I first met author Alice Randall when she visited book club at my friend Lawrence Blank-Cook’s home years ago, when Lawrence and her family lived on Central. Our book club was discussing The Wind Done Gone, and Alice agreed to come and join the conversation about her novel. I remember a lively evening with what seemed to me quite a lot of honesty in the room. I liked Alice’s laugh, and I liked that she liked to talk. In the years since, I’ve enjoyed the generosity of her friendship and advice. Alice understands how the world works and thinks that there is room for everyone to claim a place; find peace; live healthy; care about others; and thrive. She and husband David currently spend a lot of time caring about (and for) undergrads at Vanderbilt, where she serves as Faculty Head at Stambaugh House, and where they live. She has written four novels – The Wind Done Gone, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, Rebel Yell, and Ada’s Rules – in addition to all of the country songs to her credit and a work of children’s fiction co-written with her daughter, Caroline Randall Williams, The Diary of B.B. Bright (Possible Princess). Today, Alice is kind enough to write about her summer reading experience, and in the process she gives us an alternative summer reading list.
From Alice: Summer is a travel time. I write looking out to sea and over to a sheep farm. Shortly after Vanderbilt graduation, my teaching year over, I left Nashville.
Carried by plane, car, and boat I eventually arrived on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Settling into my summer haven in Chillmark I was charmed by a view that includes a modern windmill, sheep, red-winged blackbirds and yellow warblers, the blue Atlantic, and an immense hunk of sky dipping down into it.
“There is no Frigate like a Book” wrote my second-favorite poet Emily Dickinson. For me the point of getting away is to get to read a book a day.
My favorite summer ritual began in middle-school. The summer I advanced to the young adult novel room of the Takoma Park branch of the District of Columbia public library was the summer I was proclaimed old enough to stay home alone but too young to babysit other children or even have a friend visit.
I feared boredom. I feared I would have nothing new to say to my friends who were jetting off to Israel, and Spain, and Martha’s Vineyard. My fears were groundless.
Starting in the far left corner of young adult room at the library I read Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. I was in the neighborhood of Concord, Massachusetts, the March’s neighborhood, when I decided, like Jo, to be a writer. Next came Sense and Sensibility. I was in the south of England when I learned the power of gossip. Then I nipped up north to Yorkshire reading Wuthering Heights. I was terrified by Heathcliff’s grief but excited by the beauty of the moors, sight and scent. I cried when Cathy died. The very next day I read Jane Eyre. Walking with Jane through Gateshead Hall, through Lowood, through Thornfield I discovered my own unmet longing for true shelter and lost home.
My travels, that week of reading, changed me. I had encountered typhus and scarlet fever and learned to fear them. I had discovered female defiance is sometimes rewarded. And love had a lot more to do with money than I knew. I learned some rich and powerful men drown puppies and others have babies with women not their wives.
At the end of the summer I had as much to talk about as any of my friends.
And so it is the summer and for my fifty-fifth birthday I have given myself a five-week round-the-world tour that began in Bombay, India.
Inside a Marathi-speaking orphanage (Vedi) with a blind well-to-do Punjabi child I discovered what it was to be afraid of your own body when you can’t see the world – and some of what it means to read Braille cells with all ten fingers. Then I travelled to the Belgium Congo circa 1959, the year of my birth, with four little white girls from Georgia (The Poisonwood Bible). That was a hard trip for this black woman -at the beginning. By the end, I wanted to hug Barbara Kingsolver’s neck for writing that book. After that it was on to Venice reading Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs.
There is this thing about traveling, everywhere you go, there you are. Everything you see you see through the very same eyes – even as what you see changes those eyes. And what I am seeing over and over – trauma and transcendence.
What I love about Vedi by Ved Mehta – how understated he is describing the horror of one day waking up blind and a day soon after being removed from your comfortable and prosperous home, abandoned to the squalor of an orphanage at the age of five because it was your father’s idea of your best hope for an education even if there was no one present to love you, or hold you, or even to casually touch you unless you engaged in “boy mischief” or were fortunate enough to get sick enough to go to the hospital. And in The Poisonwood Bible we have the horror the do-gooders perpetrate on themselves and those they might save.
Vedi, The Poisonwood Bible, and Bridge of Sighs are narratives that celebrate the human capacity to transform loss into the getting of wisdom, the making of art, a renewed capacity for love, and a new taste for lasting pleasures, including the pleasure of reading.
It’s that space where the border between you and other dissolves in a fashion that allows self and other to be more visible in ways that nurture both an awareness of what the self wants and the other deserves. It nurtures our authenticity and our conscience. When we read we are intimate with our soul-selves and the author’s soul-self – with no chance of injury – and so we are allowed, writer and reader, naked boldness.
Even if we travel gaping, and ignorant, constructing initial observations based on difference, ultimately great books wear us down till we discover commonality in the new and distant lands we encounter on our reading journeys.
Books are touchstones that bring us back to the self when we get lost in the world, and back to the world when we get lost in the self. And by doing this they refine our moral compass.
I sometimes prescribe a particular reading journey to a friend. To a friend contemplating a divorce I always suggest they read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. Most return from that trip with a heightened understanding of the importance of doing one’s duty and the place where doing your duty veers into imminent self-destruction.
To someone bored and broke I suggest a cheap and soul thrilling trip to the Maine Islands that can be accomplished by reading Sarah Orne Jewett’s tales of hard-scrabble farming lives called Country of the Pointed Firs. In the midst of losing all your money? A quick trip through The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells will do you more good than a winning trip to Vegas.
Emily is right. There is no Frigate like a Book. Next stop for me? Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. I’m ready for a trip to Argentina with a stop in Paris, but I’m really ready for a taste of radical experimentation. Hopscotch invites its readers to choose the order of the chapters. Glad I have four more weeks of vay-cay!