June 2, 2013
I have nearly all of Barbara Pym’s novels on my shelf, the bulk of which I obtained when a contents sale was held at a house around the corner and I pretty much cleaned out the library. And this is how it is with Barbara Pym novels–it usually takes death for a reader to finally part with them. Though they also turn up at used book sales from time to time (probably after a death as well), which is how I first encountered Excellent Women, perhaps Pym’s best-known novel. I’d heard of Pym from Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading and also from this wonderful piece on the CBC on the Barbara Pym Society, which I joined shortly after becoming a Pym convert. It was Excellent Women that fast turned me into one too, and no wonder, I discovered, over the past few days as I read the book again.
It’s wonderful. I could see how encountering Pym first through some of her other novels might be a less delightful experience, one not truly appreciated until one understands the nature of the Pymmian universe. But Excellent Women, as subtle and small as her other books, is so absolutely funny, its goodness immediately graspable. As ever, the delicious gap because what is written on the page and the reader’s apprehension of the true situation. It’s the story of Mildred Lathbury, spinster daughter of a clergyman whose life changes with the arrival of new neighbours Rocky and Helena Napier, plus a clergyman’s widow who steals the heart of the vicar whom everyone had assumed that Mildred was in love with.
And the lines: “A little grey woman… brewing coffee in the ruins.” The austerity of 1950s’ England is not at the novel’s forefront, but instead a shadow in the background with references to bombed-out buildings, ration books, and bad food. But ordinary life goes on anyway, church services conducted in the half of the church that was not destroyed in the war, which gives the congregation a heightened intimacy.
And the vicar with his plaintive call: “May I come up? I can hear the attractive rattle of tea things. I hope I’m not too late.” Oh, so much tea. “Perhaps there can be too much making cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. We had all had our supper, or were supposed to have had it, and were met together to discuss the arrangements for the Christmas bazaar. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look. ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.”
There are so many landslides in this tidy book, whose whole world is turned inside out by its final page. Most aren’t the landslides you’d notice and it doesn’t end with a wedding (though a further glimpse of these characters in another Pym novel reveals that one will come about eventually!!!), but more with a change in consciousness, the main character’s heightened awareness of her place in the world. And it’s a funny little world too, quintessentially English, rattling tea things and all. How I adore it, absolutely.
This past week, I also reread A Glass of Blessings, which is more subtle and infused with a touch of melancholy in spite of its delights. So many musings on a furniture storage facility–such a curious book. A bored and idle married woman fancies herself the object of another man’s affections, though he turns out to be gay (which is as expressly stated as you’d imagine for a book published in 1958). Pym is truly the master of the unrequited love narrative.
I do look forward to much Pym rereading this summer. I’ve read most of her books in a pleasurable blur, and welcome the opportunity to think deeper about them. I also look forward to baking a victoria sponge cake this afternoon in celebration of her centenary. It’s either bake a cake or have a baby, and the latter doesn’t appear to be happening yet.
May 27, 2013
I just finished rereading A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, which I remember reading for the first time about 3.5 years ago in my room with the lighting so dim I could hardly see the words, and there was a little baby napping on my chest. Oh, is there anything worse than a little baby napping on your chest and then feeling a coughing spasm coming on? I remember that too. Of the many ways in which I’m in limbo at the moment, reading-wise is one. I have the new Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel waiting on my shelf, but it’s huge and I can’t make such a commitment to anything at the moment while I’m waiting for baby to begin to arrive. After baby comes, I will crack open Where’d You Go Bernadette, but I’m saving it ’till then. I reread Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin last weekend when I was sick. “What to read next?” is not usually a question I spend much time grappling with, as the books usually seem to be lined up for me, but not here and not now. Which is kind of lovely, a luxury–the only bit of this waiting in which I’m really revelling. And all I really want to do is reread. I think I’m going to pick up a Margaret Drabble next–the follow-up to The Radiant Way (my first and best Drabble…) which is A Natural Curiosity–I read it once the summer I got married. (I keep plucking these books off the shelf and they’re covered with dust.)
You might recall that my computer died in June 2009, with nothing on it backed up, including my list of Books Read Since 2006. Which means that I soon after started a new list, which is basically “Books I’ve Read Since Harriet’s Birth”. I updated it this evening–503 books read in my child’s lifetime. Not counting the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve read to her.
