Carla Jean Whitley

Readers first fell in love with Lucy Barton in Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, a gentle reflection on the titular character’s life and parental influence during an extended hospitalization. In Oh William!, it’s been years since Lucy left her first husband, William. But despite the many affairs he conducted during their marriage and her own affair that prompted her departure, they remain each other’s confidants.

As the novel opens, Lucy has been widowed for a year after the death of her second husband, David. She explores her grief throughout the book, but her devotion to William also demands her attention. As in each of Strout’s novels about Lucy, her narration is nearly a stream of consciousness. The novel’s lack of chapter breaks reinforces its interior nature and invites readers to immerse themselves in Lucy’s ruminations.

As Lucy contemplates her lasting bond with William, she considers their marriage and the ways their relationship has affected their daughters. She also takes the reader through the pair’s misadventures in their later years. It isn’t always clear whether Lucy likes or respects her ex-husband, but her tie to him is unbreakable, her curiosity about him unwavering: “I wondered who William was. I have wondered this before. Many times I have wondered this.”
Likewise, William turns to Lucy, rather than to his current wife, when his sleep is disrupted by night terrors involving his late mother. And it’s Lucy he seeks when he confronts a secret his mother kept from him.

Pulitzer Prize winner Strout is a master of quiet, reflective stories that are driven more by their characters than by events. Her fans will find plenty to love as Lucy and William set out to explore his family history. At each step, Lucy contemplates her relationships to the people around her. Though she often feels invisible, her ties to William, their daughters and the strangers they encounter remind her that she has a place in the world.

Strout is a master of reflective stories that are driven more by characters than by events. Her fans will find plenty more to love about Lucy and William.

A single whiff of a truffle can be nearly intoxicating. Depending on the variety, the inhaler might detect notes of garlic, fried cheese and gym socks (white truffles) or pineapple and banana (a young Oregon black). And one person sniffing may find those aromas enticing, while another might not understand the fuss.

Those fragrances, and the allure of the fungi that produce them, left James Beard Award-winning food writer Rowan Jacobsen (A Geography of Oysters) drunk on truffles and determined to learn all he could. Jacobsen spent two years traversing the globe in pursuit of not only truffles but also the stories of people who hunt and sell them. 

The result is Truffle Hound: On the Trail of the World’s Most Seductive Scent, With Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs, an engaging work that blends history with travel and food writing. Jacobsen follows his nose and curiosity across Europe and back to North America, while considering studies that extend even farther. He meets hunters and farmers whose livelihoods depend on the elusive tubers, and along the way he challenges truffle myths. For example, they grow far outside of the Mediterranean region that’s most often credited for them.

Jacobsen delves into the sometimes twisting history of this food, as well as into the science that makes truffle farming possible. Even as he examines the fungi’s complex history and analyzes questions about who gets access to truffles, Jacobsen’s writing remains accessible, unlike the costly object of his desire.

Truffle Hound is a compelling story, but Jacobsen doesn’t leave readers empty-handed when the tale ends. The book also includes a glossary of truffle types, resources for acquiring your own truffles and recipes for after the decadent fungi arrives. It’s an appropriate finish to a delicious book.

Intoxicated by truffles and determined to learn all he could, Rowan Jacobsen spent two years traversing the globe in pursuit of this elusive, decadent fungi.

Margaret Renkl’s name was already familiar to readers in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was the founding editor of the online literary publication Chapter 16, and to readers of the New York Times, where she is a contributing opinion writer. But when her memoir, Late Migrations, was published in 2019, Renkl’s celebration of the natural world and family drew praise from reviewers, readers and popular book club facilitators nationwide.

Graceland, At Last gathers a selection of Renkl’s columns from the past four years, inviting loyal readers and newcomers alike to take in Renkl’s perspective on the world. The collection is organized thematically, touching on topics present in Late Migrations and others such as politics, religion, social justice, arts and culture.

These essays can be read with their original contexts in mind, thanks to the inclusion of their publication dates. For example, in “Hawk. Lizard. Mole. Human.,” Renkl writes of “days that grow ever darker as fears gather and autumn comes on.” The column, published in August 2020, may remind today’s readers of the spike in COVID-19 cases that occured in the fall of 2020. But the columns hold up equally well without the recollection of where you were when they were first written.

Renkl often finds gifts in the mundane, such as in a power outage caused by storms, recounted in “The Night the Lights Went Out.” But her concern about the precariousness of our environment never wanes, showing up even in the midst of this celebration of the simplicity of a few days without power.

Whether extolling the wonders of a rattlesnake or lamenting Southern Christians’ support of oppressive policies, Renkl engages with her home region’s beauty and complexity. As she writes in the introduction, “To love the South is to see with clear eyes both its terrible darkness and its dazzling light, and to spend a lifetime trying to make sense of both.”

Whether extolling the wonders of a rattlesnake or lamenting oppressive policies, Margaret Renkl engages with her Southern homeland’s beauty and complexity.

