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.

The Answers are Inside the Mountains

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing LifeThe Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Memorial
In Nagasaki they built a little room
dark and soundproof where you can
go in all alone and close the door and cry.

William Stafford, Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975 until 1990, crafted over 20,000 poems during his time on Earth- a staggering output. A pacifist—soft-spoken, yet fierce—Stafford was a teacher, a mentor, a wide-eyed, gracious observer and recorder of life. His poems are clean, without guile or pretense and most often set in the natural world. He eschewed the rules of writing, rising above convention to state simply that showing up to the page was enough. That writing made one a writer, not publishing, not critical acclaim, not commercial success.

Find limits that have prevailed and break them; be more brutal, more revealing, more obscene, more violent. Press all limits.

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.

The earth says have a place, be what that place requires; hear the sound the birds imply and see as deep as ridges go behind each other.

I immediately lent it out to a writer friend and now I am bereft, trying to write this review without the treasured work beside me to flip through and reread. But I took notes in my journal, and took great comfort in reading that Stafford too kept journals, that they were the source of his creativity, one of the places he turned to in crafting his poems, where he worked out ideas and themes, from which he pulled his own material.

Save up little pieces that escape other people. Pick up the gleamings.

At this precarious time, when I struggle to find hope and beauty, I am reminded the answers are in the mountains, the mountains of art that surround me.

We drown in ugliness. Art helps teach us to swim.

I’m closing with a poem that wasn’t in the book, because in searching for another poem, I came across this. It’s been one of my favorites for years and reading it again opened up a river inside me. A river frozen over, now melted by Stafford’s words.

Ask Me
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

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My Reading Year: The Best of 2016

The Year of the Fidgety Reader. That was my 2016. Releasing my own novel and editing a second and third cut into my precious reading time, energy and focus, and that frustrated the hell out of me- reading is as important to me as a writer as writing. But I did encounter the extraordinary, books that I look back on now with gratitude, for they have changed me as a writer and a human being.

 

The Breakdown: 76 read

Novels: 42

Poetry Collections: 6

Memoir: 6

Short Story Collections: 6

Writing Craft: 4

Creative Nonfiction: (social, political, historical): 11

Biography: 1

Authors:  68 women; 6 men; 2 multiple authors

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If there was any particular theme to my reading this year, it was survival. Diane Les Bequets’s stunning Breaking Wild and the novel that had my favorite opening paragraph of the year, William Giraldi’s Hold the Dark and the lovely, achingly sad Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz are literary thrillers that shiver with cold and exquisite tension. Eowyn Ivey took me to The Bright Edge of the World in her novel about exploring the Alaskan frontier, while Midge Raymond, David Pablo Cohn, and Lily Brooks-Dalton transported me to Antarctica and the North Pole with their enthralling tales (My Last Continent, Heller’s Tale, and Good Morning Midnight).

 

War and its aftermath played out in Elizabeth Marro’s debut Casualties, Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies, Salt to the Sea by Ruth Sepetys—a gorgeous are-you-sure-this-is-YA novel set in WWII Prussia, Martha Hall Kelly’s beautiful WWII epic Lilac Girlsand one from the master of soul-haunting novels, Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs.

 

I had joined a wonderful virtual book club at the start of the year and intended to follow along with the plan to read a Virginia Woolf each month. I made it to March at any rate, reading A Haunted House and Other Short Stories and Mrs. Dalloway. This year I’ve added The Voyage Out to the roster.

 

Not enough poetry. But what there was, including W.S. Merwin, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Dorianne Laux, expanded my soul.

 

Here are a few books that took my breath away, books I wanted to press into everyone’s hands, saying, “Read this. You must.” Excerpted comments are from my Goodreads reviews, books presented in no particular order.

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking, Colum McCann (Fiction/Short Stories: 2015)

Colum McCann traces the shadows of tension and love, despair and tragedy in this collection of one novella and three short stories-pieces that held me transfixed with their poignancy and fierce energy.

 

Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert (Writing Craft/Inspiration: 2015)

There could not have been a better time to read Big Magic than in the fraught and anxious, giddy and surreal days before launching my first novel. Gilbert’s words soothed and grounded me, took me out of the uncomfortable, jangly headspace of self-promotion and back into the embrace of what it means to be a creative person, why I set forth on this path in the first place.

