Category Archives: 1001 Book Reviews

The Joys of Picking My Favorite Books

 I am thrilled and honored to be  Westport Library Guest Curator for November. In the list of 100 books I chose as curator, I share those books that changed my life.  Great good comes from reading great books – check out my list of 100 great books online or visit the Westport Library (or any library or bookstore!) to find them for yourself.

The best books are transformative experiences. By reading a great book, we are changed forever: changed in how we think about something or someplace; changed in how we address joy and sorrow in our own lives; changed in how we find purpose in our lives; and changed in how we appreciate the diversity of experience that the world offers.

Nine years ago I began a project of reading a book a day for one year. My purpose was to find a way to live with the unbearable sorrow of losing my oldest sister to cancer. During the experience of reading 365 books, I was transformed. I came out of the darkness of loss into a place of warmth and light and understanding. I will never be the person I was before I lost my sister but because of the year I spent reading, I am a better person than I was. I am more compassionate, more patient, and more resilient.

In this list of 100 books, I want to share the books that I have found to be most transformative for me during my lifetime of reading.  These books changed me for the better and made me appreciate all the beauty in the world. I have greater patience now to get through  the hard times that come up in every life (every day!). I am resolved to face down the worst qualities in humankind, and to celebrate, always, the best.

7th Anniversary of a Great Year of Reading

Seven years ago I began my year of reading a book a day. What a great year it was!  A year of adventure, comfort, escape, and wisdom, so much wisdom shared with me by the writers of all the books I read. In honor of that wonderful day, I am re-posting my first review of the first book read.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog started it all…

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is a great book. This beautiful, moving, and occasionally very funny novel tells the story of an amazing woman and a startling young girl, and their parallel and eventually joined paths to recognition of beauty, in the self and in the world.  Unknown-2

Renee is the concierge of a very upscale building in Paris, a supremely intelligent and grammatically exacting woman, and Paloma is one of her tenants, a 12-year old girl already fed up with the falseness of the adults around her and doubtful about life’s possibilities. Renee is acutely aware and appreciative of life’s moments of beauty and yet is unable to grasp the absolute beauty within herself. Paloma is a French, intelligent, and female prepubescent version of Holden Caulfield, a confused and disillusioned but still young and therefore reachable rebel. Her thoughts are presented to us through her two thoroughly engaging and at times heartbreaking journals; from Renee we get her inner thoughts and observations through first person narration.

This book is about finding a reason to live but it is absolutely un-American in its prescription: there is no easy path, life is full of difficulties, and you are on your own. But if you are honest and intelligent and exacting, you will find and appreciate the beauty that exists in relationships and music and nature and books. The book is about the pure beauty that is possible in moments of genuine expression, the fleeting moments that can still last forever in our minds because of their beauty and truth.

If we are lucky, many such moments occur in our lives and we are mindful enough to grasp the beauty. One rainy afternoon I spent in a Barcelona Art Museum over twenty-five years ago, I was stopped short by a painting. I will always remember the beauty of that painting (although I can remember neither author nor title), and the painting has its same power to bring peace to me now as it did then. It is a simple landscape of a dawning sky over a dark hillside, with a hermit just coming out of his cave in the hill. Apricot-orange lines had been painted in beyond the darkened hermit and his burrow to show the dawning of day; looking at the painting I felt the thawing wind of spring, the precious beat of living, the gratitude for another day granted. Memories of mornings I’d spent in the country entwined with the experience of seeing the painting, creating layers of time to be stored and later savored. The moment of seeing that painting and the moments of experiencing what was presented in that painting are moments that, when brought back by remembering, have sustained and comforted me.

