Three Audible Notes from Old New Yorkers

My New Yorker pile may sit for months, even years, but I usually find something between the old covers.  Although I was looking for suggestions for audible books, I did not expect to get ideas from an article on Willa Cather or Adam Gopnik’s 2017 review of Ron Chernow’s historical biography, Grant.

Gopnik’s review of Chernow’s Grant did not inspire me to read the book; I’ll wait for the Broadway musical.  But his reference to “the funniest thing ever written about Grant…James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” led me to the Thurber collection – The James Thurber Audio Collection, read by Keith Olbermann.  Thurber is one of my favorite humorists; I still have a copy of The Thurber Carnival from my college days.51X6jSZbZBL._SL500_

If laughter is healing, this is great medicine.  The first essay – “There’s No Place Like Home” – first published in the New Yorker in 1937 – had me laughing through Thurber’s interpretation of a French-English Dictionary for travelers.  Who knew how funny it could be to hear a translation for asking for directions.  For my adventure loving travelers, the next story is called “The Bear Who Let It Alone.”  I’m looking forward to all the other twenty-two stories.

51BroN3HRXL._SL500_  Touted as the book Cather considered her best, Death Comes to the Archbishop, was the focus of Mary Duenwald’s essay on a trip to New Mexico for a 2007 essay in the New York Times Travel section – Entering The world of Will Cather’s Archbishop.  The story follows

“Cather’s portrayal of Jean Marie Latour (her fictional name for the real-life bishop, John Baptist Lamy) paints a complicated but very romantic picture of New Mexico in the mid-19th century, just after its annexation to the United States…her book provides a realistic account of the bishop’s efforts to replace the lawless and profligate Spanish priests of the territory, his visits to a beloved Navajo chief, his friendship with the Old West explorer Kit Carson and his dream of building a cathedral in Santa Fe.”

51CXbQEFAXL._SL500_Dan Chiasson’s essay on Emaily Dickinson focused on a 2017 publication of the Envelope Poems, a small book similar to the handmade books the poet made as gifts.  Some of her poems, later found on backs of used envelopes, are included in the selection. Because the Envelope Poems include actual transcriptions of Dickinson’s handwriting, with facsimiles of her layout and her process (crossings-out, substitutions, etc.), the book is to seen more than heard.  However, reading the article – Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry – gave me a better understanding of the poet, and had me thinking how nice it would be to listen to some of her poetry.

Audible has several possibilities, one with a collection – Fifty Poems by Emily Dickinson read by Jill Eikenberry, Nancy Kwan, Melissa Manchester, Jean Smart, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep, and Alfre Woodard – a 44 minute respite.

I’m listening…


Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

9780385534833_p0_v5_s260x420The news explodes with catastrophes periodically – an earthquake, a tsunami, a flood – and our attention is drawn to the horrors for a few days, maybe even weeks if the news cycle has little to do but monitor the clean-up.  After a while, the next explosion grabs the headlines, and those who were closely affected are forgotten.  In Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian focuses on the life of a sixteen year-old girl, whose father was the engineer who may have been responsible for the meltdown of a nuclear plant in Vermont.  Her life changes in a New York minute from typical teen-age angst and hijinks to misery, paranoia, and homelessness. Despite Bohjalian’s facility with words, this is a difficult book to read.

The protagonist, Emily, loves poetry and aspires to be a writer.  Her favorite author is her namesake – Emily Dickinson, and the story is sprinkled with the reclusive author’s poetry.  The title, however, as lyrical and visionary as it seems, is not poetic. The phrase originated from another horror – the teachers’ directions to the young children who had survived a massacre at their school.  To keep them from seeing their dead classmates, they were instructed to hold hands and close their eyes as they were escorted outside.  Bohjalian insists that the reader know this – his quirky balance between shock and relief that he does so well, as he guides the reader through Emily’s maze from orphaned self-mutilating survivor to sympathetic protector of a nine year-old runaway, and finally, to a semblance of salvation.

At one point, the author notes:

“…We watch it, we read about it, and then we move on.  As a species, we’re either very resilient or super callous. I don’t know which…”

Emily’s trials are unforgettable, and in her case…hope is not the thing with feathers…


The Woman Upstairs

9780307596901_p0_v2_s260x420Focusing on a lifetime of regret and a glaring betrayal, Clare Messud spins a slow teasing tale in The Woman Upstairs.  As the story opens, the narrator has clearly survived whatever has made her so angry – and has become stronger for it – but Messud carefully avoids details, giving the surprise ending greater impact.

Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged third grade teacher, regrets her life, especially not having children and not having a career in art.  She fulfills Messud’s definition of the woman upstairs – the bland, nice girl, liked by everyone, loved by no one, who dutifully cared for her ailing mother, visits her lonely father, cheers her aging aunt with store-bought cakes, and treads the mill of unending boredom, realizing that while waiting for her real life to begin, she may have missed it.  She expresses her art through dioramas – dollhouse sized rooms she plans to create to replicate the lives of famous women authors.  The Ibsen reference (Nora, dollhouse) is no accident.

Only the beginning of Emily Dickinson’s room has evolved when Nora’s lonely life intersects with a new family.  The Shahids are in Cambridge for a year, and eight year-old Reza appears in Nora’s third grade class in his European sandals, long curly hair, and Parisian accent.  His father, Skandar, teaches at Harvard and his mother, Sirena, is a multimedia artist who creates feminist performance art.  Messud creates an incident for Nora to meet Sirena – the school bully attacks charming Reza.  Instantly, the two women make a connection that evolves into sharing studio space – a small corner for Nora’s dollhouse rooms, the rest for Sirena’s installation of Wonderland, a life-sized reproduction of Lewis Carroll’s story that allows viewers to participate in the art and be videotaped as they succumb to their imaginations.

As the story evolves, Nora seems to experience a reawakening and imagines she has become part of the Shahid family.  Her fantasies include becoming a second mother to Reza, a lover to Skandar, and a confidante and fellow artist to her new best friend, Sirena.  Nora readily babysits for Reza. sews for Sirena, listens to Skandar’s philosophizing,  but Messud is careful to keep the reader wondering – are Nora’s feelings being reciprocated by the Shahids or is she merely being tolerated  – or maybe even used?

Eventually, the Shahids return to Paris, but Nora keeps her torch burning for them.  Despite their sparse communication, she follows them on google searches, noting when Skandar is promoted and Sirena has new sponsors for her art.  At the age of 42, Nora decides to take a year off from teaching to concentrate on her own art and to travel.  Of course, she visits the Shahids who are polite but estranged dinner hosts.  On one of her last days in Paris, Nora finds an obscure exhibition of Sirena’s videotapes of the Wonderland exhibit –  from both Parisian viewers and those made in their shared studio.

The pacing of the novel is strangely addictive; I kept turning pages – not necessarily to find out what had triggered Nora’s anger – that was easy to forget as Nora’s lonely existence blossomed and then wilted again.  Messud’s language captured smoldering moments:

“This is what’s most surprising about life, really: the most enormous things – sometimes fatal things – occur in the flicker of an eye…”

“…and I didn’t particularly want anyone to tell me it was good….I just wanted to be got, and I didn’t trust that I would be.”

Of course, when the ending comes and you discover the cause of Nora’s anger, you will be shocked.  Messud crafts her ending for speculation: will Nora be so strengthened by her anger that the satisfying possibilities of her life will now come, or will she revert to her old isolation in her fury?  I prefer to think she will channel her lessons learned to finally begin her life.

A captivating but slow revelation of the “good girl” – not the “gone girl.”

Pilgrimage – Annie Leibovitz

The first time I saw an exhibit of Annie Leibovitz’s photography in Washington, D.C., I felt I knew her subjects intimately.  Leibovitz’s art captures her famous targets as posed but vulnerable.  When I found her book with Susan Sontag – Women – the images amazed me for their familiarity and honesty.

Her new book – Pilgrimage – reviewed by Dominique Browning for the New York Times in her article A Pilgrim’s Progress, comes out today – with no people in it.   The book opens with shots of Emily Dickinson’s house “that Ms. Leibovitz took, casually…on a family visit.”  Even on her off days, Leibovitz takes amazing pictures.

“She took her camera to Virginia Woolf’s house, photographing the surface of her writing table, and into the garden, capturing the wide, rolling water of the River Ouse, in which Woolf drowned herself.  She photographed Dr. Freud’s sumptuously carpeted patient’s couch in London, and Darwin’s odd specimen collection.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s bedroom with its simple white coverlets, in her cozy cottage, Val-Kill, stands in contrast to a silver serving dish, its rich patina rippling with light.  Abraham Lincoln’s elegant top hat and white kid gloves…Louisa May Alcott’s house…the view from Emerson’s bedroom window…”

More than another coffee table book, Leibovitz offers…”something about integrity, staying true to a vision…”

Her ad for Sears with the Kardashian sisters – not so much…but photographers have to pay their bills too.