Book reviews

A Weekend with Lidia

Last year I wrote about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvitch, a book that changed the way I thought about truth, about telling my truths as a writer, as a woman. As my friend Debbie says, “I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere.” This is not a frivolous statement, for if you have read her writing, you know following Lidia means walking naked into the fire. It also means, as I learned this weekend in a two-day workshop with eleven other raw and beautiful souls, walking into an immense, fierce, loving heart.

I’m nowhere near ready to write about this weekend’s workshop. What it revealed to me, where it will take me in my own writing—closer and closer to the truth, which is a very scary, necessary place to be—is too fragile. But I can say Lidia led me right back to the slipstream of desires and fears that I dove into earlier this summer in Ireland—a place of deep listening and turbulent silence.

I read Lidia’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, several weeks ago and posted this reader response in Goodreads. I recreate it here to encourage you to explore Lidia’s writing, to hear her voice, to follow her anywhere. Prepare to be changed.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc.

It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula.

It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later.

These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad,” we say. “Someone should do something.” And then we turn away.

From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas.

On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.”

What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life.

The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution.

Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The WavesThe Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention.

Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s story, swimming in her stream of consciousness.

She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

Elena Ferrante #ReviewWomen2015 | CHALK the SUN

Discovering authors whose works I've either never heard of, or for some reason passed by, is one of reading's great joys. Something—a friend's recommendation, an author interview read or heard, a change of heart—compels me to read one of the unknown or forgotten, and I find myself in the lovely spot of suddenly having an author's backlist to catch up on. Because the book, the writing, the everything is THAT GOOD. It's like finding $50 in your pocket, just as the clouds clear on a dreary day and the sun beams through.

I'm already in for two new-to-me authors this year, and 2015 isn't even three months old. The first was Lily King, whose Euphoria I waxed euphoric about last month; I read another of King's right away, and was enthralled once again: Father of the Rain. The second is Italy's enigmatic Elena Ferrante.

I don't have time to determine why these writers' previous works escaped my notice; I have too much reading to do.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.

And so begins Olga's descent into the heart of her own darkness. The Days of Abandonment packs a wallop of tension and cringe-inducing desperation into 188 pages of elegantly-rendered narrative. This isn't the story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this is THE nervous breakdown, in all its raw ugliness. We may tut-tut as we read Olga's hair-raising mayhem, but really, isn't this what we fear, in the wee hours, in our most vulnerable moments? As Shakespeare's Polonius declares in Hamlet, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

The method is familiar: husband leaves wife for younger woman (in this instance, the very young daughter of a former family friend). Wife, who hasn't worked outside the home for many years, is left with the children, the house, the bills, and her own aging body. Disbelief, depression, anger, the divvying up of friends, the hope and fear of running into the ex and his paramour ensue. But Olga's madness? There is nothing expected in the way Elena Ferrante portrays Olga's domestic drama.

Olga's recounting of her freefall is detached and unsentimental. She tells it some years distant, but I also wonder if there is not some translation styling at work here. Although Ann Goldstein has translated all Ferrante's Europa Editions-published works, so I have to assume her tone is true to the author's own.

Contrary to that sense of emotional detachment, The Days of Abandonment is an intensely physical story. Olga is both obsessed with and horrified by her body, which at thirty-eight is showing the inevitable signs of age. She ruminates frequently about sex, reducing it to a purely animal act, torturing herself with images of her husband Mario, and his young lover, and then seducing her neighbor in a pathetic cry to recapture her crushed sexual self. Ferrante uses pain-an errant piece of glass in pasta sauce that pierces the roof of Mario's mouth; the threat of a mother to cut off her daughter's hands with sewing shears; a child's forehead smashing into the windshield to the sound of screeching car brakes--to frame Olga's sanity. It's almost as though pain is a stand-in for emotion: as long as Olga can envision pain and feel it, she'll be alright. She had reinforced locks put in the front door and at her lowest point, she struggles to open the locks, finally resorting to using her teeth. At one point, Olga asks her daughter Ilaria to poke her with a paper cutter if her concentration wanders

 

I immediately pulled my mouth away from the key, it seemed to me that my face was hanging to one side like the coiled skin of an orange after the knife has begin to peel it. ...For a while I let myself sink into desperation, which would mold me thoroughly, make me metal, door panel, mechanism, like an artist who works directly on his body. Then I noticed on my left thigh, above the knee, a painful gash. A cry escaped me, I realized Ilaria had left a deep wound.

 

Most disturbing is the toll Olga's depression takes on her children and Otto, the family dog. The upsetting scenes of abuse and neglect may well kill any empathy you develop for Olga as an abandoned woman. But without them, Ferrante's narrative would simply be a mildly prurient glimpse into the life of the newly forsaken.

Olga wrestles with her post-abandonment identity, and her struggle is an alarm bell the author sounds relentlessly as she mocks the absurd circumstance of marriage that calls upon women to set aside their professions and their physical freedom, to attend to home, family, husband.

 

I had carried in my womb his children; I had given him children. Even if I tried to tell myself that I had given him nothing, ... Still I couldn't avoid thinking what aspects of his nature inevitably lay hidden in them. Mario would explode suddenly from inside their bones, now, over the days, over the years, in ways that were more and more visible. How much of him would I be forced to love forever, without even realizing it, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved them? What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn't die, it doesn't want to die.

 

What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is... Indeed. Foamy. An interesting choice of word. So sensual, evocative, invoking the fluids of sex, but also foaming at the mouth—a sign of madness, a rabidity of rage.

The Days of Abandonment is frank, gutting, oddly funny, and awfully sad. But it is not without hope, and throughout you are reminded that Olga survives her madness. Even swirling in its whirlpool, she has one hand above water, reaching, grasping.

Elena Ferrante's brilliance is withholding her judgment of her characters. She writes their truth and allows readers to create their own morality. Her writing, though not warm, is full of heat. The carapace of narrative rage cracks to reveal tender new skin beneath.

Euphoria by Lily King #ReviewWomen2015

Last year, writer Joanna Walsh began the #ReadWomen2014 campaign to shed light on the marginalization of women writers in the literary world (as quantitatively evidenced by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts) and quite simply and joyfully, to bring more readers to books written by women.  

The #ReadWomen2014 hashtag took off across social media. Debate and discussions regarding literature written by women, "women's fiction," the paucity of reviews in mainstream media, and representation of women in the literary arts continue to grow.

 

Journalist and author Hannah Beckerman proposed that 2015 be the year we focus attention on reviewing books written by women. She's created both a hashtag and a Twitter account #ReviewWomen2015 @ReviewWomen2015  I'm delighted to contribute my words to this effort. I'll be blogging reviews of books written by women writers this year; only women writers. My Goodreads reviews are posted here View my reviews, but what makes it to the blog are books that set my head and heart spinning, like this extraordinary novel from Lily King.

 

EuphoriaEuphoria by Lily King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picture Lily King in her office, surrounded by a library’s worth of research materials. Drafts of Euphoria are stacked in descending towers along one wall, each draft a stair-step lower. I picture a writer chipping away at her words, like a sculptor to marble, until the true work reveals itself; the words coming to life in the reader’s imagination the way hard, cold stone warms like flesh under the hand.

 

Euphoria was inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead and her experiences along the Sepik River with her husband Reo Fortune and the British anthropologist who would become her second husband, Gregory Bateson. But the story is entirely of King’s invention, including the tribes and their cultures. The novel is a feat of research, imagination, passion, and restraint.

 

A sense of menace pervades the narrative, beginning with the first paragraphs. It is the early 1930s, and American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen are fleeing the aggressive Mumbanyo tribe in a canoe when something is tossed at them. It lands near the canoe’s stern but Nell can't see what it is: Fen has broken her glasses. He remarks that it’s, “Another dead baby.” Nell can’t tell if he’s joking. When her infertility and miscarriages are later revealed, Fen's caustic remark becomes unforgivably cruel.

 

Yes, their marriage is a hot mess. Both are gifted anthropologists, but it is Nell, the author of a best-selling, controversial ethnography, “The Children of Kirakira,” who garners acclaim and grant money. Fen can hardly be bothered to carry a notebook and pen. Their months with the Mumbanyo have nearly destroyed the couple physically and emotionally, and they are returning to Australia to regroup and then embark upon a study of the Aborigines.

 

Enter Andrew Bankson, an Englishman who has been in New Guinea for years, studying the Kiona tribe. Bankson, escaping the shadow of an overbearing mother and the ghosts of two dead brothers, is on the brink of suicide. He invites the Stones to return to New Guinea, but they are aware of the competitive nature of anthropologists and fear there’s no more room in the territory for them to set up camp. Bankson, loneliness seeping from his pores, introduces the Stones to the Tam tribe and the three become a triangle of intellect and intrigue.

 

The narrative is told in third person from Nell’s perspective, in first person from Bateson’s, and through Nell’s journal. The alternating voices, the shifts in time, and the retrospection serve to enhance the tension. Bankson leaves clues that something terrible has happened, but the author reveals only enough to compel the reader onto the next page, and the next. This is a novel that will make you late for work, or keep you reading far past your bedtime.

