I read Becoming Your Spouse’s Better Half: Why Differences Make a Marriage Great by Rick Johnson for book club, and I’m kind of torn about it. It makes some really good points about the differences between men and women- differences that I believe to be real. And those sections are really interesting and very helpful. But the more specific he gets the more he loses me, because the generalizations he makes seem to be based on he and his wife, rather than women and men as a whole. When you make generalizations like “Women enjoy “nesting” and making sure that their family’s needs are taken care of (like laundry, dinner, etc)”, then it’s a natural step to say, “Women like to do those things, so they get to do them and men don’t have to, isn’t that convenient”, when it’s not true that all women enjoy them, or even if they do, that those responsibilities shouldn’t be shared. He also neglected other variations in personality type- he seemed to imply that all women are extroverts while all men are introverts, or that women are intuitive thinkers while men are logical (F and J on the Meyers Briggs Test). That being said, I think it can always be helpful to see that people think about things in different ways, so I don’t regret reading it.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of those books that I’ve always felt vaguely guilty that I hadn’t read. It wasn’t until I’d finished it that I realized that I had utterly confused it with Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. (Howard’s End is actually the one I feel guilty about not having read, so reading this one did nothing to fix that.) I blame this solidly on the fact that the movie versions of both have Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in them.
Anyway, It is an utterly gorgeous book. Though the book is set after WW2, much of the action is in flashbacks to the period in between the wars in a country house in England. The butler of a manor house is taking his first vacation ever, and as he travels through the countryside he thinks back on his life in service. He ruminates on the quality of dignity, a virtue to which he has aspired throughout his career. His interactions with the head housekeeper are at the center of his thoughts, and he comes to some major realizations through the course of his ponderings. Thematically it reminds me of Gosford Park, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. The idea of abnegating one’s one life and desires, as was expected of those in service, is so fascinating and sad to me. This is one of those books that is so infused with tiny details about the time period that you come away having learned so much without even realizing it. The voice is so fully realized that slipping into it is calming and lovely. I highly recommend it.
The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstances tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone.
Zuleika Dobson: Or, An Oxford Love Story by Max Beerbohm is insane, and I love it. Set at Oxford, it is a farcical tale of the utter havoc wreaked at the university when Zuleika Dobson, professional (though mediocre) magician and utter beauty descends for a week. Zuleika’s beauty and charisma is such that anyone who sees her falls in love with her instantly, and Beerbohm doesn’t skimp in the ridiculousness of this extreme. Zuleika is amused but unmoved by the effect she has on men; it isn’t until she meets a young duke who has devoted himself to aestheticism and celibacy that she loses her heart, purely because he will not love her in return. But then he does fall in love with her, so she falls out of love with him, so he decides to kill himself to prove his love and every other student decides to as well, and the book just gets insane. Besides Zuleika’s magic tricks there is strange magic at work, pearls change color to reflect the love or loss of love of their wearer, birds foretell death. Beerbohm was a friend of Oscar Wilde and it shows- it is impeccably written, every word is perfection. Sometimes the word choices were simply breathtaking. It reminds me of Evelyn Waugh, one of my absolute favorite authors, and that really is one of the highest compliments I can give.
The moon, like a gardenia in the night’s button-hole- but no! Why should a writer never be able to mention the moon without likening her to something else- usually something to which she bears not the faintest resemblance?.. The moon, looking like nothing whatsoever but herself, was engaged in her old and futile endeavor to mark the hours correctly on the sun-dial at the centre of the lawn. Never, except one, late one night in the eighteenth century, when the toper who was Sub-Warden had spent an hour in trying to set his watch here, had she received the slightest encouragement. Still she wanly persisted.
That makes nine books in May and 2220 pages. That’s the smallest page count so far this year, which I attribute to my focus being mainly on getting school ready and that I’m still in the middle of both The Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, both of which are insanely long. So there are pages that have been read but not counted.
Right now I’m reading The Night Gardenerby Jonathan Auxier (who wrote Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, after which I will immediately purchase ANYTHING he writes), and it is spooky and atmospheric and lovely. I’m halfway through and have to finish so it doesn’t creep me out tonight like it did last night. I’ll review it next week.
What are you reading?