If you had told me back in March that the pandemic would still be raging, with no end in sight, in mid-August, I think I would have had a nervous breakdown. And yet here we are, pressing on like everyone else. I am anxious about the fall and winter, but I have been learning that anxiety is fruitless. So I don’t read the news; I stay off social media; I allow Guion to share one headline with me per day. In this way, I at least maintain a semblance of calm.
. . .
I am currently reading and loving Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass. Many people have recommended it to me, and I am grateful that I finally made time for it: What a gem of a book! One quote to whet your appetite:
“Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
. . .
Moses is 15 months old and continues to be a busy little bee. He has a lot to say (although the vast majority of it isn’t English) and loves inspecting nature on our daily walks. Every parent says this, but it is so refreshing to be in the presence of a small child when outdoors. They are so rooted in wonder.
We are grateful for many things, and Moses is often chief among them. He makes these long days lighter.
. . .
Almighty God, whose Mary-like beauty compels our attention, give us hearts that jump within us with the good news of your salvation. We confess that amidst the tedium of the everyday our worship of you sometimes feels like a job—just “one more thing.” Thank you for the unsettling of our lives, wherein we discover the splendor of the kingdom made possible by your Son, Jesus Christ. We pray that you will ever be here, unsettling our attempts to domesticate the wildness of your Spirit. Amen.
Like many families, my family enjoys retelling stories of my own idiocy or deviousness.
There was the time I ruined dinner at the campsite by knocking the entire pot of pasta into the dirt; the time I locked my brother in the shed for the better part of the hour; or the time that I stood on my baby sister’s hands, grinding them into the floor, and professed I did not know why she was whimpering. They all laugh at these memories, and I squirm. I don’t like to be reminded of my past mistakes, or more seriously, my own inner darkness.
Uncomfortable stories are never our first choice. We don’t want to listen to or think about difficult things. We use Netflix as a salve and drift along the shallow seas of outrage on Facebook and Twitter. We keep ourselves from the hard stories. The complicated stories. The stories without tidy endings. The stories that might require too much of us as a person, that might urge us to change our minds or talk with our neighbors.
We are all very tired, and we need more grace for each other than ever. But I’d contend that it is a good moment to sit with our discomfort a little and listen to something challenging. Listen to a story that makes us squirm. Listen to a story that shows us ourselves. And perhaps, in this tragic time, such stories may resurrect our imaginations.
(Opening letter from this week’s Story Matters, the little email that I get to write and send for work.)
. . .
This is how we spend most of our free time now. What else is there to do?
Moses continues to be great fun, nearing his fourteenth month. He is inquisitive and sweet, sensitive as a spring flower. We take daily walks, we work, we read, we try not to talk too much about coronavirus, we focus on the moment (when we can, when visions of the future don’t send us into a hypothetical tailspin). I have nothing meaningful to say about the space we find ourselves in, as a country, except that we are all finding ways to persevere and extend grace when we can.
Goodnight Moon is great and creepy as hell, don’t get me wrong. (Goodnight… nobody…) And Moses loves it. But there are also a lot of other wonderful board books for babies that we’ve discovered, beyond Goodnight Moon and other similar dependable classics (which you will surely be given multiple copies of when your baby is born, e.g., Runaway Bunny, Corduroy, etc.).
I also dislike many of the “modern” classics for babies (Guess How Much I Love You, On the Night You Were Born, Love You Forever, etc.). Personally, I find them a bit insipid and narcissistic—and just, well, boring. If you’re opinionated about infant reading material like I am, here are some slightly less well-known and more interesting board books we’ve enjoyed with Moses.
Little Owl Lost, Chris Haughton. Striking, modern illustrations. Moses has loved this one since he was very tiny. A favorite, despite the predictable narrative (why are all the baby books about the threat of losing your mother??).
Global Babies, from The Global Fund for Children. Particularly in this season of quarantine, Moses has been mesmerized by faces. He stares at this book silently for the longest time. These global babies are his only friends!! Per Montessori injunctions, I also think it’s important to show babies real images (clear photographs) along with illustrations.
