As summer comes to a close, must our reading passion also wane with the season? I am happy to report the opposite to be true this month for me. The kids are back in school but not yet inundated with projects; thus, my mounting stack of books topples over with new selections now more than ever. Check out our recent favorites, some of which are hot off the presses.
Managing Editor Karna Converse suggests, “In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller searches to live a life with meaning and encourages readers to do the same. He structures the book around a guiding principal he learned in a Robert McKee STORY seminar which he paraphrases as: a story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Miller breaks this principal down into a series of essays collected in five easy-to-understand chapters that gradually reveal how he—and therefore, his story—develops. His journey begins while he’s meeting with two filmmakers who want to make a movie about the memoir he wrote in 2003 (Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality) and in the aftermath of an uncle’s death who he believes died before he could finish telling his story. Miller wonders ‘if life could be lived more like a good story in the first place’ and ‘whether a person could plan a story for his life and live it intentionally.’ So that’s what he sets out to do—and in the process, discovers that ‘people love to have lived a great story but few people like the work it takes to make it happen,’ but ‘once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal.’ Miller‘s tone and writing style create essays that circle, hover, and sometimes seem to stall. These essays require a quiet space, but they also demand to be read at the right time. Readers at certain milestones—whether age or stage of life—are sure to identify with Miller‘s struggles. I think it would have been easy for Miller to end this book with a happily-ever-after conclusion that found his ‘something.’ Instead, he takes his message one step further when he writes, ‘a good storyteller doesn’t just tell a good story, though. He invites other people into the story with him, giving them a better story too.’ Miller has me thinking about MY story and what I need to do to make it better.”
Social Media Editor Caryn Mohr writes, “When my family vacationed to San Francisco this summer, I looked for a memoir that took place in the area, wanting to absorb a real-life story as its setting surrounded me. I’m so glad I did. Katie Hafner’s Mother Daughter Me takes readers inside the year her mother moved to San Francisco to live with Hafner and her teenage daughter. Hafner quickly faces that although they’d had a smooth relationship on the surface, her disappointments in her mother’s neglect during her childhood linger and run deep. Not only does Hafner need to resolve her own issues with her mother, she finds herself sandwiched between tensions that quickly erupt between her mother and daughter. I’m drawn to stories of complex mother-daughter relationships, such as Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments, and I appreciated Hafner’s honesty reflecting not only on her mother, but also her own choices in her roles as a daughter and a mother. The book offered powerful emotional takeaways, even though my relationship with my own mother was very different. By the end of the book, I found myself turning toward the window of our rental car, hiding tears from my sons in the backseat, reflecting on the changes we would have weathered together had my mom lived into old age.”
Fiction Editor Suzanne Kamata recommends, “I’ve been dipping into Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman, a collection of stories inspired by remarkable real life women such as Butterfly McQueen, the African-American actress who portrayed Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in “Gone With the Wind” and who later tried to donate her body to science; Allegra Byron, illegitimate daughter of the poet Lord Byron, who was consigned to an orphanage; and aviatrix and horse trainer Beryl Markham (subject of Paula McLain’s absorbing Circling the Sun, which I also enjoyed). Bergman fuses historical fact with imagination and approaches her subjects in a variety of ways. Some stories are only a couple of pages, while “The Siege at Whale Cay” is a more fully realized portrait of eccentric Standard Oil heiress Joe Carstairs, as seen through the eyes of her lover. The result is this batch of fresh stories sure to inspire further reading about these intriguing women. Bergman has helpfully provided a list of sources at the back of the book.”
“Birthing the Mother Writer” Columnist Cassie Premo Steele shares, “I just finished reading Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor, a novel that reimagines the relationship between Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. Told in alternating chapters—Emily’s in third person; Ada’s in first—I felt grateful to have a literary, flesh-and-blood telling of the wonderful poet’s life, and it was especially interesting to see it through the eyes of a young woman who, like my ancestors, came to America after the famine. My favorite thing about the novel was the way the chapters read like Dickinson’s poems—short, intimate, sharp, and in plain, cutting language like scissors used for embroidery or slicing open a fish. Another aspect of the story that Literary Mama readers will appreciate is Emily’s friendship (romance?) with her sister-in-law who is a mother and involved in the Amherst social scene in a way that terrifies and disgusts Emily. Perfect back-to-school reading for poetic mamas who dream of hermit life!”
Creative Nonfiction Editor Rae Pagliarulo adds, “At AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair) in Minneapolis this past April, I was hungry to find new essayists. A panelist recommended Elissa Washuta’s My Body is a Book of Rules. I wandered over to Red Hen Press’ table to pick it up, only to find that Washuta herself was standing by, ready and willing to chat. I hadn’t read her book yet, of course, but I told her I was embarking on my own essay collection, and she wished me ‘wonderful words and structural magic’ in her inscription. I wish that when I had met her, I could have told her about the ravenousness with which I have devoured her book, a heartbreaking and sly collection of essays, chat logs, medication lists, Internet profiles, historical discourses, bibliographies, and diary entries that illustrate the author’s struggles with bipolar disorder and sexual assault. Believe me—I know it sounds a little devastating. But in truth, Washuta’s collection is painstakingly researched—from religious stories to pharmaceutical side effects and, perhaps most interestingly, the history of her hereditary tribe, the Cascade Indians. That research and context helped this essay collection show me something I didn’t expect. Instead of feeling lonely or depressed at the book’s end, I ended up feeling a keen, almost comforting understanding of how personal tragedy and pain can communicate richly with universal misfortune. Perhaps we cannot avoid hardship in this world, but if we are lucky, we can look to facts and history, as Washuta has smartly done here, and find unexpected meaning in the hits we take.”