Friday, March 09, 2007

Light(Headed) Reading

Now that I'm all better... As much as I like my history, business, and self-improvement books, I must admit there are times when I don’t want to be intellectually challenged by what I read. And I don't really want anything new, either. I want to be soothed and comforted by easy, familiar stories. Thus, when I am sick, I put the usual fare to one side and go to a special storage box I have that’s full of battered paperbacks of a certain flavor.

Trash! Trash and children’s books. Okay, maybe trash is a little harsh. Take Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters) – she’s has written dozens of fun, fluffy mystery novels and I’ve read every damn one of them. And loved them. She’s still cranking them out too, and I have nothing but respect for her, she’s a craftswoman. Would that I could produce so consistently for so long.

A lot of the earlier ones read as pretty dated now, but that only adds to their Scooby-Doo-episode charm.

“Look, everyone, it’s not a ghost at all, it’s Old Man Henderson, the curmudgeonly caretaker, dressed up in a sheet!”

“Darn you kids! I’d of gotten away with the secret treasure if it hadn’t been for you!”

That kind of thing. It’s perfect, not-at-all-taxing entertainment for the girl doing Robitussin shooters.

Now, Valley of the Dolls is trash. Really great trash. Naturally I wouldn’t stoop to read recently-published novels like this (yeah right), but the mega-best-sellers of yesteryear (1966, to be exact) acquire a certain patina. It was old when I first read it, and I dig it out about every five years or so. And I’ve read not only this, but all of Jacqueline Susann’s other novels too, most of which aren’t nearly as good. The Love Machine is fun, but the rest of them? Don’t bother.

I love Agatha Christie books. Everyone is so mannered and so jaunty. Hercule Poirot is my favorite, although Miss Marple is okay too. (Knowing my taste for old English homicide, Monk brought me the Father Brown omnibus, which I've only just started. It seems delightful so far.) But I've read all the Christies, (yes, even the boring Tommy & Tuppence ones) and I love the fact that I now get all the period references. There's a lot of in-jokes you miss, unless you know a fair amount about the era. Sure, okay, the "mysteries" are not exactly dense, I know. If I wanted dense, I'd read Umberto Eco. But Dame Christie, you can follow her along just fine even with a couple degrees of fever.

Then there’s the other school of comfort reading: books from your childhood. I had a lot of favorite books when I was a kid, but I’m sure no author would be more horrified by having me for a fan than the saintly Lucy Maud Montgomery. Mrs Montgomery was the creator of the Anne Of Green Gables books, in which no one cursed, vomited, or had a thought about anything below their waist, ever, ever, ever. I’m not even sure any of those characters had legs, actually. The “Anne” books are in all ways a classic rendering of the late-Victorian ideals of how women, children, and – to some degree – men should think, feel and be. (The men kinda get a pass, though, because there aren’t very many developed adult- male characters in the Anne books. I mean, Matthew dies at the end of the first one, and we never get to know Gilbert very well, do we?)

I think the reason why the reason why the sanitized, saccharine-sweet, lily-white domestic adventures of little Anne and her family please me is that Mrs. Montgomery has a gift for capturing the rhythms of trivial, workaday dialogue and storytelling between rural people, especially women. I’ll forgive a book a lot if, when I read conversations, the sound and the texture of them seem so real to me that I can imagine people I know having them. In this case, the people would be my grandmothers and aunts, when I was a child. Not my own mother – she was always a bit too urban/New Age to be talking about sewing and babies and did you hear what that naughty Nelson boy did? But even though they are widely separated by both time and space, the country women of my family sound very much like the wives and mothers of Avonlea. And when you’re sick, there’s nothing like a little visit from your family to make you feel better.

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