Reads in Review / 2018

Welcome to Reads in Review, the yearly blog post from someone who loves to read but manages to actually read very few books. Nevertheless, I will share my three favorites with you. I know! You’re welcome!

. . . . .

Educated by Tara Westover. My “couldn’t put it down” book of the year. I smiled, I cried, I shook my head in disbelief multiple times. I read a non-fiction book like this with a doubting mind – surely, SURELY, this can’t all be true – so I’m trusting Random House’s fact checker on this. But still? It’s unbelievable. Tara was raised in a large family in the mountains of Idaho, without a birth certificate or a formal education, spending her days helping her herbalist midwife mother and preparing for the Days of Abomination. The stories of her childhood are heartwarming, heartbreaking, and violent, and as so many sides of this story surface, you are continually surprised and increasingly afraid for her. Finally, she decides to follow in the footsteps of one older brother and educate herself enough to take the ACT and apply to college, a move dismissed by her father as “whoring after man’s knowledge and not God’s.” What follows is a journey away from home and back again, so many times, until she realizes she has to make a choice.

All my father’s stories were about our mountain, our valley, our jagged little patch of Idaho. He never told me what do to if I left the mountain, if I crossed oceans and continents and found myself in strange terrain, where I could no longer search the horizon for the Princess. He never told me how I’d know when it was time to come home.

Prologue, Educated

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Not long ago, I saw a comment on social media about people who call out racism and privilege, and how to react if it happens to you. The gist? Be thankful. You have been viewed as someone who will do better when they know better, someone who didn’t intend the hurt caused by words or actions. This is how I read Oluo’s entire book. She takes the time she certainly doesn’t owe us, and she calls out, explains, and she’s not shy about telling us what’s at risk if we don’t listen. She probably wondered why, in 2018, she’d need to cover some of these topics at all, but she does so with that hope – that expectation – that we WILL do better. This isn’t just a book about how to call out racism and privilege, though it is about that; it’s about how to look at ourselves, our history, our privilege, our society, our government, and our fellow humans in a critical, change-focused way. It’s absolutely worth a read.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Hello, 1984. I’m sorry it took me so long to read this beautiful little book you gave us. I loved that each chapter, be it one paragraph or four pages, was its own story, and it fit seamlessly into the thread running from beginning to end. It’s what I imagine to be a perfect example of novella-in-flash. This is the way Cisneros intended it, as she says in the preface: “…people who are busy working for a living deserve beautiful little stories, because they don’t have much time and are often tired. She has in mind a book that can be opened at any page and will still make sense to the reader…”

The imagery and sense of culture is so vivid, and the small things come to life in her words. A character’s laughter is “not the shy ice cream bells’ giggle of Rachel and Lucy’s family, but all of a sudden and surprised like a pile of dishes breaking,” and another sees “that wide puffy cloud that looks like your face when you wake up after falling asleep with all your clothes on.” At 110 pages, it’s a fast read and I loved it.

“Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.”

“Marin,” The House on Mango Street

I will try not to regret time spent on predictable thrillers or a promising, character-driven story that ended in with a flash mob in a mall, of all things? (Why?) And apparently the eternal struggle to make reading a priority and not a luxury shall continue into 2019. What was your most worth-it read of the year?

Epilogue: “Recovery” and Grief

April, 2017. I am several days into my first Fast Flash Workshop. In response to one of the prompts, a story builds: a girl and her father, a troubled relationship. Two hundred miles from me, my own dad – my strong, steadfast dad – starts a new medication for pain that’s plagued him and puzzled his doctors for months.

July, 2017. I discover a new lit mag, read through the stories online, dig into submission requirements. I send my father/daughter story and receive a kind acceptance. I’m giddy. I love this story. It makes me cry sometimes, even though I’ve read it a hundred times during editing. Two hundred miles away, my dad gets a myriad of test results and sorts through it all with my mom and new doctors. A new medicine is starting soon. We spend a weekend together, all of us. My mom insists on family pictures. It’s a beautiful day so we put on our color coordinates and pose together near the thick green woods behind their house. We throw some goofy faces in – those shots end up my favorites.

