Inspired by a friend-of-a-friend who writes a yearly round up of what she’s read, I’ve decided to adopt, or perhaps adapt, the same tradition. If I’ve learned one thing from Bennington Writing Seminar’s “read-100-books-write-one” philosophy, it’s the value of reading. For such an important concept, “value” is a wimpy word. Embedded in it is the calculus of what you put in vs. what you get out:
Reading effect > Reading effort
But “value” also contains the notion of treasure. Reading more and better has become frankincense and myrrh for my brain and soul. It’s made me a better writer and, I think, a better human being—one who pays more attention, even if (still) not as well as I should.
I read before, but most of what I consumed was “Cheetos” literature—colorful but lacking nutritional value. Don’t get me wrong, I still munch my way through literary snacks. I like sci fi yarns, for example. I still need these—want these—for respite from life. Much of what I read in the fall was background for a novel I’ve begun, some of which deserves rediscovery (like the work of Jane Addams). But I’ve also had weightier stuff in my diet to took time to digest. (Whew, think I’ve more than milked that metaphor…
I didn’t expect books to save me, but this year, some of them have. I ended 2016 with Elie Wiesel’s Night and his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and marked this passage:
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe… Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.
It’s something to be approaching one’s 60th birthday and discovering—that’s how it feels—a new way to read.
This list isn’t complete, but one of my new year’s resolutions is to keep a reading log next year. This one is cobbled together from grad school annotations and memory. I also want to read more poetry and I’m seeking recommendations of favorite poems. A poem a day, that’s all I ask.
If you like this list, consider perusing an even better one by the one who showed me the way, Susan McCallum-Smith. (I’ve just ordered her Slipping the Moorings book of stories.)
* = recommended
- Jojo Moyes, After You (fiction)—lightly satisfying romance with a little lusting after the handsome paramedic the protagonist meets. Sequel to Me Before You, which I didn’t read and probably won’t.
- Pat Murphy, The Falling Woman (fiction)—set in an architectural dig of a Mayan ruin, the intertwined story of an estranged mother and daughter with plenty of mystical and psychological detail. 1987 Nebula winner.
Confession: I know I read a lot more light fare, but it didn’t stick with me; that’s the thing about literary snacks, eh?
- Mary Gaitskill, Because They Wanted To (stories)—Unsettling, haunting, riveting stories that won’t leave you, especially the title story.
- Jamison, Leslie, The Empathy Exams (essays)—I read this as background for my graduate lecture about how empathy is created on the page. Her title essay didn’t advance my analysis, but it did affect my thinking about what is and what isn’t empathy.
- Jill McCorkle, Going Away Shoes (stories)—Jill is a brilliant story teller (and very nice person) and this older collection of short stories never disappoints, but “Midnight Clear” really spoke to me: the story of a woman who is trying to find a new way to make Christmas feel like Christmas after a divorce, as her house falls apart. (No, I’m not divorcing.)
- Daniel Menaker, The Old Left* (stories)—Like a flywheel, The Old Left gains energy from an inheritance that’s held just out of reach, and the inherent chafing between generations. The first piece, “Brothers,” will slay you. More people should read Menaker.
- Alice Munro, “Working for a Living” (essay)—Munro proceeds in a slow spiral, working her way to the core of the story. The detailed description leaves no doubt that Munro knows what she’s talking about. Munro’s father is expected to continue in his father’s tradition of diligence, to work “for its own sake” rather than prosperity. Simple subject-verb constructions deepen the feeling of doggedness. By the end of her description, Munro has laid the groundwork for her theme: work and her characters’ relationship to it, and in turn, to one another. The land of Huron County is harsh and the work, hard; the people do what’s necessary and don’t waste words.
- Susan Stewart, “Channel” (poem), published in The Paris Review #218 Fall 2016—This poem is almost as long and meandering as the river channel it evokes, and I loved it so much that I sent it to my brother for Christmas. Just look at the beginning:
Sweet runs the water ever
out of spring and meadow,
frothing low, rising,
the sodden grass.
