Paris, by Edward Rutherfurd

Paris

In my virtual travels this winter I’ve most recently been in Venice; before that I was in Paris for several weeks. Rutherfurd’s book had been on my shelf for a long time, so that was a great opportunity to read it.

Like his other books that I’ve enjoyed, London and Sarum, this big book follows a handful of families from the earliest days of the city (here 1261) to the modern day (1968). The families vary: thieves, nobles, merchants, craftsmen. As they act and interact, we get to know the history of Paris itself, highlighting important events but more importantly taking us into their daily lives. We walk the streets with them, navigate the surge of Protestantism, mount the barricades, help build the Eiffel tower, hide a downed RAF pilot.

There’s a Jewish family that includes a physician, an antique dealer and an art dealer, through whose eyes we see the shifting political and social winds that dictate their lives, seeing the effects on individuals as tolerance veers into pogroms.

There are Brits and Canadians, tying France to the Western world and introducing the effects of immigration. There are country houses and political refuges that bring in regions outside the city.

I loved getting to know the city, relying heavily on the maps in the front of the book (as well as the family trees). Never having been there, I was always a little unclear about the geography, but now I have a good sense of it. It was also fascinating to see how the character of individual neighborhoods changed over the centuries. The Marais, for example, housed the Templars starting in 1240 which led to many churches also being built there. Royal palaces and aristocratic mansions proliferated. After the French Revolution, though, with the nobility gone, the mansions deteriorated and the area became home to Jewish and working class families. The Marais began to be rehabilitated in the 1960s and now hosts numerous art galleries.

In Rutherfurd’s novel, each of these transformations is tied to individuals and families. We escape in the middle of the night with Jacob and his family and later sell our paintings with Marc Blanchard. One of the most fascinating parts for me was Thomas Gascon’s work building the Eiffel Tower where I for the first time grasped what an engineering marvel it was, the vision of its architect Gustave Eiffel, and the courage of the men who built it.

You may start this book as I did intending to learn about the history and geography of this remarkable city. But I defy you to resist getting swept up in the stories of these individuals, their dreams and passions, their choices and chances. If stories really are the way we best remember things, as current research tells us, then what better way to learn about Paris than through these stories?

What book about or set in Paris have you read?

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones

sister

This debut novel with an intriguing title is set in Barbados in 1984 where Lala makes a living braiding hair for tourists on the beach. She lives right there in a rickety shack with her husband Adan, a petty thief. Eight months pregnant, she strains to manage the steep, railingless stairs to their home.

When she goes into labor she struggles through the night looking for her husband. Washing up against a gate in the tourist enclave, she rings the bell, only to have Adan himself appear. As they race to the hospital on his bicycle, Lala hears a scream, one that will echo in her throughout the book.

We move between Lala and Mira Whalen, originally a poor white from Barbados, whose wealthy white English husband Peter has been killed in a bungled robbery. The couple has come to Barbados on holiday, Peter hoping to win back Mira’s love after she’s had an affair. Even as the two women highlight the differences between wealthy tourists and poverty-stricken Bajans, Mira’s grief and regret resonate with Lala’s increasing recognition of the mistake she made in marrying the sociopathic Adan.

Jones deftly weaves in stories of Lala and Mira’s mothers and grandmothers and how their lives echo—or not—their daughters’. Jones also brings in other other characters such as Adan’s friend Tone, whose concern for others contrasts with Adan’s violence.

And there is a lot of violence. This is a terrible and devastating story, certainly centering on threats women face, but also touching on men and the things they are driven to do. We move back and forth in time, unearthing secrets buried too long, coming to know all these characters. This book is a brilliant example of how to bring in backstory: only telling us a story from the past when we need it to understand something that is happening in the present.

I listened to the audio book, not sure at first how far I wanted to go into such a story, but found myself riveted by the prose and seduced by narrator Danielle Vitalis‘s voice. It was so soft and lilting, so gentle that I sometimes had to shake myself to remember that these were stories of abuse and injustice and helplessness in the face of danger.

