Book Recommendations–Lost Memory

There is scarcely a conversation with friends around my age (55-85, let’s say) who don’t either have memory loss themselves, have a family member or had a family member with memory loss, or greatly fear memory loss.  I fit in all those categories myself, so have been searching out books that are insightful, honest, and speak scientifically to this topic. The reason I can remember their titles is because I have been keeping a book journal for 40 years, and refer to it often. A key for dealing with memory loss: write down what you need to remember!  Here are some of my favorite reads on the subject.

 

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

9780312427801_p0_v1_s114x166Absolutely unique and charming, this short novel about a Japanese housekeeper and the former math professor she assists takes unexpected turns without throwing the reader out of the car, so to speak.  Both central characters are unnamed, yet we become intimately acquainted with them as the housekeeper tries everything she can to deal with the professor’s dementia and improve his quality of life.  Aid comes partly from her son, a latchkey child whom the professor convinces to come to his house after school.  They form a curious attachment, as the professor tries to help him with his math homework and the boy renews the professor’s love of baseball.  The effect of the professor’s love of math, his ability to engage both mother and son in its mystery and beauty in spite if his significant dementia, made for a story both delicate and heroic.

 

In the Shadow of Memory, by Floyd Skloot

A friend recently recommended this older (2002) and unknown title to me, and all I 9780803293229_p0_v1_s114x166can say is–wow!  Skloot, a well-known author and father of also-well-known writer Rebecca Skloot, lost significant memory when in his early 40′s, due to a serious viral infection.  Unusually eloquent, the book was compiled from a series of essays Skloot wrote and published after his illness, describing the process of “reforming” memories, learning to accept those that he will never have back, and simplifying his life significantly to cope on a daily basis with the physical effects of memory loss. He also discusses the effect that early childhood trauma can play in later memory loss and dementia, due to compromised immune systems.  Poetically beautiful and absolutely engaging, I am marking it in my journal as one of my most prized reads this year.

 

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova

Another charmer, and definitely better-known, is this novel of a 9781439102817_p0_v2_s114x166woman professor who starts discovering her own memory loss when she cannot find her way home from a routine run.  She teaches cognitive psychology at Harvard, is in her early 50′s, but is soon diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  What I found particularly fascinating was the point of view of Alice, who both watches and comments on her progressive loss as the disease advances.  Many have commented that the book was a heartbreaker, and it was, but it was so compassionate and honest that I could not help come away better informed, more fascinated with the workings of the mind, and even uplifted by this amazing story.  Recommended reading for everyone, as I believe we are all touched by severe memory loss at some point in our lives.

 

9780062309662_p0_v4_s114x166Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey

Another slant on memory loss, this new debut novel combines the story of Maud, a woman in her 80′s with quite severe dementia, with a mystery, family love story, and humor.  Healey’s novel uniquely combines all three genres, and it kept me turning pages well into the night.  Maud’s challenge is that she has found a small keepsake in her garden that she believes belongs to her friend Elizabeth.  However, as many times as she calls and visits Elizabeth’s home, to the extreme frustration of her daughter and care givers, she cannot find Elizabeth.  Believing that something is wrong, yet unable to communicate this to those around her, provides both humor and heartbreak.  And, the beautifully rendered portrait of the seesaw between caring and worrying vs. independence for an elderly family member was what gave the story special depth and meaning for me.

 

Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words, by Kate Whouley

Author Whouley wrote an earlier book that I loved (Cottage9780807003312_p0_v1_s114x166 for Sale, Must be Moved); she picks topics that prick my curiosity. Having lost my  Mom just over a year ago to age-related dementia, I needed to read someone’s else’s view of the sad, frustrating and funny experiences that come with it.  Whouley had it a lot harder than I–she was an only child, and on a good day her Mom was only slightly demanding with her daughter.  Their relationship was prickly, and soon after Whouley’s first book was published, she realized that something was wrong, and that her Mom could no longer live alone and care for herself and her cat.  The story of her mother’s last years struck a deep cord with me–Whouley finally got to experience her mother as a deeply flawed and loving human being. There was a kind of healing that happens when a parent forgets so much of the recent past and can only deal with the immediate present.

