Sunday, March 24, 2019

but what are booksellers reading?

I recorded this little video before going to work, when it occurred to me that I should be using my encounters in the bookstore on my blog. I mean, who wants to know just what I am reading?  What about my wonderful colleagues?  What are they reading?

And so, on a normal, busy Sunday  I opened the store as usual with Keith and Alecia. This is what they said:


 "I'm reading The Long Call by Ann Cleeves.  It's an upcoming new mystery from her.  She wrote The Detective Vera series but this is her first new detective novel in many years.  It's a great cozy mystery set on the coast of England.  A man is found dead on the beach... and so I'm just getting to know the detectives and the residents of the seaside town."

"How cozy!" I said.  "A dead body on the beach!"
Keith laughed. "Well, they always start with a murder!"


"I'm reading Carolyn Forche's new memoir What You Have Heard Is True. She was so good when she was here, so excellent. And Keith just gave me a galley of Lot by Bryan Washington which is a new collection of short stories all based in Houston and it's really interesting.  And what about poetry? I'm reading Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky which is incredible. So those are probably my top three right now."

Later in the afternoon, after the Mary Pipher event - which was wonderful - and which I mentioned in my introductory video, I managed to snag a few other colleagues for input.   Here is what Jade had to say.


"i'm reading Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik.  I read the book that comes before this, which is also based on a fairy tale, and I inhaled that in three days.  This is a follow up, even though it isn't a direct sequel. It takes a different spin on the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale.  What I like about it is it's not a direct fairy tale adaptation.  Instead, it takes the bones of that and crafts something totally different."

Then Bennard came in for the closing shift - and he always has interesting reading suggestions.

"I'm reading Ocean Vuong's  On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," he said.

"Yes!" I said. "I'm reading it too!"
"Isn't it wonderful? It's so precise and rich.  I love it.  I've read some of his poetry.  I think he was a poet first before writing this novel.  And you can see that.  No word, no sentence is wasted. He's always very precise, very intense. and then the depth of feeling and passion. It's amazing. It's probably going to be a prime candidate for one of my favorite books this year."

Finally at the end of my shift, I managed to corner Aron for his latest recommendation.

"Right now I am listening to Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi.  I am always enchanted by the way that she sees and describes the world, and by the unique perspective of the characters that she creates."

I'm so fortunate to have such interesting colleagues!  And yes, there are more to come!

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

on making demands, and reading hotel du lac (VIDEO)

 Anita Brookner's beautifully observed novel Hotel Du Lac feels a bit like Thomas Mann crossed with Barbara Pym.  Edith, the protagonist is a romance writer vacationing off season at a "traditional establishment used to welcoming the prudent, the well-to-do, the retired, the self effacing, the respected patrons of an earlier era of tourism."  And although she intends to finish her latest book at the hotel, she finds herself distracted by her fellow guests who are all passing through their own kinds of psychological off seasons.

The most delicious residents are Iris and Jennifer Pusey, a mother and daughter, who in conversation "composed their past as deliberately as they did their present and to both of these one was expected, in some curious way, to pay homage."  Thus Edith becomes audience to their chatter about clothes and money from which she "doesn't withdraw or emerge untainted."

But get a load of this character description: "Iris Pusey was a star, and like many a star she could only function from a position of dominance. She held information at bay, so that Edith was not required to give an account of herself."

It is against this backdrop of virtual anonymity that Edith reassesses her relationship with a married man in London, with whom she's been having an affair. She writes him long letters. You can't imagine him reading them.  She tries to come to terms with her standing in his life.  "Is it because I am so meek that people fail to notice my demands," she wonders. "Or it is, even more simply, that I fail to make them."

Then  Mr Neville, another of the hotel guests, takes Edith out for an afternoon. She becomes quite chatty under his attention.  He alone, of all her new acquaintances, has observed her closely.  But conversation get a little too deep and he says something pointed and cutting.  "Suddenly there was an antagonism between them, as he intended," Brookner writes, "for antagonism blunts despair."

But there is more to come.  For having unmasked Edith's unhappiness and loyalty to the man she loves,  Mr Neville is about to reveal the secret to his own happiness.

