Recommended Reading: We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams


Clare Beams’s story collection We Show What We Have Learned* is gleefully good reading—and, as the cover suggests, mighty creepy too. I mean that in the best possible way. Horror isn’t my cup of tea, but suspense is another matter.  You won’t find gore in these nine stories, or monsters, really, except those we carry with us. However, each of Ms. Beams’s nine stories (some historical, some slipstream, some contemporary) offers tension so acute that I often found myself squirming in my chair.

img_2833A boarding school’s promise of “transformational education” isn’t limited to the mind in “Hourglass.” An unnamed landscape architect with a talent for making his clients’ desires to rtakes on the project of a lifetime in “World’s End,” but finds himself bewildered by the orders he’s given. A young woman decides to reclaim childhood happiness and demonstrate her own giving nature by taking her elderly grandmother back to the country cabin where they vacationed long ago, but the excursion does not have the effect on “Granna” that she expected. In the haunting “All the Keys to All the Doors,” an older woman in a small town wonders if she could have done more to prevent a horrific act of violence. In “The Saltwater Cure,” a Depression-era Plymouth health resort is the setting for a young man’s coming of age. Two sisters love the same plague doctor in “Ailments.” A teacher falls apart in “We Show What We Have Learned,” while a new bride becomes more and more concerned about her wedding dress (made from her husband’s wartime parachute) in “The Drop.” Finally, in “The Renaissance Person Tournament” we meet another teacher—this one holding herself together as she coaches a promising student.

All nine stories are affecting and beautifully written, the sentences crafted for maximum impact without calling attention to the writing in a way that would pull a reader out of the world of the story. Take just one example, from the opening of “Hourglass,” which drew me in: “With its damp-streaked stone and clinging pine trees, the school looked ideal for transformations, like a nineteenth-century invalids’ home, a place where a person could go romantically, molderingly mad.”

I love that sentence, which I read with an equal measure of delight and apprehension–exactly what I think you’ll feel once you start reading this fabulous collection, which I highly recommend.

And three cheers for small presses like Lookout, which published this book! What small press books have you loved this year?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

“Would I love it this way”: W.S. Merwin’s “The Morning”

Merwin's Garden Time photo by Carolyn OliverThis week I’ve been reading W. S. Merwin’s new book, Garden Time. It’s beautiful and calm and melancholy,  just what I needed this week. Mr. Merwin is 89, and losing his eyesight; I read that these poems were dictated to his wife, Paula.

He’s one of this country’s most prolific writers; I think I first read his work when I was in high school (his translation of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) and then again a few years later with his introduction to a volume of selected poems by Thomas Wyatt. Mr. Merwin’s own poem “Berryman” is one of my favorites, one of my writerly touchstones.

Anyway, “The Morning,” the poem that opens Garden Time, is worth the price of admission. I love it, and its phrases have been flitting in my mind for days. I hope you’ll love it too.

What are you reading this week?

5 Reasons to Read: The Guineveres, by Sarah Domet


IThe Guineveresn Sarah Domet’s debut novel The Guineveres*, four girls, all named Guinevere, find each other at a convent run by the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration. Abandoned by their families for various reasons, the four Guineveres (Gwen, Win, Ginny, and Vere), united by their unusual name, find strength in numbers. When a group of comatose soldiers arrives at the convent for care, the girls plot their escape into their adult lives, with unexpected consequences.

Here are five reasons to read it for yourself:

