This past winter, instead of non-fiction, I read mostly novels.
To say I’m impressed with an author’s imagination, is an understatement.
Where do they come from, these woven tales to make the reader’s own imagination dance with possibility?
Hemingway said, when you sit down to write, your page a blank canvas, that’s when God picks up his pen.
That’s a good enough explanation for me.
It started with To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize novel after it opened on Broadway, realizing I had never read it. They sure don’t make men like Atticus Finch anymore, along with his daughter, Scout, its narrator, who crawls into your heart like a nestled kitten. It shows you, being a person of color in the south during The Great Depression, pretty much meant, you were dealt a bad hand.
This brings me to Winston Graham (1908-2003), an English novelist who penned the Poldark Series, 12 volumes starting with The Renegade (1945), ending with Bella Poldark (2002), and yes, I’ve read them all falling into practically a postpartum depression at their conclusion.
All taking place in Cornwall, England, starting in 1783 at the end of the Revolutionary War, when Ross Poldark, presumed dead after fighting for the British, comes back to Nampara, his family home, finding his ladylove promised to a close cousin. He then meets the fiery Demelza, the true love of his life, the turbulent saga ending in 1820, when Bella, their youngest child, completes their epic story.
Neither me nor the BBC who made a series of it, can truly do it justice. All I know is, if Mr. Graham were still here, I’d be cooing at his feet.
I managed, in-between gallops through the Cornwall countryside, to read a few memoirs, three I especially enjoyed, all by food writer, Elissa Altman.
I read them backwards, finding Motherland (2019) on my library shelf like a beacon, reminding me, my mother wasn’t the only screwball on the planet, since, she too had one.
This led me to, Treyf (2016), Yiddish for unclean, in slang, meaning junk. You learn what it was like growing up in the 60s, Jewish, and gay, even if you didn’t know it yet, though you knew you weren’t quite like the other girls, with a dad who loved food, and a mom who never ate, which brings me to Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire and the Art of Simple Cooking (2013) that started it all. Altman’s candor, compassion and humor laced through, is like winning the trifecta of memoir.
Toil and Trouble…Augusten Burroughs (2019), bringing candor to a scary level, his latest share on growing up with a mother claiming to be a witch, a trait he now claims as his own. A little fanciful, yet entertaining, making me pick up his first tell-all, Running With Scissors (2002), that was so disturbing, my childhood seeming Amish in comparison.
The Year of the Monkey…Patti Smith (2019). Another candid creature whose recollection of the final days of playwright, Sam Shepherd, will have you weeping on both their behalves. His for bravely facing the perils of ALS without a complaint nor whimper, and hers having to helplessly watch her friend of so many years, stoically suffer, humility stalking every page.
Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge…Shelia Weller (2019). An intense biography of another type of suffering, this one wrapped firmly around the tentacles of mental illness. One of the most talented, accomplished women of our time, who just couldn’t beat her torment, much of it, being bipolar, out of her hands.
Notre Dame…Ken Follett (2019). On April 15th, 2019, a fire broke out at the 857 year-old Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France, almost destroying it. This short read gives a brief but compelling recap of its history, all proceeds going to its rebuilding. It’s humbling when you think, even God’s house isn’t necessarily safe.
The Liberation of Paris: How Eisenhower, de Gaulle, and Von Cholitz Saved the City of Light…Jean Edward Smith (2019). An author, who wrote a great book on U.S. Grant (2001), sweeps you through the last days of the Nazi Occupation before the allies come marching in. His prose is spare, no bogging down with dull data clouding what’s important, like how even some Germans knew, blowing up Paris to please their deranged fuhrer, was not the best idea. A great peek into the final stretch of World War II.
The Congressman Who Got Away With Murder…Nat Brandt (1991). On February 27, 1859, Daniel Edgar Sickles, in cold blood, killed Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key, in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park for having relations with his wife. It was the first case of Temporary Insanity ever tried in the United States putting it into law, Sickles being acquitted, represented by Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s future Secretary of War. Dan, redeeming himself during the Civil War fighting for the union, is buried at Arlington.
Brave Companions: Portraits in History…David McCullough (1992). The John Lennon of historians…17 essays spanning subjects from the building of the Panama Canal and Brooklyn Bridge, Teddy Roosevelt and the Old West, and a peek into Washington D.C., making you want to hop on the next train expecting John Quincy Adams there meet you. A literary swoon.
Touched by the Sun…Carly Simon (2019), about her close friendship with Jackie Kennedy Onassis. I can never pass up a Kennedy book, and this one though short and sweet, gives you a glimpse of two women who simply liked each other, the one left, missing, the one, now gone.
Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends…Ash Carter and Sam Kashner (2019). So many poignant stories and quotes spanning a career that will keep you in awe. Talk about a legacy, a man not only gifted, but truly loved. At the end, you’ll feel as if you too were a friend of Mike’s.
Elizabeth…J. Randy Taraborelli (2006). Elizabeth Taylor had a life that almost seems made up, starting with a stage mother who pushed her only daughter into stardom like a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral.
Toss in 8 husbands, illness upon illness, censored by the Vatican for a scandalous love affair with Richard Burton while both married, casually bankrupting 20th Century Fox for her wild extravagance during the lavish making of the film, Cleopatra, and you’ll have a book you can’t put down.
Mr. Taraborelli, who penned Jackie, Janet and Lee (2018), and The Kennedy Heirs (2019), is a smooth, tell-all writer that makes it seem perfectly permissible being privy to someone’s dirty laundry, softening it with humanity. Don’t know how he does it.
This brings me to The Last Interview and Other Conversations Series…31 short, concise books containing the best and last words ever spoken by an illustrious group that includes, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, Nora Ephron, Anthony Bourdain, Christopher Hitchens, James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Frida Kahlo, David Bowie, Julia Child, Lou Reed and Martin Luther King.
You’ll cherish them, as if they came back to life, one last time.
Like being on a stamp, you have to be dead to be considered, but hey, there’s a downside to everything.
Reading…it’s right up there with a good canoodle, baseball and apple pie. 🙂
I hesitated posting this, but books can comfort us during this bewildering time.