Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and me by Deirdre Bair
This is one of the best books I read last year, a memoir about Bair’s pursuits researching and writing biographies about Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. The book chronicles the challenges Bair faced confronting their strong personalities, let alone being a mother and wife in the 1970’s when many believed married women with children should be home with their families. Her Beckett biography won a National Book Award. When I mentioned this memoir in my 2019 end-of-year favorites, I described it as “a one-of-a-kind memoir written with sly humor, respect and sincerity.” Bair died in April of a non-COVID related disease.
The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution by Stephen Heyman
I wouldn’t have thought a biography of Bromfield’s passion for farming and his consistent talent for writing best-sellers would be captivating, but Heyman writes with a fascinating humanness that brings us close to this Ohio-born author and farmer. I picked it up for my pandemic lock-down book list, and each day I looked forward to reading it, especially about Bromfield’s years in France (and friendship with Edith Wharton), his personality as champion of farmers everywhere, his family and friend relationships and the world of his books. Bromfield’s novels may no longer be remembered but his knowledge and voice in the field of organic farming continue to resonate, as do his books on the topic. This isn’t a 500 page monster biography, but a just-right 300+ good read.
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb
Kalb’s memoir about her Jewish grandmother is the hilarious must-read of these disturbing times, a much needed breath of fresh air. I wrote about it on The Longest Chapter in April where I said, “Nothing I write here can capably capture the flare and humor of this book: the opinionated, dramatic, loving Bobby who rises up off the page with sparkling verve and the perfectly timed conversational pauses that create the comedy.” Read the review.
Our Fathers by Rebecca Wait
Here’s an involving story about a suicide-murder, family crime that haunts a small community on a remote island off the coast of Scotland. It’s been 20 years since the crime, when Tom Baird, the only survivor, returns to the island to face his ghosts and find answers. The dramatic purpose is not as much about the mystery of what happened as the question of how a decent man who loved his wife and kids could kill them and then himself. The days unfold slowly, with tension rippling beneath the surface of the villagers’ kindnesses to Tom whose inward-facing personality and broken soul makes them feel awkward. Their desire to help him, however, lends compassion to the difficult, preoccupying tragedy as answers come to light in a surprising conclusion. (Above I show both the British and American editions of the book because I think the Brits better capture the story’s mood in their illustration.)
Native Son by Richard Wright
I’ve never forgotten the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas that I read in graduate school in my own 20s, the overwhelming, sinking feeling of this boy in 1930s Chicago digging himself into worse and worse circumstances as society’s system of racism and poverty defeats him. He takes a job as a chauffeur with a rich white family whose daughter Mary espouses racial tolerance and interacts with Bigger in ways that are dangerous to him for breaking social taboos. Horrible violence occurs. As Bigger tumbles further into depths of lawlessness, Wright, without heavy handedness, places us in a vantage point where we feel the trap of a racist society, its systemic defeat and violence having molded Bigger since the day he was born. I recommended Wright’s Native Son not only because it’s a great classic but because readership is high right now for books about racism. While there are many more recently written on the topic, Wright’s classic should not be missed. (Another memorable book by Richard Wright is Black Boy, his memoir of growing up in the South. I reread it two years ago and couldn’t put it down.)
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
This is one of the most moving books I’ve ever read, Baldwin’s story about an American man in 1950s Paris struggling with his sexuality, conventional morality and his love for an Italian bartender. The first line of the book alone illustrates the seductive power of Baldwin’s language and his narrator:
I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.
Montana 1948 by Larry Watson
The person who reviewed this slim novel for The New York Times in 1993 clearly didn’t get this book with her short, savage response, calling the story, among other things, “shallow and overwrought.” Was she reading the same book that so many others have read and loved for decades? History teacher David Hayden narrates the story, looking back to when he was 12 years old, living with his close family in a small Montana town where his father, a lawyer by training, is the local sheriff, following in his father’s footsteps. David’s uncle is a revered WWII hero and respected local doctor. Everything changes when the Hayden’s Native American housekeeper gets sick and becomes hysterical when the uncle is brought in to treat her. What she reveals and what happens put David’s father in difficult circumstances between his loyalty to justice and to his family. I found Montana 1948 by chance at a used/rare book store and bought it, not realizing it’s remained a quiet favorite over the years. Kirkus Reviews better represents the book in its review:
[Montana 1948] is a literary page-turner, morally complex and satisfying in its careful accumulation of detail and in its use of landscape to reveal character.
Larry Watson’s newest book is due to be released next month. Kirkus gives The Lives of Edie Pritchard a starred review, signaling we have something to look forward to. There will be more here about Watson’s new novel in a few weeks.