  1. It’s a bildungsroman about girls: Spare me your Holden Caulfields; give me the complex inner lives of girls, and especially girls in groups, any day.
  2. The convent isn’t Lowood, and the nuns aren’t evil: I was dreading a clichéd take on the Catholic convent school, but my fears were unfounded. Life with the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration is austere, often dull, and strictly bounded, but the nuns care about their charges, and do what they think is best to keep them safe and promote their spiritual development. In fact, I thought the nuns were interesting enough to deserve their own book.
  3. The narrative is pleasingly polyphonic: The book proceeds chronologically, with most sections keyed to events on the liturgical calendar, like feast days and holidays. Though Vere is the book’s narrator, she often slips into the first-person plural, so that the Guineveres speak together. Interspersed with the story of their fateful year are Vere’s retellings of the lives of female saints, and each girl’s account of how she came to live with the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration.
  4. Vere is a winning narrator: The shyest of the Guineveres, Vere is a careful observer of her companions’ habits and inclinations, the faithful chronicler of their lives together and human nature (“The heart is funny in that way: When it keeps on loving, and loving, and loving what isn’t there, it becomes attached to the notion that love is the wait itself, the emptiness of it.”). Personality-wise, think Elinor Dashwood meets Jo March; she also reminded me, a little, of the narrators of Rush Oh! and My Name is Lucy Barton.
  5. The writing is quite good: While I have two critiques (First, “Mass” is not capitalized as it ought to be, and second, I found the refusal to name the time period aggravating—my search for clues kept throwing me out of the world, though I think the intended effect was to render the book timeless), on the whole I found Ms. Domet’s writing smooth and often lovely. Certain images linger, like the nuns’ worn-out shoes repurposed as planters, and the idea that Ginny’s “sensitivity was like an open wound that occasionally scabbed over but never healed completely.”

What are you reading this week?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

“We see you, see ourselves and know / That we must take the utmost care / And kindness in all things.”

Dear Readers,

This is the third year I’m sharing this post; today, I also recommend Joy Harjo’s “Perhaps the World Ends Here.”

I’m not a religious person, but many people I treasure are very religious, and I’m always

"Eagle silhouette" Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at

“Eagle silhouette” Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at

grateful for their prayers and their generosity of spirit. Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Poem” gives me a way to think about prayer that is comforting and uplifting without listing toward the dogmatic.

For that reason, I think “Eagle Poem” is the perfect poem for Thanksgiving week, when we give thanks in our own ways, both secular and spiritual, for what we have and what we have not.

Books as Refuge and The Rain in Portugal

IMG_4318In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (highly recommended), a theater troupe makes its way through a post-apocalyptic world, performing Shakespeare for tiny communities that have escaped the plague. The company’s motto, taken from Star Trek Voyager, is “Survival is insufficient.”

Which is, essentially, the raison d’etre for this site in the post-election landscape.

I believe in making calls, making donations, making the decision every day to stand up for our fellow human beings.

And I believe that when we are weary and heartsore from the work of the world, books are a refuge. They give our minds rest; they let us escape; they encourage us to love harder; they call us back to action.

We must have light in the darkness. We must have all kinds of books.

I’m going to do my best for the world beyond the page, but I’m going to keep reading omnivorously too (even if I’m not writing as much as usual).

I hope you’ll find some comfort, and some light, here.

And on that note, today I’ll recommend Billy Collins’s new collection, The Rain in Portugal.*

Like Mary Oliver, Mr. Collins is one of the most popular poets in the United States; read “The Lanyard” if you want to know why. As I wrote in my review of Aimless Love a few years ago,

His poems are cozy but not uncomfortably intimate, clever but not arrogant. Their subjects are work and rest, reading and writing, eating, looking out of windows; in short, the everyday business of being alive in America. As I’ve written elsewhere, his poetry is perfect for picking up on a whim, while you wait for a friend who’s late to dinner, say. You’ll be entertained, you’ll think, and you might even laugh, but you won’t be trying to unknot a metaphor half an hour later while you chew your escarole.

The Rain in Portugal is a collection that deploys Mr. Collins’s signature humor, which is often self-deprecating (“Some days, I look worse than yesterday’s oatmeal”). The book’s title comes from a poem called “On Rhyme,” which pokes fun at his lack of facility for rhyming. And in “Early Morning,” the speaker begins:

I don’t know which cat is responsible
for destroying my Voter Registration Card
so I decide to lecture the two of them on
the sanctity of private property,
the rules of nighttime comportment in general,
and while I’m at it, the importance
of voting to an enlightened citizenship.

After delivering this admonishment, he ruefully notes that he once told an interviewer that “early morning was my favorite time to write / I was not thinking of this particular morning.”

img_2357More fanciful are poems like “Cosmology,” in which the world is imagined to rest of Keith Richards’s head (literally) or  “The Bard in Flight” (you can read a slightly different version here), in which the speaker imagines sitting next to Shakespeare in an airline cabin; particularly clever is the way he imagines the Bard trying to catch the nuances in the flight attendants’ speech (for later use, of course).