 

M Train, Patti Smith (Memoir: 2016)

Reading the lovely Proustian interlude that is M Train, I felt like a shadow-angel trailing Patti Smith, from Café ‘Ino down the block from her New York apartment to the far-flung places in her past and present that twirl like ribbons in her poetry, her songs, her art. M Train is a meditation on this artist’s life, more kaleidoscope than memoir, a shifting wonder that spills pieces of colored glass memories.

 

Baby’s On Fire, Liz Prato (Fiction/Short Stories: 2015)

I reckon many reading this review are not familiar with writer Liz Prato or this slim volume of twelve stories, her debut collection. I’m doing what I can here, and in the real world, to change that. Fortunately I live in the literary Utopia that is the Pacific Northwest, where astonishingly talented writers are nearly as numerous as coffee shops and the community lifts up, supports and loves its own. Liz is a literary lion here, but you should know her, you should read her work.

 

The Wolf Border, Sarah Hall (Fiction: 2015)

Freedom/captivity; wild/ tame; fertile/barren; desire/indifference . . . it’s rarely just one or the other in life, is it? We walk on the border between each, sometimes falling one way, sometimes another, ever in search of balance. In this extraordinary novel, Sarah Hall explores the borders nature creates, borders imposed by man, borders the heart transcends no matter how tightly we exert out control.

 

Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, Anne Boyd Rioux (Biography: 2016)

A well-constructed biography is a dance between feet-on-ground facts and limbs-in-air storytelling. Flesh and soul must be conveyed in the chronology of events, and a case must be created that this one life holds relevance to all readers. A biography is an act of scholarship and illumination. And so it is with Anne Boyd Rioux’s luminous biography of nearly-forgotten 19th century writer Constance Fenimore Woolson.

 

The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, Rebecca Solnit (Essays/Social Science: 2014)

This collection of 29 essays, previously published in a variety of literary venues, demonstrates Rebecca Solnit’s virtuosity as an compassionate intellectual, a keen and critical observer of the human condition, and a preeminent force in American letters.

 

The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa (Essays/Philosophy: 1982)

The four months it took me to read Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously-published collection of thought fragments have been some of the most fraught and chrysalis-splitting days of my adult life. This book will forever be synonymous with transition and grief, exploration and longing. I could read only bits at a time, for Pessoa’s struggle to understand the world and his place in it mirrored my own and my many gasps of recognition left me breathless.

 

Rising Strong, Brené Brown (Non-fiction/Motivational: 2015)

There are books that meet you at just the right time, when you most need and are open to their messages. I can well imagine encountering the warm Texan embrace of Brené Brown’s brand of social psychology at other times of my life and being turned off by its fierceness, volume and confidence. I may have looked askance at the cult of Brené Brown, with legions of devotees who discovered her through her TED talk gone viral, read her previous works, taken her Oprah-endorsed self-actualization workshops, or listened to her CD series on vulnerability and shame. Rising Strong is in fact my first encounter with Brené Brown’s work.

 

Good Morning, Midnight, Lily Brooks-Dalton (Fiction: 2016)

A lyrical and poignant elegy for Earth, imbued with irrepressible hope, Good Morning, Midnight is one of the loveliest books I’ve read in such a very long time. Lily Brooks-Dalton’s keen and delightful imagination, paired with a natural compassion and her gorgeous, lucid prose, made this a book I thought of in the hours when I had to leave it behind.

Reflections on Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

In Other WordsIn Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

I realize that the wish to write in a new language derives from a kind of desperation. I feel tormented, just like Verga’s songbird. Like her, I wish for something else — something that I probably shouldn’t wish for. But I think that the need to write always comes from desperation, along with hope. Jhumpa Lahiri

 

Twenty-one summers ago I was finishing up one graduate degree in International Affairs and preparing to start a second degree in Linguistics, moving from an inquiry the effects of women’s levels of education in the developing world have on household income, birth rates, and infant mortality, into an examination of how language affects our creativity. I intended to pursue a Ph.D in Linguistics and was mulling over a dissertation on expatriate writers in France who wrote in their adopted language. I planned to explore how writing in French had changed their approach to the language of their stories, how this second—or some cases, third or fourth language—influenced the content, rhythm, and expression of their thoughts.

 

Then I was offered a job, a great job, in my first field. I pondered the inherent financial and professional insecurities of a life in academe and I turned from the Ph.D path, away from Linguistics.

 

Oh, the irony as twenty years later I try to make a living as a writer, having turned from the path of financial and professional security and stability because it wasn’t a life authentic to me. If someday I achieve a measure of commercial success, I will relocate lock, stock and barrel to France, where I can immerse myself wholesale in a language and culture that fills and sustains my heart and intellect.

