What Mystic Writers Are Reading

April 16, 2021

When we aren’t actually writing (or thinking about what we’re going to write) there’s a good chance that the Mystic Writers are reading. This past year, with many libraries closed, and some bookstores temporarily shuttered, the books we chose carried even greater weight than usual. One day we might crave escape; the next day, enlightenment. Here’s a roundup of recommended titles, contributed by each member of our writing group.

THE LIBRARY BOOK, by Susan Orlean is about public libraries and the people — both patrons and workers — who keep them alive, all woven around the story of a terrible fire at the Central Library in Los Angeles. At first, I did not think this book would hold my attention, but the author is deft at capturing the many singular characters involved in the history of that library and others. — Ginny Bitting

THE LAST REPORT IN THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE, by Louise Erdrich. The writing in this novel is as breathtaking as the story of itself: a woman falls in love, suffers tragic losses, and finds herself alone on the prairie the late 1800s. Dressed as a Catholic priest, she assumes the identity of Father Damien and takes up his duties on an Ojibwe reservation. — Ginny Bitting

THE LOST MANUSCRIPT, by French writer Cathy Boniden (translated by Emma Ramadan), is a novel whose story is told through a series of letters. Anne-Lise Briard, finds an abandoned manuscript while on vacation in Brittany. She becomes intrigued by the unfinished story and is inspired to locate its author in hopes that the long-lost story can finally be completed. Part mystery, part travelogue, and an amusing parade of eccentric characters make this the perfect cabin fever read. — Jane Percy

ZORRIE, by Laird Hunt is a 200-page book that tells a 500-page story of a woman living in the mid-20th-century on an Indiana farm. Hunt’s prose, both sparse and expansive, matches the landscape and Zorrie’s character and resolve. Her personal losses far outnumber what might be considered wins, and yet she carries on, shunning sympathy, bestowing generosity, and refusing to give up on love. — Susan Kietzman

OLD IN ART SCHOOL: A MEMOIR OF STARTING OVER, by Nell Painter. The author retired from Princeton University where she was a celebrated historian who surprised everyone by returning to art school in her sixties. Her memoir explores the challenge of finding her identity as an artist and starting over after a successful career. It’s a fascinating look at how women and artists are seen and judged by their age, looks and race, as well as what she learned about the artists that she loved. When she lands, as a student, at Rhode Island School of Design, she discovers the many adjustments that she has to make. It’s inspirational for those who think it might be too late to jump into something new and creative. She also wrote CREATING BLACK AMERICANS and SOJOURNER TRUTH, A LIFE, A SYMBOL. —  Ruth Crocker

THE WOMAN’S HOUR, by Elaine Weiss portrays the last, tension-packed month of the fight for women’s suffrage when the suffragists, their opponents, the media, liquor interests, and politicians of all stripes duked it out in Tennessee the summer of 1920. Tennessee held the power to ratify the 19th amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote — or not. It’s a political war, a chess game and history combined, written with the pace of a whodunit. — Maura Casey

WRITERS AND LOVERS by Lily King is a novel about a writer trying to write a novel while coping with her mother’s recent death, debt collectors nagging her over student loans, the daily grind of a waitress job and facing eviction from a crummy apartment. Into this tangled web wander two men, both writers, and our heroine will be forced to choose. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, and the ending will have you cheering. — Maura Casey

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles would be engrossing at any time, but this novel about a Russian aristocrat confined by the Bolsheviks in 1922 to years of house arrest was a perfect pandemic read. Of course, the aristocrat is fortunate that “home” happens to be Moscow’s famed Metropol Hotel, and while he is forced to exchange his luxury suite for a tight fit in the attic, and to serve in ways he never imagined, he has access to the entire edifice. This is a charming novel of big losses and unexpected gains, of a small world that holds a whole world. The author, an American, provides legitimate insight into Bolshevik hypocrisy. – Bethe Dufresne

THE GIRL FROM THE METROPOL HOTEL by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a more authentic, non-Western take on the world of A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW and a perfect follow-up to that novel. I was familiar with the author of this slim memoir because I was privileged to interview her in Moscow in 1983, courtesy of a trip arranged by the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Known for her “brutal realism,” in contrast to Amor’s poeticism, Petrushevskaya struggled hard to be heard in Soviet Russia. But as she told me in 1983, “They see that I can wait.”   – Bethe Dufresne

E.L. Doctorow (WORLD’S FAIR, THE BOOK OF DANIEL); George Eliot (MIDDLEMARCH); Willa Cather (MY ANTONIA, MY MORTAL ENEMY, O PIONEERS!); Agatha Christie (AND THEN THERE WERE NONE); and Raymond Chandler (THE BIG SLEEP, THE LITTLE SISTER) were all on my reading list. I also re-read WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy. Don’t let the length scare you; it has great humanity and relevance. And I just finished Graham Greene’s TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT. It’s funny and sad, and forces you to look at choices you’ve made in your own life as you journey with the characters from England to Turkey and Paraguay. And who can argue with this line: “One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand.” — Carol McCarthy

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman. In the midst of a difficult time here in the U.S., this book provided an escape to another country: Sweden. That alone piqued my interest, along with the portrayal of a man who finds something to despise about everyone he meets. “Curmudgeonly” doesn’t even begin to describe Ove, and only if you drive a Saab would you possibly be spared his utter contempt. At first, this character made me laugh out loud; it was a cynical, sort of knowing laugh, but it felt good anyway. Eventually I realized that this book was about something else altogether, but the author was taking me in through a back door. I felt like one of Ove’s neighbors — hesitant to meddle at first, but drawn into a story of grief, love, and our responsibility to each other and the next generation. — Lisa Brownell

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