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American Stories and a British Romance

American Stories and a British Romance

Dear readers,

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you? That’s a question we routinely ask writers in our By the Book interviews, and it’s one that the Japanese novelist Banana Yoshimoto recently answered in a way near to my heart: “Books are very important and precious to me,” she said, “so I had a very difficult time as a child when people wouldn’t return the books they had borrowed.”

Banana, I feel you.

For a long time I kept a stingy mental inventory of books lent and unreturned, a whole library in absentia or at least a ghostly dream shelf, filled with dust where the precious books should have been. Then one day I realized: My own extensive collection certainly contains books I myself have borrowed and never returned. Argh! Given the choice between forgiving others or condemning myself, I chose forgiveness.

Books remain important to me, of course, but emotionally so more than materially — I no longer expect them to come back when I lend them out. I see them instead as the best kind of bequest or conversational gambit, something that says to the receiver: “Take this. I loved it, and I have a hunch that you will too.” Returned or unreturned, a book loan is just a tangible book recommendation: It ideally brings people closer instead of coming between them.

Here are two that did just that, one that I lent and one that I borrowed.

Greg

By now Moore should need no introduction even to a casual reader; as Dwight Garner wrote in his review of her novel “I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home” earlier this year, she’s an “American authentic” whose 2020 volume of collected stories is a masterwork.

But 25 years ago, when “Birds of America” was released, it was still possible to view her as a closely held secret, the literary equivalent of the neighborhood pizza joint that turns out constantly surprising takes on stalwart classics. In Moore’s case that has meant well-constructed and affecting stories that pay close attention to character and language, with a satisfying ratio of jokes to pathos.

At least two stories in this collection — “Terrific Mother” and especially “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” — should have been included in the anthology “100 Years of the Best American Short Stories,” had Moore herself not been an editor of that book, while another, “Real Estate,” is memorable for containing two full pages consisting entirely of the phrase “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” etc., in reference to a wife laughing off her husband’s multiple affairs. (The only actual birds I recall in the book are the famous ducks of the Peabody hotel in Memphis, where the story “What You Want to Do Fine” is set.)

I lent “Birds of America” to a smart and funny college friend of my wife’s who had never read Moore before. She loved it, and promptly lost it in one of those series of moves so many of us make in our 20s. Mortified, she sent me a new hardcover as a replacement, and it has accompanied me on my own moves ever since.

Read if you like: Tina Fey, Alison Lurie, “The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov,” David Sedaris’s essays
Available from: Well-stocked bookstores or libraries, or in paperback directly from the publisher


Fiction, 1924

My friends Jim and Hester mentioned this British novel over breakfast one day when I was visiting several years ago, only to be greeted by my blank stare: I had never heard of Webb or her novel, which was adapted on two separate occasions by the BBC (once in 1957 and again in 1989). “Oh, you should borrow our copy!” Hester said, and she pulled it from the shelf, a slim russet paperback whose cover showed a Modigliani-esque drawing of a young woman with wide-set eyes and a cleft lip. This is the heroine, Prue Sarn, whose facial features leave her feeling isolated and unworthy of love. The book is a pastoral romance, set on a Shropshire farm early in the 19th century, and it has elements of melodrama: a villainous brother driven by greed, a warmhearted beau who sees past Prue’s cleft palate, violent plot twists.

The novel received admiring attention in its time: Rebecca West and the British prime minister Stanley Baldwin were both Webb fans, according to a New York Times clipping that was in my borrowed copy, and G.K. Chesterton praised the “full life” the characters led. But Webb died young, at 46, and her work fell out of favor. It’s worth looking this one up, both for the sturdy old-fashioned story (you’ll have to roll with some quaint dialogue as well), and for the scenic descriptions that showcase Webb’s love of the land and her skill as a poet. Jim and Hester, I promise I’ll return it someday.

Read if you like: “The Secret Garden,” “Green Mansions,” William Wordsworth, L.M. Montgomery, Willa Cather, PBS’s “Masterpiece”
Available from: Free for download on Internet Archive, or in various editions from a good bookstore or library; the University of Notre Dame Press also has a handsome paperback version for sale


  • Enjoy the selected transcripts of conversations between writers and the voracious radio host Michael Silverblatt, who for decades on his KCRW show “Bookworm” has eruditely explained books to his listeners and sometimes to the authors themselves? This collection gathers his interviews with Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, W.G. Sebald and more, and is filled with instances of writers happy to agree with his analyses. Carlos Fuentes: “Exactly.” Grace Paley: “Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.” Morrison: “Wow!”

  • Read Mary Ruefle’s reflections on friendship, occasioned by social media’s co-opting of the word “friend,” in her latest prose collection, “The Book”? “I have a friend who has never read a single word I have ever written,” Ruefle writes. “I love being with her.”

  • Browse James Merrill’s letters, and appreciate his 1972 proposal to Elizabeth Bishop that they share a stage at the 92nd Street Y’s Poetry Center? “We needn’t read the whole time, you know. A Ping-Pong table could be borrowed from some recreational wing of the establishment, or a samba routine worked up, with spangly blouses and purple lights.”


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