And speaking of Barbara Pym, whom I am really anxious to reread all summer long, a fun online reading project will be taking place in celebration of her centenary on Sunday. Barbara Pym Reading Week runs from June 1-8, with giveaways and a virtual tea party even. Ideally, I’ll be lost in newbornhood by that point, or even pulling off my ultimate celebratory stunt (giving birth on the big day), but I think I may be rereading Excellent Women at some point in solidarity.
I do so love Pym, whose essence was Englishness, who knew much about nuance, psychology, tea, womanhood, longing and romance. But who perhaps knew less about motherhood, if this passage from A Glass of Blessings is anything to go by…
“We were in her bed-sitting-room after supper, and I had been telling her about Sybil’s forthcoming marriage and what an upheaval it was going to make in our lives.
‘Yes,’ said Mary, ‘marriage does do that, doens’t it?–and death too, of course.’
‘But not birth.”
‘No–people seem to come more quietly into the world…'”
Which is not exactly how I remember it. But maybe I remember it wrong?
October 25, 2012
I’ve started reading Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories, because mention of it keeps turning up here and there, and because I keep spying it on terribly clever people’s bookshelves. I got a used copy last weekend, and opened it for the first time this morning to start reading “Celia Behind Me”: “There was a little girl with large smooth cheeks who lived up the street when I was in public school.” And I realized that I’d read this story before, more than once. It was so strangely familiar, like something I’d known in a dream, but somebody else’s dream. So distant because I’d read it a long time ago.
A little investigation revealed that I’d read the story in The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Margaret Atwood and Robert Weaver. I remembered the text, a row of spines lined up on the shelf in my grade 12 English classroom. I’d remembered “Celia Behind Me,” and also a story called “White Shoulders” (I remember being perplexed by it) which I was surprised to find out was by Linda Svendsen. (Alice Munro’s “The Red Dress” was not in the collection, but I remember reading that story too in the class.)
I was most surprised to discover that right there in my high school text were all these writers who I feel as though I’ve discovered in the last few years and who’ve become really important to me– Bronwen Wallace, Caroline Adderson, Cynthia Flood. And that Leon Rooke was there too, and John Metcalf, Clark Blaise, Diane Schoemperlen, Barbara Gowdy, Douglas Glover, Thomas King. I am pretty sure that we didn’t read “We So Seldom Look on Love” in my grade 12 English class, but I am just as sure that if I encountered many of these stories again, they would seem as instantly familiar as “Celia Behind Me” did.
This re-encounter has given me a new appreciate for the hoopla surrounding the Salon de Refuses and the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories in 2008. Well-curated anthologies are the optimum way for students to discover the short story, each one onto itself, one at a time. These seminal texts are also more important and influential than I’d before supposed, definitely sowing the seeds of love for short stories and for (Canadian) literature.
For me, it would take awhile for the love to bloom. I would not be exposed to contemporary writing this good again for years, and years, and I’d have to seek it out for myself. But maybe I hadn’t been on my own entirely. It’s been a meandering path from from there to here, but I am pretty sure that the me who picked up Isabel Huggan this morning (for fun) has The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories to thank for a lot of the journey.
July 15, 2012
I do make a point of often rereading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but mostly because it’s just that quite often I get the urge to do so. And it’s usually summer when I do, like last week on the coattails of Valery The Great. I read Slouching last in 2010, and wrote quite a bit about it. This time, my reading around was coloured by having read Didion’s new book Blue Nights last fall. I’ve already written about how much her new book is a response to the voice we hear throughout this book, to her 32/33 year-old self who imagines (in “Goodbye To All That”) that she’ll never be so young again, who has figured that “someday it all comes” and that it even stays.
And yes, it’s jarring to encounter Slouching… with the perspective of Blue Nights. I’d never thought about Quintana in the context of the “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” essay, but I wondered where she’d been, and noticed Didion herself in the essay more than I ever had before: “Norris says it would be a lot easier if I’d take some acid. I say I’m unstable.” I think of the simplistic way that Quintana herself is described in so many of these essays: “Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singular blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up.” Quintana was one when that essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” was written. It’s so odd that the normally astute Didion would ever imagine that any person, especially in their infancy, could be so known.
I reread this book with the perspective of Mad Men too, and Lucille Maxwell Miller in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” came right out of the world, even on the opposite coast. Same with the “Slouching…” essay, the disintegration the show begins to grapple with in Season 5, which ends with the beginning of 1967. And yes, this essay reminded me of the present too, as it probably ever will, but even more than it did when I read it two years ago:
“The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snaked shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together.”
