Read Her Like an Open Book returns from the Year of Living Stressfully

 

Hello book-loving friends. I’m glad you’re still here.

You may have noticed that Read Her Like an Open Book was much less active for the past year or so, with only intermittent posts. My blog was quiet because my life was not. I changed careers and was busy getting my freelance writing-and-editing business, Argus Editorial Services, on its feet. I was also developing a photography sideline, Inner Light Photography. Both my mother and my mother-in-law experienced health issues due to advancing age. (My 87-year-old mother passed away in January.)

And, frankly, I was suffering from a condition that began in 2016 and developed into a disorder in 2017. You may know it as Post-Trump Stress Disorder. As a news junkie, former high school Journalism teacher, and even more former attorney, I simply could not ignore what was taking place. But my preoccupation with keeping up with the daily drama (and trauma) took a toll on this blog, which I regret.

I decided last month that, with its five-year anniversary approaching in June, I would revive this blog, which means so much to me and has more supporters than I thought. I’m happy to report that when I approached several dozen writers about contributing to my weekly guest author feature, they responded with enthusiasm and many encouraging words. So far, I have received firm or tentative commitments to participate from over 40 authors.

In the coming months, you’ll read essays, interviews, and reviews by the following  writers: Robin Black (whose previous essay is the most-read post in the history of this blog), Chantel Acevedo, Karen Bender, Jessica Anya Blau (who will be interviewing Jane Delury), Michelle Brafman (interviewing Mary Morris), Gayle Brandeis, Siobhan Fallon, Wendy J. Fox, Stephanie Gangi, Lauren Grodstein, Yi Shun Lai, Krys Lee, Karin Lin-Greenberg, Margaret Malone, Marian PalaiaJodi Paloni, Keija ParssinenElizabeth Poliner, Anne Raeff, Elizabeth RosnerGina Sorell, Rene Steinke, Amanda SternThrity Umrigar, Ellen Urbani, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

We’ll start tomorrow with a wonderful essay by Bernadette Murphy about reclaiming your life by overcoming your fears. Watch for a new guest author post every Tuesday.

You can also follow the social media accounts connected to this blog: there’s a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which is personal but mostly limited to book-related tweets. And I would certainly appreciate your sharing the word about this blog if you are so inclined.

This blog has always been an expression of my literary activism and feminism. My goal, as always, is to bring more attention to all the great literary fiction and memoirs by women writers. (And to encourage more men to read fiction, especially literary fiction, and even more especially by women authors.)

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Six Terrific Recent Books You May Have Missed, Part 2

We all know the old saying, “So many books, so little time.” And it’s never been more true than now, when more good books are being published than ever. One of the unintended consequences of such a wealth of choices is that deserving books are often overlooked. Some receive passing attention, often below the typical reader’s radar, while others are inexplicably ignored by the publishing industry, press, and booksellers, keeping them a mystery to potential readers. And sometimes a book receives acclaim and sells well, but readers still miss it. There are a LOT of books out there! Here are a handful of recently published novels and short story collections that deserve your time and attention.


bottomland  michelle-hoover-grayscale

Bottomland

Michelle Hoover

Black Cat/Grove Atlantic

March 1, 2016

Hoover’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Quickening, concerns a family of German immigrant farmers in post-WWI Iowa. The Hess family faces discrimination from suspicious neighbors and townspeople but they hunker down and continue to work hard. Then their two young daughters, Esther and Myrtle, disappear. Have they run away to the much-desired big city of Chicago? Or were they kidnapped? In spare, Catheresque prose well-suited to the land and characters, Hoover tells a haunting tale of familial love, the personal and societal effects of war, and dreams gone awry.


crooked-heart-of-mercy  billie-livingston

The Crooked Heart of Mercy

Billie Livingston

William Morrow

March 8, 2016

Livingston is a well-regarded Canadian author of fiction and poetry who deserves to be better known in the U.S. The Crooked Heart of Mercy is the story of three broken people coping with personal tragedies. Ben is a limo driver who has sustained a serious head injury. His wife, Maggie, tries to hold their already fragile life together while Ben is being treated for both physical and psychological damage. She looks to her brother Francis, a priest, for help. But he has his hands full with a DUI scandal, and Maggie finds herself in the role of caretaker for two men. Livingston has a quirky and compassionate sensibility that makes you care deeply about these flawed characters, who find that they can save each other in unexpected ways.


folly-of-loving-life  monica-drake-by-bellen-drake

The Folly of Loving Life

Monica Drake

Future Tense Books

March 8, 2016

Drake is part of the burgeoning Portland literary scene. After two novels, she has written a collection of linked stories set over the course of three decades that depict “old Portland” in an uncompromising but often darkly funny manner. Sisters Vanessa and Lucia lead us through a cast of characters working at a range of low-to-mid-level jobs that just allow them to scrape by. You will recognize these “tough but tender” people no matter where you live and work. Drake’s writing is raw and memorable.


