Wish You Were Here—Well, Maybe Not


Lauren Baratz-Logsted

I’m forty-eight now and my mother is eighty-seven. This means that we’ve had a lot of years together in which to have some of the same conversations over and over again. One I can count on having repeated on a semi-regular basis goes something like this:

Her (having seen some latest horror on the news): I worry about the world my grandchildren will inherit.

Me: Yes, well, each generation has its problems and its joys.

Her: It was better in the good old days.

Me: Which good old days would those be? When Nazis were peeling skin off Jews and using that skin for lampshades?

Her: Maybe not then but…

And so we go. But lately I’ve been thinking maybe Mom is right. After all, she’s turned out to be right about a few other things, like the advisability of always wearing non-ratty underwear just in case. So I decided to take a ride on time’s arrow heading backward through literary history, exploring beloved books set in previous time periods to see if maybe—just maybe—I might be better off living in a previous time. Care to join me?

Fludd, Hilary Mantel, 1956. Before becoming uber-famous for penning the uber-lauded novel Wolf Hall, Ms. Mantel was somewhat famous for writing quirky novels like this one set in the village of Fetherhoughton, where the eponymous character arrives, ostensibly sent by the curate to assist the local padre, but instead eliciting quite a confession from him. I do believe in the charms of the 1950s, thanks to old I Love Lucy reruns, but I don’t think my daughter would ever forgive me if I moved us to a decade where whole groups of people feel free to light up their cigarettes indoors on a regular basis.

What I Saw and How I Lied, Judy Blundell, 1947. The winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, this mystery centers on teenage Evie who takes a road trip to Florida with her gorgeous mother and her WWII vet stepfather, only to find romance with an older man and murder. Ah, noir! Who doesn’t want a little noir in their lives? Particularly if it’s me and there’s a pinot inserted before the noir. Alas, the 1940s are forever cast in black and white in my mind and no amount of Ted Turner colorizations will do. I’m just too colorful to live in black and white.

The Power of One, Bryce Courtenay, 1939. A coming of age story about, well, the power of one as young Peekay confronts apartheid in South Africa and learns to kick a soccer ball as WWII encroaches. This book is a charmer and one of the few during my tenure as a bookseller that I was sure I could give to just about any reader and have them be satisfied. But in real life I can’t imagine a greater trifecta of anathematic-to-me items than apartheid, Nazis and soccer.

Face the Winter Naked, Bonnie Turner, 1920s. A two-track story about a WWI vet who hits the road during the Great Depression in an attempt to make enough money to send back to the wife he’s left behind to take care of the homestead and the kids. This book has echoes in our current economic plight and also contains one of the finest-crafted scenes I’ve ever read of a character keeping her head and acting coolly while all around her is chaos. Still, while I love Face the Winter Naked, I’d hate to face the winter naked.

Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz, 1910. Mr. Mahfouz didn’t win the Nobel Prize for nothing. In fact, while the award is given for a body of work rather than a single book, most readers would point to this book and the two other books in the Cairo Trilogy—Palace of Desire and Sugar Street—as the prime cause of his receiving that honor. I can still remember the novelty of reading that first book, the feeling that I was being exposed to a real look at a foreign-to-me culture as I took in the matriarch of this family who for twenty-five years had only seen outside her home through a little hole in the wall. I’m sorry, though, I just can’t wear a burqa.

Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns, 1906. If your widower grandfather had just eloped with a woman half his age by the name of Miss Love Simpson—and a Yankee, no less!—I’ll wager you’d be scandalized too. Did I use “charming” to describe a previous book here? I should have been more patient. This book defines “charming” and has pretty much cornered the market on “delightful” too. And talk about scenes indelibly etched in one’s mind forever! When the youthful narrator saves himself from a train speeding towards him on a trestle by . . . well, you’ll just have to read it yourself. Charming and delightful as this book is, I can’t possible live in 1906 because I’d never be smart enough to save myself from that train.

