Back from Boston Bearing More Books!


I’m back again from another trip to Boston, where I went for another of our more-or-less-biannual Open Letters Monthly editorial summits. Along with the pleasure of seeing my colleagues face to face comes the treat of visiting some of Boston’s many excellent bookstores. I brought back a more modest stack than last time (or the time before that): it’s dimly possible that I was chastened by my awareness that I have only just read some of the books from those previous expeditions (not that the others are wasting away – they are just still ripening on the shelf!). It was as much fun as ever lingering luxuriously over my options, though, and I had very good luck finding some things I have been particularly looking for.

One writer I’ve often been advised to try, especially because of my interest in philosophical fiction, is Iris Murdoch. I’ve gotten a lot of different recommendations on which novel to start with; of these, The Sea, The Sea (which won the Booker Prize in 1978) has always seemed like a good option, so when I saw a nice copy of it at the Brattle I grabbed it up. My recent reading of Angle of Repose had me on the look-out for more Wallace Stegner (the only other one I have is Crossing to Safety), so The Spectator Bird (which won the National Book Award in 1976) was also a happy find. My other Brattle pick was Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, which I spotted on one of the dollar carts. It’s clearly a student copy (there’s a Brown Bookstore tag inside, and a lot of purple underlining), but it’s otherwise in good shape.  Even before I started reading romance novels  I knew that Radway’s was one of the key studies of the genre, and now that I have a little more experience both with the books themselves and with the interesting conversations people have about them, I’m curious to have a look at her arguments for myself. (The book is 30 years old now, and I know the field of romance studies has changed and grown a lot since it came out. But my guess is that a lot of those conversations still start with frameworks she set up.)

I usually love browsing the vast stretches of shelves at the Harvard Coop, but this time I actually found it a bit too much trying to make my way along them. Instead, I hunted up a few titles I have been wanting but unable to get a look at locally and finally settled on Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter. It’s no secret that I am a ridiculous fan girl about Dunnett’s Lymond series. I love it so much I have never really wanted to read anything else by her…which is irrational in all kinds of ways! I have the first in the House of Niccolo series and one day may follow through on those, but I’ve heard from a few readers that King Hereafter (in which, the blurb tells us, she “peels away a thousand years of legend to uncover the historical figure of Macbeth”) is actually her very best historical novel. Better than The Ringed Castle? Incontheivable! But OK, I’m game. Stay tuned for a full report.

I was specifically hoping to find W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants on this trip. I looked for it a few places and finally spotted it at the Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center (where one or two of the OLM team can be found working most days of the week). Sebald is a writer I hear about often (most recently, in Tom’s comment here).  I bought Austerlitz a few years ago and have started it once or twice but put it aside — it’s still ripening! The Emigrants looks like it might be a bit more accessible to me. Again, stay tuned!

We made a pilgrimage to the OLM post office box, where Steve unpacks an astonishing haul of books almost every day. Fortuitously, the day I was with him one of them was an advance copy of the third book in Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan trilogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which I promptly took possession of. Then at the Harvard Book Store I picked up The Days of Abandonment. So I’m all set for harshly unsentimental Italian fiction.

I guess I’d better start reading if I’m going to get through all of these before my next trip! Though maybe I should start with those Ivy Compton-Burnett novels from my first visit…

Back from Boston Bearing Books!

I got back yesterday from my second annual (?) spring expedition to Boston. Once again I loved exploring the city and meeting up with some of my Open Letters Monthly colleagues. And this time I had the special treat of also meeting up with my mother. Though we had a delightful time sightseeing, visiting museums, and eating all kinds of good food, there’s no question but what our favorite activity was browsing in the excellent bookstores (and trading comments and suggestions back and forth): we spent hours in Brattle Books in Boston, in both the Harvard Book Store and the Harvard Coop in  Cambridge, and in the Broadside Book Shop and Booklink in Northampton. Here’s most of my haul (a few others will be wending their way to me by post):

Book buying is such a funny thing–when you are surrounded by thousands of titles, many different, sometimes conflicting, even irrational influences and impulses go into the final decisions. I had a little list of books I particularly hoped to find, ones that I hadn’t found in stock in Halifax but wanted to look at personally, rather than just online, before ordering, or ones that I could order but would have to wait for. Other titles or authors I had in mind in a general way and looked for to see what the options were–with such great stock all around, I found more of these than I expected! So what did I get, and why? Let’s go through the pile starting at the top.