 

The anthropologists devise an ingenious grid to classify all of human culture (riffed from a classification theory that Margaret Mead herself devised), but they are utterly incapable of understanding their own hearts. Bankson falls hard for Nell the moment he sees her, and she is torn between her partnership with Fen, her ambition, and the shelter she finds in Bankson’s adoration. But there is nothing maudlin about their interactions; King maintains the sexual and emotional tension like a piano wire plucked and humming.

 

Vivid and extraordinary are the encounters between the Stones and Bankson and the tribes under their study: Tam and Kiona, respectively. These are the genius moments of Euphoria, as these three Westerners assume the role of cultural scientists with the arrogance born of ignorance. Theirs is a new science and they are eager to experience the euphoria of discovery and understanding. When a breakthrough is made, they feel they could “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” Here, too, there is intrigue, as Nell is allowed deeper into the female-dominated society of the Tam while Fen—in all his petty jealousy and arrogance—secretly plots to obtain his own piece of fame.

 

Lily King had so much rich material to work with. She could have offered us a doorstop of a read, a cultural and emotional epic. Instead, she chiseled away until she reached the heart of darkness. Euphoria is all the more profound and moving for her restraint. An excellent novel.

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

My only reading goal for 2015 is to read more poetry. Without design—just luck of the queue at the library—brown girl dreaming, a memoir in verse, was the first book that landed in my hands this year. There is something sublime in that serendipity. Each and every page of brown girl dreaming is a gift of wisdom and innocence and discovery. Heartbreak. Joy. Family. Loneliness. Childhood. History. I savored and smiled as I read. I wept. After I read it, I rushed out to buy a copy for myself. I wish I could buy copies for the world.

 

The book’s opening poem signals the story Jacqueline Woodson seeks to tell:

I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA— A country caught

Between Black and White.

 

Woodson reminds us that when she was born in 1963, “...only seven years had passed since Rose Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus” in Montgomery, Alabama. The author, too, is of the South, but also of the Midwest and of the North. She moved with her mother, sister, and brother to Greenville, South Carolina—to her mother’s family—when she was a toddler, and then to Brooklyn, New York in elementary school.

 

brown girl dreaming is also the story of a little girl finding her voice. In Woodson’s case, it was the discovery that words and stories belonged to her—she just needed the time to meet them on her own terms:

I am not my sister. Words from the books curl around each other make little sense until I read them again and again, the story settling into memory. Too slow my teacher says. Read Faster. Too babyish, the teacher says. Read older. But I don't want to read faster or older or any way else that might make the story disappear too quickly from where it's settling inside my brain, slowly becoming a part of me. A story I will remember long after I've read it for the second, third, tenth, hundredth time.

 

There is such joy and love in her verse, a profound appreciation for her family and for the places that make up her visions of home. She writes of her mother’s parents in South Carolina:

So the first time my mother goes to New York City we don’t know to be sad, the weight of our grandparents’ love like a blanket with us beneath it, safe and warm.

And of Brooklyn:

We take our food out to her stoop just as the grown-ups start dancing merengue, the women lifting their long dresses to show off their fast-moving feet, the men clapping and yelling, Baila! Baila! until the living room floor disappears.

 

 

You may find brown girl dreaming on the fiction shelves of bookstores and libraries, for it is classified as a “fictionalized memoir.” Leaving aside debates of genre, it is far more likely to find a readership from these fiction shelves, and that is a good and necessary thing. Memoir and free verse may seem like odd companions, particularly in a book meant for younger readers, but oh, what a stellar opportunity to read and teach the power of poetry.

 

brown girl dreaming received the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and is ostensibly a book meant for middle-grade readers, but it is timeless in its grace and eloquence. I recommend it to everyone, regardless of age.

 

Were I a pre-teen, I know I’d be reading this at every available moment: at the breakfast table, on the bus, in the cafeteria, in my room instead of suffering through long division homework and answering questions on the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of chapter 27 in my Social Studies text. The intimacy and immediacy of brown girl dreaming feels like a secret passed between BFFs, a Technicolor “now” of an After-School Special, the story of an American kid my age that is at once familiar in emotion and exotic in setting.

 

Were I the parent of a pre-teen or a younger child, we would read this together, for this is the history of America in the 1960s, and it offers so many of those “teachable moments”: opportunities to reach for history books, to seek out primary sources, to watch videos of speeches and documentaries of a time that is both distant, yet still very much at hand. The same would hold true for a book club of adults. brown girl dreaming can serve as a touchstone for African-American literature and history, which is our shared history.

 

As an adult, I read this with humility and wonder, enchanted by the voice of young Jacqueline Woodson as she discovers the importance of place, self, family, and words. As a writer, I am awed and overjoyed by the beauty of her language, by the richness of her verse.

Even the silence has a story to tell you. Just listen. Listen.

View all my reviews

My Reading Year: Best of 2014

I wondered as the year began—my first as a full-time writer—if I would have much time to read, if I could afford the time away from writing. One hundred and thirteen books later, I no longer wonder. The more I write, the more reading has become essential to my writing, as I chronicled earlier this year: If You Don't Have Time to Read.  

This has been the most astonishing and revelatory year of reading for this writer, ever. A year which saw me read my first Virginia Woolf and Sherman Alexie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; discover Francesca Marciano, Rene Denfeld, and Leanne O'Sullivan; and be rewarded again by Tim Winton, Colm Tóibín, Niall Williams, and Margaret Atwood. So many books touched me, tore me open, provided delight, and a very few that just didn't connect. It happens.

 

Some stats: Female/Male Authors: 57/56; Memoir: 11; Poetry: 4 (oh, my reading goal for 2015 is to triple this!); Writing Craft: 6; Religion/Philosophy: 7; Young Adult: 5; Food/Wine: 1; Mystery/Suspense: 7; History/Reference: 6; Essays: 3. The rest, sixty-three if I did my math correctly, would be literary fiction, including seven short story collections.

 

I've pasted excerpts from my Goodreads reviews in the list below.10885357_10203486144010376_5329045514422083153_n

 

NON-FICTION

This was the Year of the Memoir for me and three very different memoirs stand out:

 

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr (2013)

Food is one of the most vibrant reflections of culture, and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

 

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (2014)

At its tender heart, My Salinger Year is a coming of age tale of a writer and an ode to being young and sort-of single in New York, living in an unheated apartment in Williamsburg and taking the subway to Madison Avenue to speak in plummy, tweedy tones with other underpaid literati. It is a gloriously, unabashedly nostalgic memoir and utterly charming.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (2011)

This isn't for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly and life is too short to waste reading about someone else's tragedy and self-destructive behavior. But something about this story—the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality—gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch's word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

 

FICTION

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Race in America is an uncomfortable subject, mostly for white Americans. We still don't know where to look or what to do with our hands. We fidget and prevaricate. We, like blond-haired, blue-eyed, wealthy, liberal Kimberley in Americanah, use euphemisms like "beautiful" when we refer to black women so that everyone will know that not only are we not racist, but we think blacks are particularly worthy of our praise. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reflects our beliefs and behaviors back on us, illuminating our silliness and our masquerades, our ignorance and our misguided, but earnest attempts to understand the impossible: what it's like to be something other than white in this race-anxious society.

 

Life Drawing by Robin Black (2014)

Perfidy in marriage is a tried and true theme. Perhaps even time-worn. Oh, but not in Robin Black's hands. Her craft is brilliant. In a year when I have read some massive tomes (e.g. The Luminaries, Goldfinch, Americanah), Black's sheer economy of word and image is powerful and refreshing. Yet there is nothing spare in her syntax. Her sentences are gorgeous:

The day is thinning into darkness, the light evaporating, so the fat, green midsummer trees not fifty feet away seem to be receding, excusing themselves from the scene.

and

Bill and I had been tender with each other in the way only lovers with stolen time can sustain. Even in parting, gentle, gentle, gentle, like the tedious people who must unwrap every present slowly, leaving the paper entirely intact.

 

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (2014)

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity's darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to the hopelessness of prison and death row. She pries open our nightmares, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes with grace on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Redeployment by Phil Klay (2014)

These are masterfully crafted stories of war. Phil Klay walks in the footsteps of Tim O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway, and Wilfred Owen before him, but with a vision all his own. What elevates these stories above voyeurism and shock value is his pitch perfect writing. Klay's ear for dialogue, his eye for detail—offering just enough poetry in his prose to seduce, but not to saturate—and the immediacy and emotion of his characters’ voices reveal the power this young writer wields with his pen.

 

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano (2014)

As a reader and writer for whom place is nearly as important as character, I was delighted to find that Marciano speaks my language. From her native Rome to a haute couture boutique in Venice, from an old bakery turned House Beautiful in Puglia, to post-colonial Kenya, a remote village in Greece, central India, or to New York City, Marciano shows us how place defines character, and how travel strips us of our inhibitions and sometimes, our conscience.

 

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O'Sullivan (2009)

This slim volume of sensuous poetry takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag's many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. O'Sullivan's images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures.

 

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2014)

As readers, we often gravitate toward lives played out on a grander scale—adventures, dalliances, crimes, and misdemeanors far more colorful than our own. But reader, if you haven’t experienced the transcendent storytelling of Ireland’s Colm Tóibín, you may not know what it’s like to feel the earth tilt with the most subtle of emotional tremors.

 

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (2014)

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you'll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it's a primer on Western literature's greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won't make it through this with dry eyes.

