Re-reading To the Lighthouse, December 2022

” … they came out on the quay, and the whole bay spread before them and Mrs Ramsay could not help exclaiming, “Oh, how beautiful!” For the great plateful of blue water was before her; the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere in the midst; and on the right, as far as the eye could see, fading and falling, in soft low pleats, the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them, which always seemed to be running away into some moon country, uninhabited of men.”

– To the Lighthouse

In 1995 I first discovered Virginia Woolf. A stay-at-home mother with an infant and toddler, exhaustion didn’t dampen my need for mind-expanding reading; it lit a fire. When I felt my intellect beginning to leak out my ears, I genuinely worried if it wasn’t used it would begin to atrophy.

Once my son and daughter were old enough to throw in a stroller and transport to the library, I was ready to pick up a book with actual words for myself, not just cartoon animals with simple rhymes. Because my kids and their patience were short, that first venture into the adult fiction area was a calculated short dash. I grabbed To the Lighthouse knowing it was a classic but lacking much knowledge about the novel and Woolf in general, beyond a vague understanding of her place in the literary canon. I knew enough to believe I should read her, that not having done so was a gap in my education. And when I put my kids down for their nap, I opened the cover and devoured.

I didn’t own a lot of books in those years – mostly college textbooks with a few stray novels peppering the shelves. My then-husband gave me a very hard time when I bought books, much less took time from the demands of motherhood to read. Picking books up for free at the library was moderately better, still not encouraged. Current-day me is shocked I tolerated such a lack of respect and empathy. I absolutely wouldn’t now. Still, for too many years I placed sole responsibility for my perceived lack of power on him. From the distance of decades, it’s easy to see should haves and could haves. I just don’t have the energy for grudges anymore. Plus, things worked themselves out. I’m now divorced and autonomous – and I own hundreds of lovely books.

Reading well is the best revenge.

Fast-forward nearly 30 years and I’m re-reading To the Lighthouse for the first time. I’ve read Mrs Dalloway at least three times and many of her other works once or twice though, but I’d never made it back to TTL until my Facebook book group chose it as one of our December 2022 reads. Five chapters in, I find myself agreeing with me from 30 years ago: To the Lighthouse is a masterpiece.

To the Lighthouse is not a difficult novel. Woolf has a reputation for impenetrable prose that’s overblown because her trademark style was stream of consciousness, honestly no more difficult to understand than the average person’s monkey mind. It’s just that you’re listening to someone else’s monkey mind. Seriously, sit down and listen to your brain. Really pay attention, especially when attempting to meditate. The brain rebels when it feels restricted. Never do we sound more outright crazy than when we are attempting to repress thoughts:

Empty your mind.


“I need to pick up milk my ass itches is it hot in here or is it me who is that guy my god he breathes so loudly I want to slap him oh dammit I forgot to empty my mind my toe itches I wonder what John meant the other day when he said oh crap I’m thinking again and I’m thinking about the fact I’m thinking what time is it anyway how much did I pay for this class I’m staying home next week.”

That text up there, does it sound familiar? Stream of consciouness wades into that crazy-wonderful mess, picks it up, and slaps it onto the page. Again, because it’s not your mess, it takes a minute to get the rhythm. As the reader, you’re being dumped into as authentic a representation of the true functioning of the mind as it gets.

Woolf knew most – if not all – fiction is structured artificially and that life just doesn’t work like that. If real art imitates life, it follows that fiction should not be bound by these impossible rules. Life doesn’t pick up at Point A, move smoothly through Points B, C, D, then smoothly pull up at the station in time for Point Z. Neither do real people start out one thing, experience catharsis, then inevitably grow in a predictable way.

To the Lighthouse has a loosely-defined “plot” in that a family and its acquaintances are present in the beginning and some of them ultimately wind up at the end. In between, some people die, some go their own way, and a few make it to the final page. What does that sound like? Oh, I’ve got it: LIFE! If your story, or my story, anyone’s story were being told without benefit of a narrator voicing it over, this would be the sum of it: people randomly show up, time passes, things happen, some people are still there in a decade.

Woolf employs the device of starting the novel in medias res – in the middle – with no preamble. If you’ve read the Iliad or the Odyssey, you’ll recognize this as the method Homer employed. In all epics, there is a Hero, a Man on a Very Big and Important Adventure. He’s Brave and Strong and, again, Very Important. He goes through Trials, he is Tested. Ultimately, he reaches a Destination and does a Thing.

Virginia Woolf knew all about epic poetry, having at age 8 taught herself to read Homer in the original Greek (keep in mind her father was a famous scholar, thus she had advantages). She also lived on the cusp of the Victorian Era, bridging into the 20th Century. Her parents were Victorians, and, although quite artsy and educated, mirrored the expectation men and women had traditional roles. As her parents died and she became involved with the artists, writers, and philosophers known as the Bloomsbury Group, Woolf’s circle shifted to the constant presence of Bohemian libertine/socialists. Several of them were bi-sexual – some swapping partners and/or having open affairs – all of them valuing the life of the mind over mundane responsibility.

Of course, when you have money you can afford to thumb your nose at society, and they pretty much all did.

Even with all her privilege, intelligence and education, Woolf nevertheless knew she was still bound by certain societal expectations. Women were becoming more accepted in the literary world but the fact remained the history of literature – and the world – was written by men. Epic Heroes were exclusively men. So, in To the Lighthouse, she picked up the genre of the epic poem and plopped it down in the middle of the domestic lives of the Ramsay family. Instead of Odysseus, there’s Mrs Ramsay, perfect example of the Victorian era matriarch, as modeled by her own mother. Instead of an epic sea voyage to accomplish Very Great Things, there’s one family’s hope to take a short boat trip from their summer home on the Isle of Skye to a nearby lighthouse.

To the Lighthouse, on the grand literary scale, proves that life, as experienced by an average person, can have as much meaning and drama as all the voyages of Odysseus. Sometimes great hopes are symbolized by a not-so-simple day trip, and, sometimes, the great epic poet, the teller of tales, is a woman.

In a nutshell, this is why the book’s studied so widely. It’s a damn fine book, in some ways autobiographical, with a tremendous amount of beauty and relevance. The backstory, what makes it so autobiographical, is fascinating to Woolf scholars. I’ve started my deep reading of it, as well as some secondary sources. The book group’s pace will be breakneck, covering it in two weeks (frankly not a fan of that speed but okay). l’ve been to both the place Woolf chose to set it – Isle of Skye, Outer Hebrides, Scotland – and the area it’s actually based on – Cornwall.

I’m going to be reading like a mutherfugger over the next two weeks to keep up. I hope I don’t drop the ball for my part of the discussion. Now that I have the luxury of permission to read, there’s full-time work in place of a household filled with children. It’s always something but at least I’m the one rowing the boat.

