Reading in the Year of the Plague

During this year of our plague, two thousand and twenty, I spent roughly a third of my waking hours working as a scholarly editor (thank goddess I am still employed), a third sprucing up the 1919 bungalow with overgrown yard I purchased in October 2019, and a third escaping within the pages of books. Losing myself in other people’s stories and reading about faraway worlds and experiences from the safety and comfort of my heavenly front porch was my best remedy for coping with the isolation and emptiness of the year. Reading books has been a balm on my anxious bones; and audio books, too, helped fill the vast silences of my days and nights. Books have been great friends, keeping me company and joining in the chorus of my voice echoing off lonely walls.

I read fifty-five books this terrible year, nearly double the leisurely reading I might have done if the pandemic had not isolated me from friends and family and travel. My reading journey this year began on New Years’ Day with The Giver of Stars and concluded December 28 with Girl, Woman, Other. In my reading this year, I escaped to rural Kentucky, London, Australia, the Holy Land, and the Pacific Crest Trail in the American Northwest. I read novels, memoirs, collections of poetry, history, and one work of philosophy. I enjoyed books about nature, coming of age stories, and nineteen works of historical fiction, my favorite pleasure-reading genre. I solved mysteries, walked the streets of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, shivered in Alaska winter, traveled back to 1950s India, learned about the brain and personality of the American crow, and raged at the injustice that is bound up tight in the DNA of American democracy.

I smiled. I frowned. I laughed. I wept. I pondered. I learned. Books are so magical in their power to influence our emotions and challenge our brains.

As a historian, I read history books and articles and bend over historic documents during my work days, and pleasure reading provides an important counterweight to all of the scholarly reading I do. However, pleasure reading this year took on a more important purpose. I felt a pressing need to escape the political and biological chaos of the world around me and to fill the silences of socially distanced family and friends. In that context, I read far more light-hearted books than I have allowed myself the luxury of reading in decades, and I embraced the soothing joy of audio books to cope with a new and unwelcome brand of quiet. Books helped me cope with that quiet, and although I am happy to bid farewell to 2020 and will not remember it fondly, it has been an epic year of reading.

And for all the books I read—the great, the good, and the meh—I am grateful. They remind me that stories are at the heart of every human experience. That stories nurture and guide us, teach us, remind us of the past, get us through our days, and inspire us to face the future. Stories reveal the breathtaking diversity of life experiences, but they also remind us of our shared humanity. Stories help us understand the world and ourselves.

In no other time in my life do I think that books have been so important, so loved, so appreciated, so damned necessary. This is my humble ode to my 2020 reading list, filled up with books that nurtured and inspired me, kept me sane, and carried me through the long, lonely year. It is also a kind of portrait of my life this past year, a record of my travels, a log of the characters I met along the way, and the stories I heard from the comfort and safety of home.

Alphabetical Annotated Reading List for 2020 (Each includes my love rating)

Love Ratings

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

♥♥ Pretty good story, writing meh.

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

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

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

Bauermeister, Erica, The Scent Keeper (2019), fiction. This story about a family who smells memories is mystical (and odd) and mildly interesting.

Burton, Jesse, The Miniaturist (2014), historical fiction. I likely would not have picked up this book in a typical reading year, but listening to it on audio was quite agreeable. I think my daughter Mack was right when she said: “Everything sounds good in a British accent.”

Cameron, Claire, The Last Neanderthal (2017), historical fiction. Meh. I really don’t remember why I even finished it. Good idea, poor execution, and I don’t recommend it.

Chevalier, Tracy, A Single Thread (2019), historical fiction. A sweet story about a single woman in the decade after WWI, when a generation of women in England was adjusting to a heartbreaking dearth of young men.

Girl with Pearl Earring (1999), historical fiction. After reading A Single Thread , I remembered how much I loved this older book I had read many years ago. This time around, I listened to the audio book. Chevalier is a great writer of the genre. If you’re new to her, start with this one or At the Edge of the Orchard (2016), which is my favorite.

Coehlo, Paulo, The Archer (2017), fiction. As a rule, I don’t read much nonfiction by men, frankly because so few of them write well-formed, realistic female characters. So why would I bother with the Brazilian Coehlo, you ask? I loved The Alchemist, and so decided to try this novella, a fable like that older book. Bad idea. Definitely my worst reading decision of the year, and I only finished it out of respect for the renown of the author and because it was mercifully short.

