Critical Mass



It was a long, cold, wet spring, here in Seattle. Even the most stoic among us in the far northwest corner have taken to muttering about buying up distressed properties in Arizona. If we had any money—the woes of my employer, the newspaper business (our post-layoff newsroom looks like the Rapture came through and scooped up the elect, leaving a trail of paper clips and dried out pens behind), the zigging price of oil and the zagging decline of the stock market have pretty much put paid to the notion of real estate speculation, and have pushed my escape-o-meter into the red zone.

So I have pitched a wide net in my summer reading endeavors; the less contemporary, the better. Here’s a short list of books that may take your mind off current troubles, if only for a little while:

The People of Privilege Hill
by Jane Gardam (Europa Editions).

Gardam , a much-decorated English author, is pure pleasure to read and ponder, with a voice that makes me think of a brilliant, tenderly funny, hyperobservant aunt who will you give the real skinny when no one else will.
I wrote about her novel Old Filth last year on this blog; this short story collection brings back Old Filth protagonist Sir Edward Feathers, a rich, lonely retired Hong Kong lawyer living out his twilight years in declining Dorsetshire splendor. Other stories feature an older couple seeing their only child off to college; a surreal tale of redemption set during the London Blitz; and a bitter commentary on the scandal-mongering media culture of our time, “The Latter Days of Mr. Jones.” There’s also a story about an older woman who falls in love with a gorilla. The ending made me cry, and I thought I was beyond that.

The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds by Marilyn Yalom, photographs by Reid S. Yalom (Houghton Mifflin)

A wide ranging social history of how Americans honor and dispose of their dead. Yalom, a respected historian, is a clear, engaging and authoritative writer; the fine-art photos of her son, Reid, are a beautiful complement to the text. The author is particularly astute in tracing how the issues of race and class that divide us in life continue to do so in death.

Maxwell: Early Novels and Stories (Library of America).

I had mostly thought of William Maxwell as a longtime New Yorker editor. But the man could write—his prose is clear and distilled, and he never used a word or image without a reason. His highly autobiographical story “They Came Like Swallows,” about a young boy, his mother and the flu epidemic of 1917, is one of those pieces of prose you simply have to sit with for a while, digesting, after you finish it. Library of America will issue a second volume of Maxwell’s work this fall.

Lush Life by Richard Price (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

This is the first book of Price’s I’ve read, and the best novel I’ve had the pleasure to spend time with in many a while. It is utterly contemporary (about a murder on Manhattan’s Lower East Side), so it’s not really an escape; more like deep-diving into the social and psychological currents of our culture. Like other Price readers, I keep thinking of Dickens when I read him, for his grasp of character, dialogue and incredible feeling for textural detail. In a hundred years readers will go back to this book to fathom what Life Was Like in our age; I suspect they’ll find, as we do when we read Dickens, that the more things change, the more people remain the same – mucking things up, then reaching for redemption.

Mary Ann Gwinn is the books editor at the Seattle Times and a member of the NBCC board.