My Reading Year: Best of 2014

I wondered as the year began—my first as a full-time writer—if I would have much time to read, if I could afford the time away from writing. One hundred and thirteen books later, I no longer wonder. The more I write, the more reading has become essential to my writing, as I chronicled earlier this year: If You Don’t Have Time to Read.

 

This has been the most astonishing and revelatory year of reading for this writer, ever. A year which saw me read my first Virginia Woolf and Sherman Alexie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; discover Francesca Marciano, Rene Denfeld, and Leanne O’Sullivan; and be rewarded again by Tim Winton, Colm Tóibín, Niall Williams, and Margaret Atwood. So many books touched me, tore me open, provided delight, and a very few that just didn’t connect. It happens.

 

Some stats: Female/Male Authors: 57/56; Memoir: 11; Poetry: 4 (oh, my reading goal for 2015 is to triple this!); Writing Craft: 6; Religion/Philosophy: 7; Young Adult: 5; Food/Wine: 1; Mystery/Suspense: 7; History/Reference: 6; Essays: 3. The rest, sixty-three if I did my math correctly, would be literary fiction, including seven short story collections.

 

I’ve pasted excerpts from my Goodreads reviews in the list below.10885357_10203486144010376_5329045514422083153_n

 

NON-FICTION

This was the Year of the Memoir for me and three very different memoirs stand out:

 

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr (2013)

Food is one of the most vibrant reflections of culture, and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

 

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (2014)

At its tender heart, My Salinger Year is a coming of age tale of a writer and an ode to being young and sort-of single in New York, living in an unheated apartment in Williamsburg and taking the subway to Madison Avenue to speak in plummy, tweedy tones with other underpaid literati. It is a gloriously, unabashedly nostalgic memoir and utterly charming.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (2011)

This isn’t for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly and life is too short to waste reading about someone else’s tragedy and self-destructive behavior. But something about this story—the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality—gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch’s word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

 

FICTION

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Race in America is an uncomfortable subject, mostly for white Americans. We still don’t know where to look or what to do with our hands. We fidget and prevaricate. We, like blond-haired, blue-eyed, wealthy, liberal Kimberley in Americanah, use euphemisms like “beautiful” when we refer to black women so that everyone will know that not only are we not racist, but we think blacks are particularly worthy of our praise. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reflects our beliefs and behaviors back on us, illuminating our silliness and our masquerades, our ignorance and our misguided, but earnest attempts to understand the impossible: what it’s like to be something other than white in this race-anxious society.

 

Life Drawing by Robin Black (2014)

Perfidy in marriage is a tried and true theme. Perhaps even time-worn. Oh, but not in Robin Black’s hands. Her craft is brilliant. In a year when I have read some massive tomes (e.g. The Luminaries, Goldfinch, Americanah), Black’s sheer economy of word and image is powerful and refreshing. Yet there is nothing spare in her syntax. Her sentences are gorgeous:

The day is thinning into darkness, the light evaporating, so the fat, green midsummer trees not fifty feet away seem to be receding, excusing themselves from the scene.

and

Bill and I had been tender with each other in the way only lovers with stolen time can sustain. Even in parting, gentle, gentle, gentle, like the tedious people who must unwrap every present slowly, leaving the paper entirely intact.

 

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (2014)

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity’s darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to the hopelessness of prison and death row. She pries open our nightmares, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes with grace on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Redeployment by Phil Klay (2014)

These are masterfully crafted stories of war. Phil Klay walks in the footsteps of Tim O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway, and Wilfred Owen before him, but with a vision all his own. What elevates these stories above voyeurism and shock value is his pitch perfect writing. Klay’s ear for dialogue, his eye for detail—offering just enough poetry in his prose to seduce, but not to saturate—and the immediacy and emotion of his characters’ voices reveal the power this young writer wields with his pen.