Diamonte, Anita, The Boston Girl (2015), historical fiction. This book is a good story about an immigrant girl in the tenements of Boston. I listened to it on audio, read by the actress Linda Lavin, who elevated the story. She was a brilliant narrator. One of these stars is all hers. ♥♥♥

Diaz, Joanne, My Favorite Tyrants (2014), poetry. Witty and deep, this Illinois poet is incredible. So good. She teaches at Illinois Wesleyan, and I saw her do a reading from this book in January before the pandemic cancelled 2020. Not all of the poems are great, but a few of them are sensational. ♥♥♥

Doyle, Glennon, Untamed (2020), nonfiction. Doyle is a social media darling who offers some valuable nuggets in this book. I appreciate Doyle’s voice, and I follow her on Instagram. She is smart and observant as fuck. But, I must say, the book was a tad underwhelming, and a bit overhyped. ♥♥

Erdich, Louise, Future Home of the Living God (2017), fiction. Two stars because Erdich is a great writer, and there is some great writing on the pages of this book. However, this futuristic story did not capture my imagination. ♥♥

Ervick, Kelcey Parker, The Bitter Life of Božena Nȇmcoá: A Biographical Collage (2016), nonfiction. Part history, part memoir; has words and images. This book is so weird, impossible to categorize, and so wonderful because it is brilliantly off kilter. ♥♥♥♥

Lilian’s Balcony: A Novella of Fallingwater (2013), fiction. Ervick is a creative storyteller. I met her at a writer’s fair and workshop at Eastern Illinois University early in 2020, before we knew there was a virus lurking. She views writing as more than words in ink on a white page, preferring to tell stories with images and space as well as words. Function and form commune with the voices of her characters, and she likes to blur the lines of genre. I love her work, and she’s a fun follow on Instagram, because she draws memoir almost daily (that’s a bad description of her work, but check her out, she’s great). ♥♥♥

Evaristo, Bernadine, Girl, Woman, Other (2019), fiction. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, Girl, Woman, Other is a triumph of writing, of the powerful voice of female characters who know who they are, and of storytelling across race and gender. The diversity of voices in this creative work scream from the mountaintops that their stories matter. That all of our stories matter.  ♥♥♥♥♥

Gregory, Philippa, Three Sisters, Three Queens (2017), historical fiction. Written by a popular British writer of historical fiction, this book is about Margaret Tudor, Mary Tudor, and Catherine of Aragon. Oh, the intrigues of British royalty during the Middle Ages. And, yikes, the human drama of medieval life in general. ♥♥♥

Hamilton, Gabrielle, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (2012), memoir. My surprise book of the year, written by the chef of the award-winning New York restaurant Prune. Gorgeous writing about life and food. Read it. It is fabulous and there are mouth-watering descriptions of food. ♥♥♥♥

Hannah, Kristin, The Great Alone (2017), historical fiction. Pretty good coming of age story, but the star of the book is Alaska. Lovely. Vivid. And fucking freezing. ♥♥♥

Harjo, Joy, An American Sunrise (2019), poetry. Want to cry? Read this collection of poems by U.S. Poet Laureate Harjo about the Trail of Tears, history, grief, cultural annihilation, and memory. Wow. Breathtaking. Horrifying. Heartbreaking.  

Harper, Michelle, The Beauty in Breaking (2020), memoir. A female, African-American ER doctor, Harper puts her deft fingers on the heart of racism in America and caresses out of her stories the truth of our shared humanity. After I read the book—in two days, it is that good—I watched Harper on Zoom in a book talk and Q&A, and she is an impressive woman. She is a bright-sider, despite all the ugly she has seen, and her perspective was a welcome viewpoint during this year of our biological and political plague. ♥♥♥♥♥

Haupt, Lyanda Lynn, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness (2009), nature. I only discovered Haupt last year, but I’m hooked. She is a spectacular writer and gives the reader science and nature with pure joy. She is birder with a great sense of humor, and her knowledge and insights are wonderful. Love her work. ♥♥♥

Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild (2013), nature. I am obsessed with Haupt’s view of nature and her funny bone on the intersection of humans with nature. Her eco-sensible philosophy is inspirational, and she has made me a more observant citizen of the spaces I share with birds and squirrels and other wild animals. She has a new book coming next year called Rooted, and I can’t wait. ♥♥♥♥

Hoffman, Alice, The Red Garden (2010), historical fiction. Hoffman is a very popular author in the genre of historical fiction. However, her books for me always just miss the mark. This one was creative and enjoyable, but not great. ♥♥

Holmes, Linda, Evvie Drake Starts Over (2019), fiction. I chose more light books this year than is typical for my tastes, because pandemics are pretty damned depressing. But this book was a little too romancy for me. If I’ve learned anything from this year of magical reading, it is that prefer books that are more substantive than this one. ♥♥

Joshi, Aika, The Henna Artist (2020), historical fiction. Joshi’s story of a single woman making a life for herself in India in the 1950s reveals much about caste and gender and human dignity. Great story with very good writing. ♥♥♥

Kendi, Ibram X., How to Be an Anti Racist (2019), nonfiction. It is not enough to just not be a racist (is there I better way to state this—I tried but failed!). In America, white people must become actively anti racist. This book by an important historian of race should be required reading for every high school student in America. ♥♥♥♥