Mini Masters series from Chronicle Books. It’s never too early to turn your baby into an art critic! Moses loves these clever little board books that introduce him to the impressionists. The authors have created a short rhyming story to pair with the paintings, which I also love. And Moses is particularly taken with Matisse.
All the World, Liz Garton Scanlon. This one makes me weepy right now, because of how much I miss normal life and the close company of other human beings. It’s moving without being saccharine.
Some Bugs, Angela Diterlizzi. A hit! Delightfully illustrated with a fun rhyme scheme. And it ends with an array of all the bugs shown and their proper names. Moses gets a kick out of this one.
Also, I assume I’m one of the last parents to learn about this, but have you signed up for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library?? Dolly. What an American treasure. In participating cities, the program sends your kid a free book from birth to age 5. It also appears to be fully operational ITUT* (*in these unprecedented times = an acronym I’m really trying to get off the ground), since we’ve still been getting one book each month. Moses loves them! A real blessing from Dolly, as our library has been closed for several months now.
What are some of your favorite off-the-beaten-path books for babies?
I talked with Kyo recently while ironing a pile of summery clothes that I wonder if I’ll ever have the occasion to wear. (T-shirts and ugly slippers rule the day.) We used FaceTime but both agreed that video calls were soul-crushing. As human animals, we are motivated to fill the grievous lack of in-person interaction with calls: calls for work, calls for friendship, calls, calls, and more calls. Our days fill up with scheduled conversations.
Kyo remarked that these conversations, as a consequence of quarantine, have become incredibly boring. We’re all doing more or less the same thing: There is nothing new to report. We don’t go out. We look around our house and wait for something to happen. We try to balance work and the other beings we have to care for. Why have these calls at all, then? Because we don’t have a better alternative. Because none of this is normal or natural. Because we are hungry for flesh-and-blood connection. Because the cheap substitute is all we have. We agreed on all of this and more. Even still, it was nice to “see” him.
. . .
For several nights in a row, gigantic European hornets congregated in our living room. The first night, when Guion trapped one, we considered it a fluke. He asked me if he should kill it, and I was all: No, the delicate ecosystem! Every blessed creature has its place, its sanctified role to play! Do not lay a hand upon this ungainly bug! But then the next night came, and three more hornets found their way inside, one after the other, and I changed my tune. Fear struck my heart. Was this how we were going to live out the rest of the pandemic? With these flying marauders? And he asked me what to do with them, and I said, Kill them now, fast, and be merciless. Hang their bodies from the lintels; send them all a message.
(We’re still not sure where they’re coming from or why, but Guion suspects there is a nest in the chimney. He blocked a small hole after a quick inspection, and we’ve been three days with no hornet invasions. Fingers crossed.)
. . .
Moses turned one this past weekend! It has been such a delightful year with him. He acquires new skills and interests every week. He wants us to know that he’s very busy and has a lot of important work on his plate: stacking wooden bowls, talking to babies in board books (his only friends! Sob!), caressing shrubs, and singing along with his favorite song by the Talking Heads (“Psycho Killer”: thanks, Guion).
As a profoundly emotionally illiterate person, I have been rocked by how much my feelings have fluctuated during this time. (I have no emotional coping mechanisms! Someone help me!) One day, I feel bright and hopeful; we’re outside and Moses is crawling in the grass and the sun is warm and healing on our necks. The next day, I am in the pit of despair; a fragment of a grim news story repeats on an endless loop. I feel that life will never be normal again, that we’ll never be able to hug anyone without a stab of fear, that we might all be homeless. This is how it goes for me right now. Up and down, up and down.
We are presently healthy, which is a mercy, and we are learning how to both work full days while minding the boy. Every day has its own share of minor victories and minor struggles. And I enjoy Guion so, so much, which is also very helpful. He is a tremendously valuable partner, chef, problem-solver, and parent. I would surely perish without him.
