Recent Books: January

For several years, I've been posting on social media about books I read. On Twitter, I often share a sentence for #SundaySentence. On Instagram, I share more quotes and a few thoughts. 

But social media is ephemeral, and platforms can disappear at a moment's notice, taking my thoughts with it. So I'm posting here periodically, too.

The Art of Map Illustration, by James Gulliver Hancock,
Hennie Haworth, Stuart Hill, Sarah King

The Art of Map Illustration, James Gulliver Hancock, Hennie Haworth, Stuart Hill, Sarah King

“[A] map tells a story—and everyone loves a good story.”

This book is accurately subtitled, “A step-by-step artistic exploration of contemporary cartography and mapmaking.” The four artists who wrote the book and whose work is featured have different, yet similar approaches to making maps. The maps they’re making are highly personal perspectives on specific places, sometimes at a specific (long ago) time.

The artists use different techniques, both digital and non, and aren’t at all averse to starting by tracing a basic outline from an existing map. I learned a lot from their step-by-step descriptions of brainstorming, sketching, and refining landmarks.

A confession: I bought it from the bookstore table with the biggest discount, on a whim. It was worth every penny and would have been if I’d paid more. But I don’t know that I’d have run into it.

Here’s another quote. But really, the illustrations are the star attraction—so rich and rewarding to study.

“A map can share an idea or a concept, illustrate an experience, or capture a memory. … You can break borders and boundaries and skew size and scale—in other words, you aren’t held captive to reality.”


Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym

Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym

“Now, at lunchtime, each went about his or her separate business in the library.”


This masterful little sentence perfectly describes its four main characters—Letty, Edwin, Norman, and Marcia—as the novel begins. Although the four share an office and experience the inevitable intimacies of working in close quarters, they remain largely unknown to each other.


Approaching retirement age, they’re all coping, in different ways, with their growing loneliness and isolation. They may wish for more connection, but they’re not quite sure how to get there. Until at last, they find ways to be friendly.


Written and set in 1970s London, this novel marked Barbara Pym’s “comeback” after years of “exile,” when her writing couldn’t find a publisher. How difficult that is to imagine, given this book’s sharp, funny, poignant observations about the entire world that’s set in an office.


I’d read this decades ago and enjoyed it—and I enjoyed it even more now that I approach (or have maybe surpassed) the autumnal ages of its quartet. One element that surprised me a little is how close World War II, with its death and deprivations, still is to these survivors, until I recognized that it had happened only some 25 years earlier.


Here is Letty at the end:

“[I]t was difficult to think of Edwin and Norman as objects of romantic speculation, and two less country-loving people could hardly be imagined. But at least it made one realize that life still held infinite possibilities for change.”


A World of Curiosities, by Louise Penny

A World of Curiosities, Louise Penny

“Armand knew that ghosts could be stubborn.”


Well, yes. As can people. And that’s what makes for interesting books, I think—a writer, through characters, wrestling with the past, the present, and what it could all mean for the future.


Though I may be biased, given that the protagonist of my novel is doing just that.


What is there to say about Louise Penny’s mysteries that hasn’t already been said? I like her way with people and communities. I really enjoyed the writing itself in this book, too.


Recently, given space and life constraints, I decided to give away the full set of her mysteries. I hesitated over the first, Still Life, which holds a special place in my heart (finding it while waiting for a prescription and then being so delighted by it, maybe?), but eventually wondered whether I really would read it again. I also kept this one, because I hadn’t yet read it. Eventually I may contribute this to a used bookstore or library sale, so that someone else can enjoy meeting or re-meeting Gamache and Clara and Myrna and Ruth.


Now that I’m awaiting the appearance of my novel, I have a better understanding of why a writer might create a setting (both a place and a time) and return to it, with some of the same characters. Your characters become your friends over time. But as a wise writer-friend pointed out, the characters will be out making new friends in readers (we all hope).


Here’s another sentence that I resonated with, near the end:


“But any agency that allowed him to spend a month by the lake with his family, then return home to this village, to have breakfast with close friends, his beloved wife by his side, was kind indeed.”


That's it for January. But February will no doubt bring more thoughts! Happy reading, everyone.