Sunday, June 13, 2010

Summer Reading: Part I

In last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, the last page was called "Summer Shares," in which 8 writers were asked about "random literary encounters," e.g. books they found in the place they were staying and read instead of the books they actually brought with them.

This made me remember 2 random literary encounters of my own, one good and one less good. Neither occurred while I was staying at a friend's summer house, but I think they count anyway.

1) Spring, 2000, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.

I was directing a study abroad program based in Jaipur that year, and each semester, we visited the lovely city of Udaipur, most famous for Lake Pichhola and the Lake Palace Hotel in the midst of it.

Needless to say, we did not stay at the Lake Palace Hotel. But while the students stayed at a cheap but cheerful hotel a way from the lake, my co-director and I were given the option of staying at Rang Niwas Palace Hotel, which, despite the story I'm about to tell, I highly recommend. It's not as grand as the Lake Palace, and not on the lake, but the owners are lovely people, and the grounds and hotel both are peaceful and pretty. (The top photo is the view of my balcony when I stayed there in 2006.) Apparently, in years past, the whole program had stayed at Rang Niwas and had also helped finance its renovation. After the renovation and the subsequent raise in rates, however, the program was priced out of staying there. As a consolation prize, the program's directors were given a discounted rate whenever the program was in Udaipur and were housed in the guest room in the private wing of the hotel rather than in the main section. My co-director had been based in Udaipur while doing dissertation research, so he and his wife chose to stay with a friend in town. (This was fine with me, as my polite name for his wife was the "bitch queen from hell.") Both semesters, I was lucky enough to have a friend with me for our stay in Udaipur, Abby in the fall, and Bill in the spring. Both semesters, however, I was also unlucky enough to get just about as sick as I've ever been in India, and sick in the extremely unpleasant stomach sort of way. I was convinced it was because someone in the kitchen was not washing his hands, but as neither Abby nor Bill got sick, that might not have been it.

From Udaipur, our students spent several days in a rural village called Oghna. The second semester, they left for Oghna exactly when I was so sick, so I couldn't join them for a few days. Bill, alas, had left for Varanasi, so it was just me left in the room in the private section of the hotel, still feeling too queasy to eat much of anything but over the worst of it, so starting to get bored. One day, I crept out of bed to look at the bookshelves in the hallway. On them, I found a fat Maeve Binchy novel. I'd read a couple of Binchy novels in the past and thought she would serve the purpose--keeping me distracted and reasonably diverted while I lay in bed and sipped 7-Up and nibbled on cream crackers. The novel was Firefly Summer, and I read and read and read. There was the small village in Ireland. There was the American who wanted to build an upscale hotel on the ruins of an old estate. There was tragedy, family drama, romance, and more tragedy. At some point, when I was a few hundred pages in, I realized that I wasn't exactly sure what was going on. Things in the novel had taken a rather surprising turn. When I looked back to see if I'd skimmed over some key details, I discovered that a full 60 pages were missing from the middle of the book . . . and I had read another 30 or so past that before I noticed anything was wrong. Whoops.

I did recover from my dreadful illness, of course, and six years later, the next time I went to Udaipur, I returned to Rang Niwas. The family was as lovely as ever, remembered me, and gave me a deluxe room for the price of a standard one. The cook with dirty hands was nowhere in sight, and I enjoyed my stay there without even the merest hint of indigestion. Since I was no longer staying in the private wing, however, I never got to check whether the accidentally abbreviated Maeve Binchy novel was still there.

2) Summer 2001, near Portsmouth, New Hampshire

That first study abroad experience did not end well, as I lost my job in an administrative reshuffling that involved the active collusion of my colleague who turned out to be a rat. (Soon thereafter, his marriage to the bitch queen from hell fell apart, which was only fitting.) A year later, however, I was offered a job in Varanasi with a different program. This one was much smaller than the first, and our orientation occurred at the program director's house in New Hampshire. While my first study abroad orientation had involved directors from programs all over the world, this one was tiny, just my one American colleague and one Indian colleague. (Our Australian colleague didn't make it.) I didn't know then, that my American colleague would drive me up the wall or that our boss would get fired by his boss partway through the program, leaving us in the middle like children of divorcing parents. More significantly, I didn't know that I would get involved with Alex a few weeks later or that the twin towers would fall on my 35th birthday. Those few days in New Hampshire that summer are still emblematic to me as Before.

