A fascination with real lives

Always a reader, Maisie Houghton said she preferred books at school to playing sports. Always a reader, Maisie Houghton said she preferred books at school to playing sports.
By Amy Sutherland
August 28, 2011

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Maisie Houghton had an enviably genteel childhood with a well-heeled life in Cambridge and summers in Dark Harbor, Maine, where she still vacations. In her memoir, “Pitch Uncertain,’’ Houghton recounts this life and time but also reminds us that nothing is ever exactly as it seems. She will appear at the Boston Book Festival on Oct. 15.

BOOKS: Do you get a lot of reading done in Maine?

HOUGHTON: I don’t really read modern fiction, much more biographies and memoir. This summer I read a book, “The Paper Garden’’ by Molly Peacock, a mix of memoir and biography. It’s about Mary Delany, this 18th-century woman in England who invented the art of collage. She started working seriously at the age of 72. I’m 70, so this had a lot of interest for me.

I also read “Nothing Daunted’’ by Dorothy Wickenden, an editor at The New Yorker. It’s based on a collection of letters by her grandmother who, during World War I, went to Colorado to teach school. She didn’t want to get married right away. She wanted to have adventures.

BOOKS: Do you pack a lot of books for Maine?

HOUGHTON: Now we have a bookstore on the island. I try to get everything I can there instead of just using Amazon. When I was young, we would go to the Boston Athenaeum at the beginning of summer vacation and pick books and they would mail them to us in Maine. You’d spend hours choosing and then these wonderful packages would arrive. I think this service still exists.

BOOKS: Are there types of people you wouldn’t read biographies about?

HOUGHTON: I was going to say I don’t read about scientists but I read a wonderful story about the creation of the atom bomb, “109 East Palace’’ by Jennet Conant. But I’m much more into people in the arts and historical figures, such as Queen Victoria. I’ve read a number of books about her. My favorite is the one by Elizabeth Longford, “Queen Victoria: Born to Succeed.’’

BOOKS: Any contemporary novelists you like?

HOUGHTON: Lily Tuck, my cousin. She won the National Book Award in 2004 for “The News from Paraguay.’’ She writes very spare, quite strange tales. She has a new book, “I Married You for Happiness,’’ coming out around Labor Day. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I liked Anna Quindlen’s “Every Last One,’’ a very moving, quite spooky story.

BOOKS: What about older novelists?

HOUGHTON: I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott. She’s the person we all thought we’d be when we grew up. I admire Virginia Woolf, but I’m not sold on her novels. I’d rather read her diaries, journals, and letters. Henry James - finally a man - I love him. Last year I read “What Maisie Knew.’’ I was relieved that I understood it. James is hard.

Who I really love is Edith Wharton. In 1962 I did my Harvard senior thesis on Wharton. For Harvard that was like saying you were writing about Danielle Steele. She was just considered a B-grade novelist then.

BOOKS: Have you always been a voracious reader?

HOUGHTON: Definitely. At school, I wasn’t any good at games or sports so I always retreated with a book. And you felt there was this literary life around you. Longfellow, his house being right there in Cambridge. Emerson and Hawthorne in Concord. Even if I wasn’t reading their books it was the atmosphere they created, this high-minded, plain-thinking life.

BOOKS: Do you have a favorite time of day you like to read?

HOUGHTON: My grandmother used to say never read a novel in the morning. That’s the kind of Victorian dictum she labored under. It’s this lingering thought, though, that I don’t pick up a book in the morning. I have to do chores first. After 3 o’clock I permit myself to read.

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