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Guesswork: A Memoir in Essays

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Having lost eight friends in ten years, Cooley retreats to a tiny medieval village in Italy with her husband to recover from la strage, or "the massacre." There, in this sun-drenched paradise where bumblebees nest in the ancient cemetery and stray cats curl up on her bed, she examines what we all must confront one day, mortality: how to cope with our lost intimates and how Having lost eight friends in ten years, Cooley retreats to a tiny medieval village in Italy with her husband to recover from la strage, or "the massacre." There, in this sun-drenched paradise where bumblebees nest in the ancient cemetery and stray cats curl up on her bed, she examines what we all must confront one day, mortality: how to cope with our lost intimates and how to reckon with our own inevitable demise, yet she goes on, eating fresh fish from sea, drinking espresso, nursing both her memories and her dreams of happiness to come. Linking the essays is Cooley's escalating understanding of another, more painful death on the way—that of her ailing mother back in the States. Blind since Cooley's childhood, her mother's dry wit and refusal to be pitied leave them both stranded without a language to talk about her impending passing. 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 hilltown into a fierce examination of life, death, grief, and—ultimately—release.


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Having lost eight friends in ten years, Cooley retreats to a tiny medieval village in Italy with her husband to recover from la strage, or "the massacre." There, in this sun-drenched paradise where bumblebees nest in the ancient cemetery and stray cats curl up on her bed, she examines what we all must confront one day, mortality: how to cope with our lost intimates and how Having lost eight friends in ten years, Cooley retreats to a tiny medieval village in Italy with her husband to recover from la strage, or "the massacre." There, in this sun-drenched paradise where bumblebees nest in the ancient cemetery and stray cats curl up on her bed, she examines what we all must confront one day, mortality: how to cope with our lost intimates and how to reckon with our own inevitable demise, yet she goes on, eating fresh fish from sea, drinking espresso, nursing both her memories and her dreams of happiness to come. Linking the essays is Cooley's escalating understanding of another, more painful death on the way—that of her ailing mother back in the States. Blind since Cooley's childhood, her mother's dry wit and refusal to be pitied leave them both stranded without a language to talk about her impending passing. 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 hilltown into a fierce examination of life, death, grief, and—ultimately—release.

30 review for Guesswork: A Memoir in Essays

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ammar

    A lovely collection of essays about the loss that the author experienced after a string of deaths... the death of friends and family over a short period of time and how she and her husband had to move to a medieval town in Italy and live a simple life away from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. I enjoyed this books and enjoyed the various cats that the readers meet in those essays.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sadie Forsythe

    Three stars, but three stars meaning I can't decide how to feel about this book, so I've split the difference and run down the middle. I thought this was a moving set of essays and followed its theme admirably. But I also found it hard to relate to someone who can casually spend a year in Italy, broken up by jaunts back to the US and a quick visit to Switzerland, etc. Not a bad read, but maybe not for everyone. Three stars, but three stars meaning I can't decide how to feel about this book, so I've split the difference and run down the middle. I thought this was a moving set of essays and followed its theme admirably. But I also found it hard to relate to someone who can casually spend a year in Italy, broken up by jaunts back to the US and a quick visit to Switzerland, etc. Not a bad read, but maybe not for everyone.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    This memoir of a year spent in an Italian village grew on me slowly. Once I began to read it steadily rather than reading it intermittently, I fell in love with the writing and the writer. It's a meditation on loss...so many of this writer's friends have died in the past decade. And her parents are living in assisted living outside of Philadelphia. This is the same writer who filled her novel "The Archivist" with loss and poetry, mainly Eliot's poetry, in that case. In this memoir she quotes Dic This memoir of a year spent in an Italian village grew on me slowly. Once I began to read it steadily rather than reading it intermittently, I fell in love with the writing and the writer. It's a meditation on loss...so many of this writer's friends have died in the past decade. And her parents are living in assisted living outside of Philadelphia. This is the same writer who filled her novel "The Archivist" with loss and poetry, mainly Eliot's poetry, in that case. In this memoir she quotes Dickinson, Whitman, Plath, her friend, Jason Shinder. So many passages to save and reread. It's a sad book, but filled with the life of this village, her mother and father, her husband, Antonio, the feral cats, the mountainside. It's a beautiful example of writing "aimlessly," of finding the point as the writing unfolds, as the life is lived.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    Not surprisingly, I liked the parts of this book that described Italy and Italians. Otherwise, I was sometimes amazed that anyone published this supremely self-obsessed account of a year in one woman’s life. She is mostly obsessed with grief over friends and relatives that have died young. But doesn’t really provide enough context for us to emphasize or learn from her experience.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Susan Merrell