. . .
I have a book recommendation for you as well. It’s just the thing for this time of seclusion and meditation on the inherent chaos of life.
Lulu Miller’s new book Why Fish Don’t Existis radiant. I read it ravenously, devouring most of it in a single sitting. Her winsome prose is addictive. The complicated story of scientist David Starr Jordan merges with Miller’s own life and years of grappling with Chaos. As anyone who has listened to her radio work knows, she is a reporter and writer with seemingly infinite stores of empathy and creativity, and all of her gifts are on display in this remarkable book. Highly recommended.
. . .
All morning with dry instruments
The field repeats the sound
And in the wall
The dead increase their invisible honey
It is August
The flocks are beginning to form
I will take with me the emptiness of my hands
What you do not have you find everywhere
. . .
Here is a baby who is almost a boy who very much wants to be walking. He will stand and bounce from time to time, but he has not yet developed much interest in taking steps. He has been forced to content himself with crawling around in the grass and trying to sneak as many nibbles of grass, mulch, and flowers as he can. He is busy, curious, and solemnly observant of the natural world. His favorite plants are red Japanese maples and boxwoods, which he loves to reach out and grab. We tried to get him to play with privet and Japanese hollies, which very closely resemble boxwoods, but he can’t be fooled. He is only interested in boxwoods, like the true Virginia gentleman that he is.
. . .
The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie: Found a cheap copy; wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
John McPheeReader: A selection from many books by one of the greatest essayists of our time.
Gulf Music, Robert Pinsky: Time to read through all of the poetry books we own but I have not yet touched.
The Immoralist, André Gide: I’m not very interested in this.
How quickly things change! Here we are, huddled at home, like the rest of the world. It continues to feel surreal, like an irritating dream that resembles everyday life but is more… horrible somehow. That said, we are all well, learning a new routine as we figure out how to work at home and mind the boy. I am grateful for many things, and Guion and Moses are chief among them, along with our jobs, which we still have and are able to do remotely, and our weed-filled yard, which has needed the extra attention.
I have nothing profound to say about this strange moment, except that I have faith that it will end, one way or another.
. . .
When the library shut down, I panic-ordered $100 of used books from ThriftBooks. I am not worried about running out of toilet paper, but running out of new books to read is a real threat to my well-being. I gravitated toward lots of serious, crisis-heavy tomes, whether about the dictator Trujillo’s murderous reign in the Dominican Republic, the fall of the Soviet Union, or the excesses of the Roman Empire. They comfort me, these catastrophic histories. Things have been dark before. They will be dark again. But hope persists.
In my reading life, I also acknowledge that this time of quarantine is an opportunity to read all of the thick tomes that have been languishing on my shelves for years (Don Quixote, Life: A User’s Manual, The Hemingses of Monticello, Hirohito, The Golden Notebook, to name a few). To that end, I am also enjoying taking my time and reading through the books that have long been gathering dust on my shelves.
I started Don Quixote, which I have been putting off for at least a decade, and it has utterly enchanted me. Why didn’t anyone tell me how deeply funny it is? I hold you all responsible. It has provided a strange and charming sense of reprieve and escape from the news, which I no longer read at all.
. . .
I am thankful for technology, but I am sick to death of video calls. They are a poor substitute for human interaction. They leave a bitter taste in my mouth, like artificial cherry flavoring when you were wanting the real, fleshy taste of a perfect cherry.
. . .
At least one member of our family is perpetually cheerful, living proof that ignorance is bliss. He will be a year old in early May, which is hard to believe. He will not get to have the birthday party I had hoped for, gathering all of our family and dearest friends at a park, but I’m the only one who is disappointed by that. He has no idea. We will give him his first taste of refined sugar in the form of a cupcake, take a few photos, and say, “Congrats, boy, welcome to adulthood,” and call it a day. And he will be happy, thinking it just a slight variation on any normal day, which he now spends happily destroying his “safe room” while his parents try to work and take dozens and dozens of… video conference calls.
