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LETTERS FROM LOST THYME; Two Decades of Letters From John Joseph to Patricia Larsen, Introduction by Edward Albee; Books & Co.: 126 pp., $15.95

THE BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP By Colm Toibin; Scribner: 256 pp., $24

CRUEL BANQUET, The Life and Loves of Frida Strindberg By Monica Strauss; Harcourt: 272 pp., $25

THE CLOSE, A Young Woman's First Year at Seminary By Chloe Breyer; Basic Books: 256 pp., $24

August 27, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

LETTERS FROM LOST THYME; Two Decades of Letters From John Joseph to Patricia Larsen, Introduction by Edward Albee; Books & Co.: 126 pp., $15.95

John Joseph taught etymology, Latin, Greek and sixth form honors English at the Choate School in Wallingford, Conn., from 1944 to 1977. By all accounts he was a local legend. Though his students traveled far afield, they often returned to visit him at Choate or at the house he took to in the summers in Shelburne, Mass., which he called Lost Thyme. One blurry photograph says it all: a room that looks like Charleston, a drawing of Virginia Woolf on a sloping table piled with books, a sinking armchair. John Joseph sits with one arm thrown back, in desert boots and smoking a pipe, looking a bit like Picasso. These letters show that he was civilization's lighthouse and mentor to a circle wider than his own students. Certainly over these two decades, Patricia Larsen got a great deal of advice, of the don't-feel-sorry-for-yourself, get-out-there-and-live variety. Larsen was the mother of four Choate boys, and this is how she came to know John Joseph (her side of the correspondence is unfortunately missing). Joseph calls himself an 18th century man; he refers to the present in America (the '60s and '70s) as "vulgar and tawdry." He read Iris Murdoch and Claude Levi-Strauss and the letters of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis with great delight. He devoured Bloomsbury. He died in 1984, full of words he loved and shared with Larsen, words like collop and pelmet and squab.

THE BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP By Colm Toibin; Scribner: 256 pp., $24

Anticipation provides enormous momentum in life and fiction; it is so strong, so very like riding a wild horse. It changes, somewhere in childhood, from innocent excitement to dread, and then it must be controlled and manipulated. Forcing breaches with family members and friends hastens the future, makes it knowable, and this is what Toibin's characters almost always do. There is little reconciliation in Colm Toibin's novels; moments in which the stage is set for it usually pass. His novels build to these moments, fraught with potential, from which the air goes out with a nasty little hiss, and a new chapter, full of reasons not to live, begins. Here, an estranged family is brought together at Granny's rambling house on the coast of Ireland when the younger brother reveals that he is dying of AIDS. This child served many years as the family's lightning rod, and he continues to do so up to his death. It's good to read Toibin's honest novels, in which human beings fail to forgive, fail to understand. We spend so much of our lives in the dark, shouldn't literature face this as squarely as we must?

CRUEL BANQUET, The Life and Loves of Frida Strindberg By Monica Strauss; Harcourt: 272 pp., $25

Femmes fatales eat a crazy salad with their meat. The British variety hitches up to a dull bugger who pays the bills and looks in the other direction. The French ones strip the dull bugger of everything he's got and live in splendor to a defiant maturity. The American ones find solace in their own sex, but the Germans--how they suffer! Frida Strindberg pays severely for every free moment, every choice, every flip of her long hair. Her children are estranged, she is periodically destitute and lives through an obsession with the writer Augustus John, who discards her most cruelly. Born in 1872, Frida met and married August Strindberg when she was 20, living in Berlin and writing book reviews for her father's newspaper, but they were not married for long without affairs. As always, beauty was less of a factor in her magnetism than willfulness and a willingness to make her artist-boyfriends into something. Monica Strauss has the appropriate distance from Strindberg; she is more skeptical than dazzled and this takes some of the fire out of the telling. Femmes fatales demand absolute adoration, anything short and they sulk. Strindberg sulks on these pages.

THE CLOSE, A Young Woman's First Year at Seminary By Chloe Breyer; Basic Books: 256 pp., $24

Close, the word for a garden space or quadrangle around a building, often used to describe the seminary itself, is a good metaphor for the distance the church seems to have from everyday life. Studying for the ministry, Chloe Breyer reminds us, is not dropping out, it's a career path. "The Close" is a book of waiting, for what Breyer calls "the epiphanies that make us see God afresh." Inside the close of New York's General Theological Seminary, Breyer must wade through Greek and church history and, most of all, the liturgy. She complains that more time is spent on vestments and procedures than on prayer. It is not until Breyer becomes a student chaplain, ministering to the sick and dying, that she feels she is really learning something. Unfortunately, it's late in the book.

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