My Favorite Book (This Year)

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in January 2014.

I read thirty-three* books for pleasure in 2012—and at the end of the year I boiled it all down to One Favorite Book, difficult though that was. I read fifty-four in 2013, and most of them were titles I’d happily recommend, for one reason or another.

I blogged about some—Life After LifeThe Best of YouthThe Round HouseAfter Visiting FriendsLong Time, No SeeFresh Off the BoatNow & ThenThe Interestings—and have planned posts on a few more, including that orgy of classic Irish literature in which I indulged.

But the one favorite book seemed like a good idea then and it still seems like a good idea, so here it is—my favorite book of 2013. I knew the minute I closed the cover this one would be my choice; that was last summer, and as much as I loved Life After Life, I never wavered.

My favorite book last year was Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. I bought my copy in Ireland in May, because I didn’t want to wait for it to release here, so eager was I for this book.

The Irish cover. No, I don’t get it, either.

You know by now that I read all sorts of titles and genres, but I don’t mind declaring I am an unabashed lover of literary fiction. Lately it’s been hip to diss lit-fic, to sigh and say, Pretty writing’s all well and good but I want a great story!—even authors who should know better have said things like this—but don’t bring that trash talk around me, please. TransAtlantic is all about the story.

Three of them, in fact. All true.

In 1919, two young aviators from the recently ended World War hurry to pilot the first nonstop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to the west of Ireland. Alcock and Brown carry with them a batch of specially postmarked letters—one which will not be opened for almost a hundred years. The second narrative is set in 1845, when Frederick Douglass spent two years in Ireland to promote the abolitionist cause, raise funds, and avoid recapture by his former owner. Finally we read about U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s efforts (with others) to negotiate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which would bring peace, at last, to Northern Ireland.

The stories are seemingly unrelated; each is lovely and complete. Together they begin to show the complex public relationship between the United States and Ireland. And it wasn’t until I was well into the 1998 story that I began to discern the connections between them. Oh, yes, there’s the obvious (the trips back and forth across the Atlantic) as well as the symbolic (a black man asking the Irish for money to gain freedom) … and then there’s the sublime.

There’s a fourth story, as it turns out—completely fictional—which creates the novel and shows the myriad private human connections between Ireland and America. And as this story stepped out of the historical narrative where it had been hiding in plain sight, it quite simply took my breath away.

Author Column McCann made his own transatlantic crossing at age twenty-one, a Dubliner who’d been a reporter for the Irish Press. His intent, the Guardian says, was “to write ‘the great Irish-American novel.’” That reviewer believes McCann’s previous book—2009’s Let the Great World Spin, which sold a million copies and won the National Book award—might well be it.

Not a bad start 🙂 but TransAtlantic deserves consideration too. Some twenty-six years after his arrival, McCann’s still on this side of the Atlantic, but with his very Irish sensibilities intact.

I recognized every bit of the present-day Dublin he describes in the last half of the book. (History is important: “So polite and poised, a southern accent laced with some London, all our troubles in one voice.”) The language, the writing, is exquisite. The details break your heart; tension builds subtly. And you really have to read to the very last lines for the payoff, which is an unexpected act of human grace in eight perfect sentences that took me utterly by surprise and left me stunned and weeping. Two days later I tried to tell a friend about it, tried to read aloud those last eight gorgeous lines, and cried again.

“We seldom know what echo our actions will find,” McCann writes, “but our stories will almost certainly outlast us.” This story was enormously satisfying. Brilliant, in fact. It filled me up. My favorite book in 2013.

* I was way off my yearly average of 40–45, but my health wasn’t good and I spent a lot of time sleeping rather than reading.

Contemporary, Literary Ireland: Donal Ryan

I love the books of Donal Ryan. I don’t mention them much here—to my American friends—because he is an Irish writer and they are very Irish and I think sometimes they are too Irish for many American readers. (He is published on a small press here—Steerforth—and I will forthwith begin buying more of their fiction because, well, Donal Ryan.) That is, the milieu, the mind-set, the contemporary history—all are set in an Ireland I know well.

But, dagnabbit, Ryan is a brilliant writer. Everything he’s written, brilliant. None of this “well, I liked his second one best” business. ALL. BRILLIANT. So, American friends, read them.

They were published (and I read them) in this order:

The Spinning Heart (novel)
The Thing About December (novel)
A Slanting of the Sun (short stories)
All We Shall Know (novel)

I have just finished All We Shall Know. It hasn’t even been reviewed in the States. But it was special.

READ THESE BOOKS. Trust me.

Couldn't find my copy of The Thing About December. It's Around here somewhere.

Couldn’t find my copy of The Thing About December. It’s around here somewhere.

Can You Hear the Corn?

cornfield-background

My strongest memory of our garden is not how it smelled, or even looked, but how it sounded. It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day.

—Hope Jahren, from Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf 2016)

A Seed Knows How to Wait

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. … A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is as alive as the three-hundred-year-old oak tree that towers over it. … [When you go into a forest] you probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting.

When the embryo within a seed starts to grow, it basically just stretches out of its doubled-over waiting posture, elongating into official ownership of the form that it assumed years ago. The hard coat that surrounds a peach pit, a sesame or mustard seed, or a walnut’s shell mostly exists to to prevent this expansion. In the laboratory we simply scratch the hard coat and add a little water and it’s enough to make almost any seed grow. I must have cracked thousands of seeds over the years, and yet the next day’s green never fails to amaze me. Something so hard can be so easy if you just have a little help. In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.

After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed (nelumbo nucifera) and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant’s yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory. I wonder where it is right now.

—Hope Jahren, from Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf 2016)

When we dug up the colorful-but-aggressive houttynia cordata, we planted it in this hanging pot—in beautiful black soil from our compost bin. As a result, we have a volunteer tomato plant and two … cantaloupe? cucumber? … plants keeping it company. Seeds that were waiting too. :)

When we dug up the colorful-but-aggressive houttynia cordata, we planted it in this hanging pot—in beautiful black soil from our compost bin. As a result, we have a volunteer tomato plant and two … cantaloupe? cucumber? … plants keeping it company. Seeds that were waiting too. 🙂

Free Day!

20 December 2000, Wednesday

Anna came down with a stomach bug and, unbeknownst to the Americans sleeping in her guest room, was up all night. And Eoin, after seeing to his wife’s needs, really had to go to work—which left Jess and I on our own for the day.

After easing into the morning, then, Anna drove us the five or so minutes to the station in Wokingham, where we caught the train into Reading (pronounced REDDing) to do some shopping and wandering. The journey by train took less than ten minutes, even with stops in between. It felt like we were on a people mover at Disneyland. 🙂

Reading is in the Thames Valley about halfway between London and Oxford. The city grew near the meeting place of the Rivers Thames and Kennet, which were the main transport routes through the anciecnt woodland that covered most of southern England. The mainstay of employment in Reading is now the computer industry, with Microsoft, Digital, Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle all having large offices in or near the town; currently (in late 2000) there are jobs available in Reading and not enough people to fill them. Once famous for “beer, biscuits, and bacon,” as well as seed production, Reading has seen these industries close down or move away. However, there is still a large brewery on the edge of town. The old brewery—in the center of town—has now been redeveloped into a major shopping center, called the Oracle.

It was to this mall—the first and only mall we visited in England—that we directed our footsteps … but first we wandered in and out of small shops in the central shopping district that lay between the train station and the Oracle. We preferred the streets, where there were happy Christmas shoppers, street musicians, tea shops, and just generally a lot going on.

I learned more about Reading after I returned home. This was before smartphones, and we didn’t have a map or any way to research. Reading might have been an interesting place to sightsee; there are some old churches and the ruins of an abbey, for example. A university too. The town dates from the eighth century, so there’s definitely some history. I wish I’d prepared a little more thoroughly for an unexpected day in a strange town, but I guess you just can’t. And I was new to this traveling business.

So … we shopped. 🙂 We found ourselves in a small shop, a men’s clothiers called Butler’s, where we were treated like royalty, although we spent less than ten pounds. (Later we learned that this small shop, into which we’d wandered by accident, was Eoin’s preferred vendor for suits, dress shirts, and the other accoutrements of the natty English businessman.) It was so nice to be made to feel welcome!

We ate a quick dinner in the train station and didn’t return to Wokingham until long after dark, when we’d just about walked our feet off. Anna had gone off to visit her parents that evening, and we had a nice chat with Eoin before bed.