Renee is also aware of the threaded memories of life, and of the beauty that endures to sustain and inspire us to continue on with the sometimes heavy burden of living; she tries to pass that knowledge to Paloma, not through lessons or lectures, but through sharing of ideas and thoughts. It is the joy of conversation, of realizing a shared observation or enthusiasm or dis-enthusiasm, that brings Paloma around to a new commitment to living, even when faced very suddenly with death.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog offers us Renee’s beautiful but thoroughly realistic appraisal of life. When she herself must re-examine what she thought she knew about herself, the forced examination does not undercut her appraisal but serves to support it even more: we understand, as she does, that by living fully observant and appreciative of the beauty that appears fleetingly in actual time but permanently in our minds, we can survive and surpass the mundane and trivial and superficial. We can make connections and stave off alienation; each moment caught by our flourishing minds only makes all the moments to come better and better. Young Paloma commits herself to finding those “moments of always within never” as a reason to live and that reason is good enough for me.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was translated by Alison Anderson.”

Judith Frank: Choosing Life

A twin loses his brother in a Palestinian suicide bombing of an Israeli cafe and finds himself guardian of two orphaned children. The twin, Daniel, is gay; his partner, Matt, is a goy and viewed by Daniel’s family as a pretty boy, a party boy. The gay couple live in Northampton, Massachusetts, far from the Jerusalem the two young children, Gal and Noam, have known as home and homeland – and so we immerse ourselves into the modern but timeless story told in Judith Frank’s beautiful, expansive, and deeply humanistic novel, All I Love and Know. Unknown

Frank writes with both fluidity and precision about politics, sexuality, and religion; about identity, family, and love; and about fear: the fear of not doing enough to protect those we love, of not understanding, of betraying and of being betrayed.

In telling the stories of the couple Matt and Daniel, of the children Gal and Noam, and of the surviving grandparents, Frank confronts and examines the role that fear plays in the lives of survivors: fear of death flips to a fear of life, because life suddenly has become a huge responsibility. How can we deserve to survive when others have died? What can protect us when nothing protected someone we loved?

Frank is a perfect storyteller, creating vivid landscapes and characters and events. The hot winds of hamsin are felt, the wet snow of Massachusetts seeps in, the ascent into Jerusalem creates a pitch in the stomach; Matt and Daniel and the children became like family, creating waves of worry and irritation, and of pride. A funeral, the first day of school, a party with strangers on New Year’s Eve are all pitch perfect, in their pain, their promise, their let down.

The intertwined story of this multi-generational, multi-political and sexual and cultural family offer the best evidence that co-existence is possible, that survival and safety for everyone is a dream worth working towards; that responsibility and commitment and faith are not just words but attainable ideals. For it is in the stories of individual families, all kinds and varieties of families, that the joined future of the world can be seen.

In All I Love and Know, Judith Frank presents a family that, though scarred and scared, overcomes division and distrust to create their own kind of unity. A unity created through stumbles, mistakes, and hurts, but that is stronger for the scars and for having overcome fears of both dying and of living. We have little choice in how we, or those whom we love, die. But when it comes to life, we can choose. Judith Frank shows us how.

Sisters Lost and Found, in the Land of Shadows

Land of Shadows, Rachel Howzell Hall’s latest novel, is a riveting exploration of crime and its repercussions in the poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Together with her previous thriller, No One Knows You’re Here, Land of Shadows proves that Hall is a star at weaving fast-paced, layered, and gripping stories. She creates an L.A. seething with tension; plots that twist and turn; and heroines bristling with intelligence, heart, and grit. Her women are street smart, sexy, and determined. Having made it through tough childhoods in L.A.’s worst neighborhoods, now they want to give voice – and justice – back to the places they came from. Unknown-1

Such a task is not for the faint-hearted – and Hall’s readers have to toughen up as well. Along with Lou in Land of Shadows, I had to face ugly facts and even uglier secrets as the plot unfolded but the writing is so good, the story so compelling, the characters so real, that I dove right in and stayed willingly submerged until the final word. Coming up for air, I was grateful for the provoking and sustaining experience of reading Hall – and I was ready to dive right back down again. So I did, rereading Land of Shadows almost immediately in order to catch all the nuances I’d missed the first time round.

