Winter Book Reviews: 3 of 3
When all the world appears to be in a tumult, and nature itself is feeling the assault of climate change, the seasons retain their essential rhythm. Yes, fall gives us a premonition of winter, but then, winter, will be forced to relent, once again, to the new beginnings of soft greens, longer light, and the sweet air of spring.—Madeleine M. Kunin
And so we come to the end. The last three book reviews for winter. I hope your reading was a varied and filled with wonder as mine was this past season. Please see my home page for the stack of lovelies on the spring reading list.
TRAVELERS by Laura Bernstein-Machlay
In full disclosure, Laura and I are in a writing critique group together. She’s new to the group, so I didn’t have the pleasure of reading her essays in “Travelers” as works-in-progress. This collection looks backward and forwards from a child then young woman trying to understand where she belongs and to whom. Growing up fatherless in Detroit and raised mostly by her grandparents, Zaidy and Bubby, Bernstein-Machlay laments about everything from her hair to loneliness, from the unfamiliar to home. On the page I love the honesty of the questions she asks of herself and others: “I don’t understand, that mountain of mysteries that went into my shaping.” And, “Strangers like to tell me about my untethered city, my city in flux, in decrepitude, even as it’s staggering awake, shaking the dust from its eyes. My hungry city, city of ghost houses melting in the rain—even as some of the derelict buildings are slated for knockdown. Strangers on the radio opine about my city of retirees who lost their pensions, about the paintings we nearly sold to pay a generation of debts. About our legacy of riots—or is it rebellions.” I look forward to reading what’s next for my talented friend.
Favorite line(s): I’m twenty-six. I’ve recently returned to Ireland after months of being sick, then getting better, more months of selling ice cream and punk rock T-shirts—all the while avoiding thoughts of the future. During these years when my former classmates have—I’m sure—gotten married, birthed children, dug their heels into careers, I’m more than a little aimless. During the span of my 20s, I’ll attend several colleges. I’ll wander state to state, travel across the whole of Europe twice, come back to Ireland twice more. I know I’m trying to outrun my own shadow, even as I can’t stop, so for nearly a decade I’m exhausted to the marrow of my bones.
OTHER PEOPLE’S LOVE AFFAIRS: Stories by D. Wystan Owen
A fellow resident at Ragdale turned me on to Owen’s collection which is chock full of emotions on love’s longing and regret. Set in the small seaside town of Glass, England, the stories share Owen’s haunting but unpitying look at unspoken heartbreak amongst the characters. They feel nostalgic framed in contemporary everyday lives. The writing is accented in affect but in a graceful way. One of my favorites in the collection, “What Is Meant to Remain,” reminded me of another “dentist” story I loved, Jane Smiley’s novella, “The Age of Grief.”
Favorite line(s): At the anniversary party he would be the one hovering at the edges of other people’s lives, unconnected but by the diminishing pull of memories either shared or disputed. What he had been offered was a place on the periphery, a chance to play at something that was not quite his: like a plain, unmarried girl asked to hold the train of her younger sister’s wedding gown, or an infirm boy sent onto the field with a bandage or water for the winger to drink. The thought of such a role had always saddened him, but as he turned for home it seemed that perhaps it would be enough that he might manage eventually to supplement his solitary pleasures with new vicarious and borrowed ones, as he had come through the years to enjoy hearing stories of his patients’ successes and good fortune, to take them, in small measure, for his own.
THE LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN by Alice Munro
Munro’s only novel (she’s known primarily as a short story writer) is said to be more “autobiographical in form but not in fact.” There is even this line the protagonist tells the reader: “. . . they were talking to somebody who believed that the only duty of a writer is to produce a masterpiece.” This is a book I’ll pick up again and again just to read a page or two to immerse myself in the art of the sentence. They’re perfection. “I smelled that gray smell of stewing chicken.” Or, “My mother’s disapproval was open and unmistakable, like heavy weather; theirs came like tiny razor cuts, bewilderingly, in the middle of kindness. They had the Irish gift for rampaging mockery, embroidered with deference.” Del Jordan is coming of age in the 1940s in Jubilee, a rural town in Ontario, Canada. She grapples with all the angst of adolescence while questioning death, sexuality, and motherhood and society’s respect of men over women. With a bright light on the mother-daughter dynamic, Munro also shines her unerring eye on religion and fear, outcasts and pretenders. She does so much in the confines of a singular story—that of womanhood—that the reader is left wondering how did she get from this to that in a few hundred pages?
Favorite line(s): Her concern about my life, which I needed and took for granted, I could not bear to have expressed. Also I felt that it was not so different from all the other advice handed out to women, to girls, advice that assumed being female made you damageable, that a certain amount of carefulness and solemn fuss and self-protection were called for, whereas men were supposed to be able to go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what they didn’t want and come back proud. Without even thinking about it, I had decided to do the same.