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I received two Penguin reprints of Vita Sackville-West‘s novels for my birthday a couple of months ago, and read The Edwardians last week. It’s kind of a literary Downton Abbey but far sharper and funnier. That Sackville-West belonged to the strata of society she was sending up makes it even more admirable, to me. Her characters are delicious, and the story of Sebastian, a young Duke whose mother Lucy is among the “fast” set, favorites of the king, and who loves his estate, Chevron, and runs it well, is tender and also searingly critical. His sister, Viola is considered “cold,” and treated with suspicion by her mother’s friends because she is always quietly observing. It turns out she is in the end brighter and more observant than any of them.

Early in the novel, Sebastian and Viola meet a man their mother is considering as a potential lover, an explorer named Leonard Anquetil. Lucy invites Anquetil to a house party at Chevron to amuse her friends with this man who survived in a “snow hut” on a polar expedition. Anquetil ends up spending time with Sebastian and Viola, talking with them, and having a profound effect on their young minds, allowing them both to see (although I would argue Viola probably already does) the vacuousness of their society and the potential for them each to make their own way in the world.

The joy of this book is that Sackville-West makes it far more complicated than that, even as some circumstances of the book fall together as neatly as they might in a fable or fairy tale. Sebastian goes through a series of affairs, testing the strength of his sense of duty and propriety, and Viola manages to become her own person, against the odds for a woman of her position. I do wish the book allowed readers into Viola’s world — we only hear of her through Sebastian, or other characters.

This was a very enjoyable, intelligent read that combines the escapist pleasure of a “Masterpiece” style story (plenty of balls and Worth gowns and weekends in the country) with the bright insights and cultural commentary of an author who was no stranger to challenging convention while still embracing the lifestyle privilege afforded her. And the ending is pleasantly speculative: will Sebastian become a socialist? Will he accept Aquentil’s offer? What about the woman he’s about to propose to? What is Viola up to? How will Lucy react to her children’s latest outrageously independent choices? What about WWI, which readers know is looming (the novel ends on Coronation Day for King George and Queen Mary, in 1911)? A good read.

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My book group chose The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith for November. I’d never heard of either the book or its author, which is one of the lovely things about being in a book group, hearing about authors and books new to you. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but the gist is that it’s the story of a fictional 17th century Dutch painter, Sara de Vos, and of a 20th century Manhattan patent attorney, Martin de Groot, whose family has owned what is thought to be the only landscape painting de Vos painted, and of Ellie Shipley, a young Australian woman writing her dissertation on 17th century Dutch women painters and making money on the side as an art restorer. The book moves around from de Vos’s time to the 1950’s when Ellie and Marty meet in New York to the late 20th century in Australia, where Ellie has returned when Marty reappears in her life forty years after the events that brought them together.

At the heart of the story is the painting Marty’s family owns, “At the Edge of the Wood,” which depicts a young barefoot girl in a ragged dress watching people skate on a frozen river. It goes missing during a benefit dinner at Marty’s penthouse, replaced by a fake so realistic it takes months for him to notice the switch. The mystery leads him to Ellie. And in between, Smith takes readers to de Vos’s Holland, a place grieving from plague deaths, where the art world is controlled by guilds and the whims of the marketplace (tulip paintings come into and go out of fashion with the great speculation in bulbs, for example).

Each of the periods Smith describes beautifully, with details that take the readers right into the scene. The stink of Ellie’s apartment, caused by, among other things, a perpetually moldy ceiling and the rabbit pelts she boils down for her restoration work, is one example. The tension of an art auction. The way a Citroën engine sounds and the color of Marty’s driving gloves in the sunlight.  The slice of skates on a frozen river in Holland. The bustle of Sydney’s sidewalks at night. A scene where Ellie is reflecting on her life and watching men trying to maneuver a refrigerator onto a small boat to ill effect. And detailed depictions of artists at work.

Even ordinary scenes between characters are richly imagined, like this, when Ellie and Marty are together in Australia towards the end of the book: “He hasn’t been neutered by time exactly– there’s still a tiny high pressure weather system that hovers between them– but his potency moves in and out, at the edges of reception, muffled then surging then gone.” Relations between characters throughout the book are described beautifully, whether between friends, co-workers, or couples.

