Stumbles, Restarts, and Stories

The year 2022 has been a struggle for me. In many practical ways, it was the first year for a fair evaluation of this new life of mine as a big-city-minded single woman in a small college town. The pandemic years were a false test, a stunting of my regrowth, and 2022 taught me nothing if not that I am still hoeing, most of the seeds remaining in my pocket for this project of my replanting. Hoeing is damned hard work, and my hands and my heart earned new calluses this year.

It was a year of head-down working, writer’s block, doubt, and lethargy. I was overwhelmed and scattered, wading in new waters of worries, some real but most imagined. I struggled to stay on task, giving in to uncharacteristic procrastination, and I was prone to wallowing in sorrow, like a sad little pig stuck in the mud. Walls and little dogs in the middle of the night are uninspiring audiences for a storytelling chatterbox, and my purpose in 2023 will be to seek a balance to my determined self-sufficiency and my tendency to be forlorn.

For all its struggle and sorrow and evidence for the need of self-improvement, 2022 was not all sad-sack and serious. I made some memories. I am wizened enough from grief to know that light exists in the darkness. I was busy and productive this year, working full-time as a joyful editor of the Jane Addams Papers Project, finishing up two years of work on an 800-page manuscript. I spent 650 hours writing and researching and pacing and thinking about the unusual book I am writing about my relationship with Abraham Lincoln. I planted and tended to my growing yoga garden, maintained a nurturing yoga practice, and settled into my volunteer activities. I enjoyed several weekend visits with my daughter and old friends, walked more than 1,500 miles, hosted a fall gathering around my fire pit, and read books and served craft cocktails on my peaceful porch. I took a few fun field trips in Mary Arizona, the brand new Ford Escape hybrid I purchased after finally letting go of my beloved Ellie, an 18-year-old Honda Element. I also enjoyed two short vacations, one to Washington, D.C., with my sister and niece, and another to Annapolis with my dear Springfield Sallies. Throughout the year, I had my writing group meetings, chats with neighbors, and so much good food at my sister’s house.

And I read 52 books. Although I lost the thread of my own story a little this year in the daily grind of getting by and getting through, there were stories all the while. Beautiful books, take-me-away tales, and stories of being human. Reading lifted me through the darker days, and I am grateful, always indebted to the magical quality of books to give me perspective, to transport me to other lands, to introduce me to other lives, to entertain me, to make me laugh and to cry and to think. The reading list this year was lighter than reading lists of the past, but perhaps the selections were my subconscious mind giving my busy, hard-laboring brain a break. There were stories of a fig tree, sexism and talking dogs, tragedy, grief, American slavery, and the Great Depression. Among the protagonists were native Americans, displaced Cypriots, dysfunctional families, a robot, grieving spouses, an African immigrant living in London, a lexicologist, orphaned boys, and flawed middle-aged women figuring shit out, the latter sometimes too much like me. There were stories about love, death, travel, war, marriage, ghosts, and honey bees, and, interestingly, nine books I read in 2022 spun stories about the power of words, the magic of book stores and libraries, or the truth that books can literally save our lives.

Below I offer you my humble reading list, complete with brief descriptions and my love ranking. The 21 great books with five or four hearts are ranked in the fairly precise order of my affection. The remaining books are merely categorized as the “The Good,” “The Pretty Good,” and “The Truly Awful,” the latter of which there are three. The Island of Missing Trees is my book of the year, and if you take any recommendations from my list at all, read that one. A more creative, beautifully written story, which weaves a tapestry of nature and humans and the present and the past, will not soon, if ever, be written. It is a story of all stories, inspirational and vast, intimate and true. I think I’ll take my cue from Elif Shafak, the novel’s gifted author, and keep my eyes open in 2023 for the inspirational and the true, existing in the wide world around me as well as in the corners of my own home and heart.

My Year of Stories

#1) The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (2021): This is a gorgeous story about love and grief and ethnic divisions, which bends and sways like trees in an island breeze, across the distances humans create in their own hearts. At the center of this poetic tale is a fig tree, a unique historian and storyteller who understands the roots of the human characters’ emotions better than they to do themselves. And on every page is Cyprus, beautiful and tragic, and the trees and the birds and the insects, and the impermanence and the continuity of life. ♥♥♥♥♥

#2) Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (2022): Elizabeth Zott is my favorite fictional person I met all year, and her dog Six-Thirty is hilarious. Bravo, bravo, Bonnie Garmus, for making me laugh while I raged against the men and the sexism that kept thwarting the main character’s perfectly reasonable ambitions. Lessons in Chemistry is smart and funny and right on the nose about the power of women to do what they want, in the way that they want, and to succeed on their very own terms. ♥♥♥♥♥