I understand the “Personals” essays better and differently every time. I love “Notes from a Native Daughter” which is a preview of one of my favourite Didion books, 2002’s Where I Was From. I continue to find “The Seacoast of Despair” completely incomprehensible, every single one of its references a blank space for me.
And, mostly profoundly, I think I have finally grown out of “Goodbye to All That”. I still think it’s as lovely as I ever did, but it no longer makes me want to hang yards of yellow silk from my windows and cry in Chinese laundries. I no longer think it’s romantic. It’s dawned upon me that the voice of experience in that piece is still so absolutely, so tenderly young. Blue Nights, of course, emphasized this point, but I probably would have seen it anyway. I still love the part where she writes, “I would stay in New York, I told him, for just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed for eight years.”
But I’m started to realize that who we were at 23 means less and less as we get older, and that the decade we traverse to get to 33 is still absolutely nothing compared to the journey just beginning. That we shall be made so young and stripped of our illusions over and over again.
April 26, 2012
As it was when I first read this book in 2008, the plot is weak, but then plot is not the point in Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down, which is this year’s One Book Toronto read and also one of the most evocative Toronto books I’ve read ever. And it’s been a funny week on my end, nothing dire, much that’s lovely, but just very busy and divorced from the strict routine my life is constructed around usually. Yesterday, I rode the subway so many times I bought a day-pass, and it was a strange thing to be reading this book on the TTC and carrying it through other places where some its most important scenes are set. It was a strange thing also to come home from a gathering where emotions were particularly heightened, and I kept thinking about the line on page 128, “our lives marked always by the proximity of others.”
It’s such an atmospheric book, and the atmosphere keeps stealing into my own. Today I felt like Alex does: “…everything now seemed to assimilate into the city’s larger narrative.” Or rather, the city assimilating into Maggie Helwig’s narrative. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, the curious places where fact and fiction meet. Today I encounter the newspaper headline, “Students, staff at Scarborough elementary school fall ill”. ““They did a thorough inspection of the school and carbon monoxide or any other airborne problems were deemed not to be the cause,” said… spokesman for the Toronto Catholic District School Board”. And even the abortion clinic scenes, and today’s attack on Canadian women’s reproductive rights.
“So it was like that now, catastrophe inevitable at the most empty moments. Everyone waiting, almost wanting it, a secret, guilty desire for meaning. Their time in history made significant for once by that distant wall of black cloud.”
And it’s funny because my reaction to this book upon first read was that the Toronto under siege depicted felt so foreign to me– I’d missed the SARS epidemic, and the big black-out. But Helwig’s city feels more familiar now, and not just the police brutality since this happened, or how much awful the world is in 2012 as compared to how it was in 2008 (which is much). More amusingly, there’s the scene where the pigeon gets into the hospital, which definitely means more since this happened (and the birds! How I have to reread Headhunter).
But I think basically I’ve just been overwrought this last day or so and that the weather has been funny, but still. What crazy things fiction can do to our minds, and the innumerable ways our stories appear to affect the world.
March 28, 2012
Funny reread of Byatt’s The Children’s Book, and I’m convinced that furious consumption was how it meant to be read, in fact, and that I got it right the first time. When I read 600+ pages in just three days because my life depended on it. This time, I picked it up again and I’ve been so busy the last week or so that I could only manage it in small amounts, amounts too small for me to get caught up in the story before I had to put it down again. And all that picking up and putting down was hard work for a book that was so enormous. I found myself skimming the surface of the narrative instead of getting lost inside it, and the surface of this novel is so many-sided that it was disorienting. I would much rather get lost in a wood than slide down a polyhedron. Also surprised to find the novel so much less “about” the things I’d thought it was about– fairy tales, childhood, families, Edwardian England, history etc– than embodying the things themselves. The effect is overwhelming. It’s a truly brilliant novel but I will have to re-reread it again when I’ve cleared enough space in my head to totally devote to it.
Anyway, I also have to read the biography of E. Nesbit now as per here, which I probably should have just done instead of rereading The Children’s Book. More insight into Byatt’s influences for the novel here.
March 19, 2012
Harriet was scheduled to born on a Tuesday, and the Friday before, late in the evening, a copy of AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book turned up at my door. I spent my last days without her, my last days alone, scrambling to get this book read because I’d been waiting for it for so long already, and it was so massive I knew I’d never get to it after the baby’s birth due to matters of weight and time. I finished reading it on Monday at 5:00, and don’t remember so much of the book itself save for the scramble, a fantastic race to the finish, which was wholly symbolic of life at the time (with no imagining of what would come after). So I’ve been intending to reread it ever since, an intimidating prospect because it’s still a hulking book, but so much of my reading lately– Joan Bodger, Arcadia, Among Others— has been gesturing toward it, so it’s time now. I’m excited. Because I’ve no idea what it is to read The Children’s Book when one isn’t scheduled to give birth on Tuesday. To read this book now as a mother myself, and with such a richer appreciation of children’s stories than when I encountered this the first time. Not quite three years ago, but how it seems a whole other lifetime.
