Either the Beginning or the End of the World, Terry Farish

I just checked the archives, and according to my own tags, I only read two YA books in 2016, and two in 2015. I couldn’t believe it was true, so I went to my next source – the Kindle library on my phone – and according to that, I must have mistagged at least one post last year. Depending on whether or not I consider Alan Bradley’s Flavia deLuce series to be YA, which I’m on the fence about, I could possibly count up to three more, but I was still shocked. I consider myself to be both an advocate for and great lover of Young Adult fiction, and yet apparently, I now read more memoirs, biographies, and poetry than I do YA! Without a doubt, mystery and urban fantasy still claim the top spots, but without data, I would have put YA right up there with them. I don’t when that shift started taking place (apparently, sometime in 2014), but it does explain why it took me longer than I expected to get through Farish’s new book.

51rvex-bhvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_She is an absolutely brilliant writer. The poet in her blends stunningly with her work with immigrant and refugee communities in New Hampshire to create stories that are as unique as they are powerful. Her book The Good Braider remains in my top twenty more than five years after reading it. Either the Beginning or the End of the World is no less lovely. Written about a young woman growing up on the New Hampshire seacoast with her father, a struggling fisherman, Sophea finds herself falling in love with a PTSD vet just as her estranged Cambodian mother and grandmother make their way back into her lives.

I have many friends who have made trips over the last decade to Cambodia. To a person, each has told me what a spectacular and heartbreaking country it is – not because of any ongoing poverty, or awe-inspiring landscape, or charming handicrafts made in quaint villages – but because it had an entire generation forcibly and violently disappeared. This had led to an unprecedented sense of community between the people who live there; one man told me that if he was fortunate enough to get a job, it was only right he share that work with a brother or cousin or uncle – if he didn’t, he might have more, but that man would have nothing. Always, he told me, we’d like more work, but it’s better to share what we have.

Farish winds the brutal history of the country into her book with subtle power. Her protagonist is a girl on the brink of independence, a young woman who has little concept of her own past, much less that of an entire people. She has been raised by her American father, but she comes of age with her Cambodian family, and their presence in her life, while often a frustration and betrayal for her, is all the more powerful to me in the America we live in today.

Should I Still Wish, John W. Evans

I don’t know how the heart makes decisions. Maybe love is something born again in different bodies so it can keep moving forward. (loc 819)

It’s hard to write about a friend’s grief. John and I are not close, but I see him with his family often enough. His youngest son and mine went to daycare together for a few months. Practically a year before that, we were at a barbeque together in my neighbors yard, and all the boys – his three, our neighbors’ two – were running and screaming while the adults ate outside, me casting an ever watchful eye on the tiniest member of the wolf pack, who chose the moment right after my first bite to fill his entire bouncer seat with the kind of mess only the keepers of a bunch of boys could raise a glass of wine to, and laugh at.

51y1utsranl-_sx322_bo1204203200_He’s that kind of friend – a person I see at birthday parties and on Halloween, or occasionally when he’s picking up his kids from his mother-in-law, who lives just three houses down from us. I probably know her better than him now, since she often welcomes my wandering son into her home, overflowing, as it is, with her easy-going love and an abundant collection of dump trucks and stuffed animals. We don’t share close confidences or go on vacations together, but I enjoy both the John I see at the park or in an overcrowded kitchen and the one I encounter on the page. The one is boisterous and quick-witted, the other, neurotic and searching. When we stop to chat, he is confident – simultaneously the brilliant Stanford lecturer and the father of three bright, energetic boys. He is only overshadowed by his wife, who is one of the most straightforward people I’ve ever met. It’s hard to imagine her functioning at any level below excellence, and yet she makes me laugh and feel immediately comfortable and happy, a genetic disposition I envy, since I’m more likely to identify with the pen and ink sketches of John’s anxiety than with Cait’s welcoming competence.

Reading this book was an exercise for that anxiety. I simultaneously loved it and couldn’t stop thinking about whether I was intruding. Who am I to know how he and Cait fell in love, or how, eight years on, he feels when he has to enter the woods? Not a stranger, to enjoy the rise and fall of intermingled grief and joy from a distance, nor a close friend, who might already know these vulnerabilities scrawled so gorgeously across the page. I am in between. I think too much about it, and it makes me laugh because the John contained in these pages thinks too much too.

