Category Archives: Memoirs and Histories

Foreign Correspondence

Geraldine Brooks wrote nonfiction before she moved over to fiction, writing her Pulitzer prize winning novel March, along with Year of Wonder, People of the Book, and Caleb’s Crossing.  I love the writing of Brooks and when a Facebook friend recommended I read Foreign Correspondence, Brooks’ book about the penpals she had through childhood, I  jumped.  A book about letters?  By one of my favorite writers?  What could be better? 

Foreign Correspondence fulfilled all my expectations.  It is a wonderful book, not only for its introspective exploration of letters but for Brooks’ marvelous personality which flows from every page.  Brooks both in person (I had the great fortune of meeting Brooks at a book luncheon hosted by the End of the Sidewalk bookstore in the summer of 2011) and on the page is lively and warm,  thoughtful and exacting, kind and gentle.  Reading Foreign Correspondence it was as if she were right there beside me, having a conversation while we shared a pot of tea or a bottle of wine.

At times very funny, and at other times quite sad, Brooks tells the story of how she discovered her long lost penpal letters while at home in Australia, tending to her father during his last illness. She mixes in the story of her childhood in a lower middle class neighborhood with the story of her parents, explaining how both she and her father used letters to make connections across country, political, and social lines.  While her father used his letter writing to voice enthusiasm or criticism (and to keep up a very important connection which Brooks only discovered later in life), the young Brooks used her letters to fly away in search of any place more interesting than what she saw as her tiny and boring corner of Australia.

We follow Brooks, first a young girl writing to penpals and then a grown woman, tracking down her correspondents to see how life has turned out for them.  All along the way, from child to grown-up, Brooks makes discoveries about herself, Australia, her parents, and her faraway friends that will prove formative to the woman she has become, not only as one of the best writers around but as an open-minded, open-hearted participant in the world.  Brooks has been around the world and back again, through letters and through experience, and she shares all she has learned with us, the lucky reader.

2012 Books and Thanksgiving


Thank you to the authors who make my year of reading — whether it is a book a day or a book a week — a core pleasure of my life.

Pure by Andrew Miller: Set in 1785 France, Baratte, an ambitious provincial engineer, is commissioned to clear out the oldest cemetery in Paris, disposing of the bones, destroying the attendant church and filling in the holes left behind any way he can. Miller is a marvelous writer, weaving his amazing story around the framework of his characters, each one so full of heart and muscle that they seem to come alive on the page. Or maybe it is the other way round, that his amazing characters weave and dance around the framework of his plot, a plot full of wild machinations and lofty dreams and sober realities.

Dead Scared by S.J. Bolton: I just could not put the book down (and this has been true of every Bolton book I’ve ever read) because of its twisting plot (offering surprises at every turn), compelling characters (including reappearances of some of my favorites from past books), fascinating setting (the colleges of Cambridge, England) and the constantly increasing undercurrent of dread and fear. The building of tension and suspense only crested in the very last paragraph, sending me into spasms of relief and then back into the book to reread the last hundred pages all over again.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: This book is a marvel and a gem. It is hilarious and heartbreaking, and it has a message: “Be brave in love and in life.” Jess Walter, himself, is brave, flinging his characters (whom he clearly loves) out in the world, through time and across continents, in and out of crazy and not-so-crazy situations, and allowing them (and us) to come to some very profound realizations about dreaming big, wanting more and taking on the world.

The Names of Things by John Colman Wood: This book tells the story of a man who journeys to Africa to find again the groups of nomads with whom he traveled years ago. As an anthropologist, he was always looking for the names of things as a way to define their meaning in the culture he studied and how such meaning connected to his own way of life. As a man now trying to deal with overwhelming sorrow, he finds that the name of a thing is only the place to start understanding the substance of experience, and that in the end, it is the substance that might sustain him, while the names twist away.

A Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny: Penny’s mysteries are wonderful, one after the other. In the latest, the heroic and kind Inspector Gamache finds himself behind the stonewalls of a monastery, soaking up the beauty of Gregorian chants and the ugliness of murder (along with rich stews, cheeses and wild blueberries dipped in dark chocolate — good food is always present in a Penny novel). Despite the abundance of gourmet treats, Penny doesn’t write feel-good, frothy novels with everything falling neatly into place by the finish; instead she creates real scenarios that expose the tolls exacted by real living, where good is not always rewarded and evil not always punished, where lives are overtaken by the tolls of abuse — and lives are lost.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed: I read Wild side by side with The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and found striking parallels in the quests of Strayed and of Kerouac. Like Strayed, Kerouac had problems with packing his gear, choosing his shoes and planning meals (and satisfying his appetite!), but found what he needed: solace in the wild. Strayed was looking for solace, but even more, for restoration: After the death of her mother, Strayed hit rock bottom and decided the only way back to her true and good self was to undertake the hiking journey of a lifetime. (Some of us read tons of books to find solace and answers, some of us take long hikes.) In making that hike, she filled the hole in her heart and restored herself to sanity and strength.

And what a déjà-vu I experienced in reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, a book I absolutely loved. Like Kerouac and Strayed, poor Harold has the wrong shoes on for his trek across England, but he doesn’t let pain and blisters stop him. And like Strayed, fictional Harold has a hole in his heart that needs patching up. This surprising man and his lovely story took me by the hand, and then gave my soul a good thumping (I cried buckets!) — thank you for the hike, Ms. Joyce, and I look forward to your next novel.

Friendkeeping by Julie Klam: We can all use gentle and funny reminders of how to be a good friend — and why. Klam serves up her signature wit and big heart, and inspires us all.

And for good e-books, I give thanks for: The Fulcrum Files by Mark Chisnell: Set in England just before World War II, sailor Ben Clayton, committed pacifist, finds himself involved in an international spy game involving gambling, intimidation, weapons build-up and murder. This book satisfies sailing buffs, history fans, espionage addicts, and anyone else yearning for a good, satisfying yarn; and…

No One Knows You’re Here by Rachel Howzell: Syeeda, the reporter at the heart of the novel, is a modern-day heroine, complicated and smart and tough, who discovers that a serial killer is on the loose in the back alleys of Los Angeles. Based on the Grim Sleeper killings that occurred in L.A. in the 1980s, No One Knows You’re Here is about crimes that go unnoticed (committed against the underclass) and heroes that go unsung (journalists and writers), providing not only a great book but a sharp jab in the shoulder: Are you paying attention yet? After reading this book, you most certainly will be.

Friendkeeping: a Primer

Friendkeeping by Julie Klam is the book you will want to give all your bestest friends, not as a nudge-nudge, hint-hint reminder of what it takes to be a good friend, but rather as a celebration of just how great friends can be. And if they (or you) pick up a few hints on how to be a better friend, so much the better for everyone. We all need reminding once in awhile that connection takes more than just showing up for drinks or a walk — and Klam offers the reminders with her usual big heart, goofy humor, and open admissions.

Klam tackles the big issues of friendship in Friendkeeping, including jealousy within the relationship (likening it to Kuato from the movie Total Recall – an ugly little creature that lives in her belly and rears his schadenfreude head from time to time); what happens when you love a friend but hate his/her partner (we have all been there); sharing (despite being a memoirist Klam admits that for years she couldn’t talk about her troubles with friends, either in her own life or with them. Now she understands the two-way street of sharing is vital to a good friendship — but even then, she also understand there are situations when you are there just to listen); and how to let go of friends that just are not right for you (for Julie, the deal breaker was taking a dog out for a walk without a leash — IN NYC!).

Klam also takes on, with wit and grace, the even bigger ordeals of illness, depression, and distance: those moments (or years) in friendship when more effort, understanding, and love is required. You can do it, Klam urges us all, and with her coaching, she is right: we can.

Wild Joy and Tenacious Peace

I finally read Wild by Cheryl Strayed and I really liked it.  Strayed is a warm, honest, and brave woman, who in telling her story of recovery — 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail!! — won my heart. Devastated by the death of her mother, Strayed spent the first few years after the death spiraling away from her husband and siblings, and into the arms of the wrong people, with the wrong drugs and wrong answers.  Hitting rock bottom, Strayed becomes convinced that the only way back to her true and good self — the daughter her mother loved so much — is to undertake the hiking journey of a lifetime. There is a hole in her heart, as Strayed explains it, and she wants to repair that hole the best she can.  

Walking by herself for days on end, and for miles and miles seems to her to be the way to go. She knows what she needs” to go back to the wild, and back to her own true self:”…how it felt to be wild … what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunries and sunsets.  The experience was powerful and fundamental … a human in the wild.”

As a woman who turned to her own unique journey, after losing my sister to cancer, I understand why Strayed took her journey and I thank her for sharing it so beautifully and so vividly in Wild.

