May 4, 2023
Have you noticed I read far more fiction than nonfiction?
Part of the reason is, quite simply, that I prefer fiction. My first career was as an English teacher—reading novels and short stories and poetry, too, was just part of the deal. That preference has only grown throughout my life. Another reason relates to my reading routine. I often read a book related to spirituality during my meditation time, and I tend to read those books more slowly–perhaps, only a few pages in one sitting. Finally, one of my daily reading times is in bed before turning out the light, and many nonfiction books require more concentration than that posture allows. Most of the time I read a nonfiction book alongside a novel, but the novel is usually my first choice during my reading times.
This month I read three nonfiction books. Two were about aging. I have an extensive library of books about that topic, which is becoming more and more relevant in my own life, but I am also becoming more choosy about what I add to that collection. I decided to keep only one of the two I read in April and put the other in the basket for a Little Free Library.
- Alive Until You’re Dead, Notes on the Home Stretch by Susan Moore. Moore is a Buddhist and has written extensively about aging, challenging readers to be curious about this stage of life. I need to think more about her desire to “release my grip on my preferences. I wanted to stop worrying about whether what I was doing was the very thing that I most wanted to be doing.” (p. 23) I find myself thinking more and more about what it is I most want or most need to do; how I want to spend my time and energy, so Moore’s perspective interests me. The book includes an excellent chapter on practices to contemplate death, including walking in cemeteries, reading obituaries, and making a day of the dead altar. This book has found its place on my bookshelves.
- Growing Old, Notes on Aging with Something Like Grace by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. I appreciate the author’s sense of humor and her common sense treatment of loss, including losing one’s hearing or keys and other things, along with losing significant people in one’s life, but the picture of her on the back cover lighting her cigarette with a birthday candle seemed inappropriate and not funny. I am not keeping this book.
The other nonfiction book I read was Enchantment, Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age by Katherine May. Perhaps you’ve read her earlier book, Wintering, The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. I had intended to buy Enchantment, but before I did I spotted it on the Lucky Day shelf at the library. Lucky Day shelves hold current and widely requested books–just your luck to find one–but they can’t be renewed. By the time I was done reading it, the pages were dotted with colorful sticky tabs highlighting passages. I don’t often buy a book I have already read, but that’s exactly what I did in this case.
It occurs to me that I am resting. It is not the same as doing nothing. Resting, like this is something active, chosen, alert, something rare and precious. (p. 26)
I tend to think that God is not a person, but the sum total of all of us, across time. That only makes the imperative greater. We have a duty to witness the broad spectrum of humanity, rather than to defend our own corner of it. That is the work I crave: the sense of contact. The possibility that it might change me in ways that I can’t predict. The possibility that I might one day do better. (p. 100)
Play is a disappearance into a space of our choosing, invisible to those outside the game. It is the pursuit of pure flow, a sandbox mind in which we can test new thoughts, new selves. It’s a form of symbolic living, a way to transpose one reality onto another and mine it for meaning. Play is a form of enchantment. (p. 137)
I read nine novels in April and in earlier April posts wrote about three of them, each book memorable: Still True by Maggie Ginsburg and Women Talking by Miriam Toews https://wordpress.com/post/livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/1934 and Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano. https://wordpress.com/post/livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/1982
Out of the remaining six my least favorite was Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan. My main objection to the book, a family saga, is that the characters, mainly women, didn’t grow or change in any significant way. If these characters were real, I am not sure I would choose to spend time with them.
The other five were well worth reading, and I recommend each one.
- Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson. A friend recommended this book to me. (Thank you!) In fact, she has bought several copies and given them away as “must reads.” Set in Sweden, Veronika, whose fiancé has recently died in an accident, rents a home next to an older woman, Astrid, whom the village sometimes refers to as a witch. She prefers her solitary life. The two women gradually become close friends; a model of intergenerational relationships, I think. They share their pasts, hurts, secrets, and develop deep trust with one another. They often shared a meal together –a kind of sacred ritual. Veronika is a writer and there were many lovely passages about writing.
It was as if the story were a fragile cobweb, and she had to take the utmost care not to rip the thread…The words on the screen in front of her seemed to paint an almost forgotten landscape. It was as if she were slowly unpacking, pulling out one scene after another and exploding them to this bleak light. The effort was enormous. Here, now, each passage seemed out of place, like clothes bought on holiday.pp. 17-18
One of my favorite passages is about change.
It is in the nature of things to change. Nothing can last beyond its given time. And I think instinctively we know what time is. What is it that makes us know when the summer turns? The smallest shift in the light? The slightest hint of chill in the morning air? A certain rustling of the leaves of the birches? That is how it is–suddenly, in the midst of the summer heat, you are overcome by a tightening of your heart. The realization that it will all come to an end. And that brings a new intensity to everything: the colours, the smells, the feeling of sunshine on your arm.p. 72
Now I want to read Olsson’s back list.
