Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell

Everyone was talking about the film a few months ago, but I wanted to read the book first. It starts with a chilling scene: Ree Dolly, in thin cotton dress and combat boots standing on the front steps buffetted by the wind of an approaching snowstorm, staring at deer carcasses hanging from trees across the creek. The meat belongs to relatives who may or may not share it with sixteen-year-old Ree and her two younger brothers. In any case, the children won't ask for it, but will instead make do with grits.

This is not a scene from one of Margaret Bourke-White's Depression-era photos of poverty in the rural South. This is the present-day in the Ozarks where drugs are everywhere and many children are “dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean.” There may be two hundred Dollys and even more other kin within thirty miles of their valley, but Ree is on her own when it comes to protecting her family. Her mother is sunk in dementia while her father, Jessup, has gone off when the walnuts were falling, without leaving money, food, or a woodpile for winter, telling Ree to look for him when she sees him.

Woodrell's economical prose captures life in this remote valley without sentimental hand-wringing, with just the calm clarity of purpose that moves Ree through her day. He summons characters with a single sentence: “Jessup was a broken-faced, furtive man given to uttering quick pleading promises that made it easier for him to walk out the door and be gone, or come back inside and be forgiven.”

When Jessup last walked out the door, he was out on bail from his latest arrest for cooking crank. The local deputy, whose wife went to school with Ree's mother, shows up at the cabin to inform Ree that Jessup's court date is in a week. Ree isn't concerned until the deputy tells her that Jessup put the house and land up for his bond, so if he doesn't show up in court, the place will be sold out from under them.

Ree's search for her father leads her to various places, to people who might be kin but are as likely to shoot you as look at you. Help is rare, squeezed out of these rocky lives, but all the more welcome when it comes, unexpected and hard to recognise. There are slanting references to the family's distant past: a charismatic preacher and a reckoning that tore the family apart into today's mistrustful schisms, references that add what Tolkein called “shimmer” to the icy hills and creek-cut valleys.

I fell into Ree's life with the first sentence and didn't emerge until the last page. This is the great gift of fiction: it enables us to inhabit someone else's life. I might have thought Woodrell exaggerated the poverty, the careless disregard for children's welfare, if I hadn't read Jeannette Walls's extraordinary memoir, The Glass Castle.

This weekend's unseasonably early snowfall only made the book that much more appropriate. We are so protected. Whatever hardships we face—and we all face hardships—they are nothing compared to the bleak poverty portrayed in this novel. Now I'm ready to see the film.

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

Jackson Brodie returns! Atkinson entered the list of my favorite authors with her first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and each new book has only confirmed my opinion of her writing. This is her fourth book featuring now-retired private investigator Jackson Brodie. The first is currently being televised by Masterpiece, starring Jason Isaacs as Brodie.

To give some structure to what he calls his “semiretired” life, Brodie is criss-crossing Britain in search of his second wife, Tessa, who has absconded with most of the fortune he unexpectedly inherited. Or perhaps he is searching for a home. He is also making a point of visiting all of the Bettys Tea Rooms. “If Britain had been run by Bettys it would never have succumbed to economic Armageddon,” he muses. I've been to the mothership in Harrogate, and I agree. He is also “bagging the ruined abbeys of Yorkshire on his journey” which brought back strong memories of my first visit to Fountains.

Too much? Tessa, fortune, Bettys, abbeys—keep up! This is how I feel reading a Kate Atkinson book: as though she is laughing and dancing ahead of me down the path turning now and then to say Keep up! In most thrillers, the ever-accelerating action creates the drive that sweeps you through to the last page. With Atkinson, it is the pace of her mind that makes me feel like I'm in a Mini barreling blind down narrow, curved Yorkshire lanes. The tumbling allusions and half-quotations pile on top of each other—keep up!—and make me pay attention. Quick references to the Spice Girls, the laconic Captain Oates, Mother Goose, Paul Simon, Poussin (and from the Poussin, at least for me, it's only a short step to Brideshead and Castle Howard): I don't get all of the references, but enough to admire the agility and scope of Atkinson's writing.

I also admire her use of just the right words. For example, when Brodie's young son falls asleep on his father's lap “The soft, sandbag weight of his boy in his arms was disturbing.” Perfect! And the book is about children, given Brodie's accidental métier of searching for lost children. The story starts with Tracy Waterhouse, moving neatly between a murder in 1975 when she was just a WPC and the present day when she's retired from the force as a detective superintendent and heads up security at a shopping mall. Also in the mall is Tilly, an aging actress suffering from the beginnings of undiagnosed dementia, and Brodie who in a fit of chivalry has acquired a dog.

