Months of Books: June to December 2020

Here we are at the beginning of 2021. I still haven’t gone back to those books that I abandoned in March due to COVID brain fog. (See Month(s) of Books: January to May 2020.) I did keep reading, though.

In fact, I read another 30 or so books between June 1 and December 31, 2020. Some of those were murder mysteries and beach reads (without benefit of a beach) and aren’t worth a mention. I also began to read a fair amount of poetry, going through three Billy Collins collections and Mary Oliver’s Devotions, 440+ pages of selections from her first to her last book of poems. By and large, reading these poems was a soothing little respite of five or ten minutes a day when I gave my full attention to a warm and generous artist.

What isn’t soothing is the thought of trying to write capsule reviews on the remaining 20+ books that are worth a mention. Instead, I am going to list only the 15 books I would recommend without reservation: three lists – Fiction, Essays, Nonfiction, alpha by author. Any book that I really loved will be in bold.

Then it will be on to 2021 and more regular (and more informative) Month of Books posts.

Emma Donoghue, Akin (2019)
Margot Livesey, The Boy in the Field (2020)
James McBride, Deacon King Kong (2020)
Idra Novey, Ways to Disappear (2016)
Jenny Offill, Weather (2020)
Emma Straub, All Adults Here (2020)
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones (2011)

Essay Collections
Brian Doyle, One Long River of Song (2019)
Krista Eastman, The Painted Forest (2019)
Ross Gay, The Book of Delights (2019)
Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights (2020)
Zadie Smith, Feel Free (20180

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1962)
Julian Barnes, The Man in the Red Coat (2018)
Sarah Vowell, The Assassination Vacation (2005)






Month(s) of Books: January to May 2020

My reading during the first five months of the year falls pretty neatly into two columns: Pre-COVID and COVID Phase 1, with vastly different types of books in each. I will keep my comments brief.

Pre- COVID (Jan. 1 to ~ mid March)

Highly Recommended Fiction:

Inland, by Téa Obreht (2019): Obreht’s second novel (after The Tiger’s Wife in 2011) weaves together two stories set in 1893 Arizona Territory, one taking place over 24 hours, the other over decades. Both eventually collide. The novel is spell-binding yet rooted in the reality of the Western expansion and the time that the post-Civil War military tried to use camels as pack animals in the Southwest. (The attempt was ultimately unsuccessful.)

Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson (2019): Wilson, a favorite writer of Ann Patchett’s, broke through to critical acclaim with his fourth novel, The Family Fang, in 2012. This one is even better. Down-on-her-luck Lillian takes on the job of babysitter to the stepchildren of former school friend Madison, now married to a wealthy politician. The catch is that the children have a tendency to spontaneously combust under certain circumstances. The book is laugh out loud funny while also deftly exploring issues of class, friendship, accountability, and just what makes a family.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill (2014): When Jenny Offill’s third novel Weather came out in February of this year, the book reviewers were ecstatic. And I felt pretty dumb, as I had never heard of her. So I decided to start with this novel, her second. A prosaic description of its subject would be “an exploration of the marriage of two 30-something academics with a young child who are going through a rough patch.” But it is so much more, and the writing is so original and entrancing that I have to yield to the Boston Globe for a more articulate description than I can give it: “ Slender, quietly smashing…A book so radiant with sunlight and sorrow that it almost makes a person gasp.”

Highly Recommended Nonfiction:

Boom Town, by Sam Anderson (2018): In December of last year, I read Sam Anderson’s piece in the New York Times Magazine (12.8.19 issue) about his experience regularly watching Jeopardy with his father as his father was fighting a losing battle with cancer. At a key point in the story, Anderson’s first book, Boom Town, actually shows up as one of the “answers” in the Daily Double. The piece was written with charm and love and wonder, and I had to get a tissue at the end. So I decided to read Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis. I had no interest at all in Oklahoma City or basketball, but Anderson’s writing is so engaging, so wry, so much fun that it was one of the most entertaining books I have read. I couldn’t put it down. (If you’re not willing to risk the book, at least read the “Jeopardy” story here.)


 There There, a novel by Tommy Orange (2018): This is an important work, and it certainly took me into the gritty world of urban Native Americans. I found, though, that the voices of the twelve characters were not distinct, and they became just figures being moved around on a big game board.

Live a Little, a novel by Howard Jacobson (2019): British author Jacobson is primarily known for comic novels, and I’ve enjoyed a couple earlier ones. This one is more poignant than comic, as the cast members are quite advanced in years and spend the novel working through a lifetime of difficult memories. My complaint, though, is that Jacobson doesn’t bring the two main characters, Beryl Dusinbery (90 something) and Shimi Carmelli (80 something), together until the last 60 of nearly 300 pages. At that point the story takes off and is a delight. I just didn’t think the run-up was worth the effort.

Ordinary Light, a memoir by Tracy K. Smith (2015): Tracy Smith has published four collections of poetry, served two terms as Poet Laureate, has won a Pulitzer, and is the chair of Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. This memoir was a finalist for the National Book Award. So I was expecting the prose of Ordinary Light to be lyrical, extraordinary. But it wasn’t. It was just…ordinary.


COVID – PHASE 1 (mid March to the end of May)

As soon as it was clear we were in for a terrible mess, my brain decided to check out. I know I was not the only one in that state, but it was still maddening that during more than two months, with no editing projects and with my calendar cleared of appointments, lunches, and concerts as though they had been written in disappearing ink, I couldn’t read anything that was even mildly challenging. I started books by Julian Barnes, Lydia Davis, Hilary Mantel, Jeanette Winterson, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith – and they all still sit on the table behind me with their yellow Post-It bookmarks sticking up around page 25. Here are the novels I read instead:

The Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard: Howard, a popular English novelist who was the second wife of Kingsley Amis (for almost twenty years), wrote twelve novels, including the five (!) volumes of the Chronicles (four published between 1990 and 1995, with the fifth one tacked on in 2013, a year before Howard’s death). The Chronicles follow generations of the wealthy Cazalet family from the late 1930s and the height of their good fortune (which was in the lumber business) to the mid 1950s. And in a 2016 Guardian article, Hilary Mantel had described Howard as undervalued and Austen-esque. So it all sounded promising as a distraction. I found them, though, more Forsyte Saga than Austen. The first two volumes were entertaining, but as each successive book got longer, the writing got more pedestrian and repetitive. Howard’s efforts to make sure that details of daily life placed each book in its time period were workmanlike, and many of the characters grew tiresome. The 400-page fifth volume was 100 pages too long and dragged as the family falls apart in various ways, some quite forced, with the swinging ’60s on the horizon.

Writers & Lovers, by Lily King (2020)
Red Head by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler (2020)

Both books were a lovely change from the Howard novels and made a good transition into more normal reading patterns starting in June.

