Desiderata: Summer’s End Edition

Desiderata (things desired): An monthly occasional review of books recently read.

My sweetheart and I have a running disagreement regarding autumn’s arrival: he’s holding to the Autumn Equinox, which falls on September 22 this year;  I claim September 1, meteorological first day of fall. I know it when I feel it, in the certain cast of light, the dewy mornings, the urge to nest. We stacked cords of wood this weekend, long-burning madrone and alder, some snap-crackling cedar and fir.

Usually, I mourn the end of summer—they are enviably beautiful, warm, and bright in this land of no humidity or high temps—but this year I am craving the peace that comes with long nights of rain and cool, shadowy days.

My summer reading—since my last book review post on July 8—has been outstanding but darn intense.  Luck of the draw: my library holds list came in heavy on historical non-fiction, social justice and investigative reporting and dark, dense novels. I’m ready for lighter fare! But what’s below is the best of the bunch of these past couple of months. Let me know if you cross paths with any of these books, and what you think.

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Inspired by the real-life friendship between a Palestinian, Bassam Aramin, and an Israeli, Rami Elhanan, Apeirogon is a shimmering study of love and war. Each man lost a beloved daughter in the conflict that has torn apart this region since 1948. Smadar Elhanan was thirteen in 1997 when a suicide bomber carried out his mission as the teenager was out shopping with friends; ten years later, Abir Aramin was shot in the back of the head by a teenaged member of the Israeli army. Abir was ten years old. The fathers meet in a bereavement group that seeks peace through unity of opposing sides. Bassam, who had spent seven years in an Israeli prison, goes on to achieve a Masters degree in Holocaust Studies; Rami sets aside his apathy and comfortable life to become a leading Jewish voice advocating for the end of Israeli Occupation of the West Bank.

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

Written in reverent, hushed tones that echo like voices in an empty cathedral, The Bear is a tale of the last two humans on earth.

An unexplained catastrophe has ended the dominion of human, and the earth has reverted to the quiet brutality of weather and seasons and creatures. A father and daughter grow older in their stronghold beneath The Bear, the eponymous mountain of the title, the man teaching the girl survival skills and an appreciation of the poetry of Wendell Berry from the few books that remain in their cabin. The father and daughter leave their home one summer just as the girl enters adolescence, making for the sea where they can harvest salt. Disaster strikes and the girl must carry on alone.

What begins as a dystopian fairy tale carries on as magical realism, in a world where bears talk and mountain lions wrestle with moral dilemmas. The novella takes on a dream-like quality as the girl drifts from desperation and depression into quiet resolution. She derives comfort and wisdom from her carnivore companions, making her way home to bury her father beside her mother, growing old in the shadow of The Bear.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

“We move through this world so lightly,” remarks a character in The Glass Hotel after she and her husband lose their life savings in a Ponzi scheme and are forced to take to the road, working seasonal jobs and living in an RV.

This novel is about that lightness, that unbearable lightness of being, how we are barely, if ever, rooted in place. We revolve around the suns of chance, choice and circumstance and a shift of any, at any given moment, alters our worlds like that proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wings. To write much more about the goings-on of this rich and rewarding narrative would be to spoil its plot, but be prepared to take a deep dive into the shady world of late 2000’s financial shenanigans, inspired by the most infamous Ponzi schemer of them all: Bernie Madoff; you will become acquainted with maximum security prison, the shipping industry, life as a line cook on a freighter, and what it’s like to have so much money at your disposal, you are bored. The Glass Hotel is a breathtaking adventure, thoughtful and immersive with gorgeously rendered prose and landscapes.

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

My head and heart are so full. I wouldn’t know where to begin writing a review. This is an extraordinary, necessary, vital book that is not just the history of racist ideas in America, it is the history of America. I read a library copy, but have since ordered my own. The references alone are gold, but Kendi’s comprehensive, thoughtful, lucid narration of American history is breathtaking. Be prepared to be enraged and enraptured. Please read this.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

This outstanding biography of the most amazing Virginia Hall is more riveting than any well-crafted fictional thriller. Because history is written by men for their own glorification, Virginia’s story was largely buried in the annals of military legend and lore. Her extraordinary life and what she accomplished in France during World War II is pieced together in meticulous detail by Sonia Purnell, who balances cold fact with brilliant storytelling, bringing Virginia to three-dimensional, vibrant life.

Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls by Jessica McDiarmid

The Highway of Tears is a 735 kilometer stretch of lonely road between the coastal town of Prince Rupert and Prince George, in British Columbia’s sparsely populated northeast, where countless numbers of women and girls have been found murdered or have simply vanished. The overwhelming majority of these victims is Indigenous.

Investigative journalist Jessica McDiarmid lays out the evidence to implicate Canadian settler history and contemporary Canadian political, legal and cultural structures in the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women. Interspersing the stories of several of these young women and their families with the many, failed attempts over the years to investigate the disappearances and deaths — some half-hearted to the point of not even mattering, to serious, concerted multi-jurisdictional efforts — McDiarmid humanizes the statistics and makes the crisis immediate and infuriating.

Subduction by Kristen Millares Young

Subduction by Kristen Millares Young

Claudia’s husband has just left her for her younger, lusher, more exuberant sister. This profound betrayal sitting heavily on her thin shoulders, Claudia bolts from suburban Seattle to the edge of the contiguous United States: Neah Bay, on the Pacific Ocean side of the Olympic Peninsula, and the Makah tribal lands where she has been conducting anthropological research.

Peter, a native son, left the Makah reservation over twenty years earlier and travelled the world as an underwater welder. One recent day, while welding a bridge support, Peter — hungover, deeply depressed — shits the inside of his wetsuit when he is frightened by a giant wolf eel rising from the murky depths of the Puget Sound. He thinks the sea monster is the ghost of his father, who bled to death on the kitchen floor, his murder never solved. Peter abandons his job and returns to Neah Bay, where his now-elderly mother wanders the highway, in search of the memories she is losing to dementia.

These two troubled, searching souls collide like tectonic plates, all friction and desire, anger and appetite, upsetting the fragile balance of this community struggling to hold onto its stories and traditions that have been exploited, appropriated, and misunderstood.

The Spider Season

The first one was waiting in the kitchen, pre-dawn. The cats ran down the hall ahead of me, their wriggly, wiry little bodies ever-joyful to start a new day. Little Kitty and Petey dropped to their bellies and began batting the thing back and forth, like some feline version of air hockey. Without my glasses, the creature was a blur, but I managed to scoop her up in an empty Bonne Maman jam jar and escort her to the safety of a patio lavender plant.

I’m afraid I wasn’t as benevolent a few days later when I came upon another lounging in relative ease behind a sofa throw pillow. The vacuum hose was already in hand, the motor drowning out the “Fuck Me” I let loose in startled horror. I emptied the canister, full of cat hair and sand, into the compost. I’m sure she’s fine.

And then the next day, I turned around in the shower to wait out the requisite one minute of conditioner soak-in and encountered one the size of a small island nation nestled in a fold of the shower curtain. Cue Psycho‘s mad violins. I couldn’t be bothered to rinse or even turn off the faucet. I stepped dripping into the hallway, saying in my most calm, stern, General-at-Battle voice, “Andrew. I need you to come here immediately.” I disavow all knowledge of what happened next. Really, I’m trying to put the entire horror show behind me.

Yes. It’s Spider Season. You may have noticed how the light has changed in recent days, deepening into its late summer denim blue and burnished gold. Summer delivered her hottest days over the weekend, but early mornings hold a freshness that has me reaching for my favorite, stretched-out-beyond-hope cardi-hoodie.

Another season is passing into the next. When I look back at my journal of two seasons ago, mid-March, I read with wistful melancholy my assumption that by late June, summer, this would be behind us. This is now nearly nine months old, if I count back to that January day when I was asked at the clinic’s reception if I’d traveled to China in the past two weeks.