Kendzior, Sarah, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (2020), nonfiction. A journalist and anthropologist who studies autocratic and dictatorial regimes, Kendzior offers a lucid portrait of the horrifying story of Trump’s rise to the presidency and depicts American democracy dangling precariously from a cliff. She’s lives in St. Louis, where I lived from 2012-2019, and I knew about her work and followed her on Twitter before she became well known. She’s super smart (PhD, Washington University), and she minces no words. She’s not an optimist, though, so if you’re looking for a bright spot in the dark of night, don’t look here. ♥♥♥

Kidd, Sue Monk, Book of Longings (2020), historical fiction. This was the bravest book I’ve read in a decade, the biblical story of Jesus from the perspective of his wife. Fabulous writing and sensational female characters set in the stark historical context of the Holy Land in the time of Jesus. Brilliant. Stunning. One of my favorite books of the twenty-first century. Shout out to my dear friend Sandra who recommended the book to me by saying: “Stace, I know you don’t do Jesus, but you have to read this book about his wife!” ♥♥♥♥♥

The Invention of Wings (2014), historical fiction. I had missed this novel about the life of Sarah Grimké, a historical hero of mine, because it was published in the year my daughter died. In a normal year, I would have read this book by an author I loved and a historical topic that intrigued me. But my grief robbed me of reading for almost four years. I stopped reading after losing Mack because I couldn’t let my mind go long enough to get through a novel. Thank goodness my joy of reading and my ability to read returned to me in 2018, and I am grateful it was here for me this year when I needed it so much. In this book, Kidd takes too many literary licenses with Sarah’s story, but her writing is always good and the story moves along at a good clip. ♥♥♥

Kingsolver, Barbara, Unsheltered (2018), fiction. I’ve been a fan of Kingsolver forever, and this book is the epitome of her. Kingsolver knows humans better than almost any writer I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. Simple story paired with good writing is Kingsolver’s method for uncovering the beauty of the human heart, and this book is her, per usual. ♥♥♥

Letts, Elizabeth, Finding Dorothy (2019), historical fiction. This story of L. Frank Baum’s wife, Maud Gage Baum, who consulted with MGM on the production of The Wizard of Oz offers some interesting stories of Maud Baum’s early life and her famous suffrage mother Matilda Gage, and it offers some provocative observations about Judy Garland. Good story, but a little draggy. ♥♥

McLain, Paula, Circling the Sun (2015), historical fiction. Mediocre novel set in the overlapping contexts of the Out of Africa story. Privileged white people in Africa. Kind of boring. And definitely passé. ♥♥

Miller, Madeline, Song of Achilles (2011), historical fiction. I read this because I loved her novel Circe, but this book is not as good. However, for full disclosure, I suspect I didn’t like this one as much because it is about a man and Circe is about a woman. I prefer a women’s perspective on things, even regards ancient mythology, thank you very much. ♥♥

Moriarty, Liane, The Husband’s Secret (2013), fiction. Moriarty is my latest guilty pleasure, because I relate to the quirky, middle-aged women who inhabit her stories. I started reading Moriarty’s work last year with Big Little Lies and Truly Madly Guilty, and I appreciate the dark corners her humor. ♥♥♥

The Last Anniversary (2005), fiction. Sisters and secrets.  ♥♥♥

Nine Perfect Strangers (2018), fiction. Wacky characters in an absurd settling. Mayhem ensues. Laugh out loud funny. ♥♥♥♥

Three Wishes (2003), fiction. Funny, heartwarming sister drama. ♥♥

What Alice Forgot (2009), fiction. A story of amnesia with Moriarty’s usual compelling characters. I made my way through five of Moriarty’s light-dancing books this year, and what fun they were. On audio, they are made even more delightful by the talented Australian voices of the two fantastic readers who narrate them. Moriarty doesn’t set the world on fire, but she tells a good story and makes a reader giggle and gape. ♥♥♥

Moyes, JoJo, The Giver of Stars (2019), historical fiction. This book offers a fictionalized story about the Packhorse Librarians, women during the Great Depression who delivered library books to people in the hills of Kentucky. It’s pretty good, but the happy ending is contrived and disappointing. ♥♥

Oliver, Mary, Upstream: Selected Essays (2016), essays. Stick to her poetry, which is gorgeous. These essays, published late in her life, not so much.

