Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things, by Amy Dickinson

9780316352642_p0_v4_s192x300

There are many reasons to write a memoir: to work through a personal trauma, to leave a record for your family, to try to understand how you’ve gotten to this place in your life, to name just a few. Not all such memoirs are appropriate for publication, or in fact written with publication in mind.

While it’s true that for a few years there were quite a few illness and grief memoirs published that were thought to be useful to others suffering similar calamities, that time has passed. With such a glut of what my friend calls “woe-is-me” memoirs, publishers and the reading public look for something more than a sad story.

To be commercially published today, memoirs must be well-written—always a priority!—and addressing some larger social issue, something that the general public will find interesting. Take, for example, Hillbilly Elegy which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. True, it had a bit too much woe-is-me for my taste, but it hit the mark commercially by telling the inside story of what it’s like to grow up in the white working class in an environment where there’s not much work anymore.

You’re probably already raising your hand and saying, “But what about . . .?” Yes, the exception to this rule is a memoir by a celebrity. Fame is a peculiar sort of intimacy, where we feel we know someone from their shows or books, but at the same time know that we don’t know them at all. I recently devoured The Memory of All That, a memoir by Betsy Blair’s memoir of her marriage to Gene Kelly. As a huge fan, I was relieved to find him portrayed as the truly decent man I’d thought him.

Dickinson’s memoir wins on all three counts. Roughly chronological, the story flows well, written in forthright prose sweetened by a generous dose of humor. While pulling no punches in telling her own story, Dickinson invites us to look at families and small-town life, how we are different and how we are the same. And as the author of the syndicated “Ask Amy” column and a regular on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me . . . !, she has a legion of fans already.

And did I say it was funny? I actually laughed aloud, startling the cat into bolting from the room. Most of the humor is directed at herself and her own foibles, but she doesn’t hesitate to bring out the quirks in those around her. She says of her mother:

One of Jane’s primary modes of home decorating was to saw the legs off of things. You’d go upstairs to bed at night, and in the morning when you came back downstairs, the kitchen table had become a coffee table. Growing up, we got used to it.

People in my memoir classes often ask how to handle criticising family or friends. They want to tell their story honestly but avoid hurting or offending other people. I believe the key is to respect their privacy as much as possible and, when you have to show them in a bad light, do it with love. Try to understand why they behaved as they did. One factor in The Glass Castle’s success was the way Jeannette Walls told us all the horrible things her parents did, yet she always spoke of them with love and explained their reasoning.

In this book, Dickinson is generous and truly writes from love, even about her ne’er-do-well father who not only abandoned the family but sold off all their assets and absconded with the money.

When you need a laugh or reassurance that life can be crazy and good at the same time, pick up this book. It is an excellent read: honest, plain-spoken, and full of the humor found in daily life.

Can you recommend a warm and humorous book? Or share a joke?

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance

9780062300546_p0_v8_s192x300

As often happens when I get around to reading a much-hyped book, I was disappointed by this best-selling memoir. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town whose once-robust steel industry attracted many folks from Kentucky. Now a Yale-educated lawyer, his childhood was one of poverty, violence, drugs, and chaos—which he says is common in what he calls his hillbilly culture.

While he acknowledges the effect of a failing economy, Vance also says these evils are embedded in his culture. This balanced look at what holds people in poverty–both society’s structural problems and personal failings–is why the book appeals to both liberals and conservatives. Vance is the first to deny that he “pulled himself up by his bootstraps”–the conservatives’ solution–and to assert that it won’t help to simply spend more money on programs (jobs, training, etc.)–the liberals’ solution.

The major claim admiring reviewers make for this book is that it is, as Jennifer Senior in The New York Times puts it, “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump.”

