Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, by Lynne Olson

Madame_

I recently posted about Sonia Purnell’s excellent A Woman of No Importance about Baltimore-born Virginia Hall who became one of the first British spies in German-occupied France during WWII. She organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies through the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret UK intelligence agency formed in 1940.

I hadn’t planned on reading Olson’s book about Marie-Madeleine Fourcade who also ran a Resistance operation in France, supplying critical information to MI6, the UK’s Special Intelligence Service. Then my book club chose it.

When her partner was arrested in 1941, Fourcade became head of Alliance, a Resistance network she had helped build. Under her dedicated leadership, Alliance expanded throughout both Occupied France and Vichy France (where Hall was based), providing most notably a 55-foot-long map of the beaches and roads along the Normandy coast, showing German guns and fortifications, an invaluable aid to the Allies on D-Day.

The story includes escapes, tragic losses, and daring exploits. There’s lots of great information, very detailed.

What I missed was a sense of Fourcade herself. In Purnell’s book we get a close view of Hall, what makes her tick, how she responds to her experiences. In Olson’s book it is more “just the facts, Ma’am.” For example, Fourcade’s hardly ever seeing her young children during the war years for security reasons makes sense, and she didn’t know they’d lost their adult protector and had to make their way alone through war-torn France. But surely she felt a complex swirl of emotions, constantly changing, eating away at her resolution to stay on as head of Alliance. None of that comes through.

One thing that struck me strongly in both books was the infighting. I’m not just talking about Vichy versus Resistance. In the UK, SOE and MI6 were fiercely competitive, trying to deny each other resources, sometimes even sabotaging each other’s efforts. Similarly de Gaulle’s Free French group refused to help Virginia Hall’s group or other French fighters and eventually broke with MI6 as well. Also, one of Roosevelt’s conditions for the U.S. joining the war was that de Gaulle not be in charge of the French forces. He chose instead someone else who was not respected by the French military, making the North Africa campaign a debacle. They were supposed to all be on the same side! It’s a miracle the Allies won the war.

Of course, I see the same thing going on in politics today, in country after country. Too many people who are supposed to be serving the country and doing the best thing for its citizens are choosing instead to maximise their own power and fortune over that of their fellows, not caring how much devastation they cause for their country and its people.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. When I started work in an office, I quickly realised that I could divide my colleagues into those who wanted to do good work and those who only wanted to get ahead. It’s been a useful distinction ever since. Not that I’m entirely cynical. I recently learned of a real Lord of the Flies where the shipwrecked boys marooned on a Pacific Island worked together and took care of each other for 15 months. And we are beginning to learn that cooperation has been just as longstanding and crucial in our societies as competition.

I’m encouraged by Fourcade’s selfless devotion to her country and to the operatives she’d collected. No wonder she was designated as a hero by de Gaulle at the end of WWII.

Are you reading stories—fiction or nonfiction—about courage and selflessness? Suggest a few!

Travels with Myself and Another, by Martha Gellhorn

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While I do want to read Gellhorn’s fiction and her nonfiction war reporting, I started with this collection of travel essays. I should say horror stories.

Gellhorn’s hatred of being bored frequently rousted her out of her comfortable home and sent her off to foreign lands. Often she was able to sell the idea for an article to cover expenses. In this book, written late in her life, she recalls some of her most nightmarish journeys.

In all but one, she sets off by herself. In that one, the first in this collection, she heads to China with her then-husband Ernest Hemingway along for the ride. She doesn’t name him, calling him Unwilling Companion or U.C. It’s 1941, Japan has joined Germany and Italy in the Axis, adding a new element to the long-running Sino-Japanese War.

Although the story alone is harrowing and often hilarious, one of its curious attractions is the window into conditions 80 years ago. Of the PanAm flight she says, “We few all day in roomy comfort, eating and drinking like pigs, visiting the Captain, listening to our fellow travellers, dozing, reading . . .” Not like any flight I’ve ever been on, except once when I was bumped up to First Class, when I frightened the person in the seat next to me by weeping my way through the last 50 pages of a tragic novel.