Still, despite the humor and the flights of fancy (couldn’t resist), I found this collection more somber than I expected; maybe wistful is the right word. The poems about travel seem a lonely, for one thing. There’s a brief elegy for Seamus Heaney that sneaks up on the reader, like a silent rabbit in a yard. And I loved “December 1,” a tribute to the poet’s mother on what would have been her 114th birthday.

If you’re looking for respite, a quiet hour or two to spend in someone else’s everyday life, with thought experiments and gently put questions, you won’t go wrong with The Rain in Portugal.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

Blogger friends, if you’ve read this far, thank you, and thank you for all your kind comments over the last few weeks. I’m sorry to have fallen behind with your posts, and I hope to get back up to speed in December, though I probably won’t be around as much as I used to be.

“Going home / behind the curtain”: Farewell, Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen books photo by Carolyn Oliver

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat
from “Going Home”

If you’re a longtime reader of R&RG, you know about my devotion to Leonard Cohen. His death wasn’t public when I wrote the post quoting “Anthem” right after the election last week, but now I realize how strange it was that I used the past tense to talk about him—I almost always use the present when writing about living authors. The news of his death wasn’t shocking  (his last album, You Want It Darker, which is amazing, is also a farewell; and then there was his last letter to Marianne Ihlen, who died this summer), but it was heartbreaking nonetheless.

I can’t muster much more at the moment, except to commend his books to your reading and his albums to your listening; recommendations available upon request.

Rest well, Leonard. Endless love, see you down the road.

Here’s a 2014 review of Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, edited by Jeff Burger.

I’m fairly certain that I would have spent my high school years as perpetually moody and angst-ridden as Molly Ringwald in any given John Hughes movie had it not been for Theatre (capital-T, said in your best Addison DeWitt voice).

To the Shaker Heights High School Theatre Arts Program (yes, it’s really called that) I owe a debt of gratitude: for leading me to my two best friends in high school, one of whom I met when she was tasked with teasing my nearly waist-length hair so that it would stand straight out from my head; for playwriting class; for teaching me the world “décolletage”; for the knowledge that I should never, ever wear flesh-tone spandex; for the chance to eat lunches with friends in Room 129; for the ability to recite, in perfect tandem with any other alum, “Shaker Theater events are non-smoking, non-drinking, non-drug-using, safe-driving, recycling events”; and for Leonard Cohen.

The department chair, Mr. Thornton, had a fondness for the Canadian singer-songwriter, and from the moment I heard that smoky voice singing “The Window,” I was hooked. I used my babysitting money to buy his albums, talked so much about him that my parents knew to get me Ten New Songs for my birthday, and hoped Leonard Cohen would tour someday so that I could see him live. One of the stupidest things I’ve ever done is not begging, borrowing, or stealing enough money to see him in concert in Boston in 2012.

photo 3 (5)Before he became famous, relatively late (he was in his thirties) as a singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen was a poet and novelist whose work earned him comparisons with James Joyce, even if it didn’t pay the bills. Music did, and more than forty-five years after the release of Songs of Leonard Cohen, the dapper and impeccably polite poet is a musical legend.

photo 2 (14)I was so entranced by his music that it wasn’t until college that I went looking for Mr. Cohen’s published poetry and fiction.  Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) which I recently re-read, is raw and energetic, the work of a young idealist who’s afraid the world is already lost. Book of Mercy (my favorite of the collections) is often called a modern book of psalms, although in an interview Mr. Cohen characterized them as “more conversations with the absolute” (148). The prose-poems — fifty of them — are prayers of great sadness and great longing. Here’s part of my favorite (19): “O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy.” It’s the same voice — almost mystic, worldly, sad — from “The Window”:

Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul

Like his poetry, Leonard Cohen’s songs are about the difficulties of love, of living, of dying; he sings about a world that’s broken and the people trying and often failing to keep the pieces together. He writes songs about betrayal, sex, faith, politics. A reviewer once famously said that it was “music to slit your wrists to,” but I’ve never found it anything but comforting, occasionally funny (see “Tower of Song”), and very, very beautiful. I’m not the only one.

