Books Read in March + April.

books read in march and april

“An American Marriage” a novel by Tayari Jones

There are two kinds of people in the word, those who leave home, and those who don’t.

This is Oprah’s latest book club selection, but it was on my radar long before that. I will read anything Tayari Jones writes. (And I keep waiting/hoping for her to write a book on the writing process.) 

It takes a lot these days to draw me into another world. I desperately need it, but it takes a lot of to pull me away from the constant drama that is our current reality. But this novel did just that. And I gratefully fell into it. Not only is it a beautiful, complex exploration of marriage but also of race in America. 

The chapters alternate points of view and are filled with letters between the two, letters that break your heart as you see their marriage steadily frayed by circumstances beyond their control.

As I neared the end, I did not know who or what I was rooting for. Jones did such a masterful job of keeping every character real and flawed. There was no bad guy or good guy. Just human beings with their messy,complicated hearts doing the best they knew how to do.

Without giving anything away, when I got to the end I closed the book and thought, “That is exactly how this story needed to end.” Not that it was expected or cliche. Far from it. It just felt inevitable and right.

A sentence I underlined:

“When she gives a song, it isn’t entertaining; rather, it sounds like she is telling secrets that are not hers to reveal.”

“Big Love- The Power of Living with a Wide-Open Heart” by Scott Stabile

I was fourteen when my parents were shot and killed in their Detroit fruit market.

The first sentence sets up this brave exploration of pain and how one traumatic event impacts a life. Stabile does not shy away from the tragedy that shaped his young life, nor the aspects of his personality that need to be healed. It is his utter honesty that ties the book together. You don’t walk away with a tidy list of things to do in order to love with a wide-open heart. Instead, you are invited to look at your own life, at the events that have shaped you, at how your are behaving now, today, in this moment and bring a wide-open hearted compassion to everyone involved.

A sentence I underlined:

It’s impossible to communicate with love and clarity when we’re filled with judgement.

“The Body is Not an Apology- The Poser of Radical Self-Love” by Sonya ReneeTaylor

Let me answer a couple of questions right away before you dig too deeply into this book and are left feeling bamboozled and hoodwinked.

This disclaimer was the perfect way to start this book. It is not the usual self-help book guiding you on a journey to body acceptance, body love. It is more of a call to arms. She is calling for a revolution on every level: in each individual body, in our relationships, our communities, our governments. In calling for radical self-love, Taylor is asking us to get real with ourselves, with our bodies, with the body shame we are immersed in, the body terrorism that haunts us. 

Don’t pick up this book if you are looking for a gentle voice, coaxing you to love your thighs or belly. 

Don’t pick this book up if you are looking for easy answers to the body shame you’ve been carrying for decades.

Do pick up this book if you want to wake up to all the ways we have been indoctrinated into body shame, all the ways we perpetuate body shame and oppression.

Do pick up this book if you want to be transformed on a deep, sacred, level.

Do pick up this book if you are ready to embody radical self-love.

A sentence I underlined:

Radical self-love demands that we see ourselves and others in the fullness of our complexities and intersections and that we work to create space for those intersections.

“Barbara the Slut and Other People” stories by Lauren Holmes

In Mexico City the customs light lit up green, which was lucky because I had fifty pairs of underwear with tags on them in my suitcase.

How could I not buy this book when that is the first sentence that greets me? And every story had that same kind of edgy first line that just drew me in. 

These stories are poignant yet laugh-out-loud funny at times. They explore the tangles of our emotional and physical lives as the characters navigate relationships with others and themselves.

A woman learns that she prefers the company of her dog to the foreign guy she was having a fling with who has somehow set up camp in her apartment. A woman who graduated law school decides to sell sex toys instead of practicing law.

Each story is fearless and precise. A voice to watch for sure. 

A sentence I underlined:

 My mom and I were going to stop to break up with my boyfriend on our way to Emerald Isle, but the muffler fell off my car right before we got to the exit we needed to take to Raleigh, and my mom said we couldn’t stop anymore. 

