It is so easy to give myself a routine for each morning: coffee, write a blog post or a book review, work outside before it is too hot, walk before the sun wilts me, work on novel, and the list goes on. But the morning hours stretch into evening so quickly- the mild summer morning turns hot, dust is layered across the table tops, a pile of laundry admonishes me as I hurry past nd always, always, other things beckon. I tell myself I am lucky to have such a long list- one I will never finish for it replenishes itself, grows and sprouts other lists.
One task to top my list is to write down every book I read, with commentary. I had taken to scribbling a few comments in the back of each paperback so if a student or a friend asked for recommendations, I could remember the story and if it was worthy of passing on or to that person’s tastes. With a Kindle it is different, and thus posting them here was a great solution. Or so I thought. There is little incentive if I am the only one to read it, and I read a lot of books. Sadly, sometimes it is difficult to remember them soon after I finish, and with Kindle, I rarely know the title.
So here, a list I must come back to- to flesh out the details. For now, this will have do. It is my scribble at the back of the book- a reminder only, and if I have an audience, I will put it in the correct place on this blog.
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan follows a Palestinian family over many generations as they live through Saddam , 9/11 and more conflict. Good.
The Lady Brewer of London by Karen Brooks is about a woman brewer who beat the odds in Great Briton at a time most women brewers were small time and most of the brewing was part of a monopoly or male brewers or done by monks who would do anything to squelch their competition.
Where Butterflies Go by Debra Doxer. I actually remember the author because i was struck by the novel, in some ways similar to my own, though so different, but she was the first I had ever read who even mentioned the refugee camps set up after WWII. A great story of hope and resilience, in part based on her aunt who survived the Holocaust after suffering the worst tragedy that could befall any parent. I also contacted her and she was extremely kind and helpful.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. My book club liked it, my husband is struggling to get through it, mainly , I think, because he has the factual mind of an engineer and Whitehead’s novel borders of magical realism. Spurred by the question, what if the Underground Railroad was a real railroad, he mixes a lot of historical research into the story of one woman slave who outlines somewhat metaphorically many of the injustices the marginalized suffered throughout our history.
Deacon King Kong by James Mc Bride. Some parts of this novel I loved, though I have to admit I was initially turned off by the title. I expected a giant ape, or some other sci fi. But the novel was based on Deacon, a poor black man from New York whose alcoholism caused led to a tragic story of love, but redemption and the wonderful people who supported him. It is a great insight into Black lives, and some of the colloquialisms were priceless. Though the ending was a bit too happily ever after to be realistic, it left me with a warm feeling. I recommend it.
Someone Else by Matthew George. This is an action packed story of a man who takes on the identity of another, a drug dealer, and gets in a lot of trouble over it. A clever, fun read.
Passage West by Rishi Reddi
The temperature is warming up and my dog is urging me to take her out, so I will return…..
The Pasha of India – Fiction about a royal child who escapes the murder of his family and is raised by the cooks in the palace. He himself has special talents as a chef, which allow him to get back to his true love, after a circuitous route. Not great, but some wonderful cooking explanations.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins- I thought this was one of the most ingenious books I have read. A young woman romanticizes the life of a couple she passes every day on her way to work, only to face the reality of who they are and how her own life is intertwined with theirs.
The Song of the Jade Lilly by Kirsty Manning- I have read so many books whose setting is World War II and did not think I could face another. But this one takes place mainly in Shanghai, and though it references some of the most common aspects of Hitler’s take over, the story is really one of love and dedication to friendship. It’s not great writing, but it is interesting and acquainted me with pieces of history I did not know.
The Book of Lost Names by Kristen Harmel- This takes place during the French resistance to the Nazi’s during World War II, and a young lady’s determination to remember the people who have been lost.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchet – I have read three novels by Ann Patchet without realizing she was the author. They all have a familiar theme of dysfunctional families and the consequences, but in them all, there is hope, redemption, and the unfolding of a person’s better self.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett- Same as above, but her words flow and her sentences silky with metaphors that evoke clear images. This story about a family torn apart by divorce seems to jump from one time to another, or one person to another which initially made me think some pages were missing. It explains itself though and becomes clear. It’s good, but not a favorite.
