August 2021 Books I Read and Loved

(Note: I only write about books I love.)

The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay. I’d dipped in and out of this book before, but finally read it straight through, essayette to essayette, until all the essayettes were gone, kind of like I do with the bags of Lindt milk chocolate truffles I buy and stash away on a high shelf. These tiny essays, every one of them, made me laugh, smile, nod, frown, and see something about the world in a slightly different way. Every time I read something by Ross Gay I feel like calling him and talking about it, that’s how much I love his work, and then I remember that oh, we’ve never met and we’re not friends in real life. (Yet…bwahaha.) So far I’ve bought four copies of this tiny book –FOUR–at my beloved neighborhood indie Magers and Quinn to give to people I adore. That alone should tell you something.

Goldenrod, by Maggie Smith. How I love this book of poems. I treasure it as much as Good Bones, and I didn’t think that would be possible. Maggie Smith’s poems are so spare. There’s space and light on every page of her books, yet what she conjures in both image and feeling is vast. She’s a word artist in her use of the visual, and of negative space. Same thing in her imagery – the woman has an uncanny ability to flip a situation, or an emotion, inside out and upside down until suddenly you see possibility and freedom where you didn’t before. (I’ve also bought four copies of this book too, one to keep, three to give away.)

Pablo and Birdy, by me. You would think that, having written this book myself, I would remember everything about it. You would be wrong. I want to adapt Pablo and Birdy into a screenplay, so I re-read it in preparation, only to find that I’d forgotten so much. In fact, it felt like a novel I’d never read before. Who was Pablo’s original family? Why was he floating alone on the sea with only a parrot to watch over him? What will happen when the winds of change come over Isla? What if there really were such a bird as a Seafaring Parrot – what could I learn, and put to rest, about my own past? (Yes, I realize this not-remembering my own novel reveals way too much about me, but so be it. Shrug emoji.)

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich. Damn, this woman knows how to tell a story. I was captivated by this book from page one and didn’t want to put it down. Pixie! She will live inside me forever, and so will her sister Vera. So will Thomas, and dear Wood Mountain, and the unearthly Zhaanat. So will the land they live on so deeply that when I think about this novel I think about its people as part-land. Historical fiction based on the life of Erdrich’s grandfather, this novel is contemporary and timeless and sweeping and specific and just wonderful.

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult. You know those little shelf cards you often see in indie bookstores, placed by booksellers next to books they love? Sometimes one of my novels has one with something like “If you love Jodi Picoult, give Alison McGhee a try!” So I’ve always been scared to read a Jodi Picoult novel because what if I hated it, and by extension hated my own books? Finally I decided it was time to get over it, and wow did I love Leaving Time. It’s captivating, mysterious, sad, funny, with a wild twist at the end, and I learned so, so much about elephants, those beautiful creatures. Now I want to read all Jodi Picoult’s novels – which one should I read next?

Sanity and Tallulah, by Molly Brooks. This graphic novel has been on my shelf for a while now, and I finally plucked it off and figured I’d read a few pages to see if I was interested. Three hours later I’d gobbled the whole thing down – so funny and full of adventure. Two best friends relegated, with their cool and funny parents, to a far corner of the universe in a falling-apart space station who have to figure out, on the fly, how to fix the thing before everyone dies. That’s kind of the plot – I was having too much fun reading it to keep close track. The whole way through I kept thinking damn, Molly Brooks must’ve had a blast with this book. Reading Sanity and Tallulah made me want to come up with my own joyride of a graphic novel.

Mini-book reviews

Ohhhhh I am so behind with my 2020 mini-book reviews. My lofty goal of a round-up review each month entirely fell by the wayside, along with so much else in this overwhelming year. Let me partially remedy that right this minute with mini-book reviews of books I read in the last few months, written on the spot just now.

Note that I only review books I loved or that, even if I didn’t love them, have stayed with me in inexplicable ways that somehow merit attention. Note also that all these books were ordered and bought from indie bookstores, the beautiful lifeblood of readers and publishers. Please support your independent bookstores. You can find yours right here at this handy-dandy link:

Bonfire Opera, by Danusha Lameris. Oh, I love this woman’s poems. The first time I read Small Kindnesses, I wrote it out by hand and then copied it into my Favorite Poems files. And then scurried over to Magers and Quinn to pre-order Bonfire Opera, the book from whence it came. Lameris writes of ordinary life the way our greatest writers do, the way that allows us to see that no life is ordinary, that our every smallest action ripples out. A beautiful, beautiful book.

