The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

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I didn’t want to read this 2012 runaway bestseller simply because of the title. I have had it with grown women being referred to as girls. No one would refer to a 32-year-old man as a boy. The misogyny makes me want to spit.

However, a book discussion group I’m in selected it, so I gave in. In short, it was a fast read about a bunch of extremely unpleasant people. The voice of the initial first-person narrator, Rachel, felt genuine and well-written. The voices of the other two women narrating the story equally well-written, aside from not seeming different from Rachel’s. There was plenty of suspense from one page to the next, though the solution seemed clear early on, but little else to recommend it. However, as writers, we can always learn something from a book.

Rachel rides the commuter train back and forth to a job she pretends she hasn’t been fired from. Morning and evening, she gazes at her former home where Tom now lives with Anna, the woman he left Rachel for, and their baby. She also speculates about the loving couple a few doors down, making up names and stories for them. She also drinks. A lot.

Her excessive drinking has cost her not only her job and marriage, but made her fat and ugly, at least according to her account of what people say to her. More misogyny, anyone?

From the train, she witnesses a disturbing incident at the neighboring couple’s home, and soon after learns that the woman, whose real name is Megan, has disappeared. In between binges, blackouts and drunken, begging calls to Tom, Rachel decides to help with the investigation. In different chapters and a separate timeline, Megan tells us about events prior to her disappearance, lounging at home months after her gallery closed, feeling sorry for herself. Our third narrator is Anna, smug and arrogant in her marriage, while complaining about Rachel constantly barging in and the incessant trains passing behind the house. She misses the excitement of being a mistress rather than a wife; she misses clubbing and nights out.

What these three thoroughly unpleasant women have in common is that they are bored women living privileged lives yet finding endless complaints to fuel their self-pity. Rachel could set aside her multiple gin and tonics or bottles of wine and get another job. A job would be even easier for Megan; all she has to do is get out of the chair. Anna could find social groups and volunteer activities like other stay-at-home moms. Instead they just whine. The men aren’t much better. They all behave badly, and stereotypically so: abusing the women in different ways.

So what makes this novel so popular? I am somewhat mystified. The theme of work versus marriage and children, which could make it resonate for young women, seems falsely set up to me. Everyone behaves badly at home. We only see Rachel at work, and then only an embarrassing memory. One person in my group suggested that Rachel displayed elements of Bridget Jones and so attracted that audience.

I kept feeling that I was immersed in the 1950s—women stuck at home with or wanting babies while under their husband’s thumb—yet I understand that I’m old enough to have been through several increasingly complex waves of dealing with these issues and that each young generation of women has to address them all over again. I also understand that feminism in the UK is on a different timeline from the US. Still, I didn’t think the story treated these issues with subtlety or awareness of all the social history packed into them.

One reason for its popularity could be that it combines genres. It’s been called a literary thriller, a literary mystery, and a psychological thriller. Also, for those looking for a classic hook, it’s a Hitchcock mashup, combining elements of Rear Window, Stranger on a Train, and a third I won’t mention so as not to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it.

Yet, mystery fans will find it very thin, with the red herrings barely mentioned before being casually ruled out and the ending well-telegraphed. The two detectives are barely mentioned and have almost no role in the book. Fans of literary fiction will also find it thin. Rachel is the only one whose inner life is developed, though her character is given plenty of layers and her inner monologue very well-written. More development of the other characters, better tying up of loose ends, and a few subplots would have made for a richer story.

I think it is too shallow to qualify as literary fiction. Outside of the three women the characters are not developed and, while there are plenty of layers to Rachel’s story that are reflected in Anna and Megan’s, there are no subplots involving the other characters.

I guess it’s the thriller aspect. Hawkins does a good job of adding microtension to each page. This keeps the reader engaged and the suspense ramped up, even when you know what’s going to happen. I liked the cover, too. With a blurred background fronted by large juddering text, it grabs your attention and conveys the essense of the story.

Is there a wildly popular bestseller that either thrilled or disappointed you? Why?

In Black Bear Country, by Maureen Waters

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Waters says in the Preface, “The bears, which appear in the title poem, are intended to suggest unpredictability, the mysterious and dangerous aspects of experience as well as the possibility of love.” The image and her explanation of it serve as a thematic summary of the poems in this collection.