“Half Wild” stories by Robin Mac Arthur

“You want to jump in the creek?” my mother asks.

The title of this collection is perfect. Each story and the collection itself feels like they are half wild—the settings as well as the emotional terrain.

Each story seems to linger at the edge between the wilderness and populated areas, between the wild space of the hearts of the characters and the lives they are actually living.

So many sentences took my breath away. I longed to linger in the wilderness of each story. An amazing debut collection.

A paragraph I underlined:

What is it about fields? The way they make all directions viable. The way they give houses, porches, voices perspective. The way the word itself—fields—makes you capable of heading toward that porch with its smoke and laughter, or toward the woods, where you could quietly and, without a sound, start walking.

“The Possibilities” a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings

I pretend that I’m not from here.

I’ve been a huge fan of Hemmings long before her novel,”The Descendants’” was made into a movie starring George Clooney and  Shailene Woodley. I used to devour her blog, “How to Party with an infant” when I had infants myself. 

Her latest novel is another dive into the complex emotional terrain we are all called on to navigate at some point in our lives. This time, Sarah St. John is reeling from the death of her 22-year-old son, Cully, from an avalanche.

They live in a resort ski town in Colorado where she hosts a TV show for the guests of a resort, giving them tips on where to go, what to do, where to eat. But after her son’s death, it seems pointless.  

When a strange girl shows up at her home, with a secret related to her son, it turns everyone’s lives inside out.

Hemmings explores the rocky terrain of grief with honesty and compassion. It feels real, not like what somebody thinks it might be like to lose a child, but how it actually is.

Set against a backdrop of a town whose soul purpose is to entertain and provide and escape from reality while the tourists visit, Sarah and her family and friends are immersed in the complicated reality of their own lives.

A passage I underlined:

We all look around at the well-dressed people of the surrounding rooms. Everything harkens back to a time when people had the same problems yet used a different language.

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A Love Letter to Indie Bookstores.

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Image found here.

“Consumers control the marketplace by deciding where to spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read the book. This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.”

~ Ann Patchett, bestselling author and co-owner of Parnassus Books

Dear Indie Bookstores,

Thank you.

Thank you for your love of books, of stories, of community.

Thank you for standing strong in the face of e-books and on-line selling.

Thank you for your passion.

That you for knowing the difference between fiction and non-fiction. (I’ve been to chain stores where this was not the case.)

Thank you for not only knowing what book I am trying to describe but offering another book I might like as well.

Thank you for being a third place for us to gather, allowing neighborhoods to thrive.

I love how you support writers, how you give them a platform to connect with their readers.

I love how you respect your customers by knowing us, knowing books and knowing the communities you are part of.

I love how when I walk into an indie bookstore anywhere in the world, my soul feels like it has come home.

 

The Company of other Writers.

Write Smart, Write Happy

Today, I find myself sitting at the bookstore cafe with a grande soy chai, notebook and laptop open. Not an unusual scenario.

What is unusual, these days, is for me to be drawn to a book on writing. A book that promises to help me “become a more productive, resilient, and successful writer.”

Now, I used to devour these books daily when I first knew I wanted to write. It was how I taught myself to write. I read books on writing fiction, writing essays, writing from prompts, writing practice, the writing life, writing goals. You name it, I bought it and read it. What I didn’t do was write very much.

Oh, I’d write Morning Pages and I filled notebooks with writing practice gleaned from Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones.” I loved how she made writing so much more accessible by declaring that just as an athlete practiced drills or a pianist practiced scales, a writer also needed to practice. It bought writing back from that lofty pedestal I had placed it on. It took the fear out of it by calling it practice.

I hunkered down into my writing practice for years, filling notebook upon notebook. The problem was, I got stuck in practicing. Don’t get me wrong. It served me well. I learned to put pen to page and write under pretty much any circumstance. I learned how to make space and time for writing in the life I was currently living ( a stay-at-home mom with young children) instead of waiting for the perfect time. I learned to write past my censor.