I read Wild side by side with The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and found so many delightful similarities in the quests of Strayed and of Kerouac. In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac fictionalizes a journey he took one weekend with Gary Snyder to the top of Matterhorn in California.  Like Strayed, Kerouac had problems with packing his gear, choosing his shoes, and planning meals (and satisfying his appetite!).  And like Strayed, Kerouac craved communion with the wild, following up his trip to Matterhorn with a summer spent fire watching on Desolation Peak in Washington State.

In so many ways, the experiences of Strayed and Kerouac parallel and complement each other, and reading the two books together enriched the adventures of both for me. When Kerouac writes, “Trails are like that: you’re floating along in a Shakespearean Arden paradise and expect to see nymphs and fluteboys, then suddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of hell in dust and nettles and poison oak…just like life,” I know that Strayed would agree — and due to both of their works, I can understand. I may not be ready just yet to take off on my own up a mountain but I do understand why a person would want to — and what wonders could be found there.

But Kerouac is more joyful in his recounting of experiences in the wild, and provides much more in the way of pure ecstasty of the senses: “Here now the earth was a splendorous thing – snow on the ground, in melting patches in the grass, and gurgling creeks, and the huge silent rock mountains on both sides, and a wind blowing, and the smell of heather. We forded a lovely little creek, shallow as your hand, pearl pure lucid water…”

I underlined paragraph after paragraph in The Dharma Bums, as I am a person, like Kerouac, deeply wedded to joy.  As he says in The Dharma Bums, “I realized I had no guts anyway, which I’ve long known. But I have joy…”

Another contrast between Kerouac and Strayed, a funny one, is their reaction to the word “hobo”: Kerouac wears the label with pride while Strayed chafes at the assumption of a man she meets on the road that she is a hobo; he reasons that if you look like one, smell like one, and are hungry like one, you are one.  Strayed denied she is a hobo, despite how she smells or looks, but she is grateful for the package of food and supplies the man leaves her with.

After finishing these two wonderful books, I returned to an old favorite of mine, The Solace of Open Spaces, written by Gretel Ehrlich.  Like Strayed, Ehrlich turns to the wild world of the west in an effort to recover and regroup after losing a loved one to cancer.  Having been in Wyoming with her dying lover, who tells her “All this space reminds me of possibility, of the life you and I could have had together…”, Ehrlich returns to find again the promise of possibility in her life. Unlike Strayed or Kerouac, who go to the mountains to find answers, Ehrlich’s wild lands are the ranch lands, the open spaces, of Wyoming.  There she learns the secret of endurance, and of love: “The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation. I thought: to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce.”

The Solace of Open Spaces is a beautiful, beautiful meditation on resilience, place, and identity, and I recommend it to anyone seeking a western atmosphere, deep reflection, and quiet satisfaction.

 

Indies Like Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
My Year of Magical Reading

Selected by Indie Booksellers for the June 2011 Indie Next List, and Chosen This Summer for Paperback Next List

“This graceful memoir describes a true love affair with books. After losing her 46-year-old sister to cancer, Sankovitch embarks on a year of reading: one book every day for a full year. Her project, complete with daily book reviews, becomes an ongoing conversation with her sister and provides insight into her own past and contact with bibliophiles across the world. This is the best description of the power of books that I have ever encountered!”
Caitlin Doggart, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Chatham, MA

With grace and deep insight, Sankovitch weaves together poignant family memories with the unforgettable lives of the characters she reads about. She finds a lesson in each book, ultimately realizing the ability of a good story to console, inspire, and open our lives to new places and experiences. A moving story of recovery, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is also a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading.

BUY THE BOOK

Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
One of Nina’s favorite books from childhood, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, can still bring tears to her eyes when she reads it today. What books did you love as a child that can still elicit strong emotions in you today?
Read more…

Praise For Tolstoy and the Purple Chair…
“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is an absolutely lovely account of the healing power of literature.”
-Devourer of Books

“What Sankovitch has accomplished in her first book is not only to celebrate the transformational, even healing, powers of reading, but to give the reader a feeling of reading those books as well, through the eyes of an astute reader.”
-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Nina Sankovitch has crafted a dazzling memoir that reminds us of the most primal function of literature—to heal, to nurture and to connect us to our truest selves.”
-Thrity Umrigar, author of The Space Between Us