Dame Laura Knight, The Dark Pool (1908–1918), Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle ©

Twitter is Dead, Long Live Twitter

The ridiculousness transpiring over the past couple of weeks cements the notion the world is run by idiots with more money than sense. Billionaires control the media, which includes social media platforms. Who else could afford the capital investment and stomach riding the wave of uncertainty?

Capitalism and morality are generally mutually exclusive. Believing otherwise is magical thinking. If you are on the internet, you are being tracked every second you’re still breathing – ever after, really, since nothing on the internet ever truly goes away. Every keystroke is monitored, bought and paid for in ways beyond the average person’s understanding. We rail at it and berate it, but it abides as surely and powerfully as any natural force.

Heard of Stockholm Syndrome? Yeah, that.

The internet is built on the backs of the wealthy, and when men like Elon Musk take over social media platforms it’s like a toddler with unrestrained access to sugar. He’s been giddily crashing into walls, alternately laughing maniacally and crying about all the mean people trying to wipe the chocolate off his hands to stop him dirtying the good furniture. Musk is completely, one-hundred percent bonkers – out of his mind and wreaking havoc. We’d hoped for better but hedged our bets setting up accounts elsewhere. What’s happened should not be shocking. Dismaying, but not shocking.

Twitter isn’t going away anytime soon, in my opinion. It’s too big and there’s too much invested in it. But it is growing more hostile by the day as Musk continues making one morally bankrupt decision after another. It’s hate speech that’s definining Twitter, those who spew it and those cringing in defensive posture against it. Friends already on Twitter have been rolling with it, for the most part. Few have actually left the platform.

Maybe we’ve become immune. In the 2020s there’s nothing left to shock us; all the seats are rink-side. This is our circus and these are our monkeys.

I feel a little unclean staying but I’ve cultivated a quiet corner there, following mostly writers and creative thinkers, unfollowing political figures and blocking the usual unsavory suspects. Is it an echo chamber, sure. But what’s wrong with an echo chamber filled with decent, politically-aware people? My level of stress leading up to the 2020 election was unsustainable; after Biden’s inauguration I unclenched with the return of sanity, freeing up head-space for the enjoyable things I care about.

Social media’s the perfect outlet for communicating with interesting, mostly bookish people – including access to writers, publishing professionals, podcasters, etc., public figures I couldn’t otherwise get near. I’m able to keep up with what’s new in the literary world and explore interests more widely through specialized accounts I follow and links others share. Friends not on Twitter regard it with suspicion, put off by its earned reputation for drama, sinister bots, and vindictive trolls. While these are valid concerns, it’s possible to side-step all that by closely controlling which Tweets you see. It takes energy but I’ve invested that already, maintaining my safe space by smiting mean-spirited people and no longer engaging in political discourse. I haven’t been on Twitter thirteen years for the drama. If that’s all it was I’d have been gone a very long time ago.

Until it collapses completely, or I change my mind, I’ll stick with Twitter. Tolerating Musk and the other twats is really no more condoning them than living on the same planet endorses hateful people in general. If the opportunity arises to abandon Earth for a kinder, gentler planet with wi-fi, I’ll consider leaving it, too.

Just not on an Elon Musk rocket.

Take heart and band together with the good people. It’s what they do in disaster films, so it’s as valid an extrapolation as any. The alternative is going feral and living off-grid in Montana with the crazy preppers. Keep your bags packed and just stay here. That’s my advice, which is worth every bit of what you’d paid for it.

Just like that, it’s nearly November

When I last posted, I was in the midst of a selective Booker longlist read-a-thon of selected titles. When the shortlist came, I was disappointed my favorite – The Colony by Audrey Magee – was not on it. From there, I didn’t much care who won. I was soured on the whole thing and just hoped they didn’t choose one of the two novels I’d read and disliked – Oh! William by Elizabeth Strout or The Trees by Percival Everett. Ultimately, they didn’t, which pleased me.

Oh! William annoyed the living hell out of me. Though it was a short novel, it took strength getting through it. I’d read and loved Olive Kitteridge, so it follows I’d expected this book to be just as good. Oh! but it was so not. It started well enough but ended a kitschy mess.

The Trees was a better book but had it won it wouldn’t have been for its merit as a written work so much as its civil rights theme. While I support great writing about social issues, and the Emmet Till story deserves to be told over and over lest we forget, it’s not that good. I saw what he was trying to achieve – a lighter take on a dark subject – it just doesn’t work. It’s my first book by Percival Everett, so I don’t know how representative it is. I just don’t quite understand what possessed him. Because of the social justice atrocity at its center, no reviewer called him to task, which is the downside of criticism in 2022. I do not judge Percival Everett, I judge the work he puts out. Critics are muzzled now, afraid to tell the truth about sensitive subject matter. Utimately, if a writer doesn’t succeed, they should not be lauded. I don’t care what their reputation is or what they’re writing about.

The 2022 Booker winner, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Sheehan Karunatilaka, didn’t make it to my TBR but it sounds kind of wonderful. I pre-ordered it, since it hasn’t yet been published here in the States. As usual, I have loads of books on the go but I’m hoping to squeeze it in before the end of the year.

Haha, sure. If I don’t take time to sleep, maybe. But it’ll be here, and where there’s presence, there’s hope.

For those who don’t follow me on social media and weren’t inundated with pics, in mid-September I traveled to Ireland for a few days, visiting Kilkenny and Galway. I regret I didn’t have longer, and I regret I listened to those who encouraged me to avoid the dangers of Dublin – which I now believe were overblown. Originally intent on revisiting Scotland, the nightmarish stories of connecting through an overwhelmed Heathrow, coupled with a threatened UK rail strike, prompted my change of plans. I’m hoping for a 2023 return to Scotland in the off-season, when it’s more afforable.

I had a glorious time, regardless, and didn’t even contract Covid – despite all the coughing, hacking people I ran into. Before I left I got the Omicron booster and flu shot, which might have helped on that score. I visited museums, walked around a medieval city center, and found several bookshops. The food was magnificent, the people kind, and the weather shockingly perfect. I encountered no rain! Zero! In Ireland!

Last week the prints I ordered – of the hundreds I took – arrived and I’m getting those framed and on the wall. Ireland really is lovely.

