I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling stressed, or ill, or am otherwise in need of a little extra comfort, there is nothing like a stack of novels to cheer me. Until recently, I thought my rose-colored memories of curling up with a pile of books in childhood might be sweetly inaccurate. Not long ago, my father gave me some letters he found in my grandmother’s house, and in one of them, penned when I was about nine, I mentioned that I had a cold and that I planned to spend the afternoon “curled up by the fire with a book.”
In the past week, I’ve read three novels that were a perfect distraction at a stressful time, though these I read by air-conditioning, not fireside. Two are books suggested by the Book Lovers’ Calendar, one of those little square calenders you tear off daily and use for scrap paper. The other is a book sale purchase.
Steve suggests I should write a bookconscious post about how our family chooses our reading material. One important source is the library’s sale rack. My best library sale purchase of all time is one that several of my friends feel certain cannot be topped — for $2, I purchased the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
About six years ago, I was returning some books in the Concord (NH) Public Library when someone brought in donations for the sale rack. When I spied the large, hardcover two volume set, slipcovered in a nice case which incorporates a little drawer for a magnifying glass (handy because the compact OED reproduces four of the full sized editions pages per page), I could hardly believe my luck.
“Are you donating this?” I asked. The donor confirmed, smiling at my recognition of the prize at hand. I was so visibly excited by my quarry that when I approached the desk to ask the price, the librarian grinned at my delight. “Well, two volumes, hardcover, that will be $2,” he said. I nearly reached over the counter to hug him. “Really?!?!” was all I could splutter. “I’ve wanted the OED for so long . . . .” The librarian really seemed as pleased as I was. My children were too young to be embarrassed at the way mommy was nearly tearing up with joy over a dictionary, but I am sure all of you OED fans can imagine my dumbfounded delight — a $2 OED is the bargain of the century. Every time I open it, I think of the generous donor and librarian and feel grateful to both.
Many book sales later, I have accumulated a number of bargains but none so striking as my OED. However, shopping at library racks and book sales saves my family a great deal of money and has helped us build a home library. It is also a good source of gifts for my grandmother, who at 94 remains convinced that no paperback should ever cost more than a quarter. She is still a voracious reader, so I check the rack every time I go to the library and bring her my finds whenever we visit her.
One book I picked up recently, intending to pass along to her, I decided to read myself first, after learning a little about the author. Barbara Pym underwent a long period in which she could not find a publisher for her work, and yet went on to be named “most underrated novelist of the century” in the Times Literary Supplement. Her book Jane and Prudence is one of her earlier works, published in England in 1953. It captures post-war England in richly textured detail.
On the surface, it is a novel of manners, covering just a small period of time in a few characters’ lives. On reflection, Jane and Prudence, like most of Pym’s work, is a deeper study of human nature, gender roles and class differences, and the Church of England’s evolving (or perhaps devolving) place in Englished identity.
Jane and Prudence are friends of different generations, one married to a village vicar, one single and working in London. Pym explores the way each feels about her Oxford education, the lack of intellectual fulfillment both women are aware of but unable to deal with, the way men impact the choices available to Jane and Prudence, and the ways both are victims of society’s expectations of them.
In probing Jane’s inability to be a model clergyman’s wife, and Prudence’s mild curiosity but ultimate indifference towards religion, Pym comments on the church’s inadequacy as an outlet for either woman’s capabilities. Even for Jane, who finds spiritual solace there, the church is another reminder of the avenues closed to a woman of her time and place.
If this all sounds a bit heavy, one of the most delightful things about Pym is her comic tone. Her writing reminds me of Jane Austen’s, in that the social commentary goes down so smoothly you may almost miss it. Jane and Prudence is full of humorous details that humanize even the coldest characters. Listen in as the stuffy staff at Prudence’s office speculate on who shall make the tea, watch the vicar attempt to economize by growing his own tobacco, shake your head as the unsuspecting Fabian is manipulated right out of his melodramatics as a suffering widower, and observe the villagers’ social maneuvering at a whist drive featuring a visit by their “Beloved Member,” [of parliament] and you feel you should stifle a giggle, lest poor Jane or Prudence realize how ridiculous things are.