Writers & Lovers is a smart romantic comedy with a sympathetic 31-year-old protagonist who is trying to get her first novel written and published while she is also dealing with a nearly overwhelming number of changes in her life. I also appreciated all the literary jokes and allusions, and liked that King assumed her readers were intelligent. Far closer to Austen than the Howard was.

Red Head… is just a classic Anne Tyler, a familiar comfort in strange, jarring times. This protagonist (Micah) is one of Tyler’s stock Baltimore residents, a befuddled male who ultimately is set straight by a perfectly ordinary woman. Yet at 180 pages it is a small gem of character study. I marveled at Tyler’s ability to capture each of the individuals, even the more minor players, through distinctive dialogue and setting. When I finished the book, I felt as though I would recognize each one if I ran into them on the street.







Month(s) of Books: 4th quarter 2019

I started writing about this last batch of my 2019 books at the end of February, just a week or so before we were all plunged into suspended animation. By March 15th my brain had definitely downshifted. It was incapable of normal speed and was only good for minor back road trips into focus. It’s now been over five weeks and I am determined to make the gearbox fully operational again. I know, however, that I have had a different approach to reading during this time – too many newspapers and online alerts from the Washington Post, too few new books with staying power. Still, I will share what I thought of those I read four to six months ago. This time it’s only seven books. Without my conscious intent, both the Fiction and Non-Fiction lists happen to be in the order of my reaction to the books: from “great” to “grating.” (That will give you a road map if you are in the mood for the positive reviews only.)

Olive, Again (2019) – Elizabeth Strout
Reasons to be Cheerful (2019) – Nina Stibbe
Normal People (2018) – Sally Rooney

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (2019) – Margaret Renkl
The Boys of My Youth (1998) – Jo Ann Beard
Human Relations & Other Difficulties (2018) – Mary-Kay Wilmers
The Best American Essays 2019 (2019) – Rebecca Solnit, Guest Editor


In Strout’s Olive, Again, that cranky, unsympathetic, oddly lovable Olive Kitteredge is back, ten years older and, miraculously, both unchanged and at the same time completely different. Strout has deftly given Olive in the next (and likely last) phase of her life what seems to be hard-won emotional growth without breaking character at all. Among other things, she has a late second marriage to an unlikely partner, she reaches out and gives comfort to an array of citizens young and old in Crosby, Maine, and she has a kind of reconciliation with her children. At the end, she moves into a “life-care” community and faces down the little (and big) humiliations of old age with equanimity and even humor. Along the way, Strout brings Olive in contact with Maine residents from other Strout novels, and I was so glad to see those characters again, from Amy and Isabelle to The Burgess Boys. This book was a joy to read, and I recommend it whether you’ve read all of Strout’s previous novels or not one of them before.

Nina Stibbe came to fame with her book Love, Nina, a memoir in the form of letters home during her time as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books. (More on her later.) The letters were clever and fun and featured some famous literary types who moved in Wilmers’ orbit, such as Stephen Frears (ex-husband) and Alan Bennett (neighbor). She then shifted into light, semi-autobiographical “comic fiction.” I read the first one (Man at the Helm) and found it too light. But I tried again with this third one, Reasons to be Cheerful. The protagonist is still Lizzie Vogel, now 18 and trying to figure herself out while living and working in a mid-sized English town in the East Midlands. And it is still a comic novel, but there is more depth. Lizzie’s voice and world outlook are both wildly naïve and sharply observant. If you’ve been avoiding serious reading but are still up for some social commentary slyly woven in among the pages, you might enjoy this.

I started reading Normal People, by the young Irish writer Sally Rooney, because the book was winning many awards, and Rooney was receiving much attention as one (and maybe the best) of the rising millennial writers, a group not well known by me. I finished reading the book, but only for the same reasons, not because I liked it. In fact, I found its story line a bit tiresome: girl (Marianne) and boy (Connell) from very different backgrounds get together as teenagers in school, break up, and over the next five years get together again and break up again several times. While their circumstances fluctuate, their only constant is their philosophical and sociological arguments, which didn’t interest me. (Although I am clearly in the minority in my reaction, I will share that Dwight Garner in the New York Times did not give it an unreserved rave. He noted that as multiple reconciliations piled up, he started to muse, “Okay. How are you going to screw it up this time?”) Then a month or so after finishing the novel I read that Rooney considers herself a Marxist and that Marianne was intended to be the embodiment of sound Marist principles. I think that explained my problem. I don’t really want characters to be stick figures for “principles,” Marxist or otherwise.



Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth (1998) and Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations (2019) are both memoirs written as a collection of essays. Both writers are keen observers of nature, especially (and coincidentally) of red tail hawks. Otherwise, it would be hard to find two more different books and writers. Beard’s well-known volume (which includes her awarding-winning and wrenching essay “The Fourth State of Matter”) is a collection of narratives, told out of chronological order, ranging from 6 pages to 56 pages. Beard’s childhood in Illinois and her later life in Iowa were rough, filled with difficult times, and she matches her diction to the circumstances. Renkl’s debut book is made up of three elements: family stories told in the voice of grandparents, written snap shots of her current life, and snippets of her own narratives from 1961 to the present, in strict chronological order. All only one to three pages each. Renkl’s childhood, though not one of wealth, was rich in family stability and order at a slower pace in Alabama and Nashville. Her text snapshots are gentle and elegant. Both memoirs are keepers for my bookshelves. You could sample each. Beard teaches at Sarah Lawrence and “The Fourth State of Matter” first appeared in The New Yorker. Renkl is a contributing opinion writer “who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South” at the New York Times, where “Cornbread. Now More Than Ever” appeared in March. Renkl will be the easier read during anxious times.

Mary-Kay Wilmers cofounded the London Review of Books and has been its editor since 1992. Human Relations & Other Difficulties is a collection of essays and reviews from 1972 to 2015. Except for the first four of the 20+ pieces, all appeared in the LRB. The book flap and the introduction by John Lanchester (which I didn’t read until after I had finished the book) point out that almost all the essays are “about women… and especially the effect on women of men’s expectations, men’s gaze, and men’s power.” I have to confess right up front that I didn’t notice that, which probably means I read them too fast and not too deeply! But I would like to think I didn’t notice because they weren’t at all polemical. In fact, one of the most entertaining pieces is about her delight in the obituaries for titled folks that appear in the (London) Times, the voice of “a benign, very English God, or school-master, not much interested in foreign fiddle-faddle but ingenious in drawing up end-of-term reports.” Obit example: Sir Hugh Knatchbull-Hugessen, who had been an ambassador, “played the piano more than adequately, though without any strong feeling for music.” To be sure, most of the essays are about more serious things such as books and authors, but all are written with a very, very dry English sense of humor. I acknowledge that that can be a bit of an acquired taste. And the essays are not to be read in bulk sittings. But I enjoyed each one.

