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.

Dear Sister, a siblings book for all ages

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Early reader reviews are already in for Dear Sister, which comes out next Tuesday and is illustrated by the wildly talented Joe Bluhm, and so far they’re all full of love, like these from Goodreads.

“As evidenced by my rarely awarded five star rating, I loved, loved, loved Dear Sister! In fact, I would go so far as to say it is my favorite children’s book of 2018. Cue the fanfare!”

“Hilarious!! Such a fun and sweet book. If you have siblings, you will love the tone and the humor found in these pages!”

“Made me sob. In a very good way.”

Want to know where the idea for Dear Sister came from? In part, from someone I used to call Duggle. Wuggle. Dougie. Douglas. Aka my baby brother, born to a family of three older sisters, me being the oldest, when I was nine years old.

I remember the day he came home from the hospital. My parents let us skip 4-H so we could come straight home and meet our little brother. We tiptoed into the den, where he lay in a blue and white baby carriage. His hair was extremely black and his face was extremely red. He looked up at us suspiciously and after a few minutes started to wail.

Who could blame the poor thing? We were three little girls and he was our living doll, putty in our hands, ours to play with, ours to torture, ours to dress up, ours to hand around one to another. IMG_0898

Doug is still nine years younger than me and always will be. That’s how it works. He’s 6’6” to my 5’10”, no longer a red-faced and rightfully suspicious baby but all grown up and hilariously funny. He and my wonderful sister in law and my wonderful nephews live a few miles from me in Minneapolis.

When my phone barks out the crazy piano tune I assigned to him –Brother is a crazy piano player himself—I pick up.

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“Brother.”

“Sister.”

How lucky am I to have a brother like Doug? Very. Dear Sister was inspired in part by my love for my siblings. I hope you like it. It’s out next Tuesday, and you can preorder it wherever you buy your books! 

To order a copy

From your local indie bookstore
From Amazon
From Barnes & Noble

Pablo and Birdy: Immigrant Story #3

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrMe on the way to the airport and halfway into a deep conversation about religious extremism (any religion) with my Somali-born Uber driver: “It horrifies me. How does the longing for purpose and passion that every young person has turn into the belief that their god is the only god, and that their god justifies murder and mayhem and terror?”

Him (31 years old, handsome, laughing, who along with his Somali-born wife works full-time on different shifts so that they can trade off taking care of their four little kids): “I will tell you something. I almost became one of them.”

Pause.

“Um. . . you did?”

“Yes. After we fled the civil war in Somalia we lived in Nairobi for three years and I went to a new mosque. I was 18. And the leader taught hate. I began to be filled with hate and to think that others should suffer and die.”

“What changed?”

“I felt my heart turning hateful. And I decided to bring a notebook to the mosque with me for one week. I had one column Hate and another column Love and I kept track of what he was teaching. At the end of the week it was all hate. And I stopped going to the mosque.”

“And now? Did you find a mosque in Minneapolis that feels right to you?”

“I don’t go to any mosque anymore. I don’t raise my kids in any religion. If I want to pray, I pray inside my own head. My religion is two words only. You want to know what they are?”

“I do.”

“Don’t hate.”

* * *

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.

Pablo and Birdy: Immigration story #1

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrLike all U.S. citizens but Native Americans, I’m descended from immigrants. One grandfather arrived on Ellis Island with his Russian Jewish family, fleeing the pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. My great-grandparents all came to this country in hopes of a better life, from Russia and Ireland and Denmark and Germany and France. Their journeys were, without exception, long and hard and painful.

One great-grandfather was sixteen years old when his mother died. He walked alone from the mountains –he was French Basque, born and raised in the Pyrenees Mountains– and stowed aboard a ship bound for New York City. He was discovered halfway across the Atlantic, put to work on the boat, and put in the brig when they docked in the harbor so that he could be returned to France. In the middle of the night he escaped and dove overboard into the frigid waters of the harbor and swam ashore. Sixteen years old. He emerged in lower Manhattan, where he lived for the rest of his difficult life. His is not the American rags-to-riches dream story most of us are fed from birth, but it is certainly an American story.

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.

