Desiderata: The Best Reads of 2019

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

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

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

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

FICTION

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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

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

I'll Never Play The Hammered Dulcimer by Jan Hanson

I’ll Never Play The Hammered Dulcimer by Jan Hanson

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

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

From IN TEXAS

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

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

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

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

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

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

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

The River by Peter Heller

The River by Peter Heller

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

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

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

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

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

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Big Sky (Jackson Brodie #5)by Kate Atkinson

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

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

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

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

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

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

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

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

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

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

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

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

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

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

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick(Goodreads Author)

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

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

As a River by Sion Dayson

As a River by Sion Dayson

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

NONFICTION

What You Have Heard Is True by Carolyn Forché

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

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

Dopesick by Beth Macy

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

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

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

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

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

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

No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder

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

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

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

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

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

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

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

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

Desiderata: Monthly Book Wrap

Desiderata: things desired

This is the first in what I intend to be a monthly review of books recently read. As a new month turns over, here’s a look back at what I read in October that stirred my soul.

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long

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

And this was one worth having insomnia for. One of the year’s most moving (trembling, shaking) reads for me. I gasp in wonder and humbleness that Lights All Night Long is Lydia Fitzpatrick’s debut.

The lights of Fitzpatrick’s novel refer to the harsh and constant glare of the massive oil refineries that light the frozen plains of the small northwestern Russian town where Ilya Alexandrovich Morosov grew up and the steaming bayous of Leffie, Louisiana where he is spending the year as an exchange student.

The two landscapes and cultures couldn’t be more different and the story opens as Ilya arrives at the airport in Baton Rouge, walking deliberately past the smiling, plump, eager host family that awaits him, holding high the sign with his name. He walks past the Masons not once, but several times, only meeting them at last at the car rental kiosk where they have him paged. Fitzpatrick captures the moment they register Ilya’s face as one they had seen walk by, ignoring them, so perfectly —a moment’s mixture of embarrassment, hurt, confusion, and then kindness. No one mentions the gaffe and Ilya is welcomed into the Mason family: Papa Cam, Mama Jamie, two young daughters, and the misplaced, reclusive teenager, Sadie, who becomes his guide to American high school and eases his cultural transition.

Ilya packed very little for his year abroad, but he comes laden with a terrible secret. His beloved older brother, Vladimir, is in prison, having confessed to the murders of three women shortly before Ilya left for America. Vlad is a drug addict, a petty thief, a high school dropout. But a murderer? Ilya knows his brother, knows his optimistic, fun-loving heart. He may have mired his life in terrible choices, but Vlad is not a killer.

The chapters alternate between America and Russia, between the present and the immediate past, the year leading up to Ilya’s departure, when things were going so right in his life, and so terribly wrong in his brother’s. Fitzpatrick crafts a murder mystery with a slowly-tightening circle around the truth as Ilya sets puzzle pieces in place each night in his basement room at the Mason’s, surfing the net after he completes his daily homework. He reveals his secret to Sadie and together they work to prove Vladimir’s innocence.

Lights All Night Long is beautifully written, with characters cast in tenderness and compassion, landscapes that crackle with ice and throb with humidity, and an intricate, carefully woven plot that will leave you gasping at the end. But it is the relationship between the brothers Ilya and Vlad that will burrow into your heart, and break it, over and over.

One of the year’s best. Now, let’s all get some sleep.

Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice

I need a new category/shelf: Books That Make Me Cry Because I Think The Author Sees Into My Soul.

I’ve been reading this slowly these past few weeks, just a short essay or two in the morning before turning to work on my novel-in-progress. It’s served as a devotional, an inspiration, a kick in the ass, a point of focus, permission, forgiveness, scolding, hope. I think it will remain on the coffee table beside my morning writing spot, and I’ll return to the beginning and keep rereading through to the end, rinse-repeat until McCann’s nuggets of wisdom, tenderness, and no bullshit advice on the writing life are ingrained in my brain. It doesn’t matter how much one has or hasn’t written, published or not published, Colum McCann writes to our deepest fears and hopes, with the solid conviction that we must write on. Rage on.
 

