Pretty much the only way I read books is when someone puts one in my hand or recommends it so strongly that I go out and find it.
Last week I was at the home of my son and his wife, Katie. She had a library book on the table that she had just finished for her book club: Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry.
"I loved it," she said.
"I think I remember reading Wendell Berry's writing in Mothering magazine, back in the eighties," I said. "I think he wrote back-to-the-land stuff."
"That sounds right. He's a farmer in Kentucky," Katie said.
The book wasn't due for a while, so she lent it to me. That evening, I showed Hannah Coulter to my husband, who immediately recognized the name Wendell Berry. "They carried his articles in Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening," Mike remembered.
I read Hannah Coulter in two sittings, and I loved it. Wendell Berry's writing is hard to describe. The book is labeled a novel, but it's not a novel in the usual sense. Rather than having a plot grow from chapter to chapter, the book finds its own form. Instead of being plot-builders, the chapters are like essays about various characters in the countryside where Hannah lives on a farm with her husband, Nathan.
Reading along, and just accepting this unusual non-building form, I figured there wouldn't be a big emotional impact at the end. Boy, was I wrong. I spent most of Part 3 - about 30 pages - in tears. And it's hard to explain why.
The character Hannah Coulter is 79 years old as she narrates the story. Although I'm younger than she is, I'm a long-married grandmother and I can relate to the idea of looking backwards at one's life, which is what Hannah does. She muses about everything - love and sex, family and friends, struggles and joys, death and loss, the land and neighbors, faith and war. And most poignantly, she writes about the loss of cooperative community as fewer and fewer families live by farming. Hannah bemoans the taking-over of the countryside by soul-less fast food restaurants, malls, and vacation homes.
Berry's style is poetic, but never over-written or flowery. I wondered if a man could capture the ordinary feelings of a married woman.
From the chapter "The Room of Love" (an example of his beautiful writing about sex, through the character Hannah Coulter):
"The room of love is another world. You go there wearing no watch, watching no clock. It is the world without end, so small that two people can hold it in their arms, and yet it is bigger than worlds on worlds, for it contains the longing of all things to be together, and to be at rest together. You come together to the day's end, weary and sore, troubled and afraid. You take it all into your arms, it goes away, and there you are where giving and taking are the same, and you live a little while entirely in a gift. The words have all been said, all permissions given, and you are free in the place that is the two of you together. What could be more heavenly than to know desire and satisfaction in the same room? If you want to know why even in telling of trouble and sorrow I am giving thanks, this is why."
From the chapter "The Better Chance" (about accepting the life one has):
"The chance you had is the life you've got.... you mustn't wish for another life. You mustn't want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: 'Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.' I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions."
From the same chapter (about feeling generational love at a wedding):
"You know the ghosts are there when you see as they see, not as they saw but as they see. You feel them with you, not as they were but as they are. I never shed a tear that day, but all day long I saw Margaret as her father and her grandfather saw her. I loved her that day with my love but also with theirs.... I saw her as Virgil and Mr. Feltner saw her, and I thought I would perish with the knowledge of loss and of having."
From the chapter "Margaret" (about Marcus, a philanderer):
"[Nathan] was reading the paper....And then he laid it on his lap and folded it up, looking straight at me the way he would do. He said, '....It would have been better for Marcus if he had been tireder at night.'"
From the chapter "Okinawa" (battle scenes - seven searing pages that I will never forget. Here is one of the softer sentences):
"You find where the enemy buried one of theirs, leaving a green branch in his canteen on his grave. Compassion makes it worse."
Wendell Berry's quotations are worth reading and thinking about. I plan to read all his books.