 

My Tattoo Story: Heather

Heather, New York City

I loved this line from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman as soon as I read it in a Romantic Literature class in college. I carried it around in my pocket for ages, thinking how it captured my whole life philosophy so well in just a few words. (The whole line is Do I contradict myself? Very well. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.) And I had the idea to tattoo it onto my forearm. But the aesthetics never quite came through for me, because choosing a font was impossible. I knew whatever I chose I’d end up hating in a year or two. I was talking with a good friend about it, and he said, “Why not get it in Walt Whitman’s handwriting?” And it was the aha moment I’d been waiting for. I scanned the internet looking for the right manuscript pages. Turns out they didn’t exist, but I was able to cobble the words together from a few separate sources. (If you look closely, you can see that “multitudes” changes style in the middle…it gets messier at the end, because it came from two entirely different words from different poems written years apart.) The artist was Michelle Tarantelli at Saved Tattoo in Willliamsburg. I admired the nuance she was able to get in her black and white art, and knew she’d be able to capture the feeling of a fountain pen.

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“Maybe a Fox”

Maybe a FoxMy lovely friend Kathi Appelt and I wrote a novel together, Maybe a Fox, here on Indiebound and here on Amazon, which was published last week. It began as a lark (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase, so thank you for letting me do so here), sparked by our friendship and a poem we both loved, but it took us one helluva long time to write it, as you will see if you read the below post we wrote about the process. The book has so far gotten a bunch of starred reviews, which makes us happy, given that at a few points we were close to throwing in the towel (on the book, not our friendship).

Maybe a Fox has also just been published in audio form. For better and for worse, I did the recording. Click here for a sample of the audio version. Recording a book on audio is weird and fascinating. The booth is silent and you have to sit perfectly still. You have to physically place your hands where you want them before you say a word, for example, because the sound mics are so sensitive that the tiny touch of your finger on your jeans will sound like wind. You can see the producer and the sound engineer beyond the soundproof window, chatting and drinking coffee and eating malted milk balls, but everything’s silent where you are. This was such a cool experience.

How in the world do you write a novel with another person? Kathi and I just jumped in and figured it out as we went along (and along and along and along and along).

The collaboration that would become Maybe a Fox began many years ago in a freezing and dingy dorm at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where we were new both to the faculty and to each other. Alison’s roller bag had gone missing at the airport, and she remembers Kathi tilting her head in sympathy and offering, in that beautiful Texas accent of hers, to lend her a pair of pajamas. Kathi doesn’t remember that, but she does remember breakfast the next day, when the two of us loaded up our trays and scuttled to sit together at a small table between two huge pillars in the drafty dining hall, a table we sat at every day, three times a day, for each of the residencies we shared.

It was friend-love at first sight, and it was that very first week, when we were eating one of the many meals we ate together Between the Pillars, that Kathi suggested we write a book together.

“What kind of book?” Alison said.

“A book about two sisters,” Kathi answered.

Both of us had many other projects that occupied us, and the idea was tabled, although one of us would occasionally bring it up over the years. Then, about five years ago, Alison sent out a poem about a small red fox in snow as her Poem of the Week. Something about that little fox ignited both of us, and we decided to take the plunge and begin our book.

The ground rules:

  1. The book would be about two sisters who were somehow separated, and it would also contain a small red fox.
  2. Each of us would take on a new challenge in the writing, something she’d never done before as a writer.
  3. We would each write in a separate viewpoint, with chapters alternating between those viewpoints.

After considering the sister possibilities –twins separated at birth? Sisters each living with one parent? One sister in prison and the other not? One sister alive and the other not?—we left it vague. Sisters, separated somehow. We figured the fox would appear on its own terms, when the time was right, so we didn’t worry about that. As for the personal writing challenge, Kathi decided to write in first person, since she hadn’t before, and Alison decided to write in the voice of the fox, since up until then she’d stayed strictly with humans.

We began the book by trading chapters weekly, sometimes more often if the muse struck. We worked wildly fast, most of the time, and the story gathered ground and impetus week by week. Kathi was fascinated by the fact that some rare rivers disappear underground. Alison was fascinated by the idea of an animal that could sense things from a world beyond this one. We tossed ideas back and forth, tried them out week by week, abandoned them if they were dead ends, followed them as far as we could if they felt powerful.

Eventually we realized that we were writing a book about maybes, about the way we as human beings try to answer unanswerable questions –what happens when we die? What happens with grief too big to stand? What happens when you can’t find the answers to what you most need to know?—and that sense, of both possibility and heartbroken wonder, became the core of the novel.