February 29, 2012
As I read Joan Didion’s 1966 “On Keeping a Notebook” today, it occurred to me that this essay is the piece that is the bookend to her new book Blue Nights, and not The Year of Magical Thinking as so many critics have suggested. (I also don’t understand why no one talks about Where I Was From. I think it’s my favourite book of all of hers.)
But first, Blue Nights is not a book about Didion’s daughter Quintana Roo. So many readers have got that wrong too. As Didion writes in “On Keeping a Notebook”, “however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of what we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I’.” Like everything Didion has ever written, Blue Nights is profoundly about herself. She’s not even opaque about it, but some readers are still so unable to get around the fact of a woman writing honestly about motherhood than they’ve been hypnotized into thinking motherhood is all that Blue Nights is about.
But yes, to read “On Keeping a Notebook” after Blue Nights is to invest the essay with a whole new level of meaning. “Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singular blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up.” And then later, “…I have always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.” In Blue Nights, Didion writes, “How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?”
And then further on the essay when she addresses her notes, her compulsion to maintain these notebooks in order to keep in touch with the people she used to be, “paid passage back to the world out there”. She was 32 when she wrote this essay, which is the age I am now, and it’s an age at which you feel there are whole lifetimes behind you, and it’s so fascinating to consider these. 32 is an age where your preceding decade has changed life beyond all recognition, and you’ve finally sensed an order to it all. How, as the older woman in Didion’s essay tells her, “Someday it all comes.” And none of it has started to leave you yet; the future is all promise, and it’s here.
Blue Nights is a 77 year old Didion looking back at her 32 year old self who’d supposed herself older than she’d ever be again. In Blue Nights, she notes the boxes and drawers in her apartment stuffed with history, the notebooks, the stuff she’s been acquiring through her years, all items she’d once blithely advertised as “paid passage back to the world out there.”
She writes, “In fact I no longer value this kind of memento./ I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted./ There was a period… when I thought I did./ A period during which I believed that I could keep people fully present, keep things with me, by preserving their mementos, their “things”, their totems.”
She writes, “In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment./ In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.”
“It all comes back,” Didion writes in 1966, unaware of the shallowness of what she’d lost so far, convinced by the rhythm of her words. And Blue Nights is her realization more than 40 years later: there comes a day when it doesn’t anymore.
February 16, 2012
“It was not that I merely read The New Yorker; I lived it in a private way. I had created for myself a New Yorker world (located somewhere east of Westport and west of the Cotswolds) where Peter de Vries (punning softly) was forever lifting a glass of Piesporter, where Niccolo Tucci (in a plum velvet dinner jacket) flirted in Italian with Muriel Spark, where Nabokov sipped tawny port from a prismatic goblet (while a Red Admirable perched on his pinky), and where John Updike tripped over the master’s Swiss shoes, excusing himself charmingly (repeating all the while that Nabokov was the best writer of English currently holding American citizenship). Meanwhile, the Indian writers clustered in a corner punjabbering away in Sellerian accents (and giving off a pervasive odor of curry) and the Irish memorists (in fishermen’s sweaters and whiskey breath) were busy snubbing the prissily tweedy English memorists.
Oh, I had mythicized other magazines and literary quarterlies, too, but The New Yorker had been my shrine since childhood. (Commentary, for example, held rather grubby gatherings at which bilious-looking Semites-all of whom were named Irving-worried each other to death about Jewishness, Blackness, and Consciousness, while dipping into bowls of chopped liver and platters of Nova Scotia.) These soirees amused me, but it was for The New Yorker that I reserved my awe. I never would have dared to send my own puny efforts there, so it outraged and amazed me to find someone I had actually known frequenting its pages.” –Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
February 9, 2012
It was only two years ago that I first read Joan Bodger’s The Crack in the Teacup, but revisiting it was an experience that was altogether new. First, because my interest in children’s literature has become so much deeper since then (mostly due to what I learned from reading this book the first time, and from Bodger’s other book How the Heather Looks) and also because of Mad Men. But we’ll get to that.