Kilkenny Castle
Kilkenny, opposite the castle

Wild Atlantic Way, near Galway

I’ve read loads since my last update, most of which I’ve entered on Goodreads without commenting much. They were good to very good reads, no pun intended. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve finished:

The Colony by Audrey Magee (easy 5 stars)

Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay (4 stars)

The Past is Never by Tiffany Quay Tyson (ugh… my 3 star reads only mean it’s above mainstream fiction by a hair)

The Door by Magda Szabo (another easy 5 stars)

Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet (4 stars and a massive crush)

The Promise by Damon Galgut (5 stars and a vow to read much more by this stunning South African writer)

Currently I’m re-reading Bleak House (huge favorite), Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Ron Charles of The Washington Post says it may be the best book of the year – I’m wary of such sweeping statements, though it is quite good), and Philip Roth’s The Facts, an autobiographical work. A fair mix, I’d say.

Last week I went to my first author event in years. I saw Rebecca Makkai at Woodstock Opera House and she was brilliant. She spoke about the writing of her Pulitzer-nominated The Believers, which I still haven’t read – mea culpa. It’s largely about the AIDs crisis, as it was experienced in 1980’s Chicago. Of course it made me want to pull it off the shelf and start it immediately but I simply have too much on my plate already. I do, however, have the ARC of her upcoming February release beside my bed.

This coming week I’m attending a David Sedaris event in my very own hometown. I saw him at Roosevelt University in 2019 and he is screamingly funny. I highly recommend going to his readings if you aren’t easily offended. Even if you are, to thicken your skin. Can’t wait to see him again. He’s brilliant and inappropriately funny, the best possible combination.

On the homefront, I’m excited to report I had my new Ikea furniture assembled this week! Without context that sounds bland but if you knew how many times I’ve moved in the past several years, and how tough it’s been settling anywhere longer than a year, the significance is more apparent. I like this place. It’s large enough for me to have an office, and, now that I have a job that allows me the means to spread out, I can see myself staying a while. Wanderlust is all well and good, but not so much when you feel like a nomad. Nothing can match the splendor of Scotland, and even my prior apartment in Elgin, IL was more charming, but I’m trying to balance out the benefits of living in a major metro area with the lack of history and character. That’s what travel is for.

Am I caught up? Reasonably so. I’m not pleased I’ve crammed so much into such a small space, but glad I can pick up here with more substantial posts. If you blog and find coming back from pauses as stressful as I do, you’ll get it. And there’s no reason I can’t expand on any of this later – Ireland, for instance, there are loads of stories as you can imagine. As for the books, there’s no statute of limitations on that score. So I’m well-pleased with myself, as it should be.

Next up on the Bluestalking docket, November is National Novel Writers Month (NaNoWriMo). While I’m not planning to write a novel, I am looking forward to writing a short piece a day through next month. I’ve written up more than 30 writing prompts, stuck them in a jar, and I’ll pull one a day. To keep myself accountable, I’ve told people about it – including the writers group I founded ages ago at the library I used to work for – and promised to post the day’s prompt, in case they’re interested in giving it a go. At least one of them replied they’re excited and that’s enough inspiration for me.

Since I find myself doing little outside my apartment, I’m planning to attend a local reading group of ladies who meet at different local independent restaurants every month. The upside’s obvious: I get to discover local eateries while talking about books. The downside’s what has kept me from participating in any book group, that is, they tend to read the kind of books that get a million positive reviews on Amazon, popular books that blow up social media because they please everyone. Books that please everyone are seldom those I enjoy. Until and unless I form my own group, or find one suited to my tastes, this is it.

So much to do, so little time. So many distractions, so little discipline, more like.

Happy almost November.

A time for grief, a time for rage: On Salman Rushdie

I finished Elizabeth Strout’s Booker longlisted Oh William! this week and set aside my Friday evening to write a blog post about it, but the vicious attack on Salman Rushdie has sapped my energy. I’m too mentally exhausted to face the prospect of dissecting another underwhelming read.

Raise your hand if you’re tired of shit things happening, if you’re also digging out from under PTSD. The vast outpouring of grief and rage today has been the only saving grace, it’s proven people care very deeply about both Rushdie and intellectual freedom. This hits hard. I guess it’s good I was working while it unfolded. I saw the headline and read the breaking news, but I can’t afford to break my concentration, as a fraud investigator. All I wanted to do was keep refreshing my feed, which I should know by now is the opposite of what’s good for me mentally. By the time I flopped down on the sofa after work, mentally exhausted, Rushdie’s agent had just come out with the grim news: he’s on a ventilator, likely to lose an eye, and there’s damage to his liver.

Frankly, I’m afraid to hit refresh any more.

The unleashing of fundamentalist rage.

My first exposure to Salman Rushdie was probably when most people became aware of him, upon publication of The Satanic Verses. An undergrad working toward my B.A. in English literature, I wasn’t well-versed in a lot of contemporary writing. My specialty was Victorian literature, but when the news broke that a writer’s life was being threatened by religious extremists who found his work offensive, it set me off as much as you’d think it would any idealistic 22-year old. I bought the book immediately on general principle, but put it aside. I was busy taking exams, which morphed into graduation, then finding a job, and planning a wedding when I was far too young, but that’s a cautionary tale for another time.

I still haven’t read The Satanic Verses. I don’t own that copy of the book anymore, so I ordered it this evening, along with a reading copy of Midnight’s Children (I’ve put aside the edition Rushdie signed for me), and a collection of his essays called Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020. Over the winter, I’d planned to read something long and engrossing. My original though was Bleak House, or maybe the essays of Montaigne.

After today, I’ll be reading The Satanic Verses.

I don’t want this to be an in memorium read. In the reality I’m choosing to create, Salman Rushdie will recover in safety while I finally make time for a long, luxurious celebration of the book he’s refused to apologize for, in recognition of his defiance and refusal to be silent. I’m not 22 anymore; I’ve spent the intervening years between then and now earning my MLIS, writing about books, and becoming outspoken about my belief in freedom of expression. It’s not in my power to heal Salman Rushdie, but what I can do is read his work and talk about it to anyone who’ll listen.

If I were religious, I’d pray. My church is St. Liber: I read, and hope for better days.

Booker Longlist 2022: Percival Everett’s ‘The Trees’

You can be fully supportive of a book’s intent, empathetic to its theme, and just not resonate with it. This was my first read of Percival Everett’s work. I had no idea of his style or really any knowledge of his reputation. His name was familar, but had The Trees not been nominated for the Booker I’m not sure I’d ever have found The Trees.

The novel is about racism in the American South, in Money, Mississippi, focused on the lynching of Emmett Till. Acquitted following the trial, just one year later his murderers openly admitted to his brutal slaying. For better or worse, in the United States you can’t be tried twice for the same crime; double jeopardy protects you, no matter if you confess after the fact. After his wife Carolyn accused Till of either speaking salaciously to or touching her (the story was never clear), her husband Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law JW Millam hunted down Emmett Till – a 14-year old child – in Mississippi from Chicago visiting his family. They tortured him, mutilated his body, and shot him in the head, tossing his body into the Tallahatchie River.

