Happy new year, happy reading

Merman sex? In the hands of Rachel Ingalls, yes yes yes. Mrs. Caliban is her 1983 (newly reissued) short novel about Dorothy, a sad suburban housewife who harbors and falls in love with Larry, a sea creature escaped from a nearby lab. Why so sad? The death of a young son, a miscarriage, an unfaithful husband. Into this world comes messages from the radio: “It’s all right, Dorothy, It’s going to be alright.” And then Larry shows up in her kitchen during a dinner party. From there the tension never lets up: will he be caught? Will Dorothy and her husband reunite? There’s so much to like in this slender read. It’s unforgettable.

Unabated grief and an unlikely love are described in Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, which won last year’s National Book Award. A writer mourns her friend and mentor, who committed suicide. Wife Three asks her to take his dog. The writer objects: she’s a cat person! The lease for her tiny Manhattan apartment prohibits dogs! She takes the dog — an aging Great Dane named Apollo— and adjusts her life. The landlord moves to evict her, friends stage an intervention, she becomes a magical thinker. Something good is sure to happen, because she loves the dog, because she loved her friend. Within these pages are wise and beautiful passages about writing, the teaching of writing, grief, the love of and for dogs. “Finally he places one of his massive paws, the size of a man’s fist, in the center of my chest and lets it rest there…he must be able to feel my heart.”

Another book set in New York: The Dakota Winters, by Tom Barbash, which I read hungrily. It’s the New York of the early 1980s that I remember, and Barbash nails it. Here’s the story: Anton Winter is back in the city from a Peace Corps tour that nearly killed him. His father, tv talk show host Buddy Winter, is off the air, recovering from a nervous breakdown. Will Anton get his father a new show? Should he get his father a new show? The Winters are a delicious family: mother Emily is campaigning for Ted Kennedy, brother Kip is a teen tennis star. They live in the Dakota apartment building, and yes, John Lennon is part of their world. This is Anton’s story, of a young New Yorker exploring the city — its clubs, restaurants, women — and becoming his own man.

Finally, a book that I thickly dog-eared: John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. (Thank you, Evan Dent.) Love and absence are among Berger’s themes, which was fitting, as I read this political/personal prose/poem on the plane ride home from Arizona, where I’d been emptying my late mother’s home. “How to measure/a season/against/the calendar of your absence?” Or “Put your garden to my cheek/your five fingered garden/in another city/to my cheek.” Berger writes about art, about nature, about social injustice. He’s a deep dive. Read him.

Happy new year, happy reading. And kudos to this free plagiarism-check site — cuz no one likes a cheater.

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