August, 2017. My dad texts me. He has just re-read something I wrote about my grandma, his mother. He types, you’re a great writer, keep doing it. I am almost forty and know my dad will still believe I am good at what I do even if I’m not. But I choose to believe him. I ask about the new medication; he feels terrible but it’s temporary.

September, 2017. My mom calls. I scribble on index cards and receipts, trying to remember everything she’s saying. I piece it together to my husband as best I can. I pack a bag. I drive two hundred miles. Roughly twenty-four hours later, I say goodbye to my dad for the last time.

And somewhere in the sad quiet that follows, I remember: my story, a story where a girl who loves her troubled father, a story where that father dies – it’s set to publish four days later.

But now my story, my real one, now has a father gone unexpectedly, too fast, too soon. I start to worry. Will people think I wrote this story about my dad? Will people think the troubled relationship on paper reflected my reality? It feels, somehow, disrespectful. I think the editor would understand, would push, delay. My husband says, let it run. Promote it only as much as you’re comfortable with.

And I remember my dad’s words. You’re a great writer, keep doing it.  I know the exact face he’d make if I could tell him I’d delayed publication because of this, because of him.

The story runs.

April, 2018. I think I’m ready to write something about my dad, about the music he loved. I open a playlist of his favorites, the one my sister made for the memorial service. I am crying before I even finish reading the song titles, so I think – okay, not today. But I want to write this, at least: the record of a story I am proud of, a story that will always remind me of my dad even if it’s not about him. A story I could write because I loved my father.

Reads in Review / 2017

I am almost never the person reading the latest book. I am often the person buying, reserving, admiring, and Goodreadsing the newest book, but I am almost never reading it. Six, eighteen months later? I’m reading it. So the books I read in 2017 were a good mix of old and new. I read some so-so books and one I wish I hadn’t, but for the most part it was a good year. My top five for 2017 are:

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I do like a book where seemingly different storylines, seemingly unattached people, somehow connect. The paths of the Richardson family, of Mia Warren and her daugher Pearl, and of the McColloughs and their newly adopted child all intersect in messy and heartbreaking ways. As usual, I had trouble jumping right into a story, but after two orthodontist-waiting-room reading sessions, I was hooked and stayed that way throughout.

Hunger by Roxane Gay. My only novel-length non-fiction read of the year. I wrote about it here and while it wasn’t an easy read, I do felt like it had a lasting impact on me. The chapters were of varying lengths, their order non-linear; something about the way it was all organized did make it easier to push through, small pieces, brief glimpses at a time. It’s a luxury that the author allows us that was not allowed her. I finished the book grateful for her honesty.

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord. This is a YA book and the second book I read by this author. Lord is funny and honest on Twitter, and her novel The Start of Me and You was believable and witty. This book was heavier, as the main character Lucy struggles with her mother’s recurring cancer and how that shakes the foundation of her life: her faith. As her mother gets sick again, she is faced with questions for God and wrestles with how the seemingly unshakeable faith of her parents fits into it all. Some of the scenes at camp seemed cliché, but I never went so summer camp so what do I know? The questioning of faith in the face of pain, the realization that life is fragile and parents are real people, the discovery of community at just the right time – those are explored realistically by Lord and I ate it up.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. Alice loses consciousness at the gym and wakes up with no memory of the last ten years of her life. Her happy marriage has dissolved, she doesn’t really know or understand her children, and can’t figure out what’s up with her sister. I read this on recommendation from a friend, who said it left her thinking long after. At first, it seemed like a lighter novel but as I watched Alice piece everything back together, I did start to think: Would 29-year old me recognize the life that 39-year old me is living? What if I could peek at 49-year old me . . . would I know that person and her motivations, her interests, her relationships? The answer is probably no on many accounts, as it was with Alice. Life moves so quickly (like sand through the hourglass, eh?) and it’s hard to see the long-term effects of little decisions when you make them; it made this book a really interesting one.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This is not a book I’d usually pick up, but it was one that kept appearing – on friends’ bookshelves, in bookish articles and posts, in calls to “please make it a movie!” on the internet, and – with its alluring cover – on the shelves at Target. The premise seemed interesting enough, so I decided to go for it even though magical realism isn’t necessarily my bag. I was immediately pulled into the story, knowing how it was supposed to end and eager to see how they’d avoid the inevitable. The characters were colorful and fascinating – and many – and the twists and turns and descriptions felt like I was very much in the maze of attractions and tents at the night circus. I’m not sure I loved the ending, but maybe it’s because it came too soon.

