My Favorite Books: 2017

2017 was a year of newness and transition: new puppy, new city, new home, new writing project, new countries traveled, new job, new routine. What remained constant throughout all the change were the books: how they continued to inform and inspire, how they illuminated truths and gave voice to interior worlds, how often they broke and then stitched back together my heart. Books were my comfort, the place I returned when life felt too out of control. Though I had less bandwidth to write about every book listed below, I am so happy to celebrate my favorites of 2017 with this annual list. I was also delighted to notice after putting it together that all books on the list are written by women, many of whom I’ve been fortunate to meet and know.

FAVORITE NOVEL (TIE):
Marlena.jpgChemistry.jpg
 
Marlena-Julie Buntin
 
I was hooked by Marlena from its first line: “Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Buntin’s debut novel toggles between a teenage and an adult Cat. It’s a story of friendship and how we are shaped, of how we destroy ourselves and how some of us survive. I fell in love with Buntin’s language, Marlena’s tragic destiny and Cat’s powerful observations about the world.
 
“Whenever I hear the word danger, I see Marlena and me staring into the mouth of that U-Haul in the winter hour between twilight and dark. Two girls full of plans, fifteen and seventeen years old in the middle of nowhere. Stop, I want to tell us. Stay right where you are, together. Don’t move. But we will. We always do. The clock’s already running.” 
 

Chemistry-Weike Wang
 
Though I loved so many novels this year, I was sure Marlena would be my sole favorite. Until Chemistry landed in my lap and there was no way to not recognize its brilliance and its impact on me. A slim, fragmented narrative (a style I admit is currently my favorite), it hovers just below the explosive point of compounding pressures, with a melancholic voice that I recognized and adored. My heart was still aching long after I read its final words.
 
“An atom is mostly made up of empty space. If you remove the empty space from every atom, the entire world’s human population could fit inside a sugar cube.”
 
FAVORITE MEMOIR:
Hourglass 2.jpg
Hourglass-Dani Shapiro
 
The first book I have ever finished, then immediately returned to page one to read again, Hourglass is an exquisite, spare memoir that covers time, marriage and memory. The arc of the book, in which Shapiro explores the “problems of duration” (a Wendell Berry phrase) and comes to understand that part of forming yourself alongside another means passing the “I’ll take care of it” (a Shapiro phrase) back and forth as necessary, becomes the plot. Shapiro’s prose is at its finest here, and the short, lyrical passages that make up Hourglass move delicately through time and are among the most memorable of any I’ve read.
 
“Years vanish. Months collapse. Time is like a tall building made of playing cards. It seems orderly until a strong gust of wind comes along and blows the whole thing skyward. Imagine it: an entire deck of cards soaring like a flock of birds.” 

THE REST OF THE BEST

NOVELS:
What We Lose.jpgThe Child Finder.jpgMikhail and Margarita.jpgGoodbye Vitamin.jpgThe Leavers.jpgTwelve Lives.jpg
What We Lose-Zinzi Clemmons

The Child Finder-Rene Denfield
Mikhail And Margarita-Julie Lekstrom Himes
Goodbye, Vitamin-Rachel Khong
The Leavers-Lisa Ko
The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley-Hannah Tinti

MEMOIRS:

The Art Of Misdiagnosis.jpgHeating and Cooling.jpgMorningstar.jpgI'm The One.jpgImagine Wanting Only This.jpgThe Bright Hour.jpg

The Art of Misdiagnosis-Gayle Brandeis
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs-Beth Ann Fennelly
Morningstar: Growing Up With Books-Ann Hood
I Am The One Who Got Away-Andrea Jarrell
Imagine Wanting Only This-Kristen Radtke
The Bright Hour-Nina Riggs

COLLECTIONS:

300 arguments.jpgThe Wrong Way.jpgMagdalene.jpgTurf.jpgHer Body And Other Parties.jpgKiss Me Someone.jpg

Essays:
300 Arguments: Essays-Sarah Manguso
The Wrong Way to Save Your Life-Megan Stieltsra
 
Poetry:
Magdalene-Marie Howe
 
Short Stories:
Turf: Stories-Elizabeth Crane 
Her Body And Other Parties-Carmen Maria Machado
Kiss Me Someone-Karen Shepard

 

 

Here’s to a calmer 2018, and many wonderful hours of reading for us all.
 
xx Katie

On Moments of Happiness and Hope

I drove home from Manhattan today, after a whirlwind day of visiting friends and familiar haunts in the city I once called home but in which I never truly felt at home. I sped west in my stepfather’s old Highlander along Route 78 in the bright sunshine, singing along to Ellie Goulding and Maroon 5 (as their songs are apparently the only ones currently in rotation on the radio). As I put more distance between myself and the city, the trees became denser and I breathed more deeply. Right around exit 41, everything in me paused, and I turned down the music. It was a moment when I needed to identify what I was feeling, because the sensation was so odd that it interrupted all other thoughts.

