The Best of My Reading Year

“Lost my focus” “Couldn’t concentrate” “I read so little this year” and other similar laments repeated in my reading and writing circles in recent days as friends tally the number of books read in 2017 compared to previous years and goals are set for 2018.

 

I get it. The personal and the political conspired in 2017 to pull my attention away from that which is so precious to me: reading. But the good literary news is that the year was full of many gorgeous, unforgettable reads, even if the sum total of books completed was less than I would have liked. And here, in no particular order, are those that I most treasured and would press into your hands if I could (click on the titles to read my full Goodreads review):

 

FICTION

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (2015)

Time stops with each story in this collection. These are not easy reads and I needed a deep breath and some distance after each story. But Berlin’s is some of the most astonishing writing I have read. Ever. It pains me that it has taken so long for us to recognize her power and mastery, that she will never know how deeply she has affected this new generation of readers. But do yourself a favor. Make it a priority to read this collection- take all the time you need, dip in and out, but know that you will finish a different human being than when you started.

 

News of the World by Paulette Jiles (2016)

But this extraordinary novel is so much more than its plot. This is a story of two misfits at either end of their lives, brought together by happenstance and tragedy who bond during an epic journey through an unsettled land. It is novel of place and of a very particular point in history. It is a few years after the end of the Civil War, but hardly an era of peace. Captain Kidd brings with him news of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, granting black citizens of the United States the right to vote. Texas is still very much the Wild West, and Jiles captures the grit and heat, the awesome threats and beauty of this massive state.

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

The marvel of this novel is how we become so quickly and solidly attached to the protagonist of each chapter, even though we don’t remain in his or her life for long. And how agile Gyasi is in portraying each generation and location, despite dramatic shifts of culture and geography. The chapters set in West Africa are the most revelatory. I’ve read extensively of the evil and agony of pre-and post-antebellum racism and violence in the United States, as well as the disease of Jim Crow that followed emancipation. But to see the entangled roots of slave history in West Africa, revealed with such vivid storytelling, is astonishing.

 

The Accidental by Ali Smith (2005)

The Accidental shows the rusted and broken bits inside the moral compass of the Smarts, a bourgeois British family of four on summer holiday in a drab northern England town. Eve Smart is mid-list novelist and mother of 17-year-old Magnus and 12-year-old Astrid. Michael Smart, husband and step-father, is a philandering professor of English. It becomes all to easy to detest the Smart mère et père, for they are eye-rollingly entitled and pretentious, but this novel is about the kids. And it is in their voices that Smith’s prose shines like a beacon.

 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2017)

What a rich and complicated novel. I reeled with each page, cringing in horror at the Great Plains massacres and Civil War atrocities, astonished by the elegance of Barry’s prose, the fresh wonder of Thomas McNulty’s voice, the lovely matter-of-factness of taboo love and the shock of willing participation in America’s brutal expansion. Days Without Endis a work of staggering beauty.

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)

It is the inevitability of migration that moved me the most. We have always been a world, a mass of humanity, on the move. From the very origin of our species, we have migrated. The notion that one part of the world belongs to one certain group of people and should be closed to others is as absurd as doors in gardens that suck people from Amsterdam and expel them in Rio de Janeiro. I inhaled this elegant, uncanny novel in all its prescient relevance and stunning imagination. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams (2017)

This is an extraordinary debut, written with a masterful sense of plot and pacing and a keen understanding of the thorny world of western intervention in the developing world. Her prose calls to mind the exquisite Francesca Marciano — another contemporary Western writer with personal experience in Africa — with its clarity, precision, and beauty.

 

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (2017)

Lidia’s prose is visceral and shocking and physical. She writes from the body as much as from the mind and the heart and you feel her words. As a reader I was stunned, horrified, aroused and broken. Whatever your expectations of this book, lay them aside. Just read and embrace the power of what fiction can do to tell the truth of the world.

 

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (2015)

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH is a luminous portrait of friendship and grief, of the cruelty of youth and the resiliency of the human spirit. Younger readers will find solace in Zu’s determination and big heart; older readers will marvel at the sensitivity and deep truths of a finely-wrought narrative. This is an exquisite novel.

 

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2017)

This is a novel of tangled, rich love, both mannered and wild. Multiple hearts beat with loves unrequited and an aching pervades the pages, expressed in letters, in long glances, in touches to cinched waistlines and damp napes of the neck. Along with the palpable sense of dread that follows rumors of a winged beast is a sense of desperation and longing that may spin out of control at any moment: desire without fulfillment can be as dangerous as a legendary ichthyosaur. This is as lovely a novel as I have read in a long time, reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Sarah Waters. Sarah Perry is a breathtaking writer. Settle in and be prepared to be swept away on a wave of exquisite prose and storytelling. Highly recommended.