 

I’m taking a precious few days off, the first day job PTO in over a year.

I’m not going anywhere. Oh, believe me. I’d love to. I haven’t been more than 50 miles from home since last fall. I dream of road trips, of numbing flights. I dream of Ireland, Iceland, Iberia. But now is not the time, not for me. I will remain close, tend to my garden. To my sweetheart.

Last June I rented an AirBnB and hid away, alone, to accrue some serious word mileage on my novel. I thought by the same time next year, I’d have a polished draft in to my agent.

Just like I thought all of this would be behind us by now.

Didn’t happen.

But I do have a novel in revision. And days of peace to do the work.

Why yes. That is a glass of rosé in a jam jar, on my desk.

Yesterday, after three 10-hour butt-in-chair days, I finished Draft 4, Revision 3 of The Deep Coil (as a point of reference, by the time my novels reach the bookstore shelf, they’ve been through upwards of 30 revisions. Not sure why I think any of this is anything other than complete madness.)

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I’m not much of an outliner or plotter — completely counter to my Virgo tendencies in most other aspects of life. I write from character and trust the plot will catch up. This current revision was to bring those two elements into alignment, a structural revision to weave the heart (the internal journey, my protagonist’s arc) and the head (the external conflicts, aka, the plot) together into the web of story.

Art is fire plus algebra – Jorge Luis Borges

Although I’m a pantser, I’m a big believer that we’re hard-wired for story, that, as Lisa Cron states in her fantastic 2012 book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence: “there is an implicit framework that must underlie a story in order for that passion, that fire, to ignite the reader’s brain. Stories without it go unread, stories with it are capable of knocking the socks off someone who’s barefoot.”

In the revision just completed, I searched for that implicit framework, the inevitability of my protagonist’s actions and reactions based on who she is, how her past has shaped her belief systems, and what she believes she wants at the point we meet her, and how that, and she, change through the course of the story.

Even though the revision revealed structural weaknesses, ankle-snapping plot holes, and myriad scenes to be written, the story’s foundation is there, solid and sound and ready to be built upon.

I woke to the sound of rain this morning, blessed, cool, healing rain. On this autumnal teaser of a day I set aside triumph at the completion of another revision and turn to Page One, Chapter One, to begin Draft 5, Revision 4.

Weave On, Writers. Attention aux Araignées.

Desiderata: the COVID Edition

Desiderata (things desired): An monthly occasional review of books recently read

On March 12, I collected a short stack of books — four novels and a memoir — from my holds queue at the library. The next morning, Friday the 13th, I heard the announcement: the library was shutting its doors due the pandemic. I felt my first real shiver of fear. The libraries are closing . . . all is lost.

Verdict still out on the all is lost possibility, but 104 days after that sinking feeling, I pulled into the parking lot of the library and a begloved, bemasked and beaming — I could see it in her eyes — librarian delivered another, much taller, stack of books to the backseat of my car. The library is still closed to browsing, but in late June, after checking in 26,000 volumes that had been out during the months that even returns weren’t accepted, it began offering curbside delivery. Those of us who cannot abide e-readers wept literal, literary tears.

A special shout-out of love and gratitude to librarians, here and everywhere. You do angels’ work. Thank you.

That stack of five lasted longer than I would have anticipated. By late March, I found it hard to focus on anything (the move had a lot to do with that) and early April pandemic anxiety snatched my attention span. But I eventually prised it back and settled down. Once I’d depleted the library books, I got by with a little help from my friends, who loaned out some treasures. I turned to my own shelves, reading a handful I’d just never made time for, and re-reading a few favorites that brought comfort (Jane Austen, JK Rowling) and a gasp of (re)discovery (Colm Tóibín, Kate Atkinson, poetry from Sam Green and Sharon Olds). All told, I read twenty books during the pandemic closure of the library.

Here are the best of the bunch, presented as snippets of my longer reviews:

Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Long Bright River is stunning. Billed as a thriller, it transcends genres. The author’s keen empathy for and understanding of her characters and their Philadelphia neighborhood elevate this novel to a multidimensional and heartbreaking examination of a national epidemic and an intimate portrait of a family in crisis. It’s a rich, dark, deep drama, intense with secrets and emotional traumas, atmospheric in setting, crushingly apt in storyline, and damn if I haven’t just found a new author to love.

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín
The Blackwater Lightship was my introduction to the work of Colm Tóibín, nearly twenty years ago. I’ve held onto this book since first reading it in 2002, through moves local and trans-Pacific when hundreds of other books were given away, knowing it was too special to me as a reader, and eventually a writer, to let go. After all these years, I was left with only vague memories of awe and sadness, poignancy and softness.

What a book to read now. How prophetic, sublime, and sad. Set in the early 1990’s, The Blackwater Lightship takes place over a few days at a remote seaside home outside Wexford, Ireland. Helen Breen, her estranged mother, Lily, and her grandmother set aside their hurts and complications to welcome Helen’s beloved brother, Declan, who is dying of AIDS. It is timeless in its examination of families, how they can hurt and heal, of an Ireland that exists today no matter how modern and fast it soared. Tóibín writes with such grace and tenderness. His quiets are all the more powerful and resonant for what he leaves out, and trusts the reader to intuit on her own.

An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame

An Angel at My Table: The Complete Autobiography by Janet Frame

Oh, this was glorious. Raw, vulnerable, sweet, tender. The simple facts of a sad and wonderful life presented in the most humble and matter-of-fact manner that is both heartbreaking and endearing. Janet Frame, born in rural New Zealand just before the Great Depression, was raised in a family that barely held poverty at bay; a working class Dad and a worked-to-bone Mum who wrote poetry in the spare seconds of her day. There were times of great joy and times of unimaginable grief. Janet, an unattractive kid with a bristle of red hair and a mouth full of rotten teeth, shy and preternaturally smart, made it through college and was in training to become a teacher when she attempted suicide. She was sent to a mental hospital, diagnosed as schizophrenic, and received – in eight years of incarceration – over 200 electroshock treatments.

An Angel at My Table, originally published as three separate volumes, travels through Janet’s childhood, young adulthood, and blossoming as a writer. I wrapped my arms around this book and cried when it ended. It will remain one of the defining points of my pandemic experience, that strange and beautiful time I read Janet Frame’s autobiography and felt closer to myself, and the world, as a result.

Mink River by Brian  Doyle

Mink River by Brian Doyle

Mink River shimmers in the moonlight glow of lore and possibility, in a place that seems to be on the very edge of the world, of reality, even, sometimes, of hope. Doyle presents a hardscrabble logging and fishing village slumping off Oregon’s Coastal Range into the Pacific Ocean. It is a wet and whispery place, settled thousands of years ago by indigenous tribes who knew Paradise when it filled their bellies and souls. Now, remnants of those tribes still live in the fictional town of Neawanaka, carving stories into wood, into their children, into the forests and creatures which stand watch over its myriad inhabitants.

There. I’ll be back on the regular with more reviews. Several treasures to share from those I received a couple of weeks ago. At the moment, I’m reading The End of October by Lawrence Wright. Published in April of this year, it “imagines a global pandemic in which an unfamiliar virus works its way around the world, leaving economic meltdown, conspiracy theories, and mass death in its wake.” from Sophie Gilbert’s review in The Atlantic, May 13, 2020. It’s a clunky but addictive medical thriller that is creepily prescient. Wright is a staff writer at The New Yorker and better known for his creative non-fiction books. The facts about viruses and past pandemics he presents in rambling expository dialogue are oddly comforting at a time when facts are so hard to come by. We will get through this thing. I hope.

 

The Only Time We Have*

I’ve written a dozen blog posts in my mind since March. I’ve even started a few of them here, half-paragraphs, lists, an attempt to chronicle and catalogue this strange, and strangely beautiful, time.

Nothing stuck. I couldn’t hold onto a theme long enough to see it through before something else snapped my attention away. Fatigue, busyness, depression, procrastination, even just sitting in silence, letting the now wash over me in wonder and despair, have all occupied the spaces where words might have gone.