This is a lovely, intriguing novel and if you like art, an incredibly interesting look at what art means to the people who create and collect it. A great book for escaping from the world with. And one I look forward to discussing with my book group!

 

I read Moonglow for my book group this month and was excited to do so, because Michael Chabon is one of those authors I always meant to read and hadn’t yet. I enjoyed it — the writing is really rich and muscular and evocative. I like the layers of detail. The story — which some reviewers call genre bending fictional memoir and others say is just a novel with a protagonist named Michael Chabon — was hard to follow. If you don’t like non-linear narratives, time leaps, footnotes, and other prose calisthenics you might not like it. I did, eventually, but because I have less time to read these days I found it challenging to pick up in my patchy reading time.

Those minor quibbles aside I did enjoy the main character, “my grandfather,” and the historical backdrop of his life, growing up in pre-war Philadelphia, putting his low regard for rules and his uncanny ability to jerry-rig or repair anything to use during WWII in a unit devoted to finding V2 rockets after D-Day, uncovering a cache of documents hidden by Wernher von Braun, and going back to America to lead a colorful life on the periphery of America’s space race. I don’t want to give away the details but his marriage to the narrator’s grandmother is the real meat of the story, and the way that his grandfather sees loving her as his purpose: “From the first that was a part of his attraction to her: not her brokenness but her potential for being mended and, even more, the challenge that mending her would pose. He thought that if he took on the job of loving this broken woman, some measure of sense or purpose might be returned to his life.”

This pattern begins in the grandfather’s childhood — he’s always helping someone who is kind of a mess, in one way or another, and I found that very endearing even though he’s not a classically endearing guy at all. I also enjoyed reading about the narrator’s mother and would have liked to hear more of her life. My bookclub mostly didn’t like or finish the book — one person had read it twice but otherwise, no one who came to the meeting tonight had finished. I’m glad I read to the end. There is a gentleness to the latter pages of the book that I enjoyed. Moonglow is a wacky novel, for sure, replete with some strange twists that don’t quite make sense unless you’re willing to just suspend belief and go with the narrative flow, disjointed as it may be. If you feel like something different, give it a try. Maybe take it on a weekend away or a long plane ride, so you don’t have time to get lost.

I’d read parts of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer with my student success class last spring in the modules on vocation, specifically the chapter called “Now I Become Myself.” My students were impressed with Palmer’s wisdom in statements such as “What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been!” and “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

Around the time I used this with my class, a friend told me this is a favorite book of his, so I intended to give it a full reading. I had actually checked it out of the library once before and had been too busy to read it. The same thing happened over the summer. This time I swore I’d read it all the way through and made it my “lunch book” — keeping it at work and reading in the sun or in my office each day after I ate.

How glad I am that I kept trying. Palmer’s wisdom is humble and humane and true. He generously shares his own missteps and fears in the service of helping readers avoid their own, or embrace them as the case may be:  “Here, I think, is another clue to finding true self and vocation: we must withdraw the negative projections we make on people and situations — projections that serve mainly to mask our fears about ourselves — and acknowledge and embrace our own liabilities and limits.” Yep. Ouch. Another gem: ” . . . there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does — maybe more.” Not something that’s easy to accept.

But this isn’t just a book about seeking one’s vocation. Palmer writes searingly about his descent into depression and his way back to wholeness: “One begins the slow walk back to health by choosing each day things that enliven one’s selfhood and resisting things that do not.” And acknowledges how painful, slow, and difficult this is: “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection — it deprives one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.”

He also expounds on leadership: “These leaders possess a gift available to all who take an inner journey: the knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others. It depends only on the simple fact that we are children of God, valued in and for ourselves.” And extolls the benefits of “inner work . . . like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, meditation, and prayer” and the importance of community: “Community doesn’t just create abundance — community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed.”

In these times this passage will be one I return to frequently: “‘Be not afraid’ does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thereby engendering a world in which fear is multiplied.” Amen.

