‘I write in ink.’

Dear Frances Mayes,

The time I brought The Tuscan Sun Cookbook to you for signing in Chapel Hill, I remember saying, simply, “Can I tell you how much I loved A Year in the World?” You smiled sweetly.

I frankly never thought anything else of yours could eclipse that smashing book—which really wasn’t about travel, of course, but about how travel changes us, fundamentally. Then I read, and was surprised at, your gut-wrenching memoir, Under Magnolia. Suffice it to say that if I had thought about it,  I would have imagined your life-before-fame otherwise. We never really know what’s beneath the surface.

I finished Women in Sunlight yesterday, with tears streaming and that disconnected feeling of “What next?” that always follows on the heels of a book that knocks you silly.

You are—allow me to presume—among the best of the current crop of Southern writers, whom I have always loved for the richness of place in their work and their ability to make place a character all its own. Women in Sunlight has characters strong and multi-dimensional enough not to be subsumed in the glorious setting of a Tuscan village, or Venice, or Florence, or the Cinque Terre, or Capri. But Italy is the character, from the start, that brings them all together, in reality and in metaphor.

I love the intertwining of poetry in this book, the sense that, as in a poem, every single word was meticulously selected and weighty with meaning. I love the bits of poems interspersed here and there with the text. How brilliant—and full of gumption—to make the storyteller, Kit, a poet! One can sit on the surface, watching, or go deeper and deeper, just like Julia leaping off the cliff in Corniglia.

And there is that one stunning sentence—”I write in ink.” There is no undoing. Margaret knew that. Except, sometimes, if you are brave and your reach is wide enough, there is a chance at redoing. Camille, Susan, and Julia discovered that. Kit, too, in her new incarnation. I adored these characters, and also those in the periphery who egged them on.

How can I thank you enough for allowing me these two weeks in Italy, for introducing me to these fascinating people and allowing me to watch them grow, at a time in life when it would be all too easy not to?

Truly, you have outdone yourself.

Notes to readers:  Full disclosure: I’m a reader, not a critic, not even a book blogger. But I do like to write about books that I find extraordinary in some way, with the hope that others will enjoy them as I have.Of course, I’ve read Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, too. Please don’t opt for “I’ve seen the movie” because the books are so much more wonderful.

#FrancesMayes
#Goodreads
#WomenInSunlight

Remembering another Miss Austin

No, not Austen. And not Jane. But they have books and writing in common.

It was a verdant Central Pennsylvania summer, and I was in my last term, anxious for graduation. Summer terms were rapid-fire in those days, eight weeks as opposed to the usual ten. Classes met four times a week and, as I recall, were about half an hour longer than during the regular academic year. In retrospect, a truncated term probably wasn’t the best to take on the Victorian novel. None of the stars of the period could be considered an easy or quick read, and coupled with my other classes, I easily had about 300 pages of reading a night. I won’t swear that I read every single page for my other classes, but I didn’t miss a single word of the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, and—of course—Charles Dickens.

Deborah Austin was a Kathryn Hepburn type with a sturdy Yankee demeanor and sparkling eyes. She pulled her salt-and-pepper hair back in a twist, always with a few stray strands framing her face. She was born in Boston (like me!) and raised in  Maine, not  far from the tiny paper mill town where my father grew up. I suppose I loved her even more for that, and for that sweet whisper of Maine in her voice… not an accent, mind you, just a whisper. I could have listened to her all day long. My experience in her class shaped my reading habits forever. I learned to love, appreciate, prefer a believable, gimmick-free story masterfully told, with complicated characters, complex relationships, and revealing dialogue.

Miss Austin* was an accomplished poet whose work appeared in such worthy publications as The Atlantic Monthly and the collection The Paradise of the WorldOne of my great regrets is that I didn’t get to know her better. We had several spirited conversations about Dickens and our dogs when the term ended, but then, like hundreds of her other students, I graduated and went on to my grown-up life elsewhere. I wish I’d kept in touch.

Miss Austin loved Dickens and taught me to love him, too. Not necessarily more than Hardy, Eliot, or the others, but for his own sake and in his own right as a master storyteller. To this day I haven’t found any description to equal the aborted wedding celebration scene in Great Expectations, the heart-rending exchange between the dying Paul Dombey and his sister Floy  (which is reported to have set all of England weeping), or, of course, the lasting lessons of A Christmas Carol.