"It is simply this," he says.  "Without a huge emotional investment, one can do whatever one pleases.  One can take decisions, change one's mind, alter one's plans. There is none of the anxiety of waiting to see if that one other person has everything she desires, if she is discontented, upset, restless, bored.  One can be as pleased or as ruthless as one wants.  If one is prepared to do the one thing one is drilled out of doing from earliest childhood - simply please oneself- there is no reason why one should ever be unhappy again...You have no idea how promising the world begins to look once you have decided to have it all for yourself," he concludes.

It's not a radical observation. But because of where it's inserted in the narrative,  directly after Edith's assessment of her prospects,  this one strikes a nerve.  Edith has never manipulated others in a selfish way, but prior to her visit to Hotel Du Lac we learn that she took a surprising stand.  It shifted the delicate balance with her lover and put too fine a point on things.

 She wonders if her hold on him rested on the fact that she had been less difficult than his wife.  Maybe she has just been "a rather touching interlude." But Anita Brookner seems to believe that those who behave like Mr Neville and the Puseys are in danger of turning their hearts into stone,  of becoming like Jennifer Pusey "as inexpressive as a blank window."

#anitabrookner #hoteldulac


Thursday, February 28, 2019

say nothing

In 1972 during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a group of intruders barged into the West Belfast home of Jean McConville, and abducted her.  She was thirty-eight years old, the mother of ten children, and she was never seen again.  It was not until 2003, several years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, that her remains were discovered on a beach.

Ten years after this, in 2013, Dolours Price, a front line soldier for the IRA, died.  But in a secret oral history endeavor called The Belfast Project, she had confessed to her involvement in the killing of Jean McConville - and - as this book explains, at the heart of the story is Gerry Adams, who ordered the killing. 

Yet it was Gerry Adams who negotiated peace in Northern Ireland.  What a complex figure he turns out to be.  Furthermore, neither Adams nor Patrick Radden Keefe could have predicted something like Brexit when he began writing this book. How ironic that Brexit might become responsible for finally bringing about a united Ireland.   

Last night, I had the immense privilege of introducing Patrick Radden Keefe at Politics and Prose Bookstore. I began following this story with the publication of his article "Where The Bodies Are Buried" in the New Yorker in 2015 and like many who read it, I never forgot it.  This is a stunning new book - and although I have only just cracked it open, I cannot wait to read it.

#saynothing #belfastproject #patrickraddenkeefe

Saturday, February 16, 2019

on live in maids, Maid and watching "Roma"

Stephanie Land and her book  Maid

Reading Stephanie Land's book Maid and watching the deeply affecting film Roma has made me think a lot about my own experience with household help.   When my husband Ben and I joined the US Foreign Service, our first overseas assignment was in Caracas Venezuela. It was 1985. We moved from a shabby shoe box of an apartment in Crown Heights to a Venezuelan penthouse with several balconies and three full bathrooms in Santa Eduviges, Caracas.

 Life in Venezuela was good back then, so good in fact, that people regularly imported ice from Miami as well as scotch for their parties, from Edinburgh, Scotland.  If you asked for a cola - it was assumed you meant a whisky cola.

 Oil was flowing back then, and Venezuela had the highest per capita income of all other countries in South America.  Back then, Venezuela was the big success story that the US government cited:  Here is democracy in action, folks. Look how wonderful everything is.

And so, as a junior officer trainee and his pregnant wife, Ben and I moved from New York City to Caracas Venezuela and instantly entered the high life.  Our apartment overlooked the Avila mountains from several different balconies.  We were not just encouraged to, but expected to hire a maid.  At first we had a day maid - Euphemia from Trinidad who lived in the barrios, and came in to clean and iron for us three times a week. But after I had my first child, we hired a live in maid - Nelly, who not only cleaned, but who looked after my two year old daughter during my pregnancy with a second child, and then after when I had my newborn son.

Nelly was a wonderful spirit and a dedicated worker.  But at some point I realized that Nelly was illiterate. She always asked for books, and I was happy to provide them - as well as a typewriter.  But one day I came across a notebook she kept, where she had practiced writing, not just my signature  but also several random notes I'd scrawled. The rest of the pages in her notebook were just row upon row of scribbled loops.  I came to the terrible realization that Nelly could neither read nor write.

