Peg Bracken’s Literary Chops: in which I offer money to anyone who can confirm my suspicion that Nicholson Baker is a Peg Bracken fan

IMG_5481One of the things I like about Peg Bracken — this holds through all of her books — is that even if she’s writing about things that are — let’s call them mundane, though I’m tempted to call them trivial, even though I don’t actually think they are trivial at all — she throws these bits of erudition at you that make you remember that she’s really writing for you — she’s giving you all the credit in the world for having much better things to do, and having spent a lot of time doing them. For example, reading is a high-priority activity on Planet Bracken. You can tell by how she scatters literary bits throughout the books. Chapter 4 of The I Hate to Housekeep Book opens with a little epigram from Christopher Fry (“What, after all, is a halo? It’s only one more thing to keep clean.”) and closes with a bit from Peter de Vries (“What’s the panel discussion about?” “The Ordeal of Modern Women is the subject!” “You mean those two cars, automatic dishwasher, beautiful house in the suburbs but Something’s Missing? That ordeal?”). This kind of thing just wouldn’t happen in a housekeeping manual written today, I’m pretty sure. Cheryl Mendelson’s more than capable of it, but I think she’d feel that a household manual isn’t the place to get clever: that it’s a waste of the reader’s time to slip little literary jokes into the text. She does seem like a very serious person, after all.

But Peg Bracken is full of clever asides, quips that make you laugh while you’re sitting there thinking about dusting the furniture, though obviously, since you’re on the couch, you are not actually doing it. Lest you think I’m implying that Bracken was an intellectual snob, I can assure you she is not, and this is demonstrated by the fact that while she’s quoting Fry and DeVries (whose names might not be household words now, but they certainly were when Bracken was writing her books, and they were respectable names, too), she speaks in no uncertain terms of the joys of reading trash as well.  Back in the Bride’s Own ABC (discussed in an earlier post), she talks about how Great-Grandma didn’t wax the furniture, but just dusted quickly with a polish-soaked cloth she fished out of her Mason jar (take that, hipsters), and “had time to sit down and read Love or Lechery: The Story of a Good Girl’s Temptation, and a rattling good story it was, too.”
In other words, Peg Bracken wouldn’t mind you reading pretty much anything, except, I suppose, the manual that came with the vacuum cleaner, unless you were really in a pinch.

Now, one of the funny aspects of re-reading this Peg Bracken book is that on examination today – I think the critics would call this a close reading — an explication de texte, for those of you who insist on being jerks — it’s come to my attention that direct lines can be drawn from the works of Peg Bracken to the works of a writer I admire very much but would never have thought to connect to Peg Bracken. This would be Nicholson Baker, who is one of the funniest writers going (when he’s not writing about World War II, don’t get me wrong, not all of his books are funny). It is suddenly very clear to me that Baker must have read Peg Bracken growing up. He grew up in the 1960s; his mother, from what I can tell of her, is the kind of woman who would have had Peg Bracken books around; and I would bet $50 that Baker read these books over and over again, probably while sitting at the kitchen table eating sugary breakfast cereal. I suspect that a significant amount of his comic tone, his phrasing, was adopted unconsciously from Bracken. If anyone can put me in touch with Nicholson Baker to discuss this, let me know. (And if I’m wrong, and Mr. Baker says, “Peg who? I have no idea who you’re talking about,” then I will concede defeat. But look at my two fast examples, and tell me there are no similarities.)

I had to get in touch with my husband to confirm some of this, because I couldn’t remember what it was, exactly, that made Bracken’s dismissive take on “how to make ironing fun” seem so Baker to me. She disses the women’s magazines that tell you to put on a Fresh House Dress and open a window to catch the cool breeze, saying, “This is a lot of clam juice.” I re-read that sentence and thought, “Nicholson Baker.” Naturally I couldn’t think WHY I was having this thought, so I emailed the Gourmensch and explained my problem. He wrote back almost immediately and said, “It’s in The Anthologist. “Now, people are going to feed you a lot of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’ll say, “Oh, ho, ho! Iambic pentameter!””
And he is correct. (Almost correct. The actual line is, “People are going to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’re going to say, Oh ho ho, iambic pentameter!” But my husband’s paraphrase is ridiculously close to Baker’s original, so I’m giving him all the points.) We can, as my husband points out, make this even more fun to think about by remembering that the narrator of The Anthologist is named Paul Chowder.

I never expected to write this much about mollusks in my entire life, but here we are. I hold that Baker’s Chowder and Bracken’s clam juice are related. Even her cookbook talks a lot about using canned clams, too. There are just a lot of mollusks stashed around Peg Bracken’s books, probably because of living in the Pacific Northwest all those years. And I hold that these things — Bracken’s clam juice and Baker’s Paul Chowder and his oyster crackers — are related.

