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BETWEEN THE LINES

My favorite reads of 2017

Every year at this time I like to think back on the books I’ve read in the past 12 months that affected me the most. These are the books I’m most grateful for in 2017.

Hala Alyan: Salt Houses. This debut novel gives us the multigenerational story of a Palestinian family – moving from a young girl’s fortune seen in coffee dregs to the dispersal of the family in the 1967 Six-Day War and the many subsequent moves and changes. It’s a story of political conflict, mourning home and trying to set down new roots, and the emotional realities of being foreign. Lovely writing and wonderfully drawn characters.

Cecil Bødker: The Water Farm. This translation from the Danish by Michael Goldman makes it clear why Cecil Bødker is one of Denmark’s most beloved writers. This short novel, the second in a trilogy, is about a small “family” of social outcasts on an abandoned farm in the 1800’s. It is mesmerizing and tender, deceptively simple. It’s amazing how relevant this book is now, as it explores the making of art and the forging of human connections outside of society norms.

Wiley Cash: The Last Ballad. This novel touched on so much I care about. Ella May is a young Appalachian mill worker in 1929 who must balance supporting her children with her yearning for justice and a more full life. The red-baiting by the mill owners, racism and fear within the union, Ella May’s courage and the legacy she leaves her children and grandchildren make this a deeply satisfying historical novel.

Joan Dempsey: This is How It Begins. This debut novel begins when a group of gay teachers are fired for not allowing their students to express their Christian values igniting a fierce political battle about religious bias in schools. The grandmother of one of the teachers is an elderly art professor who has been hiding a value painting stolen by the Nazi’s. Dempsey skillfully weaves these two storylines together, while asking the reader to consider the passions of characters with widely different views about the world.

Rene Denfield: The Child Finder. This is both a suspenseful page-turner and a poignant tale of abuse and loss. Eight-year-old Madison disappeared three years ago, and private investigator Naomi is searching for her. Madison’s ordeal, and the story of Naomi’s own childhood story, are both heartbreaking and hopeful. Not an easy book to read, but I’m very glad I did. As she did in her last novel, The Enchanted, Denfield finds redemption in the most difficult situations and the lyricism of her prose carries you along on the journey.

Laleh Khadivi: A Good Country. I bought this book after hearing the author interviewed on NPR. The premise – a teenage boy of Pakistani descent growing up in Orange County and trying to figure out who he is – compelled me less than the nuance and thoughtfulness with which the author described his journey. The book did not disappoint me; it was thought-provoking and I still think about it, months after reading the last page.

Jan Maher: Earth as It Is. Set in the 1930’s, the story is about a heterosexual cross-dresser. I was quickly drawn into Charlie’s early struggles to understand his desire to dress in women’s clothes – hardly acceptable in small-town Texas society – and his transformation into Charlene, owner and operator of the beauty parlor in Heaven, Indiana. The pleasure of this novel comes both from the author’s strong, understated prose and the main character’s innate goodness in the face of an impossible situation.

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie. Shamsie is one of my very favorite authors (her Burnt Shadows is one of my very favorite novels), and I think Home Fire is probably the book I loved most this year. It is a retelling of Antigone (but don’t let that deter you; I didn’t realize it until I was almost finished with my first reading!) that takes us from Northampton, MA to London to Pakistan. Isma and her twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz must negotiate their needs for love, work, and coming of age in a world that does not welcome their complicated family legacy. Gorgeous writing and so much to think about.

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Celebrating Social Justice Writing

It is rare and wonderful when several important elements of a life come together and make joy. That’s how I felt on Sunday, November 12, at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, MA when Straw Dog Writers Guild presented the Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Award to poet Patricia Smith. Straw Dog Writers Guild is an organization I love. Pamela Means performed Abel Meeropol’s most famous song, “Strange Fruit,” and her version is one of my favorites. Writing for social justice, writing as resistance, is my passion. Abel Meeropol was my father-in-law and my grandson shares his name. Patricia Smith is a poet/activist I admire enormously.

