Of Human Bondage (Bantam Classics)

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A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

In the last five days I have driven a little over a thousand miles in a rented Toyota Camry with my two daughters and a large carton of Goldfish crackers. This trip seemed like a good idea when I planned it, but as the date of our departure approached it began to appear increasingly quixotic. For one, the nominal purpose of the trip was to make an author appearance at a book club that I had agreed to visit when I lived in the Bay Area, where it was to be held, and not in Oregon, where I now live. Moreover, the trip was not planned as a straight line. It takes about 10 hours to drive directly from Portland to the Bay Area, but I added several hours to the trip by planning to stop in the town of Alturas, California, to visit my deceased grandparents in the cemetery and spend the night in a historic hotel. (In addition to being quixotic, the trip also seemed like metatextual cuteness, since I had written an entire book about a woman who drives to rural California with a small child in the backseat; it was as if I had decided to insert autobiography where there had been none, and prove my Goodreads detractors correct that the book is artless.)

I decided that the trip was only going to work if I employed all of the tricks that were not available to the book’s protagonist, or to my own parents, who spent a lot of my childhood driving me around in the backseat of a car.  I set up an iPad for the older child, a backup tablet for the younger child, positioned the Goldfish carton so that both could reach down into its maw, and for myself downloaded an audiobook of Pride and Prejudice, which I realized I had never read despite knowing its plot from various film properties.  

The first leg of the trip was supposed to take around six and a half hours. As the road began to incline up toward the snow-dusted trees of the Willamette pass, Jane got sick (Mrs. Bennett made her go to Netherfield without the carriage), and I stopped to pee on an embankment in sight of the car. I drove white-knuckled and 18 miles an hour over the packed snow at the pass, the soothing voice of Rosamund Pike nudging me onward. We stopped to give thanks and pee at a gas station in Chemult at twilight, which was the advent of Mr. Collins, and he delivered his ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth as we passed the turnoff for Crater Lake with the last bit of pink in the sky. We stopped to pee again in Merrill, and the children crowded in a gas station bathroom with me while I devised an impromptu sanitary napkin out of paper towels and wondered what the Bennett girls did in these moments. Between Ambrose and Hackamore, after Bingley decamped for London without warning, we hit an owl.

At one point in the drive my older daughter, who was watching Cinderella, asked if I was listening to a story too, and I said I was. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Cinderella, and I groaned when I heard the voice of the advisor from the backseat, surveying the array of uglies at the ball: “There must be one who’d make a suitable mother…err a suitable wife!” he says. There are so many moments in the raising of girls where the available cultural materials seem sorely wanting. But then I realized that I was listening to essentially the same story, and that it was probably single-handedly responsible for turning an experience that is objectively unpleasant—long car travel with children in sparsely populated country in the early winter dark—into one of the best times I have had in recent memory.

That first night we sat outside the Niles Hotel in twenty-degree weather waiting to be let in, the only guests in a drafty century-old building with period furnishings, and then the girls cozied up together in an ancient bed, and I re-read Of Human Bondage, which I had brought as my physical book. I wondered what was happening with Lizzie and Darcy and Bingley and Jane. I knew what would happen at the end of the book but I could hardly wait to get back into the car to listen to it.

I don’t know if it was the novelty of the trip—Portland to Alturas, Alturas to Petaluma, Petaluma to Oakland to Davis, Davis to San Francisco to Menlo Park—or the iPad, or Pride and Prejudice, but something has encouraged all of us to rise to the occasion this week. As we passed familiar sights I was glad we made the trip: the life-size religious tableaux set up by the In Search of Truth cult in Canby, California, the long-awaited McDonald’s in Burney, the glory of Shasta rising up on a clear winter day. My beloved aunt died in October and I found myself wanting to call and tell her about the things that we saw in her hometown. The importance of aunts is a theme in Pride and Prejudice; aunts as confidants and sources of wisdom. When I was younger my aunt let me smoke in her backyard and tell her my adventures.

