Around this time last year, inspired by year-end "Best of . . . " lists, I compiled my own list of standout books I'd read during the past twelve months. I didn't rank my books—on that point I have to agree with author Neil Gaiman, who has compared picking five favorite books to "picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose."
Instead, I listed ten books I found memorable for any number of reasons: the writing was exceptional, the story was engrossing, the tale was told in an unusual way, or the book just stayed with me for reasons I couldn't explain. That's what I'm doing again this year. A couple of the books on this year's list were written by friends, but that's not why I'm including them. They're on this list of books I want to tell you about because that's where they deserve to be.
Last year I limited my top-whatever list to ten books. This year I'm being more generous and giving you a baker's dozen. About half were published in the past year; the rest have publication dates ranging from 1960 to 2017. I didn't set out to include particular themes, but as I look at the choices on my list, I see that several deal with pivotal periods in history, people making a life in unusual situations, and the challenges of overcoming adversity and finding a place in the world.
Just as I wrote last year, I'm not really sure what to call this list. My Most Want-to-Tell-You-About-Them Books of 2018? Or simply A Bunch of Books I Read This Year and Actually Remember Something About?
Whatever you want to call it, here it is:
A Baker's Dozen Something-or-Other Books I Read in 2018
Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom by Ken Ilgunas. Burdened by crushing student debt and inspired by Henry David Thoreau, Ilgunas took off to Alaska, where he scraped together enough money from odd jobs—cook, tour guide, and the like—to repay his loans. Finally debt-free and determined to stay that way, he enrolled in graduate school and bought a used Econoline van that became his mobile dorm room for the next two years. What began as an experiment in frugality became much more: an educational experience in its own right.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. You might think the title and subtitle say it all: American boys, boat, epic quest, 1936, Berlin, Olympics. You pretty much know how it's going to turn out, right? But how it turns out is not the whole story. The beauty is in the details of this tale about a ragtag team of working class kids from the Pacific Northwest who learned—literally—to pull together, challenging elite rowing teams from the East Coast and Great Britain and ultimately defeating Hitler's vaunted rowers in the Olympics. Like a good novel, this saga portrays characters in ways that make you really care how things turn out for them. And just as I couldn't have imagined—until I read Barbarian Days last year—being engrossed in descriptions of one surfing wave after another, I could not have imagined—until I read Boys in the Boat this year—getting so wrapped up in descriptions of boat races. Yet I found myself riveted until the last page.
Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir by Cinelle Barnes. One reviewer described this book as a "fairy tale turned survival story," and that's an apt characterization. Barnes's childhood world of opulence and privilege in the Philippines is shattered when a monsoon hits with destructive force, her father leaves, and her mother takes up with a shady character. Still a child, Barnes is forced to fend for herself, navigating not only complex relationships with flawed people, but also such practicalities as finding fresh water. Hers is an inspiring story of resilience.
Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson. This book is also a story of resilience and adaptability, but it's almost a mirror image of Monsoon Mansion. Rickardsson, née Christiana Mara Coelho, was born into abject poverty in Brazil and lived with her loving mother in forest caves for the first seven years of her life. Her mother did the best she could, but eventually Christiana ended up in an orphanage. Adopted by a Swedish couple and taken home to Sweden, she was swept into a life that could not have been more different from her earlier years. The story of how Christiana/Christina adapted and came to terms with her dual identities is both heart-rending and heartening.
Listening to the Bees by Mark L Winston and Renée Sarojini Saklikar. I am truly blessed to have so many talented friends who find the most interesting outlets for their creativity. My bee buddy Mark Winston just keeps amazing me with his ideas and output. You may remember Mark from his guest post on collaboration, "Everything I Know I Learned From Hermit Crabs." Listening to the Bees is the delightful fruit of one of his collaborations. Merging Mark's scientific knowledge with Renée's poetry, the book explores the challenges to bees in the modern world—and to humans living in complex societies. That's all I'm going to say about this book right now, because I've promised to devote a more space to it in a future blog post. Stay tuned.
Personal History by Katharine Graham. Not long after seeing the film "The Post," which dramatizes The Washington Post's struggle to publish the Pentagon Papers, I was browsing at Flying Bear Books and saw a stack of copies of this autobiography by Katherine Graham. Graham (played by Meryl Streep in the movie) was at the helm of the Post during both the Pentagon Papers and Watergate exposés. I snapped up the book and devoured it, fascinated not only by Graham's accounts of these two infamous periods of history and their relevance to current times, but also by the insider's view of a bygone era of journalism and the story of Graham's own evolution from awkward child to overshadowed wife to confident and competent businesswoman.
Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock 'n' Roll by David A. Carson. I didn't live in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, but the city and its music were certainly on my radar and in my record collection, even when I was more than six-thousand miles away in the South Pacific. Carson's chronicle of Detroit's music scene and its ties to the culture and politics of the time makes for an engrossing read—especially fun for me because when I finally did move to Detroit in the early 1980s, I came to know some of the people who are mentioned in the book. Though I knew a bit about their roles in the music and political scenes of those earlier times, Carson's comprehensive account filled in the blanks.
The Chicken Who Saved Us: The Remarkable Story of Andrew and Frightful by Kristin Jarvis Adams. I learned about this book when I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seattle a few months ago, where The Chicken Who Saved Us won the Nancy Pearl Book Award for memoir. I would have bought it and read it for that reason alone, but the cover and the story behind it also drew me in. In this memoir, Adams relates how her son Andrew, who has autism, formed a close bond with a pet chicken named Frightful, and how Andrew's conversations with Frightful ultimately saved the boy's life.
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly. In this age of fractured attention and information overload, it's sometimes hard to commit to reading a book of four hundred pages or more. Yet that's not the reason I find myself increasingly attracted to extremely short pieces of fiction and nonfiction. I delight in the authors' skill in telling a complete story in very few words, and I've started playing around with flash nonfiction myself. In this collection, Fennelly celebrates childhood memories, cultural observations, glimpses into domestic life, and other moments that make life rich.
The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. Yes, I know I just extolled the virtues of short works, but there's also a place for mega-books like this 528-page political thriller. Mysteries and thrillers are not my usual fare. However, the idea of a former president collaborating on novel intrigued me. Whatever you think of Bill Clinton—and I realize there's quite a range of opinion—it's fascinating to read details that only a president would know, and to get a glimpse into how a leader's mind works in a crisis.
An Imperfect Rapture by Kelly J. Beard. I met this author when we both attended a master class at the Tucson Festival of Books, and when I learned that her memoir was headed for publication after winning the Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award, I could hardly wait to read it. Kelly has kindly agreed to an interview for an upcoming blog post, so I won't go into detail about the book here, except to say that the writing is exquisite, and the story of finding her way in the world after growing up poor, within the strictures of fundamentalist religion, is remarkable. Stay tuned for more.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Oh, man. This book sounded so far out when I read reviews of it, I just couldn't imagine getting into it. I know, George Saunders is no slouch, and the book was acclaimed by The Washington Post, USA Today, Time, and The New York Times. But come on, a bunch of ghosts—who don't know they're ghosts—gossiping, griping, and skim-walking around a graveyard where they're caught in a sort of purgatory and trying to help Abraham Lincoln's recently dead son Willie escape such a fate? Really? All I can say is, I was hooked from the first page. The fact that I loved the book so much is a reminder that it pays to step out of my literary comfort zone (which for me would be reading yet another Anne Tyler novel—see list below) and take a chance on something completely different.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. In 1986, a young man named Christopher Knight disappeared into the Maine woods—on purpose—and lived alone there for twenty-seven years. Not exactly self-sufficient, Knight broke into nearby cottages for food and other necessities (including lots and lots of batteries), and though locals knew he was around, he and his secluded encampment remained out of sight for all those years. Journalist Finkel pieced together the story from interviews with Knight after he was found and arrested for the thefts. The story of how Knight survived, and the difficulties he faced in trying to readjust to the life that most of us consider normal, is revealing.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
- Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
- Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
- Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters
- What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
- The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
- Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
- Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman
- A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler
- Crossing Over by Ruth Irene Garrett
- Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
- Love & Vodka by R.J. Fox
- Awaiting Identification by R.J. Fox
- A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures by Ben Bradlee
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
- Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Some place names just make you wonder how they came by those monikers. Take Tongue River, for instance. Or Fourth of July Creek. I Googled that one while working on this piece and didn't find out the origins of the name, but I did discover author Smith Henderson's 2014 novel by the same name. Looks like another book worth jotting down in that little notebook and adding to my to-read list.
In Kellogg, Idaho, there's a circular building topped with an oversized miner's helmet and lantern. Built in 1939, it was originally a roadside diner where workers from nearby lead and silver mines stopped for Coneys and beers. After a stint as a 1950s drive-in restaurant, it closed in 1963, but reopened in 1991 as a realty office, which is what it remains.
