It’s been a while since I’ve plugged a book on here, not because I haven’t been reading (I’m always reading!). I loved Karl Ove Knausg?rd’s My Struggle Books One and Two, for example, loved them because they took me so fully back to my time in Norway and because?Knausg?rd manages to elevate the?domestic to the sublime, to make regular old life seem like something very powerful and profound indeed. And I’ve been slowly but gratefully working my way through Bonnie Jo Campbell’s book of short stories Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Currently, I’m turning most of my attention to my book club book for next month, a non-fiction number called Midnight in Broad Daylight by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, which, if not entirely my cup of tea, is a good story nonetheless.
In Holding Silvan, Wesolowska describes how, after a seemingly normal pregnancy, labor, and delivery, her newborn baby is?determined to have massive brain damage?so massive that doctors predict it is only his brain stem that will ever fire. What happens next is the process of letting this baby, who will have no life to speak of beyond the one he could be afforded on machines, die.
It’s been a while since a book has affected me as physically or as intensely as Holding Silvan did. As I emailed to Monica the next day:
“During the part when Silvan is actively dying?if that’s not an oxymoron?I felt this almost physical energy tugging at my body, at my uterus and breasts and forehead, almost pulling me forward and out of my chair. Every fiber of me that’s a mother felt his dying, and I just read and read and sobbed and sobbed until L came in to see why I was crying and I just wanted to grab onto him and?hold.?This may sound overwrought, since our losses are so tiny in comparison to yours, but while I was reading and crying I also felt like I was healing some of the difficulties of our past five years, trying to have another baby, losing a seven-week fetus when we found out it was ectopic (and I nearly bled to death), all the near misses and dashed hopes…”
I did?I sat in my living room and sobbed for what felt like hours. And while that may not seem like the most ringing endorsement?I know some of you want reads that are “uplifting,” I have to say that my gratitude for this book, for its beautiful, careful prose, its pacing, and the lessons in it about letting go, death, and motherhood, were so profound to me that I think in a way it IS an uplifting book.
I hope you read it, and I hope when you do that you buy it from your local bookstore (ahem) or, if you must, from Powells or Amazon. And pass it on. And buy a copy for someone else you know. Monica’s book was put out by an independent?press, the terrific Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon,?and with independent press books it’s always a big help to spread the word, grassroots style.
Happy, poignant reading,
If you’re looking for more great memoirs, check this?and this out.
You know how the song goes:?Deck the Halls with Books, Books, and More Books.?That’s right, folks: in case you missed the obvious signs?muzak carols, Black Friday sales, Cyber Monday ads, the Northeast dumped with snow, and Christmas decorations flooding out the doors of Walgreen’s, not to mention the giant trees lit up?in every town square?it’s that time again.
Despite being an agnostic-verging-on-atheist who decries commercialism and doesn’t let her kid eat a ton of sugar, I have a particular weakness for Christmas. I love the short days, especially when, come six pm, my cup is filled with a festive glass of red wine or a stiff eggnog. I find myself following all the Christmas traditions we had as kids: the Christmas calendar, which “elves” fill with goodies every night for my son during Advent; listening to Amahl and the Night Visitors while we decorate the Christmas ficus; the extravagant brunch we eat on Christmas day, whether we’re celebrating with my family or not; and giving gifts to my loved ones. This time of year is rife with possibility for great gift-giving: in addition to Christmas, there’s the eery and magical Solstice, on December 21; Kwanzaa, starting on the 26th; and of course Hannukah, starting on?December 16?which means that as of this writing, you still have between 14?and 24 days to purchase (or make!) gifts for the favorite writer or reader on your list.
And so, without further ado, I present?my 2014 Literary Gift Guide.
Grab yourself an eggnog and start reading.
The Secret Garden panties, courtesy of Lauren Carroll and superpowerstudio.
1. Literary Undies? Why the heck not??Lauren Carroll at superpowerstudio has cooked up these beautiful, comfortable, upcycled (this is key: they’re NOT recycled underpants!) underwear for women. Here’s the literary gem: The Secret Garden. And they’re packaged nicely, too.?
You can find these and more (Lemon Ice! High Tea! The Life Aquatic!) on etsy.
