BRL Best Books of 2018

Some of you may remember that I keep a paper book journal in addition to my Goodreads account for book tracking. When I read a book that particularly moves me I give it a star in my paper journal, which equals a five-star rating on Goodreads. As I looked over my 2018 reading I realized that TWENTY books had rated a star this year! So I had some choices to make as it came time to make my Top Ten List for the year. Without further ado, here are my favorite books of 2018. (Note: I’m a huge backlist reader so not all of these books were published this year.)

In no particular order:

  • The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams (2016). This was a life-affirming, uplifting audio book that truly inspired me. I learned a lot about the friendship between the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu, and how each man approaches life’s challenges with grace and equanimity.
  • How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston (1974.) Set in Ireland in WWI, this beautifully written novella explores the growing friendship between a young member of the landed gentry and one of the workers on his family’s estate as they both set off to fight in the war. Truly moving with a devastating ending.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018.) Just a gorgeous, emotionally probing book about two people who fell in love with the best of intentions – and then life throws them a horrific curveball that reverberates for years. It’s a beautifully told relationship story with well-drawn, believable characters. Unforgettable.
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (2015.) What a surprise! A book that had been on my TBR list for a few years and I’m so glad I decided to read it. It was one of those absorbing reads that made me want to ignore my family for a few days. Linked short stories, all centering in some way around the character of Eva, a young woman in Minnesota with a passion and a gift for cooking. Foodies will love it, but anyone who just wants a good story will enjoy it too.
  • Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016.) The BEST AUDIO BOOK I’VE EVER LISTENED TO. Funny, surprising, illuminating, moving. I learned so much about South African history through this story of Noah’s unlikely existence. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s one I would read (or listen to) again for sure.
  • Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956.) This novel is exquisitely written and emotionally tough. A portrait of a man utterly in denial about who he truly is. David, a young, rootless, white American living in Paris in the 1950’s, has a fiancee he’s running away from when he meets a handsome Italian waiter and falls in love. His denial sets off a tragic chain of events for everyone involved. Baldwin is a genius! I intend to read everything he’s written.
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018.) I recently wrote about this one, but it’s just a gem of a nonfiction book, about the importance of libraries today and Orlean’s emotional connection to them through her late mother, as well as a gripping true-crime account of the devastating library fire in L.A.’s Central Library in 1986. Lots going on here, but Orlean weaves all the strands together beautifully.
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017.) That rare super-hyped novel that is worthy of all the praise. What starts off as a quirky portrait of a lonely young woman who doesn’t connect well with other human beings becomes a moving and warm-hearted novel about unexpected connections and the capacity for change and growth. A lovely book that I will definitely read again someday.
  • Brother by David Chariandy (2018, first published in Canada and the UK 2017.) Not one word wasted in this slim but powerful novel about two brothers growing up in a poor, multi-cultural part of Toronto in the 1980’s. There is tragedy here but there is also terrific beauty and great love, especially in the character of the boys’ Trinidadian immigrant mother, who works herself to the bone to provide for her sons and tried to give them a better life. I just adored this.
  • The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton (2018.) Another book I recently read and can’t stop talking about – thank you Oprah! Hinton’s ridiculous sham of a trial for crimes he didn’t commit will make you angry, and his emotional journey living on death row in Alabama for 30 years will move you, inspire you, and make you question your beliefs about the death penalty.

51mPEE0qUtL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Honorable Mention: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (2017.)  Linked short stories, a companion piece to Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. Spare prose and heartbreaking, real characters in small town middle America. Strout is a hell of a writer.

 It’s been such a good reading year. Have you read any of the books on my list? Do any of these pique your interest?

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.

31434883Oh my goodness, I loved this book. I had heard so much buzz about it that I didn’t know what to expect. When a book blows up like this one has it is sometimes a disappointment. Sometimes I avoid reading such a book in a perverse bit of book snobbery. If I had done so with Eleanor Oliphant, I would have missed out on one of my favorite books of the year so far, and it would have been a real shame.

This book is not what you think it is, even once you start digging into it. It starts off kind of quirky in tone, and you think maybe it’s lighter and fluffier than it turns out to be. It quickly becomes warm and wise, deeper and more life-affirming than I had anticipated. Eleanor is quite a character. She has constructed her life with precision to cut herself off from other humans as much as possible in today’s world and still hold a job. She holes up in her flat over the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka and drinks slowly to dull her pain until Monday morning when she gets up and goes to work again. She is desperately lonely, however, talking to her houseplant Polly (the only possession she had saved from her childhood.)

I talk to her sometimes, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.

But Eleanor is not pathetic. She is smart with a cutting wit and is a character that I was instantly drawn to. She doesn’t bother with the little societal niceties that make an office or most social interactions run smoothly. She doesn’t see the point, frankly. I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be on the autism spectrum or not, but in any case, she isn’t really like most people.

