The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez

The friend

Nunez’s new novel, winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is a quiet and intelligent story of friendship, love and despair, tackling the questions most of us wrestle with at various times in our lives: Should I change my life? Is it worth going on as I have?

In examining these issues, the narrator addresses her longtime friend, a fellow writer and English professor, who has recently committed suicide. Closer than lovers, with a friendship more lasting than any marriage, the two had known each other for years.

He had been her own teacher once, a man who believed teaching to be essentially an erotic relationship, and in those days charmed his students into falling for him, drawing on his female students for one of his three wives and multiple lovers over the years. But he had grown old. Now physically unattractive, his student conquests no longer loved him, but relished the power of taming their teacher.

The narrator too is appalled by much of the younger generation she is teaching, though for different, more intellectual reasons.

She ranges over a variety of subjects, bringing in literary anecdotes and references—making it a joy for a fellow reader. But every idea she takes up is ultimately related to learning to live with loss. Already isolated by choice—unmarried and most often solitary—she is tempted by her pain to move even further away from the world.

The external problem she faces is her friend’s dog, a Great Dane. Wife Three, the final one, insists that he wanted the narrator to take the dog after his death, even though he’d never mentioned it to her. The narrator, a cat person living in a tiny, rent-controlled, NYC apartment where pets are not allowed, is horrified.

Yet she takes him. And a relationship grows between the two. The dog, renamed Apollo by the dead man, becomes one of the strongest characters in the book. Yet grief looms here as well, for the dog is already close to the end of its brief life span.

Obviously this book will appeal to anyone who has given their heart to an animal companion. For those, like me, who enjoy animal company without necessarily having an intimate relationship with them, will enjoy the intelligent conversation, the insight into the world of writers and of teaching at the college level. And everyone will enjoy the humor that leavens the narrator’s sometimes gloomy subjects.

It is the narrator’s voice that carries this story. In a dry, unsentimental tone and using straight-forward language, she investigates the most dire, emotional problems we face. How are we to live? What makes it worth going on? What do we leave behind?

The only time the tone falters, for me, is when the author briefly plays a bit of a game with the reader. But that aside, this is a remarkable book, unlike anything you’ve likely read before.

Have you read a quiet novel that surprised you with its power?

Questions for Ada, by Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Questions for ada

My friend Audrey recommended this extraordinary collection of poems. Umebinyuo’s first book has received lots of well-deserved praise for its passion and openness. You can read individual quotes online, but reading the book as a whole is a different experience altogether.

She writes of love and brutality and pain in the lives of women and of men, too. Yet each poem tells us that we can still rise. Umebinyuo is the sister, the best friend, who knows all our secrets and encourages us to go on. In “Poem No. 1” she tells us:

I did not know
the bodies of women
were meant to be
a museum of tragedies,
as if we were meant to carry the ocean
without drowning

Yet she understands that we are:

. . . imperfect daughters
still trying each day
not to call themselves failures

you are here. you are becoming.
isn’t that enough?

The emotion in even the shortest of these poems is astonishing. Many of the poems are direct, some even telling a story. Others are more oblique, such as “Maternity” told through the eyes of a child, watching the shadows of her mother and auntie.

Her sometimes surprising images, such as women carrying the ocean without drowning quoted above, stir my imagination. And this, from “Obioma”:

Your father came back
a soldier from peacekeeping
with a calloused heart
left somewhere between Sierra Leone and Liberia;
he says war grinds pain into souls.

One night,
you saw him talking speaking to himself
screaming his anger,
eating the moon for dinner.

I am especially moved by her evocation of the immigrant experience, from the brief but powerful “Diaspora Blues” to the song of praise in “First Generation” which begins:

Here’s to the security guards who maybe had a degree in another land. Here’s to the manicurist who had to leave her family to come here, painting the nails, scrubbing the feet of strangers.

