Favorite Books, 2012 Edition

Like churches during the Middle Ages, books conferred instant sanctuary.

Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club

From the 80 books that I finished in 2012, below are my favorites, listed in the order in which I read them.

The Grief of Others (Leah Hager Cohen)
The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach)  
Kayak Morning (Roger Rosenblatt)  
The Flight of Gemma Hardy (Margot Livesey)  
The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey)
The Chalk Girl (Carol O'Connell)  
Paris in Love (Eloisa James)  
Afterwards (Rosamund Lupton)  
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Anna Quindlen)  
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed)  
The Age of Miracles (Karen Thompson Walker)  
Contents May Have Shifted (Pam Houston)  
The Life of Objects (Susanna Moore)
The Twelve (Justin Cronin)  
The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe)  
Bury Your Dead (Louise Penny)  
The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)  
Eight Girls Taking Pictures (Whitney Otto)  
Mrs Queen Takes the Train (William Kuhn)  
Carry the One (Carol Anshaw)

There was something in the pages of these books that had the power to make him feel better about things, a life raft to cling to before the dark currents of memory washed him downstream again, and on brighter days, he could even see himself going on this way for some time. A small but passable life.

Justin Cronin, The Twelve 


Favorite Books, 2011 Edition

We had not expected to be women like that. We had thought that we really would read all seven volumes of Proust.

Leah Stewart, Husband and Wife

Proust doesn't appear on my favorites list (below) nor in my reading journal of the 99 books that I finished in 2011. Some years, the goal in reading is simply to escape, even if my choices would give me no bragging rights at a reunion of UM English majors.

The Weird Sisters (Eleanor Brown)
Separate Beds (Elizabeth Buchan)
Hannah's Dream (Diane Hammond)
The Metropolis Case (Matthew Galloway)
The Foremost Good Fortune (Susan Conley)
Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses (Claire Dederer)
Three Stages of Amazement (Carol Edgarian)
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading (Nina Sankovitch)
Sister (Rosamund Lupton)
The Magician King (Lev Grossman)
The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
The Language of Flowers (Vanessa Diffenbaugh)
Blue Nights (Joan Didion)
Robopocalypse (Daniel Wilson)

"I have a hard time believing that the history of the universe is being written by a talking rabbit," Eliot said. "Though that would explain a lot."

Lev Grossman, The Magician King


I don't have hundreds of friends, not even on Facebook. But in the past three weeks, it seems that way too many of my small circle have been hit by pain and suffering.
  • Two friends lost their mothers to illness.
  • My brother-in-law (husband to one of Jim's sisters) lost a brother to suicide.
  • One of the bridesmaids in our wedding was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.
  • The "trail walks leader" at our shelter was attacked and severely injured by a dog that had just arrived at the shelter.
Religion might be helpful right now, but I abandoned that nearly two decades ago, with assistance from the Sisters of Mercy. Instead of the word of God, I now read poetry when sorrow arrives.

But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing 

in and out. Life so far doesn't have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain. 

from "What Is There Beyond Knowing" by Mary Oliver 


Pit bull girl no more

When you don't have a job, it seems as though you have to craft an identity for yourself, a response to the inevitable "And what do you do?" at parties. A big piece of my self-image for the last two years came from being a member of the shelter team that took long-termers--mostly pit bulls and pit mixes--on two-mile group walks. Team membership is limited to the best dog handlers among the many volunteers who work with the shelter's canine population.

I liked the image of myself as a tough, middle-aged woman who could walk two pit bulls at at time; it counteracted the reserved, ex-librarian stereotype. I've been jumped on, leaned on, slobbered on, and given extravagant kisses by pit bulls. But as much as I love pits, I never lost sight of the fact that they are physically strong and--if untrained, as many dogs who end up in shelters are--can be strong-willed.

Last Saturday, one of my charges was acting out. For the first time on these walks, I feared for my own and both dogs' safety, particularly since we were near a busy street. Curiously, the other team members, including the staffer who leads the group, just continued walking while I tried to get the female pit bull under control. Eventually the entire group was out of sight. By the time they finally realized I wasn't with them, I had been nipped repeatedly and the dog who was behaving (sort of) had blood streaming out of one of his eyes. It was a horrific experience that could have been averted if even one other person on the team had offered me some assistance.

I resigned from the team the next day, losing a piece of myself in the process.


A taste of the future?

In the past 17 days, I've had a physical, an ultrasound, a biopsy (benign), and, just to top things off, stomach flu. I also have a fistful of referrals for various medical procedures (mammogram, colonoscopy, bone scan, carotid artery scan). Jim has been home for the last two days with a bad cold. Our conversation has centered around health-related topics.

It's beginning to feel like an old folks' home, and I'm not talking one of those active lifestyle retirement communities.


Irish literary humor

Earlier in the week, I took a break from (hopefully needless and definitely obssessive) online reading about thyroid cancer and purchased a subscription to the London Review of Books so that I could catch up on the annual publication of Alan Bennett's diary for the preceding 12 months. (In addition to the print version, the subscriber gets online access to the Review's archives.)

Following my biopsy this morning, I treated myself to reading Bennett's 2010 diary. He made me laugh for the first time in days with this anecdote:

I pass the house in Fitzroy Road with the blue plaque saying that Yeats lived there . . .

It was this house where Eric Korn heard someone reading out the plaque as being to ‘William Butler Yeast’. ‘Presumably,’ Eric wanted to say, ‘him responsible for the Easter Rising.'


Love in Renaissance Flanders

I loved the work of the 15th century Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck long before we moved to Belgium. I'm particularly fond of his portrait of a young couple, Giovanni and Giovanna Arnolfini, and of Robert Lowell's spot-on description of the pair in his poem "Marriage."

They are rivals in homeliness and love;
her hand lies like china in his,
her other hand
is in touch with the head of her unborn child.
They wait and pray,
as if the airs of heaven
that blew on them when they married
were now a common visitation . . .