Beginning with a Best American award-winning narrative, Kathleen Hill’s memoir explores defining moments of a life illuminated by novels, read in Nigeria and France and at home in New York. As a child in a music class where a remarkable teacher watches over a classmate marked for tragedy, the author by chance reads Willa Cather’s novel, Lucy Gayheart, and is prepared against her will for death by drowning. And prepared for the teacher’s confessions to the class of a frustrated ambition to become a pianist, her regret for a life that will never be. Later, recently married and living in a newly independent Nigeria, a teacher now herself, the author gives Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to her students and is instructed by them in the violent legacy of colonialism. And loses her American innocence when she visits a nearby abandoned slave port and connects its rusting shackles with the students sitting before her. Reading A Portrait of a Lady, also in Nigeria, she ponders her own new marriage through the lens of Isabel Archer’s cautionary fate, remembers her own adolescent fear that reading might be a way of avoiding experience. A few years later, this time in a town in northern France, haunted by Madame Bovary, by Emma’s solitude and boredom, she puts aside Flaubert’s novel and discovers in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest the poverty and suffering she had failed to see all around her. The memoir closes with a tender account of the author’s friendship with the writer, Diana Trilling, whose failing sight inspires a plan to read aloud Proust’s masterwork, an undertaking that takes six years to complete. Faced with Diana’s approaching death and the mysteries of her own life, the author wonders whether reading after all may not be experience at its most ardent, its most transforming.
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About the Author
Kathleen Hill is the author of two previous novels. Her first novel, Still Waters in Niger was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune. It was also selected for The Quality Paperback Book Club. The French translation, Eaux Tranquilles, was shortlisted for the Prix Femina Etranger. Her second novel Who Occupies This House was an editor’s choice at the New York Times Book Review. One essay included in She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons was selected as one of the Best American Short Stories as well as The Pushcart Prize XXV and The Pushcart Book of Short Stories; another, published in Ploughshares, went on to be released in an Amazon Kindle that was selected as One of the Best Kindle Singles of 2014. She teaches in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College.
Read an Excerpt
The Angle of a Landscape (Emily Dickinson)
And the child standing on her head in the grass in front of the house, looking at it upside down? Who sees that the two tall brick chimneys are the legs of the house, holding it up against the sky? That the chimney pots are its two round feet? She had always thought that the windows sticking out from the slates of the roof looked like eyebrows, peaked in the middle. Now she understands that instead they point to the underside of the house, that place between the legs.
This is the same child who, when she grows tired of fussing around in the grass this September afternoon, squashing the red yew berries and pulling the yellow stickiness between her fingers, goes to sit on the front steps, the one at the top with the black iron numbers nailed to its broad base: 122. It is here, sitting in the warm sunlight, that she picks up the reader she'd left there when she got home from school, the one she'd asked the teacher to give her from the cupboard in her first-grade classroom. Thinking of nothing in particular, the book open on her lap, she sees all at once how it is that the words taken one at a time give you a single thing to think about — a girl, a boat, the sea — but that taken together, in clumps, they tell a story. The same story the pictures tell: a girl named Alice is walking one day beside the blue sea.
Looking up from her book the child sees how everything in the afternoon around her is holding still — the boy slouched on his bike, arms hanging loose at his sides, the black cat crouching low on the wall across the street, even the fly on the page, rubbing its hind legs together. They must be inside a story, too, but she doesn't know what it is.
My harp is tuned to mourning. And my flute to the voice of those who weep. — Job 30:31
In Miss Hughes's seventh-grade music class, we were expected to sit without moving finger or foot while she played for us what she called "the music of the anointed." At a moment known only to herself, Miss Hughes opened the album of records ready at her elbow and, tipping her head from side to side, cautiously turned the leaves as if they had been the pages of a precious book. When she had found the 78 she was looking for, she drew it from its jacket and placed it on the spinning turntable. But before lowering the needle she took a moment to see that we were sitting as she had instructed: backs straight, feet on the floor, hands resting on our darkly initialed wooden desktops.
