While we’re rarely snowed in any more on the East End of Long Island, winter still brings with it an urge to hibernate with a great book, or to pack one away in our getaway bag as we voyage elsewhere for a warm respite.

While we’re rarely snowed in any more on the East End of Long Island, winter still brings with it an urge to hibernate with a great book, or to pack one away in our getaway bag as we voyage elsewhere for a warm respite.

This winter on The Beacon’s bookshelf, we have a few gems to recommend, some written by local authors, some that were written here but tell a broader story of our world, some in which the East End serves as a backdrop that shows the disparity between the worlds of the super wealthy, the creative class and the people whose labor makes this world turn, and one which is being used as a template by local people to make radical changes in our approach to climate change here. 

Louse Point: Stories from the East End by Shelby Raebeck

This collection of short stories, self-published in the spring of 2019, resonates here because its spiritual heart is in the lonely places of the far end of the South Fork, in the off-season mist on Accabonac Harbor, the loneliness of Camp Hero in Montauk in a leafless season of snow flurries, the empty spaces between the souls of the people who inhabit this place year-round. Shelby Raebeck, an English professor who grew up in Amagansett, taught around the country before returning home to raise his kids, and this series of short stories sparkles with the easy authority of someone who doesn’t flinch from the downside of the place he calls home. He’s a local through-and-through and any hint of the glamour many people associate with the South Fork is infused with the local’s cynicism about what this place means.

Each story, told in the first person, thoroughly embodies the life of its protagonist, from a son grappling with his mother’s death as he helps his father repair their weathered home to the loneliness of high school basketball players living in East Hampton’s neighborhood of Freetown, to a family coaxing their father, a Montauk fisherman, back home, to a fed up English teacher preaching about the bullshit he’s seen in his career in education to a class at an elite private school that claims it has a socially conscious agenda. 

Raebeck doesn’t shy either from the interior worlds of second homeowners here, including that of a woman hiding in her work in Manhattan while her family is out at their summer house on the South Fork and a chilling story of a brother who watches his sister’s marriage unravel on a Napeague beach as two horses gallop back and forth in the moonlight, a shorthand for freedom, cut short by the beach’s own lack of breadth, much like the undeliverable promise of freedom The Hamptons makes to those who have not yet seen its downside.

It’s a testament to this writer’s craft that he is able to build such depth of character within the short story form. We’re looking forward to reading his other offerings, including a novel, “Sparrow Beach,” also released last year.

Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth”

This 2016 gem (and PEN/Faulkner Award winner) is a sweeping semi-autobiographical family history set off by its opening scene in a fever dream of the early 1960s, where, amid the orange trees at a gin-soaked christening party in a southern California backyard, a friend of the family steals a kiss from the mother of the house, the key moment that twists the branches of two family trees and then follows them out to the buds, watching their relationships bloom and fall over the next several decades.

Ann Patchett

“Commonwealth” makes our local reading list because the turning point of the novel takes place in a summer rental in Amagansett, where the girl who was christened in the opening scene, Franny Keating, is the live-in, younger girlfriend of a famous novelist. Franny gave her lover her family story, which he turned into a bestseller, but she didn’t think through the effect making the story public would have on her family.

The scenes in Amagansett stick with us because they are filled with the same empty promise that Mr. Raebeck probes in his short stories — the lure of empty houses, poolside, the debauchery and servitude, the inherent phoniness of the endless parade of houseguests, which crashes marvelously when Franny’s wayward stepbrother shows up at the door inquiring why she has given away their family secrets.

Ms. Patchett, an award-winning author of eight novels, won kudos with this work for her sly betrayal of playwright Anton Chekhov’s rule about a gun: ‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.’ 

As these characters reveal, and as Franny’s father, a police officer, states as he sits cancer-ridden in a wheelchair begging for help dying, we’re all running around pretending to protect one another, when in the end, for most of us, it’s what’s inside us already that is going to kill us anyway. 

It’s a chilling sentiment, yes, but by taking us with this family through the decades, Ms. Patchett makes us realize that the journeys of our lives are worth this hefty price.

The Yellow House by Sarah Broom

Sarah Broom’s unassuming visit to read from “The Yellow House,” on the North Fork early in 2019, came before the critical accolades began rolling in for her memoir of her lost New Orleans childhood home, which the New York Times has since called one of the 10 best books of 2019, The Atlantic has called “a historical feat” and the Washington Post has called “memory and history, recounted with rigor, candor and grace.”