Debut author Chloe Shaw traces her own emotional development through the roles dogs have played in her life. There was Easy, whom Shaw’s parents had before they had children. Then there was Agatha 1, the Christmas puppy who, days later, went to the veterinarian and never came home. Her replacement was Agatha 2, whose name hinted at the family’s tendency to plow forward through difficult times. As an only child, Shaw turned to her dogs for entertainment and companionship. She wanted to “be the dog,” to lose herself so deeply in connection with an animal that human problems and obligations fell away.

Shaw was exploring these tendencies in therapy by the time she met Booker, the dog who came along with Matt, the psychoanalyst whom Shaw would marry. Together the couple adopted Safari, who seemed the canine embodiment of Shaw’s anxieties. Booker taught Safari how to be a good dog, and both dogs bonded with the couple’s children.

After Booker’s death, Shaw insisted on adopting Otter. Shaw was the family member who clung to the idea of another dog, so she tried to assume all responsibility for Otter’s care. But raising Otter shows Shaw that she can’t be completely self-sufficient. Otter reminds her that she is human, not canine—and that her humanity is good. “When we open ourselves to the possibility of love,” she writes, “we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking; when we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking, we open ourselves to the possibility of being made whole again.” 

What Is a Dog? is a tender memoir that showcases the vulnerable self we often risk revealing only to our pets. The dogs in Shaw’s life show her how to love another being, yes—but that love also leads her deeper into the human experience, flaws, risks and all. Shaw’s sensitive recollection of a lifetime of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to examine their own insecurities and to find acceptance in the process.

Chloe Shaw’s tender recollections of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to accept their most vulnerable selves, which we often only reveal to our pets.

Yona, born Inge, doesn’t remember much about her parents or the world outside the forest. The day before her second birthday, Yona was stolen from her German parents by an elderly Jewish woman named Jerusza. Jerusza was driven by intuition; she knew she must take the girl from her family and into the forest.

Yona’s childhood is unconventional, as she learns not only survival skills but also multiple languages. Jerusza’s care is practical, never maternal. The girl doesn’t know love, but she knows how to survive.

Not long after Jerusza’s death, Yona encounters other people in the forest. They’re Jewish, and they’ve fled their villages to escape persecution by the Germans. Yona knows how to help, but by sharing her skills, she’s inviting human connection like she’s never known—and risking her heart in the process.

Although Kristin Harmel’s The Forest of Vanishing Stars is fiction, the bestselling author’s research contributes richness and authenticity to this captivating tale. During the Holocaust, Jewish people escaped from ghettos and created forest settlements, banding together to survive both genocide and the wild.

In addition to showcasing her exceptional historical research, Harmel’s novel explores the frailty of human connection. Yona finds joy and sorrow in bonding with others, and in the process, she learns more about the world she was born into. Yona knows she is German, and as she tries to protect the people she’s met, she begins to question whether she truly belongs in the encampment.

“In the times of greatest darkness, the light always shines through, because there are people who stand up to do brave, decent things,” says one of the men Yona meets in the forest. “In moments like this, it doesn’t matter what you were born to be. It matters what you choose to become.”

Kristin Harmel’s research into Jewish forest settlements contributes richness to this captivating World War II tale.

To whom does a garden belong? In his work as a gardener, Marc Hamer (How to Catch a Mole) has heard tales of property owners who take offense when landscapers feel some sense of ownership over their work. Hamer’s employer, whom he has dubbed Miss Cashmere, isn’t so territorial.

But Hamer doesn’t crave ownership. He believes a garden belongs to all who see it. “This is not my garden, but it’s not hers, either,” he writes. “Just paying for something doesn’t make it yours. Nothing is ever yours. People who work with the earth and the people who think they own bits of it see the world in totally different ways.”

In Seed to Dust: Life, Nature, and a Country Garden, Hamer showcases his intimate knowledge of the natural world. The book is organized by season, resembling a diary of a year in the garden. It’s a lyrical reflection on days spent with hands in dirt and decisions based on close observation of the weather.

As he tends to Miss Cashmere’s land, Hamer also meditates on each plant’s history and place in the world. But his approach is never showy; in fact, Hamer often contemplates his own status with humility. His introspective ways led his father to devalue and dismiss him as a boy. Hamer later spent two years living without a home, and that experience colored his life, including how he approached parenting his own children, now grown.

As the year unfolds, Hamer reflects on the cycles to which all living things are bound. Little happens in the narrative, save for the dramatic living and dying of all things, but Hamer’s careful eye for detail and deep knowledge of the garden’s dozens upon dozens of plants are used to great effect, creating a lush landscape into which a reader can disappear. In Seed to Dust, Hamer invites readers to join him in quiet meditation on the earth.

Hamer uses his deep knowledge of gardens to great effect, creating a lush landscape into which a reader can disappear.

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