Friday, January 1, 2016

Reading and Retreating, the Year in Review

2015 was good year to step back, scale down, pare away, and focus in.

A few years ago I quit my Goodreads account, finding more stress than joy in the task of keeping up entries, anguishing over each and every star bestowed or withheld, and failing miserably to maintain any semblance of good literary citizenship. Shedding this draining obligation - self-admittedly one of my own making - was incredibly liberating. Since then shaking off any unsatisfying trapping of digital/blogging life (farewell Google Plus, so long review requests, hasta la vista advertising, and, embarrassingly, ciao to replying to even the politest queries) has become easier - some, out of necessity and lack of time, but more often out of realization of what brings real meaning. 

If one could possibly write any less and still be considered to have a blog, this year was the year. Yet in many ways, any writing that did happen felt more worthwhile. And the more I've let go of blogging, the more I've rediscovered the beauty of reading and writing - if primarily for myself. Going more analog has its perks, as it turns out. Prompted in part by being required to choose a workplace wellness goal, and in part by a pretty blank notebook I received as a gift, I kept a handwritten journal this year. First intended to keep track of yoga sessions, the diary also became a gratitude journal, a reading log, and repository of miscellaneous notes to self. It turns out yoga and writing are a lovely and satisfying combination: setting aside time for one and pairing it with the other - right there on the mat - creates physical and mental space for reflection that has been very valuable.

Looking back through the journal at this year's reading, the new books I loved the most were Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (stunning, gripping and original), Mothers Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell (powerful short stories exploring women's complicated lives), Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff (riveting through and through, even the parts that didn't work as well), Vendela Vida's The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty (intriguing exploration of identity). I also loved Alexandra Fuller's memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman (outstanding short stories about extremely fascinating, real women), and Philip Hoare's beautiful The Sea Inside.

I'm heading into 2016 with Heidi Julavits' The Folded Clock, which is proving to be a fitting reading choice for this moment of leaving the old year behind and starting the new. Her diary entries (essays, really)  consider selves past and present, relationships, and the changing ways we find our place and meaning in the world. She is complicated, and my feelings about many of the essays are complicated, too, but overall they are interesting, thought-provoking, and also instructive on the rich possibilities and art of keeping a diary. I'm also excited to read American Copper, the new novel by Shann Ray, and to delve into the work of two southern writers, Mary Ford and Janisse Ray (books pictured above).

As always, the beginning of a new year feels full of promise and renewal. What are you looking forward to in 2016? 

Happy reading, and Happy New Year!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Identity, Considered

In The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida (HarperCollins 2015), a young, unnamed woman travels to Casablanca, where her backpack and passport are promptly stolen at the very moment she checks in to her hotel. The local authorities, more interested in not having problems than retrieving her actual documents, insist that she accept another similarly-featured foreigner's recovered passport and close the case. In possession of someone else's identity, our narrator begins to shed her own bit by bit, first out of necessity, and then more deliberately. As she does, the disturbing truth about her flight overseas is also slowly unveiled. I loved the premise and the intrigue of the story, and the constant surprise and bewilderment of things going wrong at every turn. The narrator, who quickly reveals herself as a hot mess, draws you in with first with absurdity and impossibility, and then with great sympathy. It's a smartly written, fast-paced novel, perfect for travel enthusiasts with a love of the literary - and a good reminder to never set down your backpack.

Lori Jakiela's Belief is its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books, 2015) is a moving memoir of self-discovery. When Jakiela's adoptive mother dies, the author - a mother herself -  is completely devastated. In her profound grief, and perhaps in an attempt to fill the new and significant hole in her life, the author decides to find her birth mother. With the exception of meeting her brother, the reunion with her birth family is complicated and painful. The birth mother sends hateful and rejecting emails, and a sister, too, seems completely erratic and unstable. Through the retelling of this difficult experience, however, Jakiela beautifully considers both identity and motherhood. What makes us who we are - is it the person who gives us life, or the people who choose to love us, or the family and life we build ourselves?