After our two year assignment in Caracas, we moved to Argentina, where we found a huge apartment in Plaza San Martin.  Here we had a succession of maids - but most significantly a live in maid called Maida - who arrived with her infant daughter.  The maid's quarters in our apartment were bigger than anything we had ever had in New York.  In fact, we used to joke that we would have paid good money for the small rooms Maida inhabited at the back of our enormous Buenos Aires apartment.

The building had a doorman and the apartment had an elevator running directly to our floor.  It had three huge reception rooms in front, with tall ceilings and French windows onto the balcony in front. There were corridors for those who lived in the apartment, not to be confused with the back corridors for those who worked there.  There was also a button on the floor in the dining room, to call in the maid  from the kitchen when it was time to clear the table during dinner parties.  The apartment had - wow, I'll have to stop and count now - one, two, three, no - four full bathrooms - all with bidets,  as well as a cloakroom - and of course the maid's bathroom in her quarters.

We paid Maida a lordly sum to live in our home and clean our apartment: that is, we paid her $200 a month.  We gave her food, lodging, clothes.  I gave her all my daughter's cast off clothing for her little girl Jimena.  Jimena was raised with my own children - watching television with them, playing games with them, growing up with them side by side.  Jimena even used to greet my husband Ben  when he came in from work with my children "Daddy," she cried!

But $200 a month? It's embarrassing to think about. And yet I was frequently taken to task by my Argentine friends for paying her so much.  We were living in Buenos Aires during the 1980s, during hyperinflation. We had decided to peg her salary to the dollar, for her own security.  At one point when inflation in Argentina was at 2000%,  Maida was making more than a surgeon. She was certainly making  far more than I was making as a university teacher in Buenos Aires!

My Argentine friends in the park would tell me I was spoiling her.   I was paying too much; treating her too well.  I was also taken to task for allowing her to call me by name. She should call you senora they said. It was shocking how permissive I was.

So when I watched the film Roma, I watched with a bittersweet feeling in my heart.  And when I listened to Stephanie Land at Politics and Prose last month, talking about what it was like to be a maid, I felt a pang of guilt about the role I had once played in this two tiered system - albeit in South America.

We pay people to clean up our houses.  To pick up our shit. To sort out our messes.  I have often thought it a bit of a nerve when people refer to their household help as "part of the family." Because part of the family they are certainly not.  Yes, they pick up for you, clean up your bathrooms, scub your floors and put your children to bed - but they are not in any way part of the family. They are not treated as equals. They are hired help. They do the dirty work.

I wonder sometimes what happened to Maida.  She left us when she became pregnant with her second child.  I remember her telling me what a pleasure it had been to work for us. And I will always remember her fondly.  She was patient and poised, efficient, gentle, and a beautiful presence in our home.

Since then I have also had household help when we lived in Moscow, in Brussels and in Rome.  But somehow those stories are less compelling - less resonant when I think about the film Roma.

I wonder what happened to Maida's beautiful little girl, Jimena -who grew up in our home, and was a companion to our son Alex.  Does she even remember us?  Maida named her son Lucas Alex - after my son Alex and his best friend Lucas at the time.   Jimena and Alex would play together every afternoon.  But  I'll probably never know what became of her, or where she is now. How could Itrack her down?  They lived in the barrios and Maida's husband was a little unreliable. Their lives were so precarious.

#roma #maid #stephanieland

stoner - a portrait of noble failure

Stoner by John Williams is one of those novels I've meant to read for years but only just got round to.  It's a quiet, elegantly written and tender portrait of a professor at a mid-western university in the first half of the 20th century.  His colleagues "held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, [and] speak rarely of him now."

William Stoner's life might be construed as a failure. But it's in his acceptance of failure that Stoner is successful. When he is dying,  he asks himself several times what did you expect.  Then he takes an inventory of the high points in his life: his marriage, teaching career, few friendships and brief love affair - the episodes comprising the arc of his story.

Early in the novel, his colleague David Masters describes university life as a "rest home for the infirm... and otherwise incompetent." He assesses Stoner's character like this: "You... are cut out for failure; not that you'd fight the world. You'd let it chew you up and spit you out, and you'd lie there wondering what was wrong.  Because you'd always expect the world to be something it wasn't, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn't face them, and you couldn't fight them; because you're too weak, and you're too strong. And you have no place to go in the world."

Stoner remains at the same university throughout his career, with only brief success. He has a long marriage, which except for a short (and rather odd) period of passion, is devoid of tenderness, understanding or connection. Then, he allows his wife Edith, a disturbed personality, to freeze him out of their home as well as out of a relationship with their daughter.

