Category Archives: Great Books

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…”

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.

It’s Out!

My book Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing is released today.  My first reading will take place on April 24th at the Westport Barnes & Noble, to be followed May 4th at the Westport Public Library. Hope you can join me!

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Years ago, I discovered a trove of letters in my backyard. I had just become the owner of a broken-down old house and when I went to clear out the weed-choked yard, I found a steamer trunk, hidden away in a rotting garden shed. When I opened the trunk, treasure spilled out: hundreds and hundreds of handwritten letters.

Most of the letters had been written by a boy to his mother, from the time he was just learning cursive (from 1899: “Do you think my writing has improved any?”) through the time of her death in the 1930s. When the boy, James, was at Princeton from 1908 through 1912, he wrote to his mother almost every day, and sometimes twice a day: “I am getting a good college education, developing like a film, apologizing to the grass every time I step on it, scrambling like an egg, yelling like a bear, telling the upperclassmen to go to @#$ ….”

When I first read the letters, I developed a bit of a crush on James. He was so funny and sweet, and affectionate. Every letter was signed, your loving son.

I wanted to write a book about his letters and the boy I’d fallen for, but I didn’t know what to write. And I was a young mother then, with three children under the age of six, a job, and an old house to renovate. I had no time to write. The letters were stored away, to be read in stolen moments.

When my oldest son was leaving for college, I went back to the letters James had written. I found that my feelings for the young man had changed. Now I felt a maternal pride – what a good boy, to write to his mother so often- and also a tiny surge of anxiety: would my son write letters to me? We live in a digital age, and I know I could expect texts and the occasional email. But letters?

I knew then the book that I wanted to write. I set off on a quest to understand why I valued the letters of James so very much, and why I looked forward to receiving mail from my own son. I researched back through thousands of years of letter writing, going through my own saved correspondence, dozens of archives in universities and historical societies, and the personal letters lent to me by friends and found in published collections of letters. I set about defining the exact qualities of letters that make them so special.

When my energy flagged, I went back to the letters of James. What had inspired me once would inspire me again. And then I got a letter from my own son away at school, signed with love. I worked even harder.

I wanted – I needed – to tell the stories of letters and of letter writers, going back through the centuries. Inspired myself, I wanted to inspire others: write a letter! The magic is in the written word, in the shared experiences, in the private and singular moments created with pen and paper between one correspondent and the other. From the Ancients (the Egyptians wrote thousands of letters, amazing given that most of them couldn’t read or write – they went to the local scribe) through to our modern times (James Joyce wrote the bawdiest letters ever), we humans have been writing letters. There is no reason to stop now.

Every letter we write starts a connection, creates a history, lays the first stones of a bridge, extends a hand. And who knows what inspiration may spring from the letters we write?

James’ letters are on their way to Princeton, to become part of that University’s archive and maybe to stimulate another writer and spark an idea for another book. Because we never know where inspiration will come from. For me, it was in my own backyard, a trunk just waiting to be discovered.

Discovering Inspiration in a Trunk Full of Letters

Years ago, I discovered a trove of letters in my backyard. I had just become the owner of a broken-down old house and when I went to clear out the weed-choked yard, I found a steamer trunk, hidden away in a rotting garden shed. When I opened the trunk, treasure spilled out: hundreds and hundreds of handwritten letters.

Most of the letters had been written by a boy to his mother, from the time he was just learning cursive (from 1899: “Do you think my writing has improved any?”) through the time of her death in the 1930s. When the boy, James, was at Princeton from 1908 through 1912, he wrote to his mother almost every day, and sometimes twice a day: “I am getting a good college education, developing like a film, apologizing to the grass every time I step on it, scrambling like an egg, yelling like a bear, telling the upperclassmen to go to @#$ ….”

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When I first read the letters, I developed a bit of a crush on James. He was so funny and sweet, and affectionate. Every letter was signed, <em>your loving son</em>.

I wanted to write a book about his letters and the boy I’d fallen for, but I didn’t know what to write. And I was a young mother then, with three children under the age of six, a job, and an old house to renovate. I had no time to write. The letters were stored away, to be read in stolen moments.

