Exploring the science of grief

‘Lost and wanted’ is a modern ghost story

How are we supposed to feel when we learn of the death of a friend who had slowly drifted out of our day-to-day life? As Nell Freudenberger shows in her latest novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), it’s complicated. Helen Clapp and Charlotte “Charlie” Boyce were as close as it is possible for two people to be when they were students at Harvard despite being as different as chalk and cheese. Helen is a studious science nerd from a white working-class family; Charlie’s academic interests lay in French literature, and she is supermodel-level gorgeous, the only child in an affluent African-American family. After college, they drifted apart: Helen stayed in academia, eventually landing at MIT as a professor of physics; Charlie moved to L.A. to work as a television producer, where she married a surfer dude and had a daughter. Helen remained single but had a son via sperm donor.

Busy with their respective careers on opposite coasts, Helen and Charlie haven’t spoken for some time when Helen unexpectedly gets a cryptic text message from Charlie. Before she has a chance to follow up on this unexpected communication, Charlie’s husband calls to tell her that Charlie has died — before the text message was sent. What’s going on here?

That question seems as though it will be the heart of a modern-day ghost story, but in the end the answer is less important than what Helen learns about herself, about friendship, and about grief. As she struggles to process her emotions and remembers the high and low points of her and Charlie’s friendship, Helen expresses herself using the language she is most comfortable with: physics. I really struggled with these bits, as I have the most rudimentary of science knowledge. I still felt able to enjoy the story but I’m sure someone who could relate to the scientific concepts would feel a much deeper connection.

Once I gave myself permission to stop trying to make the scientific connections, I came to realize that Helen’s frequent retreats into scientific analogy were a way to distance herself from the intensity of her feelings. With that insight, I found myself absorbed in Helen’s journey of re-discovery. The ways in which she interacts with the people around her who also knew Charlie felt completely organic, and her need to re-interpret her memories of Charlie through the lens of new information learned after her death was compelling. As Helen muses at Charlie’s memorial service, “… love was particular even though it was directed at the same person, that we hadn’t lost just one Charlie but as many as the number of people who were seated here today.”

Readers who expect a modern-day ghost story based on the initial setup may be disappointed, but Freudenberger’s meditation on connection and loss should resonate even with those of us without a firm grasp of quantum mechanics.

Battle of the book covers

U.S. versus U.K. — who ya got?

Illustration created by Electric Literature

Are your Mondays filled with too much thinking? Ease into your work week by gazing upon some beautiful and striking book covers. The fine folks over at Electric Literature pitted the U.S. and U.K. cover versions of some new books to see which their readers preferred. I agreed with some of their choices (the U.K. version of Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway), disagreed with others (I prefer the U.S. cover for Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future), but mostly I added a bunch of titles to my library holds list. Let me know in the comments which ones stand out to you.

Abby, sometimes I wonder if our parents were right when they forbade us to read novels! It is all the fault of the Circulating Libraries!” “Putting romantical notions into girls’ heads?” said Abby, smiling. “I don’t think so: I had a great many myself, and was never permitted to read any but the most improving works.”

Georgette Heyer, black sheep

Fairy tales

book covers of Uprooted and Spinning Silver both written by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik makes old stories new again

I first got hooked on Naomi Novik’s fantastic (in all senses of the word) writing with His Majesty’s Dragon, an imaginative novel whose plot could most succinctly be described as “The Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.” That book bloomed into an eventual nine-book series; though I read all of them out of affection for the primary dragon character Temeraire and his human comrade Will Laurence, the first tells a complete and utterly satisfying tale.

A few years ago, when I found that Novik had published a new book outside of the Temeraire universe, I was intrigued. That book was Uprooted (Del Rey, 2015), and it’s a magical (again, in all senses of the word) story about the age-old battle between good and evil.

