Tiny Triumphs in the Time of COVID-19

Back in the Before Times, I wrote about Austin Kleon’s book, “Keep Going: 10 Ways to Keep Creative in Good Times and Bad.” In his recent newsletter, Kleon quoted from a letter he received: “Every time we make a thing, it’s a tiny triumph.”

Maybe now, after last week, there is a glimmer of political hope, racial justice hope, but probably not COVID hope, and while I ask myself what’s next (a friend suggested earthquake) – I relish the idea of registering an ordinary accomplishment as a tiny triumph. Making a mask, yes, and a rhubarb crisp or dinner – or a flower postcard.

And joy is to always get a flower postcard in return!

 

Reading in the Time of COVID-19

Different – the reading. Several friends have said it’s hard to concentrate. The lure of news is huge – so much news that affects us all, fine journalism, hard to resist stories of the illness from doctors, sufferers, the recovered. The politics of it all.

A smart and thoughtful blog reader alerted me to a fine way to read important news quickly, without having to (heaven help me) watch the so-called Coronavirus “briefings” from the White House (the occasional glimpse of reality from Dr. Fauci and Dr. Brix so drowned out by nonsense, lies, and misinformation) is to subscribe to the newsletter, “Letters from An American” by Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson, an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College, writes clearly, conveying the important political happenings of the day in an immediate and accessible way

The New Yorker has been my breakfast and dinner companion for decades – and I’m always months behind. But not anymore – I’ve taken to reading the most recently arrived issue.

And now, because of sewing and not much time for reading, I’ve discovered the app Audm – professional voices read articles from multiple periodicals. The New Yorker posts many – including long profile pieces (the one about Mitch McConnell is horrifying) and short pieces they call “Dispatches from a Pandemic.” The sewing machine whirs, the voices keep me company, I get to catch up.

A great pleasure has been reading with Lady B and her brother on dual Kindles. We schedule our times to meet on FaceTime (once the pair showed up with a big container of cookies they’d made, oatmeal with smashed Oreos, to taunt their virtual granddad known as a cookie hound). For an hour or so, we take turns reading, until their iPad is needed for a classroom Zoom or the outdoors beckons.

We are all loving Damien Love’s “Monstrous Devices.” An English schoolboy, 12-year old Alex, a collector of toy robots and bullied at school, receives a toy robot from his grandfather and the adventure begins. The two set off by train from London toward Paris, and on to Prague. There are robots that come alive, enough humor and just enough fright to be perfect.

Lady B has become a proficient and expressive out loud reader. The book offers a sprinkling of unfamiliar words, French phrases and Britishisms and gives us food for discussion. Her mother tells me that the other day, Lady B said, “books are best.”

And wondering about sharing a book with Sweet B, I googled “books to read aloud with a smart five-year old,” and found an article from Wired magazine, “67 Books Every Geek Should Read to Their Kids Before Age 10.” Great books, and Joan Aiken’s “Arabel’s Raven” looks just right for now, the adventures of a young British girl and her pet raven Mortimer. Sweet B could even listen to colorful British accents with the Audible version – listening with headphones on her “radio,” as she says, a favorite activity as she draws.

Lady B is right – books are best.

 

Gardens, Books, Unease

Does life right now seem a sort of “Choose Your Own Anxiety” game? Spin the arrow inside one’s brain, and settle on worries about the spread of coronavirus or the (now diminished) smorgasbord of candidates confusing efforts to defeat the incumbent. And then, another set of frets (rightly louder) provide real-life concerns like children or work or health – things one might do something about.

I try and interrupt the head spin with books. So I was glad to get Penelope Lively’s new book, “Life in the Garden.” I have been looking forward to it – a memoir by a favorite writer structured around gardens – her own and literary. Describing her tiny London garden now, and the limitations imposed by a chronic back problem, she says, “This is old-age gardening, and like all other aspects of old age, it creeps up on you, and has to be faced down and dealt with.”

In my favorite parts of this book (aside from the beautiful cover and black and white illustrations inside) Lively considers “gardening as an element of fiction.” She writes, “This is a book in which fictional gardens act as prompts for consideration of what gardens and gardening have been for us, over time.”