I felt happy.

And happiness was the singular emotion that existed in that moment.

Throughout most of this trip to New Jersey, I have been overwhelmed: by grief, by loss, by anger, by sadness, by dread, by unease, by shame. There were so many firsts without my sister and my dad in the course of a week that completely depleted—and often defeated—me. 

The first Easter

The first birthday (Kelly’s)

The first National Siblings Day (also my first knowledge that this day existed)

The other first birthday (my dad’s)

The dread before each occasion was almost as painful as the arrival of the actual date. My grandmother’s birthday, nestled in the middle of this crazy week, somehow felt like a relief, if only because it was not so terribly awful anymore after thirteen years.

I planned last week to drive my mom to the city yesterday, and to spend time with friends and stay overnight there. When yesterday arrived, I felt completely unprepared for anything past get out of bed, brush teeth. All of the steps beyond that were foreign, and I worried were beyond my capabilities.

How do you go back out into the world when it feels like your skin is on inside out?

I didn’t really figure that out, but I did get myself dressed and where I had committed to being. And it was hard, but nice. I was able to see places I once loved, but was also grateful to have left behind. I was able to see friends I feel safe with, and talk about my dad and Kelly without breaking down or shutting down. I was able to feel like an actual person again for the day. I never could have anticipated that simply interacting with the world would feel like an accomplishment, but such is life in this new “normal”.

I also never anticipated that feeling happy, with the absence of guilt or regret or any other accompaniment would be so alien a sensation.

There have been some wonderful moments on the inside of the sorrow of the past five months. Watching rays of sun bisect a room on a farm in Virginia; glimpsing the magical light bouncing off the water in Positano; sipping tea with koalas in Australia; the simple grace shared by friends every day; hearing and reading words of loss and comfort and love and grief from gifted writers; writing something true. And yet, also present in those special moments: guilt, and fear.

What if I’m not sad enough?

What if I deserve the sadness?

What if someone else dies? 

What if this is how it will always be?

Just last week, I drove that stretch of highway in sobs, because it is the same route that my dad always drove to bring me home from the airport, and how could I be driving on that road without him? The loss of him on that drive was as acute as it was the night he died.

There was nothing extraordinarily remarkable about the drive today. Except that within it existed a moment of such ease, such peace and such happiness that it became remarkable.

Because it allowed for hope; the hope that more of these moments might someday occur, when I least expect them and when I need them most.

*Thank you to Mom, Julie and Aidan (and the Rowlets!) for leading me to this moment today. Thank you to every person who has reached out to me at any time in the last five months. I will never forget the gestures of love and kindness that have been extended to me. 

Stillness and Sunset in Virginia

Stillness and Sunset in Virginia

Hamilton Island

On a beach in Hamilton Island, I try to write my way out of it.
But I don’t know any suitable words,
Only woefully inadequate ones that mean nothing: sunscreen, seagull, oyster.
Grief’s vocabulary fails me.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the thoughts come out fragmented, disjointed,
Blowing around and reshuffling themselves in the ocean breeze.
The sentences refuse to assemble.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the unrelenting sunlight blinds me,
Leaving behind only opaque black dots in my vision.
They refuse to be blinked away.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the silky, burning sand caves in around me,
Lodging in my hair while slipping quickly through my fingers.
The scorching powder eludes a foothold.

I try to write my way out of it.
But sudden raindrops plop down on my paper,
Bleeding blue ink into circles, and trickling tiny pearls of water southward.
They slow dance down the page with my tears.

I try to write my way out of it.
But a crashing wave from a passing Jet Ski knocks me over,
Stealing my breath and acquainting me with the jagged rocks below.
Their edges scrape my palms and slash my notebook.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the undertow is too strong,
Dragging me out to sea by the ankles; the now brackish water has a firm grip.
My pen is replaced by seaweed, slimy strands that wrap around my fingers.

I try to write my way out of it.
But they tell me there is no out;
There’s only through.
And through is unthinkable.

 

Hamilton Island

Hamilton Island

Lavender Roses

I never noticed them before;

I see them everywhere now.

Four times already in Sydney,

Halfway across the world, and they are here.

You are here.

 

How can that be?

How can you be both everywhere,

And nowhere?

 

One of your songs plays on the radio,

On a taxi ride to Drummoyne.

I barely hear it at first,

But then it becomes the only sound.

You are here, too.