I don’t know what kids in college read today, but I do know that there are plenty of good lessons about right and wrong and managing the ebb and flow of life in the thousands of pages that Dickens turned out during the course of his writing career. If you’re casting about for something to read, I highly recommend almost anything in the Charles Dickens oeuvre.

*At my alma mater, it was considered gauche to refer to those along the “professor” continuum as anything but Mr., Mrs., or Miss, and Ms. hadn’t come along yet.

Cover photo:  Old Main lawn, Penn State iGEM 2008 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The books I keep

Whereas buying a book now and then requires minimal space—I can always accommodate another book on my nightstand or the coffee table if need be—the haul from the thrice yearly book sales is another matter.

To be sure that I have sufficient space for half a dozen or so treasures, I’ve adopted the ritual of deep-cleaning and “editing” the bookcase before each sale, in February, June, and October. It works out rather nicely. The books I’m ready to part with go into the donate bag, those I want to share go to family, friends, or neighbors, and those I keep are lovingly dusted and restored to their home on my shelves.

I know people who never hold on to books. I know people who only buy used books. I know people who don’t buy them at all. Either they’ve gone totally electronic, or they rely on the library. Which is fine. But I still buy “real” books, and I still keep them. Among them are a few childhood favorites, my Rockwell Kent-illustrated Shakespeare, and two of my mother’s treasures—a gilt-edged edition of Webster’s and a Metropolitan Opera Guide from many, many moons ago. The only college text I’ve held on to is the expansive English Romantic Writers. What can I say? Every now and then, I need a dose of Wordsworth.

There are several reasons why I continue to buy “real” books. One is the pure joy of browsing through a bookstore.  We don’t have any really good “indies” around here, but when we travel north or south, bookstores are always on the agenda. At home, I rely on Amazon and our local Barnes & Noble. Another is that a book you love becomes part of you in ways that only a committed reader can understand. A third is that I like to support the writers I love, the writers who consistently show up in my pre-release queue. They represent a mix of genres, for sure: Andrea Camelleri, Louise Penny, Richard RussoDonna Leon, Alan Furst, David McCulloughMonica Wood, Frances Mayes, Gail Godwin, MFK FisherDoris Kearns Goodwin, Pat Conroy, and, of course, the inimitable Adriana Trigiani.

If you’re a reader, chances are, like me, you check out the bookshelves when you visit a home for the first time.  “You love Paris, too! Who knew?” Our book choices, at least the ones we choose to display, are revealing in so many ways.  For instance, have a look at some of my  keepers:

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I love reading about France and food.

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Mysteries and Annie Lamott.

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My daughter introduced me to this series, set in Sicily, that was also adapted for television. Commissario Montalbano is irresistible in either version.

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Perennial favorites.

January reads

January is that metaphorical new broom that sweeps clean. I like to start out the new year re-establishing routines, tackling those niggling little tasks that typically fall by the wayside, and trying to get back to my happy places, chief among them my reading time. After what I like to refer to as my “medical adventure” in the fall, and the marathon of holiday preparation that came swiftly on its heels, I’d gotten out of the  reading  habit. Although most of us reach this point now and then, my barren period had passed the two-month mark and was really driving me crazy.

I thought I’d have plenty of time for recuperative reading and had a stack of books at the ready. Best-laid plans. While I managed work responsibilities without a problem,  I just couldn’t read for pleasure. Meanwhile, those books on the nightstand sat there, glowering at me. Even worse, I’d failed my Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge after overachieving the year before. In retrospect, I fully acknowledge how silly and self-absorbed it was to  even think that my Goodsreads 2017 Reading Challenge mattered. Still, like book club (at which I fail repeatedly because I’m usually too stubborn to abandon my queue for the monthly selection), it was a motivator.

My neighbor, thank goodness, hauled me back from the abyss with a Christmas goodie bag containing  a hardbound copy of Fredrik Backman’s illustrated short story, “The Deal of a Lifetime.” I read it start-to-finish on New Year’s Day, which admittedly took only about 20 minutes, and thus started 2018 off in the right direction, the nasty dry spell broken.

