In Provincetown, Mass., at the tip of Cape Cod, locals have always lived life to their own bohemian beat.
For Lou Bigelow and her husband, Toby Maytree — the couple at the heart of Annie Dillard's new novel, The Maytrees — Provincetown is the perfect place to paint, write poetry and raise a family after World War II.
Their bohemianism fits in with the nonconformist way of life on the Cape, and their marriage thrives for decades until Toby breaks the family apart.
In her second novel, Dillard, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, uses her short, simple, poetic style to tell the quirky story of the Maytrees' fractured marriage. Toby runs off with a local free spirit named Deary for a 20-year affair, but Dillard focuses on acceptance and how Lou must ultimately accept far more than most wives would in a marriage.
Scott Simon spoke with Dillard about her unconventional characters and how she crafted their love story.
Which metaphor can best describe what we'll do this summer with the books piling up on our desks, or growing into small mountains on the floor?
As a writer, I should (I hope) be able to find the right image for that enterprise. Is it a journey we'll take into fictional worlds? An adventure into the lives of other minds? A meditation on various representations of reality? All of these at once?
Before we had books, we in the West lived in a world of oral poetry. At seasonal intervals in the year, audiences listened to the chanting of poets who spoke epic lines about all the things they believed to be true: gods and monsters and the human beings in between. Similes illustrated the hidden connections between, for example, the Iliad's Greek soldiers and the sea: They cheered "like waves/ on some high headland when south winds hurl them/ against a crag that the billows batter/ ceaselessly from one side or another."
Soldiers cheering, like waves hurled against rocks? The poets chanted it, and a new way of thinking was born. Now, thousands of years later, we still employ language in that same poetic fashion, linking seemingly dissimilar things.
So, back to the question. How to describe a selection of the season's best books, along with some literary classics? My list is not as broad in its offerings as a smorgasbord, but it might be a summer picnic with a number of good things to taste and savor... or perhaps a mix of old wine and new?
But Wait, There's More...For Web readers, here are two extra titles worthy of a read (or a listen).
Best American Fantasy by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer, paperback, 396 pagesI've always been a hard-core science-fiction reader, eschewing fantasy. But some fine writers have recently turned up working in fantasy and have softened my objections to the genre, among them Kevin Brockmeier, Tony D'Souza, Robin Hemley, Brian Evenson and Kelly Link. You'll find them in this collection, the first in a new series (read a passage from Kelly Link's story set in the land of Oz).
A Feast, to Start
Tales of Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett, paperback, boxed setYou might consider this first recommendation a moveable feast: all 200 of Anton Chekhov's stories in a 13-volume boxed set (read and hear a passage from Chekov's "The Lady with the Dog"). Chekhov's stories contain just about every nuance and turn of the modern human heart and soul, offering countless hours of splendid short fiction by the father of the modern story. Richard Ford, one of our own masters of the short story, wrote the introduction (read an excerpt). Read these Chekhov stories, Ford tells us, "for pleasure, first, and do not read them fast. The more you linger, the more you reread, the more you'll experience and feel addressed by this great genius...."
Revisiting John Gardner
The Sunlight Dialogues by John Gardner, paperback, 736 pagesOne of my favorite reprints of the year from an American writer is the late John Gardner's signature 1972 novel, the upstate New York epic The Sunlight Dialogues (hear Gardner's son read from his father's novel). The first time I read it, it bowled me over: what a dramatic encounter between modern life and ancient mythology, as Gardner tries to bring to light some of the hidden mysteries of everyday existence. Since his death in 1982 at age 49, Gardner has mainly been represented by his books about the art of writing. It's about time that people turn back and take a look at the accomplished art of his own fiction.
A Beach-Shack Love Story
The Maytrees: A Novel by Annie Dillard, hardcover, 224 pagesFrom the summer crop of new fiction, I suggest picking up Annie Dillard's first novel in many, many years (it's actually only the second novel she's ever published). Dillard, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, has been known to American readers for decades as the author of moving and powerful nonfiction. In The Maytrees, Dillard has written an elegant and, as we might expect from this brilliant and unusual stylist, quirky philosophy-minded beach-shack love story set on Cape Cod beginning in the 1940s. Between the dunes and the star-splashed sky above, The Maytrees swells with beautiful images, of the land, the sea and the constellations (Dillard reads a passage for us, from her cabin in southwest Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains).
