January 2021 Book Marks
Finally! The calendar has turned. As I write at the beginning of 2021, our world and nation feels wobbly, but I have great expectations for this year. My wishes are simple:
…May the nation cleave together
… May Americans be able to talk about their opinions, points of view and convictions with respect for the “other”
…May the world conquer the pandemic and our lives get back to normal
…May we soon experience the simple needs of human touch, community, in-person conversation and travel
There are so many other things to wish for, but I’m going to keep it simple. Hey, 2021… please work some magic!
But in the meantime, here’s a list of good reads that can keep you company on these winter nights and beyond.
Rachel to the Rescue by Elinor Lipman
Lipman has long been one of my favorite writers, and if you’ve not read “The Inn at Lake Devine,” put that one on your list. She turns her wit on Washington’s political scene, where protagonist Rachel works at the White House Office of Records Management, taping together ripped up letters to preserve for the presidency. Fired for sending an email critical of the president, she is hit by a car driven by a “close friend of the president.” The rest of the story unfolds in true Lipman adorable madcap story-telling when Rachel moves home to recover under the watchful eye of her hovering parents. There’s hush money, a set of matchmaking roommates, a new job and even love at the local wine store as Rachel’s happiness is continually undercut by chaos. These days we need a chuckle wherever we can find it, and this mischievous political satire delivers.
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
Jess Walter knows how to tell a tale (read “Beautiful Ruins”) and he brings his prodigious talents to the early labor battles in the 1900’s American West. Evoking the echoes of Wallace Stegner, Walter unwinds a character-laden and entertaining tale with Rye and Gig Dolan at the heart of the story. Riding the rails and looking for a day’s honest work, the orphaned Irish brothers dream of a better world as they fight alongside union men for a fair wage and decent treatment. The story bursts with eclectic characters; cops, tramps, hobos, and anarchists. Add in starlet “Ursula the Great,” a stage act who performs with a cougar, a powerful mining magnate and a fearless and fiery 19-year old pregnant feminist labor activist who can face down any man. With eerie echoes of the present era, this is a sweeping story of rich and poor, brotherhood, love, sacrifice and betrayal in the early 20th century.
Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethaway
When she was just nineteen, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey’s mentally disturbed stepfather shot and killed her mother, believing, in his madness, that if he couldn’t have her, no one would. Grieving as she entered adulthood, the author’s beautiful memoir pieces together how she moved forward in the aftermath of such unimaginable trauma.
Exhuming her mother’s history in the deeply segregated South and her own girlhood as a child of mixed race in Mississippi, Trethewey’s book examines the shared human experience of sudden loss and the enduring effects of racism and domestic abuse. With gorgeous prose and a laser-focused eye on how the past informed the present, she skillfully probes how the tragedy and the deep love for her mother ultimately shaped the artist she became.
Graphic Memoir – Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast
I’m a little behind the curve on getting to this book, but I wouldn’t have waited so long if I’d known how fabulous it was for anyone dealing with aging parents. In her signature New Yorker magazine cartoon style, Chast’s graphic story charts her journey with her parents, from growing up with their post-WW2 world-view in Brooklyn, to their slow demise as they lose their independence. Her candid brand of humor rides the rails between laugh out loud moments and poignant universal caregiving truths. Chast covers the madcap and often frustrating journey of navigating both parents to the end of life when they’ve been unwilling to talk about their wishes for “the end.” I’m officially part of the cult following.
Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
Society has led us to believe that success and fame are bestowed on those who specialize (think Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours) rather than the well-rounded generalist. Epstein’s book argues otherwise. He examines the back stories of the world’s top performers, from musicians, scientists and inventors to professional athletes and philanthropists. Using research and case studies, he argues that while generalists may find their path late and juggle multiple interests, they tend to be more creative, agile and make connections more easily than those with a single specialized pursuit. Crossing fields, multiple careers, failing at a test, all of these run counter to conventional wisdom, but as a happy generalist, I’m delighted to hear that we tend to be nimble, resilient human beings who can reinvent when it’s required.
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez
I love short story collections for many reasons, but also because they are bite-sized and portable. You can knock one off before bed, on the train or in the bathtub. Known for her macabre-tinged and unconventional writing, Enriquez’s collection is set in her native Argentina and filled with a filled with a cast of characters from wilding teenagers and homeless ghosts to hungry women. There is a sympathetic arc toward kind of moral social conscious, and each story resonates with a tenderness toward the characters in pain, fear and limbo.