 

Eyrie by Tim Winton (2014)

Eyrie is a vertiginous wobble through lives disintegrated by the slow acid drip of despair and addiction, held together by the thinnest strands of determination, survival, and devotion. Winton, like Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Colm Toibin, Edna O'Brien, is a writer-poet. His prose has such density and texture; it is sensual and viscous. Australian vernacular is particularly rich, to the point of cloying, and Winton uses it to demonstrate the sharp class divides in this country that we think of as a model of social egalitarianism.

 

My last full read of the year was  Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. I'm still haven't found the words to describe it, either as a book or as a reading experience, so I won't even try. I'll just keep reading.

 

Happy New Year to All!

 

 

Not To Live Too Small: Thank You, Kent Haruf

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I can tell you the moment I decided to be a writer when I grew up: I was six and I'd just read Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. I wrote a bunch of stuff for years—stories, mostly—oh where did they all go? But I can't tell you when I stopped writing. I just sort of drifted away.

 

Junior year of high school, there was Mr. Compton, who turned around the life of a kid determined to fail of her own accord before the world could catch on how worthless she really was. He reminded me how much I loved to write and pushed me to keep at it. There was Professor Martin from English 301 in college, who handed back a paper with a long note at the end that basically said, "You're an outstanding writer. I wish you hadn't switched your major." (Yeah, Doc Martin, me too. Psychology was worthless, but someone convinced me along the way that I'd never get a job as an English major. Not that I got one with Psychology, either. I sure as hell would have learned more had I stuck with English.) Yet somehow by thirty, the only writing I'd done for years was in my journal.

 

I'd never stopped reading, of course, but I hadn't sought out literature in any meaningful fashion—I read whatever came my way: highbrow, lowbrow, and all sorts of stuff in between.

 

But then, late in the 1990s and early 2000s, as I was zooming up the slope of a career I clung to until we chucked it all and moved to New Zealand in 2006, a handful of contemporary literary fiction nudged me toward a different path. In 2003, it was Wallace Stegner's classic deconstruction of marriage, Crossing to Safety (1987); 2001 introduced me to Jhumpa Lahiri and her transcendent short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999); a bout with the flu late 2000 put David Guterson's atmospheric slow burn Snow Falling on Cedars (1995) into my hands.

 

Plainsong by Kent Haruf, which I read the year it was published (1999), was the first of these transformative reads. Its prose is so powerful, its narrative profound; I was astonished that anything so quiet could pack such a solar plexus punch.

 

These works knocked something loose inside of me. They changed the way I read and changed the way I thought about writing. These novels and stories continued the preparation and education of my heart and mind, which had started decades earlier with Harriet the Spy, for the time when I would finally decide that every other ambition had to go.

 

Kent Haruf visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—where I worked—to read from and discuss his new novel. He signed my copy of Plainsong. I wish I had a clever anecdote, something that I learned about writing just from being in the presence of so gifted and hard-working a man, but I recall only that the author was gracious, gentle, soft-spoken, and full of quiet dignity, just like his books.

 

From my own review of his novel, Benediction:

'Kent Haruf is a master of the understatement. He is a sublime observer, less a storyteller than a whispering carney offering glimpses into the circus of life. His narratives are quiet, moving to a gentle rhythm. At first glance, they can seem as dry and simple as the flat, square towns on Colorado’s eastern border where his stories are set. You think you have taken it all in, standing there on the edge by the feed store, looking straight down 6th avenue to the water tower that rises like at sentinel on the other end of town. But you must look beyond what you see to discover what is really there . . . Haruf rarely grants redemption to his characters, just as life itself doles out redemption in meager dribs, offering only enough grace to keep us going until our time is played out.'

 

Last week, Kent Haruf's time played its last notes. But the quiet strength of his gracious prose will continue. Our Souls at Night, the novel he was editing when he died, will be published in 2015.

 

Earlier this fall, Granta published an essay by Kent Haruf as part of its series The Making of a Writer. Read it, please, it's lovely. Ironically, I captured the link in an obituary in The Guardian: Kent Haruf, 'a great writer and a great man,' dies at age 71 I'm thrilled a British paper memorialized this American treasure; he wasn't well enough known in the United States, which perhaps suited him just fine.

 

Thank you, Kent Haruf. Rest in peace.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

When I travel, I gravitate to the small, forgotten places—the crumbling ruins rather than the soaring cathedrals; villages with their backs turned to the road instead of bustling capital cities. I wonder at the secrets that lie within the stillness, the stories that whisper in the broken stone or behind shuttered windows.

 

I’d not read Anthony Doerr before All The Light We Cannot See, but as I lost myself in the delicate suite tendresse of this novel, I felt I’d found a kindred spirit. From the grandeur of European cities and the drama of war, he uncovers the gems hidden in quiet, forgotten lives.

 

The trope of two star-crossed young protagonists—(a blind French girl, an orphaned German boy) and the hints of fable woven through the characters’ childhoods, set against the dramatic backdrop of opposing countries on the brink of a war—would seem to tread familiar ground.

 

But nothing in this shimmering tapestry of a novel is like anything I’ve read before.

 

The story opens in Saint-Malo on France’s Breton coast—an ancient walled city where the high tides swamp medieval cellars. In August 1944, the town is occupied by German forces and shattered by Allied bombing. Alone in her home, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc catches one of the hundreds of leaflets falling from the sky. It smells of new ink, but no one is around to tell her what it says.

 

Just a few streets away, Werner Pfenning, a young German soldier, is slowly suffocating in the foundation of a bombed hotel, trying to raise a signal on his radio. Finding voices in the still and empty dark has been his gift since he was a child, trapped in an orphanage in a German coal mining town. At last, he hears the voice of a girl—Marie-Laure—reading passages from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

 

How these two lives come together is the simple, melodic premise of this symphonic novel. Layered into the composition are wonders of science, literature, and music, the horrors of war, poverty, and occupation, and the legend of a priceless blue diamond known as the Sea of Flames.

 

The light in the novel’s title takes many metaphorical forms. It is the light Marie-Laure’s father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, shines on the world for his blind daughter. He creates intricate models of their Paris and Saint-Malo neighborhoods so that Marie-Laure can memorize her world with her fingers and not fear what her eyes cannot see. It is the light her father offers in the lies he writes after he is taken prisoner. It is the light of the people left behind who love and care for a brave, perceptive child. It is the light of the Resistance, a flame of hope and defiance.

 

The light in Werner’s life is much dimmer. His scientific genius is recognized and he is taken from the orphanage—saved from certain death in the coal mines—and sent to a Hitler Youth academy, where hope is extinguished by duty. He becomes a radio operator in service of the Führer, and certain death awaits him in Leningrad or Poland or Berlin. Science, math, and distant voices transmitting in the dark are his only lights.

 

The blue flame pulsing from a priceless diamond with a cruel past is another kind of light—one followed by sinister characters who use the trappings of power during the chaos of war to pursue their obsessions to the most bitter ends.

 

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Structurally, All The Light We Cannot See is bold, its suspense masterful, its prose confident and beautiful. But it is the fragility and strength of Anthony Doerr’s characters that linger longest after the novel’s final pages. Highly recommended; one of this year’s best.

 

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Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist: EssaysBad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

I became aware of the “I don’t need feminism because . . .” meme several months ago. You know—that Tumblr photo collection of young women holding up signs that read things like, “I don’t need feminism because I am capable of critical thinking,” or “I don’t need feminism because I am not a delusional, disgusting, hypocritical man-hater.” I shook my head, rolled my eyes, but still, these weird declarations chilled me. How did a sociopolitical movement founded on the principles of empowerment and equal rights become reduced to “disgusting man-haters”? Who are these ignorant young women who believe that feminism is a dirty word, something to be ashamed of, and how do they not understand what they owe to the generations before them and how much work there is yet to do?

 

For the purpose of this review, these questions are purely rhetorical. The answers are there, they are complex, and the subject of many a dissertation, I am certain. Which is probably why Tumblrs of anti-feminist rants exist—we stopped talking about what feminism means on an everyday cultural level. Feminism removed itself to the alabaster towers of academe, where concepts such as intersectionality, essentialism, Third Wave feminism, and patriarchal bargaining are no match for the mainstream, which is still shuddering over 80s shoulder pads as wide as an airplane hangar.

 

Well, thank God for Roxane Gay and her collection of intimate, generous, witty, and wholly accessible essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is the first I’ve heard say, “It’s okay to be messy, to hold conflicting opinions, to do things that don’t follow the party line, to question and be confused, and STILL be a feminist.”

 

As she says in the collection’s closing line, “I’d rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

 

First, a few things you should know about Roxane Gay: she’s a writer of novels, short stories, essays; a professor of English; a literary and cultural critic; a native of Nebraska, the daughter of Haitian immigrants. You will learn much more about Roxane by reading her essays. Some of what she shares will make you laugh. Some of it will break your heart. At some point, she will hit a nerve and piss you off (though not when she writes about participating in Scrabble competitions-she's adorable and so, so funny here). She ruminates, chats, gossips, but rarely does Gay conclude. Her essays hinge on the ellipses of what makes us human: our vulnerabilities, our inconsistencies, our flaws. Like each of us, she is “a mess of contradictions;” hence, her admission, her claim, to being a “bad feminist.”