I remember reading a short story by Tawnysha Greene online a few years ago and being struck both by the beauty of her writing and the cruelty of the story it told. The story, which appears again as the opening to the novel A House Made of Stars (Burlesque Press, 2015), is story of a young girl, her mother, and younger siblings struggling to survive in a home with an unpredictable and abusive father. It is not an easy novel to read - it is heartbreaking and disturbing, but it is also an important one. With spare and compelling writing, nuanced descriptions of living in poverty, parenting under stress, and the emotional terror of turbulent relationships, the author reminded me that just as there are no simple people, there are no simple answers.  The brutality is just balanced by the remarkable beauty in the narrator's strength and resilience. She, too, is able to forge an identity that is not defined by those who surround her.

I borrowed my copy of The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty from the library and purchased Belief and A House Made of Stars. Happy reading!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Notes from Summer's End

This summer took us back to Star Island, New Hampshire, one of our very favorite places in the entire world. We hadn't been in several years - since our last visit we have moved far enough away to make travel anywhere in the Northeast significantly challenging. But we couldn't resist the call another year, and so we drove through the night and into the wee hours of the next morning to catch the ferry that would shuttle us to our little rock in the sea.

The short journey across the water is just far enough to completely transport you, physically and spiritually. The island has its own rhythms - cool morning fog and coffee on the Victorian porch give way to the day's building heat and a bustle of activity. Then, when you are exhausted from the day and think you can't bear it a moment longer, the relief of cool breezes and lively cocktail hour cameraderie refresh and renew you. At night, the incredible crash of the waves and the constant clang of the buoy either keep you up or lull you to sleep, depending.

The island can be gentle - a spider's web on a dewy morning, a hushed procession of lanterns climbing the hill through the dark to evening chapel. But with no tree cover and cliffs that drop sharply off to the open sea, it is also extreme. This tiny, enduring and exposed rock reminds you how precariously perched we are on the edge of the earth's wilderness and our own.

We could not have been more fortunate than to have had author and National Geographic writer Tim Weed as the week's featured speaker, nor a topic more appropriate for an island full of inquisitive adventurers. His fascinating lecture series on creative engagement with place took us around the world to Spain, Cuba, New Mexico, South America and colonial New England as we learned about Ernest Hemingway, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Darwin, Franciso de Goya, and finally our speaker himself - and how these locations inspired and shaped their life's work.
The wonderful lectures, a hike with the botanist, and the island's outstanding if tiny bookstore left me pursuing an adventure-inspired reading list in the weeks since we've been home:  Phillip Hoare's The Sea Inside is gorgeous and haunting, the perfect read for anyone who loves nature, geography, history, remote places and beautiful writing. The book also led me to investigate the unusual life and ethereal photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, a contemporary and friend of Charles Darwin, on the Isle of Wight. I enjoyed exploring early New England landscape and native and colonial cultures through the adventures of a spirited teenager in Will Poole's Island, and vicariously lived a literary Parisian cafe life in Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. Now, halfway through Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, I'm reminded of how unique and essential each and every place and habitat is, how remarkably fragile, and yet how profoundly hardy. The earth will thrive and go on in one way or another, for better or worse, with our without us.

Summer for us has been over for nearly a month - the children are long since back in school, daily life is back to a daily hustle, and New Hampshire once again seems impossibly far away. The week, though, has stayed with me. In addition to being exceptionally memorable time with family, and also wonderfully restorative, our time on Star opened up reflective space, space I've felt very short on in the last eighteen months, with creativity and any related efforts (modest though they may be) being the most neglected as a result. But sometimes a fresh point of view and stepping out of your element help you find perspective and put you back in touch with an essential part of yourself - perhaps the best reason of all to go adventuring.

Happy reading - and happy exploring!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Summer Reading

*pings the universe* Hello - yes, still here! In my thoughts more often than on the page these days, but you know how that is sometimes. Lovely to have both the inspiration and the opportunity to pop back here.... 1) there are a handful of books that I love love loved recently and 2) a lovely publisher sent me a book out of the blue, which is more of a rarity than it used to be and I have a few thoughts about it and 3) it is a holiday weekend and that one extra day has brought me to a place where I can actually breathe, and think, and write! And so...