Finn, Jon Clinch, 1885. By the time this essay goes live, no doubt all readers will be familiar with the title Kings of the Earth, the second novel by Mr. Clinch which was published on July 6 and is already picking up rave reviews across the country. The subject of his first book, though, was Huck Finn’s brutal father. Not many writers are brave enough to test their own talents against the creation of a Mark Twain and no other writer could have succeeded this smashingly. But I can literally feel the heat and the swamp and the flies and they didn’t have any Deet in 1885.

The Queen Of Bedlam, Robert McCammon, 1700. New York City in the 1700s! Murder! Madness! Bedlam! Oh, right. But there’s also no indoor plumbing.

The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas, père, 1625. Athos! Porthos! Aramis! D’Artagnan! Swordplay! But no indoor plumbing.

The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare, Stephanie Cowell,1580. The title really says it all, doesn’t it? I love Shakespeare. I love his plays. I love the 116th sonnet—well, except for the final couplet, which is rather weak. I love nonfiction about him and I love this fictional book about him. One thing I do not love? A lack of indoor plumbing.

The Birth Of Venus, Sarah Dunant, 1400. A young woman falls for a man hired to decorate the walls of her family’s chapel only to be married off by that same family to a much older man whose advantage is his great wealth. Oh, I do love romance! I do love Florence! You know what I don’t love? No indoor plumbing.

Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset, 1300. This Icelandic trilogy has everything and it was even written well before that Girl Who blah-blah-blah trilogy grabbed all the attention, so no one can blame Ms. Undset for being a Scandinavian coattail-rider. Too bad there’s no indoor plumbing.

The Three Edwards, Thomas B. Costain, 1272. Rather than the iambic pentameter Shakespeare used for the same subject, Mr. Costain employs plain prose to cover the good and the bad of the Plantagenets. It’s only a shame he couldn’t find some indoor plumbing to go with that.

The New Testament. Sorry, but a Jew like me could find herself crucified there. But at least the Romans had indoor plumbing.

The Old Testament. I’ve always been a spider-fearing person, meaning snakes typically hold no power to frighten me, but that serpent looks like a doozy. I think I’d best pass.

And there you have it! I believe I have conclusively proven that while I love being an armchair time-traveler through fiction, the time to live in for me is right here and now and with indoor toilets. I love where I am in 2010 and, if I’m lucky enough to still be here, I’ll love 2011 too. Sorry, Mom. At least I’m still listening to you about the underwear.

Books mentioned in this column:
Fludd by Hilary Mantel (Owl Books, 2000)
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell (Scholastic, 2008)
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay (Ballantine Books, 1990)
Face the Winter Naked by Bonnie Turner (Lulu.com, 2010)
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (Doubleday, 1990)
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns (Mariner, 2007)
Finn by Jon Clinch (Random House, 2007)
The Queen Of Bedlam by Robert McCammon (Pocket Books, 2007)
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, père (Penguin Classics, 2007)
The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare by Stephanie Cowell (W.W. Norton, 1997)
The Birth Of Venus by Sarah Dunant (Random House, 2004)
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (Penguin, 2005)
The Three Edwards by Thomas B. Costain (Doubleday, 1958)
The New Testament
The Old Testament

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Lauren Baratz-Logsted has sold twenty-three books to six publishers since 2003. Her published novels include The Thin Pink Line and Vertigo for adults; The Education of Bet for teens, Me, In Between for tweens; and the first five of The Sisters 8, a nine-book series for young readers, co-written with her novelist husband Greg Logsted and their ten-year-old daughter Jackie. Later in 2010 she'll have two more books published, including the sixth title in The Sisters 8 series and the YA novel The Twin's Daughter. Lauren still lives in Danbury, CT, where she writes and reads pretty much all the time. You can read more about Lauren’s life and work (and contact her) at her personal website and the Sisters 8 site. Contact Lauren.



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