Umebinyuo’s poems give us the courage to go on. She tells us to care for ourselves, as in “The Clinic”: “Write yourself a love poem, / welcome yourself home. Even amid the sorrow and grief, she looks for celebration, as here, from “Morning Liturgy”:

I want to write about
women who scream with joy.
at the sight of you
dancing for joy
at your arrival
I want to write about
women who pray for me
in a language so beautiful
english will bow.

I look forward to see what else she will write as she grows as a poet while continuing to bring her ability to plumb the depths of emotion that flood our lives.

Have you discovered a new poet—or poet new to you—whom you recommend?

Borderlines, by Archer Mayor

borderlines-1

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I like mysteries. Their literary quality is often outstanding, and I always love a good puzzle. This second book in Archer Mayor’s series featuring Joe Gunther hits every mark, making it one of the best police procedurals I’ve read.

Gunther, a policeman in Brattleboro, Vermont, has been seconded to the State’s Attorney at the opposite end of the state. Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is an isolated, rural area far from the state’s scenic mountains and tourist destinations, and depressed economically, even in 1990 when this novel came out.

He’s familiar with the area, having spent childhood summers here with his aunt and uncle. He’s looking forward to time with his now-widowed Uncle Buster, whose benevolent support he could use as he wrestles with questions regarding both work and love.

In the gripping opening scene, Gunther’s journey is interrupted by an illegal shot, but he is quickly reminded that his authority as a law enforcement officer is limited in the Northeast Kingdom, which is “populated by people who had chosen to put their independence and wariness of the rest of the world above the hardships of living here.”

The pace doesn’t let up, as Gunther arrives in Gannet, the small village of his childhood summers. Ramshackle and rundown, the town allowed half of its building to be bought up by an intentional community, seen by some as a cult. Tensions between the Order and the town have grown, only to explode when a couple from Massachusetts arrives to rescue their daughter. The tension is nicely modulated, with plenty of scenes of Gunther sitting on a step with a childhood friend, walking with his uncle, or phoning his girlfriend to vary the suspense before building to a satisfying climax.

What’s best here is Gunther himself. With this character Mayor finds just the right balance of thought and action. Gunther’s quiet, unassuming voice sets him apart from sometimes brash or bragging detectives. Though there’s not a lot of soul-searching, he’s quick to acknowledge his own mistakes. We’re given all we need to perceive his sorrow at the way the village and its people have deteriorated. The loss of his childhood refuge provides shading to Julie’s story, the young woman whose parents have come to steal her from the cult.

There is one twist that seemed to come almost out of nowhere. Mystery writers have the daunting task of planting enough clues to significant plot twists so that readers think Oh, of course! Why didn’t I see that? while not so many that we guess it too soon. Mayor did an excellent job of preparing for all the plot twists here, save one, noticeable only because of the superb plotting everywhere else.

In talking about the elements in fiction, plot and character are the stars. Increasingly, though, I find myself drawn to novels in which the setting is richly evoked and becomes almost another character. Mayor does that here, brilliantly. The environment he evokes helps us anticipate and understand the people in this story, all brought to life, no matter how small their role. It also charges the mood of the story.

When I was younger, the Kingdom had been much as the name implies – a magical other world, removed from the mainstream and endowed with a specialness in the minds of those who knew of it. Its topography, both rugged and cursive, could reject and embrace, kill and nurture. It was a place where land and weather ruled, where the beauty came less from the majestic mountain views found further south, and more from the perpetual surprises that lurked behind the low, ever-present hills. Even at its harshest, the Kingdom was seductive, as when its omnipotent sky darkened with boiling blue-black clouds, low slung and pregnant with threat.

Its people, like those of Gannet, clung to this mercurial terrain mostly out of choice . . . They were independent, self-supporting, proud, and generally uninterested in what was happening outside of their boundaries . . . But, obviously, the fabric of the Kingdom had begun to strain and yield.