    Beautiful, beautiful linked essays about loss, grief, love, and an unexpected life in a medieval Italian village. Feral cats abound.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Clara

    In Guesswork, novelist and translator Martha Cooley speaks of taking a caesura, during which she spends a year in a small village in Italy with her husband, planning to write. The word, as a literary term, is defined as "a break, especially a sense pause, usually near the middle of a verse." For Cooley, the break is more than a sabbatical from her teaching job. It's an opportunity to retreat, recover, and examine her experience of the deaths of eight friends over the past decade, her relationshi In Guesswork, novelist and translator Martha Cooley speaks of taking a caesura, during which she spends a year in a small village in Italy with her husband, planning to write. The word, as a literary term, is defined as "a break, especially a sense pause, usually near the middle of a verse." For Cooley, the break is more than a sabbatical from her teaching job. It's an opportunity to retreat, recover, and examine her experience of the deaths of eight friends over the past decade, her relationship with a mother who is nearing the end of her life, and her own mortality. But while the topic may sound melancholy or grim, Cooley's treatment isn't. She interweaves stories of Italian village life and visits to nearby places with recollections of her friends and explorations of her loving and sometimes prickly connection with her mother. Guesswork is a reflection on topics that touch all of us, and one woman's thoughtful and graceful exploration of her journey towards understanding. It was a journey I enjoyed and appreciated being part of.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Warren Bluhm

    Twenty years ago Martha Cooley wrote a brilliant, critically acclaimed first novel, and the ensuing years have brought just one more novel and a body of shorter works and translations. Having contributed something fine and eternal to literature, in the background of this lovely memoir she seems to fret over why she has not offered more, acknowledging a stab of regret more than once when her mother asks how the new novel is coming. But now, going at the problem sideways, Cooley has delivered somet Twenty years ago Martha Cooley wrote a brilliant, critically acclaimed first novel, and the ensuing years have brought just one more novel and a body of shorter works and translations. Having contributed something fine and eternal to literature, in the background of this lovely memoir she seems to fret over why she has not offered more, acknowledging a stab of regret more than once when her mother asks how the new novel is coming. But now, going at the problem sideways, Cooley has delivered something else fine and eternal, a lyrical collection of essays about life and death and coping with all the loss, this guesswork about our lives and our purpose and our mission while, all along, we live the lives that we live. It’s not another novel this time, not yet. It’s much, much more.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Dr. Sherry Markel

    A generous slice of life Beautiful sentences weaving thoughts into an impressionist painting, a gestalt of life... this was not a mystery, not a thriller but equally impossible to put down and the book was over before I was ready to let go. Each death is a loss and for a daughter that loss of a mother is writ large in the heart. This author was not ready to let go any more than the rest of us. All of this against the lush foil of her sabbatical in Italy as she elaborates on the delights of each A generous slice of life Beautiful sentences weaving thoughts into an impressionist painting, a gestalt of life... this was not a mystery, not a thriller but equally impossible to put down and the book was over before I was ready to let go. Each death is a loss and for a daughter that loss of a mother is writ large in the heart. This author was not ready to let go any more than the rest of us. All of this against the lush foil of her sabbatical in Italy as she elaborates on the delights of each of her senses. This book is a rich adagio with beauty and drama and love. My loss is that the book is done. There are so many word painted images that linger. Wonderful book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    This is a beautifully written collection of essays reflecting on life and death. It is memoir in that the author ruminates on her grief for friends, many lost too young, and her parents' declining health. She seems to appreciate my favorite things in life - friends, books, cats, and Italy - so maybe I liked reading it more than other people would. But her reflections aren't morbid at all. I'll think about what she has said about living and loving well. This is a beautifully written collection of essays reflecting on life and death. It is memoir in that the author ruminates on her grief for friends, many lost too young, and her parents' declining health. She seems to appreciate my favorite things in life - friends, books, cats, and Italy - so maybe I liked reading it more than other people would. But her reflections aren't morbid at all. I'll think about what she has said about living and loving well.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Christine Blythe

    Won on a Giveaway!.....interesting read, and poetically written....about Life, Death....

