October 10: Ten Books With Fall/Autumn Covers/Themes (If the cover screams fall to you, or the books give off a feeling of being Fallish)
Actually this week it’s more like top 8…
When I think about Fall I think about the end of the year. The end of the summer. I think about the leaves turning bright colors before turning brown and disappearing. I love fall, but there’s a melancholy to it. To me these books have a similar sense of melancholy.
1. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro– This is about Stevens, an English butler in the mid-twentieth century. He was raised to be a “Gentleman’s gentleman.” He served the same family for decades. He gave up the woman that he loved in order to do it. Now, nearing the later part of his life, he takes a drive through the country. As he dives he thinks about the past, and tries to reassure himself that he spent his life serving a “great gentleman” and thereby served humanity at large. But as we travel through his thoughts we come to realize that he harbors doubts about the true greatness of the family he served, and even stronger doubts about his own life and choices. This is a book that is greater than the sum of its parts. Ostensibly it’s about an old man out for a drive. But it’s really about his life and his world. His doubts about how he spent his life come too late, once most of his life is gone. This book evokes a strong sense of melancholy that I think is very fall-like.
“But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way. In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.”
2. Howard’s End by EM Forster– This book explores the various intricacies surrounding British class relations at the turn of the twentieth century. It centers around three families; one representing the working class, one the middle class, and one the elite. The nature of their class status affects the characters social relationships for better and for worse. But we, as the reader know something that neither the characters, nor the author (who published the book in 1910) do: that two world wars are just around the corner. They will decimate the class system that had previously prevailed. While Forster couldn’t have known in 1910 that WWI was around the corner, he did clearly sense a coming end to the the British empire and the the rigid class structure. It’s no accident that the house around which much of the action takes place is called Howard’s End! This sense of one era ending and something new lurking is very… autumnal to me.
“Some leave our life with tears, others with an insane frigidity; Mrs. Wilcox had taken the middle course, which only rarer natures can pursue. She had kept proportion. She had told a little of her grim secret to her friends, but not too much; she had shut up her heart–almost, but not entirely. It is thus, if there is any rule, that we ought to die–neither as victim nor as fanatic, but as the seafarer who can greet with an equal eye the deep that he is entering, and the shore that he must leave.”
3. The Cider House Rules by John Irving– It has the word “cider” in the title for goodness sakes! There’s an orchard, and apple picking! Actually this story is set over the course of about 30 years (from the 1920’s to the 1950’s) Dr. Larch founds an orphanage in St. Cloud, Maine. His favorite orphan is Homer, who eventually follows in his footsteps and becomes a doctor. During the years that the book takes place, abortion was illegal in the US. Having seen the result of illegal, back alley abortions (a dead woman and a dead fetus) Dr. Larch performs abortions in a safe, sterile environment. When Homer learns of Dr. Larch’s side business he is horrified and leaves St. Cloud. He joins his friends in a cider making business. He types up a list of rules for the apple pickers who come to work for them for the season. All of that makes it very fall-y.
“That was when Angel Wells became a fiction writer, whether he knew it or not. That’s when he learned how to make the make-believe matter to him more than real life mattered to him; that’s when he learned how to paint a picture that was not real and never would be real, but in order to be believed at all- even on a sunny Indian summer day- it had to be better made and seem more real than real; it had to sound at least possible.”
4. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder- This one is more literal. A lot of the book deals with a pioneer family preparing for winter. We get descriptions of harvesting sap, and making maple syrup, and candy. And of course in the evenings Laura and her family are safe and warm in bed, listening to Pa play the fiddle…. OK so those aren’t really my fall activities. But they are activities that scream “fall” to me!
“She thought to herself, “This is now.” She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
5. Persuasion by Jane Austen More so than any other Jane Austen I see this one as being about endings and renewals. We’re told early in the book that Anne has lost her youthful “bloom”. Much of the conflict centers around what happened when Anne and Captain Wentworth were young. Their failed romance provides the groundwork for the novel. So essentially we go into a story beginning with an ending, a failed love affair. This was the defining event of Anne Elliot’s youth (or springtime, if you will) over the next decade she removed herself from the marriage market and lost that “bloom”. When we meet in Persuasion she appears to be at the end of something. The end of her youth, the end of her marriageable days. In other words, even though she’s still young (27) she’s prematurely entered the “fall” of her life. But against the odds she manages to turn back the clock a bit and regain some spring and summer.
“Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn–that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness–that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”
6. First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen- This is another semi-literal pick. It takes place in the fall. It’s a sort of stand alone sequel to Allen’s Garden Spells. You don’t have to read Garden Spells to read this one. The Waverly sisters, Claire and Sydney live in Bascom NC with their husbands and children. The family home has a spirited apple tree in the backyard and all of the Waverly women have a bit of magic. Claire’s nine year old daughter, Mariah, has made a mysterious friend, whom no one else can see. Sydney’s fifteen year old daughter, Bay, has proclaimed her love for a boy who doesn’t return her feelings. There are issues with the older Waverly’s too. Sydney is heartbroken over her seeming inability to get pregnant again, and Claire’s candy making business is taking over her life. A mysterious stranger has turned up in town bringing secrets that could destroy the Waverly family. And with the first frost coming, a lot of things are going to change.
“On the day the tree bloomed in the fall, when its white apple blossoms fell and covered the ground like snow, it was tradition for the Waverleys to gather in the garden like survivors of some great catastrophe, hugging one another, laughing as they touched faces and arms, making sure they were all okay, grateful to have gotten through it.”
7. Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne DuMaurier– This is a great Halloween read because it’s spooky but it also has a shadow of death hanging over it. A married couple visit Venice to recover after the death of their daughter. But they encounter mysterious twin sisters, one of whom is a blind psychic. She tells them that their daughter is sending a warning: the must leave Venice. If that weren’t enough there is also a serial killer stalking the city. As the husband, a psychic who hasn’t accepted his gifts, chases the figure of a child around the city, things that seem like back story move slowly forward. The Venetian atmosphere is palpable, it’s gloomy, damp and strangely beautiful (like a certain season…). Death has followed the central couple on their trip, and there’s only one way for it to end.
And he saw the vaporetto with Laura and the two sisters steaming down the Grand Canal, not today, not tomorrow, but the day after that, and he knew why they were together and for what sad purpose they had come. The creature was gibbering in its corner. The hammering and the voices and the barking dog grew fainter, and, ‘Oh God,’ he thought, ‘what a bloody silly way to die…’
8. Portrait of Jennie by Robert Nathan-Eben Adams is an artist. He sketches a schoolgirl, Jennie, in Central Park and talks to her a bit. The resulting sketch conveys more emotion than any of his previous work. When Eben next meets Jennie, she seems to have grown a few years older. The same thing happens again. Jennie is now fully grown, and as Eben paints her portrait he realizes that when he finishes, Jennie will disappear as mysteriously as she appeared. Jennie brings a sense of mystery with her. Aside from her rapid aging, she seems to talk as if she’s from another time. Is she a ghost? A time traveller? What is the strong song she sings? With the shadow of Jennie’s upcoming disappearance looming over them, her and Eban’s story is Autumn. Brightly colorful, just before the end.
I had one clear day of happiness, and I shall never forget it. Even the miserable ending to it cannot change its quality in my memory; for everything that Jennie and I did was good, and unhappiness came only from the outside. Not many—lovers or friends—can say as much. For friends and lovers are quick to wound, quicker than strangers, even; the heart that opens itself to the world, opens itself to sorrow. I