And I loved it that she reminded me of books I hadn’t read including her own novel, “Consequences,” a perfect book for escaping the present. Beginning just before the hardships and tragedies of World War II, it opens with a romance that echoes through generations. It ends in this century with changes wrought by modernity and a satisfying linking of the generations.

I really care about Lively’s characters – and relish their observations (which seem like Lively’s voice). On books in a library: “they offer a point of view, they offer many conflicting points of view, they provoke thought, they provoke irritation and admiration and speculation.” A library would be noisy, “with a deep collective growl coming from the core collection…, and the bleats and cries of new opinion, new fashion, new style.”

Such a pleasure to read this book, and to surface and realize that a daffodil, ignoring our national discontent, blooms in my tiny garden.

 

 

Ann Patchett’s “The Dutch House”

A list of books for Christmas gifts occupies the front of my mind this time of year – they please in many forms (beautifully illustrated books, a graphic novel of the Mueller report!), but finding the right book is still challenging.

So, I enjoyed reading Ann Patchett’s piece in The Guardian books newsletter about her habit of giving books for all occasions (she owns a bookstore).

And her new book, The Dutch House, belongs on the list. It’s the stuff of fairy tales: a mother disappears leaving two children with a distracted father in a haunting, enormous house. The father remarries, then dies, and the wicked stepmother casts out the children. (It’s also a modern tale of real estate and sibling devotion.) I’d saved it for a concentrated time of reading, the book rewarded the wait, and made a long flight pass quickly!

One day on our trip after a library visit, Sweet Baby asked me how books are made, and I gave an overlong explanation of signatures, endpapers, binding, printing.

And then we just made a book – sketchbook paper cut and folded into pages sewn with dental floss – with a story dictated to her mom and illustrated admirably!

 

London, the Hebrides, and Crawdads – Books

These long three months I’ve been even more grateful for books. I spent most of the early weeks in “London: The Novel” by Edward Rutherford – a birthday present last November that seemed a joke. How would I read 1100 pages following family descendants, from an encampment on the River Thames during pre-history all the way to modern London? Easy.

And I read Peter May’s “Lewis Trilogy,” a reader’s fine suggestion, about a Glasgow detective returning to his home island in the Outer Hebrides – all wild ocean, rugged terrain and rugged people. The narrative alternates from childhood to present, as the mystery needing solving becomes personal. The descriptions bring to life the sky and weather, rocky cliffs, hidden beaches, and smaller inhospitable, isolated islands – and the culture – traditions still strong after hundreds of years, meeting modern sensibilities.

During a few nights in a not-sleeping-very-well period, I devoured Tessa Hadley’s new book, “Late In The Day.” Now I want to revisit it. Of all her books I love, it stands out – contemporary London, interesting people, complicated marriages, and Hadley’s pinpoint prose.

In a Guardian interview, Hadley, said that one of the most satisfying aspects of the book for her is the character of Christine who is sustained by her art when her marriage falls apart. Hadley said: “I was thinking about how I feel about work and its importance, and I was pouring that into writing about her and her painting.” Hadley also speaks of her own late success as a novelist, “after all those years of writing between the school run and doing the laundry,” and her plan to “continue writing about people just getting on with the business of living.”

But – of all these wonderful books – the standout is a recent recommendation from Mrs. Hughes, Delia Owens’s “Where the Crawdads Sing.” It’s the story of Kya, a six-year old abandoned – first by her mother and eventually by all her family – in the shack where they lived in the North Carolina coastal marshlands.

Never have I rooted so hard for a heroine, wanting her to make it. I relished the totally unfamiliar setting of the marsh, byways of water overhung with Spanish moss, glades of sunshine and tumbledown shelters, herons and gulls. Kya, as she grows up alone, becomes part of the flora and fauna of her marsh home – her desires and longings much the same as the animals and insects around her. Mocked by the other students, she attends school for just one day, but another marsh dweller teaches her to read – and reading saves her, opens her world and makes her a scientist and artist. Steeped in the heat and humidity of her surroundings, the book is suspenseful and romantic and amazing.

Thankful for books!