 

Don’t look here for a historical treatise or a modern exposition of feminism. This is not a textbook. It is not a quick and dirty “Feminism for Dummies.” It is one woman’s thoughts (many of these essays have been published previously, giving to a loose and rangy feeling to this collection) on a wide range of contemporary American issues, political and cultural, with the basic theme of how feminism can confound and inspire.

 

A pop culture enthusiast, Gay examines contemporary race and gender relations through the filter of current cultural touchstones. She is an unabashed consumer of what are pointlessly referred to as ‘guilty pleasures.’ I floundered at times, feeling like I was smushed into a corner booth with a bunch of girlfriends at brunch, squirming and looking around the diner, unable to contribute to the conversation. I haven’t had television since 1993 and I don't read fan-fic.

 

Still, I soaked up what Gay had to say about the pop culture phenoms, even if I couldn’t relate to the details. She has this raw way of setting forth her opinion, often pointed, contrary, angry, or biting, but without a hint of snobbery. You get that she gets this is opinion, not gospel.

 

She makes many points that resonated deeply with this reader. In the essay Beyond the Measure of Men, Gay writes:

The label “women’s fiction” is often used with such disdain. I hate how “women” has become a slur. I hate how some women writers twist themselves into knots to distance themselves from “women’s fiction,” as if we have anything to be ashamed of as women who write what we want to write. I don’t care of my fiction is labeled as women’s fiction. I know what my writing is and what it isn’t. Someone else’s arbitrary designation can’t change that. If readers discount certain topics as unworthy of their attention, then the failure is with the reader, not the writer. To read narrowly and shallowly is to read from a place of ignorance, and women writers can’t fix that ignorance, no matter what kind of books we write or how those books are marketed.” 

But in a later essays, The Trouble with Prince Charming, The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help, she takes to task both the writers and readers of Fifty Shades of Gray, Twilight, and The Help. Gay draws the inclusive reading line at irresponsible writing of poor quality that celebrates the subjugation and abuse of women and at writing that craps all over the black American experience.

 

Gay also, naturally, discusses feminism from the perspective of a woman of color. This opens worlds of opinion and perspective that this reader craves. In light of this summer’s controversy over domestic abuse, the NFL, and the punishment Janay Rice suffered at the hands of her husband and the media, as well as the killing of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, MO, I want to ask those young women of Tumblr, “How’s that ‘I don’t need feminism’ working out for you?” For I do not believe that feminism is the purview of women. It belongs to all who advocate for social justice and human rights.

 

In so many clever and self-effacing ways, Gay show us how we have isolated ourselves in our narrow categories. Feminism is not spared her scorn: it has largely excluded women of color, queer women, transgendered women, it hasn’t dealt adequately with fat-shaming, it doesn’t recognize privilege, it offers up highly educated, wealthy, successful white women (Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandburg) as proof that things have changed. But what is most striking about Bad Feminist is to hear a strong, wise, accomplished, vocal woman say, “I’m still trying to figure out what feminism means to me.”

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The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children ActThe Children Act by Ian McEwan My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perhaps it’s best I read The Children Act in the space of a day, curled on my sofa. Otherwise I might have been spied in my favorite café purring like a contented cat, stroked by Ian McEwan’s sublime prose.

 

Words adore Ian McEwan, submitting readily to his firm but empathetic hand. They are sleek and gorgeous dancers to his choreography; alone, the words are admirable, but under his direction they assume nuance and strength. His works never fail to take my breath away. It is a comfort to know, regardless of the story I am about to witness, that I will be treated with the utmost respect by an author who assumes I revere language and composition as much as he does. It is because of writers like Ian McEwan that I have come to cherish the art of writing.

 

But even the most skilled and erudite writing cannot save a flawed story. Fortunately, this author takes his craft as seriously as his art.

 

In the vein of Saturday, The Children Act imposes an ethical dilemma on a member of the élite caste of British society and places its protagonist in crisis. In this most recent of McEwan’s thirteen novels, Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in Britain’s Family Division, hears a case of a young Jehovah's Witness with leukemia whose parents refuse to allow a critical medical procedure. His religion forbids blood transfusions and the hospital has appealed to the High Court to force the treatment on the dying patient. Time is running out—Fiona, or 'My Lady' as she is addressed in court, has only a few days to hear the case and render her decision before it is too late to save the young man’s life.

 

Complicating an already impossible situation is Adam, the patient. He is nearly the age of consent—just a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday—and his objection to the transfusion is as strong as his parents’. There is legal precedent to allowing an older minor to make life or death decisions about his care, and the judge must decide if Adam is fully aware of the consequences of his choice. His death will be agonizing, or in the unlikely event he lives, his future will be a half-life spent in blindness and compromised mental capacity. Standing against her is a sheltered faith of dubious theological framework, and the right to determine one’s own destiny.

 

The control and confidence with which Fiona Maye handles her cases belies the mess of her life at home. At the start of this slim novel, her husband Jack, a university professor, announces he would like to have an affair and hopes she’ll understand his need to assert his sexuality in the waning light of his life. Fiona and Jack have been married for thirty years and although they have no children, their life is enriched with the frequent presence of nieces and nephews.

 

McEwan brings to the page a paradox that fascinates me: how many can be in such supreme command of their professional lives, yet find themselves mired in disaster at home. But this is where The Children Act stumbles and strains for me. Jack offers as defense for his fling the fact that he and Fiona have not had sex for “seven weeks and one day,” a period during which Fiona was trying an exceptionally draining and emotional case. As she ruminates about their marriage, Fiona recalls an active and satisfying sex life.

 

As sensitive and starkly real a portrayal of new marriage as McEwan rendered in On Chesil Beach, I find myself disbelieving the mature marriage in The Children Act. I can’t determine if the author expects us to believe a man would pursue an affair after a brief dry season and that he would want his wife to accept to an open marriage, a marriage that had heretofore known great sex. But later, as Fiona and Jack find their way back to each other, the tiny, tender moments of frail solidarity seep in and mostly redeem the incredible bits.

 

The troubled marriage plays in the background. It is the case of Adam and his faith that allows us to enter Fiona’s intellect and to battle with our own ethical and moral demons. Fiona’s internalized anguish over her own childlessness adds poignancy to her strength on the bench of family court. She determines the fate of so many children, yet Fate has determined that she will have none of her own.

 

In this era of doorstop novels—those giant, bloated affairs that become the darlings of the literati (and of me, yes, I have loved many a 500-hundred-plus-pager in recent months!)—it is a gift to read a rich, complete, thoughtful novel that combines meticulous research with exciting imagination in a mere 221 pages. The Children Act isn’t perfect (and what a relief that it isn't, right?). But it’s vital, full of emotion, and so beautifully written, it made me purr.

 

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My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

My Salinger YearMy Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I had a category for Most Charming Read of the Year, there would be one entrant for 2014: My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff’s blithe memoir of her tenure at the Agency—her arch moniker for Harold Ober Associates—one of Manhattan’s most venerable literary agencies.

 

I know, I know: the year has many months and reads ahead, but I’m calling this one right now. My Salinger Year is imbued with a Bright Young Things shimmer and a Woody Allenesque-patina that warms the city’s brownstones until they glow with autumn light or sparkle with the diamonds of freshly-fallen snow.

 

The year is 1996 and Rakoff, fresh from completing a Master’s degree in English in the U.K., needs a job. She really doesn’t need a boyfriend, but she finds lover and employment in quick succession. The latter becomes her entrée into the New York literary scene. The former, a struggling novelist, informs her emotional and artistic development and breaks her heart more times than he's worth. Which is, as it happens, not much.

 

Although the digital publishing  and e-reading revolution is a mere ten years away, the Agency doesn’t possess a single computer and has only recently acquired a photocopier. Rakoff, hired as an assistant to the Agency’s president—to whom she refers only as “my boss”—types dictation on an IBM Selectric, Dictaphone headphones planted on her head, her feet working the pedals beneath the desk. Correspondence is done via the postal service. There are telephones of course, but no one has voicemail. If clients call after hours, the office phones simply ring and ring, echoing down the dimly lit hallways lined with plush carpet.

 

Enter Jerry, the Agency's most celebrated client. And if the Agency's president doesn't step up her game, he might be the last client standing. Delivering a breathless scene with a comic's sense of timing, star-struck Rakoff meets another famous client, Judy Blume. Just the one time. Judy, along with a steady stream of other writers, quits the Agency to seek representation where the 21st century is acknowledged as a done deal.

 

Jerry is, of course, J.D. Salinger. A writer whom Joanna Rakoff, budding writer herself, has never read. Jerry, hard of hearing, reclusive, and endearing, has expressed interest in having his long short story, Hapworth 16, 1924—which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1965—published as a novel by a tiny press in Virginia. For eight months, Rakoff resists reading Salinger, certain his lionized status is but hyperbole and his writing trite. Yet, she is immediately fascinated by the enormous volume of fan mail the author continues to receive, thirty years after his last publication. It is her job to inform each correspondent that the Agency, per Mr. Salinger's directions, can neither forward the letter to the author nor respond to any requests. When she finally does read Salinger, it is in a revelatory binge. That weekend of Salinger sets the tone for the brief time that she remains at the Agency, but it also leads her to finding her writing voice.

