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.

Tender Is The First Draft

Tender Is The First Draft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining the Attention Resistance

Every rare once in awhile a Facebook friend announces their imminent departure from Facebook. Or simply quietly slips away, leaving behind a shadow profile in my friends list. I send up a silent cheer when I realize they have deactivated their account, knowing in my belly they are better off without this ubiquitous social media overlord.

For a long time, I’ve felt a sense of disquiet about social media (here’s a post from 2011: The In-Between Times), but the disturbance has become a growing alarm and a deep sadness in recent months, feeling like we, all of us who are connected, have just lost our way.

Then two things occurred almost simultaneously, one horrific, one glorious. First, The New York Times ran a feature on child pornography, a hideous crime that’s exploded in volume because of social media. The wretched creeps who exploit and abuse children have multiple platforms that make it harder to track their behavior and make it all the easier for children to be preyed upon. The social media companies, like Facebook with its Messenger platform, are complicit in these crimes, just as they were in the travesty that was the 2016 election. They want users, regardless of the consequences.

Second, a friend fulfilled a lifelong dream, which also happens to be one of mine: hiking the Camino de Santiago. She chronicled every day of her trek via photos and anecdotes posted on Insta and Facebook. As much as I treasured joining her journey from afar, I also wanted to plead with her to put down the phone, forget all of us, and be there, in her head and body and heart, and just walk. Walk for the sake of it, not for the Instagrammable moments. Being disconnected from the world is natural, healthy, necessary. I imagine my own Camino and know that I want it to be private, meditative, transformative. Not shared, liked or retweeted. Pure.

Into all this walked Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, giving me yet more reasons, and now a strategy, to reframe and redo my relationship with social media.

Cal Newport isn’t a Luddite. He’s not against social medial or digital technology. He does throw down the gauntlet, however; challenging his readers to look their use and habits squarely in the screen, to recognize and deeply register the power Silicon Valley has in nearly every aspect of our lives, our time, our children’s brains, our attention, our pocketbooks.

Few want to spend so much time online, but these tools have a way of cultivating behavioral addiction.

Newport demonstrates throughout Digital Minimalism that, while some of these addictive qualities are accidental, many have been exploited by tech and social media companies whose driving purpose is to keep us online as often, and for as long, as possible. Through intermittent, unpredictable social approval (likes, loves, retweets), we become dependent on the feedback that shows someone, somewhere, has noticed us.

I’ve moved around so much as an adult; social media has offered an easy way to keep in touch with friends from whom I’m separated by oceans and lifetimes. Facebook and Twitter brought me into communities of writers crucial to the development of my career. I might never have started writing if it weren’t for Goodreads. Writing thoughtfully about the books I read became a DIY MFA. I learned story structure, narrative depth, character development, and how to construct a beautiful sentence not only by reading great (and not so great) books, but by being a part of a community that discusses them. Instagram brought visual arts into my life. I know nothing about the technology of photography, but I’ve got a great eye, I love taking and sharing my photographs, and being inspired by others.

It’s not that any of these tools is bad. To be fair, they can bring pleasure and satisfaction. It’s just that they are too much. And we, no matter how professional, intelligent, disciplined, have been manipulated to respond like rats to a sugar drip. Our brains are tired. We’re overstimulated, over-connected, over-info’ed. It’s not natural to have hundreds of “friends,” to share not only the minutiae of our daily lives, but its most intimate details, with people we wouldn’t recognize if we passed them on the street, to constantly seek social approval, not to spend time in solitude, not to look up and observe the world around us.

Newport, and his co-frères/sœurs James Clear, Atomic Habits, Jenny Odell How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, among others, are part of the emerging Attention Resistance, a loosely-knit group of educators, researchers, artists, and business professionals who are decrying the outsize role digital technology and social media play in our lives.

‘Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, has called the platform a “social-validation feedback loop” built around “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Tristan Harris, who worked as a “design ethicist” at Google, has said that smartphones are engineered to be addictive.’