Orlean, Susan, The Library Book (2018), nonfiction. Interesting story of the devastating L.A. Public Library fire written by an excellent journalist who is also a great writer. It’s a bit plodding in its methodical retelling of the events of the fire. I liked that level of detail, but it’s probably not for everyone. ♥♥♥

Owens, Delia, Where the Crawdads Sing (2018), fiction. A truly lovely novel with a haunting human story told among the vivid images of a disappearing landscape. Gorgeous prose and an unforgettable female protagonist. ♥♥♥♥

Penny, Louise, A Better Man (2019), mystery. This book is part of a great mystery series I love, but it is a weak book in the series. However, I recommend the entire series, which is chockablock with loveable, eccentric characters, gorgeous (and frigid) Canadian landscapes, and great literary and historical references. The series is much more than the standard detective story. It weaves together the lives of Inspector Gamache and his wife with the residents of a strange and isolated little town where the stories are set. Start with the first book Still Life and keep on reading…there are sixteen books in all (and the seventeenth is scheduled for 2021)! ♥♥

Richardson, Heather Cox, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020), history. If you want to understand why America is in such a political mess these days, read this book. Richardson, a political historian and expert on the history of the Republican Party from Lincoln to the modern day, studied American history under the great Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald at Harvard, and I have admired her work for years. She is one of the most trustworthy and talented historians working today. ♥♥♥♥

Rutherford, Edward, New York: The Novel (2010), historical fiction. Rutherford’s book sweeps broadly across time, setting fictional characters, connected through the generations, in the (fairly accurate) history of one of the world’s greatest cities. The sweep, I think, is why I enjoyed this fictionalized story of New York, which began with the Dutch in the colonial period and ended with stockbrokers in the 1980s. ♥♥

Sedaris, David, Calypso (2018), humor. Is there any writer who is funnier than Sedaris? That’s a rhetorical question. I love, love, love this guy. Calipso is not his strongest collection, but it has some dandies; and I happily recommend any of his books or audio book (he reads them himself). I met him once at a book signing, and my signed copy of Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is a treasured possession.  ♥♥♥

Stedman, M. L., The Light between Oceans (2012), historical fiction. I was haunted by the many sides of loneliness depicted in this story, set in Australia after WWI. Did I relate a little too directly in my isolation to the two lonely characters in the story who inhabited a lighthouse on a remote island? Maybe. Whatever, I enjoyed the book.  ♥♥♥

Stockett, Kathryn, The Help (2009), historical fiction. I had never seen the movie or read the book, and I selected it this year as an audio book. It is a good, albeit problematic, story, the dialogue is fantastic, and the black women in the novel are compelling characters. The readers of the audio book elevated the story, and their brilliant reading added that fourth star. ♥♥♥♥

Strayed, Cheryl, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2014), memoir. I am very late to the party on this one, but it is a fascinating, well-told story. I liked it. As well, in reading this book, I learned not to ever, in a million years, no matter what personal difficulties befall me, to go looking for myself, all by myself, on a hiking trail more than four or five miles in length. ♥♥♥

Strout, Elizabeth, Olive Kitteridge (2008), fiction. Many of my friends love Elizabeth Strout, but I am less enamored of her writing. Olive is, however, an intriguing character, and I hope I do not become the cranky old lady she turned out to be. ♥♥♥

Olive Again (2019), fiction. I did not really think I needed more adventures of Olive, but this book was not without its worthwhile scenes of Olive’s strange interactions with the world. ♥♥♥

Ware, Ruth, The Death of Mrs. Westaway (2018), mystery. Not my usual fare, but this story was fun and this British writer definitely has found a niche. ♥♥♥

In a Dark, Dark Wood (2015), thriller. Not my cup of tea, and I think Ruth Ware might be crazy. The pandemic has been scary enough; I should have skipped this one. ♥♥

West, Lindy, The Witches Are Coming (2019), essays. West’s cultural critiques are hysterical, and she is dead-on balls accurate in her observations about Trump, social media, and an array of other topics, as well. ♥♥♥

Wetmore, Elizabeth, Valentine (2020), historical fiction. Yowza! This is a stunning first novel, set in the bleak oil landscape of Odessa, Texas, in the 1970s. And it is an important novel, too, with its beautifully crafted story of race on the border. Gut-wrenching. Haunting. It will make you scream and cry and mourn the pain that humans are capable of inflicting upon the “other.” ♥♥♥♥

Wilson, Catherine, How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well (2019), philosophy. I picked this book up in late December 2019 on a “new book” display cart in the library at Eastern Illinois University, where I hold a “local scholar” library card which grants me 16-week borrowing privileges. The book’s cover intrigued me, but it sat on a shelf in my office for weeks and weeks. I never picked it back up, and then the pandemic came and the library closed, and all of the books I had checked out were renewed through October. And so, with time and automatic renewal, I finally cracked it open; and although I probably would not have ever gotten around to reading it if not for the pandemic, I’m glad I picked up and even more glad I read it. It’s basically the philosophy of me. I understand myself so much better now. I am an Epicurean. Who knew?!! ♥♥♥

Zabin, Serena, The Boston Massacre: A Family History (2020), history. A fresh approach to the American Revolution that depicts the blurry lines between patriot and loyalist. A friend of mine who is a professor of political science at St. Olaf College recommended the book, because she knows Zabin, who is a professor of history at neighboring Carleton College in her Minnesota town. I like reading books written by people I know or with whom I have some personal connection.

