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.

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 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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