The Amazing life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyon – A really, really sweet story of an older, unmarried woman. At first, it reminded me of a Man Called Ove- the disgruntled elderly person who just wanted to die. Like Ove too, Eudora finds a reason to live. The book deals with the dignity often missing from dying.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante- This we read for my book club. A couple of the women liked it- usually citing Ferrante’s unlikable characters and the way they are portrayed with all their flaws. They appreciated the message. I could grasp the message without liking the book, and this is one I would not recommend.
King Kong by James Mc Bride – Take a African American neighborhood, centered around their church, and a white detective. Add all the color of the dialect, the personalities so rich you feel you could identify them if you met them in real life, a mystery or two, and a quick pace and that’s the novel. A good read.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead- Though Colson Whitehead has received Pulitzer Prizes for his work, I think it is because of the stories themselves, not for his literary style. He writes directly, simply reminding me more of a journalist than an author. I liked the novel, following Cora on her journey as Whitehead made every stop on this real underground railroad a different place, each one highlighting a truthful horrible injustice or shameful event in American history. It’s maybe a little magical realism, but worth a read.
The Nickel Boys- Colson Whitehead Another story that needed to be told about a Black boy who is mistakenly taken to a teen “jail”. It exposes a place thought to be good, but that hid horrible deaths and injustices.
On my night table:
Stamped from the Beginning by Ibrim X. Kendi – Oh man. I can only read a few pages of this at a time, not because it is not interesting but because it contains so much, too much to absorb all of it. I need a note pad and pen as I read, feeling I am back in a history class, furiously taking notes. To me, this is one to read with someone else- to keep you going and to share your thoughts.
Liberte’ by Kaitlyn Greenridge- for my book club
The Maid by Nita Prose – for my book club
The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell (featured in Writer’s Digest)
I’ve always marveled at people who are able to meditate. No matter how hard I try, my mind won’t be stilled. Any attempt to clear it only diverts the images swirling about me into different forms taking on new directions as if they were pieces caught in the eye of a tornado. Every night, I repeat the same pattern over and over. No matter when I have fallen asleep, I awaken about 2 am and am kept awake by my thoughts. At times, these are things that worry me. A fight with one of my daughters, a mother’s action that I should have refrained from, guilt.
Last night, free of worry about my children, my mind still could not rest. Like a river rushing to the sea, my wonderings poured from me. I always pray in these times, not for sleep but for others. May the poor refugees in Syria find peace and hope. May those in Yemen be fed. May Covid be over soon. The list never ends. But just as a rushing river slows into small streams which become trickling tributaries, the movement continues. Other things fill the space. I cannot stop them.
What good are my prayers I ask? Does God truly only answer if he gets enough prayers over an issue? Can He not see all that is happening and take action without prodding from a mere human? And then what of the character in the series I am watching on Netflix, The Outlander. Will Claire return to Jaime, and will he still love her if she does? And then when she does, how can she leave her daughter? Will she be another Anna Karenina who sought love over her children? I have never known a love that could surpass the love I have for my children, but if I did, would I return to him? Should Claire? Why doesn’t her daughter accompany her? I critique every move through a writer’s perspective- aligning the story with reality, and even if it doesn’t quite align, could I ever write such a piece? If I wrote something which kept people awake at night, I would feel I had succeeded.
So then, of course, it is only expected that my characters, Johnny and Evie will appear. Is their love as strong, as compelling as the love between Claire and Jamie? Will I ever be able to write such a novel, or to create an entire book around a house as Ann Patchett has done in The Dutch House? Should her ending have been different? What can I learn from these writers?
The pictures of my day sift in and out of focus as I travel from contemplating characters to what I will do when I actually get up. But I am tired, and once again I try to still my mind, to relax. Beginning at my toes, I plan to move up my body feeling the release as I do, but I am stuck on my first toe. The practice falls apart. I pray some more, fighting the ideas that come.