as-close-to-us-as-breathing   elizabeth-poliner

As Close to Us as Breathing

Elizabeth Poliner

Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown

March 15, 2016

Set on a stretch of the Connecticut coast known as “Bagel Beach” for its popularity with Jewish families, As Close to Us as Breathing is a family saga involving the lives of three adult sisters who spend summers there in their family cottage, with their husbands coming down on the weekends. It begins with a tragic accident in 1948 and follows the siblings and their families as they cope with this loss amid the tension between tradition and assimilation in the decades after WWII. The sisters are vividly drawn and characters who will continue to walk around inside your head after you finish this book. One caveat: The story is narrated by a family member looking back to 1948, when she was 12, and it moves back and forth in time and involves many characters, so it can occasionally be disorienting. Polliner’s second novel is a richly layered, compelling read.


houseguest  kim-brooks-close-up

The Houseguest

Kim Brooks

Counterpoint Press

April 12, 2016

The Houseguest reminds us that, as Faulkner said, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past. Set in New York in early 1941, before American Jews knew of the Holocaust, The Houseguest tells the story of Jewish immigrant Abe Auer, a junkyard owner in Utica, who is persuaded by his rabbi to take in a refugee named Ana Beidler. She turns out to be a beautiful and complicated young actress from the European stage. Her charismatic presence upsets the balance of the Auer household even before she disappears around the time that Abe and other Jews begin to learn of the Nazis’ atrocities. Brooks’ psychologically astute novel shines a light onto the responses of American Jews like Abe Auer, as well as the Jewish organizations in the U.S., many of which operated below the radar to aid their European brethren. More than one “houseguest” has moved in and confronted Americans with a range of unexpected moral dilemmas. This is a powerful debut novel, and one that is especially timely in light of current issues involving refugees.


they_could_live_with_themselves_cover  jodi_paloni_by-dawn-surratt

They Could Live with Themselves

Jodi Paloni

Press 53

May 3, 2016

Reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Paloni’s debut is a collection of linked stories set in the tiny town of Stark Run, Vermont. Paloni has crafted a series of stories that probe the inner and outer lives of the community’s residents. She writes with a deft touch and palpable empathy for her flawed and very recognizable characters, who often surprise themselves and others. The cumulative effect of the interconnected vignettes is that of a mosaic slowly taking shape. They Could Live with Themselves is perfect for reading in front of a fire on a chilly autumn evening.


Photo Credits

Monica Drake by Bellen Drake

Jodi Paloni by Dawn Surratt

Jodi Paloni on the transformative capacity of books

Jodi Paloni headshot

A year ago, I moved from Vermont to Maine. The neighbor boy counted my boxes of books as he helped load them from the house to the moving van. Fifty-one. His father asked me, “Do you actually read all these books?” I answered, “I either do, or maybe I will.” I flew off to organize the people upstairs, who asked more simple questions. “Should we mop the floors?”

A visitor to my new house commented, “You have more books than a person could ever possibly read. No, I mean it. It’s not even possible to read all of these books, one person, in one lifetime.”

So I thought about it. If I read two or three books per week (which happens only some of the weeks) that’s approximately eight to twelve books per month, so let’s say ten, which averages 120 books per year. I began to count my books. I looked around. One hundred and twenty books take up eight or nine linear feet on my shelves….

It doesn’t matter how many books. Books are not just for reading. They’re for viewing, touching, dusting, sorting, stacking, arranging, re-sorting, shelving, un-shelving. They’re a source of pleasure.

My husband has twenty-two screwdrivers, thirteen wrenches, and sixteen wood files.

My goat cheese-making friend keeps a couple of bucks around for kicks and, out of compassion, nurtures elder chickens that are all done laying eggs.

My daughter has 2,178 songs on her iPod.

That we are a species of excess is another topic. My point here is to say that we pay attention (and dollars) to what sparks passion, nourishes obsession, furnishes joy, soothes.

The other night, I climbed into bed with four books. I curled on my left side and spread them out, side by side, on top of the blanket where my husband sleeps: a book of poems with cover art that staggered me, two novels I was considering whether or not to finish, and a natural history book on corvids. I read the blurbs on the back of one of the novels. I read the acknowledgments inside the other. I admired the pen and ink drawings of crows and ravens on branches and in flight. I considered, once again, the book of poems. I picked it up, felt it, flipped through. I noticed the sound of quality paper between forefinger and thumb.

