Thursday, December 6, 2018

Favorite Reads, 2018

It’s that time of the year again, the end (or near the end), when we readers revisit the books that impacted us, the stories that made us laugh and cry, shake our heads in wonder or bow down in respect. For me, the year’s best were the ones that managed to break through and shake me up. It was a tough year personally, lots of loss, turmoil and change. I spent the first few months of 2018 on a lifeboat, concentrating on breathing and keeping a firm grasp as the waves bucked around me. There were long stretches during which I didn’t read at all. When I finally put my feet on dry land, I realized that although many foundations had been ripped from under me, reading was one I had taken from myself. Because of course books are often the ballast keeping me upright. So my list this year will have a chronological aspect, as I tell you how and why each of these books was like a foothold in a storm.

I finished only 29 books this year. I used to average about a book a week but for the past few tumultuous years, that number has dwindled. This year was particularly low, unsurprisingly. I read 21 novels, 7 short story collections and one memoir. Of note: three of the books were YA novels, research for a project I’m perpetually almost starting; also, two books that didn’t make the best list, Isadora by Amelia Gray and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, have historical inspirations. One book defies all genres perhaps. But here they are, my top five books for 2018, resonating lifesavers one and all.
 In January, I excitedly tore into Deborah Reed’s newest novel, The Days When Birds Come Back (2018). Ms. Reed has been on my end of year list before, in 2014 (and wow, what a year of books that was, now that I’m looking back), and she’s always been a writer whose particular style and sensibilities hit me right in the heart. This novel is my favorite she’s written. It’s the story of June Byrne and Jamison Winters, two protagonists in a holding pattern caused by grief and guilt. This is the story of their meeting, on the Oregon coast where June has hired Jamison to renovate her grandparents’ bungalow. Here’s a bit from my initial review, because I like this part: “She shines a warm light on the profoundness of everyday existence, what the late writer Kent Haruf called ‘the precious ordinary.’ As we follow these characters getting through their days as we all do, we learn more about what they’ve lived through as we experience their coming together at the perfect time, in the perfect place. It seems a sort of miracle, like life itself.” Because I had been in a long state of grief when this novel arrived, and also because Ms. Reed writes like an angel, it moved me profoundly. This book will always hold a dear place in my heart, like a childhood friend.

In March, I attended the Master’s Workshop held at the Tucson Festival of Books every year. I hadn’t been reading (or writing) much, but the days amongst writers, talking about writing, were like a shot in the arm. I took home a couple of books written by one of the workshop leaders, Kevin Canty, and in May, I finally read one. His story collection, Where the Money Went (2009), is a contemplation on love and the loss of it. His characters are heavy with testosterone but also hope, and I think what struck me to the core was the stubborn tendency they all had to pursue tenderness and connection, even when it seemed it would most likely lead to pain and more emptiness. Reviewers have compared Canty’s writing to O’Connor, to Carver, to Banks, and I think the comparisons are quite justified. These are masterful stories.
In July, I cracked open another eagerly-anticipated novel, Kudos (2018), the third in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy. The second, Transit, was my very favorite read of 2017, and the first, Outline, was an honorable mention in 2016. Those of us who worship Cusk’s trilogy—mostly writers I know—have a hard time putting into words just what it is that vibrates us so. As for form, the story is told through the protagonist’s interactions with other people. She is merely an outline; we come to know her as she moves through life. So there’s much to say about form and how it excites us writers because of the newness and possibilities of what Cusk has done. But what makes Kudos and the entire trilogy stand head and shoulders above so many other books, for me, is probably because it traces the journey of a woman who is forging a new reality and identity after loss. It’s about a woman building a new life after a divorce, a mother trying to do right by her children, a person trying to rediscover that lost, innate part of herself that ultimately, can fully embrace life. Yeah. So it was personal for me, unsettling and deeply comforting at the same time. Amazing books.

I think Cusk’s writing cracked me open, reminding me of the foundational joy that I wasn't getting enough of throughout the end of my marriage and loss of my mom—READING, duh!, and in this spirit, I started my Summer of Chabon. I wanted to read immersive novels, to be transported for some good chunks of time, as good novels can do. And my first read, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (1995), did not disappoint. Many people have read (and loved) this book, or maybe you saw the movie, so I won’t go on and on here. Revisit my ravings here, if you’d like. Wonder Boys was also a July read.

My Summer of Chabon had some rocky moments, so I took a breather with Jamel Brinkley’s story collection, A Lucky Man (2018). Like Canty’s stories, the characters in this debut have a decidedly male perspective, for whatever that’s worth. But the writing is crisp, purposeful and wise, never letting go for a moment. Brinkley writes about characters growing up and navigating a world as boys and men of color, dealing with race but mostly, with relationships and the longing and performance they require. Brinkley’s vivid writing in these timely stories stayed with me a long time; it’s a true sign of greatness when a writer can bring you to experiences far outside your own and leave you with a feeling of understanding. If anything, in this #Metoo time, these stories remind us that manhood is a condition to be explored as well, particularly when boys are left adrift.

