20 Books of Summer, #5–8: Anderson, Cusk, Fitch & L’Engle

I’ve been reading a feminist memoir set on Cape Cod, a subtle novel about the inner life and outward experiences of a writer, a soapy literary thriller about a troubled mother and teen daughter, and a slightly melancholy reminiscence of an aged mother succumbing to dementia.


A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson (2004)

This is the third volume in a loose autobiographical trilogy about Anderson’s experiment with taking a break from her marriage and living alone in a Cape Cod cottage to figure out what she really wanted from the rest of her life. Specifically, this book is about the inspirational relationship she formed with Joan Erikson, who moved to the area in her eighties when her husband, the famous psychologist Erik Erikson, was admitted to a care home. Joanie was a thinker and author in her own right, publishing books on life’s stages, especially those of older age. She encouraged Anderson to have the confidence to write her own story, and to take up challenges like a trip to Peru and learning to weave on a loom. Joanie’s aphoristic advice is valuable, but there’s a fair bit of overlap between this book and A Year by the Sea, which I would recommend over this.

My rating:


Some of Joan Erikson’s words of wisdom:

“Doing something with your hands, rather than your head, is often the best route to clarity.”

“wisdom comes from life’s experiences well digested. Stop relying so much on your mind and get in touch with experience.”

“The struggle is to try and obtain a sense of participation in your life the whole way through. We must treasure old age, but not wallow in nostalgia.”


Transit by Rachel Cusk (2016)

I finally made it through a Rachel Cusk book! (This was my third attempt; I made it just a few pages into Aftermath and 60 pages through Outline.) I suspected this would make a good plane read, and thankfully I was right. Each chapter is a perfectly formed short story, a snapshot of one aspect of Faye’s life and the relationships that have shaped her: a former lover she bumps into in London, a builder who tells her the flat she’s bought is a lost cause, the awful downstairs neighbors who hate her with a passion, the fellow writers (based on Edmund White and Karl Ove Knausgaard?) at a literary festival event who hog most of the time, the jolly Eastern European construction workers who undertake her renovations, a childless friend who works in fashion design, and a country cousin who’s struggling with his new blended family.

Like in Outline, the novel is based largely on the conversations Faye overhears or participates in (“I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible”), but I sensed more of her personality this time, and could relate to her questioning: Why do her neighbors hate her so? How much of her life is fated, and how much has she chosen? I doubt I’ll read another book by Cusk, but I ended up surprisingly grateful to have gotten hold of this one as a free proof copy of the new paperback edition from the Faber Spring Party.

My rating:


Some favorite lines:

“we examine least what has formed us the most, and instead find ourselves driven blindly to re-enact it.”

“Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing – no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas – to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.”


White Oleander by Janet Fitch (1999)

Man, that Oprah knows how to pick ’em! This was a terrific read; I’m not sure why I’d never gotten to it before. I read huge chunks during my travel to the States and then slowed down quite a bit, which was a shame because it meant I felt less connected to Astrid’s later struggles in the foster care system. It’s an atmospheric novel full of oppressive Los Angeles heat and a classic noir flavor that shades into gritty realism as it goes on, taking us from when Astrid is 12 to when she’s a young woman out in the world on her own.

Astrid’s mother Ingrid, an elitist poet, becomes obsessed with a lover who spurned her and goes to jail for his murder. Bouncing between foster homes and children’s institutions, Astrid is plunged into a world of sex, drugs, violence and short-lived piety. “Like a limpet I attached to anything, anyone who showed me the least attention,” she writes. Her role models change over the years, but always in the background is the icy influence of her mother, through letters and visits.

Fitch’s writing is sumptuous, as in a house “the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare.” I might have liked a tiny bit more of Ingrid in the book, but I can still recommend this one wholeheartedly as summer reading.

My rating:


Some favorite lines:

The knock-out opening two lines: “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blossoms, their dagger green leaves.”

“I couldn’t imagine my mother in prison. She didn’t smoke or chew on toothpicks. She didn’t say ‘bitch’ or ‘fuck.’ She spoke four languages, quoted T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, drank Lapsang souchong out of a porcelain cup. She had never been inside a McDonald’s. She had lived in Paris and Amsterdam. Freiburg and Martinique. How could she be in prison?”


The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle (1974)

L’Engle is better known for children’s books, but wrote tons for adults, too. In this second volume of The Crosswicks Journal, she recounts her family history as a way of remembering on behalf of her mother, who at age 90 was slipping into dementia in her final summer. “I talked awhile, earlier this summer, about wanting my mother to have a dignified death. But there is nothing dignified about incontinence and senility.” L’Engle found herself in the unwanted position of being like her mother’s mother, and had to accept that she had no control over the situation. “This summer is practice in dying for me as well as for my mother.”

