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Archive for July, 2021

I downloaded The Gate of Angels, by Penelope Fitzgerald, when I went on an unexpected trip recently. I didn’t read it on the trip, but I enjoyed it this week. A short novel, set in 1912, it takes place over a brief time in the lives of Fred Fairly, a fellow of the fictional St. Angelicus College at Cambridge who studies physics, and Daisy Saunders, a young woman whose parents have died who has recently been forced out of nurse training when she tried to help a patient in a way that violated the hospital’s rules. Daisy, trying to make her way to a private mental hospital in Cambridge run by a doctor she knows in hopes he’ll hire her, and Fred are both hit by a farm cart while bicycling, along with another bicyclist who disappears after the accident.

When they each wake from the accident they are in a bed together; the well meaning lady whose house they are in thought they were married. Fred is entranced and sets out to convince Daisy they should be. Fitzgerald tells us a little about each of them, how they grew up, what their families are like, how they’ve tried to make their ways in the world. Daisy’s story illustrates how difficult it was to be a woman in the early 20th century, particularly a woman who is alone. She navigates a dangerous world where she survives by working hard, keeping alert, and staying one step ahead of those (mainly men) who would prey on her.

Fred’s had an easier life, but early in the book he goes home to tell his family he has lost his faith — and his father is a parish priest. When he arrives his mother and sisters are busy making a banner for a suffragette march and no one much cares about this faith. His college, St. Angelicus, doesn’t allow fellows to marry and he spends much of his time following arcane traditions and rules. When he meets Daisy, and more importantly when the truth about the night of the accident comes to light, his questioning takes a different turn, and he realizes, and tells his undergraduate students, that “there is no difference whatever between rational thought and ordinary thought.” He goes on to say that what they are there to study — “energy and matter” — are part of their own selves, too, and that “scientists are not dispassionate. Your judgement and your ability to do good work will be in part dependent on your digestion, your prejudices, and above all, your emotional life.”

In addition to this emotional awakening by a man previously devoted entirely to science, there’s an element of mystery as the pieces of the story come together, there’s a sort of gothic ghost tale told by an elderly don as he considers the strange accident, and there’s a ridiculous scene where Fred, who has accidentally knocked out someone who has done Daisy wrong, carries the unconscious man through the streets of Cambridge with a fellow scholar, who chats away about other things and then suggests they leave him in a pile of grass clippings. And the writing is so delightful — descriptive, pointed, and wise. There’s a passage where Fred has asked for Daisy at the mental hospital, and the receptionist imperiously replies that there is no nurse named Saunders; technically true, since Daisy’s job is to iron linens. The doctor overhears and comes out of his office and scolds:

“Don’t, in your ignorance, amuse yourself by turning away my callers. You are the receptionist. Receive!”

And here’s a description of Daisy, towards the end of the novel, carrying a bag on her way to the station:

“Out in the road, carrying the overfull Jemima, she felt she looked like someone taking kittens out to drown and changing her mind at the last moment. The rain threatened to get worse. At one point, she had had a good, strong umbrella, but not now. She had lent it to one of the two cooks at Dr. Sage’s, and she hated asking for anything back. It took all the good out of it.”

The Gate of Angels is described as a historical novel, but is also very funny, and warm in its way. The ending is ambiguous but hopeful. A really delightful read.

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My Dad sent me Max Perkins: Editor of Genius because he enjoyed it so much. It was made into a film several years ago, but apparently the book was published in the 1970s, and grew out of A. Scott Berg’s college thesis. The author went on to write several other biographies over his career. The book is interesting and fit into the time period of several other books I’ve read recently.

If you haven’t seen the film or don’t know about Max Perkins, he was an editor at Scribner’s and he discovered, mentored and published F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and many other authors in the early-mid 20th century. The book describes his methods (he encouraged, cajoled, instructed, and even gave ideas to his authors) and quirks (worked at a standing desk before they were a thing, wore a hat all the time, doodled Napoleon during meetings, etc.). He lent Fitzgerald money, was a father figure to Wolfe and really constructed his novels out of thousands of pages of raw material, and vacationed with Hemingway. He was quite a character, and certainly had a genius for spotting and nurturing literary talent.

That said it was hard to read this as I was at the same time facilitating a conversation about Stephanie Spellers’ The Church Cracked Open, which addresses, among other things, white dominant culture. There were SO MANY incredibly talented Black authors working at the time Max Perkins was in publishing — off the top of my head, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and I am sure there are more I am not thinking of. Either Perkins and Scribner’s didn’t publish anyone who was Black or Berg doesn’t mention them. Either way it seemed like a strange omission.

Still, I’m weeding at work and I’m in the literature section; this book reminded me of some Pulitzer and National Book Award winners that I retained in the collection.

I went on an unexpected trip to see my mother who needed some help last week, and on the way out the door I downloaded a couple of library eBooks. On the first day/evening I read Kevin Wilson‘s Nothing to See Here, and it was perfect for the stress of travel and uncertainty of caregiving. It’s a funny, moving, razor sharp novel of manners. Lillian, former “underprivileged” scholarship kid at an elite girls’ boarding school, has never quite gotten her life together after taking the fall in her freshman year for her roommate and best friend, Madison, and being expelled. As the book opens Lillian gets a letter from Madison (it’s pre-text messaging time) inviting her to her rural Tennessee mansion, where she lives with her Senator husband and beautiful little son. Madison says she has a job for Lillian.

It turns out the Senator has two children from a former marriage, Bessie and Roland, who self-combust whenever they are agitated, as young children often are. Madison wants Lillian to be their “governess” — to keep them safe and out of the public eye. I feel like Jane Austen would adore this book. Lillian had less than stellar parenting from her own mother and is pretty dubious about her ability to do this, but she has nothing else to do. The rest of the novel tells the story of what happens when Lillian gets to know Bessie and Roland.

Wilson does a beautiful job of showing how Madison and Lillian are alike despite the cavernous economic and social gulf between them, and why they became best friends at school. HIs trenchant descriptions of Madison’s and her powerful husband’s class — rich, entitled, influential southerners — made me both angry and amused. But he manages to make Madison understandable, if not entirely likeable. Lillian explains, “It was so nice to hear her voice, to hear her voice and listen to her talk about what she wanted. I never quite knew what I wanted, the letters I sent her so wishy-washy and pained. Madison, she fucking wanted stuff. And when she talked or wrote about it, with that intensity, you wanted to give it to her. You wanted her to have it.”

And yet, this is a lovely book, terrific escapist reading but also thought provoking. I loved the little details of Lillian’s and Madison’s lives that Wilson shares — their mutual love of basketball, the stuntman gel and fireproof long underwear that the Senator’s body man Carl thinks Lillian can use to keep the children safe. I think it would be a wonderful book club choice, and also fun and interesting vacation reading.

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