I’m happy to report that my reading pace has picked up, and I hope to have a longer list to share in 2019. As always, I take notice when people tell me about their very favorite reads of the year, so please feel free to do just that below. And happy reading in the new year!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Where Writers Live

Let me tell you something about writers that you may not know. And by writers, I can only speak for those of us whose main commodity is human emotion. Other writers—those who deal in history, or intricately woven plots, or fantastic, created worlds, or other goods—are certainly appreciated neighbors, but for my purposes today and what I’m going to tell you, I’m speaking of writers whose primary and main obsession is people, and what they think and feel.
We live in houses, all of us. The houses were built by blueprint, or piecemeal, by necessity, and the framework of each is comprised of memories and stories. Note: these two building materials are scarcely discernible from each other most of the time. We can hardly tell them apart ourselves. They’re both strong, though, and keep the roof over our heads. Our houses have windows, of course, but we can only look out. You can try to look in; you can put your face right up to the glass and strain, and you may catch a glimpse of something shadowy, but that’s about it. We like the windows but sometimes forget they are there. In fact, we may shut the blinds for hours, days, weeks at a time. We like the dark in our cozy house. We are fine; don’t worry about us.
You may have noticed that every so often, we swing the windows open, propping each with a piece of wood chiseled from the frame. We let some of the musty air from the house out; we take some of the fresh breeze into our lungs. On special days, sunshine streams into the windows so brightly, we have no choice but to dance. Often we need a period of closed windows after these events.
Next to our houses runs a creek. Yes, next to every house, all of them. The official name for this creek is Melancholia—that’s what it was called long ago when such things were named—but I’ve heard it called Sentiment, Sadness, Sorrow, and many other names starting with other letters too. Our friends and loved ones may whisper “Crazy Creek” to each other, but we know they mean it with love. It’s a gentle creek most of the time. Within our houses, all the time, you can hear the low murmur of rushing water, a sound we usually forget is even there. We like the creek, though, and feel it even when we don’t know we are. On occasion, we confront it straight on. We go outside and get our feet wet, step right in and let the cool water up to our knees, our waists. Sometimes, we lie on our backs and let the water rush over us; we like the way the world looks through this blur of watery movement.
Once in a while, a storm comes, the water rises, and the creek floods into our houses. We’re used to this and in some ways, welcome it. You can still visit during these times. You may not want to, and we understand that too. If you do come by, we’ll welcome you right in but you should be aware that we may be busy rushing from room to room, filling buckets. We may not have time to talk, or much to say. We do appreciate you stopping by though.
Why did we settle in houses next to creeks that flood? You might as well ask why some choose to live in the forest where wild animals dwell, why this old woman prefers the hot desert and that young man the boisterous city. Without the creek, we wouldn’t appreciate dryness nearly as much. Without the creek, we wouldn’t feel connected to people in other houses, next to other creeks, or even to the man in the city, or the woman in the barren desert. We like the creek. We like to rest in our beds at night, hearing its music, imagining its path, surviving its chill. And then we get up and try to remember all of it for those of you in the forests, next to farmland, in high-rises, where perhaps you can’t hear water at all, or have forgotten to listen.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Final Installment, Summer of Chabon: Moonglow