Yet Vance himself is careful to say in his introduction that he is writing about a specific “group of people I know—working-class whites with ties to Appalachia.” It’s dangerous to assign a singular character to all the members of a group, and there has been pushback against Vance’s characterisation of all hillbillies as violent, unwilling to work, patriotic and proud while succumbing to welfare dependency and/or drug addiction. As one commenter on Rod Dreher’s interview with Vance said:

I worked as an ER nurse for several years in a mountainous region of upstate NY with lots of white poor people. There was also a small (less than 5%) population of poor black people. I saw the same pathologies in both groups of people: alcoholism, joblessness, domestic violence, broken families, drug overdoses, etc. I also saw people busting their butts working 2-3 jobs, going to church, and doing their best in very difficult situations . . .

As she asserts, there are plenty of “working-class whites with ties to Appalachia” who don’t fit Vance’s stereotype. And like her, some reviewers noted that the problems Vance sees for whites are similar to those that have long been faced by poor people of color.

I was mostly interested in the relatively brief sections of analysis in Vance’s book. The rest of the book is his account of his childhood and becomes what one friend of mine calls “another woe-is-me story”. The physical and emotional abuse is tremendous and I certainly feel for the child, but the unrelenting focus on his own hardships turns the other people in his story into one-dimensional stereotypes. His sister is an angel who protects him. His mother, a violent drug addict, seems deranged. Although they can be violent as well, his grandparents are always fiercely loving toward him. There is no attempt to understand the nuances of these people or the forces acting on them. Of course, one expects a child to be self-centered and not understand much about others, but Vance is writing this as an adult looking back.

What Vance does do very well, though, is to open himself up. He shares his fears and failures and weaknesses, something that’s awfully hard to do, but necessary if you want a memoir to work.

While the superficiality of the characters and the “woe-is-me” preoccupation disappointed me, I was more disturbed by his double standard. He’s extremely critical of people who take welfare, but is himself grateful to go to college on taxpayers’ money and to law school on scholarship. It’s okay for him to take handouts but not for others.

He has bought the conservative fantasy that people on welfare and food stamps are living high on the hog. Having been on welfare, I find this laughable. Vance is certain that undeserving people on welfare are getting much more than he is, citing his jealous anger that people on welfare had cell phones while he didn’t. Apparently he is not aware of programs that provide cell phones to poor people. His anger would be better directed at his mother for taking drugs and cycling through boyfriends and husbands instead of providing for him and his sister. What welfare does do–in its meager and grudging way–is to provide a little stability for vulnerable families, something that would have benefited his family.

He also trots out the urban legend of seeing someone on food stamps buying a steak, a favorite story among conservatives many of whom claim to have seen this with their own eyes or know someone who has. If it really did happen—and as someone who was on food stamps for several years, I find it extremely unlikely—and if he took a moment to think about it, he would realise that with less than $23 for an entire week’s worth of food, anyone buying a steak is going to be starving the rest of the week.

I do agree with him about the mix of structural obstacles (e.g., failing economy, shortage of good jobs) and the lack of what he calls individual agency. I call it personal responsibility. However, his path is not a solution for every child suffering in poverty, as another commenter on the interview quoted from above says:

Whether the kids are black, Hispanic, white, or Asian, the same dictum applies: if your solution to get the next generation out of poverty is be extremely smart, work incredibly hard at school, ignore temptations to stop working hard at school, and to take on thousands in debt or owe years to the military in order to get a 4 year degree, then you have no solution. Solutions can’t require extraordinary people. They have to work for ordinary people.

Vance is right to be proud of his accomplishments. And I agree with his recommendations for helping others to succeed. They are similar to those I made in my own memoir of poverty: instead of segregating the poor in ghettos, give them the opportunity to mingle with all levels including the middle class; make sure there are mentors who will help them envision a different future, believe it is possible, and then achieve it. He adds that the definition of family alternatives to foster care should be expanded to include grandparents and aunts and uncles.

I love that Vance credits those who helped him on his way: his grandparents, the Marine Corps, his sister, his aunt and uncle, teachers, and friends. As he says, “There were many thumbs put on my scale. When I look back at my life, what jumps out is how many variables had to fall in place in order to give me a chance.”

