Anna Syrell

Thank God for books. Books are many things…and one thing they are is an escape from the world. Not that I don’t love the world, because I do, but sometimes it all just gets to be too much. Like these past weeks. 

Three weeks ago on a Thursday I had a plan to drive to Boston to meet up with my oldest son for a couple of days, and that is what I did. All the way down I had the radio on, riveted by the gripping testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. At the end of Route 93, heading into Boston proper, it was Brett Kavanaugh’s turn. And then (after getting a little bit lost, because it’s hard to concentrate on directions when you are listening to something like this), I checked into my hotel, and no sooner had I wheeled my suitcase into the room than I switched on the TV and continued with the nine-hour drama until I couldn’t stand it any more—at which point I threw on my jacket and went for a walk. 

Most of you probably watched it, or listened to it—and if you didn’t, you’ve likely heard plenty about it, on the news, on social media or from your friends. Everyone’s talking about it. But the point I was making, originally, was: Thank God I had a book to read that night. To rest my mind. To take me someplace else. 

TV and Netflix don’t cut it for me. If I want sleep, if I want rest, if I want peace at the end of the day, there is nothing like a book. Preferably fiction. 

The book I happened to have with me that day—once the day was over and I was nestled in my quiet hotel room (the television mercifully black and the windows open so that I could see the glimmering lights of the city and a white-yellow three-quarter moon hovering above the harbor)—happened to be The Last Cruise by Kate Christensen. 

This novel takes place in present time and describes the final voyage of a 1950s ocean liner called Queen Isabella, which was built “in a more elegant, scaled-down era, before cruise ships got put on steroids and turned into so-called ‘floating cities.’ The guests are on board to experience old-style luxury cruising: cocktails on the deck, fancy dinners, string quartets, etc. A number of interconnecting dramas occur during the course of the novel, above-decks and below. There’s some romance, some bad behavior, a prima donna chef or two, and some interesting details about music, as well as some descriptive passages about cooking and shipboard cuisine. But what I especially liked about this book were the early descriptions of what it was like to be on a cruise. 

At times, I could almost feel the calm, the bliss of lying on a deck chair, gazing out over the sea, surrounded by sky, lulled by the waves and the windswept murmurs of passengers strolling about nearby. A few times in my reading, I was reminded of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, as both books involve a disaster that unrolls like a carpet into what had hitherto seemed a pleasant and luxurious enjoyment. Bel Canto is the better book in my opinion, but The Last Cruise is a good and worthwhile yarn. It is quite transporting…and was a good antidote to Thursday, Sept. 27. 

A totally different read is Stay With Me, by Ayobami Adebayo, which takes place in Nigeria and is the story of a marriage, and some of the layers and complications of a marriage that will not yield children. Yejide and Akin love one another deeply, are married and have no interest in polygamy. But Akin’s parents intervene, and suddenly there is a young additional wife, who pretty much appears out of nowhere. Her role: to produce a child. The story jumps around a bit in time, and truths get revealed slowly. An excellent book, gripping and surprising. Beautifully written. Highly recommend. 

Also highly recommended is Refuge, by Dina Nayeri, about an Iranian woman, Niloo, who escapes with her mother to America, leaving behind the father she adores. Niloo sees her father again but only four times over a couple of decades, each time in a different city. Here is a sample: “The mystic Al-Ghazali said that the inhabitants of heaven remain forever thirty-three. It reminds me of Iran, stuck in 1976 in the imagination of every exile. Iranians often say that when they visit Tehran or Shiraz or Isfahan, they find even the smallest changes confusing and painful—a beloved corner shop gone to dust, the smell of bread that once filled a street, a rose garden neglected. In their memories, they always change it back. Iran is like an aging parent, they say.” 

I loved this book. Once begun, it is hard to put down. A reviewer for The New Yorker called it “tender and urgent.” Exactly. Don’t miss this one. 

A delightful book that I almost gave up on too soon because it seemed too simple, too spare and possibly too silly is The Lido, by Libby Page. I was wrong. I am so glad I persevered. Talk about a good escape. I just loved this book. The heroine is a lovable introvert named Kathy Matthews, who has recently moved to Brixton, England, and is feeling very lonely. Sad and shy, she has no friends, but then her job at a local paper gives her an assignment to write about the closing of a local outdoor community swimming pool, which leads her to conversations and connections and a new type of life. 

This book reminds me a bit of Elinor Lipman’s novels and also of a book I read some time ago and loved: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Simply told, very sweet, and so charming—I really recommend The Lido. It will make you want to swim and will remind you to cherish sacred places in your own life and the bonds of friendship that form, sometimes magically and mysteriously, when we are least expecting it. I may reread this book. That’s how much I loved it. Reading it almost felt at times like getting a massage or swimming through just-the-right-temperature water. It made me think about, and be grateful for, love…and kindness…and some of the simpler things.

There, There (by Tommy Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma) is a book I heard about on VPR. Louise Erdrich refers to Tommy Orange as “a new writer with an old heart.” This novel is a dazzling, troubling, violent, multivalent, poetic, fascinating book—brutal at times and extremely well written. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes hopeless, sometimes hopeful, sometimes gritty, sometimes horrifying, it jumps around from character to character—Jacquie Red Feather, Dene Oxendene, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, Orvil Red Feather, Calvin Johnson—and that’s only to name a few—in a kind of dissonant symphony or native dance that culminates in a devastating finale. The prologue begins with a haunting stanza from Bertolt Brecht: 

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing,
About the dark times.”

Something tells me to end with that.