My only quibble with the book is that the ending tied everything up a little too fast and a little too neatly.

If you are willing to face the underside of life on a Caribbean island and recognise that poverty’s insults and injuries aren’t that different even in paradise, this is the book for you. Gorgeous prose, great pacing, vivid characters: this first novel has it all, if you can bear it.

What first novel have you read that you thought brilliant?

Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright

thimble

With all the political turmoil here in the U.S. last week, I turned for comfort to this middle-grade novel by the author of the Melendy Quartet (The Saturdays, etc.) and one of my favorites from childhood: Gone-Away Lake.

First published in 1939 and winner of the Newbery Medal that year, Thimble Summer is the story of nine-year-old Garnet Linden who finds a silver thimble in a dried-up waterbed. She wonders if it might be magical, and indeed that night rain finally comes to her family’s drought-stricken farm, saving their crops.

Depression-era Wisconsin is beautifully captured in this story, as is life on a small family farm. Garnet adopts the runt in a litter of pigs to raise and by the end of the summer is ready to show him at the fair. The joy of a dip in the river after a day in the fields or threshing is captured with imagery appropriate for someone of Garnet’s age.

It’s not all swimming holes and ice cream cones. During an all-night vigil tending the lime kiln that must be continually stoked if they are to have the necessary lime to build their new barn, a mysterious figure appears in the woods. It turns out to be a boy not that much older than Garnet who, left parentless, has been hitchhiking around the country taking jobs as a farmworker when necessary. The Lindens ask him to stay on to help with building the barn, wanting the help but mostly wanting to feed the undernourished boy.

In another adventure, Garnet and her friend Citronella stay too long at the library and are locked in for the night. What starts out as a fun adventure gradually becomes something more, as Enright expertly channels the mind and heart of a young girl.

Last week someone who is writing a memoir questioned her right to do so when her life has no terrible tragedies. I have come across this fear in the memoir classes I teach, so I told her that every life, no matter how blessed, has setbacks and difficulties to overcome. Handled well, these create the necessary conflict to drive the story. Memoir doesn’t have to become what some have called the trauma olympics. What matters most is the quality of the writing.

As noted in Anita Silvey’s The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators, in writing this book Enright called on memories of summers spent on Frank Lloyd Wright’s farm in Wisconsin, as well as family stories passed on by her mother and grandmother.

Knowing this adds an extra dimension to the story for me, but truly I was just grateful to be back in the world of my own childhood, happily curled up in a corner of our neighborhood library reading everything from fairy tales and King Arthur stories to books about the adventures of ordinary children like me.

What is a favorite childhood book of yours?

The Charming Quirks of Others, by Alexander McCall Smith

quirks

I’ve been working my way through this series set in Edinburgh featuring Isabel Dalhousie. Well, work isn’t really correct since each story is delightful. As a moral philosopher, Isabel “considers” problems and mysteries that others request her help with. Once someone has asked for her help, she believes she is morally obligated to try.

In this, the seventh entry in the series, Isabel has been asked by the wife of a trustee to help an exclusive boy’s school in their search for a new headmaster. The shortlist contains only three names, but the trustee has received an anonymous letter saying that one of the three has a skeleton in his closet that would disqualify him. Isabel is asked to look into their backgrounds to determine which is the problematic candidate.

After agreeing, despite her fiancé Jamie’s usual objection to her investigations, Isabel is surprised to discover that her niece Cat’s new boyfriend is one of the three. Cat is rather intense, going through boyfriends like candy and frequently arguing with Isabel, yet the young woman runs her successful deli with a firm hand. Jamie was once one of those boyfriends, and his relationship with Isabel—they have a charming toddler and plan to marry imminently—is a constant, if minor, source of tension between Cat and Isabel. However, underneath it all, the two women are devoted to each other.