Ever since she was a small child, Agnieszka has known that one girl child from her birth year will be chosen by the Dragon, the valley’s resident (human) wizard, to be his companion for 10 years. Every girl who has been so chosen has ended up leaving the valley forever when her service is over, and the younger girls live in dread of leaving their famlies never to return. At least Agnieszka can take comfort in the fact that everyone expects the Dragon to choose her best friend Kasia, the most beautiful girl in the valley, when the day comes.

You see where this is going, right? The Dragon chooses Agnieszka to come live in his tower, to everyone’s surprise and seemingly against his own will. Once there, she makes a mess of everything the Dragon tries to teach her, until she discovers (to her shock) that she herself is capable of performing magic, though she doesn’t understand how it works or how to control it. She’s soon called upon to use her newfound power in a series of adventures to save Kasia, the valley, and the kingdom’s Queen, who has been trapped in the evil Wood for decades. But the powerful forces at work threaten to destroy not only Agnieszka and her beloved home valley but the kingdom itself if she and the Dragon aren’t able to root out and destroy the source of the evil once and for all.

I loved this book, which has strong elements of classic Eastern European fairy tales (the author thanks her Polish grandmother for telling her the stories of Baba Jaga throughout her childhood). One of the most enjoyable elements was that despite the familiarity of many elements of the story, the ways in which Novik employs them felt fresh and unpredictable. The action is episodic and yet builds elegantly on itself in a way that feels completely organic. The characters were suitably appealing or hateful as required, and the evil appropriately menacing and merciless. I was a bit concerned when the epic Battle to End All Battles ended with a chunk of book left to read, but Novik provided a suitable coda that didn’t feel tacked on or anticlimactic as so many do.

As perfect as I found Uprooted, I was a little bit leery when I saw Spinning Silver (Del Rey, 2018) on the shelf last year. It’s not a sequel, but it follows in the same vein of offering a new take on an old fairy tale — in this case, the story of Rumpelstiltskin, who helped a miller’s daughter spin straw into gold in exchange for her firstborn child. At the center of Novik’s version is Miryem, a young Jewish girl who is forced to take over the family’s money-lending business from her father, a man too kindhearted to earn enough money to support his family. Miryem learns how to be tough but fair to the villagers who seek her help, and manages to succeed beyond mere subsistence.

It seems to be a more-or-less idyllic life until word of her success spreads beyond the village, and Miryem is commanded by the king of the fairy people to turn silver into gold, upon threat of death. What the silver signifies, why the Staryk need so much gold, and how Miryem will walk the tightrope between two worlds is magic all its own in Novik’s hands. I loved the way Novik ties together the storylines of three unusual women: Besides Miryem, we also meet Wanda, a village girl who comes to work for Miryem’s family to pay off her abusive father’s debts, and Irina, daughter of the local duke who finds herself in a dangerous marriage. Each of the women faces her own demons, but they all must come together if any of them are to survive.

I don’t want to say much more, because every reader deserves to discover the delights hidden between these two covers for themselves, but suffice to say that my fears were unfounded. Spinning Silver is more than a worthy follow-up to Uprooted, and both deserve a place on the shelf of any reader who still believes in fairy tales.

Literary links

Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What time of year is it, boys and girls? It’s “Summer/Beach Reading List” Time! Any number of media markets have jumped into the deep end of the pool with roundups of books that are worth tucking into your suitcase or beach tote. Let’s take a look:

The Washington Post

The 20 Books to Read This Summer does not confuse “summer read” with “mindless read,” though you’ll find plenty of options to fit the category a friend of mine calls Thumping Good Reads. There is both fiction and nonfiction on offer here, some available now and some that will be published later in the season. Among the titles that caught my eye:

  • The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (Berkley). I’m not a dedicated reader of contemporary romances but I thoroughly enjoyed Hoang’s first novel, The Kiss Quotient. What makes Hoang’s work stand out is the way she navigates storylines featuring people on the autism spectrum with wit and sensitivity. There’s also a generous helping of steam, perfect for readers already hot and bothered at the beach.
  • First: Sandra Day O’Connor by Evan Thomas (Random House). The first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court overcame plenty of sexism in her rise through the judicial branch, but it was her brain, not any more noticeable body part that earned her a seat on the nation’s highest court.
  • Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman (William Morrow). I’m a big fan of Lippman’s series of Baltimore-based detective stories featuring recovering journalist Tess Monaghan but this book is a stand-alone, set in the 1960s and featuring a housewife-turned-reporter who sets out to solve a mystery.

