After Shawn’s accident in mid-January, I hardly read a thing. I would sometimes pick up a book, but I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to read it. Life was too heavy, and it wasn’t possible to slow down without feeling the weight of it all. If I sat still in a chair for five minutes, I would feel that weight settle until my arms would lower and I had set my book aside.
Since we returned from the burial in Texas, I’ve been reading almost constantly. I am weary in my bones, tired out by grief and small talk. Temporarily at least, it is a relief to let myself fall, forgetfully, into the world of a book.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is simple yet searing, a short novel that consists almost entirely of one young woman’s reminiscences and conversations while recovering from an illness in the hospital. For so many reasons, this is my literary ideal. I read the entire thing in awe that Strout could shape the most ordinary words and experiences into something so powerful. Lucy Barton’s voice will be in my head for a long while.
I did not choose to read Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World: A Memoir because of our experiences as a family during the past few months. I’m fairly certain I put a library hold on the title without remembering the subject, and it was delivered to my local library branch a few weeks ago.
Elizabeth Alexander is a well known poet (I remember appreciating the poem she wrote for the occasion of President Obama’s first inauguration), and this is a memoir about her marriage, her husband’s unexpected death, and the first year of life without him.
Honestly, it’s the kind of book I tend to avoid (too sad!), and there has certainly been no forgetfulness while reading it. Yet, I am so glad it found it’s way to me now. It’s as much about marriage as it is about loss, and Alexander’s observations and descriptions of both are exquisite. There is a great deal of joy in this book: the joy of cooking and eating, of making art, of gardening, and the joy of witnessing your children’s growth. Alexander is open about not being a religious person, and yet her poetic sensibility and her faith in the truthfulness of poetic logic gives this honest book a spiritual weightiness that I appreciated very much.
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson couldn’t be more different. This hilarious domestic memoir (those savages are Jackson’s four children) is from the queen of the creepy tale. You’ve probably read her famous short story The Lottery. Her books We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House are wonderful, spooky classics.
Life Among the Savages, published in 1953, describes another world (pregnant mothers who are never far from their cigarettes and children who play cowboys and Indians with television swagger), but it is hilarious precisely because it describes so well the day to day insanity of life with small children.
My strongest feeling while reading this book was gratitude. Somehow, Jackson’s deadpan delivery and knack for dialogue reminded me how sweet this phase of life can be. Yes, our houses are a mess and children possess an illogic that cannot be reasoned with, but, this book seems to say, isn’t it wonderful?
In my own book news, you can listen to an interview I recently gave about Roots and Sky. Here is my conversation with Cara Strickland for Off the Page. We talk about writing, home, seasons, liturgy, and family.
And, you are all invited to join the Summer Book Club at Grace Table. This summer’s pick is Roots and Sky, and the conversation takes place in June. Sign up today!
Now tell me: which books are saving your life lately?
Alaska is far away.
Maybe you think you know this, but however far away you imagine Alaska to be, double that. Because Alaska is really, really far away.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend a week with other writers on a remote Alaskan island. I wish that each of you could have the chance to be dazzled by the Alaskan sun and scoured by the Alaskan wind. I wish that you could taste King salmon only just pulled from the water.
If a two-day journey isn’t an option for you, what about a book instead?
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Here is a memoir of that same remote island. It is also one of the best memoirs I have ever read.
Surviving the Island of Grace: Life on the Wild Edge of America by Leslie Leyland Fields is the story of a young woman from New Hampshire struggling to make a home and a marriage on a primitive and remote island in the Gulf of Alaska.
This is a memoir of marriage, motherhood, spirituality, and poetry. It is also a memoir of wilderness and the dangerous and exhausting work of commercial salmon fishing.
Even if you can’t imagine enjoying a book about fishing (much less actual fishing!) I highly recommend this book. The writing is stellar, the story captivating, and the whole thing is edged with lyricism.
This is the most particular and most universal of stories. Now, I too, am asking the question at the heart of this book: how do we bear the terrible, beautiful grace that sustains our lives?
This was where we unraveled the rest of our lives, it seemed, even as we sewed up the holes in the nets. There was something about this space, about standing out there on the beach under the open sky – the clouds or sun, mountains on every horizon, though it was ocean all the way to the edge. The walls were gone, how could there be a larger space to stand in, and yet, it became a sort of confessional. – Leslie Leyland Fields
I picked up another Alaska memoir in the bookstore at the Anchorage airport: Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: A True Story of Bad Breaks and Small Miracles by Heather Lende. This one reads more like a collection of personal essays than a cohesive memoir. The tone is cozy and, at times, a little too cute, but Lende’s work as an obituary writer for her small-town paper lends the book some serious depth.
Lende organizes her chapters around the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, but she incorporates other traditions as well, such as Buddhism or Native American spirituality.
I kept this one tucked in the seatback pocket on the long flight from Anchorage to Seattle. At one point, my seatmate asked if she could read it, and I passed it over. She laughed out loud for the rest of the flight.
It’s a good book.
I wonder if to be human is to know that we can’t ever banish pain and ugliness from the world, only learn from it and create something beautiful and good out of it – like the newest totem pole in Sitka, the one called ‘You Are Going to Get Well.’ If you ever see it, you will believe that’s possible. – Heather Lende
One of the guest writers at the Alaska workshop was the novelist Bret Lott. You can’t go wrong picking up any of his fiction (I adore the strange, hilarious, heartbreaking first story in his collection The Difference Between Women and Men: Stories), and his novel Jewel was once an Oprah Book Club pick.
I especially recommend his latest, a collection of essays called Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian.
For writers, his essay “On Precision” is outstanding. For everyone, the final long essay on the death of his father is beautifully crafted. I aspire to write personal essays like this one.
As a writer you must always be striving for that which you cannot yet achieve and for that which you cannot yet know. – Bret Lott
I have two bonus recommendations for you today. The first is Girl Meets Change: Truths to Carry You through Life’s Transitions by Kristen Strong, a pretty and practical book for any woman who struggles with life’s transitions.
The second is the most recent book from Emily P. Freeman: Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. I don’t think anyone writes Christian formation quite like Emily. Her writing is accessible but also lovely, straightforward but rich and wise.
In my eagerness to read it, I mistakenly ordered two copies. Leave a comment here, and I will enter your name in a drawing to win one of those copies. A winner will be notified by email.
Tell me, friends. Read any good books lately?