The other day, at my local library, I picked up a novel I’d requested online: The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin. This writer’s debut, about an immigrant Taiwanese family in Anchorage, Alaska, is getting mixed reviews from “breathtakingly beautiful” (The Los Angeles Times) to “unrelentingly cheerless” (The New York Times). I could’ve requested a review copy from the publisher, but I don’t review all the new books I read, and some I just want to consider – hold onto for a while – before deciding whether or not to commit my time to them.
I pulled The Unpassing from the reserved shelf and immediately began reading the first page, then skimmed the dust jacket copy and turned to the author bio, where I learned Lin graduated from Harvard and the Iowa Writers Workshop. At that point, a kind of resistance toward the book tugged at me, a rebelliousness wanting to pull away from it. It’s not that the book didn’t interest me. It’s that I didn’t want to read one more book I’d purposely researched and secured for myself.
As this was happening, I remembered visiting the library as a kid, when I would enter the large room of books with an eager openness to imagined worlds. I wandered through the stacks uninfluenced, browsing titles and dust jackets with hopeful acquisitiveness, looking for a story that grabbed on and wouldn’t let go, never once thinking the book needed to be new, acclaimed or credentialed. The memory inspired me to close The Unpassing and head toward the stacks, where I channeled that young girl who got caught up in what might be found, a new book that would jump in the bicycle basket as she road over the curbs on her way home, a discovery that felt like what I would later in life come to equate with new love.
And so the errand that was meant to be a quick pick-up took more time than planned. I checked out The Unpassing but also two random discoveries I found by exploring book spines in the stacks. I live and read by the knowledge that good books don’t always have to be the new ones, but I had forgotten they also don’t have to be hunted, researched and vetted. Sometimes, many times, they’re the ones you just happen to pull from a library shelf, or any shelf, because it looks like it might be the good one.
The first book I found was The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt. It’s an amusing and introspective story about a woman whose husband of 30-plus years requests “a pause” to be with another woman. It’s a common plot of how a spouse responds to betrayal, but Hustvedt’s plucky, poet protagonist Mia Fredrickson narrates with an energetic voice that becomes addictive with its literary and philosophical references, humor and compassion. The ending is too neat and hurried, but that doesn’t diminish this enjoyable, page-turning story that provided relief (for this reader) from a past line-up of heavy reading.
I also pulled Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man off the shelf. The Anglo-American Isherwood (1904-1986) is best known for The Berlin Stories, but I know him more for Lions and Shadows published in 1947, a fictionalized account of how he became a writer. A Single Man takes place in one day, following an aging, gay professor who’s grieving the death of his beloved partner. It’s not the grief, however, that rallies this brilliant story, rather George’s need to carefully navigate the prejudices, limitations and perceptions of his way of life. (A Single Man was published in 1964.) His caution and required fakery, when interacting with his students, neighbors and colleagues, brilliantly portray the protective insulation devised to ensure he’s deemed acceptable. Stoic and sarcastic, George demands dignity, and as we’re invited into this day of his life, we’re magnetized to this unforgettable character. A Single Man was made into a popular movie in 2009 staring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.