They stop in Hong Kong, much in the news these days, but back then:

. . . the working city of Hongkong [sic] at the base of the Peak looked as if nailed together hurriedly from odd lots of old wood and sounded like a chronic Chinese New Year. It was brilliant with colour in signs and pennants; the narrow streets were jammed by rickshaws, bicycles, people, but not cars; the highest building was an imposing square bank and it wasn’t very high.

The account of the flight over Japanese lines and the mountains in a DC2 is chilling—literally: “Everything froze including the air speed indicator.” And figuratively: The pilot judged air speed by opening his window a crack. “The passengers were given a rough brown blanket and a brown paper bag for throwing up. The plane was not heated or pressurized.”

The longest section of the book describes her solo trek around and across Africa, inspired by a vision of “a vast lion-coloured plain, ringed by blue mountains. Beautiful wild animals roamed across the land and the sky went up forever.” Ruefully she admits that she didn’t even understand the difference between conditions in west Africa and those in the east. Her naiveté lands her in one scrape after another as she traverses newly independent countries and others on the brink of independence.

Her prose is so clear and she does not spare herself or anyone else. Sometimes, though, I get a whiff of the appeal: stately giraffes drifting through the trees, majestic elephants, the blue mountains she’d dreamed of. In Kericho, at an English-owned hotel on a tea plantation reminds her of a “deadly respectable English provincial hotel”. But out on the terrace “the night sky told you exactly where you were . . . The far off stars were an icy crust; the darkness beyond the stars was more than I could handle. The machinery that keeps me going is not geared to cope with infinity and eternity as so clearly displayed in that sky.” A rare moment of introspection.

These stories are often hilarious, in the way that remembered horrors can be. Her description of wrestling a recalcitrant Land Rover over mountains, trying to read maps that bear little relation to what’s on the ground, while trying (unsuccessfully) to persuade her hired driver to actually take a turn driving seems funny now in the recounting but must have been frustrating and exhausting at the time.

The funniest tale is the one of going to Russia to visit an elderly writer whose work Gellhorn admires. A grateful letter became “pen-pallery”, leading to the writer begging Gellhorn to visit, claiming to be at death’s door. Once again, Gellhorn packed sweaters and warm clothes, remembering the winters in Russian novels, and deciding that the weather reports of temperatures in the 90s (F) must be a mistake. The writer’s tiny apartment is stifling, filled all day long with a crowd of friends coming and going, talking nonstop, only occasionally offering a translation. The bureaucratic run-arounds and the absurd restrictions are all presented with humor, while the real hardship of these people comes through with Gellhorn’s usual compassion.

I have traveled a lot, for work and pleasure, and have some traveler’s tales. These stories, while entertaining, make me glad to be at home.

Where have you traveled? What did you find there?

Green Card & Other Essays, by Áine Greaney

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be home. Many people are working from home these days. All the years I worked in offices I desperately wanted to work from home. Even now I remember each and every snow day when I was allowed to work remotely as a sacred and blessed time.

I know there are many who struggle with this new reality, extraverts who miss the interaction with others. And it’s true that I valued being able to step down the hall and get Laura or Jonathan’s input on some task. Still, this being at home to me is nirvana, to be able every day to be in this space that I designed for myself.

But home is more than this house, this place we’ve carefully adapted to our needs. It is also the places where we suddenly and unexpectedly know we are where we belong. For me, that was the first time I crossed the Tappen Zee bridge into New England. And again that early morning landing in England, a March morning, frosty and cold. Faced with a standard transmission car with the gear shift on the opposite side and traffic patterns that challenged my orientation, still, for all that, I knew suddenly that I had come home. I was in the right place. Many return visits over the years have only confirmed that initial sense of belonging.

For Greaney, that’s not the point. These brief essays fold us into the experience of leaving one not-unloved-home for another, of trying to find your way in an alien culture where you don’t recognise most of the references and your accent is legitimate fodder for jokes.