Even highway rest stops can serve up some smiles. Weary of construction delays toward the end of our travels last spring, we came across this jaunty fellow in one rest area.
And on our most recent trip, we encountered this frighteningly funny chap at a pit stop. Two truck drivers were preparing to station the skeleton at the controls of a piece of equipment they were transporting. They told me they planned to put a sign on Mr. Bones's back reading "I WAS TEXTING."
Volunteers decorate the bags, and that's where Bea applies her talents. Curled up in a comfy armchair in the living room of the home she shares with daughter Sandra Bernard and granddaughter Marquita Bernard, with a rainbow of markers at hand and a pile of coloring books for inspiration, Bea draws her cheerful creations and finishes off each drawing with big "I LOVE YOU" at the bottom.
For Bea, the project has revived talents that took a backseat while she was raising her five children. In her youth, she enjoyed painting landscapes and cottage scenes. Then, for many years, she turned her creative energy to sewing clothes for her children (including wedding dresses, bridesmaids' dresses, and flower girls' dresses for all the family weddings) and crocheting outfits for the grandchildren that came along later. When she lost sight in one eye six years ago, she could no longer crochet.
But she could. And once she got going, she was unstoppable. She estimates she has decorated more than 1,600 bags to date.
The bag project isn’t the only creative work underway in the big gray house in the heart of Newaygo. Bea, Sandra and Marquita recently published a children's book, I Am Never Too Me!, and Sandra and Marquita have two more books in the works: Things That Matter and Elton's Tall Tale.
The family invested in a computer, and Marquita, who has a background in design and illustration, created the front and back covers, added a few illustrations, and designed the layout.
For Bea, Sandra and Marquita, working together on creative projects is part of a "spiritual movement" that began when they first started talking about living together.
For more about Sandra Bernard's creative spirit and talented family, plus a sample of her poetry, see her April 20, 2016 guest post, Creative Thinkers.
That's the advice of this week's guest, Cristina Trapani-Scott. I first met Cristina fourteen years ago at Bear River Writers' Conference. After the conference, we formed a writers' group with another writer we'd met there. The result was the Sister Scribes, an Ann Arbor-based group that eventually added three more members and became a source of support and motivation for all of us.
An author, educator, and former journalist, Cristina now lives and writes in Northern Colorado. Her debut chapbook collection of poems, The Persistence of a Bathing Suit, published in 2017 by Finishing Line Press, explores the moments that fill the space between surviving a breast cancer diagnosis and accepting the inevitability of change and uncertainty. Cristina's work has appeared in the Patterson Literary Review, Hip Mama Magazine, the Driftwood, Bigger Than They Appear: An Anthology of Very Short Poems, and Sweet Lemons 2: International Writings with a Sicilian Accent. She holds an MFA in poetry and fiction from Spalding University and currently teaches creative writing and composition online.
Find Poetry in Everyday Things
by Cristina Trapani-Scott
Remember the leftover
square of carpet you
unfolded in my office thirteen
years ago, two years before
the deadly surgery? Remember
For a daily dose of inspiration, subscribe to the Academy of American Poets' Poem A Day email at https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem-day.
Today's topic: the Tucson Festival of Books, our first stop on the trip. I wrote at length about last year's festival, and I won't repeat all the details here. (But if you're curious, you're welcome to look back at that post.)
This was my third visit to the festival, but Ray's first. In previous years, I scurried from one end of the University of Arizona Mall to the other, trying to catch as many talks on writing and publishing as I could. It was almost like being back in college (without the exams, thank goodness). This time, I took a different tack, hoping to make the weekend fun for both of us rather than dragging Ray along to talks on topics that would make his eyes glaze over. (Besides, how many more Moleskin notebooks do I really need to fill with conference scribblings?)
This year, he read from his latest book, Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy. As the blurb describes it, the book is a down-to-earth look at the ideas of a philosopher "ensconced in a castle tower overlooking his vineyard," channeled by a Midwestern American writing "in a room above the garage overlooking a disused pig pen." I can't wait to read it.
As in previous years, it was heartening to be in the company of more than 130,000 book lovers, to overhear conversations about books and authors and see people browsing through and actually reading books.
Happy Valentine's Day! I don't know if it's the memory of grade-school valentine exchanges or the connection with chocolate, but this has always been one of my favorite holidays.
