In her new memoir, Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, Sarah Payne Stuart reflects on a life enmeshed in WASP culture. Despite fleeing the white-picket-fenced neighborhoods of her childhood as soon as she got the chance, Stuart later returns to her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, to raise her family. In the course of Perfectly Miserable, Stuart comes to terms with her conflicting emotions about her family and hometown, as well as delving into the historical and not-so-perfect lives of other literary Concordian women. From our reviewer: "Stuart writes honestly and lovingly about her aging parents, her childhood, money, the trials of parenthood and keeping her marriage afloat. In other words, everything." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Stuart has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
First Love and Other Sorrows: Stories
Stories by Harold Brodkey
Whenever I reach for First Love and Other Sorrows, I find I have given it away once again in a rush of emotion. Last week I bought the book (for under $3) on my new Kindle because it was, as it is from time to time, shamefully out of print. The next day, my husband landed in the hospital (short term, all’s well), and I rushed over with my kindle. The last thing he felt like doing was reading, my husband said grumpily, but ok, leave him the Kindle, if it made me happy, though he didn’t even know how to work the thing. I didn’t really know how to work the thing either, but before I left that night I had called up “State of Grace,” Brodkey’s story about a disgruntled 13-year-old boy babysitting a 7-year-old boy who has had every benefit saving the only one that matters—the devotion of a parent. “He was a precocious and delicate little boy, quivering with the malaise of being unloved. When we played, his child’s heart would come into its own…” My husband prefers nonfiction books about Al Qaeda or the CIA, but nothing ventured, etc. When I returned to the hospital the next morning, I glanced over at the kindle, wondering if I could steal it back, only to have my husband say, “I don’t know what it is about that story, but I’m on to the next.” I, too, am at a loss to explain the power of this story collection. But trust me, you will take this book to your heart, only to give it away.
I’m not a fan of graphic novels (or put another way, I’ve never given them a chance). But I am a fan of Roz Chast, whose hilarious New Yorker cartoons come, clearly, from a deep place. I had no idea how deep until I was swept away by her new graphic memoir about her parents. How does one survive being brought up by a mean mother, who then must be cared for until she reaches an unrelenting 97? And why do mean mothers always live on and on and on? After Chast’s mother finally goes into hospice, she rebounds miraculously, as if even God is chary of being in her presence. “Where in the five stages of death is EAT A TUNA SANDWICH?” Chast writes. Sitting by her dying mother’s bed, Chast asks if she should stay or go. “It doesn’t matter,” her mother replies. Roz was an only child with no siblings to blunt the pain of an angry mother and a gentle, but weak father, who, despite loving his daughter, put his adored if unadoring wife first in every instance. “I had no nostalgia for the Carefree Days of Youth, because I never had them. . .” Chast writes. There is no nostalgia in this book and yet, in the hilarity and richness of its yearning, it is sweet.
The Chronicles of Barsetshire and The Palliser Novels
By Anthony Trollope
When life gets complicated, I slather jam on toast and reach for Trollope. Trollope’s romping novels about love, class and politics in Victorian England always make me happy. Great, funny books that end happily? Not enough can be said about the strength of that. And unlike Dickens, Trollope really gets women. Though Trollope wrote 44 novels (before going to work!), the twelve interrelated novels in The Chronicles of Barsetshire and The Palliser series are by far his best. College survey courses often kill one’s appetite for Trollope by assigning The Warden, the first in the Barsetshire series and his driest book, assigned because, I suppose, it is one of his shortest. My suggestion is start with Barchester Towers, the second book, and go straight through the series. After that, read straight through the Palliser novels. Then re-read them all (this time, you’ll want to include The Warden) at your leisure––until the day you die. I always have a Trollope going on the side: on my kindle or under three books on my bedside or in the side pocket of my overnight bag protected (hopefully) from the toothpaste. Who can forget the termagant Mrs. Proudie ruling her Bishop husband by burning his toast whenever he dares to disagree? Or the beautiful, so earnestly in-the-wrong heroine of Can You Forgive Her? Has there ever been a better title than that?
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading Perfectly Miserable or checking out any of Stuart's recommended books?
(Author photo by Nina Subin)