Monthly Archives: May 2014

The summerhouse book

The summerhouse book. You know what I mean: the sort of book that’s left in a summer rental for vacationers to find, dip into, and return.
The summerhouse book is often old. It may even be mildewed, depending on how close the summerhouse is to the sea. If it still has its paper jacket, that cover is probably ripped, or at least a little tattered. More likely it doesn’t have a cover any more.
There’s a randomness to the summerhouse book. A political thriller might nest atop a bird guide or next to an old Webster’s dictionary. But mostly the summerhouse library is made up of old novels and short story collections. The latter lends themselves particularly to summer reading; short stories, after all, are short, meant for nibbling, not dining.
We just spent five days in a summerhouse that fronted on a salt pond on Cape Cod. Although it had an open, airy feel, it was a house full of nooks and crannies – window seats, cupboards, shelves – and nearly every nook and cranny had a few books waiting for discovery.
In an aerie off the master bedroom, which I had claimed for journal writing, a small stack of books rested atop a tiny bureau that itself fit perfectly in a small window gable. There I found Arthur Hailey’s Overload, still with its library-like plastic jacket; a biography of Frank Gannett (the founder of the media empire) that looked suspiciously self-published, and was inscribed to the house’s late owner; The Hurricane Years by Cameron Hawley, a vaguely familiar novel, written in 1968; and Ordinary People, by Judith Guest.
I didn’t actually read any of these books, but my sister-in-law picked up The Collected Stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and it was just perfect for her brief two-day stay. She took it out onto the deck and read while our husbands talked sports. Every once in a while, she would raise her head and ask a question. “What does portmanteau mean?” she asked at one point. I confessed I had no idea. A kind of hat? No, she said, figuring out from the context that it was a piece of luggage.
I did not dip into the summerhouse books because I’d brought my own. I finished Ann Hood’s An Italian Wife and started Patry Francis’s The Orphans of Race Point, set in Provincetown, which we had just visited. Such is the lot of the book reviewer, to always have current fiction on hand, but rarely to be free to just browse.
Even if you don’t have a summerhouse, or access to one, it is the nature of summer that we should pick up a book idly and give it a try. Somewhere, on some shelf or window ledge, an old novel is waiting to be read and enjoyed once again. All it needs is a bored visitor, perhaps seduced into a more receptive state by birds twittering, the sun falling at a keen slant on the floorboards, and the cool air rippling pond or sea. A cozy armchair awaits, perhaps, or an Adirondack chair on a deck, and as the afternoon seems to unfold as slowly as geologic time, an old book opens itself to a new reader and tells its story as if for the very first time.

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There’s a certain sadness about a bookmark that doesn’t move. You know that bookmark isn’t going anywhere; its presence gives off a pathetic and disingenuous hope that fools no one, least of all yourself. So why don’t you take it out, give the book away or hide it on the bottom shelf of your bookcase? Because you might finish it someday. Because you got that far, didn’t you, and removing the bookmark means – if you ever do pick up the offending title again – you’ll have to start over. Because the Girl Scout in you refuses to admit you didn’t finish something.
You don’t know why you stopped where you did. Perhaps you were bored. Perhaps getting to page 100 was such a slog that you couldn’t bear the thought of 250 more pages. Or maybe the book, through no fault of its prose, reminded you of something you didn’t want to think about. Perhaps it depressed, saddened, or defeated you with no hope of a redemptive moment at the end. Perhaps the characters irritated you in some opaque way; their tone too arch, their humor biting or coarse, their voice so whining or arrogant you had no choice but to pick up the bookmark, set it in place, and shut the damn thing once and for all. Perhaps the book was so big – in length and weight – that just the act of picking it up depressed you. Perhaps all these reasons are merely excuses, and you don’t know why you couldn’t keep reading. You just couldn’t.
Right now, for example, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is sitting unread on my coffee table. Just admitting this puts me into some sort of philistine minority. How could I not have finished this book that won the Pulitzer Prize? That everyone is raving about? That my friend Tara, whom I trust implicitly on all things intellectual, said she savored so much she hated to see it end?