 

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (2017)

Snow and ice, the forest, the silence, the hunters and hunted combine to give The Child Finder a sense that it is once-removed from reality, perhaps a relief for the reader even as the narrative dives deep into the horrors of child abuse and abduction. Denfeld calls upon her own childhood experiences, and that as a professional death penalty investigator and adoptive mother of three children. She lives in real time the sadness and desperation of the used and abandoned, and that reality lives in this frightening and yet ultimately uplifting and redemptive novel. A breathtaking combination of suspense, horror, love, darkness and light, The Child Finder is simply one of this year’s most compelling and astonishing reads. Brava, Rene.

 

NON-FICTION

 

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford (2003)
The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one in a series of Poets on Poetry, a collection of interviews and conversations with a celebrated poet, as well as selected essays and poems. It includes a beautiful exchange between Stafford and his dear friend and fellow poet of the West, Richard Hugo. A slim volume rich and full of hope and light, compassion and encouragement The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one of the loveliest sources of inspiration this writer has read.

 

Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (2010)
This is a collection of essays and meditations that have appeared over the years in various publications, so they are loosely knit by the theme of finding redemption in the natural world. Moore’s style is poetic and thoughtful, gentle and open- in direct contrast with the often abrupt and heartless way that nature has of carrying on with the business of life and death. But each essay is intimate and poignant, full of gratitude and hope.

 

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro (2017)
I was married for nearly twenty-five years, years that were happy and full of adventure, but perhaps more heartbreak that we could withstand. I celebrate the beauty of what we had and the wisdom in the letting go. Dani Shapiro speaks of “the third thing” that unites couples, whether it’s a child, a Corgi, an avocation or hobby, and this idea resonated deeply. I had several “third things” with my ex-husband, but in my most recent, and recently-ended relationship, the third thing seemed to be a third rail of pain and codependency. Now, as I welcome a deep and gentle love, I have at last the third thing with a partner that I’ve been craving: art. The mutual understanding, celebration and commiseration of what it means to be an artist, whether it’s creating with paint or with pen, is such sweet relief.

Pulling the Trigger

It’s every single day now, isn’t it? Each morning brings reports of another powerful man falling from his high chair, a cringing apology-not apology “That’s not how I remembered it, but …” until I am worn out, we are, so very many of us, so very worn out.

 

How to make sense of the relief we feel that our stories are finally being heard and yet we are flooded with anxiety as the tidal wave of trauma washes over us, released by friends and strangers, the famous and the overlooked? #MeToo has given us the voices we have stifled, or simply forgotten how to use, or never knew we had. But the movement is also fraught with triggers as we remember all that we’ve been trained, or simply wish, to forget.

Stillness in solitude. November Dawn. Copyright Julie Christine 2017

 

Until it happens again.

 

A few Friday nights ago. Alone on the dance floor. Fully in my joy. Stone-cold sober (why do I need to mention that? As if it matters. As if I need to assure you I didn’t bring this on, but had I been drinking, I might have been responsible? This is what we do. Footnote lest we are blamed).

 

Unseen hands on my body. I am groped from behind. In the space of a moment, the time it took my brain to register what was happening outside of me and yet fully within my sacredness of my space, my skin, my flesh. I turn to see a stranger’s leering face and I watch as the heel of my hand smashes into his nose, feel the crunch of cartilage, the snap of bone . . . but of course, I don’t. My rage stays tucked away. I wrap my hands around his elbows and push him back, breaking the connection of his hands on my body. And in an instant there is another stranger, stepping in between, dancing me from the scene, putting his body between mine and that twisted leer. I can take care of myself, I think. But at that moment, I don’t want to. I’m so tired. Tired of paying for letting my guard down. This man says, “That was disgusting. I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.”

 

I am told later that I should have hit the groper. This fills me with despair. Shame. Guilt. Bewilderment. I’m strong. In the moment, I wasn’t afraid. Disgusted. Repulsed. Ragey. Yes. But not afraid. Why didn’t I? Why didn’t I smash the grin off that mask?

 

The pieces come together when I discover this article, written in 2016.

