read, I picked up a copy of her new novel, The Book That Matters Most.

Is it a light read?  Well, not so much.  It intertwines the stories of a mother and a daughter: Ava, a French professor, is grieving for her beloved husband, who has left her for an exhibitionist knitter who puts sweaters and mufflers on local statues and is often on the TV news. Ava joins an elite book group, run by her friend, for distraction, while her daughter Maggie, who has had many problems, is living in Paris as a kind of junkie hostage of an art dealer who supplies her with drugs.  Her mother thinks she’s in Florence.  She thinks Maggie is doing well.

It is a very odd, uneven book, and so I am stuck.  Why?  Because Ava doesn’t read the books for her book group.  When they read Pride and Prejudice, and she watches the movie, I am disappointed.  Will she eventually read one of the books?  And I am not that interested in Maggie’s story.

It is a bit rocky so far, but I will continue.  Hood will bring it together, I’m sure.

ARE YOU READING SOMETHING NEW?  And who or what is your guide?