The title comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson which seems to have some obvious parallels with the story. Brodie, who has recently started reading Dickinson's poetry, does have a dog now and likes to start the day early: “It was good to get a march on the day. Time was a thief and Jackson felt he gained a small triumph by stealing back some of the early hours.” The deeper parallels lie within our understanding of the poem, one of Dickinson's more ambiguous ones. I've seen a variety of interpretations claiming that it's about death or fear of love or the constellation Orion. Maybe the poem is just playful, or maybe fear and danger lurk beneath the playfulness. All very appropriate for the further adventures of Jackson Brodie.

Saidie May: Pioneer of Early 20th Century Collecting, by Susan Helen Adler

Saidie May and her sister, Blanche Adler, collected art not for their own use but to donate to museums for the benefit of the public. Cousins of the Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta, who bequeathed their amazing collection of Impressionist art to the Baltimore Museum of Art, Saidie and Blanche traveled to France frequently and befriended the struggling artists they met there. Knowing that the Cones planned to leave their collection to the BMA, the sisters concentrated on collecting more modern art that would complement and carry forward the Cone collection. In addition to the many works of art they donated, they gave generously to the BMA throughout their lifetime, Blanche volunteering with the curatorial department before serving as Vice-President of the Board of Trustees and Saidie funding an entire wing to be used for introducing children to art.

Saidie and Blanche grew up in a wealthy Jewish family in Baltimore. Their father, Charles Adler had emigrated from Germany in 1856 and, with Henry Frank, built a shoe manufacturing business that enabled the family to live in a fine house in Bolton Hill and send the three youngest children, including Blanche and Saidie, to private school. They traveled back to Germany often, taking the children. Saidie's early adult life was one of marriage and domesticity but, prefiguring the changes to women's roles in the 20th century, after an amicable divorce she chose a life of art and independence. She, herself, was an artist, challenging herself to learn new techniques and try new forms right up until her death, though she recognised that her talent was not in the same league as the artists whose work she collected.

Throughout her life, she gave generously to individual artists for schooling, living expenses, art supplies, or costs related to a show. During World War II she paid for passage out of Occupied France for many Jewish artists, working with the American Rescue Committee, and acted as sponsor, providing the guarantee of support required by the U.S.

At the same time, she carried on with her life in the U.S., moving from one luxurious resort to another, painting and purchasing new works for the BMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the San Diego Art Museum. I found it a little disconcerting to read about her brilliant social life interspersed with accounts of the war and harrowing escapes from Marseilles, but of course life did go on, even during wartime. And it's a good reminder of how isolated the U.S. was from the fighting. Easy enough, even today, to go about one's life without remembering the wars our military are currently fighting.

This is an engaging book, a quick read even though it is a factual account of Saidie May's life. The extensive research indicated by proper footnotes lends authority to the work. The numerous illustrations support the text and add to the interest. Period photos and postcards evoke an earlier time.

It was a time when the rich used at least some of their wealth to benefit society, establishing libraries, museums, and charitable foundations. Today's super-rich, rivalling and outdistancing the greatest railroad fortunes of a hundred years ago, don't seem to have the same ethic. Some do, of course, such as the Meyerhoff family, Harry and Jeanette Weinberg, and Mary Catherine Bunting in Baltimore alone.

And it's not like everyone can't help. I continue to be inspired by Bea Gaddy, a former welfare recipient who used her home as a donation point for food and clothing for the poor and later as a homeless shelter. She parlayed a small lottery win—$290—into an annual Thanksgiving dinner, free to all comers, and made a point of inviting the whole city, rich and poor. Come on down, all you lonely folks in Roland Park she'd say. You're welcome, too. Since her death in 2001 her daughters have carried on her work, enabling the Bea Gaddy Family Center to continue to serve the community and carry on the Thanksgiving tradition.

Saidie May has joined my pantheon of inspirational heroes. It's true that she had the wealth to give herself a room of her own, but she devoted her life to sharing it with all of us.

In the Temple of a Patient God, by Bejan Matur

Matur's poems ache with power. Her words and images barely control the deep, rumbling force that threatens to explode in blinding light. A Kurdish Alevi from Southeastern Turkey, she draws on that dark heritage of war and defeat and loss and exile to create the poems in this collection, selected from her four books published in Turkey. Perhaps related to that loss is the fact that she writes in Turkish, not the Kurdish of her childhood. In the Introduction, Maureen Freely says that Matur “talks of the way in which dead languages lurk inside living languages.”

