Summer Reading

I’ve read a few really good books this summer, and I want to tell you about them before summer is over and you have excuses to not read them… So put up that hammock, make a glass of lemonade, and grab a box of tissues… (All good literature is tragedy, right?)

Heron River by Hugh Cook

Heron River is a beautifully written book. I simply couldn’t stop reading it; I read far too late in the night for the five evenings it took me to finish it. The very first sentence grabbed me: “This is how Madeline will remember it years later.”

There is a lot of darkness in this novel. There are a lot of characters’ voices too, and I loved that. Each character speaks in his or her own voice, and Hugh Cook does such a marvelous job of writing their voices and their thoughts, that most of the time he doesn’t even have to tell us who is speaking, because the reader knows who it is. Each chapter is a different narrator, and not once did I regret that the next chapter was told by someone else because each voice carried the story forward in a new way.

Madeline is perhaps the main character, but really, there are two others who are just as important: her son, Adam, who is damaged in a childhood accident and now, as a young adult, lives in a group home; and Jacob, the thirteen-year-old paper boy. Their lives weave in and out of the lives and deaths of many others in the small river town of Caithness, where the darkness of one summer’s events alters everyone’s lives.

Yet despite the murders, the break-ins, the muggings, there is always a sense of hope and possible redemption. Many of the characters are not who you think they are, and many are better than you hope. There is evil, but it does not win. And that’s not a spoiler.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This book by Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere) also has a gripping first line: “Lydia is dead. But no one knows this yet.”

So begins the family drama of a mixed race couple, James (Chinese) and Marilyn (Caucasian) and their three children, Nath, Lydia, and the much younger Hannah. They live in a small Ohio college town (it’s the seventies) where James is a professor; Marilyn is a brilliant college dropout stay-at-home-mom; and the children are Asian Americans in a midwestern sea of white kids.

Ng weaves her story back and forth across time — beginning with the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Lydia, the panic, and the discovery of her body in the lake across from their house. And with her death begins Ng’s lyrical examination of family relationships: the dysfunction, the hurts, the misunderstandings, the secrets, the expectations, the love…

James has never fit in, and he puts all his dreams of being popular and well-liked on his beautiful daughter. Marilyn cut short her goal of being a doctor to marry James, so all her dreams are transferred to her smart daughter. Lydia becomes what her parents dream for her and loses herself. Only Nath, her older brother, understands, and the thought of him graduating and leaving for Harvard, sends Lydia into a tailspin.

The police believe it is suicide, though no one in the family can reconcile suicide with what they know of their beloved daughter. Or what they think they know. In the end, the secrets we keep from those we love, derail everyone of us and require forgiveness — perhaps forgiving ourselves is the hardest of all.

Before I Saw You by Amy K. Sorrells

This is small town Indiana, where the opioid crisis is rampant. Like the town where I live now, everyone knows someone who has been or is affected by drug addiction. Jaycee is a young twenty-something waitress who is raising her little brother because their mom is an addict who can barely function. Jaycee has endured embarrassment and fear and has worked at turning it all into courage with the help of her eccentric neighbor Sudie, who teaches her how to rescue injured animals and trust in the Lord.

Tragedy is never far from an addict, and Jaycee endures the worst. With her mom in prison, and her little brother gone, Jaycee finds love in the wrong place and has just discovered that she is pregnant when a handsome, nice guy starts work at the diner. Their relationship blooms until he discovers her pregnancy.

Jaycee has everything stacked against her — poverty, drug addiction in her family, an abusive relationship, pregnancy — but she has faith. Buoyed by her elderly friend, she never loses her hope, even as she considers whether to give her baby up for adoption, or keep him and love him as the replacement for the little brother she lost.

This book moved me for many reasons: Sorrells knows the hopelessness and poverty of small rust-belt towns, and yet she believably allows Jaycee to rise above it. Jaycee has friends who care for her, grit and courage, a love of the injured animals she helps, and a faith that helps her get through the struggles. You can’t help loving her and cheering for her and be moved by her strengths. Keep your box of tissues nearby.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

I first read about the cultural practice of Bacha posh (Persian for dressed like a boy) a few years ago when I read The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg. It’s fascinating to me that this practice of turning a girl into a boy was/is culturally accepted. Nadia Hashimi has written this engrossing novel about two Afghani women — great grandmother and a hundred years later her great granddaughter — who lived for a time as Bacha posh, and how it affected them, their families, their lives.

Rahima lives in a family of only daughters in modern day Kabul. The sisters (and their mother) are at the mercy of their bitter, opium-addicted father. They can attend school only when the father allows it, and his capricious personality keeps the family in a state of poverty and forced seclusion. Adopting the ancient tradition of permitting a daughter to be a son (Rahima becomes Rahim) allows her to attend school, go to market, chaperone her sisters, and live the free life of an Afghani male. That is until she reaches puberty, when she must return to being Rahima, the powerless, subjected woman/child bride.