“[A] brilliant and heartwarming book.”
-Ventura County Star

“An original and touching…account of one woman’s lifelong affinity for books and her attempt to channel that affinity to deal with her grief after her sister dies. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is an understated but moving story about the effects of a ‘year of magical reading.’”
-The Dartmouth

“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair will transport you to a time before texts and tweets. Through the stories of her own family, Nina Sankovitch shows how books have the power to refresh, renew, and even heal us. I loved this memoir.”
-Julie Klam, author of You Had Me at Woof

“A beautifully paced look at how mindfulness can affect the psyche.”
-Shelf Awareness (starred review)

“Sankovitch’s account works well because she uses her reading list to jump off into topics that are tangential, yet intriguing and often important.”
-Buffalo News

“Sankovitch’s memoir stands as a tribute to the power of books to enrich our daily lives.”
-Christian Science Monitor

“A beautifully fluid, reflective, and astute memoir that gracefully combines affecting family history with expert testimony about how books open our minds to ‘the complexity and entirety of the human experience.’ Sankovitch’s reading list in all its dazzling variety is top-notch.”
-Booklist

“[An] entertaining bibliophile’s dream…Sankovitch’s memoir speaks to the power that books can have over our daily lives. Sankovitch champions the act of reading not as an indulgence but as a necessity, and will make the perfect gift from one bookworm to another.”
-Publishers Weekly

“[Tolstoy and the Purple Chair] offers timeless wisdom, is uplifting and has a powerful message.”
-PsychCentral.com

“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is original, uplifting and very moving: a unique celebration of life, love and literature.”
-S. J. Bolton, author of Now You See Me

“In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, her affectionate and inspiring paean to the power of books and reading, Sankovitch gracefully acknowledges that her year of reading was an escape into the healing sanctuary of books, where she learned how to move beyond recuperation to living.”
-BookPage

“[Tolstoy and the Purple Chair] digs deep into that near-mystical connection between a reader and an author—that startling feeling that you are channeling someone you have never met…A gripping and inspiring book.”
-Connecticut Post

“The beauty of her project lies in seeing how books intertwine with daily life, how very much they affect our moods, interactions, and, especially important for Sankovitch, how we recover and process our memories….She makes reading seem accessible, relaxing, inspiring, fun.”
-Los Angeles Times

“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair masterfully weaves beloved and sometimes surprising books into central events in the writer’s life. There is much to learn from this moving book. Sankovitch writes with intelligence and honesty, leading us to respond in a similar manner.”
-Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of One Amazing Thing

“This graceful memoir describes a true love affair with books.”
-Boston Globe

“Her deeply moving memoir artfully intertwines her immigrant family’s history with the universal themes of hope, resilience, and memory. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair celebrates not only the healing power of literature but its ability to connect us to the best of ourselves — and each other.”
-American Way

“Anyone who has ever sought refuge in literature will identify with Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.”
-O, The Oprah Magazine

“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a must-read for anyone who adores books. It is also a primer on the healing power of taking time off to grieve by immersing oneself in a revered activity.”
-The Book Bully

Buy the book at an Independent Bookstore by clicking on one of the links below.

Independent Bookstores

Indiebound

Powell’s Books

Rainy Day Books

Tattered Cover Bookstore

 

If you buy Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, be sure to let me know at sankovitch@readallday.org. Include your address and I will be happy to send you out a personalized bookplate, from me to you, (as long as supplies last).


The Prime of Mrs. Delany

Can you imagine at what time in your life the “work” of your life might begin? For most of us, and those of us of a certain age, we might think that point in our lives has passed us by. But we are wrong in that assumption. “I never quit resting on hope,” wrote Mary Delany in 1776, at the age of 76, “which often opens a pleasant view. Rigid wisdom says ‘Don’t hope, and then you will not be disappointed’ but [such] philosophers are rare talkers and sad comforters….”

Read The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock and you will find so much hope via the story of Mary Delany that you might be tempted to turn down a new road, commence a new chapter, or restart a stalled dream. And I say: Go for it.

Mary Delany was an artist who created paper collages of stunning visceral and potent impact, and only began her work as an artist at the age of 72. Delany lived in England in the eighteenth century, at a time when to live to one’s seventies was to be very old indeed — but as Mary Delany proved, again and again, one is never too late to hit the prime in life. Amiable with Handel, suspicious of Rousseau, and a favorite of George III, Mary Delany is a heroine, a friend, and an inspiration. And she is not the only friend you’ll be making in reading The Paper Garden. The author, Molly Peacock, who shares freely and beautifully, will become another treasured compatriot in the roll and sway of life.