A Handbook to the Art and Architecture of the Boston Public Library. I can’t get over how beautiful and inspiring the BPL is. Here are two of the exterior inscriptions: “The Public Library of the City of Boston Built By the People and Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning”; “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.” Yes, yes, yes, it does! And public libraries are such a wonderful commitment to and investment in that conviction. The BPL is a great public building not just because it serves this great cause, though, which many modern libraries do in a very utilitarian spirit, but because it is itself filled with art and grace, from the grand entrance hall to the elegant Bates Hall reading room to the astonishing murals by John Singer Sargent. This little book was just $2 at the gift shop. It has no color plates but gives lots of detail about the history, design, and art of the building.

Next in the pile is Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I’ve heard a lot about this novel and it sounded really interesting, but so do lots of recent books, so it hadn’t made it onto my TBR list until my mother reported having been won over by it. When I saw a nice copy at the Brattle, I grabbed it up.

Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is one I went looking for. I was moved and impressed by Crossing to Safety when I read it a few years ago, and my interest in Stegner was rekindled recently by a documentary I watched about him–though the documentary itself was not very well done. This one I found at the Harvard Coop in the handsome Penguin edition with an introduction by Stegner biographer Jackson J. Benson.

I’ve been wanting to break up my nearly-all-fiction reading diet with more poetry, and Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath are two of the poets I wanted to read more of than is found in my heaps of anthologies (most of which include the same small selection of poems). (We’ve run pieces on both Larkin and Plath recently at Open Letters that further stimulated my interest.) I found The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin at the Coop and Ariel downstairs at the Harvard Book Store. I’ve never written anything on poetry for Open Letters. Maybe someday–but what? In the meantime, I may venture some comments on these volumes here on my own turf.

Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul was recommended to me some time ago by a friend, who thought it was both a really fine read and a book I’d respond to because it’s about a pianist, and my son is a very gifted composer and performer. It too I found at the Coop (which would have been even more dangerous to my budget if it hadn’t been one of the last bookstores we went to, as every time I thought of something to look for, it was there!).

I’ve found New York Review Classics scarce here in Halifax and often with limited availability from Canadian online retailers as well, so I was especially glad to find so many of these around. Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado sounded delightful when I read about it on different blogs and reviews, so I pounced on it when I saw it at the Coop. I’ve been looking for Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts all over town here and hadn’t found it yet; I picked it up at the Broadside Book Shop in Northampton. And I found Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner (also the subject of a good piece in Open Letters) downstairs at the Harvard Book Store, where they have all kinds of NYRB Classics on their remainders tables!

I’ve read two novels by Jane Gardam–Old Filth and Queen of the Tambourines. The Man in the Wooden Hat, which I got at the Broadside Book Shop, tells the story of Old Filth’s marriage over again, from the point of view of his wife Betty. The blurb calls it “as fine a portrait of a marriage as any written in English.” We’ll see about that!

Flaubert’s Parrot is the next book chosen by my local book club–the one that just finished Madame Bovary. We have tried since the beginning to follow some kind of thread from one book to the next. The thread here is pretty obvious! I think the only other Julian Barnes I’ve read is Arthur and George, which I didn’t love. I got The Sense of an Ending from the library as an e-book just before I left last week, and I started it on the plane, but it turned out to be too cerebral for me to read under those conditions. (What did I read on the plane? Mostly Jennifer Crusie, actually, several of whose books I had also borrowed electronically with precisely my fear of flying in mind. And they were just right: cheerful, diverting, and easy to keep track of even if you are pausing every few minutes to clutch your armrest and take deep breaths.) I don’t have high hopes for Flaubert’s Parrot (and so I was glad to find it remaindered at the Harvard Book Store for just a few dollars), but at the same time I like that my book groups get me reading things I wouldn’t otherwise, and who knows, I might love it.

Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden was my one real unforeseen impulse buy of the trip. I started leafing through it quite at random in the MFA gift shop (I picked it up just because it looked very beautiful) and got quickly intrigued by the concept of the book–“An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72.” The first epigram to the book is from its main subject, Mary Delany, who invented (discovered? developed? conceived of?) an intricate form of collage. “How can people say we grow indifferent as we grow old?” she writes to her younger sister in 1750; “It is just the reverse.” Her spectacular paper renditions of flowers are a testimony to her own utter lack of indifference (sample). I ended up buying it at Booklink in Northampton, as I kept thinking about it after I put it back at the MFA, and I started reading it right away. It’s an odd book in terms of genre, as it interweaves a biographical account of Delany’s life with meditations and speculations on the psychological and sexual meanings of her her flower collages (some quite speculative, though I’m trying to go along with that for now), and with autobiographical material from Peacock herself. I often resist books that offer epigrammatic snippets of wisdom about life in general (you really have to earn the right to them, I figure) but so far I’m liking the delicacy with which Peacock moves from Delany to herself to thoughts about creativity, aging, and other topics.

Winifred Holtby’s Virginia Woolf was not a purchase but was hand-delivered to me by my mother, who has a vast collection of Bloomsbury materials. I’ve read quite a bit about it, and some excerpts from it, and I’m very keen to read the whole thing. (I’ll give it back, though–I promise!)

I found Sandra Gilbert’s Rereading Women at the Brattle. It’s the only academic literary criticism I really even looked at in all these bookstores. Gilbert is a good stylist and always an interesting thinker and reader, and this looks both accessible (it’s an essay collection, not a monograph) and provocative.

The little book Samplers from A to Z, from the Museum of Fine Arts, was a consolation prize to me for just barely missing their exhibit on Embroideries of Colonial Boston. I love looking at samplers and needlework: there’s something so intensely personal about them. It hadn’t occurred to me to time my visit around special museum exhibits, but next time I’m booking a ticket with some flexibility in my dates, I will have to pay attention to that kind of thing, as I was so disappointed to see the poster with the “closed” sign on it.

The last book in the pile is also from a museum, but this time for an exhibit we did manage (though just barely!) to see: the marvelous multi-media display on “Debussy’s Paris” at the Smith College Museum of Art. The displays were fascinating and very thoughtfully done, with listening and viewing stations bringing the music and street life of Paris into the room along with the drawings, paintings, and posters. I don’t often buy companion books for exhibits, but this book is much more than a catalogue: it includes a series of essays on topics like “Dance in Debussy’s Paris.” And I was really absorbed by the attention to dance, visual art, and music–such a rich display, in just one small room, too. They had a listening station with excerpts from some of Debussy’s pieces (with introductory commentary), some of which I hadn’t heard or even heard of before and a couple of which I made a note of because I thought they’d appeal to my son (whose favorite composer is Ravel but who has been experimenting more and more with different styles and modulations).  Here’s a link to Dawn Upshaw singing the “Chansons de Bilitis.”

It’s not as if I don’t already have books to read (and I haven’t forgotten about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon–I have another post on it lurking in my ‘drafts’ folder already!). But it’s really exciting to be surrounded by books and readers the way you are in these shops, and to get a hands-on sense of what the books are really like before you decide what to get, something that just isn’t quite replicated by the ‘look inside’ feature at Amazon. There’s only one book I was sorely tempted by but resisted, and the temptation arose purely from what a lovely tactile object it was: the Penguin ‘Threads’ edition of Little Women. We already own the book (of course!)–in fact, I think we may have two copies of it–but I kept picking this one up just to fondle it. I wonder if Penguin (and the artists responsible for the covers in this wonderful series) would consider releasing them as needlework or cross-stitch patterns.

So! I think I’m ready for the annual ‘summer reading challenge’: Maddie signs up for it at our own local public library, and I always promise to match her book for book. The first one I’m likely to write up here is The Paper Garden, so stay tuned.

Bits and Pieces, and a Break

I’m heading to Boston tomorrow–again! I had a great time there last year (touristy post, bookish post) and expect to have just as much fun this time. Once again a primary reason for going  is to meet up with some of my Open Letters Monthly colleagues: we work well together in our various virtual spaces, but it’s definitely a good thing to cultivate face-to-face relationships too, not least because in email and other online correspondence there’s always that pesky issue of tone, which is much less difficult to interpret the better you know somebody. (As an aside, I think tone is also easier to interpret if an online relationship goes back a ways, even if you haven’t met in person: you get a sense of someone across a range of moods and modes that makes a difference, as I realized when my book club discussed the discussion between Amateur Reader and Litlove on my Madame Bovary posts. They found the exchange more ornery than I did, and I think that’s because they had no previous experience of either voice. This is not by any means a criticism, direct or indirect, of the tone of any of those comments, which I found  fascinating, respectful, and also very mentally stimulating. It was just interesting to reflect on the kind of familiarity you can feel with someone even if you know them only ethereally.)

