Meet Me at the Museum
By Anne Youngson. (Flatiron, 312 pages, $23.99.)
Anne Youngson, at age 70, has written her debut novel. Her age may account for its depth, with thoughtful passages that younger authors likely could not conjure — or, if they could, might fall prey to presenting them with more theater, to helpfully ensure that they’re not overlooked.
Youngson’s approach is more mundane, like much of life, which gives her observations their particular credibility.
The novel is a series of unlikely letters between Tina, an English farmer’s wife, and Anders, a museum administrator in Denmark. Both are of an age where there is “more behind us than ahead of us.”
Tina writes seeking some information about Tollund Man, an Iron Age man who was found in a Danish bog in 1950, astonishingly preserved with an especially serene expression on his face. She and a friend, Bella, always had meant to visit, but didn’t, and now Bella has died. Anders replies with anthropological information, adding a passing reference to how we regard the dead given his own wife’s death.
Their correspondence unexpectedly continues, each writer finding safety in sharing their thoughts with an anonymous reader. You may well imagine where this correspondence will end, yet it’s never made clear. And complications emerge.
But it’s the exchange of their reflections on life that proves so peacefully compelling. Such as this passage from Tina: “Whenever I pick raspberries, I go as carefully as possible down the row, looking for every ripe fruit. But however careful I am, when I turn round to go back the other way, I find fruit I had not seen approaching from the opposite direction. Another life, I thought, might be like a second pass down the row of raspberry canes; there would be good things I had not come across in my first life, but I suspect I would find much of the fruit was already in my basket.”
How subtle. How perceptive. How mundane. The cover blurb makes an apt connection with “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” As with that lovely novel, “Meet Me at the Museum” is gently provoking, delving into how we interact with our children, our spouses, our communities, but mostly with ourselves.
Head of the Lakes
By Anthony Bukoski. (Nodin Press, 185 pages, $19.95 paperback.)
Ghosts, rust, fog and booze lend somber ballast to the haunting, beautiful short stories of Anthony Bukoski, all set in his native Superior, Wis.
He writes about Polish-Americans whose parents and grandparents came to that singular, gritty town in the early part of the last century, often having barely escaped war and starvation. Fiercely Catholic and nostalgic for all things Polish, they were happy to be in what was once a boom town. But soon it became a shadowed place of lost jobs and dashed hopes, of bars and brothels and decaying docks and freighters.
Today, Superior retains that lonesome, shabby feel, even as its proximity to Lake Superior gives it a backdrop of stunning beauty, and even as it is the unheralded home to some true treasures, among them Bukoski. His characters are often dying, demented, disappointed, depressed, dreaming or drunk. And yet in many of his stories, a character encounters some melancholy grace, suddenly able to see his or her life with clarity and self-compassion.
“Head of the Lakes” is a collection of stories drawn from Bukoski’s previous three books, all of them remarkable collections. Few writers are as masterful as Bukoski in portraying the power of place, for better or worse, in our lives.