Our Legal System Punishes Women For Their Neurological Responses To Assault

 

Women aren’t trained to resist their natural instinct to shut down when threatened — and they’re socialized to avoid threats passively rather than aggressively. “[Women] are taught how to politely resist someone making unwanted sexual advances without angering them,” says Hopper. “They learn how to say no without coming out and saying no.” Once that resistance is ignored, the amygdala’s response takes over, and it’s too late. They’re under attack and their brain, controlled by fear and running on instinct, leaves them at the mercy of the perpetrator. “And then they blame themselves for the assault,” says Hopper, “and other people blame them for not reacting more effectively. But would they blame a man who’s been sent to the front line with no combat training?”

And this is to say nothing of the fact that we shouldn’t be blaming victims at all, instead of the perpetrators of assault and abuse.

In the grand scheme of the daily degradation of women, being groped on a dance floor is hardly worth mentioning. This man was nothing. I’d never seen him before and he vanished into the thick of the crowd.

 

But it is the very quotidian nature of this imbecile’s behavior that wears me down. This shit just happens all the time. I can tick off my fingers other small things in recent weeks: the former boss who, in eavesdropping on a conversation between a colleague and me about the dress I was wearing to an event that night, exclaimed, “Why don’t you go NAKED?” The man who lives somewhere in my neighborhood turning his car around to follow me down the block, slowing, leaning out the window to gape at me. That would it occur to anyone to say or do these things boggles my mind. Men with wives and daughters. What is wrong with you? That’s the only thing that occurs to me to ask anymore.

 

Most of us aren’t celebrities violated or demeaned by men in powerful positions. We’re just your sisters, daughters, lovers, friends living with these small and large aggressions, trying to get through our days with grace and dignity. We’ll never make the headlines. Most of us will never speak out. We feel either paralyzed or just so fucking tired; reaction, response seems futile. Having to respond makes us that much more vulnerable. And when we tell our stories, we’re scolded for not having responded appropriately.

 

What is wrong with you?

 

Maybe you’re getting tired of hearing these stories, too. Or of telling them. Just know that for every story you do hear, there are dozens left untold. If you are triggered, step back and take care of yourself. Be gentle with your soul and know that any emotion you feel, any reaction from your heart, mind, body is a valid one. Here’s a good read to help you make sense of the complicated emotions: How to Cope If You’re Feeling Triggered by the #MeToo Movement

 

There is no dénouement here, no redemptive ending. This is a story followed by an ellipses, because most of us are just waiting for the next scene. When it happens again.

 

 

And Still I Write*

In the early spring of 2013, my husband and I left our careers in Seattle to move to a remote peninsula in the northwest reaches of the state. It’s the place where we’d intended to retire someday, but we had another twenty years of work ahead of us. After crisscrossing the country and oceans to the east and west, we’d at last found jobs we felt we could live out our salaried lives growing into. We worked for the same company, one that seemed to espouse our personal and political ideals. We were earning a comfortable combined wage with excellent benefits.

 

And I was writing. By the winter of 2012, I had published several short stories and I was deep into the first draft of my first novel. I’d been admitted into an MFA program starting in the fall at a local university, and thanks to a flexible schedule, I knew I could make it all work.

 

It was a good life. We were happy.

 

There’s a story churning in my gut, a contemporary drama about a corporate culture that allowed a stream of employees to be bullied into impossible corners and intimidated into silence, a cautionary tale of a mentally unstable, power-sick company executive who targeted a worthy rising star, and bullied him with impunity. It’s a story with ripple effects both beautiful and grave, circumstances that opened doors and burned down buildings. In it, a couple refused to remain silent or back down; they worked in solidarity to shine light in the darkest of those tight, unforgiving corners.

 

Seattle is now a place where I once lived. All that happened is a memory in a shared life story.

 

 

That ending to our tidy lives, the cleaving of our employment, became the beginning of my full-time writing career. Leaving the city life for a village by the sea meant simplifying and we created a budget that allowed for one income. It also meant sacrifices and a resetting of expectations, but my husband declared his willingness to support us for as long as it took me to build a sustainable writing career. He became my sponsor, a gesture of grace and generosity.

 

I worked hard, writing hours a day, seven days a week, rarely a day off. I landed an agent and sold two novels and completed a third in the first two years as a fulltime writer. I published short stories and essays, my first poem. I began leading writing workshops and started a freelance editing business. I was awarded a writing residency in Ireland and saved up enough to send myself on a writing retreat in France. I was living a writer’s dream, at least one in its early stages. My income was modest: moderate advances and whatever I netted from teaching and editing gigs. Not enough to sustain myself, but enough to give me confidence that I was on the right track.