Even now, several decades after publication, this book is a valuable resource if you want to understand the crumbling lives of the rural poor. Mayor’s insight into his fellow Vermonters is demonstrated on every page. As death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and formerly a detective and volunteer firefighter, Mayor brings the authority of real-world experience to this spellbinding tale.

Have you read one of Archer Mayor’s books? What did you think of it? Do you have a favorite?

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

OctaviaEButler_Kindred

I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. I was a little surprised, because it was not the science fiction novel I expected, given that is how it is classified. No matter. I was entranced and changed by the story it actually tells.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

She sees a young red-haired boy who is drowning and rescues him. Apparently, she has been drawn back by Rufus’s fear of dying. She continues to move between the past and present, something neither she nor Rufus has conscious control over. Time moves faster in the past, so she encounters Rufus at different ages. Dana’s white husband Kevin also gets drawn back with her at one point, and his experiences highlight how much Dana’s changed status is due to her gender as well as her skin color.

What is astounding in this book is the way Dana comes up against the small and large ways that life is different for her in Rufus’s world. No matter how much I’ve read of histories and novels and slave narratives, no matter how many museums and former plantations I’ve visited, nothing brought home to me the live of a slave the way Dana’s experience does.

Why? Partly of course that’s due to Butler’s extensive research. Even more, it’s due to her vivid writing—the strong characters, the plot that never stops, the high stakes, the familiarity in her use of slave narratives as story structure.

But most of all it’s because Dana is me. The differences in our race and cities mean nothing compared to our common culture. Experiencing the indignities, injustices, and downright torture of that life through Dana’s frame of reference opened my eyes in a new way to the abuses of slavery. Here is a woman who expects to wear pants, be able to read a book and write a letter, speak up for herself and demand justice, even to go where and when she pleases. Deprived of all that, powerless, considered property, something less than human, without even the survival mechanisms other slaves have learned, Dana must find a way to endure her trips back in time.

There are many lessons here for fiction writers. One is the use of voice. Dana’s modern-day narrative voice reinforces the connection with the reader while emphasising how far away she is from the time of slavery. This is starkly apparent when she is forced to put on a slave-voice to protect herself.

Another is not only the importance of research, but how to use it effectively. It is clear that Butler has done her research well, not only into antebellum plantation conditions, but also into slave narratives and historical accounts of slavery. Yet, she employs that research lightly, including details only as appropriate for plot and character. For example, at one point when she’s back in Los Angeles, Dana throws away her books on African-American history because she now sees the flaws and gaps in their depiction of slavery. I expect Butler could have listed texts and quoted examples, but wisely refrained.

Yet another lesson is for fiction writers looking for a new way to write about a common theme. I think of it as the what-if game. What if you took a classic western and put it in a different setting, maybe outer space? You might come up with Firefly or Star Wars. What if you took a classic vampire story and used a different—even implausible—protagonist? You might have Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Twilight. What if you took one of your own experiences and gave the protagonist different characteristics from you (good, bad or both) or a different time period or a different culture? How might that story play out?

Or you can use the tropes of science fiction/fantasy genre to explore modern-day problems by taking them out of the modern day. That is what Margaret Atwood did in her classic The Handmaid’s Tale. And it is how Octavia Butler shows us that, instead of papering over them, we in the U.S. must confront the ugly crimes of our past in order to move forward.

Have you read any of Octavia Butler’s books? What did you think of it?

The Book of Emma Reyes, by Emma Reyes

reyes

A review by Marjorie Agosin in the Women’s Review of Books sent me in search of this epistolary memoir. She says, “After I completed reading this intense and brief collection of letters, which have such a sense of immediacy, I realized they were written by a woman who was illiterate as a child and only learned to write at age fifteen.”

Reyes, who died in 2003 at the age of 84, lived in Paris where she was known as an artist, friends with Sartre, Frido Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. She was also known as a fascinating storyteller, full of stories of her childhood in Colombia. Germàn Arciniegas, a historian from Colombia persuaded her to write some of them down by sending him 23 letters between 1967 and 1997. I only wish there had been more.

