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Book Review//Bound To Please by Michael Dirda

In Bound To Please Dirda speaks of the "soul-satisfying pleasure of testing one's own literary connoisseurship." If, in reading his collection of literary reviews and essays, I am testing my own literary connoisseurship, then that is a test I have failed. I think, or thought, of myself as a reasonably well-read individual but I have realized that is not the case. There are so many books mentioned in Bound To Please that I have never heard of much less read. However, that in no way detracted from my enjoyment of this book.

Dirda does an excellent job of making even the most unfamiliar books interesting and accessible. I didn't finish each essay convinced I had to read that book but I did finish each one knowing a bit more about why it is an important work. His enthusiasm and love for literature are palpable. How can you not warm to a man who says this?

Were you to turn over any of Jane Austen's six novels, and shake it hard, nothing would fall out. Such books--The Great Gatsby and The Good Soldier are others--stay in our minds because of their calm and absolute rightness of design; they register less as transcriptions of sordid love affairs or hesitant courtships than as pieces of sustained verbal music, the melody of their witty or pitiless sentences supported by their closely harmonized plots. When a work of art seems without flaw, whether a lyric by A.E. Housman or a ballad like "The Way You Look Tonight," what we really mean is that every element contributes to the creation of aesthetic bliss within us, a readerly sense of  "luxe, calme et volupte."

I agree with Dirda when he says that "What I really enjoy in any kind of writing is simply a distinctive style, an idiosyncratic diction, the sound of a voice on the page." Dirda causes those voices on the page to come through clearly in his reviews; they come through so clearly that you are left wanting more. Now I need to read the letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, biographies of Boswell and Vermeer, the autobiography of Anthony Trollope, the list goes on and on.

Throughout the book are those wonderful moments when Dirda discusses an author I already know and love. About P. G. Wodehouse he says:

Wodehouse intuitively realized that literature is simply a construct of language, there is naturally no relation between his books and any reality, historic or otherwise. For all the author's attention to plot and storyline, one hardly cares what happens to his young men in spats, whether newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle marries Madeline Bassett or whether the Empress of Blandings wins a silver medal in the Fat Pig division of the Shropshire Agricultural Show. What finally matters are those delicious sentences, with their zingy mix of slang and learned allusion: Lord Ickenham, on his way to take a bath, goes "armed with is great sponge Joyeuse." J. B. Priestley, of all people, was right: Wodehouse "has raised speech into a kind of wild poetry of the absurd."

How can I not appreciate a literary critic who includes Georgette Heyer in his list of the twelve writers who "seem to me the most influential and distinctive prose stylists of the century, the founders of schools of writing, if you will."  Of her he says:

"her historical novels, largely set in the Regency, represent an entire literary duchy: that of romantic escape fiction, told with wit, an eye for period detail, and the requisite pull on the heartstrings...Heyer is a superb historical novelist--Jane Aiken Hodge's excellent biography reminds us how hard she worked to get the slang and fashions in her characters just right. She represents the deliberated recovery of an archaic style--roughly that of Jane Austen--and all those fictive acts of literary ventriloquism,  from John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor to A. S. Byatt's Possession to innumerable Regency romances, owe something to her virtuosity. 

My copy of Bound To Please is full of sticky notes marking passages I enjoyed and books I want to read. I finished this collection of essays feeling a little less well-read but a little more educated. Dirda wrote several other books. I will be reading them if only for the joy of sitting down with a fellow book-lover.

In My Grandmother's Attic

It was dusty and hot in the summer and it was freezing cold in the winter. The attic had a certain smell, not unpleasant, composed of old books, wooden floorboards, and something else I can't identify. Mothballs, maybe? I wish I could smell it again. The attic was actually the unfinished upstairs of a Cape style home but that is what we always called it, "the attic", and we loved to go up there. Every time we spent the night at our grandparent's house we were sure to end up prowling around.

There were a few toys stored up there. I remember a plastic tea set and a Fisher Price Main Street but sometimes those were down cellar. Once, I remember my grandmother showing me her wedding gown with a row of little buttons up the back. In the same trunk was my grandfather's army coat. I think when I saw it was the first time I ever fully realized that he had fought in World War II. There were bits and pieces of my mom's and my aunt's lives up there as well. My sister and I played with the dolls and I spent several visits when I was small carrying around an old school lunch box. But mainly what I remember are the books. There were boxes of them, many children's books but some adult novels as well. I rarely brought books to my grandparent's house even though I brought books just about everywhere  I went because I knew all I had to do was go up in the attic and rummage through the boxes and I would have plenty of books to keep me busy.

I still remember the old hard-covers, dusty blues and oranges and greens, full of stories about girls in dresses who all seemed to have doctor fathers and big families. Girls whose problems seemed small but enthralling because it was like looking through a telescope at a time gone by. I would look at the names in the front, Marilyn and Beverly, and think of my mom and my aunt reading these same books in this same house. Maybe sitting in the same spot on the attic floor or under the apple tree. Or no, would the apple tree have been tiny then? I didn't know. The years seemed to combine and I was them as well as me.

