I’m feeling very lazy this morning, as I sip my delicious tea and enjoy fresh-baked Date Bread… Do Sunday mornings get any better than this?!
I had a great day yesterday in terms of books. I went through my bookshelves a couple of weeks ago and found a number of books that I’ve either read and want to get rid of or books that I thought I wanted to read but are no longer interesting to me. I then made two piles: books that I could bring to a secondhand bookstore and ones that are either in rough condition but still readable or ones that are library discards – those I will bring to the little “Community Library” that was built by one of the people who uses the co-op Community Garden around the corner. These are popping up everywhere, little sheltered wooden boxes where people can leave books or take books, no formal arrangement necessary. I’ve donated quite a few books to them, and picked up a few, too. I think it is an awesome way for people to share books without the hassle of due dates or records. I managed to sell all of my secondhand offerings, so I once again have credit for when I need to buy some used books. I also went to the library and found a copy of February by Lisa Moore, the book we are going to discuss for my book group in February (yes, that was intentional). This reminded me that book collections are fluid, not stagnant, and that there is a difference between books we want to keep in case we want to reread them, and books we read once and then sell, donate, pass on or bring back to the library. I know I have one bookshelf where I keep all my “good books”, books I am proud to display. They are generally in good condition and represent the “literary” side of my reading habits, or have some personal historical significance. I keep all the “light” or “trashy” reads or obvious library discards in poor condition hidden on the bookshelves upstairs – does that make me a book snob?
Anyway, one of the books I brought to the secondhand bookstore yesterday was The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger, which I also bought secondhand last month. This was the book that my “friends” bookclub discussed on Thursday night. If you recall, I’ve mentioned more than once that I am not a fan of historical fiction, and at this point I feel that I’ve been reading that genre back-to-back-to-back since December (The Winter Palace, The Postmistress and now The Mistress of Nothing). There were four of us that came out, and two of us agreed that we do not like historical fiction in general, that we prefer psychological fiction or fiction that in plot-centred. The other two said that they enjoyed historical fiction because they like to feel transported to another place and time, or because they feel like they are learning something. This book is based on the true story of Victorian writer and intellectual Lady Duff Gordon, or Lucie, who suffered from tuberculosis in the 1860s. In the hopes that a hot, dry climate would aid in her recovery, she left her husband and family behind and travelled to Egypt with her maid, Sally. Once arrived, she settled in Luxor and began the next stage in her life, shedding the conventions of British life, along with conventional clothing, adopting instead the loose attire worn by Egyptian men, and cutting her hair short. She allowed her maid, Sally, much freedom, for which Sally was ever grateful. Loyal servant though she was, however, she broke one too many rules, with dire consequences. Lady Duff Gordon, rather than demonstrating her usual leniency and understanding, banished Sally from her household and ordered her to return to England, alone and without a position or reference. What Sally does to survive demonstrates that she learned quickly how to survive in adverse circumstances. Told from Sally’s point of view, this novel offers an interesting look into what may or may not have happened when Lucie was faced with the one challenge from her loyal servant for which she could not offer forgiveness. Lady Duff Gordon’s letters home from Egypt were published in a book, and I believe they are still available, although I haven’t looked for them at the library. Much of this book is based on information found in those letters. I was willing to start the discussion, and shared my thought that, although the novel was quite short (250 pages), I was frustrated that the first 80 pages were taken up with nothing but descriptions: descriptions of their travel, descriptions of their household in England, descriptions of Lady Duff Gordon’s illness, descriptions of their house in Luxor, descriptions of their surroundings and the village activities, and the Nile, and the boat, ad nauseum, all the while described in the nauseatingly devoted tone of the loyal maid Sally, with her “my Lady” this and her “my Lady” that. Then, finally, on page 80, a full one-third of the way through the book, something happened! He kissed her! WOO HOO! I thought, aha! Now the story is going to get interesting. At this point, another member stopped me and said, “He kissed her? I stopped reading before then because it was too descriptive and nothing was happening.” So we filled her in on what happened in the rest of the book, but I’m not sure that she was interesteded enough to go back and finish it. One person said that she found it fascinating to learn about the social customs and expectations in both Britain and Egypt at the time, and the different ways each country viewed the roles of women. We discussed how free Lady Duff Gordon felt in Egypt, but also noted that she was a British woman in Egypt, a woman with her own means who could basically do as she pleased, even adopting men’s attire. Her experiences were very different from those women who were born in Egypt and were made to follow traditional Egyptian customs. There is one scene near the end of the book when Sally is discussing her life in England with Mabrouka, an Egyptian woman, and Mabrouka is amazed that Sally was allowed to take the train once a month and go to the museum in London by herself, since she herself was not allowed out in public where there might be men present. We talked about why Lady Duff Gordon was so harsh in her treatment of Sally after what she perceived as Sally’s disloyalty, whether it was borne of envy or a sense of betrayal. We felt that any of the relationships in the book would have been really interesting if they had been explored more deeply, but that they all lacked sufficient depth – the book was too superficial in its treatment of the many interesting relationships that really should have been explored if this had been a longer, dare I say “better written” book. Shame on me for that last comment, but it wasn’t just my opinion - we all agreed that this was true. I can’t honestly say that I would recommend this book to anyone, but it did win the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, so clearly some important readers liked it. I promptly added it to my pile of books to be brought to the secondhand bookstore, and it was rejected by the first one, but I brought it to another bookseller and he bought it.
That’s all for today. I hope to make some real headway on my next book, which I received in order to review it, the new Anne Tyler book, A Spool of Blue Thread. It’s a fairly long book, and one that should be read in large chunks, not one I want to pick up and put down often. Have a great day!
Bye for now...