#3) The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (2021): Wait, what?!! This book is the author’s follow-up book to her Pulitzer-Prize winning novel? Holy cow. Oh, Louise, you wonderful word wizard, you. I want to be friends with Tookie, this book’s lovely and flawed main character who is bursting with soul. This book is real and mysterious, humorous and deep, and offering the best pandemic reflections I’ve read to date. I selected the audio book because it was read by the author, and I urge you to do the same. It is an exquisite story written and narrated by one of the best authors writing today. ♥♥♥♥♥

#4) The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (2020): Words are the star characters of this imaginative, alternative story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Pip Williams has written a feminist and human portrait of words and their meanings on the tongues and in the imaginations of the people who speak them. It is such a treat to read fiction that allows the reader to escape to the past, but at the same time offering real-life food for thought for the modern world. Esme, the heroine of the novel, is another of my favorite characters this year.  ♥♥♥♥

#5) Oh, William by Elizabeth Strout (2021): This is the story of Lucy Barton that finally touched my heart. It took me longer than everyone else to get on the Strout bandwagon, but I am a happy passenger now. Lithe and also profound, this novel is the story of a marriage and the miracle of forgiveness. Strout is tender in this telling, and now I appreciate her gifts as a writer. ♥♥♥♥

#6) The Reading List by Sarah Nisha Adams (2021): Widower Mukesh is an isolated widower when he ventures out to his public library, and this heartwarming tale is the story of how this delightful old man learns, through the power of books, that he has so much more to live for and to give. I adore the intergenerational friendships in this novel and how reading books in common has magical power to connect us to each other. ♥♥♥♥

#7) The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin (2021): I love and need good stories about grief, and this book is a treasure, the charming, human story about sorrow and lost souls, healed by the magic of unexpected friendship. The main character is a widow who throws herself into beekeeping and takes comfort in sharing her love of bees with the two misfits she hires to help her expand her business. The rich details about bees, beekeeping, and honey are a delicious bonus. ♥♥♥♥

#8) In Love: A Memoir by Amy Bloom (2022): This is a touching memoir about a wife honoring her husband’s choice to die on his own terms, before Alzheimer’s disease steals his essence away. Bloom is a terrific writer, and this is a heartbreaking, matter-of-fact memoir that is not overly sentimental. ♥♥♥♥

#9) Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro (2022): This beautifully spare and vastly human novel is the story of the ghosts that haunt us and the spirits that connect us. It begins with a fatal car crash in 1985 that takes the life of a teenaged girl, a story that breaks the lives of the people who survive it. It ends with the ways in which the people we lose keep on living, providing love and hope and connections we find in the rubble of our broken lives. ♥♥♥♥

#10) This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger (2019): I am not on my own drawn to coming of age stories of boys, but on the recommendation of my friend Sandra, with whom I share a love of books with deeply human themes, I listened to the audio version of this superb book. The story, set in the Great Depression, follows the desperate travels of a group of orphans, but it is about so much more than want and survival. It is an epic narrative about the families we choose, the experiences that shape our becoming, and the stories we keep to make us feel whole. ♥♥♥♥

#11) The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (2020): Erdrich won the Pulitzer Prize for this book based on the story of her grandfather’s life, and it is compelling and classic Erdrich. Native American spirit meets struggle meets transformative human narrative that transcends race and ethnicity. This incomparable writer never disappoints me. Her voice is loud and clear and breathtaking. ♥♥♥♥

#12) The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland (2017): This story of the unfortunate life of Loveday Cardew made me laugh and cry and cheer. I stumbled across this book and didn’t expect much, but it is among the best audio books I enjoyed all year, artfully narrated by the incomparable Imogen Church. The heroine of the novel keeps on keeping on and eventually shines through; uplifting and lovely, and driving a story I did not want to end.  ♥♥♥♥

#13) Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain (2022): I didn’t need this book to validate the way I am—a serious person who tends toward the melencholy—but it sees me in ways I never knew I needed to be seen. I am not a sad sack or a gloomy Gertrude, dammit, I am beautifully bittersweet, able to balance the hard and the soft and to see snippets of sunshine through the clouds of doom. I don’t embrace sad at the expense of happy; I simply understand that the happy means nothing in a life devoid of sorrow. Thank you, Susan Cain, for giving me my word: bittersweet. ♥♥♥♥