Calm, Cool, and Creative

Pandemic. Social distancing. Restaurants and bars shuttered. Cultural institutions and libraries closed. Economic crisis. Political dysfunction. Sickness and death. Uncertainty. Shelter in place. Isolation. Time. Oh my god, it is bonkers, and there are hours and hours of extra time to allow my anxiety to overwhelm me and surrender my spirit to despair and loneliness. And Netflix. And biting my cuticles bloody and freaking the fuck out.

Breathe in through the nose. Breathe out through the mouth.

I refuse to give myself over to loneliness in this time of quarantine, because I am finally starting to crack the code for living alone in peace. Besides, I am not alone. I have my dogs, the internet, and a cell phone with unlimited usage. I’ve already had countless text conversations with my mom, sister, and several friends. I’ve enjoyed lengthy telephone calls with my daughter Savannah in Chicago and my friend Sandra in Springfield. I had a scheduled video chat with my friend Bridgett in Olney, who doubles as my writing coach. All of these “social distance” interactions with beloved people in my life brought laughter, wisdom, and brilliant inspiration.

Deep Sigh regarding Netflix, though, because it is tempting to settle down in front of it and binge watch for days and days. I will not waste time watching Netflix. I refuse to give myself over to Netflix. Ok, so here’s my plan: I will allow Netflix to provide limited, curated therapy. Because if I’m honest, all the news about infection rates and death tolls, economic losses and news about people who are losing their livelihoods, and the daily buffoonage from the White House will make me crazy. The kind of crazy that yoga or meditation or contemplative walking cannot soothe, let alone undo. That’s the kind of crazy that requires me to get out of my own head. That’s the kind of crazy I usually combat by hanging out with friends in a cozy, noisy pub or cheering for a team during a televised sporting event. Netflix will have to step up and be the pub or the basketball game. Periodic episodes of Schitt$ Creek will lighten my mood on rainy days when I cannot work in my yard or go for a long walk. Father Brown’s singular concern for the souls of murderers will make me believe, at least for an hour, that all humans can be cast in their own tales of redemption. And when I think the entire world is going to hell in a hand-basket, I’ll watch a few episodes of the Great British Baking Show and remind myself that healthy competition is, indeed, possible, and you do not have to kill everyone around you or step on people to win at cake, politics, or life.

I am lucky. I am grateful. I have worked from home as a scholarly editor for eight years, so I don’t have to figure it out or patch it together like so many people now are scrambling to do. My job relies on NEH funding, which makes me nervous. But for now, it is secure, my paychecks are coming, and I do not have to worry about food or shelter or paying my bills. My daily life will not change all that much, and I will continue to do work that challenges my mind and makes my heart sing. I am going to continue my yoga and meditation routine, and I intend to be restful and calm during this isolation. Instead of seeing this predicament as forced isolation, let’s say we are hibernating. We are bears, cute and cuddly and warm in our homes, resting up for all the living we will do when humanity finally kicks this pandemic’s ass.

With a little help from my human, furry, and television friends, I will be calm and keep my cool. In the space of that quiet solitude, that beautiful serenity in my lovely new home, I vow not only to stay calm and keep my cool but to also make the most of my time. To cook. To draw and to color. To freestyle my yoga practice. To read half a dozen books and make a worthy effort to catch up on the New Yorker. But most importantly to write. Hours and hours and hours of extra writing. I will keep writing in my daily journal as well as blog and work on the revisions of my memoir. I am going to spend so much glorious time at my computer writing that my aging knuckles will get sticky.

Last week in the Washington Post I read an interesting story about Isaac Newton. During the Bubonic Plague of the 1660s, Newton’s college closed, forcing him home to his family’s estate. While at home, he wrote a paper about some math he was working on (math that became calculus); and he sat under that famous apple tree. I will do nothing so important as inventing calculus or defining gravity in my isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. None of the trees in my yard produce anything big enough to knock brilliance into my head. However, like Newton I’m going to be creatively productive in my isolation. I’m going to engage my brain. I’m going to see all this extra me-time as a gift and do my amateur best to make the most of it.

I’ve already made scones and homemade granola and expended a lot of nervous energy doing “art.” Living well, especially under duress, is about the process and the journey. I’m not a chef or an artist, but I enjoy cooking; and drawing, I very recently learned, is a scary challenge that makes me smile like a fearless six-year-old on the monkeybars.

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Fiction and Truth

I started reading Pasty, a novel by Nicole Dennis-Benn, for a book club I have just joined. As I read and floated into the book on the soft clarity of the writing, I tried to understand the title character, who in the very early pages of the book abandoned her five-year-old daughter Tru in Jamaica to move to the United States. Patsy wasn’t rich in Jamaica and she lived in a depressed, struggling town; but she had a decent secretarial job and a family, food on her table, and a lovely and smart little girl. Unlike so many immigrants who leave their homes to better the lives of their families, Patsy was not going to America to make a better life for her daughter. She was going for her own selfish reasons; she was leaving her daughter to be with her best childhood friend. When Patsy left Jamaica, she lied to her daughter in her sweet little face that she was coming home. Patsy boarded a a plane to New York, leaving her daughter to live with a father she barely knew, and she had no intention of ever returning to retrieve her.