 

Along comes Jhumpa Lahiri with In Other Words, a luminous meditation on how immersion in another language changes a writer’s soul. In this evocative and earnest collection of brief essays on learning to express herself in Italian, Lahiri touches on everything I felt to be true or what I have experienced with equal intensity living in France and living in the French language: the daily intoxication and despair, the loss and discovery of self, the intimacy and estrangement that come with linguistic and cultural displacement.

 

This is not a book on what it’s like to live in Italy. It is not a travelogue, a glimpse into a place any of us fortunate enough to have traveled there or who dream of going can mine for memories or tips. It could be set in Poland or Peru. This is a memoir of the mind of a writer who finds herself humbled by language. Lahiri writes of her first experiences crafting a story in Italian, “I’ve never tried to do anything this demanding as a writer. I find that my project is so arduous that it seems sadistic. I have to start again from the beginning, as if I had never written anything in my life. But, to be precise, I am not at the starting point: rather, I’m in another dimension, where I have no references, no armor. Where I’ve never felt so stupid.”

 

I am reminded as I savor these hesitant, glorious essays that my instincts two decades ago were right. Even then, so many years before I began writing, I understood the metamorphic potential that profound engagement with another language held for a writer. In Other Words has given me reason to take up that dream again, this time not at a scholarly remove, examining other writers’ lives and work, but as a way to enhance my own.

 

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Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections

Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to BelongEternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong by John O’Donohue
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Some books simply find you. They enter your life at the right time, when you are most in need of and receptive to hearing their message. This book. My soul. The Universe recognized what I needed and offered up these words in response.

 

I’ve been aware of John O’Donohue’s work for some time: I have a collection of his poetry, gifted by a dear friend, that I dip into and feel embraced by; I’ve been to a writing residency at Anam Cara in southwest Ireland, named for one of his works of essays and reflections. But it wasn’t until I read a quote in the amazing weekly newsletter of curated wisdom, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings (you must subscribe, you simply must) that I learned of Eternal Echoes and knew it was the book for me, at this time, in this place.

 

There is a divine restlessness in the human heart. Though our bodies maintain an outer stability and consistency, the heart is an eternal nomad. No circle of belonging can ever contain all the longings of the human heart. As Shakespeare said, we have “immortal longings.” All human creativity issues from the urgency of longing.

That quote has become the centerpiece of the talk I give at author readings, for it speaks not only to the central themes of my novel, but to the themes playing out in my life.

 

Eternal Echoes is about coming to terms with the emptiness inherent to one’s soul, an emptiness we seek to fill with religion or drugs, love or work, instead of accepting that it is the very space inside we need, in order to grow into our compassion, our true selves.

 

There is something within you that no one or nothing else in the world is able to meet or satisfy. When you recognize that such unease is natural, it will free you from getting on the treadmill of chasing ever more temporary and partial satisfactions. This eternal longing will always insist on some door remaining open somewhere in all the shelters where you belong. When you befriend this longing, it will keep you awake and alert to why you are here on earth.

 

For this reader, acknowledging and living with this longing has been a particularly painful and recent exploration. I am a problem-solver by nature and when something is off, when my soul is akilter, my instinct is to root out the source of the maladjustment and fix it. It’s hard to accept that I need to sit with my discomfort and listen to what it is trying tell me.

 

Most of the activity in society is subconsciously designed to quell the voice crying in the wilderness within you. The mystic Thomas à Kempis said that when you go out into the world, you return having lost some of yourself. Until you learn to inhabit your aloneness, the lonely distraction and noise of society will seduce you into false belonging, with which you will only become empty and weary.

 

By necessity, I have been spending a lot of time “in society” lately, losing bits of myself along the way. And the more time I spend engaged in society, the more Fernando Pessoa’s lament from The Book of Disquiet (yet another collection of wisdoms that has found its way to me at the right time): my “passions and emotions (are) lost among more visible kinds of achievement.”

 

Eternal Echoes is informed by Celtic mysticism and a fluid Christian theology. Although I am not a Christian and actively avoid anything that smacks of faith-based advice, O’Donohue’s approach is philosophical rather than theological. It is something akin to gnosticism, that compels the individual to be an active participant in her own journey to wholeness, not a blind believer in an all-powerful god. He writes of allowing in vulnerability, for vulnerability leads to wonder, and wonder leads to seeking, and seeking leads to growth, and growth makes room for everyone else.

