The dark days of February are behind us, and Spring lies just ahead – but March in Nashville tries our patience. The world stays gray and cold and all is tedium; the dogs are restless, and we with them. We are treading time like water going nowhere while we wait.
These are the days when a good book is a time machine – a change of scene – and an absolute necessity! Below are a few carefully curated suggestions for the season of waiting:
- This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett
- Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala
- The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
- On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee
- Stitches, by Anne Lamott.
In Nashville — or anywhere else — who would neglect an opportunity to spend some quality time with the sweet and savory Ann Patchett? In her new collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann invites the reader to peek over her shoulder as she trains for the Los Angeles Police Department entrance exam, gives a speech to an unfriendly crowd at a college in South Carolina, and opens our local bookstore, Parnassus. In deeply personal pieces, she recounts the story of her excruciating first marriage and divorce, explains why a dog – not a child – was her “key to perfect happiness,” and divulges why she dated Karl for 11 years before marrying him. This is really a lot more than I ever expected to know about Ann Patchett! It’s more than I know about many friends. She writes with great warmth and generosity of spirit, but an unsparing eye keeps her well north of sentimental – and often very funny. Ann writes honestly and courageously about good decisions, bad decisions, and everything in between.
The honesty and courage of author Sonali Deraniyagala is seasoned with fury and grief. Her memoir Wave was selected by The New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2013. Deraniyagala survived the 2004 tsunami that killed over 200,000 people, but she lost her husband, two young sons, and parents that day. The ways in which she fell apart were varied, horrible, and outrageous at times, as when she harassed a Dutch family who had rented her parents’ former home. The book chronicles her prolonged grief and halting recovery in prose both painful and beautiful – and sometimes actually a little exhausting. Wave is provocative, as it necessarily poses the question of how the reader would handle such a loss. How would you wear your grief? And where would you find grace?
If March finds you yearning for lighter fictional fare, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is the book of the hour. It has perched near the top of the bestseller lists for a couple of months now, and everyone is reading it, which makes it excellent cocktail conversation material. At 700-plus pages, it’s no featherweight; but once you begin, the pages simply fly! A boy finds himself in possession of a famous painting, and an otherwise ordinary life becomes something far stranger, as his attachment to the painting of the goldfinch grows. His tale spins outward from New York’s Upper East Side, to the exurbs of Las Vegas, and finally across the sea to Amsterdam. Copious drug use and the criminal underworld – prominent elements in the plot – may be educational for some readers. If Charles Dickens were alive, one might find him sitting by the fire, utterly engrossed in this grand, sweeping, suspenseful tale.
Equally suspenseful is the new dystopian novel by Chang-Rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea. The inhabitants of “B-Mor” – the city formerly known as Baltimore – live in an urban farming collective, and their lives and thoughts are controlled with equal care. After the disappearance of her lover, a young woman named Fan takes the unprecedented step of leaving B-Mor to find him. Her journey takes her from the “Counties,” where life is nasty, brutish, and short, all the way to the gated society of the “Charters,” where the quest for perfection warps and shapes in its own destructive ways. Fan’s journey becomes revolutionary myth for those left behind; they tell the myth to themselves in the collective narrative voice of the novel. The haunting and unsettling voice left me utterly bewitched – its lulling cadence like floating on a river. Yet there is something very foul about the river. Lee’s criticism of our society is always just below the surface, and he means to make us uncomfortable.
Anne Lamott is no stranger to discomfort. “Alone, we are doomed,” she writes in her latest meditation, Stitches, “but by the same token, we’ve learned that people are impossible, even the ones we love most – especially the ones we love most: they’re damaged, prickly, and set in their ways…But comfort and isolation are not where the surprises are. They are not where hope is.” Lamott’s books are not for those who find comfort in platitudes. She always pulls up the rug and examines what’s underneath – things that are often both funny and distressing. She meanders here and there in this book, but always circles around to remind us what binds people together in friendships and communities. Stitches can be read in a single afternoon, and you might not remember that you were waiting for Spring – or anything else at all.