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BETWEEN THE LINES

Favorite reads so far in 2014

I probably shouldn’t talk about A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra again, because I included it in my favorite reads of 2013 post. But I can’t help myself. I recently read this book for the third time, in order to have it fresh in my mind when I led a book group discussion, and I still think it’s the one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I’ll just repeat that it is set in war-time Chechnya and is brilliant and brutal and dark and frightening and gorgeous, offering a close-up view of the worst and best in ourselves and I believed every word.

ACCIDENTS OF MARRIAGE, by Randy Susan Meyers. Meyers knows a lot about emotional battlegrounds. In her third novel (MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS and THE COMFORT OF LIES) Meyers peels back the layers of a family in crisis. She reveals the clashing truths about Maddy and Ben’s marriage from three points of view, in three unique voices. I cared deeply about each of these characters, each searching for a way back from disaster. A veteran of domestic violence programs and interventions, Meyers refuses to settle for convenient excuses or easy answers. This book broke my heart and then began to mend it. Pub date is early September.

Also coming this fall is DESIRE OF THE MOTH, by Champa Bilwakesh. I met Champa seven years ago in a fiction workshop at Sewanee Writers Conference, where we had each submitted a novel chapter. I still vividly remember her chapter about a young Brahmin girl, widowed and shorn and ostracized from life by the customs of the time. It was a hot July in Tennessee and Champa’s chapter was set in southern India. The writing was rich with the smell of flowers and the sheen of perspiration. I still have vivid memories of the beat of the music Champa described, and the gender politics that were so much a part of her story. So I was delighted to hear from Champa that her novel DESIRE OF THE MOTH was being published by Upset Press. And even more delighted to read the finished manuscript and return to that critical time in Indian political history and to the story of a fifteen-year-old girl learning about liberation and making art.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. This one of those big books in which you can lose yourself and the present day, and then emerge feeling new and even hopeful. In evocative prose, Doerr gives us two children, a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, who grow up into the chaos of World War II. Doerr’s characters have unique and fierce intellectual concerns that intersect with the social and political events in their countries, creating ripples I’m still thinking about. One of my very favorites of 2014 so far.

REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston. One of the things I liked best about this novel is its restraint. It would have been so easy for the author, writing about the disappearance and reappearance of a kidnapped boy, to fall into melodrama and sentimentality. Instead, writing with finely controlled prose and emotional candor, Johnston turns that fraught literary trope on its head and dismantles it, giving us a complicated and devastating portrait of a family’s unthinkable crisis and imperfect redemption.

I’ve previously reviewed Faye Rapoport DesPres’ MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY in this blog, but want to mention it again here. The twenty pieces in this memoir-in-essays are beautifully structured, weaving together encounters with animals and landscape, with meditations on growing older, on illness and loss. The natural world is always present in these pages. It might be magpies quarreling with squirrels, a red canoe leaving its triangular wake and ripples on a pond, the pure white feral cats sleeping in a hollow tree, or – in my favorite essay – a conversation with a blue jay in the January rain. These essays are lyrical and poignant. They weave memory and yearning. They are reflective and surprisingly hopeful.

I had already read many of the essays in Bill Newman’s WHEN THE WAR CAME HOME before the book was published this spring; many appeared as columns in our local newspaper, The Hampshire Gazette, and I’ve known Bill and his family almost since the Kent State massacre that begins the collection. Still, reading the collection as a whole, I was carried along this river of political passion, through the various aftermath rapids of bringing activism home, raising a family, and infusing a life. This is an inspiring and graceful collection.

I’m reluctant to talk about poetry. I rarely write it and lack the necessary critical vocabulary. But I’ve been reading – and buying – more poetry collections in the past few years. I just finished reading Kate Gale’s THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE. These poems are quirky and playful, infused with fragments and quick images and startling juxtapositions. Gale brings bring oddly dissimilar things together and they fit in surprising and unpredictable ways, both funny and profoundly sad.

Next up on my reading list: THE BLOODY TIDE by Jane Yolen, THIS IS PARADISE by Suzanne Strempek Shea, A STORY LARGER THAN MY OWN, edited by Janet Burroway. So many books…
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