Another happy feature of this trip to Boston is that I’m meeting up with my mother there. She’s a born and bred New Englander, though long transplanted to Canada’s west coast (by way of Berkeley), so she has many associations with Boston and the surrounding area; she’s also a Smith College alum, so we’re including a nostalgic stay in Northampton along with our bookstores-and-museums-and-libraries tour of Boston. Doesn’t that sound like a lovely time?

I had hoped to write up a proper post about my book club session on Madame Bovary but got caught up in the miscellaneous errands and obligations involved in traveling.( What an unpleasant chore it has become, from the early check-ins and security hassles to the cramped quarters of the planes themselves–and I hate flying, too. When I went to London last summer, the London Review Bookshop was my ‘happy place’: en route to Boston it will be the Public Garden, I think, and the placid swans–and the statue of Mrs Mallard and her ducklings.) The discussion at the book club was energetic: the book clearly provoked most of us, though reactions varied. Probably the most controversial subject was whether we felt (or Flaubert encouraged) any sympathy for Emma. One proposal was that, in seeking to be unlike the rest of the dreary people around her, she is like Dorothea Brooke. This is not one of the parallels I made in my post comparing Madame Bovary and Middlemarch, and ultimately I didn’t find it a persuasive suggestion, beyond a kind of structural similarity. Dorothea’s aspirations are certainly misguided, but her aim is to have a spiritually significant life. She begins imagining how to do this in fairly egotistical terms, but she learns from her experience–and from the start, she has an instinctive generosity, even in error. We didn’t get a chance to pursue this topic at the time, and in fact one thing I find difficult about these sessions is precisely that we move on (and around) so fast. I find it mentally exhausting! I enjoy the occasion, and it’s good to hear a range of ideas and views from so many smart opinionated people, but it also sometimes feels frustratingly chaotic. Well, it’s not meant to be a seminar, and heaven forbid one of us should assert herself as group leader! At the same time, it does give me renewed appreciation for the challenge of seminar discussions, which need to combine direction and focus with organic development and spontaneity. And it helps me see why I enjoyed the comment thread so much: writing things out forces a certain slowing down, and then reading and replying allows also for some reflection and cogitation.

The other book club discussion I was involved in last week was of The Yacoubian Building, with the other Slaves of Golconda. The novel didn’t seem to excite a great deal of enthusiasm, though I think most of us found it quite interesting. The forum where discussion usually breaks out has certainly been very quiet! Perhaps the next selection will work better.

I don’t expect to be posting again until I get back, as not only will I be busy frolicking but I’m taking only my iPad, which as far as I’m concerned is no good for producing content. See you then!

Some Boston Highlights

Why did I not know what a beautiful city Boston is? As I prepared for my trip, I realized that I had no particular mental picture of Boston. Not only had I never been there in person, but I know hardly any books set there, or movies or TV shows set (much less filmed) there : there’s Cheers, of course, but we almost never get any shots of the city, and there’s Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, and The Bostonians, and Death in a Tenured Position for Harvard…and as far as my own reference points go, that’s about it. Of course, now that I’ve said that you’ll probably all be able to point out other obvious examples, including ones I do know but have forgotten! But compared to New York, Boston was unfamiliar territory for me, so I approached it with a real sense of discovery and enjoyed it thoroughly. This is not the place for a detailed travelogue (and I have no Eat, Pray, Love-style revelations to make!), but here are a few of the highlights.

My favorite place was definitely the Public Garden. We have a Public Gardens here in Halifax, which is smaller but also more formal and ornate than Boston’s. Both are lovely oases in the middle of the city bustle. My B&B was just down Commonwealth Avenue from the gates, so I was able to visit the Garden often; if only the weather had been a bit less drizzly, I would have spent even more time roaming around enjoying green thoughts in the green shade. Of course, I had to pay my respects to my oldest Boston literary friends:

Another thoroughly delightful place, one that I might not have thought to visit if it weren’t for my host, is the Boston Public Library. Completed in 1895, it is a monument (as all public libraries should be) to the value of reading, with an elegant marble vestibule opening into this spectacular entrance hall:

The main staircase is “ivory gray Echaillon marble,” my flyer tells me, and the walls are “richly variegated yellow Siena”:

Here’s the beautiful reading room, Bates Hall:

Shouldn’t being in a library always be this much like being in a temple? The library also has a pretty courtyard with a fountain, a peaceful spot to enjoy your coffee and your book.

