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
That old-fashioned mode of communication seems to be a vanishing species these days. The average American household receives only ten pieces of personal mail per year (not counting holiday cards and invitations), according to a New York Times article by Susan Shain.
I thought about that kind of connection recently, when my friend Laurel gave me a packet of letters I'd written to her in the 1970s and '80s. Reading through them, I found verbal snapshots of that period of my life: vivid descriptions of my friends, amusing anecdotes about everyday incidents, accounts of the books I was reading, ramblings on romances, ruminations on my college and grad school anxieties.
Among those treasures was a note written on a Buckaroo Club napkin by my friend Darwin in 1981, shortly after he'd completed a 300-mile kayaking odyssey on the Yukon, Porcupine, Sheenjek, and Kongakut rivers, culminating at the Beaufort Sea.
"Right here you have a prime example of a Communications 301 class," he wrote. "Notice the yawns and the chins propped drowsily on hands. Notice the blank sheets of paper without any notes. Notice the guest speaker getting shook. Notice chair #213 back there writing a letter to some girl in Oklahoma."
I arrived early to nab a good seat for the workshop titled "Discovering Your Story: The Joy of Mindful Writing." On the hour, the instructor, Peter Gibb, walked to the podium. Around the room, people stashed their cell phones, arranged their pens, opened laptops and notebooks.
Finally, our speaker spoke: "We have now been in session for one minute."
One minute. Huh. One minute of unfilled time felt like an eternity.
Another noteworthy session was a four-hour master class with Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer's Journey. Vogler's approach to storytelling draws from psychology, mythology, physiology, and other sources not typically associated with writing.
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.
Welcome to the second installment of HeartWood's occasional feature on creative couples. In this edition, I'm profiling Newaygo County residents Tonya and Eldon Howe, whose talents impressed me when I first met them at the River Stop writers' salon and continue to amaze me.
"You see that curvy post over there?" Eldon points toward the kitchen. "I was going to put in a simple, straight post—just a post—and run the electrical up through it. But Tonya said, 'Can't we find something in the woods that'll be nicer than that?' So we walked down below the hill—there was snow on the ground—and she saw this tree and said, 'Can we use that one? I like that one.' I said, 'No, we can't use that one. It's all curvy. There's no way I can put electrical in it.' But she just kept looking at it."
In a second-floor studio off the bedroom, Tonya pursues her passion for oil painting and drawing.
Eldon's aim in guitar building is "functional artistry." Though beautiful to look at, the guitars are designed with specific playability goals in mind. "It's very experimental, what I'm doing," he says.
The Howes recently released a CD album of their songs, titled "Sundown," currently in the music rotation on WYCE. (Songs can be requested online at https://grcmc.org/wyce/wyce/request or by phone at 616-742-9923.) Tonya shot the cover photo of Eldon before a performance at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids.
Tonya also offered suggestions on accompanying instruments that would convey the proper emotions and fit the theme of each song. Now, she's mixing music into her art in another way. "I'm trying my hand at quick sketches of musicians while they're playing a song," she says. "I call them 'one song long' sketches."
- Another joint project—a children's book—is in the works. "The Elephant Story" is based on a true story of a toy elephant, one of Eldon's favorite childhood playthings, that reappeared after being lost behind a wall for decades.
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.
The phenomenon has spawned a series of books (some with six-word titles, natch), including It All Changed in an Instant, Not Quite What I Was Planning, I Can't Keep My Own Secrets (Six-Word Memoirs by teens), and Oy! Only Six? Why Not More? (Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish life).
There's a Six-Word Memoirs card game, and live Six-Word Memoir "slams" are held at locations around the world.
For inspiration, you can check out the vast and ever-changing assortment of little life stories on the project website. You can browse through topics, such as Life, Love, Advice, Happiness, Bosses, Food, or search by keyword.
Life: A backflip down the stairs, by Abarooni
Baking bread helps heal broken hearts, by L2L3
Even pinhole light defeats the night, by BanjoDan
Water life; grow what is unexpected, by Poetreebook
Of course I had to try writing my own. Some of the ones I came up with are too personal to share (!), but here are a few that made it past my internal censor:
48 years motherless. Miss her still.
Haunted by dreams of motorcycling calamities.
Unable to resist chocolate, beer, writing.
Thinking these up instead of meditating.
Finally realized introversion's not a fault.
Still limber at 69. Thanks, yoga!
The Cloud Appreciation Society
Off the Grid, Into the Inspiration Zone
Poetry for the People
The mission of Traveling Stanzas is to bring poetry to everyday lives by fostering meaningful conversations and encouraging new voices. The program offers people moments of pause to slow down and reflect on their lives, their communities, and to participate in a shared creative experience.
