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Friday, December 15, 2017

Raising the Dead in 2017

I have been spending a lot of time in cemeteries recently.  Not only did I visit my local favorite, Glenwood Cemetery, several times in the last couple of months, but three of my favorite books in 2017 led me along the paths of graveyards and the undead. The novels were not in the horror genre either. All three books are outstanding fiction and truly some of the best I read this year.

The first of my cemetery books in 2017 was  Lincoln in the Bardo, the first novel by the acclaimed short story and essay writer George Saunders. Called experimental fiction, the book patches together historical truths about the death of Abraham Lincoln's young son, Willie, with a lively chorus of voices of the dead from many different time periods and backgrounds. The book is original and inspiring and completely takes place in a graveyard.

Next was The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman which I read last summer and reviewed here. The living boy Bod is raised in a cemetery by the kindly ghosts who are protecting him from the bad man who killed his family and is trying to murder him as well.  Gaiman weaves an unforgettable tale set guessed it...a graveyard.

Then this fall, I read and loved Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, who I wrote about in this blog post.  As my current favorite Mississippi writer, I read the novel immediately upon its publication this fall. She won her second National book Award for this book. Her first was for Salvage the Bones. Ward had a big year because she also won a MacArthur Genius Grant! But Sing, Unburied Sing happens to also be about ghosts or the unburied, as the title suggests.  The novel tells the story of Jojo, a 13-year-old boy learning what it means to be a man in rural Mississippi. The book is heart wrenching in the details of the struggles of this poor, black family. The ghost in this book is also a 13-year-old boy who carries all the sadness and hurt of the past generations of black men in Mississippi.

It wasn't until I was wandering through Glenwood Cemetery preparing for a workshop for teachers that I will be leading in the new year, that I noticed this theme in my reading. At Glenwood, the dead are very much present. As Jojo's dying grandma says in Sing, "...That don't mean I won't be here, Jojo. I'll be on the other side of the door. With everybody else that's gone before." She continues, "Because we don't walk no straight lines. It's all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once."  The living and the dead co-exist in all three of these novels, as well as Glenwood, a park-like cemetery, where I often go to write. That veil between the living and the dead feels very thin in cemeteries and in these three novels.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Best Medicine

When the world feels particularly scary, I look for a book that makes me laugh and takes me away from thoughts of global disaster.  Domestic disasters seem to cheer me up. 

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny was such a book.  This funny, tender tale of a marriage, the second for him, first for her, made me laugh out loud. Infidelity, house guests, origami, parenting are all covered here through the voice of Graham, the husband. Graham and Audra have been married 11 years and have one son, Matthew. He has Asperger’s and has some eccentric friends, but the book is not about raising a child with a disability. Well, maybe it is in some ways. But it also makes readers smile about daily domestic life and ex-wives. Audra, the wife, is an energetic talker and a people person without filters. Graham’s first wife, Elspeth, comes into their lives and this makes Graham re-consider his marriage and look at his life more closely.

His observations about life are spot on. For example, Graham thinks, “there should be a houseguests’ club, like the kids’ club in a resort, where your houseguest could watch movies and play games and have a snack while you recharged your batteries.” I personally thought this was such a clever idea. Graham also thinks about one of the great paradoxes of parenting as he drops his child off for a play date with a new friend. Graham does not know the parents but is so eager for his child to have a friend, that he just leaves his child with a father that he probably wouldn’t hire to work for him or lend money to or trust to house sit his apartment or valet park his car. “But leave their only child with for two hours? Oh, well, sure, no problem!” He says, “No one tells you shit about parenting ahead of time, really. Well, they do but not anything useful.”

While there were some melancholy moments with hard truths, I mostly laughed throughout this book. And laughter is the best medicine. So thanks to Katherine Heiny, her clever first novel came to me right when I needed it. I’ll be looking for more from this talented author.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Fantasy Summer

Dear readers, 

I have been remiss in updating you on all my reading adventures the last few months. I have no excuse except the usual distractions. Writing articles, teaching writing, reading, lots of travel, family time (a college graduate!) and house shuffling. I have been steadily reading my way through the summer. The best way to keep up with my book list is through Goodreads. I try to rate and write a very brief review as soon as I finish each book and I post every book I've read under My Books.  So follow me on Goodreads and you'll know every book I read and hear (some books are Audible books). 38 books so far in 2017!

I've read some good ones the last six months, but I've been on sort of a slow burn with Neil Gaiman. I'm soaking up his words and I am in awe of his writing. I've long known of him -- read a few of his essays and had his writing tips posted by my desk, but I'd never read a novel by him.  My brother told me to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane and I gave it five stars on Goodreads. I enjoyed this tale so much that I wanted to start it again when I finished. A grown man looks back on his childhood through his memories as a seven year old. The book is fantasy tinged with reality in a glorious tale resonating with truth. Big Truth. Ahhh. My favorite type of book (see earlier review).

Then earlier this summer I read American Gods. Everyone is talking about the television series, but I knew I had to read the book first. Shadow, the ex-con protagonist of the book, is enduring and unforgettable.  He learns about the gods that live in the background of the new world, America, and the battle between the old and the new gods. The book has so many layers and constant action as Shadow faces many obstacles, but finally makes peace with the gods and with himself.

