As I was checking in a stack of books at the circulation desk I stopped as a book caught my eye, as often does. The sepia photograph on the cover was what caught my attention, a woman in a tweed suit with cute little bowtie pockets on the blazer, walking down a city street with a large briefcase. It was called Nothing is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn by Alice Mattison.
I often find books this way and sometimes when I get them home I find them to be only so-so, or just not what I am in the mood for. You can’t always tell a book by its cover. But sometimes, as in this case, I find something special.
When I read Nothing is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn that night, I couldn’t put it down and stayed up until 2 am to finish it. The story goes back and forth between past and present with a mystery about how a character dies. But even when you find out “who-dunnit” that’s not what the book is about after all.
I was struck by Mattison’s attention to detail—not bogged down with too much, but just enough detail to help me really see the surroundings she was talking about. I like the way The New Yorker praised her work, saying “Mattison is concerned with the small decisions that alter the course of our lives… [her] observations are so minutely compelling that each one feels like a shiny object, once lost but found unexpectedly.” It wasn’t so much that I related to any one character especially, but that I felt I could almost experience what it is like to be that other person. She’s that good!
I was so excited to find a new great author that I checked out the rest of her books. The next one I read was was a collection of “intersecting stories” called Men Giving Money, Women Yelling. This is a book of 15 short stories in a very different almost dizzying style where all of the stories have a character who was a side character in one of the other stories. She has several of these collections, most of which I have not read yet: The Flight of Andy Burns, In Case We’re Separated, and Great Wits. In The Wedding of the Two-Headed Woman she actually takes some of the short stories and merges them into a novel. She also has a collection of stories written by homeless people in New Haven, where she lives, called As I Sat On The Green.
My top three favorites were Nothing is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, already mentioned, The Book Borrower and Hilda and Pearl. They are all tinged with sadness and mystery, but there always seems to be a lesson learned or triumph of some kind.
In The Book Borrower there are two stories going on at the same time (as you can see, she’s really into this intersecting story idea). One is the story of the woman reading the book, and her relationship with all the people who are touched by something about it, including the author. The story within the story is the one in the borrowed book–you get to read both. There are many different relationships that need healing in this story, like most of her writing, and she has a sweet but hard and sometimes funny way of bringing it all together.
In Hilda and Pearl the story is, again, told from three different women’s perspectives. A child named Frances, her aunt Pearl and her mother Hilda. It’s about friendship, tragedy, grief and how they all heal in different ways. I will leave you with a quote from this story. I really like the way Hilda puts it. Her sister-in-law has hurt her in two grievous ways and she’s in the process of dealing with it.
“I turned on the bench to talk to Pearl, though I was also watching the trees behind her. The leaves moved a little, up and down. ‘I don’t want to spend my whole life listening to people apologizing to me’, I said. ‘It’s insulting.’
‘How is it insulting?’ She stared at me. ‘I don’t understand why it’s insulting.’
‘I don’t either,’ I said. Then I added, ‘It keeps you and me from knowing each other.'”
Jesse Lee Harmon is the bookkeeper/library assistant at OWL and is currently humming the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas“….