#14) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014): I am late to this novel, but better late than never, because this is a damned good story well told. Horrible and beautiful, it is an elegant tale of war and love, death, the living, and the memories that bind us all up together in this shared, fragile, tragic, lovely, human existence, no matter the political or national boundaries or the divisions of our own hearts. ♥♥♥♥

#15) Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro (2019): Who am I? is a question that occupies the mind of every human being at some point in our lives. Are we our biology? Our upbringing? And what happens if what we thought we knew about ourselves is shaken to the very core? This book is the fascinating and beautifully written story of what happened when a writer took a little DNA test that turned her identity upside down. All I learned when I took my ancestry.com DNA test was that I am a white AF, Anglo-Saxon all the way back to the big bang, but this story offers a very different outcome. ♥♥♥♥

#16) The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson (2022): One of the features of fiction I adore is the relationship the reader develops with a character over the length of a great novel. It’s the same reason I am not a lover of movies; I want to spend 10-20 hours with a character I love in the pages of book. This book, a sequel to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, follows the life of the daughter of the packing horse librarian in the first novel, another strong, extraordinary woman character to respect and to admire. ♥♥♥♥

#17) The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick (2019): What an unexpected pleasure this novel was with its quirky characters and the merging of fairy stories with the dark and the light of everyday, human life. The protagonist finds it easier to connect with books than people (I resemble that character), but she learns her heart is more open than she ever imagined. The book wins three hearts for being enjoyable and the fourth heart for surprising me, which is a rare and welcomed treat. Never underestimate a well written book to overcome the low expectations of its cover. ♥♥♥♥

#18) Love that Story: Observations from a Gorgeously Queer Life by Jonathan Van Ness (2022): I discovered Jonathan Van Ness when the rest of the world did: on Queer Eye, and he is one one of my favorite follows on Instagram. The world needs more lovely and wise humans like JVN. He is kind and honest, an original sweet spirit in a time of hateful public discourse. This book of essays offers dead serious commentary and is also a spontaneous backflip of good cheer. I listened to the audio version of the book, read by the enthusiastic and uproariously funny author, and I recommend you do the same. ♥♥♥♥

#19) Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty (2021): Moriarty is for the middle-aged woman what Dickens was for Victorian orphans. I always connect with her memorable characters, and I appreciate the darker side of her tales. This novel is about the Delaney family, the members of which love each other but might also want to kill each other, too. ♥♥♥♥

#20) Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel (2022): Strange, lovely, and provocative, this book bends time and broke my brain, which I loved. Books that make me want to stay wide awake and look alive to keep track of the clues and the characters are always winners with me. Futuristic stories are not my jam, but the story and connections of the characters in the future hellscape Mandel created helped me see beyond the genre. ♥♥♥♥

#21) Vladimir by Julia May Jones (2022). This is a dark comedy about sexual relations in a sleepy college’s English department. I laughed. I gaped. I yelled, “NO WAY!” The story is hilarious and crazy. A book way out of my reading lane, but I’m glad I swerved to read it. ♥♥♥♥

The Good..

Wintering: The Power of Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May (2020): This book did not make me love winter weather, but it was a thought-provoking book about wintering—for the season, for an illness, or for a deliberate stepping away from the world to find peace. The story of May’s own break during an illness will give me the courage to look at my wintering in 2023, during the winter months of January and February, quite differently, not as a banishment from the bad weather but as a time to rest, reflect, and renew my spirit, while keeping warm inside my cozy bungalow. “Life meanders like a path through the woods,” writes May. “We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they will grow again.” Good advice, dear woman, and thank you for it. ♥♥♥

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018): Intriguing. Strange, in a good way. Descriptions call it a novel about grief and love and dogs. But I think it’s more of a novel about how to write a novel from life and a story about unusual people. ♥♥♥

Call Us What We Carry: Poems by Amanda Gorman (2022): Gorman’s melody is clear and crisp and all her own. There is brilliance in this volume, but the poems are uneven; some are lost, a little off Gorman’s beat, others are a symphony of emotion and truth. She is a talented, intuitive young poet, and I will read whatever she offers. ♥♥♥

French Braid by Anne Tyler (2022): Not the best Anne Tyler novel by far, but even a mediocre novel by her is better than many great novels by other novelists. This book, which is the story of Garrett family and a family vacation in 1959, has all of the charm Tyler always breathes into the lives of her ordinary, yet eccentric, families. It is a joyful story she plaits here, about the fun and foibles of family. ♥♥♥

Eating the Sun: Small Musing on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders (2019): This little book is a perky and poetic collection of musings on science, our bodies, and the natural world. Great writing that makes science accessible always makes me happy, and when there are small stories within the big stories imagined in the telling, which there are here, all the better. ♥♥♥