 

Dog-eared and underlined and highlighted and journaled, Eternal Echoes enters my library of go-to soulcatchers, along with the writings of Richard Hugo, Rilke and Pessoa, Woolf, Didion and Solnit: writers who understand what it means to allow in the darkness and sit tight while it slowly becomes light.

 

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Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There could not have been a better time to read Big Magic than in the fraught and anxious, giddy and surreal days before launching my first novel. Gilbert’s words soothed and grounded me, took me out of the uncomfortable, jangly headspace of self-promotion and back into the embrace of what it means to be a creative person, why I set forth on this path in the first place.

 

Fear is boring.

Yes. This. I spent forty-one years (okay, maybe thirty-five; for the first six I was blissfully unaware that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up) being afraid to pursue my dream of writing. What if I sucked? Then what dreams would be left to me? Finally, it was the fear of seeing my chances to live authentically running out that propelled me to try. Fear that I suck is still a demon on my shoulder, but I’ve learned to acknowledge that demon and move on, despite its claws digging in painfully. I could spend my time paralyzed by fear, or I could spend my time writing. My choice.

 

The notion that creativity is a magical, enchanting process may seem too woo hoo for some readers, perhaps many writers, but it resonated with this one. Yes, it is true. There is little that is magical about putting your butt in the chair, day after day, most particularly those days when you least want to write, and simply getting on with it. It is the only way to be productive, to finish what you have started: there is no glitter and spark to dogged determination.

 

And yet. The magic has twirled and sparkled in my own creative process. It doesn’t stay long, or it comes and goes, but when it flashes, I’m aware. The rest is on me, to do the hard work of turning inspiration into art, and then to find my audience. I don’t wait for the muse to guide me or put off writing until I feel inspired. But I work to be more open to and aware of the Divine Sparks, so when they occur, I can capture and hold them long enough to let them burn into my mind’s eye, etched until I have time and energy to return to their outlines.

 

I adored the anecdote about Gilbert and Ann Patchett exchanging ideas in the ether—it released me from the angst of recognizing my ideas in others’ work, of realizing that each idea has its time and will find its right and true voice.

 

You are not required to save the world with your creativity.

 

I will admit to feeling a certain . . . pressure, expectation, as a woman, as a woman over forty, to write Big Important Things. And I have done, in short stories, in essays; even in novels that appear commercial on the surface, the themes of grief, redemption, addiction, faith ground the narrative in larger, more universal contexts. But I resist writing to an agenda, I resist the notion that I must write to educate. There are times, yes, when I feel compelled to share lessons I’ve learned that may be of use to others. But I am a storyteller at heart. Really, what I want to achieve as a writer is pleasure. Enjoyment. Fulfillment. Mostly mine, if I’m honest.

 

About pursuing an advanced degree (i.e. The MFA). I get this question on occasion and now have an abridged answer that I can credit to Elizabeth Gilbert: Writers have it easy. The only education we need awaits us for free in a library or at moderate cost in a bookstore. Connections, networking, community, feedback, support—all can be obtained for free if a writer reaches out, both for support and to lift up others. MFAs can be lovely and advantageous, but *need* is not a reason to pursue one.

 

I’ve read a few reviews that scoff at Gilbert’s breathless enthusiasm, she who now perches comfortably on the pinnacle of artistic and financial freedom afforded her by the smash hit Eat, Pray, Love. As if commercial success somehow taints or diminishes or renders meaningless all the years of hard work she put in and rejection received before the runaway success of EPL. Whatever. Move along. We all enter this with our own advantages, disadvantages, lucky breaks and unfair blows. Acknowledge yours, celebrate, embrace or forgive them and stop wasting energy belittling or dismissing others who have achieved what you would like. Write.

 

There’s so much more. I need to reread Big Magic again in bits and pieces and perhaps return to this review and amend, change, modify, as I grow as a writer and my books grow up and away from me. For now, though, it is enough to have simply been allowed to return to what is important: that I write because I and the Universe have chosen it to be so. That’s enough.

 

Create whatever you want to create—and let it be stupendously imperfect, because it’s exceedingly likely that nobody will even notice.

And that’s awesome.
 

Yes. Yes it is.

 

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My Reading Year: Best of 2015

 

This was the year of the woman writer for me. From a mound of apricots rotting on Rebecca Solnit’s floor, to the ebb and flow of Virginia Woolf’s melancholic The Waves; from Joan Didion’s 1960s Los Angeles to Kate Atkinson‘s WWII England, from Lidia Yuknavitchs ravaged bodies to Jill Alexander Essbaum‘s ravishing trysts, women took me to war zones, both personal and geographical. They wrote poetry that brought me to tears and political histories that roused me to action.

