Page in Progress…
A delicious strangeness
piled books, all
to create happiness,
to see more clearly.
-Julie Deutscher, 2017
“Books are the best invention.”
—Sara, age 8
“I love it, it’s relaxing.”
—Claire, on working at a local bookstore
I’ve long intended to keep a list of books. Books I’m reading, books I’ve read, books I intend to read next, my favorite books ever, and books I didn’t mind reading over and over and over to my kids.
I love books, particularly novels, because they make me feel so not alone. We may have different experiences in life, but their themes and feelings are universal.
Interestingly, there’s a lot of non-fiction on my reading list for 2017. I’m not sure why because I’m usually drawn more to fiction. Perhaps it’s because of the state of our nation. Right now, reality is stranger than fiction. The “news” is enough. Gimme some facts, please.
Books I’ve read in 2017 (fiction, non-fiction, and a few poetry titles, but I have a lot on my shelves that I dip into that are not listed here):
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. Not my usual genre, but I picked it up in a little lending library at the Kauai condo unit we were vacationing in over the holidays. It was an entertaining thriller/mystery/conspiracy read for around the pool, the bumpy plane ride home and then, I fell out of like with it. But, I was invested by that time so finished it. I did enjoy the romp through Rome and look forward to seeing the movie version with Tom Hanks.
- Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This novel won the Nobel Prize right after I finished reading it and recommended it to the prize committee. (Just kidding.) I picked it up, as I did the next three books on this list, upon the recommendation of President Obama in this New York Times article.
Whitehead’s story centers around the story of a Georgia slave named Cora who escapes the brutality of her plantation “owner,” whose land she and her mother were born on. Left to fend for herself at age seven when her mother escapes, a fellow slave befriends her during her teen years and they escape together, through the Underground Railroad.Historically a network of safe houses and escape routes, established and led by abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, Whitehead re-imagines it as a literal network of tunnels and trains crisscrossing the South.
This novel is difficult, but necessary, reading. Whitehead writes candidly and powerfully about the way slaves were treated from state to state. You’ll cry and scream in frustration and anger, and hold your breath as you cheer Cora, and her indomitable spirit, on. You’ll long remember Cora’s story, and the stories of the people she encounters along the way. May we never forget.
- Gilead by Marianne Robinson. This was the second Obama-recommended book I read this year. Reading through the books on this list is helping me cope and maintain the fantasy, at least while I’m reading, that there’s still an intelligent and thoughtful occupant in the Oval Office. Just another take on reading for escapism, right? Gilead is an end-of-life letter by a small-town, third-generation Reverend to his young son. I don’t share his religion and neither did my father, but some of the advice (particularly near the beginning of the book) could have come straight from my dad’s own mouth.
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. This was the third of Obama’s recommended books and it’s a surprising one about a playwright who’s a smashing success and his wife, who plays his supporting role. I loved this book, which is really two stories in one — the first half devoted to “his” story, the second half to “hers.” It makes you wonder how much we really know each other. And, it really makes you think about how others can define you — even changing the trajectory of your life — based on how they personally interpret something you said or something you did, no matter the age and no matter how small. People cling to stories and have a tendency to define and label others. That affects how we define ourselves.
- The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin. A stunning debut novel by a Pacific Northwest native, set in a late 1800 orchard in Cashmere, Washington, which is still famous for its apples and apricots. The novel is set at the beginning of Eastern Washington’s orchard transformation and focuses on a a quiet, caring and obstinate farmer who takes in two troubled and pregnant girls who wander onto his property one day.
This book is the inspiration for the poem at the top of this post, which is also here.
- The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. My daughter gave me this book for Christmas and it has me looking differently at the trees we share our community with. Did you know trees communicate? They do. Through vast underground networks, they warn each other of dangers and pests. They bolster each other when a tree in their group falls ill. They depend upon one another, and they thrive together in places where they might die if alone.
I have generated the following blackout poems from this book:
- The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. It was the sound of this title that drew me to it on the shelves of Magnolia Books. There was one copy and another shopper was attracted to the same title. She graciously let me purchase it and I’ve been savoring the year its writer spent observing a snail in the terrarium beside her bed. It doesn’t sound much like an action thriller, does it? It’s not, unless perhaps, you’re a snail. They’re fascinating little creatures. Funny how I delicately relocate snails out of my garden and sling their gastropod cousins, slugs. This book is also the inspiration for a pile of blackout poems:
A Fern Documented
- Upstream by Mary Oliver. A collection of essays by one of my favorite poets, given to me by a friend for Christmas. It’s not a book to read in one sitting, but one to dip into, essay by essay, and linger.
- A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen. I wrote about this book, and it’s unexpected message here.
- Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. I heard a story on NPR a few months ago about scientists getting training in storytelling. They have important messages to get out, especially in this age of skeptism and anti-science rhetoric. Jahren doesn’t need that training. She’s as skilled a writer as she is a scientist and she brings both together in this engaging book about botany and her labs.
I’ve found some poetry here, too.
