About Rosemary Wolfe, NoChargeBookbunch

Avid reader; published writer; itinerant walker; experimental cook...and a Doctor - Ph.D.

Thinking It Through and Station Eleven

Catching up on old issues of The New Yorker, I came across Joshua Rothman’s essay in the Annals of Inquiry – Thinking It Through – examining rational decision making and how well it works. Although I tend to overthink my decisions and try to research every angle of possibilities, more times than not, it is my intuition or gut feeling that weighs in the most. Maybe that’s not so bad, according to Rothman.

Throughout the essay, Rothman compares rational thought to impulsive decisions, pointing out how much harder it is for an emotional and impulsive person to make the right choices – or is it? Although examining, dissecting, and comparing choices in life – become an English professor or an economist, rent or own – many of us do make life altering decisions based on our opinions of what we think is best and our views of what is right.

Having lived through gut wrenching worry over what to do, I wondered if Rothman was about to advise and conclude that only rational thought could direct all successful actions, but then he offers scenarios where it is intuition that guides to the better path. Nothing should be done on a whim; on the other hand, not everything can be calculated precisely. Life just doesn’t work like that.

I’ve torn out the last paragraph of his multi-page essay to slide into the side pocket of my wallet, and may reread it the next time I am in a quandary – probably soon – again. Here it is:

The realities of rationality are humbling. Know things; want things; use what you know to get what you want. It sounds like a simple formula. But, in truth, it maps out a series of escalating challenges. In search of fact, we must make do with probabilities. Unable to know it all for ourselves, we rely on others who care enough to know. We must act while we are still uncertain, and we must act in time – sometimes individually, but often together. For all this to happen, rationality is necessary, but not sufficient. Thinking straight is just part of the work.”

Station Eleven

Although Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was published in 2014, years before our current familiar crisis, her novel is gaining new readers with its view of life after a pandemic. I have not yet read the book but am following the HBO series based on the book, and am so gratified to know Shakespeare’s plays can survive, even after the apocalypse.

In Writing “Finding Joy Through Art at the End of the World in ‘Station Eleven” for the New York Times, Alexandra Alter quotes chief television critic James Poniewozik – “{Station Eleven} is the most uplifting show about life after the end of the world that you are likely to see.”

I’m not sure if I will read the book – of course there are differences, some sanctioned by the author, but I will continue to watch the series, looking forward to an ending where stories and Shakespeare stand the test of time and anything else the universe throws at us.

The Sentence and A List of Short Perfect Novels

Louise Erdrich is not one of my favorite authors but at the recommendation of a good friend, I have been trying to read her latest book The Sentence. Libby, my online librarian, first gave it to me as a hot pick – 7 days to read, but it came and went back without my looking at it and I ordered it again. Next, Libby offered it to me as a “skip the line” book – again seven days to read it. This time I made it to the second chapter before it whooshed back to the library, despite my effort to renew. Suddenly, it was there again – seven days to read – and I have been making an effort. The library may be sending me a message – I need to read this book. Slow and steady but only half way through with three days left before it will automatically return. Will I make it this time?

The story of an independent bookstore owner haunted by the ghost of a woman who died reading a book should be more than I need to keep me reading, but Erdrich, as she often does in her books, cannot resist incorporating endless pages of Native American history, culture, folklore, and more. I just want the story.

The pandemic suddenly came into the pages, and the craziness of the first few months of contagion and the ever changing survival advice was familiar, but before Tookie decides to close the store in March, 2020, her last customer comes in to hoard books instead of milk and toilet paper. Tookie creates a list of “Short Perfect Novels” I thought worth saving – some I have read. Added to the list is Jane Gardam’s Old Filth books, among my favorites.

Since I started writing this post, I did finish the book, and was satisfied with its happy ending. The author includes many lists of books mentioned in the narrative, including Lincoln in the Bardo in her list of “Ghost Managing Books,” Euphoria in her “Books for Banned Love” list, and titles for Indigenous Lives, Indigenous Poetry, Indigenous History and Nonfiction. My favorite list is this:

Tookie’s Short Perfect Novels

  • Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabel
  • Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad
  • The All of It by Jeannette Halen
  • Winter in the Blood by James Welch
  • Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle
  • The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  • First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
  • Fire on the Mountain by Anita Desai

Tookie says “these are books that knock you sideways in around 200 pages. Between the covers there exists a complete world. The story is unforgettably peopled and nothing is extraneous. Reading one of these books takes only an hour or two but leaves a lifetime imprint…”

The Sentence took longer to read, but I’m glad I finally did.

Seasonal Work – Short But Not Sweet

I am usually not a fan of short stories, unless they are by Saki or O’Henry, but my tastes have changed during the neverending pandemic. Laura Lippman’s collection of sassy and wry short stories in Seasonal Work has small bites of reality mixed with humor, and sometimes horror. Just right for the impatient cynic who needs a bit of time being in somebody else’s world – but only for a short time. Lippman notes her stories were written between 2007 and 2019 but her Baltimore settings are often much earlier – before the world turned upside down with the pandemic but also before awareness of language and ideas became more carefully adjudicated.