 

It was an exceptional reading year.

 

The Breakdown: 135 read

Novels: 76

Poetry Collections: 18

Essay Collections: 10

Memoir: 9

Short Story Collections: 8

Writing Craft: 8

Creative Nonfiction: (social, political, historical): 5

Biography: 1

Authors:  94 women; 37 men; 4 multiple authors

 

I made so many literary discoveries, starting with Italian writer Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; The Story of the Lost Childthat have taken the English-language world by storm. The slow burn that began a few years ago, when Europa Editions published the first of Ann Goldstein’s translations, became a bonfire of enthusiasm in 2015. And I happily joined in. I read all four of the Neapolitan Novels this year—the fourth and final of which was published this past September—as well as the incendiary The Days of Abandonment.

 

Irish novelist Anne Enright was another. Just as she was named the inaugural Laureate of Irish Fiction in 2015, I was finally taking notice! Man Booker winner and chronicler of modern Ireland, she writes some of the most searing, en pointe prose I’ve read . . . ever. As I noted in my review of The Forgotten Waltz, “this is not the cozy Ireland of peat fires and Catholic guilt and rain on rose petals.This is boom-time Ireland, with all its flash and well-cut suits and Chardonnay and vacation homes and holidays in Spain. This is Ireland built by IT and pharmaceuticals and foreign investment. This is Ireland rising. This is Ireland falling.” This year I read The Gathering (2007); The Forgotten Waltz (2011); and 2015’s The Green Road.

 

As a writer, it should go without saying that words matter to me, that they become my way in to understanding the world. 2015 was the year that I confronted my assumptions and ignorance about systemic racism in the United States, when I sat with my discomfort, my white privilege, and went still, listening to others’ stories. My education began with Michelle Alexander’s staggering The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, continued with the memoirs and social histories by MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipients Bryan Stevenson—Just Mercyand writer/journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates—Between the World and Me. Stevenson is the director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is doing extraordinary work to reform sentencing laws, end the death penalty, free the wrongly-imprisoned, and fight against the mass incarceration of America’s black men. I listened to the voices of black women breaking through pop culture tropes in Tamara Winfrey Harris’ The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America and suspended my disbelief to absorb white journalist John Howard Griffin’s 1959 social experiment, Black Like Me.

 

I heard black voices sing with profound resonance and piercing clarity in the poetry of Jacqueline Woodson—Brown Girl Dreaming, Yusef Komunyakaa—Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, Kira Lynne Allen—Write This Second, Patricia Spears Jones—A Lucent Fire, and two poets with the same last name who are related only by their extraordinary literary gifts: Camille Rankine—Incorrect Merciful Impulses and Claudia Rankine’s multiple-award winning prose/poetry/essay/graphic work of art and power, Citizen: An American Lyric.

 

Speaking of Poetry. Oh. Let us speak of Poetry. Even before I knew I’d be attending my first poetry workshop, writing my first poems, I resolved to be more deliberate in reading poetry. To read more. To read widely. And I made the most beautiful discoveries. In addition to those listed above, works by Ellen Bass—The Human Line, Jack Gilbert—Collected Poems, Galway Kinnell—A New Selected Poems, Hélène Cardona—Dreaming My Animal Selves, and Charles Wright—Caribou made a particular tilt/shift to my world.

 

And here are a few books that took my breath away, books I wanted to press into everyone’s hands, saying, “Read this. You must.” Excerpted comments are from my Goodreads reviews, books presented in no particular order.

 

Euphoria, Lily King (Fiction: 2014)

Euphoria was inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead and her experiences along the Sepik River with her husband Reo Fortune and the British anthropologist who would become her second husband, Gregory Bateson. But the story is entirely of King’s invention, including the tribes and their cultures. The novel is a feat of research, imagination, passion, and restraint.

 

Something Rich and Strange, Ron Rash (Short stories: 2014)

Rash’s writing is marvelous and his mastery of the short story breathtaking. He wrings full stories with astonishing economy of plot—many are mere pages long—yet each is rendered in vivid detail. You have the sense that you are eavesdropping into these lives, seeing, hearing, smelling Rash’s world before the characters walk away, leaving you wondering what might become of their Shakespearean-tragic lives.