Silver line, transparent flow,
and shine and
where the willow damsel-
fly dives and climbs.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah* (novel)—One of my favorite books of the year. The voice, the story, the themes! (And if you haven’t seen the author shut down a white guy when he tries to tell her what’s racist, do yourself a favor and watch. But especially, read her!)
- Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl and Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (nonfiction)—I admit I wouldn’t have read “Voices” were it not for being assigned to lead a book group discussion, but I’m glad I did. Rather than exposition, Alexievich lets her interviewees carry the “story” through collected testimonies. In her Nobel prize speech she explained: “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think — how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don’t appreciate it, we aren’t surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk … I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion…. I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood. We were taught death. We were told that human beings exist in order to give everything they have, to burn out, to sacrifice themselves. We were taught to love people with weapons. Had I grown up in a different country, I couldn’t have traveled this path. Evil is cruel, you have to be inoculated against it. We grew up among executioners and victims. Even if our parents lived in fear and didn’t tell us everything – and more often than not they told us nothing – the very air of our life was poisoned. Evil kept a watchful eye on us…. I have written five books, but I feel that they are all one book. A book about the history of a utopia …”
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time*—I read Baldwin’s 1963 letter to his nephew inspired by the centennial of emancipation at the same time that I read Coates’ Between the World and Me. Given the undeniable threat of violence to young black men, and the prevalence of racism and microaggressions against people of color, both are a must-read. Wait, and one more: Claudia Rankine’s
- Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights—Forgive me, I found this book slow and the characters annoying. (I loved Jane Eyre and Rebecca, so it wasn’t the vintage of the writing.)
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, and The Beautiful Struggle* (memoirs) (the second of which I preferred and discuss here, though I recommend both)—Since Coates is so visible right now, I had an idea about what to expect, but was completely surprised by some of his imagery—the mentions of magic and fantasy (orcs, dire wolves) that fit so well with an adolescent’s view of the world. Likewise his selective capitalization—e.g. the Great Knowledge—effectively underlined his point. But it’s the scenes that stick with me, with their stark reality of a world so different than my own and its set of rules. For example: “But somewhere about third grade they got the message: Fists could equalize it all. That if they could raise their dukes, they could cut a lot of the bullshit. It did not matter if their jab was wild or the headlock was no more than a firm hug. That they stood instead of ran made them hard targets and served notice to the bandit that there was no free lunch.” (46) The passages about music, and his father, were breathtaking.
- Marion Coutts, The Iceberg (memoir)—her chronicle of her husband’s illness and death (from a brain tumor). She writes in her cryptic opening, “A book about the future must be written in advance. Later I won’t have the energy to speak. So I will do it now.” (1) Coutts creates state of mind first, then remembers moments. There’s a meta-message here: she will freshly illuminate everything that catches her eye, everything that happens as she sifts through memory. The “Iceberg” includes those events you’d expect in a memoir about a man dying of a brain tumor: diagnosis, treatment, counseling, setbacks, caregiving, practicalities, final decisions. The braided thread of spoken language adds to the events—their child’s strides in acquiring language, the husband’s language deterioration, trial-and-error strategies for helping the husband to communicate and work—but the vast majority of “The Iceberg” is spent on reflection. In illuminating her experience, which in turn illuminated my own, Coutts achieves what Sven Birkerts suggests is a memoirist’s task: “modeling a way to reflectively make sense of experience—using hindsight to follow the thread back into the labyrinth. Reading their work, we borrow their investigative energy and contemplate similar ways of accessing our own lives.”
- Laura Shaine Cunningham, Sleeping Arrangements* (memoir)—Sharply told, mostly in present tense. It helped that the first sixteen pages and ending are in past tense, to enable the adult memoirist to reflect on her experience. This sharply etched portrait of a child’s unfolding consciousness succeeds for many more reasons than the appeal of its oddball characters and poignant situation.
- “And when I think back to that time, as I do daily, I escape into that trance that memory shares with arousal. The same buzz in the blood, the reprieve, once more, from real time. That ecstatic condition the scientists call “alpha” and psychologists know as “flow.” I still enjoy the transports of delight, the near-optical illusion as the outer world recedes and the inner world is allowed to take over: powerful, illogical. The radiance of the daydream.” (222-223)
- Anthony Doerr, All That Light You Cannot See* (novel)—an intricately woven tale of three characters during WWII, with the twist that the principal narrator is blind. The novel has the suspense of a car chase, but with transcendent imagery.
