book of the week — 7.27.21

This week’s book is a collection of essays by Maggie O’Farrell. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, says that a writer must “develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.  The English language is rich in strong and supple words.  Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.”  

If Zinsser were alive he might read Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death and say, “Like this.  Exactly like this.”   Here are two examples from O’Farrell’s essays that I particularly like–

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell

In “Whole Body,” O’Farrell writes about a flight she took from (presumably) England to Hong Kong and the clarity one can find at 30,000 feet.  

You may find, sliding into your mind, answers to questions that have long eluded you. As you gaze out at the illusory landscape of alto-stratus mountains, you may catch yourself thinking: ah of course, I hadn’t realised that before.”  

“The illusory landscape of alto-stratus mountains.” I like this so much. But it took me three reads and a dictionary to fully understand it! Why is it illusory, I wondered, and what is “alto-stratus?”  The answer to my second question answered the first.  The dictionary informed me that alto-stratus means a middle altitude cloud.  The mountains the narrator describes aren’t mountains at all — they’re clouds, thus rendering the “land”scape illusory.  

Later in the same essay, after a significant life disappointment, the narrator describes a lucidity that is often lent only through hindsight.

“…in a few years more, it will seem to me that it was a merciful escape.  That my guardian angel, glancing down from her cloud and seeing me cycle to my exams, perceived what might happen and let slip a celestial spanner that well and truly jammed my works.”    

Again, a trip to the dictionary. Spanner is another word for ”wrench.” So O’Farrell could have said “An angel looked down and threw a wrench in my spokes.” But “let slip a celestial spanner” is so much softer and more alliterative and the rest of the sentence flows so well because O’Farrell took her time rooting around to find the words that work. 

Every essay in the book is delightful in this way and I immediately went in search of her other works — I read two of her novels and some other essays, which I also recommend. If you decide to read this one, or any of her others, hit me up and let me know which sentences you especially enjoyed. Don’t leave a gal to swoon all by herself!

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