And we soon see why. Little hints here and there are dropped about her past. She’s has a trauma, social workers check in on her bi-annually, and she has weekly conversations with her “Mummy” which are truly awful. Mummy is horrible and cruel. Initially I wondered, why on earth does she even talk to her once a week? Well, we come to find out a lot about Mummy and Eleanor’s past. It’s horrific, and we can see why she so desperately wants to cut herself off from other human beings and numb her feelings with a slow drip of vodka.

But things change in Eleanor’s life – the new IT guy at work, Raymond, inserts himself into her life in an affable, friendly way, and when the two happen to witness an older man, Sammy, collapse in the middle of the street, they team up to help get him the medical attention he needs. She also develops a rather intense crush on a rock singer she sees when she wins an office raffle of tickets to a concert. She is convinced that she’s found the man for her. It’s the kind of crush I has when I was 12 or 13. As she starts stalking the singer in her free time, Raymond and Sammy slowly thaw Eleanor’s defenses and draw her into an actual life. But Eleanor’s past, the things she can’t or won’t deal with, won’t let her go towards happiness easily…

This novel ends on a hopeful note, and when I finished I was tempted to flip back to the beginning and start again. I can definitely see myself reading this again in the future. It’s not exactly a “feel-good” read; it’s too sad and weighty to be considered that. But it is what I call a “life-affirming” read. This is a story of a woman who is not really living who slowly is pulled into something resembling a life, with genuine human connections and investment in herself. I really appreciated the way that Honeyman didn’t manipulate the reader. She lets the reader do the work of feeling things for herself instead of pulling the heart strings with maudlin sentimentality. And the fact that I never pitied Eleanor speaks volumes about the author’s affection for her character.

I highly recommend this novel, if this sounds at all like something you’d be interested in. Yes, everyone and her aunt’s book club is reading it, and Reese Witherspoon’s production company has optioned it, but there is much here to savor: a character you can truly root for and sharp commentary about the modern epidemic of loneliness.

 

Two Awesome Audio Books: We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union and Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Confession time: I don’t really like to write about audio books.  I like to listen to them but I balk at writing reviews of them. Why? Because I don’t take notes. I’m almost always driving in my car or doing dishes when I’m listening to them, so I don’t want to stop and get a piece of paper and a pen and write things down like I do when I’m sitting and reading a paper book.

Because I don’t take notes, I feel like I can’t give a detailed review of the book. So I just listen, hopefully enjoy, count them in my Goodreads total, and move on.

Today, however, I feel compelled to let you know about my two most recent audio book adventures. These books are so outstanding that I know I will include them in my end-of-the-year Best Of list. The first is Gabrielle Union’s memoir We’re Going to Need More Wine. I have to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I listened to this. I don’t think I’d even seen one of her movies or shows before I picked this up! But it was available in my library’s digital nonfiction audio collection, and I saw that one of my Goodreads friends had rated it highly, so I thought, Why not?

51lTCeNTXNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_What a woman! She is strong in the best way a person can be strong: by being vulnerable, showing her flaws and admitting her mistakes. She covers a lot of ground in these stories. She covers her childhood, growing up in a predominantly white, conservative town in California, dealing with clueless white classmates who are sometimes horribly racist without “meaning to be.” She writes about her disastrous first marriage, being a recovering “mean girl,” the importance of having money of her own, experiences on various movie sets she’s worked on, her sweet dog, Bubba Sparks, and so much more. She is smart and thoughtful and unapologetic about her owning her sexuality. These are really stories where you feel like a friend is telling you these things over a glass of wine, getting real with you so that she can impart some wisdom from learned experience. I don’t remember if she uses the word “feminist” at all in the narrative, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call her a feminist. She is a strong woman who wants other women to take care of their minds, hearts, and bodies, and to lift up other women. These stories were entertaining, sometimes funny and occasionally sad, and I loved 29780258them.

When I finished Union’s book, I thought that perhaps it was the best celebrity memoir I’d ever read. Until I started listening to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this from everyone I know who’s read it. I waited on my library’s hold list for months before I finally got it, and it’s worth the wait! I’m actually not finished listening yet – I’m on the last disc! But it is absolutely riveting. Not only is his delivery unbeatable, but his personal story is just fascinating. He managed to weave in so much historical and sociological information about South African and Apartheid. I learned that there’s a LOT I don’t know about that place and time, and even the aftermath of Apartheid, when Mandela came to power. I had no idea how codified and rigid Apartheid was. I had no idea of all the ethnic groups and languages contained in South Africa. So besides being entertained, I’m definitely learning! Noah’s very existence is unlikely with the way the races were kept apart. One anecdote he shared that stuck with me was how he later met other “colored” (what South Africans call mixed-race people) South Africans around his age who were expats. It blew his mind that his mother could have theoretically left South Africa and raised him elsewhere, somewhere that didn’t operate under the dark cloud of overt racism. He said something like, Imagine you fell out of an airplane and broke every bone in your body in the landing. You spent years and years healing from all the damage done to your body and spirit, and then someone told you about the existence of parachutes. That was how he felt when he realized that his life could have been different if he grew up in Europe or somewhere else. Noah’s mother is a force of nature, a strong and powerful woman who, despite an abusive marriage to Noah’s stepfather, raised a smart, compassionate son. Noah doesn’t shy away from describing his faults, though, especially delving into his youth as a petty criminal and a brief but harrowing stint in jail. This audio book is truly a MUST LISTEN. Even if you aren’t familiar with Noah’s work (which I’m not really) or you normally don’t read celebrity memoirs, I encourage you to give this a try.

