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Pythonga

Our dog was misbehaving in Pythonga so every morning after breakfast I’d take him for a long walk up the road. There he’d run ahead of me, into the woods, then scamper back, checking in with me. It was raspberry and almost blackberry season, so I brought a small tub with me, filling its base. That gave me uber-fresh berries for my midday salad, for my morning fruit and yogurt.

I didn’t like the reason for the walk — that our dog couldn’t be trusted alone — but the (ha!) fruit it bore seemed some kind of karmic payback. Bad dog; good fruit.

Some days that 20 minute walk was my sole exercise. My Pythonga this year was lazy: no hike up the mountain, no portage into Stony Creek, no morning kayak to Lac Moore. It was cold some days and nights; I’d make a fire indoors, curl up beside it, read, nap. I swam, but not my usual to the island and back. It was still Pythonga, of course: shore lunches, star gazing, before and after dinner cocktails and conversation. Reading: on the porch, on the dock, in a boat on a beach. Also talk of books: last year’s hits, this year’s maybes, the forevers.*

The read that made me happiest: Cathleen Shine’s newly published Fin & Lady. Eleven-year year old Fin is orphaned; he leaves his Connecticut farm to live with his 24-year-old half-sister, who is fabulous, beautiful, undependable. It is 1964. They live in Greenwich Village and become a family, of sorts, along with Lady’s three suitors, who invade at cocktail hour. Who is narrating this smart, sweet tale? To find out, you’ll have to follow Lady, and then Fin, to the sun-kissed ancient island of Capri.

Coming-of-age novels come in all varieties: James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime (1967) tells the story of a Yale dropout’s erotic liaison with a beautiful but not very bright French girl. Salter’s writing is exquisite; his descriptions of rural France and Paris are cinematic. My sole complaint: erotica, in general, is a thrill and a bore.

More pleasing in the canon of unequal-love literature: Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi, first published serially in Japan in 1924. An engineer from an upstanding family takes in a teenage waitress whose family runs a brothel; he aims to make her over into a woman who could be his wife. Naomi is an unusual beauty, often mistaken for the American actress Mary Pickford. Naomi plays along, pretending to study English and ballroom dancing, overspending on delivered food and clothing…all the while keeping up love affairs with younger men. When the engineer discovers her duplicity, he runs her out of their home…but she keeps coming back, teasing him. A strange, intoxicating read.

I picked up and put down and picked up Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War, a non-fiction account of London writers during the Blitz. Every day could bring death…how would you behave? (This is a scholarly work, well written and researched.)

Never a bore and always a thrill: the fiction of Carl Hiaasen. His latest, Bad Monkey, sets a disgraced Key West detective on a hunt for a Medicare fraudster who fakes his own death. Of course there’s a monkey involved…and he is very, very bad. Also a voodoo priestess and a hapless Northerner, trying to flip a waterside monstrosity. A smart, sleazy read.

I’m back in Chicago; my (bad) dog still in Quebec. I go to the farmer’s market alone, and buy peaches and string beans and flowers. It’s good to be home, but I am missing my dog, and that walk, and those berries, and unbroken hours to read.

* Canada, by Richard Ford. A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers. John Updike’s “Rabbit” series.

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My sister Mary Beth settled into the porch hammock each day, steadily making her way through Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cat’s Table,” a book I’d loved and given her earlier in the year.

Ah, Pythonga: There’s nowhere better to give yourself over to a book. It’s quiet, the lake shimmers, there’s few chores. Breakfast and dinner are served in or beside the dining hall; lunch is packed — or caught — and bought to a beach, where we share the midday meal (and sometimes too much to drink) with friends and family. The lake and its awesome beauty, those shared meals: the magic of Pythonga.

Speaking of magic, Susan Nussbaum’s “Good Kings Bad Kings” is that rare piece of fiction that takes us to an uncomfortable place — a state facility for disabled children — and holds us. Interested, moved, humored, shocked. If that’s not impressive enough, the story is told by a chorus: residents, staff, and a ditzy employee of the for-profit business that’s been hired to manage the home. More amazing: this is Nussbaum’s first novel. (She is a playwright.)

Be patient: it takes time to see where this story is going. Eventually, there’s more than one endearing romance, a whole bunch of fights and a pencil stabbing, rape, death, and a street-style protest.

I loved this book, especially its sweet, spot-on ending. Even the author’s acknowledgements are worth a read; just lovely. (This one’s for you, Lucie.)

Another good read, from a dentist in Cairo. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Allaa Al Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building” is another chorus, centered on one apartment complex. It’s difficult to follow. That’s a small quibble, because these individual voices become full-bodied characters, with hopes and dreams and terrible disappointments. If you’re wondering what it is to live in contemporary Cairo, this is your book. Corruption, class stagnation, the lure of Islam and terrorism, forced abortions, homosexual hate-crimes. That said, its ending charms; it’s a balm. I didn’t see it coming.

Finally, I liked and then I didn’t Benjamin Lytal’s “A Map of Tulsa.” An East Coast college student returns to Tulsa for the summer with no plans to work. He will read, and study. (Huh? His parents are schoolteachers.) Ok, never mind. The girl he pursues is a knockout, and a wonderful character: heiress, dropout, painter, singer. All good, and mildly erotic. If it had ended when their affair did — when he leaves  to return to school — I would have admired this, a first novel, very nicely written. But it goes on, and on, devolving into a deathbed vigil.

