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Guesswork
Cover of Guesswork
Guesswork
A Reckoning With Loss
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"[A] splendid and subtle memoir in essays" —The New York Times Book Review

Having lost eight friends in ten years, Cooley retreats to a tiny medieval village in Italy with her husband. There, in a rural paradise where bumblebees nest in the ancient cemetery and stray cats curl up on her bed, she examines a question both easily evaded and unavoidable: mortality. How do we grieve? How do we go on drinking our morning coffee, loving our life partners, stumbling though a world of such confusing, exquisite beauty?

Linking the essays is Cooley's escalating understanding of another loss on the way, that of her ailing mother back in the States. Blind since Cooley's childhood, her mother relies on dry wit to ward off grief and pity. There seems no way for the two of them to discuss her impending death. But somehow, by the end, Cooley finds the words, each one graceful and wrenching.

Part memoir, part loving goodbye to an unconventional parent, Guesswork transforms a year in a pastoral hill town into a fierce examination of life, love, death, and, ultimately, release.

"[A] splendid and subtle memoir in essays" —The New York Times Book Review

Having lost eight friends in ten years, Cooley retreats to a tiny medieval village in Italy with her husband. There, in a rural paradise where bumblebees nest in the ancient cemetery and stray cats curl up on her bed, she examines a question both easily evaded and unavoidable: mortality. How do we grieve? How do we go on drinking our morning coffee, loving our life partners, stumbling though a world of such confusing, exquisite beauty?

Linking the essays is Cooley's escalating understanding of another loss on the way, that of her ailing mother back in the States. Blind since Cooley's childhood, her mother relies on dry wit to ward off grief and pity. There seems no way for the two of them to discuss her impending death. But somehow, by the end, Cooley finds the words, each one graceful and wrenching.

Part memoir, part loving goodbye to an unconventional parent, Guesswork transforms a year in a pastoral hill town into a fierce examination of life, love, death, and, ultimately, release.

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About the Author-
  • Martha Cooley is the author of the national bestseller The Archivist and Thirty-Three Swoons. The Archivist was a New York Times Notable Book and a New and Noteworthy paperback. Cooley is currently a contributing editor at A Public Space. Her co-translations of Italian fiction and poetry include Antonio Tabucchi's story collection Time Ages in a Hurry. A professor of English at Adelphi University, Cooley divides her time between Queens, New York, and Castiglione del Terziere, Italy. Her American cat, Zora, is named after one of the cities in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, and their Italian cat, Tristana, is named after the medieval knight.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 16, 2017
    Cooley’s (Thirty-Three Swoons) touching memoir recounts a year living in the rural Italian village of Castiglione del Terziere, a castle town, where—in the off-season—there are only a dozen or so residents. Cooley and her husband Antonio, both fiction writers and translators, take a leisurely approach to country living. Though the book begins as a love letter to Castiglione, it turns into an introspective family memoir. Cooley meditates on her parents’ deteriorating health and contemplates the deaths of friends—a “rabbit hole of loss”—that preceded her move to Italy. Once in Italy, she visits the Costa Concordia shipwreck, gets to know the other women in town, and becomes deeply familiar with the cats of Castiglione. In the midst of tragedy, Cooley finds solace in literature and poetry, quoting poets such as Zbigniew Herbert, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, and Philip Larkin. Her devotion to her mother is intertwined with her devotion to literature. As her mother slowly goes blind, their shared love of reading, or listening to books, unites them. Like the ill-fated Costa Concordia, Cooley must learn to “steer amidst obstacles,” and though her passage is not always smooth, it is instructive and humanizing.

