I had come to Normandy to find my town. A hundred pages into a novel, I had stalled despite a clear plot line, not to mention a contract with a New York publisher to bring it out the following year. I had never lost momentum on a book before. But the prose in this one felt shallow, and I knew perfectly well why: It lacked a sufficient sense of its setting. Imagine Huck without his river.
Somewhere amid the hedgerows of northern France, there had to be the place where my imagined people had lived for four years under Nazi occupation, then survived the D-Day invasion. To tell their story, I needed to know where it had all happened, the precise location.
“Mother Land” is an exercise in mean-spirited score-settling. It’s also fun. The party to celebrate Mother’s 90th birthday is only amusing, but the clambake in the assisted living facility where she celebrates her 102nd is downright hilarious, with the elderly children still sniping at one another in grammar-school argot. When Jay arrives for the festivities, one of them exclaims, “It’s doo-doo head.”
Theroux possesses a fabulously nasty sense of humor, at its best when Jay is describing Mother’s execrable cooking: ”Everything Mother made looked like cat food, including the mittens she knitted, so her gifts were all a form of mockery.” Even better — I’m laughing as I write it — is his description of Mother’s pea soup, “so thick a mouse could have trotted across it.”
Sound: Stories of Hearing Lost and Found by Bella Bathurst is the story of a life shaped by the slow onset of deafness and the subsequent return of her hearing. Bathurst is a writer and photojournalist. She has written books on lighthouse keepers and a history of shipwrecks and wreckers, both marginal, outsider occupations. She is by trade a listener and a compiler of stories. This time the stories are her own and those of other groups affected by noise and its disorders: musicians, military personnel, factory workers. Bathurst writes from the unusual position of coming out the other side, the hearing side. Her deafness was temporary and this is rare.