Classics All the Time: In Which I Read Julie Otsuka, Muriel Spark, & Dickens

"Girl Reading," by Coles Phillips

“Girl Reading,” by Coles Phillips:  A cover for Good Housekeeping magazine

It is gray out there.  It will never stop being gray, I’m convinced.

I want to set up my Christmas tree again for the LED lights.

I’ve given up my housewife duties until I see the sun again.

Tonight I flatly refused to parboil potatoes for a roasted vegetable dish.

“You’re on your own.”

There was much concern.  “You never refuse to make dinner.”

That is pretty much true.  I don’t mind cooking. Last night I chopped some vegetables, threw them in canned broth, and called it soup.

Tonight I was simply stumped.  What had I meant to do with that zucchini, tomato, cauliflower, and sweet potato?

Make no mistake, February is the worst month.  You don’t want to leave the house, you’re wind-burned from your walks, and you don’t want to make any more Earth Mother meals.   Every warmish, sunny day is negated by the warning of the meteorologists, “A snowstorm is coming!   A snowstorm is coming!”

And so I made a resolution to battle the desolation of February by reading classics all the time.  (Oh, and I’m also forcing myself to get out of the house:  I WILL go to some meetings)

Some of you made the resolution on New Year’s Eve to read classics. You said, “I will read The Tale of Genji this year.”  I didn’t say this because I happen to know I will never finish Tale of Genji, having already read one-fourth of it twice (it is 1,216 pages long).

I happened to be reading a lot of very high-quality books anyway .   Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, the best novel I read in 2012, is the brilliant, comical story of a dying vinyl record store.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the delightful epic poem that is the source of our knowledge of Greek and Roman myths, is boldly funny: gods and goddesses behave badly without compunction, and transformations, good and bad, happen for no good reason, as they do in life, as they did in Ovid’s life (he was banished to an island).

But suddenly I’ve  switched from long classics to short, and I’m feeling a bit in limbo.  Yes, I really need to add a long classic to my TBR pile. But first I will write up a couple of short books I’ve been meaning to talk about.

the-buddha-in-the-attic-091411-SF-3801.  Although The Tale of Genji is a hyper-joy for those of you who like hyper-long books, I prefer the brevity of Julie Otsuka’s superb novel, The Buddha in the Attic, which won the PEN/Faulkner  Award in 2011.  This stunning, lyrical novel, written mostly in the first person plural, tells the story of a group of Japanese “picture brides” who travel to San Francisco in the early 20th century.  Many of the men lied in their letters to their brides about their success or glossed over unimaginable circumstances: instead of a life of leisure in America, the men are poor and the women work as cooks,  sharecroppers, maids.

The women’s collective voice awakens our empathy.

We lived in a dirt-floored shack beneath a willow tree in the middle of a wide, open field and slept on a mattress stuffed with straw.  We relieved ourselves outside, in a hole in the ground.  We drew our water up from a well.  We spent our days planting and picking tomatoes form dawn until dusk and spoke to on one but our husband for weeks at a time.  We had a cat to keep us company, and chase away the rats, and at night if we stood in the doorway and looked out toward the west we could see a faint, flickering light in the distance.  That, our husband told us, was where people were.  And we knew we should have never left home.

Later, their children reject the Japanese languauge and are ashamed of their mothers’ halting English. And then World War II begins, and the Japanese, young and old, American citizens or not, are interned in a camp.

Otsuka’s style is exquisite, and the novel is poignant, a record of the struggles of Japanese immigrants in the face of prejudice and tragedy.

The_Finishing_School_ spark2.  Some of Muriel Spark’s novels are classics, others not.  The Finishing School, her last novel, is the gracefully-written story of Rowland Mahler’s envy of the talent of his 17-year-old creative writing student, Chris Wiley.  Publishers and editors are already courting the insouciant Chris for his offbeat historical novel about Mary Queen of Scots; the struggling Rowland, who occasionally writes a few pages, is furious.  He and his wife, Nina, run an untraditional finishing school for wealthy students, but Nina certainly never anticipated Rowland’s envy of Chris, and increasingly looks for fulfillment outside of the school.  When Rowland begins to snoop in Chris’s room, we know it’s a matter of time before he implodes.

I liked it, but is it a classic?  I think not.

Although the style is polished, there isn’t much to this burlesque of creative writing programs.  Not one of her best, but even her worst is better than most people’s bests, so…


Our Mutual Friend DickensI pulled a copy of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend off the shelf.  The Vintage edition has no notes, but that is fine because my old falling-apart Penguin has notes.  The Vintage has a beautiful but strange cover and an introduction by Nick Hornby.

If you like Hornby’s columns from The Believer, and I do, you will enjoy this.

“Great writing is all about what you cut; everybody knows that,” Hornby wittily begins.

And of course we have to laugh, because Dickens never seems to have cut anything and of course when you take a writing class they tell you to pare your writing down.

Hornby doesn’t like Our Mutual Friend as much as I do.  He is more a David Copperfield and Great Expectations Man.

Our Mutual Friend is Dickens’s last finished novel, and very, very dark.

It is one of my favorite books.  Sometimes it is my favorite Dicken.  It just depends on which Dickens book I’m reading at the moment.

I last read Our Mutual Friend in 2010 and wrote at my old blog, Frisbee:  A Book Journal:

“The plot of OMF revolves around money:  the effect of the Boffins’ inheritance of the Golden Dustman’s riches on sundry characters, including themselves, after his son, John Harmon is murdered.  Members of the Boffins’ circle include John Rokeman, the mysterious secretary who dedicates himself passionately to their interests; the beautiful, greedy, witty Bella, whom the Boffins informally adopt; poisonous Wegg, the one-legged con man who hopes to blackmail Mr. Boffin;  and Betty Higden, the independent old woman who refuses to accept money from the Boffins because she wants to stand on her own two feet and, by her own money, keep out of the workhouse.”

I will check in periodically and tell you about my rereading.