Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín

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Newly widowed Nora doesn’t want to answer her door. In the Irish town of Wexford in the middle of the 20th century, it is customary for people to stop by the home of someone in mourning in the evening. Without phones there’s no way to call first to see if they are welcome, so they just come and knock on the door.

Despite her yearning to be alone, Nora always opens the door. To a neighbor who commiserates with her, she says, “‘They mean well. People mean well.’”

Bound by convention, missing her husband’s steady presence, Nora must begin making her own choices. As the sole support for her four children, she is first confronted with financial decisions. Later she has to contend with emotional issues as her two young sons come to terms with their own grief. Their two older sisters are away at school.

Nora’s a fascinating character. She does not seem to be close to anyone, now that Maurice is gone. Though she says at one point that she never loved her mother, she’d expected at some point they would find a place to meet. However, it hadn’t happened before her mother has passed away. Nora is not interested in being with her two sisters and aunt, though she and they make the customary visits.

She is not even close to her children, thinking at one point “that she had never before put a single thought into whether they were happy or not, or tried to guess what they were thinking.”

She seems to hold herself at the same distance. Practical, focused on the everyday things that must be done, she barely touches the fringes of introspection. The reader, too, is held at a slight distance from her. Tóibín uses a close third person point of view, telling the story through Nora’s eyes, but her lack of self-analysis leaves us as much in the dark as she is. We hear her think one thing and then see her do the opposite, and have to assume that she is giving in to convention again or to what another person wants her to do.

When we discussed this novel in my book club, one person pointed out that much of the drama in this quiet book came from the space between Nora’s thoughts and her actions. Whether you call it drama or conflict or tension, I think that this analysis is accurate.

I called it a quiet book, though things large and small happen, and there are plenty of emotional upheavals. Another book club member praised the way political events of the time were woven into the story, giving it additional depth and universality.

In the end, though, what we all liked about this book was the close look at an ordinary life, one of the reasons we like Anne Tyler’s novels as well. A master storyteller like Tóibín can make us care about a single, ordinary individual. He can find the value in that life and as a result help us understand more about ourselves and our own lives.

In the first chapter, a neighbor Mrs. Lacey mentions her daughter. Ellis Lacey is the young woman whose story is told in Tóibín’s best-seller Brooklyn, recently made into a film. What did you think of that story? How do you think it compares with this one?

Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels

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Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. Although I live in the mid-Atlantic, we share the same type of forest as southern New England, one of seven types in the U.S. Ours is called the Central Forest. There are differences, but the trees I see from my porch are those I saw in Massachusetts: oak, maple, white pine, honey locust, maple, ash. We also have sweet gum and black walnut, which are not found up north, or at least not yet.

This is not a tree identification book, however. It’s more like a magic decoder ring. It gives the information you need to look at a patch of woods and make a pretty good guess at what it looked like 100 years ago and what has occurred to disturb it in the meantime.

Wessels sets up each chapter as a mystery, starting with an etching of a forest by Brian D. Cohen and then pulls out the clues that tell us what has happened there. Was it once a pasture or farm that was left to reforest itself? Has it been logged, and if so, how many times? Has there been a hurricane or a forest fire? Have they been affected by blight? What do the trees tell us about the soil and topography?

At the end of most chapters, he takes a look back at the historical context of the disturbance. For example, in precolonial New England, Native Americans used fire as a forest management tool. They burned the litter on the ground and low-growing vegetation to control insects and make it easier to move silently. “These precolonial, fire-managed woodlands looked dramatically different from New England’s present forests. They were parklike, with massive hardwoods creating a canopy over forest floors carpeted with grasses and berry bushes.”

However, the diseases brought by settlers decimated the Native American population, whose knowledge was then lost. “Within fifty years of the landing at Plymouth Rock, the Native American, fire-managed ecosystems of southern New England became a memory,” replaced by the dense, almost impenetrable forest that I see from my porch.