Suddenly, mid-June. Nearly three months ago Andrew and I moved into our home, the yard a patchwork of bedraggled weeds and barren sand, the side lot a bramble of blackberry and massive Doug fir stumps, left after a previous owner hacked down the regal beauties to sell for firewood.

A cool, wet, late spring = jungle greens, and so many flowers nigh on bursting open with color

We are nested in, now surrounded by lush greens and expanding bursts of color. Fiery orange nasturtium, indomitable yellow calendula, feverfew daisies, so white and small, petunia’s deep magentas and purples, the English garden romance of lavatera and penstemon pinks and burgundies — and these are just the early bloomers after a cool May and a soaking start to June. In a few week’s time, we will be tasked with a daily vegetable harvest. The field of vicious blackberry that covered our side lot has been plowed under, the stumps pushed to the side thanks to a one-day Bobcat rental. In their place are mounds of amended soil covered in 2-foot high clover and buckwheat to welcome back the bees and butterflies, a pile of biochar that smoldered for two weeks, and a pétanque court. Yes. We have our own pétanque court.

Inside we have feathered another sort of nest that is both full of light and cozy, with nooks to escape with a book, a guitar, a laptop, a yoga mat, a purring cat and a cup of tea. Speaking of cats, we added a third to our wee family: Agatha, lately of the streets of Cabo, Mexico. She made the trek north in a caravan with her rambunctious litter of six, just a week after hernia surgery. Her kittens have found other homes; we took Mama, who at 18 months is barely more than a kitten herself. She’s attached to me, and the affection goes a long way toward filling the hole that Camille’s death left two years ago.

Miss Agatha, at rest

Our move, the day before the Governor’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy orders went into effect late March, could not have come at a better moment. Andrew was able to pour all his anxiety and empty hours — after his March and April painting jobs cancelled — into creating our beautiful, and imminently sustaining, gardens; I have found solace and comfort in a sweet space full of love and joyful energy. Coming home is a becoming.

I hold these gifts in gratitude and reverence. This space that is nestled in green, looked over by the cedar and maple and Doug fir that tower just over the backyard fence, whispering their ancient magic. For there has also been so much anxiety and anger. Nights when I begin to weep as soon as I lay my head on a pillow. For no reason, other than for the whole world. For the fear, the masks, the violence, the knee-jerks and real jerks, the distancing, the confusion, all the voices silenced, whether for four hundred years or since yesterday; those who will never recover from the pandemic lockdown, and the generations of BIPOC men and women locked in systemic injustice.

A Room of Her Own: my writing studio, and lately, my office away from the office

I write in fits and starts. I taught a weekly writing workshop via ZOOM for five Thursdays in April, and was smart enough to include myself in the participant roster. We wrote 300-max-word stories each week. I submitted one of my stories for publication, another I am working into a larger narrative for submission to an anthology of women writing about climate change. The Deep Coil is still with me: I edit a few pages a week. I crave time away, just a week, to do the deep dive it needs, but that is at least two months off. It is not the time to take a vacation, even though I am desperate for a break. I am one of the fortunate who is still clocking in and I am in the thick of writing my first federal grant proposal. Until I hit “Submit” in mid-August, I am chained to 9-5, or whatever it is these days with the blurred boundaries of working from home, Zooming with colleagues, workingworkingworking, all of us, for fear that if we stop, we will lose everything.

I miss my friends. I miss my family, though half of us aren’t speaking anymore because right left, backwards sideways. I no longer really know why. I deactivated my Facebook account in fury over my community’s obsessive fears of tourists invading our sheltered space, bringing their disease with them, when it seemed that more important issues were at hand, i.e. one in four Washingtonians now going hungry, a man lynched, his murder finally coming to light. Hours after I resigned from Facebook in disgust, George Floyd became another Black man whose life was ended by law enforcement.

After days and days of rain, suddenly the sun. Little Kitty- we can’t seem to remember to call her Agatha – is clapping her paws at bees in the lavender, the others are sun-drunk on the back patio. It feels good to be here with you. How are you? Share your world with me. Let’s be fully present in this, The Only Time We Have.

*Inspiration from poet Samuel Green, whose collection The Grace of Necessity I reread during this time of shelter-at-home

Desiderata: The Best Reads of February

Desiderata (things desired): A monthly review of books recently read

My reading life took a hit in February. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I have teetered between the joy of buying a house and the anxiety of strange and still-unexplained health issues. My attention span is in tatters. And now we are all facing massive anxiety. The world seems have turned upside-down. I believe we will get to the other side of this worst hard time, but right now, in the face of school and restaurant closures, of store shortages and hospital overloads, it feels dire. Let’s all breathe and move more gently in the coming weeks. May you find comfort and refuge with family, loved ones, nesting in your home. Go for a long walk in this hemisphere awakening to spring. Cook some soul and body  nourishing food. And allow a good book take you away for just a little while.

Here are few suggestions from my February reads:

The worst hard time had befallen South Carolina long before the Depression sank the rest of the nation. In the years following a boll weevil infestation which decimated the cotton industry, the town of Branchville is barely hanging on, even as its secrets rise like the eyes of an alligator surfacing from the depths of a murky swamp.

Deb Spera paints a vivid picture of the rural South in the early 1920’s – the bleak existence, Jim Crow segregation and racism, the plight of women controlled by amoral men. Call Your Daughter Home alternates its first-person perspective between Gert, a young mother of four daughters who frees herself from the tyranny of an abusive husband but is still prisoner to grinding poverty; Retta, a Black housekeeper who mourns the death of a beloved only child; and Annie, the wife of a plantation owner and mother to four children, two of whom are estranged- her daughters- for a crime that she did not commit, but for which the girls still hold her responsible.

The novel is both a mesmerizing work of historical fiction, deeply rooted in time and place, and of literary suspense. Tension and dread flow thick and dark through the story as the reader wonders if Gert will be called to reckoning for her crime and if Annie will seek justice for the wrongs committed to her, and others’, children. Gothic melodrama overlays much of the book’s final third, as acts of God, epidemics, and shocking revelations merge into a breathless denouement, but the strength of the characters and their intertwined relationships hold the reader’s emotional attention.

A Pilgrimage to Eternity by Timothy Egan

To know me is to know that I am fascinated by the history of Europe in the Middle Ages, I love long-distance walking, I have written a novel about the Catholic Church’s crusade to rid France of the Cathars, and my bucket list is full of pilgrimages, even though I’m not, nor will ever be, Catholic.

So I couldn’t wait to curl up with Timothy Egan’s A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith, not only because of its setting and subject matter, but the author himself. A personal hero, one my Pacific Northwest compatriots, whose narrative nonfiction ranks among my favorites.

The author takes on the 1,200 mile Via Francigena, a medieval route between Canterbury and Rome, to contemplate the Catholic faith, search for meaning in its history, and come to terms with his own ambivalence. Egan was raised in a large Irish Catholic family in Spokane, home to the Jesuit university, Gonzaga. His mother was a vibrant, selfless, would-be artist who traded her own ambitions to raise a family and be a wife-mother to a taciturn salesman. He is a self-professed skeptic and abandoned his faith in the face of the Catholic church’s and God’s many failings, “You can see why people shun a supposedly benevolent creator who presided over the slaughter of the Wars of Religion, the African slave trade, the butchery of the Great War, Stalin’s mass executions, genocide in Germany and Uganda and Cambodia.” But Egan is hoping to reconnect with some manner of spirituality. His sister-in-law is dying of cancer, and he’s getting to the age when one’s mortality begs the question of an afterlife.

A Pilgrimage to Eternity is a humane, funny, gentle and engaging travelogue, a glimpse into the fraught and fascinating history of Catholicism and Christianity which is in many ways the history of Western Europe. Egan pulls no punches when detailing the broken promises and travesties of the Church, either historical or contemporary, including a harrowing episode of a predatory priest in Spokane, but he remains unabashedly admiring of Pope Francis and eagerly hopes for an audience with the pontiff at the end of his journey, using his connections as a journalist to reach out to the Vatican.

