Book Bag: ‘Sandwich’ by Catherine Newman; ‘The Man Who Loved Trees’ by Annaliese Bischoff

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 06-14-2024 11:28 AM

Modified: 06-14-2024 12:56 PM


Sandwich
By Catherine Newman

HarperCollins

 

In late 2022, Amherst writer Catherine Newman released her first adult novel, “We All Want Impossible Things,” after previously publishing a number of nonfiction titles, a middle grade novel, and quite a bit of journalism.

A story about a close friend’s death told with both humor and frankness, “We All Want Impossible Things” was an impressive debut, earning positive reviews from the New York Times, People magazine, Publishers Weekly and numerous other outlets.

In her new novel, “Sandwich,” Newman has again drawn on some personal experience and her sense of humor to consider the alternating messiness and joy of life, this time in a portrait of a middle-aged couple, their two young adult children, and two elderly grandparents, who all convene in a summer cottage on Cape Cod.

The story is narrated by Rachel, aka “Rocky,” a 50-something woman who’s dealing with the onset of menopause, scattering her thoughts and moods in all directions, often without warning. Nestled in the beach house the family has been visiting for 20-odd years, since her kids were small, Rocky finds her memories can also trigger emotional volatility.

Maybe a little jealousy, too, and distress that she can’t interact physically with her children the way she did when they were young. “Sometimes, if I have an excuse to touch the kids, I have to will myself to be normal,” Rocky thinks as she rubs sunscreen onto the back of her daughter, Willa. “Their perfect bodies! So off-limits to me now.”

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That’s a stark contrast to the way Rocky feels about her own body, whether it’s the sagging skin on her legs or the state of her hair, which used to be thick and glossy but now “sticks out of my head like a marshful of brittle autumn grasses.”

Like “We All Want Impossible Things,” Newman’s new novel is borne along by her humor. Some of the best scenes take place between Rocky and Nick, her good-natured and gentle husband, who takes Rocky’s irrational bursts of anger in stride, such as when Rocky is ticked off that Nick doesn’t know which pastry his wife will choose as they wait in line at a nearby bakery.

“I’m sorry I don’t know you better,” Nick says. “In the bakery sense.”

“Sandwich” doesn’t have a page-turning plot. Chapters represent each day of the family’s weeklong stay on Cape Cod, and those days are mostly filled with going to the beach, cooking and eating, hanging out and playing board games, and talking about bits and pieces of life (as well as worrying that the cottage’s ancient septic system will give way).

But Rocky’s thoughts are often drawn back to the days when she felt overwhelmed with the care required for young children, or feared something could happen to them: “Forty percent of my waking thoughts were about the children dying — the other sixty about sleep.”

She’s also worried about the increasing fragility of her aged parents, particularly her mother, who’s developed a tremor in one hand that she tries to hide. All this anxiety comes to a crest in one scene in which her father reveals a bleak secret about his grandparents, leaving Rocky furious he’d never shared the story with her.

Other sorrows and haunted family history will be revealed in “Sandwich,” but the story is ultimately about harnessing the power of love and family bonds to overcome sadness and loss.

As Rocky recalls, a therapist friend once told her, “You could decide to be happy. The rest of it? Put it in a little boat in your mind and just push it out to sea.”

Catherine Newman will discuss “Sandwich” on June 18 at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational Church in South Hadley, an event sponsored by the Odyssey Bookshop.

 

The Man Who Loved Trees
By Annaliese Bischoff

Köehler Books

 

Frank A. Waugh was a noted landscape architect and conservationist of the early 20th century, a prolific writer and artist, and the founder of a landscape gardening program — one of the first in the country — at Massachusetts Agricultural College, the forerunner of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

His kindred spirit might well be Annaliese Bischoff, a former UMass professor of landscape architecture, a writer and an artist herself. She’s also a deep admirer of Frank Waugh, who grew up in the Midwest and began teaching in Amherst in 1903.

In “The Man Who Loved Trees,” Bischoff, of Leverett, offers a concise but rich portrait of Waugh and his career, noting his pioneering work in landscape architecture, including designing scenic roads at Bryce Canyon National Park and near Mount Hood in Oregon. He also developed recreational programs for U.S. national forests, previously used almost exclusively for timber production.

But Bischoff focuses her book on a lesser-known aspect of Waugh’s career: his work as late-blooming artist, when he learned to make etchings and created at least 223 of them, primarily of trees. (He was also an avid photographer who took many pictures of trees.)

Waugh did indeed love trees, Bischoff notes — the cover of her book features a photo of him playing his flute alongside a forest stream — and he believed that they should be documented in any way possible, the better to offer a record that would encourage their preservation.

“We all hope that everyone who has anything to say in praise and admiration of trees may be encouraged to say it freely, using his full vocabulary, whether through the medium of poetry, painting or photography,” he once wrote.

Waugh attended some notable art programs in the 1930s, including one in France, to develop his etching skills and his work in drawing, and he exhibited his work at a number of places in Amherst. He hoped to publish a book of his artwork but died in 1943 at age 73, before he could realize that goal.

Now Bischoff has created a smaller version of that project, as her book includes prints of 30 of Vaughn’s etchings and drawings, an impressive series that documents trees from around the Valley, such as the ancient, massive sycamore near Sunderland center, and many other locales: Cape Cod, Utah, Maine, Florida, England’s Epping Forest, Germany, Japan.

Bischoff, who has collected dozens of Waugh’s artworks over the past decade, says he left behind many valuable contributions to conservation through his work and his art — and now it’s time to give that art some more exposure.

“Because Waugh’s writing style was deemed old-fashioned in its time, his books might not hold much appeal for the public today,” she writes. “Yet, the extensive tree images Waugh created near the end of his life seem timeless … [he] captured their beauty for us.”

Annaliese Bischoff will discuss her book on Frank Waugh at Amherst Books on June 20 at 6 p.m.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.