- Andre Dubus III, Townie (memoir) and House of Sand and Fog* (the novel)—Meeting and working with Andre, one of the most generous human beings ever, changed my life but you don’t have to meet him to fall in love with his books. What a storyteller, the way he builds and builds and builds. What visceral detail.
- Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (memoir)—I reread this story to see how Eggers broke the fourth wall compared to Lidia Yuknavitch’s far more subtle approach. If you don’t remember it, this book was a big deal about fifteen years ago. I read it then, but the irony/sarcasm/witty asides weren’t much to my taste. Then again, it came out not long after the death of my mother when I was in my 40s. I appreciate it more now, especially the challenge of being a young man and a young writer talking about taking charge of his younger brother after his mother’s death.
- Pam Houston, Contents May Have Shifted (novel)—Linked stories about Pam, a character “not unlike the author” according to the back flap, and her experience of seeking and traveling. She’s a wonderful storyteller, and I love her nontraditional structure here.
- Paul Lisicky, The Narrow Door* (memoir)—I know “grief memoir” sounds awful as a genre, but really, they are love stories, and Paul’s is one of the best I’ve ever read, the story of his love for his best friend, who died of cancer.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory* (memoir)—One of the most beautiful pieces of writing ever, and best depictions of the workings of memory.
- Such sensory details, suspense of time: “Summer soomerki — the lovely Russian word for dusk. Time: a dim point in the first decade of this unpopular century. Place: latitude 59 degrees north from your equator, longitude 100 degrees east from my writing hand. The day would take hours to face, and everything — sky, tall flowers, still water— would be kept in a state of infinite vesperal suspense, deepened rather than resolved by the doleful moo of a cow in a distant meadow or by the still more moving cry that came from some bird beyond the lower course of the river, where the vast expanse of a misty-blue sphagnum bog, because of its mystery and remoteness, the Rukavishnikov children had baptized America.” (81) Or this…
- “The sepia gloom of an arctic afternoon in midwinter invaded the rooms and was deepening to an oppressive black. A bronze angle, a surface of glass or polished mahogany here and there in the darkness, reflected the odds and ends of light from the street, where the globes of tall street lamps along its middle line were already diffusing their lunar glow. Gauzy shadows moved on the ceiling. In the stillness, the dry sound of a chrysanthemum petal falling upon the marble of a table made one’s nerves twang.” (89)
- This! “But what am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland? How did I get here? Somehow, the two sleighs have slipped away, leaving behind a passportless spy standing on the blue-white road in his New England snowboots and stormcoast. The vibration in my ears is no longer their receding bells, but only my old blood singing. All is still, spellbound, enthralled by the moon, fancy’s rear-vision mirror. The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.” (100)
- “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.” (139)
- Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (nonfiction)—Junger (author of The Perfect Storm and a long-time war journalist) tackles the important topic of PTSD, why veterans have such a difficult entry after serving in a conflict, and what might be done about it. The book is a longer version of an essay he wrote in Vanity Fair. I thought the magazine article was better, and I’d recommend reading that.
- Maggie Nelson, Bluets (poetry, but written in non-traditional prose form)—An immersive experience into the aftermath of a failed relationship, longing, beauty and, especially, the color blue.
- Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family (memoir)—Although at first I missed the feeling of something being at stake, I fell in love with Ondaatje’s gorgeous imagery and language (“frozen cars hunched like sheep,” “light leaned” into chiseled indentations)… and then was intrigued by how he wove bits of dialogue, long quotes from others, landscape description, anecdotes and personal narrative. Even poetry. His sense of the unconscious mind and dreams was breathtaking.
