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BETWEEN THE LINES

Favorite reads of 2013: the ecstasy and the agony

It’s such pleasure every year at this time to look back over all the books I’ve read in the past twelve months and try to select my favorites. It’s a pleasure to remember how these books transported me far away, how they challenged my usual-thoughts and opinions, how they taught me things and prompted me to learn other things. Of course, it’s agony to choose, and next week I might do it differently. But these are some of the books that touched me most deeply in 2013.

A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra. This was the easiest book to put on my list; I think it’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. In fact, I read it twice this year (although I admit to skimming a very few scenes that I couldn’t revisit). Set in civil war Chechnya, it is brilliant and brutal and dark and frightening and gorgeous. It offers a close-up view of the worst and best in ourselves and I believed every word.

WHITE DOG FELL FROM THE SKY by Eleanor Morse. I often say that I most admire books that are set at the crossroads of political turmoil and character’s lives. Like Anthony Marra’s book, that’s exactly what Eleanor Morse does here. This novel is set in Botswana and South Africa during apartheid. It is powerful, beautifully written, and it’s one of the 2013 books that has stayed with me all year.

I’m a big fan of Wally Lamb’s previous novels so I eagerly anticipated the publication of WE ARE WATER. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a portrait of a family, a marriage, of children scarred by early events and traumas. It’s also a story about people breaking free of historical grief and secrets and finding joy. Like so much of Lamb’s work, it explores race and class and violence, as well as the redemptive powers of creative work. I was particularly interested in the structure of the book, in the masterful way the author reveals details of story, and back-story, from multiple points of view, in a nonlinear manner, so that the reader has the opportunity to play a major part in putting together the puzzle pieces.

I also had the feeling of solving a puzzle while reading Simon Van Booy’s THE ILLUSION OF SEPARATENESS. This World War II-era novel is told in flashbacks, in hints and bits and pieces, in seemingly unrelated vignettes relayed by a group of strangers. As the connections reveal themselves and the story evolves, the characters are no longer as alone. And neither is the reader. I really loved this book.

KIND OF KIN by Rilla Askew tells the story of an Oklahama man whose barn is used to shelter undocumented migrant workers. When Brown is sent to prison, his young grandson tries to set things right. Told through multiple points of view holding conflicting opinions about the events, Askew shows us a community at the explosive intersection of politics and loyalty.

Ruth Ozeki’s A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING is constructed around a dual narrative. There’s Nao, a bullied 16-year-old girl in Tokyo who writes a diary about her ruined father and beloved great grandmother who is a Buddhist nun. And there’s Ruth, the novelist who finds Nao’s diary in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, debris from the tsunami. The result is both a gripping story and a thought-provoking exploration of time, story-telling, and the wonderfully complicated connections between writer and reader.

In her second novel, THE COMFORT OF LIES, Randy Susan Meyers explores a tangled web of family yearnings, lies and regrets: Tia has an affair and gives up her baby. Caroline reluctantly adopts to please her husband. Juliette discovers that her husband had an affair that resulted in a baby. The author has exquisite skill at getting inside her characters most shameful places, revealing the truth and consequences of human actions, errors, and the possibility of reconciliation.

I dearly love novels with social justice themes, but somehow I missed LAYLA, a debut novel by Céline Keating, when it was published a few years ago. Layla is a young woman who does not share her mother’s lifelong political activism. But as her mother dies, Layla promises to follow her instructions to travel across the country, visiting the mother’s old friends and comrades from her activist past. The carrot is powerful: information about her long-missing, supposedly-dead father. Layla’s journey moved me enormously. I believed in her confusion, her growing awareness, her anger and loved her courage in facing what seemed like impossible contradictions between right and wrong.

This year, two nonfiction books made my favorites list. Bill Ayers’ PUBLIC ENEMY begins during the 2008 election debate when Barack Obama was asked about “a gentleman named William Ayers,” and replied that Ayers was “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” The story that follows, from death threats to cancelled speaking gigs and beyond, moves from the Vietnam War and Weatherman and life underground to parenting young children under siege. Ayers, a respected educator, author, and university professor, is at his most eloquent when he talks about children and learning, both in the classroom and the particular challenges in his own family. This memoir sizzles with energy.

In her amazing book IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD, Eve Ensler writes about her body and her illness; she also writes about the rape and torture of women in the Congo. Somehow, she connects these two stories in unflinching prose that opens individual suffering into something much bigger, something that challenges and joins each of us. This book is astonishing and courageous and important.

There are so many other books I loved this year – AT NIGHT WE WALK IN CIRCLES by Daniel Alarcón, SPIDER IN A TREE by Susan Stinson, THE LOWLAND by Jhumpa Lahiri, ALL THIS TALK OF LOVE by Christopher Castellani – but I’m going to stop now. Really.

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Back to our future

Thanks to a couple of amazing recent reads, I’ve been thinking a lot about the sixties. Not only what happened then, but also the legacy of those years. I’ve been pondering what we learned, and how those lessons might help us in the major political, economic, and environmental battles we continue to wage today. But first, the books:

I read a lot of fiction, and I particularly love novels with social justice themes, but somehow I missed LAYLA, a debut novel by Céline Keating (Plain View Press, 2011). Set in 2005, it’s the story of a young woman, Layla, whose mother has just died. The mother, whose lifelong political activism was not shared by her daughter, exacted a deathbed promise that Layla would follow her instructions to travel across the country, visiting the mother’s old friends and comrades from her activist past. The carrot was powerful: information about her long-missing, supposedly-dead father.

I love novels that live on the fault lines of big political events and the lives of people caught up in those events, and that’s exactly what LAYLA does. The protagonist is young, disaffected, and disinterested in social justice. Her journey moved me enormously, and I believed in her confusion, her growing awareness, her anger. I loved her courage in facing what seemed like impossible contradictions between right and wrong.

The second book is a memoir. Like LAYLA, it’s set in the recent past but the roots of the story are in the sixties. Bill Ayers’ PUBLIC ENEMY (Beacon Press, 2013) begins during the 2008 election debate when Barack Obama was asked about “a gentleman named William Ayers,” and replied that Ayers was “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” The story that follows, from death threats to cancelled speaking gigs and beyond, moves from the Vietnam War and Weatherman and life underground to parenting young children under siege. Ayers, a respected educator, author, and university professor, is at his most eloquent when he talks about children and learning, both in the classroom and the particular challenges in his own family.

Full disclosure: Bill Ayers is an old friend from those days, even though we disagreed back then about how to make the change our country so desperately needed. These days, we more often agree about how to respond to what’s wrong in our nation. I admire Bill’s tenacity, his commitment and his enthusiasm.

Despite different genres, different styles, different narratives, these two books share some important traits. Both are beautifully written. Both sizzle with energy. Both are page-turners. Both make me think more deeply about politics and families, about how we pass values from one generation to the next, with as little damage, as much passion as possible. And both books remind me – from their very different perspectives – that working for social justice, in any decade, is complicated, often messy, and filled with contradictions and thorny ethical questions. Wrestling with these issues, past and present, and continuing to agitate for social justice, is job one for my generation, for the many sixties activists who still want to change the world.

Note to Western MA folks: Join Bill Ayers for an author event on Tuesday, November 26th, 7:00 pm, at the Broadside Bookstore in Northampton. AND, we'll be discussing LAYLA at the Odyssey Bookshop Fiction Book Group on January 20th (open to anyone who has read the book and wants to talk about it)
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