“We aren’t ever done with the odd business of becoming that most extraordinary and prized of things, an emotionally mature person – or, to put it a simpler way, an almost grown-up adult,” writes Alain de Botton in his new book, The School of Life.
My top choice for Spring 2020 is Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano, a novel that shines with the emotional intelligence of works like A Gentleman in Moscow and All The Light We Cannot See. The premise sounds more daunting than dazzling: a plane goes down on its way to Los Angeles. One hundred and ninety-one of the passengers and crew die, but one young boy survives. The book imagines his life over the next few years after his childless aunt and uncle take him in. He’s a celebrity, of course, in a terrible kind of way. A beautiful friendship grows with the odd girl who lives across the street. In alternating chapters, the novel recounts the final hours of the doomed flight – the last conversations, the last thoughts and feelings of those on board. How can this novel be anything other than terrifying, grim and emotionally manipulative? In the deft hands of the author, the story is none of these things. There is a great light within its heaviness. “Dear Edward explores trauma with the same honesty and tenderness as it does the crooked path to healing … The result is a rich, bighearted tapestry that leaves no one behind,” writes Chloe Benjamin (The Immortalists).
Dear Edward looks around. It’s a big picture kind of book, with many characters and plot lines. The Grammarians, by Cathleen Schine, instead looks in. It’s the closely told tale of red-headed twins Daphne and Laurel, obsessed with words from an early age and equally obsessed with each other. Have I ever scribbled more smiley faces in a book while reading it? In a word, no! The novel begins with these crazy little girls and their big love of the dictionary their father brings home, a dictionary so massive it requires its own stand; clever wordplay and humor abound. Of course, the story becomes more complicated over time, as family stories tend to do. Each sister has to figure out who she is and who she wants to be in the world. On the very last page – but not until then – I wept. I loved this book passionately and with fervor. Take a chance on Cathleen Schine if you’ve never read her work before.
The Giver of Stars
You already know Jojo Moyes’ name and probably have an opinion (Me Before You, etc.). Her latest is The Giver of Stars, a novel based on the “packhorse librarians” of Kentucky who delivered books on horseback in rural Appalachia during the Depression. I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Jojo, generally speaking. She rarely surprises with a word choice. Her characters tend to be pretty predictable. That being said, I didn’t put this book down. I started listening to it on Audible during a long-ish car ride from Atlanta to Nashville and finished with the hardback in my hands over the next day or two when I should have been doing other things. The plot moves along swiftly, and you’re cheering for the brave women librarians, you’re wishing evil to befall the horrid Mr. Van Cleve, you’re anxious for justice to be done when one of the main characters is falsely accused. If you like Moyes’ sensibility and style, I think you’ll enjoy this book.
Long Bright River
Crime fiction your thing? Try Long Bright River, by Liz Moore. It comes highly recommended by one of my favorite booksellers, and I’ll be reading it next. Here’s the summary from the dust jacket: “In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore … then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey panics over her sister’s safety … Alternating the present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Liz Moore creates a work that is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching. Long Bright River combines the very best of crime fiction with the emotional intimacy of an unforgettable family drama.” You won’t be disappointed, my bookseller friend at the G.J. Ford Bookshop on St. Simon’s Island tells me. I trust her. She’s a quiet sort, and her quiet enthusiasm goes a long way.
Writers & Lovers
I am quietly if not madly enthusiastic about Writers & Lovers, by Lily King. I was mad for her novel Euphoria, so perhaps my expectations were too high. Euphoria told the story of Margaret Mead, torn between two great loves, many thousands of miles from home and country. Writers & Lovers takes place closer to home in every way – in Boston, the summer of 1997. Casey (why is this name so hot in current fiction?) works as a waitress at a restaurant in Cambridge, slumming it in a tiny garage apartment across town while she tries to finish her novel. She’s haunted by the recent death of her mother and attracted to two very different men. “For anyone who’s experienced (or is still experiencing) the dread feeling of being stuck in the life stage of ‘becoming,’ when it seems that everyone else has already ‘become,’ Lily King’s latest novel … will strike a deep chord. With wit and what reads like deep insider wisdom, Ms. King captures the chronic low-level panic of taking a leap into the artsy unknown and finding yourself adrift, without land or rescue in sight,” writes Maureen Corrigan in The Wall Street Journal.
