April 25, 2017

Persephone no. 88: Still Missing

      In her inner life, there were two things she had rules about. One was If Only. If Only I had walked with him that morning. If Only he'd left a minute earlier, or later. If Only I'd called him back for his jacket. ... She could bear to imagine almost any of the possible fates that Alex had met. She could not bear It Might Not Have Happened.
      The other thing was imagining how he would come back, if ever. At first she had thought the phone would ring, one of the tens of thousands of calls, but each one maybe the one.  She would pick up the phone and there would be his voice. 'Hello...Mommy?' Perhaps she still believed that, for a millisecond, each time the phone rang, even now. Perhaps she would for the rest of her life. ... But the phone rang so often, and dreams replayed too many times lose their power to move. ...
      But there were still ways it would happen. She allowed herself to develop one one at a time and she allowed herself to think of it only in the hour before sleep, when she turned out the light. For instance:  someone would see an an old picture in an article at the hairdresser's and recognize the little 'grandchild' of the couple down the block. Or:  someone from the neighborhood would pass a schoolyard one day and see a little boy playing alone. They would see the face on the poster, although his hair would be dyed and his missing tooth grown in, and they would recognize him anyway, because no one, no one,could mistake that brilliant smile. They would call the police or they would call her -- or they would simply drive up Fremont Street to her door one day and ring the bell. ...

It might be that I read it so very long ago, or that I wasn't a Bostonian then, or that the movie (which I remember better) was set in New York, but I didn't realize until recently that this novel is set in Boston.  Not only in Boston, but just a few streets away from where I live. Of course, me being me, that made me long to read it again, with the extra treat of finding the Persephone edition.

The plot that umderpins the story is simple:  Alex Selky, a bright, happy, earnestly responsible almost-seven-year-old, has begged his mother Susan, a professor of literature at Harvard, to let him walk to school by himself. Every morning, she watches him walk to the corner, turn and wave, and turn out of sight for the last two blocks -- until one day in May, when he doesn't come home after school.  Lieutenant Al Minetti, a father of seven, leads the police investigation that follows, there's intense media attention, and friends and neighbors join the hunt and paper all of Boston with posters of the missing child.  In the crisis, Susan is also reunited with her unfaithful husband Graham, who can't be found immediately when Alex disappears because he is cheating on his new girlfriend.

But for most of the novel, the focus is on 'still,' because despite Minetti's concern, and Susan's perseverance, Alex has disappeared without a trace (that was the movie's title, now that I remember), and the novel turns its attention to what happens in the months that follow.  There are a few false leads, and an unexpected twist, but mostly, there is quiet day-to-day despair that makes the novel a little hard to bear but perfectly captures what would happen:  some friends drop away, others emerge, the police investigation quiets down, and Susan and Graham waver between hope and knowing that Alex is most likely lost to them.

Still Missing is definitely a novel of its day, but it is also beautifully written, and even though I remembered all along how it would end, I still found it very moving to reach that moment.

Still Missing, by Beth Gutcheon
Persephone Books, 2010 (originally published in 1981)
Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum

April 21, 2017

Anticipation, 'culinary biography' edition


I'm so excited about this one.  I greatly enjoyed reading and listening to her short biography of Julia Child, two of the six remarkable women are Eleanor Roosevelt and Barbara Pym, and ... 'culinary biography.'  Oh, yes please.

April 20, 2017

Walking, writing

When she was much older, [Virginia Woolf] would create her heroine Mrs. Dalloway (who 'dallies along the way' ...) who is, perhaps, the greatest flaneuse of twentieth-century literature. These are the very first words Mrs. Dalloway speaks in the novel:  'I love walking in London,' said Mrs. Dalloway. 'Really, it's better than walking in the country.' For Woolf to be able to walk in the city by herself was a hitherto unimaginable kind of freedom, and while the move [to Bloomsbury] helped her become a professional writer, it was her walks that gave her something to write about. ... As she walked through the city, she would rewrite scenes in her mind; the life she saw around her seemed 'an immense opaque block of material to be conveyed by me into its equivalent of language.' Wondering about the people she saw pushed her forward in her literary project -- how to represent 'life itself' on the page. And to do this, she turned again and again to the city that was 'the passion of [her] life.' The noise of the streets was a kind of language, she thought, one that she would stop occasionally and listen to, and try to capture. ... The jungle and shuffle of London is the heartbeat of life itself.
from Flaneuse: women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo,
  Venice and London
, by Lauren Elkin

Flaneuse: women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London,
by Lauren Elkin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017
Borrowed from the Boston Public Library

April 19, 2017

'I walk because, sometimes, it's like reading ...'