When my oldest son was leaving for college, I went back to the letters James had written. I found that my feelings for the young man had changed. Now I felt a maternal pride –  what a good boy, to write to his mother so often–  and also a tiny surge of anxiety: would my son write letters to me? We live in a digital age, and I know I could expect texts and the occasional email. But letters?

I knew then the book that I wanted to write. I set off on a quest to understand why I valued the letters of James so very much, and why I looked forward to receiving mail from my own son. I researched back through thousands of years of letter writing, going through my own saved correspondence, dozens of archives in universities and historical societies, and the personal letters lent to me by friends and found in published collections of letters. I set about defining the exact qualities of letters that make them so special.

When my energy flagged, I went back to the letters of James. What had inspired me once would inspire me again. And then I got a letter from my own son away at school, signed with love. I worked even harder.

I wanted – I needed – to tell the stories of letters and of letter writers, going back through the centuries. Inspired myself, I wanted to inspire others: write a letter! The magic is in the written word, in the shared experiences, in the private and singular moments created with pen and paper between one correspondent and the other. From the Ancients (the Egyptians wrote thousands of letters, amazing given that most of them couldn’t read or write – they went to the local scribe) through to our modern times (James Joyce wrote the bawdiest letters ever), we humans have been writing letters. There is no reason to stop now.

Every letter we write starts a connection, creates a history, lays the first stones of a bridge, extends a hand. And who knows what inspiration may spring from the letters we write?

The publication of my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, is now just one week away. The inspiration discovered over fifteen years ago has finally come to fruition. James’ letters are on their way to Princeton, to become part of that University’s archive and maybe to stimulate another writer and spark an idea for another book. Because we never know where inspiration will come from. For me, it was in my own backyard, a trunk just waiting to be discovered.

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.

Opening the Door to the Wonderful World of Reading

Quick Reads  is a UK-based nonprofit that has a simple – and wonderful – goal. To get people reading. Or as they say, To start a new chapter. Because reading is about more than just opening up a book and going through the words found there. Reading is about opening up a book and finding a whole new world around you. A new chapter begins not only on the page but also in your life: to paraphrase Cyril Connelly, books are an escape not from life, but a dive right down into it. To take that dive, you have to be comfortable with swimming. That is where Quick Reads books come in.

The barrier that too many adults have to discovering the new worlds waiting in books is that they cannot read with any degree of ease or comfort. In the U.K., one is six adults finds reading difficult: these adults will not pick up a book for pleasure or escape or edification because it is just too intimidating. In the United States, a recent Pew Study showed that the “typical American adult” read or listened to five books in the last year. Would more adults read more if reading were easier for them?

Founded on World Book Day in 2006, Quick Reads reaches out to adults with little reading ability by offering books written just for them by bestselling authors. The Quick Reads books are rich with characters, action, and emotion – they are page-turners! – but they are also easy to read, with simple sentences and vocabulary. The idea is to hook the readers on the adrenaline rush of sitting down with a book and discovering a whole new world, and then encouraging readers to meet their new addiction by supplying, at a very low cost (Quick Reads books are priced to sell), more and more books of action, adventure, and engagement.

As readers grow more comfortable with the habits of reading, and their skills improve, I hope they will move on to increasingly complex and challenging literature – thereby becoming committed, for good and forever, to reading. As I’ve always said, “great good comes from reading great books” and reading great books starts with just plain reading. The delightful video put together by Quick Reads has British celebrities offering their own take on the joys of reading. My favorite line is from the musician and TV star Mylene Klass: “It’s like getting a key and unlocking a whole new world…a book can take you anywhere.”

I’ve read a number of the many books offered by Quick Reads, including Four Warned by Jeffrey Archer, The Escape by Lynda LaPlante, and Hidden by Barbara Taylor Bradford. The books are easy to read and to follow but they are also quite fun and very engaging. Hook a reader, then point him or her to the closest library, and let the adventure begin. This year World Book Day occurs on March 6 – why not gift a friend (or two or three) with the key to a new world?

