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August 19, 2015

Summer Vacation Reads: The Syllabus

While it is true that the books one reads on her vacation can in fact make or break that vacation, it is essential that the reader not worry too much about all that. That she not fuss  about reading books that are geographically fitting, or thematically on point; there needn’t necessarily be a syllabus for one’s vacation reading, is what I mean. And not because a syllabus is not important, but because a syllabus has a strange way of asserting itself. It’s a kind of magic, I think, how when a few random books are selected to be read one after another, they end up speaking to each other in uncanny ways, and echoing the world around their reader.

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While I take full credit for reading seven books during my recent one-week summer vacation (with children, no less) full disclosure requires me to inform you that I spent 1.5 hours waiting by myself for our delayed rental car with Nora Ephron’s Heartburn in my bag the day we left, so I got a jump start on the reading. I finished that book before we arrived, but this is kind of cheating because I started it before we even got on the road. In fact, I was reading it on the subway on my way to pick up the car, strap-hanging with one hand, the book in the other, when Rachel’s analysis group gets held up by a robber, and I almost fell over with the pacing of that scene, the absurdity, surprise. The book’s mingling of comedy and tragedy is so wonderful, and the only way a writer could ever get a book like this to work so well, I decided, would be for her to be Nora Ephron. From a technical standpoint, so much is wrong with Heartburn, but it’s perfect. I also tried the Potatoes Anna recipe and it was so ridiculously delicious, and not just because it was butter-laden. I really loved this novel, which introduced what my vacation-reads thesis was ultimately to be: books about marriage, but from often-unexamined points of view. Ephron’s roman a clef about the end of a marriage taking her reader on the roller coaster ride of emotions, the will-she-stay, will-she-go, will-she-plummet-or-soar questions as Rachel navigates her heartbreak. I loved it.

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And then Still Life, by Louise Penny, her first Inspector Gamache novel. Which is one of the two mysteries I read that week, neither actually according to the syllabus, but what kind of fun is consistency? Whereas Still Life is so fun, wonderfully good. (I was reading it partly in preparation for the new Gamache book that comes out next week.) Though if I had to make this novel pertain to the syllabus somehow, it would be that Louise Penny novels are books that both parties in my marriage are crazy about. Having Stuart to talk about them with is one of my favourite parts of the reading.

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And then Barbara Pym, and I do love to reread her in the summer. I can never remember her titles distinctly until I reread them and it all comes back. Some Tame Gazelle is the one with a Harriet, who lives in a country parish with her sister Belinda. It is also the one with a caterpillar in the cauliflower cheese. Harriet is mad for curates and Belinda harbours an impossible old love for the Archdeacon, who is married. These longings not quite the stuff of Jane Austen (with whom Pym is so often compared) in that the novel only ends with just one wedding and not six, and neither Harriet nor Belinda are the bridal party. And yet these unrequited affections are not meaningless or unimportant: ”Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love.” Marriage need not be the end of the story for a life to be full and complete.

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Next was The Giant’s House, by Elizabeth McCracken, whose Thunderstruck was one of my favourite books of last year. I didn’t like it as much as the short stories—the sadness brought me down and I found that the narrator didn’t give us enough of herself, when she was the most fascinating character in the book. But McCracken is wonderful, and I’ll read everything she writes. Her narrator a rather Pymmish character, a librarian who meets a young boy with giantism. Peggy is drawn to James and desperate to be part of his orbit, never mind the different in their ages or height. It’s a story with a compelling sense of place and time, and richly drawn secondary characters. Two points about the marriage: that Peggy describes herself as the product of two parents who were in love with each other, and that is a blow no child can recover from. And McCracken too describes a Pymmish arrangement, a love that was not conventional or a marriage as we’d understand it, but meaningful and profound all the same.

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And then I read Laurie Colwin. Oh my god, Laurie Colwin. I have not reread her books in so long, and I think I was a bit too young when I read them the first time. She is so excellent and funny, and so perfectly strangely skewed. Her book, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, is about a young woman who must renegotiate the terms of her life after the sudden death of her husband in a sailing accident. A husband with whom, she admits, she probably would have divorced—he was young and reckless, and she came along for the ride. So yes, she is devastated, but the ride is over, and what now? The narrative zeroing in on all the parts lesser writers might skip, the seemingly mundane. Colin has unconventional views about marriage and fidelity, and oh yes, she believes in love, but life is as complicated as her characters’ psyches. I loved this book and devoured it, and reread Goodbye Without Leaving last week and then ordered Passion and Affect and The Lone Pilgrim right after, which are the two remaining Laurie Colwin novels I haven’t read yet. Oh, you have to read her. She is so so good.

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The Home, by Penelope Mortimer, was my biggest surprise. She is the most undated 1970s’ novelist ever, and I remember thinking that when I read My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof, but this one could have been written tomorrow. (This is the novel I have been wanting to read for years because Carol Shields and Blanche Howard wrote about it in their collected letters.) It was so funny, contemporary, surprising, and strong. About recently-divorced Eleanor who embarks upon her new life as a divorcee after 25 years of marriage, at first with wide eyes and ideas about a home where her grown children would return, her youngest son could grow up secure, where she would have parties, entertain lovers, and be free, for the first time in her life. But reality doesn’t quite measure up (and oh, there is a heartbreaking scene where she has prepared herself and her home for the arrival of a lover, with tragic results). Eleanor’s children are so distinct, loveable, terrible and annoying—I was most amused by the family’s reaction to the eldest, Marcus, a homosexual who lives in France. This was a Margaret Drabble-ish read, but also particular and so excellent. This is a book that absolutely has to be brought back into print.

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And then I read Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, which I loved, but there is no way I’m going to see the movie because it might terrify me. The book was definitely not on the syllabus, but it was so good though that I couldn’t put it down and finished before the sun went down. Which mean that I was left bookless: usually a terrifying situation. But kind of a liberating one, after seven days of mad marathon reading.

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I am thoroughly incapable of reading nothing though. That night I made do with two 1980s’ Archie Double Digests, and they were fantastic.

2 thoughts on “Summer Vacation Reads: The Syllabus”

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I had never heard of Laurie Colwin before this summer and now you are the second reader I trust to highly recommend her. I’ve been keeping my eyes open for her books but they seem to be scarce around here! Some Tame Gazelle is a Barbara Pym I haven’t read either. So many books, so little time before the teaching term begins again!

  2. Alexis Kienlen says:

    I read Dark Places this weekend. I liked the book but apparently the movie is TERRIBLE. It was panned by a wide variety of critics. So now you don’t have to see it.

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