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Miss Pym Disposes

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Miss Pym Disposes etcMiss Pym Disposes
by Josephine Tey

I always thought it was a pity that there are only a small handful of mystery novels by the wonderfully quirky and unique Tey. I can’t pigeonhole her into any standard category. What she writes aren’t strictly detective stories, nor really always even mysteries in a strict sense. Three of her best are in this volume — But then, her other “best” are not in this volume — or maybe they’re all the best —

Anyway, I’ve been re-reading Miss Pym Disposes, and remembering all over again how much I enjoy a Tey novel.  If I’d never read any of them, I suppose I’d find the bare description of this one unpromising. Miss Pym, the author of a popular book on psychology, is a guest at a school run by an old friend. The school is a specialized college for sports trainers, physical therapists, orthopedic clinicians, and others studying for careers that deal with the human body without being directly in the traditional fields of the M. D. Amid classes on Anatomy, Physiology, Kinesiology, and Pathology, Miss Pym has been invited to give a few lectures on Psychology. She finds the atmosphere of the school an interesting cross-section of human personality, a field for her to study, and settles in to observe the teachers, students, and other visitors. For about three-quarters of the book, that’s all that’s going on — simply a detailed study of the personalities in this college as they play off each other in the small jostlings of daily life.

Only near the very end does it gradually dawn on Miss Pym that the tragic accidental death of a student may not have been entirely an accident. At that point, the horror of the situation overshadows her. How could it be, that in this sunny, healthy, ordinary school setting, so much envy, jealousy, and ambition may have led one student to a reckless act that cost another girl’s life? But the evidence is so slight, the possibility that death wasn’t the intended result, the possibility that she is entirely mistaken and the whole thing really was an accident after all — these doubts and dilemmas keep Miss Pym in a turmoil as the story nears its end. Finally, when Miss Pym has done the best she could, certain that she knows what happened and that she understands why, confident that she has arranged a solution which may save a tortured soul — then, in the last two pages of the book, in a twist of viewpoint which twists the reader along with Miss Pym, comes the realization that nothing is what it had seemed. Miss Pym understands suddenly that she had misunderstood the whole thing.

She would give up lecturing on psychology. What did she know about psychology anyhow? As a psychologist she was a first-rate teacher of French. She could write a book about character as betrayed by facial characteristics. At least she had been right about that. Mostly.

Yet the interesting thing about this book is that the observations of people and their characteristics, the dissection of what makes them tick, are so intelligently noticed and considered all through. There is a sense in which Miss Pym is a fine psychologist, in her own way. If there is a warning here, it’s certainly not a warning against observing people, or drawing conclusions from what we observe. But in the end, it is a warning not to place absolute confidence in the rightness of our own conclusions to the point that we feel empowered to “play God”, because we are also as human and fallible as those we are observing.  One of the most interesting conversations in the book takes place between Miss Pym and a young man visiting his girl at the school, and that conversation is what always ends up sticking in my memory every time I finish this book.

“I have to do something that is right,” she said slowly, “and I’m afraid of the consequences.”
“Consequences to you?”
“No. To other people.”
“Never mind; do it.”
Miss Pym put plates of cakes on a tray. “You see, the proper thing is not necessarily the right thing. Or do I mean the opposite?”
“I’m not sure that I know what you mean at all.”
“Well — there are those awful dilemmas about whom would you save. You know. If you knew that by saving a person from the top of a snow slide you would start an avalanche that would destroy a village, would you do it? That sort of thing.”
“Of course I would do it.”
“You would?”
“The avalanche might bury a village without killing a cat — shall I put some sandwiches on that tray? — so you would be one life to the good.”
“You would always do the right thing, and let the consequences take care of themselves?”
“That’s about it.”
“It is certainly the simplest. In fact I think it’s too simple.”
“Unless you plan to play God, one has to take the simple way.”

The world is never a simple place — and people are not simple to understand. But once we begin seeing the complexity of it all, we could be overwhelmed and afraid to make any move at all for fear of the unfathomable potential repercussions. What else can we do, confronted with the dizzying confusion of life, but try to walk a straight path as simply as we can see the way, and leave the rest to God?