photo 1 (17)Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters*, edited by Jeff Burger and recently published by Chicago Review Press, is a book meant for fans of the man who wrote not only “Suzanne” and “First We Take Manhattan” and yes, the ubiquitous “Hallelujah” (for the record, I like Leonard’s version best, followed by Jeff Buckley’s, followed by John Cale’s, then k d lang’s), but also Book of Mercy and Beautiful Losers and The Spice-Box of Earth. Judiciously selected interviews from Mr. Cohen’s four decades in the music industry trace the evolution of his public persona even as they illuminate aspects of his personal life and career that aren’t widely talked about. (Did you know he once made a signature drink for his band? I do now, and I’ll be mixing up a few batches this summer.)

What comes across in these interviews — which the interviewers themselves note in their interviews with Mr. Burger — is Leonard Cohen’s graciousness, his sense of humor, and his modesty. He unflappably fields predictable questions about his lack of commercial success in the U.S., speaks well of every woman he’s been romantically linked with, and pokes fun of himself (he riffs on his early albums’ bland (“neutral”) titles by joking that he’ll call the next one Songs in English [163].) He’s completely open about the grueling process of songwriting (he’ll write dozens and dozens of stanzas for one song, rejecting all but a few; songs often take years to complete), his difficulties with romantic relationships, and, in the later interviews, about his struggles with depression. Most longtime Leonard Cohen fans know that he spent years in relative isolation at a Zen center outside Los Angeles, but these interviews offer a fuller view of what those years were like, which I found particularly fascinating.

With more than five hundred pages of interviews (several never before translated into English, some transcribed from the raw footage of television interviews), it’s not surprising that some material is repetitive. Interviewers ask questions asked many times before, and sometimes Mr. Cohen’s answers retread ground already broken. Still, the book is a treasure trove, and worth reading just for the interviewers with specialized backgrounds who share long, knowledgable conversations with Mr. Cohen on songwriting and his Jewish background, among other subjects. Rarely did four or five pages pass without me turning down a corner to come back to an idea or a phrase; choosing favorite passages and quotes for this review proved an impossible task. But here’s a snippet from a conversation the editor had with interviewer Thom Jurek, who spoke with Leonard Cohen in 1993:

Jurek recalled asking Cohen why it had taken so long after the release of The Future for him to tour. “He explained that it was because backing vocalist Julie Christensen had borne a child; it was important to hold off on the tour to give the new family time to bond.” What about finding another singer? Cohen said he hadn’t even considered that. “The reason, he said– and I am pretty sure I remember this by heart–was: ‘She shouldn’t be punished for bringing life into the world.’

This from a man who says, “We cannot forestall the apocalypse. The bomb has already gone off. We are now living in the midst of its aftermath. The question is: how can we live with this knowledge with grace and kindness?” (507).

There is a risk in books of this kind — as in meeting a favorite author — that the subject will be demystified in some way, will appear all too human, which is not, after all, how we prefer our idols. This isn’t the case with Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen. For all his foibles and favored anecdotes, the man is consistently human in the best sense of the word: compassionate, invested in the welfare of others, deeply concerned with ideas. I came away admiring him, and loving his work, even more.


An Interview with Jeff Burger, Editor of Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen.

“Going Home”

Review of So Long, Marianne

New Yorker profile of Leonard Cohen (October 2016)

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of this review.

How the Light Gets In

I am sick at heart.  The American electorate has besmirched the dignity of so many people by casting its lot with those who spew hateful invective, with a candidate who cannot and will not acknowledge the full humanity of those he seeks to lead.

Only a few days ago I wrote about reading and empathy. I still believe that reading widely lays the groundwork for empathy and respect. But I do not know how to reach those who will not read the stories of others.

“There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in,” wrote Leonard Cohen. In dark times light is all the more necessary. And so, while we take the measure of what we can do to move forward—how we can best use our time and talents as citizens in service to our fellow human beings—people will still make art and music and poems and novels. We need our artists, and I think we need every space we can get to share hope, build understanding, and renew bonds of love for each other.

It seemed that everywhere I looked on Wednesday I read the first stanza of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It is so very bleak, that poem. I believe Yeats wrote it with all the intensity of his passion and belief, and yet, nearly 100 years later, despite a century that laid waste to entire peoples, humanity endures, able to renew its conviction, its commitment to protecting the innocent.