It’s not clear what inner demons he calmed during his long walk to the seat of the Catholic Church; this books is less about Egan’s spiritual journey than his physical and cultural one. It made me long to lace up my boots and strap on my pack, recalling the mind-emptying meditative bliss of my own long foot journeys through Ireland, and the peace I found in walking. I now add the Via Francigena to the long list of pilgrimages throughout Europe I will take in the years to come. Glad to learn the trick about taping heels (and toes- oh, that was so painful to read!).

A lovely travel narrative by one of my favorite non-fiction writers and journalists.

Inland by Téa Obreht

Inland by Téa Obreht 

I feel sorry for the next book I pick up. When I love a read as much as Inland, the subsequent story or two usually pales unfairly in the afterglow.

This is a work of historical fiction, a panoramic western in the great tradition of Cather, McCarthy and Portis, but author Téa Obreht is too skilled a writer to be confined by expectations and conventions of genre. She writes with such urgency and empathy, with wonder for her story and compassion for her characters, that this reader was simply swept away in the moment, carried on the current of a brilliant narrative through a parched land where drops of water are as precious as flakes of gold. I think of recent historical fiction by the outstanding William Kent Kruger and Mary Doria Russell, and those novels now seem plodding and clunky compared to the ethereal grace of Obrecht’s Inland.

Two stories unfold, one expanding over four decades, the other in a span of hours, until they come together in the novel’s final, gutting pages that left me sobbing the smallest hours of the morning. Lurie, an immigrant and wanted man, hustles west from an Eastern seaport where he landed from Bosnia as a boy. He attaches himself to bands of itinerants and outlaws, trying to outrun his own WANTED poster. He finds himself astride a camel, imported as pack animals by the Army which supposed the beasts well suited to the desert west of the Arizona Territory. His compatriots hail from Greece, Turkey, and the ancient cultures of the Levant, places we don’t typically associate with the settlement of the American West. Lurie spins out his long tale to his beloved companion, the stalwart camel, Burke.

Her throat aching with thirst, Nora Lark homesteads with her husband, Emmett, and three sons in “a little mining district between Phoenix and Flagstaff.” Emmett is three days late returning with their water supply and the morning after a heated argument with Nora, the two older Lark sons disappear in search of their father. Nora is left on the forlorn property with fragile seven-year-old Toby, stroke-addled Grandma, and her husband’s scatterbrained young cousin, Josie, who claims to commune with the spirit world. Nora maintains a heartrending patter with her daughter, Evelyn, who died of heatstroke as an infant, but in conversation is a sophisticated and articulate foil to the cruel, unforgiving land that her family survives in. Nora carries a slow-burning torch for Sheriff Harlan Bell, with whom she has a shadowy unrequited love that is full of longing and empathy. Their few scenes together are full of aching desire, their loneliness epitomizing the beautiful, terrible landscape that shifts between silence and violence in a heartbeat.

Obreht creates a breathless tension as Lurie’s and Nora’s stories track toward collision. The desiccated land is haunted with ghosts, menaced by drought and starvation, riders appearing on the horizon are unknown as friend or foe until they reach shotgun distance. And yet the cast of characters retains an enchanting humanity with Nora, tough, broken, resolute and loving, the greatest among them.

It’s been eight years since Téa Obreht’s celebrated debut The Tiger’s Wife, which I lauded for its beautiful prose, but lamented the lack of connection to character and the overwrought fabulism. Inland is the work of an author deeply in touch with her rich cast, allowing them agency in this exquisitely rendered story. I didn’t expect to love Inland as much as I did, given the low rating here. I’m so very glad I ignored the naysayers to discover this unusual, luminous novel.

Also, I love camels.

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Shattering and vital.

“Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken, And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible— is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again, so that they come back, always to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

In the spring of 2015, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli, while her own immigration status was under review, began working as a Spanish-language interpreter for the New York immigration court. Her task was to conduct a forty question interview of children who had arrived in the United States illegally, crossing the US-Mexico border. Nearly all of these children had fled their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico to escape crime, poverty, abuse, making the perilous crossing with paid coyotes, risking rape, enslavement, and the desert elements. Once in the United States, they are at the mercy of ICE and the civil court system.

This slim books recounts the ways in which children responded to the questions posed by Luiselli during the court intake interview and the contemporary history of the immigration crisis in America, which has become a veritable shitstorm under the Trump Administration, aided and abetted by all previous administrations, and of course, the United States’s decades-long meddling in every aspect of Central America’s affairs, leaving a bloody and intractable mess in their wake.

This book came to my attention in the long list of What to Read Instead of American Dirt, and as a study guide/precursor to Luiselli’s recent novel Lost Children Archive which Forty Questions inspired. Please read.

Category Seventeen: (Not Writer’s Block)

The Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Poets & Writers contains an excellent essay by playwright and poet Sarah Ruhl on many of the reasons why writers aren’t writing when they could or should be. In Writer’s Block: Variations on a Superstition, Ruhl describes sixteen categories of writer’s avoidance. Instances from the basic general sloth and distracted by the modern world to the searing abandoning a piece of writing that is not meant to be written. I saw myself in nearly every one of Ruhl’s categories, taking comfort in the universality of my reasons excuses.

After finishing the first complete draft in THE DEEP COIL just before Thanksgiving, I’d intended to let it sit for a few weeks before digging into revisions. I almost couldn’t wait. In early December I had two brainpicking sessions that made my fingers twitch with excitement to return to the page. Over beers at the Pourhouse, I talked big league crime in small town America with a writing buddy and a former county sheriff. Then came a long phone conversation with a former Seattle homicide detective. This retired detective volunteers to solve local cold cases along with a few other former law enforcement officials who just can’t let the job go. I shared my premise with these good men, and they shared many of their experiences with me, steered me toward some agencies I needed to research, suggested awesome plot points, and generally made me feel my crime story, protagonist, and sub-plots were not only plausible, they were authentic and full of potential. Writer’s Gold.

And then stuff happened.

My sweetie’s back-of-envelope landscaping plans.

Of course, stuff is always happening to distract us from our work. Some writers fear the blank page; others, like me, stand at the bottom of the Mountain of Revision, dreading the Sisyphean task ahead. At the end of my walking away from the canvas — as Sarah Ruhl terms the period when we break from a work that we are too close to — I made an offer on a house. This is a joyful thing, as I was certain that being a single woman in her 50s, broke in that postmodern feminist way of being broke after an amicable divorce, working at an arts non-profit in a community where the median home price is well north of $400k, home ownership was right up there with new car smell: things I would never experience again. Joyful, but terribly distracting, as it suddenly introduced concepts of permanence and commitment to community, job, relationship. It meant stability but also responsibility. 

Just as that process entered the phase where nothing can be done but wait (for the holidays to be over so everyone is available to sign endless documents, for agreed-upon repairs to be completed, for the appraisal, for the lender to put urgency behind the oars as it navigates the shipping lanes of bureaucracy), the pain started. 

January saw me in Urgent Care twice, visits with specialists and twice to my PCP.  Multiple prescriptions and lab tests, an ultrasound, and painful examinations, but very few answers. One of the specialists sat across from me, after mansplaining my reproductive system, and asked, “What is it you want me to do for you?” To which I can reply in all certainty, “Absolutely nothing” as I will not be darkening his door again.

The weeks passed, the pain eased, the fog of worry lifted, and I decided to change THE DEEP COIL from past to present tense. This became my way into revisions, as every single sentence needs to be touched, examined, possibly changed. And yet the humming anxiety remained. I managed only coffee-fueled bursts of editing here and there in the wee hours.

