She likes it when books rub shoulders in libraries
In her new novel, “Strangers and Cousins,” Leah Hager Cohen explores how many ways one large wedding can roil memories and familial bonds. Cohen, who teaches creative writing at the College of the Holy Cross, grew up in Manhattan but is a longtime Belmont resident. She will be reading from her book on: May 14 at Porter Square Books; June 3 at Brookline Booksmith; June 4 at Trident Booksellers; and June 6 at Belmont Books. All readings are at 7 p.m.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
COHEN: “The Baron in the Trees,” an old novel by Italo Calvino. It’s wonderful and strange. It’s about a boy who is at odds with his family. He climbs a tree and literally never comes down.
BOOKS: Is that a typical kind of book for you?
COHEN: In the past two years I’ve been gravitating more toward books that are more experimental in form. But I’ve always been a fan of John Berger. Ali Smith is fascinating. “The Case of Dr. Sachs” by Martin Winckler is a novel told in a chorus of voices.
BOOKS: Do you read nonfiction too?
COHEN: I always confess to my students that when I was their age I couldn’t understand why anyone would pick up nonfiction, which is so embarrassing because now I write it and read it. I’ve been reading lots of Jewish nonfiction recently. There’s a Torah scholar, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, whom I adore. What is so wonderful about her is that she interprets the Torah through multiple lenses such as psychoanalysis, painting, and poetry. I’ve been amassing a collection of Jewish books.
BOOKS: What books are in that collection?
COHEN: I use that term loosely. It includes writings about Judaism by Martin Buber, and novels by Amos Oz, David Grossman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, and Grace Paley. A few years ago, I became interested for the first time in my Jewishness and began reading hungrily.
BOOKS: Who are the poets you read the most?
COHEN: Charles Simic, Ranier Maria Rilke, Czeslaw Milosz, Pablo Neruda, Yehuda Amichai from Israeli. I never plan to read poetry. I just find myself gravitating to a book, and, having picked it up, sometimes I’ll find myself losing time.
BOOKS: Is there a novelist you’ve been reading for a long time?
COHEN: Alice McDermott was around when I was a teenager and is still writing today. I’m always excited when she has a new book. My favorite may be “After This.”
BOOKS: Is there a book you often give as a gift?
COHEN: I have often given “The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World” by Lewis Hyde. I love that book. It’s eccentric and difficult. He has a new book coming out this year. I’ve given many copies of a pamphlet-sized book, “From Brokenness to Community.” It’s a lecture Jean Vanier gave. He founded communities where people with disabilities live together with the people who care for them.
BOOKS: Is there a book you’ve been given that you cherish?
COHEN: My mom gave me books by Rilke and the Persian poet Rumi. Anything my mom, who died seven years ago, gave me has a lot of importance. I also have a little dictionary that I bought used that is spotted with age. The binding was coming apart so I sewed a piece of cloth on it. It’s been with me for years.
BOOKS: Do you still use it?
COHEN: I’m the kind of nerdy person who loves flipping through a dictionary, especially an old one where you come across archaic definitions and words that wouldn’t be in the current Merriam Webster. I love looking up words and then turning the pages to see what words are near each other, just like browsing in a library where you can find which books are next to others. I like to see the books rubbing shoulders. It gives me a sense of community.
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