Love to you all; be of good cheer. This will end one day.
Over the past few years, I keep telling myself that I am going to read less because I want to read more slowly. I continue to fail at this, but I started the year with the weighty final installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, in an attempt to force myself to slow down. It’s 1,200 pages long, and I’m a little over halfway done, and loving the tedium. I don’t know why I find him so addictive and riveting. He took a 300-page diversion to discuss young Hitler, and I was just rapt, every sentence, every page.
. . .
“This is what learning is, seeing that which lies outside the confines of the self. To grow older is not to understand more but to realize that there is more to understand.” — Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (Book 6)
. . .
The faintest hints of spring lift my spirits: a few brave daffodils blooming, birds singing in small bursts, evenings that seem a little less dark. I am looking forward to being out in the world more in this spring and summer. We were so much indoors last year, in those blurry newborn months, and I crave the hot sun on my skin. I feel like we missed it last year. I’m looking forward, particularly, to taking Moses out into the garden and introducing him to our plants. I am eager to start a little herb plot and get his “help” with it.
. . .
In other news, I continue to be very much into our baby. Moses is a sunny, flirty 9-month-old now, spending most of his days pulling to stand on furniture, falling down and whining about it, and babbling to himself or anyone who will listen.
Things are so much easier now than they were in those early months, and I can confidently say that I recommend motherhood to anyone who is on the fence. Do it! Have a baby, if the Lord wills. Those first few weeks, I did feel, a little, that everything was ruined. This is no longer the case! We are so fond of our little blond boy and more than a little obsessed. He is a delightful labor, seems well worth the effort.
My beloved grandfather went to be with his wife, my dear Ma-Maw, on January 2. Following is the eulogy I gave for him at his memorial service.
It is a strange thing, to suddenly be without any grandparents, but I am so grateful for the ones I had and repeatedly comforted by my memories of them.
. . .
Pete Johnson was the only person I’ve ever heard of who successfully renamed himself as a child.
Kids ask to be called different things, and some nicknames stick for a few years, but I have yet to meet another person who chose a new name for himself as a child and then never went by another one.
When he was a little boy, he got in trouble for acting up in Sunday school. The teacher said, “Little boy, what’s your name?” He said, “My name is Pistol Pete.” She shook her head and said, “No, little boy, what’s your real name?” He answered again, “My name is Pistol Pete.” This happened a third time. “Little boy, what’s your name?” “My name is Pistol Pete,” he said, resolutely. “But… when my mother is mad, she calls me Edwin Rushing Johnson.”
From then on, until he died, everyone called him Pete. I never heard a single person call him Edwin.
This little anecdote could serve as an analogy for his character: Even when he was a small boy, he had a determination and clarity of mind that set him apart from his peers. Pete Johnson was a boy who knew who he wanted to be. And he grew up to be a remarkable man, a man I am proud and honored to have known as my grandfather.
. . .
Pete was a soft-spoken man, exceedingly gentle and patient. For most of our childhood, Da-Dan—as he was so named by us grandkids—was quiet. He would sit in his armchair and read the paper or a book of history, finish a jigsaw puzzle, or tend to the dishes as needed. But he didn’t say much. Then, in late 1999, he got cancer, lymphoma. And as he went through treatment and survived and his ring of hair gradually returned, it was as if the floodgates of speech had opened. He wouldn’t stop talking, telling stories and starting conversations. Once you touched on a topic he loved, he would just keep going, breathlessly, without pause. It was as if he was making up for lost time. This loquacious tendency continued up until his passing, and I think it surprised and delighted all of us.
And it was a true pleasure to hear him talk. He was a gregarious and talented conversationalist and a memorable storyteller, just like all of his siblings. I won’t even attempt to replicate his soft and lovely Alabama accent. It was the kind of genteel Southern accent that seems increasingly rare. And he was a rare man.
