Well, finally, here we are.
Still wheezing and a bit flu-befuddled but back on the home coast and able to lift our heads off the pillow. That’s a start! And at the very least, the scenery is a bit more cheerful than last week:
And now the reading year has been duly sifted, the chaff removed and we are left with the best of the best, the books that astonished me, moved me, transported me and for which I am most grateful. A little panic sets in when I’ve finished a book like one of these. It is done, and there is now one less star in the sky. Blessedly, another seems to come along eventually and reminds me that while I scrabble away in oblivion, there is brilliance in this world.
I tried to put these in some sort of order but could not anymore than one can have a favorite child. Although perhaps I saved the best for last…
One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty (104 pages, paperback, published 1984)
There is something in the air in the South that produces great writers. What I would give for just a whiff of it! Eudora Welty’s memoir of the Mississippi childhood that formed her as a writer is a slim volume and I savored every single page. Based on three lectures she gave at Harvard University, it traces the importance of family and sense of place in her development as a writer. “As you have seen,” she concludes, “I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (368 pages, audiobook narrated by Cherry Jones, published 1940)
Carson McCullers also breathed the rarefied air of the South, and spun it into a cast of tender, grotesque, broken characters. She was, of course, one of them, and Mick, who inhabits the center of this tale just as Frankie does in The Member of the Wedding, is baldly autobiographical. She imbues hopelessness with a kind of beauty, and while her canvas is a small one, it is achingly memorable.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (198 pages, Kindle, published 1890)
If you only know of Oscar Wilde through his plays or his sound-bite quotes, you might miss his real genius. It’s tempting to pass this book up, as I did for decades, as simply a period piece. But it is timeless. And there are plenty of sound bites to entertain along the way, among them “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it”, and “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” Wilde was trapped in his time as Dorian Gray in his portrait and somehow he rose above it to leave us this jewel. My favorite of his quotes, although not in this book: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind by Ivan Doig (314 pages, paperback, published 1978)
Whenever I travel to a new place, I try to find a book that celebrates it. Reading this memoir of Doig’s childhood in Montana’s Smith River Valley and in the hardscrabble environs of Dupuyer lent a sense of the sacred to my Montana pilgrimage last summer. Life was anything but easy for Doig and his widowed sheep-herding father, but each moment holds a kind of majesty beneath that “house of sky”.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (232 pages, audiobook narrated by Aidan Kelly, published 2017)
I was absolutely mesmerized by this book. Sebastian Barry touches words and they turn into gold. And his stark but gentle tale about an Irish soldier in America’s Civil War (the choice was either join up or starve) and the subsequent Indian Wars is a slice of history I was humbled to learn from someone on the other side of the pond.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey: A Novel by Thornton Wilder (131 pages, Kindle, published 1927)
Over and over I’d passed up this Pulitzer Prize winner and No. 37 on Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels, thinking it must be archaic, anachronistic, like some sort of literary vestigial tail. Wrong again, as I so often am. There is a reason why classics are classic, and this one, a deceptively simple read, basically holds the meaning of life within its pages. I read it twice last year and it is a marvel.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (220 pages, paperback, published 1940)
I’d only read The End of the Affair and The Third Man and was more or less on the fence about “Catholic author” Graham Greene. Once again proving I know absolutely nothing about anything. This novel is based on Mexico’s 1926-1929 Cristero War during which Roman Catholics were persecuted almost to extinction by an atheist, socialist regime in the state of Tabasco. Greene’s hopeless and fallen “whiskey priest” is pitted against the Red Shirt lieutenant who is on a crusade to “free the people from God.” This book will make you uncomfortable whether you are a believer or not. Everyone worships something…
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje (128 pages, paperback, published 1970)
Son Taylor’s friend Meghan gifted us this book, for which I will be forever grateful. Of course I’ve read and admired Ondaatje – The English Patient, The Cat’s Table – but I was utterly unprepared for this little book. Part narrative, part poetry, almost song, alchemy, really – it turns the concept of “book” on end. I suppose it helps that William H. Bonney or Henry McCarty or whomever “Billy the Kid” really was is so elusive and incalculable a folk hero to begin with. But this book! It is unlike anything you will ever read and you must read it!
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (223 pages, paperback, published 2018
It was November, and even though months had passed since our sweet dogs had passed away in the summer, I still woke every morning with a hurting heart. So maybe this 2018 National Book Award winner would be a tonic, “a book about a woman who inherits a friend’s dog after his death.” It sounded so simple. But once unpacked, this book grows and grows. If anything, it made me sadder, but at least my aching heart was filled for a moment. Nunez is a writer’s writer, and while it may seem at times she is meandering and that what you are reading isn’t exactly a novel, she is absolutely in control and will demonstrate how a novel is constructed, thank you very much. It is and is not about a dog. And about New York City. And about writing. And also about suicide. It is a fine, fine book, and I especially appreciated, on the heels of having re-read The Unbearable Lightness of Being the month previous, Nunez’ mention of how Kundera describes human relationships with animals: “It’s through our love and friendship with them that we are able to reconnect to Paradise, albeit by just a thread.”
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (190 pages, Kindle, published 1927)
Time literally stops when you read this book. You must slow yourself to Woolf’s experimental pace: the entire book takes place in the space of the two different days on the Isle of Skye. It is as if Woolf holds up an exquisitely cut diamond – the semi-autobiographical lives of Mrs. Ramsay and her family – and minutely examines each facet. I felt like I held my breath for all 190 pages, When it was done, I dreamed one night that I followed Virginia Woolf into the river and took the stones from her pockets, so badly did I want her to live and to write and write and write.
My first read of 2018 was Billy the Kid and I actually feared that it would all be downhill from there. How could anything match that? And then as the year wore on, thankfully there were other stars to pluck from the sky. When I finished To the Lighthouse on the last day of December, it felt like a whole meteor shower swirling about. How can any light remain in the sky after a book like that?
But onward to 2019 – my “to-read” list is already long and I know something special awaits. I can still see stars!