Favorite 2021 Reads

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Here we are at the close of another long pandemic year. The family of five next door is recovering from Covid, a neighbor across the street has been released from ICU but still struggles to breathe due to Covid. I am grateful for so much in this year of crisis –tender words, caring people, careful science, an ever-louder call for justice, the natural world’s infinite teachings in every tree and stream and dragonfly. And of course for the way books help hold me together even when so much is falling apart. Here’s a nod to a few of the most memorable books I read this year.

FICTION

The Summer That Melted Everything (Indie link) by Tiffany McDaniel is a holy wow of a novel. Strange, allusive, and so beautifully written that I’m able to overlook my usual insistence on a redemptive ending. Character names alone are compelling: names like Autopsy, Grand, Dresden. This is a perfect book group pick because there’s so much to talk about on every page. During the hot summer of 1984, Fielding Bliss’ father asks the devil to show himself. A 13-year-old stranger named Sal, a boy who speaks like an angel, shows up claiming to be the devil. McDaniel writes, “If looks were to be believed, he still was just a boy. Something of my age, though from his solemn quietude, I knew he was old in the soul. A boy whose black crayon would be the shortest in his box.” The town of Breathed, Ohio reacts. Simmering bigotry and condemnation flare in reaction to Sal’s gentle ways and to the heat itself. McDaniel writes, ”It was a heat that didn’t just melt tangible things like ice, chocolate, Popsicles. It melted all the intangibles too. Fear, faith, anger, and those long-trusted templates of common sense.” The Beekeeper of Aleppo (Indie link) by Christy Lefteri tells of the artist Afra and her beekeeper husband Nuri. They live close to family and friends in the lovely hills of Aleppo, Syria until they are forced to make a harrowing journey to safety, fleeing to the UK where Nuri hopes to work with his cousin teaching fellow refugees to become beekeepers. Their quiet endurance is not all strength. As Lefteri writes, “There is always one person in a group who has more courage than the rest. It takes bravery to cry out, to release what is in your heart.” Lefteri’s novel rises from her work with refugees and her parents’ refugee experience. Somehow she manages to make this wrenching topic not only deeply affecting, but almost magical. This is thanks to her lucid writing but also from the way each chapter’s last word is continued in the first sentence of the next chapter. And in the way we are reminded, “Where there are bees there are flowers, and wherever there are flowers there is new life and hope.” What Comes After (Indie link) by JoAnne Tompkins twines the plot around an abandoned pregnant teen, several suicides, and murder, yet somehow what rises from the author’s words is an abiding trust in inner light — including the ways it can be diminished by unhealed pain. I appreciated the insight into Quaker faith here, especially discernment practices such as the Clearness Committee which “… is premised on the belief that each of us holds an inner teacher, a voice of truth that guides us. We are not here to fix Isaac or give advice or save him. We are here to help him find inside himself the answers and strength he needs.” Tompkins explores themes of kindness, courage, forgiveness, and what it means to raise a child. She writes, “It didn’t take long to understand that there was no recipe or equation. Parenting was a river of moment-by-moment decisions, intuitions, a balancing of one’s own needs, which did factor in somehow, with those of the child. But mostly it was being there, truly there, with all your senses. Trusting the heart knowledge that arises with full attention.” What also stands out for me is the author’s tender brilliance in writing about the connection between humans and their beloved canine companions. The dog, Rufus, is as essential a character as any of the people in What Comes After. I may remember him long after other details about the book fade. Fight Night (Indie link) by Miriam Toews features an intrepid nine-year-old named Swiv and her far more intrepid grandmother, with appearances by Swiv’s complicated and very pregnant mother. Swiv’s observations are spot on, as in, “He looked sad and happy at the same time. That’s a popular adult look. Because adults are busy and have to do everything at once, even feel things.” I have a thing for novels written from the perspective of perceptive wisecracking children (ala The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry). This fits in with the best of them, including gems like, “To be alive means full body contact with the absurd” and “…Mom does the emotional work for the whole family, feeling everything ten times harder than is necessary so the rest of us can act normal.” The little bits of what grandma calls homeschooling make it all the better. The Dictionary of Lost Words (Indie link) by Pip Williams is an engaging novel which I adored most for what it addresses. If you’re a word lover and book lover, this book is for you. If you’re interested in class division, suffrage, or the British home front during WWI it’s for you. But the galvanizing focus is on which words were deemed worthy of becoming dictionary entries. Williams writes, “Words define us, they explain us, and, on occasion, they serve to control or isolate us.” The main character’s lifelong work is to recognize and save words that were overlooked because they were too common, not in print, not sufficiently upper-class male to deserve dictionary space. Bravo! Eggshells (Indie link) by Caitriona Lally is, admittedly, not for everyone but I appreciate the journey inside the author’s playfully unique mind. This is the story of Vivian, an abuse survivor whose search for a portal to a world where she belongs also makes her a close observer of a world no one else sees. Until [spoiler alert] she is befriended by someone claiming the name Penelope, another abuse survivor who doesn’t question Vivian’s perceptions but joins in as best she can. I understand other readers’ frustration with the plot’s minimalism, but to me this is a resounding story of resilience and presence. It reminded me, in the best way, of comedian Steve Martin’s sensitive and nuanced book The Pleasure of My Company written from the perspective of a character dealing with agoraphobia. Here’s a favorite quote from Eggshells,  “Two cars are racing through narrow streets lined with stalls. The cars plunge through the stalls, people scatter, tables of fruit and vegetables and meat and fish are knocked and sprawled and squashed and smashed. I want to see the film about the cleanup, the film about the people who are injured by the cars, the film about the people whose livelihoods have been ruined by a man in sunglasses who values his life above all else. I feel like I’m the only person rooting for the fruit seller instead of the hero.” Mary Jane (Indie link) by Jessica Anya Blau is a charmingly wide-eyed coming-of-age story. In the 1970’s, 14-year-old Mary Jane, who loves to cook with her mother and sing in the church choir, gets a summer job caring for the child of a local doctor. This girl is invigorated by her exposure to a freewheeling household of open affection, wild music, and general chaos. In turn, she exposes them to family dinners, ironed clothes, and predictability. As Blau writes, “In the Cone family, there was no such thing as containment. Feelings were splattered around the household with the intensity of a spraying fire house. I was terrified of what I might witness or hear tonight. But along with that terror, my fondness for the Cones only grew. To feel something was to feel alive. And to feel alive was starting to feel like love.” This story is a refreshing dip into a summer of flip flops, lemonade, and music. Memorable escapism with memorable characters, illuminated by the author’s gentle insistence in finding the humanity in each character. The Five Wounds (Indie link) by Kirstin Valdez Quade begins as Amadeo Padilla struggles to fulfill a painful role as Jesus in his town’s Good Friday procession, until his pregnant teenaged daughter shows up on his doorstep. This tender, vivid story brings us fully into a young mother’s choices. Under all the obvious dysfunction is a wonderfully complex family. This is a gritty, large-hearted novel about connection, faith, and learning to make do. As Quade writes, “Having children is terrifying, the way they become adults and go out into the world with cars and functioning reproductive systems and credit cards, the way, before they’ve developed any sense or fear, they are equipped to make adult-sized mistakes with adult-sized consequences.”