 

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano (2014)

As a reader and writer for whom place is nearly as important as character, I was delighted to find that Marciano speaks my language. From her native Rome to a haute couture boutique in Venice, from an old bakery turned House Beautiful in Puglia, to post-colonial Kenya, a remote village in Greece, central India, or to New York City, Marciano shows us how place defines character, and how travel strips us of our inhibitions and sometimes, our conscience.

 

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O’Sullivan (2009)

This slim volume of sensuous poetry takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag’s many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. O’Sullivan’s images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures.

 

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2014)

As readers, we often gravitate toward lives played out on a grander scale—adventures, dalliances, crimes, and misdemeanors far more colorful than our own. But reader, if you haven’t experienced the transcendent storytelling of Ireland’s Colm Tóibín, you may not know what it’s like to feel the earth tilt with the most subtle of emotional tremors.

 

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (2014)

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you’ll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it’s a primer on Western literature’s greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won’t make it through this with dry eyes.

 

Eyrie by Tim Winton (2014)

Eyrie is a vertiginous wobble through lives disintegrated by the slow acid drip of despair and addiction, held together by the thinnest strands of determination, survival, and devotion. Winton, like Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Colm Toibin, Edna O’Brien, is a writer-poet. His prose has such density and texture; it is sensual and viscous. Australian vernacular is particularly rich, to the point of cloying, and Winton uses it to demonstrate the sharp class divides in this country that we think of as a model of social egalitarianism.

 

My last full read of the year was  Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I’m still haven’t found the words to describe it, either as a book or as a reading experience, so I won’t even try. I’ll just keep reading.

 

Happy New Year to All!

 

 

Answering a Challenge: Five Favorite Reads

I began blogging a couple of summers ago for an audience of approximately one. Me. I still sit here and write mainly to myself because the thought that anyone else actually reads this thing makes me cringe a little inside. The weird moments occur when a colleague tells me his wife read my blog or when the author of a book I’ve reviewed steps in to say hello. I wonder then if I should go back and scrub clean some of my language or wipe out all the TMI bits or if my family will curse me, or…

But mostly it’s pretty calm here and occasionally it’s magical. Like when you meet a kindred spirit in the blogosphere. And when that kindred spirit just happens to be Irish, as in Living-in-Ireland-Irish, well then you know you aren’t here just whistling dixie. My fellow writer and adventuress of the blank page, Edith, who blogs here: In a Room of My Own has been a source of encouragement and inspiration since we chanced upon each other last summer (and Edith, I’d treasure you if you were from Hoboken or Bangkok, you know. It’s just that I have this thing about your Emerald Isle!).

Recently Edith tagged me in a lovely challenge: to cite Five Favorite Books and to pass along the challenge to other bloggers whom I admire. A nearly-impossible feat (this naming of only five favorites) but I shall try.

First, let me toss the baton to these wonderful writers, readers, bloggers who inspire me with their writing and life journeys:

mag offleash writing with grace and introspection from a quiet place in the Northeast U.S.

In a Vermont Kitchen a brilliant cook and a passionate reader and writer whom I feel as though I’ve known forever; someday we shall meet in the flesh!

Grace Makely writer, illustrator, adventuress

Ideas to Words novelist, imaginist, dreamer and doer

Word by Word healing through aromatherapy, inspiring through words in Aix-en-Provence

And now to narrow down a lifetime of reading to five greatest hits:

  • Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh Read when I was six years old, this book set me on my journey to become a writer. Never mind that I took a thirty-eight year detour. Harriet and her journal, Ole Golly and her yellow bathrobe, Sport and the sleep in his eyes, Dostoevsky, and tomato and dill sandwiches never left me. Friends once even read my journal and tossed me out for it, further bonding me to my Harriet. My hero.
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen I make it a point to reread an Austen each year, to remind myself that characters carry a story, that language is to be revered, and that at heart I’m just a girl who loves a love story with a happy ending. Jane Austen reminds me that fewer joys are as pure as a wonderful story.
  • Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner It has been ten years since I read this, my first Wallace Stegner. I cite it as the book that transformed me from a casual, although avid, reader to an analytical one. The book that set me on the path first revealed by Harriet the Spy. For this novel opened to my intellect the wonder of writing and the power of carefully crafted prose. Reading Stegner made me ache to write; he pulled open the empty space in my heart that has finally been filled by my own acts of literary exuberance.
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald I find tremendous inspiration and motivation from reading books on the craft of writing. I am grateful to the writers who explore and contribute to the vast canon of helpful advice for those of us still groping in the dark. That being said, if all those texts were taken away and I was left with only one example of the perfect novel, it would have to be The Great Gatsby.