While the record was playing, Miss Hughes's face fell into a mask, her mouth drooping at the corners. A small woman in high heels, she stood at attention, hands clasped at her waist, shiny red nails bright against her knuckles. She wasn't young, but we couldn't see that she was in any way old. The dress she wore was close-fitting. Often it was adorned by a scarf, but not the haphazard affair some of our teachers attempted. Miss Hughes's scarf was chosen with care, a splash of blue or vermilion to enliven a somber day, and was generous enough to allow for a large, elegant loop tied between her breasts.
Most of us had turned twelve that year and were newly assembled at the high school. The spring before we had graduated from one or another of our town's four elementary schools, where we had stooped to water fountains and drawn time charts on brown paper. Now we watched with furtive interest while the juniors and seniors parked their cars with a single deft twist of the steering wheel. This was the grownup world we had been waiting for, fervently and secretly, but once here most of us knew we had still a long way to travel. Our limbs were ungainly, ridiculous. We twitched in our seats; our elbows and knees, scratched and scabbed, behaved like children's. We knew we couldn't lounge at our lockers with the proper air of unconcern, nor did we suppose we could sit upright and motionless for the duration of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah or a Beethoven sonata. Yet under Miss Hughes's surveillance, we learned to do so. If the grind of a chair's legs or a sigh reached her ears, Miss Hughes carefully lifted the needle from the spinning record and, staring vaguely into space, showing no sign that she recognized the source of the disturbance, waited until the room was silent before beginning again.
In other classes we doodled in our notebooks, drawing caricatures of our teachers, words streaming from their mouths in balloons. Small pink erasers flew through the air. On the Monday morning following a stormy bout with us on Friday, Mrs. Trevelyan, our math teacher, was tearful. "My weekend was ruined," she told us. "It troubles me very much when we don't get along together. Surely we can do better, can't we? If we make a little effort?" We looked at her with stony eyes. To our social studies teacher, Miss Guthrie, we were deliberately cruel. Her voice was high, her mouth was tense, and often when she spoke a tiny thread of spittle hung between her lips. If someone answered a question in a strangled voice, mimicking her, she pretended not to notice.
Miss Hughes neither cajoled nor ignored us. Instead she made us her confidants. Music class met on Friday afternoons and through the windows the dusty autumn sunlight fell in long strips across our backs and onto the wooden floor. Behind us, flecked with high points of light, trees lined one end of the playing field. It was hard to tell, turning to look after a record had wound to its end, if the sun was striking to gold a cluster of leaves still green and summery or if a nighttime chill had done it.
The class always followed the same turn: first, Miss Hughes dictated to us what she called "background," pausing long enough for us to take down what she said in the notebooks we kept specially for her class, or for her to write on the blackboard a word we might not know how to spell. To what class of stringed instruments does the pianoforte belong? We wrote: The pianoforte belongs to the dulcimer class of stringed instruments. Or: Name several forerunners of the pianoforte. Several forerunners of the pianoforte are the clavichord, the virginal, the harpsichord, the spinet. If giggles rose involuntarily in our throats at the word "virginal," we managed to suppress them.
Following dictation, which she delivered without comment or explanation, she would ask us to assume our "postures." We had already written down the name of the piece we were about to hear, its composer, and usually some fact having to do with its performance — on the harpsichord, the third movement of Mozart's Sonata in A Major, otherwise known as the "Turkish March," played by Wanda Landowska. After she had set the needle on its course, we were for the moment alone with ourselves, a fact we were given to understand by the face wiped clean of all expression she held before us. We were then free to think of whatever we liked: a nightmare we had almost forgotten from the night before; a dog shaking water from its back, the drops flying everywhere like rain; a plan we had made with a friend for the weekend. Or we were free simply to watch the dust floating in the shafts of sunlight, to follow a path the sounds led us up and down.
