Thursday, February 28, 2019

My 2018 in Books

Nebula NGC 6302

This beautiful photo by the Hubble Space Telescope is of a nebula sometimes called the Butterfly Nebula. This vision from 3,800 light years away. From so far away and so long ago. These cosmic wings are the perfect metaphor for the flight of 2018.

I'm a writer and many years can be measured in what I've written. But not last year. I have not been writing like I have in years past. 2018's flight must be measured in the books I read.

Not all the books I read in 2018. I can't remember them all. And I didn't make notes -- which I should have done, because at my stage in life I've read so many and forgotten so many that sometimes I realize two chapters in that I DID read that one and I don't have time to read it again when there are so many out there that I haven't read once.

Sometimes I do remember that I've read them before, but I wonder if I would still think they are as good as I thought the first time through. This year I reread John Irving's A Prayer for Owen MeanyFor years I've said it's my favorite book ever. I read it again, because I recommended it to a friend and she didn't like it. I still like it, though maybe it's not my all-time favorite anymore.

In June I went to Washington, D.C. for a History Vacation with my son and his two sons. Thinking I would read to them in the evening after full days of exploring the city and the histories it tells, I took Tuck Everlasting. I hadn't read the children's book by Natalie Babbitt published in 1975, the year after my son's birth. So I read it before we went to D.C. and took it with me but never opened it again while we were there. The book's premise is that immortality isn't a wonderful thing at all. "You don't have to live forever, you just have to live.” Our days were too full of living.

While in D.C., as my souvenir, I bought The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It's nonfiction -- a history of three families who went north during the Great Migration and the Second Great Migration. It was the time when African Americans moved in great numbers out of the Southern United States into the Midwest, Northeast and West, a period of time from about World War I until after World War II. Being white and having grown up in the South, I knew nothing about the Great Migration. Like a lot of African American people in the South, I always thought of the North as being sort of a promised land, where people were treated equally and fairly regardless of their color. Boy, did I have my eyes opened.

As it turns out, The Warmth of Other Suns was good preparation for Michelle Obama's Becoming, my first book in 2019. ( For my review of  Becoming Click here.) Her grandparents had come North in the Great Migration.

A retired librarian friend of mine (Everyone who loves reading should have librarian friends!) introduced me to Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley mysteries. Mysteries are my goto for fiction and, of course, I'd seen the TV productions on PBS's Masterpiece Mystery. But I gotta tell you, Sergeant Barbara Havers is even better in the books than she is in the TV series.

There were other nonfiction books -- I wouldn't go a whole year without David McCullough. 2018 was the year of "The Great Bridge." I know, I know -- it was published in 1972, but I didn't run into it until last year. It's the story of the building of The Brooklyn Bridge, the very one that still carries six lanes of traffic across the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Before the bridge was built, crossing the river depended on ferries.

McCullough's book follows the bridge's building from the suspension-bridge-builder John Augustus Roebling's efforts to sell the concept of bridging the East River and the start of construction in 1869  just four years after the end of the Civil War, to its completion in 1883. With a main span of 1,595.5 feet (486.3 m) and a height of 276.5 ft (84.3 m) above mean high water, it was the world's first steel-wire suspension bridge. It originally carried horse-drawn vehicles and elevated railway lines. This is an epic story about the problems they encountered and solved -- steel cables long enough and strong enough, laborers afflicted with the bends, political conflicts between the then separate cities of Brooklyn and Manhattan (New York City), and the ever present problems of financing any public project of any size faces.

It was a good year for nonfiction. September found me at the Jaipur Literature Festival in Boulder. JLF, a wealth of writers of every form, from all over the world -- an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, a Nobel nominee playwright, poets, novelists, journalists, historians, and much more. And they sell books. "Oh, no, don't throw me into that briar patch!"

I met Wade Davis, Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society. I bought his River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado and read it. Since I've moved to Colorado, I've become hyperaware of the importance of water in the Western United States, the Colorado being the major source of water for seven southwestern states so it was perfect. It's very well-done, as dense with information and as engaging as are his lectures.

Astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan, Yale professor of astronomy and physics was there. She writes science so people like me can understand. Her Mapping the Heavens follows astronomy/cosmology from myth to string theory. Brilliant!

And then ... I went to Houston in October and heard Barbara Kingsolver read.  So of course I bought two more of her books, her most recent Unsheltered for a friend and Flight Behavior from 2012 for myself.

Flight Behavior takes on Climate Change and personal growth. Her main character Dellarobia Turnbow is an intelligent young mother, trapped in her own lack of education and her too early marriage to the wrong man. Climate Change has brought migrating monarch butterflies to her wrong valley in Tennessee instead of their right valley in Mexico. Change is inevitable.

Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible may be my favorite novel now. I read it back in 2014. Check out my review of it.

I ended 2018 with another John Irving novel, Avenue of Mysteries. Irving writes books for writers. His main characters are often writers who think about things writers think about. In Avenue of Mysteries, the main character Juan Diego gives good advice to writers -- "Characters in novels are more understandable, more consistent, more predictable. No good novel is a mess; many so-called real lives are messy."

Certainly not an exhaustive list of the books I read in 2018, but these are the ones that I particularly remember. I hope your 2018 in books was as enjoyable as was my own.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A Walk in the Park -- flash fiction

"Ach, du meine liebe Gute! Your costume!"

My costume? I was wearing cargo pants, a plaid, flannel shirt, and sneakers. She, on the other hand, was wearing some sort of long black corseted dress, a top hat with lace, and high button-up boots.

"And your hair. So short." Her accent was British, though not exactly like my friend Ivor's. "And you're so tall."

How should I respond to that? Yes, I am tall and you are short. I don't think so. My Momma taught me better manners than that.

"Yes, ma'am. Isn't this a nice place to walk?"

She dropped her scrutiny of me and gazed at the river.

"The River Dee. It is beautiful. I used to ride here. My husband and I. He bought this land for us many years ago." She was distracted by a squirrel racing from one tree to another on the river's edge. "Here all seems to breathe peace, and make one forget the world and its turmoils."

Although the sky was overcast, the air was clear and we could see snow laced mountains in the distance. A view very familiar to me. But something about the squirrel was decidedly foreign -- its tufted ears.

"So, this is your place?"

"My place, indeed. All this land is my land. This is my country." She studied me closely. "Do you not know where you are?"

For a moment I felt dizzy, as though I had missed a step.

In that same moment she grabbed my arm to steady herself.

"Are you all right?" I asked.

"I'm not quite sure." She continued to hold my arm. "Are you all right?"

"I don't mean to frighten you, ma'am, but I'm not sure I am. I honestly don't know where I am or how I got here."

No taller than my own grandmother, a bit heavier maybe, she took command seating me on an outcropping of rock.

"I, too, feel a bit dazed," she confessed. "To see someone so odd as you. Someone so oddly dressed."

She stood in front of me eyeing me from head to foot. "Are you a Campbell?"

"Like the soup?" I ventured.

From her quizzical expression my mentioning soup was just as odd to her as everything else about me.

She touched my shirt and explained "The Campbell tartan."

"No, ma'am. I don't really know anything about tartans."

She settled beside me seemingly satisfied not to know who I was or why I was there.

"Alas," she considered the scene before us. "Sometimes I fear I'm going insane."


"Meeting someone like you," she explained.

"Like me?"

"My grandfather, you know -- George the Third. He was quite mad."

"I'm sorry." What else was there to say? I was disoriented.

"I don't remember him," she continued. "I was quite young when he died. But there were always stories."

Maybe I was losing it, too. I was quickly approaching the age when my own mother's dementia had started and my grandmother's the generation before.