... You're privy to these lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them. Sometimes it's overcrowded; sometimes, the voices are too loud. But there is always companionship. You are not alone.

from Flaneuse: women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo,
  Venice and London
, by Lauren Elkin

April 2, 2017

Books in houses

It is difficult to overestimate the impact that the availability of all kinds of books had on the lives of the ladies of the late Georgian country house. Novels and romances, together with quantities of non-fiction books, were devoured by both men and women, but the latter spent much more time at home than their brothers and husbands. ... Books, which would be sent for, or borrowed from a friend or even a public library, were an invaluable resource for women, providing instruction and entertainment, and topics for discussion with friends and relations.
      The eighteenth century saw a dramatic increase in the number of books were published, and in the range of subjects they covered.  When Lady Christina Fox died in 1718 there were thirty-one books in her closet at Whitehall, including three Bibles and a prayer book. Of the remaining volumes, at least twenty were mainly concerned with religion. The others were all serious works, on subjects such as 'acute disease' and 'politicall arithmeticke.'  If one compares this with the fifty-seven books read  by Lady Christian's granddaughter Susan O'Brien in 1793, 1794 and 1795, the contrast is striking.  These included few, if any, religious books, but numerous novels. Susan read several historical works, including an account of the French revolution and a history of the Plague of Marseilles. She read travel books, accounts of the American states of Virginia and Kentucky, and several volumes of memoirs and letters. ...
     Novels began to appear in increasing numbers after 1740, when the first part of Samuel Richardson's best-seller Pamela was published. Word soon got around if a book was worth reading. Early in 1751 Caroline Fox wrote from Bath to ask her husband to 'Send Peregrine Pickle (as it can't be had here) in all haste.'  ... Sarah Napier recommended Fanny Burney's Cecilia to Susan O'Brien in 1782, the year of the book's first publication.
      Commentators soon began to express their concern about the popularity of  novel-reading among women, believing that the time thus spent was wasted, and that novels would corrupt feminine minds and hearts. In 1761 Sarah Pennington advised her daughter not to give herself  'the trouble of reading ... novels and romances' -- 'though many of them contain some few good morsels,they are not worth picking out the rubbish intermixed.'  There is no indication, however, that the girls at Melbury and Redlynch were discouraged from reading novels. ... [In 1789] Harriot Strangways wrote from her school in Weymouth to beg her sister Mary to send her 'The Prince of Abyssinia, which I have a longing to read.' ...In 1792 Harriot was reading Ann Radcliffe's Gothic novel The Sicilian Romance (published that year), commenting in a letter to Mary 'How shocking it is!  It has given me a sort of languid feel that is very, very disagreeable' ...

I borrowed this book from the library after seeing it mentioned in this one.  It traces the everyday lives of the women in several interconnected aristocratic families in 18th and early 19th England (ancestors of the author, I think).  It's a bit overstuffed with facts and details for my needs, so I'm skimming a bit, but it's the kind of history I love to read most.  Much more appealing that 'politicall arithmetick,' whatever that is, which just sounds terrifying. :)

Wives and daughters:  women and children in the Georgian country house, by Joanna Martin
Hambledon and London, 2004
Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum

{The painting is Serena Reading, by British artist George Romney, c. 1782, found here.}

March 26, 2017

Anticipation (food in books edition)


It's so kind of people to write books especially for me. :)

March 22, 2017

Reading lives

Having recently worked my way through two not-all-that-engaging biographies of  people I was looking forward to knowing more about, I was reminded of how wonderful it is when the opposite happens ... those times when I've found myself reading, and loving,  a beautifully-told life of someone I didn't expect to find as interesting as I did.  That's even better, I think. :)