Winter Book Reviews: 2 of 3

We learn to live between the lives we have and the lives we would like. —Arthur Phillips

These three books have at its story core protagonists/narrators thrust into new life situations they didn’t see coming. We all live on that fine edge of taking the everyday for granted or worrying ourselves sick. Coping skills are needed more than ever in this chaotic time on our planet. I’ve tried meditation. I’ve tried wine. The only constant that gets me through the lunacy is reading good books.

THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD by Elizabeth Alexander

Poet Elizabeth Alexander has written a beautiful memoir of her courtship, marriage, children, homes, friends, family, food . . . her life with husband, Ficre, a chef and painter, who dies suddenly four days before his fiftieth birthday. In her husband’s death, Alexander captures on the page the poetic finale of their life together. Now everything they have/had is memory (memoir) of a love re-examined. It was Michelle Obama’s favorite book of 2015.

Favorite line(s): When we met those many years ago, I let everything happen to me, and it was beauty. Along the road, more beauty, and fear and struggle, and work, and learning, and joy. I could not have kept Ficre’s death from happening, and from happening to us. It happened; it is part of who we are; it is our beauty and our terror. We must be gleaners from what life has set before us. If no feeling is final, there is more for me to feel.

ALTERNATE SIDE by Anna Quindlen

Quindlen’s latest novel begins with an incident in a coveted parking area in Manhattan adjacent to where Nora and Charlie Nolan reside on a dead-end block. The event propels the divisions between the neighbors and eventually the Nolan’s marriage when class, money, jealousies, and identity come bubbling to the top. Quindlen writes with stinging insight into the middle-aged marriage checkpoint. “It was notable because they rarely quarreled anymore. Their marriage had become like the AA prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’ Or at least to move into a zone in which I so don’t care anymore and scarcely notice. Nora had thought this was their problem alone until she realized that it was what had happened to almost everyone she knew who was still married, even some of those who were on their second husbands.” This is a novel quiet on plot, but the seething rage inside the characters, especially the women, give the story its adrenaline push.

Favorite line(s): But in the car on the way home, sitting with the estrangement well of the center console between them, they had agreed that Jasper was a pleasure to be with, that Jenny seemed happier than ever before, that Rachel was doing so well working for Christine. The only thing wrong was the two of them. Their hands had brushed in the backseat, and they had edged closer to the windows, bright with the red of brake lights.

CROSSING TO SAFETY by Wallace Stegner

Oh, boy! This one! What took me so long to get to Stegner’s character-driven novel exploring the bonds of marriage and friendship? A “quiet” story (there are no momentous plot twist and turns) “Crossing to Safety” tells of the four-decades-old friendship between two couples. Larry Morgan is a writer of early success when his wife, Sally is stricken with polio. The shine of their promise dims under the reality of their new life. Sid and Charity Lang, with inherited wealth and goals to plant themselves in the academic life of Madison, Wisconsin, are unexpectedly adrift when WWII starts, and there are no students to teach. Told mostly in flashback, Larry, the narrator describes the idyllic summers spent together in Vermont at Charity’s family’s vacation home while meditating on the idealism of their youth compared to the thwarted dreams of middle-age. It’s been called a masterpiece of twentieth-century literature. You decide for yourself.

Favorite line(s): So, so many to choose from. Here’s just one…. “As for repaying,” she said to me in rebuke, “friends don’t have to repay anything. Friendship is the most selfish thing there is. Here are Sid and I just licking our chops. We got everything out of you that we wanted.”

So they did. They also got, though that they would never have permitted to figure in our relations, our lifelong gratitude. There is a revisionist theory, one of those depth-psychology distortions or half-truths that crop up like toadstools whenever the emotions get infected by the mind that says we hate worst those who have done the most for us. According to this belittling and demeaning theory, gratitude is a festering sore. Maybe it is, if it’s insisted on. But instead of insisting on gratitude, the Langs insisted that their generosity was selfish so how could we dislike them for it?