Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Lately, it seems it’s a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, week, month, and more, but as Judith Viorst would agree, sometimes it is just that way. Reading Peter Baker’s essay in the New Yorker (January 23, 2023) reminded me to look for the humor in those days, even if only looking back at them. The humor always escapes me, as it does Alexander, while in the middle of the muddle.

Judith Viorst’s “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is celebrating its fiftieth year in print, and it might be time to reread it, maybe before you go to bed tonight. The book is short; the plot is spare; Alexander starts his day with no prize in his cereal, no dessert in his lunchbox, falls in the mud, and is forced to eat lima beans at dinner. More horrors ensue, and in the end, the day ends and he goes to sleep, after the Mickey Mouse night light burns out. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Perhaps you’ve had a few of these lately. I have. You know; those days when you wish you had stayed in bed. But rereading Alexander’s trials made me smile. Not that there is hope that future days will be better; Viorst does not promise that. And, like Alexander, there is not much you can do about it.

Baker notes in his article that after writing about Alexander, “Viorst started a six year study of psychoanalysis, a discipline fundamentally concerned with stories we tell ourselves, and the possibility that revising them might make our terrible days a little less so.” Viorst offers no easy way to deal with such days, saying in the end: “Some days are like that…”

In the meantime, muddling through these days, it might be wise to avoid going to bed with gum in your mouth, a sure sign you will wake up with gum in your hair.

Shrines of Gaity

With high expectations I started reading Kate Atkinson’s new novel. After all, I had enjoyed so many of her books: Life After Life, Transcription, and had others on my to read list. But, Shrines of Gaity was different; I had to restart it twice to get all the characters straight in my head. Yes, it was worth it. Once I became ensconced in the underground world of post Edwardian London, there was no turning back.

Nellie Coker, the inimitable fulcrum of action, is modeled on the 1920s maven Kate Meyrick, a feisty Queen Victoria of the nightclubs with enough adult children to manage her empire of five clubs. But being a romantic, I was drawn to her son, Niven, the smooth handsome gangster and his love interest, Gwendolyn, the librarian and former combat nurse from York who has come to the big city in search of her friend’s two erstwhile teenagers, Freda and Florence, who left home to become famous on the London stage, and have not been heard from since.

Adding to a love triangle is Chief Inspector Frobisher, new to his job and determined to clean up the omnipresent crime and corruption, including the shady policemen on his staff. One, Maddox, has been Nellie Coker’s “protection” for years, and proves his perfidy early in the story. When Atkinson gives him his due, it’s hard not to cheer. Frobisher is attracted to Gwen and hires her as an undercover agent to watch Nellie, while he promises to look for the young girls. Alas, he is married – but not happily, of course. Nellie, knowing all, also hires Gwen to manage one of her clubs.

The complex plot cleverly entwines the disappeared girls, Nellie’s scheming, and Gwen’s adventurous pursuit, with the hedonism and underworld crime of the era. Atkinson neatly ties up all the lives in the end, leaving some dangling for the reader to decide. A fun read – worth trying to keep all the characters straight – maybe read it with a notebook nearby to jot them down.

For more Kate Atkinson: https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2013/05/01/life-after-live-a-novel/

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

When asked about the meaning of his famous poem The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost claimed readers were making too much of his simple teasing of his friend Edward Thomas over his deciding where to go on their many walks. But readers have disagreed and made Frost’s lines an anthem for the role of choice in life. Poems, after all, are to be interpreted, and that interpretation has a range of possibilities. In Celeste Ng’s “Our Missing Hearts,” Margaret Miu’s poem about a pomegranate becomes the battlecry for a revolution.

An uncomon and reluctant heroine, Margaret becomes a rebel and a catalyst for finding children taken from their parents because of the new law to preserve American Culture and Traditions. How rewarding to find it is librarians who facilitate her underground network.

Ng has a clear message, cleverly incorporating anti- Asian hate crimes as the scapegoat for the future country’s economic and social decline (the Crisis) with incidents that could have been ripped from current headlines. And the recent proclivity for banning books becomes a focal point of Ng’s alert about where it could lead. She is clearly warning; pay attention, or “the dusk will become dark” without anyone noticing.

Ng’s story is also one of grief and nostalgia – for better days, for loved ones gone. My favorite line:

“Who ever thinks, recalling the face of the one they loved who is gone: yes, I looked at you enough, I loved you enough, we had enough time, any of this was enough?”

And a call to action:

“Listen. Somewhere, out there, saying to others at last: Listen, this isn’t right.”

In her Author’s Note Ng notes her inspiration in both books and incidents, historical as well as recent. She ends citing:

“Timothy Snyder’s “ On Tyranny” was a powerful reminder about how quickly authoritarianism can rise (as well as what can be done about it), and Václav Havel’s classic 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless” changed my thinking about the impact a single individual could have in dismantling a long-established system. I hope he’s right.”

You could read the book two ways, just like a Robert Frost poem. Take it literally as a “dystopian story about a 12 year year boy and his quest to find his mother.” Or consider Stephen King’s review in the New York Times claiming it is a “dystopia uncomfortably close to reality.” Either way, “Our Missing Hearts” has Ng’s riveting storytelling talent, and a tale well told that you will remember.