A CT-scan the day before Valentine’s brought only more questions. Wide awake at 3 a.m. questions. I picked out paint colors for my new writing studio. Tried to steer my racing brain from thoughts of “unspecified masses” on my liver and spleen and kidneys to the flower beds I would plant and the pantry I would organize. 

Last Monday, I signed a ream of papers and picked up the key. I walked through the empty bowels of a house, my house, my and my sweet man’s home, feeling the same sense of possibility and impossibility as I do when I open a blank page to begin a new story. 

The next morning I took a deep breath and squeezed my eyes shut as the technician tucked a blanket around me and slid my prone body into tube of an MRI. I inhaled and exhaled when the disembodied voice told me to and tried to compose a symphony from the mechanical beeps and clangs, whirrs and groans. I tried to love my body even as it seemed to be failing me. 

Two days later the test results landed in my in-box with a message from my physician, “Hi Julie, I’m happy to report…”

This morning I am sore and exhausted. My lower back feels like hardened, cracked rubber. My fingers are stiff, my hamstrings ping, even my toes feel used. A weekend of scrubbing, wiping, wringing, bending, stretching, my nose stuffed with odors of fresh paint and Lysol, white vinegar and black coffee. And we haven’t even started packing. 

Yesterday I stood in the empty shell of what will be the Room of My Own, arranging in my mind’s eye my desk, sofa, bookshelves, imagining how the view out the window will change as trees are planted and flowers bloom, and I knew that even as my writing sits in Category Seventeen- (i.e. too much life happening- did I mention the promotion/new job?), it won’t stay there forever. It’s okay to let hope and joy blossom of their own accord, and trust the words will follow. 

If we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention. – Ben Marcus

Desiderata: The Best Reads of January

Desiderata (things desired): A monthly review of books recently read

January brought me a handful of critically-acclaimed and/or commercially successful 2019 books. This is what happens when you wait not just weeks, but months, for hot titles to wend their way through the library queue to land on the holds shelf, your name printed in bold font on a scrap of paper tucked inside.

January’s biggest news in publishing was the controversy surrounding the debut of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. I have not read the book (see: library request list), but I weighed in on the controversy all the same. The notion who has permission to tell which stories, the flinging around of the word censorship, the state of the publishing, and a myriad other issues moved me, as a writer and reader, deeply. My post on Goodreads led to some interesting discussion.

As always, clicking on the book cover will take you to my full Goodreads review…

The Dutch House

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Danny Conroy and his older sister, Maeve, sit in Maeve’s car across the street from their childhood home, watching, waiting, reviving the ghosts of their memories. They catch an occasional glimpse of their stepmother, Andrea, who turned them out of the house soon after their father died, when Danny was in high school and Maeve was in college, but they leave her be. There are deeper wounds than an evil stepmother to contend with, and even though the mansion they spy upon has enormous windows that provide views from front to back, the source of their pain — and their healing — is not visible.

 

Disappearing Earth

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

In Russia’s Far East, the Kamchatka Peninsula knifes between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. It is a 1250km-long blade serrated by volcanic mountains, honed razor-sharp by unrelenting cold, empty tundras, bears, wolves, and a history of violent encounters between Kamchatka’s indigenous people and mainland white Russians eager to plunder its vast natural resources.

Julia Phillips chooses this perilous landscape as the setting for her mesmerizing, fierce debut, Disappearing Earth. The story opens benignly enough, on a warm summer day at the edge of a bay in the territory’s only metropolis, Petropavlovsk. Sisters Alyona and Sophia Golosovskaya, eleven and eight, are left alone to play while their mother writes feel-good propaganda for a post-Soviet state newspaper.

Then a man arrives in an improbably polished black sedan and the little girls are vanished.

What follows is a kaleidoscopic literary thriller that tracks the year following the Golosovskaya sisters’ disappearance, each chapter a shift of perspective of a Kamchatkan woman, reflecting the cultural complexities in this strange and treacherous place.

Girl

Girl by Edna O'Brien

Girl by Edna O’Brien

This is as harrowing and haunting a book I have read since 2009 and Uwem Akpan’s short story collection Say You’re One of Them, set throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Edna O’Brien’s Girl is the nominally fictional horror story of young girls enslaved by Boko Haram, the Islamic terrorist group that still holds sway in northeastern Nigeria.

Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Vivid and heartbreaking, Between Shades of Gray tells the story of a Lithuanian family disappeared into Siberia in 1941, as Stalin demolished the independent states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Although slotted into the YA genre, this is engrossing reading for adults. Ruth Sepetys combines meticulous research with excellent storytelling to bring history’s forgotten episodes to life. Outstanding historical fiction and a must-read for those with a particular interest in WWII. Highly recommended.

This Is Happiness

This Is Happiness by Niall Williams
The perfect antidote for the rush and anxiety of modern life and the superficiality of our connectedness, This Is Happiness reminds us of what it means to live fully, deeply, in the present, to experience our environment on its terms, without distraction. Narrated by Noe (short for Noel) Crowe as an old man looking back nearly sixty year to the summer his grandparent’s village of Faha, in Co. Clare, was hooked up to the electrical grid, This Is Happiness is a sumptuous, sublime and softly rendered tale of love, memory, grief and family.

 

American Dirt

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins 

I wrote this in response to another reader’s statement that the criticism of American Dirt amounts to censorship. I find this notion so appalling that I responded with the following, but realized I didn’t need to bomb her feed with my opinion. I could bomb my own 🙂

Oh, as an author, it makes me so sad to see anyone conflate accountability with censorship. This author received a seven-figure advance, a massive marketing campaign, (bolstered ironically by the controversy); this book will be, is, widely read; it’s currently topping a number of best-selling lists, including The New York Times’s. No publishing runs were cancelled, this book is featured prominently in bookstores across the country. Please, please reconsider your take on “censorship”…. Read more….

Desiderata: The Best Reads of 2019

Desiderata (things desired): A monthly review of books recently read.

As a new year turns over, here’s a look back at what I read in 2019 that stirred my soul.

100 books read in 2019. Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, Essays, not enough poetry. Many in the crime/mystery/thriller category as I continued to study the genre for inspiration for my own work. I hadn’t intended to read so much, prioritizing my limited time to finish the first draft of THE DEEP COIL. Which I did. It seems to naturally follow that the more I write, the more I read, the more room I must make in my life for words.

These are the books that wowed me, that I longed to press into every reader’s hands. Two categories, Fiction and Non-Fiction, no particular order. Clicking on the book will take you to my full review on Goodreads.

FICTION

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Somewhere around page 230 of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine I began to ugly cry. Deep, shattering, heaving, snotty sobs. 5-star weeping. Eleanor Oliphant is definitely not fine. She’s a train wreck from which I couldn’t look away, until it became clear that I was looking at the mirror image of my most dreaded self. Alone Me. Lonely Me.

In a perfect balance between self-effacing humor and tender self-awareness, the author touches the live wire of our greatest and most private vulnerability: loneliness. Eleanor is a heroine of our times- the consummate misfit who makes us cringe —those of us who see our own misfit reflected in her.

I'll Never Play The Hammered Dulcimer by Jan Hanson

I’ll Never Play The Hammered Dulcimer by Jan Hanson

The poems I love, that launch tiny tremors in my belly, close a warm hand around my heart, make my throat ache with unshed tears, my eyes sting with those about to fall, are made up of life’s small moments. A poet who captures the seemingly mundane and makes it shimmer with meaning is one who captures my attention.

At my grandmother’s house in Texas,
I wear an organdy pinafore and eat Sunday ham
and Kentucky Wonders off a pink-flowered plate,
swinging my legs under the ladder-back chair.