But here is the bookmark – “A book is a present you can open again and again,” it chirps, with the logo of a favorite bookstore – on page 90. Ninety, for crying out loud, in a book that is 771 pages long. Theo, the boy who just lost his mother in an explosion at the Met, is going back to school. “ ‘Sorry.’ People I knew said it, and people who had never spoken to me in my life.” That’s where I left off. Theo’s voice, so genuine, so poignant, should be carrying me forward, but I can’t bear to read on. Is that it? Or is it my stubborn refusal to enjoy something everyone else is recommending? After all, I asked for the book for Christmas, and my husband, who bought it for me, balefully remarks on my lack of progress with a stubborn regularity.
I don’t like the cover. That seems petty, doesn’t it? Like the cover of Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, it looks like something scrawled by a seventh-grader. They couldn’t come up with anything better than a ripped wrapping revealing the famous painting with the title and author’s name printed in grease pencil?
Maybe I’m just cranky because Donna Tartt is universally considered brilliant, and she doesn’t seem to have ever written anything bad, and even though it takes her forever to write a novel, she doesn’t care.
Or maybe I just don’t like the book.
Or maybe I do, and I’ll get back to it. I’m just resting.
Maybe I’ll get back to Daughter’s Keeper by Ayelet Waldman. At least, that’s what I tell the friend who gave it to me. Every once in a while, he asks me about it. I got to page 50. “Olivia was enchanted by it all. She adored the pamphlets and the earnest conversation that she could just barely understand.” I don’t like Olivia. She is a spoiled girl, married to a man who doesn’t have a job, and she and her mother, Elaine, have difficulty communicating. They live in California. I don’t remember much else about it. I stopped reading some months ago. Something else seduced me away. Or maybe (stubborn again), I didn’t want to read it precisely because someone else thought I would like it.
Daughter’s Keeper is on the shelf under the coffee table. So is The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness. I really like this book. I should, because I picked it out. I bought it for my son, Colby, who has eclectic taste; it is always fun to pick out books for him. I bought him The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, and he read it, but he didn’t like it as much as I did. What does it mean that I hate it when people pick out books for me, but I take great pleasure in picking out books for someone else? Anyway, he has yet to read The Last Hundred Days because I started reading it first. It’s about the fall of Bucharest in 1989, told from the point of view of a British man who is there in somewhat duplicitous circumstances. I got to page 116. “I hung back while my eyes learned the darkness. Four men and three women sat around the fire.” It’s well written, and I could almost pick up the thread again. The bookmark is from Misty Valley Books in Chester, Vt., where I bought this a couple of years ago, and it includes a quote from Samuel Johnson: “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.” I’m not sure if I’m curious enough to see how this all turns out, but I admire McGuinness’s writing. Maybe that’s not enough.
I’ve tried and tried to read some books, to no avail. It started in grade school, with Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field. It’s an historical story, told from the point of view of a doll. Each time I took it out of the school library, I was convinced I would love it this time, but I couldn’t read it. Maybe the vocabulary was too difficult. “The antique shop is very still now,” it begins. “Theobold and I have it all to ourselves, for the cuckoo clock was sold day before yesterday and Theobold has been so industrious of late there are no more mice to venture out from behind the woodwork.” That second sentence is a little long for a fourth-grader. The name Theobold is unusual and acts as a sort of stop in the sentence. There’s something about the tone, too, that I don’t think I could grasp at age 10. I wanted a straight-forward story, and this book, written in 1929, has a formal, adult feel to it, and a subtlety I couldn’t grasp. How I wanted to love this book, though! Each time I picked it off the shelf, fingering its heavy-duty cardboard cover and smooth, oft-turned pages, I felt certain the story held the same magic as other books I loved – like Little Women or the Little House stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. But each time I checked it out with renewed hope, I quickly returned it, full of defeat and disappointment. I don’t know how far I got, but it wasn’t much past the illustration on page three, with Hitty grasping a fountain pen in her stiff fingers.