Peacock, a poet of a certain age, became enamored of Mary Delany when first discovering her paper collages of flowers in the British Museum. Almost 1000 of these collages were made, between the years of 1772 and 1782, and Peacock, poet turned historian turned writer (but who keeps her lovely poet soul with her every step of the way), gives her readers the full story, not only of Delany’s ten years of incredible artistic productivity (while she was in her seventies and eighties, may I remind you) but also of the lifetime leading up to the flourishing of her artistry: “Can such a great talent behave like a seed? How can it lie dormant for so long? We all know the truism: people who seem to spring into artistic action were, in fact, quietly preparing for years.”

Molly Peacock herself has a story of dormancy and flourishing, and frost and light, and she weaves her own story in beside the story of Delany seamlessly and beautifully. But Delany and Peacock aren’t the only mature women flourishing and blooming in The Paper Garden: the histories of other women, some connected to Delany and some to Peacock, are integrated into this inspirational and buoyant and wholly unsentimental book, each and everyone memorable and unique and substantial.

Told in chapters that parallel the collages created by Delany — hound’s tongue, nodding thistle, passion flower, magnolia, and winter cherry, to name just a few — The Paper Garden is like an enchanted garden, one in which I passed with slow tread, measured reading, and long spaces of thought and reflection. This is not a book to be read in a day, and in fact would make a lovely book for a year’s worth of seasons, alternating between discussion and deliberation.

There is much to be absorbed, learned, and acted upon, in reading The Paper Garden. To say nothing of how much there is to see in The Paper Garden, for Peacock treats us with lovely reprints of the collages and adds in close-ups of petals, stems, and buds that left me catching my breath.

How deeply I felt the connection Peacock made between herself and Delany — and so many others — when she underscored the role of pain and sorrow in artistic endeavor: “[A]rt is a poultice for a burn. It is a privilege to have, somewhere within you, a capacity for making something speak from your own seared experience.”

And I would add that it is a privilege not only for the one speaking, but for all the ones listening — and for all of us who through that speaking and listening can find community in our pain, and resolution in our endeavors to create something good out of that hole of sorrow and loss.

For that is what Peacock teaches us in The Paper Garden: that we have the muscle and heart to make a substantial gift of creativity or compassion or companionship — and age has nothing to do with it. The prime of our lives is always just waiting for us, a hope and a heartbeat away.

To Rise Above: Leon’s Story

I read another Christmas present yesterday, this one from my friend Fernando. The book is Leon’s Story by Leon Walter Tillage, as told to and illustrated by artist Susan L. Roth.

Leon was born in 1936 into a sharecropper family, descendants of slaves and still subject to a no-win existence of working hard with not a hope in the world of self-advancement. And yet what Leon’s parents could give their children was the most important gift of all: unconditional love and a strong family life, largely based on faith and on certainty of justice, in the end. Leon took the lessons and love of his parents and, using what public education he has access to in mid-century North Carolina, he became an advocate for equality, a follower of Martin Luther King Jr., and a participant in the wave of demonstrations that spread through North Carolina in the 1950s. Having been subjected to hatred and violence his entire life, and tortured with witnessing a beloved family member die at the hands of ignorant bigots, Leon knew that no matter how dangerous the peace marches could be, present life was intolerable: “We’re getting beat up now. We’re getting killed now. So I’d rather get beat up for doing something or trying to change things. I mean, why get beat up for nothing?”

Artist Susan Roth discovered the story of Leon in the 1990s, when Leon, a custodian at the middle school her daughter attended, made his annual presentation to the students of the school — in which he recounted events from his life — and her daughter came home, awed by his story and stoked with questions about how such things could have happened in this country.

In Leon’s Story, Susan and Leon present his life in written form, giving shape to his stories of endurance and faith, spirit and kindness, and underscoring his unflagging belief in freedom as both right and responsibility: “We didn’t care who we lived beside. We didn’t care so much about walking in the front door. What we cared about was who are you to tell us what we can and can’t do in America, the land of freedom, of democracy. That is what we got beat up for. It was as simple as that.”

Leon’s Story is a short book yet it packs a powerful wallop of history and survival, human dignity and overriding grace. I recommend it for all ages, and particularly for a shared read among family, to be read aloud and discussed, and inspired by.