Station Eleven

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Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

Something a bit different, for a change. This novel is set in a not-too-distant future after a pandemic has reduced the world’s population so dramatically that our technology-based society has given way to a simpler subsistence existence.  Yet the whole point of the story is that subsistence is never enough. Human beings always have a longing inside us for meaningful creativity. And so, through the small roadside villages of survivors, there travels a symphony orchestra and theatrical troupe.

The plot of this book meanders back and forth in time, all over the globe, and through a wide collection of loosely-connected lives. There isn’t really a tightly organized plot, in the end. What stays in my mind isn’t the specific details of who did what when, but rather an overall impression of an idea, lit up in flashes of remembered passing encounters.

In the pre-pandemic world, so technological and frenetic and confusing, the creative impulse and the search for meaning were always there, but they were often difficult to see clearly in all the bustle of other activity. A businesswoman writing comic-book novels as her outlet for something in her that needed expression. A bored paparazzo, seeking a more purposeful life as a medic. An actor who has been trapped in his role as a movie star, trying to get back to the art he first had loved on a stage.

During the years after the collapse, it seemed at first as though a stripped-down basic survival was the only life to be lived. But humans can’t live that way. And so, all around, the activities that make us truly human begin to happen. Musicians pick up their instruments. Actors take to the stage. In one town, a man starts writing and distributing a newspaper. A community living in an abandoned airport terminal sets aside one room as a history museum. A musician turns to writing a play. If it’s impossible to live without food and water and air, then it’s also impossible to live without something more than all that. If we are made in the image of a creator God, then we must be creators, too, somehow.

At the end of the book, there is a suggestion that someone, in a distant settlement, has re-started technology. There are electric lights out there. At first, we are leery of this development, remembering the frenetic technological life that crowded creativity and pushed it into sidelines. But on second thought, we remember that for some person, this electrical experimentation was also a form of creative exploration. And we remember that a new generation has grown up in the twenty years since the old world collapsed. We assume that they will simply copy the world we once knew. But why should they? More likely that they will follow a new path of their own. Maybe the new society will use technology differently. After all, the human race has rediscovered the pleasures of creative endeavor in a more bare-bones world. With that memory so fresh and near, something interesting is bound to result.

The Good Thief

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Good ThiefThe Good Thief
by Hannah Tinti

My sister always used to send me souvenirs evocative of the places she visited — pressed sagebrush from Anasazi, shells from Vero Beach, a jar of water from the Seine. On her first trip to Ireland, maybe 15 years ago, she sent me a stone that she picked up on the shores of Lough Leane, a gray stone with a white seam encircling it. About ten years afterwards, I read The Good Thief for the first time. To the boys in this book, collecting pebbles in Saint Anthony’s orphanage, a stone encircled by a white ring is considered a wishing stone. I still have my Irish wishing stone sitting on the ledge of a bookshelf in my bedroom. Now, whenever I look at it, it makes me think not only of my sister and of Ireland, but also of this book that I love so well, and of all the thoughts it brings to my mind.

The plot and storytelling style are reminiscent of Dickens or Stevenson, two authors who have always been favorites with me. Tinti tells of Ren, a New England orphan boy in some unnamed year and town of the early 19th century. Ren has always lived with the monks of Saint Anthony’s since he was abandoned at their gate as a baby. His odds of ever being adopted are small, because he is missing a hand, lost in some unknown accident of his infancy. One day, a man claiming to be his older brother arrives to take him away, with a story of parents massacred in the same Indian attack that cut off Ren’s hand. Once Ren begins his travels with Benjamin Nab, however, and hears in rapid succession several other versions of his past, he realizes that Benjamin is a con man and thief, a teller of lies to suit any occasion, and that the story of their common family is a complete fiction. Benjamin chose Ren because his missing hand makes him a very effective “prop” in various con jobs, eliciting sympathy from Benjamin’s marks and suckers. Joined by Benjamin’s alcoholic buddy Tom, the trio set off across the New England countryside to live by lying, stealing, and swindling, with some turns into patent medicine sales and finally grave-robbing and body-snatching.

All of this makes the book sound dark and depressing, imprisoning a reader in the worst side of human nature. But surprisingly, it’s exactly the opposite. The mood of the book is one of buoyancy, of something eternally struggling to rise up out of the darkness into the light. It seems to affirm that the worth of every person, no matter how damaged and broken by the world, is beyond destruction, lying in a place that can always be seen by eyes that look with compassion and humility. Friendship and love can open closed doors, pity and loyalty can light the dark places, repentance and forgiveness can heal deep wounds. When I get to the end of this book, every time I’ve read it, I feel lifted up to see the bigger picture, above the dark details that tangle my feet and make me stumble.

There’s a scene in this book that took my breath away the first time I read it, and it still rings true. Ren has been invited to climb up the chimney to the hut on the roof, where the landlady’s bitter brother, a dwarf, lives a hermit’s life. When he arrives on the roof, Ren can see the entire town and surrounding countryside, including the places with dark memories.

The air was clearer here, the taste not as rancid as on the street. Ren thought of all he had done since he had left Saint Anthony’s, every step that had brought him to this place. Spread out before him, both the town and his own past seemed less frightening. Everything was better, Ren realized, when you looked down on it from above.

One of the recurring references in the novel is to the legend of Saint Anthony, finder of what is lost, who climbed towards wisdom and perspective from his perch in a tree. Ren’s lost past, his missing hand, his search for family, all connect with that hunger to find the lost. But also, there’s a sense of people themselves being lost. There is the lost-ness of their landlady Mrs. Sands, deaf and widowed, still listening for her husband buried under the earth in a mine collapse. There is the lost-ness of her brother the dwarf, rejected by society, rejecting society in turn. There’s the lostness of Dolly, a murderer-for-hire who can’t believe that he was made for anything but killing, buried alive only to be resurrected bewilderingly by grave-robbers. There’s the lost-ness of the mousetrap-factory girls, unwanted orphans whose lives seem made for nothing but daily labor at the assembly line. There’s the lost-ness of Tom, unable to escape the guilt for his friend’s suicide, lost in alcohol and cynicism. There’s the lost-ness of Benjamin, an always-chameleon, living so many lies and tall tales that his real self is so far buried as to almost no longer exist.

What does it take for all the lost people to stop being lost? What is it that finds us and saves us? I see two different answers running through the book, like two strands that twist together. One is human connection. At one point, Benjamin tells Ren, “You just can’t go around taking care of people. They’ll grow to depend on you, and then you won’t be able to leave them when you have to.” So many of the characters in this book have cast themselves adrift from other people as a sort of self-protection. Yet the more they separate themselves, thinking to be safer, the more lost and vulnerable they become. Only when they reach out to one another, open their eyes and see, listen and care, do they find the healing that had been eluding them in their self-sufficiency. Ren accepts responsibility for Dolly, Mrs Sands for her brother and for her tenants, Ren and Dolly for Mrs Sands when she is sick. When Tom brings Ren’s two friends Brom and Ichy from the orphanage and announces himself their new father, he is reconnecting with the human race in a life-giving plunge. When the mousetrap girl Ren had known only as “the harelip” risks herself to rescue him, Ren sees her as a person for the first time, and asks her name — Jenny.

The other strand of the life-saving rope in this book is repentance. When we see with new eyes, realize that we have done something wrong, and openly confess it, we are liberated from a prison. Truth does, indeed, set us free. When Ren abandoned Dolly in the graveyard after the bothched grave-robbery, he felt guilty about it. Yet the next time he met Dolly, he first attempted to explain, to excuse himself, to win Dolly’s forgiveness without confessing himself wrong. Dolly remained distant, until Ren suddenly surrendered to the truth. “You’re right. I left you. I’m sorry.” Those simple words were the words of healing. Similarly, when Mrs Sands returns from the hospital to find her house a wreck, when she begins lambasting them all with her broom, Ren’s first reaction is to skip away, to avoid punishment, to offer excuses. But when at last, he knelt before her and accepted the broom-lashing, apologizing and promising to stay and put the house to rights, there was also a sense of a relationship being put to rights.

In the end, Ren does find his family — but not the family he was looking for. The owner of the mousetrap factory had devoted his energy to ridding the world of unwanted creatures, but here we see the unwanted ones, the people the world had rejected as misfits, accepting and protecting each other. Tom, Brom and Ichy, Mrs Sands and her brother, Jenny and the other mousetrap girls, Dolly — even the resistant Benjamin who continues his flight out of the story — all the people Ren has accepted as dependents, all the people he has allowed himself to be dependent on — all the people he can’t just leave behind — are his family.