NONFICTION

My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Indie link) by Resmaa Menakem combines deeply personal stories, neuroscience findings, and ancestral wisdom to illuminate a pathway toward racial healing in America. His expertise in somatic therapy — emphasizing the mind-body connection– helps us understand how we (often unconsciously) embody the trauma of past generations. I’ve read a lot about trauma and somatic healing, and this approach takes it another step forward. In Menakem’s words, “A disdain for history sets us adrift, and makes us victims of ignorance and denial. History lives in and through our bodies right now, and in every moment.”

One more quote: “Recent studies and discoveries increasingly point out that we heal primarily in and through the body, not just through the rational brain. We can all create more room, and more opportunities for growth, in our nervous systems. But we do this primarily through what our bodies experience and do—not through what we think or realize or cognitively figure out.”

Punch Me Up To The Gods (Indie link) by Brian Broome is a powerhouse of a memoir. It is made more intensely and achingly meaningful by the author’s repeated close observation of a father and young child, wrapping up with a beautiful letter to the child who is both a stranger and himself. This book is funny, revelatory, and a necessary wisdom teaching. Here are two short excerpts to demonstrate just how wise: “I think about my father and the clarity that comes with age tells me that he must have suffered… He was anxious. He was lonely. And he was insecure. There is no thing on earth more dangerous than a man who refuses to accept he is carrying all of these loads, because it then becomes up to everyone else to carry them for him in one way or another.” “It is only through your own lived experience that you will learn that living on the outside of ‘normal’ provides the perfect view for spotting insecure and flimsy principles camouflaging themselves as leadership or righteousness.” To Hell With It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno (Indie link) by Dinty W. Moore describes growing up Catholic and wondering why Dante’s angry poem “Inferno” led Christianity to embrace the concepts of original sin and hell. Moore’s careful observations are amusingly irreverent but also deeply informed. He wonders what his life and those of his ancestors might have been if they hadn’t lived under constant threat of damnation, concluding “. . . this grand mystery of creation and life . . . is not something that can be neatly packaged into a strict set of rules and punishments, hung on the door of a church, and used to order the actions of mankind for century upon century.” He also writes about the toll of depression, noting”…each time that ugly snake of despair circled around me and tried to take a bite out of me, I was kept alive by humor and by incredulity. And thank God for humor and incredulity, because I deserve to be happy. We all deserve to be happy.” Don’t miss this brilliant, funny, revelatory book. The Plateau  (Indie link) is an exploration by anthropologist Maggie Paxson into the history of a French village, the  Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, known for a centuries-long tradition of offering safe haven to strangers in wartime and refugees in today’s world. Paxson (I love that the first three letters of her last name mean peace in Latin) takes her time exploring (and yes, dragging out the narration) to consider what led this region to follow conscience rather than much safer allegiance to rulers in times of evil. This is a topic dear to me, so I don’t expect everyone will enjoy the details Paxson offers, but it’s heartfood for me. As Paxson writes in the first chapter, “Surely, there had to be ways of looking for… eye-to-eye decency. Surely, there were ways to study its power and its limits, particularly when people were faced with tempestuous times. Were there communities out there that were good at being good when things got bad? In my research on memory, I’d studied practices of resistance and persistence. Could there be communities that were somehow resistant to violence, persistent in decency? I didn’t know exactly what I was on to, but I knew I wanted to study it. In shorthand, I called it peace.” Every account of conscience and compassion is nourishment to me, making this book a meal. Wonder Art Workshop: Creative Child-Led Experiences for Nurturing Imagination, Curiosity, and a Love of Learning (Indie link) by Sally Haughey is my new favorite in process-oriented, exploratory art for young children. Each project is an invitation to play which empowers children to experiment, invent, and express themselves. Already I’ve set out several of these projects for the youngest people in my life. We’ve picked flower petals and hammered their colors onto fabric, we’ve dipped toys in paint to wheel and stomp onto paper, and we’ve arranged pictures on the ground composed of feathers, pinecones, stones, and leaves. Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape (Indie link) edited by the late Barry Lopez is unlike any other book I’ve read. It’s a treasure trove of deeply local terms for America’s waterways and landscapes in 850 descriptions and 70 quotations gathered from writers Luis Alberto Urrea, Linda Hogan, Barbara Kingsolver, Bill McKibben, and many others. As Lopez writes in the introduction, “We have a shapely language, American English. A polyglot speech, grown up from a score of European, African, and Asian immigrant tongues, and completely veined with hundreds of expressions native to the place we now occupy –Uto-Aztecan, Eyak-Athabaskan, Iroquoian, Muskogean, Caddoan, and Salishan. We have named the things we’ve picked out on the land, and we’ve held on to the names to make ourselves abiding and real, to enable us to resist the appeal of make-believe lands, hawked daily as anodynes by opportunists, whose many schemes for wealth hinge on our loss of memory, the anxiety of our alienation, our hunger after substance.” This anthology of place-based terms isn’t one most of us would read from first to last page. Instead it’s a resource for any of us who love words and love the natural world. The Body Is Not An Apology (Indie link) by Sonya Renee Taylor goes well beyond body positivity to explode cultural pressures to fit into oppressive “norms.” As she writes, “Living in a society structured to profit from our self-hate creates a dynamic in which we are so terrified of being ourselves that we adopt terror-based ways of being in our bodies. All this is fueled by a system that makes large quantities of money off our shame and bias.” She seamlessly demonstrates that the transformation of radical self-love can lead to transforming systems of injustice. This is a book to underline, highlight, dog-ear. It’s a book to revisit, often. It’s a book to give to friends or to read with friends. As Taylor writes, “Our beliefs about bodies disproportionately impact those whose race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and age deviate from our default notions. The further from the default, the greater the impact. We are all affected – but not equally.” One more quote from this entirely quotable book: “Natural intelligence intends that every living thing become the highest form of itself and designs us accordingly… Natural intelligence does not require we do anything to achieve it. Natural intelligence imbues us with all we need at this exact moment to manifest the highest form of ourselves, and we don’t have to figure out how to get it. We arrived on this planet with this source material already present.” Rust Belt Femme (Indie link) by Raechel Anne Jolie is a memoir of growing up in Cleveland towns not far from where I was raised. Her childhood was a mosaic of struggle, laughter, and cultural touchpoints specific to the late 80s and early 90s. Jolie includes crucial insights about class as well as stirring descriptions of her hungry mind. Here’s one sample: “Summer days in the valley were the closest thing I had to religion. The shattered-glass water in the creek, the abundance of the mill, running like the wind was carrying me against an earth full of bones. It was awe and repentance, holy baptism washing the soles of my dirty feet. It was daydreaming that felt real for survival. It was all sacred ritual, inadvertent and weightless as grace.” The Butterfly Effect: Insects and the Making of the Modern World (Indie link) by Edward D. Melillo deftly pulls science, history, and culture together to create an entirely enticing read. This book describes the little-recognized world of insects including their role in myth, art, and culture; the ways they are used (including to make silk, shellac, dye); and their essential interconnection to everything else in nature. I found myself talking about this book to whoever found themselves in the same room I was in while I read. Gone To The Woods: Surviving A Lost Childhood (Indie link) by the late Gary Paulsen, a much-admired author of more than 200 books for children and teens about wilderness, adventure, and resilience. His coming-of-age memoir, written in third-person, is a testament to surviving extremely challenging circumstances and an entirely memorable book. Here’s a relatively mild glimpse from its early pages, when Paulsen is five years old. “His mother took him to the station in Chicago, carrying his small cardboard suitcase. She pinned a note to the chest of his faded corduroy jacket scribbled with his name and destination, shoved a five-dollar-bill in his pocket, hugged him briefly, and handed him over to a conductor… who assured her the boy would be ‘carefully watched.’ As soon as his mother’s back was turned, he jammed the boy in a seat between two wounded soldiers coming home to recuperate, and disappeared –he would not be seen again for the whole trip.” How to Be an Antiracist (Indie link) by Ibram X. Kendi brilliantly weaves ethics, history, science, and culture into a more whole cloth. As Kendi writes, “What’s the problem with being ‘not racist?’ It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’” On these pages, Kendi asks us to reflect, challenge ourselves, rework our beliefs, and commit to activism. As he says, “Americans have long been trained to see the deficiencies of people rather than policy. It’s a pretty easy mistake to make: People are in our faces. Policies are distant. We are particularly poor at seeing the policies lurking behind the struggles of people.” Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times (Indie link) by Eyal Press follows the paths taken by four unlikely resisters. The author doesn’t present them as inspiring stories but instead delves into psychology, history, and social pressure to explore what made these people act as they did. From the prologue, “This is a book about such nonconformists, about the mystery of what impels people to do something risky and transgressive when thrust into a morally compromising situation: stop, say no, resist.” Press makes it clear that acts of conscience are seen by the majority as betrayal rather than heroism or moral courage. These acts often lead to a lifetime of stigma. I was inspired anyway. From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death (Indie link) by Caitlin Doughty, mortician and death acceptance advocate, takes us on a global journey to better understand how people everywhere handle grief and their own fear of death by participating fully in customs which honor the dead. Although at first Doughty considered the concept “holding space” to be “saccharine hippie lingo,” she comes to recognize it as a crucial part of what we are missing. She writes, “Everywhere I traveled I saw this death space in action, and I felt what it means to be held. At Ruriden columbarium in Japan, I was held by a sphere of Buddhas glowing soft blue and purple. At the cemetery in Mexico, I was held by a single wrought-iron fence in the light of tens of thousands of flickering amber candles. At the open-air pyre in Colorado, I was held within the elegant bamboo walls, which kept mourners safe as the flames shot high. There was magic to each of these places. There was grief, unimaginable grief. But in that grief there was no shame. These were places to meet despair face to face and say, ‘I see you waiting there. And I feel you, strongly. But you do not demean me.” She also writes, “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.” Especially now, with a pandemic raging, this is a galvanizing read. The Dangerous Old Woman: Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman Archetype (Indie link) by Clarissa Pinkola Estés is only available in audio format, which is the perfect way to take in deep wisdom teachings that mix stories and poetry to examine the ancient legacy of the crone. She says, “Did you know, you were born as the first, and the last and the best and the only one of your kind, and that eccentricity is the first sign of giftedness? These are two of the crone truths I have to offer you.” This is a slow, yet transformational journey that casts light everywhere. As Pinkola Estés says, “If you are not free to be who you are, you are not free.”

