Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
I’m not a typical reader of memoirs but something about the description of Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding drew me in. The first thing readers will notice is Lynn Darling’s wonderful voice and the tone of the prose— frank, witty and poetically profound. Next, you’ll find out that the book is about the second act of a woman’s adult life, both the joys and obstacles to finding pleasure and wisdom in her pre-Golden Years. With her college age daughter having flown the coop and her husband having died a decade earlier, 50-something Darling decides to take flight from familiar comforts in an attempt to locate her “essential self” by living off the grid in rural Vermont. Favorably compared to other books with similar themes of personal exploration (Eat, Pray, Love, Wild and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to name but a few), Darling plummets deep into both the real and the metaphoric woods of her being, seeking out answers to life’s household, ontological questions.
Out of the woods: a memoir of wayfinding
J.D. Salinger is famous for two primary reasons (there are plenty of secondary reasons as well). First, he authored one of the most successful and critically acclaimed books written over the past 70 years (The Catcher in the Rye) and secondly, because he vanished from the public eye at the height of his fame, leaving several generations of devoted acolytes and the media to restlessly ponder the reasons behind his retreat into extreme privacy. Shane Salerno and David Shields have co-authored the gossipy, oral history called Salinger (a book based upon a documentary film) with the goal of cobbling together an assortment of viewpoints from those who knew him best. Ex-girlfriends, army buddies, fellow writers, family members, and various muses line up to break their collective silence to share their intimate memories and insights. It's a fascinating look at one of America's most significant writers and provides some new perspectives on both his creative output and his complicated private life.
If I was forced into compiling a list of my favorite film directors, Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom) would be number five or six, perhaps even four given my mood. Regardless, he’s one of my go-to directors when I want to laugh, cry (well, not really) and be intellectually moved and artistically impressed. So I was pleased as punch to find out that a new, beautifully conceived book about Anderson and his singular cinematic vision was coming out this winter. The coffee table-sized book is a kitchen-sink assortment of analysis, interviews, and references to those touchstones which have inspired the director. The Wes Anderson Collection is a fan’s must-have tome. You can view a Q and A with the author here.
The Wes Anderson Collection
If you’re like me and you have a passing interest in applying a bit of yoga to your daily routine but haven’t found the time yet to take a course from a professional trainer, let me recommend the following book, Easy Yoga: any age, any place, any time by Jude Reignier. There is very little text to read through which is nice for those of us who simply want to learn about certain stretching poses. In fact, the book is primarily composed of helpful images that relay which part of the body the pose is designed to assist. I would still like to take a course from an expert but until then, this book is a handy guide for the inquiring beginner.
Easy Yoga: any age, any place, any time
John Berryman is the kind of poet that has always interested me. He was an emotionally tormented soul for most of his life and whose complicated verse radiated both a deep intelligence and humane tenderness, sometimes within a single line. His most famous work, the epic Dream Songs series, is considered by many critics to be among the best written, if not some of the most highly influential poetry of the post-war period. Berryman’s work is difficult to describe but he’s often lumped in with the Confessional Poets (see: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton). One moment, Berryman’s voice is raw and revealing, the next, lyrically abstract but heartbreakingly profound. For those looking into his work, I recommend the Dream Songs, a masterful work that like Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Pound's Cantos or Olson's Maximus Poems, possesses both variety and thematic continuity.
John Berryman: Collected Poems
Starting with their first letters — or ¬earlier, with the decision to correspond at all — friendship is the book’s overarching subject, and the various topics that come and go are before all else attempts at finding that common ground upon which friendship can flourish. --From the New York Times Book Review (Martin Riker)
Two of my favorite contemporary novelists have published a book of fascinating correspondence between the two that covers a wide range of subjects including the financial meltdown of 2008, sports, friendship, film, love, death and of course, their own work and those books and authors they adore. Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee, two of contemporary literature’s most respected and acclaimed writers began their friendship in 2008. The subsequent result gave birth to a letter writing project collected in Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011. Letters range in length from a few pages to several sentences so one could easily bring this book along with them to the beach. Reading these letters (most of them composed on paper and sent through the mail) is like being a fly on the wall of a darkly lit bar, listening in on two incredibly charming and insightful artists feed off of one another’s brilliant minds.
Here and now: letters
There are some writers, whose hyper-serious books and their grim subject matter, transform the sadness and hopelessness of the human condition with remarkable accuracy and frankness (Raymond Carver, J.M. Coetzee, Samuel Beckett, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Bernhard e.g.) into great literature. Then there are those authors who do ‘funny’ really well and whose stories reflect the power and role of levity and humor to shape a book’s tone and emotional heart, including the works of satirists (David Sedaris, John Irving, Tom Robbins, Tom Wolfe, Nick Hornby, Zadie Smith e.g.). There are those who wed ‘sad’ and ‘funny’ really well (Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace, Amy Hempel, e.g.), mixing up the two with a deft and subtle touch. These are the great books that bring the tragic and comedic together, that suture morbidity and human fallibility with hints of irony, poignancy and absurdity. You laugh and cry with equal measure as these imagined characters’ lives unfold.
Lorrie Moore is one writer whose stories bring together the humorous and the sad. Her characters are notorious for their brilliant one-liners that highlight the gallows humor in her novels and short stories, wonderful works that often plumb the complexity and ephemerality of relationships with a stylistic nod to both quirky experimentation and minimalist realism. Her first novel Anagrams is a pitch perfect and innovative book that plays with form and plot in a way that presents a series of possible lives of the primary character Beena as she’s written into different experiences and scenarios with reoccurring characters acting in different ways. The book is ultimately about a very simple fact—that we love others while falling out of love with them.
While I’m at it, read Amy Hempel’s short stories as well. She’s great!
Birds of America
I’ve always wanted to add elements of Japanese gardens into my backyard and while there may still be snow on the ground, those interested in sprucing up their yards with a new look should get a head-start with mapping out ways to add some creative composition to nature’s innate beauty. My goal for this year is to continue to battle my root-loving Maples in an area that is ripe for a Japanese-inspired shade garden but suffers from poor and shallow soil. Locate solutions to problems like root competition by browsing our fine array of gardening books. Apparently, creating a successful shade garden is as easy as laying down a coating of newspapers over the desired area and then covering them with high-quality soil. Spring will be here soon so start your planning now.
There seems to be a real spike in the number of writers who are taking an interest in blending fiction with nonfiction, memoir and essay. The best of these are often clever and inventive hybrid texts that underscore the creative possibilities and evocative power of blending a traditional, linear narrative with a more fragmentary and poetic approach to language and style. Ali Smith’s new book Artful is simply an undefinable book that like the works of W.G. Sebald (The Rings of Saturn), J.M. Coetzee (Elizabeth Costello) and Geoff Dyer (Zona), strives to dismantle the narrow rules of what literature is and can be. The book is framed as a series of academic essays about art and literature channeled through a grieving narrator who is literally haunted by their dead lover, who we discover was the author of the papers (in reality, it was Smith herself who delivered these lectures). Smith’s project is to show us that fictional storytelling can be a vehicle for expressing fresh ideas about literature without that discourse being academically prose-less and obtuse, that it can explore the complex and beautiful marriage between art and life with originality.