I’ve loved this book since I first read it, and tomorrow night I’ll finally get to discuss it with others who have read it, as the women of my book club have made it this month’s choice. Looking forward to seeing what fresh insights they will give me.

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

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Minor Adjustment Beauty SalonThe Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon
by Alexander McCall Smith

“Oh, look, a new Mma Ramotswe book!” This series is a quirky favorite of mine and my dad’s, so a new one is always going to be a shared read-aloud. We’ve been puttering our way happily through this latest installment whenever I’ve had a free afternoon for the past couple of weeks. Both of us have concluded with a solid “thumbs-up”.

Recommending this series to friends who haven’t heard of it, we always have some puzzlement when we try to categorize it. Technically, it’s in the Mystery genre. But it’s not really what people expect from a traditional mystery. It’s about a private detective agency, but Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi bear no resemblance to Sam Spade or Kinsey Milhone. Their cases generally don’t involve gangsters or killers, but ordinary people with something troubling or disturbing them. Why is my business suddenly falling off? Can I trust this employee? Where is my wife/husband/child sneaking off to and why? Is this really my long-lost relative or an impostor?

The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency of Botswana approaches a new case by doing nothing for a few days. These two women drink tea, run errands, deal with daily life, and allow the official problem to simmer on a back burner. They discuss it between themselves, or think it over in private, rather than rushing right in with a Plan. Meanwhile, the ideas steep silently like tea. Eventually, they pay visits, ask questions, gather gossip, and then return to the office to drink more tea and ponder the new information. Occasionally, the ladies find themselves involved in wrangling and unpleasantness. Rarely, they even find themselves in some danger. But their aim is to bring peace of mind and correctness to the world, not to stir up trouble.

They are a gentle detective agency and they take a gentle approach to solving their clients’ problems. An ideal solution, as they conceive it, isn’t the arrest and punishment of a criminal, but the righting of a wrong situation. If someone has done something to cause harm, he must be brought to see this, and to make amends. If someone has been wrongly suspected, she must be cleared and given an apology. If a truth hidden has caused festering bitterness, it is better confessed and the air cleared. If a secret revealed would hurt people without helping anyone, it is better off forgotten. This is not police justice, but motherly justice, dispensed with love and a sense of humor.

In resolving the case of the nephew who wasn’t a nephew, Mma Makutsi remarks, “He is going through life not knowing who he really is.” To this, Mma Ramotswe reflects in return, “He thinks he knows, and surely that’s what counts. We need a story about ourselves, but does it really matter whether it’s a true one or it has been made up?” Considering this, Mma Makutsi asks, “You mean as long as we believe it ourselves?” These women would say that Facts, while an important start towards truth, are not sufficient to reveal the entire truth. The whole Truth may also include a dollop of mystery unresolved.

The distance between their work and their own lives is small. Much of each book is occupied with the problems of ordinary life. What should be done about Phuti’s annoying aunt? What about Mr. Matekoni’s shiftless apprentice Charlie? Or Mma Ramotswe’s abusive ex-husband? The same approach that the detectives bring to their clients’ problems is brought to their own. The same help they give to their clients is also given to each other. Reading these books, I see that all of life may be like a troubling mystery. Solving the many puzzles we meet each day may begin with something as simple as sitting down to drink tea with friends, letting the situation simmer awhile, searching for healing compromises rather than demanding  judgments and sentences.

A friend with whom we may simply sit and talk things over is shown to be beyond valuing. There’s a scene in this book in which Mma Ramotswe pays a visit to Mma Makutsi’s house after a heavy rain. The road is a sea of mud, so she must remove her shoes to wade through it,  as they are being sucked into the deep mud. When she reaches the porch with muddy feet, her friend fetches a basin of water and a towel, and settles in to wash her visitor’s feet.