“What It Takes to Put Your Phone Away,” by Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker April 22, 2019.

This just isn’t right. I don’t want to play the game anymore. Or more accurately, I don’t want to be played anymore.

I am accepting, moving toward embracing, that time spent on social media is “low quality” time. No matter how much I appreciate the connections, the sharing of fun moments or commiseration over the bad, I am coming to accept that I will be happier, more focused, productive, and peaceful the less time I spend on social media. I already take periodic breaks, employing various tips and technologies to reclaim my time and attention, but as Newport states, “willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.”

Social media isn’t that big a part of my life. I have a full-time + day job and rarely check social media during the day, even though my actual job requires that I post on both Facebook and Instagram. I am finishing the first draft of my fourth novel; I am in the yoga studio, the city pool, the gym, on forest trails; I read copiously. I’m busy, engaged in the real world. But still. I think social media is compromising my—and our society’s at large—mental, intellectual, physical, and communal health. It’s time to start doing things differently. Hey, there’s an app for that! (actually, quite a few: Moment, Forest, Freedom, Focus, and one new to this Mac user: Ulysses, which looks an awful lot like Scrivener).

Seriously, Cal Newport has a plan. Detox for thirty days, And then, once your 30-day detox is over, rebuild your relationship with digital technology from the ground up, with intentionality and minimalism, where technology serves you and what you deeply value.

“The goal is not simply to give yourself a break from technology, but to instead spark a permanent transformation of your digital life.”

Newport recommends that you spend your time away from optional technology by discovering, or rediscovering, what you enjoy. It’s the Marie Kondo approach to a digital life: if it’s not useful or doesn’t bring you joy, it needs to go, as much as is reasonable. Most of us have aspects to our jobs that make some of these technologies, including emails or texting, inevitable.

There are engrossing sections of this book that discuss the beauty of solitude- a beauty we’ve all but lost with the constant presence of our phones in our pockets, by sharing the carefully curated moments of our lives or reading about others’. He argues that we are suffering from Solitude Deprivation – A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds. There are also alarming looks at younger generations who’ve never known life without iPads or smartphones: the stunted growth of empathy, focus, motivation, and observation. It’s not just terribly sad and weird, I believe it’s a public health crisis.

So in a couple of weeks, beginning November 1, I will be starting my 30-day digital declutter. For me, that will be Facebook, including Messenger, Twitter, and Instagram.

I’ll journal my detox. I won’t force myself to finish this first draft of my novel by the end of November, but at the rate I’m going even before I begin my detox, I just might! I look forward to all that I will add to my life as I let go of the ubiquity, the artificiality, of “connection.” I want to learn to be better connected to and more present in my real world life.

The Lesson of the Falling Leaves

“the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith

such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves”

Lucille Clifton

I celebrated my 50th birthday two weeks ago. Well, celebration is a stretch. It happened, I was in attendance by default, but I spent the day and several that followed otherwise occupied in the cardiac unit of a regional hospital. My heart was safe, at least physically, but entwined with that of another’s whose own was at risk of failure.

I’d made vague plans to do something epic to greet this milestone birthday: a hike in Ireland or a week in Paris went as far as bookmarking airlines and clearing my work calendar. But my sweetheart, who paints houses during the spring and summer and canvases during the autumn and winter, was still in full work mode in early September. So we tried on plans for Hawai’i, New York or a Highway 1 road trip in October, instead.

September is a crazy quilt of changes that elicits such emotion. It is the calendrical beginning of so many seasons that ruled my life, from the schoolgirl years through professional careers in higher education and the wine industry, where September is the busiest of times. The month of my birth. Once the month of my marriage. A month of renewal, transformation, anticipation. It’s long felt like the year’s beginning, with such a palpable change in activity and air, temperature and energy, rather than January, winter’s dark, secretive core.