Immigration is much in the news these days, but it’s important to notice, as Greaney points out, that there are plenty of immigrants who are welcomed without question. When someone who has been complaining about immigrants says to her “Oh, not you . . . We weren’t talking about you,” Greaney appropriately responds, “’English speaking? White?’”

Interactions like this show up the racism inherent in today’s discussions about immigration. A white friend of mine who emigrated from South Africa, likes to challenge people by saying, accurately enough, “I’m African-American.”

Greaney explores the lingering strangeness. Not just the bizarre experience of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S., but also seeing what U.S. prom night is like versus a quiet 1970s mass after Leaving Cert exams, commuting among pumpkin and alfalfa fields, wondering if the New England Methodist church down the road might hold a way forward for a Catholic girl.

One of the most affecting essays in this collection calls on Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn where

. . . once Elilís Lacey (the daughter) steps aboard that ship, there are two separate and mutually invisible narratives—the tale of Eilís in Brooklyn and that of her widowed mother and stay-at-home sister back in Enniscorthy. Between those stories is an emotional firewall that blocks all knowledge of the other’s experience and, by extension each other’s respective wounds and losses.

Any of us who have left our first home for a new and different world can identify with this dual storyline, this firewall: a parent who cannot or will not imagine our new lives. Excitement and terror and sadness swirled together to forge determination.

These are beautiful essays: short, intense, emotionally precise, moving. I loved the essay about the gifts her father slips to her as she is leaving to return to the U.S. “’You’ll need this over yonder,’” her says, and Greaney pulls us around to see, yes, oh yes, they are needed.

What does the idea of “home” mean to you?

Learning to Die, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky

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While the title of this slim volume sounds tailor-made for this pandemic with its hundreds of millions of deaths, the subtitle clarifies its theme: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. Its two essays and Afterword give us perspective on the environmental catastrophe through which we are living.

These are not attempts to quote scientific studies to persuade us of the seriousness of our Anthropocene Era, though statistics are given and backed by numerous endnoted sources. Instead, the two essays address our inner selves and how we relate to the world, while the Afterword refutes a recent book which proclaims that there is no problem because more progress will save us.

In “The Mind of the Wild” Bringhurst reminds us that life survived and regenerated after each previous global extinction event, though it wasn’t the same life as before. I can’t help but think again about our current time, when it appears our post-COVID 19 world will not ever be quite what it was before.

Bringhurst goes on to say that after the coming catastrophe, it will be the wild—defined as “everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control”—that “will rescue life on earth, if anything does, because nothing else can.” Humans may not survive; any that do will find their culture eviscerated.

He refers to an 1858 speech by the physicist Michael Faraday, who in a lecture on electricity said, “I am no poet, but if you think for yourselves, as I proceed, the facts will form a poem in your mind. ” He goes on:

Letting the facts form a poem in your mind is an exercise in a certain kind of thinking: letting something happen instead of forcing it to happen, and simultaneously letting yourself be enlarged. Letting the facts form a poem in your mind is a way to practise thinking like an ecosystem, thinking like a planet, thinking like a world. But in order to let the facts form a poem in your mind, you have to have some facts to start with.

And of course you must have a mind in good working order. Increasingly we have been learning that one of the best ways to get our minds in order is to go out into the natural world, the wild. Bringhurst says that there we “enter a larger, possibly stricter, moral sphere” and encourages us to bring that “heightened sense of morality” home with us.

There is much more to this moving and persuasive essay. It is reinforced and expanded by “A Ship from Delos” by Zwicky. The title comes from Plato’s account of the death of Socrates, which was delayed by the custom of not allowing any executions during the annual voyage to Delos to honor Apollo. The sight of the ship returning tells Socrates that his life will end the next day.

Zwicky says that “Humans collectively are now in Socrates’ position: the ship with the black sails has been sighted.” Building on Bringhurst’s appeal to our moral selves, she proposes the virtues that Socrates embodied, starting with awareness (attended by the humility to recognise what we don’t know).