Mma Ramotswe felt the warm embrace of the water and the slippery caress of the soap. The intimacy of the situation impressed itself upon her, that an old friend — and that was how she looked at Mma Makutsi — should do this for you was strangely moving. ‘Washing the feet of another’, she thought. She tried to remember if any other friend had done this for her. She thought not; and she had not done it for another. People were used to doing these things for children — washing them, changing them, tending to their physical needs — but one so easily forgot what it was to do this for another adult, or to have it done for you.”

The sense of appreciation for a gift is never far from the surface in these books. These are characters who are awake to blessings and ready to rejoice in all of them, no matter how small and ordinary. Mma Ramotswe’s little white van, Mma Makutsi’s blue suede shoes, Mma Potakwane’s fruitcake, a cup of tea, a shady tree, the smell of rain — little things that make a day pleasant — are worth celebrating. If even these small things are received with gratitude and awareness, then the truly great blessings — a loving spouse, children, good friends and neighbors, the beauty of the whole world — are ready to receive the attention they deserve.

In the end, what matters most is our community with each other. Humans are all one family at our most basic, but we too often forget to see this. As Mma Ramotswe says,

“At the end of the day, Mma Makutsi, aren’t we all the same? Aren’t we simply people? Aren’t we all distant cousins from long, long ago?”

The Snow Child

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Snow ChildThe Snow Child
by Eowyn Ivey

It’s that time of year again — time for “All Rochester Reads the Same Book”. This year’s selection was a wonderful choice, a novel soaked in both frontier history and folklore, with a strong dose of poetry as relish. This one’s right in there on my short list of “All Rochester Reads” favorites. I know I’ll end up re-reading it, because my mind isn’t really finished with it yet.

On the historical side, it’s a novel about the Alaska wilderness in the early part of the 20th century. Mabel and Jack are a couple in their 40’s, recently come to Alaska from a Pennsylvania farm to take up a homestead. Their land is uncleared spruce forest, with only a handful of neighbors, and the nearest town a two-hour wagon ride away. The book very vividly creates a sense of the immense size, the wildness, the untamable forces of nature, from the spring mud to the summer mosquitoes to the winter darkness and cold. The vast silence out there impressed me from the beginning, as though the silence is a force to be reckoned with as much as anything more tangible.

The story has another side — drawn from those old European folk tales we love so well. There once was an old man and an old woman who had no children. So they built a child out of snow, and she came to life and became their daughter. In the end, though, they lost her again, though the story has varied endings. Sometimes she becomes mortal for love and dies, sometimes she returns to the snow because they failed to respect the magical rules. This old story comes creeping out of the Alaskan wilderness of forest and mountain on a dark winter night, carrying memories from other wild forests and mountains long ago and far away. In the world of the 20th century, a world of rationalism and modernity, fairy tales are stranger than ever, and harder to accept.

Mabel is eager to believe in the magical reality of Faina the snow girl, while Jack is almost offended by these whiffs of the mysterious. He must follow the child to her den, expose her reality. Yet strangely enough, once Jack has discovered the ordinary explanation of Faina’s story, once he has helped her to bury the frozen body of her drunken father, he is less able to dismiss her otherworldliness.  Instead of diminishing Faina to the size of an ordinary flesh-and-blood child in Jack’s eyes, the truth rather enlarges her in his awe and respect. Where Mabel sees a magical girl made out of wind and snowflakes, Jack sees a wild forest creature in human shape. He accepts Faina to come and go as she pleases, trusting that she can take care of herself as effectively as the red fox who is her companion.

Later in the story, when Mabel discovers Faina’s back-story, which Jack had never talked about until then, the revelation of Faina’s ordinary humanity shatters Mabel’s superstitions and fancies about the child’s origin. Mabel sees Faina as any ordinary child, a girl to be properly dressed and fed and sent to school. It’s at this point in the story that I first began to realize that Jack was actually seeing the marvellous in ways Mabel wasn’t. Jack couldn’t see sending this child to school, but not because he had ever believed her to be a “snow fairy”. He saw a magic of wildness in her, so that it seemed as strange to talk of sending her to school as it would be to send the red fox to school.

