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

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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

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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 time 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

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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

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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?

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In Black Bear Country, by Maureen Waters

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Waters says in the Preface, “The bears, which appear in the title poem, are intended to suggest unpredictability, the mysterious and dangerous aspects of experience as well as the possibility of love.” The image and her explanation of it serve as a thematic summary of the poems in this collection.

In the title poem she says of the bears, “For all their size, they move silently, uprooting boundaries, nudging possibilities.” I like the way she challenges boundaries herself, immersing herself in Ireland, its myths and the place itself, the place her parents left for the U.S. Her description of the roofless house of gray Connemara stone, “the storied source”, and the ancestral memories it calls up is stunning in its controlled emotion. She says, “even the ghosts had vanished.”

Unpredictability is everywhere, whether it is a house fire, sudden storms, the aftermath of Katrina. Most of all it is apparent in the losses, the loss of herself, of her son. She says, “these children are not predictable.” And later: “On the lawn Brian is beginning to climb / the voluminous branch of a willow tree. / He cannot know / that it will snap / in the prodigious grip / of a tornado.”

This is a stunning way to approach great grief, obliquely, using a screen of imagery. The tree and tornado. And she speaks of him as having crossed a boundary. I think this use of imagery is one of the great benefits of using poetry to delve into memoir. Through a poem’s music and concise imagery, we bring the reader with us into the experience.

Another benefit is that these brief poems, most no more than a page, often capture a single glimpse of the past, a single moment we remember out of all the moments we’ve experienced. And this is how memory works sometimes: throwing up a scene seemingly at random. The poet then must make sense of it, as she does remembering a joyful moment of picking hyacinths with her sister. “Yet, this was earthquake country,” she says. Although “we sensed the trembling of the earth, / the sullen hiss of rising tide” they are carried away by their bliss, sure that such beauty would last forever.

I appreciate her poems of the Hudson River Valley. No delicately dancing daffodils, Waters gives us hawks and vultures, ruined gardens and floods. She believes the hemlock—“Seared by lightening [sic], wind and blight”—is the spirit of the place. Yet she finds hope in small things: “the precise point a rivulet wells up into / a pool . . . we cannot detect / the slightest movement. But something is / surely there.” I treasure that “surely”, the pause it creates, the certainty behind it.

There is love, too. Not just the love of children and rough nature, but an exploration of a thirty-year marriage to a man “known and yet unknown”.

These are poems to read again and again.

Is there a memory you have of some event, some moment so insignificant you don’t know why it has stuck with you?

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.

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?

On Wings of Song: A Journey into the Civil Rights Era, by Molly Lynn Watt

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Molly Lynn Watt’s latest poetry collection is a memoir of her work in the Civil Rights movement in 1963. It compellingly captures the time and the emotions surrounding it, the dangers and the innocence.

The book opens with a few poems describing incidents from her childhood that introduced this New England girl to racism and Jim Crow. The bulk of the book is made up of poems describing a time in the pivotal year of 1963 when she and her husband and two toddlers went to Tennessee to lead the new Highlander School, dedicated to training interracial volunteers to register voters in the South.

Traveling through the South, they are exposed to Jim Crow in chilling incidents. Their integrated caravan is refused service at restaurants and gas stations. Worse, they learn that trying to register voters can have fatal consequences.

She captures the fear in terse, direct lines. From “Tonight”, describing their first night at the Highlander School.

fireflies spark by the window
cans rattle in the alcove—
Mr. Tillman Cadle is arriving

we’re weary fake sleep
feel Tillman hover
sense his shotgun over us
throughout the night
Tillman stumbles and mutters
there’s going to be trouble

As it turns out he is the owner of the land, which he’s provided to the school. He’s there to guard them, not harm them, but as the author says later in the poem “Tillman Cadle/knew trouble when he smelled it”. The young family and their friends are about to meet trouble first-hand.

The final section of the book ponders the changes since that time, from her elderly mother’s apology for refusing their phone calls back then to her granddaughter’s refusal to vote, not understanding how fragile and incomplete this armistice is.

Watt says that she chose to write this memoir in poems “to limit my discomfort” in reliving that terrifying time when hatred and prejudice bared their face to her. For a memoir to matter, for it to grab the reader and not let her go, you have to plunge back into the storm, the one you thought you’d come to terms with long ago. The emotions are still there for you to find if you dig deeply enough.

Watt does. Each poem rings true.

There are plenty of other reasons for using poetry to write memoir. Poetry’s concentration of experience into a few lines makes the reader pay attention to every word and has the power to shock us into experiencing a revelation or moment of deep emotion.

Too, poetry’s use of imagery can assuage the author’s fear of revealing too much. Wrapping secrets in metaphor and motif not only gives the reader a tantalizing challenge, but also offers the author a semblance of protection. And a poetry collection, by breaking the story into fragments, mimics the way our memory works: an image here, a bit of dialogue there, a certain smell or glance of light.

Watt’s book is something to treasure, capturing a time and a body of experience that too many now forget. It’s a valuable resource for anyone curious about using poetry to write memoir. Most of all, though, it is a collection of powerful poems that leap from the page.

Have you read a memoir written as poetry? What did you think of it?

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

Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick

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In The Situation and the Story, Gornick’s classic writing craft book, she describes the difference between the two as the situation being what happened—the plot—and the story being “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” A memoir includes both the experience and the author’s perspective on it. She goes on to say, “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

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.

It starts out in an all-Jewish apartment building in the Bronx, where Gornick’s mother reigned over her neighbors by virtue of “the certainty of her manner”. Supremely self-confident, riding on the myth of her perfect marriage to a man who adores her, she exercises her authority, giving advice and arbitrating quarrels.

She seemed never to be troubled by the notion that there might be two sides to a story, or more than one interpretation of an event. She knew that, compared with the women around her, she was “developed”—a person of higher thought and feeling—so what was there to think about?

Gornick powerfully describes that world of women, the world of the kitchen that looked out on the alley in the back of the building, the gossip exchanged and schedules arranged while leaning out of the window hanging wet clothes on the line. But she also shows us how limiting that world could be, how her mother despised it, channeling her restlessness and boredom, like a torrent confined to a narrow gulley. “Passive in the morning, rebellious in the afternoon, she was made and unmade daily. She fastened hungrily on the only substance available to her, became affectionate toward her own animation, then felt like a collaborator.”

The structure of the book brilliantly reinforces this double view; like a stereoscope we get the experience of the past and Gornick’s present-day perspective on it. Chapters alternate between stories of the past and current interactions with her now-aged mother during their marathon walks of the streets of New York.

I read recently, though I can’t remember where, that the tension created by these two sometimes conflicting views of the past is one reason memoirs are so fascinating. Even in a memoir written entirely from a child’s viewpoint, we know that it is the adult author who is selecting and arranging incidents for us.

In her craft book, Gornick delves into memoirists “whose work records a steadily changing idea of the emergent self.” And it is Gornick’s self, forged by encounters with her strong-willed and much-loved mother, who finally captured my attention in this book. As in the best memoirs, Gornick wastes no time on complaints, but rather treats her mother with love and respect, even if sometimes also with exasperation. Gornick doesn’t spare herself, but admits her own mistakes. And I think we all know that moment when we look in the mirror and see our parent’s face looking back at us.

Gornick goes on to say of the memoirists in her craft book, “But for each of them a flash of insight illuminating that idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organizing principle. That principle at work is what makes a memoir literature rather than testament.” (emphasis mine)

Fierce Attachments is truly literature, and a story you will not forget.

What memoirs do you recommend?