In the title poem she says of the bears, “For all their size, they move silently, uprooting boundaries, nudging possibilities.” I like the way she challenges boundaries herself, immersing herself in Ireland, its myths and the place itself, the place her parents left for the U.S. Her description of the roofless house of gray Connemara stone, “the storied source”, and the ancestral memories it calls up is stunning in its controlled emotion. She says, “even the ghosts had vanished.”

Unpredictability is everywhere, whether it is a house fire, sudden storms, the aftermath of Katrina. Most of all it is apparent in the losses, the loss of herself, of her son. She says, “these children are not predictable.” And later: “On the lawn Brian is beginning to climb / the voluminous branch of a willow tree. / He cannot know / that it will snap / in the prodigious grip / of a tornado.”

This is a stunning way to approach great grief, obliquely, using a screen of imagery. The tree and tornado. And she speaks of him as having crossed a boundary. I think this use of imagery is one of the great benefits of using poetry to delve into memoir. Through a poem’s music and concise imagery, we bring the reader with us into the experience.

Another benefit is that these brief poems, most no more than a page, often capture a single glimpse of the past, a single moment we remember out of all the moments we’ve experienced. And this is how memory works sometimes: throwing up a scene seemingly at random. The poet then must make sense of it, as she does remembering a joyful moment of picking hyacinths with her sister. “Yet, this was earthquake country,” she says. Although “we sensed the trembling of the earth, / the sullen hiss of rising tide” they are carried away by their bliss, sure that such beauty would last forever.

I appreciate her poems of the Hudson River Valley. No delicately dancing daffodils, Waters gives us hawks and vultures, ruined gardens and floods. She believes the hemlock—“Seared by lightening [sic], wind and blight”—is the spirit of the place. Yet she finds hope in small things: “the precise point a rivulet wells up into / a pool . . . we cannot detect / the slightest movement. But something is / surely there.” I treasure that “surely”, the pause it creates, the certainty behind it.

There is love, too. Not just the love of children and rough nature, but an exploration of a thirty-year marriage to a man “known and yet unknown”.

These are poems to read again and again.

Is there a memory you have of some event, some moment so insignificant you don’t know why it has stuck with you?

Euphoria, by Lily King

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King’s exciting novel, which has gotten mostly rave reviews, tells the story of three anthropologists doing field work in New Guinea: Nell Stone, her husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson. The three meet up when Nell and Fen are fleeing from the suddenly threatening tribe they have been living among and studying. The couple are in bad shape: both are unwashed and ill with malaria; Nell has lost her glasses and broken her ankle. They are a godsend, though, to Bankson, so desperately lonely that he’s recently attempted suicide.

Nell’s latest book has become a surprise best-seller, leaving Fen fiercely jealous of her fame. Fen, who seems to prefer hanging out with the men and living a native life rather than actually completing the field work he’s taken on, soon has more to be jealous of when Bankson falls for Nell in a big way. First, though, Bankson falls for them as a couple and persuades them to study a tribe not far from the one he lives among, so that he can see them occasionally.

The novel, this month’s read for my book club, is “inspired by” the true story of Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune, and the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson. The three worked together on a 1933 field trip to New Guinea.

King has done her research. I especially appreciated the portrait of Mead. This is a heroine who is not gorgeous. In fact, she’s described as “a sickly, pocket-sized creature with a face like a female Darwin.” What’s beautiful about her is her brain. The passages describing her novel ways of interacting with the women and children of the tribe and those describing her talking about and writing up her findings are mesmerizing.

It’s rare enough that we get a portrait of the role of a career in a woman’s life. For me, the most thrilling scene in the book is not one of the many involving physical or emotional danger, but the scene where the three of them come up with a new way to look at cultures; the mounting excitement as they build on each other’s ideas left me breathless.

Much of the novel is accurate, but some—disturbingly—is wildly fictional. And this brings me to my major concern with the book. Since it is widely acknowledged and even included in the book’s front and back matter that the book is based on the lives of three real people, it seems to me unconscionable to take such liberties with their lives.