 

Kinds of Courage

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage. So I noticed when Bill Nighy, a character in the movie made from Penelope Fitzgerald’s book, “The Bookshop,” told the heroine, the young widow Florence: “You possess the trait I admire above all in a person – courage.”

Florence has a courage born of her essential goodness, her tolerant nature, her assumption that others are as kind and accepting, as she is. But the residents of the village where she sets up her new bookshop in an old house are not, and she faces petty-minded meanness meant to defeat her. The movie tries for a little redemption lacking in the book, but this is Penelope Fitzgerald, and the story captures a moment, a place, and particular people.

To me, this movie was perfect, but I am in a distinct minority. A friend thought it wasn’t good, another said the reviews were terrible. (I’d be so curious what you thought if anyone watched, it’s streaming on Amazon.) The cast is stellar – in addition to Nighy, Patricia Clarkson is the softest-spoken evildoer ever, nearly whispering her potent threats. And Emily Mortimer as Florence, wounded by the death of her beloved husband, brims with the courage and enthusiasm of a new venture. Courage calls to mind wonderful words – pluck, mettle, spunk, spirit – those are Florence.

So one can have courage in the face of emotional or physical pain or in the case of Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, as told in her memoir, “The Salt Path” – in the face of both. The Winns are an ordinary couple in their 50s with children in college, living in a house they’ve restored in Wales with rental cottages providing their income. And then, in nearly unimaginable circumstances, through a bad investment and a failed legal case, they find themselves losing the property. Hoping the marshal come to evict them will leave, they huddle in a closet under the stairs, and Raynor’s eyes fall on a book at the top of a box – Paddy Dillon’s guide to the South West Coast Path around Cornwall.

Their next blow comes just days later when Moth receives a terminal diagnosis of corticobasal degeneration. And so, why not, they embark to walk the coastal path (it makes a sort of desperate sense) – a 630-mile trail stretching over headlands rising above the Atlantic, dropping to sandy coves, and repeating – again and again and again. They walk through blistering heat and rain, “shards, thundering against waterproofs,” heavy pounding rain, a drumroll without conclusion,” rain – furious and horizontal,” “sheets of grey falling from cloud to sea, a visible cycle of water.” Campgrounds being out of financial reach, they sleep “rough,” surviving on noodles and rice, and the occasional kindness of strangers.

The book is a meditation on homelessness (they learn to not reveal that fact to people), and fine writing about their experiences and about the natural world – dolphins, sea birds, and seals, cliffs, hedgerows, and weather – in this most beautiful area (Poldark country). I loved this hard-to-put-down memoir of courageous survival and growth.

“Snap” and “Station Eleven”

Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel, “Station Eleven,” set 20 years after a pandemic decimates most of the population and infrastructure of the United States, follows a band of survivors as they wander the Great Lakes region by horse and wagon. They stage Shakespeare plays in what’s left of small towns – some hostile, some welcoming. We go back in time to see the creation of a graphic novel (also “Station Eleven”) now treasured by survivors, and meet the characters when their world was intact.

Suspenseful and respectful of both characters and culture, and the need for connection and creativity, St. John said about her book, “There’s something about art I think that can remind us of our humanity. It could remind us of our civilization. So that line became almost the thesis statement of the entire novel.”

In “Snap,” by Belinda Bauer, civilization remains – but a boy’s world ends. I was hooked from the very beginning, when the pregnant mother of Jack, Joy, and baby Merry, leaves them in their broken-down car by the side of a road while she goes to find a phone box. She never comes back, and the family is so devastated, the father gives up and also disappears.

When his mother left the car, she told Jack, 11, that he’s “in charge.” And three years later – when the book takes up with the children again – he truly is. Jack’s turned cat burglar to provide for his sisters, and they pretend to the outside world that the family is intact to avoid Social Services. Jack’s determination to discover what happens to his mother fuels the plot. Insightful about grief and family and leavened with love, the book is also a terrific mystery story.

With both these books, where richly imagined characters form new worlds after the ending of the known, readers reap the rewards.

Reservoir 13 and Solar Bones

The Irish writer Mike McCormak structures his novel, “Solar Bones,” as one long sentence without the familiar little dots (periods for us, full-stops for the British), affording the reader a microsecond of rest. Nor does he use commas or paragraph indents, and he only capitalizes proper and place names, and the all-important “I” of the narrator. But that one book-length sentence doesn’t bring on breathlessness, the story reads the way we think.

