This week, we’re looking at books that have come highly recommended — which isn’t to say that this trio doesn’t turn out to have much in common. In fact, they do, despite being in disparate forms (one collection, one novel, one memoir-slash-essay collection.) All of these books got me thinking about big issues — life, death, how we connect to those around us — you know, the kinds of topics that make for deeply upbeat conversations, and don’t at all prompt you to stare into the distance quietly, pondering existence.
A few weeks ago, I saw Nathan Larson recommending Anna Kavan’s I Am Lazarus, and picked it up as a result. What begins in familiar territory — grimly ironic stories of soldiers recuperating from wounds physical and psychological — gradually becomes something far stranger. England during the Second World War is a setting that resonates with many, but in these stories, Kavan slowly pivots away from an easily quantifiable setting and into something more vague. This is my first time reading her work — I’m told that some of her other works are similarly set in surreal locales. But even in this slim volume, I found the work of a writer who could be just as easily compared to Rebecca West as to Franz Kafka — no easy feat.
At last week’s event at Community Bookstore, Norman Lock talked up the work of Italo Calvino; I hadn’t read anything of his in a while, and thus ended up buying a copy of his novel The Baron in the Trees. It’s a lot more realistic in tone than the other two Calvino novels I’ve read — “realistic” here being relative, given that we’re talking about a novel about an 18th-century Italian nobleman who vows, at the age of 12, to never again set foot on the ground. But for all that its subject has an almost whimsical quality, there’s more than a little melancholy present here. One man’s impressive idealism is another’s boundary setting them apart from the rest of society, and Calvino doesn’t skimp on the darker aspects of his protagonist’s unorthodox method of living.
During a discussion of essays earlier in the year, Zachary Lipez talked up Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking; I finally got around to reading it last weekend. Thomas Lynch is both a poet and an undertaker, and if you think that makes him very well-equipped to discuss both death and the ways we deal with it, you’d be spot-on. There’s a ton to ponder in here: both ruminations on mortality and thoughts on the nature of communities, familial, aesthetic, and geographical. Lynch’s book had me moved to tears and subsequently to unabashed joy, sometimes on the same page. While I will say that an essay on assisted suicide feels a bit tonally different from the rest of the book — strident where Lynch is largely poetic — this is a work that’s made me look at the world in a different way, and one that will stay with me for a long time to come.