Paired Poetry Gift Ideas

You may have never given a poetry book as a gift. Most people have never bought a poetry book for themselves either. Yet a wealth of excellent poetry awaits, with more books coming out every day, each one capable of creating new poetry lovers. When I give a poetry book, whether to a poetry lover or a doesn’t-really-read-poetry friend, I like to pair the book with a related present. Here are a few suggestions based on books I’ve read recently. (Many are anthologies, a great way to entice readers.) Let these ideas inspire your own ideas. And please share in the comments what gift you’ve paired with a book, or what you’d like to receive in tandem with a book.

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The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink edited by Kevin Young (indie link) is a nourishingly hearty 336 page anthology with works by Elizabeth Alexander, Tracy K. Smith, Martín Espada, and others. It’s also perfect to pair with food-related gifts. Consider gifting it with something flavorful, like locally roasted coffee or spiced nuts. Or really step it up with a legacy gift like these salt boxes made from trees milled and shaped by the crafter. If you have the time, you might instead gift it with something you’ve cooked or baked yourself.

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Maggie Smith’s Goldenrod (indie link) explores parenthood, nature, and memory with a uniquely sharp tenderness. Somehow I think a picture frame goes well with this gift, a way of honoring what’s dearest to your recipient.  

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Ohio’s current Poet of the Year, Quartez Harris, is driven by his work as a second-grade teacher as well as by his students’ experiences with gun violence, poverty, and racism. I’d pair We Made It To School Alive with a gift certificate, maybe one that allows the recipient to give toys, games, or books purchased from black-owned businesses like Kido, Little Likes Kids, Paper Play and Wonder, or Puzzle Huddle to a loved child or to donate them to an area daycare, school, or afterschool program

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How To Love The World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope (indie link) edited by James Crews is a deep refreshing sigh in book form. These poems are antidotes to hurry, worry, and divisiveness. There are many gifts that could accompany this anthology but it occurs to me that Darn Tough, the guaranteed-to-last U.S.-made socks, are perfect for cozying up at home as well as exploring the world. The way poetry is, too, although without the socks’ airtight guarantee.

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Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things: Poems (indie link) intimately connects the reader to place and memory with what I can only describe as courage flung wide open. I like to imagine an unexpected gift idea sparked by the title, like a 3D printed skull planter made from eco-friendly bioplastic by a woman-owned business. Maybe tuck a hardy succulent in with your gift…

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U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo gathers the work of more than 160 poets in this historically comprehensive anthology of Native poetry, titled When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through (indie link). The works represent nearly 100 indigenous nations including current poets such as Natalie Diaz, Tommy Pico, and Layli Long Soldier. You might pair this gift with hawthorne jam or wild rice mix from Red Lake Nation Foods, candy clusters from Bedré Fine Chocolate, or use the Native Products Directory to purchase goods from other Native and First Nations entrepreneurs.

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Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems (indie link) edited by Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson, is 252 pages of peace. Anything that speaks to you of mindfulness is a perfect pairing. Each time I dip into this collection I feel cleansed and more whole. Maybe a handmade bar of soap from a local shop or one of the literary goats milk soap bars from The MacBath shop.

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In The Shape Of A Human Body I Am Visiting On Earth: Poems From Far and Wide (indie link) edited by Ilya Kaminsky, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan opens on every page to stirringly memorable poetry, both old and new, from around the world. World poetry is wide open to gift possibilities. I’m a staunch supporter of Kiva.org which also has a storefront with products handmade by Kiva microlending clients with plenty of fine offerings.

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Black Girl, Call Home (indie link) by Jasmine Mans is a tribute to her mother and an evocation of home wherever it is found. Mans speaks to feminism, trauma, and growing up as a young, queer Black woman. It reads like music to me, so I’d pair it with tickets to a show at a local venue, with headphones, or with a Spotify gift card.

