This installment: WWII in Marsailles (f); Reichl’s latest (nf); art in Buenos Aires and beyond (f); more O’Nan (f); uplifting book about life facing death (nf); and Heller’s latest—rough times in the water (nf).
The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer
Marseilles in the ’40 where Varian Fry, an American, works against all odds to get threatened citizens out before the Nazis get them. He concentrates on talents like Chagall and Breton but gets into a bind when his old lover from college days pleads to save the son of his current lover, supposed to be a genius. Fry is in the closet (his faithful, perspicacious wife awaits in NYC), things reignite between the two men, and there are complications galore. The deep moral question about what a life is “worth” is address here with intelligence. Suspenseful and evocative. (And based in part on a true story.)
Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl
Subtitled My Gourmet Memoir. When this venerable, prestigious magazine offered her the job of managing editor, it didn’t seem like a fit. But as restaurant critic for the NY Times, she could seldom eat dinner with her husband and son; he pleaded with her so she went for it. A huge challenge, a very steep learning curve, but Reichl managed to infuse new energy into the pages, even hiring literary figures to write articles (the one by David Foster Wallace produced great controversy) and have a good time along the way. As print media dwindled, the publisher demanded activities that ran against Ruth’s grain, like a TV show featuring celebrities, and ultimately pulled the plug. What a wild ride, told with humor, élan, appreciation, and rueful reflections. I gobble up anything Reichl puts forth, always a feast.
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza
A strange little book from Argentina that grew on me. Maria has almost visceral reactions to paintings and as we track her life in Buenos Aires, we get cameos of artists’ lives as well. El Greco, Rothko, Toulouse Lautrec among them, with fascinating insights, new to me. Intense, almost hallucinatory. When I finished it my reaction was “what was that all about” but by then I didn’t need to know.
Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan
So I just had to go back to 2002 where I first met this family which I’ve been tracking backwards from O’Nan’s most recent book. So I reread it. Here’s wishing I wasn’t there, because it was the Worst family vacation ever. Paterfamilias Henry is dead; Emily the matriarch is planning to sell their Chautauqua cottage and this is the last hurrah as it were. It rains and rains. The children squabble. The adults try to hide their secrets and shame. 12 year-old Ella moons over 14-year-old cousin Sarah, a bombshell. No privacy. Yet somehow I was willing to hang in there with them because they’re so nakedly human, and I’ve gotten inside their uncomfortable skins. So yes, I recommend the trilogy if you like close-ups of what we’re all made of.
The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams
Subtitled A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything that Comes After. A miracle from the get-go when her Vietnamese family decided this baby, born blind, had no future but they didn’t follow through on their plans to “release” her from future misery. When they came to the States an operation restored some sight and against all odds she became a lawyer, met the love of her life, and had two daughters. Then metastatic colorectal cancer and she knew her life would be over soon. Yes, she tried everything, to no avail. So here she tells us with incredible courage and candor what it was like to try to live to the hilt under the shadow of a death sentence. Very thoughtful, deeply inspiring, and it gave me an incredible perspective on grace facing the worst—and gratitude for my own life right now, whatever its troubles.
The River by Peter Heller
College friends Wynn and Jack are canoeing way up north, having a sweet time of it, when they face a forest fire and the mystery of a couple in trouble. They’re both very savvy and skilled in the woodcraft; Wynn is gentler and more trusting than Jack whose mother died in a plunge from a horse. Things get very difficult as they come upon the woman close to death; her partner is now trying to ambush them. Grisly, scary, suspenseful as all get-out and no happy ending. Why read it? Because Heller really knows the beauty and power as well as the horrors of the great outdoors and here you can experience an extraordinary adventure and live to tell the tale.
Back next week.