We marveled that Miss Hughes always knew exactly when to turn and lift the needle, that she knew without looking when the record was almost over. After she had replaced the arm in its clasp, she turned her full attention to us. "You have just heard, boys and girls, in the 'Turkish March,' a great virtuoso performance. What do I mean by 'virtuoso'? A virtuoso performance is one executed by an instrumentalist highly skilled in the practice of his art, one who is able to bring to our ears music that we would otherwise go to our graves without hearing. The first great virtuosi pianists were Liszt and the incomparable Chopin, both of whom you will meet in due course.
"In fact, boys and girls," she said, lowering her voice a little so that we had to lean forward to hear, "we have our own virtuosi pianists, ones who regularly perform close by in New York City, only half an hour's ride away on the train from Pelham. You have heard the name Arthur Rubinstein, perhaps? You have heard the name Myra Hess? These are artists whose work you must do everything in your power to appreciate firsthand. We go to sleep at night, we wake in the morning, we blink twice and our lives are over. But what do we know if we do not attend?"
Miss Hughes suddenly held up her two hands in front of us, red fingernails flashing. "You will see, boys and girls, I have a fine breadth of palm. My fingers are not as long as they might be, but I am able to span more than an octave with ease. Perhaps you do not find that remarkable. But I assure you that for a woman a palm of this breadth is rare. I had once a great desire to become a concert pianist myself. A very great desire. And I had been admitted to study at Juilliard with a teacher of renown. A teacher, Carl Friedberg, who in his youth in Frankfurt had been the student of Clara Schumann. Who had heard Liszt interpret his own compositions. When I went for my audition, when I entered the room where the piano was waiting and Mr. Friedberg was sitting nearby, I was afraid. I do not hide that from you, boys and girls, I was very much afraid. But as soon as I began to play Chopin's Polonaise in A flat, a piece that requires much busy finger work by the left hand and a strong command of chords, I was so carried away by the fire of the music that I forgot the teacher. I forgot the audition. I forgot everything except the fact that I was now the servant of something larger than myself. When I reached the end and looked up — and I was in a bit of a daze, I may tell you — the great teacher's eyes were closed. He bowed his head once, very simply. That was all. I left the room. Soon afterward I received a letter assuring me that he would be proud to have me as his student."
Miss Hughes's face had registered the sweep of feelings she was recounting to us. Her eyes had narrowed with her great desire to be a pianist; entering the audition room, her jaw had grown rigid with fear; and while the great teacher had sat listening to her play, her face had assumed the look we were familiar with, the mask. Now her dark eyes took on a dreamy expression we had not yet seen. She seemed to be looking for words in a place that absorbed all her attention, over our heads, out the window, beyond.
"It was that winter, boys and girls, that my destiny revealed itself to me. Everything I had hoped for, worked for, practicing seven hours each day after I had finished giving lessons — everything was snatched away in a single instant. I will tell you how it happened. Because someday in your own lives you may wake to a new world in which you feel a stranger. And you will know, if by chance you remember our conversation here today, that someone — no, my dear boys and girls, many others, a host of others, have also risen to a dark morning.
"A friend, a friend whom I loved, had asked if I would accompany him on a skiing trip to Vermont. Of course I said yes. Why should I not? We were to spend a day on the slopes. I was a great skier — my father had taught me when I was a child — and I looked forward to this holiday with the greatest excitement. I had been working hard that winter, too hard. It may have been fatigue that in the end brought about my ruin. Because taking a turn that at any other time I might have managed with ease, my legs shot out from beneath me. I let go of my pole and put out my hand, as any good skier knows not to do. Instead of fracturing a leg or a hip, both of which I might easily have spared, I injured my left hand, breaking three fingers that never properly healed."
This time Miss Hughes raised her left hand alone. She must have been about to point out to us the fatally injured fingers when the bell rang and she immediately dropped her arm. "To each of you a pleasant weekend, boys and girls," she said, turning to replace her records in their sleeves.