Yet for the past several years, since returning to the Northwest — where summer is a shimmering, spinning carnival of gold and blue, forever days, and dusks that burn out long after I’m in in bed — I’ve mourned the end of sundresses and freckles, resented the sudden descent of dark mornings and the melancholic echo of foghorns, warning of the thick, wet blanket wrapped around the bay. I dread the cold and rain, such a shock after months of dry and gentle warmth. It takes me a few weeks to grieve, accept, and at last embrace the gorgeousness of wood fires and close-toed shoes, of frost and wool.

 

This year, however, as suddenly as the transition from summer to autumn rumbled in on a Saturday night, bundled into a rare thunderstorm, I welcomed the blustery days that followed. My nesting instinct pinged loudly, my internal gears shifted down. Bring On The Night, I thought. I’m ready. 

The eve of my birthday, my sweetheart and I bought a washing machine, and then I drove him to the ER (not related, although I get how purchasing a major appliance could be a trigger for some men). A few hours later, I followed an ambulance through the warm summer’s night an hour south, where a larger hospital had a heart and vascular unit that could provide the acute care he needed.

We checked him out five days later, on his birthday. The next day the skies opened, washing away summer’s dust and lazy heat.

He’s resting, healing, getting his head and soul around all the many changes required to restore his heart. There will be no epic getaway to fete my fiftieth; there is another surgery in the weeks to come. Instead, we settle into a season of rest. Of books and writing, naps and painting, bare feet entwined under quilts as we lounge on opposite ends of the sofa, reading.

A truck just rolled into our driveway, bringing two cords of maple and fir. I can’t wait until it’s chilly enough for the first woodstove fire of the season.

I agree with the leaves.

No Longer Knocking from the Inside: A Writer on Retreat

September 2016. The last time I spent time alone, and away. My divorce would be final in a few weeks, I was starting a new job in early October, my first since becoming full-time writer three years earlier. I was moving forward, on my own, accepting that I could not sustain myself as a writer without the financial support of a steadfast and generous partner.

But first came a long-planned writer’s retreat in the south of France. I knew then how precious the opportunity was, how very long it would be until my situation — financial, emotional, logistical — could support another stretch of time to devote to my work.

Earlier this year I could at last begin thinking about traveling again. I had built up so much vacation (two jobs removed from the one I began in October 2016) that I was in danger of losing the chunk I couldn’t rollover to the next year. I renewed my passport and determined I would be lacing up my hiking boots to tramp on foreign soil while my 50th birthday raced along above me, dissolving like a cirrus cloud high in a late summer sky.

But I just couldn’t seem to hit confirm on the reservations.

At first, the excuses were circumstantial. I perform myriad roles at my job, a non-profit with two and half employees: the thought of two or three weeks away was crushing. My partner and I are saving to buy a house: an extended overseas vacation felt indulgent and short-lived when we are planning a future. And we’d had that month apart last fall, which was so hard. Time apart is vital, and healthy, but weeks simply didn’t feel good to my heart.

 

Yet, I was craving a change of scene. Craving to go for days without talking to anyone more than shop clerk. And when I listened, deeply, to what I really wanted, it was simple: time alone to write.

I booked a week at an AirBnB not all that far as the crow flies from where I live, but a world apart. Immediately, my ambivalence about when and where and how to go disappeared. This. This was the thing.

On Father’s Day I shoved random clothes into a duffel bag, packed my laptop, iPod and a bag of coffee, filled the gas tank, and on a bright, warm Sunday after yoga, soon after his daughters arrived to fête his Hallmark holiday, I kissed my sweetheart farewell and set forth.

And I wrote. After months of dipping in and out of this story, feeling the frustration of moments stolen to devote to its unfolding, I had hours, days, to focus. After five days, I emerged with half again as many words as it had taken me thirteen months to write. I discovered new characters, wrote new opening, jotted down threads of ideas for the next installment, filled a crucial plot hole I’d been circling for months, and regained the momentum I’d given over to mourning the endings of an old life and falling in love with a new present.

Of course, in the weeks since my return, life has pressed in again, with its urgencies: weekends away, or filled with events, houseguests and family dramas, insomnia and fatigue. The new possibilities of my narrative threaten to overwhelm me, but I manage words here and there, a slow moving along.