There are also fascinating nuggets buried in this irresistibly engaging book. For example, in the last major gypsy moth outbreak in central New England in the summer of 1981, scientists found that “the oak trees not yet attacked by the gypsy moth larvae changed their leaf chemistry, apparently in anticipation of the approaching insects.” The trees were communicating with each other using an airborne chemical message (jasmonic acid).

This discovery reminds me of another book I’ve heard of but not yet read: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben. A German forest ranger, Wohlleben explains that trees are social beings, working together in networks and sharing resources. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

Now when I stand on the porch, I can read the history of the trees in front of me. More than that, I’m aware that what I see are not the separate individual trees I’ve always thought them, but rather a community. These trees are talking to each other in ways that I cannot decipher.

What book has changed your view of the natural world?

The Likeness, by Tana French

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In this second mystery from Tana French, the murder of a young woman drops like a stone into the world of her four friends, and of the detectives investigating it. Ripples spread, unsettling all of their lives and certainties and waking deeper currents.

I read this book and French’s earlier one, In the Woods, a few years ago, long enough ago that the details have faded but my memory of liking them hadn’t. That made them a good choice for listening to in the car on a couple of long trips: the story would come back to me enough that I wouldn’t have to concentrate hard to follow it but I could enjoy again the writing I loved.

The first person point of view makes these two books especially vivid. In the Woods is narrated by Rob Ryan, a detective in the Dublin murder squad. With The Likeness, his former partner Cassie Maddox, who has moved to the Domestic Violence unit, is pulled back and plunged almost against her will into investigating the death of Lexie Maddox, found stabbed in a remote cottage.

Frank Mackey, her boss from when she worked underground, back before the murder squad, persuades Cassie to impersonate the dead woman. The two young women look almost exactly alike, rare enough, but even more astonishing is that the dead woman had assumed the identity of Lexie Maddox, one of Cassie’s undercover identities. Mackie tells Lexie’s four friends that she survived and then sends Cassie in to live among them, to see if she can identify a suspect.

This is the part I loved. The five of them, PhD students at Trinity, live in a dilapidated country mansion which Daniel has inherited. He and Abby, Rafe, Justin, and Lexie are completely self-sufficient socially, a tight unit: innocently playful and sweet together, they become an armored phalanx among strangers.

Even just driving up to the house and seeing them on the steps Cassie is thoroughly charmed, in the deeper sense of being almost under a spell. It all seems so familiar. And the golden weeks that follow—working on the house together, dancing to Abby’s singing, reading and talking in the evenings—tempt Cassie with their promise of a different life. I was reminded of the beginning of Brideshead Revisited when Charles Ryder falls in love with Sebastian’s life. French captures so well the fun of being part of a tight group of friends, when you’re young and it’s all happening for the first time and everything seems unbearably sweet.

Even as Cassie slips more deeply into their easy camaraderie, though, she is looking for anything that might point to a suspect. She explores the local folks’ hatred for the house’s inhabitants and Daniel’s cousin’s frustration over not inheriting the house himself. She begins to see cracks in the family. She hears secrets whispered at night, notices Justin’s mounting fears and Rafe’s increased drinking.

There are plenty of questions to keep my mind buzzing, not just the big ones of who killed Lexie and why, but questions about each of the four friends, about why Lexie needed a new identity, about Mackey’s intentions and what Cassie herself will choose to do at each turn.

And the story is hauntingly beautiful at times, such as when we are drawn into the world these friends have created, their hour of splendour in the grass. There is much here about innocence and responsibility and the desire for freedom that can sometimes drown out everything else. And Cassie, with her strong moral code, her chameleon-like abilities, and her doubts and temptations makes an excellent traveling companion.

What books do you like to listen to in the car?

A Thousand Resurrections: An Urban Spiritual Journey, by Maria Garriott

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In 1980 a pair of newlyweds, fresh out of college, left the suburbs to begin an urban ministry in a blighted neighborhood in Baltimore. Naive and earnest, already expecting a child, they wanted to bring hope to at least a corner of this city where great wealth and great poverty existed side by side.

I, too, moved to Baltimore in 1980, moved back, despite my vows never to return after leaving in 1968, the year Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were killed, the year Baltimore erupted in riots whose wounds have still not healed. I couldn’t bear the racism, some overt, some more subtle, much of it structured into the way the city worked.

I ended up living just a few blocks from the Garriotts, though I didn’t know it then. Although I’d grown up in a prosperous neighborhood, I’d spent many of the intervening years as a single parent on welfare, finding my footing in a world that was foreign to me.

Maria writes movingly of her journey, which was similar to mine: coping with culture shock and learning to find the value in everyone, even the people we’d been taught to despise, while resisting the temptation to sentimentalise the poor. The house they bought had several apartments, which left them sometimes sharing a home with addicts and prostitutes, and people who heard voices. They struggled to find funding to support their work.

Everywhere we turned we saw needs: children lacking supervision and healthy activities after school; youths standing idle for want of jobs and job training, dropouts needing tutoring and G.E.D. classes; teenage mothers desperate for mentoring to break the cycle of poverty; drug addicts waiting months for scarce treatment slots.

What makes this memoir so important is its honesty. If you really want to know what life is like in a struggling urban neighborhood, this book is for you. You can’t rely on television dramas or news reports to tell you about that life; it is both better and worse than you think. Maria’s story is not a dewy-eyed romantic picture of helping the poor but rather a hard look at the day-to-day reality of living according to your beliefs.

Maria writes openly of the struggles she and her husband faced living in and ministering to a mostly African-American community. They were questioned by others, yes, but even more by themselves, always wondering if an African-American pastor would be better able to serve the community, welcoming recruits of all ethnicities and ages.

Maria shares the stories of many of these people: neighbors, members of the church, volunteers who helped with the ministry. She writes movingly of many of them, such as Steve Stahl who lived in one of their apartments, participated in their church, and suffered from schizophrenia and depression.

Even more strikingly, Maria shares her worries about the effect on her five children, growing up in such a neighborhood, being the only white children in school, watching their childhood friends die from guns or drugs.

I remember the earnest people I knew in college, who started and participated in programs to help those in poverty, both here and abroad. I also remember living in poverty myself and learning to tell who can help and who can’t. It is obvious that the Garriotts have made a difference, not just to the members of their church, but also to their neighborhood. Many of us have thoughts of helping others, but few truly live their beliefs as the Garriotts have.

Maria’s path is only one of many. There are lots of ways to make a difference. It doesn’t have to be a church. It can be working at a food kitchen or teaching poetry in prisons, mentoring a troubled youth or teaching in an urban school. It helps us all to learn about those who are doing such things. These stories remind us that there is good in the world and we can help to make it happen.

What true stories have you read that have inspired you?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Terese Svoboda

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How could I have never heard of Lola Ridge before? A central figure in Modernist poetry, she seemed to know everyone: from Robert Frost to Amy Lowell to H.D. Praised by people like Stephen Vincent Benét and Louis Untermeyer, she was considered one of the top American poets. Her fiery poems describe the real life of immigrants and others struggling to get by. A lifelong anarchist, she was devoted to the ideal of personal and artistic freedom. She worked for years with Emma Goldman and participated in many political protests, including the outcry against the Sacco and Vanzetti executions and the railroading of Tom Mooney.

I have become accustomed to the way once-popular artists and activists disappear from the cultural consciousness. I have heard the argument that the guardians of the Western canon needs to let go of the belief that only white men can write lasting literature, and add more women and minorities (and new majorities!). I’ve shaken my head at the way hysteria around World War II and McCarthy’s reprehensible anti-Communist tactics attempted to wipe out the memory of the social reformers, labor activists, anarchists, socialists and, yes, communists who were active in the first half of the 20th century. But I’m still surprised that I’d never heard of such a prominent figure.

This biography rescues Ridge from history’s dustbin. Svoboda embeds us in her life, from her birth in Dublin in 1873 through emigration to New Zealand as a child, then to Australia, and finally to the U.S. in 1907 where she mainly lived in New York City. Her travels didn’t stop there though. Always on the edge of bankruptcy and starvation, she scrounged money for trips to Mexico, Baghdad, Taos, and California. She was awarded residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony.

And always she wrote poetry. By including so many poems and fragments of poems, Svoboda give us what is truly a writer’s story: Ridge’s experiences and convictions drive her fierce work that captures the lives of the poor and disadvantaged, the dreams that possess them and the forces that beat them down. Here is a poem from her first collection The Ghetto and Other Poems:

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I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls—
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house.

Described as fragile and intense, Ridge often invoked images of fire in her work. She went on to publish three more collections, each more popular than the last. She won awards like the Guggenheim, and edited the avant-garde magazines Others and Broom, as well as Margaret Sanger’s magazine on birth control. While editing Others and afterwards, she hosted weekly soirées in her one-room apartment to discuss art and freedom. These lively gatherings drew famous and not-so-famous writers and artists and activists, including William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Alfred Kreymborg, Mitchell Dawson, Jean Toomer, John Reed, Louise Bryant, and Evelyn Scott.

The New Critics, who rose to ascendancy during WWII and afterwards, insisted that poetry should not be political in any way and claimed that women, with their overactive emotions and weak intellect, were unsuited for writing anything but love poetry. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Ridge’s poetry, so famous in her lifetime, sank into obscurity after her death in 1941. Svoboda compares the way Ridge’s influence on Crane and others has been lost to the way few today know of how TS Eliot drew on Hope Mirrlees’s Modernist masterpiece Paris while writing The Waste Land.

I hope that Svoboda’s biography helps to bring her back into the light.

What early 20th century poet fires your imagination?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Best books I read in 2015

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the twelve best books I read in 2015. Although I read much fiction, I’m a bit surprised to see how many of the books I’ve selected are nonfiction. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Essays by Jane Hirshfield

The nine essays in this book contain much depth and beauty. In them, Hirschfield explores the magic of poetry, pulling back the curtain to show what makes some poems work. Her insights leave space for the imagination, equally inspiring for poetry readers and those who write.

2. A Map of Glass, by Jane Urquhart

Within this absorbing story of Sylvia and Jerome and Andrew lies a profound meditation on love and memory and geography and change. I was deeply moved by this story and came to a new understanding and acceptance of losses that still haunt my dreams.

3. Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set among a motley group of people living on barges on the Battersea Reach of the Thames, this Booker Prize-winning novel follows Nenna, a woman struggling to make a home for her two young daughters. This image of being neither on land nor at sea underpins the lives of the people on the barges. All of them live in the littoral, hanging onto the edge of survival. Fitzgerald is often quite funny, her humor coming from the absurdity of life’s situations and some of its people. However, rather than satirising them, she treats them with compassion and respect.

4. Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick

Gornick’s highly praised memoir, Fierce Attachments, explores her relationship with her mother. In the introduction Jonathan Lethem calls the book “mad” and “brilliant”, but it is more than that. The story of these two women, and the other men and women drawn into their orbit, drives forward with an intensity and, yes, ferocity that I’ve rarely encountered.

5. Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain

I’ve read a lot about the Great War: poetry, history, memoirs. What I hadn’t thought much about are the women. The land girls, yes, and the misguided women handing out white feathers, but not about the nurses or the women waiting for the next letter from the front and anxiously scanning the lists of the dead. Vera Brittain’s brilliant memoir fills that gap. Written in the early 1930s, she describes the horrors that stunned her “cursed generation” in a calm yet unforgiving voice, the voice of the sternly practical and compassionate nurse she became.

6. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee

In this rich and readable biography, Hermione Lee gives us not just Fitzgerald’s story, but also a discerning evaluation of her work. By giving us the events and people that shaped and influenced Fitzgerald as a writer, this remarkable biography sheds new light on Fitzgerald’s novels. Plus I love that it sent me back to read all the novels again.

7. A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

My book club rarely comes up with a unanimous verdict on a book, but we all loved this book by Anne Tyler, as we have loved other of her books we’ve read. It’s not just because she writes about Baltimore, and specifically the part of Baltimore we are most familiar with. I think the quality that we love in Tyler’s novels is her ability to give us people who, with all their quirks and flaws, yearn for something better and have faith that they can get there, people whose stories play out in families so true that we recognise them immediately.

8. On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee

Set in a future version of Baltimore, called B-Mor, Lee’s latest novel represents a logical outcome of the tensions currently tearing the city apart. We have the story of the B-Mor community and we have the story of one young woman, Fan, who leaves B-Mor in search of her boyfriend, Reg, who has disappeared, apparently removed by the powers that be for their own purposes.

9. Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith

Sometimes you want a big, fat novel; sometimes you want a small, quiet one. Only 112 short pages, Smith’s novel follows a young woman during a single day. Twenty-something Isabel is many things: a thrift-store aficionado, a librarian who repairs damaged books, a child of divorced parents, a resident of Portland, Oregon. But most of all she is a person whose imagination is both deep and wide.

10. Maps for Lost Lovers, by Nadeem Aslam

The rich, luxuriant writing in this novel felt like lowering myself into a hot perfumed bath after a long but rewarding day. Poetic doesn’t begin to describe the fragrant mass of images and sense-impressions that fill every sentence. Aslam’s personification of the natural world adds to the atmosphere of mystery, of legends handed down through the generations. Aslam presents his characters with compassion, gently asking the reader to recognise the reasons they act as they do. And he wraps the story, with its many pairs of lost lovers, in the beauty of the world in all its flavors and in the intoxication and deep comfort of love.

11. I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman

I’ve long been a fan of Howard Norman’s novels and memoirs. I especially enjoy the way he conveys the magic of ordinary moments. Reading this memoir is like listening to my best friend tell me stories. Most of us, especially in our later years, feel the need to discover or construct the narrative of our lives. Norman shows us a way to piece the past together without forcing it into an artificial pattern.

12. The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer

Moehringer describes how, growing up without a father, he finds a refuge with men who hang out at Dickens, the local bar, where Moehringer’s Uncle Charlie is a bartender. As we get to know them, each one stands out in brilliant eccentricity coupled with a deep, if flawed, humanity. Moehringer treats them with the tender dignity that Anne Tyler so reliably employs with her misfits and oddballs. His great achievement is making these men with their beer bellies and balding heads, their drinking and gambling, their apparent aimlessness (beyond getting drunk and having a good time) into heroes.

What were the best books you read last year?

The Opposing Shore, by Julien Gracq

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There’s an ongoing debate among book folks about literary versus genre fiction. Some people complain that literary fiction indulges a love of language at the expense of plot, leading to boring tomes with beautiful sentences and striking imagery but where nothing happens. Others complain that genre fiction is mindless entertainment, bound by strict genre rules, with little intelligent content.

Still others—people like me—really only want stories. Lists of books I’ve loved inevitably include both literary and genre fiction. I’ve loved books from most genres, primarily mystery, science fiction and fantasy. And I’ve loved plenty of literary novels, yes, even Henry James and William Faulkner with their sentences that go on forever.

My favorite books are set apart by their absorbing stories. What makes a story absorbing? As you can probably guess, the answer touches the basic elements of fiction: complex characters, good plot structure, a pleasing facility with language, and a well-integrated theme. I’ll abandon literary novels with gorgeous language but no plot just as fast as a genre novel with one-dimensional characters.

But there are exceptions.