I suspect that people who know him better might gently urge that he live a little more in the moment, and that both of the women he loves, his first wife and his second, would not hold him accountable for either the highs or the lows he experiences. Such is the blessing of being loved by a non-writer. I can’t speak for painters or dancers or cinematographers, or their partners, but we writers are, in general, an overanalyzing breed. We run the bad connections on repeat as much as the good, our brains searching for what we missed, what we destroyed, what we could have done to make our lives easier.

My sister-in-law, a neuroscience post-doc, once simplified the science of it for me. She said, “You’re making the connections stronger, you know. Every time you rethink the memories, bad or good, you’re building them up.” And after that, I started a meditation practice for when the past crept up on me. I would instead imagine relentlessly a tree, or an expanse of sand, or a curled wave, until the urge to flagellate myself, or wallow, passed.

This works for me because I need it to – I need to live mostly on the peaks or trails right now, because becoming a mother has made my already thin skin translucent when it comes to the valleys of the world. There’s no room to punish myself for not knowing how to live perfectly in the past when the world is presenting, on a daily basis, a pain and degradation I could hardly have imagined even six months ago.

This spring, my son’s brother will be born into a different world, one overflowing with stories of grief rather than reconciliation – of John on the mountaintop paralyzed by tragedy instead of John on a street corner, raising signs of tolerance with his children and wife. We need both stories to remind us, however hard it may be, that we’re alive. Not every person we’ve loved, or every person who deserves to be, but us. We are here. We are a collection of the tragedies and exultations of existence. We are carved from the pain into a call for compassion, and we might fail a thousand times at joy, but it still exists, if we wish it.

On Turning Ten, Billy Collins

I had a book I was going to post about today – that I should be posting about, since I promised my friend John, and his editor, that my review would be up – but the reading of it has been so sad, so perfectly January, that I haven’t been able to bring myself to rush through. It’s not a long book, and it’s not nearly as aching a story as his first (if you haven’t read it, and you can bear a brilliantly written tragedy, you should), but it’s harder because he and his family are friends now, while in 2014, he was barely an acquaintance.

I’ll have it done by February, for sure, and I look forward to telling you about it, because John’s one of those writer friends I love and hate for being so damn good at what he does. In the meantime, here’s a little bittersweet Collins to carry you into what promises to be a divisive weekend.

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

The October Daye books, Seanan McGuire

Happy New Year, folks! I realize for most people, this is the first (dreaded, though hopefully, abbreviated) work week back after the holidays, but since we decided to travel a little later this year, I’m still bouncing around the east coast visiting family on both sides of the proverbial tree. It’s strange to be seeing so many people who are back from vacation and feeling – let’s charitably say “a little grumpy” – rather than catching them in their most festive moods.

cover_rrI’m not sure I’d suggest it as a general practice. Too many people have started new diets this week, or all of a sudden have to get up early to go to the gym rather than meet us before work to enjoy a bear claw while our toddler climbs all over them. It’s not my fault that they’re in the middle of a detox while I’m still in a treat baking frenzy! (Okay. It is my fault, but to be fair, I’m so over-sugared at this point that I feel like my whole body has been set to perma-vibrate. I have to give these cookies away or die trying…)

In the meantime, I’m just trying to get the stink of 2016 off by binge reading a little urban fantasy. I couldn’t even pick one of the books to review because in the last month, I’ve read six of the ten that have been published, and it wouldn’t be fair to try to limit my love of Toby Daye to just one volume (except book 4 – this isn’t much of a spoiler, but I hate storylines that center around the protagonist being falsely accused. It’s one of my least favorite tropes, and unfortunately this book is integral to the larger plot, so it can’t be skipped. It just wasn’t my favorite.)