These elements coming together – family and social justice and writing and community - is satisfying on both a personal and political level. I could not have been happier, or more proud. Equally amazing was the audience, many writers and artists, who told me about the convergence of these elements in their own lives and work. Patricia Smith said that sometimes it feels like we’re writing into a void. We need to support each other’s words of resistance. We need to remind each other that we’re together in this work.

As a community, we needed Sunday’s program, and we need more convergences like it, opportunities to celebrate our commitment to justice and to writing, and to the ways they work together to illuminate our world and to change it.

This post was reprinted from the Straw Dog Writers Guild blog  Read More 
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Shelving books

I’ve always wanted a room in my house totally devoted to my books. A library. Can you picture it? Floor to ceiling wooden bookshelves, a reading lamp on a small table, a cup of tea, cat on my lap. Once I went to an Open House in my Springfield neighborhood and there was a library, complete with a fireplace (is that good for books?) and those spiffy rolling library ladders. Swoon.

Six weeks ago we moved into a condo. Downsizing. It’s two rooms smaller than the house we left. So my books (alphabetized of course) weaved through the house. A to D waited in boxes. E to J in the dining room, K to O in the alcove between the bedrooms, P to S in my writing room, and on to Z in our bedroom. But yesterday we came home from vacation to ten feet of floor to ceiling maple bookshelves built into the hallway in the new condo. Built not by elves, but by our master carpenter friend David. Now, A through O are happy on the new shelves, and the rest still at home on other shelves.

There’s a metaphor in there, somewhere, I think. Maybe something about how books are part of every moment of my life. Or perhaps how, when I’m writing a novel manuscript, the narrative weaves through the minutes of my day. Or maybe no useful metaphor at all, just the profound pleasure of beloved books on wooden shelves. Alphabetized, of course.
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Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

My family has had some intense discussions about ashes. About what to do with them.

The conversations started nine years ago when my mother died. She was 90 and was cremated, as she had requested. I picked up the box of ashes from the funeral home. That’s when the argument started.

“What shall we do with Mom’s ashes?” I asked my father.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “She’s gone. That’s not Pauline in the box.”

My sister Carol and I exchanged glances. Of course, that’s not really our mother in the plain cardboard box, but it sort of is. And we had to do something with the ashes, right?

Maybe not. A scientist by training, our dad grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household and wanted nothing to do with religion. He refused to sit Shiva or have any kind of ceremony, even a totally secular one. As the next of kin, he had the right to make that decision, but it felt wrong to me. I made a small ceremony with my husband and our daughters. We looked at photos of my mother and told stories and remembered.

But that still didn’t deal with her ashes. My sister and I live 90 miles apart. I wanted to divide the ashes in two parts, so we could each bury half in our yards, under the flowering bushes our mother loved so much. It seemed like a reasonable thing, except that one extended family member hated the thought of dividing Pauline in half. She couldn’t bear the idea of the ashes not being together, intact.

“Mom wouldn’t have cared about that,” I said. But my sister insisted we respect the dissenting view and keep the ashes together. I gave in. We decided to bury Pauline under an azalea bush at my sister’s house. Mom had beautiful azaleas in our yard in Maryland and Carol inherited her green thumb.

However, I cheated. Before I brought the ashes to Carol, I took a small baggie’s worth out of the box, and kept it. I didn’t tell my sister.

Now our father has died, six months short of his 100th birthday. Since he couldn’t object, we sat Shiva for him, a lovely afternoon with family and friends. We looked at photos and talked about him. I miss my father a lot.

His ashes sat for weeks in a box on my desk. What to do with them? It didn’t make sense to bury them at my house. I’m moving and my house will soon be occupied by people who never knew Jack. Carol and I agreed easily this time. His ashes will be mixed with Mom’s under Carol’s azalea bush. Because Mom loved plants but Dad did most of the weeding. Maybe we’ll do it on their shared birthday in July. Maybe some of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren will join us.