I’m picking from my large stock of unread books to cultivate a to-read list for 2018 – it’s anyone’s guess how many of them will end up on next year’s list. I’m hoping to tackle The Miniaturist, The Hate You Give, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and a few short story collections. Catch ya on the flip!


Reading Response: Hunger

Roxane Gay says that writing Hunger was the most difficult thing she’s ever done. I was absolutely floored by what this must have taken – this willingness to share herself and her journey with us. She is vulnerable, and honest, and real. This book brought me to tears time after time; I was sad for her, glad for her, scared for her, heartbroken for her, empowered by her, encouraged by her.

When Roxane Gay was 12 years old, she endured life-altering violent trauma. That is her story to tell, and she does. What came after was a battle with herself and the outside world, an attempt to insulate and protect herself from future hurt. While that came in the form of overeating and disordered eating, it has also manifested itself in every relationship she’s had. But I didn’t walk away from this book with pity for Roxane – though her struggle has been unimaginable; I closed the book and felt. . .hopeful. For her, for myself, for anyone who might read her book and open their eyes a bit wider.

In her story, you may see a part of someone you know. Maybe yourself. Her experiences won’t be identical to ours, of course, but her challenges, her experiences, her struggles are shared with such a raw, blunt honesty that I will never forget them.

I always wonder what healing really looks like–in body, in spirit. I’m attracted to the idea that the mind, the soul, can heal as neatly as bones. That if they are properly set for a given period of time, they will regain their original strength. Healing is not that simple. It never is.


Flash Flood!

Saturday, June 24 was National Flash Fiction Day! While I sat in Indiana, suffering from fomo as the Flash Fiction Festival went on in Bath, my story “Three” appeared online as part of the day’s celebration. The Flash Flood Journal published 144 stories over 24 hours and I’m still catching up, but man! So much good stuff. I’m so thankful to the editors for their time. It’s been so fun to read and discover new writers, as well as that thrill of recognizing the name of someone I already admire or have written with.

The Flash community, I’m realizing, is welcoming, supportive, and insanely talented.

Reads in Review / 2016

Right now, we need the escape and the lessons that all kinds of stories can give us – and we really, really need the creative souls writing them. Here are my five favorite books from 2016! (Wow, that was a very Academy Awards presenter-y intro.)

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt :: My favorite of the year. June is 14 when her beloved uncle dies and it’s only after his death that she begins to piece together his life. Along for the journey is Toby, her uncle’s longtime partner whose existence is a surprise to June. The two travel their grief together and the story is sad, happy, uncomfortable, upsetting, and hopeful. June’s coming-of-age, a secondary story line, was also sweet and real. This book made me cry but I was never sorry about it.

Unequal Affections by Lara S. Ormiston :: This book takes the reader back into the world of Pride & Prejudice to ask, “What if Elizabeth had accepted Darcy’s first proposal?” It’s fan fiction in its highest form; Ormiston is faithful to the characters, the language, and the general Austenishness of the original and I really enjoyed it.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett :: Seventeen-year old Nadia has just lost her mother and, within the first few chapters, becomes pregnant. The story that follows is often hard to read – heartbreak on so many levels – but the writing is so good. I was completely absorbed. It also has a beautiful cover – and I am a sucker for a beautiful cover.

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild :: Life isn’t going well for Annie when she picks up an old painting at a second-hand shop. She soon starts to realize that the painting itself is more historically significant – and valuable – than she could have imagined. An unexpected point-of-view comes from the painting itself and its journey through time and ownership, which I was skeptical of at first. But I thought it worked. Rothschild has an admirable and intimidatingly thorough knowledge of art history, which lead to me skimming some parts, but the story continually brought me back.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld :: Oh look, another Pride & Prejudice reboot. I like P&P, okay? This book was fun and I think Sittenfeld did a great job modernizing the characters. For example, the Bennet girls are still all rather spoiled and privileged, in a modern way, but only two have the kind of redeeming value that makes you root for them. I mean, of course there’s also Mary. She’s fine. I wish her the best.

