Our new album East features songs inspired by favorite novels. The Cat’s Table (Michael Oondatje) inspired Tempest, The Summer Book (Tove Jannson) the song Sophia, and Snow Hunters (Paul Yoon), Tree. My great-grandfather’s poem My Soul is put to music as well.
My sisters and I spent many summers with our grandparents and bachelor uncle outside Birmingham. The brick house had a slope down from the street and seemed magically burrowed into that cool, dark place shaded by an enormous elm tree and surrounded by the azaleas and lilies that my Uncle Allen loved so.
My grandfather was of the generation that never left the house without his hat on, my grandmother taught Sunday School and belonged to a ladies book club that she brought me to a few times. This was a rare honor, an acknowledgement that I was a real person. Grandmother had told me that she didn’t much know what to do with babies and children until they could hold a conversation. But then, oh the stories and conversations we shared, sitting on the screened back porch, shelling peas, in the path of the gardenia that intoxicated us with each pass of the breeze.
Grandmother. She ran the Red Cross in Alabama, according to the family, as the secretary to the Director for 20 plus years. She had a master’s degree, was always well-appointed, she had gone to New York to work in fashion in the 1920s I believe. She married a handsome lovely man from a banking family, but the Depression put an end to the dreams (I imagine and my mother concurs) that she might live the life of an intellectual, a sophisticate, which she was quite naturally. She went to work. She had an exciting collection of hats and equally thrilling hatboxes, and we loved trying on her beautiful dresses and shoes.
Granddaddy joined the Army and was sent to India and other places he remembered in stories told on the couch with a disintegrating cigarette in his hand or the ashtray. I was an ideal child to tell stories to, I never tired of hearing the same stories over and over. New family members and friends would be initiated into the family sitting painfully perched by Granddaddy looking for an pause to politely excuse themselves – but such pause never came. Granddaddy knew just how to string one unrelated story to another. But I loved him and the comforting repetition of his adventures and observations. I think now how small his world must have seemed in the little shady house on Drexel Parkway – it had shrunk to an obscured view of a quiet street that formed a small loop and had little traffic. Though there was a cardinal that visited his bird-feeder and that brought much joy, muted so as not to scare it away.
There was a fig tree in the back corner of the back yard. Fig preserves were served at dinner – the mid-day meal that almost always had seats added for great-aunts and –uncles come round for a visit. Supper was a bowl of tomato soup and half a sandwich.
On those hot, humid summer days my Uncle was in charge of us. We nicknamed him Bear and I was Princess and my little sisters were Monkey One and Monkey Two. It was wonderful to be the favorite, though it came with demands and high expectations for proper comportment. I can still see my Uncle in his comfy chair reading, while I ask for a glass of water, once, twice, three times increasingly puzzled at his lack of response. He was ignoring me! I had left off the “please” and he chose not to acknowledge my request until it was properly placed. But what a gentle man he was with his nieces. He had a daughter – we didn’t know about her until my sister researched a family rumor and found her 20 years ago and we have since lost track of her again. The story goes that Uncle Allen moved into his parents house with a woman he said was his wife, she was pregnant, gave birth there and my Grandmother was totally taken with that baby. But the mother and baby disappeared somehow and were never to be spoken of again. That was the family way: best not to speak of unpleasantness. When my Uncle was sent to prison for embezzlement or fraud (he was often trying to sell things that sounded a little shady even to a ten-tear-old), Grandmother told us he was in California for a job. Which was easy to see through because I was living in California at that time as a college-student and I knew he would never have been close and not been in touch.
I started writing this story with the idea in mind of how my love affair with books started. And now it seems my mind has clarified that my love of books began with a love of stories and people and their quirky, repetitive stories told and untold, secret and relived.
Uncle Allen took us to the Birmingham library every Friday. We would walk up the grand steps to the front entrance and into the hushed central room. The librarian’s desk was on the left. There was a lot of brass and wood and tall ceilings and such a reverence for books in the majesty of that room and the respect we were expected to show walking through the doors. A library card was special, it had our names on it. It gave us the right to borrow books and be entrusted with their care and return.
Every Friday we arrived, each of us, with a stack of books that carried one on top of the other in our arms towered over our heads. We girls were avid readers, hungry readers. We shared our favorites, talked about them, whispered the stories we’d read at nighttime, as we lay awake in our cots laid out in the living room. I could take a chosen book and disappear, into the back garden or the porch and emerge when I wanted, unbothered by adults or anyone interrupting my reading to ask me questions or make demands. Uncle Allen was great that way. He understood how to leave us alone. We devoured books. I loved fiction and even now after 50 years of reading I prefer the escape of fiction, though now and again will try nonfiction with a great storyteller in charge. Escape, inhabiting another life and time and place. I imagine I am there in the story, it is real. It is transporting.
Today I have my favorite bookstores (Diesel Books, Berkeley CA) and authors. And I give myself permission to dog-ear the pages that have phrases and bits and pieces that strike a chord in me. I lend books out easily and mourn them when I realize they might not return and I have not bothered to remember who has what. I’ve just finished a stunning streak of books by Michael Oondatje, Paul Yoon, Louise Erdrich, Don DeLilo, Tove Jannson, John Irving. If there is no high stack of books – it must be measured a foot high at least, a throwback to those visits to the Birmingham library – I feel a little hollow. If the stories are not satisfying, I am bereft, lamenting for a better editor or some self-restraint. I did not like The Goldfinch, I don’t care if everyone else thought it was brilliant. Reading is a solitary activity. Reading in company can be wonderful too and listening to stories read out loud by someone who understands how.
I have never joined a book club – a deeply conflicting state, as I love to talk about books but I think my pleasure is so idiosyncratic that to take a story apart and analyze it ruins it for me. I prefer to taste it, remember the scent and feel of it, experience it internally. I propose a book club where we just share our passion for reading and then read together either aloud or separately in a corner of the room.
Why this love affair? You know why.
Do you have a favorite book? Join me on Goodreads and let me know what you are reading.