On Christmas Day, after breakfast and gifts, my daughter Rebecca plucked Roald Dahl’s Matilda from the bookshelf and offered to read it to us. On the sofa, Mary was tying a quilt, Hannah lounging. Jack was tidying up the kitchen, and Mark and I were at the table, hard at the Christmas jigsaw puzzle.
I recently I tried recorded books for the first time, listening to Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, and then Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, on my daily walk. I do two miles in about 40 minutes, the perfect distance for multitasking a couple of chapters.
The Girls Who Went Away (non-fiction) describes the experience of “unwed mothers” who surrendered their children for adoption during the post-WWII era before sex education and reliable birth control were available, when having a baby “out of wedlock” was socially unacceptable. Fessler took me inside the maternity hospitals of the 1950s and 60s, where girls sometimes gave up their newborns without holding or even seeing them. I’m working myself on a novel set in 1957—developing a protagonist who will refuse to relinquish her child—so absorbing this information as I walked served my research purposes. That said, I missed the satisfaction of holding Fessler’s excellent work in my own hands.
The cover of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation intrigued me each time I saw it on display or on lists of recommendations. Intent on using my early morning hours to write instead of read, I downloaded Moshfegh’s novel and listened to it on my next series of walks.
The protagonist (whose name we never learn) is a young, wealthy, Columbia University graduate who holes up in her apartment for a year simply to sleep. She’s enabled by a helpful quack who prescribes an incredible assortment of pharmaceuticals. I disliked our anti-hero immediately, and I have to give the actress who read part of the credit. Her deadpan voice perfectly captured jaded, privileged ennui.
I’m a Pollyanna who keeps reading even a bad book in hopes it will get better, so I stuck with My Year for miles of Winterset sidewalk, empathizing when the speaker described the horrible parents who clearly never wanted her, disgusted as she made more and more of a mess of the present, glad I wasn’t at home in my chair squandering my precious morning hours. (For a better story featuring a character whose life is a mess, read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.)
To my great pleasure, I was recently invited to join a local book club. January’s title is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Rebecca Fons, unless you would kindly pop home for a couple of days and read this novel to me, I’ll just do it myself.