This week in the car stands in stark contrast to the last week I spent alone in the company of my children, which was when we moved to Portland at the end of July. The move has turned out to be the best possible thing for our family, but that week, when it was hot and we were in a new city with no furniture and nothing to do, was one of the worst weeks I can remember. My most vivid memory from that time is chasing a 22-month-old around a Fred Meyer grocery store, sobbing on the phone with my former Primary Care Practitioner in San Francisco, with whom I have always had a very cordial and impersonal relationship, to see if there was anything she could prescribe me to get through this experience (she reluctantly but kindly prescribed me Prozac, which I failed to pick up from my HMO before we were switched over to a PPO, and for all I know is still sitting there in a pigeonhole marked K).

The move is one of the reasons I feel as though I haven’t read anything this year. But as in every year, I did read things. Before we moved I read The Revisioners and Women Talking and Lanny and Heavy and The Unpassing, all of which made me weep for different reasons. I read The Parisian and The Old Drift, which are both long and wonderful and address history and which I envied for their beauty and complexity and verve. I know I read other things, but the spring is a blur of thinking about whether to move and discussing the particulars of the move and preparing for the move and then doing the move itself.

Post-move, when my children started camp and daycare and I was alone in the empty house with a number of home improvement projects and a book project I lacked the wherewithal to do, I opened a box of galleys I had previously felt too burned-out and defeated to read. I read Normal People and felt like the raw edges of the preceding weeks smoothed over. I read The Altruists. I went to the library and got a library card and read Loving Day on the porch and on the bed my poor husband put together by himself after going to a new job and coming home to find me crying after a day at the indoor playground. These books helped me feel pleasure in things again.

When I was settled enough to get to work, I read The Smartest Guys in the Room. I purchased and read the “Women of Enron” issue of Playboy, a real object that exists and was produced by our society. I tried to remember the excellent things I had already read for this project, back before moving consumed everything. Before we moved I had read The Oil and the Glory at a table of the Ingleside branch of the SFPL, and an anthology called Working for Oil. At the library of the beautiful Morrison Reading Room at UC Berkeley I read The Oil Road.  (It occurs to me now that I am trying to write a book that combines what all these authors know about extractive industries and business culture and imperialism with what Jane Austen knew about the women of her acquaintance sitting together in a room, and I am still not sure how to do this.)

When I adjusted to the fact of our new city, when we got a bookshelf and a dresser, I could look back and see clearly how anxious and unhappy I had been for a lot of the last year. Oddly, work trips, which seemed like a pain in the ass at the time of their planning and execution, were some of the moments that I remembered most fondly, and they were lonely and strange times. In May I traveled to Miami for a work thing and sat at a restaurant alone reading Cities of Salt in the sea breeze, glowing with happiness at the luxury of solitude and an immersive novel.  Over two solo road trips to Los Angeles, also for book stuff, I listened to the entirety of Oil!, finishing it just before hitting the In ‘n Out burger at Kettleman City on the way to San Francisco.  In Los Angeles I sat at a bar and read The Sea, The Sea for the hundredth time.

Every book that I’ve managed to finish since we moved feels like it helped me regain my equilibrium in some crucial way. Before Halloween, I read Chimerica, which is a book that sounds slightly batshit (it has a talking giant lemur who is the subject of a court case) and turns out to be one of the smartest fictional engagements with the American legal system that I’ve ever read. I read Perfect Tunes with a whiskey sour my husband made me, the children asleep in bed, and I felt young and happy. I read American War on the plane to California to see my aunt for the last time. After Halloween—which since having children marks the start of a period that lasts until mid-January and during which I don’t get anything done due to holiday obligations and inevitable winter illness—I lay on the couch reading In the Dream House at nearly one go while my children watched shit on the iPad and my husband made our dinner in the toaster oven (we were at this time living out of the dining room). It feels peculiar to have such a singularly enjoyable reading experience from a book that arises from someone else’s pain, but that’s one major paradox of reading, and Carmen Maria Machado is so talented that it is pure pleasure to be in that swiftly-moving book. I read Giving up the Ghost, which is also pure pleasure rooted in someone’s pain, Hilary Mantel with her treacherous endometrial cells and her subtly idiosyncratic prose. I read How Much of These Hills is Gold, which is gorgeous and close to my heart because it is about a quixotic trip through California, undertaken for family and personal reasons.