One of the reasons L’Engle was driven to write science fiction was because she couldn’t reconcile the idea of permanent human extinction with her Christian faith, but nor could she honestly affirm every word of the Creed. Hers is a more broad-minded, mystical spirituality that really appeals to me. (Her early life reminds me of May Sarton’s, as recounted in I Knew a Phoenix: both were born right around World War I, raised partially in Europe and sent to boarding school; a frequent theme in their nonfiction is the regenerative power of solitude and of the writing process itself.)

My rating:


Some favorite lines:

“I said [in a lecture] that the artist’s response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, not to impose restrictive rules but to rejoice in pattern and meaning, for there is something in all artists which rejects coincidence and accident. And I went on to say that we must meet the precariousness of the universe without self-pity, and with dignity and courage.”

“Our lives are given a certain dignity by their very evanescence. If there were never to be an end to my quiet moments at the brook, if I could sit on the rock forever, I would not treasure these minutes so much. If our associations with the people we love were to have no termination, we would not value them as much as we do.”


17 responses

  1. I’ve had White Oleander in my sights for some time now. Based on your reaction I should read it soon 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was quite the delicious read, great for taking on a holiday.


  2. I read the first Crosswicks Journal a few years ago and liked it very much – not sure why I haven’t continued with the rest yet. And I’ve never read White Oleander but it sounds like I should!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t like this second volume quite as much as the first, but it was still well worth reading. I’ll try to get hold of the other two soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good to hear from you! Some great reading here. I have never got on with Cusk, Matthew and I read one of hers one holiday and both loathed it. She always seems so cold and writing-exercise-y to me and I do like a distanced writer. Anyway, good to see you getting on well with 20Books and hope your trip is going well, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was determined to get through something, anything by Cusk, and pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this one! I agree that she can seem cold. She struck me that way when I saw her in person at the Faber Spring Party.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. White Oleander is one of those books that I’ve always remembered as one my mum had on her shelf when I was a teenager but I’ve never read – sounds worth checking out. I loved L’Engle’s children’s books when I was little, but didn’t realise she’s also written for adults.

    I similarly struggle with Cusk, although I enjoyed Outline and generally find her more recent work more appealing than her earlier stuff. Transit sounds like one for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t really ‘get’ L’Engle’s sci-fi children’s books when I was young, but I’m going to give A Wrinkle in Time another try soon. I’ve got a copy packed to take back with me. (But I will refrain from watching the film on the plane!)

      If you liked Outline I think you will certainly like Transit, perhaps even more.


      1. I found the opposite – loved them as a child but can’t read them as an adult…


  5. That’s one of the Oprah books I missed when the club was active; it’s good to know that it still stands up as a good read (I’ve not read a disappointing one yet). I am a Cusk fan, but I do understand why the middle book in this trilogy appeals more to some readers than the first and last: at least you can finally say you’ve finished one! L’Engle’s journals haven’t appealed to me but I do appreciate the Sarton comment although I feel like their differing ideas about faith/religion make them very different journal-keepers. Her fiction, however, I do enjoy, especially the fact that all the books are interconnected in subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) ways. I’m not sure how long this challenge lasts, but you are approaching the halfway mark, so that must be a good thing! Good luck with the rest of your picks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve since read another Oprah pick, Breath Eyes Memory by Edwidge Danticat, which I enjoyed but not quite as much as White Oleander. Look out for it in another 20 Books of Summer update next week 🙂 The challenge technically runs through September 3rd, I believe, but I’ll likely finish early.

      It’s true, the faith element is something that definitely sets L’Engle apart from Sarton. I’d like to try some of L’Engle’s adult fiction. Do you have a particular recommendation?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        Not for adults – I find that the way she handles faith/belief in her children’s writing works better for me. Have you ever tried Meet the Austins? It’s a quiet and bookish family/household and Maggy is an appealing adopted heroine, all under 200 pages long. There is open discussion of theology (I think the grandfather studies, IIRC) but it does not overpower the story for me and might be a very comforting aspect of the story for other readers (he is a generous soul). It’s a kind story which focusses on the concept of home and there’s a lovely dog too. I am about to reread as I finished the Time Quintet earlier this year (having left it unfinished as a girl) and now hope to finish the Austins as well.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. That sounds like one to try. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] nonfiction takes on dementia that I can recommend: In Pursuit of Memory by Joseph Jebelli and The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine […]


  7. […] but more often resorts to flat descriptions of where they went and what they did. I’m pretty sure Transit was a one-off and I’ll never warm to another Cusk […]


  8. […] Angels Fear to Tread, while by the end I was wondering if Janet Fitch took it as inspiration for White Oleander. There’s an unusual pair for you! Make of it what you […]


  9. […] on the lighter side but of the caliber of any Oprah’s Book Club selection. It reminded me most of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, one of my 20 Books selections in 2018, because of the focus on the foster care […]


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