In all my life, I never heard him speak ill of anyone. He was endlessly fair and good-natured. He never raised his voice or lost his temper. He was never sarcastic. Never rude. Never harsh. Never cynical. Never unkind.
He once told me a story about when he worked as a bag boy at a grocery store in Charlotte. He was the soul of politeness, even as a teenager, and he followed the rules. One day, an African-American woman came through the checkout line, and Pete said, yes, ma’am, and no, ma’am to her while bagging her groceries. His boss overheard him and rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you say ‘ma’am’ to her,” and probably something much worse. But, Da-Dan said, looking down at me, “Even though my boss told me that, I knew he was wrong. And so I kept saying it anyway.”
He had an obedient and compliant nature, but he knew when it was just and right to break the rules.
. . .
Edwin Rushing Johnson was born June 30, 1932, in Samson, Alabama, to Ralph and Delia Johnson. Pete was their third child, preceded by Lib and Buck, and followed by baby Joe. He grew up in Alabama and then, after graduating from Wofford College in South Carolina, returned to Charlotte to become a banker. It was in Charlotte that he met the love of his life, a Miss Lucy Land, at a church social. She had just rejected a date for being too short when she set her eyes on the lanky, dapper Pete Johnson, who was just the right height, according to her rigorous standards. He started sitting next to her in the pew during church and was so nervous that he held the hymnal upside down.
On September 5, 1953, Pete and Lucy were married here at St. John’s by their beloved Dr. Claude Broach. Pete and Lucy were members of St. John’s for 42 years, and Pete served as the youth minister here. Later, they were faithful members for another several decades at First Baptist Church of Albemarle.
Pete and Lucy had three children: Mary Elizabeth, now Betsy Almond; Teresa Lynn, now Teresa Farson, who is also my mother; and Edwin Rushing Jr., also known as Rush. From my vantage point, each of them carry on key qualities they inherited from their father: Betsy, or my Aunt B, shares his unwavering devotion to his family. My mom, Teresa, shares his deep sense of justice and clarity over right and wrong, and my Uncle Rush carries on his talent as a storyteller and his personal integrity. Pete and Lucy delighted in Betsy, Teresa, and Rush, and in the 10 grandchildren that were to follow.
. . .
After their own kids were grown, Pete and Lucy moved to sleepy little Norwood, to a beautiful Victorian house with gingerbread trim and a wraparound porch, right on Lake Tillery. Most of our happiest childhood memories involved the summer afternoons and early evenings spent on the lake with Da-Dan, whether he was at the helm of that old tank of a pontoon boat or standing on the dock with us, patiently teaching us how to fish.
I think I can speak for all 10 of us grandkids when I say that their home in Norwood held a very special place in all of our hearts. Whether it was gathering around the fire Da-Dan built at Christmas or hunting for Easter eggs in their yard in the spring or jumping off the dock at their big Fourth of July party, many of our happiest memories were at their house.
In March 2016, after Lucy’s, or Ma-Maw’s, memorial service in Albemarle, all 10 of us looked at each other, and said, “We have to go. We have to go back to the house one more time and say goodbye.” So, Matt, Emily, Kelsey, Grace, Sam, Hunter, Pete, Parker, Mary Elizabeth, and myself—along with spouses Ashli, Guion, and Alex—all jumped in our cars to take a final pilgrimage. And as we headed down that familiar route to 46411 Sapona Lane, my eyes filled with tears: with gratitude, for the many happy years we had spent there, and for the home away from home that our grandparents had created for us.
Someone had given us a key to their house, and we unlocked the front door and silently split up. It was this magical, hushed scene: Each of us wandered through the house, everyone taking a separate path, seeking out the room we had most loved. It was as if we were giving the house its final rites, holding a silent farewell ceremony to a place that each of us would treasure in our hearts forever.
. . .
Da-Dan had a soothing, magical quality with children and animals. They were drawn to him. Perhaps it was his gentle and quiet nature, but he could tame the fussiest baby or the most cantankerous beast.