I never canceled the book club thing in California I think because I wanted to tell myself that moving to Oregon would be just like moving to another neighborhood, and that I would continue to be able to access my family and friends and the landscapes of California with total ease. This road trip has made it clear that it is not the case. There’s the distance, which is vast but surmountable; more than that I’m realizing how difficult it is to visit your grown-up friends when you have children in tow. This is a trip where I’m seeing very few friends, despite my breezy assurances when we moved that “I’ll come back all the time.” This realization is one in a series of recalibrating lessons, but I’m in a better frame of mind lately to receive it. I’m typing this at two in the morning in my grandmother’s house in the Bay Area, and my children are sleeping, and they have been such good girls, and I have been such a comparatively calm and pleasant mother to them on our strange road trip, maybe because it was one I conceived of and undertook entirely on my own steam, or maybe it was because Pride and Prejudice made me happy. Tomorrow we will start the long drive back home; I downloaded Sense and Sensibility to ease the way.

Confluence of Pleasures: On Reading and Tuna Fish

1. Dry Spell
I’m going through a period where I’m not reading very many novels. I really hate this. To me, every period of reading stagnation is the beginning of the slippery slope, which will lead you to one day parrot the refrain your bookish, childhood self heard from all the adults in view: “I miss reading,” and “I used to read a lot, too.”

Telling a young bookworm that reading is something people might stop doing is like telling people who just fell in love that a day will come when they won’t want to have sex all the time. No one is trying to hear this.

Many of the books I have read are indexed by place and time. Usually there is nothing particularly meaningful about the occasion, and the memory is populated by mundane details—this book goes with a bus in that city; that one under the hostess stand at that restaurant; the other belongs in a purse I used to have, and wish I had still.

But there is a flash point where the book you are reading is exactly the book you should and want to be reading at that moment, and the combination renders the occasion of your reading so intensely pleasurable that you remember it for years as a halcyon day in your life.

In a dry spell, I find myself fantasizing about these greatest hits of my reading past, fetishizing afternoons on couches lost to time.

These are not the kind of memories with a facile cinematic chronology—it’s impossible to create a montage of a girl supine for eight hours with Of Human Bondage.  And while you can think long about a particular book—its plot or its meaning—there is no narrative to an epic reading of a book as there is with other life moments (He said x, and then he kissed me; the phone rang, they rescued Timmy from the well.)

Reading memories are intensely boring to describe to someone else in any detail. Reading memories are cat memories—a sunbeam, a warm spot, a heaven-sent breeze, distant voices.

Often, there are snacks.

2. Food
I was moved by Leah Carroll’s poignant essay about the foods in which she takes comfort. I am a creature of habit, and I form periods of intense attachment to foods, just as I do with books. For me, many comfort foods are profoundly connected to my reading memories; books, like food, provide rich and varied nourishment, often greater than the sum of their ingredients. Taken in conjunction, books and food are a potent, comprehensive, and very private source of happiness. Proust’s madeleine would feel more real to me had Proust, upon discovering the power of the cookie, obtained a huge box and eaten them while reading all seven Chronicles of Narnia.

On a summer Saturday, probably 2004, I mixed tuna fish in my mother’s style—with plain yogurt, a touch of mayonnaise, green onion, black pepper, and lemon—and spread it on melba toast crackers. I poured a coca-cola over ice.  I took the plate to the couch, lay down, and read Lolita all the way through.  And verily it was one of the most pleasant days of my life.

I remember a tuna fish sandwich and The Blind Assassin, sprawled on the same couch, on the same kind of summer afternoon. Tuna fish is writ large in my reading life, but only prepared in this precise way (with yogurt; the bread can be different, and sometimes I put mustard). When I need to manufacture happiness, I make tuna fish.

The fall I read 2666 coincided with my rediscovery of a very plain spaghetti I remembered eating every day one summer in my childhood—a spaghetti with butter, salt, and a mild cheese. Unsurprisingly, given its flavor profile and ingredients, I was crazy for this dish with a kind of fevered passion, which is just how I felt about 2666. The day I cranked through most of volume 2 was a day I did two things that are almost impossible: I read with a blinding hangover and I read while eating spaghetti. I think I made the spaghetti twice that day, so abandoned was I to hangover and booklust.

