Whereabouts

A sense of accomplishment is overwhelming me. I donated three large boxes of books ( my covid year of reading) to the Friends of the Library this morning, and it wasn’t easy. After driving past a guard gate and through a tunnel, and stopping to ask a few masked strangers, I finally found the donation pallet described in their email among a warehouse of boxes. I just hope someone finds mine.

I’m reading Jhumpa Lahiri‘s new book “Whereabouts.” She is among my favorite authors and she reached a higher rung on my authors to emulate list when she moved to Italy to study the language and translate books. It’s been over ten years since “The Namesake,” and I was anxious to get lost in one her stories again.

But “Whereabouts” has no plot like her other books. Following a middle-aged woman’s thoughts and observations “on the couch, on the balcony, in bed…” was mundane at first and unclear where it was leading. Lahiri wrote the book in Italian and translated her words to English. Being somewhat biased by my own Italian heritage, I love the flow of the Italian language, and l appreciated the phrasing and descriptions she offered in translation. Sometimes a sentence would offer a window into my own world – “feeling reassured but also dazed by the outside world.”

As the short chapters evolve into a retrospective of her life, the narrator seems to emerge from complaints and despair of the past, and begins to appreciate the present. In the end, she has received a fellowship and is traveling to an unknown country for a year of study. The last short chapter shows her with a mix of hope, anxiety, and anticipation, leaving this reader a little befuddled but nonetheless satisfied.

NPR says “Whereabouts” is the literary equivalent of slow cooking; it demands patience.”

I bought a signed first edition of this book and I plan to reread it now and then. It will not be going to the library warehouse.

In Hibernation

Although I’ve found and shared suggestions from fellow writers about how to survive in this fearful time when pushing the elevator button is an act of bravery, the constant news of the escalating virus has me stunned.  For the first time, books have not come to the rescue.  Oh, I read but without interest; I write but without passion; I listen to stories but without attention.  I try to avoid the news but find it necessary.

The world is upside down but we still can communicate, with more zest than a century ago when the H1N1 flu pandemic lasted 15 months and was the deadliest disease outbreak in human history – until now.  Government officials keep teasing with 14 day quarantines, and work at home mandates for a month, but history and common sense predict this will be longer.  Although by nature I am happy to be on my own, and most times resist the ubiquitous social gatherings, I find I want to connect now, however I can – talking on the phone, writing lengthy emails, texting back and forth, writing now into the void of a blog post.

I am over zealous in following the social distancing mandate, and I have washed my hands into a rough dry state worthy of a Palmolive commercial.  I manage all my bills and correspondence electronically, and I’ve wondered if I should stop ordering from Amazon unless I can get more Clorox to wipe down the packaging. I’ve tried eating well with the requisite vegetables ( as long as they last); I’ve tried eating comfort food (cookies have a long shelf life); I’ve tried yoga (in bed), meditation (with a timer), and staring at water (ocean not tap).  I cook, I clean, I keep busy when I am not napping.  Yet, it doesn’t seem enough to calm my frayed sensibilities.

Music is good as are mindless movies for a while, but I want more.  I want what we all want – peace of mind – and immunity.

I have no suggestions, no clever quote or book to ease your mind.  My literary hero these days is Dr. Fauci. You know what to do: wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday, hold your breath in the elevator, stay home.  For now, I’m in hibernation – wake me up when this nightmare is over.

 

Early Spring Fever

Inspired by Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method, I’ve been folding shirts and finding joy in mindless tasks.  The book –  The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – caused a decluttering craze when it was first published, but I avoided it.  When short clips appeared on You Tube and Netflix, however, I succumbed and found solace in folding pants and shirts.

When Kondo proclaimed books were not to be kept  but donated or – horrors – thrown away, I immersed myself in my overflowing bookshelves to read a few waiting to be read; I made a dent in the stack – soon to be filled with other books.  None warranted a review, but you might find some distraction in them:

81oX4ShsrZL._AC_UL436_That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron

A rambling historical fiction with Winston’s mother, Jennie, as the heroine.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

When the New York Times featured the 25th Anniversary edition, I found a copy – full of lists and advice.  My “creative soul” couldn’t finish it.

