Books, Boston, October

Well, Dear Readers, I’ve had quite the literary month, getting out and about much more than I usually do in my quiet life. Perhaps you’d like the rundown? If so:

Hamlet: Yes, that one. I thought, London travel not exactly in my budget, that Benedict Cumberbatch as the brooding Dane was not a performance I’d be able to see. And then by chance I heard it was going to show in movie theaters, after which I promptly bought the last two tickets for that showing.

Verdict: Very good. Mr. Cumberbatch was intense, thrilling, athletic, funny, outshining most of the cast with the exception of the fabulous Ciarán Hinds (aka Frederick Wentworth in the only film adaptation of Persuasion you need to see) as Claudius. I wasn’t sold on this production’s take on Ophelia (played a bit unhinged before Polonius’s death), but her final exit was remarkably well done. I agree with the review my husband told me about later that suggested the play was overproduced after intermission. Still, nice set design, and I liked the costuming, which seemed like a bit of an homage to various earlier interpretations of the play. Funniest Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?) I’ve ever seen.

I hear it’s coming back to theaters; if so, do go.

Nick Offerman: Okay, technically he was doing his humorist act (sans spouse Megan Mullally, sigh), but I’m calling this literary since he’s written two books (one of which is waiting on my nightstand/bookshelf to be read) and he’s in rehearsals for a Boston theatrical adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces.

Verdict: Very Good. Funny (of course), with ridiculous songs, anecdotes, life advice, talk of woodworking, etc. Basically, it was like watching an alternate-universe version of Ron Swanson who actually enjoys the company of others. Best moment: He didn’t mention Parks & Rec until the very end (and you know how much I love that show, right?), but then had the entire audience singing along to “Bye, Bye Lil’ Sebastian.” Yeah, it was amazing.

Boston Book Festival

This is the first year I’ve been able to spend more than ten minutes at the BBF, and I’m very glad I did, though I din’t see much of the vendors (magazines, small presses, etc.) since they tore down pretty early on Saturday evening (just after 5). However . . .

Margaret Atwood in conversation with Kelly Link: So happy I got tickets this summer, because the crowd was huge (and appreciative).

Verdict: Excellent. Margaret Atwood is hilarious–just truly, wickedly funny, and Kelly Link was understatedly comic as she asked really interesting questions. I was expecting the conversation to focus mostly on The Heart Goes Last, Ms. Atwood’s most recent book, but instead it ranged over her childhood reading habits, how she approaches writing (like going into a dark wood, and with a character or scene in mind, not a message), reading the Victorians, and more. Wonderful. And bonus: both writers did a signing afterward, and Ms. Atwood signed my 1970 copy of an early book of poems (yes, I did tell her that I liked her Milton references in the new book, and she said “I’m glad.” Swoon).

James Wood: Mr. Wood is a professor at Harvard and a literary critic for the New Yorker; some would argue (and have) that he’s the foremost literary critic writing in English. His approach is aesthetic rather than, say, historical or psychological.

Verdict: Very good. I haven’t heard an academic talk in quite some time, and this one was geared toward a wide audience, but one that would understand references to Flaubert and Nabokov, for instance. Mr. Wood talked about detail in fiction—why details stick with us after we read, how they function, why they function. Fascinating (and just when I was starting to worry that he wasn’t going to mention any woman writers, he referred to nearly half a dozen). He also did a signing at the end of the event, which was delightful since I’d just picked up his new book (The Nearest Thing to Life).

Colum McCann in conversation with Claire Messud: Amazingly, given how popular these two authors are, this event wasn’t ticketed, but there was once more a lively and interested crowd (great job by the BBF organizers in making sure the audio was top-notch). Colum McCann’s most lauded book to date is probably Let the Great World Spin (I haven’t read it, but loved Everything in This Country Must). Claire Messud is an acclaimed novelist, most recently of The Woman Upstairs (she also happens to be married to James Wood, who spoke just before this event).