Like 2666, part of the appeal of the spaghetti was how delicious it was, and its impossibility as a permanent and frequent fixture in my snack rotation. I was wild for the book, and the spaghetti, but you cannot read 2666 every day, and butter spaghetti must be used infrequently, lest it lose its great effect, and you develop a pallor.

It was not my first spaghetti madness. One lonely high school summer spent in a new country, I plundered my parents’ pantry of commissary-bought cans and dry goods. I invented a version of canned clam sauce, heavy on white wine, and ate it every afternoon while reading the assembled works of A.S. Byatt. Possession tastes like canned clams and coca cola with a splash of wine; it sounds like the beetle that tapped faintly from behind the living room wall.

In 2005 I read The Sea, The Sea, and my encounter with Charles Arrowby’s homely yet intensely provocative food interests coincided with (or influenced, possibly) a period during which I ate cabbage and carrot salad every single day for several months.  (Fear not, gentle readers, I ate other things too.)

An Arrowby meal, for the uninitiated:
. . . spaghetti with a little butter and dried basil . . . Then spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill.  Boiled onions served with bran, herbs, soya oil, and tomatoes, with one egg beaten in.  With these a slice or two of cold tinned corned beef.
In my beloved salad, the red or green cabbage is thinly sliced, the carrots grated.  I add tiny slivers of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and a lot of salt.  At the end, I drag my bread across the bowl and it is stained orange with the remaining oil and the life blood of carrots.  I know this as a Greek winter salad, but my beloved roommate of the period made cabbage and carrot in her home Tatarstan.  Cabbage and carrot is home food across great distances.

I remember eating a bowl of this and a loaf of the airy bread procured from my corner shop, lying on the bed with Iris Murdoch’s best novel, and smoking cigarettes.  This memory is especially riddled with nostalgia—now there are no more cigarettes, there is no more bread eaten in number 5  Happy Street (actual address) in a distant Istanbul suburb.  I still make cabbage and carrot salads, but they are simulacra.

Some foods are not my own creation. Another summer I spent every one of my lunch breaks eating xoriatiki salata from the same cafe while reading the majority of Stephen King’s novels. Greek salad and The Stand are intimations of heaven on earth. During some weeks I was left to my own devices I contrived to eat the platonic ideal of chicken and rice at Philippou, the most wonderful restaurant in all of Greece, every day that I had the money to acquire it. That’s where I read Under the Volcano.  I went back years later and took my beloved, but I cannot recapture the feeling of those hot days in a cool room, the whir of fans and the silverware clinking on the plates of the regulars, the ruination of Geoffrey Firmin.

Probably my nostalgia is less for the these books and these tuna fish crackers, but for lost places, lost summers, lost time (Oh hallo, Marcel—do pass the madeleines). Every passing year makes an afternoon spent on the couch less an inalienable right and more of a louche extravagance. Every year I see more clearly the first-world silliness of a spoilt youth eating dozens of baked chicken portions in a classy Athenian restaurant. I wouldn’t talk sense into her now, though. These memories are too precious.

All is not lost and melancholic. The dry spell will end, god willing. There are still books to read in snatched half-hours; there is passionate reading in our future. There is still tuna fish and cabbage salad.

