Still Life at EightyAbigail Thomas
Golden Notebook Press, 2023, $20
Want to write a book? Take a look around. Describe what captures your interest, no matter how large or small. Repeat for a span of time, and soon enough your observations add up to the critical mass of a slender volume. It's that simple, at least if you're the writer Abigail Thomas with her latest book, Still Life at Eighty. (The book is the first release from Golden Notebook Press, a new imprint of the Woodstock bookstore.) Thomas, a renowned memoirist, adheres to the concept of telling the sometimes-harsh truth. Anecdotes in the new book often concern being elderly or, as she prefers being described, an elder. And while this may be unfashionable in a culture that renders old people invisible, it offers consolation and company for those who have rounded the corner onto the last half of life.
Thomas, at 80, shares slices of her current life in Woodstock, as well as reminiscences of her wilder youth in New York City. Dogs Sadie, Daphne, and Cooper are constants for her, providing not only amiable companionship, but some structure with which to build a daily routine. As she watches, the Bluetick Coonhound named Cooper dies, and Thomas scalds herself with guilt over not having cared for him better. Those who have had and lost pets can relate to the immense joy and sadness so integral to living with animals.
To get around, Thomas requires a cane, and she merrily lists additional found uses for the tool—to flip a light switch, shove some newspapers with loathsome headlines off the ottoman, strike the floor for emphasis, or pretend it's a broomstick on which to fly south to confront a political boogieman. Events that signify one's age and mortality—such as loss of bladder control—become causes for wonder and discovery. Living alone offers the liberty to smoke with impunity, leave stuff lying around at will, or dress simply for comfort.
The pandemic's universally imposed isolation leads Thomas to hone her observations of "varmints" and bugs that find their way into her home, probably through the dog door. A highly detailed description of a dead paper wasp catalyzes a discourse on how she'd heard that someone left out colored construction paper, which some wasps used to make a multihued hive. She reveals that the stinkbug is her favorite, with its shield-shaped carapace, and it doesn't actually smell unless it's killed. She makes peace with an alarmingly large spider.
These sundry anecdotes are interspersed with more serious ones. Thomas has clearly endured great anguish earlier in life. A previous book, A Three Dog Life, recounts how her third husband was hit by a car in Manhattan, losing short-term memory and forcing her to live on her own. In Still Life, she tells an alarming episode: Driving in Woodstock and blinded by the early morning sun, she jerked the wheel sharply to avoid striking another car, and her car flipped. She was pulled to safety by some men who disappeared before the EMTs arrived (she guesses they were avoiding ICE), suffered few injuries although the car was totaled, and subsequently limited her driving to a short radius from her home.
Two falls in 2015 produced two broken wrists within a month. Thomas notes that, while painful and inconvenient (how to commit thoughts to paper with no functioning right hand?), it definitely was a new experience—hard to come by as a septuagenarian. A few years prior, the combination of Thomas falling, and her dog Carolina not being able to cope with the stairs, led her to move her bedroom into the sun porch on the first floor. Necessity aside, she was able to much better appreciate the foliage and fauna from her new vantage.
Thomas faces dread on occasion, arising out of seemingly nowhere, like "an eclipse." Sustenance and its procurement become more difficult as her mobility and senses diminish; she relies a bit too much on her fallback, roast chicken, and impulsively buys a large leg of lamb which she could never eat. To many people, "living in the moment" translates to YOLO, but for Thomas, it takes on a nuanced meaning when her memory is spotty enough that it can only retain so much. Even in the face of death, when she suffers a sudden cardiac event of which she recalls nothing later on, she is cheered. If that's dying, it ain't so bad! We can all take some levity and philosophical perspective from Thomas as we trace her path in this varied, frankly written collection.
Good Dream Dragon
Jacki Davis/Illustrated by Courtney Dawson
Christy Ottaviano Books, 2022, $17.99
Creator of the New York Times bestselling Ladybug Girl series, Rosendale resident Davis has a kind, clear way with a tale and a gentle, vivid imagination, and parents and kids will find Good Dream Dragon pleasant company at bedtime. The child who has trouble sleeping and goes for an epic dragon ride is assigned neither gender nor name, just the traits of courage, curiosity, and gratitude; Dawson's illustrations are cozy, colorful, and evocative. A delightful addition to any little kid's nightstand.
The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred MasculineSophie Strand
Inner Traditions, 2022, $18.99
There is far more to masculinity than what fits within its current cultural straitjacket. Hudson Valley poet and writer Strand digs down to the very roots of noxious patriarchy and beneath them for treasure, unearthing "playful gods, animal-headed kings, mischievous lovers, vegetal magicians, trickster harpists, and riddling bards." The "mythic mycelium" serves as a fresh taproot to the enchantment that was long ago lost to revision and opens fresh possibilities of liberation from our current oppositional mess.
Hopewell Junction, A Railroader's Town: A History of Short-line Railroads in Dutchess County, NYBernard L. Rudberg and John M. Desmond
SUNY Press, 2022, $29.95
The late Bernard Rudberg was president and historian emeritus of the Hopewell Depot Restoration group, and Dutchess Community College Professor Emeritus of English Desmond has consolidated his three volumes of carefully researched history into one book that's a lively and insightful read. Rail fans will find all the nitty gritty details their hearts desire; readers who just love history will find plenty of telling observations on the wider culture of the era in the diverse chorus of primary sources.
Eden Revisited: A NovelLaszlo Z. Bito
Batus Books & the Institute for Advanced Theology, 2022, $26.95
Bito, who died in 2021, was a Hungarian activist, Bard graduate, scientist, and Columbia University professor who retired in his early 60s to write. Eden Revisited plops us into the drama of Genesis, finding understandably strange family dynamics and a deity who's really no better than he should be. The story opens at the moment of Cain's fratricide and goes on to upend this human origin tale into something infused with far more compassion and hope than the original.
For LambLesa Cline-Ransome
Holiday House, 2023, $18.99
Lamb is a quiet, bookish girl growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1940s with her brilliant older brother and devoted, hardworking mom; her innocent decision to befriend a quiet, bookish white girl sets in motion a chain of unintended consequences that lead, seemingly inexorably, to horror. Cline-Ransome, a Hudson Valley resident and author of over 20 acclaimed books for young readers, leans into nuance and honesty and away from sensationalism to shed light on the plight of women trapped under white supremacy.
—Anne Pyburn Craig