But I didn’t use what I had learned to actually get in the game of writing. When I finally began writing stories, taking classes and workshops, that’s where the bulk of my learning took place. Writing and finishing stories taught me how to write.

I’ve written dozens of short stories, some published, some not. I have a completed novel-in-stories (looking for an agent). I am well into my second novel, about 6o,000 words into the first book of a YA fantasy trilogy and am beginning to gather notes for a memoir on writing and yoga.

So, with all that writing under my belt, why  do I find myself drawn to this particular book today?

Because it’s a process.

Because I am always a student.

Because I am not afraid to be a beginner.

Because of course I want to be a more productive, resilient and successful writer.

Because now I know that I can read a book like this but, more importantly, I know I have to follow through with action: writing, querying, submitting, reading, setting goals and meeting those goals.

I know there are no quick fixes or shortcuts to being a writer.

I know that merely reading about becoming a successful writer is not enough but I am humble enough to be open to advice from others along the path.

I know that I am willing to put in the hard work necessary. And these kinds of books feel like my own personal cheerleading squad, telling me I can do it. Telling me that I am not alone.

Telling me that it’s okay, that we can walk this path together.

I am grateful for their company.

Books Read in January + February.

Jan. Feb. books

“The Year of Less- How I stopped shopping, gave away my belongings, and discovered life is worth more than anything you can buy in a store” by Cait Flanders

The idea was born on a trail, as many of mine seem to be.

I’m a sucker for writers that take on a challenge and write about it. It inspires me to take on my own challenges of adding things into my life or taking them away. It’s always a lesson in mindfulness.

After pulling herself out of $30K in credit card debt, Flanders found herself slipping back into old patterns. To break the pattern, she decided to set herself a new challenge: she wouldn’t shop for an entire year.

She made rules as to what was allowed on the shopping ban and what definitely was not. She found she had to adjust the rules along the way but they provided a necessary structure. While I was inspired by how much she was able to save and the changes she made in her life, it fascinated me how it impacted her relationships. Just as when somebody is on a diet or choosing to be sober, choosing to not spend money triggered interesting reactions. Like offering a sober person beer, some people tempted her with shopping. Or she found that a lot of her social life revolved around buying things just as much of our social life revolves around food and drink. What happens when you step out of the normal activities that bond people? And she was dealing with both: a shopping ban and continuing her sobriety.

A sentence that really resonated with me:

“But there were really only two categories I could see: the stuff I used, and the stuff I wanted the ideal version of myself to use…There were books I thought smart Cait should read, clothes I thought professional Cait would wear, projects I thought creative Cait could tackle…I would do it all one day, and become a better person one day.”

“Behold the Dreamers” a novel by Imbolo Mbue

He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview.

This timely novel takes us deep into the lives a family desperate to stay in America, to live the life they have always dreamed of, a life not possible in their home country.

Jende Jonga lands a dream job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Jende is making money, he carries a briefcase, wears a suit. He drives Clark and his wife Cindy and son Mighty wherever they need to go on any given day. His wife, Neni, is able to go to school to pursue her dream of becoming a pharmacist. Then the financial crisis hits and things begin to fall apart quickly. Cracks within the Edwards’ marriage begin to show as do cracks within the marriage of Jenge and Neni, everyone desperate for things to stay as they have been even as it all is shifting beneath their feet. It’s a beautiful, compassionate glimpse into lives of immigrants dreaming of a better life, the obstacles to realizing that dream and what they are willing to do to achieve it.

A line I love:

“They would lose the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers. They would lose the chance to be awed and inspired by amazing things happening in the country, incredible inventions and accomplishments by men an women who look like them.”

“My Friend Fear- Finding Magic in the Unknown” by Meera Lee Patel

Like everyone, I came into this world without fear.

That first sentence just grabbed me. We aren’t born with fear, we learn fear. So that must mean that we can unlearn it. This beautiful book is filled with Patel’s personal exploration of how fear has manifested in her life alongside her lovely watercolor drawings and questions that demand reflection. It provided an insightful conversation at the yoga studio book club I facilitate and it is a book I will return to again and again as I learn how to unlearn fear and make it my friend.

A line I love:

“I thought about bodies another imperfections and why we carry them around as unforgivable symbols of who we really are.”

“Bluets” by Maggie Nelson

  1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen love with a color.

Describing this slender yet powerful volume as a lyrical essay or prose poetry does not do it justice. Nelson uses the color blue as a prism though which to reflect on everything from philosophy to saints, desire to religion, physical pain to soul pain with the thread of lost love woven throughout connecting and illuminating the whole. Beautifully explored, beautifully written.

A sentence I love:

“I am writing all this down in blue ink, so as to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water.”

“A Selfie as Big as the Ritz” stories by Lara Williams

And so it begins. You graduate university.

The women that populate these stories are searching for something: love, desire, companionship and ultimately, to be seen. Several stories use the second person POV reminding me of Ann Beattie but Williams’ voice and perspective are fresh and unique, as are each of these quirky yet deeply moving stories.

A sentence I love that made me laugh out loud:

“He sniffs the bell and turns from you, slowly, hopping onto the bed and sitting down, with a calculation you cannily describe as sociopathic.”

Books Read in November + December.

“Deep Work- Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport

In the Swiss canton of St. Gallen, near the northern banks of Lake Zurich, is a village named Bollingen.

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This book popped up on my radar via Ben Percy just as my own attention was feeling frayed into nothingness. And I am really hard on myself about this. I feel like I should be able to just say no to social media. Just not check it. When I see another writer who I really admire and who appears to have an incredible work ethic struggling with the same kind of thing, I was intrigued enough to get the book.

Weaving together science, cultural criticism and actionable steps to take today, Newport makes a strong case for finding ways to drop deeply into your work whether it is writing, coding or gardening. He defines “deep work” as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. He makes the case that work that emerges from this state is more valuable thus making you more valuable to your company, clients, the world.

At times, his advice seems a bit stringent but it works for him. The point is to get us to be able to drop into our work, have the time to mull and experiment and just be present without being pulled in a million different directions by others, by technology, by our own impulses.

Since finishing this book, I took the step of taking Twitter off my phone. A small step for sure but with huge benefits. I am not drawn into the 24/7 drama that sends me spinning off into a turmoil of rage or despair. I feel calmer, more focused, two thing that will help me sink into deep work.

A line I love:

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

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“Braving the Wilderness- The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to stand Alone” by Brené Brown

When I start writing, I inevitably feel myself swallowed by fear.

I chose this for the book club I facilitate at our yoga studio not knowing that much of the book was born out of the extreme division our country is facing. At first I was a little nervous about selecting this, about bringing politics into the space. But it was a perfect choice, a necessary and timely read for everyone.

Brown says, “It’s about breaking down the walls, abandoning our idealogical bunkers, and living from our wild heart rather that our weary heart.”

My own heart lit up at that. Yes! Exactly. My heart and soul have felt battered and incredibly weary over this past year. And it is so easy to stay in my tribe of like-minded, liberal leaning people who agree with everything I say, everything I post. But there’s a whole other world out there. A whole other part of the country that voted for this man, wanting something from him that they felt they couldn’t get any other way.

Brown guides us through her research and stories about belonging, not belonging, the need to belong, the need to stand alone out in the wilderness of our truth.

A line I love:

No matter how separated we are by what we think and believe, we are part of the same spiritual story.

And this:

True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.

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“When Women Were Birds- Fifty-four Variation on Voice” by Terry Tempest Williams

I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died.

This book had been on my radar for years. Recently, it began popping up a lot. Friends would talk about it, recommend it to me, I’d stumble across it on-line. One day I was writing in my journal about voice, using voice as a theme for my Poses, Pens + Inner Peace class that I teach when I saw that the subtitle of the book was “Fifty-four Variations on Voice.” Okay, okay, I got the not so subtle hint. I needed to read this book. So I ordered it, it arrived and I read it in two days.