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson. I’m late to the party with this lovely book, a memoir in verse-like prose written for middle grades readers but which really, like all great books ostensibly for children, is written for everyone. Woodson writes about her life, from birth through middle school, dipping down into small details the way a hummingbird alights on the sweetest flowers. Each chapter is so brief, so full of love and wonder and subtle commentary on life as a brown girl in the 60s and 70s, and every few chapters is one consisting solely of a haiku that somehow punctuates and coheres the entirety. Such a beautiful book.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. This woman is such a good writer. I loved her first novel, The Mothers, and this one is equally absorbing. Identical twins Stella and Desiree, born in the 60s into an almost-mythical small town populated entirely by light-skinned Black citizens, leave home at age sixteen to make their way in the wider world. Stella chooses to “pass” as white, a decision that haunts every aspect of her life thereafter, while Desiree gives birth to a daughter as “black as tar.” Bennett infuses her fictional people with such specificity that their pain, joy, and unbreakable sisterly bonds reveal the intricacies of our nation’s historical racism and sexism while pulling the reader so deeply into their personal life struggles that they will be with me forever.

Italian Shoes, by Henning Mankell. This is my first dip into the vast array of books by renowned Swedish writer Mankell (the man who writes the Kurt Wallander detective series), It’s an intensely serious, quiet novel narrated by a former doctor who, after a tragic surgical mistake, chooses to isolate himself on the island his grandparents left to him, where he is the sole inhabitant. He cuts a hole in the ice of the bay every morning and plunges in – the only time he feels truly alive. Over the course of the novel he encounters, for the first time in decades, a past love who comes in search of him, sparking a small but profound reconnection with the wider world. While I did not love, or even particularly like, the narrator of this book, I remain both haunted and heartened by his inherent sadness and gradual, slow, opening back up to his fellow humans.

Watch Over Me, by Nina LaCour. I loved Nina’s novel We Are Okay and I loved this one too, for the same reasons – her uncanny way with the small, perfect detail that bring both setting and people to life. LaCour writes of the Bay area the way that only an observer with a poet’s eye can, so that the landscape becomes as much a character as the people. Set on a farm for foster-to-adopt children, Watch Over Me follows teenager Mila as she gradually, painfully begins to place pattern to the trauma of her past. LaCour’s descriptions of The Farm are like a dream, the kind of farm where everyone is loved and cared for, where there’s always plenty to eat, plenty of blankets, flowers everywhere, warmth when you need it, solitude when you need it, and, I imagine board games everywhere. The foster parents surround their traumatized charges with the kind of love and support that would heal the entire world should we all be so lucky to experience it. A lovely novel, full of hard-earned hope.

Now We Will Speak in Flowers, by Micki Blenkush. I read this slender book of poetry in one sitting, and felt as if I’d been given a glimpse into the poet’s entire life. Set in northern Minnesota and dipping down into childhood, young adulthood, middle age, town and country and church and work, this is a work set firmly in place and time. The poet’s perspective, wise from experience and innate understanding of how the small and subtle inform the wider world, is captivating in a quiet, gentle way. Lovely.

Open City, by Teju Cole. Set entirely in New York City and almost exclusively in Manhattan, this slender novel follows its main character, a young Nigerian scholar, as he walks about the city. As I read, I kept having to remind myself that it was a novel and not a memoir, so intimate and quiet is the voice of the narrator. As a lifelong walker who soaks up the world through the soles of my feet while silently thinking and observing, the book felt deeply familiar both in its perspective and its essential loneliness. Toward the end, a small scene in a tailor’s shop shocked me. I did not love the main character but I will be thinking about him, and what he has to say about the world we all live in, for a long, long time.

What Narcissism Means to Me, by Tony Hoagland. How I love this man’s poems, and how I wept and wept when he died, too young, of cancer. There are few poets whose poems I almost universally love and treasure; Hoagland is one of them. This book was published in 2003 but no matter, any Hoagland poem lives in its own time and place that transcend the current time and place of the world. Hoagland aches for the world, and life, and his place in it, the same way my own heart does. Go forth and read him.

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite books of all time. So far, he has not written a book I haven’t loved, although there are several I haven’t yet read. It takes me a while to work up to an Ishiguro novel because I know that a few chapters in, he will have inexorably taken hold of me and pulled me into whatever world he’s created. This one is no exception. Set in London and (mostly) Shanghai in the 1940s, this novel follows Banks, a celebrated London detective, as he attempts to discover why he was orphaned at age nine. Nothing is as it seems in When We Were Orphans, and every small revelation leads the reader further down a path of no return. Quintessential Ishiguro in his understanding of loneliness, longing, and transcendent love.