Sarah M. Broom
Sarah M. Broom

Ms. Broom wrote a good portion of this memoir during a year as the artist-in-residence at the William Steeple Davis Trust house in Orient, and she credits Orient-based independent publisher Karen Braziller with offering her guidance in writing throughout the years.

“The Yellow House,” Ms. Broom’s mother’s home, where she raised her children in an area known as New Orleans East that had long been forgotten by city government, was cracked apart by the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and was later demolished by the city without her family’s knowledge. The only notice they received was a letter placed in the mailbox outside the house, which much of the family had fled for other states as Katrina’s waters began to rise. They received the letter after the house was gone.

The erasure of this family home is a metaphor for the erasure of black voices from American history, and Ms. Broom owns this narrative, reflecting on her mother’s pride in becoming a homeowner in the 1960s, even though her house was on the short end of an industrializing street just off a dangerous highway, in an neighborhood the city barely acknowledges as a part of its fabric, especially after the levees broke, pouring water into areas of the city far from its tourist center that had long been home to African American residents.

Katrina is the final blow to a house that had long been unraveling, since Ms. Broom’s father’s death just after she was born, of a brain aneurysm after coming home from working as a laborer at a nearby NASA facility, and as she and her brothers and sisters moved away, searching for a better life than the one that could be offered by the neighborhood where she was raised.

Ms. Broom travels the world attempting to make sense of her place in it, taking a job at a radio station in the East African nation of Burundi — a country Ms. Broom hadn’t heard of when former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power suggested she lend her talents to the promotion of democracy there. Burundi is next door to Rwanda, she later learns, overshadowed by the genocide in its neighboring country, much like New Orleans East was overshadowed by the media attention to the damage in the French Quarter of her hometown. Her struggle is of little matter to most Burundians, who have never heard of New Orleans, or of the hurricane that shaped her life. 

She returns home, dejected and depressed, to find work doing publicity for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin as the city continues to not recover from the storm. What she sees in the mayor’s office only seems to further harden her to the reality that New Orleans cares more for its image on the world stage, its allure to tourists, than it does to its native residents. Nagin would later be convicted of bribery, wire fraud and money laundering in relation to city contractors.

Ms. Broom’s bonds with her brothers, who lovingly cut the grass on their lot long after the Yellow House is gone, as their mother waits for some kind of answer from a recovery program dubbed, without irony, as “Road Home,” are explored with a tender affection. They are the caretakers of a memory that only existed within the boundaries of her family before this book set them down for the rest of the world.

This personal narrative is playing out all over the world, as people on the edges of our coastlines watch the changes as water rises, watch their governments do nothing, watch the way corporate greed for our natural resources discounts the families, mostly of color, who are displaced in the name of profit and progress. It’s a story that matters here on the East End too.

Project Drawdown

There’s little in the world to be hopeful for when it comes to the climate crisis, but humans are hopeful creatures, which is why, on an eerily warm day in mid-January, the Southampton Arts Center was packed to the gills with people who wanted to learn more about Project Drawdown, dubbed by its founders as “the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.”

Paul Hawken

The highlight of Jan. 11 Drawdown Festival was Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau’s new film, 2040, in which he searches for ways in which we can radically alter our lifestyles and our communities to combat climate change, drawing heavily on the concepts laid out by Project Drawdown in the 2017 New York Times Bestseller “Drawdown,” edited by Project Drawdown founder Paul Hawken.

The book has spawned a local group, Drawdown East End, which organized the Jan. 11 festival, and is planning this year to engage our local community in just a few of the hundreds of plans outlined in this essential guidebook.

Drawdown East End is seizing the interest in the local food movement here as a jumping off point for attempting to reduce food waste, encourage a plant-based diet and encourage farmers to use regenerative practices that help keep carbon in the soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.

Their first pilot project, a group composting effort at Treiber Farms in Peconic, is launching this month in conjunction with Southold Town.

Many suggestions in “Drawdown” don’t seem at first blush to be related to the climate crisis. One of these is a worldwide focus on educating and empowering women and girls. This has numerous benefits beyond the well-trod truism that educated women have fewer and healthier children. Empowered women are the driving force behind the resource usage of a household, and if that household includes any significant acreage, they are also the driving force behind how their land is used. When given the tools to manage that land for the benefit of the earth, women tend to take to the task wholeheartedly.

Drawdown East End is plunging into this goal of the “Drawdown” movement this year, launching a monthly meet-up called 100Women4Women. 

You can find more details on their work at drawdowneastend.org, and “Drawdown” the book is readily available at many local bookstores. We picked up ours from Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, which continues to be a stalwart supporter of the progressive movement on the East End.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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