Signal Fires

I walked the dog this morning before the sun came up and at one point I stopped, head tipped up, looking at the sky spangled with stars and thinking of Waldo.  Waldo who is, as Dani Shapiro said on Tuesday with Claire Messud at Brookline Booksmith, the beating heart of this beautiful book.  I finished Signal Fires last night and it without question belongs on my “best of 2022” list.  What a gorgeous novel, both quiet and compelling, full of the shining strands that weave us together and into our own individual lives and into the great wide world at the same time.  To me, this story is above all about time and memory (which are the great preoccupations of my own life).  It’s also about love and family and forgiveness and the ineffable, unavoidable echo of the past through the present.  I’m so grateful and honored to call Dani my teacher, literally (I took her class for several years) and figuratively (have read all of her work and consider her a role model both on the pages and in life).  If you haven’t read Signal Fires, run.  If you have, I’d love to talk about it.  Thank you, Dani.

Favorite books of 2022

I’ve written holiday book roundups for a lot of years – 2021, 2020, 2019. 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.  Old posts include lots of children’s books, if you are looking for that!

Today I want to share the books I’ve loved most in 2022.  It is my firm view that books make the best gift (pity my godchildren), so if you’re in the market for that, these would all be good ideas!

Fiction

Bewilderment, Richard Powers – A gorgeous book about family and amazement and the things that matter the most.  Warning: this is very sad.  Powers’ last novel, The Overstory, was my favorite the year I read it.  The books are very different but share a deep sense of awe about the natural world.

Notes on an Execution, Danya Kukafka – I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after I finished it.  I’m a true crime follower and I found this investigation of the person behind brutality profoundly compelling.

Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel -This novel, which reminded me of my 2021 favorite (Cloud Cuckoo Land), is futiristic and has elements of sci fi (a genre people are often surprised to learn I like).  I found it spare and powerful and beautiful.

Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus – Let me start by saying the cover of this book did not, for me, represent what is a strong story about feminism, intelligence, and pushing forward in the face of a world that’s not really ready for you.  Also, best fictional dog I met this year: Six Thirty.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, Gabrielle Zevin – This book might have been the biggest surprise of the year for me. It’s about video game developers – a world I don’t know anything about and would not have told you is a real interest.  And it is also the most beautiful character story about the way we love people in so many different ways, about passion and the ways the past echos into the present.

Memoir

Lost & Found, Kathryn Schultz – This is my favorite book of the year.  Schultz writes gorgeously about the loss of her father, the near-simultaneous finding of her wife, and about the critical, indelible ways the two interact (my favorite section of the book is the third – “&”) to create a richer experience of both.  This memoir is about nothing less than life itself.

In Love, Amy Bloom – Amy Bloom writes with unflinching intimacy about her husband’s decision to end his own life in the face of a terminal diagnosis.  Cliche alert, but also a truth: this is a book about death that sheds new light on life.

Bomb Shelter, Mary Laura Philpott – This book made me laugh and it made me nod in understanding.  Philpott excavates the terror and the sublime and the mundane that coexist in every day of adulthood, parenthood, personhood.  I loved this book.

Left on Tenth, Delia Ephron – A very different story than Philpott’s, but also one that gives us an up close view of life’s roller coaster, and, like Schultz’s memoir, Ephron’s talks about the ways that the hardest and best things in life can often – by coincidence or by necessity? – coexist.

What are your favorite books you’ve read this year?

Lost & Found

It’s been a long time since I wrote down so many passages from a book, underlined so aggressively, nodded and shared quotes and blinked away tears.  Thank you Brettne for suggesting that I read Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz.  I have never read a book that captures as precisely and articulately what the experience of mourning a larger-than-life father was.  The book is structured in three parts: “lost,” which talks about the death of her father, “found,” which talks about her finding love shortly before her father’s death, and “and,” which talks about how both losing and finding animate the rest of her life.  I loved all three parts, but the first and last most.  The first section moved me often to tears, as Schulz put words around what my experience was like in the weeks, months, and years after Dad’s death.

The last section did what great literature does for me: made me feel less alone in the world.  Schulz describes the interplay between grief and gratitude that defines my every single day, and argues compellingly that awareness of each augments and enriches the other.  I could not believe this more.  In so many ways Dad’s death made me a more deeply feeling and more keenly aware person, more attuned to life’s beauty and pain, both.