I fell in love with every page, every word.

I read with a pen in my hand underling those sentences that made my skin tingle. Honestly I could have just underlined every single sentence.

I m still processing what I read and I will most definitely read it again. For now let me leave you with the blurb by Susan Salter Reynolds:

“Williams is the kind of writer who makes a reader feel [her] voice might also, one day, be heard….She cancels out isolation: Connections are woven as you sit in your chair reading—between you and the place you live, between you and other readers, you and the writer. Without knowing how it happened, your sense of home is deepened.”

That last line especially resonates with me. My sense of home has been deepened—home as the house I live in, the place I inhabit, the place in time, my body as home, community as home, writing as home.

I love the structure of the book, how one section echoes the one before it but takes you to a completely different and unexpected place. How she made the bold choice to have empty pages within her book. How lists are woven through the prose.

The writing, the story is simply stunning.

Some lines I love:

My mother’s voice is a lullaby in my cells.

Word by word, the language o women so often begins with a whisper.

She exposed the truth of what every  woman knows: to find our sovereign voice often requires a betrayal.

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“Little Fires Everywhere” a novelty Celeste Ng

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

The pace of this novel doesn’t slow down from that first line as we become enmeshed in the lives of the Richardson family and their new tenants, Mia and Pearl Warren. Mia is the anti-Shaker Heights. the city is a well planned, well thought out suburb of Cleveland, everything is orderly and rules are essential to the success of the town and the residents. Mia Warren is a n artist who doesn’t plan, her life is a pieced together to give her enough money and time to create her art. Her presence shakes the stars quo and the people of Shaker Heights up as alliances are made and broken and secrets come to light.

A passage I love:

She had never seen an adult cry like that, with such an animal sound. Recklessly. As if there were nothing more to be lost.

How about you? Why have you been reading lately?

A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I am going to feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

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This book saved me. I read it when I was a new mother myself. It was before I had found my circle of other mom friends. I was far from family, my husband was often on the road for his job so it was just me and the girls. Her daily reflections sustained me through the dark times when I was exhausted, had no idea what I was doing and felt incredibly alone and lonely. It wasn’t a sugar-coated version of motherhood. It wasn’t the Hallmark version. It was real. It was honest.

Exhausted, she leans over the bassinet as her son wakes up from his nap and thinks, with great hostility, “Oh, God, he’s raising his loathsome reptilian head again.”

I laughed out loud, I cried and found solace in her words. Here was another mom going through the same joys, the same shit, the same despair, day after day. She gave me permission to not enjoy every single aspect of motherhood even though it would go by so fast. By being herself, she gave me permission to be more of myself.

 “We had another bad night. We finally slept for two hours t 7:00 AM. What a joke. I feel like thin glass, like I might crack.”

Books Read in September + October.

Sept Oct books read

“My Name is Lucy Barton” a novel by Elizabeth Strout

There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks.

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Lucy Barton goes in to have her appendix out—a rather routine procedure that turns out to be anything but routine. Complications lead her to be in the hospital for nine weeks. During that time, her estranged mother comes to visit, staying at her bedside, at times almost feeling like an apparition from Lucy’s past as they both pull up stories of people and places from their fragmented yet shared history. Below the surface of their conversations lays a thread of tension that has been present throughout Lucy’s life. The more they talk to, at and around each other the more that tension flashes to the surface before disappearing into the depths of time once again. This novel reminded me of Dani Shapiro’s memoir, “Hourglass.” They both explore time and the passage of time in such a beautiful way, the way it informs our lives and how we move through it together and, ultimately, alone.

A sentence I love: “Maybe it was the darkness with only the pale crack of light that came through the door, the constellation of the magnificent Chrysler Building right beyond us, that allowed us to speak in ways we never had.”

“Hunger- A Memoir of (My) Body” by Roxane Gay

Every body has a story and a history.