The Marriage Portrait

Strong willed teenage girls have been in literature since Shakespeare’s thirteen year old Juliet. Maggie O’Farrell uses Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” and the Macchiavellian intrigue of the sixteenth century to create a fascinating tale of the young Duchess of Ferrara.

Lucrezia may be an outcast in her family, not quite fitting in with her dark haired subserviant sisters and her entitled brothers, but she has had the courage to face down a tiger in her father’s wild menagerie. Her feisty demeanor serves her well as she is promised at age twelve to an older duke needing an heir.

O’Farrell imagines the real Italian Duchess’s life within all the confines of male domination in that century, and bestows the gift of art to the young girl, who creates animal miniatures as an alternative to the embroidery usually required of young women of the time. I could relate to Lucretia’s appreciation of the back side of the embroidery hoop, with all the knots and stitches needed to create the perfect picture on the other side. Her life is full of those knots, but O’Farrell gives her an escape with the help of an unlikely hero when all seems lost.

The story bounced back and forth in time to keep the suspense. The fictional duchess in the story seems destined to meet the same fate as her real forebearer as O’Farrell once again creates a compelling and totally enjoyable story.

I looked for the text of Browning’s poem and found it with a short explanation. O’Farrell cleverly includes the white donkey as well as other details from the poem in her story. Here is the poem and a short analysis.

https://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/browning/section3/

Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favorite authors. Here are my reviews of other books by Maggie O’Farell:

Hamnet –

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2021/06/16/hamnet-by-maggie-ofarrell/

The Hand That First Held Mine –

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2010/04/28/the-hand-that-first-held-mine-maggie-ofarrell/

Recommendations for Independent Bookstore Day

Although it’s been a while since I’ve walked into a bookstore, or any store, I still like to buy my ebooks from independent book stores. And, yes, I still read – not as much as before – but here are a few books I’ve bought and recommend:

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

For supporters of women in math and sciences, the obstacles the main character faces will ring true. Elizabeth Zott, after overcoming her miserable childhood, can’t seem to get a break as she tries to forge a career in chemistry. Sidelined by male colleagues at work and cheated out of a doctorate, she finds love with a rower and fellow scientist, only to lose him before their child is born. Her ongoing frustrations will be familiar to a generation of career women with children, but the character is also funny, ambitious, and determined. As she morphs into a modern day Julia Child, the laughs get better. A fun book with a message – as Elizabeth Egan noted in her review: ” She’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.”

One Italian Summer by Rebecca Searle

Ah, to be back climbing the steps of Portofino! Searle’s story will transport you to the beautiful Italian town, and you will instantly feel its charm. Having been there (for a cooking class), the descriptions of the food, the sea, the steps, the old women, brought me back and makes me want to go again. Katy Silver takes the trip to Italy she has planned with her mother. Her mother dies but with a heavy touch of suspending belief, you will meet her anyway as Katy discovers not only the beauty of Italy but also the unexpected joy of hanging out with her younger mother.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

I didn’t become a fan of St. John Mandel until I watched Station Eleven on Netflix. The Sea of Tranquility is another catastrophe story taking the reader through three worlds in three distinct time periods, The novel opens in 1912 when the son of an aristocratic British family is banished to Canada for some rash dinner-table remarks about colonial policy, and then vaults into the 23rd century for ‘the last book tour on Earth,” with an author named Olive Llewellyn, whose home is a colony on the moon, and whose novel about a worldwide pandemic has become a surprise blockbuster, and finally to Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a loner detective living on the moon in the 25th century in a colony called the Night City. Mandel connects the plots across time to examine what really matters. A good book for fans of science fiction but also If you just need to take yourself out of the present for a while.

French Braid by Anne Tyler

One of my favorite authors, Tyler uses an area I know well as her backdrop – Baltimore. With her quiet style, Tyler slowly weaves a story of family. Jennifer Haigh in her review for the New York Times, notes ““French Braid” is a novel about what is remembered, what we’re left with when all the choices have been made, the children raised, the dreams realized or abandoned. It is a moving meditation on the passage of time.” Read her review for more: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/20/books/review/french-braid-anne-tyler.html

The Club by Ellery Lloyd

Thrillers are always a great distraction to the world at hand, and if you are a fan of Ruth Ware, you will enjoy Lloyd’s ride. From Publisher’s Weekly: “The Home Group is a glamorous collection of celebrity members’ clubs dotted across the globe, where the rich and famous can party hard and then crash out in its five-star suites, far from the prying eyes of fans and the media. The most spectacular of all is Island Home–a closely-guarded, ultraluxurious resort, just off the English coast–and its three-day launch party is easily the most coveted A-list invite of the decade… as things get more sinister by the hour and the body count piles up, some of Island Home’s members will begin to wish they’d never made the guest list. Because at this club, if your name’s on the list, you’re not getting out.” A page turner.

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

If you know Lucy Foley from “The Guest List,” you will enjoy her latest. Like a game of Clue,  this story keeps readers guessing whodunit until the book’s final pages.

And here are a few books I have preordered and looking forward to:

Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

The Lioness by Chris Bohjaloan

Love Marriage by Monica Ali