In May I started to read Mary Oliver backwards.
I came to Mary Oliver late, only after I had read her essay collection last summer. She died this past January, 83 years old. From reading her essays, I knew I had missed something important by not being familiar with her poetry, and I wanted to remedy that. But becoming familiar with five decades of poetry was a pretty daunting prospect. Her Devotions saved me. Published in 2017, Devotions: The Selected Poetry of Mary Oliver includes selections from her first collection in 1963 (No Voyage and Other Poems) to her last collection in 2015 (Felicity). All told, 26 volumes. My plan was to take the title of the book to heart and each day read a poem or two, starting on page 442 and working my way to page 3, backward in the book, but forward in her life. That plan lasted about three days—not because the poems disappointed, but because I have no discipline! The poems are wonderful, the language precise and grounded in the natural world yet magically lifting the common into the realm of extraordinary beauty.
I am spending so much time on a book a started in May rather than finished because I preferred the poems I read to any of the books I read. The four books below weren’t bad. They just weren’t good enough to merit keeping on my bookshelf after reading. Off to the library book sale they go…
The Reporter’s Kitchen (2017) – Jane Kramer
Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault (2019) – Cathy Guisewite
The Beneficiary (2019) – Janny Scott
Number 11 (2015) – Jonathan Coe
Jane Kramer joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1964 and began writing for the “Letter from Europe” section in 1981. (While she is still identified as a staff writer, her most recent piece for the magazine, as far as I can tell, was in 2017.) The book flap describes The Reporter’s Kitchen as her “beloved food pieces from The New Yorker…arranged in one place…a collection of chef profiles, personal essays, and gastronomic history.” This sounded like something that would be right up my alley, yet I found the first half (the chef profiles) surprisingly unengaging. Maybe not enough action verbs. Maybe her taste in chefs just wasn’t my taste in chefs. Since no profile was more recent than 2013, she wrote brief updates at the end of each. A 2008 profile was particularly enthusiastic about a couple, married in 1985, who traveled to exotic places for their television show and their cookbooks. Toward the end of the profile, the man says he’s looking forward to returning to Thailand, maybe to write a novel. In the update, it turns out that in 2009 the couple separated, and the man has since been living and cooking with a Thai woman on the Cambodian border. (Kind of makes you wonder how perceptive Kramer was about the couple.) The essays and history were more compelling, but only relatively.
I had high hopes for Cathy Guisewite’s essay collection, Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault. In 1976, while a vice president at a Detroit advertising agency, she created the comic strip “Cathy.” The strip went on to syndication and at one time was carried in 1400 newspapers around the world. Guisewite chose to discontinue the strip in 2010, feeling that her character, the single career woman in the square-shouldered suit, had become foreign to the up and coming career women of the early 21st century. (Good timing. “Cathy” didn’t have live, or die, through the sad demise of print newspapers.) This new foray into writing essays grew out of Guisewite’s dismay about being a “grown-up” in a world that is changing too fast. So many changes in her relationships, with her parents, with her daughter, with her friends, with her career. She’s also clearly none too happy about being closer to 70 than 60, and the various physical changes she is experiencing. (I want to point out, however, that she has the Dave Barry gene: she looks as though she is 40.). I had liked the comic strip and its sharp wit. Since I myself am not unfamiliar with the changes she is facing, I was looking forward to reading her take on all of them. And there is humor, but the essays live up to their billing (“heartfelt and humane”) too successfully. I wanted a little less heart and a little more heat. But if you want to avoid agitation before going to sleep, these essays are just right for your bedside table. A pleasant way to wind down.
Janny Scott was a New York Times reporter and the author of A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother. With The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of My Father, she is closer to home. Her grandparents were Edgar Scott and Helen Hope Montgomery (purported model for Tracy Lord, as portrayed by Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story). Their marriage merged two of the great Philadelphia dynasties of the 19th and 20th centuries. Her father, Robert Montgomery Scott, was one of their two sons. For the first 2/3’s of the book, Scott focuses on the fortunes and misfortunes of the three generations of both families before her father’s. Those chapters brim with stories of immense wealth and, in many cases, the wasting of it, and were fun to read as a Philadelphian. The last third narrows the focus onto her father’s fortunes and misfortunes and aren’t so much fun to read for someone who remembers him. It must have been painful for Scott to write. Much of it made me wince, but ultimately there was so much repetition I became numb. Still, anyone interested in the rise and fall of the old Philadelphia will appreciate the tale told by someone who lived in the midst of the ruins. (Note: Keep a marker at the family tree for reference. Many of the first names of both men and women are the same generation after generation. It’s easy to lose track of who’s who.)
I bought Jonathan Coe’s 2015 novel Number 11 because I had loved Middle England. Five different sections make up the book, and at first I thought it was just going to be five different stories with the only common thread being that the number 11 was important. My edition was in small print, making the writing seem dense. Frankly, I dozed off a bit during first couple sections, and I put the book away for a while. When I picked it up again in the third section, I realized he was cooking up something much more than slightly interlocking stories. By the end, I was holding on to a blistering satire about the era of British government duplicity, media manipulation, raw greed and nauseating displays of disposable wealth, all kicked off by Tony Blair’s falsehoods used in dragging England into the Iraq war in 2003. I still hadn’t quite figured out what all had happened in this “baroquely plotted” novel. So I cheated. I went to Goodreads to skim a couple reader reviews. The second one I read reminded me that Coe is a big Tolkien fan. (Duh. That’s one of the reasons I had liked Middle England!) I went back, reread the first parts of the first section and discovered that I had missed a very important clue and that I had forgotten a very important plot detail by the time I had picked up the book for the second go. At that point, I recognized that the story was, as they say in Britain, “brilliant.” If the book hadn’t been so long and the print so small, I might have picked it up and started all over again. Having said that, if you are not already a fan of Coe and familiar with some of his pet tropes, this is definitely not the book to start with.