Saturday, December 22, 2018

Stuff to read over the holidays...

Tis the season to travel, celebrate and read. I love the slow time between Christmas and New Year's. This year, we're going skiing in Utah and it's going to be brutally cold. My family has a greater appetite for skiing than I do, so I'm going to spend at least half the time, reading and writing by the fire. Here's what I've read the past couple of months, and intend to finish before the New Year.

Donald Hall, Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety: Oh, this book. What a great, feisty memoir by the late great poet, who loved his second wife (the late, great poet Jane Kenyon), a beautiful young woman who died of leukemia and was once his student at the University of Michigan. Hall had worried that because of their age difference, he would leave Kenyon a widow, but she died at 47 and he lived decades without her. Her remembers her presence and her poetry with longing, detail and lust. Hall was nearing 90 when he wrote this book and it is amazing how sharp and funny and tough he can be, on other poets and himself. His love for Jane Kenyon and his family in New Hampshire will make you want to write down everything you love and will miss about the people you love. I love how upfront he is about how many drafts it takes him to get something right. "The next day I started 'Out the Window'," he writes in In Praise of Paragraphs. "It took me fifty drafts over six months..." 

Sometimes it feels as if LaMott has texted portions of her recent books to her editor and/or has cut and pasted ideas she's shared on Facebook and merged them into a short book. But she also writes  hilarious, incisive anecdotes about someone she loves who is imploding and/or surviving against all odds. These little stories are the reason I download her books as soon as they come out. There's also nobody more astute about writing about surviving a dysfunctional family. In "Famblies," she writes: "My younger brother and I were raised to be perfectionists, which meant that if you somehow, against all odds, managed to finally do something perfectly,  you beat yourself up for not having been able to do it years before. We didn't know that mistakes, imperfections, and pain were going to turn into strengths and riches, turn us into Coltrane, Whoopi Goldberg, our true selves. Our parents forgot to mention this." Amen.

Scholastique Mukasonga, Cockroaches.
Mukasonga has a new memoir out, The Barefoot Woman, which I haven't read. But this one, which was translated into English from the French and came out in the US in 2016, is exquisite. Mukasonga, who grew up a Tutsi in Rwanda, escaped the genocide because her family sent her and her brother away to study---and by doing so, saved them. The rest of the family was killed. Mukasonga now lives in France with her husband and children. This is one of most beautifully written memoirs I've ever read--and despite the horrendous subject matter, often funny and wry. If you don't want to read the whole memoir, read Mukasonga's gorgeous short story, Cattle Praise Song, and Deborah Treisman's interview with her. I learned so much about life in Rwanda and the specifics of milking and taking care of cows from Mukasonga's work---not subjects I normally gravitate towards. I was enthralled by all of it. A movie version of her novel, Our Lady of the Nile, is coming out in 2019. I love what she says to Treisman about why she writes fiction: "Fiction makes it possible to take on subjects that would be too difficult or painful to address in the first person. It allows me also to maintain a certain distance from what I write...Writing eases my pain and my anger. So that was how, somewhat in spite of myself, I became a writer."

Michelle Obama, Becoming: I downloaded Obama’s memoir on my iPad and am also listening to it on Audible. You don’t need me to tell you how good this is.

Jill Soloway, She Wants It: Desire, Power and Toppling the Patriarchy. Soloway, the creator of "Transparent" and "I Love Dick," is funny, candid and a genius at writing dialogue. She deftly recreates the scene where her father shares that he is trans (he tells her over the phone one morning while she is watching her younger son eat cereal.) Her efforts to process this news triggered the creation of "Transparent" and her own transitioning journey. (Soloway, the mother of two, eventually left her husband, began dating women, and now prefers to be called "they.") You can read an excerpt from the book here

Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir.  It's shocking how the author managed to overcome so many obstacles to her education by a family that did its best to thwart her. Westover is a genius at recreating scenes of  physical abuse by her brother and emotional neglect and manipulation by her parents, as well as beautiful scenes that detail her love of learning and the professors who mentored her. Westover says she taught herself how to write memoir by listening to New Yorker podcasts. 

Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine:  A Novel. A strangely uplifting story about a traumatized office worker.  Similar to and (possibly) derivative of Alice Munro’s brilliant and disturbing short story, Dimension. (If you read "Dimension," tell me, so we can discuss.)

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room: Fabulous, dark and sometimes funny novel about a single mother incarcerated in Northern California. Much of it is written in the first person and in those chapters, it feels like memoir. You can read an excerpt from the novel here, and/or listen to Kushner read it here.

ZZ Packer, Dayward: This story is an excerpt from Packer's novel in progress, The Thousands. This is a harrowing story about a brother and his deaf younger sister, who run away from a murderous dog set on them by their former slaveowner. This story packs a punch. You can read more about what Packer is doing here.


  1. Always love your lists!!! Donald Hall lived near us in NH and across the pond from the camp that my father, me, my sister, and all of our kids went to. We have many of his books here which I admit I have only briefly skimmed. Hope to see you soon.

    1. Helaine, I am just seeing this (1/30)! You lived near Donald Hall? We must discus! I am going to post on some of his books in a few weeks. I loved so many of him and was addictively watching interviews with him on YouTube. Let's have coffee in NJ and talk about all this!

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