This installment: a blocked and haunted Scandinavian writer; a cross-cultural novel (India/America); personal essays, each a gem; very Olde England via Crace; a magnificent, obscure Bad Girl memoir; and back in Colorado with Haruf, muted and powerful.
In the Wake by Per Petterson
Arvid is miserably adrift, on some mysterious journey through his environs. We gradually learn he’s a blocked writer with some dreadful family tragedy that haunts and saps him. The full story emerges from the inside out, like a photograph slowly developing, and at the end there’s a strong sense of healing and reconciliation. I was pulled into the wake of his life, as it were, by the intense yet simple clarity of Petterson’s prose and though the subject sounds grim, it’s illuminated beautifully and very worth the foray.
Other Waters by Eleni N. Gage
Maya is a psychiatric resident, daughter of doctors from India but born in Michigan. Her sweet American boyfriend Scott is a problem because Maya doesn’t want to disappoint her parents who hope for a more suitable mate. Her beloved grandmother dies and a servant with a complicated backstory ends up cursing the family. Then bad things start to happen to the whole clan, and Maya, in therapy as part of her training, feels responsible. Back in India for a wedding, sans Scott since she doesn’t want to rock the boat, she tries to right things, to no avail. A new boyfriend with the right credentials shows up but we the readers all know he’s not Mr. Right. She gets it, at last (whew), and claims herself in the process. Wonderful cross-cultural material, lively and thoughtful.
An Enlarged Heart by Cynthia Zarin
Charming, intimate essays by a New Yorker writer. They really won my heart by addressing personal history through things of ordinary life, like coats or curtains. (Stuff is often numinous, in my opinion.) The title essay about a health crisis with her youngest daughter is especially moving. And the longest piece about her tenure at the New Yorker addresses familiar material with freshness. A gem of a book.
Harvest by Jim Crace
This versatile author is especially good at recreating eras of yore, and here we plunge into very old England to a tiny agricultural village threatened by change. The narrator is an outsider though he’s lived there for 12 years, not exactly a peasant because he arrived as the landowner’s servant, with more perspective than those who never ventured beyond the borders. A trio of suspicious newcomers arrives and so does a suspicious fire and the entire balance of the place is thrown off course. Crace shares the rhythms, lore, and superstitions of primitive rural life vividly, replete with juicy archaic words that can be decoded by context. To me there were fascinating echoes of modern-day social and environmental upsets; here it’s greedy new owners who want to replace planting with sheep. Very absorbing.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
This came along just when I was starting to despair—no books had really grabbed me recently and this is serious for an addicted reader like myself. Friends told me about it and I tracked down this copy in our system (whew). A memoir with familiar material: bad girl, bad parents, incest, and addictions—the full catastrophe. But such freshness, fierceness, rigor and honesty in her presentation, starting with the tragedy of her still-born daughter and moving through metaphoric and literal imagery of this element. She swam for her life in high school, escaped to college, flunked out while acting out. Painful relationships with women and men. Three marriages (the last one a keeper). And wonder of wonders, she’s now she’s a professor herself and I bet she’s a dynamite teacher. Her writing can be lyrical, raw, and funny in turn, and I kept applauding her courage and straight-talk throughout. A strong message: we can form our own nourishing families if the one we got poisoned us. A treasure!
Benediction by Kent Haruf
I loved his Plainsong. So here we are again, back in rural Colorado. Dad Lewis (that’s what everyone calls him) is dying. His long-time wife Mary does what she can and their daughter Lorraine joins them. Dad is composed and resigned but it’s still very hard. A new preacher, Lyle, stirs things up in town and struggles with his own domestic disquiet. A few good neighbors offer support. The ongoing shadow: their son Frank, gay, who’s been out of touch for years. The quality of the book is muted, almost as stark as that iconic Grant Wood painting. But there are some amazingly vivid scenes: a very young Frank and friend in drag on horseback in the barn. An old woman, her grown daughter, and grieving 8 year old Alice submerging themselves ecstatically in a stock pond on a scorching day. Here are decent people with frailties, foibles, secrets and strengths—no glamor, little obvious drama, but all the stuff of life.
Back next Monday.