An update, for those of you who were waiting with bated breath: That bookstore in the Poconos did not let me down. I’ll stop being coy about it now and tell you, the shop is called Sellers Books & Fine Art and it’s located on the main street (one of only two streets) of Jim Thorpe, PA, a tiny, unusual town of gothic Victorian buildings cut into the side of a mountain. There’s nothing much else around there, just woods and lakes and guys in trucks, though the town itself was an important hub 170 years ago, with lots of money flying around thanks to the lucrative coal mines there, a railroad where switchback technology was invented, and a major opera house where Mae West, Al Jolson, and performers on the Vaudeville circuit once graced the stage. Over this past weekend the rollicking little town—with a handful of very good restaurants and a few lively bars, it’s still a hub—had an added carnival atmosphere because the Pennsylvania Burlesque Festival took place there both nights, and we kept spotting tough, tattooed ladies with awesome hair strolling around the sidewalks, eating ice cream.
But the bookstore, well that alone was worth the trip. Two cats live there, and one of them (named Zoe) followed me everywhere I went and let me stroke her head while I read. I found the biography section first and almost immediately spotted a book I’ve never seen anywhere else: A Radiant Life, which is a collection of Nuala O’Faolain’s journalism. Score! Nuala O’Faolain wrote two of the most beautiful memoirs I have ever read, and I had the great privilege of hearing her speak at the Philadelphia Free Library a few years before she died. She was so smart, and stayed pissed off and truthful until the very end. (The last line of her obituary in the New York Times is a quotation from an interview she’d recently given: “I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me,” she said. “The world said to me, ‘That’s enough of you now, and what’s more, we’re not going to give you any little treats at the end.’ ”) So I’ve got that book and have been enjoying reading bits here and there. This kind of short-form journalism never really holds up in book form; what seems impressive for its ability to get across complex ideas and feelings in short piece when you read it in an overstuffed newspaper seems a little superficial and lacking when you’re holding a book in your hand. But it feels like a rare treat to have this book, and more of her writing to read for the first time.
The other find was a pretty-looking novel by Helen Garner, an Australian writer I’d never heard of before. Apparently she’s very well known and successful in Australia but to my knowledge has not gotten much attention here (though actually a quick search shows me that my city’s library system has a number of her books, so maybe it’s just me). The book is called The Spare Room and it looked like just the sort of thing I most like to read: A contemporary story, written by a woman about relationships. I understood when I bought the book that it was about a long-standing friendship between two women, one of whom comes to stay with the other for a few weeks’ visit. Nothing in the book’s back matter gave away what the story was really about, which is that the visitor is terribly ill with cancer and close to the end of her life. I think it’s understood that this book is some version of a story that really happened to the author. It read that way to me, and when I looked into it I saw that Garner is indeed known for her journalism, and that some of her detractors have criticized her for publishing “novels” that are not really fiction. I don’t consider “writing from life” to be a failing in any sense, though I do think it can be a problem—or at least a distraction—when something in the writing stands out to the reader as being different than it’s meant to be. I’ve always been vaguely confused by roman à clefs, for example; why not call it what it is? I wish that we could open up what is considered acceptable in the form of memoir (some necessary collapsing of details, tricks of memory, and poetic license) so that we could name these things more accurately. That way a memoir that reads like fiction could still be called a memoir, and those critics who get all butt-hurt about their need for fiction to be this incredible invention would be mollified.
Anyway, it’s a beautiful book and I plowed straight through it. Very sad; I did a lot of crying in this kitchen as I finished reading it yesterday. I plan to dig up more of Garner’s books in the hopes that her eye for detail and compassionate truth-telling will keep me good company for the rest of the summer.