Thanks so much for all the wonderful book recommendations you sent in response to last week’s post! Creating lists like this and sharing them with other readers is in itself a comfort in an uncertain world. Even though I can’t read them all right away, the books are there, waiting, and that can be a source of joy. And when I do read them, they’ll remind me of the people who recommended them, which enriches the whole experience.
Happy belated Thanksgiving to those of you who were celebrating yesterday. I enjoyed reading this Thanksgiving-themed column by Charles M. Blow, “Thankful for Libraries.” He writes about the first library he ever visited, in elementary school: “I remember thinking as a small child that I was in a cavern of tomes written by people across time and around the globe, that each volume probably contained thousands of ideas, and I wondered how could I get all of those ideas into my mind.” Years later, when he was writing his first book, he worked “in the main branch of New York City’s public library not because I needed to do research—the book was a memoir—but because the space itself seemed most aligned with the task of writing. It was like going to church to pray.”
I too am thankful for libraries. Here’s the Music Library at the Schumann House in Bonn, Germany, which I visited last month. Robert Schumann lived in this house between 1854 and 1856, the last two years of his life.
If you’re wondering what to read next, here are a few ideas:
Naomi recommends Birth Road, by Michelle Wamboldt; We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies, by Tsering Langzom Lama; and Decoding Dot Grey, by Nicola Davison.
Peter recommends The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, by Eve Jurczyk, and is looking forward to reading the newly published letters of John Le Carré.
Sandra recommends Stalin’s Daughter, by Rosemary Sullivan, and The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman.
Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill: Cheryl says, “It’s a wonderful meditation on aging, books, gardening, death, and many other important topics.”
Still Life, by Sarah Winman: Marianne says it’s “a wonderful work of historical fiction, especially for those who love art and Italy, particularly Florence. It’s an uplifting exploration of love, family, and friendship in all their many guises. And it references E.M. Forster and Room with a View—a happy coincidence!”
I saw Marianne earlier this week and she lent me her copy of Still Life.
The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Collins says, “All the personal stories were hard; Harriet Jacobs’ story, perhaps the hardest.”
The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson: Gerri says it’s “a non-fiction account of Winston Churchill, his family and various secretaries as well as Lord Beaverbrook for one year during WWI. It is so well written that I had difficulty putting it down. As the title indicates, nothing every minute is gloom and doom even during a war.”
The Shell Seekers and Coming Home, by Rosamunde Pilcher: Cheryl Ann says Coming Home is “a richly detailed historical novel set between 1935 and 1945 in Cornwall, London, and Ceylon” and she highly recommends both novels.
Victoria recommends To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee; Moby Dick, by Herman Melville; The Lost Daughter, by Elena Ferrante; The Garden of Monsters, by Lorenza Pieri; The Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, by Amara Lakhous; The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett; Wonderworks, by Angus Fletcher; and Margaret Renkl’s opinion piece in The New York Times called “The Joy of Finding People Who Love the Same Books You Do.”
Thank you again!
I’m now about halfway through Devoney Looser’s stunning new book, Sister Novelists, which I mentioned in last week’s post, and I’m finding the lives of the Porter sisters and their groundbreaking work in historical fiction fascinating. At one point, when Jane Porter’s work was finding success and Maria’s was not, Maria wrote to her sister that she was considering giving up writing: “I will therefore magnanimously relinquish the Quill and taking up a good darning needle, strive to mend my errors…. If some honest man will marry me, then will I give up the muses; but if not, authorship and old maidism shall go together. Happiness or Fame, that is the alternative.” As Devoney says, “The world wasn’t set up to allow women conventional domestic happiness and unconventional public fame. The sisters knew few women writers who’d succeeded without having been born into money or a title.”
Over the past week, I’ve also been thinking more about books I read earlier this year. I don’t do “best books of the year” lists, but if I did, here’s what I’d put at the top: Animal Person, by Alexander MacLeod, a powerful collection of short stories published in April 2022. Line by line, the whole book is brilliant.
These stories are about family, intimacy, rivalries, secrets, death—about everything, really, and in fact the word everything echoes throughout the book: “The way I see it: everything linked and all of it tied directly into the movement of the planets and our little blue-green orbit around the sun” (from “What exactly do you think you’re looking at?”); “I guess it’s like a movie—maybe everything is like a movie—but this isn’t us just watching a movie” (from “Everything Underneath”); “Where I lived, in a single-story bungalow one over and one down from the Klassens, life was not like this, and everything we did felt like a compromise” (from “The Ninth Concession”); “Can’t you just picture her? Everything’s already set up, and now she’s sitting there watching the clock, waiting for us to arrive.” That last quotation is from “Once Removed,” which was published in The New Yorker in February.
I went looking for a photo of a chandelier and I don’t have anything that resembles the “ugly medium-sized chandelier with brass accents” that features so prominently in “Once Removed,” so instead here’s something entirely different, a spectacular light fixture that I saw in the summer, at the Museum of the City of New York.
I discovered I’ve actually taken quite a few photos of light fixtures recently. Was I inspired to do so after reading “Once Removed”? Maybe. Probably. And/or it could be because I’ve been travelling quite a bit in the last few months, for the first time in years, and I’ve been noticing new and interesting things everywhere I go. It could also be because since the early days of the pandemic, my sister Bethie and I have been talking about looking for light, both real and metaphorical. She’s reminded me that on my next trip to Germany, we’ll need to be prepared to turn down the heat and turn off lights, because of the energy crisis.
Light fixtures in New York City and Cochem, Germany:
Maybe on some future trip, I’ll find an ugly chandelier with brass accents.
The story at the centre of Animal Person, “The Entertainer,” looks at a piano recital from the perspective of a young piano student named Darcy who is absolutely certain his performance will be a disaster, his teacher, Roxy, and the husband of a woman, Gladys Ferguson, whose ability to communicate through words has slipped away, though her memory for music has remained. From Darcy’s feeling that “sometimes it feels like the music itself, the actual sheets, are making fun of me,” to Roxy’s sympathetic understanding of Darcy’s lonely predicament—“It’s just better, so much better, when you are not up there, up here, alone”— to the last words spoken by Gladys Ferguson’s husband, this story broke my heart.
The first story in the collection, “Lagomorph,” is about ordinary chaos in the life of one family and their extraordinarily long-lived pet rabbit, Gunther, and it’s been a favourite of mine since it was first published in Granta in 2017. I like the way the kids in the family work out “a pretty funny matador routine” with Gunther, shaking a dish towel and shouting “Toro! Toro! Toro!” I like the way “the minivan was always running in the driveway, its rolling side door gaping for the quickest possible turnaround, like an army helicopter.” I like the eldest daughter’s response to the news that her parents are separating: “We just want you to be happy,” she tells them, and the narrator (her father) says “the line stuck in my ear because I’d always thought it was the kind of thing parents were supposed to tell their kids, not the other way around.” At the end, the narrator sees himself reflected “at the red centre” of Gunther’s eye, and he can almost see his family’s shared history “held inside the mind of the oldest rabbit that has ever lived.”
“Lagomorph” won an O. Henry Prize in 2019. In 2020, it was published as a hand-crafted letterpress book by Gaspereau Press, and this edition was named the winner of the 2021 Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award. You can read the story on the Granta website, but of course I encourage you to get a copy of Animal Person so you can read all the stories in this splendid collection.
Do you make “top books of the year” lists? Do you have a favourite book published in 2022?
I’ll close with a photo I took last Saturday, in an attempt to capture the late afternoon light. This is the view from Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, looking out toward McNabs Island (on the left) and York Redoubt (on the right).