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.
FICTIONThe 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.”
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.”