My new passport is locked away, cover stiff and shiny, pages smooth and blank. It’s there and I’ll come back to it. In the meantime, I look ahead to September, to another week of writing on my own-not far, mind you-just far enough for the words to flow, unencumbered, in the blissful silence of away...

“I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking from the inside.”

― RUMI

No Turf of Strangers: Literary Citizenship and the Author Platform

We haven’t quite settled on a name yet, though I love the suggested Guild of Dangerous Writers. We’re a new writers’ group on the Olympic Peninsula penning mystery and crime fiction; some of us cozy, others procedural, one writing YA, another romantic suspense.  A handful are published authors, others entering the fray for the first time. But whatever our experience or category, inside the covers there is Murder & Mayhem.

Deciding that we have other avenues for critiques, this group isn’t exchanging work and feedback. Instead, we’re exchanging resources, advice, and planning genre-related excursions (e.g. touring a jail; visits to the local gun range) and lectures by experts (current police detectives, a former county sheriff), as well as monthly accountability check-ins. It’s the motivational shove this writer needed; since our inaugural meeting, I’ve doubled my novel-in-progress word count. Doubled in two months what took the previous eight to achieve. We shared our premises and trouble spots, and I received suggestions that gave me traction to jolt my work from the mud where it was spinning. It’s the best thing that’s happened to my writing since the Chuckanut Writers’ Conference in June 2012, where I finally took IN ANOTHER LIFE from vague idea to print on a page.

For our next meeting, I volunteered to present on the frightening topic of Building An Author Platform (or, How to Develop A Marketing & Promotion Plan Without Losing Your Mind & Breaking Your Bank). Forget chilling thrillers that have you triple-checking the locks before to bed or clever whodunits that find you second guessing every possible clue, wondering which is the key to unlocking the mystery… the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that is book marketing and promotion and building a reader base elicits blood-curdling screams from most authors.

I’ve spent weeks poring through the wisdom I’ve collected about author platforms and book promotion since 2015, when I prepared for the launch of IN ANOTHER LIFE, and combing through favorite old and new sources for details on the ever- and rapidly-changing world of book marketing. When I began building my strategy four years ago, Facebook Author Pages were must-haves, writers were expanding their Google+ circles, author newsletters were published faster than you could say “MailChimp”, and #bookstagram was just about to become a thing.

Much has changed in four years (Google+, anyone?). New Facebook algorithms have all but made author pages irrelevant. Twitter use has exploded, thanks to the Twit-in-Chief, but savvy authors know it’s a place for conversations, NOT to announce the $.99 sale of your e-book. Facebook bought Instagram; Amazon bought Goodreads. Tiny Letter folded. Kirkus is now charging $495 for a review. Print publications are cutting back their arts sections, book reviews are getting harder and harder to score, and virtual blog tours seem sooooo 2016.

It’s hella daunting out there. This author knows she didn’t do enough to promote her first two novels. Spend enough, focus, plan, anticipate, enough.

ENOUGH.

Success in publishing—if you define success as bestseller, or even pretty good seller—is largely a matter of luck. If your publisher selects your novel or memoir as that season’s “Big Book”, you are a rare and fortunate bird, indeed. Realize now that you have very little control over the publishing process; even if you choose to self-publish you cannot predict what will happen after your book is pushed into the world. 

What you can control, however, is your visibility and your voice. Your author platform. Building an author platform is not about garnering likes or retweets. It is about broadcasting your voice—and building relationships with those who listen. 

Two elements of a solid author platform remain constant in the constantly changing publishing industry: quality writing and literary citizenship. And what could be more rewarding for a writer than to focus her time and energy on becoming a better writer, and to celebrate the achievements of others? Never has it been easier to join communities of other writers, to reach out a hand in support or to raise one in need. Frankly, literary citizenship is one of the few reasons this writer remains on Facebook and Twitter; my virtual writing communities are endless sources of inspiration, support, and friendship.

