Best Books I read in 2019

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the twelve best books I read in 2019. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall
You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

2. The Book of Emma Reyes, by Emma Reyes
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. 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.”

3. The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois
DuBois presents a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

4. Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
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. 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.

5. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin
If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

6. A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry
I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

7. All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski
To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed. Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate.

8. The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield
Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers. The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days.

9. Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser
A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. I’d never read the Little House books, so I caught up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced and immensely readable account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

10. The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez
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?

11. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
This popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel left me with a combination of enchantment and disappointment. It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees. What I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story.

12. Memento Mori, by Charles Coe
Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet. The poems in this book celebrate ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight. They are the poems of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

What were the best books you read last year?

Never Stop Dancing, by John Robinette and Robert Jacoby

Jacoby

An ordinary man at work on an ordinary day sits through the regular weekly meeting, gets a soda, talks with a co-worker. Then he hears someone say, “That’s John.” And sees a police officer looking at him.

On that clear and beautiful April day, John’s wife Amy was knocked down by a truck as she crossed a street and died.

His close friend Robert, a journalist and author of two books, wanted to help, but what can you do? What can you say?

What Robert did was suggest that he interview John several times over the course of the next year, John’s first year without Amy. Because their friendship included an openness and sharing considered unusual between men, Robert hoped the interviews would give John a safe space to talk about his feelings. He also thought that someday John’s two young children would want to know more about this first year without Amy, and that perhaps “John’s grief might inform others’ grief—how they manage it, how they talk about it, and how they process it—and, ultimately, how they move on.”

And Robert himself, not unacquainted with loss and grief, was curious:

I wanted to know how someone could experience such a loss, put words to it, and come back from it. I wanted to know his experience of losing someone so close, so beloved. At the heart of it, I wanted to know the breadth and depth of love, and love lost.

In this powerful, if sometimes wrenching, joint memoir we move between Robert and John’s voices. Emotions are laid bare; the small and large moments—cleaning out Amy’s closet, signing the children up for Little League—are exposed. Robert says, “It felt like we were opening up the brutal places of human existence and emotion, holding things up for discovery and examination.”

Both John and Robert are smart, articulate and curious. They wrestle with the questions most of us struggle with in our lives: Who am I? Why am I here? What happens to us after we die? Why do bad things happen to good people? Does religion offer answers and comfort or just empty promises? Does grief ever fade? And if it does, have we betrayed our loved one?

It’s a remarkable book. John and Robert’s startling honesty and candor, holding nothing back, can’t help but open our hearts and ease our own empty places.

Most poignant are the scenes with John’s two young sons, four and seven, as they try to come to grips with their devastating loss. As John later says, he may someday find someone else to love and share his life with, but “My boys can never have another mother.”

Another devastating but comforting scene is when ten members of John’s church come to his home to sit with him shortly after Amy’s death. Curled on the floor, overwhelmed by grief, John feels them silently touching him, holding him. A laying on of hands. Held in that love and compassion he is able to find calm.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to step into the lives and hearts of these two men. Their story made me feel I’d opened the box and everything flew away except for one thing, and that one thing was love. By opening themselves to each other, John and Robert invite us into their community, to hold each other in love and compassion and to find peace.

Have you read a memoir that made you feel a part of something larger?

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.

Heart Earth, by Ivan Doig

doig

As children, we find it hard to imagine that our parents had lives before we were born. However, as we grow into the ages at which we knew them, it’s not uncommon for us to wonder what our parents’ lives were like, what they felt, what they dreamed. Perhaps we compare ourselves to them at the age we’ve now gained. Perhaps we use our own experiences and insights to illuminate what once seemed so mysterious.

Ivan Doig was hampered in doing this by his mother’s death from asthma when he was only six years old. His slim memories of her didn’t stretch very far. That changes when he inherits a collection of letters from his mother to her brother Wally while he was stationed in the Pacific during the last months of WWII. Doig was estranged from his uncle, something he regrets now that Wally is gone, so was unaware of the letters.

