More Books in March and Some in April, Too

Here are my thoughts about some of the books I've read recently. Not homework at all!

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout 


“I had not yet learned the depth of disgust city people feel for the truly provincial.”


I read this book a few months back but held off writing about it, hoping I’d eventually know what to say, but I still don’t quite know how I feel.


I don’t mind books in which “not much happens,” which is a criticism I’ve seen of this book. Here’s what “happens”: Lucy Barton lies in a hospital bed. Her mother comes to visit. They talk and remember. The end.


But that summary is, of course, not everything. Lucy and her mother talk about and around and behind their own relationship. Lucy wonders about the world she left behind and second-guesses her choices. She’s attentive to those who are attentive to her. She’s not sure what’s happening at times. It’s a quiet book about people.


Did I like it? It was fine. Would I reread it? I can’t quite imagine it, but never say never. Would I read other books by Elizabeth Strout? I have, and I enjoyed them, a few more than this one and some about the same. Would I seek out more of her work? Maybe.


Do I recommend it? Only if you enter into the experience of reading it with a sense of generosity and curiosity, as if you’re conducting an experiment.


Which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad way to begin reading any book: with generosity and curiosity.


Here are a few other observations from the book that caught my attention.


“This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.”


“And he looked at me then, and with real kindness on his face, and I see now that he recognized what I did not: that in spite of my plenitude, I was lonely. Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”


“A view of the horizon, the whole entire circle of it, if you turned the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again, as though it could not stop going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the quiet fields of cover crops already turned, and the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.”


Return Stroke, Dora Dueck


“The enoughness of our situation gave me a feeling of security.”

Dora Dueck’s essay collection ranges widely in topic: the death of a childhood classmate, creating a relationship with the father-in-law who’d died before she’d joined the family, the role of the past in the present. You know, the small things. Like religious faith—the largest section is about her time in a Mennonite community in Paraguay in the 1980s—which she also treats in a matter-of-fact, and fascinating, way.


It’s full of beautifully written observations and good-humoured wisdom. Her work is unpretentious and engaging, and I enjoy dipping back into the book when I recognize I’m trying too hard to write Something Meaningful.


Here are more quotes.


“Those who stay in a place find ‘home’ easy to define, they don’t need to think about it much. It’s those who leave who find the word complicated.”


“I think I imagined, as a child, that once people finished growing up and were adults, their minds more or less ran on the spot. How grateful I am to have lived long enough to discover otherwise.”


“Words on paper had always been a help to me. Words I read, words I wrote. They steadied me with the stillness and stability of pinned-down thought. Those I wrote seemed to ensure that what happened had actually happened. They gave to particular moments what those moments may have missed as they hurried past: weight. A proof I existed within them and was, therefore, weighty too.”


“Almost invariably, the gift of memory pointed me in the direction of mercy rather than criticism. How good it felt when I remembered in time that kids are kids, life is life. Oh how good indeed, when I got it right.


The Hero of This Book, Elizabeth McCracken

“We’re not our souls, we’re not our bodies; we’re the shimmering border between.”

Oh, I loved this book. Described everywhere as a novel, it’s also a tribute to Elizabeth McCracken’s mother (“the hero of this book”), a tiny yet larger-than-life figure in the world, with some observations about her father, life, love, and writing along the way.

Sure, I have a soft spot for daughters writing about mothers, trying to get a handle on how to be adults with them and navigate the power differences as they’re happening. But I can’t see how anyone would not enjoy spending time with the people in this book.

So many funny and interesting sentences. And thoughts about writing! These are just a sample.

“All this history going on without my mother in it.”

“She loved being alive and in the world; being alive and in the world with her was like dancing with someone who really knew how to lead.”

“Bereaved. That I’d own up to. Bereaved suggests the shadow of the missing one, while grief insists you’re all alone. In London, I was bereaved and haunted.”

“Some things only the city itself can tell you, and other things you must learn from a map.”

“Futured, the tile gleamed like the floors of a proposed space station in a mid-century book about late-century life. Futuristic. Then the floors dulled and yellowed, like any vision of what’s to come.”

“Safety puts you in a nursing home and turns you over regularly so that you do not die in your sleep. You could be kept for years if you weren’t careful, like a roped-off chair in a museum that nobody is allowed to sit in, which makes it only something shaped like a chair. Watch out for safety. It will make you no longer yourself, only an object shaped that way.”

“An unpublished book is an ungrounded wire.”

“My mother’s life was one of history: child of the Depression, of World War II, of the polio epidemic, of the women’s liberation movement, of the civil rights movement. She wasn’t special. Everyone exists in history.”

“As for me, I don’t think writing is that hard, as long as you’re comfortable with failure on every single level.”

“The most wonderful arguments among writers concern punctuation and stationery supplies."

Such a fun book. 

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym

“‘Perhaps you meet a person and he quotes Matthew Arnold or some favourite poet to you in the churchyard, but naturally life can’t be all like that,’ I said rather wildly.”

The “I” in the quote above is Mildred Lathbury, the narrator of this excellent novel about excellent women—the women who are somehow stuck supporting men who are no smarter or kinder or more deserving than they are, men who expect that support and usually take it for granted.

Set in post-WWII London and published in 1952, the story is hilariously witty even as it’s dismaying. I can see why Barbara Pym is often compared to Jane Austen. Almost every character in Persuasion overlooks the gifts of its protagonist, Anne Elliot. Similarly, even the more ambitious women in this novel are almost grotesquely undervalued.

And I enjoyed it so much.

Here’s perhaps the quintessential Mildred Lathbury quote.

“Looking forward a little, I could almost imagine a time when Winifred might want to become a Roman Catholic and I wondered if I should be there to help with the crisis. That was something that had not so far fallen within my experience of helping or interfering in other people’s lives, and I wondered whether I should be capable of dealing with it.”

Make no mistake: Mildred is equal to anything, and more power to her.

How It All Began, Penelope Lively

”Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other.”


I love this story about stories, and I especially love about the novel that the main characters are women who are clear-eyed about the choices they’ve made and determined to keep their independence.


That said, all the characters, even the most difficult to like, are illuminated by a writer with an understanding heart, which makes the questions of “who is family?” and “how can we start again?” wonderfully nuanced.


I enjoyed it and I learned from it, a combination that’s difficult to resist.


The rest of the paragraph after the above quote, with more nuggets after:

“Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but it in there somewhere, and has had an effect on which she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.”


“What we add up to, in the end, is a handful of images, apparently unrelated and unselected. Chaos, you would think, except that it is the chaos that makes each of us a person. Identity, it is called in professional speak.”


“Powerful things, stories. And now you’re going to get on with your own story.”


“They talked of anything that did not matter, and walked on, and on, as the summer afternoon faded around them, dipping toward evening, the shadows become long, and time carried them with it, back into their own lives, away and apart.”