41yKgsnf1fL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

For dog lover’s everywhere, this touching first person account of a woman who almost loses her rent controlled New York City apartment when she adopts the Great Dane of a friend who died, has the dog as the hero who saves her life – of course.

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey

One of my book clubs is about to discuss this one – a timely and harrowing story of a woman who was abused in her youth by a politician now climbing the ladder of power and success.  Set in an unnamed South American island nation, the story is topical and disturbing.

MCD-Dont-Throw-AwayAnd now, my library wait list finally delivered a book by one my  favorite authors  – Eleanor Lipman’s Good Riddance.  With a nod to Marie Kondo, Lipman acknowledges  the fear may of us have after shredding and throwing items away – what if you disposed of something you should have kept?  I’ve stopped tidying and starting reading.

 

100 Years Is A Long Time to Last

December has the centenary anniversary of two of my favorite authors – Shirley Jackson and Penelope Fitzgerald.  Have you read The Lottery or The Blue Flower? If you have not, consider celebrating with a few of these authors’ good stories.

unknown-1A few years back I was so excited to hear a local book club had invited the author of The Lottery to speak; imagine how disappointed I was to discover it was a local author with a fictionalized memoir of buying a winning ticket in the sweepstakes.  Sadly, many in the audience had not read or heard of the famous author of horror and fantasy, Shirley Jackson.  When I read Jackson’s short story The Lottery as a young girl, her eerie Gothic world fascinated me, and I soon went on to read The Haunting of Hill House.  Her practice of writing one thousand words a day – more ambitious than Virginia Woolf’s goal of two hundred fifty – cemented her place in my list of writers to model.  December 14 is her 100th birthday.

unknown-2 Discovering Penelope Fitzgerald’s short novels accidentally opened a quiet escape for me.  I have her Man Booker Prize winning novel, Offshore, on my to-read list, but my two favorites of her writing are The Blue Flower and The Bookshop.  In her obituary for The Guardian, Harriet  Harvey-Wood wrote of her: “Throughout Fitzgerald’s novels, there are certain recurring themes, the most striking of which is the single-minded and blinkered innocent (usually male), whose tunnel vision causes disaster to those around. There is an example in almost every book, the most satisfying perhaps being Fritz von Hardenberg, Novalis in The Blue Flower.”  Perhaps because she found her voice later in life (writing The Blue Flower when she was 78), Fitzgerald represents an author to emulate. December 17 is her 100th birthday.

Addendum:

22trevor-obit-blog427 Today, a friend told me William Trevor died, and I looked for his obituary in the New York Times.  Although his birthday is in May, he deserves recognition.  I discovered Trevor when I read he was a favorite author of the revered British actress Maggie Smith, and I enjoyed his lyrical Irish flavor in The Story of Lucy Gault.  Have you read it?

 

Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night

9781609453701_p0_v1_s192x300  Elena Ferrante’s children’s book The Beach at Night has magic, danger, and adventure, with scary episodes and somewhat raunchy language not usually found in a children’s book. Never fear, the story does have a happy ending.  Best known for her anonymity and her Neopolitan novel series, Ferrante weaves a simple but dark story, reminiscent of the original Grimm fairy tales, about a doll left behind at the beach.

When her father presents the little girl with a cat named Minu, the little doll finds herself abandoned and forgotten.  She is tortured by a mean beach attendant and his rake as they scavenge the night beach for bits of treasure left behind.  Although the main villain is the snarly Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset, the Rake, Fire, and Waves from the Ocean are personified and join in, as the poor doll tries to hang on.

Although the book is listed for children, the illustrations reminded me of Tim Burton caricatures – whimsically scary.  The subtexts of mother-daughter relationships, as well as the horrors of a deserted beach and the stealing of words out one’s mouth, seem targeted more for an adult audience. Adults, especially fans of Ferrante will enjoy the book, but beware – read it yourself first to decide if you want to share it with your young ones.