One of those beasts was this mean-spirited black cat, Punkin. (Note the pronunciation: It’s not “Pumpkin,” but Punkin, the Southern way—named by my cousin Matt, who found the kitten on Halloween.) Punkin was a dreadful killing machine, a primarily feral animal. I once watched him leap several feet in the air to swat a baby bluebird out of the sky in midflight and then bite off its head. He would scratch or snap at anyone who came near him. He’d upset Ma-Maw by dropping the corpses of little baby rabbits on the doorstep for her to find. But when Da-Dan was near? He transformed into the sweetest little lap kitty. No one else could come near him, but with Da-Dan? That spiteful cat would curl up peacefully in his lap and purr for hours and hours. Indeed, Punkin was Da-Dan’s constant companion as he recovered from chemo and radiation.
As wild children, we were equally drawn to him: He was an incredibly patient grandparent. In all the years we 10 grandkids spent with him, being rowdy and whiny and dripping lakewater all over their oriental rugs or throwing his carefully cultivated gravel into the lake or shooting down the neighbor’s rafts with BB guns, he never once raised his voice at us, never lost his temper. In most of the old snapshots from our childhood, Da-Dan can be seen in a corner, holding a baby in his arms or opening a present for one of the kids with his little pocket knife. As my brother Sam wrote to him on his birthday, June 30, 2006, in a note my parents found saved in Da-Dan’s nightstand at The Pines: “You are a grandpa people dream of.”
Da-Dan was a great-grandfather as well, and as an enduring credit to his memory, both of his great-grandchildren bear his name: my cousin Matt and his wife Ashli’s son, Covin Edwin Pierce Kemo, born June 24, 2016, and my husband Guion’s and my son, Moses Edwin Pratt, born May 9, 2019.
Moses got to meet his great-grandfather just once, this past Thanksgiving. Da-Dan was brought down the hall in a wheelchair, and when he spotted Moses, his eyes lit up. He reached out his hands and held him confidently on his lap as we talked. It was a short moment, but a sweet and meaningful one.
I look forward to telling Moses all about his great-grandfather as he grows up. We pray that Moses will have his gentleness, his deep sense of honor and respect for others, his love of justice, his skill in storytelling, his quiet but abiding faith, his long-lasting devotion to his family, and his legendary patience.
. . .
But as much as Pete loved his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there was never any question about his ultimate love: Lucy.
It was always and forever Lucy. Their delight in and affection for each other lasted their entire lives. They were sweet and devoted and loyal, as was fitting, but they also had a great deal of fun; they were constantly teasing each other and joking together. Watching a marriage unfold like that, a union full of such energy and devotion and humor, makes a lasting impression on a child. Even a small child could look at them, as we all did, and know that this was a relationship built on an unshakable foundation. Pete and Lucy created a full life side by side, raising their three children, looking after their 10 grandchildren, serving at church, opening their home to others, and traveling the world.
When Ma-Maw died, at the end of February 2016, a good part of his spirit died with her. It was as if he didn’t know how to be anymore. How could he be a person without Lucy? They had been married for 62 years. When I reflect on their marriage, I feel that I am able, for the first time, to begin to understand that mystical phrase from Genesis, of a husband and wife being “one flesh.” Lucy was a part of him, and he was a part of her. They were indivisible. You could not have Pete without Lucy.
Toward the end, when he was asked what he wanted or needed, he would only repeat two things: I want to go home. And I want to see Lucy.
And now, praise God, he has done both. We can celebrate and give thanks for that, just as we give thanks for the gift of Edwin Rushing Johnson’s good, long, and loving life.
In 2019, I have craved knowledge with more than my usual fervor. I still read a bit of fiction, but it was not the memorable, moving year in novels and short stories that it has typically been.
As a happy consequence, 2019 was a banner year for outstanding nonfiction.* I am excited to share my favorites with you.
