Bolinas Reads: May 2024

Drawing of Arline Mathieu by Vanessa Waring

A monthly interview with Bolinas Library readers.

Arline Mathieu grew up in Rhode Island in a small factory town with a mostly immigrant population. She later lived in a number of different places in the U.S. until she moved to the West Coast in the early 70’s. Arline was in an MFA program in painting for two years and left during the Vietnam War to become active in the anti-war movement. She also has degrees in medical and cultural anthropology. In 1994, after having lived in Berkeley and NYC, she and her husband, Lyndon Comstock, moved to Bolinas. “I can’t imagine a more wonderful place to live: the people and community, the ocean and rest of the natural world—and yes, the library.”

What are you reading now?

I’m currently reading Amitava Kumar’s My Beloved Life, opens a new window, about a man and his daughter, he having grown up in poverty in a small village in India. Later in life, he becomes a historian and professor of Indian nationalist movements; his daughter becomes a journalist in the U.S. The reviews were mixed and spoke of it as being about an ordinary life. I might rather say it was about an ordinary life that, at the same time, was quite extraordinary. I just finished Michael Ondaatje’s new book of poems, A Year of Last Things, opens a new window . It's a book of memories of a long life fully lived: memories of what might have been; memories of what was.

What’s in your pile of books?-

My pile of books—which pile? Well, by the bedside: Letters of Wallace Stevens; , opens a new windowThe Sphinx and the Milky Way, opens a new window, which is a selection from the painter Charles Burchfield’s journals; Dawn of the Senses: selected poems by Alberto Blanco, opens a new window with the original Spanish and the English translations on facing pages; and some old Paris Reviews, opens a new window. These and some others in that pile are books I can pick up and read for a brief time before turning the light off at night. Then, next to the chair where I usually read, I have two new books I’m eager to get to: Ruth Asawa: Through Line, opens a new window, which is based on the recent exhibit of Asawa’s drawings at the Whitney in NYC; and The Asking: New and Selected Poems, opens a new window by Jane Hirshfield. Also in that pile is a book I frequently refer to: Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead , opens a new windowby Francesca Fremantle. And among various other favorites in this pile are two I plan to reread soon that relate to Homer’s Iliad, opens a new window. The first is Alice Oswald's Memorial, opens a new window, an elegy for the men who lost their lives in the Trojan war. In this long poem, an anti-war cry, Oswald names each man and presents him primarily not as a soldier but as an ordinary human being: the son of a grieving father; husband of a woman in mourning; a father of a young child. The other book, Ransom, opens a new window, by David Malouf, is a beautifully written novel that follows the journey of Achilles as he travels to Troy to return the remains of Hector’s mangled body to Priam, Hector’s father.

Do you read one book at a time or several?

In order not to confuse characters or lose the story thread, I don’t read more than one book of fiction at a time. Otherwise, I often have several books going.

What’s the best book you’ve read this year?

I have a background in art and also in anthropology. I continue to read about art, love to look at reproductions, and just follow what’s happening. On the other hand, since I stopped teaching anthropology, I’ve read almost no books related to that field—until this year and that book happens to be one of the best books I’ve read. It’s titled, Still Life with Bones: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains,, opens a new window written by Alexa Hagerty, an anthropologist working with local people and forensic specialists in Guatemala and Argentina. Their mission is to identify the bones of people that have been exhumed from mass graves and to return these remains of the “disappeared” to their families for proper burial. Actually, there are two best books I’ve read this year. The second is Nathan Thrall’s A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy, opens a new window. The immediate tragedy described regards a group of children trapped in a burning bus, some not saved primarily because of the lack of fire or ambulance services in Palestinian areas in the West Bank. The broader tragedy the book tells is of the day-to-day lives Palestinians are made to suffer because of the brutal oppression and ongoing violence against them. Both books will make you weep and rage. I am grateful to our library for making both books available to us: especially because the first book is not very well-known; the second, along with its author, has been virtually black-listed since October 7.

What’s the last book you recommended to a friend?

It’s a book I just finished reading: A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists , opens a new windowby Rachel Cohen, and I recommended it to Jane.

Do you like to read paper or ebooks? Audio books? Dvds?

Only paper. I like to hold the book, feel the paper, and if I want to refer back to something, I’m able to find where the page is and where it appears on the page.

Are you a browser in the library or do you know in advance what you’re looking for? How do you find specific books?

I usually know what I’m looking for but I do like to look at what the library has on the shelves when I go in to pick up a book I’ve ordered. I usually know about specific books from reviews in The New Yorker, opens a new window or The New York Review of Books, opens a new window, or sometimes a friend might recommend a book. I miss my friend Bru; I never left his house without a book under my arm that he’s lent me and a slip of paper in hand with the titles of books he’s recommended.

Do you have a favorite genre? Any genres you never read?

I like journals, letters, autobiography or biographies, especially ones by/about artists or writers. I read a lot of poetry and occasionally read history. I’m interested in books about war, the causes, what factors led up to the war, also how people are affected and experience a war on a day-to-day basis. However, I’m not interested in the military aspect.

What was your reading experience as a child? Did you grow up with a lot of books?

My parents had little education and my mother’s first language wasn’t English. We had few books in the house, but my mother read to me from comics, perhaps because she could tell me the story from the pictures. However, when I reached middle school, I had an English teacher who turned me on to the Russian novelists and I’ve been a reader ever since.

Is there a book you always meant to read but still haven’t?

Moby Dick, opens a new window (Melville) I doubt I’ll ever read it—too many books I’ve loved and want to reread.

What books do you return to? Are there any books you like to reread?

So many! There are poets I go back to time and time again: Elizabeth Bishop, opens a new window, Charles Wright,, opens a new window Wallace Stevens, opens a new window, William Carlos Williams, opens a new window, and also the Tang Dynasty, opens a new window poets. Other than classics such as The Iliad, opens a new window and The Odyssey, opens a new window or other books I’ve already mentioned, there are a couple of little-known books I return to every so often: Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, opens a new window, a novel that follows three generations of a military family during the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is one. The other is a simply written, small gem of a book by J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country, opens a new window. Two men living on an estate in England, one has been hired to restore a medieval mural in a local church, the other to search for a nearby grave. They work, share conversation, and gradually the sorrows of their past lives are subtly revealed.

Why read?

Connection to other people, other beings, other worlds.