The translator Daniel Alarcón says in his introduction, “Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true. There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement.”

I quote others because I am utterly bamboozled. How does she do it? She starts in a one-room hovel in San Christóbal in Bogatá, where she lives with her sister Helena, a boy she calls Piojo, and a woman—apparently unrelated to her—called María who terrifies her. Immediately we are oh-so-carefully walking with her to the garbage heap carrying the brimming bedpan, their only toilet, tiny Emma’s sickening daily chore. The garbage heap is where all the children play and—once the bedpan is emptied and wiped out—the scene of an imaginative game the children play.

There is no hint of self pity, no complaint about having only two sets of clothes—everyday and Sunday best—and four pieces of furniture. When María goes away with Piojo, she locks the sisters inside the hovel. “The bedpan filled up. . . so we started using the large serving plate. The neighbor came by only once a day and left us a big pot of porridge . . . We cried and screamed so much that the neighbors came to the door to try and console us.”

Only the beginning of Reyes’s trials, yet each is narrated in this matter-of-fact way. I could not look away. I could not stop reading. The second half of the book takes place in a convent, where she and her sister are taken in after being abandoned at a railway station. Reyes describes the nuns so precisely, and the mix of terror, mind-numbing work, rare kindness, and childish playfulness are so vivid that you can’t help but feel you, too, have experienced life at this convent too.

It seems impossible that a child could be so resilient as to emerge from such a childhood with the courage and endurance to face all the griefs and successes that still lay in wait for Reyes. I wish she’d written more letters to cover all those years.

This is the most powerful memoir I’ve read in years. In his introduction, Daniel Alarcón says that he came to this book when

. . .a stranger literally pressed it into my hands at the Bogatá Book Fair in 2014.
“You must read this,” she said. “You have to.”
Now I urge the same of you.

As I do of you. Read this book!

What memoir have you read that made you feel you’d lived that life?

Night Picnic, by Charles Simic

simic-night

I actually read several of Simic’s poetry collections to prepare for the poetry discussion group I lead. He’s certainly well known, although I had not read much of his work before. In addition to serving as poet laureate, he has won many prizes and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Griffin Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award.

One reason I had shied away from his poetry was that I’d heard it was dark and depressing. That turns out to be untrue. I actually found his work to be curiously uplifting.

Born in 1938 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Simic’s youth was buffeted by the dangers and disruptions of war, emigration, and poverty. His work shows the lessons he’s absorbed about the workings of fate and chance, his awareness that an elevator is likely to take you to an “icy cellar” before going to the desired upper realms.

What impresses me about his poetry is his close attention to the world, the precision of his details, and the concision of his lines. Each poem feels finished, in a way many poems I read do not. Each word is there for a reason, and sometimes more than one. Most of his poems are fairly short, often presenting a fairly ordinary scene before inviting us to explore it, turning it over in our hands, letting the resonances build. Here’s an example.

The Altar

The plastic statue of the Virgin
On top of a bedroom dresser
With a blackened mirror
From a bad-dream grooming salon.
Two pebbles from the grave of a rock star,
A small, grinning windup monkey,
A bronze Egyptian coin
And a red movie-ticket stub.

A splotch of sunlight on the framed
Communion photograph of a boy
With the eyes of someone
Who will drown in a lake real soon.

An altar dignifying the god of chance.
What is beautiful, it cautions,
Is found accidentally and not sought after.
What is beautiful is easily lost.

We see a seemingly random collection of items on a dresser, imbued with humor. Yet there is foreshadowing here: the blackened mirror, the bad dream, the grave, the punched ticket. So we are surprised, but not completely, by the sudden turn at the end of the second stanza. Chance can change things in an instant, as we are warned by the pun in the title (altar/alter).