Love and Death in South Africa
The Story of the Cannibal Woman by Maryse Conde, translated by Richard PhilcoxMore of love and death lies in a story deeply accentuated by the sharp feelings and sharp mind of the main character, and by the setting. Maryse Conde's elegant and musically told novel, The Story of the Cannibal Woman, follows Roselie Thibaudin, a Caribbean woman, painter and medium. Thibaudin is widowed in Cape Town after the murder of her husband, and left to figure out her life in a troubled city. Conde's husband, translator Richard Philcox, turned this novel, originally written in French, into one of the liveliest and loveliest translations of the year (hear Philcox read from his wife's novel).
Changing Idaho Skies
Five Skies by Ron Carlson, hardcover, 256 pagesShort story writer Ron Carlson's first novel in many years, Five Skies, finds men at work — and men working out their deepest hopes and sorrows, beneath the constantly changing and always astonishing Idaho skies (hear Ron Carlson read from Five Skies). It's a fine book about fathers and sons, troubled brothers, lost wives — a deep portrait of three construction workers in the wilds of Idaho during a pivotal summer for them all.
The Pushcart Book of Poetry edited by Joan Murray, hardcover, 275 pagesFiction, fiction, more fiction — I can never recommend enough of it! But there's poetry, too, at my summer picnic. In The Pushcart Book of Poetry, editor Joan Murray culls from 30 years' worth of the annual Pushcart Prize volumes lovely work by some of the most remarkable poets writing today — Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, C.K. Williams, Sharon Olds, the late Stanley Kunitz, William Stafford, Aga Shahid Ali, Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton and Philip Levine, among many others. Jane Hirschfield's poem "Red Berries" serves up one striking metaphor after another (you can hear her read it here).
One More for the Road
Selected Shorts: Travel Tales, three CDsAnd we can add some delicious nonfiction to our picnic spread, from the Selected Shorts CD series. Travel Tales includes stories by Nadine Gordimer, Max Steele, and an essay titled "Goodbye to All That" by Joan Didion (read by actress Mia Dillon), in which Didion tells us about her arrival in New York after putting California behind her for the first time.
Hello Again, and Adieu...
Farewell Summer: A Novel, by Ray Bradbury, hardcover, 224 pagesIt couldn't be summer for me without recollections of reading Ray Bradbury when I was a kid. But I've never said goodbye to his work. The sequel to his much-beloved novel Dandelion Wine came out this past autumn: Hear Bradbury read an excerpt. Of this special time of year Bradbury writes: "There are those days which seem a taking in of breath, which, held, suspends the whole earth in its waiting. Some summers refuse to end." Think of the reading we could do in a summer like that, a summer that refused to end. And what a metaphor!
Recommended Reading:Click here for a printable list of our summer 2007 book roundups.
It began when Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree first met. He was back home in Provincetown after the war. Maytree first saw her on a bicycle. A red scarf, white shirt, skin clean as eggshell, wide eyes and mouth, shorts. She stopped and leaned on a leg to talk to someone on the street. She laughed, and her loveliness caught his breath. He thought he recognized her flexible figure. Because everyone shows up in Provincetown sooner or later, he had taken her at first for Ingrid Bergman until his friend Cornelius straightened him out.
He introduced himself. — You're Lou Bigelow, aren't you? She nodded. They shook hands and hers felt hot under sand like a sugar doughnut. Under her high brows she eyed him straight on and straight across. She had gone to girls' schools, he recalled later. Those girls looked straight at you. Her wide eyes, apertures opening, seemed preposterously to tell him, I and these my arms are for you. I know, he thought back at the stranger, this long-limbed girl. I know and I am right with you.