Stoner takes refuge from home at the university, but he's frozen out there too, by the department head, Hollis Lomax.  In both situations, Stoner has the moral high ground, but he buckles in to flawed and willful personalities.  He survives these blows, in that he keeps on going, living an ever diminishing role at home, and accepting a humiliating and constrained academic schedule at work.  There is one brief triumph  in his career - but ultimately that success passes into legend, and in the minds of his colleagues and students he becomes "a campus character".

Then there's his love affair with graduate student Katherine Driscoll.  The ardor between them is tenderly described, and the meeting of their minds over her doctoral thesis indicates that the relationship is fully satisfying to them both.  But he relinquishes Katherine for his marriage to Edith, a relationship that began and ultimately endures on superficial footing.

There's a lot of freezing out - a lot of winter in this spare and elegant novel.  But winter is connected to Stoner's most deeply felt moments.  Over the days he shares with Katherine, they walk nearly every day in the woods, despite the bitter cold.  Then, at the heart of the novel, there's an important turning point in a moment of crisis when "he found himself wondering if his life were worth living; if it had ever been."

He opens the window beside his desk and breathes in the winter air.  "He felt himself pulled outward toward the whiteness, which spread as far as he could see, and which was a part of the darkness from which it glowed, of the clear and cloudless sky without height of depth.  For an instant he felt himself go out of the body that sat motionless before the window; and as he felt himself slip away; everything - the flat whiteness, the trees, the tall columns, the night, the far stars -- seemed incredibly tiny and far away, as if they were dwindling to a nothingness."

There's a similarly beautiful moment at the end of the novel when "dispassionately, reasonable, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be.  He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends... he had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died.  He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality."

What an extraordinary turn of phrase: the chaos of potentiality.

John McGahern in his introduction to the NYRB edition of this book,  calls William Stoner a "real hero" the importance, in his view, being Stoner's sense of a job.  "You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization."

But think of what he gives up. Stoner lets his influence over and love for his daughter slip away at the hands of his troubled wife.   He lets go of Katherine Driscoll so that she can live by herself and he can remain with Edith.  He continues to work at the university, flattened and demoralized by the department chair.

Yet it's in his passivity and insignificance, in Stoner's lack of consequence, that he is most at peace with himself.  Throughout the novel he remarks that his travails mean nothing.  That they don't really matter.  But he has a life of the mind and, with that, he has his own quiet dignity.


Thursday, February 7, 2019

emotional risks and blighted lives in Lisa Gornick's Peacock Feast

Every so often you come across a novel whose emotional range and complexity defies summary.  The Peacock Feast is that kind of book.  Yes, the title is confounding because the image of a peacock with its fanned plumage is foreshortened when paired with the word feast. But this hints at important themes which are explored so beautifully in this intelligent and satisfying novel.

The story begins with a vulgar extraveganza of a party, a Peacock Feast given by Louis C Tiffany in 1916. The great men of the day were all invited.  Roasted peacocks were served on silver platters, their plumes used as decoration. Pretty girls and children outfitted as miniature chefs served up all the dishes.

But the repercussions of this party carry across a century, in the lives of Tiffany's daughter Dorothy - who becomes the partner of Anna Freud, and more importantly, in the family of Tiffany's head gardener.  This is a novel about extravagant lives that are emotionally destitute and emotionally complicated lives that are tragically blighted.  It's a story involving twins, servants, decorators, the aspirational and the filthy rich.  It's about lives cut short, families which are torn apart, and the people who end up picking up the slack.

The main character Prudence is 101 years old when her grand niece Grace appears on her doorstep. Her arrival causes Prudence to look back on and reevaluate her life.  Prudence, who in her younger days was an interior designer, decides that Grace is a woman who  "looks as if she shoos away beauty. A person for whom renovation would be possible but who has no desire to undertake it".    Yet Grace is a hospice nurse, accustomed to ushering people through that final transition.  Her work is "nursing in its purest form without hope of cure, with hope only of alleviating suffering."

We feel at once that Grace has an emotional depth Prudence lacks, in spite of  Prudence's physical affluence, and as the story progresses we understand that Prudence has been "a coward of the heart."