 

The Waves, Virginia Woolf (Fiction: 1931)

The Waves made me quiver. It made my heart jump under my frock like the leaves. I don’t know when I have read such a thing of beauty, a work that soars in joy and plummets elegiacally, rising and falling, ever in motion, and yet caught in stillness. A listening.

 

H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald (Memoir: 2014)

H is for Hawk stole me, holding me captive with its madness and love. Part claustrophobic memoir of grief, part luminous tribute to the sport of falconry, Helen Macdonald’s book is brilliant and tense. It is a story of fury and grace, recounted in pulsing, poetic language.

 

Still Writing, Dani Shapiro (Memoir, Writing Craft Inspiration: 2013)

Dani Shapiro, in this compact, eloquent, lovely book touches every aspect of a writer’s life: the distractions, the blocks, the longings, envies, vulnerabilities, processes and rhythms, cold realities, and the sustaining joys. It is less advice and prescription than empathy born of experience, a sincere hug but then a leaning back with hands clasped on your shoulders, turning you around and pushing you out the door. “Courage,” she writes, “is all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”

 

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Jonathan Evison (Fiction, 2012)

Avoiding the literary cleverness and Big Ideas that are fashionable in postmodern American novels, Jonathan Evison delivers a clear-eyed but hopeful story of loss and love, parenting, and friendship. Read, and be redeemed.

 

Landfalls, Naomi Williams (Fiction: 2015)

This is simply the best of what historical fiction can be: a voyage of discovery that speaks to the imagination and the heart, swallowing the reader whole like a literary whale.

 

The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra (Short stories: 2015)

Marra returns us to the claustrophobic terror of Soviet Russia and Stalin’s purges, where a child’s careless words can send a mother to prison, an uncle to his death, where an art restorer must eliminate evidence of subversion from paintings yet manages to score some subversion of his own. We meet the children and grandchildren of those who survived (or not) Siberia’s labor camps and prisons, young people born into glasnost and a Russia where the rich measure their wealth in billions, fueled by corruption, drugs and guns.

 

Her Own Vietnam, Lynn Kanter (Fiction: 2014)

Kanter show the bonds between women that are both complex and deeply satisfying, whether those woman are partners, sisters, mothers/daughters, friends or fellow soldiers. Men are present everywhere, of course–this is a novel about war, after all–but their behavior, vulnerabilities and strengths are filtered through the perspective of women who are not dependent upon them for an identity.

 

Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf (Fiction: 2015)

My heart is so full of admiration and affection for Kent Haruf, his stories, his characters, his dry, dusty, flat eastern Colorado. I ache for what was, what will never be again. I am thankful for this final, perfect book—written for his wife and true love, Cathy—and her generosity in sharing it with her husband’s readers. Kent, you are so missed. Thank you.

 

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Reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Writer’s Diary’

A Writer's DiaryA Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My copy of A Writer’s Diary and its forest of little tags poking out from the side. All the passages I’ve marked. Some of those passages I share with you below, in bold as I try to sort out the meaning, comfort, madness and beauty of Virginia Woolf’s writing life. 2015-10-06 05.40.36

As a writer, I move daily between despair and joy. A good day of writing leaves me scoured clean and refilled with peace;
There is some ebb and flow of the tide of life which accounts for it; though what produces either ebb or flow I’m not sure.

 

but the stress of rejection and of praise is an invasion of the external world into my emotional and intellectual equilibrium.
…the worst of writing is that one depends so much upon praise. One should aim, seriously, as disregarding ups and downs; a compliment here, silence there.

 

The only way to right the imbalance is to shut out the world and offer myself up to the page. To sit and write until my limbs are stiff, my eyes ache, my brain empties out.
The truth is that writing is the profound pleasure and being read the superficial.

 

Then, to take a walk, letting the words sift from my head down to my toes. When I return home, I have room for the words of others.
The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature.

 

A Writer’s Diary show the decades of a writer’s life unfolding in real time: the highs and near-shame of success; the deep, quiet pleasures of the life of the mind; the fear and resignation of failure, which is usually far more a product of the writer’s imagination than of the external world.
Arrange whatever pieces come your way. Never be unseated by the shying of that undependable brute, life, hag-ridden as she is by my own queer, difficult, nervous system.

 

It is a gift to be embraced and supported by communities of writers, to learn, to mentor and be mentored, to share and commiserate. Yet there are moments that stun and wither me: writers who may have achievements of publication or prestigious degrees, mocking those who are struggling to learn their craft; writers sizing each other up, sniffing at genre or publisher, determining another’s literary merit relative to one’s own with that barely-concealed sneer of competitive literary criticism.
I am, fundamentally, I think, an outsider. I do my best work and feel most braced with my back to the wall. It’s an odd feeling though, writing against the current: difficult entirely to disregard the current. Yet of course I shall.

 

What would Woolf make of the cult of personality she has become?
Now I suppose I might become one of the interesting–I will not say great–but interesting novelists?

 

What would we have made of her work, what more could she have offered us, if mental illness had not had the last word, if she could have found her way to a different final chapter?
A thousand things to be written had I time; had I power. A very little writing uses up my capacity for writing.

 

I remarked to another writer what an inspiration this book is to me, what comfort I have found in Woolf’s own struggles and doubts. She reminded me how things ended for Woolf. That she took her own life. How strange a response. She missed the point entirely.

 

Instead of being haunted by Woolf’s end, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Oliver asks.

 

Perhaps this is how Woolf would have answered:
Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on for ever; will last for ever; goes down to the bottom of the world—the moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves.

 

Virginia Woolf passed like a cloud on the waves. But her words have become moments upon which we all stand, strengthened, made taller by the foundation of her genius. And we look up at those clouds, mouthing, Thank you.

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Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative LifeStill Writing, by Dani Shapiro

 

A few weeks ago someone dear to me asked, “Are you still writing? I wondered if you’d decided to get a part-time job.” I’ll admit right now, right here, this crushed me. My first novel is still months away from launch and my second novel is out on submission. I recently finished the first draft of a third, and I’ve just returned from a life-altering residency and poetry workshop. Yet in the space of fourteen small words, I felt my entire raison d’etre smashed to smithereens. This didn’t come from an acquaintance or a well-meaning but clueless friend, this came from someone I hope would be a champion for my work. My job. Which is writing.

 

It wasn’t until I read the final pages of Dani Shapiro’s sublime meditation on the writing life that I realized the universality of my hurt and exasperation. I had to laugh. I’ve been dipping in and out of this book for two months and the title only just dawned on me as I closed the back cover. Still Writing. Jesus.

 

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of Creative Life is part memoir, part collection of meditations on what it means to be a writer. I think we writers gravitate to these books on process and creative endeavor in hopes of finding a few answers, and perhaps a mentor. I found both. I nodded in breathless agreement at each entry, exclaiming, “Yes! This!” I reread passages, underlining sentences and paragraphs, dog-earing the pages to remember later until I realized that I would be marring every page with pen or corner fold, and that it would be possible to return, open any page, and find comfort within.

 

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I need permission to accept I’ve chosen a life inherently insecure and dependent upon the moods, whims, and tastes of others. The notion of the artist scribbling away in blissful solitude in her light-filled atelier or in the warm bustle of a café, pouring her soul onto the page, is lovely and romantic, but in reality—if one hopes to make a living writing—the risk and vulnerability are breathtaking and sometimes stupefying. You are dependent upon forces beyond your control: the gatekeepers of the publishing world. You refine and hone your craft in the small and lonely hours, hoping each day of writing will make you that nebulous better writer. It is so refreshing, therefore, to read someone who has found success (i.e. readers), call it like it is:

“When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt—spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.”

And yet those lonely hours in that atelier (or, more accurately, in the dining room, on the living room sofa, tucked in a messy corner of a shared home office, and yes, in that bustling café) pulse and burst with all the lives that have written before us, the books we have read, authors we have studied, mentors who guide us, the few encouraging comments we cling to like life rafts to avoid the whirlpool of rejection and doubt.

“Though we are alone in our rooms, alone with our demons, our inner censors, our teachers remind us that we’re not alone in the endeavor. We are part of a great tapestry of those who have preceded us. And so we must ask ourselves: Are we feeling with our minds? Thinking with our hearts? Making every empathic leap we can? Are we witnesses to the world around us?”

For we have the calling, the responsibility even, to push past the doubt and keep writing. I struggle with this every.single.day. Ironically, the only thing that quiets the demons of doubt is the work.

“Donald Hall writes, ‘If work is no antidote to death, not a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work. Get done what you can.” There is this—only this. It would be good keep these words in mind when we wake up each morning. Get done what you can. And then, the rest is gravy.”