The New York Times

The Times does everything bigger and better, so naturally their Summer Reading roundup spotlights 75 books. That sounds overwhelming, but the NYT at least had the sense to present their picks in an interactive layout with browsable categories: Thrillers, Travel, Sports, True Crime, Music, Horror, Historical Fiction, Cooking, and The Great Outdoors. Whew! Let’s take a gallop around the pool and see what’s up:

cover image from The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
  • See You in the Piazza by Frances Mayes (Crown). I enjoyed Mayes’ first memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, quite a bit, and the follow-up Bella Tuscany was also good. I was startled to realize while researching this post that she had written yet another volume, Every Day in Tuscany, and a host of companion books that plumb the depths of Italian cooking and home decor and scenery. Not having exhausted her subject matter or her readers’ patience yet, this year she aims to take her devoted readers along with her and her husband as they visit out-of-the-way spots in — where else? — Italy. If you can’t spend your actual summer vacation in Italy yourself, you might as well read about while you’re fighting off mosquitoes at that KOA campground in Nebraska.
  • The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (Penguin). Winn tells the true story of walking journey she and her husband took along England’s South West Coast Path, which spans 630 miles between Somerset and Dorset. The Winns did not undertake this journey on a whim; as the reviewer Liesl Schillinger explains, ” In middle age, they had become homeless as if by thunderclap: In the space of two days, they lost the farmhouse that had provided both their home and their livelihood and learned that Winn’s husband had a terminal illness.” It sounds utterly fascinating, if a bit grim.

If those lists aren’t enough for you, here are some other folks who have compiled summer reading lists:

Lists, and more lists

Do you have a favorite go-to source for book suggestions? Please share in the comments section!

A window into a isolated world

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books, 2010)

book cover of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I’ve lost my notes on which friend first recommended this to me many years ago, but I owe them my thanks. The first time you pick it up, you might think you will speed through this lovely little (just 120 pages) book, but if you are like me you will find yourself deliberately slowing down to savor Bailey’s luminous prose and gentle but keen insights into the natural world — as exemplified by the common woodland snail who takes up residence alongside the author during a year of her life when illness keeps her completely bedridden. Here’s a sample:

Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

The little snail who so preoccupies Bailey’s attention is first brought to her inside a pot of wild violets from a friend. At first, she frets about being responsible for the snail when she cannot care for herself without help. It doesn’t take her long to realize that when you are so ill that even sitting up in bed is an impossible task without help, being able to focus attention on something that lives at a similar pace can distract you from your own loneliness and isolation.

Along the way, Bailey turns her attention to exploring the changes — physical, mental, emotional — her illness has wrought in her.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats and whens and their impossibly distant kin, how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive.

I’ll be the first to admit that I never gave much thought at all to snails beyond the restaurant scene in the movie Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts sends an escargot flying across a posh dining room. Bailey provides a surprising amount of factual data about snails in her little book; you might think it would be too much except that in Bailey’s hands it becomes compelling. (One of the first things I did when finishing the book was to fire up the internets and check out some images of snails, since I don’t think I had ever really looked at one before. They really are quite interesting little critters.)

The final jewels in the book’s crown are the epigrams that open each chapter. It turns out that the most astonishing variety of writers have contemplated the lowly snail far more than I ever had. Charles Darwin was not a surprise, of course, but Patricia Highsmith?! It turns out the masterful author of psychological thrillers like The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels wrote not one but two short stories about snails! (Of course, being Patricia Highsmith, one of the stories is about giant carnivorous snails.) I’m tempted to raid the library in hopes of discovering more literary gold carried on the backs of this unassuming creature.