Family Remains by Lisa Jewell (2022): A family murder mystery about secrets and lies, this thriller is fast, fun, and twisted. It is delicious junk food with no nutritional value whatsoever, like greasy potato chips you keep eating until the bag is empty. ♥♥♥

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell (2017): The premise of this book is as dark as I’ve ever read—a missing child. I should not have read it. It was too painful. Too close. But I couldn’t stop turning the pages, which is the happy danger of a good thriller, right? The author also provided some of the truest observations on grief I’ve ever read, in fiction or nonfiction, like this one: “Losing a child ages you faster than a lifetime spent chain smoking on a beach.” ♥♥♥

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner (2022). Set in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the story is an engaging one focused on the life of an Irish immigrant who is a mail-order bride and the way in which a horrible natural disaster set her free. I enjoyed the story and the pace, but I suspect the characters and the details will quickly melt away from memory. A tad better than junk food, but far from a memorable meal. ♥♥♥

The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny (2021): I listened to this seventeenth instalment of the Inspector Gamache series (which has had two excellent narrators). I love this series for the artful unwinding of a mystery, the delightful Three Pines characters, and the literary, historical, and cultural references Penny always supplies. ♥♥♥

Watching You by Lisa Jewell (2018): This is a creepy story set in a swanky neighborhood of Bristol, England. Are the characters what they seem or something dark hiding beyond appearances? I thought I cracked this mystery in Chapter 60, but I was so wrong; and I love that! ♥♥♥

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom (2010): I picked up a copy of this book while I was swapping books from my Little Free Library with another Little Free Library in town. It was a decent story with passable historical context. I admit that as a historian of race, it is hard for  me to read fictional stories about slavery in the American South. I am too critical, I suppose. The enslaved women in this story, however, are compelling, with souls that soar beyond the horrible circumstances of their physical lives. ♥♥♥

Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell (2020): This is a solid thriller with an interesting plot about a lost guy who leans toward creepy and becomes embroiled in a mysterious disappearance. I discovered Lisa Jewell this year and read four of her novels. I like her style of unveiling a story, and her books helped me escape this year. Jewell is a page-turning master, but the downside of thrillers like this one, however, is that while they take me away, I seldom return home with any of the characters with whom I traveled. ♥♥♥

A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry by Mary Oliver (1994): I fancy myself a poet, a bad poet of course, but a poet nonetheless. I picked up this old book in an effort to become a better poet. There are useful nuggets in this slim volume, but I refuse to accept Oliver’s opening statement: “Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.” I love Oliver’s poems, but I finished this guide feeling very disgruntled with her. ♥♥♥

The Hangman by Louise Penny (2010): This is a novella of the Inspector Gamache series I somehow missed. I listed to the audio book one night while I ate a leisurely dinner. Love, love, love Penny’s characters, and her style shined through even in this short murder mystery.

The Pretty Good…

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (2018): This story is set in the Scottish highlands, which is half the fun, and it swept me away on the winds. But, if I’m honest, I cannot remember a damned thing about it. Reading Foley is kind of like eating sugar all day and going to bed starving. ♥♥

Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close (2022): I selected this novel because it was set in Oak Park, Illinois, a town with which I am very familiar. It is the story of a family of big personalities whose lives revolve around the family restaurant. The members of the family experience a catharsis when their patriarch dies and the Cubs win the World Series. It is a decent light summer read, offering a few giggles and some observations about bad omens, like what happens when the Cubs finally win and Donald Trump wins the Presidency. ♥♥

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson (2016): I would not normally choose a philosophy-of-life book written by a millennial man, but it was recommended so I gave it a listen. There was some wisdom within it, and I jotted down in my journal a couple of golden nuggets, but it ruined my affection for the word fuck. Now instead of dropping f-bombs I think I’ll switch to dropping oh-my-lands-bombs, instead. ♥♥

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021): Artificial intelligence and friendship are the key themes of this odd story about what, I am not at all certain. A robot, yes. Teenagers, yes, but surely there is something else going on here in this book by the Nobel Laurette. I did not like this book, but perhaps I didn’t understand it. One heart for finishing the book, and a second heart because it confused me. ♥♥

The Guest List by Lucy Foley (2020): A wedding from hell could be the subtitle of this book. I enjoyed the audio version well enough, but even the mystic Irish landscape cannot forgive the outrageous coincidences employed to move the story. ♥♥

Love of My Life by Rosie Walsh (2022): A somewhat convoluted story about an obituary writer who discovers that his wife, the love of his life, is not who he thinks she is. The narrative is a little too slow to unwind, but the relationship at the heart of the story kept me reading, as did the main theme of the tension between the things human beings believe and the things they hide. ♥♥

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014): Did I love this book? No. Did I like it? I suppose I did. Kind of. I read it because I enjoyed Sea of Tranquility. Station Eleven is the story of what happens to a handful of people after a flu pandemic kills off most of the human population. I do not care for dystopian scenarios, but a couple of the characters in this one were compelling enough for two hearts.