My tolerance for Patsy decreased as I turned every page, the prose quickly incapable of overcoming the pain the narrative delivered to my heart. In the early pages, as Patsy settled in with her friend’s family in New York, while she learned how to navigate her new city, and when she applied for jobs as a nanny, Patsy gave me no reason to understand her. She offered no righteous explanation for the abandonment of her daughter. She was shallow and cruel, and I did not wish to know her.

I have a hard and fast rule about the books I read for leisure. I give them twenty-five pages to draw me in; twenty-five pages should be enough to make me love them or at least want to keep reading to see if I can love them. There are too many good books in the world that have the potential for making my heart sing to spend time reading even one that makes me miserable. But in this case, I turned page 25 and kept reading, no matter how much the story was breaking my heart and making me angry. I read for the sake of the book club. I did not want to attend my first book club with some people who have not yet met me without having read the book in its entirety. Without having given the author a fair trial. Without having given Patsy time to make me know her, to want to know her. 

On p. 115, Patsy decided to call home. Finally. After weeks in the United States—while poor Tru cried and cried every day and desperately yearned for her mother—Patsy finally picked up the phone to call her daughter. Just as she heard the child excitedly rushing to the phone to talk to her mom, Patsy put down the receiver. A coward, she hung up on her baby, and abandoned her all over again.

I could read no more after that.

If this book was memoir instead of fiction, I would have tried harder to empathize with Patsy’s choices and her motives. I would have given her time to explain why she gave up her precious child. But does a fictional character deserve the same effort, the same time, the same compassion? Does a fictional bad mother deserve the same human consideration? The old me might have said yes for the sake of good prose. Fiction is supposed to stretch the boundaries of what you think you know and understand. It can reveal what the truth cannot. Maybe the old me would have been more patient, as the story of Patsy unfolded. But the present me was failing to sympathize with a fictional mother who turned her back on her child. The present me has no time for untrue horror stories with which I possess no responsibility to grapple.

In my new realm of existence, I have no tolerance for despicable or shallow fictional characters with whom I cannot relate. I see no compelling reason to read a novel about a fictional woman who chose to abandon her daughter when I am a real woman forced to live without one of mine. Reading past page 25 was my own damned fault. I should not have let the author who dreamed up this character to punch me in my heart for ninety pages after I knew better than to keep reading. Yet I cannot help but feel like it might be partly the author’s fault, too, that I feel so aggrieved, that Patsy throws such sharp elbows against the bonds of real mothers and daughters.

Maybe Patsy turned out okay for all of the characters in the end. If it were memoir and I had stopped reading, I would have checked in on Tru and made sure she was okay, at least. But because it was fiction, I can let it all go now that I have written my peace about it. Good writing alone just doesn’t cut it for me these days. Good writing cannot atone for characters with whom I could never connect on a human level. I don’t want to spend time with fictional characters I would not wish to know in real life. Not anymore. Life is hard enough without letting a work of fiction beat me upside my heart. Life is too short to read books that poke my grief with a stick.

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I am Well and Reading

I stopped reading. For three and a half years, I stopped reading. For forty-two interminable months, I had no mental or emotional capacity for books. I lost the fiction and poetry and historical writing that had for a lifetime filled my mind and my spirit with the beauty and challenges of the world. I lost the loveliness of words shining off a page with the power to transport me into a new landscape, to take me back into a mysterious historical past, or to let me see through the eyes of a stranger who becomes by the end of a narrative a familiar and beloved friend. I lost the ability to appreciate the power of brilliantly constructed sentences and paragraphs to reach out to ears and eyes open wide to knowledge and the emotions and experiences of all kinds of people, real and imagined. I lost the joy of curling up with a book and a cup of Earl Grey on a cold night in winter. I lost the desire to lose myself in someone else’s story.

I stopped reading, and I understand now that the desire to lose myself in someone else’s story was the reason I stopped reading. It was why I no longer wanted to read. Why I had no mental or emotional capacity for books. Why I abandoned a love and how grief stole from me an activity that had since the age of four enriched my life. I lost reading and love of books because I was lost in my own story. Lost in my own experiences, my own emotions, my own self pity, my own inner voice reflecting my own bitter struggles. Grief is cruel that way, because it is not merely a heavy crown of sorrows upon your head. Grief also chips away at you, piece by piece, bit by bit, joy by joy. Then, it takes individual human time, glacial time it seems, to realize the damage grief has inflicted upon your spirit. And then, I think, it takes a lifetime to be restored. Or rather, it takes a lifetime to restore for yourself what grief claims from you, piece by piece, bit by bit, joy by joy.

From October 2014 through February 2018, I managed by necessity to make my way through historical works related to my current research on Abraham Lincoln and women and vital to my new professional work on Jane Addams and the Progressive Era. I read with great difficulty a couple of beautiful memoirs, tiptoed through some books on grief and healing and life, and even slogged through a few volumes of poetry and fiction. But all of that reading was a struggle, and I have not retained most of it. Nor did I love any of it with the passion of previous, joyous reading. Reading did not consume me as it had always done before; it did not possess the power to transport me to the distant worlds of other people’s stories. My own story was still too much a central focus, and I was not ready, I suppose, to give it up as the singular narrative in my brain and on my heart. These desolate forty-two months I lived without books would have made my Mack very sad, more sad even than it made myself. For I knew all along what I was missing, what I had lost, and I feared the bits of myself I fortified with reading might be lost, indeed, forever.

But in March, I started writing poetry and doing some other creative writing. I was just ready, I suppose, to start examining something of the world around me, outside of myself. This writing was a balm, a restoration of an old teenage joy reborn, partly at least, out of the anguish of losing my daughter, and partly because I needed to give birth to a new me out of ashes and charred bits of my past selves. This restored bit of myself, this creative writer within me, also miraculously restored my joy of reading. Or maybe the creative writing in my bones conspired with the love of books in my bones and restored themselves together, like a joint gift to a better me. I emerged that spring a little stronger, a little brighter, a little lighter, and a hell of a lot more hopeful, too. Grief is a process. Life is a process. And my restoration to life is a process, too.

In July I wrote that I had arrived at a place somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow, a place that was not a paradise in which pain and sorrow is vanquished, but a place were I am becoming comfortable walking in love and grief and acceptance of life as an existence of beauty and pain. I wrote that “a mist has cleared for me or I have emerged through a portal into the light or come to some proverbial crossroads. Or, perhaps, I really have arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow. Still grieving. Still a speed bump away from a straight-jacket. But better. More vibrant. Less afraid about where life will lead me in the coming year. And, I think, looking a little more like the Momma Bear Mack knew and loved for twenty precious years of my life.”

Here at the close of the year, 2018, during my fourth holiday season without my special and spirited girl, I am still all of those things I believed I was in July and, perhaps, a little more. Now I am maybe two or three speed bumps away from that straight-jacket, even more better and, without a doubt, even more vibrant, in a big way because I am reading again. I have books in my life again, and I have the Amazon.com receipts to prove it. In no way is it more clear that I am a little more like the Momma Bear Mack left behind than in my grateful return to voracious reading. Returned to me is my indefatigable love of the written word, of books, of writing that lifts the soul into the clouds and propels the reader on the wings of eagles. The greatest gifts I gave my girls were my unconditional love and the love of books and the joy of reading. Mack would be so very glad I found my way back to books once again, although like always, she would tease me for the dense and scholarly ones I tend to select to occupy the most precious of my leisurely hours.

I say thank goodness and release a noisy, breathy sigh of relief. Mack would say hallefuckinglujah! My mental and emotional capacity for books is restored to me like a gift from angels, and I have forty-two months of lost time to recover. Since March, I’ve read a dozen or so historical works for my personal research and professional work with a renewed clarity of purpose. I can now fully concentrate on their historiographical significance and also let them take me away to mysterious historical pasts. As well, I have read or listened to twenty-eight novels and works of poetry for pure pleasure. Reading is easy and joyous and freeing once again. Reading is again as vital to me as breathe in my lungs, and I am over Mack’s rainbow with love and gratitude for its return to me. I am reading so much these days, feeding an appetite that for too long grief suppressed, that it has encroached a bit upon my writing. But that is OK. It feels good to let reading and books occupy the best of my free time for now. For a little while, at least, while I get reacquainted with the power of good writing to make life more joyous, more precious, more human.

So for now, dear friends, know that I am well and reading. And reading and reading and reading.

Mackenzies Rainbow

Books are vehicles to transport our minds, lift our spirits, and save our souls…here, there, or somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow.

 

Books

One of my primary goals as a mom was to give my girls a love of reading and to instill in their minds and in their hearts a deep appreciation for books. My older daughter was born with her face in a book, so I cannot take any credit for accomplishing that goal with her. My younger daughter was born with a super-charged turbo engine, making sitting still for long periods of time impossible. Mack had so much energy to burn that on weekday evenings, I often found it necessary to take her and a stopwatch out to the sidewalk in front of our house and then dare her to beat her record sprint to the end of our block and back. Only when all of her energy was exhausted could she sit still at the dining room table long enough to eat her dinner. So obviously, spending quiet time with a good book was of little interest to a toddler thundering through life at the speed of light.