The beauty of memoir is that it enables us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Many people have found this memoir a valuable look at what is to them an unfamiliar culture. It’s always a bit dangerous to assume that your experience can exemplify an entire culture. Nevertheless, this book adds to the discussion of poverty in the United States.

What memoirs have introduced you to another way of life?

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown_Girl_Dreaming_(2014)

Woodson’s memoir in verse invites the reader into her childhood. Reading these poems felt as though Woodson and I were leafing through a photograph album while she told me about these people and places.

Her family’s story, like so many of ours, is a fractured one, with lots of moving around and relationships that fall apart due to death and divorce. Being people of color during the 1960s and 1970s adds further complications. Still, there is a strong current of love and security holding the family and their story together.

In “home” she writes of being taken as a newborn to meet her grandparents in South Carolina. She describes the porch, the azaleas, the red dust on her mother’s shoes. Then:

Welcome home, my grandparents say
    Their warm brown
arms around us. A white handkerchief,
    embroidered with blue
to wipe away my mother’s tears.
    And me,
the new baby, set deep
inside this love.

This book has won several awards, including the Newbery Honor, and was chosen as the 2017 book for Vermont Reads. While it falls in the children’s book category, it appeals to adults as well.

The title tells you all you need to know about the book to entice you into reading it. While being a perfectly straight-forward description of what the book is about, the title also gives you an idea of how the story will be told. The reversed syntax is intriguing, and the startling use of “brown” let’s you know that we are going to sidestep stereotypes about race and speak plainly .

Here’s the opening of “rivers”:

The Hocking River moves like a flowing arm away
from the Ohio River
runs through towns as though
it’s chasing its own freedom, the same way
the Ohio runs north from Virginia until
it’s safely away
from the South.

Most of all, the compression and music of these three words place you in the realm of poetry. It’s had to resist hearing the echo of the opening of Langston Hughes’s great poem “Dream Deferred”:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?

As I’ve mentioned before poetry works well for memoir because of its fragmentary nature. Gathering poems together in a collection such as this doesn’t create the same sort of linear narrative as a prose memoir.

For me, finding that narrative was the hardest part of writing my memoir. Life does follow a neat narrative arc. When we’re in the midst of it, our life seems chaotic and subject to chance; it’s only later that we try to impose some sort of coherent story out of it. Thus, capturing the past in individual poems And it actually reflects how memory works: it throws up a scene seemingly at random, and we are left to make sense of it.

Then the challenge for the poet is to find a way to make these fragments of memory, these separate scenes hang together without the usual transition tools. Woodson accomplishes this with deceptive ease. Arranged chronologically, the poems sometimes also reach back to tell stories of her parents and siblings and other family members.

This is a book that all ages will enjoy. One of the great benefits of reading is the opportunity to step into another person’s life and see the world through their eyes. I’m grateful to Woodson for her gift of her story, much of which reminded me of my own childhood and even more that helped me understand another kind of experience.

Does your state choose a book each year for everyone to read and discuss? If so, which book was chosen this year?

Life Upon the Wicked Stage, by Grace Cavalieri

9780986435348_p0_v1_s118x184

In my memoir classes I stress that there are different reasons for writing a memoir. You can write a memoir as therapy, to help deal with a traumatic event or period of your life. You can write one for your family. I wish my mother had left more than a few pages about her childhood; now that she is gone I wish I knew more about the rest of her life and had a record of her oft-repeated anecdotes. Or you can write a memoir for a larger audience, a story that addresses some larger issue that will be of interest even to people who do not know you.

I go on to say that only the last sort of memoir is eligible for publication, since that is the only one designed for a larger audience. But Cavalieri’s new memoir proves me wrong.

She clearly states on the first page that she is writing “a catalogue of what I’ve done, where I’ve been in my career so our daughters, Cindy, Colleen, Shelley and Angel, will have a chronology.” The chapters that follow are not actually in chronological order or, as far as I can tell, any sort of thematic order. They are brief tales of her professional life as a playwright, teacher, broadcaster, and poet interspersed with memories of her beloved husband Ken and a little about her parents and grandparents.