For one thing, Fen is presented as almost completely negative. He’s a cad, a bounder, a good-for-nothing. Granted Bankson as the narrator has little reason to see good in Fen as he becomes more and more attached to the man’s wife. Yet, the occasional excerpts from Nell’s diary don’t redress this imbalance. Perhaps Reo Fortune was indeed all of these things, including the darker hints at violence. I don’t know. But trampling a man’s reputation when he’s not alive to defend himself is a low blow.

Some other events are shockingly different from the lives of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson—and not always to their credit. To me, muddying the record of real people’s lives oversteps a moral boundary. If the author is going to take the shortcut of using real people as characters, then she is responsible for sticking as close to the truth of their lives as she possibly can. Here, the story is so engrossing that readers, even those familiar with the details of Mead’s life, will come away imprinted with King’s strong scenes.

In Immortality Milan Kundera describes how people want the “immortality of those who after their death remain in the memory of posterity,” but after we’re gone we cannot control what that memory looks like. He gives many examples, particularly the way Bettina von Arnim controlled the image of Goethe after his death, inflating her flirtation with him into a grand and tragic romance.

My other concern has to do with the ending. King’s book is so well-written, almost too vividly bringing alive the jungle environment and the tribes who live there, building suspense that keeps the reader spellbound. And then boom! It’s over. All the story lines tied up a neat deus-ex-machina (and fictional) bow.

The members of my book club unanimously agreed that, aside from the abrupt ending, it was an absorbing read. We enjoyed learning more about the three anthropologists’ different approaches to their field. Some found their methods unscientific and flawed, without for example accounting for observer bias and the adulterating effect of their presence. Some objected to the portrayal of the native tribes: seen through Bankson’s eyes, they are like children compared to the mature western cultures. However, this is an accurate picture of the standard practices and theories of the time.

For writers of historical fiction, this is a constant problem: how do you accurately depict a past era’s culture while not repulsing the modern reader? It calls for a careful balancing act. I think King succeeds here by giving us a bit of the modern viewpoint in different characters. For example, Bankson begins to wonder if his living among a tribe has changed their habits and culture; Nell treats the women she is studying with respect and as equals, not as children or her inferiors.

While the story is basically a love triangle, the excellent writing and the stunning descriptions of the work lift it into something fresh and exciting. Just check out the facts about the three very real people whose lives have here been carved to fit the author’s glass slipper.

What do you think about using real people as the basis for fiction?

The House of Belonging: Poems, by David Whyte

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I came to Whyte’s poetry, somewhat to my surprise, through his writings about work, about how even seemingly mundane work can be a pilgrimage. I’m interested in that moment when work ceases to be just a job and becomes, in spite of all our kvetching, something that gives meaning to our lives, something that we can invest with our sense of ourselves. Easy enough to do when it’s poetry, but what about when it is selling perfume or delivering mail?

The poems in this book are different from those to which I’m usually drawn. At first glance they don’t even seem to be poems—aside from the line breaks—but rather the sort of heart-to-heart you have with an old friend late at night over a cup of tea or glass of whisky. Yet within the plain speaking is a core of light. Here’s the beginning of “What to Remember When Waking”:

In that first
hardly noticed
moment
in which you wake,
coming back
to this life
from the other
more secret,
moveable
and frighteningly
honest
world
where everything
began,
there is a small
opening
into the day
which closes
the moment
you begin
your plans.

The short lines make it feel as though he is groping his way, slowly, towards something that will turn out to be important. As the poem continues, the tone veers away from the informal and becomes that of a guru delivering wisdom before ending in questions. It’s an interesting sequence and representative of the poems here.

There is wisdom, and surprise. And the tentative groping, the occasional sermon, the questions give power to the insight that emerges.

These are what Ron Padgett calls “transparent” poems. As Leslie Ullman describes in “Press Send: Risk, Intuition, and the Transparent Poem” (The Writer’s Chronicle, Vol 48, No 4, February 2016), “By ‘transparent’ Padgett was referring to use of language that does not depend on form, sound-work, metaphor, condensation, or complexity of thought.” In other words, setting aside all those things that I particularly love about poetry in favor of straightforward language.