Freely also talks of the grief followed by grief, the secrets embedded in Matur's images. These poems burn with a depth of suffering and emotion few of us know in a lifetime, a loss not only of home and family, but of history itself. The extraordinary sixteen-part poem “Winds Howl through the Mansions” tells an epic story in its few pages of clipped fragments, each so full of meaning and yet broken and obscure that I found myself reading and rereading. The mother is “a tattooed oak”, “a rootless oak/Silent, now and then weeping.” The contradiction between adjective and noun—that an oak, the most sturdy and stable of trees, should be rootless!—adds to the power inherent in the exile, the deaths that have occurred and the deaths that are to come. Matur also adds the precise detail that carries emotional weight: when the children are taken away “Our necks ached with looking round/Our eyes narrowed at every bend.” I thought of Hansel and Gretel with their futile breadcrumbs.

These poems have the power of stone, a stone that has been cut and cut again until it presents a puzzle that only the reader can complete. Fragmented and ambiguous, they leave a great space for us to fill, such as this complete section from “The Island, Myself and the Laurel”:


Shadow of a great forest, the voices of gods,

no one left here from the sea,

Desire pierces their eyes like a knife

and never leaves.

The multiple meanings of “left” echo in these lines. Some of her poems are quite short, but like haiku, they contain a world of meaning. One of my favorites is this one:


Stones too need loneliness.

And olive trees

and the inside of houses where dark shadows lurk.

She manages to say so much with so few words. The idea of needing loneliness is odd enough, but that these particular things should need it, and that the house should need to be qualified with dark shadows—the juxtaposition so shakes me that I find myself imagining an entire existence previously unknown to me.

The title alone would have persuaded me to buy the book. I stood in the LRB Bookstore in London pondering the idea of a patient god, the possibilities multiplying until my head spun. I turned to the poem from which the title is taken, seeking enlightenment, and found more images, such as: “And rain the river of homelessness/reminds us of god and childhood.” The metaphor alone is startling enough, but the meaning she draws from it knocks me even further off-balance. Yet the poem in its austerity and proliferation of images does come together. Enlightenment, indeed.

These are poems I will come back to again and again.

Innocent Blood, by P.D. James

Now that Philippa has turned eighteen, she can request that her adoption file be opened so that she can learn about her birth parents. A supremely self-confident young woman, she's applied to the Registrar General by herself, without telling her adoptive parents. Maurice Palfrey is rather famous as a writer and teacher of sociology and blessed with wealth inherited from his first wife, daughter of an earl. His second wife, formerly his secretary, is a timid woman who is only truly happy in her kitchen.

What Philippa has been told is that she the daughter of a servant from the earl's estate in Wiltshire, a parlor maid who got in trouble. Philippa even remembers being at the estate as a child, in a rose garden, and an older man coming towards her in the mellow light. From that memory she has constructed a story that her father is actually the old earl. Finally she is on the verge of finding out the truth.

I'm on a bit of a crime spree, I guess. It seems odd, if not perverse, that I should find mysteries so relaxing. It is not for the thrill of the chase, nor for the gladiator-like showdown of the detective with the criminal(s). I don't enjoy gruesome details of the horrible things people can do to each other and find lengthy descriptions of the victim's torture almost pornographic. Anyway, I don't need fiction for that, unfortunately.

With that said, I will eagerly read the most gruesome murder mysteries if the writing is good. And that's one clue as to why I like mysteries: the writing is often just so darn good. And I know pretty much what to expect from the authors I read. That alone makes reading them relaxing. I know the formulas by now for the different genres of mystery, although if the writing is good enough I only note the formulaic structure in the remotest corner of my mind. I mostly try new authors based on recommendations from others, though sometimes I'll pick something up just because it looks interesting.

And there are some writers, like P.D. James, whose every book is simply excellent. Often, as in this book, the actual crime is almost incidental to the story. One of the fascinating aspects of this book is its exploration of the long-term consequences of a crime. Other mysteries end when the crime is solved and the perpetrator arrested. Here Philippa's path gives us a taste of what happens afterwards, to the killers as well as to their family and that of the victim.

This book is about the stories we tell ourselves, not just about our personal history but about the world around us. I cannot think of a theme more pertinent to our time. Often, reading or listening to political commentators or friends with views different from mine, I wonder where they've gotten the stories they tell to explain why things are the way they are and what we should therefore do about them. Perhaps someone has given them incorrect information. Perhaps they are letting fear or desire for political power override logic. Perhaps I'm the one whose stories are mistaken. Whatever it is, the consequences for our country have been dreadful.