One of the pleasures of unemployment is having HUGE amounts of time to spend reading. Hours, and hours, and hours.
When I have a writing project, I make it a point to spend maybe an hour a day reading someone else's good writing. I pick an author whose style I like, and immerse myself in the pleasure of her graceful writing — as well as a good story. Then, when it's my turn to write, I hope that some of that clarity and elegance rubs off on my sentences. So, this summer, I reread books by Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford, and Laurie Colwin: women with a near-miraculous command of words. I envy their styles, wisdom, insights, perceptions, descriptions, scenes, characters, dialogues, and plots. How do they do it? Don't ask me. I'd like to have just one of those Girl Scout badges on my sash.
Thinking about other writers who kept me riveted for weeks or months, I thought of my teenage summer affair with John Cheever. Looking back, I believe I went straight from Laura Ingalls Wilder and pioneering on the prairie to knocking back martinis with unfulfilled, middle-aged men in Manhattan bars and apartments, Connecticut Colonials, and New England beach houses.
My 30-something, bright-red paperback of The Stories of John Cheever has faded to yellow along the spine and is threatening to disintegrate, so I bought a new edition at a bookstore in Maine. Rereading his stories after all those years, I realize it's the world of Mad Men, often with very similar characters, but deeper and even more disillusioned. I found it depressing as hell, although it was also a satisfying Mad Men fix between seasons. But it's one thing to read about desperately unhappy people in their middle years when you're 15 or 16. It's another thing entirely to encounter those characters when you're at least as old as they are. And when you know the stories are not entirely fiction. But they are brilliantly written — often funny — tales, and they resonate powerfully now that I've crossed a few bridges and lived through a few dramas myself. At 16, Cheever's world was so alien to me that I might as well have been reading Tolkien fantasy tales. Which I was, in those days.
Oh, for the old days of reading two or three books at the same time. I'd keep them in different rooms and move from one to the other if I needed a change. I gave up that habit in college, when reading became a chore — I usually had several hundred pages of material to read every week between sleeping, eating, writing papers and music exercises, arguing with my boyfriend, doing a radio show, and practicing the harpsichord (badly). It was years before reading became fun again. And it's definitely fun to be reading the work of two different Cheevers at the same time.
Thinking about John Cheever, I remembered that I'd gotten his daughter Susan's new biography of Louisa May Alcott for Christmas. So I'm reading it now, too. It's gorgeous; difficult to put down — and I've read a couple of other biographies of Alcott.
When I'd read her American Bloomsbury a couple of years ago — about Concord's intellectual circle of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, and others — I had to keep stopping myself from reading the whole thing aloud to my husband. I'm having the same struggle with her Alcott story. She writes so exquisitely that I keep wanting to hear every sentence aloud, because they are as perfectly composed as poetry or music. (It turns out she reads her manuscripts aloud to friends — and it seems to make all the difference.) She's also a mesmerizing storyteller who can make a complicated narrative seem effortlessly entertaining. She has a particularly skillful way of presenting multiple interpretations of a puzzling but critical event: respectfully bringing together the theories of other biographers before quietly making a case for her own theory. I look forward to each of her insights, which tend to be original and thought-provoking. Plus, she brings 19th-century Concord vividly back to life with her descriptions — she spent a lot of time in Concord, absorbing its rhythms and visiting the houses of its authors. Reading about Alcott's frequently starving family, I kept getting hunger pangs.
As you know, I have yet to stay awake through a David McCullough history book (although I plan to persevere), but I can't put down Susan Cheever. If you have any interest in 19th-century literature or history, or if you just loved Little Women, read her books. I think you'll love them, too.
When I'm done with Alcott, I plan to find some of Susan Cheever's other books, beginning with her first, a memoir called Home Before Dark, about growing up with her famous father, written in 1984. I have a yellowed paperback; I was probably too young to read that the first time around, too.