- My Antonia by Willa Cather. I decided to sign up for a series of zoom events sponsored by the Willa Cather Foundation, https://www.willacather.org and the first book discussed was My Antonia. I needed to miss that conversation, unfortunately, but oh, how I loved reading this book again, my third time. The story is told by Jim Burden, who as a boy was orphaned and leaves Virginia to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. The day he arrives on the train so does a Bohemian immigrant family, the Shimerdas, including daughter, Antonia. Antonia’s spirit sustains her, and she is loved by all who know her. She is not the only character in the book, however, who displays a hardworking and resilient nature, hopeful and strong.
The landscape is a major character, too, and reading the descriptions made me want to drive to the prairie right now.
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it, the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running…I felt motion in the landscape, in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…pp. 17-18
One of my favorite books of all time is Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag, another immigrant story, and I am drawn after reading My Antonia to reading that once again. I read someplace that books are like nesting dolls–one leads to another. How true that seems.
- Writers and Lovers by Lily King. I had read this before and didn’t much care for it, but recently I heard a conversation about it and decided to re-try it. This time I really liked it, which goes to show how much mood and timing enter into an assessment of a book. Casey is a struggling writer living in a potting shed (!) and her awful landlord says to her, “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.” (p. 2). She becomes involved with two men–one, a writer her age and the other, older and a successful writer with children who adore her. How will it turn out?
- I Have Some Questions For You by Rebecca Makai. I loved her earlier book, The Great Believers, and I am happy to say I really liked this one, too. Bodie returns to teach at the boarding school where she was once a student –and where her roommate was murdered. She becomes obsessed with investigating this murder, convinced the man convicted was not guilty. There are lots of threads in this book, but Makai is a deft writer, preventing confusion for the reader. A couple favorite lines;
“When my husband passed,” Sheila said, “it was like losing the bookend to a row of books. We all tipped over sideways.”p. 82
Not a single cell of his body was the same as it had been in 1995. But he was still himself, just as I was still, despite everything, my teenage self. I had grown over her like rings around the core of a tree, but she was still there.p. 418
- The Last Painting of Sara DeVos by Dominic Smith. A good novel about an art restoration expert, a young woman, and the man who owns the painting she forges. The original was painted by a Dutch woman in the 1600s. The art forger and the art collector develop a relationship (of course!), but it is told beautifully and not stereotypically. They meet again 40 years later when the painting is part of an exhibit. Good story. Good writing.
Wow–that’s a lot of books to share! Hope this didn’t detract too much from your reading time. Perhaps your TBR has just grown, however.
Any recommendations from April? I would love to know.
6 thoughts on “Book Report: April Round-Up”
Hi Nancy, I immediately found Hello Beautiful and read it. I agree that the writing and depth of the character development was excellent. I love that with every end there was a new beginning! Thank for the suggestion. And yes, my TBR list has grown after reading this post!?? Also, I am so glad you decided to re-read the Willa Cather books. You were on the fence and I was hoping you wou choose to do it. She is one of my favorite authors and I love re-reading her books. My Antonia is one of my favorites. Although Death comes for the Archbishop may be my favorite. I read it on the plane the first time many years ago when I traveled to Arizona and saw the southwest for the first time. And then read it aloud to Mark as we drove to AZ for the first time through New Mexico. Such wonderful memories. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, stories and reading with us. You are a gift. Mary Jo ________________________________
So glad you enjoyed Hello Beautiful, and I love that you read “Archbishop” aloud to Mark. Next on the Cather re-read list is A Lost Lady. Thanks for your kind words.
You are a reading magnet! My gosh, I am barely crossing the 20 mark so far this year. Go girl.
Thanks. I guess instead of “steps” I count books!!
Amazing how quickly you read! I have the book, My Antonia on my shelves but I haven’t read it yet. My local library has Enchantment and it’s on my list – yay. I have to admit, the book Growing Old by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas sounds intriguing because of the photo you described! I’m not a smoker – in fact, I loathe smoking – but I do appreciate a good sense of humor. I just scanned some of the reviews on Amazon and I see a few people said the book was depressing. So, I think I’ll pass on this one.
I just finished You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith. It’s a memoir. Fantastic, engaging, raw, heartbreaking writing. Stayed up way too late several nights reading this.
There are so many good books on aging–no need to read the Thomas one. I didn’t find it depressing, but just didn’t add anything to my awareness of my own aging. The Maggie Smith book is definitely on my list.
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