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks

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A gorgeously-penned novel that is nominally about real-life composer Erik Satie, but at its core is the story of the death of a possibility. Not of Erik Satie’s, whom Caitlin Horrocks shows to be an occasionally inspired, oft-petulant and paranoid genius, but of his sister Louise’s, whose gender made her own career as a gifted musician a risible intention.

Satie’s rise to fame as a composer in fin-de-siècle Paris occurred within an inner circle of family and fellow artists, and his ambitions reveal both the genuine struggle and the patriarchal privilege artists in all mediums faced or benefited from then, and now.

The Vexations has a multitude of narrators, including Satie; his siblings Conrad and Louise; his companion, painter and artist’s model Suzanne; and collaborator, lyricist and poet, Philippe. I found this literary choice vexing at times, for it distanced me as a reader from Erik, and I felt it distanced the author from the character she most wanted to spend time with: Louise.

The Saties’ mother died when the siblings were young. Their father left Conrad and Erik with their grandmother; Louise was taken to a great-uncle and raised to be a docile, lightly educated Catholic young woman, devoid of any ambition other than to marry well. The boys are eventually reunited with their father in Paris and allowed aspirations. Conrad is drawn into respectable business. Erik’s pursuits land him in bohemian Paris, ascending the steep streets above the Pigalle to the wilds of Montmartre, where the avant-garde and the tawdry rub elbows and raise goats in sprawling, meadowed backyards. Horrocks immerses the reader in this landscape, deliciously evoking the circles of artists, composers, poets, writers, and painters who created the stylized dilettantism of La Belle Epoque Paris.

But this is Louise’s story, as evidenced by the first person perspective given to her character, the only one who is allowed such closeness to the reader and her own agency. Louise takes us from the Satie childhood home in Normandy to post WWII Buenos Aires, where she retreats for safety, privacy, and employment like so many Europeans during and after the war. The reader is left to wonder, had Louise been given the opportunities afforded her brothers, which Satie would we be celebrating and remembering via Spotify playlists and movie soundtracks? There is no denying Erik’s genius, but we must recognize the genius denied in Louise.

A powerful, engrossing novel. Highly recommended.

The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld

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I entered adolescence at the same time Gary Ridgeway, aka the Green River Killer, murdered his first victim, a teenager he’d abducted from a foster home near Seattle.

Through my teenage and early adult years, Ridgeway killed dozens of women in south King County and in Portland, OR. Nearly all were sex workers and runaways, compromised by poverty, drugs, trauma. They were the most vulnerable among us, forgotten and easily discarded.

Author Rene Denfeld lived homeless in Portland as a teenager at the same time as the Green River Killer was beginning his two-decade killing spree. She may even have narrowly missed becoming one of his victims, as she chronicles in this recent article for Crime Reads: The Green River Killer and MeThe Butterfly Girl is Denfeld’s gift to those abused, forgotten street children. She gives them voice, rage, tenderness, humanity, and in Naomi Cottle — the child finder— she offers them hope.

We were introduced to Naomi in Denfeld’s haunting 2017 novel, The Child Finder. In this second thriller, Naomi puts her external investigations on hold to focus on finding her sister, who was held captive with Naomi after the two were stolen from their families as little girls. Naomi escaped when she was nine, running naked through strawberrry fields into the arms of migrant workers, who delivered her to safety in a distant Oregon town. Young Naomi fled with nothing. She had no memories of her captivity, only that she left behind a baby sister. Rage and guilt propelled her into a career finding the children everyone else has given up on. Even if all she can offer the grieving families is a body, her mission is to bring closure to the devastation of the missing.

The Butterfly Girl of the title is twelve-year-old Celia, a Portland street kid who escaped repeated rape at the hands of her opioid-addicted mother’s boyfriend. Celia sleeps in the bushes and digs through restaurant dumpsters, avoiding roving bands of marauding frat boys and the slimy clutches of preying men. Occasionally she sells her body to make some cash when things are most desperate. It is a terrible existence, but better than the one she left. She finds refuge in the city library, where volumes of books about butterflies capture and release her imagination into a world of flight on beautiful wings.