You owe it to your books to do all that is reasonable—given your resources of time, money, and emotional energy—to find and engage readers. But this is not a race against the thousands of titles that threaten to push yours aside on the shelf. It’s a long walk shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers. Understanding that a collaborative, open-arms approach to publishing will become the deep inhale that propels you up the steep slopes of publishing.

Suggested Read: Are There Limits to Literary Citizenship? and subscribe to Jane Friedman’s blog while you’re there. 

We can walk into the world of business feeling we are on the turf of strangers, possible enemies. Or we can enter that world in a way that brings our own turf with us, so that we no longer feel defensive but expansive. With the realization of the power our art wields, we can become generous. When we do, we become compelling, enviable, impressive, and we have the ability to change things.

Elizabeth Hyde Steven, from Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career

Since you’re visiting, let me know how you like the new look here, and at my website: juliechristinejohnson

The Best of My Reading Year

I had no idea that by mid-year I would be working on the first of what I hope will be a series of contemporary literary crime novels featuring a disgraced Seattle Police Department Violent Crimes detective — my reading year took an abrupt and unexpected shift over the summer. I moved from my usual literary fiction/narrative non-fiction/poetry mix into the worlds of thrillers, mysteries, crime fiction, detective and police procedurals.

Although my 2018 reading list ends pretty heavily weighted in favor of the deliciously dark and satisfying world of murder and mayhem, my best of list crosses genre. What is common throughout is intense conflict, and the intractable mystery of the human soul. I think there’s a something for (nearly) everyone here, from bestsellers to the obscure.

In no particular order:

 

FICTION

Happiness by Aminatta Forna
The narrative moves from present to recent to mythical past, tracing the lines of a wolf hunter in Massachusetts in the early nineteenth century, the demise of Jean’s marriage and her quest to save coyotes in New England in the mid-oughts, and Attila’s work as a hostage negotiator and trauma specialist in war zones from Bosnia to Sierra Leone to Iraq. Despite the breadth of its landscapes, Happiness is the story of what happens deep inside the heart after grief and loss, after love has come and gone. And possibly come again. It is also deeply political, delving into human migration, animal conservation, and war. There are so many layers of theme and character and much of the narrative relies on coincidence to move it forward, yet Forna keeps this all spinning in delicate orbit with sublime writing and wonderful characters.

 

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

The Cottingley Secret is a curl-up-and-forget-the-world sort of read, an enchanting and delightful escape. A dash of history mixed with contemporary drama and a touch of romance is just the antidote for these cynical, selfish times. Gaynor’s writing is lovely, moving fluidly between past and present, conveying a sense of wonder and possibility while remaining grounded in history and place. I simply adored this book.

Everland by Rebecca Hunt
Everland by Rebecca Hunt (2015)
Two Antarctic expeditions, set a century apart. The first, which ended in disaster, is the stuff of legends and side-taking amongst a group of modern researchers stationed at Aegeus, a fictitious Antarctic base. In 1913, three men set out in a dinghy from the main ship to explore the island of Everland: hard-bitten, calculating First Mate Napps, straight-talking, fearless Millet-Bass, and tenderfoot Dinners, who is as out of his element as a fish on a bicycle. A storm strands them on the island and only Dinners is found alive, barely, weeks later when the rescue crew is finally able to reach them. Napps’ diaries survive, but the truth they reveal is circumspect. What really happened on the Everland expedition remains frozen in time and lost memory.

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Quick, name all the literary characters you’ve fallen in love with… Lizzy Bennet, Ponyboy Curtis, Atticus Finch, Harriet the Spy, Aragorn, Jo March… those are the first who come to my mind. Add to this list the unsinkably spirited Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, an erstwhile aristocrat who in 1922 is sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s elegant Hotel Metropol. His crime is being a man of wealth and manners in Bolshevik Russia, where refinement is an affront to the state.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman
Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2017)

Sarah Winman’s (why have I not encountered her before? Tin Man is that dreaded (by the publishing industry), quiet novel, built around characters and the slow burn of years, tragedy, and a copy of a Van Gogh painting. It is the glaring sunlight of the Provençal sun against the glittering needles of the Alpilles. It is the autumn glow of a waning year in majestic Oxford. It is a couple falling in love during the delivery of a Christmas tree and another in a cemetery where the drunks go to find a moment of tenderness.