FIRST LOOK: Deep dives into art and artist

A couple of new acquisitions have landed in my mailbox recently:

  • Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style was published in 2018 by Glasgow Museums in conjunction with an exhibition at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum that marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of the iconic artist/designer/architect whose work was essential to the creation of what has become known as the Glasgow Style. I ordered it online after my friend Charlotte visited a traveling version of the exhibit earlier this year at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. I have a real affinity for Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style that began when I bought my first house, a 1920s Craftsman bungalow in Rock Island, Illinois. I found myself drawn to the designs that arose out of the Arts and Crafts movement, including Mackintosh and American Gustav Stickley, with their clean geometric elegance and lack of fussy frills and curlicues. I’m looking forward to reading more about the Mackintosh in particular and the Glasgow Style in general, though I fear it will only stimulate my desire to acquire more examples of the genre to surround myself with.
  • Songwriters whose lyrics have their own geometric elegance and lack of fussy frills and curlicues also appeal to me. Bonus points awarded if they also can withstand deeper scrutiny and placement in a wider cultural context; accordingly I’ve read several books that take a deeper and wider dive into the creative output of Bruce Springsteen. This one, American Lonesome: The Work of Bruce Springsteen was written by Gavin Cologne-Brookes and published in 2018 by Louisiana State University Press. The jacket copy makes it sound a bit … academic, which is probably to be expected from a book written by a university professor whose thesis argues that “the artist’s confessed tendency toward a self-reliant isolation creates a tension in his work between lonesomeness and community.” I’m also intrigued to discover how Cologne-Brookes, a British professor and painter, experiences the work of an artist whose work seems so deeply steeped in American culture.

Abe Lincoln had the write stuff

From the start, he needed to overcome internal and external opposition by willful acts of self-definition, the ambitious farm boy autodidact becoming a splitter of words and ideas rather than fence rails.

Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

I’m having trouble writing this review because I have so much to say. I tried channeling the 16th President by asking myself WWAW (What Would Abe Write)? That didn’t help much, so I’ll just boil it down to one sentence: This book (published by HarperCollins in 2008) is fantastic.

OK, maybe a few more sentences. As the title declares, Kaplan examines Lincoln’s life through the prism of the writings he left behind. Those writings include not only published essays and speeches but also letters and fragments of letters he wrote to friends. Kaplan begins in Lincoln’s childhood, looking at the books that we know young Abe had access to at home, especially once his stepmother joined the household. Some of them are familiar and unsurprising — Shakespeare, the Bible — and others raised my eyebrows. Lord Byron was a favorite source of inspiration for Lincoln, as was … Scottish poet Robert Burns?! Apparently Lincoln often quoted entire poems or long passages of Burns’ poems from memory, even the saucy bits.

cover image of book

It was fascinating to learn that Lincoln wrote on all sorts of topics, not just political events and issues of the day. Following a trip in 1844 to his childhood home in Indiana, he wrote what appears to have been intended as a four-canto poem in the tradition of Thomas Gray, whose “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was a favorite of Lincoln. Kaplan also cites influences from Wordsworth, Burns and Chaucer in the poem, only three cantos of which have survived. The excerpts that Kaplan quotes are melancholic and humorous in turn, reflecting on memories that gave him both pain and pleasure.

Lincoln also used writing as a way to explore his thinking on subjects of the day. He wrote and re-wrote, constantly refining his thoughts. He used writing as a way to help him clarify his own beliefs and political opinions. And he seldom spoke extemporaneously — at a minimum he worked from a set of notes for each speech he gave, in order to ensure that he could lay out his thoughts and positions in a coherent way. Kaplan describes Lincoln’s writing in a speech given to a temperance society as “a prose so lucid to read it is like looking a hundred feet through clear water.”

