Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day to reflect on what we are thankful for and to show appreciation. It is also a day fraught with problematic history, stressful family situations, and so much other baggage. For some, the holiday is pleasant, and for others it is something that we long to just get past. While I am not much for the holiday, I do want to express thankfulness all year round. So, in this post I am taking time out to tell you about some of the books that have inspired and touched my 2016.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
This short, fragmented, and poetic book shares the story of young girls coming of age and the friendships that they form, only to have them come apart with time and the emergence of adulthood. The book explores the intimate thoughts and feelings of the children, placing them within the framework of what it means to be African American in the 1970's. Woodson deftly explains how girls can form bonds that are affirming, needed, and yet temporary. While the book may be short and quick, it carries a lot of impact. Many times, I stopped and reread important lines. Woodson's writing has the power to make you linger over phrases, to read not only for content, but also the beauty of form.
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
This middle reader is about a girl named Raymie who longs to win the Miss Florida Central Tire, a pageant that she assumes will draw the notice of her newly absent father. Raymie's parents are divorcing and she is missing her dad, hoping to find a way to bring him home by making him proud. She starts attending baton lessons to learn a skill for the talent portion of the contest. At her lessons, she meets Louisiana and Beverly, two girls who have their own struggles at home and may need to win even more than Raymie. The story is a lovely meditation on friendship, and a reminder that in our self-pity we should never forget that others are facing their own hardships which may be still worse than our own. While this book is placed in the category of middle reader, I think it is a story that transcends age. DiCamillo writes with a tenderness that is rare and honest. She manages to avoid the pitfall of sentimentality while still offering a sweet tale.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Eileen works in a juvenile detention center by day and goes home to her alcoholic father at night. She dresses exclusively in her dead mother's clothing. Her life is more about what is absent than what is present. She longs for connection, but spends long hours alone in the attic where she tries not to hear her father at all. It is nearly Christmas and there seems little hope for any sense of festivity. Then, a new woman appears at work. Her name is Rebecca and she is everything that Eileen is not. Her outgoing nature and polished appearance attract Eileen, despite her assertions that she is not a lesbian. As she falls in love, it seems possible that her life could change, but Eileen's desperation to escape her bitter life may not be enough to manifest a future with Rebecca. Moshfegh is masterful in her heartbreaking details. Eileen is so real, so vivid. I longed to reach into this book and console her.
Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos
It is a hot summer in Iowa. Claire and Don Lowry are on the brink of divorce, trapped in a stifling marriage and longing for the passion that once existed between them. Now, those passions are turning elsewhere. They spend more and more time away from each other and their children. Everything feels like it is coming apart; everyone feels lonesome and empty. Painfully accurate in terms of the dynamics of a failing long term relationship, beautifully written, and startlingly sweet at unexpected moments. Bakopoulos avoids moralizing and takes time to explore the complexity of us, not reducing characters down. He introduces a host of grieving characters who are all at a pivotal moment in their lives, all needing transformation. They cling and fall away, each staring into an emptiness inside of themselves.
Love May Fail by Matthew Quick
When Portia finds her rich husband in bed with another woman, it forces her to reevaluate the life that she chose for herself. Portia opted to leave her small town with her hoarding and mentally ill mother, to live a more glamorous life of wealth. Now, she finds herself remembering the teacher who once inspired her and made her curious about the world. She longs to live a more meaningful life, to form real connections to others. When she takes a trip home to recharge and heal, she learns that the people she intended to lean on actually need her to help them instead. As they muddle through together, Portia finds a reserve of strength within herself. Although this book grapples with difficult topics, it does so with a light hand. Quick fills this book with moments that will make you smile, and also a surprising amount of hair metal bands.
My Feelings by Nick Flynn
Rough, ragged, and beautiful. These are indeed poems that feel. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter
Baby Girl and Perry are teenage girls who spend their time trying to escape from their failed families and getting into trouble just to feel something. The story gives a voice to both girls, but also Perry's lonesome and promiscous alcoholic mother, her exhausted prison guard stepfather, and a few others as well. Hunter writes with a razor sharp insight that is accompanied by kindness and empathy. I read her work in silent awe of everything she was able to accomplish in this compact book. If someone could capture misery on a page, if there was a way to understand longing by words alone, then Hunter has done it.
There are many more books that I loved this year, but these have been some of the highlights. In a season that is meant to remind us of sharing and gratitude, I offer you these selections. They have captivated my thoughts and impressed me with their skill. Their voices are ones that I longed to hear and that I have heard long after closing the books.