Rahima’s unmarried aunt visits the household often and brings stories of the outside world, as well as a special story of Shekiba, the girls’ great-grandmother who lived a century before, and also spent much of her life living as a farm boy and then as a harem guard. The novel alternates between stories of Shekiba’s life and the life of Rahima, who is married off at thirteen to a modern-day Afghan warlord as his third wife.

The tragedy and powerlessness of the lives of these women is hard to read. At the mercy of every male, the lack of change in the lives of two women who lived a hundred years apart is heartbreaking. In fact, Shekiba’s story ends with a note of hopeful modernity that never comes to pass, or if it did, it was only a few decades of allowing women relative freedom.

The author’s powerful prose and the tragic lives of her finely drawn characters will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. The only downside is that the Afghani names are hard to follow and every character is named, no matter how small their part in the book. Their names were hard to keep straight at first, + I kept wishing for a glossary of Persian words–I read a kindle version and there was none. But persevere– you will come away richer for having read this book.

The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts

The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts is another book that caused me to stay up too late at night to read. It took several chapters before it became a just-one-more-chapter-and-then-I’ll-go-to-bed book, but don’t give up on it. The story takes place in 1956 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, yet it takes place in Sinking Creek Pennsylvania. Amish Country. Pennsylvania, the free state, where the signs that say Whites Only are unwritten, and folks just have to figure out where they are on their own.

Three narrators tell the story: Emma, an Amish woman; Delilah, a southern African-American woman who has come to Sinking Creek with her husband and family (Sinking Creek is where he grew up); and Sparrow, Delilah’s teenaged daughter. All three characters are putting one foot in front of another after tragedy, and the pain and secrets they are living with bind them together in ways that nothing else can.

One of Delilah’s twin sons, Carver, drowned in the Alabama River while Sparrow was supposedly watching him. Delilah’s pain and guilt is so huge that she cannot forgive her daughter for not watching him carefully enough, or herself for putting Sparrow in charge of him that day. Less than a month later, husband and father, Malachi moves the family from Montgomery to his old hometown in Pennsylvania, thinking that the move will help his wife and daughter heal from the tragedy. They move into a house next to the church where Malachi will be the new preacher, across the woods from an Amish farm.

Emma lives there with her husband John, a deacon, and their teenaged son, Johnny, in a house filled with secrets, pain, and deceptions. Sparrow and Emma bond immediately, for Sparrow is in desperate need of a mother and Emma needs a daughter. Delilah and Emma are cautious with each other, for they are worlds apart in culture, but, as they discover, bound together in their pain. It’s a friendship that even race troubles in the town can’t divide. “I don’t know how to fix it, but I’ll stand with you,” Emma tells Delilah. I am reminded of the verse from Ecclesiastes, “A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”

This is powerful writing and as relevant today as it was then.

If you’ve read this far, you might see a thread, a theme in all these novels. It was completely unplanned. I just read them during June and July and loved reading every single one. The writing is powerful and intense, the themes of loss and pain resonate, and the characters’ inability to communicate their suffering prevents their healing. Only when they let go of bitterness and secrets and are able to embrace forgiveness, is redemption possible. Because of the nature of the tragedies in all these books, they are recommended for adults.

If you’ve read any of these, let me know what you thought. Happy August.

In defense of the much maligned adverb

Disclaimer: All adverbs used in this post are used purposefully, joyfully, and ironically.

Adverbs have always been a perfectly acceptable, completely legitimate member of the parts of speech family. Think back to 4th grade grammar: Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Adverbs…

I’m not sure when the rules concerning adverbs took a turn for the worse. We could blame Hemingway and his no frills school of writing; Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard all famously decried adverbial usage. (King said the road to hell was paved with them…)

It’s fine with me if they don’t want to use adverbs (or semicolons); every writer finds their own voice, their own style. But don’t go writing off an entire part of speech for everyone else. To suggest that writing be simplified into nouns, verbs, and just a few adjectives is to take away nuances, phrases, complexity, and experimentation in writing.

Those who hate adverbs say churlishly that it makes for lazy writing. Instead we must find interesting verbs. And, of course, that is true. Sometimes. But it is always appropriate to vary sentence structure — to write a long, lovely sentence filled with adverbs and adjectives after a short informational sentence. This helps to build tension. Long sentences help to draw out time in a scene. No one (except beginning readers) wants to read short sentences exclusively.

Adverbs encourage lazy writing? Any overused word or word form is bad writing. All words should be chosen carefully and meaningfully, not just adverbs. Adverbs tend to get the blame because overuse is particularly annoying and spotted easily. Is it fair to lay the blame for poor writing squarely at the feet of adverbs?

