Next Life Might Be Kinder

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A Year in Reading: Hannah Pittard

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This spring, in Chicago, Powell’s Book Store closed its Lincoln Avenue location. For local book lovers, it was sad news. But it was also (admittedly selfishly) somewhat happy news in that all prices were slashed by 50 precent. I was in the market to shake up my reading list. I wanted to encounter authors with whom I was entirely unfamiliar — not necessarily new to the world, but new to me. So when I found a small collection of NYRB Classics, I bought the entire shelf. There are too many good books from that pile to mention in this short space — though I can’t resist a swift shout-out to Stephen Benatar’s beautiful portrait of delirium, Wish Her Safe at Home – but the real show-stealer was Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek. It is a somersault through time and space. Taylor brings to vivid life more than a dozen characters — though the story truly belongs to Harriet and Vesey, would-be childhood sweethearts — then swiftly breaks the hearts of them all.

Another book I am compelled to mention — not from the NYRB collection — is one that came out just this year, Howard Norman’s Next Life Might Be Kinder, which I picked up on the recommendation of a good friend. This novel is quiet and loud, funny and sad. It’s a story that both fetishizes grief and convicts it. I fell in love with Norman and I fell in love with his narrator, Sam, who was dubbed — in one New York Times review — as “churlish, impatient, uncharitable and rude.” I found this description both annoying (in its dismissal) and apt: One of my favorite sections of John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist is his account of the storyteller’s several qualities. (Sam, like his creator Howard Norman, is a storyteller.) Gardner says storytellers are prone to, among other things, “obstinacy and a tendency towards churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true)…,” which is Next Life’s very premise. It’s not me who’s reading Gardner currently; it’s my husband. But when he showed me the passage, I delighted in the exquisite rightness of the word — churlish. The reviewer hadn’t intended it as a compliment, but on Sam’s behalf, I’ve since taken it as one. Like Taylor, Norman is a temporal acrobat.

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