 

What does it mean?

(Does it mean anything?)

Is it really you that I am hearing?

 

Now it is my voice instead,

Speaking your name,

Over and over.

 

Kelly loved lavender roses.

Kelly loved Josh Groban.

Kelly loved.

 

Your name pours from my lips,

Like an upended glass of water;

Unstoppable spillage.

 

Your flowers,

Your song,

Your name.

 

You are everywhere.

You are nowhere.

You are here.

IMG_4444

White. Blue. Brown.

I was supposed to be in Israel right now.

In Jerusalem, to be precise, in a beautiful hotel that costs way too much money, right outside the walls of the Old City. I might have been sipping tea on my terrace in the morning, planning my day, were things to have been different. I may have been different.

It was my fear of hot weather, not Hamas drones or teenage executions that caused my change in plans. Just the fear of being uncomfortably hot while walking around in a desert in July. It seems utterly ridiculous now, with what has transpired there in the last few weeks; a ridiculous reason to postpone a trip. But ridiculous is all I have, and it means that I’m not there.

I am here, instead, in Santorini, in another beautiful hotel that costs way too much money, having tea on my terrace, planning my day. Praying, as I might have also done in Israel; silent prayers for everyone who is where I was supposed to be, prayers of gratitude and relief for where I am.

I am surrounded by the colors of Greece: white and blue, contrasted only by the brown landscape of the unpopulated sections of the islands. White. Blue. Brown. To my left is a volcano that I see people climbing, perched high above as I am on my terrace. I don’t know when it last erupted, since I never read the travel guides. Before I left Italy last week, an Italian healer told me she does not like Santorini, because of the energy of the volcano. “Is bad,” she told me firmly, as fact. I can’t feel it though; rather, the island feels devoid of any energy at all, something to do with the absence of colors I think.

My eyes play tricks on me, adjusting to the beauty so that I am no longer sure if it’s real, or just something I imagined or something I once saw in a movie. The edges of my view soften, become hazy. I close my eyes periodically, longer than is necessary. When I reopen them, when I gaze back out on the white and blue and brown again, they re-focus like a camera lens, and separate the colors to once again form real things: church, ocean, volcano.

The stillness here is palpable. The ocean stretches in every direction with merely a few sun-reflecting ripples to indicate that it is moving at all. I know there is noise. There are people talking–German, French, Greek. There is a repeating loop of Lionel Richie and Hall & Oates songs playing at the pool bar. There are distant car horns beeping, and once or twice a day, a helicopter flies noisily overhead. But I stop hearing it as anything other than a white noise soundtrack to a tableau of stillness. The week stretches as endlessly as the ocean does. There is no Monday, or Tuesday here. There is just right now.

Can you be both wholly present, and completely lost in daydreams? Can you sit, with your chin in your hands, on a dock, waiting for a boat to arrive, and be both there and also very far away?

Maybe I am in Israel, too, after all.

I am writing stories in my head, stories that swirl around like the morning wind does here. Stories about beauty and color, and about life. I speak less, less than any other week in memory, so when I do speak, I don’t recognize the sound of my voice. It mimics the fragmented, accented English that I hear; it uses simple words designed to be understood when you only understand simple words; all verbs in the present tense. The benefit to using only simple words is that you say simply what you mean.

I am in Greece, and I want to speak Greek, and if I try hard enough, I can almost convince myself that I can.

I am somewhat disillusioned on my first visit to the small town of Oia, the northernmost tip of the island, to hear loud, American-accented English all around me. I crave the melodic sounds of Greek and Italian and Spanish melting together, not teenagers saying like and you know. I want to be an anonymous traveler of no origin, not someone who understands American teen. I want to be from wherever I have landed.

Sometimes it works. On our shared taxi ride to Oia, as we wind around the treacherous curves of the island road, the couple in the backseat speak haltingly to me, unsure if I can understand English. They don’t realize I know their accents. They don’t realize that I’ve been to their hometown in Long Island, that I lived less than an hour away from them for nearly a decade.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. I take a boat ride to some of the beaches only accessible by water. I am the only American, and the only one by myself. When we stop at one of the beaches, an older Greek man calls out to me as I walk alone along the shoreline. I think maybe he is afraid I cannot swim, and I can’t hear him, and I can’t understand him, but he gesticulates wildly enough to cause me to walk to where he is standing. He continues his sermon, his gestures getting bigger as I get closer. When I shake my head and say I don’t understand, he is puzzled. He asks, in Greek, don’t I speak or understand Greek? (I cannot say which he asks, since the only thing I did understand was the word Greek). I continue to shake my head and apologize until he stops me by gripping my shoulders firmly, looking directly into my eyes, and says about me, “Is nice. Is very nice.” I say thank you in Greek, one of my other known words, and continue my beach walk. Later he says, “Bye lady” as he helps me back into the boat, and waves at me as we drift away.