Set in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland, the book takes place on one day, November 2nd, All Souls Day, when prayers are said for the dead. It begins with the narrator’s uneasy feelings while alone in an empty house, and ranges far through the kind of inner narration, when you are “…caught up in that sort of reverie which has only a tangential connection to what you were thinking of….”

Often McCormak sets apart clusters of words related only in sound and richness:

“ploughs, harrows and scufflers

pounds, shillings and pence”

or,     “man and machine

same as they were.”

McCormak’s language pulled me along to discover the source of that uneasy feeling, revealed by the end when the book comes to a full stop – without a period.

“Reservoir 13,” by Jon McGregor, also contains a richness of words I love – and an unconventional structure. It’s told over a period of years by an unnamed omniscient narrator who knows all about a small village in England. At the book’s beginning, a 13-year-old girl named Rebecca has gone missing, and at first it seems a mystery story, the absence of the young girl is present in each villager’s story.

That missing-person carrot propels the reader through chapters full of long, unbroken-by-paragraph sections where scenes and characters change with a double space. New chapters begin at the new year, “At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks in the rain, and thunder in the next valley.” And seasons are traced by the natural world, “The clocks went forward and the evenings opened out.” “In May the reservoirs were low and the river slowly carried a scrim of weed to the weirs.” “In August the weather kept up.”

The narrator conveys the gossipy nature of a little village, sounding like the village itself speaking when describing a newcomer: “He had a sullen look about him. There were tattoos.” Or judging an unfamiliar garden design: “It looked more like an allotment than a front garden and there were some who thought words should be had.”

This tale really works – prolonging the mystery with red herrings, while bringing the whole village, its setting and its people, to life.

“Warlight” by Michael Ondaatje

Everybody is busy with preparations for the Thanksgiving meal or important parts of it, hosting or traveling – and time is short. So I’ll quickly write of one book (and add a couple of the little watercolors).

“Warlight” joins Michael Ondaatje’s, “The English Patient” (way up on my list of favorite books ever), in making me reach for words like magical, murky, puzzling, beautiful, enthralling. The one word title “Warlight,” refers to the ambient light during a wartime blackout:

     We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river, feeling we owned it, as far as  the estuary. We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were  in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews were in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.

but it also describes Ondaatje’s prose and complex story – you don’t see with clear light, but see enough.

The novel begins in 1945 London at the war’s ending. Fourteen-year old Nathaniel and his older sister have been left in the care of an elusive character they call “The Moth,” while their parents leave for the Far East. Or do they? Set in 1959, the second part of the book tells of the attempts by Nathaniel (now grown and working in the Foreign Office) to unravel the mysteries of his mother’s wartime years.

I love to read Ondaatje for his way with words and sometimes puzzling words: “printless foot” and “nightingale floor,” his plots full of unrelated events (perhaps intertwined), and his intriguing characters. The children’s guardian, The Moth, is probably a thief, The Darter smuggles greyhounds on the River Thames, and Marsh Felon, a roof thatcher who broke his hip in a fall, now climbs the roofs of Oxford’s Trinity College by night (and may be connected to Nathaniel’s mother).

But see, I meant to be short and Marsh Felon is only just a part of this fine, totally engaging novel of spies, secrets, and memory.

 

I wish you such a good holiday of giving thanks – celebrating with family, friends, and food in abundance!

The Naming of Things

These days I move furniture around rooms in the new house using a marginally accurate graph paper drawing or a map in my head. The rooms have pragmatic by-purpose names.

By labeling book boxes to indicate destination, I hope to direct the movers to the bookcases on the landing, in the living room, or my workroom (more a space than a room). The upstairs bedroom will be my husband’s study, a guest room, and the television space (known in some circles as an adult lounge). For now I write “upstairs bedroom” on the boxes.

And there are so many boxes of books – my new neighbor came one afternoon, and we filled 19 boxes, a number since doubled. Piled up in stacks, they surround little islands of ever-shrinking comfortable regular life.