At this stage of being in my mid-late forties and only just getting started as a writer, it’s hard to see the gravy from the smorgasbord crowding my plate. I don’t have the luxury and seeming-invincibility of youth to build a career. I write with a sense of urgency. It took me until the age of forty-one to find my voice and five years later those pent-up words continue pouring out, but I’m still this raw and unformed writer who has years of fundamental learning ahead of her. Who knows that fiction writing alone will not sustain her financially. Yet the world of freelance writing, of speaking engagements, of being asked is a foreign land to which I haven’t yet been approved for residency. But I’ve been granted a visitor’s visa and hopefully, I’ll be able to stay. I taught my first writing workshop this weekend and there are more to come in the fall. Yesterday, I started the class by reading from Still Writing, specifically the lovely section entitled Shimmer. Here’s part of it:

“That knowledge, that ping, that hair on our arms standing up, that sudden, electric sense of knowing. We must learn to watch for these moments. To not discount them. To take note. I’ll have to write about this. It happens when our histories collide with the present. It comes with the certainty of its own rightness.”

I have returned to Shimmer several times since my initial reading, knowing this is, in part, why I write. It is the inevitability of the calling. The endorphin rush of the words, a craving of the soul that must be redeemed on the page. These moments of shimmer that, when I recognize and respond to them, reward me with a sense of wellbeing. Not money, recognition, external approval, guidance or proof of my skill. But a simple, complete peace of heart and mind. It is a privilege to feel this way and I recognize what a privilege it is to call myself a writer.

“Unlike other artists—dancers, sculptors, or cellists, say—as long as we hold onto our faculties, writers can continue to grow creatively until we die. The middle of a writing life is much like being in the midst of a book itself. Here we often discover our weaknesses and strengths.”

Dani Shapiro, in this compact, eloquent, lovely book, touches every aspect of a writer’s life: the distractions, the blocks, the longings, envies, vulnerabilities, processes and rhythms, cold realities, and the sustaining joys. It is less advice and prescription than empathy born of experience, a sincere hug but then a leaning back with hands clasped on your shoulders, to turn you around and push you out the door. “Courage,” she writes, “is all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”

 

Yes. Yes. I am Still Writing. In hope. In terror. Sometimes with one eye on that dwindling savings account. Because I can read Rilke’s question: “Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write?” and respond: Yes. Yes, I must.

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Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

“… the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?”

 

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption chronicles the founding, growth, and work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI is “a private, nonprofit that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. We litigate on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.” (EJI website).

 

Its Executive Director since the founding of EJI in the late 1980s, Bryan Stevenson wrote Just Mercy to bring readers close to the issues of mass incarceration and the injustices of a broken criminal justice system that condemns children, the mentally ill, non-violent offenders, and wrongly accused to death from life imprisonment or capital punishment.

 

Just Mercy centers around the case of Walter McMillan, a black man sentenced to death in 1987 for the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison. Walter was sent to Alabama’s death row before the trial even took place. He would spend six years on death row, before Bryan Stevenson and his team at EJI was able to convince the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals that McMillan had been wrongly convicted. That he was innocent was not in doubt—dozens had tried to testify his whereabouts at the time of the murder; the man who claimed he and McMillan had murdered the young woman recanted his testimony several times; the law enforcement and legal system was blatantly corrupt and racist. But Walter McMillan’s story serves as a representative tale of how the American criminal justice system is still mired in Jim Crow, a massive complex rooted in policies of mass incarceration and structural poverty and racial injustice.

 

Intertwined with the chapters of Walter McMillan’s story are the cases of men, women, and children around the country that EJI took on, seeking to save lives and reform laws by advocating for the marginalized and broken.

 

Stevenson posits that there are “four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice, but remain poorly understood”: slavery; the reign of terror which followed Reconstruction through WWII, during which African-Americans were re-enslaved, lynched, and brutalized; the evolution of Jim Crow, which legalized racial discrimination; and mass incarceration—a deliberate American legal, political, and law enforcement policy, chronicled in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

 

Just Mercy is devastating, but as the title suggests, it is not without hope, grace, mercy and compassion, for these are the very qualities that compelled a group of young people, with inadequate funding, staff, and experience, to fight for the most hopeless and forgotten of our society. It is a coming-of-age memoir of a social justice champion.

 

EJI grew from a staff of two at its founding to more than forty today; Bryan Stevenson is the recipient of multiple honors, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant, and has tried several cases before the United States Supreme Court; EJI has saved dozens of lives and continues to call for the abolition of the death penalty and draw attention to the ills of a criminal justice system that punishes the poor, people of color, children, and the mentally ill and disabled at rates vastly disproportionate to that of the wealthy and white.

 

…the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

 

I implore you to read this inspiring, powerful story. It belongs to us all.

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