Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Some More Book Recommendations

“When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume that someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our action, as we who are downstream from another will profit from that grantor's gift.” 
-Maya Angelou

I have recently read a number of really thought-provoking, well-written books that I'd like to share. Two of them are fiction, two are non-fiction. All of them opened up new worlds to me and left me in a better place than I was before I read them. Books are one of my great pleasures and I can't imagine a time where I'm not in the midst of at least a couple. So here are some of my most recent finds:

Mink River by Brian Doyle. 

Wow, this book grabbed me, swept me up and left me wanting more. It takes place in a fictional Oregon coastline town filled with quirky, wonderful characters. There's a mixture of Native American and Irish cultures, and you quickly become involved in the lives of the people of Neawanaka. There's a sense of community and shared history amongst the inhabitants that makes one yearn for a slower life filled with deep connections. Everyone's stories are intertwined. There's also a wise crow named Moses and a bear that reads the New York Times. But what made Mink River so magical for me was the amazing language that spilled forth on the page. It's lyrical and poetic, and caused me to re-read more than a few passages. Here's an example. It's a passage that takes place between the man who only has 6 days left to live and the young boy Daniel (this is only part of a very long, delicious paragraph): 

These things matter to me, son. The way hawks huddle their shoulders angrily against hissing snow. Wrens whirring in the bare bones of bushes in winter. The way swallows and swifts veer and whirl and swim and slice and carve and curve and swerve. The way that frozen dew outlines every blade of grass. Salmonberries thimbleberries cloudberries snowberries elderberries salalberries gooseberries. My children learning to read. My wife’s voice velvet in my ear at night in the dark under the covers...

Treat yourself to Mink River; you won't regret it.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

This is a first novel by an Alaskan woman whom I think we will be hearing more from. The Snow Child takes place in Alaska in the 1920's and focuses on a homesteading couple-Jack and Mabel.  Jack and Mabel are slowly drifting apart by a shared loss in their past, and the realities of living in Alaska. Their lives seem bleak and isolated.  One day, they glimpse a mystical little girl who seems to have arisen from the snow girl they built the day before. She brings hope and love back into their lives. Like Mink River, The Snow Child's language drew me in to a special place; it was such a perfect read for me on those dark January nights. I wouldn't say it's a summer read, but definitely put it on your list for next winter when you can settle in with it and a cup of hot tea. 

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

This book should be mandatory reading for everyone in the United States. That may sound glib and overreaching, but it had a profound impact on me. To say it is eye opening is an understatement. It's a damning critique on the War on Drugs and shows how we have systematically targeted black men, incarcerating them for drug-related offenses, while whites have (for the most part) avoided this same fate. The results on communities of color are simply devastating.   The New Jim Crow will both educate and enrage you. We need to have open conversations about the War on Drugs (which is a failure) and the resulting criminal-justice policies. I learned things that were incredibly dismaying about how our system continues to perpetuate racism. Would it have been easier to have not read this book? Absolutely. But I much prefer having my eyes opened to this injustice that continuing on "colorblind."

The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp

"Grief, we understood, would now hijack a part of our day for the rest of our lives, sneaking in, making the world momentarily stop, every day, forever." 

I just finished The Still Point of the Turning World this afternoon and feel like I've spent time with a kindred spirit. Emily Rapp is a writer whose world was turned upside down with the diagnosis of Tay Sachs in her baby boy, Ronan. Tay Sachs is a rare, terminal disease that strikes babies and they don't survive past the age of three. In this book, Emily manages to write while dealing with the diagnosis. She finishes the book before her dear Ronan dies, although he died this past February. 

You might wonder if this is a book for bereaved parents only, and I would argue no. Rapp chronicles Ronan's life while also trying to understand and seek the overall meaning of life. She reminds us that we are all mortal, that we all will die eventually. She reminds us to live in the present:

"Planners, I decided, are about planning to be immortal, and we'll all assume that we'll get another day, another week, another year. It's part of how we pretend we won't die. But when you have lived with and cared for and loved a child who is actively dying (or at least dying more quickly than the rest of us are), you learn to live in the present moment."

I understand so much of what she writes. It is her struggle to make sense of Ronan's life, of her life and ultimately of all of our lives. It is raw and emotional, and reminded me of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Rapp challenges us to find beauty in even the most difficult and painful of circumstances, and to appreciate life's fragility while living in it as boldly as possible. She doesn't want our pity, but instead dares us to live with more awareness and open hearts.

I hope you will feel free to share some books with me. And if you are buying books, please try and buy from your local independent bookstore! 


  1. Thank you again Robin. Your blog is such a heartstring for me to listen and learn. My grief wave crashed upon me again Tuesday on the 5th anniversary of saying goodbye to my dad. I don't know why it still surprises me when the waves arrive, but they do. And I am drawn to read two of these books you recommend because I miss the Oregon coast where I spent many summers with my parents, and the other to connect with those kindred spirits who value living in the moment. While I did not lose a child and cannot imagine the pain of it, spending the week with my dad in his last days, when we knew what the outcome would be, and still celebrating the time we had together are the most precious memories I hold onto today. Thank you for letting me share with you today and express my deep gratitude for the bread you cast on the water.
    Theresa Kauffman

  2. Thanks so much for your nice comment, Theresa. I do think you will like Mink River, especially with the Oregon connection. You are indeed lucky to have spent the last week of your dad's life with him. What a privilege for both of you.