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Woman with a Fan: On Maria Blanchard (indie link) offers Diane Kendig’s vividly intelligent poems and essays in response to Spanish painter Maria Blanchard, whose art has long been overlooked due to sexism and ableism. It would be fun to pair this gift with a Spanish wine, spices, or olive oil bought from a local shop or online from La Tienda.  

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The poems in Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (indie link) rise from the poet’s deep connection to the land and its influence on his faith, politics, and relationships. As he says, “I believe in what I stand on.” I’d pair this with a sturdy gardening implement like a good trowel or maybe the wondrous delight of a mushroom-growing kit.   

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Sandra Lim’s The Wilderness (indie link) maps the inner and outer selves with an evocative and philosophical, well, wildnessFor some reason it occurs to me that it pairs well with a magnifying glass or another reminder to really look, up close, at what’s around us.

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Rikki Santer’s new collection, Stopover (indie link) is inspired by Rod Serling’s classic and unforgettable Twilight Zone series. You might pair it with an Imagine If You Will t-shirt or a Twilight Zone pint glass.

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Another World: Poetry and Art by Young People from The Poetry Studio, (indie link) edited by Ann and Tony Gengarelly, is an inspiring anthology for readers of any age. “These students’ poems and art … ring of truth in a time of lies,” says Young People’s Poet Laureate, Naomi Shihab Nye, “We need them.” I’d pair this gift with an eco-friendly, endlessly reusable Rocketbook notebook which “writes” like paper on wipe-clean pages yet can send your notes directly to cloud services. Or maybe with jewelry made out of plastic drawn from ocean waste.

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If you’re still reading, let me mention two of my own books. I was named 2019 Ohio Poet of the Year on the strength of my book Blackbird. (indie link) Each book sold is also a donation to the Medina Raptor Center. Although the poems range far from the topic of birds and on to subjects as unusual as cow pastures, dictionaries, to-do lists, and astrophysics –you might pair it with a gift of birdseed or a homemade birdfeeder like these birdseed outdoor ornaments. My most recent book is Portals (indie link) with poems seeking connection between our inner and outer worlds. To me this book pairs well with the quiet light cast by beeswax candles. I can recommend candlemaker Maribeth Moser whose etsy shop offers simple as well as whimsical candles. One of my favorites is her fern patterned pillar candle.  

Definitions and Beyond

“Some words are more than letters on a page, don’t you think? They have shape and texture. They are like bullets, full of energy, and when you give one breath you can feel its sharp edge against your lip.” ~Pip Williams

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams, is an engaging novel written in a gentle style that evokes an era of teapots, shawls, and regular correspondence. (Okay, still my era….) I appreciate it for its love of words and books as well as for topics including class division, suffrage, and the British home front during WWI.

The main character’s galvanizing focus is on why some words were deemed worthy of becoming dictionary entries while others were not. Her lifelong work became saving words overlooked because they were too common, not in print, or insufficiently upper-class male to deserve dictionary space.

I grew up in a word-loving family and my own kids have taken that much farther than I might have imagined. When very young they developed an unnamed game of verbal jousting I call, in this post, Game of Slurs, although the post doesn’t go into just how amusingly over-the-top they could get with inventive word pairings. They also played, with only minor nudges from me, all sorts of dictionary-based games including my favorite, Blackbird. And all of us have unconsciously incorporated words into our everyday conversations that, apparently, seem strange to those around us. When they were younger, some of my kids consciously modified what words they used when, but these days they not only use whatever obscure words they like, they also, well, “experiment” on others to see if they can get them to start using such words too.

I’m grateful it’s now commonplace for everyday vernacular to show up in print and online dictionaries, although dictionaries will never be fast enough keep up with linguistic improvisations in music, film, literature, and everyday conversation. (There are several sites where you can look up words first found in print in your birth year. Merriam-Webster’s version of this includes sixty words for 1992 including buzzkill, civil union, exoplanet, hacktivism, meh, skeezy, smack talk, and woo-woo.)

In many ways, the language(s) we speak shape the way we think. We will never know what ways of thinking about, seeing, and interacting with the world are lost to us when we speak only one language. This is even more troubling in relation to entire languages going extinct. The Linguistic Society of America reports there are more than 6,500 languages used worldwide. Eighty percent, by some estimates, may vanish within the next century.

My problem, as a writer, takes place in a much smaller arena — my head. Much as I love words, it often seems impossible to fit meaning more than partway into language. I might manage to get a pinch of the inexpressible in, but that’s it, and only if I’m lucky. It’s like trying to stuff a galaxy into a suitcase and still zip it closed.

I hope we all do what we can, in these troubling times, to use language clearly, kindly, and well. Even more, that we make every effort to listen.

Forgetting Books We’ve Read

“If we think of a library as a city and a book as an individual house in that city, each sentence becomes one tiny component of that house. Some are mostly functional – the load-bearing wall, the grout between the bathroom tiles – while others are the details we remember and take away, perhaps recalling their texture and colour when we assemble our own verbal dwelling-place.”  –Jenny Davidson

Who I am is constructed, in part, out of books I’ve read. When I read, especially if I love what I’m reading, I feel as if the book has entered my very bone marrow. But I read, on average, four or five books a week. Often more. Where has my mind put decades of books?   

Julie Beck’s article in The Atlantic offers an answer. It’s titled, “Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read.” She writes, “people often shove more into their brains than they can possibly hold.” She cites a study from 2009 showing the average American encounters 100,000 words a day. Our memories simply cannot keep all this information readily available. I say pish posh, the memories we take in from what we read has to do with its relevance. We hang on to the information that most impacts us, intrigues us, or that we put to use.  

Beck also points out we’re better able to recall the context in which we read a book, so we remember reading a green-jacketed novel based in Sierra Leone while on vacation, but are likely to recall the book’s contents. To me that’s one of memory’s gifts. I’ll never forget reading The Color Purple while nursing my firstborn or reading The World According To Garp while on the couch recovering from knee surgery or becoming so immersed in by Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House while at an airport departure gate that I missed my flight.

Okay, maybe I feel threatened by the idea that I’ve wasted literal years of my life reading books that simply float beyond memory into a void. But there’s plenty of evidence that books change us, whether we remember them well or not at all.

  • A study at Emory University found reading can have long-term effects on our biology. Study participants read only part of a novel, yet still showed significant increases in connectivity between the left and right brain regions. This effect lasted for several days. Imagine the effect of reading regularly!   

  • Stanford’s Natalie Phillips found an overall increase in blood flow during close reading. She writes in Stanford News, “paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” Blood flow also increases during pleasure reading, but in different brain areas. Phillips suggested that each style of reading can create distinct patterns in the brain that are “far more complex than just work and play.” 

  • Regular readers, according to various studies, are much more likely to volunteer, donate to charity, and vote than non-readers.

  • Research demonstrates that people who find themselves most transported by fiction and who express the most empathy for the book’s characters are more likely to express empathy in real life. 