We wrote an entire, unwieldy mess of a draft in half a year. With the ongoing help of our wonderful agent and the massive efforts of our beloved editor Caitlyn Dlouhy, we rewrote that mess of a draft countless (literally, we have no idea at this point how many times we rewrote that book) times over the next four years. What began as an alternating-chapter, alternating-point of view method turned into a we’ll-work-on-the-whole-thing-together method. Where Alison once was the sole writer of the fox chapters, and Kathi the sole writer of the Jules chapters, we can no longer point to any voice or passage or chapter as belonging to either of us. We moved from emailed chapters to simultaneous Google doc revisions to taking turns separately revising the entire book (over and over).

At one point early on, Kathi flew up from Texas and we sat on Alison’s porch in Minneapolis and took turns reading chapters out loud to each other, pencils in hands, marking up places to revise. We laughed. We cried. We talked through every aspect of plot and character. We never once, strangely enough, argued. Kathi flew back to Texas and the rewrites continued for another three years. At some point along the way we began sending each other fox totems: a fox necklace, a framed fox photograph, a felt basket with a fox on it, fox notecards. Alison now sees foxes wherever she goes; like the characters in Maybe a Fox, she considers them good luck.

Maybe a Fox is so much a part of our hearts and souls at this point that we privately admit to each other we have no idea if it’s any good or not; it just is. We do know that we still, each of us, cry when we read the ending. Just like Jules and Sylvie in Maybe a Fox, we consider ourselves sisters. Sister Kathi, Sister Alison. Our book is made out of wonder and longing and struggle and love. We hope it finds a good place in the world.

Bookstore visits, March 7-10

Maybe a Fox

Greetings, anyone and everyone who lives within driving distance of the below bookshops! My lovely, funny, talented friend and novel-writing collaborator Kathi Appelt and I are embarking on a whirlwind tour next week, visiting bookstores to read from Maybe a Fox and chitchat with y’all (I’m channeling Kathi’s Texas drawl, can you tell?) about books and reading and your favorite cocktail (kidding) (but not really – I’m always on the lookout for a tasty new cocktail).

Maybe a Fox has gotten a bunch of starred reviews and great press and those who’ve read advance copies seem to be fans. It’s a book about two sisters, one of them gone forever, and how their lives intertwine with a baby girl fox. Set in Vermont, in the woods by a rushing river, it’s also a story about grief, memory, love, hope and wonderment. We would LOVE to see you next week if you’re around. We’ll also be appearing in Los Angeles (both of us), Texas again (Kathi) and Dubai (Alison) next month, so check for updates if you’re interested.

Monday, March 7—Milwaukee, WI

Oak Creek Public Library—6:30 p.m.

Tuesday, March 8—Naperville, IL

Anderson’s Bookshop—6:00 p.m.

Wednesday, March 9—Houston, TX

Blue Willow Bookshop—5 p.m.

Thursday, March 10—College Station, TX

Jacque’s Toys and Books—5:30 p.m.

Saturday, March 20–Tustin, CA (Alison only)

Once Upon a Storybook, 11 a.m.

Hope to see you there!

 

The Conjuring of "Firefly Hollow"

Firefly Hollow coverMy new novel for children, Firefly Hollow, with its enchanting illustrations by Christopher Denise, has been in the world for one week as of today. Except not really, seeing as it took a good six years to conjure itself.  (This book is evidence that someone born fast, impatient and jumpy can, over many years, learn the art of patience. Lord love a duck, this thing took its own sweet time.)

The final version was written with a little wooden cricket, a poem (Spring and Fall, to a Young Child), and the film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” propped next to me on the table. Since I long ago trained myself out of both superstition and muse-invoking rituals, you know it had to be a tough slog.

For the inside scoop on the process, please click here.

I will be touring around this fall, giving readings and doing signings, and I would truly love to meet any of you who can make any of the dates. Here they are so far, and I’ll update as necessary.

