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.

Salley Vickers, Dancing Backwards

When I posted about Rosy Thornton’s Tapestry of Love a few weeks ago, I put it in the context of “comfort reads,” “books that I reread when I want to wander mentally away from home without feeling adrift, to be distracted without being distraught or dismayed.” (Other writers with books this category are Anne Tyler and Joanna Trollope.) In the comments, I was pointed to Salley Vickers, who sounded like someone whose books I would also enjoy, so when I happened across a copy of Dancing Backwards at The Jade *W* on Friday I picked it right up. It turned out to be just right for weekend reading: like Tyler, Trollope, and Thornton, Vickers writes with understated care, her focus primarily on characters in situations requiring more reflection than action. Dancing Backwards is not demanding reading, but it’s intelligent, particularly in its development of the main character, recently widowed Violet Hetherington. She is taking a cruise across the Atlantic to New York that is at once a literal journey and (of course) a mental voyage, in her case through her past. She is on her way to visit an old friend; her separation from him took place under circumstances that have haunted her conscience, and in fact for “comfort” reading, the story of Violet’s past is actually fairly uncomfortable, as Vickers quite grippingly portrays the emotional bullying and abuse that destroyed this friendship and left Violet unable to continue writing poetry. There’s a particularly painful scene in which Violet’s fiancé, himself an aspiring (but, Violet thinks, not very talented) poet lambastes her for winning a prize for her book. “I don’t know how you could have done this,” he leads off;

“How could you enter for a poetry prize and not tell me? Unless it was that you didn’t want me to compete.”

This was dreadful. She did not say, You couldn’t have entered, or been entered (for it was not her idea after all but the publisher’s), you’ve not published a collection of poems, because now, suddenly, the greater terror was not what she might have done to him but that he might recognise that he was not a poet and never could be one.

“I hadn’t realized you were so competitive,” he continued.

They carried on down the hill in single file, tears like acid channeling Vi’s cheeks.

On reflection, I’m not sure that Vickers does enough to explain why Vi would accept this psychological abuse, but she does well showing its lingering effects. The novel is simply but effectively structured, with flashbacks to Violet’s early history intercut with wry, sometimes poignant, sometimes funny encounters with her fellow passengers. The reunion in New York is handled well–again, the best word to describe it is “understated,” and overall I think that’s what I appreciated most about the novel, that Vickers keeps the tone controlled in a way that suits Violet’s self-contained personality. Like Tyler’s novels, this one is character-driven, with no formal complexities, and works on a very small scale. But it’s important not to underestimate how interesting that kind of careful attention to people can be, and how morally significant small individual problems and choices can be when taken seriously. So Vickers was a good recommendation; I’ll definitely look for her other novels.

As a side note, I’ve always wondered about cruises. I worry that I’d feel a bit claustrophobic, and also that I’d have trouble going to sleep with the thought of all that water underneath me. I also don’t much like being organized by other people, and I’m not inclined to join in group activities. Still, maybe it’s just all those episodes of The Love Boat when I was a child, but there’s something alluring about the idea. Maybe one day I’ll do one of those river cruises along the Rhine or the Danube…