  • Fiction readers score higher on theory of mind, which is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, emotions, and perspectives. It’s likely to stem from the way we engage with stories. As researcher Keith Oatley writes, ”These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories, which includes making inferences and becoming emotionally involved, and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life. Fiction can be thought of as a form of consciousness of selves and others that can be passed from an author to a reader or spectator.” 

Yes, we “forget” books we’ve read in the sense that we can’t easily recall them, or maybe recall but can’t remember much of the plot. In school-like terms, we can’t pass the test. I can’t help thinking, however, that this goes much deeper than surface recall.

Tiny babies take in language all around them. They learn, on their own timetables, more and more words. (Which adults around them can’t help but “test” with “What does an owl say?” and react in delight when the child hoots.)
They also learn what reactions words elicit (Making the sounds for “Want milk” turns, magically, into actual milk.) And they learn much more – how words convey and transform emotion, how words affect people differently, how words on
a flat page can hold a world-stretching story, how words can soothe and harm and instigate and become vehicles for imagination. Thankfully babies acquire language without testing them on where they first learned a word or what picture book taught them about the sounds made by owls.

I believe we take books in much the same way. They sink in deep and stay there whether we can dredge them back up to the surface of recall or not. I can remember some books reasonably well without Google’s help, but those are a fraction of the books that expanded my perspective, deepened my spiritual outlook, and gave me glimpses of lives well beyond my own. I may not remember the titles I’ve loved but at the same time I know they changed me. Still, I’ll let Billy Collins have the last word. 

FORGETFULNESS   by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted   
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

 

 

 

Favorite Books Read In 2020

“A book does not beep at you, spy on you, sell you out to marketers, interrupt with breaking news, suck you into a doomscrolling vortex, cease to function in a nor’easter, flood your eyes with melatonin-suppressing blue light or otherwise interrupt your already troubled sleep.”  ~Margaret Renkl

In 2019 I wrote a summary of the year’s joys, including titles of the best books I read. I have fewer things to celebrate this year but I am grateful for many blessings, among them wonderful books which are a welcome distraction from the ongoing horrors of 2020.

My budget doesn’t have much space for book purchases, but that’s okay, I’ve found a lifelong refuge in libraries. Many people have felt threatened by shortages of toilet paper and sanitizing wipes but I worry instead that the complete library lockdowns we experienced in the spring might recur. I’m one of those library patrons who regularly reserves a slew of books, from children’s picture books to those most recently reviewed in literary journals. Thanks to the extra hours insomnia gives me, I get through at least four books a week, often more. It’s impossible to imagine my life without books. Our rural county’s library system recently closed again due to increased pandemic risk but thankfully we can continue to get our books curbside. Every day a new pile of books comes in feels like a birthday to me. 

Among those I’ve got on order!

Here’s a shortlist of the best fiction and nonfiction I’ve read this year, along with my hope that you’ll share some of your own favorites in the comments.

 

Nonfiction

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake. You know that feeling when you encounter someone filled with awe? You can’t help but be captivated right along with them. That’s how I experience Merlin Sheldrake’s fascination with fungi. Neither plant nor animal, fungi are found everywhere and sustain nearly all living systems. Fungi connect plants in vitally necessary underground networks. They are influence the way we think, feel, and behave. They can also break down plastic, explosives, pesticides, and crude oil. Yet over ninety percent of their species remain undocumented. Sheldrake writes, “Without this fungal web my tree would not exist. Without similar fungal webs no plant would exist anywhere. All life on land, including my own, depended on these networks.”   library link

 

The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature by J. Drew Lanham is a memoir, a reckoning with history, and a love letter to nature. Reading it, I am with the author as he explores the woods, minds his Mamatha, works to please his father, and discovers what he values. The writing soars in places, especially in descriptions of wilderness. J. Drew Lanham writes, “I eventually realized that to make a difference I had to step outside, into creation, and refocus on the roots of my passion. If an ounce of soil, a sparrow, or an acre of forest is to remain then we must all push things forward. To save wildlife and wild places the traction has to come not from the regurgitation of bad-news data but from the poets, prophets, preachers, professors, and presidents who have always dared to inspire. Heart and mind cannot be exclusive of one another in the fight to save anything. To help others understand nature is to make it breathe like some giant: a revolving, evolving, celestial being with ecosystems acting as organs and the living things within those places — humans included — as cells vital to its survival.”   library link

 

See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur. The author is a civil rights lawyer, filmmaker, and Sikh activist who describes how her experiences with personal and collective suffering led her to reclaim love as a world-changing force. She writes, “Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love.”  library link

 

To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the
Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger. When the author was orphaned as a child, elders took her in as the last ward under the Brehon Law. She was taught the ways of Celtic healing, the laws of the trees, Brehon wisdom, and the Ogham alphabet; all of it rooted the belief that forests are essential. Beresford-Kroeger grew up to became a botanist whose understanding of ancient ways brought her to new scientific breakthroughs. These include the discovery of mother trees, the chemical language of trees, the recognition that trees heal living creatures through the aerosols they release, and more. Beresford-Kroeger writes, “The elders versed in the mores of the Celtic culture instructed me in the meaning of a special word, buíochas. It means, as best I can render it, tender gratitude. The buíochas should be very high in each person, like a glass that is full. Buíochas is also a self-protection. You should carry gratitude in your heart for everything inside and outside your life and all the small things that impinge on your consciousness. The feeling of buíochas is like a medicine of the mind that holds your life together.”   library link

 

Field of Compassion: How the New Cosmology is Transforming Spiritual Life by Judy Canato. I’m in a study group diving deep into cosmologist Brian Swimme’s Powers of the Universe and Canato’s book is a good companion volume (along with those by Thomas Berry, David Bohm, Teilhard de Chardin, and Cynthia Bourgeault). Canato encourages us to create a “field of compassion” by practicing four attitudes: spaciousness, contemplation, commitment, and imagination. She writes, “Compassion changes everything. Compassion heals. Compassion mends the broken and restores what has been lost. Compassion draws together those who have been estranged or never even dreamed they were connected. Compassion pulls us out of ourselves and into the heart of another, placing us on holy ground where we instinctively take off our shoes and walk in reverence. Compassion springs out of vulnerability and triumphs in unity.”   library link

 

Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed For You by Jenara Nerenberg. This was a groundbreaking read for me. In several sections I nearly cried from the sheer relief of feeling understood. I am, by the standards of this book, neurodivergent. That includes my diagnosed ADHD, my sensory issues, and what’s left of my synesthesia.  Nerenberg reveals the ways girls and women’s sensory processing differences are overlooked or masked. We blame ourselves rather than learn to celebrate diversity’s gifts. She writes, “The world will benefit significantly from talents such as empathy, emotional intensity, certitude, sensitivity, ability to detect details, depth of thought, will to embrace, and many other things that we need in a time where alienation, coldness, superficiality, and emotional hardness are predominating.”  library link

 

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. Written with precise and courageous prose, Trethewey shares the story of her mother’s life as well as her own early years. Despite the violence of her mother’s death, this memoir contains the sort of calm that comes of going deep to understand more fully. She writes, “What matters is the transformative power of metaphor and the stories we tell ourselves about the arc and meaning of our lives.” This book is an extraordinary example of that arc and meaning.   library link

