Posts Tagged ‘essays’

It’s a wrap

So many books. So many good books. While some of us were frittering away the first days of the pandemic trying to figure out Zoom, writers were writing. 

Not that writers weren’t affected by the pandemic. Ann Patchett found she couldn’t get into writing a new novel, but essays came more easily. The result, These Precious Days (HarperCollins, digital galley), is one of my favorite books of the year. It’s like having a conversation with a good friend, one who is smart and witty and shares your interests: the challenges of clearing out possessions,  the wonders of Kate DiCamillo’s books for children of all ages, the tangled ties of families. The title essay, which went viral when first published in Harper’s Magazine, chronicles the unlikely friendship between Patchett and Tom Hank’s personal assistant Sookie. There’s also a bittersweet epilogue. Before that, though, Patchett writes of the pleasures of co-owning a bookstore. “As every reader knows, the social contract between you and a book you love is not complete until you can hand that book to a friend and say, Here, you’re going to love this.”

I’ve shared my love for quite a few books this year. Here are some not previously mentioned that I’m wrapping up for friends this holiday season.

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King (Grove Atlantic, digital galley): In the title story, a bookseller’s daughter plays matchmaker for her reclusive, awkward father. Other stories sparkle as King illuminates  transformative and unexpected moments. She’s especially good at capturing young teens on the cusp of adulthood  (“Creature,” “When in the Dordogne”), while ‘Timeline” reads like an excerpt from her splendid novel Writers & Lovers. “On the way back to Vermont, I thought about words and how, if you put a few of them in the right order, a three-minute story about a girl and her dog can get people to forget all the ways you’ve disappointed them.”

Still Life by Sarah Winman (Putnam/Penguin, digital galley): Sarah Winman is the most generous of storytellers in her expansive novel of love and friendship, art and war. British private Ulysses Temper meets aging art historian Evelyn Skinner in the wine cellar of a Tuscan villa in 1944, and she suggests he visit Florence before he leaves Italy. That visit marks Ulysses as he returns to post-war London, his old pub and friends, including free-spirited Peg, whom he married before the war and who now has a daughter Alys. An unexpected inheritance takes Ulysses and his family of friends back to Italy in the 1950s, but he doesn’t meet Evelyn again until 1966, the year of the great Arno flood and the race to rescue Florence’s great art treasures. Don’t miss the parrot and a cameo by E.M. Forster. 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins, digital galley): In the turbulent first year of the pandemic, a small, independent bookstore in Minneapolis becomes a touchstone and refuge for assorted booksellers and booklovers. Outside, the George Floyd protests roil a city haunted by its racist past. Inside the store, bookseller Tookie, an irreverent ex-con and avid reader, is trying to exorcise the ghost of annoying customer Flora. A white woman who wanted to be Native American, Flora died on All Souls Day but is still hanging around the shelves. Erdrich mixes humor and heartbreak like a literary alchemist. Readers won’t be able to resist.

A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz (HarperCollins, digital galley): Anthony Horowitz the author has a great time again playing sidekick to fictional detective Daniel Hawthorne in a third clever mystery.  This time, the two are at a literary festival in the Channel Islands to promote the books Horowitz writes about Hawthorne. When the inevitable murder occurs, the other authors, with their quirks and pretensions, all fall under suspicion. It’s a tricky case, but Horowitz thinks they’ve got it all figured out — until the ever enigmatic Hawthorne turns the tables. More, please.

London Bridge is Falling Down by Christopher Fowler (Bantam/Random House. digital galley): The Home Office is again shutting down the Peculiar Crimes Unit, but this time it’s for real. Still, ancient detectives Arthur Bryant and John May discover an open case in the death of a 91-year-old woman, a former security expert. Her demise, though, is soon linked to that of several other peculiar deaths by way of a toy replica of London Bridge. If this is, indeed, the end of the PCU, it’s a doozy of a finale for Bryant and May. I’m going to miss them. Thanks for the mysteries. 

Wyman and the Florida Knights by Larry Baker (Ice Cube Press, ARC): Call it Florida Gothic. In the first half of his entertaining novel, Larry Baker recounts the fabled history of the Knights, who settle in the Florida wilds north of Orlando in 1866. In the second half, famous portrait painter Peter Wyman tries to escape his past by disappearing in Knightville in 2016, but his presence leads to the unraveling of Knight family secrets. There’s passion, betrayal, corruption, murder, an unmarked grave and a mythic black panther.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, hardcover): More like Conversations with Friends than Normal People, Rooney’s smart comedy of manners finds best friends Alice and Eileen worried about turning 30 and the sorry state of the world, but also about finding love and connection. Successful novelist Alice begins seeing factory worker Felix, while literary editor Eileen turns to her old childhood friend Simon. Rooney’s writing is addictive in its clarity and precision. 


When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash (William Morrow, digital galley): A low-flying plane and a body on a rural runway kick off Cash’s Southern-noir tinged tale. But the murder mystery is just the frame for a layered portrait of a small-town sheriff dealing with racial tensions and personal problems in Reagan-era North Carolina. The ending may come as a surprise, but, in hindsight, it’s inevitable.

