We're back to school next week, so my extended extra-reading time is about to end. Here's what I've been reading lately.
Book #45 of the year was The Corner that Held Them, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. When I knew I was going to have to spend a few days in the hospital, I asked my daughter to recommend some appropriate books. Her friend Jo Walton, the author, suggested this one. The library didn't have it, and then the morning I was to check into the hospital, my daughter emailed it to me as an Amazon gift. It turned out to be perfect for the purpose. It's a little mysterious to me why certain books are just the thing at certain times (more about that later in this post). This is the story of an English Benedictine convent, Oby, in the years between 1345 and 1382. You'd think the theme of the Black Death would be a bit much in a hospital room in the middle of a pandemic, but oddly it wasn't.
Book #46 was Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, by Francis Spufford. This was also a recommendation from my daughter, a huge Spufford fan. It is brilliantly written, and has a plot that kept me guessing until the very last page. The characters are vivid and surprising. When it says old New York it means old; it's set in 1746.
Book #47 was Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. Strangely, in all my years as a lit major, I was never asked to read this book. I read it now because of an article from the Times Literary Supplement posted by Gretchen Rubin called Through the smudged pane: Pandemic consciousness in Mrs. Dalloway, by Elizabeth Winkler. Winkler points out that Clarissa Dalloway is recovering from influenza in the book and that Woolf herself had influenza during the pandemic and later (in 1918, 1919, 1920, 1922, 1923, and 1925). I was so fascinated by the essay that I immediately downloaded the novel. And then once I'd read it, I downloaded Book #52, The Hours. by Michael Cunningham, which is a very clever reworking of many of the themes in Woolf's book. I loved both books.
The only other Woolf I had read before was "A Room of One's Own," but now I am planning to read all of her books. Mrs. Dalloway is about one day in the life of the title character, a day in which she is planning and giving a party. But it's also about perception and the way we present ourselves to each other and the way the past affects the present. Here's Peter Walsh, whom the young Clarissa Darroway almost married, reflecting on their meeting on the day of the party:
"Looking back over that long friendship of almost thirty years...[t]here was a mystery about it. You were given a sharp, acute, uncomfortable grain - the actual meeting; horribly painful as often as not; yet in absence, in the most unlikely places, it would flower out, open, shed its scent, let you touch, taste, look about you, get the whole feel of it and understanding, after years of lying lost."
A friend in my writing group was told by her editor to avoid "head-hopping"; that is, stick to the same point of view from the section you're writing, and don't tell us what another character is thinking right now. I think it's good advice, but Woolf ignores it completely.
And The Hours! Here's the summary from Amazon:
"The Hours tells the story of three women: Virginia Woolf, beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway as she recuperates in a London suburb with her husband in 1923; Clarissa Vaughan, beloved friend of an acclaimed poet dying from AIDS, who in modern-day New York is planning a party in his honor; and Laura Brown, in a 1949 Los Angeles suburb, who slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home. By the end of the novel, these three stories intertwine in remarkable ways, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace."
You can imagine how perfect it was to read this right after finishing Mrs. Dalloway. Dozens of details refer back to Woolf's book, and it was still fresh in my mind.
I read much of Cunningham's book while waiting at a Port-au-Prince clinic for an endoscopy. After I'd had my temperature taken, paid for the procedure, and given all the information requested, I sat outside in 95 degree heat waiting my turn. Also sitting outside were all the other patients, a couple of whom had come straight from the hospital and were wearing hospital gowns and clutching IV bags, and the family members who had accompanied them to the clinic, including my husband. My husband's choice of reading was a memoir of a man who spent years in prison here in Haiti under the presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier, "Baby Doc." His book was too short - he finished it a while before I was done and ready to go home. Mine was perfect. As I felt the sweat running down my back, and down my face, covered with a mask, I read about characters in very different circumstances. Clarissa Vaughan is called Mrs. Dalloway by her friend, Richard, a poet who is in the final stages of dying of AIDS. She visits him in his apartment on the morning of the party she is planning for him. It's a challenge being friends with Richard, but Clarissa has managed it for many years:
"Some have ended their relations with him rather than continue as figures in the epic poem he is always composing inside his head, the story of his life and passions; but others (Clarissa among them) enjoy the sense of hyperbole he brings to their lives, have come even to depend on it."
Clarissa cuts flowers in her kitchen:
"You try to hold the moment, just here, in the kitchen with the flowers. You try to inhabit it, to love it, because it's yours and because what waits immediately outside these rooms is the hallway, with its brown tiles and its dim brown lamps that are always lit."
She thinks about the past:
"She could, she thinks, have entered another world. She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself."
Yes, there is illness - the description of the disgusting chair in which Richard spends his days is a masterpiece - but it is far away from this courtyard where we all sat. Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Brown also experience one day full of perfectly described moments, so absorbing that by the time I was summoned to go inside into the air conditioning and have my procedure, it felt as though I had been somewhere else.
Book #48 was Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds, a verse novel about gang violence and revenge that takes place almost entirely in an elevator.
Book #49 was The Idiot, by Elif Batuman, a campus novel about how excruciating first love can be. Selin goes to Harvard, where she goes to class, and writes emails, and learns, and then she does a summer abroad:
"Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book."
Book #50 was Tiepolo's Hound, by Derek Walcott. I took my copy of Walcott's collected poems to the hospital, and had my husband read to me out of it as I got my first blood transfusion. Later after he had gone home and I was alone in the room, I read some excerpts from Tiepolo's Hound and they felt intense and meaningful like everything does in the hospital. I called my husband and said I wanted to read the whole thing. He ordered it for me, and it came on Friday. I read it all before going to bed Friday night. It's described as an "epic poem," and it tells several stories: Walcott's childhood, growing up on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia; Walcott's experiences with painting, both looking at it and doing his own (the book is illustrated by some of his paintings); Camille Pissarro, the impressionist painter who grew up on the Caribbean island of Saint Thomas and then lived in exile in France; and of course the hound in the title, painted by Tiepolo (or was it Veronese?) - Walcott glimpsed this dog once in a painting, and spends the whole rest of his life looking for it again. I really, really loved this book. Both Walcott and Pissarro live in a double reality: exile and the island of their childhood. Every scene they both see has a double existence: itself and the art that can be made from it. The book is about race and colonization and islands and cities and birds and art and lots and lots of dogs.
Book #51 was The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, the story of a man who is in the hospital and looking for something to occupy his mind. He chooses the story of Richard III, immortalized by history and Shakespeare as the ultimate bad guy. But was he really?
What a lot of great reading!