The Messy Lives of Book People by Phaedra Patrick (2022): This is a cockamamie story of a voracious reader and house cleaner who works for a best-selling novelist who dies and bequeaths the house cleaner to finish her last novel. Hmm. I listened to the audio version of this book, and I think I might have liked it better if I had read it. The reader was fine in the main voice, but the voice she used for men scratched my nerves. Patrick’s story was zany and she is a good writer, but this book lacked the flit and the flare of The Library of the Lost and Found. ♥♥

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell (2021): This book about a young mother who goes missing offered me a good summer read for the porch and hard liquor. But one of the villains, who is a mother, was unbelievable to me. In fact, now I think about it, all of the characters were a bit off the mark. I hold all books I read to a high standard in terms of character development, and this thriller missed the mark by a kilometer. ♥♥

The Binding by Bridgett Collins: Slow, slow, slow burn this novel, with enough flame to keep you reading but by the end you are rubbing your hands together in front of the dying embers. Imaginative, I suppose, this fantastical story about how books are the stories of real people, bound to forget and for profit. One heart for the premise and another because I finished a mediocre 448-page novel about bad men. The story is kind of good, but the writing is awful, with sentences like “They laugh, like machines clanking.”  ♥♥

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult (2020): Starts strong, naps like a sleeping baby in the middle, and then falls from the sky, like the narrator’s airplane, landing with a thud. One heart because it was about an ancient book and Egyptology and another because I hoped Picoult might bring it in for a crash landing. She did not. Picoult is a popular writer, but she has disappointed me for the very last time. ♥♥

The Sisters of Glass Ferry by Kim Michele Richardson (2018): This novel followings the story of sisters in the South, whiskey, and family secrets. It is good, perhaps, if you like southern gothic. I do not. Nope. Not even Faulkner works for me. ♥♥

The Paris Apartment by Lisa Foley (2022): Far-fetched and disappointing, another best seller that left me cold. This novel is the story unlikeable people who lie and swindle. I finished the book to see what happened to Ben, even though he’s kind of a shit (although less so than the others), but this is a formula thriller that made me feel led by the nose. I wasn’t compelled by the characters and couldn’t get lost in the suspense like I did in the author’s other books. ♥

The Good Left Undone by Adriana Trigiani (2022): Too damn slow to unwind, this family epic set in Italy was disjointed and disappointing. The matriarch at the center of the story is somewhat compelling as a character, but the plot progress was contrived, and that letter at the end, a lame effort to wrap it all up, is the proof that I am right in my assessment. Whoever recommended this book to me, please wait a full year before recommending another one. Even though I can’t remember who you are, I’m mad at you. ♥

And the Truly Awful …

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides (2021): Not sure why I read this at all—a book about a male professor who collects women, one of whom ends up dead, will never be my cup of tea. The audio version was engaging enough to keep me listening, but I actively disliked the story and the characters. Don’t read it, but if you do read it tell me what you think. Maybe I missed something? ♥

The Private Librarian by Marie Benedict (2021): Oof. This book was a disappointment. I was excited about it because it followed the glamorous story of the female librarian J. P. Morgan hired to curate a collection for the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Had I been reading it, I would have bailed, but since I was listening to the audio version and could walk or work on a jigsaw puzzle while I listened, I finished it. The main character is lacking, there is too much telling and not enough showing, and the dialogue is too modern. If you like good historical fiction, avoid this book. ♥

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015). Yikes. Couldn’t finish this one, because nothing about it was historical. Hannah frustrates me. She is a good story teller and a decent writer, but some of her historical fiction, like this one that opens in France in 1939, is truly awful. Sorry. I realize she is beloved, but she has a lot of explaining to do about this WWII bomb.

Love Ratings

♥  Finished the book. I give books about 25 pages, and if I finish a book it gets at least one heart.

♥♥  Pretty good story, writing meh.

♥♥♥  Solid writing. Good story. Enjoyable, useful and/or important.

♥♥♥♥ Excellent writing and story. Taught me something or took me away and I was happy to go.

♥♥♥♥♥ Wonderful. Breathtaking. A book for my lifetime master list of great books.

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