In keeping with my previous “Best of the Backlist” suggestions, here are the latest four titles grouped together, all of which are written by women. I’ve delved into each of them again recently and think they hold up wonderfully well into a second or even third reading. Each would get a shelf-talker in my ideal bookstore.
★ The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy. I came upon this oddly shaped and baggy book, half memoir, half natural history, half social criticism, half a disquisition on the mineral and color turquoise (I know that’s four halves, but Meloy’s beguiling prose is expansive enough to fit them all), when it appeared on a list of Pulitzer finalists in 2003. I suppose it’s really a love story -- Meloy’s love for the American Southwest, its beautiful desert expertly observed, exquisitely rendered. And funny too, especially about those who settled (and despoiled) the Mojave. She died suddenly, too young, after completing another book, almost as good, called Eating Stone. Perfect for fans of Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams.
★ The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty. More humane and compassionate than O’Connor, less concerned with myth-making than Faulkner, more rooted than just about anybody in the Southern tradition of oral story-telling, Welty stands near the pinnacle of American literature. Her short stories are nonpareil and and her novel The Optimist’s Daughter is better known, but this book -- her first -- is nearly perfect in its construction, and has the immediacy of a folk-tale honed to its essence through imaginative re-telling. A gem. I especially like the edition illustrated by Barry Moser. Don’t you wish more novels were illustrated?
★ Evil in Modern Thought by Susan Neiman. The gist of this brilliant book is found in its subtitle: “An Alternative History of Philosophy.” Neiman is a rigorous guide through two hundred years of philosophical argument, pointing to the central place of "the problem of evil" in that argument. She seeks to return philosophy to its roots in metaphysics, as against its 20th-century foray into epistemology at the exclusion of all else. I think she succeeds. Neiman is unafraid to confront moral questions head on, with real intellectual force. Her book proves that ideas can be exciting.
★ The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. So many fictional portraits of genius and the romantic temperament fail, that one almost gives up hope of finding anything genuine. Then along comes a novel like this: the true story of an uncanny love affair between the philosophy student Friedrich von Hardenberg (who will ‘become’ the Romantic poet Novalis) and a dull, plain 12-year-old girl named Sophie. “How heavy a child is when it gives up responsibilty.” There are fifty-five chapters, each three or four pages long, giving the impression of a faultlessly ordered family album, each scene advancing the emotional lives of its characters. In The Blue Flower there is no reductive psychologizing away the mysteries of love and loss; the poet’s struggle to master himself and his world is taken seriously, shown with great affection and a little irony, in perfectly realized sentences. One of the best books about the Romantic Age I’ve ever read. An added note: this novel was published as a trade paperback original in the U. S. and garnered a front-page review in the NY Times Book Review, belying the absurd notion that publishers are stuck with the hardcover format if they want to get review attention. This was fourteen years ago.