And yet there have been plenty of poems I’ve loved that would qualify as transparent poems, some of them in this collection. There are poems here about the night, about friendship and solitude that I will come back to again and again.

What makes them work? Ullman says, “. . . the transparent poem can be disarming, conversational, and to a degree easy to grasp in one sitting, but rich with implications and reverberations that expand during subsequent readings . . .The transparent poem takes what it [sic] is at hand, which more often than not is the accessible stuff of quotidian life, and makes it fresh. Pushes it a little beyond its expected territory.”

Such poems may look easy, but must require great patience to revise and revise again in order to craft something so seeming inconsequential into a work invested with such meaning. And I am reminded that even those jobs we take up thinking to earn enough to survive while holding our true selves aloof, even the least of them can accept all that we can bring. It is what we bring that matters, the challenge and the risk.

What is one of your favorite poems? What about it appeals to you?

Jar City: A Reykjavik Thriller, by Arnaldur Indriðason

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I have long had a soft spot for Iceland, partly from Halldór Laxness’s novels, so I was excited to find this mystery set in Reykjavik. The first of Indriðason’s books to be translated into English, Jar City starts with Detective Inspector Erlendur at the scene of a murder. In the sitting room of the basement flat he finds the body of a 70-year-old man who has been hit in the head with a heavy glass ashtray. Although Icelandic murders are not complicated, Erlendur knows this case will be different. In fact, everyone at the crime scene realises that this murder is something quite special, because they have seen the cryptic note left on the body, only three stunning words.

You want to know what they are, don’t you? So did I. When a mystery opens with this sentence “The words were written in pencil on a piece of paper placed on top of the body” you don’t expect to have to get through half the book before you find out what those words are.

This trick is what Ray Rhamey of Flogging the Quill calls an information question. He explains that the first page of any novel should raise a story question—a plot question about what will happen next—but not a simple question about information that the characters in the scene obviously have but the author has chosen not to reveal. Information questions break the contract between writer and reader, a contract especially binding in a murder mystery where the reader is challenged to identify clues and put them together to reach the answer before the detective does.

The note is only the first of several information questions in the book. Another egregious one is the identity of Erlendur’s mentor Marion Briem, whom we are told in a foreword has a gender-neutral name and whose gender is never identified by a pronoun. I’m all in favor of appreciating the spectrum of gender, but here it’s done so coyly that it just feels phoney. Information questions are a cheap way to try to create suspense instead of actually working to create suspense through the story. And they are irritating.

Aside from the information questions and some inconsistent word choices that are probably the fault of the translator (i.e., slang from different countries and different parts of the U.S. inexplicably mixed together), the book is quite good. Indriðason’s prose is appropriately spare, giving the reader a feel for life in Iceland’s capital city.

Erlendur is the usual sloppily dressed, lonely detective. He has two grown children: Eva Lind, a drug addict who provides a subplot for the book, and a son of whom we’re only told that he’s in “rehab”. Presumably that’s for recovery from alcohol or drugs rather than a knee replacement, but once again we are not given that information.

The story behind the murder is laid out well, with deceptive blind alleys and red herrings. Best of all, there is a larger story, a story about an aspect of society specific to Iceland but relevant to all of us.

You want to know what that larger story is, don’t you? Irritating, isn’t it? But in this case, I’m sparing you from a spoiler. If you can get past your irritation, the book is actually a good read.

Have you read any books set in Iceland?

A Traitor to Memory, by Elizabeth George

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I’ve been rereading this series of mysteries featuring Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard. It’s been over ten years since I’ve read any of them, so there are new additions to the series, and even back then I don’t think I’d read all of them. I do remember being astounded when I read her first book, A Great Deliverance. What a story! So many layers. And an unusually textured theme. I couldn’t think about anything else until I finished it.

The series only gets better from there. In this, the 11th book, Lynley is asked by his superior, Superintendent Webberly, to help investigate the hit and run death of Eugenie Davies. Webberly takes a personal interest because his first murder investigation as a DI was the death of Eugenie’s baby.

Interspersed with the investigation are journal entries by Eugenie’s estranged son. Gideon is a child prodigy, now a twenty-eight-year-old virtuoso who suddenly and mysteriously at the start of a long-anticipated concert at Wigmore Hall, lost the ability to play the violin. Along with it, he seems to have lost great chunks of his memory, so the psychiatrist he’s started seeing encourages him to write down what he does remember.

