The Winner of Sorrow
Dalkey Archive Press: 364 pp., $14.95 paper
William Cowper, born in England in 1731, wrote hymns and poems inspired by his love of nature and his devotion to evangelical Christianity. Cowper suffered from depression all his life; he tried several times to commit suicide. Brian Lynch's novel cleaves closely to the life of the forgotten poet, unlucky in love and convinced that eternal damnation awaited him. Lynch's dark humor saves Cowper from another form of the endless afterlife: the heavy legacy of the little-read, suicidal poet. Cowper, Lynch writes by way of an introduction, "was sure that he had always been too contemptible to be loved by any living creature, but that loving him had destroyed the lives of four women, three wild hares and a linnet." Lynch gives us the lovable Cowper, no easy feat. He resurrects the poet's immortality, makes him modern in his abject vulnerability.
The Last Witch
Murder in a German Village
W.W. Norton: 384 pp., $26.95
Science has never quite banished superstition, which bubbles up from our great dramatic subconscious in horror movies and racial profiling. The Salem witch trials took place in 1692; Thomas Robisheaux gives us the story of one of the last witch hunts in Europe. In 1672, in a German village, a young woman who had just given birth to her second child died after eating a Shrovetide cake made by her neighbor. Stories of witches poisoning innocents were common in the Franconia region. The neighbor was arrested, and the entire family charged with witchcraft. You can't beat a witch hunt for drama; for the confusion of good and evil, or for sheer human stupidity. Every childhood nightmare is called to mind -- the dark forest on the edge of town, the inaccessibility of God, and worse, our own friends and family. Forget memoir; this is nonfiction.
Our Life in Gardens
Joe Eck and
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 336 pp., $30
Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd are famous for spectacular gardens on Long Island, in Manhattan, Brooklyn and in Vermont. As writers, they follow in the tradition of Kath- arine White and Eleanor Perényi, beloved by gardeners and nongardeners alike. Eck and Winterrowd write about gardening the way M.F.K. Fisher wrote about food, which is to say about love and an appetite for life and things rendered more sweet by their brevity. "So much in a garden happens by accident," they write, "or with the vague hope that somehow things will fill the expectation formed only in the mind. But in any older garden, there may be successes so striking that the gardener himself cannot imagine having foreseen them and can take no credit for what seems essentially an unexpected gift."