I am an inveterate re-reader. This is, in some ways, a handicap for a bookseller and would be a real problem for me if I sold only new books, because, as people sometimes ask, “How can you keep up?” and the answer is that I can’t. A quick search for book reviews here since the first of the year will show that I do not ignore new books; on the other hand, reaching for old ones keeps me from being familiar with all the current best-sellers. For instance, I have yet to read The Kite Runner, let alone the author’s latest book, a single glaring example that should serve to illustrate my point without a long, embarrassing-myself list.
So there’s my “Books Read” list, and there’s Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior again, read for the third or fourth time. There’s a Barbara Ehrenreich title read twice already this year (and the year less than half gone). There are titles by Ernest J. Gaines that came out years ago – these not re-read but discovered by me for the first time and only because I do not read only new books. Already I yearn to re-read Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Q Road and Once Upon a River and the indescribably vivid short stories of Katey Schultz in Flashes of War.
Valerie Trueblood has a new book coming out very soon, her third. I have it back-ordered but meanwhile, while waiting impatiently, I began re-reading her first book, Seven Loves (2006), a nonlinear novel. The novel tells the life of the main character episodically rather than chronologically, and what strikes me on this re-reading, since I already know the “end” of May’s story, is the poetic economy of the writing: nothing is missing, and nothing is extraneous. I am in awe of flawless writing that proceeds so quietly and modestly.
Many fiction readers seldom if ever read poetry. There must be devotees of poetry who miss a lot of new short story collections, too (Trueblood’s upcoming publication is a collection of short stories), and a lot of people who love novels don’t give short stories a chance. But is there a reader alive, I ask myself, any lover of writing excellence, who could resist Seven Loves? It’s hard for me to dog-ear books any more, and I’ve kept my copy of Seven Loves pristine for all the years I’ve had it, but the other night, well into the book (p. 130), I finally gave in to temptation.
“That was all right. That was as it must be. Eventually the past went from being cards laid face down to cards not held at all.”
“The gait, all her own, with which Jackie now advanced, awkward yet delicate, like a loaded camel led on a bridle.”
“When Nick died, her way back was as slow as the arrow that never arrived because the distance it was traveling could still be cut in half.”
“Twenty years had taught her to sense the approach of a given scene by its aura, and to stop the drift toward certain occasions of the past. Almost always, if they stirred in their fog she turned back.”
Only a small sample --. The thoughts and impressions of one mind, at different times of life, a rather ordinary life – but oh, how extraordinary the life of that mind’s expressions! May was a teacher for years and after her stroke is thinking back to papers her students wrote. One perennial favorite topic, she recalls while looking through an old encyclopedia, was bees.
She studied the head-on enlargement of the worker bee’s face, the giant badge eyes, blind-looking, innocent. Poor hunched compelled undesiring female. No student had written about that, the sadness of the facial configuration of the bee.
The phrase takes my breath away: “the sadness of the facial configuration of the bee.”
As author and bookseller, Trueblood and I have been in off-and-on e-mail communication since her first book appeared. I seem to remember asking her if she wrote poetry, certain that the answer would be yes, and receiving a negative reply. Well, in this novel we have May’s entire life, not merely one hushed, distilled moment, set in the middle of a page with wide margins around it -- and yet I read many poems in May’s responses to life.
How many poems are born and die unwritten and unacknowledged in a single mind? Trueblood’s gift to readers of this novel is the preservation of unique moments in her fictional central character’s life.
There was also Marry or Burn between then and now, and you can follow the link to my review of that book. You see why I am impatient for the new one?
Yes, of course I read new books, too: Every book, if ever to be re-read, must first be read for the first time.