From the first sentence, Roxane Gay takes on through the intimate story and history of her body, as she sees it, as she looks back on it, as she experienced it and as she continues to experience it.

While her life could decidedly be broken in half after a horrific act of violence between before and after, Gay spirals her story back and forth through time, edging closer to something then backing away again, the way we often do with our own history.

This is a powerful, vulnerable and incredibly honest look at one woman’s relationship with her body, how she inhabits it, how she doesn’t, how she moves through space, how she doesn’t and how people and society at large respond to her and how they don’t.

A sentence I love: “I live in a contradictory space where I should try to take up space but not too much of it, and not in the wrong way, where the wrong way is any way where my body is concerned.”

“We All Looked Up” a YA novel by Tommy Wallbach

“It’s not the end of the world,” Stacy said.

It’s not, at least not at this particular teenage angsty moment  that Peter is turning over in his mind. But the meteor that they soon learn is headed toward earth could possibly be the literal end of the world. President Obama went on television and told them as much. He said they had about two months left. Two months? To do what? There was no way to prepare for such an event. Nowhere to hide, no where to be safe. So what do you do? Go on living your mundane life, going to school, doing homework, studying for tests? To what end? If there is no future to work toward, how do you spend your time? These are questions that a group of high school students must wrestle with not only theoretically, but in reality. Each chapter tells a different point of view until they weave together to reveal a story of what we do in the face of death, something we do at some level every single day, but how do things change, how do people change when it no longer is some vague prospect way off in a very distant future but is coming at you within the space of two months?

A sentence I love: “Every other human quality was hidden easily enough—intelligence, talent, selfishness, even madness—but beauty would not be concealed.”

“Turtles All the way Down” a YA novel by John Green

At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis called White River High School.

Turtles+All+The+Way+Down+transparentPart love story, friend story, mystery as well as a deep exploration of what it means to grieve, to lose, to deal with mental illness, John Green weaves these all together in my favorite book of his to date.

Aza struggles with anxiety. Because much of the struggle is on the inside even her Best and Most Fearless Friend Daisy has trouble comprehending the depth of Aza’s pain.

When a billionaire goes missing and a hundred-thousand dollar reward is offered for info leading to his return, Aza and Daisy jump into the mystery unaware of what exactly they are getting themselves into.

Green gets into the psyche of today’s teens with his usual grace and the way he allows us access to Aza’a mind as it continually spirals out of her control is something that will stay with me for a long, long time.

A sentence I love: “I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: It was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.”

“Teaching People, Not Poses- 12 Principles for Teaching Yoga with Integrity” by Jay Fields

As for many people, my yoga teacher training changed my life.

This slim volume packs a lot of wisdom for the new or seasoned teacher. Each principle is followed by suggestions on how to actually use the advice she gives. I felt like I walked away with tools I could use to be more grounded in integrity as a teacher and also as a complicated human with my own set of flaws and gifts and challenges.

A sentence I love: “It’s about playing your part to help create a world full of people who have the courage and the spirit to set aside fear and to live in alignment with their deepest, truest most full self.”

Books Read June-August.

Books June-Sept

“Alice & Oliver” a novel by Charles Bock

There she was, Alice Culvert, a little taller than most, her figure fuller than she would have liked.

Looking back it is interesting that the novel starts with her physical looks, and the mundane concerns so many women have about their bodies. Those concerns are swiftly replaced by literal life and death concerns with Alice’s sudden cancer diagnosis. Her life as a fashion designer, wife and new mother morphs into life as a patient fighting for her life. We get an intimate look at a marriage and what it means to vow to stay together in sickness and in health. Flaws that every marriage has are magnified under such duress. We are also offered a realistic look into our feeble healthcare system as Oliver struggles to handle not only the day-today care of their infant, Doe, but the monetary costs of a life threatening illness as he navigates the insurance labyrinth.

