What do you read when you can’t possibly add one more thing to your plate or you’ll: a) eat all of the chocolate in the pantry, or b) drink all the alcohol in the house, including the cooking sherry.
Virginia Woolf, of course!
Ms. Woolf, one of my favorite writers, offers her readers “one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” It turns out that chaos and poverty are not conducive to creativity. Who knew?
Money and a quiet place are useful, to be sure, but an inquisitive mind willing to go places others might find distasteful, upsetting, or crass is just as important. Drama lives in the chaos of our lives, whether we invite it in or not. And, drama is what draws the reader, just as a car wreck draws onlookers—we avert our gaze just a little to ensure it doesn’t seem like we’re watching, but we are.
Then the mind scolds itself and must be righted again. “You shouldn’t look at that,” it whispers. It is then we seek books that adjust the rigging. Just as we silently whisper a grateful prayer that the accident victim wasn’t us, we place ourselves in the shoes of the characters we read, asking questions like, “Could I have withstood that pressure?” and “Would I have made that same, awful decision?” I imagine that most of us decide that we could’ve dealt with the pressure and would’ve made a different, better decision that the hapless sucker in the novel we’re reading. But there, deep in our subconscious, lies a seed of doubt that gnaws at us while we sleep. And so, we read more, and the process begins again.
My undergraduate degree is in psychology, but I ended up working in healthcare administration before switching careers to become an opera singer who also taught voice lessons. Having since retired from the stage, I now present my creativity through writing. I have three sons, a ten-year-old Great Dane, and two puppies. My entire life is controlled chaos—by choice. When I take the time to read, I choose carefully. Below are some of my favorites that draw me into their dramatic worlds and aid me in righting my lifeboat.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Toni Morrison referred to this book as “required reading” and I can see why. Coates’s raw emotions are expressed as a letter to his teenage son, in an effort to help the child understand his father even as the father continues to try to understand himself, in a world in which so many threats exist that could destroy their bodies at any moment. As a white woman of privilege and as a writer, I found his writing intricate, beautiful and humbling. Coates left me disconcerted, questioning my accidental birth into a country in which I am free to be… anything. The reader will find no refuge here for petty excuses that drive her to the cooking sherry. Rather, she will find that she has far less on her plate than she thought prior to reading Between the World and Me.
Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America by Catherine Kerrison
Having read Jefferson’s biography by Jon Meacham, I wanted to know more about his family, specifically his three daughters, two of whom were white. Our country has never successfully negotiated the racial injustices thrust upon Black people, and this book shows how far back that bigotry goes and how ingrained it is in our daily lives today. As I read, I found myself wishing to hear Sally Hemings’s perspective and marveling at her fortitude and resilience. If Sally can successfully negotiate her freedom while very pregnant with Jefferson’s daughter, I think I can find time to get that button sewn back on my son’s shirt.
The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer
Edith Hahn was forced into a Jewish ghetto and then a labor camp before re-emerging in Munich as Greta Denner. Amazingly, she fell in love with and married a Nazi officer who kept her identity a secret even after being captured by the Soviets. Hahn’s story is a terrifying reminder of how fickle humans can be and how people’s lives can sometimes hang on a whim. Again—and you should be sensing a theme here—life is short and precious. Leave the vacuuming for another day. Go outside and enjoy the sunshine.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
This book is a collection of essays that, on their surface, function as critiques of various musical performers. Honestly, that’s what drew me in. But I quickly discovered that there is so much more than that to Abdurraqib’s writing. Through attending various concerts in differing venues, Abdurraqib paints realistic pictures of the spaces he’s in, and of the people who choose to inhabit those spaces. The reader is empathetic as he evaluates his surroundings, and we realize that the music criticism here is also commentary not only what’s happening in the author’s own life, but also what is occurring in the larger world. Music is a reflection of reality, and Abdurraqib’s fresh perspectives on that reality are sometimes entertaining, sometimes painful, and always enlightening. Let yourself be carried away into the music. Let these words cleanse your soul.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, each face their personal demons as they navigate the dangers and treachery of World War II. Vastly different from each other, they both come to play a part in helping the Allies, and in doing so, they both begin to understand the value of each other’s viewpoint. Once you’ve read the plights of Vianne and Isabelle you’ll realize that your life is manageable. Seriously: you can get the laundry done and make that deadline.
There There by Tommy Orange
I read this book when it was first published two years ago, and recently reread it. The writing is gritty and paints a grim picture of life in Native American communities across the United States. One can only wonder at how our “esteemed” forefathers and current leadership sanction the slow genocide of entire groups of people whose only “crime” is their mere existence. Orange’s writing is practical yet sprinkled with thought-provoking analogies, such as the elite sailing on a yacht while others are in the sea, struggling to stay afloat. I felt humbled and embarrassed while reading it, and the novel’s tragic ending drove me to hug my kids a little tighter.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This novel tells the story of the Rodion Raskolnikov, a former student who robs and kills a pawnbroker. The mental and moral torment his conscience subjects him to are an example of how the mind can be helpful or hurtful as it reacts to the body’s actions. Dostoyevsky reminds us why we have an ego, superego and id. Don’t let your id be the boss. Always sage advice.
