What I read
For the past several years, the best sellers lists have been heavy with World War II fiction. Think The Tatooist of Auschwitz, The Nightingale, The Book Thief, All the Light We Cannot See. I’ve read and reviewed plenty on this blog. But when you read a lot there’s a kind of weariness that sets in eventually, and I feel as though I can’t read another.
So I hesitated when Friend Denice urged me to read Steve Kluger’s Last Days of Summer, first published in 1998. “It’s about a little boy in World War II,” says she. Another one? But “You’ll laugh! You’ll cry!”j and “You won’t be sorry!” she assures me.
And I did. And I’m not.
It’s true that the war is really just a backdrop to the story, at least for three-quarters of the novel. The real showstopper is Joey Margolis, a twelve-year-old who is a brilliant liar, too smart for his own good, and craftier than most at getting his way. Joey is New York Giants’ third-baseman Charlie Banks’ biggest fan–or should I say pest? His letters to the ball player are hilarious–“I am … dying from malaria. Please hit a home run for me because I don’t think I will be around much longer”–but the impetuous behind them, quite alarming: in order to avoid getting beaten up by neighborhood bullies, Joey wants Charlie to act as a buffer of sorts. Surely if the bullies know that the great Charlie Banks is Joey’s friend they wouldn’t dare terrorize him?
But there is so much more to Joey’s story. His father left, remarried, and has gone “no contact” in anything related to his son. Joey is a fanboy who idolizes President Roosevelt and corresponds with him on a regular basis, giving his unsolicited advice: lowering the voting age to nine, for instance. Joey repeatedly earns F’s in “obedience” on his report card. He is learning the saxophone and wants to be bat boy for the Giants. His Bar Mitzvah is coming up and who will stand up with him?
The novel is written with little narrative, and, instead, Kluger tells the story through letters, box scores, report cards, newspaper articles, and transcripts of Joey’s sessions with his psychologist Dr. Weston. So while WWII eventually rears its ugly head, this reader was anything but weary this time around. The Last Days of Summer is poignant WWII story told in a fresh and imaginative way.
House Girl by Tara Conklin (first published eight years ago) is another fresh look at another much-written about U.S. institution: enslavement. The story of Josephine, a seventeen-year-old house slave alternates with the modern day tale of a white lawyer, Lina Sparrow, who is working on a case seeking reparations for descendants of enslaved people. The two women’s paths cross as Lina seeks to find a class to be the representative in the class-action lawsuit her firm is about to file. Conklin uses Josephine’s much acclaimed–but unattributed–artwork to connect the past and the present and gives the reader an intimate look at the life of one young enslaved woman.
What I lived
Over the past year I’ve become quite the fan of used books. Yes. You heard that correctly. This former bookselling book snob has had no compunction buying a gently used book. I’m sure it’s related to my fixed income suddenly colliding with my voracious appetite for new reads. My two favorite haunts are the local institution Schuler Books (where I’ve also started re-selling my books for credit) and Bettie’s Pages. Bettie’s is by far the more endearing of the two. Set in the small town of Lowell, just east of Grand Rapids, it’s a small shop whose owner Nicole is passionate about books and is a social justice warrior. Her space is cozy and welcoming with wood floors, brick walls, and bomb-ass (does anyone even say that anymore?!) sidelines: expertly curated puzzles, stickers, socks, tarot cards, and–as they say–so. much. more. I try to stop by to browse whenever I’m in town visiting Friend Denice. (And I should note that both of the books I mentioned above came from Bettie’s Pages.)
Would it surprise you to know I am stitching up new critters? So while I’ve got stacks of Mr. Socks and Tiny Mice and Picnic Bugs, I’ve added a new one because, really, can one ever have too many critters to stitch? Meet the Merry Wobblers! These little tweeties work up pretty quickly and, after finishing a few, I’m finally getting the hang of it. I wait–sometimes impatiently–while I get the pattern down so I don’t have to think as I sew. It is then that the process becomes what I call stitching meditation.
The weather turned overnight into summer and you won’t hear any complaints from me. After seven long months of cold, rain, snow, and gray skies, my bones are finally warm and my heart is full. Friend Mary and I went camping last weekend and walked for miles in the sunshine. We talked for more hours than I have in the past year. And as fully vaccinated folks, we ate out. At a restaurant. Indoors, no less. Something we hadn’t done for fourteen months.
A new season. Pandemic relief. A fresh start.