Verdict: Good. The writers are friends and former colleaugues, which made for a relaxed rapport. Mr. McCann read from his new book (Thirteen Ways of Looking), and while his reading was very well done and affecting, I though it slowed down the pace of the conversation. I was interested to learn about the charity called Narrative 4 that he works co-founded, and saddened to hear of a terrible incident in which he was brutally beaten for trying to stop a man from beating his wife.

Amanda Palmer interviewed by Neil Gaiman: I’ll be honest with you, Dear Readers: I came for Neil Gaiman, one of the most reliably readable authors working today. And charming and philanthropic and all that good stuff. To be honest, I had, before hearing this talk, almost no opinion on Amanda Palmer (Mr. Gaiman is her husband), though I know she provokes Feelings of all sorts in various people (generally love or hate, from what I can tell).

Verdict: Very good. Ms. Palmer talked about the process of writing her memoir, The Art of Asking, and seemed no more self-indulgent than anyone else who’s interested in writing a memoir. She was genuine, honest (as far as this listener could tell), amusing, and shared a charming rapport with Mr. Gaiman. At the end of the talk, I decided I’d rather like to read her book, so well done there. Bonus: An appearance by Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings, which I commend to you; Ms. Popova has every metaphysician/Jeopardy nerd’s dream job), tempered slightly by I think a too-rosy view of Thoreau. Bonus 2: Ms. Palmer sang, and I loved her voice, which I was hearing for the first time (yes, your friendly neighborhood blogger was not cool enough to be listening to the Dresden Dolls in high school).

[Boston book blogging friends: Meet up next year at the 2016 Boston Book Festival?]

Whew. And that’s all she wrote. For now.

“larklike over the wheat”: Ted Kooser’s “So This Is Nebraska”

Photo courtesy of Jordan McQueen via Unsplash.

Photo courtesy of Jordan McQueen via Unsplash.

It’s been hot in Boston this week, certainly more hot than I like (which, to be fair, is not very hot at all), but not as hot as it could be. One of the hottest days I remember involved driving through Nebraska in summertime, years ago, when the temperature outside was 106 degrees. I don’t think I’ve seen a thermometer hit that temperature in all the years since.

“So This is Nebraska,” by former poet laureate Ted Kooser, describes that kind of hot day, though with far more attention to detail than I can conjure from memory. And oddly enough, it made me feel a little cooler.

By the way, there’s a bar before the poem that has a recording of Ted Kooser reading the poem. It’s great.

Recommended Reading: Stir, by Jessica Fechtor

IMG_3839One of the pleasures of reading, the truism goes, is the pleasure of recognition. We see in characters or settings or allusions or experiences something  we know, which opens up into a whole host of secondary associations. And this is in addition to the delights of reading, in the first place, the text on the page, which the author has written without knowing just what kinds of associations it will call up in readers.

This brings me to Jessica Fechtor’s moving memoir, Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home*, which is out today, and which was so peppered with moments of recognition for me that I kept nodding in appreciation (more on this in a little while).

When she was twenty-eight, Ms. Fechtor’s calm, happy life veered quite suddenly off course. On a run one morning, an aneurysm in her brain burst, and suddenly the Harvard graduate student found herself close to death. Over the next few months, she endured multiple surgeries and infections (which left her with a facial deformity), lost the sight in one eye, and found she couldn’t taste anymore. Her plans to start a family with her husband were put on hold, as was her dissertation.

This is one of the best narratives of illness (and recovery) that I’ve ever read, in part because Ms. Fechtor gives readers not just the story of her illness, but of her life before it; a bit about her childhood, more about her time in college, and most of all about the charming love story she shares with Eli, her husband. Her family and friends make this book come alive, their support for Ms. Fechtor a testament not only to their loyalty and steadfastness, but to the love she inspires in them.

As a narrator, she’s a careful, unflinching examiner of both joy and pain, and her own thinking:

I was furious with myself […] for ever thinking that health was something I could count on. I’d always had excellent luck and my genes were enviable. No broken bones, maybe one cold a year, great-grandmothers and great-great aunts who lived into their nineties. I took care of myself. I ate oatmeal and kale. I flossed. I followed the rules that were supposed to keep me safe.