As I have commented in earlier Month of Books posts, Rebecca Solnit makes me work too hard. Her stint as editor for The Best American Essays 2019 didn’t change my view. I’ll admit I learned a lot about a lot of things in the essays she chose that I never would have learned otherwise. All of it, however, was depressing. Essays about tribal languages disappearing, climate change, a crippled environment, missing family members, guns. One was titled, “Death of an English Major,” and I thought it was going to be another elegy on the Humanities (a subject I do know something about), but it was an essay about the actual murder of a student written by her English professor. In the table of contents I noted a piece called “Forever Gone” from Onion, and I thought, well, at least there will be one small bit of comic relief. But I had misread the journal’s name. It was Orion, and the piece was about the 1918 death in the Cincinnati Zoo of the last existing Carolina parakeet, “one of the most unique birds ever to sweep across the skies of the American psyche.” At first I was just annoyed at that sentence, with its sloppy “most unique” and its bent to hyperbole. The annoyance was soon erased by despondence as the author went through one story after another about the extinction of what he calls “Gone Birds.” If I had opened up this 2019 edition of Best American Essays this month, I would have promptly closed it and just added it to my collection of the set without reading it.

Month(s) of Books: 3rd quarter 2019

Once again, I am unable to keep to my own schedule! My book reviewing habit had to take a back seat during the last half of 2019. (And here I thought I would be in full control of my schedule once I was retired. Surprise!) Weddings and funerals, editing projects and a trip to London. Then the holidays. However, even though I wasn’t writing, I can report some good news about writing. In August, a little piece I had written about my unseemly appetite for corn on the cob was picked up by Woodhall Press for their upcoming anthology, Flash Nonfiction Food, due for publication spring 2020. A real live book with pages and everything. If you can’t wait for spring, you can read a version of it before publication at . (Trust me, though, it’s not going to be picked up by Best American Essays 2020.) In September, WHYY ran my piece on an unexpectedly warm moment in an otherwise cold place, the Social Security Office in center city Philadelphia. (You can read that one at And since late October, I have been doing research for and writing short histories of the Humanities departments at Princeton University as one of the contributing editors of New Princeton Companion, due out from Princeton University Press in 2021.

I did still manage to do some reading. This post will record my thoughts on books read July through September. Eleven books, all but one novels. Too many to write more than a thumbnail sketch on each. Rather than Fiction (F) and Non-Fiction (NF), I am batching the books by my reactions.


Ginger Bread (F, 2019), Helen Oyememi
I loved this book, although it might not be for everyone. The major story line is a mother relating to her very ill daughter (in bed in a London flat with an additional audience of dolls and plants that talk) the “origin” story of her grandmother’s childhood in Druhâstrana (a country that may or may not exist)). If you just stop worrying about what’s real and what might not be, if you just let yourself fall under the spell of Oyeyemi’s bewitching tale, this (maybe magical) story of three generations of women bound by a ginger bread recipe (that doubles as social currency) is a joy to read. (Oyememi was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2013 – when she was 29.)

Rules for Visiting (F, 2019), Jessica Francis Kane
I picked up this book because I read an op-ed by Kane in the New York Times Sunday Review and her “voice” made me smile. This book made me smile, too. Kane’s first-person narrator, 40-year-old landscaper and curmudgeon May Attaway, likes plants more than people, but recognizes she is missing something. In her wry way, augmented with lots of quirky allusions (for example, naming her suitcase Grendel), May shares with us her odyssey as she travels to reconnect with four different friends. in person, in a kind of protest against an increasingly virtual world. The book is filled with sly humor (especially if you like literary jokes), but it also turns out to have real emotional depth as May also reconnects with herself by the end of the book. This is not a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award novel, although Kane has won a number of prizes for earlier books. But it is a funny, warm, and very satisfying read.

The Dutch House (F, 2019), Ann Patchett
“I’ve been writing the same book my whole life – that you’re in one family, and all of a sudden, you’re in another family, and it’s not your choice, and you can’t get out.” So said Ann Patchett at the Author’s Event we attended last September, apparently quoting herself. I haven’t read all of her novels, but I have read enough of them to understand what she means, as long as “family” is defined very broadly to also mean “place” or “circumstance.” This book is classic Patchett, and I read it in two days. It won’t be one of my favorites (those are Bel Canto and State of Wonder), and I do have some quibbles about the ending. But I was happy to be in Patchett territory, especially as the Dutch house in question (the Eden from which a brother and sister are banished when they are young) is in very recognizable Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia. Fun to catch the Philadelphia area references.

A Gentleman in Moscow (F, 2016), Amor Towles
I think everyone in the world read this book before I finally picked it up. I had mistakenly thought it was a reworking of “An Englishman Abroad,” the BBC television production with Alan Bates as Guy Burgess that I had loved and didn’t want to see ruined. Turns out, of course, that this book is about a Russian gentleman sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in a grand hotel for 30+ years. I read it to give my brain some breaks while in the middle of a lengthy line-editing project. It is a big old-fashioned Dickensian novel with a great hero and well-drawn characters around him. Unexpected plus: I learned a lot about Russian history from 1900 to 1955.

Big Sky (F, 2019), Kate Atkinson
This is the 5th of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. Brodie is her very complicated private detective character. Her first several Brodie novels were turned into “Case Histories,” a British crime drama that also ran on PBS more than six years ago. The novels are more than standard crime drama. Kate Atkinson is one of the finest British authors writing today, known for her elegant yet surprisingly clever prose style. And the cases are as much about Brodie working out the puzzle of his own life as about his working out the puzzle of a crime. Here he’s on a case that seems mundane (wife tracking a philandering husband), but ends up including human trafficking and pedophilia. It does get messy, but it’s worth wading through the mess.

Dear Committee Member (F, 2014), Julie Schumacher
This is the epistolary book I mentioned in my June Month of Books. The “hero” is an English professor at a liberal arts college where the liberal arts are now getting short shrift. A year in his life is neatly embedded in letters of recommendation he writes for his students who are seeking jobs far afield from literature. I bought it on my Kindle, a clue that I wasn’t going to take it very seriously. But for English majors in particular, it is heartbreakingly hilarious.


Spring (F, 2019), Ali Smith
I am a big fan of Ali Smith and recommended her two earlier books (Autumn and Winter) without reservation or hesitation. This one is different. The plot is too complicated to summarize in a sentence of two. The lead characters are a depressed, suicidal filmmaker whose best friend has recently died, a young woman in a menial job at a terrible Refugee Removal Center, and a young girl who seems to have miraculous powers. They all end up together in a town in Scotland. The big screen behind all of this is filled with anger about Brexit, refugee detention, social media, Trump, and other ills of the year 2018. I am glad I read the book because I think Smith is a wonderful writer and she’s doing something very interesting in this seasonal quartet. (Summer is due out in August 2020.) But the book is complex (even the darn inside cover flap is confusing), and I miss the light hand and the light undercurrent of humor in the earlier books. If you haven’t read Ali Smith before, I would not recommend starting with this one.