But another thing that makes me think Baker read Bracken: the use of funny noise words. Here is Bracken talking about car noises. “Let’s say, as another case in point, that your car has developed a small plinkety-bleep under its hood. In the repair shop, the men in the white overalls can spend a good couple of days changing it to a plinkety-bloop. But if you had only sat tight and waited, it would probably have turned into a plinkety-bloop anyway, and a lot cheaper, too.”
Now, let’s jump back to Baker, his brilliant tribute to John Updike (whose works were getting big just at the time Bracken’s were, let’s remember). U&I is always ignored, I feel, by general readers who have the very wrong idea that you have to be a fan of John Updike to find this book interesting. This isn’t the case at all. You don’t even have to have read any Updike to find the book of interest. What you have to be is interested in how Nicholson Baker writes, and how his mind works. I am both of those things (as well as marginally interested in Updike) and so I have read this book probably a dozen times. I remember that the first time I read it, I laughed so hard at a couple of things in it that I nearly made myself puke (and if I had, I would probably have turned to Peg Bracken for tips on how to clean up the mess). One of those things was this passage, which now strikes me as not only Bakerian, but Brackenesque. Here, we read Baker’s version of an Updikean sentence, its pattern and rhythm. But what strikes me is how it adopts the occasional silliness of Bracken. See this: “her blank seemed, in its blinkety blankness and blanketed blankness, almost blonky in the late afternoon blonk.”

Plinkety-bloop. Blinkety blankness. Tell me that one of these writers is uninfluenced by the other. I totally realize that this kind of silliness stretches way back; it’s the kind of noise-writing that you might have seen in Perelman or Benchley even. People who basically write very dignified sentences making the reader giggle by casually tossing something ludicrous into the mix. But I feel in my heart of hearts that this is a sign that Baker is a Bracken fan, and it makes me like Baker even more. (Should Nicholson Baker ever read this: please confirm or deny. I’d really like to know, either way, realizing that if I’m wrong all of this makes me look like a pretentious twit.)

I am going to be looking for some Peter de Vries books soon.

The I Hate to Housekeep Book: A New Assessment

IMG_5429Two weeks ago I had occasion to talk with some people about my love of Peg Bracken, which is something I’ll do if poked even a tiny bit. The way some people talk about their favorite jazz albums to anyone who’ll listen (and even people who won’t listen), I will talk about Peg Bracken. I think she’s hugely underrated, ignored unfairly, and just generally given short shrift. She was one of the great comic writers of the 20th century. It’s true that comic writing of decades past is always ghettoized (even current comic writing is ghettoized), but one of my Things is trying to keep the greats in the hands of current readers. And if the books are actually useful in some way — which Peg Bracken’s definitely are — then all the more reason to crow about them at any given opportunity.

The Bracken title most people know is The I Hate to Cook Book, which is an undeniable classic. It got reprinted about ten years ago, and I huzzah’d with joy along with maybe a thousand other American women who’d grown up reading their mother’s copies of this book. The I Hate to Cook Book is, in its original edition, a work that no one I know is likely to cook from today — there’s far too great a reliance on canned goods and freeze-dried this-or-that. But the newer edition was updated to make it somewhat more approachable to someone in the kitchen today — it was not made trendy (there’s no mention of “clean” eating, thank god), but it was altered to match more closely what a pressed-for-time woman in the kitchen today would have at hand. The basic premise still stands, and, more importantly, Bracken’s voice still stands. Peg Bracken wrote a snarky mama blog decades before anyone could have imagined such a thing.
The cookbook she wrote was followed by a few other titles. One of them, I Try to Behave Myself, is an etiquette book. I re-read it two weeks ago and while it was amusing, much of it was rather beside the point in today’s world (not too surprisingly). On the other hand, I admit, a lot of it was quite relevant and I found myself nodding my head now and then as I read it. So that’s worth a look, perhaps especially for parents of young children. Bracken’s observations on children and their impacts on life are always valuable.
But the one that’s absolutely mandatory reading, no question, is The I Hate to Housekeep Book, a copy of which, if you ask me, should be handed to every person as soon as they sign a lease on their first apartment. All those listsicles you see online with handy hacks for this and that? Dude: probably half of them are in this book, which goes to show that the people writing these listsicles aren’t half as clever as you think they are. This book is super-useful and really funny and you don’t have to click through annoying ads when you’re reading it, because it’s a BOOK.
A lot of those lists online, hot tips from the good people at Martha Stewart or Real Simple, or Buzzfeed, or whatever, are good but also somewhat unrealistic. Expectations can be a little high. Well, you say, Okay, but it’s a starting point, right? It’s a baseline. Well, sure. For me, the baseline is Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson: when you really need the most precise, anal-retentive, Cook’s Illustrated-level instructions on how to take care of a housekeeping issue, that’s where you go. But for the run of the mill stuff, Peg Bracken beats the snot out of the entire editorial staff at any magazine online or in print today, because she is really funny. She’s so funny that my husband, who believe me, does not want to read housekeeping manuals, was laughing at passages from this book last week. (I took this book with me on vacation and read it in two sittings of approximately two hours each.) Hints from Heloise were good, but smug and rather humorless; what’s more, as Bracken writes in her foreword, the advice is often more trouble than it’s worth. “I have been doing all this myself for about twenty years, and I find it hard on the manicure. I’ve found, too, that none of the books about it does me much good. The household experts hand out cures are worse than the ailment. They expect you to do things that depress you to merely think about, let alone do. They think you’ll actually keep an orderly file of all the washing instructions that come with the family clothes, once you’ve been told to. The efficiently organized expert makes the mistake of assuming that you, too, want to be one.”

Take that, Heloise.

I invite readers to come with me and examine (or re-examine) the I Hate to Housekeep Book, chapter by chapter. If I’m really on my game, I’ll be able to reproduce here some of the Hilary Knight illustrations. But even if I’m not, you’re going to see that this book is worth acquiring. I acquired my copy online (via Abebooks) and if I can do it, so can you.

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