Of course, I had to visit Harvard. I kind of wished I had worn my Cornell sweatshirt, as a small gesture of resistance to the overwhelming, well, Harvardness of it. But Harvard Yard was very leafy and pretty in the sun:

Even prettier, though, was the Esplanade along the Charles River, the perfect place to spend the one really bright sunny afternoon I had on the trip:

Other places I enjoyed (besides the bookstores mentioned in my previous post) included the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, two very different museum experiences, the first a glut of beautiful things, the second more orderly and managed but just as full of provocation and beauty. At the Gardner, the building itself is nearly as remarkable as what it houses. At the MFA, I was particularly compelled (and, in part, repelled) by Turner’s Slave Ship, which is grimly spectacular–and also smaller than I somehow imagined it would be. I enjoyed the Mary Cassatt paintings at the MFA but sadly Mrs Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading (see blog banner, above), though in the collection, did not seem to be on display. I am always especially interested in any needlework on display; there was a spectacular example of needlepoint, as big as a tapestry, inthe Dutch room at the Gardner, which I would in fact have mistaken for a tapestry if I hadn’t mentioned my fondness for embroidery to one of the attendants, who then pointed it out to me. At the MFA, one of my favorite items was also pointed out to me by a helpful guide, who understandably identified this serene couple as two of his most cherished friends in the collection:

As many people told me before my trip, Boston is a very walkable city, and I had fun puttering around Back Bay and Beacon Hill, as well as taking a soul-soothing stroll through parts of Forest Hill Cemetery. Of course, I stopped at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley where Spenser has his office, and I took a classic tacky photo of the entrance to Cheers. Finally, on my last day, after a deliciously over-indulgent brunch at Amrheins and a quick tour of the North End, I played tourist at Quincy Market.  With all this and the important Open Letters Monthly summit meetings that were the occasion for the trip in the first place, it was a full five days, and though I certainly didn’t see or do everything, now I feel I know at least something about this lovely historic city.

One final trip-advisorish note for anyone who might be headed to Boston themselves any time soon. I stayed at the College Club of Boston, on Commonwealth Avenue. It’s a charming old building and the rooms are decorated to suit (if a little shabbier than they look in the photos–in my little quarters, I felt a bit like a Victorian gentlewoman fallen on hard times but keeping up appearances, like one of the older Madden sisters in The Odd Women). The location is amazing, and the prices are reasonable, especially if you’re willing to share a (nicely renovated) bathroom. However, I have never experienced such creaky floors in all my life, and every door stuck and therefore had to be tugged open and slammed shut. It’s not a good place to come back to if you’ve been out a bit late (say, drinking wine and talking books in Jamaica Plain, just hypothetically)–not, at least, if you’re the type to feel awkward about waking everyone else up. And it’s a terrible place to stay if it’s really important to you to sleep well–for the same reason. That said, I might well stay there next time. After all, sleep is hardly a top priority when travelling, right? And being a stone’s throw from the Public Garden and walking distance to the Brattle Book Shop is awfully nice.

Boston by the Books

I’m back from a wonderful five days in Boston and it seems only fitting to post first (as I did following last year’s jaunt to New York) about the books that came home with me. It was a great bookish trip, thanks to the guidance but also the company of my co-editors at Open Letters Monthly, who were all (but especially Steve Donoghue) attentive and entertaining hosts.

We made two trips to Steve’s beloved Brattle Book Shop. The first day it was drizzly so the carts were not out and our browsing was all inside–which is not a complaint, as you could browse for hours inside and still feel there were tempting treasures you hadn’t found yet. I realized only belatedly, for instance, that most of the shelves are filled two rows deep, which means I explored only one layer. That day I settled on two novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett: A House and Its Head, in the typically elegant NYRB edition, and a Penguin of A Family and a Fortune. I’ve never read any Compton-Burnett before; my interest was piqued because she is the first author chosen by Her Majesty in The Uncommon Reader. At first she’s not a hit, but after Her Majesty becomes a more experienced reader, “the novel she had once found slow now seemed refreshingly brisk, dry still, but astringently so”:

And it occurred to her … that reading was, among other things, a muscle, and one that she had seemingly developed.  She could read the novel with ease and pleasure, laughing at remarks, they were hardly jokes, that she had not even noticed before. And through it all she could hear the voice of Ivy Compton-Burnett, unsentimental, severe and wise.