Isabel practices her philosophy not only as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics and the now-defunct Sunday Philosophy Club of the earlier books in the series, but in every aspect of her life. When one of her former colleagues-cum-enemies on the Review magisterially informs her that he is going to write a review of the new book from his partner in crime—the crime of trying to force Isabel off the magazine—Isabel debates the ramifications of each possible response. If she refuses, would that be seen as an act of vengeance? Should she be generous and forgive the two men for present and past indignities?

She also considers just how generous she ought to be when a tragic young cellist falls for Jamie. Jamie is a bassoonist and rather younger than Isabel which feeds her insecurity about their relationship.

It is this application of philosophy to the smallest details of life that I find intriguing in these books. Many people know the author from his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Like those books, the Dalhousie books belong to what Dave King calls the gentle genre: “straightforward tales of ordinary people in mostly every-day, low-key situations.” Authors like D.E. Stevenson, Miss Read, and James Herriot manage the difficult task of composing these stories that become comfort reads for many of us, without falling into “either banality or saccharine gooeyness.”

The solution Dave King identifies is the use of a small town with many characters interacting, noting that “Even Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street books, technically set in Edinburgh, are limited to a neighborhood that acts in most ways like a small town.” “In fact,” he goes on, “most gentle novels draw their tension from this forced association. The connections with people who think very differently from yourself can help amplify the importance of small things.”

That’s certainly true here, with a variety of characters, some new and some familiar from earlier books. However, it’s the philosophy that elevates Isabel’s stories, not the labored dense prose that I struggled with in Philosophy 101, but a common-sense application of moral considerations to the minutiae of daily life.

Added to that are the descriptions of Edinburgh itself and the surrounding countryside. I recently visited that city for the first time, and I love the memories these books call up. The books aren’t perfect, of course. Jamie and Cat are rather two-dimensional, and Isabel herself doesn’t change much as the series progresses. Also, her rather privileged life may rub some readers the wrong way.

For me, they make a nice counter-balance to my other, more challenging reading. Like Alexander McCall Smith’s other books, these make for perfect bedtime reading, when you want to calm your mind and prepare to enter a world of good dreams.

Which Alexander McCall Smith series is your favorite?

Death in a Strange Country, by Donna Leon

Leon

It’s been a few years since I’ve read the early books in Donna Leon’s mystery series set in Venice. With all the nonfiction books I’ve been reading that are set there, it seemed like a good time to revisit them.

In this second book in the series, Commissario Brunetti is called when a body is pulled out of a canal, apparently the victim of a mugging. It turns out to be an American sergeant, a health inspector from the U.S. base at Vicenza. Brunetti’s superior officer, Vice-Questore Patta, whose only concern is politics, wants the case tied up quickly so tourists are not spooked and the Americans in Vicenza placated. However, Brunetti believes there is much more going on here than a mugging.

As you would expect for a senior police officer, Brunetti is working other cases, including the theft of paintings from a well-connected businessman—someone whom Patta wants to cosy up to.

One of the unusual features of this series is the weight given to Brunetti’s life outside of work, primarily his home life with his astute wife Paola and their two children—sixteen-year-old Raffi and thirteen-year-old Chiara—who are growing up too fast for Brunetti. The theme of parents and children runs through all the storylines here, subtly enough that I didn’t realise it at first.

We might all wish to have a Paola in our lives: a wise counselor who can bring us back to earth when we get carried away or confused, not to mention creating a delicious risotto for dinner. The warmth of their family life—Chiara bargaining to stay up to finish her book, Paola joining Brunetti on the balcony—is lovely, while the occasional irritations or silences keep it realistic.

Writers often talk about making the setting a character in a novel, and certainly Venice is a major character in Leon’s books. The author accomplishes this by incorporating details of the culture and customs as well as the buildings and canals. There are Brunetti’s movements around Venice, stopping for a coffee and noting the slight nod that orders a shot of grappa be added. There’s the game he plays with himself where he rewards himself with a drink when he spots a previously unnoticed architectural detail. And the way a night watchman slips an orange card into the iron grating outside each shop to prove that he has come by.