3. Is reading sexy??Yes, it is.?As usual, books make great gifts. My favorite reads of the past year include Run by Ann Patchett, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Hamid Mohsin, and Just Kids by Patti Smith. On my to-read list is Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Meghan Daum’s book of essays called The Unspeakable (in case you missed my “Personal Essays that will Gut You” post, you can find a link to one of those essays here.) Here are some other great resources for finding out what books were the talk of the town in 2014: A talk with New York Times editor Pamela Paul on KQED’s show “Forum,” with Michael Krasny, and The Best Books of the Year, from The Guardian (two parts!). And here’s a plug for your local bookseller: buy your books from them, not Amazon. That is all.
The dark watchers, creatures not unlike the elves who fill my son’s Advent calendar.
4. Here’s another?beautiful book:?In Search of?The Dark Watchers, with paintings by my incredibly talented father-in-law, Benjamin Brode, and text by his good friend Thom Steinbeck (yup, you guessed it: John Steinbeck’s son). You can pick yourself up a copy here.?Softcover is $40; the exquisite hard cover is $125.
5. Of course, if your giftee isn’t into books (for shame!), there are always magazines and literary journals. Consider supporting?the journal Rock & Sling (current issue features poems by me and my pal Mike Dockins!).
6.?A desk. No, I’m serious. Your favorite writer probably writes at her kitchen table (busted), or on the go. How amazing a gift would a desk be? This blog post by The Writing Nut describes perfectly the best criteria for selecting a writer’s desk.
7. Or maybe you’re thinking smaller.?This website has a whole host of funny mugs (my favorite? “I’m figuratively dying for a cuppa”), as well as other whimsical bits and pieces for your?resident grammar nerd.
8. If you’re feeling crafty, this Pinterest page has some fun ideas for you, like Steampunk Altered Books and origami book marks. Yes!
Last June I posted a list of summer reads, and I thought I’d do the same this year. Looking back, I realize I did okay with my list; I read Wild, All the Pretty Horses, Operating Instructions, and Look at Me, but not necessarily all during the summer, and I ended up bailing on the New Yorker entirely (I finally let my subscription lapse).
What I hoped, readers, was to hear from you. What’s on your summer reading list, or what have you read recently and loved? My acupuncturist got me inspired to read some Jhumpa Lahiri; The California Prose Directory 2013 is on my nightstand now (and I’ll be plugging it next week), and I hope to finally tackle The Big House. I’ve also been pondering going through a Murakami phase. But other than that, I’m a wide-open book (ha!).
What do you recommend? I’ll compile a list, to be posted by summer vacation time. You’ll have to take care of your own beach umbrella and sunscreen.
A friend turned me on to this new Website called Bookish, which works a bit like the Netflix algorithm that says to you, “You may also like…” after you’ve watched a movie and rated it highly. In other words, you plug in a book you like, and Bookish recommends five or ten others you might also like. There’s even a “more like this” button, so you can hone in more closely on a few gems.
I tried it out.
When I typed in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Bookish recommended:
Learning to Fly, by Steph Davis;
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson;
A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson; and
The Expats, by Chris Pavone.
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder yielded these suggestions:
In One Person, by John Irving;
Before I Go to Sleep, by SJ Watson;
Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman; and
The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown.
I haven’t read any of the above books. I guess before I can really recommend Bookish I should read one or two and see how well they did, but I love the concept.
One catch: Bookish, so far anyway, is definitely geared towards new releases. I typed in two of my favorite Modernist classics, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.To the Lighthouse wasn’t even in the database. House of Mirth was, but no suggestions came up. They say they’re adding new books every day, so maybe they’ll get some classics on there, too. I hope so.
Hey, speaking of algorithms, Netflix keeps telling me to watch “The Queen of Versailles.” The cover photo completely turns me off, but Rotten Tomatoes gives it 95% and five stars. Anyone seen it?
I thought it was really interesting that two blog posts today were about the immersive (I think I just made up a word) world of fiction. The Living Notebook writes about Absorption today, about fiction that “brings us further into [a] dream, overwhelming our senses until the dream seems real.”
And over on popcorn, Karen McHegg discusses books that “create a world different from the one [she] lives in.” You can read about those books here.
It made me think: which books have most absorbed me in recent years? My first thought was Emma Donoghue’s brilliant novel Room. I also felt immersed in the strange world of Karen Russel’s Swamplandia and the more-real-yet-also-quite-strange one of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.
Which books have absorbed you lately? Head on over to popcorn and tell Karen McHegg.
And me? Today I’m immersed in three-year-old land. L. had a touch of pinkeye, and I knew I’d get the stink eye if I sent him to school.