It’s been a week of old and new book ESP.
I was reading Someone by Alice McDermott, a lovely, sad tale spanning decades and peppered with Irishisms I remember my grandmother saying, such as “You’re a bold piece.” As I read, I kept thinking that my friend Cynthia would love this book, set in her native Brooklyn. I finished it last night. This morning I turned on my computer, intending to email her and tell her about the book.
But I didn’t have to, because there was an email from Cynthia that read:
Need a good book to get lost in? I just finished Someone by Alice McDermott and really enjoyed it. Very East coast Irish-Catholic.
I loved this coincidence, especially delightful this week because I’d been reminded of a similar one from more than 30 years ago.
Margaret Atwood sat on the floor, legs crossed, in a room overlooking Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin when I heard her speak there in 1980.
With dark curls tumbling around her face, she was both beautiful and snappish—sharply replying to what she considered foolish questions from the small knot of graduate students gathered that day.
On Wednesday of last week, she sat in a chair at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, her curls gone silver, dry wit intact. Her last three novels, Oryx and Crake, After the Flood, and MaddAddams all deal with a postapocalyptic world inhabited by few remaining humans. In spite of the grim themes, she kept the crowd laughing with her droll remarks.
I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s books since I was a teenager. Like her glossy curls and my own youth, the bookstore where I bought a copy of her 1979 novel, Life Before Man, has vanished. A Gap Store now occupies the space.
The year before I left my job and migrated back out to the Midwest, I spied Atwood’s just-published book in the Barnes and Noble window as I rushed across town one morning on 57th Street in New York to get to work. The bookstore wasn’t yet open, so on my lunch hour—in those ancient days lunch was a full 60 minutes—I hustled back and bought a copy.
Then I hurried to the post office on 8th Avenue, where I mailed the book to my mother as a spontaneous little gift. She loved Atwood, too. Those were the days before everyone knew everything before it happened, so I thought she might not yet have read about Atwood’s new novel, and that it would be a fine surprise.
That evening at the end of my bus ride home to New Jersey, there was a package for me sitting on the rickety wooden table in the vestibule of the 1920s-era apartment I lived in at the time. I opened it to find a copy of Life Before Man, with a note from my mother. We had concocted the same scheme.
I’m sure my mother would have gone with me to hear Margaret Atwood last week, and would have laughed right along with the group as Atwood deadpanned about postapocalyptic sex among weirdly evolved humans (no courtship; their relevant body parts turn blue to signify that it’s time to mate). No need to buy a box of chocolates first, Atwood cracked.
Before I went to the event, Dingman issued warnings that taking the Blue Line to L.A. and walking across town to the library by myself wasn’t a good idea. You’ll be a target, he said. Nonsense, I scoffed. He and I have taken the Blue Line to evening events in L.A., and the trip back to Long Beach on the train has occasionally been well, lively. Sometimes the train has been populated by creatures who appear to be living in their own sad postapocalypse. You’ll be the only one on the train coming back who isn’t schizophrenic, he pronounced.
His prediction didn’t bear out. The Blue Line home was filled with an assortment of students and workers, and a few down-and-out sorts but no one really menacing or scary. I’m glad I went. Seeing Margaret Atwood reminded me of that long-ago book coincidence and, perhaps in that way that fate tips, brought on the fun of sharing another one with Cynthia.