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Favorite reads of 2021

Late every fall I try to think back over the books I've read that year and share the ones I've loved most, the ones that have stayed with me, changed me. This year was particularly difficult, with such an amazing group of titles published. Books that dig deep into the world and offer something new, something inspiring. Here are the ones that have stayed with me the most.
Horodno Burning by Michael Freed-Thall
Early in this novel, we meet a girl who loves to read and a boy who loves stories but cannot read. Their life together, in the 19th century Pale of Settlement where Jews were confined, form the center of this thoughtful and moving historical novel. The characters' persistence in trying to live good lives as anti-Semitism intensifies, political activism grows, and disaster seems inevitable offers insight into an immigrant history, our current world, and the power of books and reading to make a difference. A timely and timeless story.
Blue Desert by Celia Jeffries
This debut novel is unflinchingly adventurous, unashamedly feminist, and deeply human. The story seamlessly weaves between two narratives: 18-year-old Alice living with the Tuareg tribe in wartime Sahara and 78-year-old Alice in London. Jeffries brings the story to a compelling and satisfying conclusion without sacrificing the lyricism of the prose, the lush grounding in the natural world, or the heartbreaking complexity of her characters.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
I wasn't so sure about this book as I began reading. Was it a novel, I wondered, these very loosely linked vignettes about Black British women? But as the voices grew and the women connected, I was drawn totally into their world and their lives. This is an amazing and fierce piece of writing, and an important story for us all to read.
North by Brad Kessler
A monk, a Somali refugee, and a disabled veteran walk into a bar. No, they don't. They meet in a Vermont monastery, and the resulting novel is both profoundly moving and deeply story about community, activism, and perseverance. I loved this book as much as the author's earlier novel, Birds in Fall.
The President and the Frog by Carolina De Robertis
This is one of those books that defy description. It's about a former president of a Latin American country, a revolutionary who spent many years in prison, and his interview by a Swedish journalist. It's also about his memories of conversations with a frog during his brutual captivity. Sounds odd, right? But I found it profoundly fascinating and moving and provocative.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
So much has been written about this novel, pro and con, but I totally loved it. It takes Powers' large understanding of how human beings are destroying the planet and condenses that big story into the difficult and tender relationship between a father and son. Read it and tell me what you think?
Imperfect Alchemist by Naomi Miller
I love it when a novel takes me far away in time and culture to a place I haven't visited before. That's what happens here, with Mary and Rose and their herbs and drawings and plays. What a rich world; what a delightful story to live inside. This is historical fiction at its best, exploring patriarchy and the lives of women through a sixteenth century lens.
Sinking Islands by Cai Emmons
This is a wonderful read, lyrical and so important. I think I liked this novel even more than Weather Woman, which has many of the same characters, but it isn't necessary to read first. Emmons offers us a global ensemble cast of characters who discover not only their power but also their connection to the earth and each other. We need this book. And if you'd like to know some backstory about the author and the book launch, check this out.
Daughters of Smoke and Fire by Ava Homa
This debut novel is a gem. It's part Kurdish history, part love story, part cautionary tale about family and culture in the face of genocide and resistance. Leila is a complex main character, with the contradictions we all carry within - wanting both safety and adventure, security and justice, family and the wider world. The story has brutality and tenderness, pain and resistance, fury and hope. Highly recommended!
Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy by Anne Sebba
Ethel Rosenberg was my mother-in-law, although I never met her. I married her son Robby 17 years after the execution. (So, I know this story well and I am not unbiased.) In this biography, Sebba examines Ethel through the lens of history and feminism, looking beyond the usual myths. Ethel is portrayed as a neither victim nor dupe, but rather as a deeply political woman and devoted mother who was betrayed by family and country. If you'd like to read more about my thoughts on this book, check out this essay in Lilith Magazine.
Admit This to No One by Leslie Pietrzyk
This collection of short stories set in Washington, D.C. could be taken from the newspapers, if newspapers dug underneath the news for the juicy kernels of truth about our political center and the people who live and work there. The reviews call the stories "biting" and "cuts like a razor," and that's true, but there is also humor and empathy. I'm trying to learn to write better short fiction, and this collection is a wonderful teacher.

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In praise of pivoting

Learning about writing plays!

