Book lover is a staple part of my self-description, but in 2015 I didn't love them enough to actually read one. Right, all year long, not one book start to finish. No time to read, too busy "reinventing" myself as a Computer Science instructor. A half-hour turning pages could be a half-hour grading programs, preparing lesson plans.
My pen pal is a stark contrast. She describes herself a library devotee, and her late night email sign-offs say she's reading her book, then going to sleep. She just finished The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, a dystopian fantasy set in the far Earth future. She started Infinite Jest, by DFW of course, a dystopian literary landmark set in a recognizable version of our North America. Seems like a life of exquisite luxury, and accessible to anyone with a library card who is ready let go of exhaustion as their primary status symbol.
I am ready, but need the right sort of book: serious enough to be interesting, but without so much time required in any one sitting that I push the survival mode panic button. In 2014, Tom Parker, writer and creative writing teacher, recommended a novel called Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell. It's composed of short vignettes — imagine a picture emerging from disparate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle — so it qualifies in the short-sitting department. Then this Spring's edition of the Threepenny Review (lit mag out of Berkeley) contained a few paragraphs contrasting Evan Connell with Allen Ginsberg, claiming Evan had the more persuasive critique of what the great Beat poet scorned as bourgeois complacency; so certainly serious enough to be interesting. And importantly, only an iBooks download away.
For a week, in the 15 minutes between bed time and sleep, I've been swiping through a vignette or two. Proud to say I'm up to chapter 27, "Sentimental Moment," page 94 out of 341 — Mrs. Bridge wants their dreams back, while Mr. Bridge wants the car lubricated.
Mrs. Bridge does cast a discerning eye on race and gender, among other vast topics. But when it was published in 1959, segregation was the law in the south, and women with careers and education were novelties. One reason to read it is for perspective on what has and hasn't changed.
Here's Connell on race. Mrs. Bridge's young daughter Carolyn is good friends with Alice Jones, the daughter of her black gardener. Alice is the more dynamic of the two, always coming up with fun ideas, like taking apart phonographs cabinets so they can talk to the little people inside. Mrs. Bridge decides she needs to intervene, so Carolyn will understand that their friendship can't last past grade school. Alice is bright, and the next time she comes over to hang with Carolyn, Mrs. Bridge delivers her message indirectly:
About ten o’clock both of them came into the kitchen for a bottle of soda pop and wanted to know what there would be for lunch.
“Corky is having creamed tuna on toast and spinach,” said Mrs. Bridge pleasantly.
Alice observed that she herself didn’t care for spinach because it was made of old tea bags.
“I believe you’re supposed to have lunch with your Daddy, aren’t you?”
Alice heard a note in her voice which Carolyn did not; she glanced up at Mrs. Bridge with another of those queer, bright looks and after a moment of thought she said, “Yes’m.”
And here's a fun paragraph on women's sexuality:
For a while after their marriage she was in such demand that it was not unpleasant when he fell asleep. Presently, however, he began sleeping all night, and it was then she awoke more frequently, and looked into the darkness, wondering about the nature of men, doubtful of the future, until at last there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire. Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep. This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.
Reading also gives insight on a half-century of changes to the American novel. Another creative writing instructor claimed that the manifest destiny of American letters is the close-3rd-person-single-character perspective — the author immerses the reader in a hot bath of a single personality, undiluted by emotional distance, or the thoughts of other characters. And certainly there are fine novels written in that vein — Blue Angel by Francine Prose comes to mind. But Connell keeps his characters at arms length, observing them cooly, asking his readers to scrutinize them carefully before taking them into their hearts. That passage on race doesn't demand indignation, but it earns it.