The first four came to mind with ease. The last is torture, for it means excluding dozens upon dozens of glorious reads. And so the last shall be reserved for an ever-changing roster of “The Last Book I Read” even if it was one I did not enjoy. Because literacy and time to read and the chance to hold someone’s heart and soul in my hand are gifts beyond reckoning.

This gives me an easy out, since the last book I read was by one of my favorite writers. And in a sweet turn of chance, I begin and end by delighting in the literary treasures of Ireland: a circle that includes my friend Edith whom you met at the start of this ditty, and the author Colm Tóibín, who completes my favorite reads list.

You can explore my reviews of Tóibín’s books here in my blog or via my Goodreads page. Tóibín has given reader-me breathtaking, troubling, resonant stories; for writer-me, he is teaching me to see and listen to the empty space between the words. As a mother-to-be, I took my baby’s name from one of his stories. If you know my story, you will know I never had a chance to meet that child. After that loss, as in other impossible times, books became my solace. Weeks later I finally began to find words of my own.

Reading has changed my life. How about you? Although I hand this off officially to the bloggers above, I would love to hear about your five favorite reads.

Tag. You’re it.

Book Review: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

The Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read The Testament of Mary before dawn on this Easter Sunday. A coincidence, but not altogether without significance. It is an Easter Sunday direct-dialed from heaven: every color in the dyed-egg basket is reflected in spring’s delicate light – from the cornflower blue sky to the coral-pink sunrise to the daffodils in scene-stealing yellow. It is a day to believe in Resurrection and rebirth. Yet, I am not a Believer in the Christian sense. That Jesus was a real man I have no doubt. That he was a chosen being born to a virgin and endowed with super-natural powers I cannot accept. In that, I share heart and mind with his mother Mary, as envisioned by Colm Tóibín.

These 81 pages are grim and transcendent: they are a mother’s reckoning with herself, a full acceptance of grief and guilt. Years after watching as her son was crucified on a cross in front of a jeering mob, Mary shares the experience of being the mother of a demagogue.

Mary is witness to the cheerful, vulnerable child who develops into an arrogant, impassioned man. She presents his miracles as she observed them, not discounting them entirely, but offering enough doubt that we question not her loyalty, but the sanity of those who remain convinced. Ultimately, however, the greatest theme to her recollections is the question “Was it worth it?” And the mother can only respond, “No.”

Mary fled to Ephesus after her son’s death, in fear for her life. There she finds greater peace with the ancient gods than with her own Judaism or the new faith bound to her son’s life, death and the legend of his resurrection. But she is haunted by two men who appear in her home to interrogate her. They are her captors and her protectors, disciples of the Christ not present at his death (Tóibín explains in this Guardian podcast that one of the men is John, which is confusing to this reader, as John is one of the principal witnesses of the crucifixion; the other, impossible in historical terms, but right in its literary context, is the officious and vaguely threatening Paul). These men urge and pressure Mary to relive that horrible last day so they can record and share the gospels they are writing. Mary reveals her testament as a mother hollowed by the guilt of what she witnessed but could not prevent.

In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air last year, the author rejected the notion that Irish writers are natural storytellers, that they are imbued with an instinctive affiinty for words. Tóibín stated that he writes the silence, the space between the words. Nowhere in his work has this been more evident than in The Testament of Mary. This is not a work of religion, nor of faith or doubt; this is a book about a mother (a theme present in many of Tóibín’s works) and the empty space left at the death of a child. Mary never once speaks her son’s name. The unnamed dead represents the black, empty space Tóibín explores.