1. Self-Portrait in Black and White, Thomas Chatterton Williams
Thomas Chatterton Williams writes about the personal and public conundrum of racial identity with stunning clarity and beauty. (It didn’t have to be so beautifully written, but it was!) This was easily, handily, remarkably the most thought-provoking book I’ve read all year. I want to talk about it with everyone I meet. Even if you disagree with his conclusions, these are ideas worth pondering as race-obsessed Americans. Many thanks to Wei, who eagerly pressed a copy into my hands. I’d like to do the same for others. (Get a copy)
2. The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg
Human relationships have to be rediscovered every day. We have to remember constantly that every kind of meeting with our neighbor is a human action and so it is always evil or good, true or deceitful, a kindness or a sin.
Gorgeously written and wise. The moving titular essay is what drew me to it, but the rest of the collection is stirring and imaginative. I’m becoming a big fan of WWII-era Italian writers, apparently. (Get a copy)
3. The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders
The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, incontrovertible. — “The Braindead Megaphone”
Worth reading for the title essay alone, in all of its chilling timeliness and prescience (written circa 2003, describes the media hell of 2019 perfectly), but everything in here is a delight. (Get a copy)
4. What If This Were Enough?, Heather Havrilesky
Living simply today takes work. It takes work to overcome the noise that has accumulated in our heads, growing louder and more pervasive since we were young. It takes work to overcome the illusion that we will arrive at some end point where we will be better—more successful, adored, satisfied, relaxed, rich. It takes hard work to say, ‘This is how I am,’ in a calm voice, without anxiously addressing how you should be. It takes work to shift your focus from the smudges on the window to the view outside. It requires conscious effort not to waste your life swimming furiously against the tide, toward some imaginary future that will never make you happy anyway. — “The Miracle of the Mundane”
Fresh, insightful, funny: This book stands boldly against so much of the greed and distraction and soul-crushing malaise of modern life. I wanted this to be twice as long. I do not often finish an essay collection and feel sad that it’s over, but Havrilesky is a rare oracle for our time. Warmly recommended. (Get a copy)
5. The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson
I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.
Harrowing, beautifully written account of personal and familial trauma. Approached with a rare clarity of mind and forcefulness. I am silenced and in awe. (Get a copy)
6. The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
Lukianoff and Haidt present a gripping (and often disheartening) look at the intolerant intellectual environment that characterizes so many American universities today and explore its cultural causes. I appreciate that they didn’t just stop with diagnosis but concluded with practical steps that parents, schools, and university administrators can take to stem the epidemic of youth depression/anxiety and create environments that encourage freedom of thought. (Get a copy)
7. He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
Beautiful, clear; a quick meditation on how poets reckon with their chief obsessions of death, faith, and art. Christian Wiman has a graceful humility and deep-seated wisdom that seem rare among many of his compatriots. (Get a copy)
8. Dreamland, Sam Quinones
Gripping. Relayed in short, episodic little chapters, this book presents a well-researched and heart-rending account of how the opiate epidemic started in America. There are so many different players (Mexican farm boys, disreputable doctors, greedy pharmaceutical execs, sad white kids, devastated parents, law enforcement, etc.), and Sam Quinones juggles them all with ease and skill. (Get a copy)
9. Blood Horses, John Jeremiah Sullivan
Beautifully written, especially the horse bits. I do wish this had been either a book exclusively about horses or exclusively about his father, instead of both. But John Jeremiah Sullivan is such a delightful stylist, with a particular brand of confidential levity that I enjoy. (Get a copy)
10. My Private Property, Mary Ruefle
Terrifically fun and experimental little essays. Mary Ruefle, with levity and feeling, delivers just the kind of thoughtful jolt that I love in an essay collection. (Get a copy)
Educated, Tara Westover
Seculosity, David Zahl
Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch
Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, Joshua Cohen
Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder
The Book of Delights, Ross Gay
300 Arguments, Sarah Manguso
The Gardener’s Essential Gertrude Jekyll
When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
The Story of the Human Body, Daniel E. Lieberman
Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss
Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport
Dancing at the Edge of the World, Ursula K. Le Guin
Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel
A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester
Never Home Alone, Rob Dunn
*Because of the necessarily niche audience, I have not included in this roundup the 40 or so books I read about pregnancy, birth, and babies. Will write a separate post sharing my favorites. Later.