 

The interactions with J.D. Salinger and the near-farcical subplot of the reissue of Hapworth ground the story in the disappearing age of traditional publishing, when a few elite readers determined what the rest of us would be checking out from our public libraries, or purchasing from the rapidly-vanishing independent bookstores, or once-were-giants Borders and Barnes & Noble.

 

But at its tender heart, My Salinger Year is the coming of age tale of a young woman and writer and an ode to being young and sort-of single in New York, living in an unheated apartment in Williamsburg and taking the subway to Madison Avenue to talk in plummy, tweedy tones with other underpaid literati. It is a gloriously, unabashedly nostalgic memoir and yes, utterly charming. Rakoff's writing is breezy and self-effacing, completely in character with the twenty-three-year-old woman who recounts this seminal year. Only an accomplished and confident writer could manage to sustain that tone with authenticity. Joanna Rakoff enchants readers with an elegant memoir that reads like a curl-up-with-a-cuppa novel. She's just won a new admirer.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

"What is it with you Americans and race?" my friend Fatima asked me one day over lunch. We were in her country, France, both students at a university tucked in the shadow of an Alpine peak. "Everyone always wanted to know where I was from. I'd tell them France and they'd say, no, where are you from? It made no sense. I was born in France. I'm French." Fatima, with her brown sugar skin and currant-black eyes, then turned to her boyfriend Karim, and Arabic poured from her in a river of throaty consonants and chewy vowels.

 

A few years later, at graduate school in the Midwest, my friend James--a PhD student from Uganda--told me he didn't realize he was black until he came to the United States. We were talking about the curious strain in his African Studies graduate program between the African students and the Black American students. The term "African-American" baffled him. He got it, he understood its history, but it still made little sense to him. They were Americans-- not Black Americans, not African-Americans, but Americans, full-stop.

 

Race in America is an uncomfortable subject, mostly for white Americans. We still don't know where to look or what to do with our hands. We fidget and prevaricate, we, like blond-haired, blue-eyed, wealthy, liberal Kimberley in Americanah, use euphemisms like "beautiful" when we refer to Black women so that everyone will know that not only are we not racist, but we think Blacks are particularly worthy of our praise. Chimamanda Adichie reflects our beliefs and behaviors back on us, illuminating our silliness and our masquerades, our ignorance and our misguided, but earnest, attempts to understand the impossible: what it's like to be be something other than white in this very-race conscious society.

 

The thing about Adichie's novel is that it's written from a rarified world perspective. There is something very bourgeois about ruminating on race and class from ivory towers, as most of Americanah's characters do. Ifemelu's early years in the United States, when she lives a hand-to-mouth existence as a college student, and her Nigerian boyfriend Obinze's harrowing months in the United Kingdom, from which he is deported as an illegal, give glimpses of how the immigrant experience unfolds in the shadow of racial discrimination. But mostly, this novel is a glossy-magazine conversation between the author and her readers about the experiences of an upper-middle class African woman in America. And I loved it. I loved her voice, her warm and personal style, the way she straddles feminism and social awareness with navel-gazing vanity. I'm not sure if I'm talking about the character Ifemelu or the author Chimamanda Adichie, but the end result is the same. This novel charms at least as much as it educates.

 

A Washington Post reviewer referred to Americanah as social satire. Satire? Really? I didn't get that. I got a very lucid, grounded, contemporary look at race, class, and the immigrant experience in three nations--Nigeria, the United States, and the United Kingdom--built loosely around a love story. Adichie dances a very skilled and entrancing pas de deux between classic storytelling and social edification.

 

Satire does foam up in the metafiction blog “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black” written by the protagonist, Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. as a college student. Ifemelu, whose looks and experiences are based on the author's, fills her anonymous blog with stories about the American race and class dilemmas she observes as an outsider. The blog eventually wins her a fellowship at Princeton and her immigrant experience veers into another social track entirely: the liberal elite. Because of her skin color, Ifemelu is pegged as Black and it's assumed she will somehow understand the "Black" experience in America. But Ifemelu, like my Ugandan friend James, didn't know from racial distinction until she came to the United States. She guards her Nigerian accent and does not straighten her hair to make it clear that she is neither Black nor American. She is Nigerian.

 

After fifteen years in the United States, Ifemelu makes the decision to return to Nigeria, opening herself up to an experience unlike any she'd anticipated: the challenge of rebuilding her identity in a country that has moved on without her. It was a gift for this reader to have an insider's perspective on such a vast, complicated, and fast-changing nation, both before and after Ifemelu and Obinze's separate leave-takings and returns. Adichie takes the narrative many steps beyond most immigrant stories: what happens when you return home, to stay.

 

I had thought to withhold a star for some of the too-pat romantic relationships Ifemelu wends through and Adichie's sprawling, sometimes self-indulgent style, but I can't. I thought about this book when it wasn't in my hands, I couldn't wait to get back to it, and now, days after completing it, I'm eager to seek out more of Adichie- her writing, her speeches, her essays. I have so much to learn.

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Aegean Dream by Dario Ciriello

Aegean DreamAegean Dream by Dario Ciriello My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are moments of pure magic in every life, glimpses of beauty no grief can tarnish, that live on in the sheltered niches and alcoves of memory. This was one of ours. Remember these places and their treasures, that you may find your way there whenever the darkness of the world presses too close. ~ Dario Ciriello, recounting a night swim in the Aegean, surrounded by bioluminescent plankton.

 

This quote comes late in Aegean Dream, Dario's story of the year he and his wife, Linda, spent on the tiny Greek island of Skópelos. Sounds like just the sort of reflection someone who lives on an island so beautiful it became the setting for the movie Mamma Mia can afford to make. But read it again. For there is such sorrow in Dario's phrases. By the time he comes to recognize this moment of beauty, he and Linda have already made the wrenching decision to leave Greece.

 

Linda and Dario had left behind a comfortable life in California to immigrate to Greece barely a year before. It was a bold move, but not a crazy one. They had spent time in Skópelos and Dario, a British national, had EU citizenship. They were assured by the Greek consulate that residency for Dario would be automatic and Linda would have no trouble obtaining hers once they were in country. They had thought through plans for small business ventures for soapmaking (Linda) and housepainting (Dario), as well as the opportunity for Dario to spend more time writing. They spent over a year in the planning, including intensive study of the Greek language.

 

Their motivation, besides envisioning a life in a whitewashed cottage, shaded by olive trees, perched on an island in the middle of the cerulean Aegean? Oh, man, I could have written this.

Why then fear moving to another country, shooting for the moon? Life was to be lived, and they knew how to do that in southern Europe, where people had time for family and friends, and didn't measure their worth by how many hours the worked. We knew there were risks. But the risk of growing old and having regrets because we'd been too timid to follow our dreams was the most frightening of all. What to others seemed like courage was, to us, necessity. It was survival.

Yes. This. ^^^

 

A year later they returned to California, on the edge financially and crushed emotionally. The same corrupt and convoluted bureaucracy that sent Greece into an economic tailspin and nearly took down the Eurozone not long after they left, slapped these two souls into a corner. Their only way out was to leave.

 

We're all familiar with the "Despite the infernal locals and all that annoying sunshine and cheese, we rallied and restored a medieval barn into the perfect home-within-a-vineyard residence in southern Europe" tale -- you know, those memoirs we love to hate: A Year in Provence, Under A Tuscan Sun, etc. We devour them like gluttons, unable to squelch our envy but helpless to stop building our own castles in Spain as we live vicariously through someone else's dreams come true.

 

But few of these stories have unhappy endings. It takes a very brave soul to admit when the dream has become a nightmare, it's time to cut losses, and move on. To turn back and reopen doors which you'd slammed shut and tossed aside the keys. It takes an even braver soul to release that story to the world.

 

Dario's recounting of their experiences is vivid and maddening, but fair. Funny. Honest. Reflective. There is so much affection for Greece and for the dear Greek friends who sheltered and tried their best to help usher the Ciriellos into the community and through the maddening maze of bureaucracy that you hold out hope it's not going to end the way you know it will (and this review is no spoiler-- even a cursory glance at the book's description lets you know what to expect). This is not a dump-on-Greece misadventure. This is the story of two smart, resourceful, courageous, and imperfect people trying to meet a culture on its own terms.

 

Aegean Dream hurt me with thousand tiny cuts. My husband and I left the Pacific Northwest for New Zealand just a few months before Dario and Linda left California for Greece. Our stories unfolded very differently--we had Permanent Residency and moved to a country where everything works with astonishing efficiency. I cannot fathom a place easier to immigrate to than the Land of the Long White Cloud. But we returned less than two years later, our hearts shattered. The how and the why shall become fodder for my own memoir that I'm still -- seven years after our return -- building the courage to write. But even though our circumstances were very different, our emotional journey has so much in common with Dario and Linda's. Aegean Dream was a cathartic and healing read for this traveler.

Others have had it far worse than us, and we count ourselves fortunate. Our trials have tempered us and made us realize how resilient and adaptable we are. We learned to live for the day, and to be happy with little. Would we risk such an adventure again? It's a question we don't dare ask ourselves.

A copy of Aegean Dream was provided to me by the publisher. My thanks to Panverse Publishing, founded by Dario Ciriello after his return to the United States. Now, there's a happy ending.