Yet, throughout this dreamlike story of a wild child come in from the snow, there is also simultaneously another story being told. Jack’s inability to work the homestead alone, especially after he injures his back, brings in the practical help of friendly neighbors. George and Esther have a houseful of sons, and the generous hearts so often met with in accounts of frontier community. Their youngest boy, Garrett, is feeling overwhelmed and overlooked in his mess of older brothers, so the chance to live at the neighbors’ place for a few months and lend a hand with the work is an escape for him. As the years pass, as Garrett becomes Jack’s right arm, imperceptible growth of understanding and affection gradually blossoms into something like family. He becomes like a son to Jack and Mabel, so that it seems only natural when they make him a partner in their homestead, to be their heir when they are gone. This story of how the childless couple found a son is like a parallel story to their relationship with their flitting wild daughter.

The stories of these two children weave together, mirroring and diverging. Like Faina, Garrett is at home in the woods, fishing and trapping. Like her, he is unhappy if he is trapped in chafing civilization for too long. But Garrett’s affection for family and friends makes him more tolerant of civilized ties. He is willing to tackle the burdens that come with farming a homestead, so long as he can get out onto his trap lines for a few weeks in the winter, or go on a weekend fishing trip into the mountains. Faina’s spirit is much more restless, much quicker to break for escape, more untamed. It seems inevitable that these two should fall in love, as though the fates in the old folk tale insisted on their place in a modern setting. Yet, even as the love story blossomed, there was a sense that it couldn’t work, that not even Garrett could hold a wild thing like Faina in his hands for very long.

Sadness and happiness are twined together throughout the book in such mutual necessity that they can’t be pulled apart. The book opens with a chapter describing Mabel’s walk across a frozen river, a description full of such exquisite attentiveness to the details of creation’s precious beauty that the reason for Mabel’s walk seems all the more unreal. She has a death-wish when she begins the walk, wondering with each step when the ice will give way, when she will slide beneath it like the leaf she sees in the swiftly-flowing stream beneath its glassy surface. Later, Jack’s exhaustion and despair eat away at his sense of worth, as he lies helpless with a busted back, crying to Mabel to leave him. Yet somehow, life and love keep bubbling up as the irrepressible green growth that follows winter. Jack and Mabel dance in the kitchen, Jack and Faina make snow angels in the yard, Mabel and Esther gossip with laughter and friendship, and the smell of baking pies fills the little cabin, along with the blood and feathers of dead chickens. As the years pass, as sorrows drown life, and as life rises again, a sort of resiliance reveals itself. Life and death, sorrow and joy, dance together as intimately as Jack and Mabel danced in the kitchen.

Mabel’s sister Ada, in a letter to Mabel, writes at one point about the old Snow Child folktale: “Why these stories for children always have to turn out so dreadfully is beyond me. I think if I ever tell it to my grandchildren, I will change the ending and have everyone live happily ever after. We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?

A bit later, Mabel reflects on this question. “She would think of Faina running through the trees with the wild fox at her heels, and of Garrett with his steel traps and snares, and she would wonder if one can truly stop the inevitable. Was it as Ada suggested, that we can choose our own endings, joy over sorrow? Or does the cruel world just give and take, give and take, while we flounder through the wilderness?

By the end of the book, there is a sense that the answer is a bit of both. The give and take of joy and sorrow comes and goes all our days, and we have no choice there. But at the same time, there is a choice in the way we see the pattern. The given gifts of life are always there, along with their eventual taking-away. Looking always at what has been taken keeps us from seeing what is being given. At the end of the book, Faina is gone, and sadness is always part of that fact. But sadness need not be bitterness.  Little Jack is there, looking for his own adventure of life to begin. Jack and Mabel and Garrett and Little Jack keep on living, finding the little gifts of each day.

Parnassus on Wheels

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Parnassus on WheelsParnassus on Wheels
by Christopher Morley

This was one of Grandma’s favorites, and it still has a sweet aroma of Grandma in it for me. I like it myself for its good cheer, good sense, and good comradeship. It’s a book about books, finding a place for them in lives occupied with the daily round of chores and cares.

Helen McGill, the narrator, is an unmarried middle-aged woman keeping house for her brother Andrew, a New England farmer who has unexpectedly written a best-seller about the joys of country life. Since his book came along, Andrew has been less interested in the joys of farming, leaving Helen to attend to the practical side of daily life while he basks in the glow of being a minor Thoreau.  Helen is willing to admit that her brother’s book is actually a nice little thing, in its way, but the effects of fame on her brother’s personality are not.