But they do, and that’s the delight. Both Jane and Prudence are aware heroines, in charge of their lives even when things beyond their control go awry. They are not weak victims, even though they are both hemmed into narrow roles by English society of the 1950’s. I finished the novel feeling I’d enjoy being friends with either of them, especially Jane. She talks too loudly, can’t help speaking her mind, thinks of books she’d like to write when she ought to be helping to decorate the church, and invites people over without being quite up to entertaining as befits her station. But everyone enjoys her company and she clearly understands people. There’s nothing stuffy about Jane, even though she is part of an entirely stuffy social system.
Stuffiness is what the protagonist of Little Green Men suffers from as the novel opens. If you haven’t read Christopher Buckley‘s satiric novels, give them a try. Little Green Men had me laughing out loud. I first read Buckley when the Atlantic Monthly printed Florence of Arabia in two parts in 2004 — back when that magazine still carried fiction in every issue. Critics said that Florence would amuse anyone it didn’t offend, especially in Washington. Buckley pokes fun at the Washington establishment with claws bared, but I find his work hilarious, if a little scary.
In Little Green Men, Buckley imagines a super secret government agency in charge of faking alien abductions. I don’t want to give away too much, but the plot centers around two men — the pompous, Ivy league stuffed-shirt John Oliver Banion, and Nathan Scrubbs, the frustrated foot soldier of the mysterious government agency. As the plot unfolds, Buckley lampoons both the Washington insider set and the wacky alien abductee world, and he also makes fun of the ease with which the American public opinion swings, often courtesy of media reports. His satires encompasses all branches of government as well as journalism.
But while Buckley’s sharp wit sheds light on much of the excess of American popular culture and Washington cronyism, he manages to garner sympathy for Banion and Scrubbs. His plot twists unwind a little too neatly, but this is after all, satire, and the ending isn’t expected to be ambiguous. Again, I don’t want to be a spoiler, but if you were at all paying attention to politics and pop culture in the 1980’s and 1990’s, you’ll throughly enjoy the barbed references to the Million Man March, the caricatures of D.C. power hostesses, pundits, lawyers, and political operatives, and the X-Files world of alien abductee organizations and conspiracy theorists. Little Green Men is great fun.
Far more sober in setting and plot is The Kitchen Boy, a debut novel by Robert Alexander. As the story begins, a widower is putting his affairs in order for his only heir, his beloved granddaughter. It is clear from the start that the man expects to die soon. Before that happens, he feels he must record the story of his life’s darkest hours, when he served as kitchen boy to the Tsar Nicholas II and his family during their imprisonment in Siberia.
Alexander drops very subtle hints throughout the novel to give the impression that all is not as the protagonist tells us. Is he, Mikhail, a successful and very wealthy emigrant, the kitchen boy Leonka? Why has he hidden his story from his family all his life? And why is he revealing it now? Will his granddaughter be able to piece together the evidence he is leaving her to get to the real truth?
There is no way to say more without spoiling the mystery, but The Kitchen Boy was a quick read, rich in period detail, and with a pleasantly surprising ending. Alexander clearly did meticulous research, and he shares the inspiration for the book and some of the historical materials he reviewed on the book’s elaborate website. The fact that the Romanov’s last days are a real life mystery, complete with missing bodies and lost treasure, adds to the mystique of the novel’s imaginative plot. The website includes a number of links which augment the careful historical detail in the book. Don’t miss this great resource.
When it’s 107, as our thermometer read when I began this post, it is strangely comforting to read about frigid Siberia. The chilling scenes at the end of the book are a little more detailed than I would prefer, but it’s well known that the Romanovs were brutally murdered, so the reader isn’t taken entirely by surprise when the brutality begins. The horror is over quickly, just as it was on that night in 1918.
Unfortunately, so is the book.