Books We Loved, Nov. 2022
With Halloween behind us, Thanksgiving on the horizon, and an extra hour of darkness (as well as increasingly chilly weather outside), it’s time to heat a cup of tea or cocoa, haul your covering of choice out of the closet, light a fire if you have a hearth, and find a great book to read—better yet, a series. Here is our short list of recommendations.
Nicola Cornick, The Winter Garden (Graydon House, 2022)
As a child in the UK, I loved the fireworks and bobbing for apples and such that commemorated the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Guy Fawkes Day on November 5 is similar to Halloween in the United States. This, the latest of Nicola Cornick’s dual-time novels, casts a very different, more revealing eye on the tensions that led to a Catholic attack on Parliament that would have destroyed a formerly Catholic king if it had succeeded.
In the contemporary portion of the novel, Lucy, an internationally renowned concert violinist, has suffered a health crisis that strips her of her ability to perform. Facing the death of her career, she takes the opportunity to recover at a rural English estate. There she experiences bizarre dreams in which she appears to inhabit the body of a Tudor-era woman named Catherine, even as she is increasingly pulled into a relationship with Finn, an archeologist working on the gardens of the estate while mourning the recent loss of his brother in a car crash.
Alongside this modern story, we follow the events leading up to the Gunpowder Plot, told by Anne Catesby, the mother of the main conspirator. At first, past and present seem far apart, but as the novel progresses, the links between them become clearer. Anne and Lucy are both strong, determined women fighting circumstances beyond their control—for very different reasons—and they hold our attention to equal degree as they variously navigate the origins of the Gunpowder Plot, the fate of the Knights Hospitaller, and the discovery of a long-hidden treasure in a Tudor garden.—CPL
Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World (Scribner, 2009)
Early on (2004) in what we now know would turn out to be a stellar career, author Anthony Doerr received an American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowship awarding him a full year in Rome. The award included a sizable apartment with a terrace looking out over the cityscape, a palace next door renovated into studios where he and the other award recipients could pursue their various projects, and a stipend of $1,300 a month. Who could refuse such an offer? Yet when it came—seemingly out of nowhere; Doerr had received a letter months earlier saying he had been nominated, but he never expected to win—Shauna, Doerr’s wife, had just given birth. Their twin sons, Owen and Henry, were only twelve hours old!
Another couple might have concluded the timing was off and taken a pass. But Doerr and Shauna did no such thing. Carrying more baby gear than anyone who has never had twins can possibly imagine, they left their home in Boise, Idaho, only a few months later, in accordance with the beginning of fellowship year. Doerr—who had never been to Rome, knew relatively little about it, and didn’t speak the language—brought with him not a modern-day travel guide but a copy of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, his expectation being that the philosopher/naturalist who had lived in Rome during the reign of Augustus might offer a unique perspective on life in the Eternal City.
Four Seasons in Rome is as thrilling as a travel memoir can possibly be. Spending time in Doerr’s company is as enjoyable as it must have been for Doerr to spend time with Pliny. Everything is new for Doerr—the city, the culture, parenthood. Yes, there are obstacles too: between the two of them, the babies are up just about all night every night. Doerr and his wife suffer sleep deprivation constantly, which makes it even trickier to get down the stairs from their second-story apartment with both boys, their diaper bags, their double stroller, etc., and see as much of the magnificent city as they possibly can. Doerr had planned to write a novel while in Rome, but with all the distractions he can barely squeeze out a short story. And Pope John Paul II dies while they are there, rendering them privy to both the best and worst of Rome—the enormous crowds that gather to show their love and respect as well as the vendors who are out selling commemorative souvenirs before the funeral services have even ended.
But the cons are a small cost to pay to be alive and in a such a vibrant environment. It is the habits we learn to deal with daily challenges that make disorder tolerable. If not for them, Doerr says, the beauty of the world, the wonders—the sight of a single flower, in fact—would floor us constantly. On the other hand, Henry and Owen see more images in a day than Pliny saw in a lifetime. And thus Doerr worries that their generation will have to work harder to stay alert to the miracles in the world.
That may be true, but as long as we have the incredible literature of Doerr and others like him, we have one good tool to counterbalance the dilemma.—JS
Christopher M. Hood, The Revivalists (Harper, 2022)
A road trip novel, The Revivalists is intimate, funny, and at times shocking. It has only the dystopian setting in common with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. While Cormac’s characters are shadow figures on a stage devoid of meaning, our narrator, Bill, and Penelope, his wife, seem like people we know, even reflections of ourselves. Their concerns and reactions serve as mirrors for us to imagine ourselves in a future where 70% of the population has died, and the conveniences of modern life have vanished.
Bill, a psychologist, and his wife, Penelope, a skilled fund manager, have experienced different stages of their marriage, including initial intimacy followed by the challenges of raising a willful daughter. Bill—easy-going, perhaps almost lethargic at times—is conflict-averse, but Penelope, a Black woman who has fought for everything she’s ever had, is determined to steer her daughter in the right direction. When the pandemic separates parents and daughter on different sides of the continent, and they learn through the ham radio that their daughter is joining a dangerous cult, Penelope is galvanized into action, insistent that they must come to the rescue.
There ensues an odyssey through the USA, and encounters with idealists and opportunists of varying ideologies, as well as the lonely or loony. A love story about two people with different dispositions, as well as the damaged people they come into contact with, The Revivalists is a meditation on how far we’re willing to go for someone we love, as well as an exploration of what happens when the fabric of society unravels.—GM