Tuesday, March 15, 2016


antisocial media

It is such a joy to be out and about again after a week of being ill at home - some kind of stomach bug - most unpleasant - thankfully over.  Reading helped me tolerate the symptoms.  Two more Louise Andrews Kent books arrived in the mail and I read them posthaste.  And before I came down with the bug I visited the local Goodwill and a nearby new-book shop, so I had, for the first time in months, a to-be-read pile on my bedside table.  Seriously, there's been nothing lingering there for ages.  Not a problem I usually have, by any means!  Well, it was a good stack while it lasted - I devoured those books as if they were the food I couldn't eat, at the rate of one a day.  Now my wonderful to-be-read pile is no more and I am once again casting around for something decent to read.  But that's a problem for another day, and will entail future excursions into the world of shops and people.  Today is for that stack, and the books that were in it, and how they lifted my spirits.  (Or not.  Read on.)

First things first, more Louise Andrews Kent, please.  Her charming nonfiction book Village Greens of New England (Barrows 1948) is a meandering history of exactly that - the greens and communal spaces in historic towns and villages, and the people who lived nearby, during colonial times and after.  Her quiet wit is evident, and while Maine gets short shrift, I think, she takes us through the other New England states and their places and seasons.  I was raking dead leaves off all the emerging crocuses yesterday, while pondering the odd weather and my own recent ailments.  Take Louise Andrews Kent's advice, and:

"...remember that Ralph Waldo Emerson said of the New England spring, 'Some survive it.'"  (p.12)

She has such a wry way with words, I just love her style.  She's bookish too, naturally (being a writer and all), and a hardworking yankee:

"Industriousness is a general New England trait.  Women feel embarrassed if they are found reading a book in the daytime, unless it is a book heavy enough to be laid on a table, in which case they are doing research and all is well."  (p.231)

I wasn't worried about anyone discovering me reading during the daytime last week - it's pretty quiet around here.  Which is how I like it.  I am usually quite happy to be antisocial, whether ill or not, with my chosen media (books) close at hand, and in hand.  While waiting for the other Louise Andrews Kent book to arrive, I read The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald (softcover reprint from Goodwill).  I can't believe I've never read this before, especially since I was a huge fan of her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books when I was little (I found them disturbing and therefore fascinating, somewhat in the manner of Roald Dahl's weird young adult books).  I won't venture into a long review of this famous memoir of rural chicken-farming gone wrong, but I will mention this, regarding women and work, and books.  From her chapter entitled "Fancywork Versus the Printed Word":

"Reading was a sign of laziness, boastfulness and general degradation."  (p.195)

So she says her country neighbors considered reading.  They did however throw themselves into handiwork of all kinds (braiding rugs, quilting, etc), and when the author sees it all on display at the annual county fair, she thinks:

"It was an impressive exhibit of what loneliness can do to people."  (p.274)

Not a pleasant book, in my opinion.  The dream of self-sufficiency and homesteading exploded.  Funny, yes, but terribly so, and often so sharp as to be unkind.  I know I am biased, having grown up on a small rural farm, hauling water and lugging wood and feeding chickens myself.  However her despair is so evident, and her antagonism toward her husband (and his toward her) in this doomed marriage of theirs is painful to witness.  She writes with black humor, I guess, but it seems the opposite of the chin-up, best-foot-forward attitude of the Mrs. Appleyard books I've been immersed in.  However, now that I think of it, both The Egg and I and Village Greens of New England do have something in common.  They both present views of Native Americans which make me more than a little angry and uncomfortable.  MacDonald writes about their drunkenness and abuse of women, and Kent writes about their abduction and murder of white settlers.  All that is to say, when you read these books, like any books, all is not sweetness and light.  Even in such cosy books as those featuring Mrs. Appleyard.    

The last of which did finally arrive, and I tried to take my time with it and really linger, but ended up reading all of it much too quickly anyway:  ...with Kitchen Privileges (Houghton Mifflin 1953).  Mrs. Appleyard's husband has died, and she's had a heart attack herself, and is living in a large inherited house on a village green, and taking in renters to liven the place up while she recovers.  It's as if all the research and history of village greens from her aforementioned book has been put to good use in this one - in Village Greens of New England she speculates about who lived and lives in all those beautiful old houses around the greens, and in ...with Kitchen Privileges she answers her own questions.   A busy sort of novel, starting with a moment of quiet:

"'Peace,' she thought, 'is wonderful, but you can have too much.'"  (p.54)

Gentle chaos permeates the rest of the book, as renters come and go and neighbors all around the green pitch in their two cents about the situation.  There are recipes too, but not many, as Mrs. Appleyard is on a no-salt heart recovery rice diet.  The recipes that are present come after the main body of the novel, and often contain gems such as this:

"No one who undertakes the construction of this dessert is likely to get into any other kind of mischief that day."  (Pin-Wheel Pudding, Mrs. Appleyard p.232)

What a pleasureful book.  I wish it was longer, and this fictional character could continue on indefinitely, into books even now unwritten.   I was writing in my diary recently with this in mind - how would someone create such a character today?  On a blog?  In a series of novels?  Would such a person be remotely believable, in this ridiculous modern age of ours?  Would she carry an iPhone and tweet aphorisms and post Instagram photos of her supper dishes?  I can't imagine. Or, I can imagine all too well, and I guess I prefer to encounter her in real, actual paper books, always.   

This post is already too long and I've barely scratched the surface of the week's reading.  What I haven't even mentioned yet:

The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood by Roger Rosenblatt (Ecco 2014)
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Grove 2015)
The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller (Harper 2014)
Gardens of Awe and Folly by Vivian Swift (Bloomsbury 2016)

I'll try to talk about most or all of these within the next week, but in real life I've already moved on to what comes next, so, no promises!  But I will say, about the above, what a great bunch of books! They were terrific in their own ways and helped me back on the road to blessed good health.

A dessert indeed, this joy of yours.
Thank you, dear Antony! I like reading about desserts more than I do eating them, I think. There are, however, exceptions...!
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