Emmett Till, Christmas Day 1954

Emmett Till’s body, bloated from time spent floating in the river, was brought back to Chicago for visitation and burial. His mother would not have a closed casket. She left it open for the world to see what these men had done to her child. Her baby. A hideous sight, it could not match the ugliness inside the real-life monsters carrying out heinous acts of hatred against Black people.

As a native of Mississippi, I know its egregious history of condoning racism and violence toward Black people. Raised in the North from the time I was a toddler, even as a young child I felt a jolt hearing relatives toss out “the n-word” in casual conversation. I can’t point to the moment I figured out it was a vile slur. I have no memory of not finding it shocking, which must mean no one in my immediate family – my parents and two brothers – used it. I most likely learned it on my own.

Casual racism behind closed doors is particularly insidious, perhaps equally as bad as vicious hate speech because it shows how engrained prejudice is within a culture. No one was trying to shock me. They jokingly called me a Yankee, in its way a mild form of exclusion, but they weren’t putting on a performance. Fed white exceptionalism from an age too young to differentiate right from wrong, it’s as normal to them as any other accepted behavior. How you fix something like this and move forward I do not know, which goes a long way toward explaining why lynching was not declared a hate crime in the United States until March of 2022.

In The Trees, Percival Everett writes a revenge novel. It starts with two White men brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi. Inexplicably, the same Black man is present at both scenes, brutally disfigured and shot in the head, holding the testicles of the men in his hands. Though the bodies are taken to the morgue, the Black man keeps disappearing, then reappearing at the scenes of other murders of the exact same description. Two Black detectives are called in from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to help local law enforcement make sense of what’s happening. Meanwhile, the murders have gone national.

I don’t have to explain the symbolism, having told the basic story of Emmett Till. There’s more to the book, characters moving in and out, other strange happenings. But Percival Everett’s intent is clear.

As a southerner by birth, I feel a measure of discomfort saying I did not find the book completely effective. As a book reviewer with nearly two decades’ experience, I would be disingenous saying anything to the contrary, but this does not mean I find nothing to praise. Percival Everett found a way to tell a revenge story with flashes of humor that keep it from descending into despair. There’s an elegance to his writing, genuinely graceful passages of lyrical language.

“That don’t matter none,” she said. “The dead cain’t tell no time, cain’t read no calendars. They ain’t got no calendar watches, is what I’m sayin’. He who digs a pit will fall into it, and he who rolls a stone, it will come back on him.”

I believe the book takes too long getting started, then, once started, keeps too much distance between the reader and the horrors of racism. I understand his intent was not to beat us over the head with a story that’s difficult to hear. This explains the sly humor and absolute ridiculousness of the story – as in impossibility, not dismissing his talent.

As with Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, the issues are urgent. They are grievous wrongs that show the absolute worst of humanity. But when you get to the level of the Booker Prize, every detail matters. I know literary taste is subjective, but I have a personal expectation of the winning book. It needs to have not just an important message but a compelling way of relating it that punches me in the chest.

It needs to have it all, then push it a bit further.

The Trees may make the shortlist, but I’m not convinced of it. It has qualities I’ve seen in other American Booker winners. I guess we’ll see.

Booker Longlist 2022: Claire Keegan’s ‘Small Things Like These’

Many of them were raped by family members. Impregnated, unwed women were locked away in institutions of slave labor by the Catholic Church and with the full knowledge of the Irish government, forced to work in hellishly hot virtual torture chambers behind bars, as if they were convicts. Nuns stood over these women and children morning and night to hit them and pull their hair if they didn’t fold the sheets right or dared speak to each other. Their birth names taken away, the women were given saints’ names and warned never to speak of their former lives.

To this day, traumatized survivors don’t know who they were imprisoned with because they never once heard their real names.

These institutions were called Magdalene Laundries, or Magdalene Asylums, and it’s estimated 30,000 women and children spent time in them from the 18th Century to the 20th. In 1993, unmarked mass graves of women and children were discovered, their bodies thrown in the ground unceremoniously, some in soil soaked in sewer water.

The Irish government admitted these atrocities in 2001, 236 years after the first Magdalene Asylum was opened.

Magdalene Laundry, c. early 1900s

Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These opens in October 1985, as the damp days of autumn are setting in. Bill Furlong is a coal and timber merchant, living with his raven-haired wife Eileen and their five lovely daughters. Furlong is a kind, hard-working man whose sole purpose is caring for his family. They are the lucky ones, not wealthy by any means but also not starving at a time when jobs were hard to find, many people forced to emigrate to the UK and America for the promise of a better life. Well-liked by the villagers, as long as he maintained his reputation as a fair and honest man, the Furlongs were as financially safe as it was possible to be.

Furlong never knew his mother. Raised by a kind woman named Mrs. Wilson, he wasn’t told who his father was, either. He didn’t dare ask. But he grew up happily enough with loving adults in his life, growing into a kind and compassionate man.

On Christmas Eve 1985, Bill Furlong rose extra early to deliver coal to the local convent, his last stop before attending Mass with his family. What happened that brutally cold morning would force him to choose between following either his head or his heart, knowing the path he took could place his family’s stability in peril. His decision would put his courage and strength of character to the ultimate test.

Small Things Like These is a short book, at 114 pages the shortest ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. Because of its brevity, I hesitate to say too much about it to avoid spoilers. It’s a beautiful novel, written in celebrated Irish novelist Claire Keegan’s distinctive spare prose, interwoven with the kind of spirituality that doesn’t involve churches. It’s about kindness and goodness and empathy, told without a trace of sentimentality.

While this novel is a little gem, I don’t think it will win the Booker. The judges are giving Keegan a nod, acknowledging her quiet power. But ultimately, the prize will be given to a bigger novel with a story more suited to a sweeping canvas. But then, in 2011 I said the same thing and Julian Barnes waltzed out the door with his A Sense of An Ending, another shorter book. It’s fantastic and I love and admire it, but I loved Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side just a little bit better.

It occasionally happens that I’m wrong, but I don’t think so in this case. If I use A Sense of An Ending as a gauge, its focus was much wider, the story more satisfyingly dense. Small Things Like These touches on a very weighty subject that absolutely deserves more exposure, but ultimately I don’t think it will prevail against the competition. It will appeal strongly to readers who complain Booker winners are far too obscure and too highly literary; this is the quietest longlisted novel I’ve ever read and one of the most accessible.

One thing I do know is unequivocably true, I’d better move my arse if I’m going to get through the longlisted novels I mean to.