She’s my favorite kind of heroine – self-sacrificing, unfailingly sarcastic, a lone wolf who’s absolutely plagued by people who love her and won’t let her go careening off without, at a minimum, moral support. She’s been the perfect remedy to the chaos of December, the onset of head colds, and the insane desire of children to be fed three relatively well-balanced meals a day while wearing passably clean clothes. As a bonus, when I checked out her website, I saw that McGuire is already slated to release at least three more volumes in the next three years, which is great news for future me! (Present me is still content to have four more books on standby to get through the Northern Hemisphere’s most detested month.)

Of course, this means I “have” to finish those books, and then read something more…nutritious in the next two weeks, since even I can’t justify posting about this series twice in a month. Oh January – this is why everybody hates you…

It’s almost Christmas, and for once, we’re not getting on a plane (at least not until next week). We won’t see our families until New Year’s, instead opting for a cozy holiday with our own tree and the company of our dear friends and neighbors on Christmas morning. In the past, we’ve alternated between my husband’s family in Colorado and mine in New Hampshire, and this would have been my family’s year; however, this Sunday marks a momentous day for me and mine – the day of my mother’s retirement from 37 years of ministry in the UCC.

Her ministry has been instrumental in shaping who I am. Her particular sense of humor, her tireless efforts for the justice and dignity of the most vulnerable among us, and her enthusiastic acceptance of all people and all faiths has influenced more people than I’m sure she could ever imagine. She is far too humble to think of herself as a tide changer, but those of us who know her know the truth – she is a light, a warrior of love, and a beacon for those who love the church and those who have been mistreated by it. She is dearly loved and deeply admired for her perspective, her compassion, and her faith, and while I know she has many more years of world-changing in her, she’ll be doing it from a different venue now.

In honor of this incredible transition, today I’m sharing a poem she wrote about Christmas. In addition to her work in ministry, she’s the author of more than twenty books and spent a year as a poet laureate, in addition to having taught writing for several decades. For me, there is no better way to ring in this holiday weekend than by considering her words and the overwhelming love she has for this difficult, hard to love world.

Improv on Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch who Stole Christmas, Maren C. Tirabassi
The grinch on the inside of Who you and Who me
who shrinks from the carols and ducks under the tree …

The grinch who fears weight gain and avoids every store,
with chestnut-roast muzak and wreaths on the door …

The grinch who dreads greedies and commercials for toys,
and deplores the way sadness is wrapped in fake joy …

This grinch has a heart that is just the right size,
but it hurts so at Christmas that it is no surprise …

That with all of the darkness, the hurry, the haste,
with all of the “must-do’s,” the parties and waste …

The grinch on the inside of you-grouch and me-beast,
the grinch who hates candlelight service and feast …

The grinch who is lonely, and feels like a stranger,
the grinch who’s disgusted when I rhyme with “manger” …

Finds that all of the stories of this Christmas season,
the Scrooges and Nutcrackers point to one reason.

It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Fred Claus,
and the Polar Express are all written because –

There’s a mystery here, there’s a wonder, a glow,
that comes not from a package or starlight on snow …

That is not about family with its comfort or grief,
and is not about having some perfect belief …

It’s all about God, who won’t come the right way.
who jumps out of the church, as well as the sleigh …

God who needs diapers but takes myrrh in a pinch –
this God who sends babies is in love with each Grinch.

A City Dreaming: A Novel, Daniel Polansky

It began with an argument as to what was the quickest way to get from Greenpoint to SoHo. Stockdale maintained that if you grabbed the Z train from Nassau Street, you could be sipping a gin and tonic on Houston within ten minutes. D8mon, who had never had much luck with the Z, spoke rather passionately for the % train— true, sometimes it did not come for hours, and sometimes it came twice within two minutes, but once you got on, it was a straight shot across the Abandando Bridge, twenty minutes at the very most, and there was a dining car that sold the loveliest little bits of finger food. Admittedly, they only accepted payment in guineas, but one never knew what was in one’s pockets, and sometimes you could trade with one of the other passengers.

