Books: Big reads, small reads, must reads

Easy travel to and from Santa Fe over Thanksgiving gave me unbroken time to read. Indeed, I was so consumed by Barbara Comyn’s Our Spoons Came from Woolworths that the return trip IMG_2823passed in a flash because I gobbled its 196 pages whole. First published in 1950 and recently reissued by New York Review of Books (thank you) Comyn’s tale starts with an author’s note: “The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.”

Sophia and Charles are 20 year old artists in love. They marry against his family’s wishes, which marks the start of their economic decline. Charles has a disdain for work — he only wants to paint — and Sophia loses her job at a commercial art studio just before she has their first child.

Sophia is the book’s narrator: she is a winning character, delighting in color, a pet newt and later a pet fox, the light and view in one of the many flats they occupy. In clear prose she describes the daily our_spoons_cover_image_1024x1024struggle to survive — to eat and stay warm — while living the bohemian life of parties and art shows. Wife, mother, lover, employee: Sophia fails at all because she’s married to a selfish man who doesn’t want children and is encouraged by his family not to work.

Sophia reminded me of Jane Eyre, or Cinderella, or a Mitford sister: witty, and highly observant of place, class, fate. Of looking from the outside to the place she had been or ought to be.

The fairy tale ending? It works.

No fairy tale endings in Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, a must read on dying well. I’d read parts of it in The New Yorker but friends pressed me to read the whole. I’m glad I did. Gawande, a surgeon, learns the right questions to ask patients with terminal diseases, atul-beingmortal-cover3d1-319x479including his own father. “Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make…What is the course of action that best serves this understanding?”

A beautiful, important read.

Finally, a big fat book that kept me entertained for days: Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire. Yes, it’s too long and yes it’s overly written “foil-embossed frontals uncoupling from diadems…” begins one chapter, but heck, who can resist 900 plus pages of New York in the images-270s? I was a teenager there and then; Hallberg nails the ease and swagger and missteps and youthful know-it-all-ness of kids who made the city theirs. That’s just one thread of many in this behemoth, which sometimes reads like a tawdry Days of Our Lives: there’s an evil stepbrother, a philandering husband, a junkie brother, a rape-victim sister, a crippled detective, and so on…Somehow, it all works.


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