One day, as she is on her way to the woodpile, she meets an unexpected visitor, driving a curious peddler’s wagon. The sign on the wagon advertises  “R. Mifflin’s Travelling Parnassus”.  Roger Mifflin is a red-bearded little firecracker of a man who sells books. But he’s more than a peddler — he’s a sort of missionary.  As he says, “When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue–you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night–there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.”  Mr. Mifflin is out to change the world, one book and one reader at a time.  

He has been on the road for seven years now, and while he has had the time of his life and enjoyed every moment of it, he’s ready to sell the shebang and settle down. Might Andrew be interested in buying it? Helen is dismayed at putting such temptation in Andrew’s way. But she is also intrigued despite herself — “I’m not literary, but I’m human enough to like a good book, and my eye was running along those shelves of his as I spoke. He certainly had a pretty miscellaneous collection. I noticed poetry, essays, novels, cook books, juveniles, school books, Bibles, and what not—all jumbled together.” Before she knows what she’s doing or why, she offers to buy it herself —  “I don’t know whether it was the neatness of his absurd little van, or the madness of the whole proposition, or just the desire to have an adventure of my own … but anyway, some extraordinary impulse seized me… “Right!” I said. “I’ll do it.” Mifflin agrees to travel with her for the first couple of days and teach her the ropes of the business.  And so they’re off!

The rest of this little book is the rollicking road trip of this odd couple through the New England countryside, their adventures in the book-peddling trade, their efforts to throw off pursuit by Andrew, and their growing affection for each other.  I love their conversations along the road, the counterpoint between Mifflin’s zealous excitement and Helen’s homespun practicality.  I always laugh at the comedy, but I’m also nodding and murmuring “Amen!” at so many pithy little nuggets of truth.

And I’m ready to stand up and yelp “Hurray” when Helen finally tells off her brother — “Now see here Andrew,” I said, “a woman of forty who has compiled an anthology of 6,000 loaves of bread and dedicated it to you deserves some courtesy. When you want to run off on some vagabond tour or other you don’t hesitate to do it. You expect me to stay home and do the Lady Eglantine in the poultry yard. By the ghost of Susan B. Anthony, I won’t do it! This is the first real holiday I’ve had in fifteen years, and I’m going to suit myself. I bought this Parnassus from Mr. Mifflin fair and square for four hundred dollars. That’s the price of about thirteen hundred dozen eggs. The money’s mine, and I’m going to use it my own way. Now, Andrew McGill, if you want to buy any books, you can parley with me. Otherwise, I’m on my way. You can expect me back when you see me.”

For such a short book, it’s irresistably quotable! Some favorites —

  • It’s all right for college presidents to draw up their five-foot shelves of great literature, and for the publishers to advertise sets of their Linoleum Classics, but what the people need is the good, homely, honest stuff–something that’ll stick to their ribs–make them laugh and tremble and feel sick to think of the littleness of this popcorn ball spinning in space.
  • What absurd victims of contrary desires we are! If a man is settled in one place he yearns to wander; when he wanders he yearns to have a home. And yet all the great things in life are done by discontented people…When God at first made man (says George Herbert) He had a “glass of blessings standing by.” So He pours on man all the blessings in His reservoir: strength, beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure—and then He refrains from giving him the last of them, which is rest, i.e., contentment. God sees that if man is contented he will never win his way to Him.

  • My favorite Christopher Morley quote of them all is actually not from this book, but from the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop — (the further adventures of Roger and Helen Mifflin, now married and operating a bookstore) — “It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside-down now and then, like an hour-glass, to let the particles run the other way.”  (And now I have a hankering to go re-read that book, too.)

Into the Beautiful North

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Into the Beautiful NorthInto the Beautiful North
by Luis Alberto Urrea

This was this year’s choice for the annual “If All Rochester read the Same Book” event. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable books to come out of this project in a few years. It was an unexpectedly funny tale of a road trip across North America. A group of young people from a small Mexican town, disturbed by the incusions of drug-lords’ bandits into their town, are inspired by a viewing of the movie The Magnificent Seven with the idea of going to the United States to bring back their missing menfolks. The resulting adventures are in classic “quest” tradition, with excitement and danger, love and romance, rollicking ridiculousness and eye-opening encounters with strangers and friends.

