Notes on a novel and a collection of verse
The day before my June getaway to the beach ended, I developed a bad case of bookshop lust.
I’d brought a bag of books for the week, some for work, others for pleasure, and certainly didn’t need to add to that trove of literature, but there it was, the siren call of the printed word, the lure of adventure, and the possibility of finding some nugget of gold tucked away on a dusty shelf.
So off I drove to Surf City’s Sugar Island, a two-story shop crammed with secondhand books, antiques, local paintings and pottery, baked goods, and coffee. The staff had loosely grouped the books by genre — fiction, cookbooks, and so forth — but had made no further attempt at order. Treading the crisscrossing aisles among the bookcases and antiques on the second floor, I had nearly given up any hope of finding something special to read when “The Lost and Found Bookshop” caught my eye. Always a sucker for any “book about books,” I bought the novel, read a few chapters back at the beach, packed it up with my other books, and resumed reading it on my arrival home the following evening.
“The Lost and Found Bookshop” (William Morrow, 2021, 432 pages) by the prolific and best-selling author Susan Wiggs tells the story of Natalie Harper, an inventory manager for a major California wine company. On the day the company is celebrating a major business coup, thanks to Natalie, her mother and her boyfriend, a pilot, die in a plane crash on their way to the event. Her mother’s tragic death leaves Natalie in charge of her mom’s San Francisco bookshop and caretaker for her beloved grandfather, Andrew, who is in the early stages of dementia.
For these and other reasons — she despises her job, despite her talents — Natalie leaves the wine company, moves back into the shop where she grew up and where her grandfather has lived his entire life, and begins dealing with the enormous debts left behind by her mother.
Despite her grief at the loss of her mom, her concern for Andrew, and her daily battles with bills and threats of foreclosure, Natalie reveals herself as a warrior, a strong young woman who tries every option to keep the store afloat. Meanwhile, she also meets Peach Gallagher, the repairman and musician whom she hires to fix up the old building, and Trevor Dashwood, a wildly successful children’s novelist, and finds herself attracted to both men.
Along the way, we also learn some history about the Spanish-American War, where Andrew’s father died, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, some bits and pieces about newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, and Chinese culture. Through stories told to him by his father, who was left an orphan by the quake, Andrew believes that the creaky, old Lost and Found Bookshop may contain treasures of immense value, which adds intrigue to the story.
As a foreshadowing of the changes in her heart and her life, and of the possibilities of wealth concealed by her ancestors, during her remarks at her mother’s funeral Natalie cites a passage from Roald Dahl’s “The Minpins,” a book her mother read to her as a child: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
By the end of “The Lost and Found Bookshop,” Natalie once again comes to believe in life’s magic and great secrets.
So should we all.
For a complete change of subject and direction, let’s take a look at “The New Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2014, 448 pages). This one snagged my attention at the library, and while I don’t intend to read it through, this ambitious gathering of 292 poems and selections from longer works is well worth some time. Here are well-known poets like Homer, Virgil, A.E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling, and so many more, all writing about some aspect of war. Here too as well are less familiar writers of verse, like James Fenton and Peter Porter, whose “Your Attention Please” about nuclear war speaks to us especially today.
Reading some of these verses, composed mostly by British and American poets, made me aware once again of an important connection between technology and poetry about war.
Up until the last 250 years or so, most war poetry spoke of attributes like gallantry, courage, and prowess. With the arrival of the slaughter-houses which passed for battlefields in World War I, this poetic point of view has drastically changed. Machine guns, tanks, aircraft, and all the other paraphernalia of modern war have long since replaced the horses and spears of earlier eras. As the editor of this collection, Jon Stallworthy, writes, “So long as warrior met warrior in equal combat with a sword or a lance, poets could celebrate their courage and chivalry, but as technology put ever-increasing distance between combatants and, then, ceased to distinguish between combatant and civilian, poets more and more responded to ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’”
It is right that we should honor those who have fought, bled, and died in our country’s wars. But never, I suspect, will we honor war itself, especially as conducted by those diminished souls who egg us into conflicts without just cause. Too often we’ve seen that those baying loudest for war have no thought for that 20-year-old brought to an early grave by their words. Written after the First World War, in which he lost his only son, Kipling’s poem sums up all those who would press us into more global conflicts:
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.