A Garden of Literary Delights

Sloane Crosley shares a selection of books that bring a sense of renewal to the spring season.



This Land Is Your Land

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A Dinner Date With Michael Stipe

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A Dinner Date With Judy Collins

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IN JANUARY, the Los Angeles Times ran an article with the headline: “Warm clothing, proper heating advised as freezing temperatures hit parts of L.A. County.” I admit, I had to read those words three times before I stopped turning “advised” into “advisory” and “heating” into “heat.” A heat advisory? Now that made sense. In February, New York Magazine’s The Cut declared it socially acceptable to discuss the weather: “It was 60 degrees in January. There’s lots to say.” And the Northeast experienced a collective pang of mourning for snowstorms — a somewhat short-sighted pang that did not factor in slush. Now that spring is officially upon us, one might reasonably ask: What spring? You mean that relic from the early aughts? The fleeting weeks before The Great Sweating? Where are we to find a sense of renewal if not outside our front doors? Well, you could do worse than letting your imagination bloom (desperate times call for earnest phrasing) with the help of a good book. Luckily, each of these early spring titles will blow a much-needed breeze through your days, thus opening you up to seeing the world as just a little bit new. You know, again.

Don’t throw in the trowel just yet: Eleanor Catton’s magnificent Birnam Wood” (FSG) is a suspenseful and taut-yet-lyrical thriller about … gardening? Oh yes, gardening. Catton, the Booker Prize-winning author of “The Luminaries,” starts off with a bang (one can almost hear the truck explode in the first sentence). Suddenly, cut off from the larger world because of an accident, valuable parcels of New Zealand farmland have made themselves available and vulnerable to a guerilla gardening collective by the name of Birnam Wood. But an obscenely wealthy Peter Thiel-like American already has designs on the land. Catton plants all manner of delicious seeds in her narrative that function as, among other things, a generationally astute social comedy. From class and characters (Mira Bunting, a heroine who prefers enemies to rivals) to corruption and cocktails, this novel is at once a highly inventive spin on a morality tale and a logical interpretation of contemporary ecological doom.

Meanwhile, Happily” (Random House), Sabrina Orah Mark’s memoir-in-essays, has earned the adjective “enchanting” fair and square. Once upon a time, Mark was a little girl in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, and now she finds herself in Athens, Georgia, the mother of two mixed-race boys, wrestling with the stories of childhood (hers, theirs, everyone’s: “I leave my children with my husband because my children are too young to go to a Holocaust museum. We are all too young. We are all too old.”) What at first seems like a pleasing thematic conceit, soon reveals itself as a profound approach to any life. Religion can be seen as a fairytale and so can art, family, inheritance, and the entire American experiment. This is particularly evident within the tradition of storybook boys (Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Tom Thumb): “As my sons grow, the American imagination grows around them like water hemlock. Poisonous and hollow. My son’s skin is light. So the hemlock may not grow as thick as it would for a darker boy.”



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Hot House Flower

The Artistry of Flowers” (Rizzoli) by María Gabriela Salazar (with photographs by Ngoc Minh Ngo) is an unsurprisingly gorgeous and glossy exploration of eye-popping botany.

The Language of Flowers

Idra Novey’s third novel, Take What You Need” (Viking), is both clever and profound, a story that is at once common, exploring the connective tissue between a woman and her stepdaughter, and highly specific; revealing the personal power of art.

House of Leaves

Elizabeth McKenzie, author of the very funny “The Portable Veblen,” is back with The Dog of the North” (Penguin Press), another California comedy, a charming and peripatetic story of a woman on the road to finding herself.

Les Fleurs Du Mal

McKenzie’s novel winds up taking the reader to Australia, as does Thirst for Salt” (Tin House) by Madelaine Lucas. With shades of Françoise Sagan, this debut novel explores the complexities of young seduction, love, and the unending desire for connection.

The Garden of Good and Evil

Two-time Booker Prize finalist Yan Lianke expertly meshes the whimsical and the mystical in Heart Sutra” (Grove Press), a beautifully illustrated novel in which the disciples of China’s five main religions gather for a year-long intensive study and a religious — and literal — tug-of-war.

The Secret Garden

Oliver Darkshire’s Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller” (W. W. Norton & Company) had me at “poisoned books.” This is a marvelously populated memoir of working at Sotheran’s, one of the oldest bookshops in London (1761).

The Giving Tree

Say hello to The Farewell Tour” (Harper) by Stephanie Clifford, the story of a fictional country music superstar who has faced the very real challenges of the patriarchal music industry.

Dandelion Wine

Catherine Lacey’s formidable Biography of X” (FSG) features her shimmering and inventive style, this time applied to the fictional biography of an iconoclast artist, her widow, and the search for answers.

The Orchid Thief

Jonathan Healey’s The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689” (Knopf) is well worth its doorstop stature, packed with under-told stories of revolution and greed.

White Oleander

Short-story master Kelly Link provides another tour of her enviable imagination in White Cat, Black Dog” (Random House), reinventing classic fairy tales through a contemporary lens.

The Chrysanthemums

New Yorker magazine writer Adam Gopnik explores the progression from apprenticeship to proficiency to mastery through the inspiring investigations in The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery” (Liveright).

Flowers in the Attic

For anyone not already familiar with Mona Simpson, I’d suggest starting with her short story “Lawns” and seeing if you can get up off the floor when it’s done. This stunning and ruthless writer’s latest is Commitment” (Knopf), a novel about family dynamics in the wake of a mother’s psychological break.

Our Contributors

Sloane Crosley Writer

Sloane Crosley is the author of several essay collections, including “I Was Told There’d Be Cake” and “Look Alive Out There,” and the novel “The Clasp.” Her new novel, “Cult Classic,” is out now.

Lisa Lok Illustrator

Lisa Lok is an art director at Departures. A Brooklyn-based creative, she enjoys collaborating with illustrators and photographers from around the world. Her work can be found in the pages of Airbnb Magazine, NYLON, and Asia Society Magazine, among others.


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