Mothers and Daughters
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. I read this upon the strong recommendation of my daughter who fell in love with the author’s fine use of language and the way he connected literature, philosophy and his training as a neurosurgeon and scientist. Kalanithi writes with keen depth and insight as he confronts his own mortality and searches for the “right” way to live out his remaining days after a fatal cancer diagnosis. He explores the meaning of the mind, and how the mind makes meaning in this breathtakingly beautiful must-read book that he was still writing when he died.
- A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I resisted this book for the first couple of chapters because it seemed more of a character sketch than a story, but I read on due to it’s bestseller status. I’m glad I did because I was wrong. There’s much more to stubborn and crabby Ove than meets the eye — or the ear. His story takes an unexpected turn and made me with he lived next door. He also reminded me of my dad, and that made for some teary pages. Poetry I found here:
Loss (add link)
A Man Called Comey
- Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. I picked this book up at one of the bookstores I visited on Seattle Bookstore Day because I liked the title. At 46, this is where I am in life. Hagerty, a long-time NPR reporter, spent a year researching and gleaning her own insights.Point number one: few people have the “mid-life crisis” as society defines, or expects, it. Rather, midlife is a time to reflect, re-prioritize, explore new opportunities and find meaning.”The people who seem the happiest are the people who feel like they’re able to express aspects of themselves that feel vital to them, that make them feel alive. It’s not any particular path you have to take, it’s being able to express the core of who you are,” said a Harvard researcher who is directing a decades-long study on midlife.In other words, stay engaged with the world — whether it’s the news, the latest book you’re reading, your garden or your blog. Embrace love and friendship, exercise, learn new things, and just like we tell our teens — make good choices. Choices made now will affect how you age. It’s pretty common-sense advice, but Hagerty writes it well.
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Wondrous and magical and lonely and tragic. This tale of a first-generation Dominican living in New Jersey details not only Wao’s life, but his family’s, including a multi-generational curse and the violence they endured living under the fist of a brutal dictator.I’m a fan of magical realism and Diaz masterfully weaves it into this novel through Dominican folklore. Obama recommended this title as it speaks to the immigrant experience. It didn’t disappoint. I knew almost nothing about the history of the Dominican Republic or its cruel 30-year dictator, Rafael Trujillo. There’s a whole book in just the extensive footnotes in here. The science fiction references (a genre of which Wao was obsessed on equal measure with finding someone to love) though were lost on me.
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman. What can I say? Gaiman writes great characters and in this book he writes Gods as characters.
- Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Brach. I grabbed this title at our library’s used book sale, which I worked at for four-straight days as a board member and volunteer. We made a record amount of money to support local library programming, including the 50 cents I paid for this popular book I’d never read! So does it live up to the hype? It’s growing on me. It’s a sweet little fable about a seagull who not only wants to fly his own way, but he’s committed to being the best flyer he can be. He’s ostracized by his flock and exiled when he refuses to conform. He finds success and happiness, and returns to his flock without judgment to teach others who wish to learn. It contains universal truths about following your own heart’s path, even if others disapprove.
- 180 Seconds by Jessica Parker. A sweet and romantic (and yes, definitely idealistic) YA title left on my bedside by my daughter, who loved it.
- You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie. A powerful collection of poetry and prose that Alexie wrote following the death of his mother. I bought this book after this incredible KUOW interview that aired the day before the book’s release. Two months later, Alexie quit the book tour because of the stress toll it was taking on his health. I’m so glad he recognized the need to take care of himself, and to do so publicly, was an important message for others to hear. If you read nothing else, please read his goosebump-invoking statement why. After my father died, I wished he would haunt me. He hasn’t, in any real way, any more than Alexie’s mother haunts him, but I do acknowledge coincidences that sometimes stop me in my tracks. I catch glimpses of him on the street, I hear the creek of his wheelchair in a quiet house, I see him staring back at me in the mirror. I have too many unexpected and random conversations with people about the War. I listen.
- The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I missed this book in the 90s when it was all the buzz. Science fiction is not normally on the top of my list, but I couldn’t put this one down. A
- WA 129, edited by State Poet Laureate Tod Marshall. An anthology of poems by Washington poets, several of whom I’ve been privileged to study and read with. One of them I think I even encouraged to submit! Alas, I did not take my own advice.
- Turtles All the Way Down by John Greene. My daughter went to the bookstore on her birthday to get Greene’s new book as a gift to herself. She’s already reading three other books, however, so I got the first crack at this one.
- The Three-Body Problem (book one) by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. This three-book series was my husband’s favorite read of 2017. A science fiction epic about humanity’s first contact with an alien civilization. It’s a fascinating read set in China beginning in the Cultural Revolution. In fact, a decision made by the main character, which will ultimately affect all of humanity, is made as a result of the trajectory her life took following a horrific event she experienced during the Revolution. I don’t want to give away any more of the story line, but the most fascinating aspects for me were not the science (or science fiction), but the moral questions, decisions, and implications, felt around the world. I want more, and my husband says there is more in books two and three. (Side note: I first learned of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 2003 historical biography Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. It was an engrossing read about three generations of a Chinese family, and the impacts of the Revolution on them. I’ve never forgotten the hardship and violence — and courage — detailed in this novel, and similarly detailed in the fictional Three-Body.)
- Dark Forest (book two of The Three-Body Problem series by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu).
- Death’s End (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, book three) by Cixin Liu, translated by