By sixth grade, I volunteered several days a week in the school library, stamping due dates in books and shelving the returns. I was an awkward, bookish, lonely, loudmouth, complicated girl who would rather alphabetize date cards than play outside at recess. I could see the games of jump rope and Red Rover from the library’s dormers, high above the playground and softball field. A young woman, a recent library school graduate – tall, patrician, blonde, always stylishly dressed – volunteered in the library a few days a week. One day Miss Reeves loaned me her precious, elegant, hard-cover copy of Jane Eyre, and it was too much; although I had read a summary of the plot many times in the Book of Knowledge at home, I wasn’t ready for the long, passive sentences, the narrator who addressed me as “Reader.” The book was fancy and gilt-edged, and its spine barely broken in; somehow I marred it, bending a page accidentally, or sullying it with a smear of dirt, I’m not sure which. I returned it to Miss Reeves with a mumbled apology. I could not admit what was even more shameful: I had not been able to finish it. She had judged me ready to treat her treasured copy with care, and she had miscalculated; or perhaps, again weighted down by the expectation of the book loaner or giver, I refused stubbornly to meet my end of the bargain. Of course, I later read it not once but many times, when I was older and ready for its sophisticated diction and tone.
Later, in eighth grade, I had the same problem with them by Joyce Carol Oates. By then I had graduated to “adult” books. I read romantic mysteries by Phyllis Whitney and Mary Stewart and suggestive pot-boilers like Beulah Land by Lonnie Coleman. I picked up them and expected it to be like these others, and was not prepared for Oates’s vicious realism. It was not so much that I didn’t understand her writing; I remember the story gave me a deadened feeling that was strangely visceral and almost “too real.” In those first passages about Loretta and her impoverished, hopeless existence in a Detroit tenement, I could think only of the poor neighbors who lived in back of us, and the fear that somehow we, in our own hand-to-mouth existence, were only a notch above “them.” Years later I bought the book and devoured it, having grown to be an ardent Oates fan. But at age 14, I couldn’t face Loretta or her daughter Maureen, any more than I can now read about the orphaned Theo of The Goldfinch.
By the time I reached college, I had read all the great Southern gothics, Welty and McCullers and O’Connor. I had no problem with books my mother deemed “inappropriate,” like Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But in my sophomore year of college, in 1979, I stumbled in Introduction to American Literature. We had read Faulkner and Cather, the usual suspects, but for some reason I couldn’t finish Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis – I was busy working on the school newspaper, I was caught up in one hapless romance or another, and I never made it to the end, faking the blue-book test as best I could. Professor Richard Cunningham – how well I remember his solemn fair-haired head, and the dirty look he gave me when I missed just one class – seemed to see into my black soul and guess my transgression. It was as though he knew about the other unfinished books on my shelf, their bookmarks poking out like pH test strips turned pink, the color of my shame.  
As much as we may want them to, these lost books don’t leave us. They stay on our shelves, sometimes literally, with the bookmarks barely visible, and sometimes figuratively, in a personal card catalog of missed deadlines, dropped projects, and other bits of unfinished business. And in some ways, my unfinished books are more vivid to me than the books I’ve completed. Hitty, for example, comes to mind as readily as Henry Reed, the egghead inventor, or Ramona the Pest, or Homer Price and his crazy doughnut machine. So why is it I don’t remember much more about Homer than the funky illustrations, even though I read the Robert McCloskey books from cover to cover?  How can Homer and Hitty be taking up the same space in my brain – a sort of wisp or cloud of thought, a sense of page consistency and ink color, a faint idea of plot – when one was conquered, the other virgin territory never fully explored? Is the experience of reading so ephemeral that only traces of it are left behind, no matter how diligent or attentive we are?
Does it really matter that we didn’t finish?
I want to say it does, because books are important and deserve to be read from start to finish. Otherwise, we would take out that bookmark – it marks our progress as well as our failure. As long as it stands stiffly at attention, waiting to be moved forward, there is hope for us. The unfinished books may loom large in our memory precisely because they represent failure. But I wonder, really, if our apprehension of a story has nothing to do with how much of it we have read. Perhaps some books aren’t meant to be finished. You’ve gleaned all you can from it; maybe some day you’ll be ready for it again, just as I needed to grow up a little to appreciate Jane Eyre. Meanwhile, I think I will give one book another chance. If anyone has an old copy of Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, I’m ready to hear her story.


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