- “What began it all was the bright bone of a dream I could hardly hold onto.” (21)
- The switch to “you” here, directed to his father! The ending image… : “But the book again is incomplete. In the end all your children move among the scattered acts and memories with no more clues. Not that we ever thought we would be able to fully understand you. Love is often enough, towards your stadium of small things. Whatever brought you solace we would have applauded. Whatever controlled the fear we all share we would have embraced. That could only be dealt with one day at a time — with that song we cannot translate, or the dusty green of the cactus you touch and turn carefully like a wounded child towards the sun, or the cigarettes you light.” (201)
- Margaret McMullan, editor, Every Father’s Daughter (memoir) — Reading and comparing 24 essays, all ostensibly about the same topic, was fascinating. Thanks to my pal, Sharon Swanson, for sending it to me.
- Phillip Lopate’s introduction: “What is it about the relationship between fathers and daughters that provokes so much exquisite tenderness, satisfying communion, longing for more, idealization from both ends, followed often if not inevitably by disappointment, hurt, and the need to understand and forgive, or to finger the guilt of not understanding and loving enough?” (17)
- Bliss Broyard, “My Father’s Daughter”: “I once asked my dad why all the great stories were sad ones. Most good stories are mysteries, he said. The author is like a detective trying to get to the bottom of some truth, and happiness is a mystery that can come apart in your hands when you try to unravel it. Sadness, on the other hand, is infinitely more resilient. Scrutiny only adds to its depth and weight.” (47)
- Claudia Rankine, Citizen* (poetry and prose, nonfiction)—If the United States had a required reading list, I would put this on it. It will change your point of view. I won’t tell you how, for to do so would be to ruin the experience of her art, as much performance on the page as words.
- Justin Torres, We, The Animals* (memoir)—A riotous and colorful memoir of Torres’ family, seen through loving and observant eyes. An Irish innkeeper once offered me a little Jameson’s on oatmeal with the explanation, “It’ll lift ya up.” Torres will, too. If you ever have the chance to hear him read,
- Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn* (stories)—I was introduced to Claire via Writing by Writers, and man, am I ever glad. Her short stories are so fresh, so unexpected, so tight, so riveting. Maybe the best collection I’ve ever read.
- Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony—I can’t believe I left this off my list originally, but this stunning novel, one of the first by a Native American author to receive recognition, is a must-read on many levels: writing that is at times mystical, and at times visceral; the story itself, about a vet with PTSD who finds and heals himself; and perhaps the books’ broader observations about the toxic materialism of American culture (particularly white culture).
- Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception (memoir)—The pacing was a little too slow for my taste, but I did love his sentences. It worked best when the focus remained on Wolff’s quirky father.
- Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water* (memoir) — Yuknavitch’s memoir is not only “about how I survived the life I was dealt with,” as she said in The Rumpus. One gets the feeling that writing itself, for her, was and is a survival tool. She writes to makes sense out of her experience, as many of us do. But, with her second-person address, she demonstrates that she writes not only for herself but for others. She is talking to anyone who is trying to survive.
I’m not sure what to call the books that I read as research for historical fiction, but I enjoyed these books as written works as much as the information I gleaned from them.
- Jane Addams, The Long Road of Woman’s Memory (nonfiction)—I wouldn’t know how to characterize her writing, and maybe I shouldn’t try. Addams—noted suffragette, first American woman to win the Nobel, and founder of the social work discipline—was also a wildly popular author in her time. Rather than using statistics and exposition, she told stories of people she met through her work at Hull House, a “settlement house” that provided services to the many people living in the 19th ward of Chicago at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Her story about the rumor of a “devil child,” and the people who flocked to Hull House to see if a baby with horns had been born, says much about how rumor travels, and how power is acquired by the transmitter. The book is a look at social ills and social judgment, with many ideas that are relevant 100 years later.
- Susan Crean, The Laughing One and Opposite Contraries: The Unknown Journals of Emily Carr and Other Writings (nonfiction)—I dived into the lives of women impressionist painters in the early 20th century and thus came across Crean. Besides reading more journals (in published and unpublished form) and loving the experience of it, Crean uses an innovative technique to bring to life the journals of Emily Carr, who is as well known in Canada as Georgia O’Keeffe is in the United States. In The Laughing One, she fictionalizes scenes based on the journals, then includes the journal excerpts, and then writes as a historian to comment and provide further context. The book is a worthy read to see what women faced, and continue to face, to make art and get the recognition they deserve.