For more about the Magdalene Laundries:

https://www.theage.com.au/world/a-very-irish-sort-of-hell-20030405-gdvhr9.html

Ireland’s Magadalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment

Plus loads of YouTube videos – give it a Google

See Wikipedia for this excellent article

May all of them, living and dead, find their peace.

And may the guilty find Karma.

Booker Longlist 2022 – early thoughts

The 13: Booker Longlist 2022

First it was the Booker Prize for Fiction, then the Man Booker, finally, the plain old Booker Prize. I found them in the early 2000s, followed them religiously, and joined the other zealots attempting to predict the winners. Either I was very good at it or very lucky, but I crushed it for a string of years – not to brag.

Well, kind of to brag.

Okay, completely to brag. Humility will get you nowhere, do not hide your light.

I had a system. First, I grouped them into categories. Before they became a political statement, the Bookers had a formula of sorts; it was possible to crack the code with a fair degree of accuracy simply by reading a few, then researching the hell out of the others. The judges chose a certain number of established writers, a handful of up and comers who’d garnered a bit of fame (some of whom had been previously nominated for this or other prizes), then one or two debut novelists.

For a debut novelist to sweep the field, they had to be phenomenal. These were somewhat of a wild card, though their traditional role was as virtual cannon fodder. For all intents and purposes, they were chosen to be weeded out when it came time for the shortlist, in exchange for raising their visibility. For an established writer, they needed to perform at the top of their game. While I don’t have the statistics, the winners tended to lie somewhere in between (not counting the two Hilary Mantel years, and what the hell was up with that).

The years politics prevailed were dark days for literature. I am all for writers who make strong statements, but when the point is how loudly they speak out against that year’s pet issue over the quality of writing, that’s a problem. If you want a book prize centered solely on political issues, all well and good – develop that prize. If the point is to honor the best writing, the filter of political correctness needs to be muted. Judging from the past couple of years, and the books that made it for 2022, I’m tentatively hopeful the political years may be over.

Cross fingers.

This year’s longlist is dominated by Americans, taking up six of the thirteen spots: Elizabeth Strout, Karen Joy Fowler, Leila Mottley, Hernan Diaz, Selby Wynn Schwartz, and Percival Everett. I have nothing against them, they just don’t belong here. The US has so many prizes the rest of the world is excluded from, and the UK and Commonwealth produce brilliant literature that ought to stand on its own. It makes no sense Americans are allowed to be nominated for the Booker Prize.

End rant.

I purchased four books from the list: Small Things Like These, The Trees, Case Study, and The Colony. Honestly, if money were no object, I’d have bought them all just to have thirteen books show up on my doorstep. They could keep company with the books I’ve bought and not read from longlists of the past. In the end I went with the titles I thought I’d enjoy most, weighing that with how many I could get from the library. Not all of them are worth buying.

From the library, I have Oh William! checked out and I’m on the waiting list for Booth. I’m planning to request Glory next, since NoViolet Bulawayo has a very good reputation in the middle-of-the-road category. Actually, all these writers are middle of the road, aren’t they. There’s no huge, iconic writer overshadowing the rest. Oh, damn. That makes my prediction a million times harder.

I haven’t fully researched the others, as much for lack of time as the fact some just don’t appeal to me at all. I watched a few YouTube videos made by booktubers and I may have taken on some of their negative prejudices, but that’s the price I had to pay for my crash course. Shrug. I’m in a lot more of a rush these days.

As of the publication of this post, I’ve finished one of the longlisted titles and I’m almost halfway through another. I’ll talk about that next time.

Spoiler: the book I finished was lovely, but it’s not the winner. I’ll tell you why, never fear.

The shortlist will be announced on September 6. The winner of the Booker Prize 2022 will announced the 17th of October.

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Hijacked by Willa Cather: a quick re-read of A Lost Lady

NOTE: This post contains spoilers about the novel A Lost Lady

I’m incapable of turning down a good organized read these days. I’ve missed the group discussion dynamic, the “hive mind” of readers with varying degrees of expertise and experience. Discussing books together brings a lot more to the table. To be honest, it usually means I have to do less work. Let someone else think the thoughts and post them. I do my share, but I appreciate others who fill in the gaps. It’s a literary symbiotic relationship.

At the moment, I’m participating in two group reads: Willa Cather’s ‘A Lost Lady’ and Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The House in Paris.’ These are two very different writers, making them easier to juggle. Cather’s prose is direct and straight-forward, meaningful but not particularly dense. Bowen is a modernist, her style multi-layered, requiring greater depth of study. I can read Cather quickly once through, skimming key passages again if I need to, and feel confident I’ve understood her meaning. Elizabeth Bowen requires much more heavy lifting. I read her chapters sometimes two and three times and there’s still a lot of room for interpretation.

I enjoy them both because they are so different. I read Cather for deeply-rooted, early-20th Century American stories with a narrow focus on specific American regions – mostly the Great Plains and Southwest. She largely writes about the immigrant experience and the dramas of everyday life. Though most of her writing could be classified as somewhat plain – by which I mean without adornment, easily understood – she’s capable of moments of lyrical and poetic beauty, most especially when she writes about the natural world.

I also love Cather because she was a literary badass, gender-fluid before we knew the term, opinionated and ambitious. A writer of short stories and novels, book reviews and non-fiction pieces, Willa Cather was the editor of a major periodical – McClure’s Magazine – credited with originating muckraking journalism, investigative reporting that goes after criminal activity and deceptive practices amongst the wealthy and powerful. There’s so much more I want to know about her.

I’ve finished reading both books, though in the case of Bowen that means I’ve finished passing the words in front of my eyes to find out what happens; with the discussion ongoing, there’s still a long way to go in understanding the nuances. The part of me that loves literary scholarship thrives on writers like Elizabeth Bowen. I could just read her novels for their surface stories, but that’s just not me.

I love a good literary dig. The problem is it can be tiring, one reason my ears perked up when I saw a Twitter summer read poll conducted by the bookish podcast The Mookse and the Gripes, which A Lost Lady won. I’ve read the novel before – last year, over my Great Cather Vacation Adventure in Red Cloud, NE – but I’m an unashamed re-reader. This isn’t a proper, in-depth discussion, it’s more about posting a few thoughts and quotes on Twitter, in advance of the podcast recording sometime this week. They wanted to generate interest and encourage readers to pick up Cather. So far I don’t see a full discussion happening, but the podcast will cover it in more depth with the help of reader comments on Twitter.

