A Year in Books 2016

                                           

                                           

“Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.”

~Jane Smiley~

Reading has long been my deepest passion and comfort and escape. Books have led me to my career as a teacher and writer. Books have saved my life more than once. Books have given me empathy, intelligence, adventure, perspective, love, and power. They are everything. It's been this way for me since I was a small child. My love for books was incessant to the point where my mother decided to teach me to read before I started kindergarten so that she could get an occasional break from me and my requests for her to stop everything and read to me. This knowledge I went into school with was a gift--while my classmates learned the alphabet, I was given the indulgent luxury of going to the carpet with a book of my choice from the shelf and tucking quietly in around myself there to read in solitude while they practiced. Even now, not a day goes by where I don't read at least a page or two of whatever book I'm into. Nothing will ever convince me that reading isn't its own kind of symbolic, transformative magic.

All of that said, 2016 wasn't a great reading year for me. I didn't get through as many titles as I normally do. By October, I realized that my time online was having a negative impact on my books and I eventually cut out social media (which I've since returned to in a much more infrequent way). During my two week break from online life, I read eight books, compared to my one or so per week the whole eleven months before. This is all I needed to know. I am going into 2017 with a goal to *double* my reading of last year. My brain felt completely rewired by tapping into the words on the page as opposed to the ones on-screen. And though, yes, I may be retreating just a touch from the stream of content and information flooding my computer screen, I am deepening my connection to life. My goal for 2017 is to read 100 books--this is a crazy high number with all that's going on in my schedule and personal life, but I have little doubt I will reach it, if I continue to replace mindless scrolling for page turning. I want to return to that little girl sitting quietly, lost in the middle of a room full of people, traveling across infinite universes of books. 2017, a year of literary homecoming.

My books of 2016 (in the order in which they were read or re-read, as noted by the *)    

  1.  The End of Alice by A.M. Homes
  2. Witches of America by Alex Mar
  3. Falling in Place by Anne Beattie
  4. The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
  5. The Mistress' Daughter by A.M. Homes
  6. The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman*
  7. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto*
  8. The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich*
  9. M Train by Patti Smith*
  10. Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver*
  11. A Forest of Souls by Rachel Pollack
  12. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
  13. Georgia by Dawn Tripp
  14. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  15. The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz
  16. LaRose by Louise Erdrich
  17. Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon
  18. It Didn't Start with You by Mark Wolynn
  19. Voyager by Diana Gabaldon
  20. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
  21. Dreams of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon
  22. Salt & Honey by Isabel Faith Abbott
  23. Rough Magick by Jessa Marie Mendez & Francesca Lia Block
  24. The Girls by Emma Cline
  25. An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon
  26. Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon
  27. Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton
  28. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
  29. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  30. The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavitis*
  31. Beauty is Convulsive by Carole Maso
  32. Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst
  33. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
  34. Feeding your Demons by Tsultrim Allione
  35. Difficult Animal by Lisa Lutwyche
  36. Writing Begins with the Breath by Larraine Herring*
  37. Hagseed by Margaret Atwood
  38. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
  39. One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman
  40. What It Is by Lynda Barry
  41. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg*
  42. The First Bad Man by Miranda July
  43. When Mystical Creatures Attack by Kathleen Founds
  44. Mysteries of the Dark Moon by Demetra George
  45. Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung
  46. Memories of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada
  47. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
  48. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  49. Rookery by Traci Brimhall*
  50. The Big Girls by Susanna Moore
  51. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  52. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

There were some others in there that I either abandoned or didn't fully get through, but these listed are the start-to-finish 52. A few of them are by friends of mine, which made those an even more special reading experience (I did disqualify them for my "favorites" though, just to be fair). A few of them I really disliked (Witches of America was completely misleading and Love Warrior was just awful--I'm sorry to all of you out there who loved it); a few I was very disappointed in (always a letdown, especially when it is an author I really love--Ann Patchett, I'm looking at you). My favorite writers for the year were: Helen Oyeyemi, Patti Smith, Louise Erdrich, Yaa Gyasi, Kathleen Founds, Yoko Tawada, and Eowyn Ivey. Please, please, please go read their titles I listed above. I'm serious. I read all of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books and it was a very fun series--immersive and entertaining--but not my favorites as far as the writing itself goes at all. I read two men, fifty women--a ratio I plan to keep pretty close to, though I am looking to increase the diversity of my authors and book genres overall. Here's to a Happy New Year in Books...may your reading life be rich & varied & wild & out of control in 2017!

Five

“When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time...Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there's a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she's gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.” ~John Irving~

I didn't know I would never see her again. We stood outside the doctor's office, my sister on the phone to my brother, and Mom started to tear up. What's wrong, Mom? I touched her hand. She shook her head, tried to smile but couldn't. Hey, it's okay. You alright? She looked me square in the eye, her greenish-brownish entirely beautiful eyes nearly spilling over, holding mine. I'm scared, she said. 

I'm scared.

Those words haunt me now. I'll hear them in random moments and I'll see the ache in her face--the sorrow--and, yes, the fear. She wasn't supposed to die. She just had a routine test in a doctor's office and was supposed to go back in the morning to hear the results to see if anything further needed to be done. I kissed her. Oh, mom. I said. I love you. Everything is going to be alright. We'll get through whatever it is together. Yeah? She kissed me. I love you, too. I'll call you later.