  11. 4 out of 5

    Andretta Schellinger

    This book was hard for me to get through. The reason is that it is very introspective and deals with how someone, really anyone deals with death. Not just your own death, impending or not, but the death of those around you. The author uses the animals that she sees and the surroundings of her time in Italy as jumping off points for specific things that she needs to understand or get through. The death of her best friend, of her husband's wife, etc are all dark clouds that she has sitting over he This book was hard for me to get through. The reason is that it is very introspective and deals with how someone, really anyone deals with death. Not just your own death, impending or not, but the death of those around you. The author uses the animals that she sees and the surroundings of her time in Italy as jumping off points for specific things that she needs to understand or get through. The death of her best friend, of her husband's wife, etc are all dark clouds that she has sitting over her and it takes seeing something or witnessing an event to help break up the clouds. The writing is beautiful, and very strong and vivid. Here is the thing, I read to escape, to escape reality, to live another life. This book made me live the deaths that I have had in my life. My Great Grandmother who I wasn't around to attend her funeral, friends and classmates that have died overseas or by their own hand, even individuals that die in my community that affect my friends. The older I get it seems that at times when I search for someone on Facebook, I see a memorial page, and that creates a cloud. "what happened?" "When?" and most importantly, "why?" Why take the young mother? Why take the marine who has a baby girl at home? Why do certain people die? I received this book free through the Goodreads giveaway in exchange for a review.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sera

    I wish there was a rating between 2 and 3 stars. There are books I have rated 3 stars that I loved way more than this one. Yet I feel like this book doesn't quite deserve as poor of a rating as 2 stars. Heres the thing, Cooley's writing is beautiful. But this book was the epitome of boring. I never wanted to pick it up. On break at work I would sit there and be bored before opening it and reading it. She was just reflecting on her own life's mundane events, and its not like I was able to take aw I wish there was a rating between 2 and 3 stars. There are books I have rated 3 stars that I loved way more than this one. Yet I feel like this book doesn't quite deserve as poor of a rating as 2 stars. Heres the thing, Cooley's writing is beautiful. But this book was the epitome of boring. I never wanted to pick it up. On break at work I would sit there and be bored before opening it and reading it. She was just reflecting on her own life's mundane events, and its not like I was able to take away any valuable insight from it. I never felt any emotion, I was just... so extremely bored. I simply did not care about what she was saying.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Gail Jackson

    A reverie and reflection on love, loss and the changes we all experience as we travel through life. Much food for thought and reflection.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Dianne

  15. 5 out of 5

    Joan Heiman

  16. 4 out of 5

    Clarissa

  17. 4 out of 5

    Gene Armentrout

  18. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Jarrell

  19. 4 out of 5

    David Miller

  20. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

  21. 5 out of 5

    Martha

  22. 4 out of 5

    AJ Waters

  23. 4 out of 5

    Joyce Nancy

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kayla

  25. 4 out of 5

    Paula Matuskey

  26. 5 out of 5

    Camille

  27. 5 out of 5

    Donna Barney

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lise

  29. 5 out of 5

    Brandon Floyd

    The lineage of grief and mourning toward observation has never been as clear to me as it became while I read this book. Cooley talks explicitly about death and dying, and loss as it especially relates to loved ones, but a majority of this collection is more concerned with what's present. Observation is consumption, and these essays are as much about taking in atmosphere and place as they are about memory. When what we've known goes missing, instinct leads us toward gather. All of that is awesome The lineage of grief and mourning toward observation has never been as clear to me as it became while I read this book. Cooley talks explicitly about death and dying, and loss as it especially relates to loved ones, but a majority of this collection is more concerned with what's present. Observation is consumption, and these essays are as much about taking in atmosphere and place as they are about memory. When what we've known goes missing, instinct leads us toward gather. All of that is awesome and this collection certainly has a bit of spark, but I wasn't as engaged by Cooley's prose as I would have liked. The essays feel more like vignettes, and though there's solid grounding throughout each piece, they never really gain lift. The last few pages were a bit of struggle to finish -not because the work wasn't as consistent as it had been throughout, but that there just isn't enough niche insight or opinion to keep it all from circling tedium.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Hill

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