In Land of Shadows, L.A. police detective Lou Norton is called to the scene of a murder staged to look like the suicide of a teenaged girl. Lou quickly spots the grisly signs of foul play but even worse: she is launched back into memories of the disappearance of her sister Tori, when Lou was just a child. Back then, the police barely took notice of a poor black girl gone missing and her disappearance went unsolved. Lou has been nursing the pain of losing her sister for years; the sight of the murdered girl reopens the wounds with a searing vengeance. Norton vows that this time round, the victim will get the attention she deserves.

I stared into the girl’s dead, half-mast eyes – 3 percent of me still believed that the last image seen by a dying person remained fixed in her eyes. ‘Who did this to you sweetie?’ I didn’t care about the ‘why.’ Fuck the ‘why.’ I wanted to know who had taken this girl’s life. Unfortunately, there were no images of that monster in her cloudy corneas. There were specks of red, though. Blood.
‘That’s okay, ‘ I whispered. ‘I’ll find that son-of-a-bitch.’ For you. And for me.

When there is little chance that a crime or its victim will garner attention, how are the losses caused by such violence to be absorbed? There can be no closure, only disillusionment; there is no healing, only a festering of disgust. Without healing, hope becomes crippled into an emotion that aims too low: for revenge, not justice; for escape, not security; for oblivion, not understanding. Lou knows what the unsolved disappearance of her sister has cost her family and how it still haunts her own nightmares.

No matter where her current investigation leads – into “respectable” neighborhoods or the gilded world of college basketball or Lou’s own backyard, further crumbling her broken relationship with her husband- she follows the trail with doggedness, fighting against her own painful memories to get through the web of lies created by family, witnesses, and perps. What Lou discovers in the end won’t make healing easy, not for her or for the family of the girl – but it will make healing possible. And with healing, comes a possibility of rehabilitating hope.

Kit Lyman’s novel, Satan’s Garden, also looks at the toll taken when a sister goes missing. Leaving aside the unfortunate title, this debut novel is engaging, provocative, and deeply moving. Two sisters are as closely twined as only sisters can be, their distinct personalities meshing together into a special bond of strength and comfort. But then Dani is kidnapped and Keely is the only witness. Unknown-2

When months pass with no message from the kidnapper and all clues have been followed to blank conclusions, Keely alone remains certain that her sister is alive. And she is – but for how long? While she remains imprisoned by a psychopath (who seems to know way too much about both girls), Keely becomes caught in another kind of web, one woven by society’s expectations, adolescent cruelties, and the deep pain of missing her sister. Can Dani be found in time – not only to save her life but also to save Keely’s sanity?

Lyman is a wonderful writer and the story she tells in Satan’s Garden quickly drew me in – I read feverishly and on the edge of my seat. The story is told in alternating chapters by first one sister, then the other, in voices that are vivid and unique. I cared about each sister so much, and found myself willing them the strength to survive while hoping against hope that time would not run out. Will one sister have to sacrifice herself to save the other? How can such a choice be made – and yet what other choice is possible, when the life of your beloved sister is in the balance?

Caught in A Dark and Twisted Tide

Summer is here but I will not be jumping into any bodies of water to cool off, thanks to my beloved Sharon Bolton. A favorite harbinger of summer is the release of her latest thriller and A Dark and Twisted Tide met all my expectations of thrills, chills, and brain curls. It also left me hanging on tightly to the safety of my backyard lawn chair and vowing never ever to jump into any river – or lake, for that matter – any time soon. I don’t want to run the chance of finding a dead body – or two or three or more – the way heroine Lacey Flynt does in the latest Bolton novel. Unknown

Granted, Lacey is swimming in the Thames, not exactly known for the pristine quality of its waters or for the safety of swimming therein. But just the thought of encountering what makes even the brave Lacey shiver down into her bones (to say nothing of the bones she encounters – shrouded in linen and shackled to the depths of darkness) may just keep me land bound for the foreseeable future. The added element of reports of mermaids – drawing boaters to their death through haunting songs – creeps me out in the deepest recesses of my brain, where my own belief in supernatural beings lays dormant until raised to blazing reality by the vivid writing of Bolton.