I was sleeping in the room of the director's house that doubled as his novelist wife's study and his prayer room. So, in addition to the desk, there were bookcases and a shrine with many statues of the Buddha in it. I was sleeping on an air mattress on the floor, which gave me a perfect view of the lower shelves of her bookcases. And there, on the shelves, I saw Dodie Smith's novel I Capture the Castle. I'd never heard of I Capture the Castle--though I read the book version of Smith's 101 Dalmations when I was a kid--but the book had blurbs from JK Rowling and Susan Isaacs (two writers I usually don't think of together), and it looked intriguing.

I Capture the Castle turned out to be the perfect book to read during those long days of pseudo-bonding and orientating. By the end of each day, all I wanted was to curl up on my air mattress and read the words of Cassandra Mortmain, the book's narrator, one of two daughters of a once famous blocked writer now living in a falling apart castle--"a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud," Cassandra's sister Rose calls it--and waiting for something to happen. This being fiction, something does happen. Two American brothers appear and turn out to have inherited the castle. One--or perhaps the other--falls in love with Rose, and things proceed apace.

I Capture the Castle, I eventually learned, had been a bestseller when it came out in the late 1940s but had gone out of print and fallen out of fashion. Thankfully, someone rescued it and reissued it. Eventually, it even got its own movie version, with "thinking woman's crumpet" Bill Nighy as the father with writer's block and Tara Fitzgerald as Topaz, his artist's model wife who liked to commune with nature wearing nothing but her rain boots.

Almost a year later, Alex and I went to a wedding in Maine, and on the way home, we stopped in Bridgton, Maine, where we ate an excellent breakfast, collected a container of grapenut pudding for the road and paid a visit to Bridgton Books, where I found a copy of I Capture the Castle--hardcover, gray, dingy and published in 1948--for $4.50. I snatched it up eagerly. There is a rather large stain on the front cover, right above a small drawing of the castle and tower, but I don't care.

When I take it out, I still think of myself lying on the air mattress at night, reading the paperback version with the Isaacs and Rowling blurbs, enjoying my foray back into 40s England and life in a ruined castle. Like Cassandra Mortmain, I was waiting for something to happen, and I didn't yet know how soon it would.


h. hart said...

Ahhh I LOVE I Capture the Castle, I picked up a copy in Canada, on a (slightly dreadful) family vacation (love you mom, if you are reading this--our family is not dreadful, nor are the vast majority of our trips, but you do know the trip I am referring to, so don't be upset). Anyhow, I was a very impressionable teen, and I was overwhelmed by the aesthetic of that book--the green clothes hanging everywhere at the beginning, the romantic rites of spring performed by cassandra. So much of it has stuck with me, and the movie got a lot of the images right. Nice to be reminded of it!

Alexandra said...

We have books in the rooms here at my B&B. It is interesting to me how many guests do not expect to find recent bestsellers and bring their own reading material. Then, we have guests who know my husband is a historian and look forward to spending more time with his very wide collection of excellent history books ...

Anonymous said...

I love Maeve Binchy and have read all her books. I haven't had too many book experiences like these - I always bring my own wherever I go. I did used to dig through my grandmother's shelves when I stayed at her house and read the autobiography of Maria Von Trapp there once.

Peggy Bourjaily said...

What a cool thing to think about!!! So inspiring, I want to go have a think about my accidental vacation reads!

Meredith said...

This is a terrific way to think about books. I've not read any of these...but you've got me thinking, seeing as they appear to be quite popular with several of your readers.

Susan Johnston said...

How interesting that books have this power to evoke certain points in your travels! I remember reading a Holocaust novel plucked from the shelves of my aunt and uncle's house when I stayed with them one New Year's during high school. I remember desperately trying to read to the end so I'd know what happens before I left. Of course, like most Holocaust, it did not have a happy ending. :(

Jennifer Margulis said...

Would like to read I Capture the Castle. It's funny how sometimes we remember the circumstances surrounding what we read as vividly as the books themselves!

Vera Marie Badertscher said...

I really love those places that have the "take a book - leave a book" shelves. But I'm searching my memory bank and can't remember picking one up to read. Probably because I am always well supplied myself. Ronald Reagan once said that the thing he feared most in life was being in a hotel room with nothing to read.

kerry dexter said...

I tend to have accidental encounters with books in bookstores -- ones I pick up and learn something from, one way or another, but know I do not need to purchase. a different sort of accidental read.

Jen said...

I think Maeve Binchy books are so comforting. Did you finish Firefly Summer once you were home?

When I went to study abroad in London, I brought a lot of books with me about the city, traveling, etc. But after a few weeks, I just had this craving to read Anne Tyler books. They always take place in Baltimore, where I'm from, and I was homesick. I never finished the books I brought with me, but I read A Patchwork Planet twice!

Haddock said...

Must make it a point to read this book "I Capture the Castle"