I’ll be back in Pythonga at the end of month. I have a stack — and dibs on the hammock.

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I read all the time but there’s one place on earth I read most: Club Lac Pythonga in Quebec. My husband’s family has had a summer home there since the 1960’s. It’s a magical place deep in the woods, cut off from the Internet, cell phones, newspapers, cars. A central kitchen serves family dinners, freeing home cooks from planning, shopping and preparing meals. (That defines “vacation” for me.)  There’s a long clear lake, great for distance swims or just hopping in to cool off. Sandy beaches and boat docks give us space to sun, play, socialize — and read.

I am just returned from Pythonga, where I read and loved three novels, two newly published and one from the 1930’s.

Thad Ziolkowski’s “Wichita” (Europa Editions, 2012) is the heartwrenching story of Lewis Chopik, newly graduated from Columbia University, returned home with an emotional limp. His longtime girlfriend V., an enchanting but demanding academic, has left him for a more promising man.

Even though she’s offstage, V. is very much present: Lewis pines for her and her classy East Coast life, all of which he’s lost. It’s an important contrast, because Lewis’s home life in Wichita is the flip side. It’s the kooky, sometimes sleazy, often frightening middle of America.

Lewis’s mother Abby is a beautiful nut; she runs a small ponzi game among friends and has just opened a storm-chasing business. One of her boyfriends lives inside the house; the other lives in a tent beside the house. Brother Seth is also home, a self-medicating bi-polar college drop out. Seth’s death-wish is the central story of this book.

Ziolkowski is a poet; this is a finely wrought book with interesting, dimensional characters. Abby, in particular, is more grounded than she first appears.

Dawn Powell’s “Turn, Magic Wheel,” (1936) is the book to read if last year’s “Rules of Civility,” by Amor Towles, left you wanting more 1930’s New York. Powell (1896 -1965) was a Greenwich Village writer of novels, plays, screenplays and short stories.

“Turn, Magic Wheel” is the drama of a life story stolen, for literary gain.

Effie Callingham is the loyal first wife of a Hemingway-like author who abandoned her. Dennis Orphen, a novelist, befriends the lovely Effie, then betrays her by writing a book based on her oddly stalled life. This is a delicious premise, and Powell makes us feel Effie’s hurt.

A witty, wonderful satire of New York literary life in the 1930’s.

I finished my week of lakeside reading with Richard Ford’s “Canada,” (Harper Collins, 2012.) In Grand Falls, Montana fifteen-year old Dell Parsons narrates the 1960 summer that changes his life, when his seemingly wholesome parents rob a South Dakota bank.

Ford keeps us in Grand Falls and the Parsons home for a good long time; we come to know and like his parents and his twin sister. With Dell, we mourn this family’s dissolution.

Their parents imprisoned, his twin runs away. Dell is taken to a friend’s family in Saskatchewan, where he is cared for and employed by a hotel owner with a dark American past.

This one gave me book grief: it’s so good I didn’t want it to end, and once it did, nothing I pick up can compare.

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When I describe our place in Quebec, few people can fathom our unplugged life. No television, telephone, cell calls or texts, no computers, newspapers or mail service, no stores nearby, no need to get in a car. Yes, we have a roof, beds, bathrooms, running water, comfy couches, electricity.

We’re not camping.

gidvalIndeed, certain services at Club Pythonga are downright luxurious: blocks of Ice, cut from the lake during the winter, are delivered to the cabin daily. The ice keeps food and drink cold and in the evening, we take a chunk of ice, smash it into rough cubes, and use it in our cocktails.

We don’t keep a lot cold: there’s a central kitchen, and everyone who’s “in camp” eats together, breakfast and dinner, at the dining hall or at picnic tables outside.

It’s truly a vacation when someone else is cooking.

Shared meals create a time when families and generations come together. (At its August peak, Pythonga draws 100 people.) Sure, the teenagers sit at one table — not texting! — but when one gets up for another helping, he’ll stop and chat with someone else’s grandfather, or tease one of the high-chaired babies.

What does it mean to spend a few weeks unplugged?

During the day it’s easy to spend time sunning or reading or hiking or swimming. At night, after dinner, what’s there to do? Some nights we look at the stars. Others we play hearts, or Scrabble, or poker. The kids play a card game called Spoons: it’s fast, and loud.

Mostly, we visit.

Visit? Typically it’s an invitation to come by after dinner, to sit on a screened-in porch or inside by a fire, drink and talk and maybe look at photos from the day’s outing. We talk about books, bourbon, who’s catching fish and how he’s doing it. The Pleiades, and whether they’re the source of this summer’s shooting stars. Isaac’s inner-city 8th graders, and what they should read. The future of newspapers. Heath care.

Like the kids, we get loud; we laugh a lot. But outside, it’s quiet, and when we leave a cabin for our own it’s so dark we need a flashlight to find our way.

We have everything in this life of ours; some weeks the greatest pleasure is doing without.

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