 

Thin Places: Essays from In Between  by Jordan Kisner. Throughout these intelligent and always engaging essays, Kisner, who describes herself as “naturally reverent,” considers evangelical churches, neurosurgery, reality television, autopsies, and much more. Her search for meaning resonates strongly with me, as in this passage.  “Because thin places involve an encounter with the ineffable, they’re hard to talk about. You know something has happened, some dissolution or expansion, but like most things that feel holy and a little dangerous, it just sounds weird in post-factum description…  But then, the thin places I’ve known aren’t always places, per se. Sometimes a thin place appears between people. Sometimes it happens only inside you.”   library link

 

The Oldest Story In The World  by Phil Cousineau. My (own!) copy is underlined, starred, and littered with margin notes. Cousineau is a polymath whose love of story takes him (and us) on a journey from ancient Aboriginal tales to modern parables to the power of sharing our own stories. He writes, “Stories strangify experiences and estrange the world so we can rise above it like smoke, if even for a moment, to catch a glimpse not only of what is happening – but what it all might mean. That’s the beauty of it. That’s why stories are a means to an end, and the end is meaning, a meaning that emerges slowly with every daring glimpse into your own inward life.”   library link

 

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt  is an improbable tale about the redemptive powers of social media and the rewards of fandom. This memoir, anonymously written by a reclusive working writer, takes us with her as she creates the fictional character Duchess Goldblatt. I’ve enjoyed the wit and kindness of Her Grace on Twitter, enjoy it even more in this charming memoir. As the Duchess writes, “Sometimes I tie your words in linen with a little lavender and mint and use them as a poultice for my weary old heart.”   library link

 

 

Fiction

The Overstory by Richard Powers is a magnificent accomplishment. Very human stories converge with the natural world in wonder-inducing ways.  I loved everything about it and couldn’t help but read sections aloud to my mostly-patient spouse. I also understand fellow readers who got bogged down by its complexity. My booksmart friend Laurie gave me two helpful hints before I started. She said she made quick notes to help her remember the main character in each chapter. She also said it was not a book to read over a long period of time, instead it’s best to keep reading to fully absorb the impact over a series of days. I totally agree. Here’s a sample. “But people have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.”   library link

 

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn. I was swept up away this remarkable book, especially where it steeps in the numinous. It’s a modern-day story of a struggling family whose lives shudder to the pulsing heartbeat of Hawaiian gods. Each family member’s gifts and burdens come across in pitch-perfect prose as they move ahead carrying the past’s shadows. Here’s a sample of Washburn’s writing. “But that’s the problem with the present, it’s never the thing you’re holding, only the thing you’re watching, later, from a distance so great the memory might as well be a spill of stars outside a window at twilight.”  library link

 

A Burning by Megha Majumdar is set in modern-day India. It connects the lives of an impoverished Muslim girl accused of terrorism, a coach willing to do anything for an extreme political party, and an outcast with dreams of glory. It has parallels to life in the U.S. and is so engrossing that I stayed up much of the night reading it start to finish. Here’s a sample, “I stand tall, though colors appear bright in my eyes, the greens of trees luminous as a mineral seam, the ground beneath my feet composed of distinct particles. My legs buckle, and the policewoman catches me. A shout goes up among the crowd.”   library link  

 

Hamnet  by Maggie O’Farrell twists a tiny bit of Shakespeare’s life into a tale of motherhood, grief, and determination in a time of plague. She effortlessly brings the reader into the daily lives of women in Elizabethan England with lucid prose, like this passage. “The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.”   library link

 

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami is the tale of an immigrant family caught up in a murder mystery. It’s also a love story and a stark example of how much the personal is also political. Here’s a sample. “Perhaps memory is not merely the preservation of a moment in the mind, but the process of repeatedly returning to it, carefully breaking it up in parts and assembling them again until we can make sense of what we remember.”    library link

 

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich brings us into the lives of distinctly memorable characters, one based on her Chippewa grandfather. We can feel the cold night air, the omen in an owl’s call, the warm stew, the pencil scratching across paper, the long history honored within traditions. The story takes place in the early 1950’s yet feels entirely relevant today. Here’s a bit of Erdrich’s prose. “Things started going wrong, as far as Zhaanat was concerned, when places everywhere were named for people—political figures, priests, explorers—and not for the real things that happened in these places—the dreaming, the eating, the death, the appearance of animals. This confusion of the chimookomaanag between the timelessness of the earth and the short span here of mortals was typical of their arrogance.”  library link

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is a singular tale. Twin sisters from a small, all-Black community run away from home in their teens only to follow very different paths. Bennett’s meditation on race, identity, and family is both timely and timeless. As she writes, “That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone. That was what had captured her in the charm shop, all those years ago. Then adulthood came, your choices solidifying, and you realize that everything you are had been set in motion years before. The rest was aftermath.” library link

 

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel is inspired by the author’s ancestors. This painful coming-of-age story is riddled with poverty, racism, and abuse. At the same time, it’s a transcendent read. Somehow McDaniel makes each beautifully written paragraph seem effortless, as she does in this passage. “My father’s hands were soil. My mother’s were rain. No wonder they could not hold one another without causing enough mud for two. And yet out of that mud, they built us a house that became a home.”  library link

 

The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey.  This is an observant and captivating book centered around siblings whose lives are forever changed after finding a victim of a violent crime. Livesey is a master at creating authentic characters. I’d have happily followed them through any plot. Here’s a glimpse. “If Zoe was the one who found things, their little brother was the one who noticed them: the different yellows of two eggs yolks, the way a person’s lips twitched when they met him, the first snowdrops pushing up through the frosty grass, the curve of a dog’s eyebrows.”    library link

 

Stars of Alabama by Sean Dietrich actually reminds me of a Steinbeck novel. Dietrich is a gifted storyteller who makes this saga sing. His characters’ broken hopes and strange yearnings are imbued with hope. Here’s a sample: “Their lives weren’t beautiful. In fact, their lives were hard. And whenever they settled into a routine, along came something that changed it. They always seemed to be a few meals away from starvation, and they seemed to have less each month than they had the month before. But life doesn’t have to be beautiful to be pretty, Paul thought. All it needs is red hair.”   library link

 

“I have always loved the feel of books, the way they give a literal weight to words and make of them a sacred object.”   ~Natasha Trethewey

 

 

Let’s Give Each Other Literary Prescriptions

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.

Are You a Courtly or Carnal Book Lover?

 

I am that monster.

But hear me out. Or rather, hear Anne Fadiman who frames the monster dichotomy differently. In Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, she divides bookworms into two types: courtly and carnal lovers. In her view, those who approach books as courtly lovers treat its physical form as “inseparable from its contents” and do everything possible to keep it in as virginal state as when it was first published, believing any wear or damage to the book’s body is less than the contents deserve.

Carnal book lovers, in contrast, regard a book’s words as inviolable, “…but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them…” are no more than a vessel to be treated “…as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.”

Courtly book lovers use the thinnest bookmarks or avoid them entirely to avoid leaving any vestigial marks. That way when they’ve finished, they have honored the book by leaving it in pristine quality to keep or pass along.