There are some books that grab me right from page one, and this was that kind of book. By the time I got through the second paragraph, I’d already said, “oh, yes, I’m gonna like this.” Here, try this sample taste from the first page yourself :

  • “Nobody in the village liked change. It had taken great civic upheaval to bring electricity to Tres Camarones, for example…It took the visionary mayor, Garcia-Garcia the first, to see the potential in electrical power…Still, there were holdouts…Such stalwarts relied on candles, kerosene lamps, and small bonfires in the street. These blazes, though festive, blocked the scant traffic and the trucks bearing beer and sides of beef, and Garcia-Garcia had to resort to the apocalyptic stratagem of banning street fires entirely. Denounced as an Antichrist, he was promptly defeated in the next election. Later, he was reelected: even if his policies had been too modernizing for some, the residents of Tres Camarones realized that a new mayor meant change, and change was the last thing they wanted. Progress might be inevitable, but there was no reason they should knuckle under without a fight.”

 Well? Doesn’t that opening whet your appetite for the rest of the story? Of course it does!

One of the residents of this change-resistant village is 19-year-old Nayeli, dreaming of faraway places while waiting tables at the local diner. The diner is owned by Tacho, a gay man who calls his diner an “internet cafe” courtesy of a single old laptop abandoned by a visiting Yankee missionary. Nayeli’s father left for “Los Yunaides” three years ago and never returned, leaving Nayeli with a postcard from Kankakee, Illinois as her only clue to his whereabouts. Looking around the village, she realizes that her father isn’t the only missing man. In fact, there are no men left in town except the very old. This vacuum presents an opportunity for women like Nayeli’s Aunt Irma, the “she-bear”, a local hero for her legendary prowess as a bowling champion, who has become the town’s first female mayor.

While the absence of the men has opened the doors for women to use their talents in civic life, it also leaves the town vulnerable to predators. When the elderly ex-mayor shows up on Aunt Irma’s doorstep with a bloody nose and the news that two bandidos have just turned him out of his own house, the solution is obvious. Nayeli will lead an expedition into the United States, vowing to return with their own “magnificent seven”, the men they hope will turn away the bad guys. She will be accompanied by her two girfriend comrades, the imaginative bookish Yolo and the eccentric goth-gal Vampi, and by Nayeli’s boss Tacho. Along the way, the group also picks up Atomiko, a wild-eyed would-be samurai who rescues Nayeli from thugs in a Tijuana garbage dump.

I love to read about people who stick together in love and friendship, and this strangely-assorted quintet of travelers does exactly that. They always “have each other’s backs”, somehow, even when they tease and complain and tire each other out. Their reliance on each other is sometimes all they have, when luggage is lost and money stolen and the roadblocks along the way seem staggering. There are the garbage-dump zombies from whom Atomiko rescues Nayeli. There’s the frightening night in a sleazy hotel when the group must fight off drunks who invade their room in the wee hours. There’s the stomach-churning episode where Tacho is arrested by Border Patrol agents who mistakenly thought they heard him mention Al-Quaida when he was referring to his cafe “El Mano Caida” back home.

But there are also incidents of belly-laugh comedy and moving human connection. They track down Aunt Irma’s long-lost lover, recruiting him to join the quest, and ultimately reuniting him with Aunt Irma. They find a temporary home with the handsome ex-missionary, original owner of Tacho’s computer, with whom all three girls are temporarily besotted. They enjoy an unexpectedly warm welcome from a colony of homeless squatters in a cemetery, who generously share everything they have, along with laughter and dancing, and another warm welcome from a librarian in Kankakee, who goes out of her way to make them feel at home in the American Midwest. The kindness of human beings for each other seems more powerful than the meanness. The goodness will, somehow, last longer and make more difference than the pettiness.

The book ends with the triumphal return of a “magnificent twenty-seven” marching into Tres Camarones. Their ultimate showdown with the banditos is left to the imagination of the reader. But somehow, describing it would have been superfluous, because the battle isn’t really what the book is all about. It’s about the journey, and about the friendships that sustain us along the road.

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