Thank you to the writers who nurtured my mind and soul in 2018 — a list, descriptions and ruminations
It is the season for reflection. Another year timed out. Which events will become part of life’s trajectory? Our story? What signifies? Which memories will become fixed? Endless political and moral crises? Creative projects? Hate crimes? Success at something? Economic woes? Special time with loved ones? Environmental catastrophes? Celebrations of life chapters? An illness? Adventurous travels? A family crisis? Peak experiences? A broken heart? Making a surprising connection with a two or four legged creature? Losing a beloved? Transformation? Disappointment? Failure?
For me, year end reflection — taking stock — has come to include, besides all of the above, the writers who have fueled, re-directed, interrupted or subverted my ideas about everything, my thinking and feeling about the human and all species project. Books that have shaped my consciousness this year. Reading that has helped to construct my very being. Who I am.
As a writer — whether for TV and radio documentaries or print/web articles — I am, like all writers, bound to reading as the mother lode of my craft. I once described reading and writing as interweaving lovers in a small bed.
For many years my book piles toppled over with non-fiction — part of my research for whatever documentary film I was working on. Human rights trials, wars in Central America, addiction and recovery, the response of the enslaved to the ideas of 18th century America, physician assisted suicide & hospice care, fundamentalism and the Southern Baptist denomination, world religions and the environmental crisis…the list goes on. And now that I mostly write feature articles part of my list includes books that I read for research or while marinating my thinking about the subject. Books that I consumed even if the writing project has stalled or fizzled.
But first, my favorite books for the year. All, except one, have nothing directly to do with a writing project.
— Lauren Groff’s Florida — exquisite short stories for our time; always circling motherhood, childhood, family connection or disconnection. Almost all percolating in the context of Florida’s fragile ecologies with a sense of impending doom. Superb writing and imagining to inspire all writers.
— Nell Painter’s Old in Art School — a memoir by an award winning historian & author who held a prestigious chair in history at Princeton. After retiring from her academic position Painter goes off in search of a Masters in Fine Arts. She confronts the shibboleths of the art world, the precariousness of standards, the hype, the nonsense. Instead she takes us on the unromantic voyage of rigorous daily work in becoming an artist. She searches for her own mentors. They wouldn’t be found at the famous art school she attended. We are drawn into her enlightening meanderings of art history, meeting African American and women artists of all ages while she melds her love of history and text with the irrational creative process and the disciplined honing of art-making skills. As I am facing the twilight of my own life, her pluck, creative discipline and writing keep me wanting to work, grow and create.
— Leta Hong Fincher’s Betraying Big Brother — The Feminist Awakening in China. For anyone who wants to understand the challenge that feminism presents to an authoritarian patriarchal structure as powerful as the Chinese Communist Party. This book is a must read for feminist scholars, activists and readers world wide — or anyone who needs to be reminded about the desperate actions that those wanting to maintain patriarchal power will take. Since I wrote a memoir about my own experience in China in 1980–81, I care profoundly about the contradictions that Fincher uncovers in a movement and system that once bragged that “Women Hold Up Half the Sky!”
— Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK — a timely congregation of research to understand the White Supremacist forces at work in our political landscape today by a distinguished scholar of American history. Gordon unearths the uncanny similarities of earlier Klan actions to the current administration’s promotion of lies, fake news and white supremacy. It was all there in the 1920s as the KKK recruited politicians, teachers, and police. These revelations help us understand the complex task involved in unearthing and exposing White Supremacist strategies and tactics in all of our institutions.
— Tommy Orange’s There There, a collection of raw, powerful short stories with the strong feel of a memoir from a Native-American author about the urban Indian experience mostly based in Oakland, California. Potent writing from an ultra fresh voice to remind us of the legacy of devastation that resulted from racist policies and actions after the arrival of the European colonialists in North America. Since I grew up in a region — Vancouver Island, British Columbia — where the evidence of this tragedy was everywhere around me, I am grateful for this new voice, no matter how painful. We, non-indigenous, must claim this historic responsibility. Only then can we begin to negotiate peace and a healthy future for all indigenous…and ourselves.
— Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction depressed and frightened me so much I could not finish it. But I am still committed to recommending it to everyone. Read it or remain forever ignorant of our most profound and deepest global crisis.
— A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield, originally published in 2006, I finally read this intriguing history of the color red in the ancient and new world, how it fueled the wealth of textile cities like Venice, and false competitive theories about its origin. Cochineal, a parasite on nopal cactus, was cultivated for centuries in the very region of Oaxaca, Mexico where I have been living part of the year for six years. It produces the finest red in the world. Discovering the history of the effort to control that cultivation has enlarged my appreciation for the world of local indigenous skills in dying and weaving textiles.
— The Guilty by Juan Villoro. A collection of short stories by one of Mexico’s hottest writers. For me, some are brilliant, others a bit too macho, but all intense revelations of the absurdities of Mexican life. The piece about the disillusioned Mariachi singer is magnificent. These stories provide a tiny keyhole for outsiders like me to peak into the complexity of Mexican — or Villoro’s — self-reflective thinking.
In the fall I was reading for what I hoped was going to be an article about memoir writing given that the genre has been around for centuries and then exploded exponentially starting in the late 20th century and continuing on into the 21st. My memoir — Forbidden Fruit, 1980 Beijing — was published a couple of years ago and the dismissive attitude of some readers toward memoirs had irritated me. Caesar, St Augustine, Rousseau, Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Isak Dinesen, Maya Angelou, Elie Wiesel, David Eggers, and Ta-Nehisi Coates were wasting their time? I wanted to look at the genre historically. But then the list became so vast, the range of subgenres so huge, that even if I eliminated some like celebrity memoirs, losing a loved one, dealing with life-threatening illness or addiction, the project seemed unmanageable in a single article. My interest was really in women who wrote most of the path-breaking memoirs of the past forty years, while ruminating on truth-telling, confession, and nakedness combined with history, narrative skill and poetic techniques.
