During a hard time in my life, when I was really struggling with despair over the state of the world, I found myself dragging through the nearly 800 pages of historian Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Her book began by describing weather changes that limited the growing season across Europe for four hundred years and went on to explore the effect on average people when elites took every opportunity to expand their wealth and power. Willful ignorance and greed gave rise to invasions, revolts, and pograms. Atrocities in daily life abounded. It was common, for example, to leave unwanted babies outside to die of exposure, to abuse animals, to attend public executions for their entertainment value. Somehow this grim book helped me lift my head from what had me so downcast and see, no matter how dire things seemed, we humans have improved. A look back at history shows, despite current evidence, we are indeed evolving into more compassionate beings.
A few years later I ran across a far more directly life-enhancing book, Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You With Blessings by the imitable Rob Brezsny, whose bio describes him as an “aspiring master of curiosity, perpetrator of sacred uproar, and founder of the Beauty and Truth Lab.” I bought as many copies as I could afford, giving one to anyone whose spirit seemed weighted or who suffered from a chronic Eeyore-itis. I hoped the book’s magically reverent yet irreverent tone might heal them too.
Unexpectedly necessary books of all kinds have often shown up exactly when I needed them, a phenomenon sometimes called the work of library angels. More often, books have been suggested to me by people who were sure I’d love the same book they just finished reading. They are usually right. It’s no exaggeration to say that a day hasn’t passed since I learned to read that I haven’t spent at least some time with a volume of fiction or nonfiction. To me, books are more than escape. They are a journey beyond myself. They lift me into wonder. When I close the pages I return to my life gratefully expanded for the view.
What have you been reading that elevates you? That makes you laugh? That helps you see things in a new way? That completely takes you into a new world? I’d love to hear what you’ve enjoyed lately. Here are a few of my literary prescriptions.
Virgil Wander by Leif Enger. I have adored this author’s work ever since Peace Like a River. Enger loves words and the way they can be layered. This is evident everywhere including in many of his character’s delicious names — Rune, Adam Leer, Shad Pea, Fergus Flint. And oh my, the main character’s name — an epic poet paired with threads from his poem. I was right there in this town, traveling through Virgil’s days with him. I could smell the old movie theater and see the films playing, could sense the raven’s claws on my shoulder and feel the kite string play out through my fingers. Enger deftly tells a story with nuanced emotion and quiet wit. Here’s a small dose:
“The old man had tears in his eyes. He touched my shoulder as the men rode in on their Harleys and Indians and Hondas. They were led by a graybeard on an olive-drab Triumph. In they rolled, gloves on, black helmets squeezing faces red from the wind, a pack of paunchy old centaurs come to bury their own.”
This book gives us a small town with wide open skies where people’s lives are touched by what is unknowable. Best of all, it ends on a note of redemption.
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory tells of a family in which each member possesses a psychic gift that may also seem like a curse. One of the characters in this entertaining book is truly an original in today’s literature. Buddy Telemachus has, since early childhood, seen the future. An observer might assume he suffers from a severe obsessive disorder or worse, but his behavior is that of a man desperate to avoid altering the future he sees and at the same time to save his family, even though he’s convinced his own timeline is running down to an early oblivion. I love (and weirdly understand) this character. Gregory’s story is addictive. Here’s a brief rumination by one of the main characters, (the obviously fuddy-duddy) Teddy Telemachus:
“The problem with getting old was that each day had to compete with the thousands of others gone by. How wonderful would a day have to be to win such a beauty contest? To even make it into the finals? Never mind that memory rigged the game, airbrushed the flaws from its contestants, while the present had to shuffle into the spotlight unaided, all pockmarked with mundanities and baggy with annoyances: traffic fumes and blaring radios and fast-food containers tumbling along the sidewalk. Even an afternoon such as this, spent cooling his heels in a well-appointed park, under a sky as clear as a nun’s conscience, was chock-full of imperfections that disqualified it from top ten status.”
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood is simultaneously hilarious and clever. It’s also strangely familiar, as if odd families wherever they may be still run on the same current. The author is a poet and precise writer. On nearly every page are passages so perfect they linger like chewy literary caramel.
“I sometimes wish my childhood had been less obsessed with the question of why we are here. But that must be the question of any childhood. To write about your mother and father is to tell the story of your own close call, to count all the ways you never should have existed. To write about home is to write about how you dropped from space, dragging ellipses behind you like a comet, and how you entered your country and state and city, and finally your four-cornered house, and finally your mother’s body and finally your own. From the galaxy to the grain and back again. From the fingerprint to the grand design. Despite all the conspiracies of the universe, we are here; every moment we are here we arrive.”