But a new horror has entered the streets where Celia lives: someone is murdering young homeless women and dumping their bodies into the city’s wide, industrial river. Naomi’s quest to find her sister draws her into Celia’s life and into the hunt for this monster. The two investigations dovetail into one breathless race to catch a killer before he can strike again.

Naomi’s own trauma renders her distant and cold from her husband, from the beloved friend who takes them in, and even from the reader. She seems to serve, uncomfortably at times, as an empty vessel through which all the rage and despair and sadness of the victims pours through.

Bleak and beautiful, The Butterfly Girl offers a moving and distressing portrait of street life, of those who live it and those who seek to provide relief and retreat from it. It’s a heartpounding thriller with a lyrical and humane soul.

A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman

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My ex-husband and I served briefly as Peace Corps volunteers in Chad in the early 90s. We were young newlyweds— 24 & 27 — but we’d lived abroad, we were fluent in one of Chad’s official languages (French), we were trained as educators, he as a K-12 certificated teacher, me as an instructor of ESL. We left Chad after a few months, heartbroken, disillusioned, angry and bewildered.

We quickly realized that as members of a well-intentioned but grinding government bureaucracy we were likely doing more harm than any possible benefit we could offer to a country imploding into civil war. We were essentially taking jobs away from Chadian teachers, who were on rolling strikes to protest not being paid by their own government. Into the vacuum stepped the “education” volunteers to take their place. It was a moral dilemma that we chose not to be a part of.

Misguided, even harmful, development projects are dirty not-so-secret aspects of NGOs and goodwill government organizations everywhere: foreign-funded projects often center on making the foreigners look good by creating physical structures to show donors back home the good things that come from their money. These projects are initiated not by local populations who understand best what is needed in their communities, but by outsiders desperate to spend the monies they’ve been awarded. It’s a tangled mess of convenient compassion, “white savior” mentality, and nefarious politics centered on “winning hearts and minds” that we had the intelligence to recognize and distance ourselves from, even if leaving hurt our potential careers.

Humanitarian superstar Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools is perhaps the most infamous example of development projects gone bad. Mortensen perpetuated his NGO fraud in the post 9-11 bewilderment of the war with Afghanistan to the tune of millions of dollars of donations from compassionate and guilt-laden Americans, two bestselling and nearly completely fabricated memoirs, and a foundation that served as his own money laundering network. He was exposed at last in 2011, several years after the publication of his first book, by writer Jon Krakauer and the team at 60 Minutes. It’s absolutely worth looking up Krakauer’s articles and the 60 Minutes episode to see in real time how far Mortensen led astray not just well-meaning donors, but the American military, for whom he served as a guide and advisor.

Amy Waldman, who spent several years in Afghanistan as a journalist in the fragile and frightening era immediately after 9-11, mines the rich ridiculousness of Mortensen’s rise and crash to create the premise of her latest novel, A Door in the Earth. Set in 2009, the novel tells the story of young Afghan-American woman, Parveen Shamsa, who travels to a mountain village in northern Afghanistan to conduct anthropological research. Like many Americans of the era, Parveen has fallen under the spell of a book entitled Mother Afghanistan, written by an American humanitarian Gideon Crane (our fictional Greg Mortensen) who found himself in Afghanistan after 9-11 and became a superstar philanthropist by building women-only medical clinics. Parveen traces Crane’s footsteps and secures an introduction to members of the village where Crane established the first clinic. Parveen arrives with a vague academic plan and a small grant from UC Berkeley, where she is a student. Her Afghan roots allow her family in distant Kabul and solid knowledge of Dari, the primary language spoken by the villagers.

The story is the awakening of Parveen to her own idealism, the disaster of military intervention to instigate regime change, the faulty logic of many humanitarian assistance programs that try to solve problems first and ask questions later, and the very devastating consequences that can result when outsiders intervene in places they don’t bother to take the time to learn about or understand.

I struggled with the sheep-like plodding of Parveen; her naïveté made a caricature of her character at times, and kept her from developing into a fully-realized being. She was more like a mirror upon which the truth was reflected.