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History of the Rain by Niall Williams

History of the Rain: A NovelHistory of the Rain: A Novel by Niall Williams My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A novel of beauty and grace, showing again that Niall Williams is more than a writer, he is a composer who elicits music from the magical combination of letters we know as words.

Young Ruth Swain has returned home from university to convalesce in her attic bedroom, where the rain of Co. Clare pours ceaselessly on the two windows above her head, and three thousand, nine hundred and fifty-eight volumes of classic prose and poetry surround her in teetering stacks. Her father is gone and Ruth seeks him, his history, and his truth, in the vast library he left behind. Her clear, funny, and poignant voice guides us through misty decades of Swain and MacCarroll family lore to illuminate how her father, Virgil, and her mother, Mary, came to farm the worst fourteen acres of land in Ireland.

The reminders of present-day Ireland—references to the Crash, the internet, Marty in the Morning on RTE's Lyric FM—jolted me out of the dreamlike meanderings in a timeless world, casting a surreal glow over this rain-sodden ode to Ireland, literature, and love. But the anachronisms make the story more bewitching; Williams shows us that even in this hyper-connected world, it is possible to escape. And the greatest escape is found in the pages of a book.

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you'll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it's a primer on Western literature's greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won't make it through this with dry eyes.

Tied up in my delight with History of the Rain is my love for Ireland, particularly the west. Williams, as he always does, captures this incomparable spirit, the particular state of longing that I feel when I am in Ireland, or just thinking about being there:

We're a race of elsewhere people. That's what makes us the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world's worst bankers. ...It's in the eyes. The idea of a better home. Some of us have it worse than others. My father had it running in the rivers of him.

Let this river of words take you away. But be forewarned: you won't want to return.

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The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The EnchantedThe Enchanted by Rene Denfeld My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a great while, a book enters my life and quick like ivy, its words and images rise and twist around my imagination and intellect. Rene Denfeld's extraordinary début The Enchanted is one such book. I feel compelled to push it into everyone's hands, saying, "You must read this. You simply must." It's been nearly two years since the last time I read something that made me ache to shout it from the rooftops--another début by an Oregon writer: Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist. Yet, these two books could not be more dissimilar in style, content, and theme.

I nearly set this aside after just a few pages. I will caution you. The Enchanted deals with the ugliest, most hopeless themes a writer can conjure: abuse, incest, rape, mental illness, murder. It is set in a prison. Two of its characters are on death row.

And yet.

Rene Denfeld works a kind of magic. This is a book of luminous and captivating prose and imagery, where angels of mercy shimmer in the darkest corners. Where horses gallop free, making the dripping, crumbling walls in the lowest level of this Gothic nightmare of a prison shudder and the warden laugh, even as he prepares a prisoner for his final moments on earth.

The author seamlessly weaves multiple points of view and many richly drawn characters into a very few pages. The narrator is the only first-person perspective. He is the prison's most notorious death row resident, but his crimes remain untold. Mute, communicating only with the reader from the maze of his mind, this inmate views death row as sanctuary, its dank confines the only place he has found peace.

Some characters have names: the prisoners York, Risk, Arden; Conroy, a brutal guard; Auntie Beth, a witness to a young boy's wretched upbringing. Other characters, whom we come to know intimately, painfully, remain only lower case titles: the warden; the priest; the white-haired boy. The lady.

The lady. She is a death row investigator, like the author herself. Retained by York's attorneys, she is delving into the condemned's life, trying to uncover evidence that can be used to stay York's execution, to transmute his sentence from death to life. They share, as she learns, a similar horrific past. Yet, she became an angel-wounded, with broken wings- and he became a demon. York spurns her attempts to find mercy. He wants to die.

Death is nearly as present a character as any living one in The Enchanted and the reader is reminded that we are all the walking dead, facing the same inevitable end as those on death row. Denfeld forces our moral hand, showing us all sides of the debate: the victims, the criminals, the decision-makers, and we are in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with each. The warden, whose wife is in the end stages of cancer, contemplates the pro and anti death penalty protestors gathering outside his prison before an execution, and

He wonders why so many easily accept death when it's caused by old age or cancer or even suicide, yet refuse to endorse death by execution. It seems wrong to him. No on deserves death more than someone like York or Striker or especially Arden. And yet those are the deaths that others will say are unnatural, not that of his dear sweet wide, a woman who raised three kids and never did anyone a wrong pass.

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity's darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to society's nightmares. She pries them open, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

Astonishing, original, terrible, and exquisite. It would not surprise me to see this nominated for book awards, and ranked high on critics' best of lists. It damn well better be.

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The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch

The Chronology of WaterThe Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is so fitting that the original cover of this book, which you see depicted here, arrives from the library marred by a plain, gray wrapper around the offensive bit—you know, a woman's bare breast. It is metaphor come to life for Lidia Yuknavitch's searing memoir, The Chronology of Water: hide and deny what is most natural, until it becomes a thing of shame.

Yet it would seem that Lidia Yuknavitch hides nothing. The Chronology of Water is ripe with shock-jock language and imagery. It is angry and lurid and reeks of booze and sex and blood. It's one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. The day I finished the book, I went and bought a copy of my own--no wrapper around the front cover, just a woman's beautiful body disappearing in a shimmer of torso, cut in half by the air above and the water below.

Water is the thematic structure around which this narrative is built—fluid from the body that spills in birth, in sex, in menstruation, in vomit and bile; water that offers healing and and generates power as a strong body sluices waves to win swim meets or meets an object of one's desire in a hotel swimming pool; water that can take life in a vulnerable moment as one's father collapses in the ocean.

But it's her body that Yuknavitch offers up for examination: a body that in the opening chapter is ruptured by birth. That experience is bookended by years of incest on one side and self-flagellation on the other, until the author meets herself full circle as a wife, a mother, a writer, a woman.

She conceals much in her narrative of abuse, but we are allowed a glimpse behind the wrapper of her shame and sorrow and witness a woman's soul torn in two by violence and fear.

In my house the sound of leather on the skin of my sister’s bare bottom stole my very voice out of my throat for years. The great thwack of the sister who goes before you. Taking everything before you are born. The sound of the belt on the skin of her made me bite my own lip. I’d close my eyes and grip my knees and rock in the corner of my room. Sometimes I’d bang my head rhythmically against the wall.

I still cannot bear her silence while being whipped. She must have been eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Before it stopped.

Her father physically and sexually abused Yuknavitch and her sister; their alcoholic mother existed in a fog of denial. Yuknavitch became a woman full of rage. She turned on herself, turned against her body, which had been made beautiful and powerful by water. She squandered a college swimming scholarship through drugs, alcohol, and sex with anything that moved. She punished herself over and over, for years, trying to root out the evil that abuse had buried in her.

Writing became her salvation. Time and again, as she lurches from mistake to affair, from addiction and obsession, it is writing that buoys her above the waves of her own destructive seas.

Caution must be taken not to romanticize Yuknavitch's scary history. The author as addict, the notion that one must suffer to create great art, is a cliché that works because it is true time and again. But separate yourself from the literal and sink into the sheer beauty of her language, the way she wraps her arms around you and won't let you go, you will be rewarded with tears and laughter, with frustration and rage. You will feel. And isn't that why we read? To feel, deeply, achingly, painfully, blissfully.

The nature of memoir, as distinct from autobiography, is like looking down at your body in a pool of water: shapes are distorted, disjointed, appearing larger or smaller or not at all. Memoir is not a chronological connection of facts. Memoir is a work of prose, an interpretation of one's life just as a painting is an interpretation of a scene or a theme. Whether or not every event described by Yuknavitch, or any other memoirist, really happened is not the point of memoir; the point is to offer the reader a powerful piece of writing with experiences that elevate the personal to the universal. Yuknavitch says it best:

All the events in my life swim in and out between each other. Without chronology. Like in dreams. So if I am thinking of a memory...there is no linear sense. Language is a metaphor for experience. It's as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory-but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.

This isn't for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly, messy, and life is too short to waste reading about someone else's tragedy and self-destructive behavior. That's pretty much me, really. But something about this story--the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality--gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch's word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

“Listen, I can see you. If you are like me. You do not deserve most of what has happened or will. But there is something I can offer you. Whoever you are. Out there. As lonely as it gets, you are not alone. There is another kind of love.

It’s the love of art. Because I believe in art the way other people believe in god.

In art I’ve met an army of people – a tribe that gives good company and courage and hope. In books and painting and music and film. This book? It’s for you. It’s water I made a path through…Come in. The water will hold you.”

N.B. Lidia is a Northwest writer, one of our regional treasures. I had never read her writing until this memoir and I fell hard, fast. And was gutted to learn I had missed her 2-day writing workshop here, in my little village, by two weeks. Alas, she's hosting a repeat in October. When I shall be out of the country. Le sigh. Come back, Lidia. Come back when I am here. I'm ready for a swimming lesson.

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Shattering the Silence: Three Minus One

18669335Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love and Loss by Sean Hanish My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure note: I am one of the contributors to this anthology.