The Long Winter trilogy by A.G. Riddle
Led by an ex-con named James, a team of international scientists faces a potential Armageddon-inducing extraterrestrial phenomenon. While negotiating the maze of clues, James falls in love with Emma, who’s dealing with having lost much of her crew while on her own mission. Over the course of three books, the two fall in love and deal with crap that is unimaginable—yet, they manage not only to push forward but also to find grace and love in the process. If they can do it, we can, too.
Born Into Madness: When Those Who Are Supposed to Love You Can’t by Karen R. Kaiser
Kaiser paints a graphic picture of growing up in a family whose struggle with mental health is overwhelming. Not everyone is unwell, but enough family members are affected to make a child believe that bizarre actions are the norm. It’s only as Kaiser grows up that she seeks explanations for her family’s behaviors. After earning her PhD and becoming a psychologist, Kaiser faces the fears of her own children inheriting mental illness. The reader senses that Kaiser is racing against time and DNA, two factors that cannot be altered. But Kaiser’s tenacity in the face of her daunting personal history is formidable and she writes with grit and grace. After reading this book, your family troubles might well be put into perspective.
Although the Day Is Not Mine to Give, I’ll Show You the Morning Sun by David Melton
David Melton wrote this book-length poem and illustrated it as well. His realistic drawings, accompanied by accessible and heartfelt stories, will inevitably bring a smile to your face while a tear rolls down your cheek. This book was on my parents’ bookshelf growing up and the first time I read it I was about ten years old. It touched me even then, as I was able to see (on some level) that life is fleeting and we need to enjoy every moment, even the frustrating ones. This is a book to pick up when you feel so frustrated you can’t see the way forward.
Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship by Michelle Kuo
A Harvard graduate travels to the Mississippi Delta to teach and finds herself there—the self she strives to be. But it’s not without much stress, as Kuo negotiates racial stereotypes and pressure from her parents. We should all travel an uncomfortable path once in a while to remind us of the privileges we enjoy. I used to think I knew what hard work was, since I waited tables and worked at a dry cleaner. Turns out, I was wrong. Kuo’s writing is intelligent, introspective, and real. The questions she poses challenged me to take a hard look at white privilege and how the accident of being born white and into the American middle-class has sculpted my own successes. Again, turn away from the chocolate and find answers to your “problems.”
My Father’s House by Ben Tanzer
Tanzer’s poignant, and often heartbreakingly funny, take on his father’s passing and the issues it raised for him makes me laugh and cry simultaneously. His honest and pragmatic writing reminds us that we are human; it’s okay to make mistakes. We move on, we become more informed as we age, and if we’re really smart, we apply what we’ve learned to future potential mistakes. When you look in the mirror and see only gray hair, bags under your eyes, and wrinkles, remember that you’ve traded youth to obtain wisdom, patience, and tenacity. That may not keep you from eating too much chocolate or drinking all the sherry, but at least you’ know that you can handle all that comes your way.
Finding God in Ordinary Time by Christine Eberle
Eberle presents personal, real-life situations and seeks the meaning behind them by breaking them down into bite-sized chunks that the reader can absorb and apply. This book soothes me, and it allows me to consider that there is something much bigger than myself at work in this universe. Eberle’s positive outlook and calm presentation will urge you to slow down to enjoy all of the small moments that make a life worth living.
The Untold Story of Eva Braun: Her Life Beyond Hitler by Thomas Lundmark
Lundmark completed fifteen years of research in an effort to uncover the truth about Eva Braun. His efforts culminate in this remarkable story of a troubled young woman, completely loyal to the madman who ultimately brought about her demise. For years I have attempted to understand how people can be drawn in by sociopaths. To me, Hitler was the ultimate sociopath and Eva Braun was his perfect target. Lundmark’s book is terrifying, and so awfully sad. I found myself feeling both anger towards and pity for the pathetic young woman who was obsessed with an insane tyrant. When I finished reading this book, I felt grateful that my life is my own.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Elizabeth’s new novel, Devil’s Grace, out now from Green Place Books! – Ed.
Devil’s Grace by Elizabeth B. Splaine
0.63 seconds. That’s the amount of time Angela Brennan has to process the oncoming truck that destroys half of her family and irrevocably alters her life. Not long after the accident, death intervenes once more and snatches her remaining family member. Facing life alone, Angela returns to work as a cardiac surgeon, saving other people’s lives, but questioning why hers was spared. Desperate and distraught, Angela makes the decision to join her family by taking her own life. Before she acts on her plan, however, she receives an anonymous note indicating that her daughter’s death could have been avoided. The information provides Angela with renewed purpose and she becomes determined to find meaning in her catastrophic loss. Angela confronts the healthcare power brokers and discovers lies, complicity, and corruption at the highest levels. As she uncovers the truth about her daughter’s death, barriers are thrown in her way that threaten to destroy all she has left: her career and reputation. Devil’s Grace follows Angela’s path from devastation to redemption, as her decision to choose hope over despair and kindness over cruelty tells a timeless, yet timely tale.