Far and away, I read a lot of incredible nonfiction in 2019. The stories and novels did not hold my attention as much this year, which I could blame on the baby, perhaps. Postpartum, I was so hungry for information (even non-baby-related information) that I was not able to focus much on stories. That said, these were the 10 best works of fiction I read this year.
1. History, Elsa Morante
I’m perpetually interested in the favorite authors of my favorite authors. Elena Ferrante repeatedly cites Elsa Morante as one of her chief influences, so one of my reading goals of 2019 was to find and read a Morante novel. Her work is not widely translated in English, and many of her novels that were translated are out of print. I asked our lovely local bookstore to order me a copy of History, Morante’s sprawling novel about a Jewish woman on the outskirts of Rome during and after World War II.
History traces the dark and darkly humorous life story of Ida Mancuso, a widowed teacher who discovers that she’s Jewish. After a young German soldier rapes and impregnates her, she gives birth to an unusual and remarkable little boy — whose survival becomes Ida’s passion.
It is absolutely unreal, as a novel, unlike any other historical fiction I’ve ever encountered. Morante writes with force and tireless energy, and her characters are everlasting types, simultaneously and paradoxically embodying both the universal and specific beauty of the human condition. Would rave about it all day long if you let me. (Get a copy)
2. Selected Stories, Nadine Gordimer
Marvelously composed, startling short stories. I took my sweet time with this collection; Gordimer’s incisive, insightful prose invites such a slow, pleasurable reading. Deep and far-ranging, this collection was the perfect introduction to her brilliant narrative mind. (Get a copy)
3. Across the Bridge, Mavis Gallant
In the bleak streets of Montréal, we find Mavis Gallant and her remarkable characters. Beautiful, strange, complex, matchless. (Get a copy)
4. The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald
Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.
I read a good deal of this aloud to my newborn son while nursing; I dare say the strangely plain and strangely moving paragraphs soothed us both. (Get a copy)
5. Honored Guest, Joy Williams
Death, dogs, and dreams! What’s not to love? (Get a copy)
6. Escapes, Joy Williams
Admittedly, I’m not sure I can distinguish between this one and Honored Guest, but if I read Joy Williams in any given year, she will definitely be in my top 10. (Get a copy)
7. Vertigo, W.G. Sebald
Lovely, and unlike anything else (except other Sebald). I liked it perhaps a bit less than his other novels, but it was still beautiful and thought-provoking. Made me want to go walk all day through an old European city. (Get a copy)
8. The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
Allende has such an expansive imagination, and that is what primarily makes this novel sing. I followed along happily (with a few small narrative reservations) as she spun this complicated family history in Chile. The characters are memorably complex and unusual, which is always a favorite combination of traits. I did not love the blips of first-person narration from Esteban Trueba, cutting into the majority third-person omniscient narrator. Even though the end makes that choice a bit more sensible, it was distracting to me. Only a small complaint. (Get a copy)
9. Two Lives and a Dream, Marguerite Yourcenar
Not my favorite Yourcenar (can anything compare to Memoirs of Hadrian?), but it is still an outstanding set of three little novels, because she is a genius. Her particular gift for inhabiting the psyches of historical figures is preserved here with a straightforward sense of joy and clarity. (Get a copy)
10. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.
So many beautiful passages and lines, as to be expected! But it is a rather exhausting reading experience. I wanted a break from all the lushness and metaphor, just a bit of reprieve! I always want to tell poets who write longer fiction, “It’s OK: Every sentence does not have to be a poem. Sometimes it is good to have plain, hardworking sentences.” Even still, it is fun to dive in with this, especially if you can treat it like a very long prose poem, which I was admittedly unable to do. (Get a copy)