I do think that A Crack in the Teacup might be one of my favourite books ever. I read it over five days last week, and absolutely would not shut up about it. You will see. The beginning is a little slow, if only because Bodger’s childhood is spent at a remove from the rest of the world. Which is what makes it interesting of course, but she examines it in such minute detail, perhaps because these details of a happy time are so much more pleasant to examine than what comes later.
I think it is inevitable that one becomes a storyteller when one can write about her grandfather’s first wife who was killed in a shipwreck in 1877. Really, all the ingredients here are the stuff of storybooks: her mother is English, the daughter of a sailor whose third wife is a quarter Chinese, who grows up in a stately home surrounded by books but no schooling, spends her teenage years crippled after being flung from a horse, and then recovers enough to drive an ambulance during WW1 (without a license). She marries an American at the end of the War, moves across the sea, and has three daughters (with Bodger in the middle). Her husband joins the US coast guard chasing rum runners and leading ships out of Arctic ice after failed polar expeditions, and they spend the ’20s and ’30s moving up and down east and west coasts.
It was a happy enough childhood, rich with stories and lore, but also an isolated one. Bodger’s immigrant mother held herself apart from American society, and that the family moved around so much didn’t help matters. From early on, Bodger had a hard time fitting in, accepting authority, understanding how the world worked outside the Higbee family. There was also so much that was never talked about– her mother’s health problems, father’s infidelities, her own burgeoning sexuality, her yearning for the education her father didn’t feel was necessary for a daughter to have. Bodger and her sisters were being groomed to be ladies, roles none of them would easily fulfil.
Bodger’s college plans are diverted by WW2, she joins the army, and becomes a bumbling decoder (“I put my hand in the grab bag and pulled out a message about a place spelled Yalta. Obviously a mistake! I changed the Y to M.”) She goes back to school once the war is finished, and meets John Bodger, a graduate student and fellow veteran. She’s head over heels, and without a doubt that their life together will be a happy one as he completes his PhD (with her love and support, of course), and becomes internationally recognized as the brilliant mind he obviously is.
Which is where Mad Men comes into play. Apart from a few years in California, the Bodgers spend the ’50s and early ’60s living in and around Westchester County NY, which is Cheever-country, the world of Mad Men. And though the Bodgers could not pretend to be the cookie cutter figures their suburban surroundings suggested, it”s the same backdrop, healthy kids and big green lawns, the war in the past now, educated mothers idle in the afternoons, philandering husbands, cracks becoming apparent in all kinds of veneers. It soon becomes apparent that not all is right with John Bodger: he struggles to hold down a job at all, has to give up his academic aspirations, begins to display signs of paranoia. Joan Bodger makes life-long connections with the women in her neighbourhood, many of whom have similary troubled marriages and dissatisfaction with their lives. But she doesn’t connect with all her neighbours:
“Bette told me that another woman in the neighbourhood was writing a book– a sort of update to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Her name was Betty Friedan. She lived just down the street from us; her little girl was in Lucy’s class. I telephoned her. I felt silly doing it, yet I longed to talk shop with someone. How do you manage to write with kids around? Betty Friedan said she was too busy to talk to every suburban housewife who called her.”
The book Bodger was writing, of course, was How the Heather Looks, the story of a trip her family takes to England in 1958 to rediscover worlds they only knew from storybooks, to make end paper maps come alive. A book whose portrayal of ideal family life belies the real story of her family– John Bodger would be diagnosed with schizophrenia, he and Joan would eventually divorce. Before their divorce, their daughter Lucy would die of a brain tumour, and their son Ian would battle his own demons, with mental illness and drug addiction. And throughout these tragedies, it is Bodger’s faith in story that enables her to survive. And not neat stories either, with beginnings, middle and ends, but rather the dark archetypal stories with no end that occur over and over in cultures all around the world, and which give our own experiences depth and meaning, that help us to understand the things that happen to us in our lives.
But story, of course, is useful in a more practical sense as well. Eager for diversions after Lucy’s death, Bodger becomes involved in an education program to promote graduation rates for black students in her town of Nyack NY. She realizes that although she lives in the very same town, she knows nothing about the lives of the black people around her. She starts sitting on the steps of a church in the black neighbourhood, armed with candy and picture books to give away (because by this time, she’s become a children’s book reviewer, and has plenty of review copies to spare), ready to make some connections. She quickly discerns that the picture books she’s brought are useless– they reflect nothing of the lives of the children she’s trying to reach, and many of the children don’t know how to relate to or connect with a book anyway. So she starts telling stories instead, and she’s good at it. Eventually a police man contacts her and says he’s concerned she’s going to stop telling stories when the weather gets cold. He’s with the NAACP and they want to help her out– could they get her an indoor place where the children can go to hear her?
