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.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr. Kellet. ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.’
‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’
‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

A preternaturally wise ten-year-old Ursula Todd offers us this succinct thematic summation of Life After Life near the book’s end, after she has lived and died many times.

A palimpsest is also the perfect metaphor for Kate Atkinson’s luminous novel. Its multiple layers of theme and plot pile up like shadows, visible through the translucent onion-skin of imagination. It is a novel of faerie tales—the fox, the wolf, and little girls snatched while walking through the woods. It is about the brutal realities of war—Atkinson brilliantly captures the interminable months of the Blitz, where nightly bombings are endured with aplomb and scooping up bucketsful of your neighbor’s flesh is just what you do to get on to the next day. It is a story of a family—a familiar motif in Atkinson’s literary worlds—with a set of messy, vexing, endearing characters whose personalities remain constant throughout the crazy quilt of this narrative, even if their outcomes change, depending upon the version of life they are living.

Ursula Todd is born at Fox Corner on a snowy night in February 1910, the third child of an upper-middle class family ensconced in the genteel English countryside. She dies at birth. She lives, just barely. She drowns as a toddler. She is rescued at the last minute, clutched by the hand of an amateur painter before the current sweeps her out to sea. She is taken by the Spanish flu just days after Armistice. She is raped on her sixteenth birthday and dies after a botched abortion. She is kissed tenderly by the neighbor boy, a Sweet Sixteen gift beyond her wildest hope. She marries an English psychopath who murders her. She marries a German intellectual. She can never have children. She has a little girl named Frieda who becomes the pet of Eva Braun. She is trapped in Germany during the war and dies from her countrymen’s bombs. She survives the terror during and the deprivation after World War II in London, rising through the ranks of British civil service to become a model for working women in the 1960’s. She assassinates Hitler in 1930, becoming a martyr for peace and the prevention of a Holocaust that no one could believe possible in the desperate years after the Great War.

The first snippets of life and death and life again are jarring. Atkinson opens the door wider each time until you are inside the maze and there is no turning back. But she doesn’t abandon you to aimless wandering. Through the constancy of the characters, you follow the crumbs of her tense and nimble plotting. Her writing, as always, is sheer pleasure to read, with lovely and supple language. She balances the queer and violent with humor and tenderness, leaving her lipstick on the glass with those particular Atkinson markers: affection for children, dogs, and an essential Britishness that mixes poignancy with a wry self-regard.

Atkinson leaves room for the reader and the characters to approach reality on their own terms. Ursula shifts with each life, responding to a sense that if she just did this, something fundamental will change. Is she aware that she is reliving her life? Are her choices conscious, or is it an awareness buried deep inside her, a sixth sense that emerges as déjà vu? You’ve simply got to read this for yourself for the answers. But don’t expect any.

The more I think about this book—several days now after reluctantly closing the back cover—the more in awe I am of one of my favorite authors. Kate Atkinson has crafted a lyrical rendering of metaphysics and a brave manipulation of narrative structure that is at heart a wonderful story—albeit with layers as delicate and impermanent as a croissant’s and as delicious to consume. I’m still licking my fingers. Brava.

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Book Review: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog: A NovelStarted Early, Took My Dog: A Novel by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kate Atkinson does this thing that I love, it’s a thing director Alexander Payne (“The Descendants” “Sideways” “About Schmidt”) and my favorite girl, Jane Austen, do that I just eat up. These artists excel at creating anti-heroes, be it Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, Payne’s Miles (though lion’s share of credit should go to writer Rex Pickett for Sideways), or Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy, who aren’t afraid to mock their own bad luck and bad moods. There is always a steady stream of wit and irony coursing through the narrative that keeps grim circumstance from becoming maudlin.

Of course, a deeply-flawed protagonist in crime fiction – whether she be a private dick or he a DI – is par for the course. What makes Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series so compelling is the author’s brilliant prose. She takes the rote scenario – a tossed-about, lonely, erudite investigator solving mysteries more through happenstantial coincidence than skill – and injects it with unexpected but delicious detail in syntax that delights. It’s like being told grilled cheese is for lunch and being presented with just-melted burrata, fresh tomato and basil on grilled pagnotta. Comfort food with panache.

Started Early, Took My Dog – Atkinson’s fourth featuring former solider and policeman Jackson Brodie – offers far more in the satisfying character department than handsome, lovelorn, brooding Brodie. I will fully own my sucker’s heart for The Ambassador, Jackson’s foil who doesn’t object to being trundled about in a large sack. Senile actresses, slimeball cops, meth-ed out prozzies are vivid and compelling fodder. We are introduced to mall security guard Tracy Waterhouse, she of size extra-large slacks and size extra-large heart. I hope like hell we see more of brave and hilarious Tracy. She is more than Jackson’s match in ironical survival. And her small but fierce appendage will break your heart a hundred times over:

“Courtney, on the other hand, had made more of an effort, dressing herself from a selection of yesterday’s new clothes. Some of them were on backwards but she had got the general idea right. Tracy’s efforts at hairdressing the previous evening weren’t entirely successful. In the cruel light of day the kid looked handmade. She had finished her cereal and was staring, Oliver Twist-like, at the empty bowl.”

I did feel a twinge of annoyance at the messy nature of Jackson’s personal relationships; he is too easily cowed by the women he has loved and with whom there is a history of mutual neglect. Jackson has a hard time moving on, but Atkinson uses these relationships as a plot device to give her characters context and to ground them in the present.

As important of features as wit and irony play in Atkinson’s narrative, they do not overshadow the intelligence and humanity that run deeply through her stories. Perhaps more than the three novels that preceded it, Started Early… challenges the moral centers of its characters and readers. They and we are compelled to question the rights of parents vs. the welfare of children, the nature of identity and family, and the true victims of drug dependency and prostitution.

The crimes and misdemeanors at the heart of Started Early… stand alone for those uninitiated to Ms. Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie oeuvre. But do yourself a favor, partake of the whole rich banquet.

And how could I not love this story, when its title was inspired by Emily. Dickinson, that is:

I started Early – Took my Dog – (656)

BY EMILY DICKINSON
I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –

Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R.W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)

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