5 Min read
3 short books by prize-winning authors
Historical fiction, fiction, nonfiction
If I don’t write things down, they
haven’t been carried through to completion,
they have only been lived.
Happy 2024! I hope you had a good winter break, one that was restful and perhaps memorable.
I love reading. I love living outside of the page too. If I have the chance to read or to do, I try to do. By all means, DO. That said, doing is not always feasible of course, given resources and skills.
This winter break I visited Savannah, that haven of good and evil, of charms and alarms. I went on a ghost tour and played pickleball for the first time. Kids gave us rackets. So, I joined the craze at the Richmond Hill meet-up. What a wonderful group of folks. A dozen courts and four to five times that many people. All levels and ages. Addictive and fun for the moderately athletic. The game is minimal movement and loads of laughs, mostly at my wild balls and air whiffs. It’s a short racket if you’ve played tennis. And the ball is lighter with holes so it doesn’t bounce as high.
As for reading over the break, here are three provocative passages I want to share with you. To make you think. Though the second is more evocative.
Historical Fiction: Hidden Horror
‘Mister, won’t you help us?’
Furlong felt himself stepping back.
‘Just take me as far as the river. That’s all you need do.’
She was dead in earnest and the accent was Dublin.
‘To the river?’
‘Or you could just let me out at the gate.’
‘It’s not up to me, girl. I can’t take you anywhere,’ Furlong said, showing her his open, empty hands.
‘Take me home with you, then. I’ll work til I drop for ya, sir.’
‘Haven’t I five girls and a wife at home.’
‘Well, I’ve nobody–and all I want to do is drown meself. Can you not even do that fukken much for us?’
Suddenly she dropped to her knees and started polishing–and Furlong turned to see a nun standing down at the confession box.Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, 2021. Winner of the Orwell Prize. Ch. 4, pp 43-44.
SPOILER ALERT — This passage provides a glimpse of a horrific reality of Ireland’s Magdalen laundries of the eighties, the last of which was not closed down until 1996. I did not know what this “Christmas” book was about and was shocked to learn the inspiration behind the story. The protagonist, Bill Furlong, has a choice when he stumbles into the horrors. Turn away, as many even most had done, or do something.
Fiction: the Music in Prose
“Emelia, I think you must sing something. Something old . . . yes, from Norma.” She hummed a familiar air under her breath, and looked about for a chair. Oswald brought one. “Thank you. And we might have less light, might we not?” He turned off the lights.
She sat by the window, half draped in her cloak, the moonlight falling across her knees. Her friend went to the piano and commenced the Casta Diva aria, which begins so like the quivering of moonbeams on the water. It was the first air on our old music-box at home, but I had never heard it sung–and I have never head it sung so beautifully since.My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather, 1926. Fiction. Ch 5, p. 39.
This is a grand and concise story about Myra Henshawe, narrated by a friend’s daughter, Nellie, in 85 pages. This passage brings us into the scene, highlighting the extraordinary and ordinary life of Myra who had given up a fortune for love. I listened to the beginning of the aria (Maria Callas live at the Palais Garnier (1958) 20M views) which Cather describes so aptly, as the quivering of moonbeams on the water. Cather captures a life-changing moment when an opera singer brings a small dark apartment to life with her voice, as she gives the very best of herself to her friends. And what a contrast it is to Cather’s skillful and exquisite depiction of Myra’s marriage.
Creative Nonfiction: Role Reversal
His extreme jealousy–he accused me of having had a man around to my house because the toilet seat was raised–made it pointless to doubt his passion for me and rendered absurd the reproach I suspected his friends of leveling at him, “How can you go out with a menopausal woman?”
He was devoted to me with a fervor which, at fifty-four, I had never experienced with any other lover.The Young Man by Annie Ernaux (2022) in translation Alison L. Strayer, 2023. P. 20.
A fascinating peek into an honest account of a woman dating a man nearly 30 years her junior, a role reversal of gender norms. I appreciated Ernaux’s insight as a woman in charge, what that feels like and how she thinks of the affair now that she is in her 80s.
The epigraph for The Young Man is noted at the start of this letter. Ernaux inscribes the opening of the book with this single sentence, how she must write things down. Because not doing so means . . . they haven’t been carried through to completion, they have only been lived.
And the sentence is a truth I have known. One I chase after, like an aria sung in a dim place, like a child with a moonbeam, gone as quickly as I found it. For much of my life I’ve had a bias for action and the sense of purpose was something which I thought would come from activity, busy-ness, and doing. It is–as it turns out for me–the reflection which comes from writing, the discovery inherent in the process of putting words on the page, that truth at times reveals itself, if I am open to seeing it.
There’s the truth of living outside the page, in just being and doing. In the meantime, I may have to find a local Pickleball meet-up.
Three short books to make you think
*Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, 2021. Winner of the Orwell Prize for political fiction. I like to read a holiday or Christmas story during the season and this surprised me, touching me deeply, not just about the horrors of child labor but of the characters’ humanity and inhumanity.
*My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather, 1926. My edition, the 1954 Vintage Classic, has a 25 page introduction to the book and Willa Cather by Marcus Klein (Barnard College 1961) which was one of the few times I read the lead-in before the text. It was good, insightful and I liked a closing comment: There were others at the time of her [Cather’s] greatest production who also made a religion of craftsmanship–Gertrude Stein, who was her exact contemporary, Ezra Pound, Hemingway–but next to Willa Cather they seem sloganeers. She quite alone, and without making a public campaign of it, put in the work and achieved a relentless purity of style. Never so pure and never so relentless as in My Mortal Enemy.
*The Young Man by Annie Ernaux, 2022. Ernaux is the Winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, given for a body of work.
*Video of Maria Callas singing “Casta Diva” aria (Bellini: Norma, Act 1) live at at Palais Garnier in 1958. 20M views. Visit THL to view. Callas begins to sing at 1:30.