Why does this family memoir work so well for a wider audience? One reason is that those of us who read, write and love poetry and drama are all part of Cavalieri’s family. In addition to writing many plays, she worked for PBS in the early days of children’s programming, founded and co-founded independent presses, worked as a book editor, and taught writing. Today she is best known for “Exemplars”, her monthly poetry feature for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and for “The Poet and the Poem”, a radio interview program from the Library of Congress. Cavalieri is also celebrated for her unfailing support of poetry and her generosity to other poets (including me, whose book Terrarium she reviewed in “Exemplars”).

Another reason to enjoy this book is her insider’s description of the worlds of drama and poetry, including tales of the poets laureate she’s met and interviewed. I was especially intrigued by her depiction of her early days writing poetry when she had to persuade the 1960’s literary community in Washington, D.C. that yes, a suburban housewife could indeed be a poet.

And the writing itself is reason alone for plunging into this memoir. Cavalieri quickly brings people and places to life. Her straightforward prose carries emotional weight. Best of all, many of the chapters include a poem of hers about the same events or people. She’s the only other person I know of who starts with a poem and may then expand the idea into a prose piece. I will also sometimes go in the other direction: if I get bogged down in a story, I’ll write it as a short poem, an exercise that helps me get to the heart of the story.

As well as many reasons to write a memoir, there are many ways to do so. You can write a memoir, as I did in Innocent, that has an overall narrative arc like a novel. You can arrange your pieces according to themes, as Vladimir Nabokov did in Speak, Memory. You can put fragments together in such a way as to create a mosaic, as Denise Levertov did in Tesserae.

Or you can arrange your chapters in a way that seems right to you. Although I cannot discern a pattern here, I have to say that the chapters flow seamlessly. I especially like the combination of prose and poetry. I’ve seen this done before, but never so well.

I’m glad to know more of Cavalieri’s life and achievements and grateful that with this book she’s shown me yet another way to write a memoir and reason for publishing it.

What memoir have you read that impressed you?

Skydiver: Poems for My Daughter, by Rosa Glenn Reilly

51yPR+P+-fL._AC_US160_

There’s been an interesting discussion going on over at Writer Unboxed this past week. In the blog post David Corbett peels open some of the ideas Donald Maass has put forward in his blog posts and his new book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Corbett suggests a distinction between emotion and feeling and the implications for us writers as we try to summon both in our readers. Maass responded, and others jumped into the discussion.

One of Maass’s great insights, which I’ve been trying to unpack for myself for several months, is that a reader’s emotional response is far more complex than you might think. He says:

Psychological research into that question has surprising answers. For instance, fiction writers assume that readers will feel what their characters do. They don’t. Readers instead react: weighing, judging, comparing and creating, moment by moment, their own emotional journey.

If you want a textbook on how to create an emotional response in readers, look no further than this collection of poems.

Almost every poem left me gasping, which may be why I chose to start this post from the distant perspective of a writer studying craft. Reilly takes us through the stages of her daughter Tina’s illness: Diagnosis, Metastasis, Hospice, After. But these are not poems of grief. Well, they are of course, but grief a steady continuo behind the melodies and counterpoints of particular moments. Everyday details cluster in these poems, countering the solemnity of what we know is coming.

We see Reilly change. For example, “Tattooed Angel” celebrates the pierced and decorated stranger—the boyfriend she’s only just met—who promises to take care of Tina. Despite Reilly’s “cautious/mother antennae” she sees that “the bathroom is clean/the dishes are washed”, knows that he has been counting Tina’s pills and measuring her fluids. Most of all, he still sees Tina as the “bold and sexy” woman she had been only seven days ago.

Reilly also uses reversals to surprise us into emotion. In “Memorizing” she describes “a lazy/sunlit afternoon” with her daughter, filled with specific sensual details, culminating in the two of them falling into a nap “curled/twin embryos/facing one another/only our hands touching”. Peaceful if sad, yes? But they have fallen asleep “she/exhausted from radiation//me/worn thin from holding/my breath”.

