Friday, December 9, 2016

My Biggest Loss and Best Books of 2016

I'm breaking my blog silence because something rocked my world this year. My dear, dear friend, Nancy Olson, died. She was the friend we all want: she loved me unconditionally, but she didn't let me get away with a darned thing. She could talk about anything from books to music to low-down gossip. We laughed a whole lot. Our husbands love each other too. She took me to see a little piece of this vast world we live in. 

In honor of her, I'm writing this post to do something she did every day: promote reading. Here's my list of the best books I read in 2016. I've listed them in the order that I read them because this year especially I can't name my favorites. I've included short descriptions.

Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett: Nancy and I loved Adam Haslett's story collection, We Are Not Strangers Here. His new book, a novel entitled Imagine Me Gone, incorporates the same exquisite writing and intriguing characterization. He has created a beautiful story of a family haunted by mental illness. There is a Christmas scene that makes me think Haslett was eavesdropping in my living room this year! The characters are so vibrant and their situations so moving that I continue to think of them now that I've read the book to its compelling ending. 

Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Chris Cleave: Readers who loved All the Light We Cannot See and other well-written novels of World War II will fall in love with Chris Cleave’s new book, Everyone Brave is Forgiven. Cleave, the author of Little Bee, has brought his remarkable storytelling skills to this novel of four people touched by the war: Mary North, her fiancĂ© Tom, her best friend Hilda, and Tom’s friend Alistair. Although there is romance in the book, there is no sentimentality. We see the psychological and physical scars of war first-hand. 

The Lover, Margeurite Duras: Too often the term “summer reading” brings to mind books that are without much substance. It doesn’t have to be that way! I have just finished a classic story of love that is literary and sexy, perfect for vacation. The Lover tells the story of a love affair Duras had when she was a preparatory school student in Saigon. The language is exquisite, and although Duras waited until she was seventy to publish the story of her affair with Leo, a Chinese businessman much older than she, it is clear that the details are etched in her memory. And now they are etched in mine. 

Miss Jane, Brad Watson: Brad Watson was one of Nancy’s favorite writers, and after reading his newest novel, Miss Jane, I can see why. The main character, Jane Chisolm, doesn’t succumb to self-pity when faced with a genital birth defect. She faces the accompanying limitations and moves on. Through the support and friendship of her family doctor, Jane lives a full and satisfactory life. Watson uses his beautiful writing to tell us the complex story of this wonderful character. 

Hystopia, David Means: David Means’ short story collection, Various Fire Events, was full of dark and dystopian stories. These two adjectives would also apply to his new novel, Hystopia. It is 1970. John F. Kennedy has lived through several assassination attempts and is still President. Veterans of the Viet Nam war are dealing with their PTSD by taking the drug Tripizoid and undergoing a process called Enfolding. Some vets, like Rake, are so incorrigible that they can’t be enfolded, and therein lies the tale. It is a novel within a novel, complete with Editor’s Notes and Author’s Notes that provide a sense of truth and realism to the fictional story. This and other novels pertaining to Viet Nam remind us that the psychological damage from war is heartbreaking, and often unmanageable.

What We Don't Know About Each Other (poems), Lawrence Raab:  I recommended this beautiful collection of poems at our Book Club Bash. (I suggest book clubs begin their meetings with a poem as a sort of devotional.)

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson: A few years ago I finally got around to reading Sandra Cisneros’ book, House on Mango Street. What that book was to the coming-of-age Latino community in Chicago, Jacqueline Woodson’s new book is to the African-Americans in Brooklyn. Flashing back to an August in the seventies, Another Brooklyn follows four friends as they leave their childhoods behind. I was particularly struck by the dangers and challenges that young girls and women face from men—on the streets from strangers and in their homes from father figures who are absent entirely or present in unhealthy ways. 

Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Glen Ringtved: The cover of Glenn Ringtved’s book, Cry, Heart, But Never Break, shows a young child looking into the eyes of the black-cloaked figure of Death. Death has come to visit the house of the child and her siblings to take their grandmother. The children plot to keep Death awake, “since everyone knows Death’s only friend is night.” Through the beautiful illustrations of Charlotte Pardi, Death takes the children through the stages of grief, preparing them in the end for saying good-bye to their beloved grandmother. This book is a wonderful vehicle for helping children through the loss of loved ones while honoring the emotions that they will feel after the death.

Commonwealth, Ann Patchett: (From the QuailMail) Dear Customers, I know you’re sick of me talking about how beautifully written Ann Patchett’s new book Commonwealth is, how the story of the blended families will take you into their heads, their hearts, their homes, their backyards, the woods beyond their backyards. Especially since all the time I’ve been talking about it, you couldn’t have a copy. Well guess what? Now you can have one! Please come to the store, call on the phone, order online, but get this magnificent book in your hands. You’ve waited long enough.

Hold Still, Sally Mann: Before I read this book, I knew that Mann had taken controversial photographs of her children and dead people. After reading this book, I understand her and her unconventional artist’s perspective. Photographs of and by Mann give the book even more impact.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson: Working in a bookstore, customers recommend books to me all the time. One book that came up often was Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Wow! What an inventive mind Atkinson has. The novel begins, and begins again, ends, and ends in another way entirely. Shuffle and repeat. I’ve never read a novel like this. I loved every character. I can’t wait to read A God In Ruins, to continue the story of one of the most endearing of the characters, Teddy.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (due out in March 2017): In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid places us in an unnamed country (as he did in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia), and in doing so makes what happens there a universal metaphor for war-torn countries in the Middle East. Saieed and Nadia are refugees from one such country, navigating not only the landscape but their developing love affair. They have had to leave much behind in their homeland, including Saieed’s beloved father. Reality and the fantastical blend together as they migrate from one place to another. Hamid once again sheds light on the life of the refugees who inhabit our world.

The links (with one exception--a book that is out of print) are to the Quail Ridge Books website because I care deeply about the store Nancy grew from an infant to a giant. But I don't care which independent bookstore you buy them from. :)

Happy holidays to all of you, and I hope you give and receive lots of books.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sundays Are the Worst Day

"Sundays are the worst day," my father told me one day, talking about his occasional

There is something about Sundays. I feel it myself sometimes, a melancholy that I can't quite figure out.

Make it a habit on Sundays to reach out to those you love, those who live alone or on the edge. Those living with physical or mental illness, caretakers, the grief-stricken. Those who spend Sunday anticipating Monday--the Sunday jitters, my husband calls the feeling. Those whose lives are pretty full during the week but Sunday stretches too long. Or too short.

Go ahead.  Make that call.  Send that email. Today. Sunday.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Beginning, Middle, End, Part 3: The Middle

In between the beginning and the end, there was a week at Wildacres in the North Carolina mountains.

This was my third time staying there, and I'm a fan for life. I wrote stories and letters, meditated, napped, ate three meals a day prepared by others, walked in the woods, read, laughed, met new people, heard beautiful music and words. Sometimes I sat on the back porch of my dorm and rocked and did nothing. 

In the middle of the week, we had just finished breakfast when the sun disappeared and a huge storm came up. The dining hall, where I was, is mostly glass, and the storm raged against the windows and blew doors open. One woman came rushing back into the hall, alarmed by the strength of the storm and thankful that she had been able to get back inside safely.  As I walked around the grounds afterward, I realized that there was a lot of damage: downed trees, upturned and damaged rocking chairs, broken glass where pictures had been blown off the walls.

The fact that we were all okay at the end of the morning was a blessing, part of the security, ease, and trust that pervades Wildacres. We have no locks on our doors and all the buildings are open twenty-four hours a day. Every building at Wildacres is a sort of sanctuary.

I am thankful for my time there, an in-between respite from what came before and what will follow.  We (women especially) don't give ourselves this gift often enough: guilt free self-love in a place where we are taken care of and feel safe. 

I am filled with gratitude to the people who built this retreat center with foresight, and to Mike and Kathy who maintain and manage this place where we can find shelter from the storms.