Instead of succumbing to the tide of dread that has washed over so many of us, I suggest (as I have before), that we read the words of Emma Lazaraus:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Light and not darkness upon our paths, friends. 

Elections and Empathy


Friends, it’s Election Day in the United States.  If you haven’t voted early, perhaps you’re on your way to a local elementary school or a house of worship or a library, temporarily repurposed so that we can choose our future together.

I love voting. I love that, in principle, we all bring our hopes and our convictions and our experiences of America with us to our polling places, these public spaces that shaped us and that we in turn may shape with our best intentions.

Every vote—for president or state representative or a ballot initiative—affects someone; cultivating empathy allows us to examine the ramifications of our votes from the perspective of others with experiences different from our own.

And reading is one of the best ways to cultivate empathy.

So this week, I’m recommending The Fortunes*, by Peter Ho Davies, a book that helped me to think and learn about the Chinese American experience over the last century.

The Fortunes is a novel, but one with an unusual structure. In four sections, Mr. Davies explores the lives of men and women of Chinese heritage as they try to make sense of their identities—the ones they assign themselves and those assigned to them by others.

In “Gold,” which could stand on its own as a novella, Ah Ling is sold by his uncle to work img_2359in a California laundry; from there, Ah Ling becomes the personal servant to a railroad tycoon (the historical figure Charles Crocker) and watches the fortunes of his fellow immigrants, sometimes from within their ranks, sometimes from a less intimate distance. When he first mistakes the maid for Mrs. Crocker, “a hand had loosened from the knot across her chest, floating up to pat her hair coquettishly. She wasn’t flirting with him so much as admiring herself in the mirror of his error, as if he were no more than a puddle or a window she’d caught sight of herself in.” His racial difference, Ah Ling reflects, allows marginalized whites–the Irish, in this case–to see themselves as part of the majority group. “We made them white, Ling thought. Just like Uncle Ng said. Just like bluing. Whiter than any laundry.”

Silver screen star Anna May Wong is the main character in “Silver.” In short vignettes, the story traces her biography as she begins a journey by ship to China to visit her father after suffering a major disappointment—though she’s a famous actress and of Chinese descent, producers refused to cast her in the adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. She doesn’t let the hurt show.  “It thrills her fellow passengers, she can see, that they know her and she knows Carole Lombard, and it dismays her too, this reflected starlight that dims her own pallid glow.”  For her—a movie star not allowed to kiss her white co-stars on screen, a daughter whose father is not proud of her work—being Chinese American is incredibly complex, a performance she never gets credit for. Near the end of her life, after the Communist takeover of China, she realizes “They—all of them—are Chinese American now, not just because America has finally, begrudgingly, allowed them to be, but because China has closed to them.”

“Jade” is especially difficult to read. It’s an account of a 1982 hate crime by a childhood friend of the victim. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, was mistaken for Japanese and beaten by two white autoworkers angry at Japan’s perceived role in the declining American auto industry. He died a few days later. This happened before I was born, and I’m sorry to say that until I read The Fortunes I had never heard of this tragedy, which was one factor in the rise of Asian American rights groups. Vincent’s friend narrates from a place of anger and grief and frustration, wondering if he failed Vincent, wondering how things might have been different. He longs for the “warm anonymity” of the word “American.”

In “Pearl,” Chinese American writer John Smith is in China with his (white) wife, waiting to adopt a baby girl. Small bits and pieces from the other stories filter into this last chapter, suggesting the ways that history repeats itself and bubbles up to the surface of the present. As he considers his daughter’s future (and the inevitable “Where are you from?“), he thinks of the terra-cotta soldiers the famous tomb of the emperor. Each one is different, an individual face, “each figure standing for precisely one man, representing only himself.”

This timely, beautifully written, affecting novel reminds us that we are all part of the kindness and cruelty that is history, shaped by it and shaping it.

May we take the best of our humanity to the polls with us.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Bestiary, by Donika Kelly


A bestiary, as you probably know, is a catalogue of beasts, either real or mythical or both. It’s a rich framework for a book of poems, and Donika Kelly’s Bestiary*, longlisted for the National Book Award, is a wonder. Here you’ll find birds, bears, centaurs, Pegasus, dogs, the Minotaur, a werewolf, and a mermaid—and poems of love, grief, and human monstrosity.