But first, I took a scoop of Dad’s ashes out of the box, and added them to Mom’s ashes in a small glass jar. They are different colors; I don’t know why.

I also can’t tell you why I find it comforting to have the jar of ashes on a shelf over my desk. But I do.  Read More 
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My Writing Space (reprinted from Diary of an Eccentric)

My writing desk is in a book-stuffed room where a small electric heater hums at my feet. Looking to my left is a stand of sumac trees out the window; to my right is a large bulletin board. It holds bits of literary inspiration for when I flounder, a few favorite family photos, chocolate bar covers matching my three novels (a wonderful marketing gimmick my publisher creates to delight readers), and folded origami cranes that figure in my work in progress.

The most important item on the board is a long piece of newsprint with a six-generation family tree. Members of the oldest generation escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the early years of the twentieth century and came to New England to make new lives. They built a cluster of homes on a rocky island in the middle of Penobscot Bay and their descendants multiplied over the next century. Some offspring left to find work and adventure elsewhere, but the islands are still populated by these folks and their made-up history.

Yes, made-up. These people live only in my imagination. My own immigrant grandparents settled far from Maine in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the wilds of Brooklyn. I have never lived in Maine but I feel very connected to the rocky island and its inhabitants who, over two decades, have populated a dozen short stories, three published novels and one still in progress.

Staring at that family tree recently, I realized that this imaginary world-making was similar to a favorite childhood game my sister and I called Neighborhood. In our grade school years, we arranged blank sheets of 8 ½ by 11 paper along imaginary streets on our bedroom floor, then filled the houses with families cut out of the old Montgomery Ward and Sears mail-order catalogs our mother gave us each year when the new one arrived.

We played with these cutout people for hours. We didn’t care that the scale of family members was often mismatched, so the baby might be bigger than the grandma. It didn’t matter that the father’s legs might end at the knees if he had been modeling a flannel shirt, or that his right arm had been amputated by the edge of the page. We had those store-bought paper dolls with their irritating tabbed outfits, but preferred to sit cross-legged on the floor among households of homemade families, making up stories of school and sleepovers, of friendship and disappointments and dramatic calamities, for our imperfect and mismatched characters.

These days I use words instead of scissors, and my made-up families migrate from pencil on the bulletin board into my manuscripts. I still value the imperfect characters; one is missing a sense of humor, another’s compassion is atrophied, and a third has never forgiven her cousin for something he said at Aunt Sophie’s Seder in 1956. I work at writing characters who don’t look or live like me or the folks on Saperstein Neck. There’s something compelling about creating neighborhoods of characters who are luminous in their variety, their imperfection and their essential connections to each other.

Writing is often lonely work, but it opens the world. My job is to sit in this chilly book-stuffed room, spin stories made from generations of characters who are as abundant as the oceans, as real as kin. I believe that in terrifying times, in our separate rooms of writing and reading, characters can connect us to each other by propinquity and geography, by empathy and kindness, by imagination and utter necessity. Read More 
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Sundays are sad

Sundays are sad. They used to be a different kind of unhappy when I was in school, or working a regular job, because they meant the end of weekend fun.

Twelve years ago I moved my elderly parents nearby, so I could be available to them. Sundays became family day. Robby and I would grocery shop in the mornings and the whole day would be spent cooking, visiting, eating, driving them to and from their Independent Living apartment, and cleaning up. In my family of origin, we never ate differently on Sundays, but somehow I fell into the pattern of organizing and making big meals every week – appetizers and drinks, elaborate food, even dessert. Jenn would usually join us, and bring the appetizers. In winter, Robby would make a fire in the fireplace.

Family Sundays were nice, but I sometimes resented the loss of a whole weekend day. After my mother died and as my father became more frail over the next few years, the process became even more complicated.

My father died last month.