In July 2009, my first pregnancy ended. In July 2012, my second pregnancy ended. There will be no others. Those experiencesas well as the years of baffling infertility that preceded the losses, the attempts at adoption, the anger and hope, resolution and relief, the sense of a life unfinished and unfulfilledhave shaped me as an adult. They have affected me as a woman, a writer, as the mother I will always believe I was meant to be, as a wife who shares forever-grief with her husband.

In 2005, the wife of writer-director-producer Sean Hanish gave birth to a stillborn son. In their journey through sorrow and healing, Sean wrote the screenplay for a film. That film, Return to Zero, starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, premieres worldwide on Lifetime Network, Saturday May 17, 2014, 8:00 p.m. EDT. Return to Zero. Sean's original intention was to see this film distributed on the big screen. But realizing he would reach a vastly greater audience on a solid television network, he signed on with Lifetime at the Rome Independent Film Festival in Italy earlier this year. Bravo, Sean. Congratulations for your brave and beautiful work.

In tandem with the release of the movie and in the spirit of shattering the silence surrounding neonatal death, stillbirth, and miscarriage, Sean and Brook Warner, editor of She Writes Press, conceived an anthology of prose and poetry written by women and men affected by child death. Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love & Loss is the result of their collaboration and ourthe contributors'journeys.

This collection of essays and poems speaks of pain and loss so profound, you are left breathless. Yet there is also incredible beauty, joy, and redemption. The writing is extraordinary, each voice unique in its expression of universal themes, experiences, and emotions. The relief to know one is not alone is profound.

In just a few lines Heather Bell's poem, Executioner, captures the absurdity of grief--the acknowledgement that life goes on, even as yours is falling apart, and the strange, sad ways people reacttrying so hard to empathize, to understand—yet botching it all, bless their hearts:

And the baby is dead but we need lettuce in the house, maybe some bread for morning toast so

I am at the store touching the potatoes at the spin, the slim wrists of carrot. And the baby is dead so

this entitles humans to talk about their dog's death, or gerbil's. This means I am expected to sympathize at

their loss. Because all death becomes, somehow, equal

Gabriela Ibarra Kotara reveals the Masters of Disguise that grieving parents become after the loss of a child: "I am that cautionary tale. No one wants what happened to us to happen to them." In Address Book, Meagan Golec reflects on how her friendships have changed since her child was born dead at 38.5 weeks. Elizabeth Heineman's What to Do When They Bring You Your Dead Baby in the Hospital is a tender, beautiful, elegiac prose-poem that I read over and over, wanting to sink inside her words. Marina del Vecchio, Silent Miscarriage, Shoshanna Kirk, To Balance Bitter, Add Sweet, and Susan Rukeyser, Our Bloody Secret, made me realize for the first time that I was not crazy for wanting to miscarry in my body's own time, even though it took weeksthe first timeor left me writhing on the floor for hours, hyperventilating in painthe second timeand that searching in the mass of blood and tissue for signs of your child's body is horribly, gruesomely, okay.

All this death and loss is not a thing you talk aboutnot in polite company. Not with strangers and rarely even with friends. But death brought me to life, as it were. The deaths of my children brought me at last to the page, to be the other thing I've always known I was meant to be: a writer. Isn't that strange and awful and wonderful? I can't fulfill one destiny, but in its denial, I am walking the road of another. My essay Their Names touches on the discovery of another way to create life.

Miscarriage affects an astonishing number of would-be parents: an estimated 30% of pregnancies ends in loss. Mercifully, many of these occur so early that the mother doesn't know she was pregnant. But many of us spend weeks and months planning for and anticipating life.

Stillbirth occurs in 1 of every 160 births in the US and neonatal deathdeath within the first 28 days of life1 in every 85 births. Shocking, isn't it? It's probably happened to someone you know. If and when it does, a simple "I'm so sorry for your loss" and a hug would be a beautiful gift. Offering Three Minus One would be a precious gift, as well. Parents in mourning need to know they are not alone. This book offers all the right things to say and do and feel and not feel. It is an embrace of compassion and empathy.

N.B.: The following readings by contributors from Three Minus One are scheduled in the Seattle Area (* I will be reading):

May 9, 1:00 p.m. Pacific Northwest Writers Association Cottage, Gilman Village, Issaquah

*May 22, 7:00 p.m., Third Place Books, Roosevelt, Seattle

*June 15, 3:00 p.m. Elliott Bay Books, Capitol Hill, Seattle

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Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American TasteProvence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On a run last week, I saw a hummingbird at rest on the bough of a blackberry bush. Such a rare treat to see this tiny thumb of shimmering green and red in repose instead of as a darting blur at the hanging basket of flowers on our front patio. I paused to watch him on the gently swaying bough. In three heartbeats, he was gone.

Provence, 1970 is about recognizing the hummingbird at rest. It is about capturing a moment in time and holding it in freeze frame, before it darts away to catch up with the world. The moment and place and (most of) the players are evident in the book's title. Luke Barr, M.F.K. Fisher's grandnephew and an editor at Travel + Leisure magazine, offers a bird's eye view into a movement on the threshold of change.

The movement is, of course, America's relationship to food. The change afoot in Provence, 1970 is the shift away from European—predominantly French—sensibilities, toward an embrace of the organic, local movements combined with an increasingly global palate.

Food is perhaps the most vibrant reflection of culture and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

Most tender and intimate is Barr's treatment of M.F.K. Fisher. She is the central character, a women in her sixties on the cusp of a life shift. Her children are grown, her career is comfortable, she is content to be without a husband. But she does need a home. When her house in Napa sells, a friend offers to build her a cottage on his property in Sonoma. She'd long planned to live out her older years in Provence, but now that this time is upon her, she wonders if modern France holds the same magic as the one of her memory. Her months in Provence, while she awaits the construction of the Sonoma house, become a meditation on the acceptance of letting go of the past and embracing a fresh start.

The author's portrayals of M.F., the Childs, James Beard, Richard Olney and numerous secondary players are rich, savory, bitter and sweet. He shows the internal conflicts these talented and passionate chefs and writers wrestle as their relationships to food and France shift and indulges the reader with good old-fashioned gossip as he details their conflicts with each other. Julia's increasingly fraught relationship with her co-author Simone Beck is not news, but Barr shows how it is viewed through the eyes of her contemporaries. He shows what it means to be a snob (Richard Olney), a bon vivant (James Beard), and a sensualist (M.F.K. Fisher) and how a small group of Americans excel at being more French than the French themselves.

And the food. Some of Luke Barr's most delicious, vivid and even hilarious writing is in the descriptions of meals prepared and consumed throughout Provence during these winter months. It is at once a celebration of and a primer on Provençal cuisine, with unparalleled scenery, tart conversation and raw observation to set the mood.

Provence, 1970 shows the beauty of capturing time just at the moment it hovers between the past and the present. Of course, we never realize the importance of such moments until they are long gone. Luke Barr does the nearly impossible: he conjures up the hummingbird and holds it in his hand just long enough for us to recognize the wonder of stillness before change.

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Provence, 2009

An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and Her Sunrise

At last, the light and I are beginning to meet at the right time. From the sofa, I can see the first blue glow of dawn, then the rosy line of sunrise as it creeps up the Cascades and tips into Admiralty Bay. It arrives earlier each morning, so that soon my coffee will still be hot when I scuff my sockless feet into worn-out running shoes and shuffle down to the pier for morning yoga in the breeze and warm light. It's early enough in the year—we're still trying to regain the missing light Daylight Savings borrowed a few weeks ago—that I'm ready by sunrise to move from morning peace to daytime activity. The light is sweet when it finally arrives, but I've got stuff to do.

Yesterday though, the light had its way. It stopped my 6:30 thoughts about laundry and grocery lists, wrapped its warm, golden fingers around my wrist and drew me, laughing, down the hill to the water.

I yearned to ring church bells and ship horns, to rouse everyone from bed and shout, "Look outside, look at the light!" But only the bakery truck driver and I were puffing white breaths in the pink-tinged air. Until I got to the water, where the scullers and sailors were bathed in the sun's fleeting exuberance. I stretched and folded into my asanas as their vessels bounced over the cold March swells.

For writers of prose, reading poetry is like being drawn outside by the siren song of light. The brief world of a poem envelopes us in potent imagery, with words strung together in ways that break the rules binding us to plot and structure. We are enchanted by rhythm and evocative symbols and for the moments it lasts, the poem—like the dawn—sets us free.

I can share only a photo of yesterday's light, untouched, unfiltered. Were I poet, perhaps I could do it some literary justice.

But when I fall in love with new-to-me poetry, as I did this week, with young Irish poet Leanne O'Sullivan's collection Cailleach: The Hag of Beara, I want to ring the church bells and sound the ship horns. Read This Read This Read This, the bells and horns would say. It's like being inside a sunrise.

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O'Sullivan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perched on hill overlooking Ballycrovane Harbor, in the wild, remote Beara Peninsula of West Cork, sits a humped, ragged block of stone. One edge resembles the profile of a woman, her furrowed brow arched over a proud nose, staring out to sea. She is An Cailleach Bheara, the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland. Her story is Ireland's story, her survival the enduring drama of a tortured land of legendary beauty.

Into the stormy legends wends the sublime poetry of Leanne O'Sullivan, like a cool silk ribbon whispering over fevered flesh. This slim volume of sensuous language takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag's many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. Her images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures. We experience the Old Woman as a young girl, vulnerable, vital, yearning, but already wise and sad.