41pelabcyal-_sx331_bo1204203200_It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever ridden the New York subway system, that vast esophageal labyrinth, that there is more to it than the MTA will admit. Indeed, there are few places in which the world that M inhabited and the world known to the rest of us parallel each other so closely. Who, standing on a trash-strewn platform in a far corner of Brooklyn after midnight, has not had the sensation that if they let the 3 pass them by, the next train would offer passage to some strange and foreign existence? Who hasn’t waited until right before the door closed, only to see their conviction dissipate in the face of reality’s cold waters, and the certainty that the next train won’t roll past for another half hour? (loc 401-411)

I usually have time each night to read a few chapters before bed, and this book turned out to be ideally suited for that. Despite its title, which explicitly calls itself out as a novel, the book is written as connected short stories – one per chapter – that mold into a year in the live of M, an apathetic drifter with a problem conscience.

M, superficially at least, is content to be back in Brooklyn, drinking in the same bar every day and keeping his head down while he grifts and sleeps his way through the borough after spending years travelling the world. He, like many of his associates, lives in limbo between mundane reality and a magic fueled existence and is consequently blessed with something akin to immortality. Far from making him ambitious, or a hero though, M is bored. His needs are few, but his friends are needy, and his enemies powerful and insane. Such a combination doesn’t make for a restful existence.

Polansky is a sharp, witty, original voice, and I believe even those who aren’t fans of the urban fantasy genre could find a lot to love about this book. It’s a strange one – there was a chapter toward the end that was clearly going to delve so deep into horror that I just skipped it (I made the mistake, years ago, of reading a similar section of Neil Gaiman’s first volume of Sandman, and I still haven’t been able to scrub the images from my brain). I suspect the section was important, but the structure of the book was forgiving enough that it was my choice to excise it and keep reading anyway.

This is the book I plan to give to all of my too smart for their own good oddball friends this year. I know it will amuse them as it did me, and it will trigger the imagination in a way that should be done as winter sets in and synapses start to dull. We all need a dreamy world during the dark days, a flight of fancy to remind us of both easier days, and of how easy we have it when sunk deep into the turning page.

Love Warrior: A Memoir, Glennon Doyle Melton

In the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving today. For some people, that means a day of cooking, of family, of love or drama or both. For others, it’s incredibly lonely, whether they’re surrounded by people or not. Some will gorge themselves and watch football. Others will go hungry, or be forced to work at Black Friday sales that have bled over to the holiday. Some will be filled with gratitude while others are angry, frustrated, hurting.

love-warrior-fullc1There is no day, holiday or otherwise, with the overarching power to bring joy to all. Life isn’t like that. It isn’t fair. It doesn’t dole out goodness because the calendar demands it. That’s why – regardless of circumstance – we can all use a little of Glennon Doyle Melton’s wisdom today.

This is a gentle reminder that love and pain and grief are bundled together, that they are meant to coexist, and that you are not irredeemable if you feel more of the pain than you do the love right now. You are not broken. You are a warrior.

Fight on.

What my friends didn’t know about me and I didn’t know about my daughter is that people who are hurting don’t need Avoiders, Protectors, or Fixers. What we need are patient, loving witnesses. People to sit quietly and hold space for us. People to stand in helpless vigil to our pain.

There on the floor, I promise myself that I’ll be that kind of mother, that kind of friend. I’ll show up and stand humble in the face of a loved one’s pain. I’ll admit I’m as empty-handed, dumbstruck, and out of ideas as she is. I won’t try to make sense of things or require more than she can offer. I won’t let my discomfort with her pain keep me from witnessing it for her. I’ll never try to grab or fix her pain, because I know that for as long as it takes, her pain will also be her comfort. It will be all she has left. Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I loved well. Here is my proof that I paid the price. So I’ll just show up and sit quietly and practice not being God with her. I’m so sorry, I’ll say. Thank you for trusting me enough to invite me close. I see your pain and it’s real. I’m so sorry.

The Journey of the Warrior. This is it. The journey is learning that pain, like love, is simply something to surrender to. It’s a holy space we can enter with people only if we promise not to tidy up. So I will sit with my pain by letting my own heart break. I will love others in pain by volunteering to let my heart break with theirs. I’ll be helpless and broken and still— surrendered to my powerlessness. Mutual surrender, maybe that’s an act of love. Surrendering to this thing that’s bigger than we are: this love, this pain. The courage to surrender comes from knowing that the love and pain will almost kill us, but not quite. (p. 206)