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner, 2015)
An absolutely fascinating collection of fictional stories about real women who lived on the periphery of fame - too eccentric or unaccomodating or behaviorally unacceptable for their time, and/or overshadowed by someone famous in their lives. I am one to always have suspected the under-appreciated Watson likely had far more complexity and interest than the obviously attention-getting Holmes, if only one took the time to dig a little deeper and truly look. The stories -each prefaced with a marvelous vintage photo that in itself sparks the imagination - are superbly written, suspenseful, and left me devouring even the endnotes and still wanting more.

On Immunity by Eula Biss (Graywolf Press, 2014)
You probably already have a firm opinion on vaccination and childhood immunizations and as such may not think that you need to read more about it. While I am already firmly in the pro-vaccinate camp and need no convincing, I found Biss's consideration interesting, essential and thought provoking. She explores every aspect of immunity, why it works, the social/cultural/and public health history of our modern vaccination policies, why some fear it - for reasons understandable and less so, and why in America opting out  - for those without medical reasons to do so - is a privilege that endangers others and would be devastating in many parts of the world. I found the book left me thinking hard about how we humans (all of us, not just those who oppose vaccines) are very imperfect - and rarely completely rational -  in how we come to our beliefs. And very timely this week with California's latest policy. Well worth a read.

The Book of Laney by Myfanwy Collins (Lacewing Press, 2015)
By way of disclosure I am a fan of Engine Books, a wonderful small press of which Lacewing is a new and exciting Young Adult imprint. I am a fan of the author, Myfanwy Collins, of whose beautiful and unflinching flash fiction and earlier novel Echolocation I am also a fan, and whom I have come to know just a little bit through social media. Her latest, The Book of Laney explores the incredibly difficult subject of school shootings through the lens of a perpetrator's surviving sibling. The description of the event itself was very hard to read (as one might expect) but the heart and soul of this book is not the terrible act, but Laney. She is vulnerable and tough and completely compelling - I loved her voice and her story and the captivating writing, and above all, the hope.

Minnow by James E. McTeer II (Hub City, 2015)
I was eager to read Minnow, winner of the 2014 South Carolina First Novel prize, largely because it is set just over the river from where we live, in the South Carolina low country. Minnow does a beautiful job capturing the wild beauty and magic of this terrain, full of palmettos and loblolly pines, islands and coastal salt marshes, vegetation that grows thick and mysterious and animals that are quite exotic to those of us not from here. In the story, the child Minnow is on a quest for medicine for his sick father, and in order to get it, Minnow must venture ever farther out a chain of islands to retrieve a handful of dirt from the grave of a now feared evil spirit. The premise is charming, the writing enjoyable, and the scenery wonderful. Though I found the story a little too charming sometimes, and strictly linear in its telling, I enjoyed the book and especially the ending, which took a completely unexpected turn in both tone and plot.

Dragonfish by Vu Tran (W.W. Norton, 2015) I was delighted and completely intrigued to have this novel appear unsolicited in my mailbox. I do like a crime novel from time to time, especially one with literary merit, and even better one with a fresh angle. In Tran's novel, the ex-wife of an American detective goes missing, and as he searches for her, he uncovers the mystery of her past life in Vietnam. I quite enjoyed the book - it has a classic noir detective feel with a contemporary twist - and I especially liked the wife's backstory, which was interesting and compelling (though it might have been even more effective, and even more suspenseful, if it had been interspersed in slightly smaller doses more evenly throughout the story). I also thought (as is so often true) the jacket blurbs oversold the thriller aspect of the novel, which never works in a book's favor - but independently of them I fundamentally liked the story, and even more so liked being introduced to an interesting new author.

Sources:  I received my copy of The Book of Laney as a birthday gift from my family. Almost Famous Women, On Immunity,  and Minnow came from our public library. My thanks to the publisher for my complimentary copy of Dragonfish.

Happy reading!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Replacement Life - Boris Fishman

My Sunday Sentence this week from A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman (HarperCollins 2014)

"Isn't. Verbiage was missing. In Russian, you didn't need the adjective to complete the sentence, but in English, you did. In English, she could still be alive."

Loved this moving novel considering the complicated nature of truth, history, fiction, family, inheritance and justice - left me a bit teary and incredibly glad to have read it.

Sunday Sentence is a weekly meme hosted by David Abrams over at The Quivering Pen.
I borrowed my copy of A Replacement Life from my local library. Happy reading!