Lippman offers a peek into the lives of children, a grifter stepfather, a woman in her prime, a book stealer, a con artist, victims who get revenge, a ghost who finally escapes into the light, and more.

One of my favorites is “The Everyday Wife” with references to watching the Watergate trial and The NewlyWed game on TV in the seventies. Judith, the young bored wife, has a mother who calls her every morning to check in. Judith walks the neighborhood and soon discovers its secrets with an exciting event leading to Judith working for NSA. I have a friend who worked for NSA and her response was close to Judith’s when asked what she did: “I can’t tell you…”

Having recently seen the movie “Enola Holmes” about Sherlock’s younger sister who yearns to be a detective like her brother, I had high expectations for eleven year old Sheila Locke-Holmes in Lippman’s collection. With “Harriet the Spy” as her tutor, Sheila snoops but accidentally uncovers a piece of her father’s past in her mother’s jewelry box. The ending has a poignant lesson in growing up.

The collection is divided into four sections, with three stories in each section. The last section has “Slow Burner,” about a cheating husband, a suspicious wife, and an extra cell phone. The last story, “Just one More,” the only story updated to today, is set during the pandemic. Amazing what people will do to stay entertained during lockdown.

All the stories feature strong women and follow the O’Henry model of ending with a surprise but more in keeping with Edgar Allan Poe. In some cases, you will know it is coming, but others are unexpected.

A great colllection of short stories. I thought I might just read one and come back later, but I found myself looking forward to the next and the next, until I’d read them all. But, beware, if you are looking for a cozy mystery, Lippman does not go there. Revenge and murder are more her style.

One of my favorite books by Laura Lippman is “Sunburn” – here’s my review from when it was first published in 2018:

In Sunburn, Lippman keeps the reader off balance, acknowledging as the story opens that Polly Costello has killed her abusive husband and abandoned her two girls, one disabled with cerebral palsy. Nevertheless, Polly seems to be a sympathetic character – her life sentence is pardoned by the governor, and she wins an insurance settlement against the hospital where her disabled daughter was born. The handsome private detective, hired by a crooked insurance salesman for his share of the money, falls in love with her. Will he turn her in or run away with her? Lippman’s clever twists are not that simple, and she maintains the suspense – juggling the good guys and bad guys, and flipping intentions back and forth with another murder in the middle of it all. It’s fun to read, and the ending is a satisfying surprise I did not predict.

A Single Rose

In a rare interview, French author Muriel Barbery explained her love of Kyoto – a love beautifully revealed in her latest book – A Single Rose. Barbery noted:

“…we have long been lovers of Japanese culture and since we moved to Kyoto, a town that we are head over heels in love with, our feelings for this country have been confirmed. Our fascination began mostly as an aesthetic one, and has remained so: we are fascinated by the ability to create pure beauty, at the same time refined and pure; the kind of thing you see in the slow, sweet sumptuousness of Ozu’s films, in the splendor of the Japanese gardens, in the discreet sophistication of ikebana … It has had us under its spell for over ten years. And we are still at the dawn of our discoveries … But what we also love about Japan, without negating its somber and terrible face, is its repertoire of behaviors: the subtle politesse, the sense of security that results from social solidarity, a very special form of candor, as well. We don’t know how long these things can resist the infernal spirals of the contemporary world, but for now they make life here incredibly sweet and civil.”

A Single Rose tells the story of forty- year old Rose, who travels from France to Kyoto for the reading of her estranged Japanese father’s will. The story reads like a meditation with descriptions of gardens and temples, interspersed with notes on culture and folklore. The plot is simple snd predictable, but Barbery’s strength is transporting each reader to his or her own reflective inner world.

A short but worthwhile read, the book offers some quiet solace in these times of turmoil and uncertainty.

Happy New Year

With hope for a better year ahead, I’m not looking back.

Here are a few anticipated books to read in the first half of 2022. Maybe by then, we will be back to “normal”?

If you are a fan of Isabel Allende, her new book Violetta, to be published in January, tells the life of a woman born in 1920, whose life spans 100 years.

Lucy Foley, author of The Guest List is back with a new mystery – The Paris Apartment – out in February.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler – the author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves returns with a novel charting the fortunes of the Booth family – including the man who shot Abraham Lincoln – due out in March.

Fans of Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad will be happy to see their return In The Candy House, due out in April.

Emily Henry, author of Beach Read, has a new fun story in Book Lovers, published in May.

Patrick Radden Keefe has another page-turning book of people behaving badly in Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers. Rebels, and Crooks to steam up your summer – due out in June.

One of my favorite authors, Ruth Ware, has a new thriller in The It Girl, but you will have to wait until July.