If you’re in the mood for a serious-natured, realistic read like Writers & Lovers, you might also consider Creatures, a debut novel by Chrissy Van Meter. “There is a dead whale,” it begins, and its stench permeates the small (fictional) island off the California coast where the novel takes place. Evie is about to be married, and her mother shows up on her doorstep uninvited the day before the wedding. Her father mostly raised her, and by the age of 13 she was helping him make deliveries of his famous “Winter Wonderland” weed. They are semi-homeless from time to time, when the summer guests have gone away and her father’s charm has run thin. Creatures feels rich and real to me, a meditation on place and home and families that fail us and how one might possibly grow up surrounded with imperfect love – and also learn to love.
The Scent Keeper
For an entirely different take on an island and a motherless girl, try The Scent Keeper, by Erica Bauermeister, a current Hello Sunshine (Reese Witherspoon) book club pick. If you loved Vanessa Diffenaugh’s The Language of Flowers, you might like this book. We first meet our heroine, Emmeline, as a young girl, living on a deserted island with her beloved father in a cottage at the very center of the island. Her father tends an unusual, possibly magical machine that records scents on tiny scraps of paper, which he saves in miniature bottles. It’s a little hard to locate yourself in the first pages of this book … you wonder if you are in a fairy tale, and if so, when things are going to get bad. They do get bad. Growing up involves hard truths about our families. Emmeline’s supernatural sense of smell – a big part of this book – wore me out a little bit, but the plot moved along at a good clip and I did want to know how it would end: how Emmeline would grow and change, what she would learn about her father – and her mother – and herself.
Westside: A Tiny Mystery. Infinite Darkness.
If you’re in the mood to really stretch your imagination, try Westside: A Tiny Mystery. Infinite Darkness., by W.M. Akers, which a good friend recently put into my hands. It’s 1920s-era New York City – a New York you recognize from film and story – yet it’s also utterly different. A high border wall has been erected between the West Side and the East because of the “unnatural” things happening on the West Side: trees, vines, plants – all green things – grow monstrously large; household items and houses themselves fall apart without explanation; most terrifying, people simply disappear without a trace in the dark of night. Enter our hard-knock, badass heroine, Gilda Carr, a detective who hires herself out to solve “tiny mysteries.” One tiny mystery turns into the biggest of all: why the West Side of New York City has grown into a monstrous version of itself. It happens to be wrapped up in the question of why her own father, a legendary detective, was murdered. Westside is an unusual read, and a pleasure, especially if you enjoy the sensibility of shows like “Stranger Things.”
The School of Life: An Emotional Education
To wrap things up, I’ll highlight two self-help/philosophy books that seem – you know – helpful. And philosophical. First up – The School of Life: An Emotional Education, introduced by Alain de Botton. Alain, one of the best-known and most respected popular philosophers of our time, has a reputation for humor and depth. The School of Life itself, not the book, is an actual organization with 10 branches, its home office in London, its mission to help people live more fulfilled lives (“self-knowledge is crucial to better decisions, particularly around love and work”). I’ve only just begun reading The School of Life and am entirely intrigued. Here’s what Edith Zimmerman, writing in New York magazine, has to say: “Life is pain, romance is a lie, sex is impossible, work will never be good, and yet everything is still kind of nice and basically all right. We are all messed up, and we will never be as happy as we think we should be, but still there are still lots of nice things to share and enjoy, and it is good to be nice to one another. It’s still often a good idea to get married, too, even though your spouse will be a constant disappointment, as you will be to them. Each of these thoughts felt like a huge relief.”
How to Stay in Love
James J. Sexton takes a different tone in How to Stay in Love, recently out in paperback. James, a divorce lawyer with two decades of experience negotiating and litigating high-conflict divorces, offers deeply optimistic and hopeful advice. He gives a great interview at Vox.com: “I’ve represented every imaginable divorce client, and I’ve seen it all. I have to tell you, I don’t think it’s as simple as good people over here and bad people over there. I think that all of us, if you catch us at the right moment, can be good or bad. Most of us just want to stay connected, and we really do want to love people and be loved ourselves. But it’s easy to get off track. The world is antagonistic to marriages, and there are a million different things that limit your access to your spouse’s attention. And if you don’t do the work of constantly checking in, of keeping that connection, you will lose it.”
I’ve just begun reading this book – and, as with The School of Life, I am immediately drawn in by both the subject matter and style. It doesn’t hurt that my dear friend who gave it to me models a respect, care, joy and attentiveness in her marriage that I admire. We’re all learning from each other, all the time.
For additional reading recommendations and miscellaneous musings by Jennifer Puryear, check in at BaconOnTheBookshelf.com. Happy reading!
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