The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life (NF, 2018), Richard Russo
A collection of pieces, many of which appeared elsewhere over the span of a number of years, written primarily for his writing students. Kirkus Review called it a collection of “personal pieces” that would let readers “know the author as a comforting, funny, and welcoming guy.” Publishers Weekly called the pieces “dazzling.” I’ve read a lot of Richard Russo (see next entry) and I’ve met him. He really is a comforting, funny, and welcoming guy. So I enjoyed reading the book. But “dazzling” it isn’t.

Chances Are… (F, 2019), Richard Russo
Four guys, best friends in college and still best friends in their mid sixties, convene from their four corners on Martha’s Vineyard for a Memorial Day reunion. Lots of time is spent in comparing memories, but the crux of the novel is that they all are still trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Jacy, a fifth best friend, a young woman also in their college class who had disappeared. The novel dissects the intertwining friendships as it also sets up suspense about the disappearance. The problem is, I figured out what happened just after the mid point of the book, leaving me waiting for the characters to catch up. Plus, the book felt as though it had been written in a hurry: math mistakes in the timeline, sloppy details, an ending that didn’t hang together. Much like the essay collection, I was glad that I had a new Richard Russo book to read, but the book was not dazzling.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (NF, 2018): Alexander Chee
Chee is a novelist, essayist, contributing editor to periodicals like the New Republic, and professor of creative writing at Dartmouth. He has an interesting backstory, growing up half-Korean and gay in Maine. His second novel, A Queen of the Night, was a bestseller, and this book is a collection of essays that explore how he got himself from his boyhood in Maine to being the author of that bestseller. He is an important presence (even when not present) at creative non-fiction writing workshops and conferences, which is why I picked up this book. His voice just did not connect with me, and I found myself having to work through it as though it were assigned reading. The other challenge: At the same time, I had recently started reading the comic novel Loudermilk, which is a wicked satire of the barely disguised, and very famous, MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Iowa plays a big part in Chee’s essays, and it was just an unfortunate coincidence that the mocking voice of Loudermilk was providing background music in my head, even though I had stopped reading it.

A Better Man (F, 2019), Louise Penny
The 15th Inspector Gamache novel, this was a big disappointment. The plot was formulaic, some situations more than usually implausible, and the writing bordering on lazy, with slap-dash sentence construction and frequent repetition of phrases and even whole sentences. When she used liturgical language to describe a Christ-like Gamache… that was just a step too far. On finishing the book, I wondered if it had just been that I had gotten tired of the series, so I sampled some reviews. It turned out I was not alone. For example, the reviewer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (my childhood morning paper) wrote, “her recurring cast of eccentric supporting characters is becoming tiresome. “A Better Man” is a good read, but it’s not on the level [of] (and far more pretentious than) this author’s best earlier works.” I’ll be interested to see whether there is a #16 and, if so, in which direction it may go.

A Month of Books: June 2019

During August I was immersed in a line-editing project, a memoir by a physician who shares a practice with her husband in rural upstate New York. Her story of how she got there after running away from home at 16 to study sculpture in New York City and how she has lived her life serving an under-served community is fascinating. For someone like me who loves to play with grammar and punctuation and word choice, line editing is fun. It is also very time- and attention-intensive. To give my brain the occasional break, I read a bunch of novels, several of them on the light side. (More about all of them when I eventually get to writing about August.) I do want to share now, though, a passage from one of the funniest of the books, Dear Committee Members (Julie Schumacher). The “hero” is an English professor at a liberal arts college where the liberal arts are now getting short shrift. He often has to write letters of recommendation for his students who are seeking jobs far afield from literature. For all my fellow English majors out there, this recommendation is for you:

“Belatedly it occurs to me that some members of your HR committee, a few skeptical souls, may be clutching a double strand of worry beads and wondering aloud about the practicality or usefulness of a degree in English rather than, say, computers. Be assured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express. His intellect can be put to broad use. The computer major, by contrast, is a technician—a plumber clutching a single, albeit shining, box of tools.”

And now to the books this English major read during June…

Late in the Day (2019) – Tessa Hadley
The Grammarians (2019) – Cathleen Schine

The Art of the Wasted Day (2018) – Patricia Hampl
Save Me the Plums (2019) – Ruth Reichl

Reviewers had lots of praise for Late in the Day, so I am definitively in the minority in finding this novel a disappointment. (I am usually a fan of Tessa Hadley. This is #7 for me.) The main characters are two couples (Christine and Alec, Lydia and Zach) who have been close friends since their school days, and the only character that I found sympathetic dies in the first chapter. That’s not a spoiler. Zach has to die at the beginning of the book as the two story lines braided through the book are how they all interacted as a foursome for the decades before Zach’s death and how the remaining three interacted after Zach’s death. They all lived in a gentrified area of London and moved around in the arts & letters world. Alec, a poet who is now teaching, is a bit of a whiner; Christine is an excellent painter who struggles to see her own worth and worries a lot; and Lydia is chronically lazy and relentlessly melodramatic. Even the Guardian’s reviewer had to admit that Lydia was “sometimes grating.” Zach, who had owned an art gallery, seemed to be the only who was comfortable in his own skin. They wrestle with aging and with adultery, both sexual and emotional, and mostly just seem to have a hard time understanding themselves and each other. And I had a hard time caring about them. The minor characters are the children of the couples and two of the mothers-in-law. The children aren’t given enough depth to be interesting. The two mothers-in-law, however, had lots of personality, saw the various stages of the couples’ interactions  more clearly than the four characters did, and consistently gave sound advice. If only their children had listened to them. In fact, I think that may be the key to my frustration with the couples: they don’t seem to have matured very much over the years. Perhaps that’s what Hadley was communicating in the title: it was a bit late in the day for them to start to grow up.

Cathleen Schine is also one of my most favorite authors. (The Grammarians is #10 for me.) I was lucky enough to “win” my copy through one of those Goodreads giveaway/publisher promotion contests. My uncorrected proof copy arrived early in June, three months before the official publication date. (If I had been more disciplined in producing my monthly reviews in a timely way, I could have scooped the New York Times, like I did with Coe’s Middle England. The Times reviewed Coe on Aug. 21 and Schine on Aug. 31.) This novel is a treat, especially for writers, English majors, and all the rest of us grammarians. A laugh-out-loud funny and warm portrayal, from cradle to late middle age, of twin girls Laurel and Daphne Wolf. Both have been enamored of words and wordplay since before they could even speak a word. (Illustrating this capability is a particularly clever trick on Schine’s part.) Their love of language defines them. Having done everything together when young, Laurel and Daphne do eventually differentiate themselves by how each makes their love of language integral to their lives. Yes, there’s a time as grown-ups when they fall out over their differences, but the rupture is not ultimately tragic (despite what pre-sale book blurbs and even the first chapter may have you believe). In fact, the Wolf family, immediate and extended, is enviable in its members’ clear affection for and support of each other. How delightful to read a story about (generally) happy, loving people. Schine’s own delight in playing with language is a bonus.