Sunday, August 30: The Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough, NH, signing copies, 10 am-noon

Sat, October 3 – Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, VT, reading and signing, 4:00 PM

Sun, October 4 – Flying Pig Bookstore, Shelburne, VT, time TBA

Mon, October 5 – Flying Pig school events in Shelburne, VT

Sunday, October 11: Copperfield’s Books, Petaluma, CA, reading and signing, 2 PM

Monday, October 12: Books Inc., San Francisco, school events

Tuesday, October 13: Book Passage, San Francisco, reading, 10 AM, and school event, 12:30 pm

Monday, October 19: Anderson’s Bookstore, Chicago, reading and signing, 7:00 PM

Tuesday, October 20: The Bookstall, Chicago, school events, morning and afternoon

Friday, October 23: Whale of a Tale, Los Angeles, school events, morning and afternoon

Saturday, October 24: Southern California Independent Booksellers Association conference, North Hollywood, 6 pm appearance

Sunday, November 1: Westport Public Library, Westport, CT, I’m giving a talk, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer,” to kick off National Novel Writing Month, 2-3 pm

The story behind the picture book

She was tall, especially when you were a child. She was a big woman of girth and substance, with heavy legs of which she was ashamed all her long life. In her closet hung a neat row of size 22 flowered polyester dresses. Below them, a row of size 12 lace-up shoes.

It took her twenty minutes to roll on her orange support hose, but you never once saw her wear pants. She smelled of talcum powder and a perfume the name of which you can’t recall. She had her hair done once a week at the beauty parlor, soft blue-ish white waves.

She did not drink, ever, but you remember twice at weddings she took a sip of champagne. Each time her button nose turned bright red and she hid her face in her hands and laughed.

You have written about her before. You always want to write about her. You have to stop yourself from writing about her more than you do, and also from talking about her more than you already do. Look at you, a full-grown woman of middle age, still talking about your grandmother?

But there you have it. She was one of the great loves of your life. You still miss her. You still talk to her. Out loud, sometimes. You say things like, “What do you think I should do, Christine?” and then you picture her and wait for her to answer.

Usually she just shakes her head in that way she had, and laughs the way she did.

“Oh, I don’t know, Alison.”

And then she reaches out and touches your arm and keeps looking at you, smiling, until you smile back at her. She knows that you’ll be all right.

In her presence you always were all right.There was nothing you couldn’t, or didn’t, tell her. You told her things you’d done, heartbreaking things, and she would furrow her brow and tilt her head and nod. And reach out and touch your arm. And ask you questions, but only so that you could keep talking if you needed to.

And she would say how sorry she was that you had to go through that. That she knew you had done the only thing you could. That she herself just didn’t see any other way around it.

In her presence you relaxed. You let down. Things inside you gave way. You didn’t have to try so hard, around her. You didn’t have to try at all.

She is the story behind Making a Friend, that new picture book over there, the one with the pretty blue cover of the little boy and the snowman.

That little boy makes a snowman one day. He gives him arms and eyes and a nose and a mouth. He gives him his red hat, to keep him warm.

You were thinking about your grandmother the day you wrote down the first few words of that story in a notebook. You were thinking how lucky you were that she lived so long, that you were in your 30’s before you lost her.

Did you, though? Lose her?

When you really need her, you sit still and close your eyes. You picture her. There she is, sitting at the dining room table, head supported by one arm. She’s wearing a blue bathrobe. She’s smiling and shaking her head.

You sit there and wait until you feel her next to you. That if you open your eyes, right now, there she’ll be.

You open your eyes and they rest on the needlepoint cushion she made, the one with her initials –CM– in the corner.

You open your eyes and see a squirrel –her nickname– poised on the pine branch outside your window.

You go to the store and see that her favorite ice cream –butter pecan– is on sale.

That these are all ordinary things, things that happen on any ordinary day, means only that she is with you. It doesn’t take anything special to conjure her. She is like electricity, invisible and everywhere.

A few years ago you were in a drugstore when you smelled her, that particular kind of talcum-y perfume she used to wear. You followed your nose from aisle to aisle, searching her out, until you stood directly behind an old lady wearing a dark blue coat. She turned to look at you inquiringly.

What could you possibly say, other than that you liked her perfume?

You said nothing. You lifted your shoulders and shook your head helplessly. You smiled at her. You wanted to thank her for bringing your grandmother back to you, there in the paper goods aisle.

The little boy talks to his snowman every day of a long winter, until all that is left is his own red hat. Snowman, where did you go?

“What you love will always be with you.”