A passage I love:

She raised her head from the stretcher; snow stung her cheeks. For long moments she almost believed some peculiar form of magic was indeed waiting for her. Alice could not help herself: she extended her tongue.

 

“The Bright Hour- A Memoir of Living and Dying” by Nina Riggs

The call comes when John is away at a conference in New Orleans.

Yes, I read this memoir about cancer and a marriage right after reading the novel about cancer and a marriage. Not on purpose. Got a little freaked out that the Universe was trying to tell me something. Prepare me for something.

Nina Riggs is a poet, wife and mother who is diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer at the age of 37. It all started with one small spot. Within a year, she was terminal. Through her poet’s eye and mind, she is able to look carefully within and around her to describe what it is like to live “with death in the room.” She calls on writers she has loved over the years to help her make sense of this new, brief yet full world she is now living in. She manages to make us laugh as she becomes determined to find the perfect couch to leave behind for her family and to laugh and cry as she reveals conversations with her husband and sons. It is a breathtaking book that calls on us all to live each moment fully no matter how close death is standing next to us. Because, really, we never truly now how close it may be.

A passage I love that breaks my heart:

Around 4 a.m. I feel his hand on my back. “I’m so afraid I can’t breathe,” he whispers.

“I know,” I say, scootching a little toward him but still facing away, “So am I.”

 

“The Vacationers” a novel by Emma Straub

Leaving always came as a surprise, no matter how long the dates had been looming on the calendar.

I meant to take this on vacation with me back in May because reading about a vacation on vacation sounded fun. But then I forgot to pack it. It all worked out though because reading this book felt like a vacation in itself as she described the lush scenery, the scrumptious food.

The Posts, Franny and Jim, are on a two-week trip to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. Their daughter, Sylvia who has just graduated high school is looking to lose her virginity before heading off to college. Their son Bobby comes with his older girlfriend who is a fitness buff and rubs Franny the wrong way. Franny’s best friend, Charles has come with his husband. Everyone’s problems has followed them to this beautiful vacation spot. As a food writer, Franny throws herself into feeding her family and friends all while a seething resentment lurks just beneath the surface. Over the course of 14 days, things that are hidden are revealed and things that should be revealed stay hidden. A funny, touching glimpse into the messiness of family and friendship.

A sentence that made me laugh out loud:

Like most things, sex got better with age until one hit a certain plateau, and then it was like breakfast, unlikely to change unless one ran out of milk and was forced to improvise.

 

“The Accomplished Guest” stories by Ann Beattie

“There’s no copyright on titles,” he said. ”It wouldn’t be a good idea, probably, to call something Death of a Salesman, but you could do it.”

I remember reading her first collection, “Distortions” and had no idea it had been published 40 years ago. When I was first learning to write, I would read her stories, each one seeming like its own little master class in the form.

These feel the same way. Entering a short story by Ann Beattie is to enter a world fully formed. In this collection people wander in and out of each other’s lives as guests, as hosts, as visitors. The settings will be familiar to Beattie fans: strewn up and down the east Coast from Maine to Key West. Spanning events from birthdays to anniversaries, all explore reunions with people we used to know and the people we all used to be.

A sentence I love for its sensuality:

He broke off a bit of bread and breathed in its yeasty aroma; he pushed the point of his knife into some sunflower-yellow butter, well tempered, and smeared it over the bread’s pocked surface.

 

“Morningstar- Growing Up with Books” by Ann Hood

When I was four years old, for reasons no one in my family could explain, I picked up my older brother Skip’s reading book and read it.

I love reading about how books have influenced lives, especially when it’s the life of a writer I adore like Ann Hood. She takes us on a journey through her life via the books that wormed their way into her psyche, helping to form the woman she became. We learn about the books of her teen years from The Bell Jar to Marhjorie Mornigstar. We learn what books stoked her political fire and which led her to want to travel the world. It’s a beautiful tribute to books, to reading and how they can change—or even save—our lives.

A sentence I love for reading my own heart:

But not to me—no, I understood that I would always buy books, that I was a reader and a writer and that to be surrounded by books would always bring me comfort.