The Storm by Arif Anwar

The Storm by Arif Anwar (2018)

Inspired by the Bhola Cyclone that devastated what is now Bangladesh in November 1970, Arif Anwar spins the globe and lands the reader in WWII Burma, the Partition of India in 1947, the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, the 1972 Bangladesh independence, and modern-day Washington D.C. His premise—A dozen major and minor characters chronicle of the recent history of Bangladesh— an ambitious premise, yet Anwar weaves eras, nations, events, and characters together with grace and formidable skill.

 

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran (2017)

Lucky Boy captured me in its opening pages and held me for the scant four days it took to read. Released in early 2017, the novel presciently mirrors the headlines du jour: the travesty at the US-Mexican border of children separated from their parents. Lucky Boy challenges us to consider how to balance the justice and compassion for undocumented migrants with the need for fair and reasonable immigration policies; how to embrace the American-born children, those so-called Dreamers, whose parents left their home and risked their lives to escape poverty and violence. In a culture where ethics, compassion, civility and common sense seem to crumble with each Tweet blasted out from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Shanthi Sekaran’s smart and tender novel makes us feel deeply the controversies that newspaper headlines so often sensationalize to the point of rendering us numb.

 

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

… It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma… Winston Churchill may have been speaking about Russian national interest, but his famous quip perfectly describes the playfully clever Matryoshka doll of a novel written nearly eighty years later. Magpie Murders is an homage to the cozy mystery that British authors and screenwriters have made so irresistible, from Agatha Christie to the author’s own detective series for the small screen, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
 Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)

Like the Greek tragedy that serves as its inspiration, Home Fire is epic, fatalistic, and breathtaking. Shamsie’s story is engrossing, her intelligent and beautiful writing so readable. The political thriller/romance spin serve to make this novel accessible, even while its stylistic and psychological choices push it into deep literary fiction.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
 The Woman In The Window by A.J.Finn (2017)

I LOVE being surprised by a book. I loved this book. Anna’s voice and her vulnerability rang true, even if her obsession with noir film was just so utterly contrived (can anyone say ‘made for the big screen film deal’, which apparently happened before this book even hit the shelves. Now starring the adorable, admirable, and yes, I’m crazy for her, Amy Adams), but also very, very smart.

 

NON-FICTION

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After 
by Clemantine Wamariya (2018) This is a memoir of visceral emotions, of a young woman tortured by anger and fear and trying to make sense of all the she endured and how she survived. 
Educated by Tara Westover
Educated by Tara Westover (2018)
Educated isn’t about growing up Mormon. I think you’d probably learn more about the Church of Latter Day Saints watching a performance of The Book of Mormon. Westover’s memoir is about growing up in the shadow of profound mental illness—her father’s—and the Stockholm Syndrome-like effects it had on Westover, his six siblings, and her enabling and imprisoned mother.
The Recovering by Leslie Jamison
The Recovering is an exploration of the mythology of addiction and creativity-that the latter depends on the depth of the former, that the two are inextricably linked. By weaving the narrative of her own addictions with those of famous artists, mostly male authors writing in the booze genre (e.g. Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, John Cheever), Jamison delivers an encyclopedic memoir of a literary alcoholic.
The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell
Goodell, a longtime editor for Rolling Stone, concentrates much of his narrative in Miami and Miami Beach, exposing the folly and corruption that built these sand castle communities, the naïvete and stupidity and ostrich-head-burying that will eventually wash them away. But Goodell also takes us to Manhattan and the Jersey Shore to view the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (2012), the heartbreaking plunge of Venice, the water ghettos of Lagos, and the immediate peril in the Marshall Islands, Alaska, and Greenland.