Each word here works so hard. My group talked at some length about the inclusion of the word “communion” in the description of the photograph. It tells us a great deal: not just the approximate age of the boy when he died and what he is wearing, but also the poignancy of leaving life the age of reason, just as he can begin to understand about death. Simic doesn’t need to tell us the photograph commemorates the boy’s first communion. What I find uplifting in the final stanza is the assurance that we will find beauty, even if accidentally, even if it is easily lost.

In many of his poems, Simic uses humor to leaven the gloom, as he does in “The Altar”. Sometimes the humor is ironic, such as a blackened mirror or a salon that delivers bad dreams. He uses puns as well, and changes of tone, such as the shift to a more colloquial “splotch” and “real soon”. Some poems, such as the aptly titled “Avenue of Earthly Delights” with its nod to Bosch, verge on the surreal.

I appreciate his attention to the darkness inherent in something as simple as the berries in “Roadside Stand” that “will stain our lips and tongue / As if we were freezing to death in the snow.” To me, adding the possibility of death to a poem that starts out as “a paradise” and ends with the bored boy “Straightening crumpled bills in a cigar box” creates a necessary shading that rounds the picture.

As I read these poems, I found myself thinking of the online flood of Mary Oliver poems following her recent death. It may seem ludicrous to compare the two but both have an attention to even the smallest things in the world around us; both don’t hesitate to include the darkness and danger in that world; and both to me feel ultimately positive.

If you are looking for a way to acknowledge the dark forces in our lives and address the meaninglessness of existence—and to do so without despair—then these poems are for you.

What is your favorite Charles Simic poem?

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

History

I’ve learned to be wary of books whose covers are emblazoned with their bestseller status and whose initial pages are filled with glowing blurbs. Already cautious, I came close to abandoning this book in the course of the first long chapter. I call it a chapter, but the book’s structure is not so ordinary. The first chunk of print would be a better description.

Here we sink into the consciousness of Leo Gursky, an elderly Jewish man living in a cluttered New York City walkup, who is afraid of dying on a day when nobody sees him. A retired locksmith, he has taken up writing again, a vocation he abandoned sixty years earlier when he fled his village in Poland, just as the Germans rolled in and began gathering up the Jews.

Leo is a sad man, pathetic even, as he deals with physical infirmities and loneliness; his only friend is the peculiar Bruno who lives upstairs. The story Leo starts writing is about the girl named Alma whom he loved back in Poland. The two planned a life together, to start as soon as Leo joined her in New York. However, delayed by the war, by the time he arrives she has given up on him and married someone else.

While the writing is evocative and in places quite lovely, this story and this character did not interest me. Hence, my struggle to keep reading.

But then we branch off into a much more entertaining story about a girl also named Alma, whose ambition is to be able to survive in the wild, as she believes her late father was able to do. She would also like to find someone for her still-grieving mother to love and to persuade her little brother that he is not a lamed vovnik, one of the thirty-six holy men in a given generation, one of whom has the potential to be the Messiah. She tells her story in witty and touching numbered sections, ranging in length from a sentence to a few pages.

Despite Leo’s attempts at writing about his village in Poland in the first section, this seems to be the book that Leo eventually began writing. The two stories weave together, and are joined by a third that is apparently that book Leo wrote back in Poland which he thought had been lost, and then by extracts from a couple of other books.

This complicated structure works like a kaleidoscope, the reader’s understanding shifting with each turn. I was impressed with Krauss’s ability first to imagine such a thing and then to hold it together. I enjoyed puzzling out how all the pieces she was juggling might eventually come together.

Although I admired the structure and the writing, I never felt engaged with the story. Leo as a character didn’t interest me. The girl Alma and her brother were more intriguing, but as—I assumed—figments of Leo’s imagination, they seemed too far removed for me to care what happened to them. Also, questions about the reliability of Leo as a narrator held me back from connecting with the story.