There is too much to think about- the daytime hours are not enough, but I need to find a way they can be. I need to sleep. I need to turn these thoughts into dreams, something I can do while my eyes are closed and my mind is at rest. I rise, take out a paper and pen, and record everything. It is only when I release the ideas to paper that I can sleep. I leave them to work themselves out on the paper while I close my eyes.
My mother and I never got along well, not really, not until she had dementia. When I was small, I remember her hugging me and whispering, “I wish I had ten of you.” She loved me, of that I have no doubt, but as I got older, she didn’t like me much. I wasn’t real pretty. I was strong willed and athletic, not in a coordinated way, but in a love to move way. And I had a tongue like a viper. I can see why I wasn’t her favorite person.
I think the biggest barriers between us though were our outlooks on life. My mother worried about what people thought, and so she wanted me to fit into society’s mold for a “proper” young lady. She enrolled my sister and I in charm schools ( It didn’t do much good except to make me self-conscious when I stand, and realize my feet are far apart, pointing in the same direction, rather than the heel of one strategically placed against the arch of the other.) , dance lessons, and signed us up for Ticktocker’s, a rich girl’s philanthropy, so we could hob knob with girls who really were rich.
She worried I didn’t get asked out much, and she told me not to exercise so much. To say she was a worrier would be an understatement. If I were ten minutes late coming home, she worried I’d fallen off a cliff. If I laughed too loudly, she worried men would run the other way. If I didn’t get asked to a school dance, she worried I’d be a spinster. She was a masterful worrier- creative and consumed by it. Yet, when I look back at my life with my mother, with a mother’s perspective, I understand some of the worries.
Being a parent is scary. It’s the biggest job we’ll ever have and there is no step by step attached to the baby. And my mother took her work seriously. She did other things- hurtful things, born of her worry, I presume. And I have learned to forgive them, but an apology from her would have gone a long way. “I am sorry” is magic – an admission of humanness- a statement acknowledging our faults. But none escaped my mother’s lips so we were stuck in a false presumption where she was always right.
I grew up watching Leave it To Beaver and I always wanted my mother to be like June Cleaver. A mother who never got mad. A mother who never said anything worse than “Oh Beaver.” My mother wanted me to be someone else too. My sister, maybe, who was always perfectly obedient, or at least pretended to be. My sister never talked back, never questioned anything. Everyone liked her, including my mother.
And everyone liked my mother. A girl friend recently told me she had always wished her mother was like ours. She was doting, welcoming and a great cook. Our home was a hangout for my sister’s friends, and the boys would call my mother before they came to put in an order for her chocolate brownies. I wanted to be a mother like that. My mother had many good qualities. She was a devoted friend and mother, an excellent cook, a great joke teller and she had a laugh that was full and resonant.
But she was lost in a world shaped by her childhood, one I never understood until it was too late to ask her. In secrecy she had told me her father was shot when she was eleven. It didn’t mean much to my child ears, but as I grew older I was curious. A genealogy search revealed other questions. My mother was 100% Italian. There was speculation her father was involved in the mob. Possibly his brothers killed him. My grandmother moved them often after the murder, and changed their last name from Navigato to Navigator, maybe to take the Italian out. What?
This was the stuff of stories. It explained my mother’s idiosyncrasies- the paranoia, the worry, the high expectations for my sister and me. She was an enigma and I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand my mother. I wanted to honor her for her strength and resiliency. Thus began the story of Johnny and Evie.
In it, I took the little I knew about my mother and created a feisty, romantic character who was determined to find her father’s killers and send them to prison. Of course, she had to fall in love, but it couldn’t be an easy love. It had to define her. So she met Johnny Pizzamenti, a handsome cross between my own father and my husband, and this affair ruined her engagement to her real life Jewish boyfriend.
My novel weaved truth with fiction, historical facts with anecdotal evidence. In the process I fell in love with my mother. I understood her. I honored her, and I admired her. She was not who I had known, but in the process of creating her, I came to know her. I had served my purpose in the writing. But then I had a novel I had worked on for over five years, that I truly loved, that friends and professional editors encouraged me to share. I revised it; I edited; I rewrote most of it for the brutal process of finding an agent. Now To Your Enemies, Forgiveness is still looking for a home, but this time, I can feel my mother cheering me on.