Bestiary photo by Carolyn OliverThese poems bear evidence of trauma, particularly childhood abuse, which makes them both difficult to read and deeply moving. (You can read Donika Kelly’s brief statement on who she wrote the book for here.) The speaker in the long poem “How to be alone” chronicles her loneliness, curling on the couch with her dogs, challenging herself to admit all that she has endured (including her mother’s death, her father’s abuse, self-harm, “the little ways you brick up your heart”). Each four- to seven-line stanza appears on its own page, emphasizing the speaker’s isolation. It’s an incredibly intimate self-portrait.

Bestiary is a book I’ll come back to again, not only for the way it confronts human frailty, but for its love poems. “I have never known a field as wild / as your heart” begins “Love Poem: centaur.” “Love Poem: Satyr” finds the creature calling to its love “with a breath / of spring, a small wind warmed in my breast / and shaped by the lips you loved.” These poems swell with lyric beauty.

I highly recommend this collection. To get a taste of it, you can read “Bower” at VQR here, and “Pegasus” at Graywolf’s website.

You can also read more about Bestiary here and here.

What’s the last poem you read?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

In Brief: Reputations and The Mothers


Dear Readers, I hope your autumn (or spring, hello Australian readers!) has been going swimmingly. Here at Chez O I’m ramping up my night-time knitting (the holidays, and new nieces/nephews approach), so my evenings are not as devoted to reading as they are the rest of the year. Still, recently I finished two books that I’m happy to recommend.

Reputations, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean

Reputations_Carolyn Oliver photoThis slim novel (under 200 pages) reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in two ways. First, Reputations takes place over a short period (three days to Mrs. Dalloway‘s one), but manages to show the contours of the middle-aged main character’s entire life. Second, Mr. Vásquez’s management of tense is remarkable, like Woolf’s. The past and present flow alongside each other easily, almost liquid.

The prose is beautiful (credit to the translator here too!), with long, cascading sentences, and memorable similes. Two of my favorites:

“The night before had been like making love with a memory, with the memory of a woman and not with the woman who was present, the way we keep feeling, after stepping barefoot on a stone, the shape of the stone in the arch of our foot.”

“Forgetfulness was the only democratic thing in Colombia: it covered them all, the good and the bad, the murderers and the heroes, like the snow in the James Joyce story, falling upon all of them alike.”

The plot: Political cartoonist Javier Mallarino is a force to be reckoned with, dashing careers for decades with a bit of ink and a pithy caption. Honored for his work one evening, he is confronted by a forgotten figure from his past the next day, causing him to question memory, honesty, and his own reputation.

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

The Mothers photo by Carolyn OliverIf you’re a denizen of the bookternet, there’s no way you haven’t heard of this book, one of the most anticipated of the year. Brit Bennett’s debut novel follows three young people in Southern California—Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey—over the course of a decade.

Reeling after the death of her mother, Nadia becomes involved with Luke, the pastor’s son (and a former football star) during the summer before she leaves for college. But their time together ends in a secret and a coverup, one that if exposed would shake their tight-knit black community badly. After Luke and Nadia part ways, Nadia becomes close with Aubrey, a shy, chaste girl who’s often to be found helping Luke’s mother at their church.

The Mothers is a book about friendship, love, community, mothering, and most importantly, choices. The three main characters’ lives are webbed together not only by the paths they took, but by the paths they didn’t take, and these haunt them.

I loved the writing in this novel (though I wanted more from and about The Mothers, the elderly women who keep Upper Room, the church, running, and who serve as the collective narrator). Here are a few of my favorite lines:

“[ . . .] hard deaths resist words. A soft death can be swallowed with Called home to be with the Lord or We’ll see her again in glory, but hard deaths get caught in the teeth like gristle.”

“The pier was nothing but a long piece of wood that kept crumbling until it was rebuilt, and years later, she wondered if that was the point, if sometimes the glory was in rebuilding the broken thing, not the result but the process of trying.”

“Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.”

What are your reading plans for this season?