 

“Walks with Men” fiction by Ann Beattie

In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him.

I came across this slim volume of fiction nestled in the used books stacks of a local bookstore. An Ann Beattie book I hadn’t read yet? Sold!

I guess, technically, this would be considered a novella. But it really seems to exist outside of a genre. It echoes Beattie’s own trajectory as a successful young woman arriving in New York City, ready to be a writer and all that entails.

No sooner has Jane, a valedictorian from Harvard, arrived in the city when she strikes up an odd yet intense deal/relationship with Neil, a writer 20 years older than her. He promises to tell her anything at all, as long as it is unattributed and that nobody knows about their relationship. Having been in a secret relationship myself at one point, I wanted to scream, No, run. Don’t do it. Of course, Jane doesn’t run. She stays and Neil proceeds to educate her by laying out rules from wearing only raincoats made in England to having sex in an airplane bathroom. His certainty about everything both seduces and repels Jane. When his certainty is found to be a mask for his deceptions, Jane must decide who she is and who she wants to be.

A sentence I love for surprising me:

Sailors know how to train their eyes on the horizon to avoid seasickness. When you’re landlocked in New York City, look at the farthest curb, which, in its own way, is the horizon line.

 

“Night” by Elie Wiesel

They called him Moshe the Beadle, as though he had never had a surname in his life.

I’ve had this book on my shelves for over twenty years. I remember Oprah mentioned it on her show and I went out and bought but could never quite bring myself to sit down and actually read it. Well, with everything going on in our country right now and in the world, it felt imperative that I read it.

After reading it, it feels imperative that we all read it.

As a young Jewish boy, Wiesel and his family are rounded up and carted off to concentration camps. What horrified me was how even as it was happening, they didn’t really believe it was happening. They believed that somebody would stop it. That it wouldn’t be allowed to go so far. Perhaps the idea of such unadulterated evil is too hard for the human mind to process.

It was hard for me to process as I read it. It’s a first hand account of what it was like to be targeted based on your religion, deemed less than by others who sought to erase your very existence.

I read every word.

We should all read every word.

And heed every word.

Before it’s too late.

A passage that haunts me:

Night. No one prayed, so that the night would pass quickly. The stars were only sparks of the fire which devoured us. Should that fire die out one day, there would be nothing left in the sky but dead stars, dead eyes.

 

List: Top 5 Books that Illuminated my Writing Path.

I love lists so each Saturday my plan is to share a list of some sort,                                    covering a range of topics

five books

These are the top five books that started me on the writing path and that I turn to again and again.

  1. “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg. This is the absolute first book that offered me a glimmer of recognition that perhaps I could write. Actually, that I must write.
  2. “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott She helped and continues to help me loosen the grip of perfectionism by taking it word by word, allowing myself to write shitty first drafts and writing what I can see through a 1-inch picture frame.
  3. “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson As he takes us meticulously through his process of writing one particular short story, Carlson reminds of the importance of doing the work, of staying in the room even when—especially when—I want leave.
  4. “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long This is a book about process and craft but it goes deep into all the layers of craft far beyond character, plot and setting. Never fails to get my pen moving again.
  5. “Still Writing” by Dani Shapiro I have read this gem at least three times, maybe four and am currently reading it each morning as I eat my breakfast and drink tea at my desk before plunging into my own writing. Her honest reflection of the writing life comforts me as I continue to show up to the page and to my own writing life.

What books illuminate the writer in you? Please share in the comments!

Five on Friday.

Each Friday I try to share five links that made me think, inspired me or I just found entertaining throughout the week.

  1. This whet my appetite for more international travel.
  2. Pretty sure I’ve had ALL these feelings.
  3. I love doing this kind of workout when I don’t have a lot of time.
  4. A great resource for vegan recipes. And these brownies look ah-may-zing!
  5. One of the best pieces I’ve read on the horror that descended on Charlottesville.