I should have liked Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day better than I did. All of its elements appeal (especially the notion that wasting a day should be a revered art form). Part travelogue, part memoir, part contemplation on the writing life, it is a 270-page ode to the essay form. Her interest in Michel Montaigne (born in 1533 and generally considered the first practitioner of the essay) leads her on a circuitous pilgrimage to his chateau near Bordeaux. She weaves elements of Montaigne’s life and of her pilgrimage throughout all her reflections in this volume, whether those are of her Midwest childhood or her current life in Minneapolis, where she is a professor in the English Department at the University of Minnesota. She has an elegant yet very accessible style, with evocative descriptions. However…about one-third of the way into the book, she starts to address a specific reader as “you,” first occasionally, then with greater frequency and in longer passages. It becomes clear that she is addressing a loved one who is no longer alive, and by the end, we know that she is addressing her late husband, Terrence Williams. (I looked him up and found he had died of heart failure in 2015). If I had known from the start that the book was also a kind of conversation with a dearly missed spouse, I might have had a different reaction. But instead I found the technique distracting, and I felt uncomfortable, as though I were reading something meant as private correspondence.

Nothing private in Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums. Subtitled “My Gourmet Memoir,” this  is the tell-all tale of Reichl’s tenure as editor-in-chief of the upscale food magazine Gourmet, from the fanfare of her tenure’s beginning in 1998 to the infamy of its ending ten years later. The New York Times called the book “poignant and hilarious.” I’ll give you poignant, but hilarious? More like hair-raising, as might happen if you were riding in an out-of-control roller coaster car that careens from a great height to crash to earth, sending all occupants flying and destroying the car. Any entertainment is provided by Reichl’s unvarnished, if at the same time embellished, descriptions of people, places, things. The good, the bad, and the ugly. From the gross extravagance of perks and publicity at the beginning to the sad scramble at trying, and failing, to keep the magazine alive, she names names, starting right at the top with S. I. Newhouse, and then right down the line of Condé Nast publishing executives, major and minor. Reichl’s exposure of some of the nastiest temperaments and ugliest antics must have raised eyebrows when the book came out. The book also captures a key decade spanning: (1) the prosperity of the Bill Clinton years to the Bush legacy of the Great Recession of 2008; (2) the rise of e-publications and the fall of print; and (3) the changes in Reichl’s family life as her son grows from a kid in elementary school to a college student at Wesleyan. Reichl manages to stir all of this into a delicious stew of a story. (Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.)

If you are wondering about the title…

“This Is Just to Say” (William Carlos Williams)

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
and so cold

A Month of Books: May 2019

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…


Books Read:

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.

Months and Months of Books (12/2018 to 4/2019)

What I have done since I last posted:

  • Celebrated Christmas 2018, New Year’s 2019, and two weddings (one of them my son’s).
  • Published my tale of woe about backyard birds: Bye, Bye Birdies.
  • Signed up for Medicare Part B.
  • Traveled to Hollidaysburg, PA (my hometown), once.
  • Traveled to New York City twice, for The Lehman Trilogy at the Park Avenue Armory and the Tolkien exhibit at the Morgan Library.
  • Attended a play, two operas, and an open rehearsal of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
  • Saw in person the following writers at various venues: David Sedaris, Dani Shapiro, Jennifer Egan, Roz Chast and Patricia Marx (together), Dave Barry, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Gopnik.
  • Churned out 10 alumni profiles for Princeton.
  • Read 20 books.

What I have not done since I last posted:

  • Written anything about those 20 books.

I am going to change that now. To make it easier for all of us, my comments will be brief. Below is the list of the 18 books that I read between December through April in the order that I read them, with title (F for fiction, NF for non-fiction), author, and my reaction. (I am determined to get back on track and will cover the May books in a June post.)

Unsheltered (F), Barbara Kingsolver: Another disappointing Kingsolver novel. Stick figure characters for Kingsolver’s soapbox. Her novels peaked at The Poisonwood Bible. Not Recommended

Almost Perfect Christmas (NF), Nina Stibbe: Seasonal essays by author of the very funny collection Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home. This one is fun, too. Recommended.

Calypso (NF), David Sedaris: I love David Sedaris’s essays. If you don’t, or haven’t read any, this is a good book to start with. Yes, there’s some snark, but also more compassion, generosity and humanity than in previous collections. Still lots of laughter. Highly Recommended.

Night of Camp David (F), Fletcher Knebel: A political thriller first published in 1965 following the ratification of the 25th amendment. A Senator believes that the president is insane and works to get him out of the White House. Vintage (strategically) reissued it in 2018. I learned a lot about Congress and its procedures. Recommended, but only as a novelty.

 My Life in Middlemarch (NF), Rebecca Mead: An elegant book by long-time New Yorker staff writer combining literary criticism and biography of George Eliot, with a little bit of Mead memoir thrown in. Highly recommended, especially for English majors.

The Victorian and the Romantic (NF), Nell Stevens: Using the same construct that Mead did, Stevens combines literary criticism and biography of Mary Gaskell with Stevens’ memoir thrown in. Too much speculation about a lesser author and too much memoir by a lesser writer. I like Stevens (see Bleaker House in my November News/Month of Books), but this book falls short. Not recommended.

The Master Bedroom (F), Tessa Hadley: An early (2007) Hadley novel with what have become classic elements for her: a large house that is falling apart and a dysfunctional family also falling apart. The characters are sympathetic, even when going wrong, and the story is wholly original, with surprising conclusions. Recommended.

 Manhattan Beach (F), Jennifer Egan: I confess that I was not a fan of A Visit from the Goon Squad, but I loved this book. It’s a good, old-fashioned character- and plot-driven novel, primarily set during World War II at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Strong female lead, with gangsters and sailors and family mysteries. Highly Recommended.

Transcription (F), Kate Atkinson: At the time I read it, her most recent novel. (She now has a new Jackson Brodie novel out.) The story of an MI5 office in World War II London with a cast of characters differing from the usual spy novels. The book is enthralling, amusing, and so clever I almost started it all over again, just to figure out how Atkinson had pulled it off. Highly Recommended.

