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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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What I learned about writing on my summer vacation

Walking on the rail-trail this morning, I’m thinking about vacation. I’m just back from two weeks on the Cape with family and friends. I didn’t write a word during those two weeks (not with my wonderful daughters, two delicious grandchildren, their sleep-deprived parents, gorgeous weather, lovely beaches, and so many games of Settlers of Catan to play). Even so, my manuscript-in-progress accompanied me everywhere.

Partly, that was because my daughters read the manuscript-so-far, about 200 pages of first draft (I told you they’re wonderful) and gave me thoughtful critiques and suggestions. Partly it was that characters have no respect for vacations or weekends or sleep. And partly, it was because of the books I read on vacation, and what they taught me.

I always haul a large size L.L. Bean bag filled with books to the cape. In the days before grandchildren, I’d read six or seven of them on vacation, and my daughters and friends would do the same. These days, I read more IVY AND BEAN and SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES and MERCY WATSON. But I did manage to read two adult books, and they’ve got me thinking about story-telling in general and what I love in particular.

The first book is Wally Lamb’s forthcoming novel, WE ARE WATER. I’ve loved Wally’s previous novels, and have been eagerly anticipating this one. It’s the portrait of a family, a marriage, of children scarred by early events and traumas. It’s also the 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. As a reader, I loved all of this. As a writer, I was particularly interested in the structure of the book, in the masterful way that Lamb reveals details of story, and back-story, from multiple points of view, in a nonlinear manner, so that the reader plays a major part in putting together the puzzle pieces.

The second book is OFFSPRING, the second novel by Michael Quadland. This was a reread; I read this book when it was first published and selected this book for the August discussion at the Odyssey Bookshop in S. Hadley, MA, where I lead a monthly fiction book group. In fact, OFFSPRING is set in a bookstore, The Strand, in lower Manhattan, where the lives of a Vietnam vet, a transgendered person, and a volatile and unstable actress intersect wildly. The past traumas are different than in WE ARE WATER, but the longing of each character to find a way to fit into an unwelcoming world resonates similarly. With enormous empathy for their often-unsympathetic circumstances, both of these authors challenge our preconceptions and prejudices.

Reading good books enriches my writing life in so many ways. I can’t wait to get back to my manuscript tomorrow morning, filled with inspiration and energy, enthusiasm and new ideas.  Read More 
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