It's already August, and I'm late with my list of favorite books read in the first half of 2019. I'm grateful for the worlds these books opened up for me, and for the characters they invited me to hang out with while I lived inside their stories.
The Hillsboro Story: A Kaleidoscope History of an Integration Battle in My Hometown, by Susan Banyas. I don't usually read nonfiction, but when Mary Bisbee-Beek tells me to look at a book, I pay attention. This book hooked me right away. The author was an 8-year-old child when she watched black neighbors protest the failure of the town to integrate her white school after Brown v. Board of Education. Decades later, she returns to her childhood home to revisit and explore that legacy. This is a fresh and fascinating look at a critical time in our history.
The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Like some of my favorite novels (Exit West, Weather Woman, Kindred), Coates uses a single element of magic realism to animate an otherwise realistic narrative. As in those other books, the out-of-the-usual element has the effect of opening up the story, inviting the reader to make a fictional jump with the author. Loved this book, which will be out in September.
Love That Moves the Sun, by Linda Cardillo. I guess this is a year of new reading experiences for me. I don't often read historical fiction either, but I devoured this story about the 16thcentury Italian poet Vittoria Colonna and the sculptor Michaelangelo. How could I not – it explores art, writing, love, and history.
The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers. I blogged earlier that this book had me gobsmacked, and several months later, I still feel the same way. Somehow Powers connects art and time, activism and self-expression, racial and ethnic strife, music and science, in a story that never feels contrived or preachy. It's heartbreaking, beautifully lyrical, and tells an important story for our times.
The Women of the Copper Country, by Mary Doria Russell. What an exciting read! Annie Clements lives in a 1923 copper-mining Michigan town where immigrant miners' lives revolve around daily hardship and frequent underground tragedies. Her struggle for justice in a turbulent time and place is both a dramatic story and an instructive one for readers who care about economic justice today.
Sugar Land, by Tammy Lynne Stoner. Oddly enough, this novel is also set in 1923, but in a very different landscape: Midland, Texas. Young Dara falls for her best girl friend and escapes from that impossible love to work at a state prison, where she becomes friends and allies with the blues singer Lead Belly. A wonderful and compelling story of a young woman, small-town pettiness, and finding her way out.
Prayers for the Stolen, by Jennifer Clement. I heard the author read from this novel last winter and immediately bought and read the book. The main character, Ladydi Garcia Martinez, is a young girl abducted in the Mexican drug trade, and her story feels like fiction ripped from the newspaper. Clement, who is president of PEN International, brings to this story a potent mix of journalism, lyricism, history, and even humor. Highly recommended!
The Butterfly Girl, by Rene Denfeld. I loved Denfeld's first two novels and eagerly awaited this one. It did not disappoint. She once again weaves compelling story-telling with lyrical writing and strong characters – a young girl living on the street and traumatized by sexual abuse, and an investigator in search of her own sister, kidnapped two decades earlier. Denfeld writes about things that matter. There's a lot at stake in this novel, and the author takes us there without flinching.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong. This is a hard book to describe, beyond the jacket text that it's a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. It's so much more: It's poetry. It's family history and legacy. It's about love. About being an outsider. About finding one's self and one's story. About the importance of story.
BETWEEN THE LINES
It's already August, and I'm late with my list of favorite books read in the first half of 2019. I'm grateful for the worlds these books opened up for me, and for the characters they invited me to hang out with while I lived inside their stories.
My book group is 25 years old this year. We formed at a local independent bookstore, but switched to meeting in members' homes about a decade later. (Full disclosure: we were asked to leave. Sometimes there were author events at the store at the same time and our book discussions were too noisy!)
We chose the Stones & Bones name because of some of our favorite reads those first few years (Stones from the River, The Bone People, Stone Diaries). Over the years, the vast majority of our selections are contemporary literary fiction, but we've also read memoirs, other nonfiction, poetry, and classics. Occasionally we'll read two books, either together or over two months. Recently, for example, we read the novel There Thereand the nonfiction book Rez Life, and we went together to the film Dawnland. Most of the time, however, we gather in a living room with tea and wine, nibbles and the novel we've all read and are eager to discuss. Heavenly.
Most people think of reading as an individual experience, but literary discussion groups are part of a tradition that is centuries old. Before books were readily available, sharing them and reading aloud made a lot of sense. In 15thcentury France, a group of women gathered to spin during the long winter evenings, reading aloud to each other from books written "against the honor of the female sex" and making disparaging comments. In the mid 17thcentury, British mill workers met at 5 a.m. to read Shakespeare together before their shift.
In addition to typical book groups, a Google search reveals some unusual ones: a "context-dependence and monsters reading group" at MIT, a Buffy discussion group at a Chicago bookstore, a walking book group across Hampstead Heath, knitting book groups, Black Lives Matter and Active Citizen book groups, bilingual book groups.
Although the Stones & Bones membership has changed some over the years, most of us have been reading together for a couple of decades. What a pleasure it is; happy book group birthday to us.
I am gobsmacked.
Since I don't think I've ever used that word before, either spoken or written, I looked it up. Merriam-Webster dictionary says it means "overwhelmed with wonder, surprise, or shock: astounded." Yup, that's exactly how I feel on finishing reading Richard Power's THE TIME OF OUR SINGING.
I mostly read contemporary novels by women authors, both because I tend to like them better and because the literary landscape is so uneven, and my book-buying and reading habits can do a tiny bit to level that terrain. But after finishing OVERSTORY, I needed to know what else this man has written.
In extraordinary and lyrical prose, THE TIME OF OUR SINGING explores connections between art and science, between activism and creative self-expression, between the towering dissonances of our world: race and ethnic strife. The coming-together of things that don't easily fit is a central question of the novel.
The story begins when Delia, a young black vocal student, meets David, a physicist immigrant Jew from eastern Europe, in 1939 at the Marian Anderson concert on the D.C. Mall. They fall in love, and marry, wanting to raise a family beyond race. Their three children are biracial, fitting into neither world, and they are musical prodigies. But both Delia and David's cultures have a similar saying: The bird and the fish can fall in love. But where they gonna build their nest?
The novel is told in a series of prose melodies, harmonies, dissonances and extraordinary symphonies. David studies the nature of time, so that theme weaves in and out of the story as well. The book is too long, with too much musical theory and description for my taste, but the central narrative is heartbreaking, important, and so beautifully sung.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.