The evocation of Venice and Brunetti’s life there is more important for me than the mystery. I would be perfectly happy with these books even if there were no mystery at all.

Brunetti’s efforts to solve the mysteries are complicated by the corruption and profiteering in government and business, both deeply intertwined with the mafia (the novel was first published in 1993). Naturally this made me squirm a little, since here in the U.S. these crimes have been flagrantly committed at the highest levels of the government in the last few years.

Much here reminded me of John Berendt’s portrayal of Venice and the shenanigans around rebuilding La Fenice. My understanding of the geography gained from that book and the others I’ve been reading enhanced my enjoyment of this book, filling out my imagination as I traveled the streets and canals of Venice with the commissario, a character with whom I would gladly spend any amount of time.

Have you read a mystery or other novel set in Venice?

The City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt

berendt

Although I’ve traveled to Italy several times, I’ve never been to Venice except in my imagination. I may never get there, given its fragility. Yet this third nonfiction book set there actually makes me feel as though I’ve wandered its narrow streets, listened to the lapping water of the canals, and chatted with the people who live there. The biggest reason for this is Berendt’s captivating prose and the people and their stories he brings to life. I found the endpapers helpful too, with their map of Venice marked with locations from the book.

Berendt, best known for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, arrives in Venice three days after a fire destroys the historic opera house La Fenice on 29 January 1996. His vivid description of the fire draws on first-person accounts, notably that of eight-six-year-old Archimede Seguso, a master artisan of glass sculptures. His family’s home is just across a small canal from the back of La Fenice, but after testing the wind direction Seguso decides there is no danger and they stay watching the mostly wooden structure burn.

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of Notre Dame in Paris, which like La Fenice was undergoing restoration at the time of the fire. How much harder to fight such a fire in Venice, especially since the canal behind the opera house which would normally be used as a source of water by the firefighters had been drained for dredging.

The story of La Fenice runs through the book, the swirling rumors and recriminations, the false starts and failures in rebuilding. Meanwhile Berendt shares with us the other stories he pursues, such as the controversy around Ezra Pound’s papers, said to have been misappropriated by a couple, unconsciously replaying Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, a novel set in Venice.

The author finds people who share extraordinary stories with him, such as this one about Peggy Guggenheim, the last owner of the Unfinished Palazzo: “‘Peggy was notoriously stingy. She hired the city’s corpse collector as her gondolier, because he was available at a better price. She didn’t seem to mind that he serenaded her with funeral dirges and that he was very often drunk.’”

We meet many fascinating present-day (the book was published in 2005) people as well, such as a young man who desperately wants to preserve his family’s life in Palazzo Barbaro, even as the Venetian law that inheritances must be split equally among siblings (one of whom spends his time watching replays of space launches and composing a national anthem for Mars) means they must lose most of it. We meet a man who shares his theory for successful rat poison, which has made him fabulously wealthy, and an elderly aristocrat who is “writing a book proving the existence of reality! It is already two thousand pages long.”

Best of all, we get a sense of how things work (or don’t) in Venice. One person tells the author, “Everything is negotiable in Venice. I mean everything . . . even jail terms . . . You should even get to know a taxi driver, too, because otherwise the rates can be horribly expensive.” Another points out that the murky end to the investigation into the fire is the perfect ending: “ ‘an unsolved mystery . . . It stimulates the imagination, gives people the freedom to make up any scenario they want.’”

That last is a little unsettling given the current climate in the U.S., but the advice Berendt is given at the start of the book sets the tone for his experience: “Everyone in Venice is acting . . . Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say.’” And if that makes you think of the Liar’s Paradox, then welcome to Venice.

Is there a place you’ve always wanted to visit? Have you read a book that seemed to put you there?