The story takes us from the Guided Age to a hippie commune in the 1960s, from San Francisco to Paris and to New York. It gives us bereft parents and grandparents, and dysfunctional kids. It gives us alternative choices followed through to their conclusions, with missteps and collateral damage along  the way.

"I want you to live - I want you to let yourself be touched, I want you to risk everything to find love," Prudence tells Grace at the end of the book.   But it seems to me that almost all the characters have taken their own kinds of risks. It's just that some paid off and others destroyed lives.

Lisa Gornick will be reading from her novel at Politics and Prose on February 10 at 3:00 and I will be introducing her.  I'll try to post something more after the event - but hopefully this has piqued your interest.


Saturday, January 19, 2019

what we talk about when we talk about bookshops

It was our first book discussion of the year  on a snowy January afternoon.  Maybe so many showed up because of the government shut down, one suggested. The museums were closed, and those with furloughed spouses needed some reason to get out of the house!  But whatever the case, there we all were - almost twenty of us sitting round a table in the library, a center of community, and we were all there to discuss Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop.

Protagonist Florence Green is a widow whose imagination has been kindled by a vacant historical building called The Old House.  Having inherited money, she sets about opening a bookshop. "She was not much talked about, not even in Hardborough,"  Fitzgerald tells us, "where everyone could be seen coming over the wide distances and everything seen was discussed. She made small seasonal changes in what she wore.  Everybody knew her winter coat, which was the kind that might just be made to last another year." 

But the bookshop project is doomed from the start. The storage room is damp and cannot be used for books and the Old House is haunted by poltergeists. Then a moneyed arts patron in town explains that she's had her eye on the place for years, intending to turn the Old House into an Art Center.  And while other neighbors wish Florence well, they would really rather have a lending library.

There are very few solid customers. There's the scout who comes in every day after school to read another chapter of I Flew with the Fuher... "he marked the place with a string weighted down with a boiled sweet."  A local painter shows up with his watercolors one day, hoping to exhibit them there, and of course there's Christine Gipping, a ten year old girl who comes in to help.

So many eccentric descriptions in The Bookshop made me laugh out loud.  Christine - for instance, who forms a special bond with Florence, had broken her two front teeth "during the previous winter in rather a strange manner, when the washing on the line froze hard, and she was caught a blow in the face with an icy vest."  Christine has no interest in books at all. She has been sent to help rather than her older sister, since "now the evenings were getting longer her older sister would be up in the bracken with Charlie Cutts."

The establishment of the bookshop is central to Florence's story, but books and reading play a very small part.  It doesn't appear that Florence herself reads much, although at one point she orders two hundred and fifty copies of Lolita and arranges them in a pyramid in the front of the store. Neither does she have a head for marketing or for keeping her accounts straight.  So why, you wonder, did she want so much to open a bookshop?

That's when we realized in our discussion, that when we talk about books and bookshops, we are often really talking about community.  "To leave a mark of any kind was exhilarating,"  Florence reflects at one stage, while walking on the beach.  She is hoping to be seen in some way - to be recognized and part of a community. 

Our book discussion groups which take place every month in the library are a living example of this sort of community.  We can talk about anything when we tie it to the books we read together.  I also work at a bookstore in DC - Politics and Prose. The community forged there is invaluable in Washington - especially during these turbulent political times.  Book events each evening provide an intellectual sanctuary.  But those events are more about getting people into the store than about selling books.  And during the snowy days, the store becomes a destination to get you out of the house.  Where else can you open so many conversations with strangers, by asking what they've been reading?  But without the business sense to back it up, such a community would not be possible.

Florence's battle in The Bookshop is a battle to establish community.  It also reveals class tensions between the affluent people in town who want to establish an Art Center and the local working class people who don't have money to spend on books.  In the end, Florence's enterprise is defeated "but defeat is less unwelcome when you are tired," she reflects sadly.

Penelope Fitzgerald's light touch, and her insight into human nature, seems to make defeat more bearable,  as it does in another of her novels Offshore - where a bohemian family try in vain to live on a dilapidated houseboat.  Fitzgerald's characters have imagination, they are iconoclasts, but they lack practicality and money sense.  Their vision almost, not quite, makes things work. Fitzgerald made her subject their struggles against inevitable failure.  And they have such heart. They companion me and although I don't know why, they give me hope for humanity.