Another technique is imagery. In “The Alamo” Reilly uses our knowledge of that brave and hopeless fight to underscore her own outrage and fury when Tina’s cancer comes back, cutting short the promised years of remission.

Humor also can get under our defenses. In “Sisters” Reilly gives us a beautifully detailed account of a moment between sisters which starts: “your older sister drapes/your limp right arm/around her own neck//she waits/bent patiently/as your left arm slowly rises”. As Tina is carried to the porch, Reilly remembers moments from the girls’ past, all with these superbly accurate details. When her sister tells Tina to stay put, Reilly hears “. . . your younger-sister response/halting/each carefully found word/a lilting/defiant tease//You are not. The boss. Of me.

Even punctuation carries emotional weight. There are no commas at the end of lines, no periods at all except in quoted dialogue, as though Reilly cannot bear the thought of any end, much less a hard one.

Normally I avoid giving away endings, but here, with every poem so powerful, I’ve given you a couple. I wanted to show you how unusual and effective these poems are. When you’re done, read the poems again to see how brilliantly Reilly encourages us to summon our own memories and experiences to fill the white spaces between the lines.

But first read the poems for the experience. If you, like me, are hesitant to open yourself to another death, and the death of a child at that, then believe me you will find more of love than grief in these poems. They will open your heart to the everyday magic of our lives.

What book have you read that inspired moments of strong emotion or feeling?

The Courage for Truth: The Letters Of Thomas Merton To Writers, edited by Christine M. Bochen

9780156000048_p0_v1_s118x184

I’ve been looking to the past for ideas and inspiration about dealing with fascism and totalitarian regimes. I started with books by Dorothy Day, one of my greatest heroes, a woman who truly lived her ideals. From there, I’m moving on to the books that inspired her, by writers such as Simone Weil, Georges Bernanos, and Ignazio Silone.

Then Jeremy distracted me with this volume of letters. Of course, I loved reading the descriptions and commentary on his own and others’ works. Merton especially loved the work of writers from Latin America, and there are many here to whom he’s written and whose work I’ll want to look up.

But what fascinated me was a theme that has come up a few times recently. As Christine M. Bochen, the editor of this volume, says in her Introduction, “Merton sensed in writers a hope for the future of mankind. Merton believed, as the title of this volume suggests, that the courage for truth was their special gift.”

In November I attended a writing conference which ended with a workshop led by Donald Maass. He asked us, “How do you want your novel to change the world?”

Don’t laugh. Novels have led to social change. Think of how To Kill a Mockingbird contributed to the Civil Rights Movement or The Handmaid’s Tale to the Women’s Movement. Oliver Twist drew attention to child poverty and All Quiet on the Western Front to the reality of war. Poetry, too, has been a powerful weapon, whether written or sung.

I have for some time been clear about my purpose for writing. I can’t do much that will affect those in power. But I can tell stories, as I did in Innocent, my memoir of my time on welfare. Many people have told me that reading Innocent changed their view of welfare recipients. What I’ve learned in my lifetime is that big social changes happen when the minds and hearts of the people are swayed. And stories are the way to do that.

In fact, reading any fiction opens your heart and mind to the lives of others. Studies such as the ones described in this article have shown the neurobiological basis for how reading builds empathy. The same areas of the brain are used when we read about a character’s experiences as when we experience something in real life. It only makes sense. When we read a novel, we see the world through someone else’s eyes. Once we experience what life is like for them, once it has become our life too, our intolerance and prejudices fade.

In a letter to José Coromel Urtecho dated 15 March 1964, Merton writes:

. . . the poets remain almost the only ones who have anything to say . . . They have the courage to disbelieve what is shouted with the greatest amount of noise from every loudspeaker, and it is this courage that is most necessary today. A courage not to rebel, for rebellion itself tends to substitute another and louder noise from the noise that already deafens everyone, but an independence, a personal and spiritual liberty which is above noise and outside it and which can unite men in a solidarity which noise and terror cannot penetrate.

