On Desert Islands, Independent Bookstores, and Joanna Hershon’s Latest Novel

desert island wes

We’ve all been asked the desert island question, what recordings we’d choose, what three books we’d take if limited to that magical number.[1] Although being stuck inside the house with the Chico Feo blues again is vaguely akin to being stranded on some palm shaded atoll in the South Pacific, many of us do possess (unlike Robinson Crusoe) the ability to order out, whether it be rib-eyes from Omaha, Toots and the Maytals from Apple, or Grady Hendrix’s latest novel The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.


This quarantine offers those of us who have been idled a chance to catch up on our reading. I know that eBooks are all the rage, but this old curmudgeon prefers printed paper, to strum pages with his thumb, to be able to reckon the heft of the tome and how much is left.

Recently, the excellent local independent bookstore, Buxton Books, hosted a poetry reading featuring David Tillinghast, a former professor of mine. Although Amazon is cheaper, that faceless conglomerate doesn’t provide the opportunity to meet authors and hear them read aloud from their works. In this age of e-tail, independent book and record stores need our support, but during the pandemic, even more so. The next time you order a book, please consider ordering from your local bookseller.

My most recent acquisition from Buxton Books is Joanna Hershon’s latest novel St. Ivo, which is being released tomorrow (14 April 2020) by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. I met Joanna and fell in love with her work when she came to Porter-Gaud School as our visiting writer in 2009. At the time of her visit, her most recent novel, The German Bride, had not been released. Joanna was kind enough later to mail me a copy, and, man oh man, the novel transported me right out of my reading chair to 19th Century Berlin and eventually to our own wild, wild West.


Joanna Hershon (source Good Reads)


Here’s a snippet from the thank you letter I sent her:

The breadth of the book is remarkable. You’re able to concretely conjure the sights and smells of Berlin, the passage overland, the starkness of Santa Fe, the Shein Brother’s store, and the stage couch’s journey.  Indeed, the last part of the novel, the trip to San Francisco, is a tour de force.  You turn something inherently boring – a slow crawl over virtually featureless terrain – into a psychologically fascinating page-turner.

I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of St. Ivo, and once again, Joanna’s work has captivated me. She possesses the ability to create a tangible world of sights, sounds, odors, and actions while creating characters who come alive on the page. As her characters negotiate that vivid outer world Joanna has created, the reader is also privy to the rich inner world of their memories, aspirations, and fears. The novel is suspenseful, mysterious. I can’t express it better than Nell Freudenberger’s dust jacket blurb: “Vivid and cinematic . . . St. Ivo has the eerie quality of a fairy tale, as if something inexplicable might be waiting around the next bend in even the most familiar path.”

Oh, yeah, and the prose, at once beautifully crafted yet unobtrusive. Here’s Sarah remembering getting her first pair of glasses as a child:

The case was blue. She wore them on the trip home. While sitting in the back seat of the car, she looked out the window. It was as if the world had suddenly announced itself in every leaf on every tree. She hadn’t realized that one could actually see the shapes of leaves, that it was even possible from a distance. The ordinary view was crystalline suddenly and all too much. She remembered now the sound of her father’s gravelly voice and the static on the radio; she remembered returning the glasses to their blue suede case. She’d closed her eyes for the rest of the trip. This, she realized, was how she felt just then.

So afford yourselves a chance to take an imaginative trip, for a few hours to get out without the chance of contagion, to enter a vivid world whose dangers will thrill you without actually endangering you.

st ivo cover

[1] Shakespeare’s complete works (duh), Joyce’s Ulysses, Norton’s Anthology of Poetry.

One thought on “On Desert Islands, Independent Bookstores, and Joanna Hershon’s Latest Novel

  1. I finally got around to ordering my two free Audible’s. I got textbooks on computer programming. Not very good reads, but informative. I also bought “How to Buy Stocks,” by Louis Engel. The name sounds familiar but I can’t 6 him. It has a 1994 copyrite but supposedly is to the point. I told someone I work with I was interested in investimg in quantum computing so he recommended this book.

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