From IN TEXAS

Jan Hanson is just such a poet. In her debut collection, she captures the small moments of beauty and disappointment within the breathless steamroll of life — raising children, falling out of love, and stumbling into new passion, the grind of work when the call to create is so strong — with a voice that is as gentle and fierce as a hummingbird.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

On a quiet winter’s solstice night deep in the 1880’s, regulars huddle in the Swan — an inn tucked in the bend of the river Thames, not far from Oxford— swapping tales and sipping pints. The door slams open and into the shadowy room stumbles a man, his face battered, holding the lifeless body of a little girl. He is shown into a room where his wounds are tended by the local nurse, Rita. The little girl, drowned by the river that gives and takes according to its whim, is laid to rest in a cold storeroom until her body is claimed and her soul blessed into the afterlife.

And then a miracle occurs. The child takes a breath. She lives! But who she is and how she cheated death become the mysteries around which this rich, meandering, immersive story are wound.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

In classic hero’s journey structure, Madhuri Vijay creates a deeply intimate story of a woman searching for personal identity in a place caught in political turmoil. As a child, Shalini has only a tacit understanding of the deep rift in the mountainous state of Jammu & Kashmir between the Hindu and Muslim populations. As a young adult, living so far away and so deeply in her own head, she pays little attention to the continued conflict. But once in Kashmir, she becomes embroiled in the turmoil, to catastrophic effect.

This is an astonishing debut. Vijay’s prose is gorgeous and evocative, poetic in its spareness, immersive in detail and content. Her themes and settings are epic and majestic, and yet this is a deeply intimate portrayal of friendship, betrayal, grief and remorse. The characters are rich with complicated histories and behaviors; the reader’s heart is broken open time and again by the people who guide Shalini into a better understanding of herself and the world.

The River by Peter Heller

The River by Peter Heller

First comes the scent of smoke. More than a campfire, it’s persistent, pervasive. It travels with Jack and Wynn as they canoe along the Miskwa river toward Hudson Bay. Jack climbs a tree and is horrified by what he espies across the vast Canadian forest: a massive fire consuming the forest with tsunami-like force, bearing down on them. Paddling tandem, even as skilled and in prime physical condition as they are, they can’t hope to outrun the fire, but they are determined to try.

The River is a brilliant tour-de-force thriller. Heller moves across the stunning landscape, at times brutal with careless treachery, at times heavenly with bounty and gentle ease, with breathless tension.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope meet as rookie cops in New York City and end up as next door neighbors in a small town just north of the city, raising their families and rising in their careers. Lena Gleeson is the perfect suburban mom, giving birth in rapid and delighted succession to three daughters. Anne Stanhope, however, is distant and cold, rebuffing all attempts at friendship and support as she recovers from a stillbirth, and when she becomes pregnant again with her son, Peter.

Told from the viewpoints of several characters over multiple decades, Ask Again, Yes examines mental illness, addiction, childhood trauma, family loyalty, and enduring love with grace and wisdom. Mary Beth Keane brings us into the hearts and minds of her characters and leaves us there, allowing us time to know them deeply, to develop the real ambivalence of empathy and fury, frustration and love.One of the most deeply moving novels I have read in a long time. Immersive, thoughtful, poignant and profound, Ask Again, Yes asks the reader to breathe with its characters, even through the worst of the pain, and not to look away at what we see reflected in their faces, even if it frightens us.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Big Sky (Jackson Brodie #5)by Kate Atkinson

We Jackson Brodie fans have waited what felt like an interminably long spell for our favorite private eye, in all his glib and glum glory, to return to the scene. But author Kate Atkinson has been rather busy in the interim, penning literary gorgeousness into Life After LifeA God in Ruins and Transcription. We’ll forgive her.

Our patience is richly rewarded with Big Sky, the fifth entry in the Jackson Brodie series. Although the novel could stand alone, fans of Jackson Brodie will shiver in recognition at the return of Reggie Chase, and nod heads with comforting familiarity at Julia’s throwaway affections (and affectations) and Jackson’s photographic recall of country and western lyrics.

The plot of Big Sky is a Venn Diagram of stories that contract until they become one, and Jackson is, of course, at the center of it all. “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen” is one of Jackson’s favorite maxims, borrowed from some long ago episode of Law and Order. Kate Atkinson’s astonishing skill is not only to wink and nod at crime fiction tropes, but to render the plot so that coincidence feels utterly inevitable.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

This novel slipped quietly on and off my radar more than two years ago when it debuted. I think I had it on my TBR list and removed it when I couldn’t get a copy from the library and Goodreads feedback proved greatly ambivalent.

A few weeks ago, the 2019 Dublin Literary Award was announced and Emily Ruskovich’s 2017 novel was the winner. This award made me sit up and take notice because the books are nominated for the Award by invited public libraries throughout the world. I love libraries and hold librarians in the highest esteem. The great percentage of short-list titles that are books I have loved makes this an award I pay attention to. So I thought I’d give Idaho another go.

And I’m so very glad I did (and thank you to my local public library for ordering in a copy at my request).

What begins as a literary thriller transforms into a quiet litany of grief, redemption, and the shifting nature of memory. The brutality of the narrative contrasts with the beauty of the language to create a captivating, unforgettable story.

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

Brilliant. Just brilliant. Everything about this novel, from its premise — a fictionalized account of the true plot by the CIA to thwart communism through “cultural diplomacy”— to its the multiplicity of perspectives, including the Greek chorus CIA typing pool, the haunted Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya, imprisoned in a Gulag for her involvement with famed writer Boris Pasternak, the “Mad Men”-esque characters of Cold War Washington D.C., and their fashions, passions, parties — to the women who became spies, their stories all but forgotten by modern readers until Lara Prescott breathed life into their legacies — just sings and sparkles with verve and vibrancy.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

It is the early 1960’s and Jim Crow still holds sway in the South, even as monumental civil rights changes are sweeping across the land. Reform is slow to reach the Florida Panhandle and yet Elwood Curtis, a bright, shy, studious young black man raised by his officious grandmother, is determined to rise and shine, despite the heavy hands of racism holding him down. Even after he is sent away to the Nickel School for Boys for the non-crime of DWB- Driving While Black (in this case, Elwood is a passenger, blithely hitchhiking on his first day of college), he focuses his energy on achieving early release for exemplary behavior.

But the Nickel School for Boys, which houses white and black young men — separately of course — is not so easily endured. Punishment for any real or perceived infraction is torture and abuse, including solitary confinement, and even death.

Colson Whitehead based his fictional Nickel School on the Dozier School for Boys, a real house of horrors whose past was exposed in an investigative series in the Tampa Bay Times in 2014. For 111 years, from its opening in 1900 until the Dozier School for Boys was finally closed in 2011, boys as young as five years old were brutalized and dozens were murdered.

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick(Goodreads Author)

It’s not lost on me that I consumed most of this book in the lonely clutches of insomnia, my internal lights on deep into the night. Sometimes I think I embrace this torture, for it offers the opportunity to do the thing I most love in life besides writing: reading.

And this was one worth having insomnia for. One of the year’s most moving (trembling, shaking) reads for me. I gasp in wonder and humbleness that Lights All Night Long is Lydia Fitzpatrick’s debut. Lights All Night Long is beautifully written, with characters cast in tenderness and compassion, landscapes that crackle with ice and throb with humidity, and an intricate, carefully woven plot that will leave you gasping at the end. But it is the relationship between the brothers Ilya and Vlad that will burrow into your heart, and break it, over and over. One of the year’s best. Now, let’s all get some sleep.

As a River by Sion Dayson

As a River by Sion Dayson

Debut novelist Sion Dayson has created a novel like blown glass- somehow beautifully fragile yet impossibly strong- a work of art that changes shape and color and texture depending on the angle and the light. I loved it. I loved it. I slipped so easily into Greer, Caroline, Esse- everyone- the characters have textures and depth that took such skill to layer in. As A River is not to be missed.

NONFICTION

What You Have Heard Is True by Carolyn Forché

What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

Carolyn Forché was twenty-seven when she traveled to El Salvador for the first time in 1978. Her searing, remarkable memoir is both a reportage of the brutal recent history of El Salvador, and the recounting of how an activist is created. During the twelve-year war, largely funded by American money and American military training, in this tiny, beautiful country, 75,000 were killed, more than 550,000 Salvadorans were internally displaced with 500,000 becoming refugees. The reverberations of the conflict are felt today, in the refugees who continue to flee poverty and political terror in Central America.