His mother’s words not only anchor his own memories, but give him a rare insight into her thoughts and feelings. This poignant and lyrical memoir, a prequel to his memoir This House of Sky, traces what he knows of Beneta Ringer Doig’s short life combined with his own recollections as they move from a ranch in Montana to a factory boomtown in Arizona and back again.

His evocation of the harsh reality of life in rural Montana combines love for the rugged beauty of the landscape with respect for the grit and determination of its people. The area is only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression, not yet sharing the wartime economy. They move to Arizona hoping the desert air will help Beneta’s asthma and the work improve their financial outlook.

I love the way Doig combines the larger picture of what is happening in the country with his own family’s experiences. His memories of playing war in the dusty factory town and drawing pictures of airplanes and Uncle Wally’s ship remind me of my own childhood a decade later. As writers we sometimes forget to include the social context of our stories, the political and cultural trends that help form our characters. This memoir is a good model for how to do that well.

I love, too, his description of his parents’ relationship, filtered as it is through his child’s eyes, family stories, and now his mother’s own words. They move back to Montana, hoping a higher altitude will help her asthma, and dreaming grand dreams of finally succeeding at making the land pay off. Their struggle reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilders’s family fifty years earlier each year looking ahead to finally getting a good wheat harvest to pay off their debts.

Part of why I enjoyed this audio book so much is that it is narrated by Tom Stechschulte, one of my favorite narrators, not only because of his laconic yet engaging voice, but also because his accent reminds me of my friend Frank. I relaxed into the rhythm of his speech, barely noticing the sometimes overwritten passages that might have bothered me if I’d been reading the book.

I think I’d still have enjoyed this portrait of family life in a particular time and place. I would also have loved the portrait of Beneta, a lively, determined and passionate woman whose steadfast spirit seems to capture all that is best in our image of the American West.

What memoir have you read that vividly captures a time period through the lives of ordinary people?

True North, by Jill Ker Conway

True North

This sequel to The Road from Coorain begins in September of 1960, as Conway travels from Australia to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she will be a graduate student. She says:

The future of a woman alone in the world and the 1950s was a blank page, because no one I knew had lived that way, and the rules of the culture were clear that they shouldn’t. So I experienced my leave-taking as a farewell to the known, a jump off the edge of the world into an unknowable future.

From the weather to the customs—such as dinner being served at 5:30 pm, the time for nursery tea back home—she has to find her bearings in this new world. I love her descriptions of Cambridge, such as:

It was old, by any standard, and sparer, in a fashion I could not quite comprehend, than any urban landscape I’d yet seen.

and

I’d never thought there could be beauty in a pallet of gray and white, but suddenly I could see in the low slanting light, the bare branches, and the gleaming snow of an early winter afternoon images I’d seen before in a Rembrandt drawing but never properly understood.

She is buoyed up by the “easy good manners and cordiality” of the people she meets. She quickly finds herself in a group of like-minded women, most of them a year ahead of her. Best of all are the courses she plunges into for this next phase of her scholarly career. She adeptly describes the excitement of the ideas in her seminars and the individuals teaching them.

As a teaching fellow in her second year, she finds herself working for John Conway, a war veteran from Canada. Although she comes to their first meeting “prepared to be very businesslike,” they quickly veer into discussing their “shared experience of a first encounter with the United States.”

Reader, she marries him. Then he gets an irresistible offer to be on the faculty and a master at one of the colleges at York University in Toronto. They agree to take turns: ten years for his career, ten for hers, and they move to Canada. It is a good move for her as well. She becomes involved in college administration and, at the end of this book, is invited to become president of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

I loved her descriptions of Toronto as well, where she has to adjust to a longer winter. Her insights into the Canadian view of the U.S. also intrigued me.

Unfortunately, she encounters some of the same prejudices she’d left behind in Australia. In fact, this last aspect became one of my greatest rewards in rereading this book. As she details her strategy for getting equal pay for herself; then all women faculty at the university, and then the other women working there—secretaries, lab technicians, cleaning women, career counselors—I remembered all those hard-fought battles, the ones we seem to be having to fight all over again.

She also talks about her work as a historian, writing about women’s roles, how they changed, and how the women themselves perceived their roles. Fascinating.