Among the many things George excels at is choosing titles. I am still thinking about this one. Gideon argues about the effect of his loss with his new American friend. Privately tutored as a child, until he met Libby he had no friends beyond his father and his music teacher. She keeps trying to persuade him that he is still a person even if he’s not able to play the violin. Gideon, though, whose life has been devoted to the instrument, thinks otherwise. In his journal, he asks, “How do I exist when the sum and substance of who I am and who I have been for the last twenty-five years is contained in and defined by my music?”

Interestingly, this idea calls up themes from the last book, though George doesn’t actually point that out. In that book, Lynley’s former Detective Sergeant, now demoted to Detective Constable, Barbara Havers, asks herself who she would be without her identity as a detective. This is another thing George excels at: she introduces backstory from earlier books in the series only rarely and only when it is necessary to the current story. Havers’s identity questions are left unspoken here, but add an extra dimension for a reader who recalls them.

Aside from basing identity on our vocation, there remains the consideration of memory. Does Gideon’s memory loss contribute to his feeling that he has ceased to exist? Who are we if we don’t have our memories? And since we rework our memories over the years, who are we if what we remember turns out not to be true? This last question actually get carried forward into the next book in the series.

This question of what constitutes our identity is a tangled one, fascinating in its permutations as it is carried out in various lives. It is especially interesting in the context of murder mysteries, where there are many secrets and where detectives must ferret out the hidden sides of the various characters, which in turns reveal previously unexpected aspects of their own. Everyone is changed. The end of each story leaves everyone—murderer, detectives, suspects, families and friends—in a new place.

Have you read any of Elizabeth George’s novels? Which is your favorite?

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

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I’ve written about this book before. Rereading it nine years later for my book club, I was struck by the same things I mentioned then: the factors that led to the destruction of a huge ecosystem that had developed over thousands of years. It took only a couple of years for it be ruined, for the dirt to be lifted up into great clouds that blew as far east as New York and Washington and killed people and animals who tried to stay on in what became known as the dust bowl.

My book club discussed who was at fault. Although there were some “suitcase farmers” who tore up the sod for a quick harvest and then disappeared, leaving the ground without even a cover crop, most of the farmers just wanted what anyone might want: a place to work and raise your family.

We talked about how hard it is to weigh future damage against current needs. One person mentioned talking with a friend in Nebraska who works for a farm—a huge agribusiness, as most farms are today—who said farmers today make the same choice: if prices go down, they plant more to make up for it, even knowing that increasing the supply will drive prices down even further.

We talked about the complicity of the government, encouraging people to believe that “dry farming” could work and offering incentives to get people to move to areas previously designated as desert. We also talked about greedy capitalists, like the syndicate that owned XIT ranch who didn’t care if families starved and died as long as the syndicate could pay their shareholders.

So much here resonates with what is happening in the U.S. today. As regulations and rules have been decimated by successive “pro-business” administrations, banks and businesses have gone wild, not caring who gets hurt. Their reckless actions led to the depression of 2008 and to the enormous loss of jobs—real jobs, that is, with benefits and regular hours.

As one of the book club members pointed out, another parallel is the way hard economic times bring out blatant racism, blaming black people for taking jobs that should go to white men. Egan describes the harsh rules against people of color, including the case of two black men jailed for months simply for spending a night in a town where that was not allowed and forced by the judge to dance at their hearing. He quotes speeches by politicians such as “Alfalfa Bill” Murray railing against blacks, Indians and Jews. Sound familiar?

Another parallel was the difference between Hoover’s response to the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s.

Hoover believed the cure for the Depression was to prime the pump at the producer end, helping factories and business owners get up and running again. Goods would roll off the lines, prosperity would follow. Roosevelt said it made no sense to gin up the machines of production if people could not afford to buy what came out the factory door.

Trickle-down, anyone? What none of us could understand is why these lessons from the past don’t keep us from making the same mistakes over and over. Is it ignorance of what happened not that long ago? Or something darker, that as long as someone has a chance at getting a bit of money or power, he will take it, regardless of who else suffers? Yet many people pulled together in these communities to help each other out.