Bodger uses what she learns from this experience to set up a free nursery school in the neighbourhood, and continues to learn about what children’s literature can do. She writes about the impact of black children seeing somebody like themselves in storybooks for the first time in Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, and about her own conversations with Keats about resisting their liberal impulses and acknowledging the childrens’ race. (“Not until we gave ourselves permission to see their blackness could these children give themselves permission to see themselves.”) Similarly about the powers of books like Where the Wild Things Are and A Apple Pie to encourage children to express their own feelings of rage, anger and aggression. To begin to tell stories themselves, to make the stories their own.
Her husband and son drift far away from her as she becomes more involved in early literacy and storytelling. Eventually Bodger leaves New York and for short time works for the library association of Missouri (where her ability to make waves is less accepted than it had been in New York, and she is eventually dismissed from her job, somewhat farfetchedly, for being “a communist pornographer” [and her second husband would jokingly complain of the false advertising of that title]). She head back east and works in editing and consulting for Random House, though still shell-shocked and heartbroken by the tragedy she’d had to weather: “Just a few years before, I had had a husband, two children, a house on the Hudson River. Wave a magic wand and I’m spending half my life in a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village, complete with cockroaches in the fridge and drug addicts on the stairs.”
On a business trip to Detroit, she sidelines to Toronto to visit the famous Osborne Collection of Children’s Literature. On June 18, 1970 (which was, I should note, thirty-five years to the day before I got married), she was standing under an awning waiting out a sun-shower when a man came up behind her and commented on her reading, which was Stuart Little. He wondered why she was marking up the pages with proofreaders marks, which he recognized because he worked in publishing too. “‘Anyone who would change one jot or title of EB White’s prose, I could have nothing to do with,’ he said.” The man was Alan Mercer, a writer and photographer, and the love of Bodger’s life. Within two weeks, they knew they would be getting married, Bodger resettling to Toronto and the two of them establishing a marriage of much support and love, but also independence. Mercer died in 1985 of cancer, and though the loss would ever be a scar she bore, she would never be as broken as she’d been before she found him. She tells him, “When I met you, I felt as though I were walking around with a gaping wound. You healed me.”
The rest of the book narrates Bodger’s involvement with establishing the Storytellers School of Toronto, and also some of her travels. I found the end of the book less compelling than the middle, though I’m not sure it could have been any other way. And it’s fitting really– Rick Salutin is wrong and so is Diane Sawyer. Stories aren’t about endings at all, but about how they weave our experiences into the tapestry of human existence, and the strands twist and turn in incredible ways, and no connection is without meaning– so that it is significant that Bodger meets her husband on my wedding anniversary, how she connects the narrative of her own life to folk tales, about how her experiences are microcosmic of the mid-20th century with civil rights and the women’s movement. (I suppose it’s also significant that Ian Bodger was convicted of blowing up a police car last month to protest state healthcare cuts. There are no happy endings indeed.)
Another thing that has changed in my life since I read this book in April 2010 is that at least once a week I visit the Lillian H. Smith Library now, where the Osborne Collection is now located and where Bodger scattered her husband’s ashes after his death. (He’d wanted them scattered in the foundation for the opera house at Bay and Wellesley, which they’d be able to see from their apartment balcony on Church Street, but the opera house was never built. When the Lillian H. Smith Library was under construction, Bodger deemed the site a bit too far west, but otherwise perfect.) I finished reading The Crack in the Teacup last Sunday evening, and was under a Bodger-spell when we went to the library the following morning. We got there a few minutes early and went upstairs to the Obsborne Centre before the toddler program started. I wanted to see the lectern where the guestbook is kept, a guestbook I’ve even signed and seen so many times, but whose significance I’d never noted until I read this book again. Inscribed on a plaque upon it: “Alan Nelson Mercer, 1920-1985. He loved a good sentence.”
As Bodger writes of this library that is such an important part of my family life, investing this place with infinite meaning (and this is the stuff of story, don’t you think?):
“…I was finally allowed, after months of committee meetings, to present a Hepplewhite-style lectern where the guestbook would repose. The committee, of course, was kept ignorant of my grander plan: to make the airy, playful, much-used library building into a fitting mausoleum for a man who loved cities, loved book, and words, loved me.”