Here it is the recognition of our own mortality, which she describes beautifully as “to look at the world openly and to see it, and one’s own actions, and the actions of others, for what they are: gestures that vanish in the air like music.” She goes through the other virtues, showing how cultivating them will serve us well as we enter our extinction event, both by perhaps postponing it a little and by giving us tools to handle it.

For the Socratic virtue usually translated as piety, she substitutes contemplative practice, saying:

At the heart of contemplative practice of any sort is attention. As [Simone] Weil observes, prayer is nothing other than absolutely unmixed attention . . . The more we attend to the world, the less we find ourselves wishing to control it.

I recommend this small book to anyone who wishes to go deeper into an understanding of who we are and who we are becoming as our culture rocks and is remade during this time of great change.

What writers help you to adjust and find your best life during difficult times?

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Lawson

Splendid

I hadn’t planned on reading more about WWII, having grown up in the shadow it cast, but I found A Woman of No Importance with its story of boundless courage and energy so inspiring that I couldn’t resist this book. Also, I knew I was in good hands with Larson, having enjoyed his previous books.

True to its subtitle A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, the story covers Churchill’s first year as prime minister. To say it was a tumultuous year is an understatement. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty. Then when Chamberlain resigned on 10 May 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister. That same day, Hitler invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands. The Dunkirk evacuation was only a few weeks later.

While I was already pretty familiar with events and people, Larson’s dramatic scenes and fast-moving action kept me engrossed. I was surprised by how gripping the story was, given that I already knew what was going to happen.

One factor, besides Larson’s skill as a writer, is all the new information from recently declassified files and intelligence reports—the amount of research Larson must have done is astounding. We get insight, not just into the workings and discussions of Churchill and his cabinet, but also into Hitler’s inner circle. The motivations and misunderstandings on both sides helped me understand some key decisions. We learn about the negotiations between Roosevelt and Churchill, who understood that Britain would fall without aid from the U.S.

Memorable anecdotes abound, such as Churchill’s aside after his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. After he finished, Churchill said to someone near him, “‘And . . . we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.’”

Also, Larson focuses on individuals, making extensive use of personal diaries and letters. We see Winston in private moments dancing at parties, wearing outlandish costumes. We hear his wife Clementine caution him to be less contemptuous and kinder to those around him. We follow their youngest daughter Mary and son Randolph’s wife Pamela as they navigate family and social life through this turbulent year. Churchill’s private secretary John Colville gives us unusual insight into the PM both in public and in private. We learn about the key roles played by newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook and Federick Lindemann, a physicist and Churchill’s science advisor.

While I was fascinated by these private moments, my main feeling while reading this book was admiration for the courage of this flawed man who held his country together, even as Hitler expected them to surrender every day—surely they can’t hold out any longer! And for the British people themselves, who patiently put out the fires and swept up the rubble, patrolled fields and put up with appalling conditions in some of the shelters.

I was inspired by this tremendous example of leadership, and saddened too, considering where both the U.S. and Britain are these days. Larson’s book is more than an enjoyable read, more than a fascinating look into history’s public and private lives; it’s a brilliant primer on how to be a leader.

What book have you read about an inspiring leader?

Elizabeth Bishop, by Brett C. Millier

Bishop

I’ve been tiptoeing around Bishop’s poetry for many years, intrigued but wanting to carve out a chunk of time to really concentrate on it. The last few weeks have been that time.

Subtitled Life and the Memory of It, a quote from one of Bishop’s poems, this is a critical biography, meaning that it not only tells the story of Bishop’s life, but also discusses her poems. Of course, there’s long been a kerfuffle in the literary community over the relevance of a writer’s life to her work, and in other arts communities as well. Shouldn’t a poem or film stand alone? Don’t we bring our own experiences and outlook to a book or painting?

Well, of course. Yet, many years back, when I finished school and started creating my own study programs, I found that in addition to hunkering down and reading all of a writer’s oeuvre, I wanted to know about their lives. I felt that I knew something about them through their work, but needed to know more, especially in those early years when I was figuring out what my own writing life might look like.