Carnal lovers mark their places with whatever is at hand. That’s me. Among other things, I’ve used pens, other books, feathers, leaves, postcards, torn-out book reviews, and to-do lists. After I’m done I have often intentionally left in my books as small mementos —- a child’s drawing, a recipe, a cartoon. (I dog-ear the pages I want to return to, I use bookmarks to keep my place. Other monsters’ habits may vary.)

Courtly book lovers somehow keep their pages pristine despite the very human dew of sneezes, tears, and baby drool.

Those of us who are carnal book lovers love more messily.  We read in bathtubs and under leaky umbrellas, on sandy beaches and in leaf-spattered tents. We barely look up from the text while drinking coffee, slurping soup, or slopping curry into our mouths. A few unintentional spatters add to the history we have with that page— a sort of personal “Kilroy was here” marking what else we were taking into our bodies as we were taking those words into ourselves.

A courtly book lover is careful to never, ever crack a book’s spine. Some of us in the carnal lover category splay open a book’s spine as we read so that light leans into every inch. Some of us turn open books over to hold our places or set something on an open book to hold it as far open as possible. To us, the cracked spine is a sure sign of a well-loved, much-consulted volume.

Possibly most offensive to courtly lovers is marking a book’s pages. Underlining starring, sketching, and writing margin notes seems downright abominable to them. But to carnal book lovers like me this represents a personal conversation with the author and the author’s ideas. When my friend Diane passes a book along, I enjoy what she’s underlined and written, as if she’s reading it along with me. When I read a book my father once owned I enjoy his penciled margin notes, many of them addressed first-person to himself. Back when I bought used textbooks, all those highlighted portions and margin notes helped me pay more attention. Sometimes that was because I wouldn’t have underlined what previous readers found important, other times because those scrawled comments were more interesting than the book’s text.

The carnal book lover’s approach can and often does result in loving a book to shreds. Heck, that means we have to buy another copy to share, which is a great way to support authors we love. Courtly lovers tend to buy copies to share as well, because they’d rather not expose their beloved books to the ravages of another reader. Win/win for authors!

What we all have in common is love of books. Books sink into us, transport us, allow us to live hundreds of lives. When and where we’ve read them is often forever locked into what we’ve read.

What sort of reader are you?

 

30+ Book Nerd Delights

book nerd, book bucket list,

How many of these do you want to do? Have many have you done? 

Create a hidden room behind a book shelf.

Take a photo of a book title that perfectly epitomizes your day and share on social media.

Read in a cozy retreat like a hammock, tent, yurt, tree fort, whatever sounds cozy to you.

Pay attention to Library Angels. This is the name given to reading materials you aren’t looking for that somehow appear in your life and turn out to be exactly what you need. Here’s a peek at the strange history of book synchronicity.

Regularly exult in the wonder of libraries. In case you’re not aware, library drinking fountains dispense magic water. Really, try it.

When traveling, make a point of visiting an area library. For incentive, here are some of the world’s most beautiful libraries.

Leave a Post It note to the next reader of a library book.  Maybe a simple, “Dear Next Reader, I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.  warmly, Previous Reader.”

Name a child after a literary character or author. There are plenty of lists online like FlavorwireMomJunction, and Babble but chances are, your name and the names of your family members have probably already shown up in literature. Just do a search for “name fictional character.” (My kids’ names are found in the classics, in Star Wars, and in video games although we actually chose names that seemed wise and gentle.)

Bestow literary names elsewhere in your life. When I was a kid, my pink bike was named after a fictional horse. Over the years we’ve given cows, chickens, and dogs some lofty monikers. I tend to name things around the house too, like our vacuum and our kefir starter…

As you read, drink what the characters are drinking in the book.  Local microbrew with Bill McKibben’s Radio Free Vermont, gin with Anne Patchett’s Commonwealth, locally made wine with any of the Inspector Bruno mystery series by Martin Walker, Prosecco  with Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series of novels, hot chocolate mixed with a hint of hot pepper with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

Start or join a book club. If you have time, don’t limit yourself to one.

Indulge in poetry-infused movies and movies about writers.

Savor quotes from your favorite books by copying them onto a plate or mughand printing them on a scarf, or writing them on a shirt using a bleach pen.

Go to book fairs. They’re available in every state of the U.S.  and around the world.

Reread a favorite childhood book to figure out how it shaped your life. (I’m pretty sure The Secret Garden saved me.)

Go to a workshop offered by an author you admire.

Go through a book shelf and donate high quality volumes you no longer want to your local library or an area women’s shelter. Or ship them to Books for SoldiersBooks for Africa, or Reader to Reader. (Huzzah, you’ve just given yourself space for more books.)

Try the read and release method with BookCrossings. Once you’ve read and enjoyed a book, simply go online to print out a label, then leave your book in a public place like a coffee shop, playground, or waiting room. The label assures others the book is free to anyone interested. The label also contains a code so readers can track and follow books as they are read, discussed, and released again elsewhere in the world. Currently, nearly 12 million books are traveling through 132 countries.

Make a composition book cover or try simple bookbinding.

Read under a tree or in a tree or anywhere in nature that inspires you.

Stay up all night to finish a book.

Buy a copy of a book you appreciated and send it to a friend, just because. Do this often.

Whenever possible, buy your books from local brick and mortar bookstores. And get to know the people who work there, they’ll have excellent book suggestions. (But beware. I was thrilled to see a bookstore open not far from me. Although it quacks like a bookstore, it doesn’t act like one. It has lots of local authors and locally made bookish crafts with a token array of bestsellers, but it turns out the owner charges “partners” a non-refundable application fee of $75 to have their book or products sold there for a limited period of time. I cannot imagine what will happen to authors if such a model becomes commonplace.)

When you buy books online, consider steering your dollars to an ethical business or non-profit like Better World Books  or Biblio.

Eat what characters are eating in the book. Thick inviting sourdough bread while reading Sourdough by Robin Sloan, hot fish and corn muffins while reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, authentic bird’s nest soup while reading The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang,  peanut butter bar cookies topped with chocolate while reading Kitchens of the Great Midwest  by J. Ryan Stradal, nachos with cheese sauce while reading The Nix by Nathan Hill, a hearty sandwich of the sort served at The Bistro, in nearly any of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache Series (sign up here to get a free download of Three Pines recipes).

Read in the tub. Or a pool. Or the ocean.

When you travel, read a book set in your destination. Heading to San Francisco? Try  The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: A Novel of Robert Louis Stevenson by Brian Doyle.  Off to a small town in Wisconsin? Read Jewelweed by David Rhodes. New York City? Try Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.

Shape snacks that look like books out of fruit leather, honey, and chocolate.

Or heck, help your area library or bookstore run an Edible Book Festival.  Here are some images from the annual festival at Cleveland’s own Loganberry Books.

Cancel plans, then read.

Make altered books.

Connect with your favorite authors on social media. Link to them with a meaningful quote or the way their work changed your outlook. Want more suggestions for showing authors your love? Here are 17 ways.

Let what you read inspire your own work. As Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist says,  “Read deeply. Stay open. Continue to wonder.”