A Lost Lady is one of the books set in Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, NE. She changed the name of the place to Sweet Water, but there’s no real attempt at subterfuge. The married couple in the novel, Marian and Captain Forrester, are based on Red Cloud banking family Seward Garber and his wife, Marian Forrester is a young, beautiful woman married to a much older man. She is charming and well-loved, inspiring the adoration of every man in town – if not so much the women. She has an affair, but it’s not ruinous. It’s a thing understood to be true, a rumor no one can absolutely prove, but it’s a very small town. You can’t hide big secrets in small towns. Marian stays with her adoring husband, he says nothing about it, and their lives slide on comfortably until first they fall on hard financial times, and then he suffers a debilitating stroke. Without her solid husband to lean on, Marian’s standing in the community is less secure. From here on she’s living by her wits.

“He had seen the end of an era, the sunset of the pioneer. He had come upon it when already its glory was nearly spent. So in the buffalo times a traveller used to come upon the embers of a hunter’s fire on the prairie, after the hunter was up and gone; the coals would be trampled out, but the ground was warm, and the flattened grass where he had slept and where his pony had grazed, told the story.


This was the very end of the road-making West; the men who had put plains and mountains under the iron harness were old; some were poor, and even the successful ones were hunting for a rest and a brief reprieve from death. It was already gone, that age; nothing could ever bring it back. The taste and smell and song of it, the visions those men had seen in the air and followed, – these he had caught in a kind of afterglow in their own faces, – and this would always be his.”
– Willa Cather, A Lost Lady

Growing up in Red Cloud, Willa was canny enough to understand the stories told about Mrs. Garber, the bankers wife. To the surprise and dismay of her mother, to whom Cather confessed later, rumors got around and she knew every tale. The town tour I took in June 2021 covered the major players in Red Cloud and in Cather’s life. The place is miniscule. Everyone knew everyone else, which makes it very easy to know their business. I asked the tour guide how the residents took it when Cather used them as characters, if they were angry or confrontational. Quite the opposite, she said. Cather brought fame to Red Cloud, and fame brings tourists who still come to the town in search of the settings and characters from some of her most famous novels. Mrs. Garber must have cringed, but there were no defamation suits. Cather funnelled a lot of her money into Red Cloud, sponsoring buiding initiatives and donating generously. She wasn’t from there, having been born in Virginia, but this was where important formative years were spent. She saw through them and loved them anyway. Willa Cather was adopted as a hometown celebrity and admired for the rest of her life, though she never moved back.

As for contemporary readers of Cather’s novels, F Scott Fitzgerald was a huge fan. Taking a break from revising The Great Gatsby, he read A Lost Lady. The key issue here is – though he later contacted her to explain his side in case she thought he’d committed plagiarism – the Gatsby characters Daisy Buchanan and Nick Carraway closely resemble Marian Forrester and Niel Herbert from A Lost Lady. Once I read his letter to her and a piece about the stuation, I couldn’t un-see the similarities. When he wrote Cather, she replied she’d read his book and loved it. It never occurred to her he may have stolen her work. While I’ll admit I haven’t done my homework, I’m not sure I trust him as much as she did.

I will keep watching Twitter for tweets about A Lost Lady and participate accordingly, but it’s time to channel energy back into Elizabeth Bowen and the other books I’m reading, including a selection of the Booker Longlist 2022 titles. That’s a whole other subject, for another day.

In 1939, a man planted roses: Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Orwell’s Roses’

I retreated for Memorial Day, packing enough food, clothing, and books to last an extended six-day weekend – just me and my thoughts surrounded by lots of allergy-triggering nature. At least that’s how my retreats used to be, until the 21st Century reached my little bit of Nirvana. The three hermitages have all the mod cons, like kitchens and bathrooms, it’s just they had no wifi until this last visit, when the siren call of my notifications going off DING! DING! sucked me in like the techno-whore I am.

I suck at retreats. My attention span is shorter than a sugared-up toddler’s. No, I didn’t turn off ALL my notifications, just some of them. And, yes, I may have doom scrolled Twitter a couple dozen times, but I also posted pics of the books I brought with me. So that’s kind of legit?

Along with pepperoni bagel bites and a couple dozen oatmeal-raisin cookies, of course I brought books, how dare you suggest otherwise. I also brought my journal, and while during all past retreats I droned on about romantic disappointments until my hand cramped and my tears made the ink run (FALSE! I’m not a crier, fuck those guys), I wasn’t mourning either the misery or end of a relationship this time.

Christ, that’s progress!

I’ve been mostly off writing for a couple years. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I decided to formally give myself permission to stop writing. Isn’t that revolutionary and clever? I had never suffered writer’s block before, not ever, and how I loved to gloat about it. Somehow, the effects of the pandemic, coupled with a few hundred pages of scribbled bitching to and about myself, culminated in a complete inability to write a damn thing.

Before you say “hey, scribbled bitching is writing!” I’ll cut you off with “no, it doesn’t qualify.” I’ve told many a struggling writer if they’re stuck they should just write about that experience, because at least it’s something. I was lying; that stuff is absolute shit and you should burn it. Read something! Take a walk!

Nobody likes a complainer.

I never follow through with anything I resolve to do, as a result of examining my shortcomings. Do you know how hot I’d be if I did, and how admired as an intellectual gift to mankind? Those journals could have been cathartic, were I not lazy as hell. I am a squanderer of god-given gifts. It’s what I do. It’s what most people do. So why keep harping on myself about it? I gave myself permission to toss expectations aside – and over the weekend I wrote 115 pages of not-whining.

Why? Because I didn’t have to!

A lot of those words resembled the heavy lifting of book reviewing for publication. It’s a stupid amount of work, and when I’m doing it for a byline I bitch about it. Strangely, when it’s not something I have to do, it’s pure pleasure. You’re right, that doesn’t make sense. But talk to anyone who’s reviewed professionally, who’s written anything professionally, and they’ll say the same. I know because we talk on Twitter, we publicly complain about how people send us free books and then – brace yourselves – they publish what comes out of us because they respect our opinions!

I know! It’s insane we deal with that shit.

Orwell’s Roses wasn’t a review copy, but a Christmas present I gave myself – which is why I spent so much thoughtful time with it. Not quite a bio or work of literary criticism, it’s a little bit of lots of things. George Orwell does loom large, as do roses (go figure) – not just his roses, but roses in general: their symbolism, rose metaphors that have become part of our culture, and the big, brutal business of growing them. I’ll never look at these flowers again without thinking of workers driven slavishly to get them harvested, trimmed, boxed, and flown in dedicated jets with the capacity to refrigerate tons of cargo. Most roses come from Colombia. What you know about Colombia’s track record with expensive crops extends to roses – a bit less murder-y, but roses are a commodity valued over the quality of replaceable human lives.