This is a brief book, around 100 pages, and small enough to fit easily in a coat pocket or purse or desk drawer. It merits reading and re-reading, and inwardly digesting. It would be a great book to journal with, or to discuss in a small group.

The adult formerly known on this blog as Teen the Younger (who will no longer be a teen later this month) suggested we get Furiously Happy: a Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson and both read it. As you can imagine I can’t pass up a suggestion like that even though I have stacks of books waiting for me around here.

As I was reading it I posted on Facebook that the most important takeaway is that people living with depression and/ or anxiety have brains that are lying to them. That resonated with me – honestly there is not a damn thing their loved ones can say when that is happening. The lies are too loud. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell the person you love them and are with the them, you just can’t expect it to make any difference in the moment. That is both disturbing and reassuring.

I still feel that is the most important takeaway. Which makes me glad I read Furiously Happy even though I don’t think it’s necessarily my kind of humor or a topic I want to spend any more head space on than I already do. But it helped put words to some things I’ve been thinking about.

Last week I saw a story on Facebook that had been published in our local paper, about the parents of a recent suicide victim, and about how he was upset about a breakup but otherwise they had no idea and how he’d been talking about things he looked forward to doing and then killed himself. The article and the post both mentioned wanting to help prevent other families from going through this and other people from committing suicide. I get that desire. I really, really do.

But I think assuming that prevention is a matter of just saying the right thing is a lie, too, that people not living with mental illness but near it tell themselves. And it’s just as dangerous as the lies Lawson writes about. We can help people with mental illness know they are not alone. We can help them see there are options in the world, but we can’t help them see themselves in those options — yes, therapy can often give people tools to try to see, and medicine can potentially help thwart some of the lies enough to help therapy work, but ultimately, no one can stop someone else’s brain from lying. I think, and maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me, they can only be a steady presence for the person with mental illness, when their brains are lying or when they are not, and hope the person says they need help shutting out the lies when they get too loud.

In that way Furiously Happy isn’t totally bleak, because Lawson gives people a view into what that’s like, and provides hope for people who read her work thinking they alone feel as horrible as they do. Letting people see her life, Lawson says, led to affirmations that people were with her in her struggle, but also to  “thousands and thousands of people creeping to the edge and quietly admitting, “Me too. I thought it was just me.” It’s something we humans are very good at, especially at this time and place — we have the delusional view that our experience is unique, especially if it’s bad. Lawson helps people through her blog and her books see that other people are suffering but are also living. That’s great. But I think about that young man and his parents in my town, and I am sure, based on the story they told in the paper, that they did that too — let him know he was not alone, and that people had suffered and lived through what he was experiencing. The lies in his brain were too loud, too insistent for him.

And that’s what I hope science will figure out someday — how to keep the brain from ever lying so badly in the first place.

 

The main characters in Our Souls at Night, Addie Moore and Louis Waters, are neighbors. They both live alone because their spouses died. Neither had a great marriage. Addie decides she doesn’t want to sleep alone anymore and invites Louis to sleep at her house. The town gossips about them. Kent Haruf lived in a small town in Colorado much like the one he writes about in Our Souls at Night. When I read that I realized much of my critique of the book has to go out the window — I found it unbelievable that there is anywhere in America where people, even older people, couldn’t have an adult relationship without whipping up gossip.

So I guess if he was writing about a town much like his own, I have to reconsider my disbelief. It’s a beautiful book, what I’d refer to as a quiet novel, just about these two people’s lives and how they get to know each other well after decades of just knowing each other in passing. They share their experiences, their marriages, the ways their lives didn’t turn out as they hoped or planned, and their concerns for their grown kids and Addie’s grandson. Their lives are ordinary but Haruf makes them seem special somehow, in their ordinariness. In their goodness.

It’s a short read, and if you like character driven novels, it’s a lovely little book. It’s a little sad, so be prepared for that, because it reveals human nature in all its brokenness. But it’s also a little hopeful. And a little funny — he even pokes fun at himself, as Addie and Louis read about a play from “that last book about Holt County,” and Louis scoffs that in the books are “made up,” and “improbable.”  I enjoyed it although I wasn’t really in the right mood for the brokenness.