The cover of The Clock Flower by Adrian Rice, designed by Press 53’s editor, Kevin Morgan Watson, is thick and waxy. The art, by Jon Turner, depicts a pen and ink drawing: a dandelion seed and, standing to the right of it, a series of six human figures, lined up shoulder to shoulder, each wearing a suit–––males, let’s assume–––a boy growing into a youth, an adult, and eventually the drawing of a body stooping into an old man. Each head is represented by the life stages of a dandelion. The child’s head is the telltale toothed-leaf, the youth a bud, and so forth. The figure transforms–––the flower opening, the flower full, the seed-fluff, and finally the fluff scattering to the wind. There’s so much to think about what this image communicates. So, that night, I lay there thinking. Is this about how a person’s ideas change over time? Will the poems collected inside be about aging, grief, transformation? If the figures were female, would the flower have been placed to represent her heart, her hands, her womb? I set down the book of poems. I opened to my place in one of the novels and read the second chapter. After, I decided to let the novel go.

Jodi Paloni blog 2

During this time, all over the world, people were watching television, painting, milking cows, texting, waking up in a ditch, driving to shops and offices, defending their country, having sex, dancing  ballet, eating a calzone. My husband was in his shop turning a bowl from the burl of a maple tree. I could hear my daughter laughing, Skyping with a friend who lives in Virginia.

We’re fortunate to have some choice in the design of our time. We do the work we love, get our educations, and collect. I collect books. I also collect heart-shaped stones, clouded apothecary bottles, snail shells, small ceramic pitchers, and tiny used artifacts of whimsy that I arrange on a wooden shelf. I collect beautiful paper. I could collect antique tools, bicycles, CDs, vintage coffee pots, Frye boots, Victorian-era floor lamps (well, I do have a few of these), buoys, tea cups, paintings, orchids, Farmers Almanacs, beads, earrings, car parts, skiffs, license plates, baskets, matchbooks, military memorabilia, wooden birds, Breyer horses, iron hooks, or cheese graters. I collect books.

Many objects are pretty, touchable, stackable, arrange-able. Those fifty-one cartons of books (plus, the ones that I’d already moved in the car on an earlier trip) contained anywhere from 20-30 books. Add the new books I’ve acquired this year. I never did finish counting, but we’re talking about thousands. Books on nature, ecology, art, cottage décor, tiny houses and caravans, spirituality, gardening, and writing. My husband and I merge our collections of poetry and essays. We own a couple of dozen field guides between us. But, mostly, my books are works of fiction, and over half of those are short story collections.

Why books?

I can open up any one of any kind of books from my shelves, begin to examine and read, and something outside of my current state of awareness immediately shifts. I am “the self” found suddenly in juxtaposition with “the other.” Whether encountering the drawing of a rare moth, a journal entry from a woman sitting by the sea, or a description of a fictional town, I am catapulted into a world similar to or disparate from my own. I am made suddenly alert, brought up short by a line, an image, an idea, a whole nation of ideas. I shut the book in order to pursue a tangent. I sit down to read. What I like about books is their capacity for the boundless, the infinite, when caught in hands attached to an imagination.

Jodi Paloni blog 1

There exists a well-forged ideology that books are art, and that art is a necessity for a sane society. That books keep me sane is a personal truth I can defend. But I’d prefer to engage with the ingenuity of the artist, the writer, the aesthetics of the artifact, the design, the narrative, the mediation, the facts, the lyricism, the feet, the teeth, the wing on the page. I’d rather wage war, not in defending my need or want of fifty-plus boxes of books, but within the conflicted borders of my imaginary worlds. I want the conversation between the experience of the book and my way of understanding that experience to compel me into the next day and the next and the next, to do my work of writing books, editing books, making art, cooking dinner, taking the dog for a walk on the beach, all with a clearer vision than what I may have had without the book.

Not all books stay. I am sensible enough to know that when I cull, donate, trade, sell, recycle, I am opening space for more books to come in, and for old books to find new readers. Which brings me back to that one night in bed, that one book of poems, that compelling cover art.

Over time, I’ve come to understand what kinds of books have stood the test of time. The books that are memorable, or seem as though they one day might be, the ones that stay on my shelves, have taught me something worthy in a character’s choice, given me insight into the life of a non-human and still sentient being, or shown me the artful line of a building, the curve of a garden trellis, the shape of a sculpture. They’ve left some patterned mark on the page against a creamy space, the blankness having caught my eye. They’ve made me laugh, or cry, or shake with a powerful understanding.

I’d place myself on the cover of that book of poems, The Clock Flower, five flower heads from the left, still flowering, but with some poignant shape-shifting in near-view. I still need these books. Yet by letting a few of them go, it’s as if I’m beginning to see the beauty of flinging tiny-hooked fluffed seeds to the wind.

***

They Could Live with Themselves

Jodi Paloni is the author of the debut linked story collection, They Could Live With Themselves, a runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She won the 2013 Short Story America Prize and placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Her stories have appeared in a number of print and on-line literary journals: Green Mountains Review, Carve Magazine, upstreet, Whitefish Review, Contrary Magazine, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. Her website is www.jodipaloni.com