I left her. Went back to work. That night, she did call me and we talked for a few minutes about how she was feeling--weak, still very anxious. She was watching my sister decorate her Christmas tree and having a cup of tea. Her voice sounded quiet, but still exactly hers. We said our goodbyes and our I love yous. We said we would talk in the morning. I'll call you on my way to work, Mom. I can come over to the doctor's when you guys go in.

My phone rang before dawn. I got up and grabbed it from my desk where I'd left it the night before. My sister on the other end, incoherent. Screaming. I felt my body hit the hardwood floor in the bedroom, my knees giving out on me. I dropped the phone but could still hear her screaming. I finally asked her to put my ex-husband on the phone because he was already there with her. There with them. Since he lived in their neighborhood, my sister called him to come as soon as she found her. I'm so sorry, he said, she is gone. I paused. Are you guys sure? Maybe you are wrong. He wept audibly, I'm sure. I'm so sorry. You need to come. 

I can't. I'm scared.

I didn't want to go there, but I did. Five years ago today, we lost her. But, I have been slowly losing her ever since. When someone dies out of nowhere like that, it takes time to move from shock to grief. Often, even still, the shock and pain of it will roll through me and I have to pause to catch my breath. I think it has taken me five years to understand that she is really gone--my grief just beginning. She was in her sixties. She was vibrant & spirited & opinionated & stronghearted & she is still needed on a daily basis, but she's gone. I wish, more than anything, I could have a cup of tea with her and ask her advice on a million things and tell her how right she was about absolutely everything. No one on this Earth loved me more than she did. I miss her love. I miss her. 

 

On Voice

"A word after a word after a word is power."

~Margaret Atwood~

There is a voice I allow myself in person, sitting across a table from someone, looking into their eyes, the rise & fall & cadence of conversation. There is a voice I allow myself with my children, lit with laughter & fear & confusion & occasional heartbreak, but love & love & love in every syllable. There is a voice I allow myself with my students, louder & more solid than my regular voice, more assured than I often feel. There is a voice I allow myself with my family & closest kindreds, warm & open vowels & what I hope they know is love. There is a voice I allow myself with my lover, the hushed whisper of consonants in the heat & breath between us. 

Then, there is the voice I will only permit myself on the page. The voice that holds shadows & secrets & stories none other can. The voice that dreams in symbolic ink & paper. The voice that is more me & more un-me than anything else. The voice that holds the power. The voice that lets me blossom & open my hands. The voice that dares, sparks & ignites & I am only just trying to keep up with it, giving chase with my pen.

Lately, I've lost that last voice in the clamor of online life & a world & a country & a personal landscape that all look nothing like what I know. So, as is my way, I've pulled back into the shadows to sharpen my voice to a thin silver blade. In my two weeks almost completely "unplugged" from social media a lot has happened here: SEVEN books have been read (in two weeks, yes.), hours & hours of time spent throwing cards, music wildly filling space, emails & to-dos addressed, a ton of grading completed, over thirty pages of my own fiction written & major breakthroughs in my book. I feel the stumbling shock of staggering back into my life again as though I've been held underwater. 

A word after a word after a word is power & I have been reclaiming mine. I only planned to leave Facebook & Instagram for two weeks, but here I am at that mark & I am not yet ready to go back. I miss certain beloveds there, but the taste of this freedom & this mouth full of words are just too damn sweet. Come find me on this website. Subscribe to the newsletter here. I will send my wordtaste to you. Email me. Call me. Come sit down across a table from me & let me sing. Touch my mouth & hear the words spring to my lips. They sound like me again.

A Kind of Magic

"People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist...Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in the ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”       

~Diane Setterfield~  

A kind of magic in the words I throw on the page, the heart I let bleed black ink, the many selves I have shed & left behind. December closing in after what has been a hard end to a hard year. December, the month of bones. The month my mother died. But, I am trying to keep a part of her like the flies in amber, writing my memories out. Saving her. Preserving her. Lately she has come to me in dreams. Just her hands or just her in profile or just her voice. I can't get the whole of who she was. I see her in the mirror when I look at myself for just a second. I cry in the shower because the missing of her takes over & it is only when I am naked & alone & enveloped in the hot water that I feel like I can add my tears to the uncontained mess of all of this. I need her now. More than ever. She is gone. Two realities that break my life open.

I find myself returning to words again in the spirit of all that is lost. Scratching the surface of the paper to see if I can find her inside of it. Find myself inside of it. Find my characters inside of it--these women who cannot speak. These women who only are spared from annihilation by the smooth weight of my pen. Yes. I suppose it is a kind of magic. 

I have left social media for a little while and so my words here will go out into the electronic void unannounced & unread. Except for you, dear you, who has gotten this far. I am preserved by your reading of this. I am unceasing. I wonder about you on the other side of the screen. Where do you live? What have you lost? What bones are left behind? May we both find redemption & permanence in the life lived in the spaces between our words.    

In Praise of the Summer Afternoon

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” ~Henry James~

And, just like that, it is over. The summer of full hearts & long walks. Of late nights & a million fireflies. Ice cream & sleeping in. Books & daydreaming & laughing & stories. Storms & deer in the wide field. Foxes crossing our path & sun on our skin. All of us together. It is hard to let it go. To let them go.

Now, the routines shift with the season. I find myself thinking of harvest, of all that I grew this summer & all that I want to remember to let die off. The way I could spend a whole summer afternoon lost in a book or on a green trail in the woods & what a gift that was to my weary heart. I found something this past season that I didn't realized I'd lost. Reconnecting. Rediscovering. Finding my way home.