Sunday, June 12, 2011


A man of gifts

There's never an easy way to relay news such as this, so for those who haven't already heard, I'll just say straight out that yesterday my father wrote from New York City to tell me he'd read an obituary for Patrick Leigh Fermor. Leigh Fermor was 96 when he died. He had a long and wonderful life. But is any life ever long enough? Especially a life such as his?

Here is the Guardian piece. And the article in The New York Times.

It's a cold rainy evening here in Maine and I'm feeling sad and drizzly and nostalgic for a time and a place I never experienced: the wide open and golden world he described so beautifully in this now-classic memoir of travel literature:

I believe I have three copies of this book in the house at this moment. A hardcover first edition, a Penguin softcover reprint, and the New York Review Books softcover reprint. Located in bookcases both upstairs and down, alongside its sequel (also in hardcover and softcover, in the British and U.S. editions), next to many of Leigh Fermor's other books. Travel, history, literature, memoir, none of those simple classifications encompass the richness his books contain. I've loved him for a long time now. I remember recommending him to a customer of mine at the bookshop, years ago. This sweet fellow would come to Maine once a year, come by the shop and find a few things, and depart, to be unheard from until his next annual trip. So one year we talked about travel books and I told him to read Leigh Fermor. And the next year he came back to the bookshop, and the first thing he said was "That writer you told me about is good. I mean really GOOD." We stood there smiling at each other in complete agreement.

My heart aches for those who do not read. To miss the gifts that authors such as this have given us...!

Friday, June 03, 2011


Books by and for women?

That V.S. Naipaul is a piece of work. I'm sorry, but precisely how bloated must one's ego be, to dismiss Jane Austen, and later his own (female) editor, and, oh yeah, women who write, as beneath him, as so much "feminine tosh"? Oh, I see. That bloated. I have never read any of this nobel laureate's work, myself. I wonder if I would enjoy it if I did. In the spirit of speculation, I'll just say that I never have been one to separate the person from the work he or she creates, and leave it at that.

Literary kerfuffle aside, I spent some time this week reading and thinking about books by women. Books written by women for women. Books brought into print probably because the publishers knew that women buy books, and wanted to provide them (us) with books about other women they could identify with. Books that were brought into print because they were simply and undeniably good. This pleasant reverie was not induced by Naipaul. Rather, by a book I came across in my sorting-out project of a few weeks ago. I rediscovered a book I've been hauling around unread for at least a decade, maybe two. (I found many such books, but this one I finally sat down and read.) It was in a box of books from my mother's house. (I am a book repository of sorts, in my family, as you can imagine.) (Sorry for all these distracting parentheses. Back to the story.) This one is a lovely old hardcover from 1940, still in its jacket. It has my grandmother's name written inside, underlined, in her handwriting. I never met her; she died before I was born. But I have inherited some of her books, in the way of things.

The book is Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther (Harcourt 1940) and is a collection of short fictional pieces that originally appeared as articles in The Times, during the escalation of events leading to World War II. The pieces are written in the voice of, and from the point of view of, a middle-aged upper-middle-class housewife, with three children (the oldest at Eton) and an architect-builder husband, a London flat, a small house in Kent for weekends, household staff, a reluctant social life with various other problematic couples, and an introspective streak a mile wide. She's a noticer, our heroine. She loves and values calm normalcy. The little details that make up daily living are brought to life and turned inside out for their stories and associations, romantic and practical, melancholy and tender. This is a gentle book about not much at all, and at the same time, about everything that really matters.

This is not the only book I received from my grandmother. I also have her copy of M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf. And several of the Mrs. Appleyard books by Louise Andrews Kent. Which I love. Love love LOVE, I can't say it enough. All these books come from my grandmother's era. All are housewifely with a charming mixture of comfort and sharpness, all tinged by war, all written with an eye toward domestic detail but simultaneously concerned with the great questions of life. So, important to women on all sorts of levels. And important to men too, of course. Feeding, clothing, housing, caring for, and of course perpetuating, the human race, but equally, savoring the details of daily life, both intellectually and literally. When it comes right down to it, these details, moments, choices in how we live day to day, are all we have.

Back to Jan Struther for a moment. From the wikipedia article about her life: at The Times "...Peter Fleming asked her to write a series of columns for the paper, about 'an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life - rather like yourself.'" Surely this is why her stories resonate so much. A common and terribly broad generalization for you: Good writers put into words what many of us experience, but few of us have the literary ability to express clearly. One example - how many of us watch the fireworks at a holiday celebration, and feel something wordless and inchoate. Well, here is the way Jan Struther has Mrs. Miniver describe her family's handpicked little fireworks display on Guy Fawkes' Day (p.21):

"...fireworks had for her a direct and magical appeal. Their attraction was more complex than that of any other form of art. They had pattern and sequence, colour and sound, brilliance and mobility; they had suspense, surprise, and a faint hint of danger; above all, they had the supreme quality of transience, which puts the keenest edge on beauty and makes it touch some spring in the heart which more enduring excellencies cannot reach."

She watches her children and her husband, and knows that all things are ephemeral. She quotes Thomas Nashe to herself. This is what I want to read more of - books such as this. Books initially by women, for women, but really books for everyone regardless of the gender you happen to be born into this time around. Good books! Written by women and by men! That help us understand our experience as human beings! Why, I wonder yet again, do we need to award prizes and induce competition in fine art and proclaim that one form of art is more or less worthy than another? Why bother classifying beyond simply, This is good, this matters to people.

(Final parenthesis, I promise. I could continue this little rant indefinitely, continuing with books from my mother - her copies of Mary Stewart's romantic suspense novels to start with - and my stepfather's copies of Georgette Heyer's novels - and more recently, anything by Laurie Colwin, who I treasure beyond words - her books are domestic, fraught, and entirely loveable. What about Elizabethe Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love? A great memoir my sister said got some bad reviews because, in her words, "It's all about what matters to women." And I must also mention Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Can Naipaul have read this novel? And then found it not worthy? Or lacking in any way? Truly...??)

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