In the same podcast, the author also discussed what it cost him emotionally to envision the crucifixion of Christ – to set himself in that place of excruciating physical pain. It is rendered with terrible beauty, told in the voice of a mother who feels every moment of her son’s agony.

Mary is a symbol of peace and serenity and (disturbing) devotion. Colm Tóibín offers a brave and agonizing dimension she is rarely granted: that of a tortured and lonely mother, living alone with her grief. Whatever your beliefs, I hope you will allow Mary, as Tóibín does, an even greater dimension -one of a mother’s humanity and grace.

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Book Review: The Dead, James Joyce; The Empty Family, Colm Tóibín

A pair of Irishmen made up my reads this past week… just in time for St. Pat’s. Sláinte, gentlemen. I’ll toast you with a draught Guinness tonight at Kell’s. Long may your stories endure.

The  Dead (The Art of the Novella Series)The Dead by James Joyce

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Volumes of literary analysis proclaim The Dead as the perfect short story. The instructor of a short-story writing workshop I recently attended made the same assertion. He admonished our gathering to read The Dead as soon as possible and to reread it at least once a year, as an example of writing at its most sublime.

Hyperbole? I don’t know that it matters. It moved me to tears.

I knew nothing of the story, nor have I read Joyce beyond an aborted attempt a dozen years ago at “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” I expected to slog through complicated language and dry prose.

Instead I slipped quietly in the door of an early 20th century Dublin home, as an unseen guest at a party held by two aging aunts for their petite bourgeoisie friends and family. The scene unfolds gently, in the glow of the Epiphany and lantern light. There is dancing, drinking, feasting, a few social gaffes…It is the latter where Joyce balances on the razor’s edge between social satire and devastatingly keen observation.

This seemingly innocuous setting has aching scenes of lust, love, and longing. In a few short paragraphs, Joyce shows a marriage laid bare, infected by disillusionment and disappointment; it is as honest a portrayal of modern love as any I have read. It is a moment of self-awareness and revelation of perception that we would do well to hope never happens to us. Ignorance is bliss.

The Empty Family: StoriesThe Empty Family: Stories by Colm Tóibín

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Colm Tóibín has a breathtaking range, from the modern Irish voice in The Blackwater Lightship to Henry James’s cultured and tortured 19th century tones in The Master to an immigrant naïf coming of age in 1950’s Brooklyn. His writing is exquisite, resonant, and pure. He writes with incredible compassion for his characters, but allows them to fail of their own accord. He shows the reader the beauty of imperfection.

This latest collection of stories The Empty Family was a mixed bag for me. The theme of returning from or entering into exile appears in most of the stories. The characters are seeking redemption or facing rejection as they return to familiar places or attempt to settle into new lands. Yet, as someone who has moved hither and yon, across borders and languages, I felt oddly distanced by some of Tóibín’s stories, including those that seemed the most personal.

Most touching were The Colour of Shadows, where a middle-aged man returns to his small Irish hometown to place his aunt in managed care; Two Women, which features a famous, aging set designer who returns to Ireland after nearly a lifetime away and confronts the ghosts of a past love (pages I will reread in months to come as an example of a perfectly rendered short story); Silence for which Tóibín again assumes the narrative voice of a 19th century writer; and One Minus One, where the main character relives the days before his mother’s funeral. Confronting one’s mortality in the face of aging relatives and wistfully remembered love affairs resonate deeply in Tóibín’s tender prose.

A few stories, including the long Barcelona, 1975 and the longer The Street were perfectly written and captured my attention, but not my heart. These featured, at times, careless love, passionless sex, obsession, and the ugliest of human behavior that elicited neither sympathy nor outrage, just exasperation and contempt.

Tóibín is one of my favorite writers. He writes humanity with such clarity; man, woman, gay, straight, modern and of the ages- he speaks their Babel of languages as well as any native. He seems to embrace life with ferocity, but also holds Death closer than arm distance, accepting its inevitability with equal passion. How very Irish of him.

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