Jewelweed by David Rhodes is a multifaceted and marvelously written book. It’s told from many viewpoints—a chronically ill child, a wary young mother, a minister, an ex-con, a long-distance trucker, and many more. Each character reveals him or herself in quietly brilliant observations. For example, here’s a thought shared by Winnie, the minister.
“Winnie cherished Jacob’s need for passion from her, and sometimes imagined that his consciousness consisted primarily of an awareness of his own sexual instinct–his own gateway to rapture. Thankfully God had created this vital opportunity for bliss, yet Winnie remained convinced there were many more avenues that could be followed to divine pleasure. People could become hyperconscious in countless ways. It was possible. The sight of a hummingbird–along with the sound of its thrumming wings–once revealed to her how she had long ago lived with tiny black feet and a nectar-searching tongue. Her shoulders remembered the thrilled rhythms. On another occasion, the taste of a strawberry related its entire history of self-propelled spirit into matter. All human sensations could, she believed, provide paths to the same state of ecstatic worship. The principalities of civilization had hidden most of these gateways to heightened awareness, however, and for most people now, the only way back to the blessed original state involved a spectacular sexual event. And while Winnie rejoiced as much as anyone else in extraordinary sexual events, she sometimes feared that keeping the species alive had nearly replaced being alive, as if the entire galaxy of spontaneous felt-unity threatened to become perversely focused on one narrow impulse.”
A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is, like their equally compelling book Half The Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide, simply remarkable. The authors write about social ills and social progress, but in both books they do so through the stories of people who are making positive changes. These books carefully analyze the evidence to help us understand how any of us can make a difference. Truly heartening and important reads, both.
“Let’s recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower but also of chance and early upbringing, and that compassion isn’t a sign of weakness but a mark of civilization.”
The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of Heart by Brian Doyle, who passed away last year at age 60, leaving 20-some books. Too few from such a gifted, gentle soul. The impetus for this book began when Doyle’s infant son needed several heart surgeries. The boy grew up healthy, yet the author writes,
“Not a day goes by, not one, that I do not think of my son, tiny and round and naked and torn open and heart-chilled and swimming somewhere between death and life; and every day I think of the young grinning intense mysterious heart doctor who saved his life; and for years now I have wanted to try to write that most unwriteable man, to tell a handful of the thousands of stories that whirl around him like brilliant birds, to report a tiny percentage of the people he has saved and salved, and so thank him in some way I don’t fully understand, and also thank the Music that made him and me and my son and all of us; and somehow it seems to me that the writing down of a handful of those stories will matter in the world, be a sort of crucial chant or connective tissue between writer and readers, all of us huddled singing under the falling bombs and stars; and more and more over the years I have become absorbed and amazed at the heart itself, the wet engine of us all…”
This book meanders, as the passage above meanders, into faith and science and healing. I found myself reading parts of it aloud to my husband because they were just so beautiful. It’s a perfect read for anyone, at any age, who has had heart trouble. Also perfect for the rest of us because we have hearts too.
Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore centers on Milo, who hasn’t yet reached perfection and is nearing the cosmic limit of 10,000 incarnations. An added complication —Milo is in love with Death (who prefers to be known as Suzie). It’s a clever plot, allowing author Michael Poore to change voice and tone as he shows us dozens of these lifetimes. Some, including Milo’s life as a meatpacker, offer an insightful view of human motivation. The book is packed with tiny delights, like the occasional homage to Where The Wild Things Are. It’s also illuminated by passages like this one when Milo is trying, but failing to meditate:
“But it can’t be helped, because it’s not just your head, is it? It’s the head and soul of all the voices of all your ten thousand lives and eight thousand years and all their pasts and futures, all the cavemen and race-car drivers and milkmaids with pale cheeks, all the spacemen, crickets, economists, and witches. The voices are full of the things people are full of, the things they will carry with them into whatever future takes shape, things like waffles and hard work and things you hope no one finds out.”
At times I found the whole pretense of perfection a bit of an overreach. The between-life portions of the book felt frustrating, especially when Milo had just done something damn useful or deeply compassionate in his past life, but it still wasn’t perfect enough. If, as Reincarnation Blues insists, each soul is charged with achieving something amazingly transformative before ending the cycle of rebirth, Earth itself would be Nirvana. Or maybe that’s the point.
There are so many more books I want to talk about, but let’s hear what books are captivating you lately. It may be just the thing someone else needs to read.