On Living, Great Books, and Crime Fiction

December 1-7

I read a lot that week. I put it down to increased commuting time to the office; escapism (holiday stress you know!); and good books.

Ten Years in the Tub Nick Hornby

Not finished yet (as of this posting even)—I started it, and got distracted by the writing idea and other reading. I will get back to it, and savor it in small doses (suited to the format) over time. I have loved his work since the fist Nick Hornby book I read, back in the day, High Fidelity.

Among the Wicked Linda Castillo

I don’t think I’ve read anything by Linda Castillo before, but I will read her work again. This story of a police chief going undercover in an Amish community in upstate New York was exactly what I needed to be reading on the train during a rainy post-Thanksgiving week. The story feels authentic in terms of details of Amish life, and the mystery of missing people, the death of a young woman, and unexplained violence is resolved in a thrilling and satisfying resolution. One line near the end of the book captured my attention:

“Appreciation has the power to transform the mundane into something beautiful.”

This theme was reflected beautifully in the story. It also resonated for me in my life—I’m in the middle of 200-hour yoga teacher training, and was writing about Mindfulness in the week I read this. I’ll take this line with me into that writing and into my own experience of mindfulness and the rest of my sometimes mundane, but often beautiful, life!

The Kept Woman     Karin Slaughter

I followed up one mystery with another (my local library keeps the new fiction section very well stocked with mysteries). I have read some of Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent novels before, and hope to again. This one did not disappoint. I was hauled into the story from the opening pages: a tender scene of maternal love shot through with memories of violence, steel, blood, and pain. There were twists and turns throughout the story—plenty to keep me engaged in the story and turning pages. The ending was satisfying in resolving unanswered questions, but left me wanting more—the more that will come (I hope) from the next in the series.

On Living     Kerry Egan

My library request for On Living was filled during this week, and I eagerly started this memoir by a hospice chaplain. (I should note that I have not been engaged in any particular religion during my life, although my parents are involved in the Anglican church.)

For no particular reason, I have been on a kind of ‘death-watch’ with books this year, reading lots of memoirs about how people have dealt with serious illnesses, death, and living with other peoples’ pain. Morbidly, I have a shelf of books that deal well with that topic, so that I can return to it if/when things take a turn for the worse around here. (Books on that shelf include: Being Mortal, When Breath Becomes Air, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Still Point of the Turning World, All at Sea, and Disaster Falls.) This book will take a virtual place on that shelf too. A selection of stories from patients Egan has visited over time, this book really is, as the dust flap says: “a book about living, about making whole the brokenness we all share, by finding courage in the face of fear or the strengths to make amends. . . .”

I saved a lot of quotes from this book. Here’s one that resonated for me in terms of my Mindfulness writing. Egan had begun to ask her evangelical patients about how they felt the day they were ‘saved’ and reborn, and here’s what she says about it:

“Always, however, they were left in wonder at how nothing in the physical world had changed but their own perception of it. That was enough to change everything.”

I’ll be sitting with that thought for a little bit during my mindfulness writing (and meditations) too—that our perception of the world is enough to change it.

Writing Hard Stories                           Melanie Brooks

This book was an Early Reviewer copy from LibraryThing by Beacon Press. (Thanks!) I really enjoy reading memoir, and often enjoy reading about how people write memoir. Full respect for people who can put their lives out there for anyone to read—how do they do it? (On my lists—all those people in the preceding review, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, and Chelsea Handler, among others.)

In this book, Melanie Brooks addresses that question directly, by interviewing celebrated memoirists who have written about traumatic events in their lives, including Andre Dubus III, Edwidge Danticat, and 16 more. It offers a fascinating look into the motivations, experiences, and feelings of memoirists, beyond their own writing. About a third of the way through as I write for this week, I am looking forward to reading the rest. It is going slowly because I am highlighting titles of memoirs I want to read (You can expect to see reviews of many memoirs over the next year as my reading list grows!), and because I am taking a lot of time on each interview, to examine the details. It is clear that the process of writing about tough subjects in your own life is not easy—not in terms of the craft of writing memoir, and not in terms of the feelings, responses, and issues raised by the writing. Brooks writes in the introduction that each conversation “has something to teach emerging writers, established writers, teachers of writing, memoir readers, and those who have faced or are facing difficult experiences.” I am already learning.

Faithful: A Novel           Alice Hoffman

I had been waiting to read this for a while, and downloaded it to my Kindle when I finished On Living on the train. I always love a little magical realism, and Alice Hoffman delivers beautifully. It was interesting to read this right after On Living, as it engages deeply on issues of death, dying, pain, recovery, and love. This is a story of parents and children, and the families we create for ourselves; and about change and movement and ways we change our perception of life. More firmly grounded in real life than some of Hoffman’s earlier novels, this is still a captivating read. I finished this one quickly, swept into the sadness of the story, but left with a faith in the power of love to save us from sorrow.

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