Another week, another mix of #FridayReads from our editors. This week we found ourselves taken in by histories both real and fictional. We were pleased to revisit old characters and old family stories in a new light. At the same time, we looked ahead to spring. (And with it, gardening! And also hockey.) In short, it was a pretty good week.
Justin: When I visited my grandparents as a child there would always come a time, usually in the late evening after dinner, when I’d ask my grandmother to tell me about life during the Great Depression, and she’d dutifully recount stories about sharecroppers and her father hunting squirrels for dinner. For a long time, those images were my abiding impressions of the Great Depression.
Reading Hard Times, Studs Terkel’s monumental oral history of the Great Depression, I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother’s stories. The recollections Terkel dutifully records here—from hobos and migrant workers to gangsters to journalists and WPA employees to rich folks who were barely affected—at once remind me of my grandmother’s stories for their visceral simplicity and present a much richer, more complex story of that time period. The way Terkel arranges these interviews, not as a chronological series, but by affinity so as to create a rich, complex, constantly shifting exchange of voice and perspective, makes the whole thing read less like a typical history than a great novel. This weekend, I’ll settle in, thankful that we seem to be finally, finally out of our own economic downturn, and try to imagine how my grandparents would have responded to Terkel’s thoughtful questioning.
Alex P: I’ve been meaning to read one of Peirene Press’s books since they first landed on Scribd a couple months ago. They’re a wonderful house: a small, independent publisher dedicated to translating short works of excellent European fiction into English. (And the covers! I want to frame them all.) I settled on Sea of Ink because its title is nearly as beautiful and evocative as the cover it graces.
This quiet, lovely, novella-cum-biography of Bada Shanren, the eminent Chinese painter born in the 17th century, makes good on the promise of its title and cover. Composed of short, poetic vignettes, it follows the life of a man who seemed to have many: from prince to monk, from renowned painter to seeming madman. As evoked by the title, much of the novella is concerned with the attempt to render nature in art, and, in turn, how nature sometimes seems a painting come to life. At one point, a goldfish breeder offers Bada his choice of fish:
“‘Why the darkest one, Master?’ the goldfish breeder asked with a hint of surprise.
‘If I stood by the pond in the noonday sunlight and saw a school of your violet fish, I would be watching the night swimming in the water.’”
Between the prints of Bada Shanren’s work scattered throughout the novella and the lyrical allure of prose celebrating beauty both natural and composed, I’m reminded of Wallace Stevens:
And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
Niree: In one of my earliest writing workshops many years ago, the leader—a very successful novelist—encouraged us to go on a guided hike and document all the plants and creatures we came across. This, she said, was the stuff of textured settings. How rich your writing could be, fiction or otherwise, when you familiarized yourself with the smell, color, sound, and feel of nature.
The Writer in the Garden, a carefully curated anthology of narrative nonfiction essays featuring writers ruminating on all things garden, proves just this. Learn about rebirth with Jamaica Kincaid’s beautiful short essay on winter’s symbolism or sink into Gertrude Jekyll’s Victorian wit as she quips “Plants do not a garden make…[this] only makes a collection…To learn how to perceive the difference and how to do it right is to apprehend gardening as a fine art.”
With planting season coming up, arm yourself with these essays by fifty writers, including E.B. White, Alexander Pope, and Katherine Mansfield, for a little extra inspiration to get out of the house, feel the earth beneath your hands, battle bugs and weeds, and coax buds to bloom. Chances are, you’ll end up with something to write about, too.
Mallory: This is my second time meeting Marie—I read Running Away, to which this is a loose sequel (but by no means required in order to appreciate this book), almost ten years ago. Before that, I had discovered Toussaint via his earlier novel Television and fell in love with his work because of his almost eerie ability to write at a very high level about society and at a very intimate level about a singular relationship with the same delicate sensibility, the same poetic yet raw language, and the same nuance of detail in every scene.
While Running Away is about the moment of Marie and the narrator’s breakup, The Truth About Marie is about a series of moments afterwards. Marie haunts him—you get the sense that they can never really be apart. Some of the scenes the narrator describes purely from imagination, while he plays an active role in others. All of the scenes feel spectral—inhabited by the ghosts of their past love, their other lovers, Marie’s father, and a horse. But perhaps what struck me most is the duality between moments of intense eroticism and the bedrock of their connection—so unwavering it’s almost platonic.
Ashley: Now that football season is over, it’s time to devote my full attention to the sport that stole my heart—ice hockey. And with Valentine’s Day coming up, I decided it was the perfect time to read one of the many hockey romances (yes, that’s a thing) that have recently piqued my curiosity. I picked See Jane Score, about sexy Seattle Chinooks goalie Luc Martineau and short, wannabe sports reporter Jane Alcott because I’m a goalie myself and I’ve also played the short female sports reporter trying to navigate a male-dominated world without having the football coach laugh in my face. Even excluding my personal connections to the characters, the main leads are super sweet and relatable, and it was fun to watch these opposites attract. My only pet peeve is the claim that this fictional Seattle team apparently shut out my beloved Philadelphia Flyers. I don’t care how good Luc is supposed to be (on the ice, in bed, everywhere else), that’s just a low blow.