One thing that is different today is that during the dust bowl years, people who received government assistance—“4,000 of the 5,500 families in six counties of the Oklahoma Panhandle were getting some form of relief” from the government—recognised where help was coming from. They praised Roosevelt and his New Deal programs, “nearly a hundred thousand people in a city with less than half that population” turned out for Roosevelt’s visit to Amarillo. Instead of railing against big government, they understood that the government was keeping them alive.

As a writer, I was struck on this second reading by Egan’s extensive research and by his deft weaving of information with the personal stories of a handful of people. The combination enables us to see the big picture of what was happening in the Great Plains, from Nebraska to Texas, as well as the impact on individual people.

Have you read a nonfiction book where personal stories have helped bring the narratives to life?

Voice of the Mourning Dove, by Alexis Rotella

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Haiku is more than counting syllables. The one thing most people know about haiku is that it is 17 syllables in three lines of five-seven-five, but many haiku poets writing in English urge us to throw out that rule. There are linguistic reasons related to the differences between English and Japanese, among which is that in Japanese haiku what is counted are sounds rather than syllables.

The most important reason, though, is that focusing on syllable count ignores the true essence of haiku which is to include the reader in a single moment of experience. It may be a profound moment or poignant or ruefully amusing, but it is an emotional one.

I’ve always thought of these as “moments of being”, a phrase Virginia Woolf coined in her essay “A Sketch of the Past” to refer to the sudden, direct experience of the reality behind our everyday life. I’ve also thought of them as awakenings, as in Thoreau’s “To be awake is to be alive.” They come in a flash and are gone as quickly.

This collection of haiku by award-winning poet, Alexis Rotella, reveals how a tiny poem can capture that fleeting moment.

Even in
my bones
the fog.

In a post on Writer Unboxed, Barbara O’Neal wrote “Ordinary life is where all the miracles are.” She described using the phone app 1 Second Everyday to record a one-second video everyday. This practice reminds her to focus on the present, and that “One moment of detail, one second of true observation, can give us a wealth of information.”

Recently I was lucky enough to take a workshop with Rotella, author of fifty books, former President of the Haiku Society of America, editor of Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America, and founder/editor of the senryu journals Brussels Sprout and Prune Juice. She used works by many poets to illustrate aspects of haiku, such as the use of kigo, a word indicating a season.

Country club—
sprinklers going
in the rain.

She said that the pruning necessary to create effective haiku can help us become better prose writers. We may find our skills as “ruthless editors” extending into other aspects of our lives, such as simplifying our living spaces. The pruning is not for its own sake, but to reveal the seed of emotion in that moment, what Rotella calls its energy.

Many of us are trying to be more present in our lives, to practice mindfulness. The haiku in this collection remind us of the beauty that lurks in a second of experience. Rotella says, “The art of haiku is really meditation.”

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

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This new anthology comes in the middle of the centennial of the Great War, later called World War I. Usually when we think of centennials we think of celebrations, but this occasion is one for remembrance, with all the mixed emotions memory evokes.

I have written before about the reasons for my intense interest in this war. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon took me beyond the dry facts of schoolroom history. My fascination grew as I began to realise just how much those few years changed Western culture and influenced all that has happened since.

These stories all take place, at least in part, on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when the war ended, not in victory or defeat so much as in exhaustion. They are love stories: romantic love, love between parent and child, love of a native or adopted country. They express on a personal level what that day meant.

The authors—Jessica Brockmole, Hazel Gaynor, Evangeline Holland, Marci Jefferson, Kate Kerrigan, Jennifer Robson, Heather Webb, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig—come to that day in different ways. Some stay firmly in that day while others start before or after. Stories are set in Paris, Brussels, Kenya, Dublin, the English village of Brimsworth, even Pelahatchie, Mississippi.

All are haunted by loss. The indescribable losses of those years, falling on a population accustomed to peace and plenty, left everyone terrified whenever the postman stopped at their door, as Hazel Gaynor describes in her story “Hush”. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces experienced 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom died. French and German forces also suffered huge numbers of casualties.