 

Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer

9780143120537_p0_v1_s114x166Here is a very different book about memory–in this case, how to expand it and even win a contest for developing exceptional memory!  Author Foer took an interest in a very unique subculture of competitive memorizers, and put himself under the tutelage of a former winner of the U.S. Memory Championships to learn how to improve memory (and why  one would want to!)  Along the way he explores the latest in memory research, the tricks of the memory trade, and his often-hilarious experiences preparing for the memory competition.  His story provided me with a unique view of how historical inventions, such as the printed book and of course technology, have caused humans to lose memory, and the ability to remember (much as unused muscles atrophy).  A happy counterpoint to the many books on memory loss that I have been reading. Here’s hoping I can improve my own memory, or look upon memory loss as a DRAM too full that needs to be upgraded or erased!

Book Recommendations–Favorite Classics

Summer seems to be the time of year I love to pick up classics that I have not yet read, or reread old favorites. Because I was an English major in college, I have read what seems like a million classics and I’m still working on the “pile”.  Just this week I picked up Flaubert’s Madame Bovary for the first time, and am loving it. I thought it would be easy to make a short list of favorite classics, but they all crowded in, vying for attention when it came time to pick only a few.  So look for more favorite classics in a future post–there are just too many great ones to choose from.

 

The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham

9781400034208_p0_v1_s114x166I admit being very partial to Maugham, and have read almost everything he has written (except maybe his letters).  It was hard to pick from Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence (reviewed in an earlier blog), or Of Human Bondage.  Many say that this was his most serious novel–it is certainly that–and much more.  Maugham himself “narrates” the story of four characters who are young and in search of their life’s place in the world.  But the story primarily follows Larry, a young American who was a pilot in WWI then came to Paris to recover and pursue a spiritual path in a world he finds too materialistic. Maugham moves his plots along well without dragging, and at the same time fully develops his characters, revealing all their flaws while not judging them. He respects the reader and his characters enough to let them figure out their own lives.  That is what I love about this man’s insightful and subtle writing.

 

An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser9780451531551_p0_v1_s114x166

I remember reading this classic when I first started graduate school, and was quite overwhelmed to finally understand how excellent fiction can examine and make one ponder the many moral dimensions of life. Dreiser published this story, based on a sensational murder case, in 1925 to almost as much publicity as the original crime.  His story  is of a young Clyde Griffiths, born into a poor religious family but who, after being hired by a wealthy uncle, aspires to much more. In his quest to move into a higher stratum of society, a tragedy occurs which changes his life dramatically. This is really a detailed portrait of American values and cultural differences in the early 20th century–the economic divide, political corruption, moral hypocrisies, and how the very essence of a person’s character develops.  I thought of it as a “must read” after finishing it, and am still of that mind and anxious to read it again.

 

9781486145621_p0_v1_s114x166Women in Love, by D. H. Lawrence

One summer I read one of Lawrence’s books after another, enchanted by the sensuality of his writing style and subject matter. I was still young, and still romantic. While he was most famous for Lady Chatterley’s Lover (like most people, I read it at about age 14) , my favorite was this title.  Although Lawrence was always at the center of controversy for his writing, his popularity has fallen off in the past 20 years or so, (probably because he did not produce any dystopian novels!)  Women in Love follows the relationships of two couples, one of them obviously modeled on Lawrence and his wife Frieda (Birkin and Ursula in the book). The highs and lows of their courtships and love, their intellectual pursuits (i.e. long philosophical discussions about art and life), and their differences are primary themes of the book.  Many critics think this is Lawrence’s best novel, and I do agree, although The Rainbow comes close (and is the predecessor to this story).