 

My first novel launched in February 2016, an event concurrent to the collapse of my marriage. That spring, as I publicly celebrated the most fulfilling, rewarding thing that could happen to a writer, a twenty-five year marriage was very privately coming to an end. How a couple slides from unity to dissolution is a tapestry of mistakes and sadness I will be unraveling for years. But the ending became delayed by something that still shames me to admit: I knew if my husband and I separated, my life as a fulltime writer would end. My security would vanish. I would be forced to return to a day job, giving up my dream almost as soon as it began. Yet to continue in a marriage that was less than either of us deserved would be to continue in a lie.

 

Ten months to the day after my first novel released, I punched a time card. I was fortunate to have found a job in the wine industry, a world I’d left three and half years before. I worked first for a resort, where the hours were long, the nights were late, the work physically demanding, commuting white-knuckled on dark roads all through the fall and winter. The summer I spent at a winery close to home with better pay, but no benefits and an uncertain future.  Then a few weeks ago, a phone call from a new, local, non-profit arts school asking if I would join their staff. A return to my long-ago, rewarding career in education administration, creating systems and processes to advance a mission I could wrap my head and heart around.

 

And still, when people ask what I do, I say, “I am a writer.” Somehow, in the midst of life’s chaos, the grief of a marriage ending, the bewilderment of another broken relationship blundered into from fear of loneliness and excitement of freedom, I scribble away still, determined to hold on to that which defines me: my words.

 

My second novel, THE CROWS OF BEARA (Ashland Creek Press) released in September. I had neither the time nor the funds to mount an in-person book tour. I released myself from the expectation of a sprint after launch and the novel is serenely flying alone. I settle into my new job, reclaim my routines, and set my sights on making bookstore rounds in the spring, knowing now from experience that promotion is a marathon, a slow and steady race without a finish line. A third novel is recently on submission. I have made tentative steps into a fourth project, having promised my agent I would have a draft of something solid by summer. Late summer.

 

I know of few writers who write fulltime, sustaining themselves on advances and royalties. Most of us, even those with bestseller in their bios, teach and freelance to supplement an uncertain and meager income, or we work full or part-time at jobs unrelated to our writing, jobs that provide health insurance, that pay the mortgage, the college tuition, the credit card debt, the medical bills. Those who have partners able to provide financial stability are the fortunate ones, as I was once. And fortunate I am still, for I have found stability on my own, with a vocation that sustains me financially and intellectually. My avocation, that as a writer, sustains my soul.

Julie Christine Johnson’s short stories and essays have appeared in journals including Emerge Literary Journal; Mud Season Review; Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt; and River Poets Journal. Her work has also appeared in the print anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss. She holds undergraduate degrees in French and psychology and a master’s in international affairs.

Named a “standout debut” by Library Journal, “very highly recommended” by Historical Novels Review, and “delicate and haunting, romantic and mystical” by bestselling author Greer Macallister, Julie’s debut novel In Another Life (Sourcebooks) went into a second printing three days after its February 2016 release. A hiker, yogi, and swimmer, Julie makes her home in northwest Washington state.

Visit www.juliechristinejohnson.com for more information on Julie’s writing.

Follow her on Twitter @JulieChristineJ

 

 

*This essay originally appeared on Women Writers, Women’s Books, November 8, 2017.

The Crows of Beara by Julie Christine Johnson

Start with a Story

Reading is magical. It can take you into a world, a life, a moment that you would never otherwise experience. The Crows of Beara transports you so fully into a place – a village on the southwest coast of Ireland, in a landscape scoured by wind and made jagged by stone – that you can feel the rain dripping from the leaves.

Annie Crowe, the novel’s main character, feels it too. The wild beauty of the area calls to her, even as she prepares to do a job that could threaten the Beara peninsula’s ecology and doom its most endangered residents, a type of crow whose natural habitat can be found there and almost nowhere else.

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Discover Redemption and Hope Among ‘The Crows of Beara’ [REVIEW]

“Using fractured, flawed, and authentic characters and the beautiful shoreline of the Beara Peninsula, Johnson weaves a story of discovery, redemption, and hope. In The Crows of Beara, she writes with nuanced, lyrical grace and a voice that captivates to the very end. Don’t miss this gorgeous, haunting, multilayered novel. Julie Christine Johnson is an author to watch!”

Jathan & Heather

Dunluce Castle Get swept away to the verdant Irish coast in Julie Christine Johnson’s The Crows of Beara. (Photo by Ricardo Cabral, Flickr)

With a marriage on the rocks and a troubled past she’d like to forget, one woman leaves America behind and heads to the rocky Irish coast with hopes to salvage her career and build a new life in Julie Christine Johnson’s The Crows of Beara.