Understanding Where Great Literature Comes From: Inspiration

Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, by Celia Blue Johnson is explained by its subtitle: “Stories of Inspiration Behind Great Works of Literature”. Blue Johnson takes us into the years, weeks, or moments before a great writer put pen to paper and explains how characters, plots, and backgrounds come from personal experiences — everything from being in love to being in prison, and from watching a spider weave a web in an old barn to watching cousins play in the yard after a funeral, and from reading a newspaper to reading a history book. She offers eager young writers and seasoned old readers a glimpse into how inspiration is sparked, and how great writers fan that spark into a fire of production (although in some cases it is more like a slow burn, with the resulting masterpiece of Anne Karenina or The Great Gatsby taking years to come out of the oven, so to speak, of creation).

Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway is a delightful exploration of where inspiration comes from and will be an especially satisfying read to anyone who has read and loved any of the marvelous novels whose nascence Blue Johnson investigated. The inspiration behind a whopping fifty titles is presented, including The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Little Prince by Antoine St. Exupery, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie, and Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.

The variety of books is wide and Blue Johnson’s research was wider still. A bibliography is included at the end of Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway that will allow curious readers to dig more for themselves. I talked with Celia Blue Johnson about her book, and was fortunate enough to speak on a panel with her about books and reading and inspiration. She told me that much of her research depended on letters exchanged by writers. LETTERS, people, letters! Yet another reason to keep writing letters: for inspiration.

Celia Blue Johnson, Miriam Parker, and me, at the Spencertown Art Academy Festival of Books

 

Book of Lives, Loves and Letters

A Book of Secrets by Michael Holyrod tells the true stories of women of means but not of certain parentage, power, or steady money; in varying degrees of success, these women forged lives and loves, and wrote tons of letters (luckily for all of us). Holyrod turns those lives, loves, and letters into a delightful and thorough (although by no means long) romp through decades of female creativity and resilience.

Given my current obsession with letters, my favorite parts of this rambling and charming book are the parts where Holyrod refers to the volumes and volumes of letters passed back and forth between his major characters — Eve Fairfax, Violet Trefusis, Vita Sackville-West — and minor characters — Rodin, Ernest Beckett, Virginia Wolf, Alice Keppel, and others — to illustrate the timbre and rhythm of their times. “How lifeless,” I thought to myself again and again, “would the portraits of these women be without their own penned words to be lingered over, wondered at, and absorbed?” And how much more we understand the difficulties they faced in creating the roles that they did, roles that allowed them to thrive, to love, to create, through the long letters that they wrote.

Holyrod quotes freely, to be sure (and all for the good), from the other writings of these women, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, but it is the women’s letters that underscore how very much their personal physical and spiritual joys and sorrows were surrendered to and rendered in their novels, memoirs, and poems. How passionate these women were, in mind and body! How involved not only with thinking about themselves but also with observing, relating, and — most importantly — commenting upon everything and everyone that went on around them, and everyone that touched them, with hands or words, or both.

A Book of Secrets is not only a marvelous multi-biographical musing on female creativity, sexuality, and resilience, but also a lovely final expression (he says quite clearly that this is his last book) of Holyrod’s own twin passions, English society and literature. It is also, I suspect, proof of his new and lasting passion: women on the edge and going for it with everything they’ve got.

Level-headed Adventurer Falls in Love with Island and Man

The subtitle of Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All is A New Zealand Story. I would have amended that to A New Zealand Love Story. Christina Thompson travels to New Zealand as a post-grad scholar/adventurer, and finds unparalleled beauty, stark reality, and a Maori man. Level-headed and practical (she is no fool, quite self-reliant, and impressively hard-working) but also deeply romantic and fearless (her guiding bible for years was a 1949 book titled The Spell of the Pacific), Christina meets Seven, as he is called, in a rundown bar. Having missed her last bus out of town, Christina follows Seven (chastely at first) home. He thens follows her back to school in Australia, and together they make a life for themselves down under, in Hawaii, and eventually back in Boston where Thompson grew up.

Interspersed with their story is Thompson’s richly detailed and compelling scholarly exploration of New Zealand, of its native populations of Maori, and of the explorers and adventurers, convicts and romantics, administrators and rogues, who came ashore the island (or tried to). Perhaps a few ended up as dinner, but even more ended up enchanted. Thompson ended up in love, with the island and one of its men.