I love the way Kraus uses small, sometimes contradictory, but always memorable and true-to-life details to build her characters. Often she’ll follow a high-flown statement with comic deflation. For example, here is Leo, late for a funeral, trying to catch a bus:

I like to think the world wasn’t ready for me, by maybe the truth is that I wasn’t ready for the world. I’ve always arrived too late for my life. I ran to the bus stop. Or rather, hobbled, hiked up trouser legs, did a little skip-scamper-stop-and-pant, hiked up trouser legs, stepped, dragged, stepped, dragged, etcetera.

I’m glad I finished this book. I enjoyed the surprises and the kaleidoscope of reversals. I’d hesitate to recommend it, though, except to those who are willing to forego a story for a dazzling display of writerly prowess.

Do blurbs—the short quotations from other writers or reviewers on a book’s cover or first few pages praising the book—help you select a book to read?

The Heart Aroused, by David Whyte

heart aroused

Whyte is an English poet who has brought poetry to the corporate world to nurture the creativity needed in today’s fast-paced markets. I enjoyed his later book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, which I read as I entered retirement. This early (1994) book, subtitled Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, lays out his premise for combining the two worlds.

The poet needs the practicalities of making a living to test and temper the lyricism of insight and observation. The corporation needs the poet’s insight and powers of attention in order to weave the inner world of soul and creativity with the outer world of form and matter.

He speaks of “a veritable San Andreas Fault in the modern American psyche: the personality’s wish to have power over experience, to control all events and consequences, and the soul’s wish to have power through experience, no matter what that might be [italics the author’s].”

Failure is not only an option; it’s a necessary part of an honest life. If we are too busy being invisible, hiding our true selves in fear of ridicule or a false step, then we are not bringing our full capability to our work.

Using stories, myths, and poetry to illustrate the path, Whyte brings new meaning to even well-known lines. He uses imagery of swords and starlings, of fire and—yes—a fish to awaken our imagination and draw us in. Whyte asks us to bring our soul’s journey into our day-to-day work life.

Our lack of soul is our refusal to open to a full experience of the world. Work, paradoxically, does not ask enough of us, yet exhausts the narrow parts of us we do bring to its door.

This is no how-to book with a checklist of easy steps. It is an exploration of the complex ecology of our own self and our place in the world. It asks us to hold contradictory ideas and goals, to find our own balance.

Instead of giving answers, Whyte asks questions, including many in the User’s Guide at the end of the book. For me, an inveterate manager, one of the most challenging asks what would it be like to fully experience your life instead of trying to manage it?

I’ve also enjoyed his poetry in collections such as The House of Belonging, with the overlap between his prose and poetry increasing my appreciation for both.

Although I no longer work in the corporate world, I found much here that is still relevant to my work as a writer. I would love to pull together a study group to work through the ideas in this book.

What book have you read that has posed intriguing and compelling questions for you?

East of the Mountains, by David Guterson

mountains

In this second novel from Guterson, Ben Givens is packing for a hunting trip. A 73-year-old retired heart surgeon, he has recently lost his wife and been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. He stopped hunting after his experiences as a young man in WWII, but now has decided to take one last trip with his two dogs. Knowing what is coming for him, what he really intends to do is to stage an accident that will take his life.

He chooses the area around Wenatchee, Washington, just over the mountains from his home in Seattle. It’s the area where he grew up, hunting with his father and working in their apple orchards, and he knows he can find a remote place where his body won’t be found for a while. The two dogs he’ll set free to manage as best they can in the wild.

I started this book soon after it came out in 1999. I’d enjoyed Snow Falling on Cedars and looked forward to this book. However, I rather quickly got bored and abandoned it.

Almost twenty years later, I thought I’d give it another try. Again I found myself laying it aside. Finally, though, I persisted and made it to the end, curious to figure out why I wasn’t more interested in the story.

One reason is that I just didn’t believe in the protagonist. He wasn’t like any surgeon I ever knew and I’ve known a few. In fact, his life as a surgeon seemed to disappear after its first mention and not really come back until the end of the book. He could have been anyone: a cowboy, a marine, a taxi driver.