Rather, it was the richness of the Afghan human and physical landscape that held me fast to the page. Waheed, the patriarch of the family which takes in Parveen, plays a central role in the fictional memoir he’s never read; the tragic death of his wife, Fereshta is supposedly what galvanized Crane into humanitarian action. He is written with nuance and compassion, as are his wives, Bina and Shokoh, and their children. I felt the urgency and warmth of the woman doctor, Yasmeen, who makes a perilous drive once a week to the village with her son, Naseer, to treat its women; the fallibility and vulnerability of interpreter Aziz, whose limited knowledge of English and selective translations imperil villagers and American soldiers alike. Most importantly, the many voices given to the Afghan village women are the heart and soul of this complex and nuanced story. The setting, which reads like an Edenic oasis in the midst of chaos, was intoxicating and revelatory.

Waldman uses Parveen’s dawning realization that she has been taken in by a terrible fabrication illustrates the very real tragedy of America’s presence in Afghanistan, and the greater context and consequences of foreign assistance projects everywhere. It is not that foreign aid and humanitarian assistance aren’t needed; they are, desperately. It’s that unless these projects are initiated, led and assessed by local populations, even the best intentions can do irreparable harm.

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Writing as Fast as I Can

We’d been anticipating his journey for months and by mid-summer, we’d set the departure date: the Monday after the Saturday when his youngest daughter would leave the nest for her college freshman year.

 

How long he would be gone was vague. Once, in the late spring, he mentioned Thanksgiving and my heart sank. I would be spending the autumn alone, each day growing darker and colder, the daily phone calls becoming perfunctory. I would grow used to taking up space in the bed again. Folding only my own underwear. Dinners of popcorn and wine.

 

But I knew this journey had to be taken. A man on the cusp of life change, a nest emptied as last as the last child took flight. Before he could look to the future, he needed to reconnect with his past.

 

And so I began sinking into the hammock of alone time. Day job, during this almost-busiest time of the year, would suck up hours. One of the yoga studios I frequent announced a 30-day challenge (okay, 31 days, on account of October being the month). So my morning and early evening would be bookended by intense practice.

 

And I would write. The quiet evenings and weekends held the promise of words. Uninterrupted by conversation or dinner, the setting aside of laptop to curl into his arms, snuggling into that broad chest and the oblivion of Netflix or NFL or one of the books stacked on the nightstand. No, my keyboard would softly click and the counter would tick upwards, filling in the gaps of empty space with words. I set myself a word count goal — not anything like NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 extravaganza, but something momentous for me, at this time.

 

Four years ago, in the dark and tender ten weeks between mid-January and early March, I completed the first draft of THE CROWS OF BEARA, some 110,000 words. The novel poured out of me. I had the time to catch all the words on paper. It was a synchronicity of circumstance—the graciousness of my then-partner that allowed me the time, free from the pressure of a day job, to write—and inspiration that brought the most precious elements of the story to my heart and soul. It is a standard I continue to hold myself against, as ridiculous as that is, for few among us have uninterrupted time to write our stories. We have vocations, ailing parents, second families, our first children, partners with dreams of their own who need our support, financial or otherwise.

 

Still, I have my own past productivity — three novels written in three years — against which I measure the writer I am now.

 

I’m often asked when my next book is coming out. I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago the triumph of having a short story placed in a literary journal. A number of people misread my post and congratulated me on my forthcoming novel. Someone reported having seen my third novel in a bookstore, which thrilled me to no end, except that the novel is still on submission in its quest for a publishing home. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe I’m manifesting my own misguided expectations.

 

During that time alone – a month as it turned out- I realized I’d gotten stuck in my own story. Not the one I’d been trickling into Scrivener, but the one I had stored in my heart. I took the time to do so many things other than write. I sat in silence. I remembered. I mourned. I began to forgive myself.

 

And then I continued to write.

 

This novel will take as long as it takes. If I have one resolution for this year, it is to manifest grace. Grace, and its sister-words mercy, generosity, tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, is my journey, the only way I will make it to the page. 

 

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.   Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage 

Refilling the Well

“You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted. Begin again the story of your life.”  Jane Hirshfield

 

My last post here was an outpouring of grief. I’d just lost my beloved cat, Camille, a loss that stops me cold in quiet moments. But in her death was the grace and necessity of catharsis, for in the mourning of that sweet creature, I released the grief of other losses, regrets, and pain: my marriage, my mother, my miscarriages, even of friends who fell away when my personal storms blew the satellite models of normalcy to hell.