Kaplan expends most of his energy and analysis to the years before Lincoln became president; in an eight-chapter book the presidency is entirely confined to the final chapter. That’s one reason I can’t view this book as the end-all and be-all of exploring Lincoln’s life or his genius for language. The other reason is that while partial quotations of Lincoln’s writing to illustrate specific points are plentiful, Kaplan does not include any speech or essay in its entirety to allow us to fully absorb Lincoln’s genius. Perhaps there are limitations on the amount of text that can legally be quoted? At any rate, it was a loss I felt keenly.

I probably don’t need to say that I highly recommend this book. While there’s a fair amount of detail about Lincoln’s life beyond his writing, some readers will find value in also reading a more comprehensive biography, especially one that focuses on his presidency. As for me, I now feel a great deal of affinity for the man who declared:

Writing — the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye — is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it — great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. … Its utility may be conceived by the reflection that to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it.

Abraham Lincoln

Reality is not a linear construct

In Tana French’s The Witch Elm, the reader is left to wonder:
If you don’t remember something, did it really happen?

Last year, Tana French stepped away from her acclaimed Dublin Murder Squad series with a stand-alone literary mystery (published by Viking) that is less a conventional whodunit than an extended riff on the vagaries of memory and the mutability of character and personality. Toby is a 20-something social media manager for a Dublin art gallery when he suffers a traumatic brain injury during a robbery. Even after his physical injuries have healed, he struggles with anxiety and his lack of memory of the attack. In an attempt to re-focus his attention outward, he and his girlfriend Melissa move into Ivy House as companions to his favorite uncle, Hugo, who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. When a dead man is discovered on the property, the family has to cope with police intrusion and the veil of suspicion that falls on all of them.

Toby comes across as a classic unreliable narrator — but is he really? Is he hiding things from the reader, or are things hidden from both the reader and himself by his own brain? If you don’t remember something, did it really happen? And who do you believe when you’re presented with alternate versions of events that you were involved in but cannot remember for yourself? It’s a fascinating puzzle, and French explores all the nuances as the answer to the murder mystery is slowly uncovered.

When I originally reviewed this book, I was ambivalent about the ending, mainly in terms of certain characters not behaving in ways that were consistent with how they had presented throughout the novel. Shortly afterward, I found a terrific interview with Tana French on the always thought-provoking site Electric Lit. The article’s title, Tana French’s The Witch Elm Is an Exploration of White Male Privilege, is perhaps inevitable in the #MeToo era, but French’s central thesis is more nuanced than that headline suggests. As she says about conceiving the novel’s plot, “Mainly, I was thinking about the connection between luck and empathy. If we’ve been too lucky in one area of life, that can stunt our ability to empathize with people who haven’t been that lucky.” I’ve been guilty of this myself, assuming that because I found certain college classes easy that anyone who didn’t wasn’t trying hard enough. Not a good look, that!

I’ve enjoyed all of French’s books in the Dublin Murder Squad series, but this book’s standalone status isn’t a letdown in any way. As regular readers of French know, the DMS series does not follow the same cast of characters throughout. Each book places a different detective at the center of the story, with their colleagues whom we’ve come to know in previous books appearing in passing or not at all. For me, that’s one of the aspects that keeps the series so fresh and lively, but it also means that The Witch Elm doesn’t seem like a big departure. It’s still a murder mystery in Dublin, only told from a point of view outside the police station.

So no, The Witch Elm isn’t technically part of that series, but it shares the genetic code that makes French’s previous work so compelling: A firm grasp on the intricacies of plotting a murder mystery, believable characters (not to be confused with likable, necessarily), and a gift for keen observation and description that bring the settings alive. More real than reality, in some ways. Whatever that may be.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me on this reading adventure! I’m hoping to make An American Bluestocking a place where I can share my thoughts about the books I read and interesting articles I stumble on across the intertoobz. Fair warning: My reading tastes are eclectic, so there’s no telling what kind of books you may find here.

silhouette of person reading under a shade tree.
“Why can’t people just sit and read books and be nice to each other?” — David Baldacci
(Photo by Marketa available under CC BY-SA 2.0 )