Staff Picks: Mothers, Grandmothers, and Gardens


This Week’s Reading

Tove Jansson, 1954. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

My grandmother will be ninety-six this September. Lately she has taken to expressing herself with an almost childlike wonder, finishing television shows or simple meals or songs on the radio with jaw-dropping admiration, claiming them the best she has seen or eaten or heard in all her days. Thinking about this sometimes apt and more often comical appreciation for life’s otherwise ordinary details puts me in mind of another fanciful grandmother and her adventures around a small Finnish island on the heels of her six-year-old granddaughter, the spritely Sophia, in Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. In the twenty-two vignettes that make up the book, told in the third person and translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, the narrative focus is shared between the main characters, often drifting subtly over the course of a story, illustrating the delicate overlap between the two, one’s perspective mirroring or adding to the outlook of the other. In “The Tent,” Sophia learns to observe the outdoors anew, having “really listened for the first time in her life,” and her relation of that strange new experience helps Grandmother relive her own childhood experiences as “new images came back to her, more and more of them.” Youth and age, awe and understanding, innocence and experience—what beautiful complements they can make. To my grandmother, who now seems as much the seasoned matriarch as she is the imaginative girl, and to her youngest daughter, my incomparable mother, who has taken expert care of us both—happy Mother’s Day. —Christopher Notarnicola 

Silver Beach, Claire Cox’s debut novel, revolves around a mother both mighty and pathetic, a petite blond nightmare in white slacks and pearls. We meet Linda in the final stages of alcoholism—and narcissism—through the eyes of her two living daughters: Shannon, the messy pothead who lives with her outside San Diego, and Mara, the snobby, linen-wearing librarian who grew up with her dad in Massachusetts. Both are damaged by Linda and depressed; both find themselves unsatisfactory daughters and humans. Beyond these similarities, the sisters are apparent opposites. As they clash over what to do with Linda in her final days, the post-Linda stages of their lives begin to germinate, terrifying and hopeful. With precise, wry prose that alternates between Shannon and Mara as they observe each other after a lifetime of estrangement, Cox pulls off a neat trick of enabling the reader to love and hate both of them, all the complicated emotions of siblinghood concentrated in a few stressful weeks. Linda gets her own chapters, too, when she’s conscious—shaky yet stubborn, made of mostly scar tissue. She herself lost more than one mother figure over the years, and her eldest daughter drowned in a rip current. Seawater seeps through the book: a heavy Pacific fog lying over the town, the ocean itself often in view. Even when Shannon takes off for the desert in a half-assed attempt to get away, she sees the floor of an ancient sea. But no one ever goes swimming, unless you count throwing Linda’s ashes off a jetty. Ocean as mother is an old trope but a good one, nicely twisted here—it feels right to see Linda, the motherless daughter, the mother who lost daughters to death, distance, and plain old alienation, dissolve at last into the water’s expansive embrace. —Jane Breakell


Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay. Photo courtesy of Get Fresh Books Publishing.


Green-thumbed witch, cultivator of all things chlorophyllous: we find ourselves in the midst of gardening season, your favorite time of year. Your sprouts have sprouted, the seedlings are already placed in the beds you built and the ground you tilled, and now we wait, whispering all the while, “Grow, grow, grow!” Those tiny things surely need the encouragement. While you count the days until the flowers bloom and the tomatoes redden, here is Lace & Pyrite. Lush, florid, floral, the language bursts across the page, nearly riotous, just like the overgrowth in August. Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay, friends and avid gardeners, wrote this epistolary book, sending poems back and forth as they chronicled a year in their respective yards: rebirth, renewal, dirt underfoot, dirt in palm, then back again. I can smell the lilac, hear the toads croaking, and see the grapevine winding up the fence on every page. Of course, just as a garden is more than just a garden, these poems are about more than just gardening. All told, the chapbook, rereleased by Get Fresh Books Publishing this past week, is breathtaking. I think you’ll love it, Mom—your copy is on the way. —Mira Braneck

In Elsa Morante’s Aracoeli, a mother is not simply a mother. The name of the book is the name of its narrator’s parent, a Latin word that means something to the effect of “celestial altar.” As one might expect from such a premise, her son—Emanuel, a self-loathing bourgeois—has many, many complexes rooted in his relationship to her. Written in 1982 and translated into English by William Weaver in 1984, this final novel by one of Italy’s most beloved twentieth-century authors is a dark and strange work of avant-garde writing that ruminates on Italian Fascism. Emanuel’s memories from childhood unspool as he travels back to Aracoeli’s hometown of Almería, but Morante lets the timeline and narrative structure slowly fray into a satisfyingly unwieldy novel with a sense of disorientation that feels befitting of post-Fascist modern life. —Lauren Kane

I don’t think there are many readers, Mum, who anticipate the arrival of a new Tom Pow collection as eagerly as you and I do. (J and C and J, perhaps. But counting them isn’t fair.) Well, May 30 will see the publication of Naranjas, and I happen to have had a sneak peek at an advance copy. It’s a joy—his best yet, maybe. You’ll love “Paris Syndrome 1962,” and smile at a young Pow touring that handsome city with his mother and father and sister:

Next day,
it was dreich and every toilet
in Paris was closed.

You might feel sad to encounter Alastair Reid, though I’m sure you’ll tell me that this is the proper place for him. (You’d be right, of course.) My favorite moment is of a rather older Pow standing alone at a village bar in Grez-sur-Loing, France. One of a handful of unshaven, largely silent old men bunched around the bar, Pow remarks:

is one of the things I do well and I do not say it
lightly. I have learnt, over many years, to hold
myself within my stall, as if standing here alone
is all I need.

In these socially distanced times, this scene at the Bar au Puits d’Amour takes on an almost elegiac quality. I once heard Pow describe the impulse to write a poem. He said it tended to follow “an experience that you think is kind of poem shaped.” Rather good, that, isn’t it? Still, it strikes me that the character of this impulse has changed slightly for Pow over the years. For me, his early poems reveal an urge along the lines of: Here is an experience; if I don’t write a poem, I’m not sure what I’ll do with it. In Naranjas, that instinct is still there, but it has evolved. He seems now to be saying: Here is an experience; by writing a poem, I will begin to reveal its shape. It’s a wonderful, assured, tender development, and Naranjas is a remarkable collection. Pow’s powers as a poet seem to be growing stronger with each passing season. This, of course, will not come as a surprise to you, Mum. I can already hear you, laying down the book, putting the kettle on, and twittering away to yourself as you look out the window: There we are, Robbie—there’s life in the old codger yet! —Robin Jones


Tom Pow. Photo courtesy of Galileo Publishers.