Picturing a World
Last March, a review of Spring Cannot Be Cancelled by David Hockney and Martin Gayford led me to order a copy from a local bookseller and wait for its U.S. release. It would have been perfect for the late, cold springs we have in New England, especially while anxieties about vaccine availability and COVID restrictions were still strong. Bright colors, sophisticated conversation, a place of cultivated beauty and (let's face it) nostalgic ease of life. I thought about saving it for next spring, when I'm sure to need a lift again—but naaahhh, I'm reading it now during the first hot spell of June, and it has me gripped. Look at some double-page spreads and see why.
Near the beginning of Kindred, Rebecca Wray Sykes quotes such a good passage from Claire Cameron's novel, The Last Neanderthal, that it was the next book I took up—and then read in three gulps. It's one of those two-stranded novels in which a present-day scholar investigates a topic, while historical fiction dramatizes what the scholar will (or won't) fully uncover by the end. In this case, in one story line, an archeologist makes an intriguing discovery. In the other, we live and breathe with Girl, a Neanderthal. It's a very good novel, one that I would recommend to anyone who liked The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish or A. S. Byatt's Possession.
A cache of old letters. Research to uncover a secret or reconstruct a life. Narration of the search itself. These are the familiar elements of fiction from Henry James's The Aspern Papers to modern novels like The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish. Novelist, short-story writer, and poet, Elaine Fowler Palencia didn't invent such a story; she lived it. The result is On Rising Ground, her narrative of the life of one ordinary man and his experience as a private in the Confederate Army. Ostensibly narrow in focus, it is also wide in scope and written in response to the questions a novelist as well as a family historian would ask.
In a recent interview, author Emily St. John Mandel is quoted as saying about her own bestselling novel, "I don't know who in their right mind would want to read Station Eleven during a pandemic." Well, I've just read it, and I can tell you why. It's about a traveling orchestra and theatrical company in a post-apocalyptic world, but also about the characters' intertwined lives before, during, and twenty years after a pandemic much worse than the one we're in right now. Those interlocking stories have all the human interest of any good read (I especially enjoyed getting inside the mind of a graphic novelist whose running project gives the novel its title). And the picture of a world in which some people remember electricity and some don't makes you look around ours with new eyes.