Waking the Spirit

Waking the Spirit, Andrew Schulman

“Music is the universal language of mankind.”  ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Andrew Schulman was born so ugly that his grandmother refused to believe he belonged to their family. She insisted the hospital investigate to make sure there wasn’t a baby mix-up.  Many years later, his cousin Miriam told him the nurses felt sorry for that disputed lone baby in the nursery, so they held him and sang to him all day. “Show tunes,” she said. “I heard them when I was there. It was so lovely.”

He writes in his new book, Waking the Spirit, “I like to think that my brain was wired in the nursery by the healing power of music.”

Andrew grew up to become a successful musician. He plays Carnegie Hall, the White House, and throughout Europe. He has three CD’s, an active performance schedule, and an enjoyable life with his wife in NYC.  His life, however, changed when he went in for surgery.

The operation was a success but on the way to recovery he suffered a rare reaction and was clinically dead by the time they rushed his gurney out of the elevator. Although they managed to resuscitate him in surgical intensive care, they couldn’t stabilize him. Doctors put him in a medically induced coma for several days, but his organs began to fail. He was not expected to live. His wife, desperate, asked permission to play music for him. His favorite piece, Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” popped up on his iPod. After a half hour, still apparently unresponsive, his vital signs began to stabilize. Confounding doctors, he recovered quickly over the next few days.

As Oliver Sacks once said, “Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music.” Andrew explains in his book, “Music reaches neural networks, including some of the most primary…. such as the brain stem, the cerebellum, and the amygdala. Music then initiates brain stem responses that, in turn, regulate heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, and muscle tension…. ”

We know that music chosen by parents and performed for premature babies for a few minutes at a time helps to calm them, resulting in longer quiet-alert states and easing pain.  Music sung by parents has a beneficial effect throughout infancy. Babies respond to music, even regular drumbeats, with increased smiling. In fact research shows that babies correlate their movements with the tempo and rhythm. They dance! And music gets a much greater response than spoken words. No wonder adults all over the world naturally engage babies in a sort of singsong-like call and response. We’re translating our language into one that is more evocative to mind and body.

Music makes a difference at the other end of life too. Studies of music in hospice care show  it can reduce anxiety, pain, and fatigue while enhancing mood, energy, and sense of spiritual comfort.

After Andrew fully recovered he made his way back to the same surgical intensive care ward at the same hospital. This time as a musician. Three times a week, every week, he enters the SICU, walks through the ward guided by intuition as much as beeping monitors, then sits at a bedside and begins to play.

People on this ward are very ill. They’re likely in pain and afraid. They may be in and out of consciousness, even comatose as he was. He plays all sorts of music for them, happy to honor requests by patients, family members, and staff. But he’s found music by certain composers has the greatest healing effect — Bach, Gershwin, the Beatles, along with Franz Schubert’s “Ständchen” and, strangely enough, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Freddy Mercury.

In his experience, Bach’s music is the gold standard.  It almost magically seems to increase alertness, reduce pain, and stabilize vital signs. Neuromusicologist Arthur W. Harvey agrees. Andrew quotes Dr. Harvey, “Of all the music we tested in medical school with patients, colleagues, and others, Bach’s music consistently made the brain work in a balanced way better than any other genre.”

Dr. Harvey and students studied the effect of music on the body using brain scans, focusing on seven genres: chant, Baroque, classical, gospel, new age, jazz, and folk. After two years they concluded Baroque era music most effectively “…stabilized the different rhythms of the body and mind — mental, physical, and emotional — which allowed for greater concentration and focus. Bach’s music consistently showed the best results in this regard.”

Andrew tries to unlock what it is about Bach.  “…Bach’s music utilizes both chordal music (music characterized by harmony) and contrapuntal textures (the interweaving melodies) somewhat equally, which provides for music processing in both left and right hemispheres of the human brain. A descriptive characteristic of his music and music of his time is the significance of balance… You hear sounds that are soft and loud, high and low, short and long. Rhythms that are slow and fast, simple and complex. Melodies and harmonies that have enormous stylistic variety.”  Such music stimulates brain functions without overload.

Andrew goes on to note that healing music often comes from composers who themselves suffered from depression and other forms of mental illness. Perhaps despair transmuted into beauty more profoundly eases other people’s suffering.

I can’t help but consider all that troubles our beautiful world. When music helps to lift the individual mind from unconsciousness to consciousness, surely music helps to lift our collective awareness as well.

After all, music is used to lull small ones to sleep, rouse teams to victory, woo lovers, deepen worship, commemorate solemn occasions, and celebrate joy. Throughout history, music has been a traditional way  to bring peace and justice. Through music we more fully grasp that all of us feel grief, love, fear, injustice, delight, and moments of transcendence. Let’s play one another into a more loving world.

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” ~Leonard Bernstein

Library Angels

library angels, or how the right book just appears

“Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.”  ~Emma Bull

Sometimes the book you need just appears. You never imagined it exists and then suddenly bam, it’s right there in your hand.

Maybe that book sets you off on a new quest, or lightens your weighted heart, or snaps on a mental light switch. You’re never quite the same afterwards.

This happens to me pretty often.

Most commonly, the book I need drops from the shelf or persistently gets in my way when I’m looking for another book at the library. This occurred more frequently back in those golden-hued days when my favorite library was tightly packed with tall stacks of books.  It required some wandering and often some teetering on a wooden stool to find a particular book. That gave a book that needed to find me a chance to fling itself in my direction.

The right book for me also once appeared in a used book inside the wrong dust cover and another time was left on a dirty seat next to me in a muffler repair shop.

Such delightful happenstance isn’t confined to books. Utterly necessary articles, quotes, interviews, and poems appear as if by magic in my life as well. In The Roots of Coincidence, Arthur Koestler calls this literary synchronicity the work of “library angels.” 

British author Rebecca West told Koestler about her experience with a library angel back in 1972. She had been researching a specific episode of the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

I looked up the trials in the library and was horrified to find they are published in a form almost useless to the researcher. They are abstracts, and are cataloged under arbitrary headings. After hours of search I went along the line of shelves to an assistant librarian and said, “I can’t find it, there’s no clue, it may be in any of these volumes.” I put my hand on one volume and took it out and carelessly looked at it, and it was not only the right volume, but I had opened it at the right page.

Aleksandr  Solzhenitsyn writes about another such strange coincidence in The Gulag Archipelago. While he was incarcerated in Leningrad, a new prisoner was brought in. The man was a renown physicist who happened to be obsessed with working through a technical problem, but it required certain mathematical tables. There was no chance of getting those tables, since the only books permitted in the prison were works of Party propaganda distributed to the cells at random. One week a library worker came around and passed out the very book the physicist needed. The scientist memorized the necessary tables before the mistake was noticed and the book confiscated.

My library angel experiences aren’t as gobsmackingly surreal as these two examples by any means, but I’ll take all the positive coincidences I can even if I don’t know what mysterious force to credit. Library angels? A benevolent God who speaks to the bookish among us on our own wavelength? The universal consciousness at work? (They’re all names for Mystery well beyond our understanding anyway…) It doesn’t matter, when a book shows up unexpectedly I have learned to pay attention.

I’d love to hear your stories of coincidence, word-related or otherwise.