A Venetian Affair, by Andrea di Robilant

venetian affair

I’ve been thinking about romance. I’m still on my virtual visit to Venice, which may be the most romantic city in the world.

What I remember of Denis de Rougemont’s classic Love in the Western World—it’s been over forty years since I read it—is that in our western civilisation, the definition of romantic love is one that is doomed (think Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde).

Until relatively recently, marriage was a business relationship, adhering to social and religious rules. The idea of romantic love, while glorified by medieval troubadours, has only lately become a requirement for marriage. It has been argued that adding the weight of passionate love to the already heavy requirements of marriage—a spouse must not only be one’s financial support and partner in raising children, but also one’s best friend and true love—is a reason so many marriages falter.

For me, romance novels end just when they get interesting. Yes, of course, there’s the fun of the chase, the misunderstandings and so forth, but what happens after the wedding? How do the couples fare over the decades to come with all their challenges? That’s why I’m drawn to authors such as Anne Tyler who take the long view of a marriage.

Back to Venice, though. Here we have the true story of a couple’s doomed love. In the mid-1700s, the last decades of the Venetian republic, twenty-four-old aristocrat Andrea Memmo, heir to one of the city’s oldest families, catches sight of beautiful sixteen-year-old Giustiniana Wynne. It is a coup de foudre for both. Sadly, her social position is too much lower than Andrea’s for them to marry.

Not only are both families opposed to the match, but at that time a marriage must be approved by the secular and religious authorities. Giustiniana’s father is dead, and her mother rightly fears that Andrea may ruin her daughter since he cannot marry her, and thus forbids them to see each other.

Of course that only adds fuel to their flame, and they plot one rendezvous after another, creating their own cipher to encrypt their notes. They come up with schemes to persuade their parents and the authorities to allow them to marry.

The story is told through the couple’s letters to each other over their secret seven-year-affair, with historical and cultural context added by the author who is in fact descended from Andrea Memmo. That, too, is something out of a romance: the discovery of a packet of frayed compacted letters found in the attic of Palazzo Mocenigo, the home of the author’s father (It was also Byron’s home when he lived in Venice).

What I loved best about this book was the rich detail of the history, politics and customs in Venice at that time. There are little things, such as the names and meanings given to patches depending on where they are placed on the face, and larger things, such as the need to deal with the Inquisitors. And there are always the palazzos on the Grand Canal, masks and Carnivals. There are also incidental characters, real people such as Casanova, who befriend the young couple and whose letters and memoirs have contributed to the book.

I was afraid the story might be too dry or dull, but I was fascinated by it. I did listen to the audio version narrated by Paul Hecht with the letters from the two lovers read by Lisette Lecat and Jeff Woodman. I don’t know if reading it would have been less engaging. I loved how it added romance and an understanding of eighteenth century Venice to my virtual vacation.

If you want a true account of two star-crossed lovers and their forbidden affair in the mid-eighteenth century, with a vivid rendering of the social and political context, give this book a try.

Help me keep my trip to Venice going. Can you suggest any other stories set there?

The Unfinished Palazzo, by Judith Mackrell

palazzo

To make up for not being able to travel, I’ve been taking virtual trips to various places around the world using books, movies, and online resources. Italy called out to me, so I picked up this nonfiction book, subtitled Life, Love and Art in Venice. It is the story of three women who, in succession, owned a palazzo on the Grand Canal.

The Palazzo Venier was built in the mid-18th century by a powerful Venetian family, but left unfinished because of financial problems and the lack of an heir. Thus it became “il palazzo non finite”.

For wealthy noblewoman Luisa Casati, the dilapidated palazzo held an air of mystery and romanticism that appealed to her. Separated from her husband, Luisa took on lovers, including poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose credo that “one must make one’s own life as one makes a work of art” matched her own efforts to make an ever more spectacular splash in society. In addition to designing her own outrageous costumes and keeping a menagerie of exotic animals, she gave elaborate belle époque parties that made her famous, including one where she rented the Piazza San Marco itself for her guests, with police to keep out locals and tourists.