I read Memoir, a History by Ben Yagoda who claims “memoir has become the central form of our culture…the way stories are told.” His research shows us the extensiveness of the genre through the past three centuries and the transition from memoirs by important or known people to the unknown. Now everyone can write a memoir. According to Martin Amis: “What everyone has in them these days is not a novel, but a memoir.” Yagoda reminds us that today’s memoirs are more narcissistic than those written in previous centuries. And contemporary memoirs are often based on a sense of victim-hood and influenced by popular psychology trusting in confession as therapy. All of this follows two centuries of intellectual curiosity about the self and the 20th Century explosion of psycho-analytic theories.
To explore more thoughts about the craft of memoir, I read The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts who argues that in the search for meaning in one’s lived experience, the memoirist gives artistic form to inner life. He warns against the “tyranny of the linear” or chronology in writing memoirs. “Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning, with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.”
With these ruminations in mind, I had an idea that I might take five or six contemporary memoirs and see how these new potent voices redefined or changed the genre. To this end I read Roxane Gay’s Hunger and Educated by Tara Westover, then Heart Berries: a Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot (another explosive Native-American writer), A House in the Sky by Canadian author Amanda Lindhout who describes her months of imprisonment and abuse by a rebel Somalian group. And, Nell Painter’s Old in Art School.
My intention was to compare them with some of the first women memoirists to break out of the polite and guarded voice. So I re-read Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (1997) which launched family incest memoirs, Mary Karr’s ground-breaking The Liar’s Club (1995) and Maxine Hong Kingston’s classic Women Warrior (1976). All were virtuosos of creative memoir writing, genre bending literary memoirs.
I got derailed from the project when I started to read The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. This 2015 book combines memoir, poetry, and philosophy. It so disrupted my thinking about what memoir could be, that I grew increasingly eager to write more of my own life stories and ideas exploring radical new forms. The article about memoir fizzled.
At times like this I return to the comfort of novels by favorite authors. Woven throughout the year: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, Witch Elm by Tana French, Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba. Iris Murdoch, A Truly Honorable Defeat. Well the last one was part of an idea to write about friendship since I had uncovered a slew of journals from the 60s and 70s and wanted to address that theme. But instead I got diverted again and decided to write about my 35 year relationship with a man sixteen years younger than me. That article: Gigolo, a Love Story appeared in June of 2018.
Another writing project — originally conceived as an exploration of new travel writing became instead an extensive critique of the tourism and the travel industry with a nod to the significance of literary travel writers. Why Travel? A 21st Century Existential Dilemma appeared in September 2018. I consulted many more articles but here’s the list of books I read:
The Worriers Guide to the End of the World by Torre DeRoche
Overbooked by Elizabeth Becker
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube by Patrick Leigh Fermor 1977
Jaguars Ripped My Flesh by Tim Cahill
Modernist Travel Writing: Intellectuals Abroad by David G. Farley
A Field Guide to Getting Lost Rebecca Solnit:
Out of Sheer Rage: Geoff Dyer
The Best American Travel Writing edited by Cheryl Strayed
Between the Sunset and the Sea: A view of 16 British Mountains by Simon Ingram.
Searching for Zion Emily Raboteau
Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun by Faith Adiele
The list may appear scattered, but it teased me into a subject that I knew needed more radical and critical thinking.
There are always books you read because a friend recommends them. My friend, Marnie Mueller — an accomplished novelist — told me to check out: Algiers, Third World Capital by Elaine Mokhten. In an unremarkable, matter-of-fact tone, Mokhten recounts her extraordinary history. She participated in what were once called Third World conferences, organizations and movements as an interpreter and fixer in Algiers soon after liberation from France. She describes working with leaders of the Black Panther Party, the Palestinian Liberation movement, the emerging leaders of African independence movements and parties during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Since I had been an activist in the 60s and 70s, I marveled at Mokhten’s story.
A treasured gift of translated Mexican and Latin American novels arrived from my friend Jay who runs Aliform Publishing. The Triumphant Voyage by Eduardo Garcia Aguilar, Master of the Sea by Jose Sarney, and Jail by Jesus Zarate, all awaiting the re-ordering of my reading appetite.
Other titles pulsating on my pile awaiting attention:
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer;
Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind;
Angela Flournoy The Turner House;
Darnell L. Moore’s No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America
Lydia Davis, The Collected Stories
Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America
My friend, Mark Statman, gave me a gift of two of his poetry books — The Train Again and Map of the Winds, but I have little confidence in my skill at evaluating or describing poetry. These poems simply stretch my imagination and encourage me to find new ways to consider life and the world around me. They represent arrows of light from the creative mind of my friend, Mark.
For a trip to Ethiopia earlier this year I read guide and history books as well as a memoir/novel: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly by Nega Mezlekia. Then re-read Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski.
At the end of the year, my friend, Roberta Neiman, gave me a copy of her collection of photographs, Magnetic North: Summers with Extraordinary People from the early 60s on Cape Breton Island, Canada. These images document summers with a gaggle of struggling artists who would two decades later become the most famous and successful avant-garde artists in music, theater and the plastic arts in New York City.
What sense to make of my reading selections? Does this rambling list reveal the messy complexities of history and the soul? The wobbly, partly accidental, shaping of one consciousness?
Still, these authors — their words, their research, their stories, their imaginations, their craft — have entered my intellectual and emotional life. They have expanded my vision, my heart and mind. Thank you.