The tyranny of memory and the just-right book club

There is a fire in the fireplace and two dogs not so subtly reminding me that dinnertime is upon us. If they wore wristwatches, they would be glancing down at them, tapping the glass faces with their toenails. Snow is falling on the lawn outside. Easter has come and gone, and the first day of spring was weeks ago. But here we are. And what have I been reading? Maybe it is age, but when people ask me what books I have read lately, I frequently draw a total blank. It is rather unsettling, as there are (usually) several good books that I have read quite recently, and one would think that their titles would leap immediately and enthusiastically to mind. But they usually don’t. Thus, I have taken to snapping photos with my iPhone of the books I have read, so as to have some kind of record. So, if you happen to run into me and ask me what I have been reading and I start scrolling through my phone, please know that I am not being rude or ignoring you. I am trying to remember and to give you some kind of answer. Please forgive me.

One of the photos on my phone (actually it isn’t a photo on my phone, because I forgot to photograph this one) is (or should be, or might be) After the Eclipse by Sarah Perry. I read it on the plane going down to Florida and really liked it. It is haunting, thoughtful and very well written—a memoir about losing a mother to homicide, about growing up motherless, about family and resilience and longing and beauty and violence and sadness and a desperate, compelling craving for closure, resolution and healing. I left my copy on a shelf in the reading room of the club where I stayed for part of my visit south. I wonder who is reading it now. It is excellent—and probably filled with a little sand. 

I have, since we last spoke, joined a small book group, assembled by a friend of mine from the gym. We had a really great first meeting, very simple and low key, not too much focus on food or extra-literary chatter. It was just right. And it isn’t easy to get just the right book club. Sometimes it clicks, sometimes it just doesn’t. Our first read was Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, which unfortunately I had read too long ago to be extra sharp with detail and commentary. The discussion was good, though, and I marveled once again at what a complex, textured, evocative tale this is.

Much of it takes place in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where, during World War II, women were allowed to hold jobs that once belonged only to men, and where my son Tristan happens to have spent last summer working for a drone company, the primary activity of which at that time was creating (via drone photography) a visual map of the entire shipyard, which is large: 225 acres (I just looked it up). I visited him once and found the place to be magical. Part thriving and chic, part battered, faded and abandoned, there is such a strong sense of deep history there—and yet also the sense of new life blossoming quietly and somewhat mysteriously behind windows and faded brick facades. I know I mentioned Manhattan Beach before, but it is worth another shout out. I reread a quarter of it for book group this week (in hopes that I might have something to offer the group), and was riveted a second time around. Beautifully written and such a good story. 

I recently finished The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and an Oprah pick, as well. It is a compelling story of a runaway slave, but I don’t know…it struck me as unnecessarily confusing, and (this is unusual for me) a bit of an effort to finish. I am glad I read it, though. It is profoundly important and profoundly troubling to face the violence and horrors of slavery and racism, and almost physically painful to reflect on the cruelty humans have inflicted on their sisters and brothers in this world and in this country (which I used to think of as a great country, but lately have had some serious doubts). I hope to God we are evolving, but anyway, I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this book. Again, I am glad I read it, but as I said, mixed feelings.

Oh…make sure you read The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook. It takes place in Civil War-era Texas, narrated by a teenage boy struggling to survive and care for his traumatized half sister. Together, they face hunger, hardship, and then…well, there is this panther. I don’t want to tell you too much (I hate when reviews do that), but much of the narrative involves a long, harrowing panther hunt, involving canyons and horses and chases and bullets and flooding rivers and caves and thunderstorms, villains and heroes. It is fantastic. I could not put it down. Go out and buy it immediately, or find it in the library, or borrow it from a friend. I loved this book.

Okay, I just looked up and it is still snowing. The dogs are growing more intent in their dinner requests. I will throw another log on the fire and wish you happy reading and happy spring, if it ever gets here.