Perhaps if I had the help of cool and collected Dana Tulloch, my favorite recurring character in the Bolton novels, or the anticipation of sheltering in the arms of hunky Mark Joesbury (another fabulous recurring cast member in Bolton world), I could be a bit braver, a bit more like Lacey who faces her fears and runs headlong into them. But I prefer reading what this guilt-ridden, secretive, sensitive, and completely wonderful wonder woman faces off against, again and again, using brains, body, and intuition (hard-earned from her own hard knocks) to solve mysteries and save lives.

This time the mystery is manifold: who is drowning these young women, where did the women come from, who (or what?) is leaving threats (or promises?) on the deck of Lacey’s houseboat, what is Mark Joesbury up to – and does a mermaid really exist in the waters of the Thames?

Bolton once again treats her readers not only to a thrilling mystery but also to a fascinating landscape, this time set in and around the Thames, a murky, dirty, seething river that carries both the life and the history of London in its ebb and flow, leaving markers of the past to be deciphered and clues of the present to be found. Trust to Lacey to find the clues and also some deeper answers to questions not only of death – why did these women have to die? – but of life itself: how do we keep swimming, when the tide turns against us? Lacey knows – and she shows us how.

Maybe I will go swimming this summer – after all, Lacey’s got my back.

The Gentlest Art

In 1907, E.V. Lucas published a lovely collection of letters under the title, The Gentlest Art. Letter writing is the art referred to and the letters chosen by Lucas illustrate his point of gentility – and of beauty. letters

Lucas published a second collection of letters in 1907, cleverly titled The Second Post and explained by the epigram, “It’s all very well to talk of your Beethovens & Mozarts. Very good in their way, no doubt. But for the music that counts, give me the double knock.” An early variation of the postman always rings twice.

I found so many wonderful examples of letters in the two volumes put together by Lucas, including many written by James Russell Lowell, a favorite eighteenth century American poet of mine. I am especially charmed by the letter written by Lowell on his 70th birthday: th-1

“I have been forging over the reef of my seventieth birthday into the smooth water beyond without much damage to my keel…”

Robert Burns and the Clarinda Letters

Robert Burns is a favorite poet of mine. I don’t know which came first, my fascination with Scotland or with Burns, but one feeds the other and I am besotted. imagesThrough his poems, Burns takes me to Scotland – “Yon wild mossy mountains sae lofty and wide…yon wild, mossy moors…” – where we share our need for green hills and rolling waters — “Amang thae wild mountains shall still be my path, Ilk stream foaming down its ain green, narrow strath…” – and our taste for nostalgia: “I dreamed I lay where flowers were springing, Gaily in the sunny beam, List’ning to the wild birds singing, By a falling crystal steam…”

Burns explains goodness to me – “the gust o’ joy, the balm of woe” – and religion – “The heart most benevolent and kind, The most resembles God”- and he teaches me lessons about life: “Then catch the moments as they fly, And use them as ye ought, man! Believe me, Happiness is shy, And comes not ay when sought, man!” burns__cover

A poet writes of personal experiences and so I can know so much about Burns through his poems. And yet I still want – I need – the even more intimate view provided by his letters. How lucky I am that Burns was such a prodigious letter writer. And how lucky to have in my possession the 1959 edition of The Poems of Robert Burns and Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Hepburn. What a treasure! I can read my favorite poems and follow up with a perusal of selected letters.