Dopesick by Beth Macy

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy

Dopesick, centered in Appalachia where the opioid crisis began in the late 1990s with the release of OxyContin and where it remains the most virulent, delves deep into the circumstances of opioid abuse and addiction through intimate portraits of the victims, their families, the dealers, cops, and health care providers and activists. She explores every angle, revealing the blatant corruption of Big Pharma and the sickening failure of U.S. regulatory bodies to recognize and respond to criminal behaviors. Even the public shaming of the Sackler family and the lawsuits against pharmaceutical manufacturers, which roll through every day in the headlines now, don’t seem to sway average America from reconsidering what’s in their medicine cabinet. From Adderall to Ambien, we are hooked.

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Right now, the only visible sign that you’ve crossed the border between the United Kingdom and Ireland is the change on road signs from miles to kilometers. In the twenty-one years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast, signaling an end to the decades-long conflict known as the ‘Troubles’, the checkpoints have come down, the armed border patrols have been decommissioned, the observation towers are nowhere to be seen.

With Brexit looming, however, the visible division between the two countries may return, and with it, renewed calls to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and reunite it with the Republic. The prospect of reopening old wounds that are still so very close to the surface is so very real for communities on both sides of the border. Patrick Radden Keefe’s incendiary modern history of the bloody sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland could not be more perfectly timed. Say Nothing is part murder mystery, part political thriller, and all true. It reveals not just the cost of war, but the costs of peace.

No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder

No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder

“Fifty women a month are shot and killed by their partners. Domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness. And 80 percent of hostage situations involve an abusive partner. Nor is it only a question of physical harm: In some 20 percent of abusive relationships a perpetrator has total control of his victim’s life.” From An Epidemic of Violence We Never Discuss by Alisa Roth, New York Time Book Review, June 7, 2019.

If you want to understand the horrific hold violence has on this country, this book will show the links domestic violence, or the more accurately-termed “intimate partner terrorism”, has to mass shootings, homelessness, substance abuse; why the #MeToo movement resonated so deeply; why it is so hard to generate commitment to laws and regulations that honor the safety of women in their own homes (yes, not all victims of domestic violence are women. Transgender and gay and lesbian partners are particularly vulnerable. Heterosexual men can certainly be terrorized by female partners in their own homes, as well. But 85 percent of intimate partner violence is perpetrated by men against women, so I, and the author, opt for the dominant model pronouns here).

This book is not just for those interested in the causes of and solutions to domestic violence. It is for anyone wishing to deepen their understanding of and compassion for the most vulnerable in this culture.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

With her memoir and meditation on lesbian domestic abuse, In The Dream House, Machado reconstructs the rooms of her experience and memory to create a narrative filled with complexity and nuance.

Using vignettes that range from a chronological walk down the hallway of her recent relationship, to academic discourse on domestic violence between queer women, to a tapestry of self and sexuality woven from childhood memories, Machado experiments with form and tilts the function of memoir on its head. Each chapter offers a different narrative trope, a shift of the kaleidoscope through which to view her relationship and her responses to the growing doom she feels, recognizing the abuse even as she still loves the abuser.

She Said by Jodi Kantor
I devoured this in a day. No matter how familiar the headlines, the journey of a news story from idea, rumor, tip, to the front page is fascinating, particularly when that headline launches one of the biggest sociopolitical movements of the decade. My race to the finish of She Saidmade me think of how much I love watching All The President’s Men. I never tire of that movie. It doesn’t matter that you know the ending— not just to the movie, but all these years later, the political legacy left by Nixon’s impeachment — it’s the chase for the truth these reporters undertake when they aren’t certain what that truth is, how big, who else is involved. A deep bow and grateful embrace to Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey for their tireless work, and to The New York Times for continuing to support their reporters.

Desiderata: Monthly Book Wrap December 2019

Desiderata: things desired

A monthly review of books recently read. As a new month turns over, here’s a look back at what I read in November that stirred my soul.

The Reading Tally:
Novels: 7
Narrative Non-Fiction: 1
Instructional: 1
Internal Journey: 2

Recommended Reads

The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

Brilliant. Just brilliant. Everything about this novel, from its premise — a fictionalized account of the true plot by the CIA to thwart communism through “cultural diplomacy”— to its the multiplicity of perspectives, including the Greek chorus CIA typing pool, the haunted Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya, imprisoned in a Gulag for her involvement with famed writer Boris Pasternak, the “Mad Men”-esque characters of Cold War Washington D.C., and their fashions, passions, parties — to the women who became spies, their stories all but forgotten by modern readers until Lara Prescott breathed life into their legacies — just sings and sparkles with verve and vibrancy.

Boris Pasternak, the famed Russian writer, agonized for years over his classic novel Dr. Zhivago. Part of the agony was his fear that not only would it not be published in his homeland, but he risked arrest should it ever come to life in any print form. The Soviets banned it, sight unseen. And the Americans hatched a clever plot once they realized how a banned book could take the world by storm. The manuscript, smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a clever if not ethics-starved Italian publisher, would be smuggled back behind the Iron Curtain in a Russian translation to needle the Soviets and thwart their attempts to starve the Russian people of their cultural heritage and heroes. Never mind that this mission risked the lives of Pasternak and his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, who recounts harrowing years already spent in a Siberian prison camp for her relationship with Pasternak.

Back in the USA, Irina Prozdhova, a young Russian-American living at home in D.C. with her widowed mother, is hired into the CIA’s Soviet Russia (SR) division typing pool. By day, she clatters and clacks her way through endless reports. A natural introvert, she keeps a bit of distance from the snappy, sharp chattering of the other secretaries, but she doesn’t go unnoticed. Recruited as a spy, she is trained by the irresistible, statuesque, OSS-veteran Sally Forrester. The two women, as different as chalk and cheese, bond in way that leaves Irina confused and Sally rueful. Their friendship is the beating heart of this passionate narrative.

Part thriller, part romance, all engrossing historical fiction with the ringing bell of feminism omitted from history so often written by men, The Secrets We Kept is that ideal blend of compulsively readable popular fiction and intelligent, compelling literature. I’m thrilled to learn that this debut novel went to auction, garnered Prescott an enormous advance (although that can be a curse as much as a blessing, but I think in this case she will earn out that advance and then some), and that the rights have been sold as a major motion picture. So well deserved for this young (thirty-seven-year-old) author and this outstanding, complex, original novel.

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

A debut novel that combines page-turning courtroom thriller with weighty reflections on immigration and parenting special needs children, Miracle Creek is a study on what comprises a moral compass, and the relative value of truth.

In a small Virginia country town, the Yoos, an immigrant family from South Korea, operate a hyperbaric oxygenation treatment (HBOT) facility called the Miracle Submarine in the barn beside their rented home. A questionable alternative therapy that claims to cure everything from impotence to autism, HBOT is performed in a sealed pressurized chamber that contains 100 percent pure oxygen. One terrible day, the chamber explodes and the fire kills two inside the chamber, and gravely injures four others, including Pak Yoo and his teenage daughter, Mary, who rush to rescue those trapped inside.

The fire was deliberately set and as the book opens, Elizabeth Ward, the mother of one of the patients is on trial for murder.

What seems an open and shut case of a sociopathic mother frustrated to the point of murder by her son’s behavioral imperfections becomes a twisted tragedy of lies and heartbreak.

Writing the narrative from multiple points of view, Angie Kim masterfully keeps her readers on an uncomfortable edge. We feel empathy for the many possible suspects, particularly the mothers who work to the point of exhaustion every day to care for their special needs children, hoping against all reason that they can affect a cure, or at least make things better, and for the Yoos, who came to America in hope and determination and instead face racism and poverty.