In a recent adjustment to my mental map, Granny Trudy’s desk will go on the landing. My father-in-law shipped it to us in Alaska, and it became the place for family business. The slanted, drop down desktop made a good place to write checks, back when we paid bills with paper.

Thinking about that desk being forever Granny Trudy’s desk made me consider how families identify things. We had “Jake’s cabinet” in the house in Anchorage, glass-fronted shelves with drawers below, built long ago by Jake the carpenter. In that house, ownership of bedrooms shifted around so many times that names changed frequently (sometimes rooms are identified by cardinal direction no matter who occupies the south bedroom).

A wicker chair, always Frances’s chair, is now downstairs, substituting for an armchair gone to a clever seamstress to be slipcovered. Inspired by Mrs. Hughes’ advice and the designer Anna Spiro, the newly covered-in-ticking chair might be called after Spiro or maybe Simone for the seamstress!

Traces of the past will remain in the garden nomenclature here – the Buffalito bed, the bride’s garden, the quad garden. Front and back of this house has always been difficult to label – is the front toward the drive or toward the bluff? There is a clear front to the new house, car parked right near the front door.

Some impulse to fill the new house in comforting familiarity operates on me, but it is countered by reminders to enjoy the chance to rearrange – and rename!

Books: What Are You Reading?

Sometimes a book can confound and enchant at the same time, puzzling, but catching me up with a flurry of images made from words. I closed Ali Smith’s “Autumn: A Novel (Seasonal Quartet)” – the first in a proposed series of post-Brexit novels – in awe. But I’m hard-pressed to explain why I loved it so much.

“Autumn” moves between its two main characters at different times in their lives. Elisabeth and Daniel meet when she is eight, and he is a grown up neighbor of Elisabeth and her mother. The unlikely pair become “lifetime friends,” sharing a love of walking and talking, books and art. Daniel has “arty art” (new to Elisabeth) in his house; Elisabeth becomes a junior lecturer in the history of art at a London university. Always, when they encounter one another, Daniel’s greeting is: “what are you reading?”

Smith’s wordplay is fun. She echoes Dickens when describing the day after the Brexit vote (going on like this for pages): “All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.”

It’s a novel of politics – Jo Cox and Christine Keeler appear – set in a particular season: “The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.”

We first meet Elisabeth in the midst of a crazy-making attempt at renewing her passport, suffering the painful absurdity of a clerk’s bureaucratic obtuseness: first, the passport photo is too small, then, in the next photo, Elisabeth’s eyes are too small.

We get to enjoy Elisabeth’s mother, furious with the government and the construction of a strange SUV and barbed wire protected enclosure that walls off historically common land near her village. We learn much about the fascinating Pop artist Pauline Boty (new to me so I looked up her paintings so often described in this book: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/22/ali-smith-the-prime-of-pauline-boty).

When Elisabeth reunites with Daniel, she is 32, he is 101 and living in the Maltings Care Providers facility, in an “increased sleep period,” which the caretakers claim is a precursor to death. But on weekly visits, Elisabeth reads to him, and eventually Daniel wakes and asks, “what are you reading?”

Such a good greeting.

Books – Familiar and Not

In “The Perfect Nanny,” Leila Slimani crafts a thriller, a horror movie plot from the everyday world of working parents and children’s caretakers. To be judgmental about Slimani’s characters, you’d have to be pretty perfect yourself, having never done anything regretful, having never been seduced by an opportunity and slipped into some possibility that initially feels comfortable and provides so much, but proves inescapable and dangerous.

The first page reveals the horror toward which the book heads, but that doesn’t stop anxious, frantic reading to find out why. Reader’s knowledge makes you long to shout out in the middle, please stop this, but Slimani’s fine writing ensnared me.

Parisian parents, Paul and Myriam, have two young children, Adam and Mila. Myriam, a lawyer with much unrealized promise, stayed home to care for Mila, and 18 months later, Adam. It’s hard. Eventually, “Myriam became gloomy. She began to hate going to the park. The winter days seemed endless. Mila’s tantrums drove her mad, Adam’s first burblings left her indifferent. With each passing day, she felt more and more desperate to go out for a walk on her own. Sometimes she wanted to scream like a lunatic in the street. They’re eating me alive, she would think.”