One book I read over and over. It was about a girl who went to summer camp. She went canoeing and took swimming tests and sat around campfires. Those were all the things my mom had told me stories about, things she had done when she went to summer camp. Once again, I wasn't completely sure who was who. In my memory, my mother's stories and the stories in the book blended into one idealized version of childhood and camp. It was an experience I yearned for and yet felt I already knew.

When the heat or the cold of the attic got to be too much I would wander down to the cool of the basement. It was a finished room where we had family parties. I remember one that my aunt made into an indoor picnic complete with cutouts of ants on the checked tablecloths.  There were stacks of records we could play on the record player if we were careful; Tennessee Ernie Ford and Mitch Miller and Peter, Paul & Mary. It was old and unfamiliar music that exerted the same fascination as the books. They belonged to a life and a time I was somehow connected to even though I hadn't lived it.

There were shelves of Readers Digest Condensed Books. Even at that age, I disapproved of condensed books but I read them anyway because they were there and I read everything. I read stories about kidnapped children and the strong, silent men who rescued them. Stories about women with fatal diseases who somehow rallied just long enough to give their blessing to a new romance for their husband. Stories about medical miracles and gunslingers on stagecoaches and romantic dilemmas. I gulped it all down indiscriminately.

Then I moved on to the short stories printed in the back of Good Housekeeping magazine. I knew my mom thought I was too young for them but I read them anyway. Beautiful girls in impossible situations rescued by tall, handsome men. Totally ridiculous and totally impossible to resist.

I would wander upstairs again and listen to my parents and grandparents chatting. Eventually, I would go outside to climb the apple tree or look for garter snakes in the stone wall. I wasn't sure I liked them but if we found one my grandfather would pick it up and let it wrap around his arm. That was horrifyingly enthralling. There was a little fountain built into one section of the stone wall and my grandfather would turn it on for us. The bottom of it was cool and mossy and I loved the sound of the running water. If we went up to the top of the yard there was a shed with an old-fashioned tricycle and an old pedal car.

But somehow I always ended up back in the attic sitting on the floor by the boxes of books. Eventually, I knew them all. I had read them over and over. They were part of me and part of my memories.

So is my grandmother's attic.

There Is No Such Thing As Too Many Books

My family might disagree. They love to tease me about my ever-growing book collection. They roll their eyes every time a book shows up in the mail and they complain because I am taking over their bookshelves. My son jokes that I am just waiting for him to grow up and move out so I can turn his room into a library. The thing is, that isn't a joke. I have it all planned. I am going to line the walls with shelves, buy the world's most comfortable chair, and never leave the house. I am sure my husband will keep me supplied with tea and chocolate. Since I plan on having lots of shelves to fill I might as well start buying books now. That sounds eminently reasonable, doesn't it?

In all seriousness, I allow myself to spend a small amount on books every month. Since I buy most of my books secondhand I can make that small amount go quite far. Then I have the fun of waiting for them to show up in the mail. It takes some of them a while to arrive and I frequently can't remember what I purchased so it is a bit like getting a gift I gave myself. This month I bought a few extra books because I took a carload of stuff to Goodwill to donate. Of course, I had to look at the books while I was there. It would have been rude not to.

My non-fiction obsession seems to be continuing. I only bought two fiction books. One was an Agatha Christie novel I forgot to photograph. I already read it and stuck it on a shelf. The other was The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. I am trying to fill in the gaps in my Heyer collection and was very pleased when this arrived. It has been a while since I have read it. Most of the time, I am successful with my secondhand purchases. However, while this copy looked pristine when it arrived it fell to pieces as soon as I started reading it. I am reading it now and each page comes lose as I turn it. It won't go to waste though. I have a decorating project I want to do that requires book pages. I refuse to destroy a perfectly good book for a craft project but one that has already fallen apart is fair game.

West With the Night and The Siren Years were both books I read about on some blog or other. I am doing my usual abysmal job of keeping track of where I read about books. Churchill's Angels was a Goodwill find. I am fascinated by Churchill and it fits into my interest in WWII. The Only Way to Cross and The Big House were not books I had ever heard of but they looked interesting. I picked up Walden because my son had to read excerpts from it for school and said he wouldn't mind reading the rest.

Isn't this book pretty? It is a much nicer copy than I thought I was getting and I was very excited when I opened the package. Once again, my kids thought I was a little crazy. I have had several people on Instagram recommend this to me. I don't know why it has taken me such a long time to get around to buying it. I love wartime diaries and people speak highly of this.

I do realize my house is getting a bit overrun with books. Occasionally, I wonder if I really need to buy any more right now. Then I tell myself not to be silly. There is no such thing as too many books.