I chose Moonglow as the final novel for my summer of reading only books by Michael Chabon. Dutiful readers of this blog will recall that I took a break to cleanse my palette with some short stories somewhere in late August, but mostly, these four Chabon novels were the only fiction I’ve ingested for the past several months: Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Telegraph Avenue, and Moonglow.
To start. It’s amazing to me how different each of these books were, and how varied my reactions could be to writing by the same author. I suppose experiencing an author’s oeuvre, in broad view, is much like looking at a person’s life: a series of changing influences and expressions, many years divided into sections, one person seemingly many different people at different times.
So. How would you begin to tell the story of a life? What if that life was inextricably tied to yours, while you were growing and changing and becoming new versions of yourself all the time? What if you love the person, and that colors your perspective? What if you’re a writer of fiction by birth, and your world is further colored and texturized by your impulse to create and find meaning? What if the person whose story you want to tell is leaving you, and you must face the abyss that will follow your telling?
This seems to be the task Michael Chabon set for himself with Moonglow, after he spent a week with his dying grandfather, who, in his last days, told many anecdotes from his life. Spending these final moments with his grandfather became the spark for this novel, which reads in many ways like a memoir and which has inspired endless debate as to its genre. People want to know: Which parts are true? Why didn’t he just tell the story from his grandfather’s point of view? How could he possibly know or remember some of those details?
My book club was no different; they had questions. I chose this for our September read and we discussed it last night. Being a writer, I think I have more patience than perhaps others do for matters of genre. I’m usually content to let a book be whatever it is. I don’t really care what a book might be called, and while I was reading Moonglow, I didn’t really care what was true and what wasn’t. I was happy to follow along with whatever Chabon intended. It was full of tender, relatable moments and vivid details that resonated and in the end, it struck me as a work of incredible love, of conscientious reverence, of grudging and precocious creativity. And what memoir is entirely true anyway? We tell our own stories from the limits of our singular viewpoint, perspective and memory, and telling the story of someone else introduces more levels, more gaps, more subjective interpretation.
As for plot, Moonglow unfolds as a narrator, “Mike,” spends time with his grandfather near the end of the old man’s life. The grandfather tells about his time in the war and brushes with the law, his intellectual obsessions, and the complicated marriage he shared with the narrator’s grandmother. If anything, it’s an exercise of speculation, as the narrator expands the stories into realms he cannot have witnessed. The story has a timeline of sorts, but it jumps around in time and place. With this, the book club also took issue. Perhaps in this regard, the novel could be considered a bit messy. But again, I have more patience with that, I think. Life strikes me as a very messy business, not always lining up in an orderly queue of experiences. Even in this occasional haphazardness, I felt the deep chord of truth. What can I say? I got the feels from Moonglow and I found myself thinking about my relatives who have passed and the stories they told, and the pictures and memorabilia that remain, and the deep, deep grooves they left in the road of my life, my story. If I were to try to tell the story of any of them—of my recently-passed mother, say—I think it would be much like this: things she said, things I remember, things I make up in my head. It seems to me all fiction may fall into this very category, one universal genre, and I’ll be thinking about Michael Chabon’s contribution to it for a good, long while.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The More Things Change

Going through our mother’s papers, my sister recently found a copy of this essay, which I wrote in my early twenties, about the experience of meeting my birth family for the first time. Tomorrow is the thirty-year anniversary of the day I called my birth mom and suggested that possibly, she was the young woman who had given me up for adoption at the Holy Family agency in Los Angeles two decades before.
I’ve been blessed in my life with the guidance and support of many admirable women: my grandmothers, each unique in her own way but both strong, loyal and loving, and several wonderful mothers—birth, step, in-law—and above all, my beloved, forever mom, who passed this year and left a gaping hole in my heart.
I tried to shush the editor in me as I retyped this essay (Paragraph breaks! Punctuation! So many long dashes!), but occasionally, I made a small change. But mostly, this is how I wrote it, many years ago. It certainly brings back the feelings of the time and reflects the self-gazing, emotional, young woman/writer I was then. And because this essay was written for a class by a professor who became an important mentor to me, it also brings back that early vulnerability of expressing something personal for others to read and judge. Lastly, it feels true and familiar to the relationship I have now with my own self-gazing, emotional, teenaged daughter. Life circles around, again and again, and once in a while, something reminds us of who we were, who we are, and who we can be.

The More Things Change
I look out the window and know I will always remember Wisconsin in two colors—green and gray. The endless, rolling green hills as we drove, and me wondering how anyone ever got anywhere. The flat, straight freeways of California make more sense—so direct, so fast. This particular day is a collage of gray: the glistening pavement of the runway, the small, metallic airport, the gray, turbulent sky spilling a downpour of cleansing rain. How different this water felt on my face today than the tears from two weeks ago, my last airplane ride. Those were tears heavy with guilt and fear, diluted with sleepiness. My brother drove me to the airport that morning, and he had his important-situation face on, and I felt very grown-up and close to him. It was still dark we drove. I’ve always felt cowardly starting a trip before sunrise; it feels like something sneaky. My mom was up to say goodbye. When she kissed me, then released me from her embrace, I felt pain—from where her collarbone pressed into my chest, and in my heart, where her anxieties passed into me, transformed into guilt.
Although my actual departure from Los Angeles was uneventful (my brother said something about being careful and gave me my second hug of the day—a quick, awkward one that was his trademark), I found myself sobbing in my window seat. I was twenty years old and going to meet the woman who had given birth to me. The thought of it was overwhelming. It was only a couple of weeks before that when I had first heard her voice. It was all so sudden, yet something I had dreamt of for so long. One time, I had a dream I went to Hawaii to find my mother, only to find she had been buried the year before at the base of a volcano. I read a book once about a young woman who was dating an older man who turned out to be her father via sperm donation. That one really had me going for a while. Whenever people tell me I look familiar, my heart leaps with possibility.
I’ve always known I was adopted. I remember feeling special because of it, but also remember wanting so desperately to be like the woman who raised me—read a lot like her, have glasses like hers, wear her clothes. Despite my efforts, resembling my mom turned out to be an unattainable goal. I stand a full five inches taller than her, have medium-0dark skin that tans easily, while she is light-skinned and petite. We look like distant strangers, at best. I always thought how great it would be to have someone who looked like me. That was part of the reason I always wanted to find my birthparents, and as I reached adolescence (those difficult, teen years), the widening gap in the lines of communication between my mom and myself created a new reason. I would just find my “real” mom, and she would understand me.
These past two weeks were a whirlwind, meeting people who met me with curious glances but open arms. As the airplane lifts into the sky to take me back home, my mine, too, is weightless, at last at peace. I know that my birth mom and her husband are still peering into the gray sky, watching me go as suddenly as I exploded into their lives. She turned out to be everything I could have hoped for, my birth mom, and when I hugged her the first time, it was like hugging myself—same height! It turns out most of my features are from my dad, though—I still felt a little incomplete until I met him. My birth mom helped me track him down once I got there. They hadn’t seen each other for, well, over twenty years.
As I met relatives (many, many new relatives), looked into faces that had my eyes, or my nose, and heard stories about how I came about, I felt fully together, whole for the first time in my life. And yet the gnawing guilt for my own joy continued—for I knew my mom at home was anxious about this trip, wondering what place she would have upon my return.
I started to realize that mixed with the guilt was homesickness, and instead of regretting what never was, my soul was leaping with happiness for the course my life had taken. How very lucky I am to have been cared for by this wonderful woman, my “real” mom. It was she who helped me and supported me to find my birthparents, driving down to meetings one Saturday a month, probably in an effort to get closer to me. So now, on this, my flight back home, I think of all those fights we’ve had—all wasted time. These new relatives I’ve met will always be a part of my life, but never a replacement. These feelings and thoughts rush around inside me and as the plane descends into Los Angeles—bright, sunny, yellow and blue California—I can hardly keep in my seat for the gladness. Things will be different with mom and me—we share so much history, she introduced me to life. We come to a stop and I stand in the aisle, flexing my leg muscles. The people are moving so slowly. “Out of my way!” I feel like shouting, “My family’s out there!” Peering over the heads in the boarding tunnel. I look for her. There are things I can’t explain, like how quickly I picked up the Midwestern accent from my birth mom, even in that first telephone conversation, as if my mouth was formed specifically for it, or how we use the same hand and facial expressions when speaking. But I can explain why I know what I know—because my mom made sure I was educated—and where I got my ideals and morals, from her.
Finally I see her, looking nervous and tired. I hug her, quickly, then complain about the hot weather.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Summer of Chabon Update: Two Books in One Post

I’d like to begin this post by reminding readers how much I LOVED The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. This is an incredible novel! Buy it! Read it! Also, I enjoyed The Mysteries of Pittsburgh very much and if you recall from my most recent post, Wonder Boys fulfilled every hope I had for a summer of immersive novels.
So. I didn’t like the The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Reading it was arduous for me, an exercise in will but not the free kind. Every moment felt like I was in a very loud restaurant, trying desperately to hear what the waiter was saying. The prose was like a thick stew spanning a creek; I couldn’t see the water. And I read this book on vacation! We were at the beach one day, and several young men were playing soccer on the sand before us. One of them was a bit older, blonde curly hair and slight paunch, and he had taken to the role of coach, barking out plays and in a slightly condescending way, encouraging effort from the members of the recently-formed teams. My daughter looked at him and said to me “He’s a try hard.” And I got what she meant, and I looked down at this book.
Listen, I feel badly about it, but Michael Chabon doesn’t need my support for this novel; it did quite well. So I moved on to Telegraph Avenue. And I have to tell you, the first several chapters had me worried. But maybe thirty pages in, the novel started to open up for me and I enjoyed most of the rest. Sure, at times I had to come up for air and resolutely dive back into the stew with rededicated focus, but in the final analysis, the characters kept me coming back. If you’re interested in such things, on a five-star scale, I’d give Telegraph Avenue a 3.5. I'm not doing a plot-based review of either of these, because you can find tons online for both books.
And now I’m feeling the pull back to short stories, so I’ll be taking a break to read a collection everyone’s been talking about (Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man and I’m sorry! I have to! I miss stories!!), then I’ll be back to Chabon action with the final book of my summer challenge, Moonglow. In the meantime, if you’re riding the Chabon train with me and might be interested in the author’s favorite reads (spoiler: lots of classics by men), here you go: Michael Chabon's Top Ten List.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka