Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year, new books




Current reading, the I Ching not counting as reading, though it is going on daily, interesting stuff to think about, is light and heavy.

Light is the MacNeil book, a really inspired Christmas gift, which is chicklit at its best, very funny, very technically knowledgeable, fantasy, wishes coming true, all at once. Like Bridget Jones, expert knitter, meets Evanovich's heroine with the funny relatives! perfect reading for a snowed-in day, which was when I enjoyed it.

And I instantly looked for another novel by the same writer, which I'm about to embark on. Great fun, totally nonserious, but respectful of the world of knitting and knowledgeable about the world of commercial tv, too, all in all, good reading.

The other is a biography of his family by Alan Bennett, serious this time, with a different touch from his marvelous Uncommon Reader and The Clothes They Stood Up In, which I hugely recommend anyway, just read them! more like long short stories than novels, but very sturdy even though short, great stuff.

This one is more introspective, about the family he came from and stuck with through all kinds of tragedy. From the north of England, west Yorkshire, to be exact, it rings a lot of familiar tones to people from the north, even if a different part of the north. Things like settling down to a good book with a quarter of Quality Street! i.e. a quarter pound of lovely mixed candies all wrapped in cellophane, very luxurious, came in a cardboard container with a cello window, if I remember correctly. And the fashions his aunts were so proud of, not unlike my older sisters at that era. And their affectations, which he understands so well that it illuminated a lot that was not clear to me before I read this, about my own relatives.

But he admits when he's clueless, as when he could not understand why the family kept secrets. He only realized much later that revealing them (I won't spoil your reading by saying what here) would very much affect the lives of the other family members, for the worse, maybe get them shunned or feared. In middle age he didn't grasp this, but as of the writing of this book at the age of sixty, he grasped what it was about, when he found himself doing the same thing.

But in some ways he goes on being clueless! as when he notices that his father, coping with his mother's severe recurring mental illness, with many hospital visits, exhausting and worrying dealing with doctors and hospitals as a working class man out of his depth, when he notices, that is, that his father tended to set up the next meal dishes as soon as the last one was finished, or prepared food ahead of time to make the actual meal getting easier.

Bennett assumes, since he has seen this in other retired people's houses, too, that it's because they have nothing in their lives, no other distractions or obligations, lives, I quote "emptied of occupation and proper activity" -- breathtakingly insulting and obtuse at the same time!

But this was written when he was only sixty, and maybe at this point, in his late seventies, he will see that the advance preparation is not only a way of doing tasks when you have the energy for them, but is also a kind of faith that you will still be needing that next meal, that you will still be living this life, that you are managing. It fends off the feeling of helplessness and depression that can fall on older people when they start to lose the ability to keep up with the daily round.

And perhaps he will come to see that the daily round itself has dignity and importance, and that domestic concerns, keeping other people fed and clean and comfortable is in fact an occupation and a proper activity. He speaks harshly of men who disparage women and their lives, yet he seems to be doing something very similar here, where, in that society, the tasks he refers to are mostly those assigned to women.

His own life partner is half his age, though, and maybe that relieves him of ever having to turn to and organize the dishes!

This is in fact a wonderful book, full of amazing insights and references to the life of the WW2 and later era in northern England, and astute observations of social rules, the ones that exist and the ones people insert into their own lives.

Not being an aficionado of theater, I can't help wishing he'd written more novels and bios, and fewer plays!

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