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)

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d: A Flavia de Luce novel, Alan Bradley

It’s rare to read a series – even a beloved one – and have the eighth book be one’s favorite. I find that if I’m reading a series with three to seven books, it’s typically the third or fourth that I like best; however, any author writing in the same world for much longer than that starts to blur the details.

51ldoulkawlThis isn’t to say I don’t love a long series. I do. They may be my favorite type of books because I get to come back again and again to beloved characters. I wouldn’t trade a good series for anything, and yet I accept that they get fuzzy. The individual volumes are usually less important to me than the overarching storylines, and I’m often so excited for a new book that I devour it in hours or days and then despair that it will be years until the next one appears.

This has certainly been true for some of the Flavia de Luce novels. I remember several of the earliest ones quite clearly, and then it gets vague, and then the seventh book takes our young sleuth from England to Canada (which helps tremendously in separating its storyline from others), and then this newest volume, which I expected to relish and then lump in with the others, stood out above the rest.

When I was young, I read all the Nancy Drew novels our library had, and I remember enjoying them, although even then, I found the repetition of certain facts about Nancy to be a tiresome waste of pages. Nevertheless, there was a shortage of books about girls solving crimes, and I read anything on the subject I could find. Oh, to have had Flavia to read back then. If anything, she’s more like Harriet the Spy then Nancy Drew, although she has the composure of a woman much older than twelve.

She’s not well liked, and she’s constantly getting into trouble for nosing in where she doesn’t belong. Her family life is awful, and she relies on her keen intelligence to find a place for herself in a bitterly cold and lonely world. Unraveling murders is cathartic for Flavia. She is a scientist with a burning desire to break down the facts to their logical conclusion, and after reading eight books and one short story, I haven’t tired of watching her do it.

My heart breaks for her though. She is funny and bright and although she doesn’t admit it even to herself, she obviously hopes that the people she admires will see her for who she truly is if she continues her work. For all of her bravery and keen observations though, she is only twelve – eleven when she solved her first murder –  those years pre-puberty are lonely under the best of circumstances, and hers are not the best.

In this book especially, I couldn’t help but see the neglect, the coping mechanisms she’s had to forge and rely on increasingly throughout the series. Flavia at her core is absolute steel, and it’s both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch the naivete get stripped away as she is forced to grow up. One might think witnessing the carnage of multiple murders would be the most disturbing thing for a child’s psyche, but for this girl, the science behind death is the carrot to a life that is otherwise all stick.

The Bad Decisions Playlist, Michael Rubens

I’ve been a fan of Michael Rubens since my friend Ruby first recommended The Sheriff of Yrnameer four years ago. His first book was a complete win for me – a hilarious space opera that I recommended to all my sci-fi/fantasy loving friends – that I now keep on tap for waiting in doctor’s offices or at the mechanic’s when I need a mental boost.

His second book, on the other hand, a YA novel called Sons of the 613, put me through the emotional wringer. Rubens has a gift for humor, but like most comedians, he is deeply in touch with the raw underbelly of the human experience. Both Sons of the 613 and The Bad Decisions Playlist flirt with laughter, but in the spirit of truthful YA, are grounded in disaster and pain.

25897672This makes sense to me. Adolescence is a shit show, and anyone who claims otherwise just doesn’t remember how hard it is to have everything shaken up and shaken hard all at once. I say this as a person who was well-adjusted, a successful student, close to my parents, and blessed with wonderful friends – I had so much, and yet I remember so much pain. I lost friends to illness and car accidents. I was treated horribly by boys who had seemed so kind. I watched in terrified silence while girls all around me starved and purged and did anything and everything possible to make themselves fit in. I still remember sitting in my psych class one morning and seeing my friend come in late, her head completely shorn of her beautiful black curls – she had spent an hour cutting them off with safety scissors in the bathroom at 7am for reasons too personal to share, even all these years later.

High school is a gauntlet. There’s no free pass. There’s no person pretty enough or popular enough to escape the human condition. And Rubens’ Playlist recognizes that. His protagonist is a stoner with an abundance of talent and a bad attitude – honestly, I hated him for about ninety percent of the book. I kept flashing back to my experience reading The Catcher and the Rye in high school, and how I wanted to punt Holden Caulfield for being such a whiny, narcissistic jerk. I didn’t understand then how deeply troubled and unhappy Caulfield was, or how his perception of the world could be the same as many of my classmates, because for me, adults had always been safe, helpful. For all the pain I felt, I always had the protection of a family who loved and supported me.

I’m not seventeen anymore. I met too many people in college who hurt me and themselves because they hadn’t received the care they needed for mental illness, for abuse they’d suffered, for wounds left too long untended. Then I spent too many years teaching and working with both young children and teenagers not to have seen a whole spectrum of caregiver behavior that floored me with its apathy, ignorance, and anger. I’ve witnessed too much suffering now not to know how or why some teenagers choose to numb themselves with drugs, alcohol, casual sex.

Austin Methune is an ordinary teenager. He’s hurting, he’s lonely and a little lost. He’s struggling with his relationship with his mother, and he doesn’t see the big picture. He cares more about impressing girls than he does just about anything else, and although much of this book is a love story, the part of Austin’s journey that was most powerful to me was his development of empathy and his ability to overcome his own buffoonish self-interest to become a good friend.

I like love stories, but I love friendship. People relying on others, trusting them, becoming vulnerable and allowing them to witness it? That is a love worthy of adolescence. That is a love that is fierce and bright and true. Learning that there’s more to friendship than just showing up to smoke weed and talk about girls is a story worth telling because being a kid is hard, and being a teenager is basically impossible. Friends are the lifeline. They show up for the hard stuff, and they are family if the whole blood relations thing doesn’t pan out.

Rubens gets that. He understands how complicated it is to be a teenage boy – as evidenced in his last two books – and instead of running from that, or sugarcoating it, he embraces it. He says, “It’s ok. I know this is messy, and that you might be a little bit of an asshole, but you’re still loved. Your story is important, and your voice should be heard.”