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, (NF), David Sedaris: I chose to read this after I had seen David Sedaris live in early January. The early years are pretty tough going. Drugs. Promiscuity. Living rough. But it was in a way thrilling to read his “wishful thinking” in his 1980s entries, and then to “watch” as he works very hard at his career and acquires the very fame that he had hoped for along with a stable romantic partner. Recommended to existing Sedaris fans. (Others may be put off by those early years.)

Best American Essays 2018 (NF), guest ed. Hilton Als: I mentioned in an earlier post that these collections reflect the tastes of the guest editors. I could appreciate why Als chose the essays that he did, but reading them felt like homework. Not recommended.

The Library Book (NF), Susan Orlean: The story of the terrible Los Angeles Library fire in 1986. Orlean weaves in characters from the library’s past and present as well as information about libraries in general. Another Orlean book that combines extraordinary research and reporting with her impressive command of language and style. A great read. Highly recommended.

The Faraway Nearby (NF), Rebecca Solnit: Solnit is a columnist at Harper’s and is known for her “famously lyrical prose,” so I thought I ought to read something by her. This book is part memoir during her mother’s decline and death and part travel journalism. There were many exquisite passages, but I wasn’t committed enough to appreciate all of her complexity of style and format (e.g., a crawl that ran at the bottom of the pages throughout the book). The fault was mine, not hers. Others may be more up to the task. Recommended, with reservation.

Bowlaway (F), Elizabeth McCracken: I don’t know how I missed Elizabeth McCracken before this novel, though she has written other novels, short story collections, and a memoir. I’m going to have to catch up, because this book was terrific fun. Set in a small Massachusetts town at the turn of the 20th century, it’s a bit of a picaresque family saga with a matriarch who arrived in town out of nowhere and opened up a bowling alley. Things get even wilder after that, for a couple generations. Highly recommended.

Middle England (F), Jonathan Coe: The Guardian calls this “a bittersweet Brexit novel.” A group of close, now middle-aged, friends and their families live through the seemingly sudden cultural shift in England that leads to Brexit. The action takes place around Birmingham (the middle of England) and London. Coe writes with sharp humor and soft heart. The book is completely engaging, with its political satire balancing his affection for his characters caught in events. (This is the third of a trilogy about the same group of friends, but you don’t need to have read the earlier two books. I hadn’t read them.) Highly recommended.

Duck Season: Eating, Drinking, and Other Adventures in Gascony (NF), David McAninch: McAninch had a stint as editor at Saveur, but this was still only a “B” version of the “Hey family, let’s go live in France for a Year” genre. Its only distinction was that the area was Gascony rather than one of the more popular regions. Not Recommended.

Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog (NF), Dave Barry: I bought this book at the library event that featured Dave Barry. He was great in person, but I was a bit disappointed by the book. Not only had he covered many of the stories during his talk, the premise felt trite: dog teaches man how to live better. (Shades of Marley and Me.) Barry is clearly shaken by being on the other side of 70 (even though he still looks 15), and this comes through, making the book more poignant than punchy. Just not your typical Barry book. Not recommended.

The Incomplete Book of Running (NF), Peter Sagal: This book was a very big disappointment. It is billed as a memoir about how running has been helping Sagal (of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” fame) through some tough times since he was a kid, most recently through a painful divorce. I was prepared to be both sympathetic and amused. Instead, I found his mean-spirited harping about his ex-wife and daughters off-putting. I ended up being sympathetic for them, not him! And the book needed a good development editor: no discernible structure governing the chapters and we really didn’t have to hear about each of his bathroom breaks in his many marathons and training runs. Frankly, it’s a second-rate book that got published only because he’s the host of a funny NPR show. Not recommended.





November News/Month(s) of Books 2018

I last posted in early October, and even then I was two months behind in reporting on my book consumption. The days since have slipped through my fingers like water. I promise I have not been sitting around eating bon-bons (although I did go to London in October for eight wonderful days). What I have been doing is: writing and reading; getting my running program back on track (with a small blip or two); and preparing for the onslaught of the holidays, in the middle of which is scheduled son Jay’s wedding.

The latter two activities bore fruit in two essays. On November 28, Broad Street Review published my essay on coping with the pressure cooker that has been the holidays. Earlier in the fall, Humor Outcasts ran my essay on running in the rain. You can read them at these links: Overbooked for the Holidays and Have a Nice Trip

As for my reading…since the end of July I have read twelve books. (I took a little hiatus in October while I was traveling, resulting in my monthly average falling from four books a month to only three books a month. A slacker, I know.) In a ploy to get caught up, with the hope that come January I will be back on track, I am going to give quick summaries only of the books.


Julian Barnes, The Only Story (2018): Elegant, Barnes-ian prose and classic three-part dramatic structure, but ultimately it left me feeling sad.

Leah Franqui, America for Beginners (2018): Debut novel about three strangers brought together for a cross-country road-trip. She takes a little too long to get everyone into the same car, but it’s a sweet story in the vein of Anne Tyler. (Full disclosure: Leah is the daughter of one of my high school classmates and she went to school with my children. I’m starting to get jealous of all these youngsters I know getting published!)

Anne Tyler (herself), Clock Dance (2018): Much better than her last two — A Spool of Blue Thread and Vinegar Girl (part of the “Hogarth Shakespeare” project). I like settling in with an Anne Tyler. I know what I am going to get — but that may be faint praise.

Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (2015): Saw Atwood at a Free Library of Philadelphia Author Event and found her to be highly entertaining. I somehow missed this sense of humor in the handful of Atwood books I had read previously. It is definitely in fine form in this satire of a young couple, crushed in the economic downturn, “volunteering” for a planned community that purports to have the solution to all economic and societal ills. The current of wry humor runs through the whole book. I loved it.

Gary Shteyngart, Lake Success (2018): Shteyngart was also very entertaining during his Free Library of Philadelphia appearance (though in ways quite distinct from Margaret Atwood) and a copy of this book came with the tickets. I read it first, and it was not my cup of tea. Described as “a penetrating exploration of the ultra-rich .1%, [it] follows a billionaire hedge-fund manager who flees New York by bus in search of simpler life.” Even though I saw what the humor was, I just couldn’t get over that the protagonist was a clueless jerk who should have had his mouth washed out with soap. Having said that, Jon read it after I did and really enjoyed it. (Female vs. male perspective when reading? That’s for a different discussion!)

Louise Penny, Kingdom of the Blind (2018): I am a fan of cozy village murder mysteries, especially when they come in a series and I get to know all the principals over the course of years and years. Louise Penny is the queen of producing cozy (Canadian) village murder mysteries (with high octane plots). This is #14 of the Armand Gamache stories and is right up there with her best. (I will note, however, that this is the first time that I guessed the crux of one of the major plot lines as soon as it was introduced.)


Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First (2011): A classic Adam Gopnik book, combining erudite learning (in this case, the history of restaurants) and personal Gopnik lore (his love of cooking). Not everyone is a Gopnik fan, and I appreciate their reasons. Having said that, I am a long-time Gopnik fan whose appreciation of him was deepened last summer. By chance he and I were in the back of a church in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, awaiting the start of a Schubert concert. Recognizing him from various book jacket headshots, I screwed up my courage and went over to him. He was a delight. Personable, open and chatty. We had a short conversation about his books, the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival and our mutual affection for Cape Cod in general. Now I can hear his voice in my head when I read him.

Nell Stevens, Bleaker House (2017): Fun memoir, especially for English majors. Stevens, who already had a PhD in Victorian literature, was an MFA candidate who won a grant to go anywhere in the world to work on writing a novel. Of all places, she picked Bleaker Island in the Falklands, practically a wasteland. She fails to write her novel, but comes to realize, among many other things, that she really should be doing non-fiction. She now has two more non-fiction books out as well as credits in the New York Times. And she’s only 32…

The Best American Travel Essays 2011, Sloane Crossley, guest editor: I don’t usually buy the “best travel” collection, sticking to the plain old “Best American Essays” series. But a number of years ago I picked up this one because Sloane Crossley was the guest editor. Not surprisingly, each year’s collection tends to reflect the temperament of the guest editor. This edition was no different. I enjoyed almost every one of the picks that Crossley made, even the ones that weren’t overtly “humor pieces.”

Hope Jahren, Lab Girl (2016): Widely recognized as a leader among today’s geochemists and geobiologists, Hope Jahren has produced an extraordinary memoir that is also a science textbook. Her writing is lyrical as she intertwines her growth as a scientist with the growth of the very plants and trees she studies. Even in the 1990s, it was not easy to be “a girl” among men in her various scientific and academic communities, yet she surmounted every challenge. Her fierce determination and dedication to her calling are almost unfathomable to someone like me, an English major who has skipped around all over the place. But I couldn’t put the book down, it is such a compelling story. If you read only one book from this list of mine, read this book.

The other two books were the equivalent of junk food: Peter Mayle’s last book, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence, which must have been pulled together quickly just before his death and deserved better editing, and A Time of Love and Tartan, one of the five gazillion books that Alexander McCall Smith has pumped out from his writing desk in Edinburgh. The two really shouldn’t count, but they did keep me distracted through a very bumpy four hours on the second half of our flight home from London.

And now, I am off to a wedding…

A Month of Books: July 2018

Books Read:

The Italian Teacher (2018) – Tom Rachman
Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) – Hans Keilson
Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books (2016) – Ursula Le Guin
Upstream: Selected Essays (2016) – Mary Oliver

My two favorite books in July also happened to be two “slender volumes”—Keilson’s novel Comedy in a Minor Key and Oliver’s essay collection “Upstream.” Even though the two together added up to barely 300 pages, they each held me rapt in their words far longer than did the other two books.

The Keilson novel sat on my “To Read” shelf in our living room for years. I first learned of him when Francine Prose profiled him for the New York Times in 2010. Keilson, a Jewish German/Dutch novelist and physician, had been in the Dutch Resistance during WWII and set many of his works in the war years. He celebrated his 100th birthday in 2009, and in 2010 two of his most well known (in Europe) novels, Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) and The Death of the Adversary (1959), came out in English. I chose Comedy over Death for my shelf. Keilson died in 2011, and the book continued to sit on the shelf. I don’t know what prompted me to pick it up this summer. It’s not exactly a beach read. But I am very glad that I did. An ordinary young Dutch couple, Wim, a bookkeeper in a factory, and Marie, a housewife, have been hiding a Jew, Nico, during the last days of the Nazi occupation. Nico dies of pneumonia while with them, and they are faced with having to dispose of his body. Of course, there is nothing “ordinary” about this at all, as the perilous task could expose them. Keilson’s quiet, elegant story-telling makes the extraordinary courage and compassion of the couple, and others in their community who are also part of the Resistance with them, both more real and more miraculous than any melodramatic rendition could have done.

In five sections, Mary Oliver’s Upstream offers essays on nature, literature, and Cape Cod. They span her life, from her childhood in a suburb of Cleveland through her nearly 50 years of living in Provincetown. (She only recently relocated to Florida.) The middle section’s studies of Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Wordsworth were a little too close to literary criticism for me, bringing back memories of graduate school. I sped through those. But every one of the essays in the other four sections was a delight to read. Oliver is, of course, a poet. And her word choice is so finely tuned, the detail so precise, that you see what she is seeing and feel what she is feeling, whether it is delight or discovery or, very rarely, despair. Here is her description of turtles in egg-laying season:

They come, lumbering, from the many ponds. They dare the dangers of path, dogs, the highway, the accumulating heat that their bodies cannot regulate, or the equally stunning, always possible cold.

     Take one. She has reached the edge of the road, now she slogs up the impossible hill. When she slides back she rests for a while, then trundles forward again. Emerging wet from the glittering caves of the pond, she travels in a coat of glass and dust. (p. 51)

And you don’t have to be a woodsman or “outdoorsy” person to enjoy reading these essays. (I went camping in the Adirondacks once, and once was enough.) Read the essays for the pleasure of witnessing a master at work.

On the surface, the content of Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter resembles Lorrie Moore’s See What Can Be Done. (See Month of Books April/May.) The sections are:

Talks, Essays, Occasional Pieces
Book Intros and Notes on Writers
Book Reviews

Just the kind of stuff I love to read. In spite of the similarity, though, I could not warm to the Le Guin material in the same way I warmed to Moore’s. Le Guin’s use of language enlightened but (at least for me) didn’t entertain, so I was reading on only one level. And she was often pretty grumpy, whether about the dire state of the publishing industry, clutched in the paws of giant corporations (inarguable), or about her unhappiness that science fiction (about which I know nothing) is always treated as a second-tier genre. The not trivial number of negative reviews she chose to include surprised me. In particular, she was a bit rough on Margaret Atwood. I couldn’t help feeling that in those reviews lurked some underlying envy that Atwood’s dystopian novels were treated as mainstream. (In Le Guin’s judgment,  the novels of Atwood and Jan Morris should be categorized as Sci-Fi.) On the positive side, I wholeheartedly agreed with her on several of her conclusions: not a fan of Wallace Stegner, big fan of Kent Haruf and  José Saramago. The best part of the book was in the last 15 pages: a 1994 journal of a week at a women writers’ retreat north of Seattle. In these pages I saw Le Guin the writer rather than the critic, and I liked her very much. She captured the evolution of her initial unease about even attending the retreat into her deep appreciation for the natural setting, the friendships that developed and, ultimately, the writing that grew out of her stay: “all the beauty, the sunlight, the rabbits, the deer, the walks, the good fellowship of the younger women, the sweet deep silence of the nights, and the waking to see the treetops through the tulip window of the loft in the first light—all that was gravy.” Her descriptions of “all that” were the meat of the piece for me.