This week I just finished The Graveyard Book, Gaiman's Newberry-award winning book for young and old alike.  The world he creates in a graveyard in England ranks up there with Hogwarts for inventiveness and quirky characters.  I loved this book for all the big reasons I love to read -- traveling to different worlds, accessing magic, meeting great characters, escaping from the ordinary and giving me hope for a broken world.  I know this sounds like a lot from a younger age book but it was really amazing. I came to the end just before midnight and it entered my dreams all night. The magic lingered.  
The book is the story of Nobody Owens, called Bod, a regular boy who is raised by the dead inhabitants of a centuries old graveyard. Bod's family is brutally murdered in the first pages of the book when he is only a toddler. Bod, blissfully unaware of the grisly scene, wanders into the graveyard. The ghosts promise his recently deceased mother that they will raise the child and protect him from the murderer that still seeks for Bod. The book is creepy and fun and just plain enchanting. In his Newberry Medal acceptance speech, printed at the end of the book, Gaiman said he wrote a book he would want to read. He said he had the seed of the idea of The Graveyard Book when he was much younger, but "realized it was a better idea than he was a writer." So he waited and he wrote other books and perfected his craft in then in 2006-2008, he wrote this. He said, "I wrote the best I could. That's the only way I know how to write something."

I was lucky enough to hear Gaiman speak here in Houston earlier this month.  The event was called "An Evening with Neil Gaiman" and it was at the Wortham Theatre, a large venue in Houston. I thought maybe it would be in a smaller venue within the building. But when my friend Evelyn (thank you for the ticket!) and I arrived, we were in the large Brown Theatre and there were literally thousands of fans. The place was sold out. It turns out that the Dark Prince of Fantasy, as Gaiman has been called, has a huge, very loyal fan base. His graphic novels in particular are popular with a large segment. A different group of people than myself, but it turns out we have a lot in common. Now I want to read those graphic novels as well. That evening Gaiman read from Norse Mythology, his newest book, and several essays and some experimental writing and in between reading, he answered audience questions which he read from index cards. He was delightful, funny and sincere, just what you want your idol to be. He was honest about the hard work of writing, saying that he loved having written and he loved being about to write, but the actual act of writing was akin to getting a cavity filled without Novocain.  I was already a fan of his books, now I am a fan of the man himself. Read Neil Gaiman and tell me what you think.

See you sooner. I promise.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Justice and Mercy and Brokenness

Non-fiction books like Just Mercy are tough to read because they are true. And it is really depressing to think about all the persons who are wrongly incarcerated in this country and who are always unjustly executed. It's unspeakable. But in this book, Bryan Stevenson makes the reader really SEE the lives of poor black men, women and children who constantly feel a  "discomfort too longstanding and constant to merit discussion but too burdensome to ever forget."  He makes these people real and help us understand their vulnerability enough to cry alongside Stevenson. We get to know Walter McMillan and Joe Sullivan  and Marsha Colby and Charlie through Stevenson's eloquent writing. We feel - along with Stevenson - as one character seems to say, "I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I'm here. I'm here because I've got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness. I'm here because I'm supposed to be here. I'm here because you can't keep me away." Once you read this book, you'll be a witness too. 

Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law center, in Montgomery, Alabama when he was in his early 30s on a shoestring budget with the lofty goals of ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, challenging racial and economic injustice and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable in American society. As you will see in this book, which puts a human face on these issues, he has succeeded in many ways.  But there is still much to do, especially in these Trump years as hatred is encouraged in the courts. The documentary 13th and the book The New Jim Crow also add more stories and information to this issue. But Stevenson's book really brings the issue home. 

Toward the end of the book, Stevenson tells us that he does this work because he's broken too. And he reminds us that we are all broken by something. "Our shared brokenness connects us," Stevenson says. He is truly doing God's work for the most vulnerable people in our society.  When one person suffers, we all suffer. We are all tied up in our humanity. He says," The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It's when mercy is least expected that it's most potent..." And as he says at the close, "..all of us can do better for one another."

Brave men and women like Bryan Stevenson are leading the charge to change laws and show mercy to the vulnerable and the oppressed.  He did the hard work. Now we have to face these tough truths and do our part. Read this book and then support the Equal Justice Initiative

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Bookstores Help Us Understand the World

I've been quiet on this blog. Reading a lot of the New York Times lately and listening to NPR and many podcasts (stay tuned for my podcast list). Overwhelmed by bad news. 

But clinging to fiction.  I'm just about to finish the 11th and next to last book of the fabulous Louise Penny series about the thoughtful and wise Chief Inspector Gamache. The series, along with the Trump administration, has made me want to escape to the quiet fictional hamlet of Three Pines, just north of the border in Canada.  I'll share more about these books soon, I promise.

But a recent NYT article made me more joy-filled than ever about the existence of bookstores. The article, Bookstores Stoke Trump Resistance, quoted one independent book store owner saying, “I think bookstores are a place where people go to understand the world...” One of my favorite bookstore owners and writers, Ann Patchett, said, Now more than ever, books are so important,” Ms. Patchett said. “The only way we’re going to get out of this in the larger sense is through education.” Amen. Stay strong, fellow readers!