I’m eager to move on to A Woman’s Education, Conway’s third memoir, this one about her time at Smith College and one I’ve not read before. These books not only bring to life specific times and places, they chronicle the inspiring life of one woman on the cusp of major changes in our culture. Even better, they encourage the reader to consider and reconsider ideas and, perhaps, memories that speak to the issues we are struggling with today.

Have you read a memoir or biography that seems extraordinarily relevant today?

The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

Coorain

Rereading this bestselling 1989 memoir reminds me of why I enjoyed it so much back then. Conway gives us the opportunity to experience a childhood on a ranch in the Australian outback. She describes the austere beauty of the landscape, the desperate need for rain, the solitude for herself and her parents.

With no children besides her two older brothers within a hundred miles, she relies on her imagination and books for company. Helping out with the ranch work, she learns self-sufficiency and a practical grasp of what’s needed in the world. It is this combination of imagination and practicality that sends her into the world in search of education and greater understanding, a journey that will make her president of Smith College one day.

On this reading, I found myself fascinated with her parents in a way I hadn’t been before. She describes them as risk-takers, purchasing the land in 1929, not knowing that the drought was not seasonal but would become “legendary”, not knowing that the Depression was about to start in a few months. The ranch was her father’s dream, but the places he’d worked after returning from the horrors of the Great War were in a part of the country with a more forgiving landscape.

Her mother had grown up in a lush country town and enjoyed her career as a nurse, actually running her own country hospital. Yet she gave all this up to go with her new husband to the new home they named Coorain, an aboriginal word meaning “windy place”.

My father, being a westerner, born into that profound peace and silence, felt the need for it like an addiction to a powerful drug. Here, pressed into the earth by the weight of that enormous sky, there is real peace. To those who know it, the annihilation of the self, subsumed into the vast emptiness of nature, is akin to a religious experience. We children grew up to know it and seek it as our father before us. What was social and sensory deprivation for the stranger was the earth and sky that made us what we were. For my mother, the emptiness was disorienting, and the loneliness and silence a daily torment of existential dread.

Had she known how to tell directions she would have walked her way to human voices.

Despite all that, her mother is a figure of strength in Conway’s childhood, facing each new setback with courage and action. Her mother encourages Conway to read by asking her to read aloud while her mother works at daily chores, made more onerous by the lack of electricity and running water. Cooking is done on a wood stove even in the brutal heat of summer. Her mother has to be ready to treat snakebite or help fight bushfires.

But three years after the death of Conway’s father, she and her mother move to Sydney, leaving a good manager to run the ranch. There, her mother’s drive has no outlet and she becomes more and more controlling. Weighed down by grief and anger—she sometimes rages at strange men for daring to be alive when her beloved husband is dead—she begins drinking and her moods become unpredictable. Conway takes refuge in her schooling.

No matter where she travels, Conway never loses her love of her native landscape, though as she learns more, she becomes more critical about the treatment of aboriginal peoples and the ambiguous morality of land ownership.

It’s a fascinating story of an earlier time, a place and a culture foreign to me, and yet Conway’s experience was like mine in so many ways. My book club all raved about the book, finding Conway’s prose beautiful to read and her life inspirational. We want more of this, they said.

Have you been inspired by a memoir about a woman overcoming obstacles, both internal and external, and going on to accomplish great things in the world?

Educated, by Tara Westover

educated

As so often happens with books that have been hyped to the moon and back, I was underwhelmed by this memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Dysfunction comes in many guises. Here, it takes the form of a survivalist family in Idaho, Mormons so distrustful of the government that they hole up on their rural property, stockpiling food and guns for the expected “end times” and refusing medical help when injured.

It is Gene, a pseudonym for Westover’s father, whose paranoia drives this withdrawal from the world, taking the three older children out of school and not allowing the other four, of whom Tara is the youngest, to attend at all or even to have their births registered. Their mother is an obedient drone, who towards the end of the book finally begins to express other opinions when Gene isn’t looking, only to recant in his presence.