I won’t spend much time on Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher. I had very much enjoyed his 2010 novel The Imperfectionists, but this one disappointed. The basic tale is the classic one of a son, overshadowed by a famous father (in this case, a renowned painter), who dwells in that shadow his whole life, never reaching any heights in anything that he chooses to do, including becoming a painter himself. The interesting story embedded in the chronicle of the son’s life is that the son, as an adult, actually copies his father’s paintings and fraudulently sells them. But even that episode peters out. Olga Grushin in a New York Times review reacted to this section with, “I, for one, found it highly ambiguous and not a little horrifying. Yet so apparent are Rachman’s humanity and intelligence throughout that this ambiguity must be fully intended.” I don’t share her assumption that the ambiguity was intended. The book felt as though he had written quickly and just had to wind things up. I’m not sure Rachman even took the time to let an editor go over it before publication. Surely an editor would have objected to the sentence construction of a character “deploring himself” and to Rachman’s sloppy overuse of adverbs, e.g., “Grinningly, Pinch waves this away.” That one would have had such an easy fix!

(So speaks the former English teacher…)

A Month of Books: June 2018

Books Read:

In This House of Brede (1969) – Rumer Godden

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994) – Lorrie Moore

Warlight (2018) – Michael Ondaatje                                                      

I Wrote This Book Because I Love You (2018) – Tim Kreider (essays)

In June, a friend recommended Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, and a long dormant memory cell lit up. I had read The River when I was in 8th or 9th grade. Although I couldn’t remember the story, I did remember the pleasure in reading it, an exotic author taking me to India, a land of lush greens and brilliant colors.

Well, a quick search on Rumer Godden revealed that she was Margaret Rumer Godden, and while she was living in India as an expat she ran “Peggy’s School of Dance.” So much for exotic author. But she was a prolific British writer who received the OBE, so I carried on with the book, which depicted a world that could not have been farther from the India of The River. The quick Wikipedia synopsis is “Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her comfortable life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community of contemplative nuns.” Frankly, the book was more of a chronicle than a novel, setting out details of liturgical life and relating high and low moments for the order, without much of an engaging narrative arc. I couldn’t generate a lively interest in a closed order in an abbey near an English country town. I couldn’t keep track of the various nuns and their titles. And I couldn’t shake a sense of claustrophobia while I read. Having said that, the first chapter, describing Philippa’s preparations for leaving the outside world and the people who loved her, and the last chapter, describing Philippa’s departure for a new community even farther removed from Worcestershire are so exquisite that reading the whole book was almost worth it. It was a reverse Wizard of Oz. The first and last chapters are written in Technicolor, while the main story is all grey tones

The other two novels are works by a new favorite writer and an old favorite writer.

In Moore’s second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, narrator Berie Carr, vacationing in Paris with her husband, reflects back on the summer she was 15, when she and her best friend Sils worked at Storyland in Horsehearts, their small town in upstate New York. Moore captures the desultory pace of a small town in the summer of 1972, the close friendships teenage girls develop, the uncertain sexual ground the girls walk, and the reckless paths that they can choose without thinking. When Sils gets into trouble, Berie crosses a line in order to help her and is caught. The summer is shattered, with Berie effectively banished from Horsehearts. Berie goes on to private school and college, to a career as a photographic curator and marriage to a physician—surely what ought to be considered a successful escape from a small town. Yet none of these later stages brings Berie any joy, and her marriage is tense.  For Berie, that small-town time, not only with her best friend but also with other girls in her class, shimmers golden, as is captured in a beautiful elegy to her high school’s Girls Choir. While it might not sound like the jolliest story, this slim volume is a gem and a joy to read. Moore’s humor and humanity shine through her elegant prose.

I loved The English Patient. I read it slowly, savoring the writing as well the romance of the story. When the movie came out, I refused to see it—in spite of its illustrious cast. I didn’t want the movie on the screen to disturb the movie in my head. I liked Warlight, which came out a couple months ago, but it is no English Patient. I have to confess, I may have read it too fast to really take it all in. Set in London and in the nearby counties, the novel is a mystery story. Why do the parents of 14-year-old Nathaniel and 16-year-old Rachel take off during the last days of World War II and leave them in the care of a disreputable cast of characters? Nathaniel narrates from a vantage point of 14 years later, so it is also a bit of a coming of age novel. The first section focuses on the immediate year or so after his parents disappear, with later sections going back and forth between those teen years and his perspective as an adult. He does eventually unravel the mystery and, without giving too much away, it turns out that the mother is more hero than villain. Yet Nathaniel always remains detached from her story. And I remained detached from Nathaniel, just wanting to get to the solution of the mystery. Even then the facts resist clarity, and perhaps that was Ondaatje’s goal: to tell a tale only partially visible through “warlight”— the dim, foggy light of a London night during the blitz when black-out curtains were drawn. One could only see events cloaked in mist. They could never be discerned clearly.

I fell for Tim Kreider on August 4, 2014, the day I read his essay “A Man and His Cat” in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. The essay opens with, “I lived with the same cat for 19 years — by far the longest relationship of my adult life. Under common law, this cat was my wife.” The essay touches on how people over-invest in their pets, the money we over-spend on pets, the pathological syndrome of over-attachment to an inappropriate object. Mostly it’s about how Tim Kreider loves his cat. Not how much he loves his cat, but funny, self-effacing examples of how he loves his cat. I immediately Googled him and found he had published a collection of essays in 2012, We Learn Nothing. Amazon Prime delivered it two days later, and I had gobbled it up by the next afternoon. The essays were wide-ranging – personal stories, comic sketches, astute observations — with the same funny, self-effacing, voice, but sometimes with a touch of pleasant snark and often with salty language that must have been held in check for the NYT. I added the book to my “saved” essay collections that I keep within an arm’s length of my writing desk.

When his next collection, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You, came out earlier this year, I gobbled that one up, too. In each essay, Kreider limns an affectionate, often loopy, occasionally learned look at an episode in which a different dearly loved woman — ex-girlfriend, close friend (sometimes with benefits), confidant, counselor, co-conspirator — has a starring role. The cast includes an actress and an artist, a schoolteacher and a sex worker, a child development researcher and a pastor of a Brooklyn church, his mother… and his cat (in a revised version of the NYT piece). For an epigraph, Kreider quotes Fred (“Mister”) Rogers: “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.” While Kreider may be a self-professed failure at making romantic commitment, he excels at giving this best gift, the gift of his honest self. He has given this to the women and to the readers. He can be “hilarious and profound,” witty and wry. He is sentimental without being sappy, and he wears his heart on his sleeve as often as he holds his head in his hands in reaction his own faults and fancies. Reading the essays made me wish that I could be one of Tim Kreider’s friends.