Oh, there is a plot in Gracq’s award-winning novel. Aldo, scion of an elite family lives a life of heedless pleasure in the capital of the mythical island nation of Orsenna. The ancient culture has grown stale and tired, silted up with now-empty rituals. The aristocrats who run the nation are just going through the motions that previous generations have formalised. Years of peace and plenty mean that only the elderly attain posts in the government, leaving young people little to do once they finish school.

Aldo’s hedonistic lifestyle is interrupted by a call to do his military service. He is sent to the ancient outpost of Syrtes as an observer. He finds a rundown naval base where the handful of officers spend their days hunting and the soldiers are rented out to nearby farmers. Although Syrtes is the first defense against Farghestan, the country on the mainland with whom Orsenna has been at war for three hundred years, the war has been dormant for so long that it seems only a rumor from the past.

Plunged into this damp miasma of empty days where everyone goes through the ancient rituals without believing that they are needed anymore, Aldo catches glimpses of ancient glory. And, as the observer, he begins to hear whispers. Strange encounters start to build a sense of impending action, action that calls to the young Aldo, whose impatience to do something, anything, is growing.

Marino, who commands the base, tells him, “‘Like you, I used to think something extraordinary had to happen to me. I believed it was my fate. You’ll grow old, just as I have, Aldo, and you’ll understand. Extraordinary things don’t happen. Nothing happens.’”

It’s an unusual and intriguing theme: transgression, even destruction, as a way of breaking out of stasis, a way to finally feel alive and that your life has meaning.

I should have been dismayed by how slowly this story, told through Aldo’s consciousness, develops. The inertia confining him and his culture is reflected in the story’s pace. It only begins to disperse further in. Yet far from being bored, I was captivated. Why? Because of the language.

Gracq’s sentences are packed with fresh and startling images that made me gasp with recognition and pleasure. The sometimes dense paragraphs reward close attention by vividly bringing to life not just the physical environment, but the feel of the place, as well as the twists and turns of Aldo’s thoughts and emotions and understanding. I felt that I lived this story, with an intensity I’ve rarely experienced.

Although published in 1986, the story has much to say to our current Western culture, where entertainment has pushed aside information in much of our media, as well as in other present-day cultures where young people are pushing aside the shell of the past and struggling to remake their worlds, for better or worse.

What book are you ending the year with?

Father Christmas, by Raymond Briggs

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My young friend brought this award-winning children’s book along on a recent overnight at my house. I hadn’t heard of it before and, reading it aloud at bedtime, was thoroughly enchanted.

In the format of a graphic novel, the story follows Father Christmas through his most demanding day: December 24. There are no elven worker bees, no Rudolph, no North Pole. Instead we have a seemingly ordinary man waking from a dream of sunning himself on a beach to find that it’s Christmas Eve. No wonder he’s rather grumpy!

We follow him through his morning chores: putting the kettle on, collecting eggs, bathing. The detail in the pictures is quite incredible; I had to hold back my friend’s quick fingers to give me time to glory in them. The houses Father Christmas visits with his sleigh and two reindeer are quite extraordinary: from a camper to an apartment to a glorious manor house and even, well, I don’t want to give it away.

Just an ordinary man doing a job of work. He grumbles a bit, but finally is able to go home and cook his Christmas dinner and pudding. Under all that grumbling is a sweetheart who takes good care of his reindeer and even pulls out presents for his cat and dog.

I love this book. Most of us want to work at jobs that are meaningful, that in some way benefit others. We can’t all dispense a sleigh-full of presents, but we can give a few toys to a charity like Toys for Tots or donate time or money to a food bank or kitchen. We can find a way in even the most menial jobs (and I’ve held some of the lowliest) to make someone else’s burden a little lighter. We can pay forward the gifts that we’ve been given. Then we can go home and put our feet up, maybe with a cat on our lap or a dog keeping our feet warm, and know that we’ve made a difference.

Happy holidays to all.

Playlist 2015

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Songs, whether vocal or instrumental, are stories too. And sometimes poetry. I listen to a lot of classical music and–when I want calm and comfort–to Keith Jarrett’s The Melody at Night, with You. The playlist below filled the rest of my musical hours; they are the songs I kept coming back to this year. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Desperado, Johnny Cash
Marching Through Georgia Lament, Jacqueline Schwab
Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier, Jacqueline Schwab
And Am I Born To Die, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
New South Africa, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Bitter Boy, Kate Rusby
Times A-Getting Hard, Happy Traum
Shebeg An Sheemor, Happy Traum
Gypsy Davey, Happy Traum
Sail Away Ladies/A Roof for the Rain/Snake River Reel, Ken Kolodner & Brad Kolodner
Black Jack David, Sweet Felons All
Raggle Taggle Gypsies, Sweet Felons All
Cornish Lads, Sweet Felons All
Adieu Adieu, Sweet Felons All
The Star Of The County Down, Walt Michael & Company
Ruins by the Shore, The Paul McKenna Band
Flying Through Flanders, The Paul McKenna Band
Slängpolskor, Lydia & Andrea
Schottis till Tom, Lydia & Andrea
Sweet Thames Flow Softly, Ian Robb

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I also have to add that I’ve been listening to Ryland Angel’s mostly a capella Christmas CD The New Voice of Christmas. His voice is quite lovely–I should say all his voices, since he sings multiple parts. What a range! I especially like an old favorite: In the Bleak Midwinter, and a hymn new to me: Be Thou My Vision.

What music have you been listening to?

At the Center, by Dorothy Van Soest

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In this electrifying mystery, Anthony Little Eagle is placed in a foster home. Two days later he is dead. The police think it’s a tragic accident, but Sylvia Jensen isn’t convinced. As the foster care supervisor, Sylvia ignores pressure from her manager to accept the accident ruling; she thinks they are placing the reputation of the child welfare office above concern for Anthony.

The only other person investigating the death is J.B. Harrell, a reporter. He has little faith in Sylvia’s motives or determination. A sixty-year-old white woman with a grey ponytail, a beaded necklace, and a problem with alcohol, Sylvia knows she is on dangerous ground. She is deeply engaged with the tribal communities, through her work but also her sympathies. Yet, at the same time, she fears being seen as a wanna-be Indian, a New Ager cherry-picking another culture. Harrell picks up on her ambivalence and guilt.

Woven in with the story of Anthony’s death and Sylvia’s pursuit of the truth is another story, of a Native American child fostered by a white couple for seven years. Mary struggles with discrimination against her son and lives in terror that he will be taken away from her.

As a former welfare mother, I’ve seen social workers from the other side of the desk. Most are compassionate, but some treat their clients as mentally or morally deficient. All are burnt-out by huge caseloads and funding cuts. Sylvia Jensen’s compassion is tempered by her knowledge of the system, its strengths and its faults. The author captures the realities and sometimes contradictory agendas of a child welfare office.

As she should. In addition to being a writer, Dorothy van Soest is a social worker, political and community activist, as well as a retired professor and university dean who holds an undergraduate degree in English literature and a Masters and Ph.D. in Social Work. She brings a comprehensive knowledge of the foster care system, adoption, and tribal culture to give depth and detail to this fascinating story. Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Dorothy.

I read a lot of mysteries and thoroughly enjoyed this one. While Sylvia and Harrell’s investigation into Anthony’s death captured my attention, and Mary and her son my concern, what I most liked was the glimpse into a world unfamiliar to me: the liminal space where Native Americans interact with white people. I’ve read Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, but this novel gives a different perspective.

I also appreciated the multi-faceted depiction of the different forces competing over the fate of a vulnerable child. Even when all involved have the best intentions, a solution may not be easy to find. We are but human, and every system has flaws. To me, the hope comes in seeing characters such as Sylvia and Harrell rise above their own weaknesses to try to do good in the world.

What book have you read recently that gave you hope?