 

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

If I had to pick one favorite from this group, this would be it.  It is considered not only  9781593080235_p0_v1_s114x166Eliot’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece when held up against most English literature, for good reason.  But before I list the reasons, I will say that all of her other novels have also seriously impressed me–Daniel Deronda in particular. Several critics have said that there are “no easy resolutions in a great novel”, and Middlemarch fulfills that requirement perfectly.  A richly woven story, it follows a number of primary, well-defined characters in a nineteenth century Midlands English town, almost all of whom are less than happy with their life’s circumstances. But it is the character of Dorothea, unhappily married to an elderly husband (Casaubon), to whom I was most drawn, because in spite of her frustrating circumstances, she is the most accepting of her situation.  She tries to do right, even as she is thwarted in her pursuit of happiness. Steeped in realistic plot, character and setting, Eliot has a hold on me. I could scarcely put Middlemarch down–every page (and there are 800!) made me want to keep reading.

 

9780072434224_p0_v1_s114x166Their Eyes Were Watching God,  by Zora Neale Hurston

Perhaps because I did not read this novel until I was about fifty, as opposed to reading it for a class assignment years ago, I came to love it by the tenth page.  Written by Hurston after a stormy, tortured love affair, it was published in 1937 and was a commercial success. However, several male members of the Harlem Renaissance criticized it roundly because of her use of African American dialect. I think it is one of the stars of the story–she uses authentic dialect of the times in which she lived, which makes her voice more expressive and unique.  The plot, or story, is told by Janie Crawford, a black woman who by age forty has had three marriages–her last being her most loving but still troubled. When her third husband dies, she comes back to Eatonville, Florida to live (a real community run and populated only by African-Americans).  Over her life, Janie has struggled to find her own voice, and her own happiness, which finally happens.  Hurston created an entire, unique universe in this novel–startlingly different, yet so familiar to me because the characters are so real, human, and unflinching.

 

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

My first introduction to Dickens was seeing the movie (in black and white) when in junior high school.  Even then it charmed me, as most of Dickens can charm me 9781593081386_p0_v3_s114x166because of his unique characters.  His books are long and kind of windy, which makes sense since he was often paid by the word.  But he is the author I seem to return to when nothing else appeals. What Dickens does, and does best in this particular novel, is to capture everything a reader could want in a 400 page book and rarely produce a dull moment.  Set in London and Paris prior to and during the French Revolution are the stories of two very different men and the events that cause them to intersect.  Dickens gives us melodrama, memorable characters, smart pacing, emotional depth and great humor and satire.  As I write this, it makes me want to pick it up and start it all over again! Which I am sure I will.

 

The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck

9780743272933_p0_v3_s114x166Here is another example of a classic I did not read until recently.  Yet I remember staring at its cover in my family’s bookshelves for years as I was growing up, and having my mother praise it again and again. It is a more quiet novel, the story of an ordinary peasant family in pre-revolutionary China–farmer Wang Lung and his obedient and hard-working wife O-lan.  The story starts with their wedding day (sometime before WWI), and follows his life’s ups and downs to the end when he finds that the land he worked so hard to acquire and farm during his lifetime is to be sold by his sons, who are the inheritors.  A common enough story, yet more poignant and beautiful because of the culture and times in which it is set.  Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for this in 1932, and it was a runaway best seller for the first two years after being published. Just lovely; told in simple, unadorned language which makes it all the more unforgettable.

 

Book Recommendations–Bookstore Memories

When I finally retired from Darvill’s Bookstore in April, it was with as much excitement as regret.  After working there for over 11 years, it felt like home. I met people from all over the world, and talked ardently with so many of them about books.  The store’s sunny yellow walls, huge multi paned windows, views of the water, eclectic music, fresh flowers, carefully curated mix of gifts and books, excellent espresso, and of course, enthusiastic and intelligent staff all combined to make it an inspiring and delightful place to work. Talking to people about what they had read and loved and what I had read and loved was my favorite part of the job. It was infinitely satisfying to put special books into customer’s hands. Here are some of my favorite novels, of which I sold many copies but have not yet reviewed in this blog.

 

9780143113461_p0_v1_s114x166Five Skies, by Ron Carlson

This small gem, which both Jenny and I read and loved and sold to customers many times over, has a strong sense of place and unusual setting–the dramatic Snake River Canyon in Idaho.  Three men, all haunted by different demons, drift together and form a crew to construct a huge ramp in the “middle of nowhere”. If you have ever worked outdoors, particularly on construction, this book will strongly resonate.  The feel of the weather, the emotional work of fitting in with a crew, the lack of distractions in a remote location, all combine to make this character-driven novel so memorable. In particular, a troubled young man who joins the crew is mentored by the foreman in a way that is subtly skillful and caring, without appearing so. Carlson, an underrated writer of award-winning short stories, writes in a spare and elegant style that strongly appeals to me.

 

Snow Hunters, by Paul Yoon9781476714820_p0_v2_s114x166

In this debut novel, Yohan, a young Korean who was a POW at the end of the Korean War is able to emigrate to a small port town in Brazil to start a new life. He is emotionally damaged, but in his newly adopted country he is treated with generosity and kindness which surprises him.  He is taken in by an old Japanese tailor and becomes his apprentice.  They live a quiet, almost austere existence, and the book poetically and gracefully unveils their years together, and Yohan’s search for connection and love, which mostly eludes him.  Through the years, he meets and comes to know others with his same aloneness–in particular two young orphans who often enter and exit his life, like butterflies. Yoon illustrates in this elegantly written novel that memories are key to shaping our identities; we need them to make sense of our place in a world that often seems to make no sense.

 

9780143036661_p0_v1_s114x166March, by Geraldine Brooks

If I were forced to pick one favorite author today, Brooks would be on the short list of contenders.  All her books have captivated me, and this is one of her best–a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2006. The novel is based on the character of Peter March, the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and is also based on Alcott’s own father Bronson, a transcendentalist. The story surprised me with its intelligent and well-developed depiction of life during the Civil War. March, who left his home and family to serve as a chaplin for the Union army, had his idealism and abolitionist values marred by the harsh truths of slavery and brutal costs of war. His life is followed for twenty years, including his return home and attempt to reintegrate with his family. Not too different from the challenges of any soldier in a time of war–any war.

 

City of Thieves, by David Benioff9780452295292_p0_v2_s114x166

Never have I encountered two such mis-matched and intriguing characters as the unlikely heroes of this coming of age-story, set at the time of the siege of Leningrad during WW II. Lev, the intelligent and self-doubting son of a well-known Jewish poet, is arrested for stealing, and finds himself sharing a cell with the handsome and confident Kolya, a Slav from the Russian army arrested for various wartime infractions. In prison, they are one day given the chance to save their own lives by agreeing to obtain a dozen eggs for a party official’s cake.  In a city of the starving and dying, the two young men set off on a journey of terror, humor, desire and despair. How Benioff pulls off balancing the horror and humor of the situation is astonishing–I was left with delight and pathos after experiencing this story and its characters.

 

 

9780375705854_p0_v1_s114x166Plainsong and Eventide, by Kent Haruf

Two of my favorite books we keep selling at the bookstore are these beautiful and plainspoken companion novels, set in rural Colorado among small towns and isolated farmers. The older, sometimes crotchety pair of McPheron brothers live on a cattle ranch inherited from their parents, outside of the small town of Holt.  Their routine and very quiet lives are upended when they agree to take in a local pregnant teen-ager, Victoria, whom they gradually adopt as “family”.  Plainsong is the first of the two books, published in 1999, and was a finalist for the National Book Award.  In the sequel, Eventide, Victoria has stayed on the ranch after the birth of her baby, but must leave because she has a chance to attend college. Change comes in multiples in this equally compelling follow-up, and the family the brothers have slowly created over the course of the two stories becomes family to me, also.

 

 

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe9780385474542_p0_v1_s114x166

It was years before I finally read this classic, and when I did, I wondered why I had waited so long! Set in Africa in the 1890′s at the beginning of the colonial era and arrival of Christian missionaries, it is loosely based on Achebe’s own life. Okonkwo, a highly respected Igbo tribal elder, experiences the beginning edge of this cataclysmic change in his country of Nigeria. He approaches it slowly, with intellect, skepticism, and the many deep emotions that this change evokes. First published in 1958, and never a Pulitzer Prize winner, the book has actually eclipsed all awards by becoming the best selling African novel in the world, an honor which it still holds. A book ahead of its time, of its time, and for always.

 

Book Recommendations–Summer Reads

When I see lists of “good summer reads”, they often veer toward light romances, new thrillers, or stories that do not need much engagement by the reader.  To me, a good summer read has some substance to it, but is not a slog.  This spring I read a number of new fiction books and a couple of non-fiction that I believe are “worthy” reads, without being too easy to put down or forget about and leave on the boat, the beach, or the floor of the back seat of the car.  I love reading outside and inside in the summer, and especially love stories that will transport me to another world, like the following new titles have.

 

9780345516534_p0_v4_s114x166Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan

This newly published novel, by the author of Loving Frank, is stronger and more engaging than her previous best-seller, but also quite a bit longer. The story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his older, artist-wife Fanny Osbourne is a heady and tortured love story, and is strongly imprinted with the artistic temperament of the times in which they lived.  Stevenson was crippled by illness nearly all his life, and when he met Fanny she had just fled from an unhappy marriage in the States with her three children in tow.  They met at an artist’s colony in the French countryside.  She was not impressed at first, but he was immediately smitten, and after a rocky start, they both fell in love.  She nursed him, and served as part-muse, part-warden to try to preserve his health and energy for his writing. Their story takes them as far as Samoa, where he died in his 40′s.  Both lovers are vividly rendered by Horan. But note that I was one of those children who memorized most of A Child’s Garden of Verses.  I was enthralled with this fascinating account of Stevenson’s childlike wonder and dogged commitment to his writing and Fanny’s struggle to support him, care for her children, and support her own dreams.

 

The Family, by David Laskin

Not a light nor airy read at all, this true story of the author’s family three generations back nevertheless had me reading late into the night.  The story centers on a Russian-Jewish couple who have numerous children, each9780670025473_p0_v1_s114x166 one of whom makes very different life choices from each other.  One branch of the family immigrated to the US before WWII, where they became successful businessmen and women.  The oldest daughter co-founded the Maidenform Bra Company, and became a millionaire.  Two other family members immigrated to Palestine, before the creation of Israel, and several other family members continued to live near their towns and villages of birth, only to disappear in the Holocaust.  Very different lives, all equally compelling, as developed by Laskin (a Seattle author).  My knowledge of Jewish culture and history, which is a subject of great interest to me, shot up the scale after reading this. I believe it is the first book I have read on the subject which gave me a new and wider perspective on the creation and politics of Israel.

 

9780525426721_p0_v1_s114x166The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This novel really surprised me; while I liked Gilbert’s famous Eat, Pray, Love bestseller a number of years ago, I did not consider her a very serious writer.  But numerous readers came into the bookstore this spring and raved about this novel, and Jenny and I said “one of us should read it”.  Since i have more time, I decided to try it and was very entertained.  Set in the 1800′s in the newly developing United States, it chronicles the life of a young woman born to a well-off Pittsburgh family who chooses to become a scientist.  Her upbringing and parents were unique, and encouraged her engagement with adult conversation and reading about all kinds of topics starting early in her life.  As a result, she became a well-respected scientist (her study of mosses being the first of its kind) who married a man who did not want to engage in physical lovemaking. Always aware of her own sexual needs, she was stunned and hurt.  The results of this discovery motivated her to travel more widely than she would have, partly to discover secrets about his life and death.  The book reminded me a bit of Andrea Barrett’s lovely short stories in Ship Fever. Gilbert’s talent has risen considerably in my estimation with this fully-realized, beautifully written story.

 

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Doerr is one of those authors I strongly believe in, and will follow (almost) anywhere–his novel About Grace was my favorite of a few years back (2005)–so of course I was set to tackle his new novel which came out with a great deal of buzz in the book world this spring.  When I started it, I groaned “not another book about WWII!” as I have read so many in the past couple of years, and all were wonderful.  So I started the book a bit wary and suspicious, but after a few chapters had renewed awe about Doerr’s talent as an 9781476746586_p0_v2_s114x166author.  There are a few reviewers who have said there is too much lyrical writing in this story, but I am not one of them. His writing often leaves me breathless.  However, he constructed this book with short chapters, a blessing, which gives one time to catch a breath between the stunning sentences, movement back and forth in time, and jumps between characters. It was complex, but he did not lose me in the process because I was so caught up in the juxtaposition between Marie-Laure, a blind girl living in occupied Saint-Malo, France, and Werner, a young and talented German radioman who becomes another of the many pawns of the Nazi regime. The lives of the two main characters become intertwined through radio transmissions, accidents of war, and memory. What a winner!

 

Gemini, by Carol Cassella

9781451627930_p0_v2_s114x166In my very first post, over two years ago, I reviewed Cassella’s first novel, Oxygen, which bowled me over and had me hanging until the very last page.  Gemini, her newest novel, is not quite as breathtaking, but it did have me engrossed in another of her “medical mysteries”, in a setting that is infinitely familiar to me–the Olympic Peninsula.  A woman is brought into the ER in Seattle with no ID and no way to contact her family, and clearly she is dying.  Doctor Charlotte becomes alarmed at the lack of action by the police in trying to identify the victim, an apparent hit and run, and finally starts exploring that part of the mystery herself.  Along with her boyfriend Eric, whom she has recruited to help, Dr. Charlotte slowly unravels the mystery of the identity of the victim, contacts the victim’s family, and uncovers an unexpected connection to them.  Cassella is very adept within this genre, with good reason: she is a practicing anesthesiologist in Seattle. Her stories go beyond traditional mysteries on many levels, exploring issues of race, class and other contemporary social issues wrapped in an engaging story.

 

Astoria, by Peter Stark

There is something sweet and historic about Astoria, Oregon, and its setting is absolutely beautiful.  So I was intrigued enough to pick up this book to read about Astoria’s history, not knowing I would be immersed in a tale9780062218292_p0_v2_s114x166 so thrilling, so harrowing, that it left with my mouth hanging open.  Shortly after the Lewis and Clark expedition ended, President Jefferson and millionaire John Jacob Astor envisioned a plan to settle a part of the West that they saw as crucial to developing trade and establishing headquarters for a potential global network.  To that end, Astor financed a Jamestown-type expedition–sending one group by sea and one by land over the Rockies to the Columbia River.  The story covers the expedition’s hardships and discoveries between 1810 and 1813; the colony was not ultimately self-sustaining, but the West had been “opened” in a new way, the Oregon Trail established, and the rest, as they say, is history. And what a rich history this little-known story in the settling of the West adds.  I will never view Astoria the same again, and can’t wait to visit, either.

 

 

 

Book Recommendations–Salter and Stern

The other day I browsed through the reading journal I have kept for 40 years, and the names of two authors I read and loved many years ago jumped out–James Salter and Richard Stern. What lovely memories I have of their books!  Stern, who died in 2013 was a long-time teacher and mentor to Phillip Roth, and often referred to as “the best writer of whom you have never heard”.  James Salter, the better known of the two, is fortunately still living and writing at 88.  He has published a smorgasbord of delicious writing–from erotic novel to travel to food writing.  Here are some “appetizers” you may want to try.

 

9780810151468_p0_v1_s114x166Other Men’s Daughters, by Richard Stern

This was the first book I recorded in my reading journal in 1974.  When I first read Stern, I was leaving a marriage and the world of academia, which is why the subject matter appealed to me.  The story line is a well-trod one:  middle-aged professor with kids meets younger, adoring student and the results–a messy divorce and devastated children–are predictable. In Stern’s hands, however, the results end up seeming more restrained, humane, even elegant. He is able to portray each character with an underlying generosity that would not be found in the hands of less skilled writer. I wrote in my journal that Stern’s books were “little jewels”, in spite of the sometimes difficult (and common) subject matter, and in re-reading parts of this book again, I would not change that assessment at all.