For Mack, books were no competition for the backyard fort, the scooter, the bike, or the basketball hoop. Therefore, I concentrated my efforts to make her a reader after the sun went down and after much of her energy for the day was already expended. Whereas her sister had sat with me for hours with piles of books, word flashcards, and workbooks, I had to teach Mack on the run. I sat on the floor of her bedroom, holding the same flash cards that had enthralled Savannah. I would yell out words and definitions; and as Mack would dash by me bouncing a big playground ball or chasing a Nerf football she had flung across the room, I worked to improve her vocabulary. Maybe she was too wild to read just yet, but perhaps I could teach the child some new words. Mostly, she ignored me; but sometimes she would pause, violently poke a flashcard with her finger, and scream out the word it contained.

This vivacious little kid had to be mostly exhausted before she would train her eyes on actual book. But there were times when she finally tuckered out at the end of the day or when she was feeling warm and cuddly after her evening bath, that she would tolerate a short story if I read quickly enough and turned the pages fast enough. Although I deemed it a far too infrequent activity, I did get some precious, snuggly reading time with my Macko when she was very small. I was also heartened when I would tiptoe into Mack’s room at night and find her asleep with an open book. As I paused to breathe in those sweet scenes of my crazy girl passed out with a book, I secretly hoped that the stories within those pages were seeping into her dreams. I quietly wished that those pages were becoming comfortably familiar. And I confidently anticipated the day that those books would become at least as important to her as basketballs.falling asleep reading 3

It probably happened more gradually than I remember it, but at some point when Mack was in fifth or sixth grade I noticed that she was reading a book I had purchased for her many months beforehand, that she was now packing books for car rides and trips, and that she was demanding her own copies of the Harry Potter books that her sister had already collected. Mack may have been a late bloomer where reading was concerned, but by the time she reached high school, books became more important to her than basketballs. Not only had she become an avid reader and a passionate lover of books, but she had also became a vocal proponent of the books she loved. She enjoyed talking with friends about the books she was reading, and when she encountered a lack of enthusiasm from them, it only steeled her resolve. One night I overheard Mack discussing with her high school boyfriend Abhinav the strong female character that Stieg Larsson had written in The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo. Although Abhi seemed uninterested and was reluctant, he left our house that night with Mack’s copy of the book. But he did read that book for Mack, and he had to admit to her later that not only had he enjoyed it, but he had appreciated it, too. This pleased Mack a great deal, more than I suspect she ever revealed to him. She was generous with her books and always happy to share her favorites with friends. Two of Mack’s dearest friends now cherish the last books that she had lent to them. Brytani has Mack’s copy of Bossypants by Tina Fey, and Kailey has The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the very same copy that Mack loaned to Abhi.

This past week, with the publication of my new book, a biography of Mary Lincoln, I have thought a great deal about Mack and how satisfying it is to know that books were a joy in her life. I am reminded about how proud Mack was when I published my first book about antebellum juries, even though she relentlessly teased about how stuffy and scholarly it was. falling asleep reading 2When I had asked Mack to pose with that jury book, she gave me what is now one of my most favorite photos. I also recall with a smile how much Mack inspired my work on my second book. She was so filled up with excitement and intellectual curiosity as she was blossoming into a scholar during her sophomore year of college, and I was enjoying beyond words Mack’s discussions with me over the books she was reading in her courses. I was in awe of her growing intellectual talent for analysis and her critical eye; and her enthusiasm rubbed off on me. As I worked on my book, Mack and I chatted frequently about it, and she provided a great deal of comic relief when I needed it most. Checking in periodically, she would ask me, “Is Mary dead yet?” I’d laugh and tell her no, that the Lincolns were still in Springfield, or the Civil War had only just started. When I finally finished the first draft of the book, I burst into tears—relieved, I suppose, that the hard work was ended—and called Mack to tell her that Mary was dead. She responded, “Mom, why in the hell are you crying? You should be celebrating Mary’s death with a Guinness or two, instead.”

The publication of my new book has summoned clashing emotions with which I am struggling to cope. I am proud and excited about the book, but I am miserable knowing that Mack will never read it. Celebrating my first important achievement without her is devastating, and I yearn for a picture of Mack posing with Mary Lincoln, providing me with another perfect snapshot of her humorous take on the world. I wish I would have expressed in words how important that her support and good humor were to me, and I wish I could tell her now that she was an inspiration to me. Instead, I must focus on the fact that I am grateful that books became an important bond between us. I must focus on how honored I am that such an amazing young woman was supportive and proud of my accomplishments. And most importantly, I must focus on the simple truth that no matter how much longer I live and no matter how many books I write, Mack will always inspire me.

Sitting still for Grandma Marie…

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A very random sampling of a few of Mack’s favorite books…

Brave Potatoes

Something Queer is Going On

And the Relatives Came

Sheep in a Jeep

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfeld

The Harry Potter series

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow

Anything by Augusten Burroughs

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The book that Mack took to read on the plane to Spain:

Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas

Extra Note:

Mack’s close friend Kailey keeps her borrowed copy of A Girl with a Dragon Tattoo on her night stand at the University of North Carolina, where she is a student.reading-Kailey 2