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"Therein lies the joy"

My husband and I met our daughters several weeks ago for lunch at Bubby’s in Tribeca, followed by a trip to the McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho. This would’ve been heaven, except Bubby’s stirred full-sized corn kernels into my grits. I’m aware that grits are made from corn (I did grow up in Baton Rouge), but it’s supposed to be ground corn in there, and the beauty of a bowl of grits is its smoothness. I’m going to have to start sending Bubby’s letters, because it’s mystifyingly hard to find good grits in New York.

With all that said, my biscuits were fluffy and warm and golden brown on top, with no jarring objects inside.

At the bookstore, my older daughter asked what I was reading. I told her I wasn’t yet in love with either of the books I had recently started—King: A Life, Jonathan Eig’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ann Patchetts’ latest, Tom Lake—but it was early days.

(This is a photo of the McNally Jackson in South Street Seaport, not Soho, but the South Street Seaport store is more beautiful than just about anything, so let’s pretend.)

I managed to leave the bookstore that day without buying a single book. Maybe you assumed this would be the case, since I was already in the process of reading both King and Tom Lake, and King alone is 688 pages long. But in fact it required tremendous fortitude, and I would like a medal.

About a week later I texted my daughter, letting her know I’d been a fool, both King and Tom Lake are fantastic. I hadn’t been gripped by King at the start because I’m too impatient with biographies. I want to get to the moments that make someone “big” enough to warrant a biography, and I slog my way through sections about their childhoods and the lives of their parents and grandparents before they were even born. I once heard Meg Wolitzer say that flashbacks in fiction should only happen when readers are so propelled by the front story that they’ll follow you anywhere. Maybe biographers could follow that reasoning and move the childhood and ancestor sections later.

Are there many biographies that do this? I’ve read woefully few. I find them intimidating: the large page count and small font (typically), and my fear that the writing will skew dense and academic. But I’ve collected many that are supposed to be phenomenal: for example, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln; Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson; David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. So I decided to read 20 pages a day of King and see whether I could make slow-but-steady progress.

I was about a fifth of the way into King when I started flying through the book, no longer aware of page counts. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a leader of a world-changing movement when he was only 26. (Twenty-six!) Eig does a stellar job of portraying King’s strengths and weaknesses, his internal struggles, his conflicts with those who thought him too progressive and those, like Malcolm X, who believed him too conservative. The book paints a compelling picture of the changes that were urgently needed for American racial and economic justice, the progress that was made, and the devastating inequities that King was still fighting against when he was murdered at the age of 39 (thirty-nine!) and that have not been set right to this day. Eig weaves in recently released White House telephone transcripts and F.B.I. documents, among a slew of other new material; and the FBI’s treatment of King, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover and with the consent of the White House, was scandalous.

Which leads me to my next planned, mammoth read: G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, by Beverly Gage, which was published about six months before King. It won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Biography and a slew of other prizes. Anyone want to read 20 pages a day of it with me? I’ve finished the introduction and feel all sorts of confidence that it’s going to be great.

One of the many things I learned from Eig’s book is that Martin Luther King, Jr. as an adult “was hospitalized repeatedly for what he called exhaustion and others described as depression,” and as an adolescent “twice attempted suicide, although perhaps halfheartedly.” I thought of this as I was reading Rachel Aviv’s phenomenal Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories that Make Us, which gathers a number of essays exploring the complexities of mental illness and identity. One, “Naomi,” considers the experience of a Black woman who grew up in public housing in Chicago—likely housing King fought unsuccessfully to improve—and did not receive mental health care she crucially needed. Aviv writes:

Mental-health institutions were not designed to address the kinds of ailments that arise from being marginalized or oppressed for generations. Psychotherapy has rarely been considered “a useful place of healing for African Americans,” wrote the scholar bell hooks. For a Black patient to reveal her fears and fantasies to a therapist, trained in a field that has been dominated by middle-class white people, requires a level of trust that hasn’t typically been earned. “Many black folks worry that speaking of our traumas using the language of mental illness,” hooks writes, “will lead to biased interpretation and to the pathologizing of black experience in ways that might support and sustain our continued subordination.”

Aviv has much more to say in her “Naomi” essay about race-related inadequacies of mental health care and flaws in our understanding of when it’s needed. The book as a whole raises all sorts of weighty and tangled issues. It’s considerably shorter than King, and Aviv is an engaging writer, so it should be a speedy read. But it took me a while, because I kept stopping and pondering.

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t fall in instant love with Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake. At the start I had trouble caring as much as I wanted to about the main character, Lara, and her story. She felt a little generic to me, like a foil for far livelier characters—particularly Peter Duke, an early love of Lara’s who eventually becomes a famous actor. My view changed radically by the end of the book, though; I ultimately wanted to both fight for Lara and have her protect me.

In her author’s note, Patchett writes, “If this novel has a goal, it is to turn the reader back to Our Town, and to all of [Thornton] Wilder’s work. Therein lies the joy.” So, after Tom Lake, I re-read Our Town. It is astonishing how much power the play generates in spite of and because of its simplicity.

I read Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey for the first time, too, because Ann recommended it during a podcast interview. What a crazy book! It won the Pulitzer in 1928 and relates the stories of the five individuals who happen to be crossing a rope bridge in Peru in 1714, the moment the bridge collapses. They all fall to their deaths. One “little red-haired Franciscan from Northern Italy,” Brother Juniper, is standing nearby at the time and sees the bridge “divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below.”

Anyone else would have said to himself with secret joy: “Within ten minutes myself...!” But it was another thought that visited Brother Juniper: “Why did this happen to those five?” If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off.

Brother Juniper resolves to uncover the secret lives of the five victims, to prove that their deaths must have been part of God’s plan. His findings make up the bulk of the book. Do they justify his faith in divine intention, or are we “to the gods … like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day"? Please read the book and get in touch so we can chat about that at length. In the meantime, just thought I’d note that The Bridge of San Luis Rey was the bestselling book of 1928, and Ann’s Tom Lake is almost the New York Times bestselling book (it’s number 2) today, practically 100 years later.

Hasta la proxima vez,*


*This means “until next time” in Spanish, right? Which is the language spoken in Peru—es eso correcta?


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