It is New Year’s Eve and I am reflecting. Last year this time, I scribbled a big list of books I wanted to read in my journal and then I began scribbling in titles as I read them. It’s been a good year in reading – a great one, in fact. Unexpected themes arose this year: books about people walking very long distances (Wild, Tracks, The Long Walk, the Snow Leopard); books about WWII, prison camps, survival and maintaining humanity in horrific situations (The Orphan Master’s Son, The Long Walk, Unbroken, All the Light we Cannot See).
As I went through and plucked out my favorite quotes I realize they are all about the beauties (and often beauty alongside hardship) in the world and life. But I guess that is why people write and why we read: to discover what connects us, what drives us, why we live, what is underneath it all.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Anne Patchett
Patchett reflects on opening her bookstore, her writing life, her marriage, dog and taking care of her grandmother. Patchett’s nonfiction is honest and touches on all the things I find mattering to me right now.
Like, she talks about the ‘people who tell me how lucky I was for being able to spend so much time with my grandmother.’ I am one of those people. I have two very old grandmothers I wish I was building late-in-life memories with right now, but our geography prevents that. I call them sometimes, but it is not the same. This essay (Sustained Love) made me think deeply about my choices to live away from the place I was raised.
Also: Marriage. Marriage is amazing to me. The commitment people make to each other and what you go through for it. I love this quote:
There are always perfect times with the people we love, those moments of joy and equality that sustain us later on. I am living that time with my husband now. I try to study our happiness so that I will be able to remember it in the future, just in case something happens and we find ourselves in need. These moments are the foundation upon which we build the house that will shelter us into our final years that when love calls out, “How far would you go for me?” you can look it in the eye and say truthfully, “Farther than you ever thought was possible.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
A gothic sort of mystery about a band of friends at a prep school. Eerie, well-written and entertaining.
Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed
How I love Cheryl Strayed, let me count the ways. I read most of these essays when they came out on The Rumpus several years ago. I needed Cheryl Strayed’s writing this year, just to center me. Does anyone bring everything into focus like she does? Whenever I am lost, I say this line out loud:
Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far guide you onward into whatever crazy beauty awaits.
Clara Callan, by Richard B. Wright ****
Clara Callan is a beautifully rendered character. So interesting to be so close to someone who is closed off the rest of the world. You won’t forget her.
I want so badly to help you realize, Elizabeth Anne, how difficult and puzzling and full of wonder it all is: some day I will tell you how I learned to watch the shifting light of autumn days or smelled the earth through snow in March; how one winter morning God vanished from my life and how one summer evening I sat in a Ferris wheel, looking down on a man that hurt me badly; I will tell you how I once travelled to Rome and saw all the soldiers in that city of dead poets; I will tell you how I met your father outside a movie house in Toronto, and how you came to be. Perhaps that is where I will begin. On a winter afternoon when we turn the lights on early, or perhaps a summer day of leaves and sky, I will begin by conjugating the elemental verb. I am. You are. It is.
A Double Life, by Lisa Catherine Harper
One of my grad school teacher’s memoir about her pregnancy and early motherhood. In addition to her personal story, the book examines the biology of these time periods for a woman. I bought this book at her reading years ago and have been saving it for when I got pregnant. I forced myself to wait until my second trimester to pick it up. Smart and insightful with lovely writing. I loved how she examined many parts of her life to understand her journey into motherhood.
Independent People, by Halldór Laxness
A book about an Icelandic farmer and his daughter. An epic that spans decades. Holy crap Icelandic winters sound bleak. Appreciated so many things about this book, but I have to admit that it was a slog for me- one I was glad I saw through to the end. This is one of those I-wish-I’d-read-it-in-an-academic-class-so-I-could-appreciate-it-more…for the book is certainly smarter than me.
The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen *****
My favorite book of the year and ranks among my favorites of all time. This book moved me to my core. Peter Mattheissen’s journey deep into the Himalaya to research blue sheep with the dim hope of spotting the elusive snow leopard. A meditation on Zen Buddhism, a story about recovering from the death of his wife, a spiritual journey. It took me months to read this small book. You have to read it slowly – it’s the only way. But I remember where I read it – on a little row boat on Beaver Lake in Jasper. In the back of a camper van in Iceland. First I liked it, then I was enraptured by it. I finished it in the sun room in a little Farm House in the East Fjords of Iceland. It is about so many things, but I think it is ultimately about being wherever it is we are in the world – the profound simplicity of that. I know I will read this book again. I can’t stop thinking about this line:
I grow into these mountains like a moss. I am bewitched.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
Why has it taken me so long to get around to Louise Erdrich- she’s from Minnesota so she’s obviously awesome! Well-told story from the point of view of a boy whose mother is raped on their reservation. So much insight into a culture I know next to nothing about. The statistics about sexual violence against Native American women included at the end of this book are devastating.
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
Wow. Just wow. Novel about one man in North Korea with shifting settings and points of view. Incredibly constructed novel. Exceptional writing. Could not put this one down.
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
I love Elizabeth Gilbert. I love her TED talk and her essay about channeling her inner crone. I loved this novel about Alma, a woman obsessed with plants, especially mosses. Her journey through life, relationships and around the world is one to bask in.
You see, I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me.
The Long Walk, by Slawomir Rawicz
Great story about a man’s escape from a Siberan prison camp and subsequent year-long through Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, Tibet, the Himalaya and finally into India. Their hunger and thirst was so visceral. Ugh. Lots of controversy over the veracity of this memoir, but an engrossing tale either way.
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed *****
I’d been craving a book like Wild all year, and finally I just re-read it. Guess what? It’s still life changing-ly good. It made me think about how our parents’ love gives us our first sense of purpose in life. I thought about how we all mess up and that that is ok and we should forgive ourselves. I thought about the journeys that make us who we are- and how we must all comes to terms with ourselves. About how we all walk onto some paths unprepared and that that is the only way to begin.
Recently saw the movie and cried my eyes out. My husband asked me why. I can’t explain it. This story is about everything to me – about the unbearable, the inspiring, the magic, the haunting, the sorrow, the hope. How overwhelming it is when you feel all of those things at once. How beautiful.
It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true…To believe that I didn’t have to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life–like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand
This book blew my mind. Laura Hillenbrand is unbelievably talented- to construct such a compelling un-put-down-able narrative from research. The trials of Louie Zamperini will stay with you. What people find the will to live through. I never cry in books, but I cried in this one.
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
A blind girl and a young orphan boy’s journeys through World War II. They are both surviving however they can. They each face impossible odds in their own way. A sad beautiful book.
What I want to write to you about today is the sea. It contains so many colors. Silver at dawn, green at noon, dark blue in the evening. Sometimes it looks almost red. Or it will turn the color of old coins. Right now the shadows of clouds are dragging across it, and patches of sunlight are touching down everywhere. White strings of gulls drag over it like beads.
It is my favorite thing, I think, that I have ever seen…It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.