Image credit: Flickr/galant

The Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month Club: June 2006

Here in Sioux Falls, one of our local Lutheran private colleges puts on a library book sale. In name, it’s a sale of epic proportions. In actuality, it’s just a clever way for literary junkies and bibliophiles to stock up their collections and appear smarter than they are while the library clears out horribly outdated editions of unread literature.And it works – I’ll never read the Autobiography of Mark Twain, and I’ll probably skip W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, but I’ll be damned if I’m leaving them off of my bookshelf. Think of how intelligent I’ll look!Admittedly, though, the books I buy and subsequently read tend to be all over the radar, and book sales of this sort truly fit my fancy. I mean, at fifty cents a book, you’d be surprised how willing you’d be to pick up some book that you may have heard of, or a book that you swear to have some vague recollection of a former college coffee buddy raving about – a willingness that wouldn’t be as strong if it was spotted at Barnes and Noble for $13.99 plus tax.So my book stacks grow. Some of the authors are well known. Others are barely recognizable. And in time, I’ve found that I rarely – no, I’d say never – seem to find a real stinker of a book. Some are disappointing, yes. But never bad. Maybe I’m just really lucky, or I’m smart enough to take suggestions from those who already like the same books I do. Or maybe I’m like a literary garbage disposal, grabbing everything I read and devouring it with the same gusto I would a handful of vegetable scraps.So it came as quite a surprise when I finally picked up Atonement – Ian McEwan’s tale of childhood misunderstanding and wartime barbarics – at the Augustana College Book Sale. Sure, I’d heard of him. Sure, I needed the book. I realized, rather shamefully, that I hadn’t read anything by McEwan, one of the literary world’s darlings, in my entire life. I didn’t know what to expect – was he going to be wordy, an intelligent but inaccessible cacophony of allusions and pomp? Was he going to be so brilliant that I’d never look at literature the same way? Was he going to be just another English twit, barred from my life forever because of a critical over-acclaim? How could I continue to write a monthly book column (which I then condense into a smaller and more jovial version for this very website) and not have read McEwan?Would they take away my library card?Well, no. They wouldn’t. But I figured I’d better read Atonement before it was too late. And here’s the best part: he’s actually good. Initially, I was simply pleased with what I was presented: a well worded, brilliantly researched account of high-class English life in the 1930s, followed by a gruesome account of retreat during World War II. Of course, it only got better as I fell further and further into its pages.Atonement is set out as a narrative: Briony, a ten-year-old girl who is committed to a life of writing, her sister Cecilia, and the son of their family’s hired help, Robbie, prepare for company. Over one day, Cecilia and Robbie rekindle a flame while Briony, without knowing, extinguishes it – possibly forever. From this day, we jump ahead to World War II and the British retreat from Dunkirk. Then, it’s a jump forward to 1999 – nearly 70 years after the first fateful day.McEwan’s novel isn’t just a “symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness,” as the back cover so brightly puts it. It’s a book that accurately recreates the mind of a child – Briony, in this case – and puts weight behind her thoughts and actions. The ideals of children are real, and Atonement illustrates this notion by showing us the consequences of an immature jealousy and unfounded protection. Through this, lives are forever changed because of Briony’s unwavering account of a violent crime – the rape of her cousin by a stranger.It’s wonderfully constructed, and McEwan writes at a level that’s detailed, yet not too much so. Some of the narratives seem superfluous, but upon finishing Atonement I realized how important each account was. Four different voices populate its pages, and each helps give a full panoramic picture of the story as it unfolds. The clever way it’s spelled out is central to the book, and it forced me to look at each character differently as the same scene was described again and again.Atonement shows how deeply an overactive imagination can quickly wreak havoc on those who are closest – how a misinterpreted event can lead to one person being thrown to the wolves, while another laments over a lost love. Themes run rampant throughout the book – too many to count, and much too much to write about in one column (if I could even pick them all out) – but even those who enjoy a good story, regardless of underlying themes and vague references, will enjoy McEwan’s novel.My favorite part, though, was the subtle little twist at the end – which I will hold back for those who have not read the book. It’s clever, and while many considered it an easy out, I thought it was brilliant. Atonement deserves all the praise it received – I felt the entire gamut of emotions while pouring through each of the characters. I was angry, I was despondent, and I was bitterly jealous. All because McEwan made each character feel as if they were a part of my own family.I scarcely think I need to ever visit the posh fields of England’s upper class. I’ve lived it already – right there where the river flows gracefully though the fields and a horrible crime can cause children to lie, adults to glaze over with adoration and relief, and the law enforcement to barely bother to find the truth. As long as that little darling says it’s true, it’s going to be true. How horrible. Literarily, though; how wonderful.Now, I wonder what W. Somerset Maugham would think of it all.Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll never know.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May

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