I’ve been away from writing here for a while, thanks to the flu. I didn’t get my preventive shot this year, thinking what with mask-wearing I wouldn’t need it – and then the flu ripped through me with tsunami force. Never again will I miss my flu shot. Not after all I went through these recent weeks! Meanwhile, as I recovered, I found and read some good books.
First up: The Cove by Ron Rash, not a new novel but one that’s been on that reading table I made a New Year’s resolution to winnow. It’s a story that absorbs immediately with its atmospheric Appalachian setting as World War I rages faraway in Europe. Hank newly returned from the war front and his sister Laurel live in a cove on land their late parents purchased long ago. Nearby townsfolk believe the cove harbors menacing spirits, so they avoid Laurel — they think she may be a witch — while Hank, for his veteran status, seems to be free of their suspicion. When a mute stranger arrives in the cove and needs help, Hank and Laurel take him in, and soon he becomes part of their life and part of Laurel’s heart. He’s a good, hardworking man, but he’s got a secret. Twice while reading I got so nervous, I had to put the book down and walk away – I knew something bad was going to happen, and I had to get myself ready, since I’d become attached to the innocent Laurel, Hank’s kind strength, and the cove’s beauty. Ron Rash writes this preoccupying story with seductive eloquence.
This next book also is from the reading table to be winnowed. Where Rivers Change Direction is a collection of essays, but they are essays as memoir, capturing author Mark Spragg’s coming-of-age on the oldest dude ranch in Wyoming — Holm Lodge — located on the Shoshone National Forest, where his family built a life in the 1960s. They hosted tourists eager for the wilderness experience, taking them on camping and fishing trips, while running the lodge and its cabins and managing the more than one hundred horses kept on the ranch.
When I was a boy…I lived on the largest block of unfenced wilderness in the lower forty-eight states. That is what I know as a man. As a boy I knew only that I was free on the land. If asked where I lived, I replied, ‘Wyoming.’ I meant the northwestern corner of the state; parts of Idaho and Montana. I meant the country itself — a wild, unspoiled part of the earth.
Spragg writes reverently about the harsh landscape, the unpredictable weather, and the horses’ unique personalities, and about working alongside the hired hands, his responsibilities with the tourists, and his youthful mistakes with humor and insight. I don’t think there’s any way I can truly describe how much I love this book. I’m reading through it slowly to savor it, I don’t know yet how it ends.
I’m hoping Sarah Lotz’s new novel will be as fun and addicting as David Nichols One Day, which was the perfect beach read for me years ago. I’m not beach-bound, but an upbeat, riveting love story would certainly help deal with these continuing gray, cold days. (Will spring ever arrive and stay?) Instead of Dexter and Emma (in One Day), it’s Nick and Bee, who meet each other via an errant email. Nick is a struggling writer in a rocky marriage who unloads frustration on a non-paying client in that email, but by mistake, his rant arrives in Bee’s inbox. Bee runs a successful business, lives a full life with friends, and has given up on finding love. The two continue conversing via email and reach a point where they want to meet. In the book’s description, it says “They both notice strange pop culture and political references that crop up in their correspondence, but nothing odd enough to stop [them] from falling hard for each other.” It turns out they’re “living in near-identical but parallel worlds” with “a universe between them.” I like Kirkus Reviews’ summary in its starred review, describing The Impossible Us as “A thought-provoking and clever genre-bending blend of romance and science fiction.” Publishers Weekly also gives a star and says: “The eccentric side characters and strong humor meshes nicely with the earnest, tender romance. The result is simply delightful.”
Pyre by Perumal Murugan is about a young couple who meet in a southern town in India where Kumaresan works at a soda bottling shop across the street from Saroja’s home. They fall in love and marry in secret, and then travel to Kumaresan’s family village where they hope to start their life together. It’s a phenomenally well written story, gripping in its poignancy, as Murugan unfolds what happens to this couple amidst the village’s intolerance. Kumaresan’s mother wails her anger, desperation, and grief over her son’s betrayal by marrying outside of his caste (he says he hasn’t) and being so selfish as to deny her their traditions. Saroja faints as villagers gather to taunt and insult her. Kumaresan believes his family and friends eventually will calm down and embrace his beloved, but the outrage continues. Saroja lives her days isolated in their hut beside her unforgiving mother-in-law’s home on a barren rock. An old woman warns Saroja that relatives on Kumaresan’s mother’s side likely will take action if they indeed have married outside their caste: “You cannot rely on [your husband]. They might wait until he goes somewhere, and then try to chase you away in his absence.” This is a novel that takes its time, building with murmuring intensity until the very last page. It’s translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.
Finally, poetry. April is National Poetry Month, so it’s not surprising that NYRB Classics Book Club (I signed up last fall) sent Gold, a new translation of Rumi’s encouraging poetry. It’s important to read the brief introduction by the translator Haleh Liza Gafori, because she sets up the relevance of his wise messaging: Rumi (1207-1273) was a celebrity priest with “hordes of followers by the time he was thirty-eight,” but he felt empty and a lack of meaning in his status and the crowd’s adulation. He longed to be free of it, to have “liberation from the cramped shell of self,” and so, he broke free, as he writes in these first lines, and became the poet whose work continues to guide and inspire through the centuries:
We exited the battleground and crooked valley of thorns,
we shed our twisted delusions,
and from a heartrending world of deception,
This is a book to tuck into your purse or pocket or briefcase or knapsack, so as to read an entire poem or a few lines here and there throughout a day, to reach for Rumi instead of the cell phone, and celebrate April as poetry month with one inspiring, good book of enduring poems.