Saturday Book Selections
Emily Lavelle & Kurt Zwolfer
“Not that she objected to solitude. Quite the contrary. She had books, thank Heaven, quantities of books. All sorts of books.”
So wisely wrote the nineteenth century novelist Jean Rhys, who could never have predicted the Coronavirus pandemic and ensuing forced solitude of 2020, but whose words nevertheless resonate.
Whether you are social distancing with a house full of people, with a furry friend or two, or solo, this time of quarantine can leave us collectively experiencing ambiguous feelings of isolation and grief. In the spirit of Jean Rhys, The Cabin offers the second installment of book recommendations to keep you company in the coming weeks.
One for National Poetry Month: A Little History of Poetry by John Carey
“What is poetry?” So John Carey begins and then sets out on a swift tour of the form — from ancient times to present —t o discover the answer. An engaging docent, Carey pauses just long enough to tell the stories of history’s greatest ballads, hymns, classics — the controversial, the beloved, the religious, and the political. Readers re-meet Hafiz, Shakespeare, Whitman, Milton, Angelou, Dickinson, and Bishop, among others, as Carey brings enough novelty and context to their work that well-remembered words and stanza feel new. This is a lovely read for the ardent lover and casual consumer of one of the world’s oldest forms of literature.
One to Get the Family Outside: What It’s Like to Be A Bird by David Allen Sibley
Quarantine many have us all nest-bound, while the telltale sign of spring — the songs and chirps of warblers — tempt us through the windows. Now is the time to round up the family and head outside with a copy of this joyful volume in hand. Sibley covers more than two hundred species of bird — from your standard backyard robin to the more exotic varieties — and answers the most frequently asked questions about our avian neighbors. With more than 300 bright illustrations, this book is delightful and educational — a perfect companion while you turn your gaze outward and upward.
One to Make You Appreciate Your Family: Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
Robert Kolker delivers a family portrait readers will be long to forget with his compassionate and chilling investigation of one American family besieged with schizophrenia. By all outward measures, the Galvins —fourteen in all — had achieved the post-World War II American Dream. Yet behind the closed doors in the house on Hidden Valley Road was a family fractured by mental illness, as six of the twelve Galvin boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. They became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health and their legacy lives on today, as samples of their DNA informed decades of genetic research. Kolker’s empathetic and shattering reportage makes for a stunning, unforgettable read.
One for a Helping of Comfort Food: Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler’s novels are traditionally suffused with warmth and tenderness, and Redhead By the Side of the Road is no exception. The novel follows Micah Mortimor, a cautious, routine-dependent creature as three unexpected events jolts his life out of orbit. With heartwarming humor, this is the soothing antidote to the uncertainty of the world around us.
Emily Lavelle is a writer, editor, and literary publicist.
Kurt’s Memoir Picks
At this point in the pandemic, I’m feeling the strange juxtaposition of fear of the unknown and the boredom of my everyday routine. It’s hard to remember that I am living in historic times when I’m locked into the same few rooms with yet another night of Netflix bingeing to look forward to. Now might be the perfect time to invest in a good memoir. The best memoirs, like our current situation, are often a mix of the mundane and the extraordinary. Who knows, reading these individual stories might even inspire us to pick up our journals and start making personal records of this strange collective experience.
In Just Kids, Patti Smith tells the story of her relationship with fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe as they struggle to make ends meet in New York City. Smith’s style is personal and unassuming, which makes her interactions with famous artists and musicians of the era like Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, and Jimi Hendrix seem casual rather than sensational. Reading Smith’s memoir gives you a rare glimpse of what it was like to sit in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel and watch the Warhol and Woodstock crowds stroll by.
Mitchell S. Jackson visited Boise twice this year, once to interview Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Morrison Center and once to read from his memoir at Rediscovered Books. Survival Math breaks with the typical chronological structure of memoir and instead uses themed chapters to reflect on family, masculinity, drugs, and violence. If you were intrigued by Mitchell on the Readings & Conversations stage you should add this one to your list.
On first glance, Helen MacDonald’s recounting of her struggle to train a young goshawk seems like a book for birdwatchers, but H is for Hawk is a book more about grief than birds of prey. After the death of her father, MacDonald drops away from most family and friends and focuses her time and emotional energy trying to transform a feathered predator into a hunting companion. Even if you are not interested in the esoterica of falconry, you’ll connect with MacDonald’s very human story of loss and fighting through depression.
Winner of 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction, Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House is a memoir as much about place as it is people. Broom weaves a multi-generational family saga with the history of her New Orleans’s neighborhood and a ramshackle house that slowly falls into decline.
Memoir is often made more powerful when it cross-pollinates with the graphic novel. One of the classic graphic memoirs is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Satrapi, an R & C alumna, tells a heartbreaking story of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Her witty and often stark black and white images pair well with her memories of growing up during chaotic and dangerous historic events.