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January 8, 2015

Vacation Reads Part 2: All the Best/All the Rest

I don’t actually care about the weather, or the accommodations, or the buffet. If the books are no good, then the vacation is ruined. And this is never more important than when one is vacationing at home, as I was over the holidays. I finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s Lila on Christmas Eve, confident that the flat rectangular packages under our Christmas tree would yield great reading, and was I ever right.

exact-replicaThe first book I set to reading was An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken, which I read in a day, and this meant that I spent all day Christmas being discovered hiding with my paperback, weeping, and exclaiming, “This book is just so good.” Stuart felt bad at first: “I got you a book that makes you sad.” But I shushed him. The sadness was important, but not the point. That I was weeping was a testament to this book, whose resistance of sentimentality is most remarkable. And it was also funny. Plus, brilliant. A memoir by the author of Thunderstruck and Other Stories, which was one of my top books of 2014. It’s the story that bridges the stillbirth of her first child with the birth of her second, a healthy boy, a year later, and it probes the edges of motherhood and humanity in a way that’s so important because few storytellers go to these places, where so many people go all the time. I’d recommend this book to anyone who is literate—no experience or interest in the subject matter required. It is a truly extraordinary memoir. I can’t wait to read McCracken’s other books.

Book Cover The UThe other book I got for Christmas was the essay collection The Unspeakable, by Meghan Daum, which tied into the McCracken memoir in its probing of edges. (Daum is also editor of the essay anthology Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, out in March.) These essays are also about the things nobody talks about—what really happens when your mother dies, particularly if your relationship has always been fraught; what we’re looking for in dating and relationships, and in marriage; about nostalgia (though, truthfully, everybody talks about that) and about how the soundtrack to your twenties becomes “unbearable to listen to in twenty years…not because they…sound dated and trite but because they…sound like the lining of your soul”); about filling the supposed space in one’s life by not having children; on being “an honorary dyke”; playing charades with Nicole Kidman and Nora Ephron; being in a coma (last two examples in which “unspeakableness” becomes literal). Truthfully, some parts of these pieces flirted around the edges of the mundane, and really the guiding principle of these essays is their singular point of view, by the contrarian misfit, Daum, an excellent writer who examines everything critically, including her own insatiable thirst for discovering an authentic way to be in the world. There is a point to everything.

exmoorNext, I reread The Witch of Exmoor by Margaret Drabble because, while she is one of my favourite authors, most of her output has in fact faded into a blur in my mind and I need to revisit many of them to remember what was what. It is possible that the books that had faded aren’t her best—that the fading is a mark of the books rather than my reading. Exmoor didn’t blow my mind. It received some poor reviews when it was published in 1996, James Wood contending that her Dickensian project lacked the depth of the original, that her characters were never allowed to be fully developed human beings and rather were pieces their author moved around on a game board. Though this is actually what I love best about Drabble’s work, her command of her fictional universe, the metafictional elements. I wonder if the novel was a victim of timing though: a year later was Labour’s election victory on the UK, the advent of the internet would also bring about rapid change. Her portrayal of “the way we live now” was almost so much on the cusp of something that the cusp itself seems less relevant in retrospect.

51N9Q7S021L.jpgAnd then I read Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe, the first novel by author of the epistolary memoir Love, Nina. It’s possible that my aversion to the Drabble was too much heavy for holiday, and Man at the Helm was a perfect counter. Nancy Mitford meets Sue Townsend, the story of Lizzie Vogel, a young girl whose wealthy parents divorce in the 1970s, the children and their mother relocating to a Leicestershire village whose inhabitants are hostile to newcomers, in particular households without “a man at the helm.” And so Lizzie and her sister hatch a plot to find their mother a new man, a plan that has the unintended consequence of their mother sleeping with half the husbands in the village, doing her reputation not much good. Oh, it was so funny, and I loved it.

housekeeper-and-professorAnd then my final holiday read was The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, which I plucked off the shelf at Book City because I liked the cover, and I loved the book for that reason very much before I read it, and then I read it, and there were other reasons. That it was a translation, first, which meant I was succeeding at my New Year’s Resolution before the New Year had even started. I also like that it was another book I read in a day, which is one of my great pleasures. It’s the story of a housekeeper who works for a former professor of mathematics with a brain injury that means he has a short-term memory of only 80 minutes, but the professor is taken with her young son, he teaches them both about the poetry of numbers, and the three of them together form a tenuous family unit for a while, a remarkable equation, the opposite of their previously lonely lives.

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