Airplane Reading, Portuguese Décor and the Young Ashbery

Molly Young is on leave for the next several months. In her absence, colleagues from the Book Review will pick up the recommendation torch and appear in your inbox every two Saturdays.

Dear readers,

It was the day I found myself weeping over a purse during the final minutes of “Sex and the City 2,” miles above Omaha, that I came to truly believe in the powers of mild altitude hypoxia. This is, of course, the phenomenon in which the reduced rates of oxygen in flight may result in heightened emotional responses — and I love it. For those of us who find it hard to turn off our brains, whose entire viewing experience can be ruined by a single anachronism or grammatical error, who are tiresome even to ourselves — well, suspending that hectoring critic is a vacation in itself.

And it’s true for books, too! On a recent red-eye, it made sense to sob at the heart-rending conclusion of “Giovanni’s Room”; never has claustrophobia been more freeing than in James Baldwin’s precision-cut classic. But crying when Monroe Boston Strause finally hits upon the formula for chiffon filling in his 1939 memoir, “Pie Marches On”? It may have been cathartic, but it was time for a melatonin. (“Sex and the City 2” is, after all, frame for frame one of the worst movies ever made.)

These books hold up at any altitude.

Sadie Stein

This Portuguese family-saga-meets-coming-of-age-drama-meets-romance by one of the greatest of the 19th-century realists (just ask Zola!) is incredibly, improbably fun. José Maria de Eça de Queirós was prolific, and all of his work is characterized by a keen eye for human folly and material detail — but this novel is undoubtedly my favorite. Long? Yes, but it’s a page-turner. And Margaret Jull Costa’s 2007 translation renders it a pure bedtime pleasure, its heft a comfort rather than a burden.

As if the multigenerational story of shocking marriages, changing Lisbon mores, high-society affairs and arrogant young gentlemen getting taken down a few pegs were not enough, “The Maias” also features incredibly vivid descriptions of the era’s décor. To wit: “At the end of the corridor lay Alfonso’s study, furnished like a prelate’s chambers in red damasks. Everything in the room — the solid rosewood desk, the low shelves made from carved oak, the sober opulence of the bindings on the books — combined to create an austere air of studious peace, reinforced by a painting attributed to Rubens.”

Read if you like: Flaubert, Dickens, Visconti (“The Leopard” is an obvious comparison), “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Portugal, velvet
Available from: Your local library; wherever fine books are sold. (I got my copy at Idlewild, when they still sold books!)

Roffman’s was the first biography to look closely at the early life of the famously private Ashbery — who, according to conventional wisdom, made a point of avoiding the autobiographical in his poetry. This fluent, engrossing portrait makes a persuasive argument for the importance of youthful influences: the upstate farm and verdant landscape that show up, elliptically, in so much of the poet’s work; the books and music that introduced the precocious teenager to the larger world of art; the death of his beloved brother.

Roffman knew Ashbery, and had access to his childhood journals, his juvenilia and his Deerfield and college archives, so the result is intimate and detailed. She ends the book when Ashbery is in his late 20s and on the verge of success, but that gives us plenty of delicious glimpses into the electric early days of the New York School: his charismatic best friend Frank O’Hara, the surly Beats, the artists and dancers and avant-garde musicians, many of them queer, of bohemian New York — plus O’Hara’s weird Harvard roommate, the seemingly ubiquitous “Ted” Gorey.

It’s a must-read for Ashbery enthusiasts, but you don’t need to love or even like poetry to appreciate this story of growing up in an era when artistic potential felt limitless and the life of the mind was as vivid (almost) as that of Greenwich Village evenings.

Read if you like: “Kafka Was the Rage,” Elaine Dundy, Larry Rivers, Fire Island and, of course, anything by Ashbery, O’Hara or Kenneth Koch
Available from: Your local library; wherever fine books are sold

  • Do a little spring cleaning? As a penniless young poet in 1970s New York, Bob Rosenthal signed on with a temp agency cleaning houses. But houses, of course, mean people. And people mean feelings, relationships, the unexpected. Rosenthal’s resulting book, “Cleaning Up New York,” is a deeply humane, often hilarious and ultimately moving little treatise on intimacy. As to cleaning tips? Dirt always wins.

  • Exercise your green thumb? I don’t remember how “The Flower Shop,” a photo book about the gorgeous Viennese florist Blumenkraft, came into my life. But it’s an idiosyncratic commentary on what the subtitle itself terms (endearingly) “charm, grace, beauty, tenderness in a commercial context.” Think of it as a documentary in book form: a glimpse into the life of a business and the people who have devoted their lives to it.

  • Pull yourself together, damn it? From the legendary grande dame decorator Dorothy Draper — whom one suspects subscribed to the “brisk walk” school of therapeutic treatment — comes a quote I have pinned above my desk for those many days when I’m tempted to be antisocial: “‘The Will to be Dreary’ is a morose little imp which whispers to us that something which we know would be fun would be too much trouble, will take too much time, is too expensive and probably wouldn’t be as amusing after all as just now you think it would be. Now don’t listen to that voice. Tune it out.”

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