But to know my beloved better than ever, I have to turn to the fifty letters Burns exchanged with Agnes Craig MacLehose – Nancy to her friends – over three months in 1787-88 (which I have in a marvelous 1917 editon). 51-pIP7HgxL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

The famous “Clarinda” letters offer an especially intimate interlude with Burns. Burns first met Nancy when she was already ten years married but a virtual widow. Her husband James MacLehose had ardently pursued her, despite the obstacles put up by Nancy’s wary father. When MacLehose learned that Nancy was taking a trip to Edinburgh, he reserved all seats but one in the carriage, then shut himself in with her all the way from Glasgow to Edinburgh. By the end of the journey Nancy was engaged to James and within six months they were married. But just as quickly as he had wooed his lass, MacLehose left her, going away for years on end to his lands in Jamaica.

All alone at home, Nancy became restless. Years passed, hubby stayed away, and Nancy took on activities like writing and reading poetry to keep herself occupied. In 1787 she chanced upon the poems of a rising star on the Scottish scene. She asked friends to arrange a meeting between the two of them.

It was a dreary December day when Burns first met Nancy at a tea party in Edinburgh but he remembered it as a light in the darkest season: “O May, thy morn was never so sweet, As the mirk right of December…”

Burns fell in love, writing to a friend, “I am at this moment ready to hang myself for a young Edinburgh widow, who has wit and beauty more murderously fatal than the assassinating stiletto of the Sicilian Banditti.”

On Nancy’s part, she was quick to point out to Burns that she was married. And yet she also encouraged his intimate attachment to her, addressing him in letters as her “Sylander”, and signing off as his “Clarinda.” They chose to use these pet names to hide their relationship – and the nicknames reflected what Nancy wanted from their relationship, an Arcadian idyll of simplicity and sympathy: a connection that was fresh, vibrant, unrestrained, and yet innocent.images-2

Burns had other objectives. Certainly he loved her – “I do love you, if possible, still better for having so fine a taste and turn for poesy …” But just as certainly he desired her and wanted more than just the hand of friendship: “Take a little of the tender witchcraft of love, and add to it the generous, the honourable sentiments of manly friendship, and I know but one more delightful morsel, which few, few in any rank ever taste. Such a composition is like adding cream to strawberries; it not only gives the fruit a more elegant richness, but has a deliciousness of its own.”

I would have caved, without doubt, to such words of love and desire. Nancy, however, is determined to keep Burns’ love at a distance and her skirts down. She wrote firmly in a poem sent to him, “Talk not of Love, it gives me pain, For Love has been my foe; He bound me with an iron chain, And plunged me deep in woe…”

Burns promises restraint on his part: “I would not, for a single moment, give…. a selfish gratification, at the expense of her whose happiness is twisted with the threads of my existence….”

He is rewarded by a lowering of Clarinda’s defenses, proven by a letter she writes to him after a particularly engaging evening: “I will not deny it…. last night was one of the most exquisite I ever experienced… though our enjoyment did not lead beyond the limits of virtue, yet to-day’s reflections have not been altogether unmixed with regret.”

While continuing to promise restraint (“I would not purchase the dearest gratification on earth, if it must be at your expense in worldly censure; far less, inward peace”), Burns pursues Nancy and is at times successful: “What luxury of bliss I was enjoying this time yesternight!”

The visits and the letters go on and on for weeks, back and forth, give and take, love sworn and taken: “Oh Clarinda! Tell me, were you studious to please me last night? I am sure you did it to transport. How rich am I who have such a treasure as you! You know me; you know how to make me happy, and you do it most effectually.” images-1

In the end, dearest Clarinda was not so often “most effectually” physical as Burns desired her to be. He began to look elsewhere for satisfaction. By late February, he found refuge in the arms of a servant girl named Jenny Clow (she would bear him a son nine months later) and in March, Burns left Edinburgh and returned to his old lover Jean Armour, who was also pregnant with Burns’ child. Robert described their reunion in a letter: “I have taken her to my arms. I have given her a . mahogany bed. I have given her a guinea and I have f—ed her till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” The couple was married a month later.