Please note how I optimistically titled this post with the year, supposing I will do this again twelve months from now. Time will tell, I guess. Now go read something!

Reading Response: Tell the Wolves I’m Home

The first tttwihime I saw this book, I was in Target. I grocery shop for six people and sometimes I like to reward myself for that by sneaking a book into my cart. Not every time, but sometimes.

This cover? How could I not pick it up? It’s beautiful. Then I read the blurb on the back and I hesitated. Picking books is a process for me, and I wasn’t sure it was was ideal (emotionally-speaking) at the time. Fourteen-year old June has just lost her uncle, the person who understands her most in the world, to AIDS. It’s 1987 and her family is making every attempt not to discuss the disease and what it means; that includes the man outside the funeral home who is not allowed to attend. I put the book back on the shelf.

I kept thinking about it, though. I looked at it again a few weeks later; a few weeks after that I bought it. It went to live with its unread friends on the top of my bookshelf until I read Elizabeth Naranjo’s Reading Challenge update, where she called it her favorite novel of the challenge so far. The next day I picked up and and began to read.

The book is Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel. I mention that now because you won’t believe it after reading the book. The writing is so beautiful. I was completely absorbed–well, as absorbed as a mother with four children home for the summer can possibly be. The subject matter is heavy. The overarching story line isn’t happy, but there is happiness to be found within it. June struggles with the loss of her uncle, the relationship with her sister, and the realization that her parents have secrets, too. There is redemption and revelation and I thought it was perfectly presented from the vantage point of a fourteen-year old girl. I used to be one, so I feel qualified to say that.

There are some definite moments of discomfort for the reader, mostly the result of the sometimes awkward friendship forged by June and Toby. None of the characters are perfect, but for the most part, you can see their motivations. I felt like I understood June so well. She is on the cusp of something–growing up–and is struggling. She’s got a foot in both worlds, not feeling she belongs in either one. There is scene where she goes into the woods to play like she used to, but she finds she can’t anymore. I remember this feeling; I see my daughters feeling this.

I tried to pretend I was in the Middle Ages, but it didn’t work. Not the way it used to. Every time I got close, I’d think of something Toby said. Or a Trivial Pursuit question. Or a snatch of a lyric from a South Pacific song. It was like my brain had actually changed. Like some part of it, my favorite part, had died off.

Although the author didn’t intend the novel to be June’s coming-of-age story, it can’t help but be. It’s more than that, though. It’s the story of a friendship–one that’s built from grief and loneliness but becomes beautiful and heartbreaking. It was a tough story told amazingly well by Brunt, and I’m so glad I read it.

In My Grandma’s Kitchen

Grandma Jenny’s kitchen was six hours away, but it felt like home when I was visiting. In many of my memories I am tucked into the burgundy vinyl-covered bench of the breakfast nook, watching her zip around the kitchen on her mobility scooter. She’d drive up and down the length of the counter, stopping quickly and standing slowly, leaning heavily on the counter. She’d pull ingredients from the corner next to the microwave, then sit back on the padded grey seat of her chair and drive down to the stove, standing again to stir a pot on the front burner or gently turn the bacon. She couldn’t reach the top cabinets, so she stored most of what she needed inside the unused dishwasher.

When I tell my children about my dad’s mother, I tell them first how she loved me so much she pinched my cheeks each time she hugged me hello, like she couldn’t help it. I recognized this feeling in myself years later, as I eyed the delicious fat on my toddlers’ arms and fought hard not to hug them too fiercely. I can still see her making what we now call the “Grandma Jenny face,” nose wrinkled and teeth clenched, pulling a grandchild close and squeezing their face with her fingers, soft skin over aching knuckles.

Then I tell them how she loved us with food. If we were visiting over holidays, I’d watch her spend an afternoon making batches of biscuits and cornbread from scratch, only to tear them up a day or two later, combine them with onions, a bit of sage, and chicken broth, then bake the mixture in a large metal pan. At dinner, she would watch my dad give the dressing, his favorite, a place of honor on his plate.