A suspension of disbelief is needed to accept how all the many loose threads come together in the end, as well as tolerance for melodrama, but as a whole, the novel is deeply compelling. The author faces so many uncomfortable truths and forces the reader to face them, as well. I have immense respect for her ability to craft an engrossing plot and layer it with substantive themes. Highly recommended.

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell
 
Anna Klobuchar Clemencs is the 25-year-old wife of a copper miner, living in the tidy company town of Calumet on Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula. Surrounding her are first-generation immigrant families, speaking a total of thirty-three languages and suffering from the appalling working conditions prevalent in copper mining in the early years of the 20th century.

During twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, men toil deep underground with only headlamps to light their way for wages that don’t cover their expenses, no matter how much their wives scrimp, take in outside work, or share the burden within their ethnic communities. Miners are hopelessly indebted to the mining companies for equipment and supplies and when they become disabled or die, the company withdraws the lease on their house, condemning their families to destitution. Rarely does a week pass when a miner isn’t killed during the course of a normal work shift. Boys as young as fourteen are sent underground, and by the time they are young men in their early twenties, their backs are bent and their spirits broken.

The Women of Copper Country (oh what an unfortunate title for such an excellent book) chronicles with meticulous detail the 1913-14 uprising against Calumet & Hecla Mining Company, led by Anna Clement (the anglicized version of her husband’s Slovenian name). After yet another senseless death, this time of a friend’s husband, Anna forms the Women’s Auxiliary No 15 of a local union and rallies, over the course of several months, thousands of miners to join the union and strike against Calumet & Hecla, whose principals had grown fat and happy on the broken backs of laborers.

Mary Doria Russell, one of the most gifted storytellers of contemporary literature, renders a mostly-forgotten slice of history into an unputdownable novel. A few of the characters are historical amalgams, but many, like Anna herself, and the storied union activists Mother Jones and Emma Bloor, are taken from history books and given fresh, vibrant life on these pages. In a era when post-modern literature, with its forced plots and quirky stylings, seems to be the darling of critics, Doria Russell’s straightforward prose is fresh, intelligent and humane. This is historical fiction at its best.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Although this didn’t pack the intellectual, metaphysical wow of His Dark Materials, it is all the delicious curl-up-and-get-lost wonder of the best YA fantasy. I adored La Belle Sauvage for all its elemental beauty and sadness, rejoiced in the sheer joy of a good story told and the delight in knowing there is more to come.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
It is the early 1960’s and Jim Crow still holds sway in the South, even as monumental civil rights changes are sweeping across the land. Reform is slow to reach the Florida Panhandle and yet Elwood Curtis, a bright, shy, studious young black man raised by his officious grandmother, is determined to rise and shine, despite the heavy hands of racism holding him down. Even after he is sent away to the Nickel School for Boys for the non-crime of DWB- Driving While Black (in this case, Elwood is a passenger, blithely hitchhiking on his first day of college), he focuses his energy on achieving early release for exemplary behavior.

But the Nickel School for Boys, which houses white and black young men — separately of course — is not so easily endured. Punishment for any real or perceived infraction is torture and abuse, including solitary confinement, and even death.

Is it any wonder that Elwood Curtis struggles to understand and adhere to his hero Dr. Martin Luther King’s message of loving those who persecute you?

Colson Whitehead based his fictional Nickel School on the Dozier School for Boys, a real house of horrors whose past was exposed in an investigative series in the Tampa Bay Times in 2014. For 111 years, from its opening in 1900 until the Dozier School for Boys was finally closed in 2011, boys as young as five years old were brutalized and dozens were murdered.

We can, and should, read these same articles and the many that followed when this chapter of our shared history broke open. But as is so often the case, a work of fiction serves to break open our hearts. It is so hard to get one’s head around something this awful, an institution that endured for generations, right up to the back door of yesterday, but Whitehead distills his story to a single character, Elwood. The spotlight focus on one boy, and a few threads of others along the way, humanizes the horror. The brilliance of his clear and unsentimental prose is its controlled fury. Whitehead allows the reader to feel all the helpless rage of the observer and doesn’t offer any easy comfort or explanations.

Not far from the site where University of South Florida students continue to dig up the remains of boys killed while students at the Dozier School for Boys, a Trump rally was recently held. In response to “Shoot them!”, an attendee’s jeering declaration of war against Mexican immigrants, the tool that currently resides in the White House joked, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.” And the rally of racists cheered and laughed. 2019. Your America. Not all that different from Elwood’s America of fifty years ago.


What did you read last month that you’d love to share with the world?

Tender Is The First Draft

Tender Is The First Draft

Eighty-four thousand six-hundred and fifty-seven words. A premise that came fully-formed during a walk through the forest on a late afternoon in May of 2018. It seemed so simple, that bright and shiny idea, just a filling in of details and I’d have it. Nearly eighteen months later, after those stolen pre-dawn moments and weekend afternoons in a café, the Julys and Augusts where I didn’t write at all, a new writer’s group that filled me with inspiration before it fizzled out from life’s demands, a five-day DIY writer’s retreat that likely saved this entire endeavor from the DELETE key, and at last, there is a first draft. 

I typed THE END late Sunday afternoon, the sun falling down behind the bony, stripped trees in our backyard, distant sounds of a football game in the living room breaking through when the classical music on the bedroom Bose paused for a breath. My goal had been to finish this draft by Christmas but as the words began to flow this autumn — I wrote nearly forty percent of the draft in the two months between late September and Sunday — I closed in on Thanksgiving as a target date. And here I am with .pdfs of Thanksgiving dinner recipes and 303 pages of THE DEEP COIL to send to the unsuspecting printer.

During the journey of this draft I spent a lot of time trying to escape from writing, until at last it became something I was able to emerge into. This was the second “from-scratch” novel I’d attempted since my marriage fell apart in the spring of 2016 when I was promoting the debut of IN ANOTHER LIFE, editing THE CROWS OF BEARA to prep for its fall 2017 publication, and revising UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL. From November of 2017 to May of 2018 I worked half-heartedly on a YA fantasy novel inspired by the research on the Cathars I’d done for IAL (I love it, actually; just not the right work at the right time). I’d underestimated the time and space I needed to do all heavy lifting of my messy life – new jobs, new relationships, moving, grieving, celebrating, gathering all the pieces and reassembling them into something that resembled a fresh start. I was hard, so very hard, on myself youshouldbewritingyourenotawriterwhyarentyouwriting until I finally gave in and accepted that when it was time, when I at last felt safe,  I would write.

This draft is, well, it’s a Shitty First Draft, as first drafts tend to be. I got it in my head that because this is a genre novel — crime fiction — not to mention the start of a series, I ought to come up with a solid outline. That never happened- it’s not the writer I am. I write by feel. I write to find out where I’m going.

“Stories are agile things. So the containers they go in should be pliable. You should have a grand vision, of course, an eventual endpoint, or at least the dreams of an endpoint, but you must be prepared to swerve, chop and change direction at the same time. The best journeys are those where we don’t exactly know what road we will take: we have a destination in mind, but the manner of getting there should be open to flux. … the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.”                                                                                                                                                             — Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer

Last spring I realized that this first draft would be my outline. So here it is, an 84,657 word outline. There’s a beginning, a couple of them, really. A bunch of words stuffed in the middle, and some possible endings. There are subplots and backstory, landscapes and dialogues. There are great characters whom I can’t wait for you to meet, shadows of beings who may stay or may go, others I’ve lost track of along the way. There are scenes that even now I know I need to write. I have a number of law enforcement officials to interview regarding who does what in a territory that covers two small cities, two large counties, and a vast national park in between. Several hikes to take, a shooting range to step into, and a gun expert friend to run key scenes by. 

Revision. Where all that gorgeous raw material is shaped into a story. 

But today I hold the story that will be in tender respect. The magical first draft, with all its promise and potential, is complete. 

“How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?”
― Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety