Year in Review: Books and Writing

Author Ward Just of Vineyard Haven wrote "The Eastern Shore" about a man reminiscing on his years as a newspaperman. — Laura D. Roosevelt

2016 was brimming with robust, quality offerings from Island-related authors and a burgeoning community support system that has made the Island literary life an important subset of Island life.

The community literary network is in good order, though the Island’s only publisher, Vineyard Stories, closed up shop this year. The company was successful to the end, when impresario Jan Pogue decided to take time to smell the roses.

But we have a cadre of wise writing coaches — Nancy Aronie and John Hough Jr. come to mind — and many institutions and organizations dedicated to the care and feeding of literary artists, including the Noepe Center for Literary Arts, the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing, and the Pathways group in Chilmark.

We are fortunate also to have the Hebrew Center and a vibrant public library system, both of which work assiduously to showcase authors and work, including the Islanders Read the Classics series, sponsored by The Martha’s Vineyard Times, Islanders Write, and the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association, in which we are led through work of the masters by literarians such as Philip Weinstein and Mr. Hough.

The commitment to reading and writing among our residents and visitors is also apparent with the success of myriad book fairs and books sales, and from the annual Islanders Write conference sponsored each August by The Martha’s Vineyard Times and Arts & Ideas magazine at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury.

This year, the horizon of offerings from Island-related authors extended from the raucous to the elegant in fiction, prose, and poetry. Here is a sampling of titles:

“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles: The second novel from Mr. Towles, a seasonal resident, follows the success of his 2011 “Rules of Civility,” and continues his theme of the joys and pitfalls of our interactions with ourselves and others. Count Alexander Rostov is a Muscovite nobleman who becomes enmeshed in 1922 in the cultural thuggery of post-Revolution Russia. Brilliant, elegant writing with more than a little relevance in this raffish year of U.S. presidential politics.

Tisbury resident Ward Just needs little introduction. The awardwinning novelist brought us his 18th novel, “The Eastern Shore,” this year. Times colleague Whit Griswold said in his review, “The image of an Adirondack chair on the cover of Ward Just’s 18th novel suggests ‘The Eastern Shore’ is the relaxed but not quite comfortable reflection of Ned Ayres, a lifelong newspaperman. The story follows Ayres from his start as a teenaged summer reporter on a weekly in his sleepy midwestern hometown to the peak of his profession as news editor of a major national daily in Washington. Instead of sticking to a measured chronological path, Just focuses on a couple of major incidents in Ayres’s life — a truncated romance, and a life-altering editorial decision — to tell his story.

“Just’s writing is quiet and proficient, loaded with the kind of detail and perspective that only an old pro can deliver, rarely drawing attention to itself, much like Ned Ayres.” Indeed.

Two nonfiction books that delighted were Dennis Lopez’s first book, “Journeyman: A Tradesman’s Tale” and bestseller Paul Samuel Dolman’s “Seven Crazy Days in Maui.” Both are often rollicking memoirs of life as they live it and as life happened to them in oft-astonishing fashion. Both books are Vineyard-heavy, well-written, wry and insightful looks at lives that sometimes look like “Running with Scissors.”

If you like the idea of poetry but think you need to be a Mensa member to understand it, try Fan Ogilvie”s “Easiness Found” and Arnie Reisman’s “Sodom and Costello.” Both are approachable, often wry, and in Mr. Reisman’s work, downright funny. They draw word pictures of thoughts and feelings familiar to us, and push us to understand more about what we think and feel.

On a serious note, psychiatrist Peter Kramer takes on the myth and the facts surrounding antidepressant drugs in “Ordinarily Well: The Case for Anti-Depressants.” His painstakingly researched work details the history of the meds and offers a perspective on their value with a side trip into the national opioid mess into which we’ve fallen.

We also had our (mostly) annual summer mystery reads from residents Cynthia Riggs (“Bloodroot”) and Linda Fairstein (“Killer Look”), writers you can count on.

It seems to me that books that bring happy thoughts are important in the bizarre times our republic is experiencing. Jim Kaplan showed up just in time for me with “Clearing the Bases: A Veteran Sportswriter on the National Pastime.” Being a baseball lifer helps. If you are, Mr. Kaplan’s recollections on and about the game are succulent mind food. He takes on the game’s personalities and foibles using the prism of the lives of three former players. His detail is superb. His reference to gnarled catcher Joe Pignatano, an original 1962 New York Met, got me thinking about that abominable team and its iconic manager Casey Stengel, who once lifted his eyes heavenward and asked, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” of the original Mets who lost 120 games in 1962.

Another reading I would recommend is not a book but a short treatise created by the Friends of the Edgartown Library about the former Edgartown library on North Water Street. Turns out steel titan Andrew Carnegie ponied up the startup funds for more than 2,500 U.S. libraries, including Edgartown’s, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when America was becoming more literate and thirsty for books they couldn’t afford to buy. The history offers a startling perspective on the relative newness of American literacy.

Enjoy the holidays. Read something good.