In the beginning
Perhaps it was that sincerity and mutual respect that helped them develop a partnership in which they could hone their own talents while encouraging each other's. That's a key to creative coupledom, say Katie and Gay Hendricks, husband-and-wife coauthors of Conscious Loving Ever After. "When people get in deeper communication with their own individual creative essence, their relationships blossom as a direct result," they write.
Space, Skills, Support
For George and Mallory, support goes beyond encouragement; they also help each other find space and time for creative pursuits. George might move a new loom into Mallory's studio, then do the laundry and fix dinner while she sets it up. Mallory will handle other logistics to give George a chance to "dream or wander or putz around with something."
"I see the play of light in her work, the texture, shapes and colors more deeply than others might," says George. "Photographic elements."
Giving George extra encouragement at that stressful time seemed like a no-brainer to Mallory. "One wants one's lover to be happy, fulfilled and eager to go on," she says.
Passing It On
I met Janet/J.Q. through the writers' group at Fremont Area District Library, and I've enjoyed reading her imaginative stories (and indulging our mutual weakness for ice cream). Terror on Sunshine Boulevard is one of my favorites.
Here's a quick word from J.Q., followed by a Q&A. More details about her and her books can be found at the end of the post.
Readers: Please leave a comment below because a lucky commenter will win a PDF copy of Terror on Sunshine Boulevard. Winner will be drawn on Friday, January 19 at 9 p.m. EST.
I chose this setting because the scene one pictures of a retirement community is exactly what you describe--a place where people who have worked all their lives have a chance to enjoy the good things in life. I love the juxtaposition of the bright fun-in- the-sun feeling with the darkness of murder and mystery. Even the title includes the contrasting views—terror and sunshine.
I base my characters on real people in my life. We meet many interesting folks in our travels. And I might add, there are some real characters in Michigan too! I take bits and pieces from personalities, gestures, accents, speech and put them together in one character. I also create the background story of the character to understand his relationships with other characters and his motivation for doing something like stealing, cheating, even murder. All of that information, such as his favorite color, is not spilled out on the page for the reader. The more I know about the character, the more believable he’ll be.
In all of my stories the setting is very important. I have mysteries set in the retirement community, a church, and a funeral home. Each location is a message to the reader to understand the reason for the drama within the pages of the book and to set the mood for the scenes. Often the twist comes when a character doesn’t fit into the setting. I think the setting is an element in the story, but I’ve never thought of it as a character. I guess we need to discuss the definition of the character.
Yes. I’m concerned watching “civilization” encroaching on the natural habitat by paving over acres of ground that is home to many animals and native plants. Developers tear out huge areas of property to build malls and subdivisions. Roads and highways cut through ancient areas, disturbing the trails and habits of generations of animals. No wonder wildlife raid garbage cans in subdivisions. Their food supply is no longer available because the homes are built in their habitat. The natural environmental balance is disturbed and the animals’ survival is at risk. We must be better stewards of our resources.
I think many folks believe retirees are no longer useful to society. Don’t believe that! They have not been put out to pasture. A vibrant new chapter opens for them. Seniors have skills and talents polished by their life experiences. They are assets to their communities in many ways and guides to warn the young’uns about their mistakes and to show them how they have triumphed. They are storytellers when they share family stories around the dinner table as the kids sit enthralled learning about the funny, crazy uncle or the accomplished pianist in the family. Seniors are eyewitnesses to the world and our country’s history and will not allow anyone to slant the truth for their own purposes.
To tell the truth, I was a writer way before being a teacher or entrepreneur. I actually started writing stories in second grade and I never stopped. I’ve had mentors and supporters along the way encouraging me to keep writing. First was my Grandmother Maw and teachers. Judy Corey and Mary Zuwerink started the North Country Writers many years ago. Esther Jiran (who writes as Joselyn Vaughn) was the force behind starting a writers group at the Fremont Library. I met many folks excited about writing there including you, Nan. Also a critique group of talented authors not only helped me brainstorm story ideas, but also encouraged me to submit my first story to publishers which resulted in signing a contract with a small publisher. Esther, Wendy Sinicki (pen name W.S. Gager), Theresa Grant (Tess Grant), and Nan continue to be important advocates in my writing life.
After we sold our flower business in 1995, I had time to sit down and write. So I did. I asked Rich Wheater, editor of our regional newspaper, if he could use a few stories for the paper. He said, “Go ahead.” I learned a LOT from him and branched out into writing freelance articles for magazines, newspapers, and online magazines. After reading Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries and Janet Evanovich’s funny mysteries, I decided to tackle fiction. And I’m glad I did!