 

I resurfaced in the midst of grief, still surrounded by it, but no longer carried away in its current.

 

At some point I wandered away from social media, without intention (I feel frissons of Fremdscham when people announce on Facebook that they are taking a Facebook break; I imagine someone loudly announcing their departure in the middle of a crowded party. The room goes silent for a second, then there is a collective shrug, a turning away, and the cacophony resumes at a higher intensity, uncaring and annoyed). I’ve felt strongly the need to reserve my energy and thoughts for my work, to preserve my words. At the same time, my reading picked up pace, resuming its former, pre-marriage-ending levels when my concentration was intact: two, three novels a week. I wondered if I were procrastinating—all this reading of others’ work instead of focusing on my own—but I realized this too was part of the work, as it ever has been. I am refilling the well. Reading, writing reviews, brought me to the page in the first place. The more I fill my soul with sentences and phrases that make it sing, the more I have to work with. The more I write. First comes the necessary stillness, then the slow trickle of ideas that become words that become a story.

 

It’s been nearly three years since I’ve given myself over with abandon to new characters, although our time together is only so many stolen moments—in the stillness of early morning, a warm late afternoon at water-view beer garden picnic table; a sleepy Sunday in the backyard as the dryer vents out heated air…

 

I’ve written through three weeks without a laptop, after mine died and I waited for the replacement to travel from mainland China to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Alaska, Kentucky (?), Seattle and finally my front door. I indulged in new notebooks, copying passages from Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, scribbling story ideas while researching news articles on my phone.

 

I can’t recall when I stumbled across the Hirshfield line, “How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” Yet there it is, in a scene of my new novel, clumsily recited by Ben to Kate, who lets him ramble on, unaware the line isn’t his, and frankly, not caring. She’s not a poetry fan. She slips away from the reading a few minutes later, muttering something about a bad oyster in the ear of her friend Gina, who dragged her to the event. It’s Kate’s fragile moments I am exploring, even as mine become anecdotes in a larger life.

Obelus (Episodes of Grief)

Because one night I was in a room
listening until only one heart beat.

From “After Words” by Kimberley Blaeser (Full Poem )

 

i.

after my miscarriages, i am told

‘you can try again.’

‘at least you know you can get pregnant.”

‘there was probably something wrong with the baby.’

i am reminded again and again how common it is to lose a child in utero.

 

i want to scream, ‘but it’s never happened to me’

 

ii.

 

my wedding dress is transformed into a collection of burial gowns for stillborn infants.

 

i think to share this with you, for that dress represents twenty-five years of our lives. what it has become seems a beautiful tribute to the losses we endured together.

 

but without warning, you have ceased speaking to me. i reason you won’t care what i’ve done with my wedding dress.

 

this may be why we are no longer married.

 

the seamstress sends me a remnant as a keepsake, a small beaded pouch. i press it to my cheek, then bury it in the bottom of a drawer, empty.

 

iii.

 

i take you to the vet. you’re fierce and cranky, chatty and loving, and just a wee thing, but smaller than you should be.

 

your condition isn’t serious; one pink pill twice a day will set you to rights. but you will have to be on medication for the rest of your life.

 

i don’t know then that the rest of your life is seven days.

 

iv.

 

on this day.

 

facebook sends me reminders of my past.

 

in one week, two photos. cheek to cheek. arms

 

wrapped until there is no space between one body and the other.

 

i think of you as a sister. a woman whose heart seems entwined with mine. you are family. my friend.

 

(my life companion + my best friend) / (what happens in life that defies explanation) =                      .

 

in one of those photos i am pregnant, but i don’t yet know it.

 

in both of those photos i hold so many endings. i don’t yet know that, either.

 

 

v.

 

‘i’d like to meet your mother’ – you tell me.

 

i’d like to meet her, too. for the woman who let go of me wasn’t my mother.

 

and yet i worry i’ll end up just like her.

broken. alone.

 

when i was small and thought you were whole

 

was it already too late for you?

The Crows of Beara by Julie Christine Johnson

Start with a Story

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

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

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

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

Jathan & Heather

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

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

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