When she was 10, she read O. Henry in hardback. In high school, Orwell was on a summer reading list. Now, it’s ‘Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel’ with her grandsons.
We packed an abundance of hardcovers (Dad thought paperback books were abridged) in the trunk of our Rambler, and set out from our Lowell, Mass., home for a modest knotty-pine cabin in Brandon, Vt. My mother favored mysteries by British Commonwealth women, especially Ngaio Marsh. My dad was on a Sinclair Lewis kick. I’d picked the hefty, complete short stories of O. Henry and read them all.
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Did a few themes lodge themselves in my subconscious that summer? Did William Sydney Porter’s style predispose me to write stories that wrapped up? I know of one thing that stuck: Before securing our cabin at Oak Hill Lodge, the Lipmans had been turned down by the nearby Lake Dunmore Hotel, its phony-polite letter noting that “the people who return year after year, and feel most comfortable here, are gentiles.” The insult incubated for 35 years before it led me into my third novel, “The Inn at Lake Devine.”
I have a summer job at Pellon Corp. in Lowell, manufacturer of a nonwoven interfacing known only to tailors and others who sewed. From 7 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., I glued labels to the end of bolts. At night, I labored through a summer reading list, assigned by Miss Helen Shea, for my upcoming senior year in A.P. English at Lowell High: “Crime and Punishment,” “Bleak House” and the essays of George Orwell. My co-workers were reading Boston sports pages during breaks because the Red Sox were heading toward their first American League pennant since 1946. I was a new but avid fan who wanted to read the Record American during lunch, not Dostoevsky.
My son, Ben, is 10, and though an early reader, not an avid one. Nor is he keen on day camp. We strike a deal: If he reads 25 chapter books, I’d take him to what my husband called Ben’s spiritual home, Riverside Park in Agawam, Mass. (rebranded Six Flags New England in 2000), a half-hour from our Northampton home. No child has ever read faster, which is not a brag. Yes, he devoured books, but the way contestants inhale hot dogs to win Nathan’s annual July Fourth contest at Coney Island. I’d imagined a whole summer of his being occupied, but it was still June. I moved the goal post: 25 more books and I’d take one of his friends, too. He didn’t argue; it was better than getting on a bus to camp. Again: not pleasure-reading but speed-reading. Good on my word, I take Ben and a buddy to Riverside Park. Seven years later, he wrote his college essay on his roller coaster obsession. I remember only one sentence because I had doubts about it: He attributed his need to be an adventurous and brave 10-year old to his otherwise “seat-belted and veal-like upbringing.” I wasn’t offended, but was worried that “veal” might be politically incorrect. “Leave it,” said an author-friend and former editor.
As a judge for the National Book Awards, I have 200-plus books to read. It is an unsatisfying summer — not the books but the experience. We are five judges, four of whom often see eye to eye, with me frequently the dissenter. But, who was right? I loved “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout, on my list of top five books, but on no one else’s. Then — excuse me! — a few months later it wins the Pulitzer Prize just after being named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Also left on the cutting room floor was Philip Roth’s “Indignation,” another favorite of mine that didn’t make the top five. Two years later, I met Roth at a book party. I went on and on about how I’d stood up for “Indignation,” fought for it, had waged war against Peter Matthiessen’s winning “Shadow Country,” a compilation of three previously published novels, for God’s sake. He listened patiently. When I finished my nattering, he smiled a faint, ironic smile. “I took it like a man,” he said.
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I do a reduced book tour for my ninth novel, “The Family Man,” because my husband is declining quickly from frontotemporal dementia. I find comfort in “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” and two more in the series by Alexander McCall Smith. The only other book I remember reading that summer was a memoir by a man whose wife had died of the same disease my husband had. On visits to the nursing home, the husband-author wrestled with his wife in the shower, trying to dye her hair. What? Why struggle? Whose vanity? My husband died at home in September, completely sweet and cooperative, completely diminished. No struggles except for the million daily heartbreaks.
My next novel’s protagonist is a widow. Halfway through the book, I put her on Match.com to get her out of the house. I put myself on Match, too, for research and verisimilitude. On the day I decide to quit, I click on a geographically desirable candidate — he’s living on the Upper West Side of New York; I’m in Midtown. I scroll down his profile. Under “last book read,” I am shocked to see, “Elinor Lipman’s ‘The Family Man,’ ” and then “it’s NOT chick lit.”
On our first date, Jonathan had with him “The Imperfectionists,” by Tom Rachman, which I’d been meaning to read. He said he’d gotten it in his building’s laundry room lending library, organized by a retired librarian. Pointing to the small white sticker on the book’s spine, Jonathan noted the economical cataloguing system, just “Fic,” and nothing more. We both laughed. I found his appreciation of that minimalist Dewey Decimal system endearing. We are still together.
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I have two grandsons. Their dad, my son, reported that his 3-year-old randomly plucked “The Inn at Lake Devine” off the bookshelf, probably because of its pretty blue cover. He opened it. Not a picture book, nothing but type. Oh wait, a photo in the back. He stared. How can this be? Amazed, he yelped, “Bubbe!”
Ben and my daughter-in-law text me photos of the two little boys absorbed in books I’ve sent. “Freight Train,” by Donald Crews (1978); “Bedtime,” by Helen Oxenbury (1982); their dad’s ancient, taped-together “Let’s Eat,” by Gyo Fujikawa, now out of print. And Jonathan’s gift, his favorite children’s book, loved by his now-grown sons, “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel,” by Virginia Lee Burton, first published in 1939. How wonderful: 83 years ago and still in print, still being treasured and visited. I can’t say the same for the restricted Lake Dunmore Hotel. It closed its doors more than 50 years ago, never to be opened again.
Elinor Lipman’s next novel, “Ms. Demeanor,” will be published in February.