I’ve discovered writing the book is the easy part. After publishing comes the difficult job of promoting the book. I spend many hours a week, every week, on Facebook, my blog, and guesting on blogs to get the word out about the books and urging folks to review my books. Reviews get the attention of Amazon so they promote it; the review helps readers decide if it’s a story they would enjoy.
Yes. Daily routines change, but I learned I had to schedule an appointment with J.Q. Rose to sit down every day and write for half an hour or more. No marketing, no emailing. After lunch, I put on my author cap and write no matter if I’m up north or down south.
I take photos—of everything! I love capturing people, places, things, a tricky bee landing on a flower. I also enjoy “creating” quote graphics at canva.com using my photos.
Yes. My mission is to encourage everyone to take time to write or record their life stories. So what if you didn’t discover a medicine to cure disease or help build a ship to fly to the moon? Your life is worthy because it can inspire others by sharing your experiences of overcoming obstacles, making mistakes or celebrating success. Your stories will allow generations of your family to get to know you and be empowered by your life story. I’m writing a memoir now about the first year we moved to Fremont and started our business. What an adventure.
Do you have a story inside you to share? Go ahead and do it.
Thank you for visiting today.
Back of the Book: Rescuing a naked woman lying in a geranium bed or investigating mysterious murders are not the usual calls for first responder Jim Hart. He expects slip and fall accidents or low blood pressure emergencies in his retirement community of Citrus Ridge Senior Community and Golf Resort. The ghastly crime scenes turn the winter time fun into a terrifying season of death and mystery when the authorities cannot track down the predator responsible.
Jim and his wife Gloria could escape the horror and grief by returning to their northern home, but concern for their friends and residents keep them in Florida. With the entire community in a dither over the deaths, the Harts participate in the normal winter activities of golfing, dancing, and pool parties with their friends to distract them from the sadness and loss.
Can Jim and Gloria work with the authorities to discover who or what is killing the seniors on Sunshine Boulevard and stop the increasing body count?
Terror on Sunshine Boulevard is available for purchase at these digital booksellers.
After writing feature articles in magazines, newspapers, and online magazines for over fifteen years, J.Q. Rose entered the world of fiction. Her published mysteries are Deadly Undertaking, Dangerous Sanctuary, and Terror on Sunshine Boulevard, released by Books We Love Publishing. Blogging, photography, Pegs and Jokers board games, and travel are the things that keep her out of trouble. She spends winters in Florida and summers up north camping and hunting toads, frogs, and salamanders with her four grandsons and granddaughter.
Connect with J.Q. Rose online at
J.Q. Rose blog
Books We Love Author Page
This is the time of year when year-end lists start appearing. Just the other day, for instance, I read through the list of New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2017. As interesting as it was to see which books made the cut, it was also informative to learn why those particular books were chosen.
So I compiled a list, but I'm not sure what to call it. My 10 Most Memorable Books of 2017? My 10 Most Want-to-Tell-You-About-Them Books of 2017? Or simply Ten Books I Read This Year and Actually Remember Something About? Maybe I should just go ahead and share the list and let you decide what to call it.
My List of 10 Something-or-Other Books I Read This Year
One lesson she learned really struck home with me: Having a multitude of options often makes life more scattered, rather than richer. Something I'm trying to keep in mind as I head into a new year of possibilities.
- Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
- After Her: A Novel by Joyce Maynard
- The Colorful Apocalypse: An Outsider Art Journey by Greg Bottoms
- My Amish Childhood: A True Story of Faith, Family, and the Simple Life by Jerry S. Eicher
- Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from on and off the Back Forty by Michael Perry
- The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow
- The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story by Lily Koppel
- Emma by Jane Austen
- The Turner House: A Novel by Angela Flournoy
- State of Wonder: A Novel by Ann Patchett
- Rebuilding the Indian: A Memoir by Fred Haefele
- At Risk: A Novel by Alice Hoffman
- Overwhelmed Writer Rescue: Boost Productivity, Improve Time Management, and Replenish the Creator Within by Colleen M. Story
- Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
- Isadore's Secret: Sin, Murder, and Confession in a Northern Michigan Town by Mardi Link
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
- Wolf's Mouth by John Smolens
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, A Spool of Blue Thread, Ladder of Years, and Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler
from the heart of the woods
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.
Last Wednesday Wisdom