He felt himself blush and knew his freckles looked green. She was young and broad of mouth and eye and jaw, fresh, solid and airy, as if light rays worked her instead of muscles. Oh, how a poet is a sap; he knew it. He managed to hold his eyes on her. Her rich hair parted on the side; she was not necessarily beautiful, or yes she was, her skin's luster. Her pupils were rifle bores shooting what? When he got home he could not find his place in Helen Keller.
He courted Lou carefully in town, to wait, surprised, until his newly serious intent and hope firmed or fled, and until then, lest he injure her trust. No beach walks, dune picnics, rowing, sailing. Her silence made her complicit, innocent as beasts, oracular. Agitated, he saw no agitation in her even gaze. Her size and whole-faced smile maddened him, her round arms at her sides, stiff straw hat. Her bare shoulders radiated a smell of sun-hot skin. Her gait was free and light. Over her open eyes showed two widths of blue lids whose size and hue she would never see. Her face's skin was transparent, lighted and clear like sky. She barely said a word. She tongue-tied him.
She already knew his dune-shack friend Cornelius Blue, knew the professors Hiram and Elaine Cairo from New York, knew everyone's friend Deary the hoyden who lived on the pier or loose in the dunes, and old Reevadare Weaver who gave parties. Bumping through a painter's opening, picking up paint at the hardware store, ransacking the library, she glanced at him, her mouth curving broadly, as if they shared a joke. He knew the glance of old. It was a summons he never refused. The joke was — he hoped — that the woman had already yielded but would set him jumping through hoops anyway. Lou Bigelow's candid glance, however, contained neither answer nor question, only a spreading pleasure, like Blake's infant joy, kicking the gong around.
Maytree concealed his courtship. On the Cairos' crowded porch, she steadied her highball on the rail. He asked her, Would she like to row around the harbor with him? She turned and gave him a look, Hold on, Buster. He was likely competing with fleets and battalions of men. Maytree wanted her heart. She had his heart and did not know it. She shook her head, clear of eye, and smiled. If he were only a painter: her avid expression, mouth in repose or laughing, her gleaming concentration. The wide-open skin between her brows made their arcs long. Not even Ingrid Bergman had these brows. The first few times he heard her speak, her Britishy curled vowels surprised him. He rarely dared look her way.
One day he might accompany Lou Bigelow from town out here to his family's old dune shack. He was afraid his saying "shack" would scare them both. Without her he already felt like one of two pieces of electrical tape pulled apart. He could not risk a mistake.
Robert Louis Stevenson, he read in his Letters, called marriage "a sort of friendship recognized by the police." Charmed, Maytree bought a red-speckled notebook to dedicate to this vexed sphere — not to marriage, but to love. More red-speckled notebooks expanded, without clarifying, this theme. Sextus Propertius, of love: "Shun this hell." From some book he copied: "How does it happen that a never-absent picture has in it the power to make a fresh, overwhelming appearance every hour, wide-eyed, white-toothed, terrible as an army with banners?" She was outside his reach.
Of course she glared at Maytree that fall when he came by barefoot at daybreak and asked if she would like to see his dune shack. Behind his head, color spread up sky. In the act of diving, Orion, rigid, shoulder-first like a man falling, began to dissolve. Then even the zenith and western stars paled and gulls squawked.
Her house was on the bay in town. He proposed to walk her to the ocean — not far, but otherworldly in the dunes. She had been enjoying Bleak House. Men always chased her and she always glared.
She most certainly did not ask him in. His was a startling figure: his Mars-colored hair, his height and tension, his creased face. He looked like a traveling minstrel, a red-eyed night heron. His feet were long and thin like the rest of him. He wore a billed fishing cap. An army canteen hung from his belt. She had been a schoolgirl in Marblehead, Massachusetts, when he went West.
—Just a walk, he said, sunrise. We won't need to go inside.
In his unsure smile she saw his good faith. Well, that was considerate, brickish of him, to say that they would not go in. She agreed. She had not seen the dunes in weeks. Maytree suggested she bring, as he did, a pair of socks, to provide webbed feet, and wear a brimmed hat that tied. In predawn light she saw the sunspokes around his eyes under his cap.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.