I am notorious in my book club for failing to finish the selected text, no matter how much I like it, and no matter how many months have elapsed between meetings. I occasionally muse on the possibility that this is the latter-day rebellion of an English major who always did the reading, and scrupulously, as if it were a moral failing to leave a single word unattended. I think it’s closer to the truth, however, to say that I have difficulty finishing books because I have difficulty getting started on them. If I’m not hooked by the first page, if I’m just not in the mood for the writing style, I can’t go on. I have to put it down and try again next month. At the moment, I’m halfway through John Banville’s The Sea (which I picked up and put down several times, and which I ought to have finished for my book club a few months ago). This is one that I will eventually finish, I’m sure of it. It’s simultaneously a coming-of-age story and a coming-to-terms story, as the narrator returns to the seaside of his youth a year after his wife’s death. The scattered story carries the reader along on its drifting waves; we wade into the ocean of one man’s solipsism and see the world, past and present, with the keen clarity of one detached from those around him, yet always sharply observant. The writing is perhaps inconsistent, but also mesmerizing. It is vivid in its detail and, at times, simply perfect in the way it depicts certain universal landscapes of thought–whether Banville is illuminating a cast of mind particular to childhood or capturing a moment of aporia in the kitchen following the diagnosis of terminal illness. Meanwhile, I can’t remember the last time I read a book that contained the word “apotropaic,” which is part of the charm of the prose; Banville writes his first-person narrator like a man talking to himself and getting it right for the sake of his own self-satisfaction, a man who doesn’t need others to understand him, but who can describe the peculiar architecture of the things that surround him in such a way that we, too, can see exactly what he sees.
Columns Department Editor Alissa MacElreath has been enjoying her own required reading: “I recently finished (just in time for my book club meeting!) Gail Tsukiyama’s novel The Samurai’s Garden. This gentle and poignant book is a coming-of-age tale about a young Chinese artist who is sent to his family’s seaside home in Japan to recover from a bout of tuberculosis. There he is cared for by Matsu, the family’s retired housekeeper, whose quiet love for a woman suffering from leprosy teaches the young man powerful lessons about the nature of spiritual beauty, and the transcendent power of love.”
Profiles Co-Editor Rachel Epp Buller writes, “I dedicated a recent plane ride and associated airport time to reading Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients. In addition to running a successful kitchen, master chef Lillian offers a cooking school on Mondays when the restaurant is closed. Her students come from all walks of life and each chapter follows the backstory of a character; weaving between past and present, we learn both where they come from and where they hope to go. More than just teaching them techniques and recipes, Lillian’s class offers each student transformative flavors and aromas that help them work through past traumas, build and repair relationships, and, in short, find themselves in a new way.”
Caroline Grant, Editor-in-Chief, relates, “It’s probably just a coincidence, but I came down with a week-long case of laryngitis the day after I started reading Susan Cain’s fascinating book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Reduced to passing notes to communicate with my family, and thus choosing my words especially carefully, I was a particularly attentive reader of her book, which weaves memoir and research together beautifully. Cain herself is an introvert, but also worked for years as a successful corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant; she embarked on the book to explore the seeming paradox of her retiring nature and her professional success. Our culture esteems extroverts; we insist on the creative power of group work and we start children in school years before they can handle academic work in order to ‘socialize’ them, but Cain argues for the importance of solitary, independent work to bring out the best in our introverts. My quiet week of reading Quiet made me think a lot about the different versions of introversion I see in myself and my children, and it makes me want my sons’ teachers to read this book!”
Suzanne Kamata, Fiction Co-Editor, shares, “I’ve just started reading A Southern Girl by John Worley. It’s a lyrical novel set partially in Charleston, South Carolina, about Coleman Carter, a scion of the Old South, who is urged by his liberal wife, Elizabeth, to adopt a Korean orphan. His parents, alas, do not approve. Told from multiple points of view, and ranging from Charleston to Korea to Mexico, this story explores the meaning of family, identity, obligation, and the lingering racism that exists in the New South.”