Upon hearing of the marriage, Nancy wrote to Burns, chiding him for his betrayal. Burns eventually responded, not to his “Clarinda” but to “Madam”: “When you cull over the scenes that have passed between us, you will survey the conduct of an honest man, struggling successfully with temptations the most powerful that ever beset humanity, and preserving untainted honor in situations where the austerest Virtue would have forgiven a fall….”

Alone once again in Edinburgh and fed up with her imposed widowhood, Nancy sailed to Jamaica, seeking reconciliation with her husband. Upon arrival, she discovered that her husband James had taken up with a mixed-race mistress and fathered a child. Nancy returned to Scotland where she ended her days, as described by Sir Walter Scott, “old, charmless, and devout.”

Burns composed one final poem for Agnes in 1791 and sent it to her just before she sailed to Jamaica; it would be become one of his most well-known, titled Ae Fond Kiss:

Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met – or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Burns would never have traded away the hours spent with his Clarinda, or the letters written to her. Hours well spent by him, and letters blissfully read by me.
SILOUETTE

Special thanks to Janet Thompson Deaver for her comments, corrections, and the photograph of Burns’ statues, and the silhouettes of Nancy, Robert, and Jean.

Books About Life – and Cats

As far as books go, it is always the year of the cat. Just take a look at any bookstore and you can find more than a few books about cats (Cat Daddy, Cat Sense, How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You, I Could Pee on This –poems allegedly by a cat; The Cat Who Went to Heaven – the story of Buddha and his cat, etc. etc). And as a cat lover, that is just fine with me. IMG_7737

Even if I were not the willing slave of two cats, a trio of cat books – two out in the last year and one coming this November – would receive my rave reviews. Because even more than being about cats, the books – The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, Lost Cat by Caroline Paul and illustrated by Wendy McNaughton, and the upcoming The Story of Fester Cat by Paul Magrs are about connection, and all the attendant consequences of taking up with another living being. Along with the feelings of happiness and contentment, there are the darker emotions of possessiveness, jealousy, suspicion, and the deeper ties of responsibility, empathy, and always, always, the promise of growth and change.

The Guest Cat tells the story of what happens when a tiny, independent, and utterly charming cat enters the lives of a couple living in a rented guesthouse. The affection the couple feels for the cat and the reliance they come to have on her presence in their lives sets off a chain of disquisitions on nature, destiny, joy, pleasure, and sorrow – and on the importance of connection, in the moment and of the moment. Some relationships are fleeting, as the one the narrator enjoys with a passing dragonfly, and some are longer but still finite, as the one he treasures with the little cat. But all connections are enriching, as this lovely book so fully illustrates.

The Lost Cat goes further down the road of cat/human relationship examination. When a beloved house cat disappears for six weeks and then saunters back in, well fed and looking good, his previously undisputed owner goes into a tailspin of self-recrimination, paranoia, jealousy, and suspicion. Who has been feeding her cat? And why oh why didn’t he come home when she called? UnknownRelying on modern technology (GPS and spy cameras), the befuddled owner tries to make sense of her cat’s behavior. The life lessons she learns alternate between hilarity and sweetness, and their application to all relationships is spot on: “You can never know your cat. In fact, you can never know anyone as completely as you want…But that’s okay, love is better.”

The Story of Fester Cat is enchanting, a gorgeous memoir about how family is created, not the one we’re born with but the one we choose – or the ones who choose us. When a feisty, opinionated, and very observant cat adopts two men, a lovely symbiosis occurs; love, compassion, and care flourish. We readers are fortunate enough to be invited into the family circle and it is a warm and beautiful place to be. This book will take its place on the bookshelves (permanent collection!) of everyone who cherishes their connections with pets, lovers, music, books, and family. Unknown-1

Whether it is a tie of affection and respect between humans or between a human and a beloved pet, a connection is a connection. To quote Nile Rodgers totally out of context, from his bestselling memoir Le Freak, “A great hook is a great hook, whether its for Le Freak or Halo.” And a good friendship is a good friendship, whether it is between two-legged friends or two-legged and four-legged, as so wonderfully examined and celebrated in The Guest Cat by Tikashi Hiraide, Lost Cat by Caroline Paul, and The Story of Fester Cat by Paul Magrs.