Author Lene Fogelberg is visiting today to share some tips for kick-starting a sluggish creative engine. You may remember meeting Lene (pronounced LEN-ay) when she visited HeartWood more than a year ago to talk about writing, health, and her memoir, Beautiful Affliction.
Lene's Ten Creativity Boosters
Lately, I have been thinking about creativity, especially since I recently experienced a surge in inspiration after returning from our holiday in Sydney, Australia.
Even before I had recovered from jet lag, new ideas for writing projects kept popping up into my mind. I felt compelled to examine this process further, by pondering how, why and when I have experienced bursts of creativity in my life.
Attend to Your Health
Our health has a great impact on all aspects of life, creativity included, but I also know from experience that doing something creative can be a great source of comfort and even alleviate pain. Since this post is about boosting creativity, the first step would be to do what we can to feel healthy and well-rested. But, as I told you, in the midst of jetlag and general post-holiday/travel fatigue, I still felt a surge of creativity that consequently must have been generated from other sources of inspiration.
Get Out In the World
Since we had just come back from our travel to Australia, full of new impressions, my first thought was that this must be a great booster of creativity. To experience new places, sights, sounds, scents and tastes, and to interact with new people. To marvel over the wonderfully cheerful Australian accent, to be called "love" and to "ooh" and "aah" over the fireworks next to strangers who helped us get the best viewing spot over the harbour.
Meet New People
Yes, this, to meet new people, should be its own item on the list. To talk to them, to listen to their stories, and to—just as important for a writer—observe them. Not in a stalker-ish way, but just as they go about their ordinary business. In Sydney, I couldn’t help but notice the street singer who always stood on the same corner in his washed-out jeans and blond curls, singing Hallelujah with a silky voice to the tunes from his worn guitar; the tanned, muscular woman working on the ferry, lassoing the thick ropes like a cowboy as the ferry docked; the cashier in the corner supermarket, interrupting the loud stream of words into his cell phone to look up at us with a soft "How can I help you?"
Kick Back With TV or a Book
And in the evenings, when we were sprawled out on the living room sofa after having walked all over Sydney, we enjoyed watching TV: news, series, comedy, anything that gave us an additional flavour of the Australian culture, and insights into the people and their stories. For example, we watched the miniseries called Hoges about Paul Hogan, the real life Crocodile Dundee. It was really enlightening, and helped me understand just how big a phenomenon Hogan was and still is in Australia, and how much his story helped shape the Australian brand overseas and domestically. Whenever I encounter a new place, I also enjoy to read up on people and places, to more fully understand the culture. A while back I read a lot by novelist Patrick White, and it was such a great experience to visit the country he so vividly described in his novels.
Get a Move On
I already mentioned that we walked a lot, and I mean A LOT. Wow, we got so much exercise, and even though I was very tired in the evenings, it must have done me good, since I’m having this surge in well-being and creativity. We rented a small townhouse by Barangaroo Reserve, in the heart of Sydney, with harbour views from nearly every window. I took this picture a few steps from our front door, and it was wonderful to breathe the ocean air, and watch the sun set, mirrored in the silvery water.
This, to spend time in nature, seems to always recharge my mind, body and soul in every way. Somehow I feel happier, stronger, more alive and more like myself, when I am surrounded by trees, rocks, earth and water. It seems to sharpen my senses, make me more aware of the details in every leaf of grass, flower and every ripple of the water surface.
Capture the Beauty
These beautiful views seem to urge me to capture them, when I was younger on canvas, and nowadays more often using photography. This in turn, I believe, helps me see more details, moods, shadows and shades, that I otherwise might have missed. Learning photography has turned to be a great source of inspiration in my writing. Come to think of it, the first chapter of Beautiful Affliction starts with a photograph!
Indeed, all crafts tend to cross-pollinate each other, which is why, I believe, so many writers are also artists, musicians, designers, gardeners, photographers, bakers etc. To do something crafty, seems to stimulate our creative minds in all directions.
Connect With Other Creative Types
And as we engage in our favourite crafts, we tend to gravitate to, but also attract, other creative people, who can be a great source of inspiration. These days we needn’t create in solitude, instead we can find like-minded friends on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, in the blogosphere, and of course, IRL: in real life.
Accentuate the Positive
Learning from and about other creative people can also help us cultivate positive paradigms on craft/creativity and lift our spirits when we suffer setbacks or when we feel like the well of our creativity has dried up. I love the uplifting "can-do" spirit that is often shared on Instagram, and the many tips from bloggers, and the never-ending jokes and shenanigans on Twitter. Perhaps especially for me, a Swedish writer living in Asia, social media has proven to be a valuable source of inspiration, connection and a place to find friends, now that I live so far from home.
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