I'm easily bored.
That might be why, over the course of almost 60 years of adult working life, I have held positions ranging from switchboard operator to art teacher, from early childhood educator to abortion counselor, from nurse practitioner to novelist. I like learning new skills, taking on challenges, pivoting from one career to another as part of embracing the seasons of life.
When I started seriously writing fiction 21 years ago, and especially when my first novel was published ten years ago, I thought that I had found my forever-work. I love the process of creating a new world on the page, inviting readers to join me in exploring and understanding these made-up lives in a fantasy universe. My fifth novel, The Lost Women of Azalea Court, set on the grounds of the Northampton State Hospital, will be published in late 2022. I love books and reading; how could there be anything else?
So I was surprised when this year, during the isolation and sadness of the pandemic, I discovered playwriting. It was serendipitous, as these things often are. My first play, GRIDLOCK, is 'in development' with Silverthorne Theater Company and the LAVA Center and I'm having so much fun learning another set of writing skills and experiencing the deeply collaborative process of writing for the theater. I was also reminded of how much I enjoy being a "newbie." There is a freedom in not having to know the answers. In trying new things with little fear of failing.
GRIDLOCK is another look at some of the themes explored in my 2020 novel, Her Sister's Tattoo—family secrets and political activism—in the context of a massive regional grid failure and environmental activism. There will be a free public reading on June 11, both in person at the LAVA Center in Greenfield, MA, and live-streamed on Silverthorne Theater's YouTube channel. Please check it out at https://silverthornetheater.org/event/gridlock/. Maybe you'll even join me in this new adventure.

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Favorite reads of 2020

What a year 2020 has been! The silver lining (of the horrors of COVID and the ugly polarization of national politics and the sadness of isolation from family and community) has been reading. What a lot of good books have been published into these challenging times. These are my favorite reads (although it's certainly possible I've forgotten and left off a few stellar ones) to share for your reading pleasure.
Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam
The Gringa, by Andrew Altschul
The Sun Collective, by Charles Baxter
The Paris Affair, by Susanne Dunlap
Burn Down This World, by Tina Egnoski
What You Have Heard is True, by Carolyn Forche
Accidentals, by Susan M Gaines
Into the Forest, by Jean Hegland
Tea by the Sea, by Donna Hemans
Daughters of the Stone, by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa
Glorious Boy, by Aimee Liu
Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy
The Yellow Bird Sings, by Jennifer Rosner
Unseen City, by Amy Shearn
Subduction, by Kristen Milares Young

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HER SISTER'S TATTOO is three months old today. What a roller-coaster it has been!

Her Sister's Tattoo is three months old today. What a roller-coaster trip it has been, launching a novel into a pandemic followed by massive protests and an impressive rebirth of resistance to racism and economic injustice.
I have felt such a stew of emotions in these three long/short months: fear about COVID, fury at the mismanagement of our country's response, disappointment at not being able to tour with my book, anger at the increasing militarization of police response to demonstrators, sorrow at the loss of friends to the virus, and deep sadness at not being able, as part of a high risk household, to join others in the streets in support of Black Lives Matter.
Three months on, I've figured out some about how to reconfigure my life to online connections and how to redirect my political work. Having a politically-engaged novel launch at this moment in history has brought unexpected opportunities to talk with readers about the parallels between the uprisings of the late 1960's and now. To consider together the same questions activists face 50-odd years later. Questions about the political choices we make, the risks, and the consequences to ourselves and to the people we love.
I've come to understand other benefits in my life of the current situation. I've learned how to promote my novel using virtual events and social media. I appreciate that my carbon footprint is much lower, with no travel and few purchases other than food, books, and game apps so I can play with my grandchildren. I love being able to prepare for book events only from the waist up - a nice shirt, some earrings, and I'm ready. I love not worrying about eating garlic before a reading or book party.
Given the challenging times, I'm grateful to the folks who are generously promoting pandemic-launched books. I'm grateful to those of you who have read Her Sister's Tattoo and sent me emails about your response. Some of you have asked how you can help get the word out about this book and other pandemic-launched titles you've read and enjoyed. I just happen to have a few ideas about how we all can help writers and honor this moment in history:
1.     Take a few minutes to put a review and/or rating on Goodreads and Amazon. Seems silly, but they're important to help books find their readers.
2.     If you're in a book group, consider selecting titles impacted by the pandemic, as well as books written by writers of color.
3.     Word of mouth is so important. Talk with your reading friends and family members about the books that matter to you. And remind them that if they buy books, they should try to purchase from independent and/or BIPOC-owned bookstores.
This virus will probably be with us for much longer than we expect. So wear a mask, take care of yourself, read widely and deeply, and keep in touch.

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Going Viral: launching a book during COVID 19