 

Light Years, by James Salter

Many well-known authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri and Saul Bellow, claim Salter’s works 9780679740735_p0_v1_s114x166are under appreciated masterpieces, and many readers agree.  Like Stern, he has not sold as widely as friends Roth, Heller, Mailer, and others of his generation. However, there are only two of his works that I have not read, and I plan to read those, believe me. I would prescribe this story be read in good chunks (like an exceptional French bread), rather than small bites, otherwise the unfolding beauty of his writing might not be fully experienced.  It is the story of an enviable couple, Nedra and Viri, who seemingly have it all, until near-invisible cracks start expanding and the marriage becomes irretrievable.  Like Stern, the subject matter may not be original, but his writing is clear, resonant, sensual and profound.

 

Natural Shocks, by Richard Stern

9780810151475_p0_v1_s114x166 A well-known journalist, already divorced, gradually learns of the impact of his life’s “natural shocks” on himself, and what it means to be a decent person, in spite of his very human mistakes.  The love and grief he experiences as the result of a young woman’s malignant melanoma sharply outline these themes for him. In my journal, this novel seemed to make an even stronger impression on me than his other works. Or at least I quoted from it more:

The sexual subway shuttled between farce and torture…the oldest aphrodisiac of old relationships poured in: pity. (There were so many varieties).”  And  There seemed to be no end to self-discovery.  Perhaps decency was getting as much of oneself as possible on the record, then letting other people figure out the results.”  This story holds up strongly upon a second reading, some 37 years later.

 

Burning the Days, by James Salter

This is Salter’s autobiography, or as close as he will probably come to writing one, which 9780394759487_p0_v1_s114x166fascinated me because it was not at all the story I expected.  Most of the book recounts his student life at West Point, during WWII, and his life as a fighter pilot in the Air Force during the Korean War.  Born into a life of privilege in 1925, the last thing I would have expected to have been a huge part of his life (the well traveled, gourmand writer that he is) was the military, and flying.  And even though the military life is not one that attracts me, I raced through the first two thirds of the book where he describes a life of flying like a poet.  The last part of the book, about his years writing scripts for movies, feels more like a lot of name-dropping, but the first part held me so strongly I finished with a more firmly committed love of this writer’s style, and his other books.

 

A Sistermony, by Richard Stern

9781556114762_p0_v1_s114x166 Fiction writer Stern even invents a word–sistermony–to describe this intimate memoir of his older sister’s death and legacy. Ruth died a long, slow death from cancer at 67, and Stern starts to sort out, for the first time in his life, his relationship with her during her dying and following her death in 1991.  What he comes up with is a rich melange of rivalry, jealousy, curiosity, and protectiveness. During her illness, they rehash and re-imagine life with their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and mutual friends.   He also realizes he wants Ruth to tell him about his infancy and toddlerhood, “the life I’d lived but didn’t remember.”  He is masterful in his progressively accurate descriptions of the details of slow dying: injections, draining of fluids, black-and-blue skin, administering ice chips to relieve a dry mouth, lapses into semi-consciousness, and Ruth’s deathbed humor. He has created a small masterpiece, an American classic on death, dying, and sisterhood.

 

 

A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

One of the most erotic novels I have ever read, which is what many reviewers said back in 9780374530501_p0_v1_s114x1661967 when it was first published.  Set in provincial France, it chronicles the passionate and affair between a young shop-girl, Anne-Marie and Philip Dean, an American college dropout. Their love affair is imagined and told by an unnamed narrator, who leads us through the story and (his) own fantasies with sensual and haunting prose.  Considered ground-breaking when first published, due to its blend of fantasy and eroticism, one may suspect it to have not aged well, but I do not think that the case. It showcases Salter’s tremendous talent and versatility.  When you think about reading Salter for the first time, consider this an unique starting point.