Maybe it’s because it’s the holidays and I’m busy with other stuff. Or because my seasonal sentimentality makes it hard to let go. Or because every nightstand should have a reference—and reverence—section. Whatever the reason, several wonderful books seem to have taken up permanent residence on mine, and I’m happy to have them there.
The Age of Desire by former classmate Jennie Fields is a marvel of pacing. I’ll spare you the parallels with sex, but believe me, they’re there. This historical novel about writer Edith Wharton and her long-time secretary/confidant Anna Bahlmann is also a compelling example of how to write a complex character you deeply love, less than admirable qualities and all.
Lunch Bucket Paradise by Fred Setterberg is a reminder of how much more you can accomplish in a “true life novel” than just telling a good story. This funny, poignant, ribald, wistful, somewhat autobiographical tale captures a generation’s place in recent California history and the impact they had on where Left Coasters find themselves today. And the imaginary soundtrack is irresistible.
On a Farther Shore by William Souder, if it weren’t so well-written, would still be an astonishingly comprehensive biography of a woman who’s impact on ecology and the environment we are only now coming to fully appreciate. A straightforward accounting of how Rachel Carson’s passion for biology developed would have been sufficient cause for celebration. But this is sooooooooo much more! It reads like a great mystery, with Souder doling out clues from countless myriad sources and expertly guiding readers to form their own conclusions about the behind-the-scenes political, medical, legislative, and global consequences of messing with Mother Nature. A science nerd with an arsenal of well-honed fiction techniques is a wonderful thing.
Fobbit by David Abrams came to my attention long before it made all the “best of” lists, so if I’m totally honest, it may continue to hang in its current locale as a testament to my ability to spot good lit. Preconceptions made me reluctant to tackle a “war novel,” a decidedly guy read. But this author is a very funny fellow in a deadly serious setting, and the images were so fresh, so evocative, the characters so vivid, I soon lost all trepidation. In addition to the dangers inherent in all wars, Abrams shows us the mind-numbing boredom—and intermittent terror—of deployment in a land devoid of recognizable vestiges of home, relentlessly scoured by blowing sand. In a near-subliminal assault on the senses, he made me taste the grit, smell the latrines, feel the furnace-blast air, hear the clumsy clack of unsynchronized computer keyboards, observe the unspeakable horror of pink mist from a Forward Operating Base in Iraq.
Crazy Brave is by another former classmate, Joy Harjo. My initial response to this tight, wrenching, and ultimately transcendent memoir was one of incredulity that an abused teen mom from an Oklahoma rez could become a world-renown poet, musician, and some would argue shaman. But her reverence for and connection with the natural and spiritual worlds came into sharp focus this week as I watched Joy’s Tel Aviv saga unfold on Facebook. Invited to the university long before the current violence, she endured a barrage of criticism from detractors who thought she should have boycotted. Her responses were reasoned and wise, emblematic of the “crazy brave” who escaped the treachery of a stifling upbringing to reveal the soul of a poet who deals in universal truths and sees goodness in ALL life. If you ever have a chance to hear her read, drop everything and go. She has a haunting voice, and if you’re really lucky, she’ll do a few riffs on her sax as well.
Have You Seen Marie? is by yet another former classmate, Sandra Cisneros. I reviewed this small but mighty volume shortly after its release in October, but have admired it for much longer, ever since Sandra emailed me an unillustrated version when my mom died last winter. I keep it always at hand, for the beautiful pictures by Ester Hernández and the tranquility available in its pages. At a candlelight vigil for the three-year-old son of a dear friend who lost his battle with cancer yesterday, surrounded by friends and strangers united by one tiny soul and his amazing family, I realized I need another copy of Marie to give to them. I want it to be there when they are ready to read in the Afterword Sandra’s revelation that “I wish somebody had told me love does not die, that we can continue to receive and give love after death. This news is so astonishing to me even now, I wonder why it isn’t flashed across the bottom of the television screen on CNN.”
We Wanted to Be Writers by Eric Olsen (with an introductory chapter by Glenn Schaeffer). Even though I’ve lost track of the number of times I read this book before it was published and when I was working on the index, I never tire of its contents. Nepotism aside, it’s a writers’ guide to what it means to be one, full of hard-won advice and inspiration from a bunch of people who know whereof they speak. And it’s funny!
Among the TBRs are Alan Heathcock’s Volt, not because I’m anxious to dive into the murky depths of violence and loss and hopelessness, but to put myself in the hands of a master storyteller. And to try to traverse the great divide between his bleak stories and the Puckish prankster on Heathcock’s social media pages who posts countless pictures of his kids and their artistic endeavors, who clearly loves his wife, and enjoys rearranging neighbors’ Christmas reindeer in suggestive positions.
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild because I was hooked after the first paragraph of the excerpt in Vogue lo so many months ago, and, let’s face it, I don’t want to be the only person on the planet who hasn’t read it. Also because I believe memoir in the right hands can transform in ways unavailable to other genres. And these are undeniably the right hands.
What else should I be reading?