The 1929 crash combined with Luisa’s expenditures eventually forced her to sell the palazzo. In 1938 it was bought for British socialite Doris Castlerosse, who had gone from working in a shop to being the mistress of powerful men. Her parties too were legendary, as she hosted film stars and royalty such as Cole Porter, Noel Coward, and Prince Philip while recklessly running up debts.

Ten years later it was bought by Peggy Guggenheim, who had fallen in love with Venice some years earlier and was looking for a place to reinvent herself. She remade the palazzo into a living museum for her modern art collection, opening her home to the public on certain days of the week. Dying, she turned it over to the Guggenheim Foundation which has made it into one of the most famous museums in the world.

The three women come to life in this smoothly written book. There’s lots of drama, but it doesn’t slip over into melodrama or tabloid revelations. You’ll run across lots of famous names, but Mackrell’s respect for her characters keeps the story from seeming too gossipy.

I always like to read about independent, creative women. These three were all a bit over the top: I wouldn’t have liked them in real life but found their stories fascinating. Luisa in particular appealed to me, in part because I too in my less spectacular way believe in treating my life as a work of art. Also, I admired her resilience as she found ways to continue doing so even when she had almost no money.

While the story is really about the three women’s lives and very little about Venice or the palazzo itself, it is an enjoyable read, one I recommend, especially to art lovers or those curious about society during the early twentieth century.

What books have you turned to for distraction during a difficult week?

Best Books I read in 2020

Best Books I read in 2020

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the ten best books I read in 2020. In general, this year I gravitated toward books that either comforted me or gave me courage. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Horizon, by Barry Lopez
In this profound and generous book, Lopez looks back over some of the travels that have shaped his understanding and philosophy. We go from Oregon to Antarctica, from Nunavut to Tasmania, from Eastern Equatorial Africa to Xi’an in China. The horizon he explores is physically and metaphorically the line where our known world gives way to air, to the space we still know almost nothing about. That liminal space is where exciting things can happen. The quest for knowledge and understanding—along with compassion—are what I value most in human beings.

2. Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck
The main character of Erpenbeck’s novel is a plot of land by a lake in Brandenburg, and the homes built there, especially a fabulously detailed home built by an architect in the 1930s. The succession of people who live in this house and next door mirror the changes in East Germany during the ensuing decades. Though short, this novel is surprisingly intense. It made me think about what inheritances are passed on and what are lost, about the so-brief time that we inhabit this world that is our home, and how the earth itself, though changed, persists. Our cares and worries, even in this terrible time, will pass.

3. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk
This unusual and fascinating novel explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book. Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages her vocation of astrology, the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing, and the griefs that accumulate over the years. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship.

4. A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell
Subtitled The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, this is a fascinating read. If you thought, as I initially did, that the subtitle is a bit hyperbolic, rest assured that it is not. Born in 1906 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore but preferred adventure to marriage. During WWII, she became one of the first British spies—and the first female—in France where she organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies.

5. Abigail, by Magda Szabó
Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border. Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex.

6. Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson
These stories feature Black women in rural Kentucky, young and old, each with her individual take on the world, her own idea of herself. In every story, Wilkinson demonstrates the writer’s mantra that the personal is universal. These may be Black women in Appalachia, but I saw myself in each of them. Reading their stories has been a gift, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

7. Gellhorn, by Caroline Moorehead
Moorehead’s biography brings the brilliant war correspondent to life, enhanced by the hundreds of letters Gellhorn wrote during her life, openly detailing personal and professional undertakings as well as her own thoughts and feelings. The biography is subtitled A Twentieth-Century Life. Indeed, although she was always out ahead of others, few things could be more emblematic of that turbulent century than the life of this remarkable woman who challenged customary women’s roles, stuck to her own moral code, and worked relentlessly at her chosen métier.