What ties roses to Orwell? For decades, Rebecca Solnit carried around one dormant seed of knowledge: in 1939, George Orwell planted roses at the cottage he lived in for much of his life, in the village of Wallington in England. Along with a drive to right the wrongs of social injustice, from the Spanish Civil War’s battle against facism to the nighmarish lives of coal miners in England, Orwell loved horticulture. Growing mostly vegetables to sell in the little shop attached to the cottage, in his garden were also flowers and fruit trees. The trees are rotting stumps now, and the roses growing abundantly probably aren’t the ones he planted, but knowing how he prized what he grew stuck in Solnit’s head. Wading through the hundreds of pages of his daily journals, she was intrigued enough to travel halfway around the world to research and write a tremendously informative and fascinating book.

I have to tell you about a word she used that I think is pretty cool: saeculum. She used it to describe the feeling of looking at the roses in Orwell’s garden, and it means time from the moment something happened until the point all the people who’d lived in that moment have died. If you’re into the whole research thing, saeculum evokes a giddy feeling of connectivity with the past. While most people alive when Orwell planted his roses are probably gone, the direct links from herself to the iconic writer felt not so long ago when she was standing in his garden.

Maybe it’s not common, but I’d like to think this level of appreciation for history runs through others. I’ve felt it so many times, both in conjunction with being in the spaces writers used to inhabit and also staring up at the giant sequoias, imagining all the historical events that happened during their existence.

One of the most memorable times I’ve felt this pleasant sensation of discombobulation was in Virginia Woolf’s “Monk’s House,” the last place she lived before walking into the River Ouse (pronounced “Ooze,” which is glorious), committing suicide. I’d made a gift of a note from Virginia’s husband, Leonard Woolf, to a used-to-be friend years ago. Though a Woolf-lover myself, I gave it away as some sort of love token, much as it now annoys me to say. Tucked in a volume of her essays, it was written on stationery printed with the Monk’s House address. The content wasn’t exceptional. It was a response to a reader inquiring as to where she could find a specific piece of his late-wife’s writing. What was incredibly exciting was the purple ink he used – Virginia Woolf’s trademark color.

But it goes further: visiting Monk’s House together, we stopped dead in front of Leonard Woolf’s writing desk – an original piece of furniture in the house. On the desktop was the same stationery as the note, alongside his pens and ink. Leonard Woolf had composed that note at this desk. While you’d think this would have been a perfect moment of romantic connection, five minutes later the man was telling me to get the hell out of his way, because he was taking video of the tour after being expressly told this was forbidden. The bastard literally poked me in the back to make me move.

Like the relationship, the good feeling was short-lived.

Orwell’s Roses alternates between the story of the man’s love of his garden, his short but impressive career, and the interconnectivity between his work and the research it required. And speaking of research, a hell of a lot went into the writing of Solnit’s book. Whenever I wish I’d have become a journalist, it occurs to me the work involved would be utterly exhausting. Younger me wouldn’t have been so daunted. Middle-aged me thinks dear lord, I would never go to Colombia for any amount of money. Wallington, England, sure! Rose farms surrounded by men carrying automatic weapons, not so much. Not that there aren’t automatic weapons a-plenty here, as well, but we try to keep those confined to places I never go – like churches and schools and shopping malls.

Rebecca Solnit wondered at the content of the daily journals Orwell kept, diaries obviously not meant to leave a literary mark. Unlike HD Thoreau, who, Solnit noted, never wrote about just beans without a larger purpose, Orwell did exactly that. Good to know, so I can avoid them. If there’s anything more dull than reading journals about my imperfections, it’s reading about George Orwell’s disappointing turnip harvest.

I’d heartily recommend Orwell’s Roses for an impressive depth of scholarship that’s anything but dry, one skilled journalist’s take on an array of topics she managed to bring together so smoothly I hate her guts for it. I am sick with envy; I may never recover. That’s how I know a book’s pretty damn great.

Thank the gods this is over. Now I can go back to not writing another hundred pages of thoughts on books I’ve read and all the writers I hate. And I’m not proofing this, because I’m a lazy ne’er-do-well. Maybe I’ll look at it tomorrow, so I can agonize over the mistakes.

Whatever.

Le fin.

Books released this week: January 18-24

I’ve received advance notification of forthcoming books for so long, I hardly glance at them anymore. When I was a librarian in charge of purchasing, Publishers Weekly and Booklist were my bibles; I scoured them cover to cover. As a reviewer with a couple decades’ worth of experience, I cannot be arsed. And since the pandemic started, publishers are sending out fewer books to tempt me back, so there goes that avenue, as well.

Because I’m an insufferable ass, despite my inattention I grumble I cannot keep up with all the new books being published, that, by the end of every year, I’ve heard of so few notable books on the “best of” lists. I could keep claiming books section editors are making up titles to make the rest of us feel stupid, or I could actually get back to consulting my sources.

I could pay attention. Be present and mindful, as the Buddhists say.

All this serves as preamble to sharing a list of a few notable books publishing within the next week. Some made my coveted list for intrinsic literary value, some for their celebration of diversity and written by an author I respect. Others, the mood just struck me. They sounded like something I’d buy.

The majority is non-fiction, and it’s a pretty stellar crop. Follow the links to sign up for a weekly roundup of things bookish from one of my regular sources. If you read any of them, I’d love to hear what you think.

Enjoy!

ADMISSIONS: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School by Kendra James (Memoir)
Early on in Kendra James’ professional life, she began to feel like she was selling a lie. As an admissions officer specializing in diversity recruitment for independent prep schools, she persuaded students and families to embark on the same perilous journey she herself had made — to attend cutthroat and largely white schools similar to The Taft School, where she had been the first African-American legacy student only a few years earlier. Her new job forced her to reflect on her own elite education experience, and to realize how disillusioned she had become with America’s inequitable system.
Grand Central Publishing | 9781538753484

Visit this blog to enter a giveaway for this title.

The New York Times

FREE: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi (Memoir)
For precocious 11-year-old Lea Ypi, Albania’s Soviet-style socialism held the promise of a preordained future. That is, until she found herself clinging to a stone statue of Joseph Stalin, newly beheaded by student protests. When the early ’90s saw Albania and other Balkan countries exuberantly begin a transition to the “free market,” Western ideals of freedom delivered chaos: a dystopia of pyramid schemes, organized crime and sex trafficking. With her elegant, intellectual, French-speaking grandmother; her radical-chic father; and her staunchly anti-socialist, Thatcherite mother to guide her through these disorienting times, Lea had a political education of the most colorful sort — here recounted with outstanding literary talent.
W. W. Norton & Company | 9780393867732

The New York Times

This, about the backlash the author endured, from The Guardian.