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mothergaveMy timing is all off. After having spent the last two months with my mom, I’m not going to be with her on Mother’s Day. I left her some little presents and sent pretty Jacqui Lawson e-cards, and, of course, I’ll call. But we have long conversations almost daily, going over all kinds of things, from how our knees are feeling in whatever weather, to what we’re reading. (She just finished a library copy of the new David Baldacci thriller, me, John le Carre’s A Delicate Balance. She liked her book ok except for the high body count, I really liked the le Carre, war and spying gone corporate.)

Now I am reading Elizabeth Benedict’s What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most (Algonquin, paperback review copy), and loving the essays. Such a variety of gifts: Cecelia Munoz’s mother gave her a wok, Joyce Carol Oates’ mother gave her a quilt, Rita Dove’s mother gave her longed-for nail polish, Mary Morris’s mother gave her a passport and thus gave her the world.

But whether an expensive blouse or a tarnished piece of silver jewelry, the gifts are not only symbols of love but also the keys that unlock memories, allowing each woman to celebrate her singular relationship with her mother. In “Her Favorite Neutral,”  Charlotte Silver talks about her beautiful mother’s penchant for animal prints and how she has handed on her personal sense of style, along with leopard print Italian ankle boots. She notes that her mother once remarked, “I just wasn’t capable of a small life in a minor key,” and she hopes to one day be able to say the same.

In a recent interview on NPR, Benedict said she asked the contributors to write about an object because she was afraid they’d “freak out” if she said ‘Write me a story about your mother.” By honing in on the specific, the writers avoid generalities, and yet the particular often evokes the universal.

Mmmm. I find myself thinking of the many things my mother has given me over the years. What one item would I choose? The gold locket that her mother gave her? The lime chiffon dress that we shared? The oval-framed antique photograph of her oldest sister as a little girl? The airplane ticket to New York for spring break?

Books, of course. Many, many books, starting with A Child’s Garden of Verses. I learned to read by her reading it to me, and then with me. “How would you like to go up in a swing?” or “Dark brown is the river,” or my favorite “Escape from Bedtime.” “The lights from the kitchen and parlor shone out…”

But there’s another book that came later, when I was 11. We were in our small branch library and I was complaining that I couldn’t find anything new to read in the childrens’ or teen shelves. My mother went to the adult fiction section and came back with a thick blue book. “Here, I think you’ll like this,” and handed me Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Then  she told the head librarian I had her permission to wander freely in the adult stacks and check out whatever books I wanted. And so she gave me the world.

Thanks, Mom. Love you.

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Sometimes it is good to get away from the leaves of a book and take a walk among the real leaves, especially if you are reading John Fowles’ provocative book-length essay, The Tree. In it, he ponders and questions the connection between humans and nature, especially our perception of of the natural world, how we see both the forests and the trees.

 Now re-released in a 30th anniversary edition, this is a true “green” book, but not in the way you might think. Fowles isn’t much on classification and conservation, except in our preservation of wilderness, “the green chaos” that can’t be tamed at the very heart of things.  

Most readers know Fowles, who died in 2005, as a master novelist — The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus, Daniel Martin, The Ebony Tower — which are among my favorite books. But he also wrote some wonderful nonfiction, and for a long time, I would read anything he wrote just because he wrote it in such graceful, elegant and discerning prose. I can remember being disappointed by his later fiction — Mantissa and The Maggot — but I was won back by the essay collection Wormholes, especially the pieces on nature and his beloved Lyme Regis. The two-volume The Journals were revelatory as to his times and intense introspection, but I admit to some skimming.

As for The Tree, it has been celebrated and anthologized, and it certainly bears rereading.  As Barry Lopez rightly notes in the introduction, Fowles’ ideas at time might appear too abstract and paradoxical except he’s too good a storyteller.

And so I willingly followed him back to the anecdotes about his childhood, which was divided by the war, between suburbia (his father’s preference) and the Dorset countryside (his own). He discusses the Victorian mania for naming things, and also the Middles Ages’ perception of the forest as “evil” in its wildness, “an immense green cloak for Satan.” Our fears of the wood, he contends, are hardly dead — the private garden detests “wild nature.”

My favorite sections of The Tree deal with the intersection of art and nature, how we struggle with words and pictures to capture its reality. Then there is the metaphorical forest, the preferred setting since Gilgamesh for the literary adventure and quest. Although the city appears to have replaced the forest in the contemporary novel, Fowles makes a good argument that “Sir Galahad and Philip Marlowe are blood brothers.”

In the last section, Fowles sets out to Wistman’s Wood, an almost hidden bit of primeval forest on the Dartmoor Moor, copses of ancient, twisted, dwarfish oaks, its floor like a “tilted emerald sea.” Here, in this isolated, strangely tropical place he contemplates how he came to writing by nature, and the secret being of the woods that can only be entered by the individual consciousness.

And so I take a walk to clear my head, to think and not think. Are the leaves on the dogwood dimpling with yellow because we haven’t had rain in weeks, or is it finally fall in Florida? The oaks are always green, one way or another, but the acorns crackle under foot in the growing dark. I hear an owl, lost to sight in the leaves and limbs of the tree above me.

Open Book: Ecco Press sent me an advance readers’ copy of The Tree by John Fowles as part of an internet promotion. It’s a “real” book, once a tree.

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