Her abandoned career offers escape – hence the nanny search and miraculous discovery of Louise. Soon, “When Myriam gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place. Louise arouses and fulfills the fantasies of an idyllic family life that Myriam guiltily nurses. She teaches Mila to tidy up behind herself and her parents watch dumbstruck as the little girl hangs her coat on the peg.”

Louise grows ever more “invisible and indispensable.“ “It’s never clearly stated – they don’t talk about it – but Louise patiently builds her nest in the middle of the apartment.”

And Slimani patiently builds our awareness of these lives – the world of engaging work – the law, the hip-hop music scene – colliding with the unstable world of the nanny and the claustrophobic world of small children. “Parks, on winter afternoons. The drizzle scatters dead leaves. The icy gravel sticks to the children’s knees.”

I keep asking myself if I’m glad I read this book. Yes, because it is so fine as a novel and as a recording of a cultural moment, but I don’t like to think about it.

Because I read that Slimani was reading it, and maybe looking for an antidote to her book, I read Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers: A Novel.”

The book is about all sorts of mothers, devoted mothers, mothers who disappear, mothers who terminate the possibility, but the title refers to a sort of Greek chorus of church ladies at the Upper Room Chapel, “prayer warriors,” who address the reader directly at the beginning of most chapters. They pray for what needs prayer, make blankets and socks for comfort, and they gossip. In the very beginning they reveal the secret at the heart of this novel and their regret: “All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around in our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season. But we didn’t.”

In her senior year of high school, 17-year old Nadia Turner, a smart and beautiful black girl, loses her mother to suicide. She gets involved with the pastor’s son Luke, a handsome football player, career ended by a bad tackle, “Bones, like anything else, strong until they weren’t.” Providing the third point in a triangle is Aubrey Evans, motherless by abandonment and willingly embraced by the engulfing church community. Connections between the points shift by choices made.

This book offers pronouncements about motherhood: “She was not a mother but she had a mother’s gift of rushing to the worst possible outcomes.” “A mother would move toward a crying child, not away. Her mother would’ve held her and absorbed her tears into her own body.” “A daughter grows older and draws nearer to her mother, until she gradually overlaps her like a sewing pattern. But a son becomes some irreparably separate thing.”

The Southern California setting helps this seem a warmer book – ocean beaches, sunshine, wildfire season, and Camp Pendleton boys – it couldn’t be further from the winter-dark Paris neighborhood of “The Perfect Nanny.” But both books pose questions facing women – and men.

We watch the characters live with their choices and wonder about our own.

Books: Deeply Moving, Gorgeously Written

Both the books I write about here, with unusual structures and fine language, are also absolute page-turners.

When my friend Bill Stewart, of Vamp and Tramp Booksellers, recommended Maylis de Kerangal’s “The Heart,” his note was brief “…poetic, about a heart transplant.” I read it all through one fever-filled 24 hours as it clutched my heart.

Translated from the French, “The Heart” is set in northwestern France during the 24 hours after a 20-year old boy, returning from surfing at dawn, dies in an automobile accident, and his heart is given to a woman awaiting a transplant.

The first sentence begins “The thing about Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, is that, since the moment of his birth, when its rhythm accelerated, as did the other hearts around it, in celebration of the event, the thing is, that this heart, which made him jump, vomit, grow, dance lightly like a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, which made him dizzy with exhilaration and made him melt with love, which filtered, recorded, archived – the black box of a twenty-year-old body – the thing is that nobody really knows it…” and ends a page and a half later with “…a cell-phone alarm went off at the foot of a narrow bed, the echo of a sonar signal translated into luminescent digits on the touch screen – 05:50 – and suddenly everything raced out of control.”

In that kind of prose, saturated with the specific, each participant becomes tangible: the young surfer Simon, the first responders, the ICU team, Simon’s mother, the doctor from the Coordinating Committee for Organ and Tissue Removal, Simon’s father, Simon’s girlfriend, the coordinator for the Allocations of Transplants, the transplant surgeons, and – the recipient. Because of the accumulation of rushing sentences filled with intimate detail, you inhabit each person’s role as they negotiate the territory between life and death and life.

Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire: A Novel” also takes a usually distant event but familiar news story – a British jihadi, a political reaction – and renders it painfully personal. Shamsie’s sentences are more straightforward, but she structures her novel relentlessly toward the inexorable (or is it?) ending.

Shamsie sprinkles text messages, immigration interrogations, Skype conversations, news broadcasts, and hashtag lists into separate sections for each of the five main characters in her story of a British Muslim family – Isma, the older sister who has cared for her 19-year old twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, since they were orphaned at 12 – and a British Muslim politician Karamat Lone, and his son, Eamonn.

Family love and loyalties tangle tragically as a love affair doesn’t happen, a love affair with fantasies of marriage does, a longing for a lost father leads to an experiment with jihad, and in an attempted reversal, political reality intervenes.

When Aneeka loses her twin, she is singular for the first time ever, and the description of her grief piles up for paragraphs, “…grief saw nothing but itself, grief saw every speck of pain in the world; grief spread its wings like an eagle, grief huddled small like a porcupine; grief needed company, grief craved solitude; grief wanted to remember, wanted to forget; grief raged, grief whimpered….”

There is grief aplenty in this unforgettable book.

Books: Take Rooms In Your Heart

After the death of Ursula K. Le Guin, the Wordsmith sent an article by Karen Joy Fowler (Ten Things I Learned From Ursula K. Le Guin). Looking back on all this reading, I find myself thinking about one of Le Guin’s lessons: “There is no reason a book of ideas can’t also be deeply moving, gorgeously written, and inhabited by people who take rooms in your heart and never move out.”

Philip Pullman’s Lyra is truly one of those characters. Our young friend brought me the U.K. edition of the first book in Pullman’s new series, titled “La Belle Sauvage.” (It’s a dazzling physical book – printed watercolor blue waves for endpapers, embossed golden “Dust” glittering the book cloth, and a spine so fat it holds a long quote from the book.)

La Belle Sauvage is also the name of Malcolm Polstead’s canoe, a canoe that carries him, his daemon, and the baby(!) Lyra on a journey along a flooded River Thames. This book is the first of a planned trilogy (“The Book of Dust”) set in a parallel time when Lyra, the unforgettable heroine of Pullman’s singular trilogy (“His Dark Materials”) is but a wee babe.

It’s all here in the new book – a shadowy reflection of our own scary times, enchanting daemons, strange devices for manipulating time and space, big adventures, and spies. If you read and loved the earlier trilogy – welcome back – and if you haven’t, well, there’s a lucky project for the new year!

From the Trail Boss I found a tiny volume in my stocking, “How to Walk” by Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh is wise, comforting, and instructive in the best way: “Walking is a wonderful way to calm down when we are upset. When we walk, if we focus all our awareness on walking, we are stopping the thinking, storytelling, blaming and judging that goes on in our heads and takes us away from the present moment.”

Walking meditation, mindfulness aide – perfectly illustrated by the sumi ink drawings of Jason DeAntonio – Hanh’s voice stays with me (“yes yes yes, thanks thanks thanks”) as I walk back to health.

And, when it first came out, I read Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” – characters so despicable they’ll never occupy my heart. And I fervently wish they didn’t occupy the White House.

 

Recalled To Life – Spirits Rising!

So, one can take a mid-winter break, thinking it would mean time to plan some artists’ books, and time definitely for dostadning. And then life can intervene. Everyone else recovered from the Christmas cold in good order, I morphed into pneumonia again.

It was a long blur of a month, much time with Frances (she does love a body with fever), staring at the Strait sullen with rain or whipped into whitecaps by a northwest wind that fretted the firs – and feeling awful.

The kindness of family and friends sustained me – and books. Books from Christmas, books miraculously downloaded onto my Kindle at 2 a.m., used books ordered and delivered – always attempting to stay ahead of any emptiness in the book pile. One book segued into another – many fine, challenging, beautiful, absorbing books.

I am so grateful to be tentatively recalled to life, not taking it for granted for sure (having screwed up last week into a relapse), but wanting very much to rejoin the world. I hope to write here about my January reading and to make February a month of books (and spring flowers from the archive).

Thank you for coming back to read here. I hope you’ll like some of these books. Here’s to February!