Yet even with the omnipresent losses, these are stories of unexpected connection. Evangeline Holland’s narrator in “After You’ve Gone”, Morven, is a woman of color from Scotland, without money or friends in Paris when she meets a man who has a surprising link with her past. In Kate Kerrigan’s “The Photograph” set in the present day, Bridie learns something new about her beloved great-aunt that helps her find a way forward in her current troubles. In “Hour of the Bells” Heather Webb’s heroine, Beatrix, the native German widow of a French clockmaker-turned-soldier, undertakes a journey out of despair that leads to surprising encounters.

If there is consolation to be found in contemplating these cruelly hard times, it is this: that in the midst of death, we are alive. Even in our great grief, we can be touched and at least a little healed by love.

What stories of World War I have you read?

Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich

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My friend Laura recommended Ehrlich’s work to me, and I enjoyed Ehrlich’s novel, Heart Mountain. However, this collection of essays is truly stunning. In the things of her world Ehrlich finds tangible evidence for the thoughts and ideas jostling in her head, anchoring them to coherence.

Her world is primarily her ranch in Wyoming, its five-acre lake, the nearby mountains. In the short essay that opens the book, “Looking for a Lost Dog”, she starts by grounding us in concrete action: “I started off this morning looking for a lost dog.” She uses a couple of sentences to bring the dog to life, with the surprising image of a saddleshoe to describe his markings and the quick sense of ranch life from learning that his right front leg is crooked because it froze to the ground on the thirty-below-zero night he was born. Clearly the stakes are high in this environment.

Then she tells us, “I walk and I listen.” This is a good description of her modus operandi throughout the book and, indeed, for the essays that I have most loved, like Barbara Hurd’s Stirring the Mud and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. These writers combine close attention to the natural world with fragments of information and memory, not randomly thrown together, but carefully crafted to challenge us to open our minds. What we take away from this mosaic may be different for each of us.

Ehrlich in this essay never strays far from her concrete experience. She remembers another time when the dog was lost, and she found him by putting her ear to the ground to listen for him whining. This leads to thinking about what the construction of our ears, their limited range, says about humans, and the memory of a musician friend talking about the music of the world, “’the great suspiration of life everywhere.’”

But then she goes back to her search and describes the falls she heads towards, the raven overhead. From then on, she leaves the narrative only for a paragraph, a sentence, but each digression adds another dimension to the experience. We have all looked for what is lost, and sometimes tried to lose what has been found. Living through this essay awakened echoes in me, that resonated with the images she conjures up, deepening into chords, creating a new and strange music.

Many of the other essays in this book also take events on the ranch as their starting place. It is a life closely tied to the weather, as her explorations of the permutations within each season make clear.

It’s spring again, and I wasn’t finished with winter. That’s what I said at the end of summer too. I stood on the ten-foot-high haystack and yelled, “No!” as the first snow fell . . . It’s spring, but I was still cataloguing the different kinds of snow: snow that falls dry but is rained on; snow that melts down into hard crusts; wind-driven snow that looks blue; powder snow on hard pack on powder . . .

Other essays take us further afield: a search for the source of the Yellowstone River, a trip to Japan to follow in Bashō’s footsteps, a visit to the Santa Barbara Channel Islands to learn about the Chumash, a culture and language pulled back from the brink of vanishing by the work of a few dedicated people. I’d never heard of the Chumash before.

For eight thousand years or more, the Chumash lived in isolation and peace. One of at least sixty tribal groups in California, they once numbered fifteen thousand. They had no neighboring enemies and no warrior cult.

Their beliefs, their history, their experiences after being discovered are seamlessly integrated into Ehrlich’s journey to San Miguel, known to the Chumash as Tuqan.

In all of these journeys, Ehrlich’s gives her close attention to her immediate experience while layering in information, quotations, and feelings. Whatever conclusions she may have reached, whatever overall pattern she has found, Ehrlich does not force a lesson on us. We are left to draw our own conclusions from sharing her journeys. As she says in the brilliant first essay about searching for her lost dog, “I walk with a purpose but no destination.” Whatever destinations we find in these essays come from the resonances between the pieces of her mosaic and the echoes they call up in our own hearts.

What have you learned from the natural world?