What Old Book Do I Read If … ?

by Carrie Hill Wilner

Happy Holidays, Hairpin. How’s locking yourself in the hallway bathroom with a mug full of wine going? You’ll come out when people RESPECT YOUR BOUNDARIES, that’s when you’ll come out. Better find a good old book to read in the meantime!

I wish I could just always only suggest old books to you forever, non-stop, for so long that during the time I am suggesting them, new books become old and we have MORE OLD BOOKS, which I would in turn suggest, and we would never die. However, I also want you to be able to meet your own old-book needs when I am not around because I’m out making $$$, raising children, drinking mugwine, whatever. And we’ve touched on a bunch of old books and one old movie that might solve your life-problems already. . . Forthwith, a chart to carry in your wallet.

Glad we have that covered, on to more new old books!

So my sister, she lives far away and I miss her lots!

We’re twins but we’re not gross and co-dependent or anything … our relationship is usually equal parts loving and annoying, we’ve always had different hobbies/interests/groups of friends, but we’ve also always lived at home together and had lots of time to hang, but now that we’re “grown-ups” and living far apart, things are a bit sucky-er 🙁 I need a good sisterly book to read so that I can tell her to read it too and then we can EMAIL and GCHAT about it like ADULTS!!!

So what’s a book about sisters who are not annoying like the Little Women but not terrible to each other like those bitches on Downton Abbey?

Wait, were the girls terrible to each other on Downton Abbey? I couldn’t tell because the whole time I was watching I was all “what are these buzzing flies getting in the way of my view of Lady Cora?” Also yes, correct on Little Women. Horrible Person Remix: when I read it and Beth died, I thought, thank god, now this book can stop sucking (and in fact it did, credit where credit is due).

I am jealous that you have a TWIN to talk to about BOOKS. Can I just extract your memories and live them myself like a demon? As an accommodation for your sacrifice, I offer you The Lost Queen of Egypt by Lucile Phillips Morrison. This book is what I would have talked about with my imaginary sister. I inherited my copy from my mom (along with my copy of Little Women, actually!). It was evocative and entertaining and challenging, and I so want it to be part of the collective pre-teen consciousness. Sorry, I know you wanted something to “GCHAT about like ADULTS,” but you have to work your way up there by Gchatting like an 11-year-old first.

So anyway, this book, it has sisters in it — it centers on the Egyptian princess Ankhesenpaaten, who eventually married King Tut, but it’s all about her growth and the court intrigues of the Amarna period as seen through her eyes. A lot of the story focuses on her relationship with her sisters who all have equally confusing names, but you’ll figure it out. (It is because of this book that Merytaten was my AOL screen name circa 1996, hi sad men of the old internet, how have you been?) There is a ton of running around sunny courtyards and splashing fountains with malevolent priests plotting nearby, then getting married off and separated — all the sister stuff. Also I guess it’s all about incest, but what are you gonna do.

It’s also pretty good on the actual history, not all Mysteries of the Pyramids, and it’s got the cozy about-old-stuff feeling without the fussiness of corsets. On the contrary, my copy has a three-color fronticepiece (?) backispiece (?) illustration, and there’s definitely a visible main-character nipple in it. That blithe grown-upness is unsurprising considering the sort of sophisticated, dishy pre-war style to the prose — Googling the author, it seems like she funded a modern dance scholarship at Scripps, collected dolls, and researched “the sex attitude,” all of which sounds pretty much right. This is literature for girls who would grow up to be Dames. YD (young Dame) novels, now a thing.

I AM SORRY that this is a pain in the ass recommendation since it’s basically an out-of-print YA book from the 1930s, but there are copies around the internet, and you should get one. Or two. Get two and send your sister one for the holidays. Or mail the one back and forth. Then you will both have a lovely, slightly recherche object and a shared experience, and it is like you yourselves are in a book about sisters! “Two Sisters and Their Nice Old Book.”

See? B00bz. (From the 1937 J.B. Lippincott Edition, decorations by Franz Geritz.)

In a fit of long-delayed gratification, my man and I are swanning off to Italy in January.

What old book set amidst the grandeur that Rome and/or the twisting canals of Venice do I read to gird myself for such beauty without setting ridiculously high aspirations that of course go unmet, leaving me sulking in the rain and eating crappy American food because we can’t find the trattoria that Lonely Planet says is right there?

It’s easy to forget, amid all the oldness, that Italy is actually a new country. It was broken up into a jillion different empires and kingdoms and protectorates and whatall until the 1830s, and regions still differ widely in terms of identity and culture and food and language and whatever else people do. If you can somehow find an old person who speaks Venetian dialect when you are there (probably not, it is only tourists, which sounds condescending, but shit, that’s not what I mean, it SHOULD be full of tourists because it is BEAUTIFUL, it is just kind of ravaged by economic forces, something Eurozone something something), do it — every other letter is “x,” it is crazy.

So, I just finished something that I think is going to be really good for you, too. It gives some perspective on this history and regionalism and both the influence of/isolation from the politics of western Europe, it has a ton of court intrigue, it has rich descriptions of palaces and prisons and beautiful natural settings, it is refreshingly frank and nonjudgemental about some pretty intense sexual politics, and it is really funny! Really funny, not “you will feel smart for understanding an old joke, but the old joke is not that good” funny. This magic book is Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendahl. It’s about the various adventures of Fabrizio del Dongo (which is a hilarious name, I am sorry), a Northern Italian nobleman who gets caught up first in the tug of war. . . or, uh, just the actual war between France and Austria, then ends up at Waterloo, then in the court at Parma, then prison, etc. etc. The description of the Battle of Waterloo is supposed to be really famous and realistic and influential, though I thought it was kind of slapstick (also good!), but that might be a function of the translation I was reading — Richard Howard’s — which I like a lot! It’s got a light, modern feel, without too many moments of weird anachronism: “and then Fabrizio was all, what the FUCK? What the serious fucking FUCK?” (Not an actual quote.) (Though he is, in fact, all like that, a lot, in spirit.)

Another thing I like is that while there’s some proclaiming on the Italian National Character, it’s usually at the expense of the French, and done playfully, not like “look at this pathetic/glorious confederacy of emotive manchildren and their incredible peasant food HOW DID THIS COME TO PASS,” which English-language books about Italy can tend toward. Yes, there are also originally-in-Italian books (really!), but the ones I’ve read tend to be dark and about junkies, because I was 19 when I was studying Italian, and obsessed with what I thought was authenticity. Haha, “oh yeah, you’ll have a great time in Italy! Don’t forget to have convulsions on the urine-splashed floor in the bathroom of the Ferrara train station! Must see, four stars!”

Also, just watch The Leopard. Didn’t we cover that already? I dunno, check the chart.

Previously: Clarissa!

Do you need an old book? Write Carrie for advice.

Carrie Hill Wilner likes to read.