I got to spend 24 hours with The Gays this weekend–my stepmother, Big Gay, and my sister, Little Gay–which means we spent about 18 of those hours talking about books. It. Was. Heaven. All three of us are voracious readers, each in her own genre, but with enough overlap that we can give each other great recommendations. I read mostly literary fiction. Big Gay prefers non-fiction, mainly history and memoir. Little Gay has been reading a lot of fantasy lately and she’s not sure why. And she and I both dabble in Young Adult. We can’t wait for Vivi to be old enough for Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy (both Little Gay’s discoveries).
On the walk over to the football stadium to watch Jackson’s high school graduation on Thursday night, Big Gay and I hung back to talk books. When I told her I had finished The Map Thief from the stack of books she had passed along to me last time I was home, Big Gay gasped, “Ayshley! Could you believe THE NERVE of him?” Oh, to have the confidence of a mediocre white man who makes a living stealing rare maps from libraries then selling them to his cients.
“What else have you read that you liked?” she asked as we walked past the police cars blocking traffic. “Language Arts!” She thought on it but it didn’t ring a bell. “The book I gave you for your birthday and when you found out it was about autism you told me not to read it?” She was still at a loss. “You know, the one about the father of the boy with severe autism, and the boy is aging out of his group home so the divorced parents are setting up private care and the father flashes back to a friend he had in elementary school…(and then I told her the twist)” She grabbed my arm. “Yes! It just about broke my heart.” I nodded. “I had about 30 pages left one day after reading on my lunch break and I had to go back and shut my office door so I could finish it.”
Big Gay asked if I had read The Elegance of the Hedgehog because it was the last book to leave her in a puddle on the floor. I pulled out my phone and sent myself an email with the title so I wouldn’t forget to read it. “There are passages in it where the language is so beautiful that I cried when it was done, not because it was sad but just because someone could write something so breathtaking.”
We found our seats in the stadium and settled in for the ceremony and the heat and the bugs. The valedictorian, Ivan Alejandro Lopez Castillo, gave a charming speech about how proud he is of his Mexican heritage and how thankful he is for the opportunities he’s had in America. He encouraged his classmates to “take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way,” like he had. Little Gay and I started talking about immigration–we have a family friend who needs papers. “I’m reading this book Americanah about a Nigerian woman who comes to America to study then ends up staying on a work sponsorship and getting her green card, but her boyfriend can’t get a sponsor so he tries to go to England and he overstays his visa there and has to go through all these awful things to try to work…” I told Little Gay to read that one and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s other novel Half of a Yellow Sun. “I learned so much in that book! It’s about the Nigerian civil war in the 1970s with the Biafrans–have you ever heard of any of this?” As we sat there whispering about books through the boring choral tributes to high school teachers, we concluded that our education had been totally Euro-centric. There was ancient Egypt, something about Rommel in the desert, then apartheid. That was it for African history at our high school.
The morning after all the graduation hoopla, we got right back to talking books. Big Gay and I went into “the rat hole” (the utility room) where she keeps her recently read books. I whooped to receive a copy of The Nest because ever since Jill wrote about it on Bookreasons, I’ve been 15th in line on the library hold list for it. I can’t wait to read this story of four wobbly siblings and their joint inheritance that’s in jeopardy. I saw she had read All the Light We Cannot See–all three of us agreed it was sublime. On the theme of women’s stories of World War II, Little Gay and I agreed that The Nightingale really delivered but Big Gay hasn’t read it. She gave it to me for Christmas but had to wrap it before she had time to read it! I promised to bring it to her on my next visit and then I told both of them to read The Light Between Oceans, a between the wars story about a childless Australian couple who live on a lighthouse island in the Indian Ocean and what happens to them when a child comes into their lives.
We went into the library (most houses have a den, but Big Gay and Daddy made theirs a library with floor to ceiling book cases and two comfy chairs in front of a double window). Big Gay moved stacks of gardening magazines off the wooden chest and I held the lid open so she could pull out more books. The Monuments Men led us to talk about art theft, which scored me Big Gay’s marked up copy of Museum of the Missing and got Little Gay and me talking about taking a trip to Boston to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, site of a yet-unsolved robbery in 1990. That led to talk about the great art collections of the American industrialists and the long history of thievery among cultures–the Elgin marbles and the looting in Iraq and how we all want to read The Lady in Gold, about one family’s fight to get a Klimt painting returned after it was stolen by the Nazis.
That reminded Big Gay of a quirky little book called No Voices From the Hall, the memoir of a man who snoops around English country houses that fell into disrepair after World War II when families didn’t have the resources to maintain them. I pulled out a biography of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, who during that same thin time turned Chatsworth into a thriving estate. Big Gay and I are both fans of the Mitford sisters (Deborah being the youngest of them) and have swapped many books about them and by them over the years. Little Gay didn’t know their story, so we talked about Debbo, Diana, Unity, Nancy, and Jessica. And apropos of interesting women and British history, I took a copy of That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor.
We sat in the sun in the comfy chairs and talked across the morning about Catherine the Great, bad marriages, Marie Antoinette, Paris, Napoleon’s sister Pauline. From Daddy’s big leather chair, Little Gay confessed to never having read To Kill a Mockingbird and I confessed that I had read Go Set a Watchman. We talked on about Truman Capote and Nell Harper Lee and Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. Molly the Yorkie curled up on the back of the chair and nodded off once Big Gay pulled out her notes from book club so she wouldn’t forget to tell us about any gems on the “To Be Read” list.
This is my happy place, surrounded by briliant women, new ideas about old things, patient dogs, and comfy chairs. Read on, read on, read on.