Now Sundays are free again. Now we can spend the day however we choose. Now there is a hole at the end of my week.  Read More 
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The books I'm most grateful for in 2016

I’m grateful for books. Reading them and writing them and giving them to friends and talking about them. These are ten of the books I loved most in 2016

THE TIGER IN THE HOUSE by Jacqueline Sheehan. A five-year-old child found at a crime scene sets events in motion that ripple back in time, into the newspapers, and up and down the east coast. Delia is the child services worker assigned to the girl, her last case before she joins her sister in a bakery/café start-up. With the help of her boss, a cop, a golden retriever and a Maine coon cat, Delia delves into the underworld of the heroin trade searching for Hayley’s family. Sheehan’s writing is at its brilliant best when she brings people and animals together in scenes that explore and celebrate their essential connection. This book will be published in February 2017.

AFTER THE DAM by Amy Hassinger. The natural world is so much more than setting in Amy Hassinger’s new novel. River, sturgeon, eagles, and three generations of conflicted and intertwined families join forces in this powerful story. Hassinger’s lush prose and nuanced themes of stewardship of our children, our selves, and the earth make this literary page-turner a must-read.

THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST by Ann Hood. Few authors capture loss and grief, hope and connection like Hood, and in this book she weaves those powerful themes with one of my absolute favorites things – reading books in groups, and how novels both speak to our individual sorrows and connect us with others. Ava’s husband has left her for a yarn-bomber and her daughter Maggie is in trouble in Paris when Ava’s best friend invites her to join her library book group. The theme is “the book that matters most” and each member chooses a book for one of the monthly discussions. This novel reminds us of the power of reading and the many ways that books connect us to each other and to the world.

HEIRLOOMS by Rachel Hall. You know that feeling when you pick up a book and start reading and quickly understand that you've found a journey you didn't know you needed? That's how I felt reading Rachel Hall’s debut collection of interconnected stories. She invites us into a Jewish family, before and after the Holocaust, in France and Israel and the United States. Quietly and lyrically, Hall explores the profound ties immigrants feel to our past, our losses, our dreams, and each other.

A lot has already been written about Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, HOMEGOING, and I’m not going to add much. Just to say that I’m so glad I read it early, before all the hype, and had a chance to discover the magic of this novel on my own. Gyasi’s two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, and their descendents still whisper to me from time to time and remind me not to forget their stories.

Another debut novel, THE MOTHERS by Brit Bennett, takes place in a contemporary California town and explores first love, secrets, community, momentous decisions, and growing up with deep “what if’s.” I loved the chorus of Church Ladies and the feeling of being invited into their living rooms for a few hours.

Michael Goldman’s translation of Cecil Bodker’s STORIES ABOUT TACIT made me both wish I read Danish and grateful for Goldman’s own prose. These stories, connected by both characters and a wry storytelling style, both surprised me and felt inevitable. This is delightful gem of a book.

ANOTHER BROOKLYN by Jacqueline Woodson takes the reader to a girl’s coming-of-age years in Brooklyn, a place of mothers hearing voices and friends being raped, of danger and hope and disappearances and beautiful possibilities. To me, it read like poetry – raw and sparse and very powerful.

In Lee Hope’s HORSEFEVER, Nikki is horse-crazy; her passion for horse eventing is also about testing herself – body and soul – and her marriage. With language that sizzles and a story that races across the competition courses and the Vermont countryside, HORSEFEVER explores and explodes the profound effects of Nikki’s obsession on the people closest to her.

I just finished reading an advance copy of EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid, coming out in early 2017. It may be the best book I’ve read all year. Then again, it’s the most recent book I’ve read, and coming after the election, it’s so spot-on honest and hopeful about our world it makes me tear up just thinking about it. EXIT WEST follows Saeed and Nadia from their unnamed “city teetering on the abyss” through their migration to London and beyond. As the author explains in an interview, he relaxes the laws of physics in one specific way to accomplish their travel. The use of this technique and lack of geographical grounding add to the almost mythical storytelling. But this is not a fairy tale; the novel tackles combating the racism against immigrants and building cooperative new communities. It is also a love story, a story about hope in a very dark time. Don’t miss this one.
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Finding family

Blog: finding family

About two months ago I received a letter in the mail. The postal mail, not email, which has become an unusual treat. As he handed me the envelope, Robby looked at the return address and asked me if I knew the sender, whose surname was the same as my maternal grandmother. “Could be a long-lost relative,” he said.