Letters: Recipe Shared with Julia Child

What do I have in common with Julia Child? Not the art of French cooking. I cannot follow a recipe to save my life. But Julia Child loved writing and receiving letters, and so do I. And in our love for letters, we both discovered an age-old recipe, and a recipe I can follow. A recipe for life.

Julia Child wrote her memoir, My Life in France, using the letters she’d written during her years there to illustrate how that time in her life had been. I wrote my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, to illustrate all the special, unique qualities of letters that make them such a wonderful mode of communication. Neither Julia’s memoir nor my book was intended to offer advice on how to live a good life but when letters are involved, the parallels start percolating. Because the qualities that define a good letter also define a good life (and for that matter, a good recipe).

I set off on a quest to define the special characteristics of letters when my oldest son set off for college and I realized I was not likely to get many letters for him. But I wanted a letter – so much. Why? Why are letters so important to me? The quest began, through history and across the collections of friends, libraries, historical archives, and digging deep into my own green trunk of saved letters. Signed, Sealed, Delivered is the story of that quest, and of what I discovered.

Once I started looking, I found letters everywhere, including in the memoir of Julia Child. Julia and her husband Paul were devoted letter writers to each other, and to their family and friends. Paul wrote long letters to his twin brother every week, and Julia wrote short but regular letters to the father she did not particularly get along with – except via mail.

The couple created a tradition of the annual Valentine Day’s letter, sent to all their friends and family. These self-produced cards are simply fabulous. I especially love the one of Julia and Paul naked in a bathtub, bubbles artfully arranged to protect privacy. The little caption above their heads, stating Wish You Were Here, is especially lovely and funny – did they really wish all their friends could join them in the tub? Probably not – but they allowed all friends in, via their card.

Letters create a bridge, between writer and reader, between one point in time and another. Not only do letters connect us to the people we love whom are a few hundred miles away – they can connect us to people we love who have passed away, and whom we will never see again. Letters can connect us to people we don’t know – I never met Julia Child but I feel as if we are friends, through her letters – and they can take us back even further, to centuries and places and people we never could have become acquainted with. But through their letters, they become very real, alive and dynamic.

In the centuries to come, anyone reading one of Paul’s letters to his twin brother, quoted at length in Julia’s memoir, will get a vivid sense of what is was like to live in Paris in the twentieth century:

“Lipstick on my belly button and music in the air! Thaaat’s Paris! What a lovely city! …. How fascinating the crowds before one’s café table, how quaint and charming and hidden the little courtyards with their wells and statues. Those garlic-filled belches! Those silk-stockinged legs! Those mascara’d eyelashes! Those electric switches and toilet chains that never work! Hela! Dites-Donc! Bouillabasse!!”

In Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I celebrate the bridges built by letters. Bridges built with care and with time. Think about what it takes to write a letter. Think about, for that matter, what it takes to cook a meal. One of Julia’s overriding precepts in preparing recipes – her advice to all cooks – is that care be taken. The care to read the instructions, assemble the right ingredients, and then follow each step to the letter: as Julia says, “a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience…”

This same precept applies to letter writing, and to life. We should be attendant – faites attention! – pay attention – be aware and in the moment – of our lives. Care about what we do, work at what we do, find satisfaction in what we do.

At the end of My Life in France, Julia writes, “good French food is an art… nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn’t use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushed through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture…”

Again, the same in letters, and in life. If we are rushed, the results are terrible – scribbled and inane, burned or sour, too sweet or too gummy or too lumpy. But if we take time, even the most slender of notes or the most simple of meals or the most ordinary of moments can be exquisite, memorable, enlightening, comforting.