The thrust of the book is Westover emerging from her isolated and physically dangerous childhood, using education as her way out, getting all the way to a PhD from Cambridge. However, her journey away costs her not only her home but her family, who shun the worldly person she has become. Of course, by that time I couldn’t help but be baffled by how she kept going back to her appalling family, trying to make peace with them.

The overwhelming popularity of the book seems to be driven by the titillating details of their survivalist life. Having known some survivalists, I found that aspect of Westover’s family not as remarkable as the violence perpetrated by Gene and one of the older boys. The people I knew may have mistrusted the government but didn’t resort to machine guns and a cannon; they didn’t force their children into labor so unsafe they nearly lost limbs or their lives.

The descriptions of the injuries the children and Gene sustain, and treat only with herbal remedies—or, in the case of tonsillitis, sunlight—are so terrible that my suspension of disbelief wavered. I want to believe that Westover is telling the truth, and indeed she uses occasional footnotes with alternate versions of some incidents provided by others, yet it is had to believe that they could have survived such injuries without medical care.

I also struggled to accept that a girl who had never been schooled (at home or elsewhere), never read anything but the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and a child’s picture book on science could teach herself enough during one winter to score sufficiently high to win a place at Brigham Young University—and then do well in all her courses.

Also, some things didn’t quite add up to the portrait of Gene as a survivalist. When Westover is trying to get financial aid, she uses her parents’ tax returns. Gene won’t let his children go to school, but pays his taxes? Also, while the younger children are forced to work in Gene’s scrapyard at home, Gene himself goes out building barns and the older boys work as truckers and other jobs out in the world. They have drivers’ licenses then. It seems obvious to me that Gene is not so much a paranoid survivalist as a power-hungry bully, a narcissist who sees his wife and children as peons under his iron control.

My patience was tried by Westover’s continued attempts to reconcile with the family who had shunned her and by her continued expression of love for the father who had inflicted so much damage on those he should have protected. As a friend of mine who endured an abusive childhood said, “Some parents don’t deserve to be forgiven. Just because they had you doesn’t mean you have to keep them in your life.” Yet even in the final pages Westover still seems to feel guilty about the breach between her and her family, especially her father, as though it were her fault.

While the prose flows smoothly, I never felt Westover emerge as a person in this book. From a distance I see her being tortured physically and emotionally. I see her sudden leap into extraordinary achievements. But that’s all. One of my book clubs agreed that they now knew what happened to her but didn’t feel that they knew her. They said that the descriptions of the shocking injuries and abuse were the most powerful and memorable parts of the book. That’s a shame. I’d hate to think that the book’s popularity is due to its gruesome descriptions of young people being hurt. I wish the excitement and joy of learning could have outshone the torture.

Have you read this hugely popular book? All three of my book clubs read it this year. What did you think of it?

A Balanced Life, by Patricia Schultheis

balanced life

I teach a lot of memoir classes and, as a freelance editor, help memoirists shape their stories. However, often people will tell me, “There’s nothing remarkable about my life. No one would want to read about it.”

I disagree. Sure, celebrities and politicians have a built-in audience for their memoirs. Some memoirists introduce us to cultures we know little about or let us experience extraordinary events with them. But those of us with even the most ordinary of lives have wrestled with the great questions of life and experienced a range of powerful human emotions. Each of us has lived in a unique constellation of cultures: family, community, world events.

This compelling memoir is of such a life. Looking back over seventy years, Schultheis invites us to experience moments both large and small with her: picnicking at the beach as a child, taking the hand of the man she will marry, caring for her sister in her last days. In vivid scenes she conjures not just the events, but the emotions swirling in them. In a few deft strokes she adds the context of the times.

Sometimes she frames a scene with a bit of scientific knowledge or philosophy, perhaps a legend or a description of some event. For example, near the end, as she grieves for the loss of her husband, she describes the origin of the Hale-Bopp comet and how she and Bill would watch for its return.

Before any of us ever were, we were held by ice. Scientists once thought that life sprang from Earth’s fiery core . . . But now some scientists believe that the midwife of life is ice. That as microscopic stardust-buds we were carried by comets and delivered to our earthen mother. Like interstellar storks, comets hurtled past the sucking gravity of the solar system’s giants and skirted the glowering, stony asteroids to reach this middling planet with a warm, green bosom.