During the time that I worked as the events coordinator at my local indie bookstore (Gibson’s in Concord) and then wrote a book review column (for the Concord Monitor and later for the New Hampshire Union Leader) I had the pleasure of getting to correspond with authors of all kinds of books, and their publicists. A few stand out as real people, the kind of people who like to connect as humans and so chat a bit in an email, or before an event. Even rarer are the ones who wrote me later to say they appreciated my reading and caring about their work, or who helped me feel as if my own writing was making the world a very slightly better place. Today I bring you some of the loveliest of those people and their latest books.

First, even though her book will be published last of the three, Tod Davies. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned her and her wonderful Exterminating Angel Press but longtime readers of bookconcious may recall my review of Jam Today Too and even farther back, Snotty Saves the Day (both of which came to my attention because of another really lovely person in the literary world, Molly Mikolowski). Well Tod remembered too, and sent me an email with an e-galley of her new revised edition of Jam Today: a Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got. Confession time: last year around this time I finally bought myself a print copy of the first edition of Jam Today and . . . it’s still on my “to read” shelf. So I decided Tod’s email was a sign that it was high time I read it. I don’t love reading e-books, but needs must.

One more aside before we go on — Tod and Molly were two of the kindest people when I was working on finding a publisher for my debut (and still unpublished) poetry collection, and they, along with Erika Goldman, the thoughtful publisher at Bellevue Literary Press, took time out of their busy lives to give me advice, even though they knew it was probably unlikely I’d ever get that book published unless I wanted to pay for it myself. The publishing world needs more people like these three wonderful women, who probably don’t even remember the emails they sent me, but who helped me see that being a bookless poet wasn’t the end of the world.

Ok, enough digressing already, let’s eat!

Jam Today is part cookbook — in a nontraditional this-is-how-you-do-it rather than a here’s-a-list-of-recipes way — part memoir and part philosophy book. I say that because right from the first pages readers find out that for Tod Davies, the way we think about food, not just the way we acquire or grow and prepare and eat it, is “direct political action.” She says in the book’s opening section, “Why I Love Food:” “If you’re well fed — if you’re well loved — well, that makes it easier to do just about anything. And if you have an entire population that is well fed — and well loved — and believes it can do just about anything . . . this may not be good for those who would rather lull and manipulate us into doing what they think best. But it’s definitely good for us and our world.”

Throughout the book, Tod’s advice is to pay attention; “. . . every moment of everyday life is what our world is made of . . . . Paying attention to what’s right in front of you is what life is about. No other way.” And “. . . food feeds both my physical and my spiritual selves.” She goes on to address what she means by spiritual and that she believes there is a “basic set of principles that all human beings can discover . . . indeed that I think all human beings are trying to discover.” Amen, sister. If only we set aside our quibbling about spiritual matters by focusing on this truth, that we all seek “the Good!” How and in what way wouldn’t matter so much if we all really tried to be, in the moment, human to, and open to the human in, each other.

And, I loved the way she addresses the way coming back home after visiting at the holidays we need to “heal up from the holidays.” And how a meal she made “was absolute crap” after a friend died, “I could see my body running away from the basic facts of my life, because those basic facts killed my friend and would kill me.” Do you see what I mean? This isn’t just recipes — although those are mouth watering — it’s a manifesto, a statement of faith, a guide to living intentionally and loving life and each other, while eating well. Also, she is complimentary towards Millennials (admiring the way “they’ve got this trend going of getting by with as few possessions as possible”) which as a mother and manager of millennials I appreciate. Too many people write off that generation without looking for the Good.

I haven’t tried cooking any of these recipes, but I’ve made paella from Jam Today Too and followed the spirit of Tod’s cooking in many other ways, although lately we’ve been just making food and not feeding ourselves and Jam Today was a good reminder that when we feel we are least able to make cooking a big deal si probably when we most need to. Tod’s spirit of intentionality is inspiring. That’s the key to keeping calm in difficult times, I think, being intentional, living deliberately, sharing love. I wish I lived closer because I’d invite her over for a meal — and you’ll want to do that too, when you’re done reading this delightful book.