Of course, Merton recognises that there are risks involved when you take on the power structure. Still, in a letter to Boris Pasternak dated 23 October 1958, he says: “Both works (Dr. Zhivago and Vladimir Soloviev’s Meaning of Love) remind us to fight our way out of complacency and realize that all our work remains yet to be done, the work of transformation which is the work of love, and love alone.”

What novel or poem can you think of that has contributed to social change?

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

9780802124739_p0_v2_s118x184

Macdonald’s memoir has won prizes and gotten rave reviews; it deserves them all. She lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise, with moments of grace that left me breathless. In a rare consensus, my book club all thought it a remarkable, if harrowing, story.

There are three strands to this book. The most obvious is her story of raising and training a hawk—and not just any hawk, but a goshawk, fiercest and most stubborn of them all, whom she names Mabel. Then there is the motivation behind her decision to adopt the hawk: her grief over her father’s death, which is wound tightly through the story of training Mabel. The third strand tells of T. H. White’s life and his attempts to train a goshawk.

The images in the first few pages tell us that we are going to be in for a rough ride. She is headed to an area called the Brecklands: the broken lands. In Neolithic times, it was the center of the flint industry. She gives us half-eaten pigeons and a fragment of a songbird’s leg, bomb craters and crumbled buildings on a base where nuclear bombs were stored. She walks through clearcut forest patches with torn roots, where even the light is broken. Amid all this harshness and death, she gives us a pair of goshawks in a startlingly apt description:

. . . they were loving the space between each other, and carving it into all sorts of beautiful concentric chords and distances. A couple of flaps, and the male, the tiercel, would be above the female, and then he’d drift north of her, and then slip down, fast, like a knife-cut, a smooth calligraphic scrawl underneath her, and she’d dip a wing, and then they’d soar up again.

Who cares about mixed metaphors when the montage works so well? She describes her difficulty remembering the days immediately following her father’s death: “The memories are like heavy blocks of glass. I can put them down in different places but they don’t make a story.”

Even individual words shiver and resonate, such as when she speaks of the falconers with “vowels that bespoke Eton and Oxford”, conjuring images of made-to-order suits.

It’s hard for a writer to balance three strands of story. At points, the strands are explicitly intertwined and other times left to echo against each other. Some of us in the book club gloried in the knowledgeable details of training Mabel, while others found that part repetitive. Several people thought there was too much about White’s tragic life and unintentionally cruel attempts to train his hawk.

What moved all of us though, was Macdonald’s growing identification with her hawk, the way they played together, understood each other, partnered in the hunt. While not explicitly stated, it seemed obvious that she saw in Mable not just companionship, not just a challenging task, but an escape from her misery, even a way to control death itself.

Some of us felt qualms about taming a wild creature. Macdonald makes it clear at the very beginning that it is the breeders and trainers who have brought these hawks back from the edge of extinction. Still, when I watch the hawks circling and diving into the woods behind my house, I cannot imagine any justification for taming them to my commands. Our relationship to animals is a complicated business, and it is to Macdonald’s credit that she provides us space and experience to give shape to our discussion.

Macdonald’s long experience with hawks, her wide reading and close attention to her surroundings enrich almost every passage in this book. There are gorgeous descriptions of chalk fields and brambles and forests. There are references to other books, such as to J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, which I read several years ago. Sharing some of her research into White’s life, she comes up with surprising insights into some of the sources for incidents in his beloved book The Once and Future King.

There is a lot of loss in this book, and Macdonald doesn’t flinch from showing you gory death close up. There is also much that is sweet and even triumphant, such as Mabel playing catch with her or the memory of her father’s quirky quest to photograph all the bridges across the Thames. And like the best memoirs, it gives us a chance to live someone else’s life for a bit, experience the world as they do.

Have you read a memoir that has changed your view of the world?