No wonder Hale-Bopp twinkled with almost parental beneficence, as if locked in its frozen core it held some prior knowledge, some reassuring certainty about ourselves that we had yet to discover.

Much of this memoir is about ice. Schultheis uses figure skating as the line upon which she pins her scenes, giving a consistency and narrative arc to the diverse events of a lifetime. Despite decades of lessons and practice, she never attains more than a moderate competency on the ice, but she learns enough to admire the grace and power of the true athletes she encounters.

Moving easily across the years, she finds countless different ways to use the metaphor of ice skating to illuminate events. From the first life-changing gift of a pair of second-hand skates, to sharing the ice with Dorothy Hamill, to fulfilling the dream of skating at Rockefeller Plaza, Schultheis shares what skating has meant to her over the years. Each time she returns to the metaphor, she adds a new layer of meaning.

As an amateur figure skater myself, I love this aspect of the book. Although I am acquainted with the author via the Baltimore writing community we share, I had not realised before reading her book that we both skated at the same rink, though I think not at the same time, and knew some of the same skaters there. Someone who is not interested in skating might find the constant refrain tedious, though the author’s brief descriptions of the technical aspects of turns or edges or the skates themselves always pertain to and enhance her story off the ice.

I do think that everyone has a story to tell. Whether people will want to read it depends largely on the writer’s skill in crafting an engaging story. Here, Schultheis excels. Her writing—sometimes lyrical, always accessible—welcomes you in and carries you through the story, introducing you to new ideas, inviting you to examine your own life. This is a story to savor and remember and reread.

Have you read a story—fiction or memoir—with a particular metaphor running through it?

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.

Ring of Fire, by Yenna Yi

Yenna

One reason I like to read memoirs and biographies is simple curiosity about other people’s lives. I even like reading memoirs that were written primarily to leave a record for children and grandchildren. Those of us who have been around for a while have seen a lot and thought about our experiences. Perhaps we’ve traveled widely or never left the county where we grew up.

Yenna Yi is one who has traveled much. In this memoir she describes growing up in Masan, a small village in South Korea, with her grandmother, mother, and cousins who joined them near the end of the Korean War. Her father died when she was one. The war and the poverty that followed it shaped her childhood, though she also recounts happy times playing with other children and shopping with her grandmother. Their one-room home was a clean and happy one.

After her first year at university, Yenna flew to Thailand for summer break to visit her mother who had remarried and moved there with her German husband. On impulse she transferred to university in Germany. There she met Steve, who would become her husband, and they eventually moved to Hawaii.

While curious about all of this, it is their life after the move to Hawaii that really fascinated me. They built a catamaran, which became home for them and their two sons for the next 12 years. They sailed around the southern part of the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped belt of volcanoes, some active, around the Pacific, taking in the costs of the Americas, Japan, the Philippines and New Zealand, with Korea barely outside.

With each island, large and small, Yenna gives us a bit of the history, some description, and a taste of their adventures: picnicking on Bora Bora, riding ponies on Niafu in the Tongan Islands, visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave on Western Samoa. I kept thinking of the children and what a magical childhood—despite gales and panicked moments at sea: wind-surfing and caving on Fiji, visiting a live volcano on Vanuatu, and skiing on Mt. Hood in New Zealand.

Eventually Yenna ended up in New England where I met her. So much living crowded into one short book! I especially loved all the photographs. Intriguing as it is, the book left me wanting to know more. And wondering if I’ve been too cautious in my own life. What a world of wonders there is out there that I, with all my traveling, have never explored!

I was interested, too, in her reflections on the effects of war and greed in the countries where she lived and visited. Those of us who live in the U.S. have been spared such experiences, but she describes things such as a once-thriving port city reduced to rubble, indigenous peoples decimated by disease and discrimination, corrupt dictators leaving their population mired in poverty.

If you’re looking for something different, something that will take you around a good part of the world and human nature, try this memoir.

Have you read a memoir that took you to other lands?

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

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?

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?