I did not want a glance or a sound, only the sight of you --the mouthing space the absence of language; only to watch you turn through the shimmering coils of light, the river siding around me, describing to me the dark that would be cast over the body, violent, liquid, salt and calm -- the darkness that would be cast between the moment when I could destroy and the moment when I would devour

A Beara native, O'Sullivan's blood brims with the brine of the North Atlantic and its feral winds howl in her mind. Her words pulse with the southwest's moody weather that ripples from cruel and cold to docile in the time it takes to read one of her enchanting verses:

Morning, the touching of the moon on the oval-line of light, the sun low, its fire like liquid over the ocean where the wading gulls hunt. I toed the foam and smooth sand as a rattle of salt rushed against my skin, the pebbles, the water's joyful touchings.

Best read aloud, with a glass of Jameson 18-year-old close at hand. Or at sunrise, with a porpoise slipping in and out of the waves, inviting you to come in and play...

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March Sunrise, Port Townsend  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

The Memory of LoveThe Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel opens quietly, as if the writer were a doctor, cautiously revealing a wound, warning the reader to look, but don’t touch; as if she were a psychiatrist, probing delicately at the mind, but who avoids coming too close to the main issues, for fear of doing her patient greater harm.

The wounds in Aminatta Forna’s devastating and beautiful novel The Memory of Love (why am I certain the author had another title in mind, but was convinced by her publisher to go with the banal to encourage mainstream readers? Sadly, this is the second novel entitled The Memory of Love I’ve read in the past four months and both deserve better titles. No offense to Elton John.) aren’t inflicted on just one person; they are the wounds of a nation brutalized by war.

The decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone was relegated to Page Five international sections in this country, overshadowed—if one paid attention to the many tangled messes abroad—by the War in the Gulf, then the Balkans, Rwanda and even Sierra Leone’s southern neighbor, Liberia. This beautiful West African nation was first a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, then became an important symbol of resistance. Its capital, Freetown, was so named by repatriated slaves at the end of the 18th century. Its modern history is at least as complex: a land rich in natural resources, with an infrastructure and population that attained stability and productivity, reduced to horrific footnotes of “blood diamonds,” boy soldiers, hacked-off limbs and a generation of children born of rape.

But all politics is personal. And The Memory of Love wraps the war around multiple characters and two eras to show the progression from hope and happy times to defeat and resignation.

The central characters in this story are men: Elias Cole, a mid-grade professor of history and his charismatic alter ego Julius, married to the woman on whom Elias develops a obsessive crush; Adrian Lockheart, a British psychotherapist fleeing a loveless marriage in the UK to treat PTSD sufferers in a Freetown hospital; and Kai Mansaray, an orthopedic surgeon whose work schedule seems to be self-inflicted retribution for having survived the war when tens of thousands of his fellow citizens did not.

The story opens just before the 1969 Apollo moon landing, when Freetown bustled with progress. Elias Cole, a young professor at the time, relates his story in first person to Dr. Lockheart, who comes to Sierra Leone thirty years later, after the civil war ends in 2001, to a crumbled city beset by poverty, crime and disease.

Women are central to the narrative, though we never hear their voices directly: the enigmatic Saffia, Julius’s wife; Ileana, the chain-smoking Romanian doctor who navigates crazy, sad Freetown with wry dexterity; Kai’s former lover, Nenebeh and Adrian's new lover, Mamakay. And there is Agnes, a Sierra Leonean psychiatric patient suffering from a rare “fugue” state where she wanders off for days, lost in a world of memories. There are prostitutes and slutty foreign aid workers, cuckolded wives and neglected daughters. Women bear the greatest injustices and losses in this novel but their experiences are interpreted by their lovers, husbands and physicians.

Aminatta Forna explores betrayal on an epic, political scope and an intimate, every-day relationship level. The Memory of Love is many individual but linked strands of characters doing whatever they can to survive, even if it means survival of the body but decimation of the soul. Friendship is one of the central themes—how easily we find and create connections and how it takes just a moment, a misunderstanding, a cruel coincidence, to tear them apart.

This complicated and intelligent novel demands careful, slow reading to keep track of the multiplicity of characters, the frequent changes of points-of-view, time and place. Aminatta Forna’s writing is evocative, deliberate and authentic. She infects the narrative with tragedy and anger, then lances the wounds with sweetness, affection and hope. There are competing feelings of pent-up illness and catharsis that are partially, but not fully, resolved by the end. Not an easy read, but an important one.

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Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear SugarTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dear Sugar,

I didn’t want to read your book. I don’t read advice columns as a matter of principle. Needy people, foolish people frustrate me. To read an entire book of advice column Q&A seemed about as necessary as professional football, with the same end result for this reader as for those players: heads bashing into unmovable objects.

But my book club selected it. Duty calls.

A bunch of shit happened in the three days I took to read your book. Like, universe is speaking to me shit.

The First Day (Parts I & II): On this achingly bright morning I was securing a hank of hair in a little clip when I noticed gray hairs. Now, my first gray hair appeared in 1999 when we bought our first house and I’ve had a few more here and there over the years, but they’ve always been curiosities, anomalies. This morning, however, my hair was streaked in silvery white strands. I’m crazy-nearsighted and in the months since I’ve become a full-time writer, I have little reason to examine my face in the mirror; I think I last wore mascara in October. So maybe that gray has been there for a long time and it took the rays of sunshine through the skylight at just the right time to expose my new middle-aged reality.

I checked the next morning at the same time, with the same intense sun pouring through the skylight. Yep. Still there. But the hair isn’t gray. The strands are silvery white against my natural auburn. They are beautiful. I can’t fathom trying to cover them up with chemicals.

I won’t complain that people often assume I’m several years younger than I am, but along with that assumption comes the presumption that I haven’t lived, haven’t experienced, don’t quite know or get or “Just wait until you’re my age …” This beautiful hair says “Yeah, baby. I’m forty-fucking-five. I’ve lived it. I get it. I’m older than you know.”

I almost stopped reading after How Do You Get Unstuck—only the second Dear Sugar— about the woman suffering after her miscarriage and you sharing the horror stories of the young women you’d encountered as a youth advocate. It was all too raw for me. It hit too close to home. But I kept going and a few dozen pages later, you rewarded me with Write Like a Motherfucker, a statement I printed in Sharpie on a Post-It and pinned to my bulletin board.

Dudes in the Woods gave me a different way to think about friendship and I realized I needed to share a piece of knowledge about someone with a mutual friend—that it wasn’t gossip, but a search for the best way to help. Turns out that mutual friend was suffering, too, and now we’re able to move forward together.

The Woman Hanging on the End of the Line slapped me in the face with the force of my bitterness and rage at a few individuals who wronged and betrayed my husband and me and the price I’ve paid for that rage. I’m not sure I’m ready to let it go just yet, but now I accept that I have a choice.

The Second Day (Part III & IV): I went to coffee with a new writer friend (three lovely words, don’t you think?). We shared our writing journeys. I explained I’d wanted to be a writer my entire life, but I quit writing at ten, when my parents split, and didn’t resume until I was 41, after I lost my first pregnancy. And finally found the courage to begin my novel days after losing my second, when I was 43. Those are the facts.

You succeeded in making me cry with Beauty and the Beast and laugh out loud with The Known Unknowns: “I’d rather be sodomized by a plastic lawn flamingo than vote for a Republican…” Can I use that? I’ll credit you, of course!

But it was A Glorious Something Else I’ll carry with me: “…boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well the as the responses you will have to those behaviors.”

Day Three (Part V): I finished your book this morning. Of course you would end with a letter from a reader who wondered what your now-forty-something self would tell your twenty-something self that made me cry. I closed your book and cried loud, cathartic sobs. My twenty-something self had already found an amazing guy and was deep into a rewarding career, so it’s not like I could relate to your encounters with the Ecstasy-dropping gay couple or your heroin addiction or failed first marriage. But there are other pains, other regrets, other mistakes, betrayalsabandonmentslosseshates for which I cried. It was a collective of tears for the stories I’d read and the empathy I’d felt.

Moments later I learned a friend’s marriage is ending, with a bitter custody battle underway. Reading her words, I became my ten-year-old self, caught between two bitter, angry, vengeful people who had a choice. And didn’t choose me. Didn’t choose what was best for me. They chose hate and recrimination instead of cooperation and love. I wrote to my friend with that little girl’s soul, hoping she would make the right choice for her young child. And then I went for a run.

I ran in the same aching light that three days before had revealed the undeniable proof: my body is fading from the solid brilliance of youth to silvery, tenuous old age. I ran straight into the epiphany that I stopped writing when the child I’d been was abandoned and her world fell apart and didn’t begin again until I accepted the loss of my own children and let go the hope of being a mother. I knew these as facts—I had relayed them to my new friend two days before—but I hadn’t felt the facts as emotions until that moment, in the 16° wind chill and determined sunlight. I had to stop running. I was laughing and crying so hard, I couldn’t breathe.

Dear Sugar,

I'm ETAing to let you know that one of my brothers called me a few days after I posted this review to my blog. He said he'd learned more about me from reading my review than he'd ever known. But isn't that why you published this collection? To learn about yourself? Good on you. I reckon it worked.

Yours,

Going for Silver

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