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Blog Tour/Review: The Crows of Beara by Julie Christine Johnson

What an honor to be featured on Cathy’s beautiful blog!

What Cathy Read Next...

TheCrowsofBearaTourBannerI’m thrilled to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for The Crows of Beara by Julie Christine Johnson.  Set in Ireland, it’s a wonderful story about guilt, the search for redemption and the restorative power of art and nature.   


TheCrowsofBearaAbout the Book

When Annie Crowe travels from Seattle to a small Irish village to promote a new copper mine, her public relations career is hanging in the balance. Struggling to overcome her troubled past and a failing marriage, Annie is eager for a chance to rebuild her life. Yet when she arrives on the remote Beara Peninsula, Annie learns that the mine would encroach on the nesting ground of an endangered bird, the Red-billed Chough, and many in the community are fiercely protective of this wild place. Among them is Daniel Savage, a local artist battling demons of his own, who has been recruited to help block the mine…

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More Than Our Anger

“In a time of anger or despair, even if we feel
overwhelmed, our love is still there. Our capacity to
communicate, to forgive, to be compassionate is
still there. You have to believe this. We are more
than our anger, we are more than our suffering.
We must recognize that we do have within
us the capacity to love, to understand,
to be compassionate, always.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

4:30 a.m. Sunday. My birthday morning. I’ve gone to bed only hours before, but a racing brain will not let me rest.

 

On Friday, I released my second novel. It is about the power of art to heal and redeem lost souls. It is about the pain of addiction, and the necessity of hope.

 

So much to do. So far behind. Three workshops to prepare for. A fall class to plan. A blog tour in support of my novel underway. I have essays to complete, interviews to respond to. Articles to pitch. Bookstores to contact. Clients awaiting feedback on query letters and manuscripts.

 

I’ll get to them. I always do. But right now, in the warmdark of this still-summer dawn, I hold pieces of my broken heart. A shattered mirror of my life. What it reflects—this distorted fun house image of reality—terrifies me.

 

Five days ago. On my yoga mat. Our teacher asks us to silently answer the question, Who Am I? I answer, I Am Loving Kindness. I Am Compassion. I Am Enough.

 

Today, I Am Anger.

 

Someday perhaps I’ll unpack why I spent a year in an emotionally destructive relationship. Or not. It is over now, and I emerge with my soul intact, fully aware of my worth and certain that what I gave, what I sacrificed, was offered in the grace of compassion and love. All that, it seems now, was wasted on another incapable of reciprocating. Or perhaps unwilling. Except that it is never a waste to have felt or to have given love.

 

Let me fall if I must fall. The one I will become will catch me -The Baal Shem Tov.

 

Images of myself curled tightly in the stairwell, unable to go up or down, able only to pray for a light to show me which way. Often that light came in the form of a white dog, a wet nose nudging me, onward.
Last winter a therapist asked me to create an image of safety and peace I could conjure up in those moments when things got so bad that I stopped breathing. An image to return me to my breath. My breath, my place of safety, was a meadow where a white dog curled beside me.

 

Collateral damage. She wasn’t mine to begin with and so I am forced to let her go. I hope that her healing soul will offer comfort and constancy in the transition from together to separate.

 

Days later, I learn that she has been taken to the shelter–a choice made in desperation. For reasons I cannot fathom, she is declared not adoptable, and put into the queue to be killed. Had I known, I could have prevented the damage those days in a cage have done.

 

I write a novel about saving endangered creatures and then suddenly, the one creature I love more than any other is in peril and I flail in acid-rage and fear. I can’t write through this one. I can’t reason with words, or find hope in a poetic turn of a phrase or cause a character to make a choice that will redeem his soul.

 

She is safe now. I got her out.

 

Every fiber of my being wants her beside me. She needs constant companionship, a place to roam, room to dig, not shut in an apartment while I am at work. The search is on for a forever home. It may be the safe harbor where she is now; we’re taking it one day at a time while I continue to search for options. Including turning my life upside-down to make a home for her.

 

(whatifiquitmyjobdoihaveenoughtimehowcanilivewithoutherhowisanyofthishappening)

 

I cannot say that I am more than my anger, that I am more than my suffering, for it is not my suffering that I bear. Yet I must be more, for the one I could not save and for the one I continue to fight for.

 

It is love that motivates me. That is more than anything. That is enough.

 

** Update 09/07/17: Veela has a permanent, loving home. Thank you Universe and social media for getting this one right.