Don’t get me wrong–I’d imagined illness. Critical, devastating, out-of-nowhere illness. I was right there in the imagined hospital rooms of my worst nightmares, alongside Eli or a parent or a friend. Only I was never the one in bed. I was the big-hearted helper, the devoted cheerleader. I brought the cookies. (148)

When it turns out that she’s the patient in the bed, it was eating and cooking that helped Ms. Fechtor pave a way forward from the terrifying experience. Food and illness are always linked, of course; food helps us get well, or signals that we’re well, or tells someone we wish them well (who hasn’t delivered a casserole?). In Stir, Ms. Fechtor shares more than twenty-five recipes that have been meaningful to her, from a simple tomato soup, to her mother-in-law’s cholent and kugel, to pan-roasted salmon and baked apricots with cardamom pistachios. I loved the recipe-writing here: there’s enough backstory to give a sense of connection to the recipe’s origins, and enough detail to be precise and helpful, but they’re never overwrought.

And you know the recipes are going to be good, because Ms. Fechtor is the force behind the blog Sweet Amandine, which she started during her recovery as a distraction from all the trappings of illness (as she points out, “Being sick is like walking around with a microscope strapped to your face at all times with your own body squished beneath the slide” [187].). It’s a gorgeous blog (this is coming from someone who used to be a food blogger), and I highly recommend it, unless you’re hungry and lacking the prospect of a good meal in the near future.

The recipes are part of the recognition I was talking about at the beginning of this review; there’s a cookie recipe from the Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge (one town over from where I live), a recipe for a gorgeous golden-clear chicken broth that reminds me of the matzoh ball soup my best friend’s mother makes (Hi, Mrs. Klein!), and—wait for it—Corbo’s cassata cake.

Cleveland readers know what I’m talking about: an unbelievably decadent white cake with layers of custard, strawberries, and whipped cream. It’s a cake that has bittersweet associations for me, but I’d still never turn down a slice.

The cake makes an appearance in the book because Ms. Fechtor grew up in Cleveland; I did too, as you’ve probably gathered. And our graduate student years overlapped in adjacent towns, so all the Boston landmarks, culinary and otherwise, resonated with me, as did quite a few other details. And her meditations on what it’s like to be sick struck a nerve for me as well.

I loved Stir for all those pings of recognition, for the recipes, for Ms. Fechtor’s charming, serious, and thoughtful voice. And I’m grateful to have read it because she articulated something I’ve wanted and failed to say for years. Predictably, she started hearing “everything happens for a reason” from well-meaning people trying to offer solace. But, she writes,

I don’t see it that way at all. To me, only the first part is clear: Everything happens. Then other things happen, and other things, still. Out of each of these moments, we make something. Any number of somethings, in fact.

What comes of our own actions becomes the “reason.” It is no predestined thing. We may arrive where we are by way of a specific path—we can take just one at a time—but it’s never the only one that could have led to our destination. Nor does a single event, even a string of them, point decisively to a single landing spot. There are infinite possible versions of our lives. Meaning is not what happens, but what we do with what happens when it does. (106)

Stir is a wonderful book, one that I highly recommend. One day, almost certainly, we’ll all find ourselves as the patient in the bed, or the one bringing the cookies. This book will help either way.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

I’ve been waiting weeks to work on this poem, with its famous final lines.

Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,”  from her 1990 book House of Light, just sings summer, and now summer’s here (with the accompanying mid-90s temperatures here in Boston), it’s time to learn it.

I’m slowly reading the whole volume, and I can’t believe that for years I’ve missed that Ms. Oliver is perhaps the best-known and most widely read poet in this country. A native of Northeast Ohio, Ms. Oliver now resides on Cape Cod (her poems celebrate its interior marshes more than its seashore), and since I grew up in Cleveland and now live in Boston (and married a man from Cape Cod), her poems often feel homey and familiar to me. I love the intimacy of her observations, the feeling, almost, of conversation. This feeling of casual grace is remarkable, because elsewhere Ms. Oliver has written that she revises most poems forty or fifty times!

If you’d like to recommend a favorite poet, please leave a comment! Who knows how many lovely voices I’ve been missing . . .