January Books Read

“Breaking Her Fall” a novel by Stephen Goodwin

On an ordinary summer night in 1998, my daughter, Kathryn– Kat, we all called her, a fourteen-year-old who still liked to wear her blond hair in pigtails– told me that she was going to the movies with Abby, her best friend, but they never got there.

As the mother of two teenage girls, one who is fourteen, I found this very hard to read. We all dread getting that phone call, late at night. The phone call that Tucker Jones receives on what turns out to not be an ordinary night at all, shifts the entire axis of his life.

What I learned: Questions. It’s all about questions. As a writer I need to have burning questions that propel me to write the story and that make the reader want to keep turning the pages.

“Touchy Subjects” stories by Emma Donoghue

Sarah’s eyes were as dry as paper.

These stories investigate the mundane disguised as profound and the profound disguised as mundane. A man becomes fixated on a tiny  hair on his wife’s chin. A writer lowers himself to take a position as writer-in-residence. A young boy discovers his sexuality on the football field.

What I learned: Sentences can be lovely and powerful without being too heavy. And her endings are beautiful. They seem to end right in the middle of things while also seeming inevitable.

“Bad Marie” a novel by Marcy Dermansky

Sometimes, Marie got a little drunk at work.

“Work” turns out to be caring for the two-and-a-half-year-old daughter of a childhood friend. Marie has recently been released from prison and her friend agrees to help her by giving her a job and a place to live. Reading Marie’s story is like watching a train wreck. You cringe but cannot look away.

What I learned: That it is possible to create a character with incredibly deep flaws while maintaining deep empathy for her. A tricky balance but apparently it can be done, and done well.

“Peace and Plenty- Finding Your Path to Financial Serenity” by Sarah Ban Breathnach

I used to be a woman who cried at Hallmark commercials.

So begins Sarah Ban Breathnach’s memoir/self-help book on finding financial serenity. It’s not about making a million dollars or saving a million dollars. It’s about getting real with where you are right now, having compassion and moving on. It’s about learning better and then doing better.

What I learned: To start where you are.

“Corpus Christie” stories by Bret Anthony Johnston

As hurricaine Alicia drifted north-northwest up the Gulf Coast from Veracruz, Mexico, Sonny Atwill stood outside McCoy’s Lumber hanging NO PLYWOOD signs in the windows.

These stories are powerful yet quiet in their intensity. Couples face unbearable losses. People in estranged relationships encounter each other again. In three connected stories a mother and son learn to accept who they are now through illness.

What I learned: How essential place can be. How, when used properly, it can become another character. The weather, landscape and culture of the Gulf Coast permeates these stories.

“Unless It Moves the Human Heart- The Craft and art of Writing” by Roger Rosenblatt

Jasmine, Inur and Kristie took my Modern Poetry class last semester.

Rosenblatt details one semester of a class he taught called: ”Write Everything”. It reminded me of the joy of being immersed in a class with people grappling with the same questions and issues we encounter on the writing path. There aren’t any pat answers to the big questions. It is not a how-to book. It is a gentle companion on this sometimes lonely path that encourages you to trust yourself and trust the process.

What I learned: I never tire of books on writing. They help buffer the isolation I sometimes feel.

“The Laws of Evening” stories by Mary Yukari Waters

The Nakazawas were in China barely a week when they first heard the drumming of a prisoner procession.

All I can say is “Wow!” How have I not read her before? These stories are haunting and memorable. Her characters are closely observed with a quiet dignity. As Sean Jeter Naslund writes, “Like haiku, each story precisely embodies a moment and evocatively transcends it.” Yes. Exactly.

What I learned: Again, how integral place can be if you take the time to really observe it and exquisitely layer it into the narrative.

“About Alice” by Calvin Trillin

There was one condolence letter that made me laugh.

Five years after her death, Calvin “Trillin, a staff writer for the New Yorker, wrote this book about the wife he so obviously adored and allowed his readers to share in his adoration. Although it deals with the profound loss of a spouse, the book reads as a love letter.

What I learned: Simple, unadorned prose is powerful and lets the beauty of a life shine through.

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