We're all terrified about what Covid-19 means for our communities, our loved ones. If we're not frightened, we should be. Many of us are self-isolating, working remotely, not visiting friends and family except virtually. We're washing our hands often, trying not to touch our faces, attempting to balance our reading about the virus to learn what we need to know with ignoring it, so we don't descend into despair or panic.
In the midst of all of this, my new novel, Her Sister's Tattoo is being published. This novel had a 20-year gestation. I wrote the first chapters in early 2000 and have been revising it ever since. Its due date is April 7. My March and April events, including the book launch and party, have been cancelled; the May and June events are most likely next. I feel a bit embarrassed being so miserable about a book when people are dying, but it's my baby.
I'm not alone with this; there's a huge spring list of titles which won't get the usual event exposure at bookstores, libraries, conferences and literary festivals. This also means that our beloved indie bookstores are hurting as well, without in-person event sales and foot traffic.
We do have two things going for us. First of all, most writers are used to spending hours alone to do our work. (Some may even be a tiny bit relieved at not being able to travel and perform.) Secondly, many of us have worked hard to build robust literary communities to nurture and sustain our work.
So, in between bouts of sadness, I'm trying to focus on the new possibilities offered by this situation. Many of these opportunities are online; they offer spring-launching authors ways to reach new readers, many of whom are hunkering down at home with extra reading time.
·      Robin Kall of the Reading with Robin podcast has organized festival of author interviews and giveaways called Authorpalooza; the videos are available here. A similar series of FaceBook interviews are online at The Write Review.
·      Bestselling novelists Jenna Blum and Caroline Leavitt have launched A Mighty Blaze, a "social media initiative for writers whose in-person tours and events have been canceled, so they can till reach their readers – and so readers will have a place to go every week to find and buy new books."
·      National literary organizations are hosting virtual events, including Lit Hub, Litquake, and others.
·      Locally, many writing workshops, community writing get-togethers, classes and programs are being offered online. Check websites for Writers in Progress, Pioneer Valley Writers' Workshop, Forbes Library writers' room, and, of course, our own Straw Dog programs.
This is an opportunity for us all to be extra generous with each other. In addition to checking in on friends and neighbors who live alone or are at higher risk of Covid-19 infection and death, and offering to pick up groceries or medications, in addition to virtual visits and meetings, please consider kindness to newly published and vulnerable books.
These "good literary citizen" opportunities could include:
·      shouting out a book you're excited about on social media, even more than you might ordinarily do
·      pay special attention to new or forthcoming titles that have been impacted by Corona-19 for book club selections
·      writing reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, even if you'd rather not
·      buying more books than usual, especially since the libraries are closed (although some remote services are available)
·      supporting our precious independent bookstores, which often have a very small margin of viability. Many offer online ordering and curbside pickup service. We are so fortunate to have wonderful indie bookstores in our area, including Broadside, Odyssey, Book Moon, Amherst Books, Raven, Montague Book Mill. If we want them to survive, we must support them.
And, in case you're looking for suggestions, pictured above are some of my favorite virus-impacted new books.

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The final four favorite books I've read in 2019

Back in August I blogged about my favorite books so far in 2019. Here are four more to finish my year of delicious reading. Since I mostly read books four to six months before they're published (because I'm helping the folks at the Odyssey Bookshop select fiction titles for their wonderful Signed First Edition Club), many of these books aren't out yet. BUT you can pre-order them from your favorite indie bookshop or ask your local library to order them.

AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins will be published in January 2020. It has one of the most striking, and devastating, openings I have ever read and is an amazing roller coaster of a journey book. I thought I knew some things about migrants leaving their homes south of our border, but this novel brought my knowledge, empathy, and anger to a whole new level. The author never sacrifices her characters' inner lives to their dire circumstances, offering us an intimate and profound connection with her universe. Highly recommend.


THE GRINGA by Andrew Altschul, coming out in March, is loosely based on the story of the U.S. citizen Lori Berenson who joined revolutionary activists in Peru. In Altschul's very capable hands, the story expands into an exploration of the motivations, decisions, and thought processes of a politically passionate but naive young woman, fighting in a country that is not her own. The narrator, an ex-pat novelist named Andres, bears a strong resemblance to the author, adding a complex literary element to the novel. This is a terrific read, thought-provoking, and important.

GLORIOUS BOY by Aimee Liu won't be out until May, but put it on your list so you don't miss it. The boy is Ty, whose U.S. parents work in the remote Andaman Islands on the cusp of the Japanese invasion during World War II, his father as a physician and his mother as an anthropologist. As the wartime global conflict heats up, Ty is separated from his parents. Beautifully written, this novel asks questions every parent has considered: how far will parents go to find and rescue their child?

BLACKBIRD BLUES by Jean K. Carney is already published, so you can get it right away. Although she dreams of being a jazz singer, entering the convent feels like a way for eighteen-year-old Mary Kaye O'Donnell to escape her dysfunctional family. That is, until she learns that she's pregnant. The one person who could help Mary Kaye navigate an unwanted pregnancy in 1963 Chicago is her voice coach and mentor, Sister Michaeline, who dies suspiciously as Jean K. Carney's luminous debut novel opens. Carney, a former award-winning reporter, editorial writer, and psychologist, offers a nuanced and powerful exploration of women's choices around pregnancy and motherhood in the decades before Roe v. Wade. A really good book group selection.





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Favorite reads of 2019 - so far!

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.

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Happy 25th Birthday, Stones & Bones Book Group

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.

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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.

Yes. Gobsmacked.

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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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