Quiet Dell: Tragedy and Redemption

I loved Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, containing every necessary element for a great book: compelling and fully-developed characters, resonant and alive atmosphere, complex and provoking plot, satisfying and unforgettable resolution, and absolutely beautiful writing. Unknown-1

Phillips takes her time with this novel, allowing layers of the story to grow and deepen and bloom into a fully-realized world of good and bad, hope and despair, past and present, hell and even heaven itself. The characters latched on to me and took hold, as surely as if my hand was being held; I became intimately connected, especially to the children, and when trouble comes, I shook with fear and helplessness – and I became nervous with desire for revenge, and hungry for redemption.

Phillips’ novel is based on the true story of Harry Powers, a man who seduced middle aged women he found through the lonely hearts correspondence clubs popular in the early 1900s. In his love letters to his victims, he claimed to be both wealthy and decent, a single man looking to settle down and start a family, and lacking only the proper woman at his side. The women became convinced of his love, gathered their life savings and possessions, and took off with him, never to be seen again. No one knows how many women Powers killed but he was a serial murder who acted out his murderous fantasies for years before being caught.

In telling the story of the murders that finally brought Powers to the attention of the police and landed him in jail and on trial for his life, Phillips is wise enough to go easy on the revenge – she knows there is little solace in its fulfillment – but goes heavy and deep with the redemption, and for this I am grateful. She offers moving and persuasive proof that the only answer to evil is goodness. Goodness in the form of love and connection, and goodness in the form of survival. The warming of another heart, the resilience of joined company, and the promise of another, better day: “The stream meanders, shines with snowmelt; the water, shaken in ripples, warms suddenly, as though some seismic shift deep in the earth moves time forward. The air breathes and the trees stir, tossing their limbs, opening every bud and leaf.”

The promise of spring, of cycles, of rebirth and renewal. Found in a Quiet Dell.

The Guest Cat

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide is a slender but rich meditation on fate. What force directs the twists of our lives – or are all events random and therefore beyond our control? When a tiny, independent, and utterly charming cat enters the lives of a couple living in a rented guest house, the unexpected affection and reliance the narrating husband and his wife feel towards the little feline sets off a chain of disquisitions on nature, destiny, joy, pleasure, and sorrow – and on the importance of acceptance of all such gifts of fate, in the moment and of the moment. Unknown

The narrator struggles to define what he feels towards the cat and where she fits – so unexpectedly – into his life; time is passing and he knows all that he is experiencing will change and disappear, but he still tries to stop time and enjoy what he has found in his quiet corner of Tokyo. He turns to Art for guidance, including the works of an abstract artist he befriends, the words of a dying poet he has long admired, and the poems of Machiavelli. The artist tried to capture moments in time, the poet is running out of time, and Machiavelli is thwarted in his efforts to control a symbol of time, the flowing of the river Arno. Although we might associate Machiavelli primarily with the rather ruthless guidance of The Prince, it is through his poems that he shares his experience with forces beyond his control. Working with Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli sought to change the course of the Arno through Florence – but the forces of the river were too strong to divert or change. Machiavelli experienced the futility of trying to change the tide (literally and metaphorically) and put the experience into poetry: “Fortune also is unkind, boldly her long tresses/Disarranged – now here, now there,/One after the other, transform all things…”

Much as Machiavelli used poetry in an effort to understand the forces of the Arno (and of destiny), the narrator uses his writing as a way to control (and understand) the ebb and flow of his life, including his connections to friends, his wife, the cat, and time itself. But even in writing of that special time in his life when a little cat made herself guest in his home, he cannot fully grasp the import of the moments he shared with her: “All I want is to know what happened – I want to somehow grasp every detail of the events of that day, that one day like a tiny dewdrop…but now it’s all engulfed in the profound darkness of time.”

Hiraide’s writing shines a light into the connections that come from living fully in the moments of our pleasure, and the sorrow that comes when such moments pass into what he so aptly calls “the darkness of time.” Hiraide’s writing is lyrical and captivating – his description of the relationship he develops with a dragonfly mesmerizes – and I will revisit The Guest Cat with pleasure, much as I return to favorite poems and paintings and memories. Fate goes where she wishes, times passes without pause, but our experiences of events belongs wholly to us in the moment, no matter the engulfing darkness to come. IMG_7737

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide won the Kiyama Shohei Literary Award in Japan and was a bestseller in France. It was just released in its English translation; it was translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland.