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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
What We’re Reading
Lauren Perez (Tin House Marketing Intern): Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townshend Warner, a great read for someone slowly drifting into the life of a recluse, shamefacedly refusing to go out with her roommates in favor of doing laundry. It’s the story of an aging single woman, who, after the death of her father, is consigned to live with her brother’s family and help with the management of his household and the raising of his children. After nineteen years she abruptly leaves to lead her own life out in the country—only to have even that refuge invaded by her nephew Titus, who upon arriving to Great Mop (the fantastic name of her rural retreat) immediately begins demanding his aunt take care of him and keep him company. The novel opens up from the quiet despair of a life given away in inches when the heroine discovers she is a witch, and makes a pact with the devil to finally have a life of her own, not encroached upon by family or polite society. The book ends with Laura “Lolly” Willowes explaining to the devil why so many women become witches: “One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.” It’s a terribly funny book that manages to laugh at the quiet desperation and stupidities under which the heroine must live, with an ultimately triumphant end. The reader can’t help but cheer for evil.
Holly Laycock (Tin House Marketing Intern): I started Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins after I finished In Cold Blood, and it is just the break from reality that I needed. Tom Robbins’ whimsical world of tanukis and American MIAs at times leaves me scratching my head, enough that I sometimes am not in the mood for it. However, it is the perfect book to get me out of my head, away from my troubles, and when I need a good belly laugh, I read the scattered poetry throughout:
“Meet me in Cognito, baby,We’ll soon leave our pasts behind us.The present is always a mystery,
As the future never fails to remind us.
(Those who travel in Cognito
—Their very lives can depend on a hunch.
They eat intuition for breakfast
And sip cold paranoia for lunch.)”
No matter how unlikely the concept of this book, the sheer command Robbins has over language boggles my mind, and I’m intrigued as to how he will tie these separate narratives together. The quote on the front cover says it all: “Impossibly imaginative.”
Curtis Moore (Tin House Books, Editorial Intern): I’m deep in my final semester of college, submerged under several feet of Faulknerian criticism, but I peek my head up now to catch a breath and share with you one of my new favorites: As I Lay Dying. Advancing his initial experimentation with perspective in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s tale is of an impoverished country family fighting a flood, a fire, and their own duplicitous motives to fulfill their dead matriarch’s final wish to be buried in her hometown, many miles away. Though the characters are unschooled and barely literate, Faulkner lends them the full breadth of his language, creating richly drawn mental landscapes where the novel can explore themes of death, birth, time, and the very nature of being, all the while complicating just what it means to try and capture those experiences in words.
Victoria Savanh (Tin House Books Intern): A few months ago I picked up all of Jennifer Egan’s novels, beginning with Look at Me and now ending with her first novel, The Invisible Circus. It’s 1978 and Phoebe leaves foggy San Francisco to retrace her romantic hippie sister Faith’s path through Europe, eight years after Faith died in Italy. The Invisible Circus confronts memory and grief, the end of the 60s, and strikes a perfect balance between nostalgia and reality. While Phoebe’s insecurity is painful at times, the raw honesty makes this a very satisfying coming-of-age novel. Not to mention, just sinking into Egan’s fluid prose. At the end as Phoebe looks back on hers and Faith’s journey, “she still ached to transcend it, cross the invisible boundary to that other place, the real place. But you couldn’t have that every day. No one could sustain it.” Thankfully we have writers like Egan who can bring us, even if just temporarily, across that invisible boundary.
Veronica Martin (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): Barely back from the tropics and already I’m itching to travel again, this time to John Berger’s kind of city where the dead are as present as the living in Lisbon, Geneva, Madrid, Krakow. There is a mood to Here Is Where We Meet, this gem of a book by Berger, that holds a kind of wanderlust for the interim realm of the dead and the past and the in-between. And, I like to think—by way of that past tense, by it’s very momentary disconnect from the now—for the present. Berger captures the kind of personality a place takes on when you are traveling alone, revisiting places and memories alone, feeling the presence of another’s absence… alone. His cities are haunted and haunting, a platform through which to experience his deceased mother, ask her questions, learn from her journey through death the way we so completely, so physically, wish we could have a conversation with some of our own deceased beloved. This book shivers along the spine of surrealism, imagining the act of cooking and serving a meal as a way for the already dead to connect with other already dead in a sort of melting of time and space. To feel, through cooking, the presence of someone’s absence: “He’ll eat it, wherever he is, when he happens to think of me. Just as I think of him when I’m preparing it.” Indeed, the presence of John’s mother is as real when she is appears—on a park bench with “the kind of stillness that draws attention to itself,” as an old woman, a seventeen year old voice, all knowing at times—as when she is nowhere to be found. The idea that the dead choose the city in which they want to live, as she explains, is wildly romantic and so, to me, is this book in the same way a sustained note of heartbreak can be romantic: indulgent and pure and grounding. This book’s presence in a room in a hand in a mind is hushed, Berger so takes you into the particular world of his protagonist. And there, time and presence is apart, the world’s human sound outside the vacuum of some in-between into which you as reader have slipped without even realizing it: “You can either be fearless, or you can be free, you can’t be both.”