So I guess even when it doesn’t work, it still sort of works.

***

I want to write about all of my days here, because I want you to understand them.

I want to tell you a proper travel story about Santorini, so that you will know all about it. But I find that I don’t want to write about restaurants, or hotels, or hiking trails, or the list of all of the things you absolutely must do on your visit here. I don’t want to tell you all of my stories, the ones that have run through me for the past week.

Instead, I want to write, simply: White. Blue. Brown.

And I want you to just know what that means. What it feels like, what it looks like, what it is to be in Santorini.

I want you to write your own stories.

 ***

I was supposed to be in Israel.

I am meant to be here.

Caldera Views in Imerovigli

Caldera Views in Imerovigli

One of the many, many churches on the island; on the path from Imerovigli to Fira

One of the many, many churches on the island; on the path from Imerovigli to Fira

View of Oia from Imerovigli

View of Oia from Imerovigli

Entrance to the "white beach", only accessible by boat

Entrance to the “white beach”, only accessible by boat

The only other color, seen every evening in Santorini

The only other color, seen every evening in Santorini

The Moment

It’s sunrise in Punta Mita, Mexico. I have been waiting for it for nearly thirty minutes already. The sun is rising slowly from behind the mountains, in what feels like it should be a big, climactic moment, but is instead just the casual repetition of what happens here everyday. It won’t be rushed to glory because we are here to watch it. The orange and pink colors gradually, painstakingly spread across the sky, illuminating the stand up paddle boarders in the ocean below, as they take deliberate and precise strokes away from the shore.

The roosters crow somewhere in the near distance, their calls immediately answered threefold by the seagulls flying over our heads. But otherwise, there is silence on this morning. Those who wake early seem to understand this sacred moment of the day beginning, respecting its quiet.

There is no smell here, surprising me, when smells are so often what ground me to a particular place, like the blooming tuberose we smelled each morning in Bali, or the unique earthy mixture of horses and dirt on a farm in Italy. No fishy saltwater smell wafts up from the bay, no floral aromas surround us and tell us that we are not at home. It is only when the coffee begins brewing that there is any scent recognition at all.

I’m sitting outside on our patio, sipping tea and writing while overlooking the waves on the shoreline below, the early morning mist still rising off the water. This outdoor area is partially covered by a wooden trellis, with vines hanging over the edge, framing our pictures with context, setting them apart from anywhere else we may have taken this sunrise photo over the sea. I sink deeper into the soft cushions on our wraparound couch, crossing my legs beneath me as if in meditation, as if I might close my eyes and begin a chant of OM to seal this moment in my memory forever.

 

I am 36.

 

There’s no birthday confession this year, no fighting against what my life is, or grappling for what it perhaps “should” be. There are no justifications of my choices, or resignations of what I must accept for myself. There is no fretting about the future, or tormenting myself about the past. Not this birthday morning, not right now, not in this moment.

 

There is just stillness.

 

For the next four days I am in Punta Mita, a tiny gated area situated on a bay north of Puerto Vallarta, with several girlfriends, to celebrate the passing of another year in my life. I asked them to join me, without worrying if it was too much to ask six women leave their jobs and their families and their lives to travel to another country with me. They simply asked what time to book their plane tickets and didn’t question it further. When we arrived at the airport in Mexico, we stepped into the arrivals area to find someone holding up a sign in front of her face, meant for me to read:

To Me, You Are Perfect

A tribute to my favorite movie, Love Actually, and to me, actually. One of my friends who had been unable to commit to the trip was suddenly there, surprising me outside of baggage claim in  what could have been a scene from a movie. The movie of my life.

 

It’s the scene in the movie where the soul-searching, fumbling-for-life’s-meaning girl finally feels how much she is loved.

 

And then, (I had almost forgotten it!), there it is! That moment of climax in our peaceful morning. The moment the sun finally emerges fully from behind the mountains. It shines brightly on our faces, heating them, and glistens in its reflection across the water below. The moment that feels like a reckoning, as if all of our sins are forgiven in the face of this beauty, as if we could do no wrong in this day. The moment that reaffirms our goodness, and our place in this world. The moment that reminds us who we truly are. The moment I have been waiting all morning to find.

 

The moment that is everything.

 

Early morning sun, Punta Mita

Early morning sun, Punta Mita

The sun finally emerges, an hour later

The sun emerges, an hour later…most definitely worth the wait

With love, and so, so much gratitude from Mexico,

Katie