No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, by Ann Bracken

NoBarking_front cover

This powerful new collection of poems by Ann Bracken, author of The Altar of Innocence, tells of her work with learning disabled and emotionally disturbed students in settings from inner city Richmond to several Maryland public high schools and colleges.

In the best poems, she helps us see beyond the fierce bravado of the teenagers to the scared child within. The power of these poems comes from Bracken’s attention to detail, her evocation of voice, and her emotional restraint. She holds her sorrow and indignation in check while giving us a chance to get to know these young people before revealing their secrets.

While demonstrating the control that enables the reader to fully enter the experience, Bracken’s generous heart drives these poems. In describing teachers’ struggles with administrators who sometimes appear to care more about numbers and public perception than children, she doesn’t lose sight of the forces constraining the administrators: the numb surrender to seemingly intractable problems, the determination to keep the school running.

In Bracken’s hands, poetry becomes a peculiarly effective way to convey the reality of the classroom. Individual poems are intensely focused on a single person, giving a voice to those whose voices are rarely heard. Together these poems create an unforgettable mosaic of the experience of teaching adolescents, whether they are learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, or stressed in other ways.

The understanding gained from experiencing a student-centered teacher as she works with students, administrators, and other teachers will benefit anyone interested in education and the reality of classroom teaching.

Best books I read in 2016

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2016. 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. Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, by Barbara Hurd

Stirring the Mud is a slight book, only nine essays, but I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks, pondering the images and leaps of thought. Reading these essays, I came to love standing with Hurd as she lets her shoes sink into the mud, water seeping in to wet her socks, thinking about what grows there, what is lost there, what is preserved there. She examines the liminality of these places, how mysteriously hidden their edges are.

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

Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. 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. This book changed my view of the natural world.

3. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Gawande examines these issues through stories of his patients and his own family, encouraging us to look at that phase of life that we mostly try to pretend will never happen, that inevitable decline into death. Most interesting to me, he takes us through the history of solutions for how to make the end of life meaningful, comfortable and affordable, from the first retirement communities to exciting new ideas.

4. Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich

This collection of essays is truly stunning. In the things of her world Ehrlich finds tangible evidence for the thoughts and ideas jostling in her head, anchoring them to coherence. Her world is primarily her ranch in Wyoming, its five-acre lake, the nearby mountains. Other essays take us further afield. Whatever destinations we find in these essays come from the resonances between the pieces of her mosaic and the echoes they call up in our own hearts.

5. The House of Belonging: Poems, by David Whyte

The poems in this book are different from those to which I’m usually drawn. At first glance they don’t even seem to be poems—aside from the line breaks—but rather the sort of heart-to-heart you have with an old friend late at night over a cup of tea or glass of whisky. Yet within the plain speaking is a core of light. Such poems may look easy, but must require great patience to revise and revise again in order to craft something so seemingly inconsequential into a work invested with such meaning.

6. Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

7. The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden

The story opens with twenty-year-old Teresa Singletary and her mother, Lena, facing a major turning point in their lives: Lena is being released from prison. Through a “chorus of voices”, the story conveys the terrible damage not just to the person imprisoned, but also to her or his family. While the journey is sometimes dark and the human cost is huge, it is in the end a story of love’s possibilities.

8. Burning Your Boats, by Angela Carter

I love these stories. Actually Carter calls them tales, saying they draw on images from dreams and legends, from fairy tales and the unconscious. While these tales do provoke unease, they also overwhelm with audacity and rich allusions and tangled passion. She layers in the descriptions and emotions until you feel as though the whole thing is going to explode—and then she reels you back with a coolly humorous detail or sarcastic observation.

9. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family love their dilapidated home: a house attached to and using a corner of a partially ruined castle. It would be better, though, if they had some money for little things like, oh, having more candles so they can read at night, fixing the leaks in the roof, actually getting enough to eat, and paying the rent. I love Cassandra’s storytelling, her humor, her peculiar turns of phrase, her odd outlook. Every page holds delightful surprises.

10. Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

As this story opens, fifteen-year-old June remembers when and her sister Greta were being driven by their mother to Uncle Finn‘s apartment to continue sitting for the portrait he was painting of them, Uncle Finn who was dying of AIDS. This is more than a coming-of-age story, more than a dealing-with-the-first-death story. It is an engrossing story of deeply human emotions, ones we deny or fear, ones that lead us into actions we regret and the connections we crave.

What were the best books you read last year?

Saints and Rascals . . . A Catholic Worker Memoir, by Geraldine DiNardo

13001057_1031361520254373_8268717816673650379_n

Aside from celebrity memoirs, most memoirs published these days are highly polished stories that read like novels. That is, they incorporate many of the elements of fiction, such as characterization, setting, story structure, and theme.

Especially the latter because it is usually only the exploration of a larger theme that a memoir by a non-celebrity can capture the interest of the reading public. Yet there are other reasons to explore memoirs. One is that these first-person narratives can take us into worlds foreign to us, enhancing our empathic abilities by allowing us to see life through someone else’s eyes.

Another reason is that memoirs can give a voice to those who have none. That was the mission that drove me to write my memoir of my time on welfare: I wanted to counter media stereotypes of welfare recipients by telling true stories of my experience and that of people I knew.

It’s also the reason why I value so highly this new memoir from Geraldine DiNardo, co-founder of the Mustard Seed, a Catholic Worker house in Worcester, Massachusetts.

After giving a brief history of the Mustard Seed and the Catholic Worker Movement in the Worcester area, DiNardo turns to the meat of the book: individual portraits of people who lived or worked at the house during DiNardo’s years there. Each portrait is brief, followed by a poem addressed to the person. Without shying away from their faults, DiNardo finds a way to celebrate each one and bring out some detail that makes the person come alive for the reader.

My favorite is Mrs. Elizabeth Fish Kennedy Fish, a name she chose for herself. An amazing seamstress, she made elaborate and beautiful outfits for herself and others by hand, all covered with words and phrases written in Magic Marker. Schizophrenic and sometimes combative, she was protected not just by the Mustard Seed people but by the whole neighborhood. In one instance she managed to get herself lost in a distant town, but had the phone number of the Pickle Barrel, a neighborhood restaurant. Employees left work to find and bring her home.

Many of the stories here are comic; all are in some way tragic. Indeed, all of us are damaged in some way; all of us have griefs and troubles. Many of DiNardo’s saints and rascals have passed away, most far too young. I saw that, too, when I went to look up people I’d known. Recently, a study was done to show life expectancy by neighborhood in Baltimore, where neighborhoods are closely tied to socio-economic status. It ranged from 67 in poorer neighborhoods to 81 in wealthier ones.

I first learned about the Catholic Worker Movement while I was living in Worcester in the 1970s (note: I knew of the Mustard Seed and met DiNardo, but was not closely associated with either—something that I now regret). Started by Dorothy Day in 1933 during the Depression with the assistance of Peter Maurin, the movement asked people to live according to the tenets of Jesus Christ. In practical terms this meant providing food, shelter, clothing and a welcome to those in need. In addition to Catholic Worker houses, a newspaper still published today, and Catholic Worker communities that are active in social justice, civil rights, and labor issues.

I was deeply moved by the idea that someone could actually live according to her principles. Dorothy Day is still the greatest of my heroes. Living as I did among the lesser-privileged citizens, I knew just how hard her work and that of had to be—no rose-tinted glasses about the needy for me. I’m not surprised that DiNardo eventually had to back off from the Mustard Seed; she’s still involved but not to the extent she had been.

I’m grateful to DiNardo for these portraits. I’ve always thought it a uniquely New England quality—though I expect I’m wrong—this stubborn going on when there doesn’t seem to be any hope, this scraping by somehow when you have nothing. I treasure it, as I do these stories. The book is free but contributions to the Mustard Seed are welcome (PO Box 2592, Worcester, MA 01613).

Have you read a memoir that introduced you to a world new to you?

11813266_900138036710056_6555854837168967336_n