In fact, he seemed to be no one; I didn’t get much sense of him as a person. I had even less sense of the other, minor characters.

Another reason is the huge chunks of backstory. After the first 60 pages we go off into a 40-page flashback into his childhood. Then after another 60 pages we go off into another 40-page flashback into his war experience. As a result what story there is seems to stop dead.

And that’s the third reason I was tempted to put the book aside. The story lacks tension. There’s not much suspense. A couple of bad things befall Givens, but he’s planning to kill himself anyway, so it’s hard to care.

On the plus side, Guterson’s descriptions of the land along the Columbia River are gorgeous. One of the great joys of reading is being transported to a distant place. The author’s evocation of place kept me reading.

I rather liked a part near the end when Givens actually has to interact with people. But then a deus ex machina suddenly lifts him out of the problems he’s gotten himself into, letting what little tension had built to evaporate.

A lot of people liked this book, and there were certainly parts I enjoyed. However, for me it was mostly a good lesson on crafting a page-turner.

Have you read a novel where the setting was more interesting than the characters? That is not necessarily a bad thing!

Best books I read in 2018

Best books I read in 2018

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2018. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor
This unusual and remarkable book is the story of a village in the Peak District and its surrounding countryside. It’s a story about time, stretching over 13 years with each chapter covering a single year of the village’s life. This is not a book to rush through. It is a book to savor.

2. Waking, by Eva Figes
It’s quite short, only 88 pages, but don’t be deceived. There’s a lifetime packed into this stunning novel. Each of the seven chapters takes us into the thoughts of our unnamed narrator at a different point in her life, from childhood to the edge of death.

3. Priest Turns Therapist Treats Fear of God, by Tony Hoagland
In crafting his poems Tony Hoagland, who passed away this year, brings together humor and tenderness, wit and emotion, gentle satire and surprising insight. Using the things of this world, he invites us to be present in our lives and appreciate each moment. The poems in this, his final book, often moved me to tears.

4. Collected Poems, by Jane Kenyon
For me, reading Jane Kenyon’s poems for the first time has been like falling in love, that moment when you meet someone who seems to be your soulmate, who speaks your language, who knows what you have been through.

5. My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor
This memoir by the Supreme Court justice is remarkably well-crafted and imbued with a generous spirit.

6. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi
In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser talks of the influence of Melville and Whitman, one “the poet of outrage”, the other “the poet of possibility”, and we can see both of these influences in her poems. She also speaks of different sorts of unity and embraces the possibility of our coming together, of our finally bringing an end to war.

7. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley
With this novel, Mosley takes us into the mind of ninety-one-year-old Ptolemy Grey, a mind that is fraying at the edges. It is one of the most moving portrayals of aging that I’ve read. Mosley’s novels are always entertaining, but for me as a writer they are also a masterclass in writing craft.

8. [Asian Figures], by W.S. Merwin
Merwin, a prolific and popular poet, a former poet laureate, chose to translate these proverbs from various Asian cultures. He side-steps the thorny question of whether they are poetry, and instead concentrates instead on what they share: brevity, self-containment, and “urge to finality of utterance”. What they also share is humor, wit, and true wisdom.

9. My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
This quiet story is not for everyone, but I fell in love with Lucy’s voice. In addition to the voice, what I admire most as a writer is the way Strout releases information. Among the themes of imperfect love and family is the theme of reticence. The story seems to ramble haphazardly, but when I went back and looked more closely, I could see how well crafted it is.

10. How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff
Fifteen-year-old Daisy arrives in England, sent by her father and new stepmother to visit her aunt, only to find herself embroiled in an invasion. Daisy’s voice is the best thing about the book—surly, smart, funny and vulnerable. We are all flawed beings; Daisy is no different, yet in rising to the occasion she finds an unexpected heroism. I felt privileged to spend these pages with her.

What were the best books you read last year?