I am no good at following a recipe for a meal. I just can’t do it, in part because I am usually doing two or three or four things at the same time that I am cooking – and so I am not paying the necessary attention to get any but the simplest of preparations right.

But when it comes to writing a letter, I find it much easier to focus. I sit down and all my attention zeroes in on the person to whom I am writing a letter. When my son left for college, I thought what I wanted was a letter from him. But now I understand that the letters that I write to my son are what matters most of all. Because they are proof of my care and my attention and my love. A letter I write is the first step of the bridge; every letter brings me closer to him.

Care, Time, Bridge. Three qualities of letters. Not the only three qualities – there are more to discover in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered (and more guidance on living and on writing letters). But if you start with these three qualities, taking care, spending time, and building bridges, you are well-placed to begin a wonderful journey.

In letters, in cooking, in love – in anything that we care about, take time for, and share, we find the ingredients to a good life.

The Soul of a Book Lover

The task of writing a review of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is daunting.  Why?  Because I don’t want to write anything that might keep someone from reading this book. Unknown

Everybody should read this book.  And absolutely all book lovers must read this book. This book is for anyone who questions their place in the universe, and who uses books to find answers; this book is for anyone who has felt ever insignificant or superfluous or confused and turned to a poem or a short story or a novel or a history for comfort and support.  There is much to be mined in this book for comfort and for inspiration and for thought.  I carry it with me now in my shoulder bag, because An Unnecessary Woman is a book to read again and again.  It is a most necessary book about an extraordinary woman.

Aaliya Saleh is divorced, childless, and largely friendless since the death of her closest friend, Hannah, years ago.  She lives alone in the Beirut apartment she came to as a teenaged wife.  The family that remains to Aaliya wears on her nerves but never comforts her fears.

Of what is Aaliya fearful? Of affirming what she has long suspected, that her life is – and most lives are – insignificant. She tells us, the readers with whom she freely converses, that the most common epitaph on Ancient Roman headstones was Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care).  But Aaliya does care.  She cares very much, and her mode of caring is through the translations she works on, year after year.  Translating is not her job – she worked in a bookstore before it closed – but it is her lifeline, almost literally.  Aaliya is a voracious and loving reader – “I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word” – and the homage she pays to the art of writing is her gift of translating.

We first meet Aaliya after she has completed her translation for the year and celebrated with the ritual of two glasses of red wine. The celebration unfortunately (or not – we shall see) has led to Aaliya mistakenly dying her hair blue.  Over the next few days, we accompany Aaliya as she goes about considering next year’s translation project. She contemplates her lifetime of reading, while also supplying an enthralling personal history of twentieth century Beirut, most of it grueling and heartbreaking, but also with a touch of enchantment and moments of joy.

As Aaliya putters through her days, she considers the question of illusions – to what extent are our self-delusions necessary?  The illusion that what we do is important, that history matters, that our love is returned and our birthplace is eternal: what feeds our perceptions, what keeps us whole and hearty?  At times Aaliya feels she knows the characters in books better than she knows the very real people who surround her – is that good or bad, or neither?  Do we learn from books or escape into them?

Our delusions and illusions are sometimes fed by the books we read.  But at the same time, the very best books remind us again and again of what is real and what is true, “that we are more than ourselves; that we have souls…. Or perhaps not.”

The “not” is what worries Aaliya but Alameddine’s novel about this unforgettable woman about this unforgettable woman offers beautiful and persuasive proof that we all contain much more than any surface explanations of our life could convey.  And the final pages of this wonderful book – very unexpected in unexpected ways – are definitive proof of soul, not only as pertaining to Aaliya, but for all readers everywhere.  Maybe we get our souls from the books we read; maybe we put our souls into the books we read.  But there can be no doubt: book lovers have soul.