Sunday, January 7, 2024

The Ones That Stayed With Me

Each year I write a summary of some of the books that spoke to me throughout the year. By the end of the year I have a long list, but I am often hard-pressed to resurrect the threads of the books that I rated highly after reading. Instead, it is the ones that had sufficient force to stay with me that remain. This year there are several that met that test. 

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

I have always been a fan of Ann Patchett and her latest book Tom Lake did not disappoint. Central to the story is the play Our Town and a theater company in which Lara, in her youth, performed the part of Emily as she became involved with Duke, the actor who played her father. After their relationship ended, Duke goes on to become a famous actor while Lara, after a brief stint in acting, ultimately chooses a less glamorous, but satisfying life. The story moves between time periods with flashbacks to that earlier time— then a young woman, still forming and vulnerable, versus the mature woman relating the story to her daughters, as she chooses how much to impart. It made me think of the encounters of youth with all their foolhardy elements. Who we are in maturity contains all the layers of our past as we form the boundaries of our adult self.


The Postcard by Anne Berest


When people come through my studio and view my artwork on cultural themes, they often recommend books to me. I am always intrigued that they think they know me so well as to know what I’d like. Even more so when I find they are correct. The Postcard came from such a recommendation. It begins with a mysterious unsigned postcard that arrives with only the names of family members who died in the Shoah. An unsolved puzzle then, fifteen years later, a chance barb at the author’s inconsistent engagement with being Jewish, launches her into a search for that lost family. And quite a search it is, with dead ends and serendipitous discoveries deep into the French experience of the Holocaust and the personal history of the author’s family. It is a search laden with self-discovery as she discovers a deeply personal connection to her ancestry.


The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store-James McBride


Many years ago, I read the Color of Water by James McBride. I recalled that his mother was a white Jewish woman who married her black husband in the 1940s. When I first heard of The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store which connects the black and Jewish communities, I thought it likely drew upon the threads of his own personal experience. My involvement with the Jewish historical community had also made me aware of the early beginnings of my local Jewish community which also existed as an immigrant community side by side with the black community. For a firsthand flavor of these joined communities, McBride is the perfect storyteller, bringing a warmth and tenderness to the relationships that connected the two communities. While sometimes separated by ethnic and racial differences, the two communities also interact and support each other. Each character is finely developed and an integral part of the larger community that surrounds it.


Foster by Claire Keegan

This novella packs a lot in. Foster is a quiet story, amplified by the quiet as it forces the reader to focus on each gem of expression and thought. Even the one word title implies both a foster child and  what it is to foster. A young girl is sent to spend the summer with a foster family as her family awaits another child. In this new home the child is nurtured and flourishes in a way we learn was not likely in her home of birth. The foster home has its own griefs, the loss of a son, a sadness that allows its hosts to open their hearts to this girl child in need. This quiet story was made into a quiet movie, quite true to the novella. On a flight back from London, I had the good fortune to watch the aptly named The Quiet Girl. I was left to wonder what happens to this glimpse of sunshine in a child’s life upon her return to a family that lacks the nourishment under which she thrived. Does she keep that spark alive within her?

So why these books? Each spoke to me in a unique way, touching aspects in my own experience. From the inward and vulnerable child, to the experimental period of youth, to the understanding of family history that connects each of us to our own roots and culture. Each topic of interest was explored by an author who is a master of their craft, capable of touching those common experiences in a manner that echoes our own personal experience.