On our second visit to the Brattle we browsed the dollar carts, which are filled quite miscellaneously so that you never know what might pop out at you and seem too good to resist for the price. I found Barbara Reynold’s biography of Dorothy L. Sayers (not pictured here, as it is following by steve-post). I also picked up John Updike’s collected golf writings for my husband, figuring he likes both Updike and golf so this might well be a winner! And inside again, I found The Godwulf Manuscript, which is the first of Parker’s Spenser series (I also made a pilgrimage to the corner of Boylston and Berkeley, where Spenser’s office is), and Woolf’s The Common Reader, which I owned but lent out many years ago and have never gotten back. I think I was pretty restrained, really: it’s just as well the Brattle is closed Sundays as I was right in the neighborhood and would certainly have found more. My only disappointment was that this seemed the kind of shop likely to have a copy of Testament of a Generation: The Collected Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby–but no luck.

We went en masse to the Harvard Book Store on Thursday night. Time was limited, so all my finds come from the used section downstairs. One I was particularly glad to find was W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, which is the next reading for the Slaves of Golconda book group. I also found Salley Vicker’s The Other Side of You, which some of you recommended after I wrote up Dancing Backwards. And a bit more impulsively I chose Jane Gardam’s The Queen of the Tambourine: I’ve been interested in Old Filth for a while but haven’t come across it anywhere, and this one, which I see won the Whitbread Prize, looked appealingly dark and funny.

I was back in Cambridge on Friday but did all my browsing at the Coop, mostly because I had worn myself out walking all down Newbury Street earlier that day and then all around Harvard Yard (and all over Boston the two days before!). I was trying to pick books that I haven’t been able to find on the shelf up here, and one on my most-wanted list was Laila Lalami’s Secret Son which I was happy to find there. I have followed Lalami’s blog and journalism for some time, and I got Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits in New York last summer and was impressed and moved by it. I’m really interested to see what she does working on a larger canvas.

Finally, I had a pleasant browse in the big Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center, which is an important landmark because most of the OLM team has worked there (or in another B&N location) at some time. Though it lacks the deep bookish personality of the Brattle or the Harvard Book Store, it’s still a lovely bright store for exploring. I thought since I’d been collecting so much fiction I would go a different way with my selection there; I came away with Terry Castle’s The Professor. In one of those moments that make you wonder if there isn’t a larger force organizing your “random” reading choices, I discovered that the very first essay includes a long discussion of Testament of Youth. On her first reading, Castle had not liked the book much, finding Brittain “abrasive and conceited.” She quotes Virginia Woolf’s diary entry, which she had “tended to agree with”:

I am reading with extreme greed a book by Vera Brittain. Not that I much like her. A stringy metallic mind, with I suppose, the sort of taste I should dislike in life. But her story, told in detail, without reserve, of the war, and how she lost lover and brother, and dabbled her hands in entrails, and was forever seeing the dead, and eating scraps, and stting five on one WC, runs rapidly, vividly, across my eyes.

As she then explains at some length, Castle found her rereading of Testament of Youth quite a different experience, coming to appreciate how “phobic and self-critical” Brittain is,and especially  how she struggles against her fears (which Castle too was doing, post-9/11). She finds in Brittain a rare model of a woman who fought against the way women are “imprinted” with cowardice:

By coddling and patronizing its female members, society enforced in them a kind of physical timidity; then, with infuriating circularity, defined such timidity as effeminate and despicable. Both practically and philosophically, Brittain rebelled against the linkage. . . . Had I resisted her for so long–cast her off as an important Not-Me–precisely because, deep down, I felt so much like her? I found out now, with a sudden embarrassed poignancy, precisely how much I sympathized, both with her anxiety and with the florid hope that the men she knew might infect her, so to speak, with physical courage. Not very butch of me, I know. Not very feminist. But I had to confess it: I admired and coveted–quite desperately at times–the insane, uncomplaining, relentless bravery of men.

That’s not where I expected her to take the discussion, but it’s interesting and certainly provocative, as I expect the rest of the book to be.

Also pictured above is a handy little book about the MFA collection. This comes from a particularly rich but obscure book source in leafy Jamaica Plain. It was a special privilege to scavenge in the collection there! More about my experience at the MFA itself, as well as other touristy impressions of Boston, when I’ve caught up on some of the work that has been waiting for my return.