LORRAINE HANSBERRY: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun by Charles J. Shields (Biography)
Written when she was just 28, Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark A RAISIN IN THE SUN is listed by the National Theatre as one of the hundred most significant works of the 20th century. Hansberry was the first Black woman to have a play performed on Broadway, and the first Black and youngest American playwright to win a New York Critics’ Circle Award. Charles J. Shields’ authoritative biography of one of the 20th century’s most admired playwrights examines the parts of Hansberry’s life that have escaped public knowledge: the influence of her upper-class background, her fight for peace and nuclear disarmament, the reason why she embraced Communism during the Cold War, and her dependence on her white husband — her best friend, critic and promoter.
Henry Holt and Co. | 9781250205537

Kirkus (a venue I personally find borderline offensive, but it has name recognition, doesn’t it)

MANIFESTO: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo (Memoir)
Bernardine Evaristo’s nonfiction debut is a vibrant and inspirational account of her life and career as she rebelled against the mainstream and fought over several decades to bring her creative work into the world. With her characteristic humor, Evaristo describes her childhood as one of eight siblings, with a Nigerian father and white Catholic mother, tells the story of how she helped set up Britain’s first Black women’s theatre company, remembers the queer relationships of her 20s, and recounts her determination to write books that were absent in the literary world around her. She provides a hugely powerful perspective to contemporary conversations around race, class, feminism, sexuality and aging.
Grove Press | 9780802158901

The New York Times (apologies if you hit their paywall – I did and it reminded me I need to re-subscribe to digital)

The Guardian, as an alternative

THE BLACK CHURCH: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (History)
For the young Henry Louis Gates, Jr., growing up in a small, residentially segregated West Virginia town, the church was a center of gravity — an intimate place where voices rose up in song and neighbors gathered to celebrate life’s blessings and offer comfort amid its trials and tribulations. In this tender and expansive reckoning with the meaning of the Black Church in America, Gates takes us on a journey spanning more than five centuries, from the intersection of Christianity and the transatlantic slave trade to today’s political landscape. At road’s end, and after Gates’ distinctive meditation on the churches of his childhood, we emerge with a new understanding of the importance of African American religion to the larger national narrative.
Penguin Books | 9781984880352

Streaming on PBS

The Washington Post

THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice P. Nimura (Biography)
Elizabeth Blackwell believed from an early age that she was destined for a mission beyond the scope of “ordinary” womanhood. Though the world at first recoiled at the notion of a woman studying medicine, her intelligence and intensity ultimately won her the acceptance of the male medical establishment. In 1849, she became the first woman in America to receive an M.D. She was soon joined in her iconic achievement by her younger sister, Emily, who was actually the more brilliant physician. Exploring the sisters’ allies, enemies and enduring partnership, Janice P. Nimura presents a story of trial and triumph.
W. W. Norton & Company | 9781324020202

NPR

The New York Times

LAND: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World by Simon Winchester (History/Economics)
Land — whether meadow or mountainside, desert or peat bog, parkland or pasture, suburb or city — is central to our existence. It quite literally underlies and underpins everything. In LAND, Simon Winchester examines what we human beings are doing — and have done — with the billions of acres that together make up the solid surface of our planet. The book examines in depth how we acquire land, how we steward it, how and why we fight over it, and finally, how we can, and on occasion do, come to share it. Ultimately, Winchester confronts the essential question: Who actually owns the world’s land — and why does it matter?
Harper Perennial | 9780062938343

The Washington Post

A PREVIOUS LIFE by Edmund White (Fiction/Humor)
Sicilian aristocrat and musician Ruggero and his younger American wife, Constance, agree to break their marital silence and write their Confessions. Until now they had a ban on speaking about the past, since transparency had wrecked their previous marriages. As the two alternate reading the memoirs they’ve written about their lives, Constance reveals her multiple marriages to older men, and Ruggero details the affairs he’s had with men and women across his lifetime — most importantly his passionate affair with the author Edmund White.
Bloomsbury Publishing | 9781635577273

The New York Times

Bookmarks/Lit Hub

VIOLETA by Isabel Allende (Historical Fiction)
Violeta comes into the world on a stormy day in 1920. From the start, her life is marked by extraordinary events, for the ripples of the Great War are still being felt, even as the Spanish flu arrives on the shores of her South American homeland almost at the moment of her birth. Through her father’s prescience, the family will come through that crisis unscathed, only to face a new one as the Great Depression transforms the genteel city life she has known. Her family loses everything and is forced to retreat to a wild and beautiful but remote part of the country. There, she will come of age, and her first suitor will come calling. She tells her story in the form of a letter to someone she loves above all others, recounting times of devastating heartbreak and passionate affairs, poverty and wealth, terrible loss and immense joy.
Ballantine Books | 9780593496206

Publishers Weekly

LET ME TELL YOU WHAT I MEAN by Joan Didion (Essays)
These 12 pieces from 1968 to 2000, never before gathered together, offer an illuminating glimpse into the mind and process of a legendary figure. Here, Joan Didion touches on topics ranging from newspapers (“the problem is not so much whether one trusts the news as to whether one finds it”), to the fantasy of San Simeon, to not getting into Stanford. In “Why I Write,” Didion ponders the act of writing: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” From her admiration for Hemingway’s sentences to her acknowledgment that Martha Stewart’s story is one “that has historically encouraged women in this country, even as it has threatened men,” these essays are acutely and brilliantly observed.
Vintage | 9780593312193

NPR

A SAINT FROM TEXAS by Edmund White (Fiction)
Yvette and Yvonne Crawford are twin sisters, born on a humble patch of East Texas prairie but bound for far more dramatic and tragic fates. Just as an untold fortune of oil lies beneath their daddy’s land, both girls harbor their own secrets and dreams — ones that will carry them far from Texas and from each other. As the decades unfold, Yvonne will ascend the highest ranks of Parisian society as Yvette gives herself to a lifetime of worship and service in the streets of Jericó, Colombia. And yet, even as they remake themselves in their radically different lives, the twins find that the bonds of family and the past are unbreakable.
Bloomsbury Publishing | 9781635577051

The New York Times

Washington Independent Review of Books

THE SWALLOWED MAN by Edward Carey (Historical Fantasy)
A lonely woodcarver longs for the companionship of a son. One day, Giuseppe — better known as Geppetto — carves for himself a pinewood boy, a marionette he hopes to take on tour worldwide. But when his handsome new creation comes magically to life, Geppetto screams…and the boy, Pinocchio, escapes into the night. Though he returns the next day, the wily boy torments his father, challenging his authority and making up stories — whereupon his nose, the very nose his father carved, grows before his eyes. When the boy disappears after one last fight, the father follows a rumor to the coast and out into the sea, where he is swallowed by a great fish. He hunkers in the creature’s belly awaiting the day when he will reconcile with the son he drove away.
Riverhead Books | 9780593188880

The Washington Post

The Chicago Review of Books