I’ve felt a curious tie to Bishop because I knew that she was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I also lived for a few years, very close to her home in fact. From Millier’s book, I’ve learned that Bishop’s time there was brief. Her father died when she was eight months old and her mother was in and out of mental institutions for a few years, moving between Worcester and her family’s home in Nova Scotia, before being committed in 1917. At that point, Elizabeth’s father’s family brought her back to Worcester for a miserable few months before sending her to boarding school. Although her mother did not die until 1934, Elizabeth essentially had no family home for the rest of her childhood.

She made lifelong friends at school and later at Vassar and in the literary community at large. Two friendships in particular shaped her as a poet. While still in college she met Marianne Moore who became a mentor as well as a friend. Moore cheered on the young poet, initially critiquing her work and later suggesting places she could submit her work. Later, living in New York, Bishop became friends with Robert Lowell and the two continued to exchange poems, letters and visits until Lowell’s death.

Those of us who write stories are advised to constantly raise the stakes for our protagonist, or if we’re writing nonfiction—memoir or biography—to point out where the risks and rewards have increasing consequence, thus creating tension and suspense. Millier does this admirably for Bishop.

It’s hard enough to be a poet, let alone one without a home or family, a victim of early trauma. Let her be a lesbian in an era when homosexuals were closeted. Give her some chronic illnesses: debilitating asthma and alcoholism. Make her a perfectionist, and put her in New York’s very competitive atmosphere; then give her some early victories and very successful friends to add even more pressure.

Plenty of suspense, then, to keep this biography moving, interleaved with excerpts from letters to and from Bishop. It’s not all sad; Bishop traveled a lot, had strong relationships, created homes that she loved, and most of all wrote and revised and revised again, never letting a poem go until she was sure it was the very best she could make it.

Plus there are Millier’s insightful discussions of the poems. I was glad I had a copy of The Complete Poems 1927 – 1979 at hand to dip back into. I will discuss the poems themselves and Bishop’s thoughts about poetry in another post.

One of the things I enjoyed here was seeing the humorous side of this poet, as in this excerpt from a letter; Bishop was living in Brazil and had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry:

Lota went to market, to our regular vegetable man, and he asked her if it wasn’t my photograph he’d seen in the papers. She said yes, and he said it was simply amazing what good luck his customers had. Why, just the week before, one of his customers had bought a ticket in the lottery and won a bicycle.

If you haven’t read her poems, this biography will make you want to read them. If—like me—you feel that there are layers in her poems that you are missing, this book will help open them up for you. Most of all, if you are curious about the life of a poet, particularly one who stands alone, not part of a literary movement, or the life of a brilliant but challenged woman in the mid-twentieth century, this is the book for you.

Have you read a biography that you’d recommend?

A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell

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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.

Fluent in French, German and Italian, she initially worked for the US Consular Service before moving to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an early UK intelligence organisation. The US had not yet joined the war and she’d previously been turned down by the US State Department because of her disability. She had lost a leg below the knee after a hunting accident and had a wooden prosthesis, yet that did not hold her back from her active work first in Vichy France, primarily Lyon which she made into the most extensive and effective center for Resistance and intel in France.

After being betrayed and hunted Javert-like by Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, she made a daring and arduous trek over a 7,500 foot pass in the Pyrenees to Spain without even a walking stick to help. Once the U.S. joined the war she worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), returning to Occupied France to organise Maquis units to harass the enemy, gather intel, and assist the Allies before, during, and after the D-Day invasion. Her intel was crucial to the D-Day planners.

I can’t begin to list all she accomplished despite her wooden leg and, more importantly, despite being held back every step of the way by male superiors who couldn’t accept that a woman could do useful work other than typing or making tea, hence the title of this book. This discrimination persisted after the war when she eventually found work with the CIA after the OSS was disbanded, yet was belittled and confined to desk jobs by men with no combat or espionage experience.

Yet, her intelligence and adaptability, her drive and charisma, her intense love of France and determination to drive out the Nazi invaders together won her the loyalty of the people she worked with on the ground. Only Virginia thought to use a brothel as a safe house and its workers as intel-gatherers. Only Virginia had the organizational and planning ability to organise jailbreaks from the Nazis’ most forbidding prisons.

It’s a stunning and inspiring story, brilliantly presented here. I learned much that was new to me about conditions in Vichy and Occupied France and the Resistance, things I thought I knew pretty well. The action is as breath-taking as any thriller. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Juliet Stevenson, one of my favorite actors, and often couldn’t bear to stop. I fumed about the discrimination, grieved for the losses, raged at the Nazis’ torture of captured spies, and rejoiced in her victories.

What a woman!

Have you read a biography of a “forgotten” historical figure?

Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle

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These days I’m turning to books not so much for escape as for courage and comfort. I 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—a form he excelled in—Doyle reminds us of what is good in the world. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from the darkness; in “The Sin” he describes losing his temper with his son, grabbing his shirt collar and roaring at him, frightening them both. He doesn’t avoid his own responsibility or pretend it didn’t happen. Instead, he confronts himself, “ashamed to the bottom of my bones.”

Then he goes big: “I do not know how sins can be forgiven.” As he ponders that question, and the further one of who must do the asking and who the forgiving, he is led to consider the grace alluded to in the book’s title.

Doyle is a Catholic and makes clear in his Prologue that many of these essays “use . . . Catholicism as a prism, a way of being, an approach”. Yet he keeps these works accessible for those of us who do not ascribe to that or perhaps any religion by using terms we can all believe in. Like Mary Oliver, whose work he much admires (and vice versa), he links prayer to attentiveness. And when he talks of grace, he speaks not of the Catholic God but of the experiences we all yearn for: the unearned gifts, the moments of being, the love that descends on us.

I call his essays unforgettable because each pierces me in ways I cannot describe. I often use his essays in my writing classes and, reading aloud an essay I’ve read fifty times, still, as I near the end, my voice trembles and tears start in my eyes.

How does he do it? In just two or three pages he builds a world that fills my heart.

Partly it’s his word choice, the unexpected verb or adjective that surprises and transports me. And there are the startling images he uses. Both can be seen in this excerpt from “Cool Things”:

. . . the way the young mother at the bus-stop has her infant swaddled and huddled against her chest like a blinking extra heart, and the way a very large woman wears the tiniest miniskirt with a careless airy pride that makes me so happy I can hardly squeak . . .

A blinking heart. Airy. Squeak. They shock us, these revelations; they draw us in to the world of the story by linking it in new ways to the world we know.

Partly his essays are unforgettable because he does go big. He doesn’t hesitate to take on huge ideas, universal themes, and look at them in new ways, connecting them to our ordinary, our extraordinary lives. For instance, in “On Miraculousness” he uses an exquisitely described encounter with a little girl who is terribly crippled, out on the beach with her family, to—implicitly—look at the question of why bad things happen to good people.

Another technique he uses is to take on the voice of someone else, easing into it with the slightest of transitions, but giving us this genuine voice, this glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes. For instance, here is the beginning of “A Child is Not a Furniture”:

One time when I lived in Chicago I spent an hour talking to a woman who was wearing a dress of the brightest red I have ever seen in all my born days and I have lived fifty years. This was on the Cicero Avenue bus at three in the morning. She said she was returning to the apartment where she lived with her husband. I inquired after children and she said,

My husband and I trying to welcome children but as yet we have not been blessed. I would like to have five children. I am myself one of five. My husband however an only child of complex circumstances. He have misgivings and forebodings.

Most of all, though, what makes Brian Doyle’s work so profound is that, as dancers say, he leaves it all on the stage. He doesn’t hold anything back. He lets us into all his secrets, shows us his warts and his wonder, his deep appreciation for our flawed and amazing time on earth.

He is missed.

What books are you turning to for comfort and courage?

Best Books I read in 2019

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the twelve best books I read in 2019. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall
You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

2. The Book of Emma Reyes, by Emma Reyes
Reyes, who died in 2003 at the age of 84, lived in Paris where she was known as an artist, friends with Sartre, Frido Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. She was also known as a fascinating storyteller, full of stories of her childhood in Colombia. The translator Daniel Alarcón says in his introduction, “Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true. There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement.”

3. The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois
DuBois presents a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

4. Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

5. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin
If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

6. A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry
I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

7. All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski
To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed. Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate.

8. The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield
Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers. The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days.

9. Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser
A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. I’d never read the Little House books, so I caught up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced and immensely readable account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

10. The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez
Nunez’s new novel, winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is a quiet and intelligent story of friendship, love and despair, tackling the questions most of us wrestle with at various times in our lives: Should I change my life? Is it worth going on as I have?

11. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
This popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel left me with a combination of enchantment and disappointment. It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees. What I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story.

12. Memento Mori, by Charles Coe
Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet. The poems in this book celebrate ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight. They are the poems of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

What were the best books you read last year?

Horizon, by Barry Lopez

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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.

Many of these expeditions are scientific endeavors, where he has joined a team of archeologists to excavate the site of a long-gone indigenous peoples or scientists measuring boreal (ocean bottom) life or another team measuring glacier movement. Sometimes he ventures out for other reasons, such as revisiting the Galápagos Islands or tracing the route of Shackleton’s open-boat journey to Elephant Island.

He weaves in stories of explorers and adventurers, the well-known such as Cook, Darwin, Scott, and the lesser-known such as Ranald MacDonald, Edward Wilson, Lt. Adolphus Greeley. He taps poets, writers, and philosophers for insights and connections.

I’ve taken my time reading this book. It’s so rich! I’ve gone back and reread sections, or paused for a few days to consider what I’ve just read. More than once I’ve picked it up to find him addressing something that was on my mind, as in this paragraph from the section in Antarctica. I had been thinking about various lifespans, and in particular that of rocks.

I turned one rock after another over in my gloved hands, to get its measure, to take it in more completely. In the absence of any other kind of life, these rocks seemed alive to me, living at a pace of unimaginable slowness, but revealing by their striations and cleavage, by their color, inclusions, and crystalline gleam, evidence of the path each had followed from primordial birth to this moment of human acquaintance.

The science is easy to follow, the descriptions gorgeous. Lopez depicts not only the natural world, but the human cultures that have come and gone upon it. What stands out for me is the unhurried accumulation of insights building one upon another, like a coral reef, to create an ethical framework, a structure that can hold the eager quest for knowledge of scientists, the adventurousness of explorers, the communities that care for each other and also the atrocities visited upon innocent people, cultures deliberately or accidentally wiped out, chemical waste dumped in cities and towns.

What are we to make of our current societies, where the drive for profit pushes technology without regard for consequences, where science is undermined by for-profit businesses and their government lackeys? There was much that was wrong in earlier centuries, earlier societies, but can we draw any lessons that could help us today? What is being lost as human cultures and species are obliterated, as glaciers melt into the sea?

And then we set that against the generosity of those who have sought to advance our knowledge, those who have labored to save the remnants of the past, those who have devoted themselves to conserving this world that we have so damaged, of Oates walking out into the night, of Shackleton’s determination to save every one of his crew.

Lopez’s accounts embody the respect for other cultures that many people today strive for. The cultures he explores—especially the lost indigenous cultures like the Thule of the Arctic, the Kaweskar of southern Chile—remind me of the long arc of human history, the coming and going of peoples. One insight I found particularly helpful was about communicating with “members of a culture that had experienced the brutal force of colonial intrusion. I knew the only right gift to offer people in these situations is to listen, to be attentive.”

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. I will be reading and rereading this book for years to come.

Have you read a book that increased your knowledge of the natural world and challenged your philosophies?