Like so many other people in America, we went ahead and bought a Christmas tree—early. Other years we try not to push the season, but this year is different. Between the pandemic and the contentious presidential election, one thing all Americans are agreeing is the need for self-indulgence. We need some fun and that includes pretty things to look at like green garland, tinsel and lights.
Our local newspaper published an editorial suggesting that everyone start putting up their Christmas lights early and to make them as spectacular as possible because driving around admiring Holiday Decorations is a safe activity. I guess it’s safe, as long as no one breaks their necks climbing up on ladders stringing up all those bulbs and wires. To keep things simple, we decided set up a large Christmas tree in the front window.
No one is coming to visit for the holidays, due to concerns about spreading the virus, so there won’t be many gifts underneath the tree. Knowing that so many people are without jobs, means a good portion of my gifting this year will be donations to charities, particularly food banks. When sending out packages I’m trying to remember the small merchants struggling to stay in business.
A good gift for just about everyone on your list is a book, but the question is which book and where should you buy it? While the big online book sellers provide fast and easy service, smaller merchants are struggling to survive. As a Stonecoast writing MFA program graduate (University of Southern Maine), I am a fan of Kelly’s Books To Go, a specialty merchant that makes a point of stocking the published books of Stonecoast faculty and alumni. Just outside Baltimore, Maryland one of our largest independent brick and mortar stores is Ivy Bookstore and pre-Pandemic they featured author book signings and reading events. Spend a little time online researching in your area, and you may be surprised at what you find. It’s a treat to be able to phone or email a business and interact with an actual person.
Reading and writing, nurture my spirit. The gift of an excellent book is something that I always love to receive and to give. I am always reading, and my reading includes listening to books on tape. The listening enables me to complete various household tasks and provides a different experience from the focus on the page.
This past year, since the onset of the pandemic, I made it a point to try and study work of authors whose work I had not read. I’d like to recommend some of my favorites.
A good memoir, in my opinion, exposes the writer’s vulnerabilities on the page holding nothing back. The following four: On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur, Heavy by Kiese Laymon, and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T. Kira Madden; all do that in different ways. What I’ve noticed in these four stories, written by males and females of different sexual and racial identities, is that they are all written for or to the author’s mother. If you only have time to read one of the four, Vuong’s prose is the most poetic and the imagery is chilling; but all four books have different strengths.
Novels can take you to another time and place, and with the Global Pandemic raging around me, I was delighted to take refuge within several that were located in exotic places and spanned multiple generations. I recommend The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia (translated from Spanish) that is set in Monterey, Mexico during the late 19th and early 20th century, Barkskins by Annie Proux, set in Canada and the United States and begins in the 17th century ends in the 20th century , The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman set in St. Thomas in the early 1800s and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss which commences in the 1930’s and weaves a intergenerational story that spans the globe. Proux’s tale provided me with great insight into the ravages of colonization and the timber industry, while the Murmur of Bees and Marriage of Opposites include elements of magical realism that enrich the storytelling.
I’m always on the lookout for innovative approaches to writing a fictional narrative. The following four titles : Girl, Woman, Other by Beradine Evaristo (recipient of the 2019 Booker Prize), Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (just released in July), A Visit from the Goon Squad from Jennifer Egan (2011 Pulitzer Prize) and Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (2019 National Book Award) provide the reader with added insight as a result of the writer’s willingness to experiment. The stories of all four of these novels are woven from the points of view of multiple characters and the storyline is stretched out over several decades. I loved all four of these novels, but was particularly intrigued with the manner in which Choi addressed the larger theme of power balance between men and women with her story structure that reminded me of a Russian Matryoshka doll. To say more, could be a spoiler so I will leave it at that.
A dozen books, one for each month! Support writers, publishers, and independent booksellers by giving books as gifts. Did you discover a favorite book this past year? Share it. While many social media posts tend to distract and divide us, books can help us gain deeper insight in understanding ourselves and each other.