Triumphant, I attacked the stack on the nightstand, barreling first through Glass Houses, Louise Penny’s latest installment in the Inspector Gamache series. If you love mysteries with a sense of place and can tolerate more than a little of the “dark side,” try this series set in the quirky village of Three Pines, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships outside of Montreal.

Next on my list, a gift from my BFF, was David Lebovitz’s L’Appart, a nearly unbelievable (but how could he possibly have made it up?) recounting of his experience buying and renovating a Paris apartment. Although not without its funny moments, it’s one of those “welcome to my nightmare” stories that makes any other renovation project seem like a walk in the Parc Monceau. It’s also full of fascinating perceptions of life, language, and culture in the City of Light. Lebovitz, who has a popular blog, has penned several cookbooks and was once a pastry chef at Alice Waters’ Chef Pannise. Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen, another wonderful gift from my BFF, has taken on a whole new meaning since I found out how much he suffered to get that kitchen.

Then I picked up Elizabeth Strout’s magnificent My Name is Lucy Barton. Oh, how I loved it! Spare, honest, poetic, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize—I could go on and on and on. A perfect rendering of a mother-daughter relationship and all of the complexities contained therein. Read entirely in one sitting, early last Saturday morning. Note: Ugly cry guaranteed.

It’s now January 15, I’m four books up on my reading challenge, and well into my fifth—Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns’ 1984 novel about a family in a rural Georgia town in the first decades of the 20th Century. It was a thoughtful gift from my cousin Dorothy, who loves it and wants me to love it, too. So far, so good.

What is everyone else reading to start the New Year???

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once, under the Tuscan sun…

I am in an almost perennial state of longing for Italy. Hubby has Italy on his mind as well. The fervor is fueled constantly as we watch our current favorite Italian TV series.  Una pallottola nel cuoro—the English title,  Bulletproof Heart. We watch Euro TV almost every night, thanks to MHZ Choice, which we began streaming several years ago. Every time we do, we are transported. In the case of Bulletproof Heart, it’s to Rome. Tonight, however, I’m recalling a trip from Florence through the Tuscan countryside. And if you haven’t read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, please do. It’s a delight—and SO much better than the movie!

Book club… the morning after

I read many different writers and genres. These days it is mostly, but not exclusively, fiction. Sometimes, the novels that earn the most critical acclaim fall flat with me because in my mind they are generally overproduced, or over reliant on artifice. I much prefer storytelling so tight and well crafted that it doesn’t need contrivance, storytelling that helps me, by subtle association, to understand who I am and where I came from.

I love beautifully expressed, poetic sentences; but I love honest irony, good humor, and even a little healthy cynicism just as much. I love characters I wish I would meet on the street, characters I know I will miss when the book ends. I love it when place itself is a character. I love it when a wonderfully imagined book inspires me to imagine in turn. I love it when a book makes me cry—not in a maudlin way, but because my heart has truly been touched, or because I see some small piece of myself or my history in what I am reading.

I didn’t even have a book club in my life until the last few years. Now that I do, I freely admit that I’m not the world’s most compliant member. My attendance is erratic—real life, as I am fond of saying, intervenes—and I am stubborn about my personal book queue. In fact, I’m probably just a tad elitist when it comes to the books I want to read and when I want to read them. That’s the eternal English major in me. If I have a book queued up that I’ve been dying to read, it will probably supplant most book club selections.

Book clubs take a fair amount of heat. I myself disparaged them for years, thinking I couldn’t possibly enjoy reading based on a group-prescribed agenda. But our book club is friendly and forgiving; we all contribute suggestions, and the monthly selection is pulled out of a hat. Nobody cares if you haven’t read the book, but most of us usually do.

Because reading for me has always been an “individual sport,” I never would have pictured myself liking a book club. Two years or so down the road, I’m grateful that I gave our book club a chance. At its best, it has forced me out of my queue into the wider world of other genres, other writers, other people’s preferences. At its best, it’s almost like being back in a favorite class again. The warmth of the members, of course, is not insignificant, and the patience of those who coaxed me to show up continues to be deeply appreciated.

Last night, after a lively and insightful discussion that in the end made me like the book I’d just read less than I thought I had, the question was raised as to whether we should switch to bimonthly meetings. The group’s response was an overwhelming NO. I was both surprised and delighted at the ensuing comments. That “no” wasn’t about the wine; it was about the books. Friends, there is hope.