To her grandchildren, she became most famous for her Chocolate Gravy, a thick, warm, sugary concoction that we poured over biscuits. As I grew older, I was surprised to find the recipe was not only quite simple, but also easily found on the internet. It’s apparently a well-known Southern dish, but as a child I believed Grandma Jenny had invented it. Though the homemade biscuits took far more time to prepare, it was the “gravy” we poured over them that I linked forever with her.

She never met my children but would have loved them, squeezing their cheeks and giving them rides around the living room on her scooter, just like she did with the great-grandchildren that came before she was gone. Each Thanksgiving, my dad crumbles biscuits and cornbread and turns them into a pan of his mom’s dressing. Last weekend, he made Chocolate Gravy for a Sunday brunch and we watched as my kids devoured it, still hot, as he and his sisters did six decades ago, as I did three decades ago.

When my birthday rolls around again, I will remember how she called every year to sing to me from her kitchen six hours away. I will put on my best Grandma Jenny face and pull my kids in, squeezing them a bit too tightly, for as long as they will let me.

Reading Response: Eligible

eligibleThe last month of school is not a good reading season for me. Life pulls me in more directions, mentally and physically, than usual. Reading is hard. Movies are sometimes easier. I stared two different books in May but couldn’t continue, due to no fault on the book’s part. They are still on my TBR pile. It wasn’t them, it was me.

But then, the glorious day came. School was out! We celebrated with friends, we went out to eat, we visited the park. . .and five days later I hesitantly cracked a book. I don’t like being a book quitter. I wanted it to stick this time. The book was Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, and it stuck.

I love Pride & Prejudice. I like the book, I like the miniseries, I like the movie. I was pretty sure I’d like this version, provided the modernized plot wasn’t too overdone or convoluted, and I was really happy with how Curtis handled the story. All of the major players are present: the Bennets, the Lucases, Bingley, Darcy (still bearing the name Fitzwilliam, bless him), and Caroline. George Wickham is there, too, in an interesting way; he was split into two different characters, Jasper Wick and Ham Ryan (get it? get it?) and fulfilled most of his Wickhamish duties in this retelling, in a different way.

Elizabeth is a 38-year old writer living in New York City when her father has a heart attack. She and Jane, a yoga teacher also in NYC, fly back to their hometown of Cincinnati to tend to their father, their basketcase mother, and their three spoiled sisters. Well, to be fair, all of the Bennet girls have been spoiled to some extent, but Jane and Lizzy have at least learned how to be decent people in the wake of it. Lizzy is imperfect but likeable. At a party at the Lucases’, they meet Fitzwilliam Darcy (just call him Darcy) and his friend Chip Bingley, both doctor acquaintances of Dr. Lucas. And things progress much as you’d expect, but in a new way. Curtis’ writing is fun and light and she tells the story well. It’s a long book, but many of the chapters are short, which I liked a lot.

And there are some twists. Lydia’s scandalous marriage is not scandalous in the same way as Austen wrote it, and the family’s reactions get a little sketchy and nerve-wracking at times. Bingley is the former star of a Bachelor-type dating show called Eligible, and is kinda still finding himself. He seems a bit wishy-washy, but isn’t he in Austen’s version as well? Darcy and Liz’s relationship follows a similar track but feels new.

I’d definitely recommend Eligible to Austen fans and those who have never read the original. I thought it was entertaining and well-written. And it got me out of my Reading Slump! Look out, TBR pile. I’m back.

But What I Can See

The days are upside down

and the voices there are someone

always talking, always telling

always yelling, toiling, troubling.

Days are always never-ending

and the clock’s hands all have fingers

(ten, eleven each) all ticking in

directions of their own.

The days are grey, legs twitchy,

and nails claw at cool and

shiny-smooth faux pine:

where a swirl starts in the center,

of the grain and of a child,

spilling now into extremities

and filling every space.

The tingling, insistent spin

takes minutes in its palms,

tearing each one into strips to fold and turn.

See the eyes that question all your works?

Now know they are unphased by even this:

When the delicate accordions

gathered underneath your chair

build a mountain wide enough to hold the day.