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.

What I’m Reading: Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading

‘The first thing I learned from my experiment…was that in the age of the Internet it is very hard to stick with a book without consulting an outside source.”
—Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading

I am a fan of bibliomemoirs.

My favorite is Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev,  a short book that is part biography of Turgenev, part memoir/travel, and part literary criticism. I am also a fan of Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a very personal memoir of her year of reading one book a day and blogging about it to help her come to terms with her sister’s death from cancer.

The bibliomemoir is very popular right now.   I recently discovered Phyllis Rose’s lively, entertaining, if very intellectual, The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading. Rose, a retired English professor, scholar, biographer, and critic, decided to read the books on the LEQ-LES shelf at the New York Society Library.  She chose this shelf because she had always wanted to read Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.

She has a sense of humor and writes beautifully, but she cannot help but apply her training to the analysis of these books.  She begins,

“This book records the history of an experiment. Believing that literary critics wrongly favor the famous and canonical—that is, writers chosen for us by others—I wanted to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature.”

She is a great fan of the canon, but many women writers were not in it when she began to teach. She mentions  it was fine to teach Virginia Woolf at Berkeley in 1982 but to offer a Willa Cather class (which she did)  was daring. But she is not necessarily digging up lost gems on  this library shelf. She tackled some neglected writers and did her homework, but the actual reading was sometimes tedious.  She started with One for the Devil by Etienne Leroux, a South African writer writing in Afrikaans she had never heard of. She didn’t really understand or enjoy this  “experimental novel.”  She adds, “…Leroux had no interest in narrative.”

She did some research online.  She consulted Contemporary Authors , Wikipedia, a review in The Saturday Review, and followed hyperlinks here and there.  She learned  Leroux was tamember of a group of South Africa writers called the Sestigers (writers of the ‘60s), among them the award-winning Andre Brink, who were dedicated to expanding their readers’ horizons with challenging subjects and structures.  Rose discovered One for the Devil was the second in a trilogy, so she went back and read the first book.  She hated it. She decided not to read the third.

What I like most about this book is Rose’s analysis of the culture of reading in the 21st century. She writes,

“Reading is more centrifugal than it used to be. Because the material is so readily available, you want to see the author’s biography and read the reviews of the work.  You are even tempted to contact the author, who is only a Google search and some keystrokes away.”

In the second chapter, Rose writes about her reading of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, a short picaresque novel about a superfluous man of Russian literature.  I am a fan of Lermontov, but, alas, she was not.  Partly it was the translation she read by Nabokov and his  son–Nabokov had the eccentric idea that it was necessary to capture the  language exactly, literally, and roughly, if the prose is not graceful.   And the library paperback with the Edward Gorey cover art  (which she liked) was greasy, had tanned pages, and the worse for wear.

Since she disliked the Nabokov,  she downloaded a free 1853 translation on to her e-reader.  She found herself utterly absorbed in it. Then she read Marian Schwartz’s 2004 translation ( Modern Library ),  which by the way I read and liked.   And she was so fascinated by the cover photo on Modern Library edition that she emailed the book designer to learn why she’d chosen it.

What she learned: she didn’t need the physical book, even though she always thought she preferred physical books. She very much enjoyed the 19th-century translation on her e-reader.  What she needed was a readable text.

What I am enjoying most about this book is that she manages to make the reading of the books on this shelf meaningful.  I’m reading a chapter a night:  the perfect amount of reading before I go to sleep!