It was.

My second cousin (who I did not know existed) wrote that she came across a blog I posted in February titled “Hanging with grandchildren and ghosts in Brooklyn,” in which I mentioned my grandmother’s name and that she once lived on Keap Street in Williamsburg. My cousin wondered if my grandmother could be her great aunt of the same name. The details she supplied – the name of the town in Ukraine that my grandmother and her brother left over a century ago, the dates and circumstances of their immigration – were enough to convince me. The photograph of her grandfather, who looks just like his sister – my grandmother – took my breath away.

Over the past two months, my sister and I have been getting to know this new cousin. My sister has been filling in blanks in our extended family genogram. As with many Jewish families from Eastern Europe, there are big holes in that family tree and each new name, each newly discovered connection is precious. I now have three new cousins, dozens of new/old family photographs, and some wonderful family stories. I hope to meet these new relatives before too long.

Like I said: precious.  Read More 
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The Book That Matters Most

I just finished reading THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST, Ann Hood’s brand-new novel. Few authors capture loss and grief, hope and connection like Hood, and in this book she weaves those powerful themes with one of my absolute favorites – reading books in groups, and how novels both speak to our individual sorrows and connect us with others.

Ava’s husband has left her for a yarn-bomber (Ann Hood’s fans will appreciate this!) and her daughter Maggie is out of touch and in trouble in Paris when Ava’s best friend Cate invites her to join her library book group. The theme is “the book that matters most” and each member chooses a book for one of the monthly discussions. Ava chooses FROM CLARE TO HERE, the book that saved her life the summer after her sister died and her mother killed herself, and she promises to bring the author to the discussion.

The book discussions (ANNA KARENINA, THE GREAT GATSBY, CATCHER IN THE RYE) are both fun in themselves and in the responses they evoke from the group members. Ava finds herself revisiting her childhood losses as her own daughter struggles with her own demons in Paris. The chapters from Maggie’s perspective, as she flees her study-abroad program and gets into increasingly dangerous situations, provide a thoughtful mirror to Ava’s process as she faces her own losses.

This novel has a mystery at its core and it has emotional depth. The story made me weep, but never lose hope that people can deal with past pain and can heal. Most of all, THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST reminds us of the power of reading, and the many ways that books connect us to each other and to the world.

Pub date is August 9, but click on the photo to pre-order the book.  Read More 
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How Lee Hope changed my life

It’s not always easy to remember a single moment when your life path changes, but for me it was a summer afternoon in 2003. Three years earlier, I had started writing fiction. I was in my fifties and happy in my nurse practitioner career. But I had always wanted to write novels and stories. It turned out to be much harder than I anticipated, and that summer I signed up for the Stonecoast Writers Conference in Maine.

My workshop leader was Manette Ansay and she was terrific. But she was (correctly) pretty critical in workshop about the story I submitted for the conference and about my writing. I had a lot to learn and I wasn’t at all sure I had the talent to be a writer.

On the last day of the week-long conference, participants were invited to read aloud a short excerpt, five minutes maybe, to the conference community. We gathered in rows of folding chairs set up on the grass under a tent; it was a hot afternoon. I don’t remember what I read. What I do remember is this: as I walked back to my seat, Lee Hope, the director of the program stopped me. She leaned over and whispered, “I want you to come to our MFA program.”

Lee had talked to us all about the MFA the day before, and the idea was bouncing around a bit in my brain. I didn’t see how I would manage it, even a low residency program, with my full-time job. And, like I said, I wasn’t at all sure I had what it takes to be a real writer.

Lee’s comment changed everything. That moment, I knew I would apply for the program. I knew I would be accepted. I knew I would love it. I knew I would write novels and stories and people would read them. All those things came true.

Like I said, Lee Hope changed my life.  Read More 
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