By class the following Friday we had other things to think about, and perhaps she did as well. We had just listened to Bach's Fugue in G Minor, for the purpose of learning to recognize the sound of the oboe — and the room for once had an air not of enforced constraint but of calm — when Miss Hughes lifted her head and, looking out the window, told us that there was one of us, sitting now in our midst, who listened to music in a manner quite unlike the rest. "He listens as if for his life, boys and girls, and it is in this manner that the music of the anointed was written. For the composer, the sounds struggling in his imagination are a matter of life and death. They are as necessary to him as the air he breathes."
She kept us in no more suspense, but allowed her gaze to rest on a boy who always sat, no matter the classroom, at the end of a row. We had scarcely noticed him at all, those of us who had not gone to elementary school with him. But there he sat, at this moment, blushing. His hair was sandy, his face was freckled, and he wore glasses with clear, faintly pinkish rims. His name was Norman de Carteret, a name that in a room full of Daves and Mikes and Steves we found impossible to pronounce without lifting our eyebrows. During the first week of September, Miss Hughes had asked him how he would like us to say his last name, and he had answered quietly, so quietly we could scarcely hear him, that it was Carteret, pronouncing the last syllable as if it were the first letter of the alphabet. The "de" he swallowed entirely.
"Then," Miss Hughes had said, "your father or his father must have come from France, the country that gave us Rameau, that invaluable spirit who for the first time set down the rules of harmony. The country to which we are indebted as well for Debussy, who accomplished what might have been thought impossible: he permitted us to hear the sound of moonlight."
I knew something about Norman the others didn't. My mother had lived in our town as a child and occasionally met on the street someone she would later explain was once a friend of her mother's, dead long ago when my mother was sixteen. Hilda Kelleher was one of these friends, even a cousin of sorts, and lived in a large, brown-shingled Victorian house, not far from the station. A wide porch, in summer strewn with wicker rocking chairs, ran along the front and disappeared around one side. The other end of the house was flanked by tall pines that in winter received the snow. Hilda was of an uncertain age — older than my mother, but maybe not a full generation older. Her hair was dyed bright yellow, and when she smiled her mouth twitched up at one corner, uncovering teeth with traces of lipstick on them. Hilda had never married, but there was nothing strange in that. The town was full of old houses in which single women who had grown up in them lived on with their aging mothers, going "to business," teaching in the schools, supplementing their incomes in whatever ways they could. I supposed that they, too, had been girls, just as I was then, walking on summer nights beneath streetlights that threw leafy shadows on the sidewalks, that they, too, had listened to the murmur of voices drifting from screened porches, had heard the clatter of passing trains and dreamed of what would happen to them next. But life had passed them by, that was clear.
Hilda had dealt with the problem of dwindling resources by taking in boarders. An aunt of my mother's, a retired art teacher who, as my mother used to say, "had no one in the world," was looking for a place to live. One afternoon in late summer, just before school opened, my mother visited Hilda to inquire about arrangements and I went with her. While they sat talking in rocking chairs on the front porch, I discovered around to the side a swing hanging from four chains. It was easy to imagine sitting there on summer nights behind a screen of vines, morning glories closed to the full moon, listening to the cicadas. Swinging back and forth I could hear their voices, my mother's telling Hilda how Aunt Ruth had lived in Mrs. Hollingsworth's house in Tarrytown, how this arrangement would seem familiar to her. I heard Hilda saying how glad she was that a room was available, that we would look at it in a moment. She went on to say that one boarder, who had been with her a year, had moved out of the room into a smaller one that better suited his means. Did my mother know a Mr. de Carteret? He had a son who was going to the high school, she thought, in the fall. The son lived with the mother but came to visit the father on Saturdays. The terrible thing was that when he came the father wouldn't open the door of his room to him.
Excerpted from "She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons"
Copyright © 2017 Kathleen Hill.
Excerpted by permission of Delphinium Books, Inc..
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