If you’ve read any of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s and/or Sy Montgomery‘s books you know they have much in common and that they refer to each other (and each other’s animals) in their writing. What I didn’t know until I read Vicki Constantine Croke‘s forward to Tamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind is that they became friends when one of Sy’s ferrets bit Thomas.  Croke explains, “The essays here are mostly collected and adapted from their joint column in The Boston Globe . . . .” Croke goes on to say, “They are, one might say, the kettle corn of nature writers,” by which she means they are “sweet” but share “a real saltiness to their skepticism.”

Whether you’ve read some of these essays before or not, this spirit, which Croke alludes to and which shines through both women’s writing, is a pleasure to encounter or re-encounter. Their lovingly writing on everything from snakes to dogs is accepting of animals as our equals in many ways (and our betters, as Sy explains, in others. Can you re-grow a limb?), and yet they are ready to zap irrational human arguments about mistreating or disrespecting animals. Both Thomas and Sy deploy warmth and wit, philosophy and science. They share stories of animals they have observed or loved, and they question much of the habits of thought and misinformation that lead us to flawed human-animal relations.

Thomas writes, “Our species is just one in 8.7 million. How many of these can we name? How many do we know or understand?” If you read this collection you will know about some of them, you will learn to look at things through animal eyes, and you may be less quick to judge (or misjudge, really) what seems like contrary or mis-behavior but which is understandable if you try to think from the animals’ perspectives. And if you love animals you will feel a kindred sense of understanding with these authors who have between them done so much to advance human understanding of both the wild and domestic creatures we are so fortunate to share this planet with. You’ll also be amazed — even the most devoted naturalist is going to learn something from this book. Have you ever heard of water bears? Me neither. And now I am dying to know more! Did you know that rats laugh, we just can’t hear the frequency? Me neither, but it makes me want to re-read Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White was brilliant in many ways but I wonder if he was tuned into rat frequency?

Finally, Sy Montgomery’s husband Howard Mansfield also has a new book out, from the wonderful New Hampshire small press Bauhan PublishingSummer Over Autumn: a Small Book of Small Town Life. Most of these essays were new to me, but are collected from Howard’s writing for magazines and the Boston Globe. He is one of those writers who is not only gracious to bookstore staff and part time book reviewers (and probably everyone else) and whose writing is warm and funny but also, as they say in these parts, wicked smart. He’s a kind of a people’s intellectual, whose cultural and historical knowledge sparkles on the page but whose ability to read other human beings, and not surprisingly since he is married to Sy, animals, infuses his essays with a generosity that makes you feel like you’re sharing in his brilliance, not having it bestowed upon you, the lowly reader. 

Plus, he’s writing about one of my favorite topics: New Hampshire. The Computer Scientist and I tell people this is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose. It feels like home — for no good reason, since neither of us is “from” here, nor as far as we know are any ancestors. Besides sharing an outsider’s love of our adopted home, I just really admire the way Howard takes ordinary things like yard sales or his local garage and creates something beautiful on the page not only because he notices things and writes well but because he cares about people’s stories. In “On Going Late to Yard Sales,” for example, he writes about the “puzzles that are left when the boxes are nearly empty,” and the way the sellers seem to have “watched themselves scatter to the winds.” Something I had never really thought about, but I recognized when I read his essay.

It’s a good time to read this book as we’re in what Howard refers to in the title essay: “Summer Over Autumn isn’t a season. It’s a glimpse, the moment when we see the skull beneath the skin, the death that is always a part of life.” A few leaves are changing, but it’s still warm, even sometimes hot during the day. Evenings and mornings are chilly enough to cause us to think about a coat was we rush to the car. There are both wonderful tomatoes and wonderful apples at the Farmers’ Market. There is both observation and deep human truth in Howard’s essays.

So, this Summer Over Autumn afternoon you could’t go wrong reading any of these books. Or more importantly sharing time with people who care not only about the books they write, but also the people they ask to be a part of bringing those books into the world. Enjoy!