  • Kirkus

    March 1, 2017
    The author of the honored novel The Archivist (1998) returns with a sometimes-wrenching memoir-in-essays about love and loss.Cooley (English/Adelphi Univ.; Thirty-Three Swoons, 2005, etc.), a translator and an editor for the literary journal A Public Space, writes here about a caesura of 14 months in a small Italian village with her husband, a period that gave her time to travel a bit, to ruminate about loss (a writer friend, the decline of her parents, an ill neighbor who lives in a castle in the town, and more). The author also writes about local events (the wreckage of a cruise ship lies not far away) and animals (cats, birds, a fox that kills some goslings), and she quotes many lines from notable poets, including T.S. Eliot (principally), Whitman, Dickinson, Galway Kinnell, among others. Cooley moves stealthily around in time, using the shifts as both ally and enemy. She uses time to tell her story, shaping it to fit her needs, but she also fears time and what it has done and continues to do. (Her father suffers from Alzheimer's; her mother has gone slowly blind; she thinks about her own aging.) Cooley also shifts tenses frequently and even changes person: in one affecting passage, she employs the "you" of the second person. Throughout, the author navigates leisurely through her year abroad, recounting how she and her husband drove to the mountains to hike, visited the local cemetery, interacted kindly with feral cats, ate local food, and tried to work on a new novel. But visitors from her memory keep intruding and demanding her attention. Most prominent among them are her parents, now in an assisted living facility, and the author is devastated that she is losing them both. A quiet memoir with emotional power that is subtle, artful, and piercing.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Sven Birkerts, Author of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age "Martha Cooley has a natural instinct for the introspective essay. She creates a subtle pulse of memory and reflection, combining a lyric warmth of engagement with a classicist's restraint of presentation. The people come alive, and the place--Italy--is vivid in the moment even as it is held fast in the long lens of time."
  • New York Times Book Review "Martha Cooley has given us something valuable and rare--a thoughtful and well-written first novel, suffused with intellectual and moral integrity.... Cooley is an accomplished stylist--there's scarcely a graceless or unintelligent sentence in the book--and a subtle chronicler of the interior life.... The Archivist treats serious questions in a humane and passionate manner, and leaves one thinking about these questions long after one has read the last page."
  • Entertainment Weekly "Engrossing... rarely has a novel centering on the life of the mind felt so passionate."
  • Boston Globe "Compelling... Cooley's suave plotting displays many surprises, and her work exhibits that rarest of literary qualities nowadays, authentic moral resonance."
  • The Observer (London) "A literary detective story... beautifully paced and gripping.... An impressive debut."
  • Washington Post Book World "It is rare and gratifying to read a novel about people who take literature seriously, who practically live and die by books... The Archivist is a memorable achievement."
  • Hungry Mind Review "The Archivist is many things: a speculative academic mystery; a meditation on obsession; a study of madness; a soliloquy to solitude. Cooley weaves all these genres together with nary a dropped stitch."
  • Entertainment Weekly "An engrossing, ambitious debut about love, art, and insanity.... Cooley brilliantly employs Eliot's poetry and troubled biography as a window into Matt's tragic past."
  • New York Observer "A solid accomplishment.... Martha Cooley has looked back in time with a steady, penetrating gaze... Fans of literary fiction will want to make the acquaintance of the talented Ms. Cooley."
  • Charleston City Paper "Sublime... supremely satisfying... As Cooley's characters relate to Eliot's verse, it comes alive, igniting their passion and touching their troubled souls."
  • Christian Science Monitor "An imaginative and compassionate novel... that probes complex questions--about love, religious faith, and the conflict between a writer's desire for privacy and the reader's hunger for revelations."
  • Hartford Courant "Marvelous.... The Archivist is an intellectual journey.... Ping, ping, ping, the ideas bang off each other; not irony, exactly, just images set against others, things that seem contradictory, yet between them there is a spark that leaves behind some certain truth. It's a hard thing to accomplish, unless you're T.S. Eliot--or Martha Cooley."
  • LA Weekly "A marvelously old-fashioned novel... Cooley handles her intricately structured multiple stories with calm assurance and the quiet passion of a born lyricist."
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch "Remarkable.... Though Cooley has twinned the tales of poets and madness, Christians and Jews, caretakers and gatekeepers and betrayers, the stories never appeared contrived, only very, very, human."
  • Fort Worth Star Telegram "It's a rare and special treat to discover a debut work as impressive as The Archivist. A splendid work of fiction, rich with character and conflict, masterfully blending past and present."
  • Reform Judaism "A tale of astonishing insight... brilliant and unsettling."
  • Portland Oregonian "A provocative, carefully paced, intelligent story of love and the pathology of repression... Most novelists might publish a shelf full of books before approaching the eloquence and command found in The Archivist."
  • San Francisco Chronicle "Thirty-Three Swoons tells a deeply satisfying story... This is a book of sudden unleashing, resonant with wisdom and passion, whose central characters grow wiser and more passionate before our eyes."
  • Kirkus Reviews "Nocturnal events prod Camilla to come clean with her intimates, whose fierce loyalty to our prickly and recalcitrant heroine is rendered believable by Cooley's assured yet unassuming eloquence.... Motifs of artful disguise and neglectful or surrogate parentage intersect like nested Russian dolls as these curiously joined lives play...
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