Lately I have found this everyday remarkableness almost overwhelming. As I said, I’ve never been much for stoicism, but these last few years, I have been even more susceptible than usual to emotion—or, rather, to one emotion in particular. As far as I know, it has no name in our language, although it is close to what the Portuguese call saudade and the Japanese call mono no aware. It is the feeling of registering, on the basis of some slight exposure, our existential condition: how lovely life is, and how fragile, and how fleeting. Although this feeling is partly a response to our place in the universe, it is not quite the same as awe, because it has too much of the everyday in it, and too much sorrow, too. For the same reason, it is also not the feeling the Romantics identified as the sublime—a mingling of admiration and dread, evoked by the vast impersonal grandeur of the physical world. This feeling I am talking about has none of that splendor or terror in it. It is made up, instead, of gratitude, longing, and a note I can only call anticipatory grief. Among English words, its nearest kin might be “bittersweet.”

Favorite books of 2021

It was a good reading year.  I read a lot of plot, too, and recently discovered James Patterson (I have a well-documented love for Linda Fairstein, David Baldacci, Michael Connelley, and John Grisham, and Patterson joins this pantheon).  But thought it was interesting to reflect on some of my favorite reads from this year.  I’m interested in what you loved, too!

Cloud Cuckoo Land – Anthony Doerr – without question my #1, by a mile.  I adored this book.  Adored, adored, adored.  As I said on Instagram, “This is a simply extraordinary tale, which does that most exalted thing books can do: touches on what it means to be a thinking, feeling human being in the world.”

No Cure for Being Human: (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) – Kate Bowler – I loved Bowler’s first book and this one even more.  It’s a gorgeous exploration of what you learn and think about when you suddenly contemplate dying in your 30s.  I underlined so many passages.  This is a beautiful book.

Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead – This was my #1 of the year until I read the Doerr this fall.  Shipstead’s book is a soaring story of strength, resilence, and pursuing a dream, and the arc of a flight over the world echoes in the narrative.  Just glorious.

A Children’s Bible – Lydia Millet – This slender dystopian novel packs a powerful punch.  I’m still thinking about it 6 months later.  Completely haunting.

Monogamy – Sue Miller – I loved this story about long marriage and midlife, and particularly loved that it’s set not just in my home town but in my actual neighborhood.  Even more thrilling is that Dani Shapiro is writing the film adapatation!  I can’t wait!

The Paper Palace – Miranda Cowley Heller – I found this book profoundly evocative of my childhood summers near Cape Cod, and I also think the central question, of the one who got away in the context of a happy and contented marriage, is very interesting and not frequently explored.

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted – Suleika Jaouad – I found this book inspiring and gloriously written, and it made me look around my ordinary life with (even) more awareness than usual.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell – I absolutely loved this book’s exploration of Hamlet from another angle, and the observations O’Farrell makes on marriage and the ways that grief and memory echo through our lives.

What were your favorite books this year?  

Disclosure: these are Amazon links

Best books of the half-year 2021

For the last many years I’ve published posts at the end of June noting my favorite books of that year so far (it seems I did not do this in 2020 – chalk that up to a lost year).  The previous posts are here: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.  I stand absolutely by all of those recommendations!

I’ve been reading a lot.  I hope people never stop asking me what I’m reading or what I recommend.  It’s one of my favorite conversations and I love to ask others that, too.

Fiction:

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead.  Wow.  My favorite book so far this year. This is a tour de force and I absolutely loved it.  About ambition and feminism and identity and family and the restless, eternal dialog between where we came from and where we are going.  Read this book if you have not!

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet.  This book is disturbing and compelling and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  It reminded me of both Lord of the Flies and of futuristic, dystopian novels about the world in the future.  Powerful and lyrical.

Monogamy by Sue Miller.  I love that this book is set not only in my town but in my actual neighborhood. A wonderful story of long marriage, of the things we forgive and those we struggle to, of the ways our selves wind around those we live with in ways that are both comforting and sometimes, restrictive.  I can’t wait to see the movie! (Dani Shapiro is adapting it).

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.  My sister pointed out that this is an unusual like for me, and it is (I don’t gravitate towards historical novels).  I just loved it, perhaps because Hamlet is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing.  I found it engaging and both whimsical and wistful.  The writing is poetic, spectacular also.

Memoir:

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad. This story made me want to cheer and made me want to cry.  Jaouad writes unflinchingly about her years-long struggle with serious cancer as a young adult, and in so doing reminds us that all we have is right now.  I closed the book and my life shimmered in a new way.  The best books do that, I find.

Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas by Alexi Pappas.  Pappas tells her own story of hard work and determination in her pursuit of a professional running career.  The book is inspiring and funny, and it reminded me that though I’m VERY far from an athlete I can always try a little harder, believe in myself more, and that most pain passes.

Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life by Christie Tate.  Oh, I love Tate’s voice.  She is so honest, so unafraid to reveal the depths of herself, and this book is nothing less than the telling of her transforming her own life.  Her bravery and her candor stayed with me after I finished the book and left the room.

What are you reading and what have you loved this year?  I’d love to know.