Adverb haters also warn against using an adverb with dialogue tags, such as “he said lovingly.” This has actually become a form of punning called Tom Swifties. (“I’ll race you across the pool,” he said swimmingly, or “I love modern art,” he said abstractly). But there could be a time and a place and a character who uses this type of wordplay. Well maybe not, but they are fun…

Just to do some research, I pulled a few books from my bookshelves by authors I respect: Annie Dillard (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek); Elizabeth Goudge’s The Scent of Water (Goudge was a British writer who lived and wrote at the turn of the twentieth century); Many Waters by Madeline L’Engle (who won the Newbery Award for A Wrinkle in Time); and Persuasion by Jane Austen, about whom nothing more needs to be said. Then I noticed that all these authors were women, and the authors above who hate adverbs are all men. Hmmm. So I added a book of essays by Wendell Berry (What Are People For?) —  and The Stone Raft by Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

I turned to a random page-in-the-middle of all the books and counted the adverbs on the page. There are many other common adverbs (that don’t end in -ly) that tell how, when, or where; common adverbs such as more, less, far, near, very, most, never, over, again. Yes. Words we can’t do without. But I only counted the -ly adverbs, because really, I think those are the words that offend the sensibilities of adverb haters.

Four novels and two books of essays by distinguished writers. Here’s the tally:

Madeleine L’Engle — 2  (certainly, northerly)

Annie Dillard — 3 (barely, slightly, apparently)

Elizabeth Goudge — 4 ( tolerably, calmly, only, unexpectedly)

Wendell Berry — 6 (he used fully twice–in the same paragraph repeatedly), cheaply, locally, directly, particularly)

Jose Saramago — 8 (hopefully, only, discreetly, finally, scarcely, barely, stoically, immediately) Obviously, he had not heard about the adverb’s adversities. Of course, Saramago also said “…but how much has also been gained by saying more than was strictly necessary.” Flouting the writerly rule of omit needless words with this one phrase, Saramago reminds us that rules are meant to be broken. Just do it skillfully, and the Nobel Prize for Literature could be yours.

…and finally, Jane. Her characters all wait anxiously, speak sensibly, wish earnestly, appear gentlemanly, observe frequently, admire exceedingly, declare warmly, act politely, look instinctively, and certainly call the carriage immediately.

I’ll take Jane Austen over Stephen King….unapologetically.

Porch Work

I started this blog six years ago to keep track of the renovation work we were doing on the new old house we’d just acquired. It was a house and acres filled with history on both sides of our families and I wanted to document it. You can read that story here.

We’ve become complacent lately, and though the place is far from finished, the work we did this past winter is far from noteworthy. (What bathroom?)

Except for the last few weeks.

I finally found time and money (they don’t usually go together) to get window box planters for the front windows.

I also found time to paint the other front door that’s been white forever. Let me tell you — painting  those muntins around each pane of glass was a definite pain. (A small DIY tip: If you ever have to paint a door with many glass panes, don’t bother taping it off. I laboriously taped every one, and it just didn’t work. The best thing to do is just paint on the glass, and then scrape off the paint when it is dry). I also spray painted the metal chair and put it next to the door. And lest it sound as if I did all the work, the door trim had to be put up, primed, and painted too. The carpenter did that.

So now that the front is finished — it only took six years —  we can concentrate on the back.

The Back Porch. I’ve written about it before — here and here. I always say I have a love-hate relationship with it. And now? Now the hate parts are mostly gone:

  • The ugly sliding glass doors that were so cloudy it always looked like a foggy day? GONE!
  • The ugliest screen door ever? GONE!
  • Thirty-three year old indoor-outdoor carpet? GONE!
  • The closet that once held the largest hornet’s nest ever documented? GONE! (The door was opened cautiously every single time.)
  • The cedar shakes that were un-sweepable, un-scrubbable, and un-cleanable? GONE!

What’s left? Well, at this point, it’s still ugly.

Once the cedar shakes were taken off, the old clapboard siding was in remarkably good shape. If you were under the delusion that cedar is an insect-repellent wood, you are Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Under each one of those cedar shingles lived at least two stink bugs, an unknown cocoon, and/or a wasp nest. Taking off those shingles was one of the more disgusting jobs I’ve had. I got really good at killing stink bugs with one blow from the hammer. After awhile I didn’t even notice the smell, and although I got buzzed by more than one wasp/hornet/carpenter bee, I didn’t get stung.

This cupboard is now gone. The siding on the inside of the closet was painted porch red and will have to be painted white, but the porch looks much larger without it.

Here is Mr. H. C. Getting rid of the ugliest screen door ever made. He put it out by the road with a “free” sign next to it. True confession: I told him not to bother–no one would take it. It was gone within an hour. I think the guy took it for the aluminum.

It was a Memorial-Day-Work-In and while we were taking down the closet we discovered this writing on a 2×4:  it dated the closet from another Memorial-Day- Work-In in 1985.

It seemed appropriate that Mr. H.C.’s parents were putting the closet up on a Memorial Day weekend, and we were taking it down on a Memorial Day weekend thirty-three years later.

The Circle of Life, indeed.