Shelf Life for April 2020

Books Read
Birds In Fall by Brad Kessler
Lincoln In the Bardo by George Saunders
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

Books Bought/Found/Given to Me
None

“How is a story like a bird? It keeps us aloft. It flies. It goes from one place and lands at another, seemingly at random. But its movements are carefully choreographed, and if you look closely, you’ll know exactly where it will next perch.”
– Brad Kessler, Birds In Fall

I’ve had a hard time staying focused on anything for a significant period of time since the pandemic really took hold in the U.S. back in mid-March. More than 45 minutes or an hour of anything feels like too much.

Watching movies. Writing. Reading books. The only thing I’ve been able to really get lost in is being outside, working on gardening and other yard projects. But the weather has tended toward being unseasonably cold, so that hasn’t happened much, aside from this past weekend.

Anyway, reading …

Reader’s block is a thing. Like writer’s block, but for reading, obviously. 

I’ve got a stack of books by my bed. I’ve been excited to read each and every one, if only I had the time. Now I do. And I can’t bring myself to open them. 

There’s a great article on mentalfloss.com called 8 Tips For Overcoming ‘Reader’s Block’ that helped me get back in the reading game last month, and if you’re struggling with a similar problem, maybe it’ll help you, too. Take a minute and check it out. 

The tip that got me to break through was the last one in the article: reread an old favorite.

I ended up rereading three during the last week and a half of the month.

My reading journey started with George Saunders’ sublime Lincoln In the Bardo, from 2017. His first full-length novel, the book earned Saunders a well-deserved Booker Prize.

I first read Lincoln In the Bardo not long after its release. I’d heard lots of positive things about Saunders in general and this novel in particular. My initial reading found me primarily fascinated with the structure of the story, as Saunders replaces traditional narrative storytelling with a quasi-script format, as well as the blending of actual and fictitious historical texts. 

Lincoln’s been on my mind a lot lately, which isn’t unusual. Since I was a kid, I’ve found myself preoccupied by the 16th President at this time of year.  After all, April 14, 1865, is the date he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and he died early the next day. Combine that with the tragic lack of national leadership during this pandemic, and it’s not surprising that I’m retreating to Honest Abe at this particular time in history.

Additionally, though, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the bardo, the Buddhist concept that describes the liminal state between death and rebirth. I wrote about it here a few weeks back.

This drew me back to Saunders’ novel, which tells the story of young Willie Lincoln, recently deceased, as he enters the bardo state at the cemetery he’s interred at. His story is shared by a variety of spirits who have yet to come to terms with their own deaths. 

Lincoln In the Bardo is enlightening, heartbreaking, sublime, and hilarious. It was exactly the book I needed to get myself through my own bardo-like reader’s block.

Feeling like returning to another book I loved the first time, I took Brad Kessler’s Birds In Fall off the shelf. I initially read this novel in 2007, roughly a year after it was released.

Kessler’s novel is about the fallout of an airplane crash off the coast of an island in Nova Scotia. While fiction, it has its roots in the real world, as it is based in part on SwissAir Flight 111, which crashed off the Nova Scotian coast in September of 1998, killing all 229 people on board. One of Kessler’s friends was on that flight.

Birds In Fall is built around the stories of an island innkeeper and the victims’ loved ones, who arrive at his inn to wait for bodies and belongings to be recovered. 

The shelter provided by the innkeeper, Kevin, and his husband, Douglas, reminded me symbolically of the safe haven provided by the small Newfoundland island town of Gander following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. That town saw its population nearly double when more than three dozen passenger planes were forced to land there as air travel was shut down. Although Gander is 18 hours away from Nova Scotia by car and ferry, I kept coming back to this connection.

In lesser hands, Birds In Fall would be a maudlin, cliched story. But Kessler steers clear of all that, allowing room for moments of beauty and joy to balance out the grief. The novel is also filled with a wide variety of cultural lessons about how the dead are honored, represented by rich characters who could each inhabit a novel of their own. 

I was surprised to see the bardo pop up again in Kessler’s book. I don’t know if I remembered that the bardo was included here on some subconscious level or if it was a pleasant synchronicity, but seeing the concept crop up again made me feel like I was on a good reading path.

Birds In Fall got me the same way it did the first time I read it. As I finished the story, I cried a bit, inspired and overwhelmed by the way Kessler pulled hope from such a tragic situation. It made me feel better about the days we have ahead of us, and I slept soundly after I was done reading. First night that’s happened in a while.

I ended my reading month with a classic I haven’t read since I was a kid: E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan.

I’ve gone way long with this piece, so I won’t say a lot about White’s novel, other than three things.

One, adults who dismiss children’s literature as “kids’ stuff” that isn’t worthy of their reading time are doing themselves a disservice. And two, E.B. White is a national treasure. He writes with an economy of words and a surgical precision that is nothing short of beautiful. Finally, rereading this book reminded me that revisiting tales from the past can offer the warmest of hugs. That’s pretty handy when hugs are few and far between these days.

What books did you read last month? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to read about what is getting you through these strange days.

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