8. The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This first novel from Coates is the story of Hiram Walker, a young slave in Virginia whose been assigned to be the personal servant for his half-brother: the white, legitimate son of the plantation owner. The writing, as you would expect from Coates, is gorgeous. I loved the first part of the book, but after that, the story seemed to bog down. Still, this coming-of-age story of a man’s journey to freedom is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I loved the unusual and nuanced way the story embodies the themes of family and memory.

9. Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle
These days I’m turning to books not so much for escape as for courage and comfort, and welcome anything that might help replenish my stores of both. For me, that often means returning to one of my favorite authors. In addition to writing unforgettable stories and essays, Brian Doyle, who died much too young in 2017, was a teacher, magazine editor, husband, father. In this collection of short essays, while not shying away from the darkness, Doyle reminds us of what is good in the world.

10. Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
A book by Strout is a balm just now, when we are so traumatised by grief and fear and anger. Yes, she takes us into the terrible crimes human beings, even those in quiet Midwestern towns, visit upon one another, yet she also shows us the complicated people that we are. Without dwelling on the ugliness, Strout evokes in us the emotions of these characters, their trials, their loneliness, and sometimes their quiet redemption.

What were the best books you read last year?

Waiting for Time, by Bernice Morgan

waiting

This novel set mostly in Newfoundland seemed appropriate blizzard reading. It’s a sequel to Random Passage, which I haven’t read, continuing the saga of several families on a remote cape on the Atlantic shore. We learn enough about the characters that not having read the earlier book wasn’t a problem.

Lav Andrews, a civil servant in Ottawa, anchors the frame story. She’s sent to St. John’s to oversee a report on the viability of the Atlantic fishery and discovers a journal kept by her several-generations-back Aunt Lavinia. The main story is about the life of that aunt’s best friend, Mary Bundle, whose marginalia in the journal intrigue Lav.

Life on the cape is hard. There’s never enough to eat and no industry beyond fishing and salting cod to be sold in St. John’s. Mary is different from the others. Of course, she’s known poverty and starvation her whole life, as a child in rural England and as a servant in St. John’s. Where she’s different is that she’s always looking two steps ahead: not just at the next task to be done, but how to do things better so there will be a bit more food in years to come.

While the others aren’t thrilled with her nagging, they do go along with most of her ideas. She speaks her mind and is famous for her rages, a powerful character. Shaped by hardship, she couldn’t care less what others think of her and doesn’t hide her opinion of them: that they are like sheep. Now 97 and nearing death, she is dictating to her great-granddaughter Rachel what to write in the margins of Lavinia’s journal, determined to correct what she believes are inaccuracies in her friend’s account.

Mary made me think of my mother, who became increasingly outspoken as she aged. I tried for years to get her to write a memoir but it took her brother writing one to finally get her going. Like Mary, she needed to correct his “mistakes”.

Morgan captures the details of life at the end of the 19th century in a tiny isolated fishing community. It is a hard life, for sure, but Mary’s invincible spirit and strong voice make for fascinating reading. She has a lot to say about the couple of dozen inhabitants of the cape, their squabbles and celebrations. And there is always the sea, relentlessly eating away at the land, and always winter just around the corner.

In the end we come back to Lav, setting off for the Cape to meet Rachel, now nearly 100 years old. It’s a challenge to fit so many lifetimes into one not particularly long novel. One of the ways Morgan handles it is to keep the number of named characters small and giving them distinct characters and voices, so that it isn’t hard to keep track of them. Both Lav’s and Mary’s stories are organised chronologically, which makes them easier to follow. Morgan dips in and out of their lives with scenes illuminating her major storylines.

As with other books about the first Canadian settlers, such as Charlotte Gray’s Sisters in the Wilderness : The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, I am shocked that people could survive such conditions. It makes our current pandemic lockdown that has spawned so many complaints seem like a picnic, and the blizzard outside something minor indeed.

What do you like to read when the weather outside is frightful?