Have you read or listened to either one of these? What kinds of audio books do you like, or do you enjoy them at all? Do you write reviews of the audio books you listen to, and if so, do you take notes on them? Let’s chat in the comments.

 

Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (#AnneReadalong2017)

“We must keep a little laughter, girls,” said Mrs. Blythe. “A good laugh is as good as a prayer, sometimes – only sometimes,” she added under her breath.  She had found it very hard to laugh after the three weeks she had just lived through – she, Anne Blythe, to whom laughter had always come so easily and so freshly.  And what hurt most was that Rilla’s laughter had grown so rare – Rilla whom she used to think laughed over-much.  Was all the child’s girlhood to be so clouded?  Yet how strong and clever and womanly she was growing!  How patiently she knitted and sewed and manipulated those uncertain Junior Reds!  And how wonderful she was with Jims.

“She really could not do better for that child than if she had raised a baker’s dozen, Mrs. Dr. dear,” Susan had avowed solemnly.  “Little did I ever expect it of her on the day she landed here with that soup tureen.”

433533What a way to end the #AnneReadalong2017!  I didn’t know what to expect from Rilla of Ingleside after the previous two books in the series, which for me were a two-star and a three-star read, respectively.  This one was a gem, darker and emotionally richer  than any other entry in the series.  Anne’s youngest daughter, Rilla, changes from a dreamy, aimless, fun-loving girl to a resourceful, courageous, dependable young women under the shadow of the First World War and its hardships.  We see how the community of Glen St. Mary rises to the occasion, offering its sons and brothers to the cause with bravery and grace.

There are many things to love about Rilla, from the trademark Montgomery descriptions of  beautiful landscape to the beginning exploration of Rilla’s young love life.  And I can’t forget to mention precious Dog Monday, Jem’s loyal furry friend who waits for him at the train station for the duration of the lad’s time at war.  I got choked up a time or two thinking about him getting excited every time the train pulled in and young men came home.  And one of my favorite characters from books past is in fine form here:  the formidable Susan, who isn’t shy with her opinions at all.

“When I wake up in the night and cannot go to sleep again,” remarked Susan, who was knitting and reading at the same time, “I pass the moments by torturing the Kaiser to death.  Last night I fried him in boiling oil and a great comfort it was to me, remembering those Belgian babies.”

“We are told to love our enemies, Susan,” said the doctor solemnly.

“Yes, our enemies, but not King George’s enemies, doctor dear,” retorted Susan crushingly.  She was so well pleased with herself over this flattening out of the doctor completely that she even smiled as she polished her glasses. 

Rilla herself is a marvelous character, growing and changing from a frivolous, happy-go-lucky girl to a young woman of great character and heart.  I love how she decided to take care of the sickly, orphaned baby Jims, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father was at war.  She made no pretense of liking babies at first, and I admired her honesty, but she grew to love little Jims as if he were her own, and it was sweet to see the change.  (SPOILER AHEAD) I was sad that she had to give him back to his father but happy that they would be so close and she could still see him often.  I also appreciated her maturation as it applied to her “frenemy” Irene Howard.  (Oh, Irene was just evil!)

Irene was not, as Mrs. Elliot would say, of the race that knew Joseph. 

We get to see what it was like to send away beloved sons, brothers, and sweethearts across the sea to fight, to dread every time the phone rang or the news came in.  And Walter – oh, Walter!  I won’t spoil anything that happens with Rilla’s beloved older brother Walter, but his conflicted soul at the war’s outset was a deft portrayal of what many young men went through, probably.  His letter to Rilla broke my heart.

This book ended up on my year-end Best Of list because it captivated and moved me.  I feel like I’ve read quite a few books set during the Second World War but not as many featuring the First, so that was a welcome change.  It was especially poignant when characters near the end remarked on how humanity might change for the better and learn lessons from the horrors of this war – little did they know that just twenty years later they’d be facing similar heartache and loss.

I’m so glad I participated in the AnneReadalong2017, and I want to thank Jane from Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie from Death By Tsundoku for co-hosting this event!  I never would have made it all the way through the series on my own, without the framework of one book per month.  If I had quit, say, after book five, I would have missed this marvelous last book of the series.  For anyone who, like me, didn’t read this series in their childhood, I definitely recommend them – well, the first five books and the eighth book, anyway!  🙂  They are delightful, a real respite from the crassness and noise of our time as well as entertaining, humorous stories with characters to fall in love with.

 

BRL Best of 2017 and Year End Reflections

It’s that time again, friends, when we’re all taking stock of our reading and making plans for next year.  This has been a good reading year for me overall, although I didn’t fulfill many of the goals I set for myself at the year’s beginning.  I still read some enlightening and entertaining books, participated in the #AnneReadalong2017, the R.I.P. Challenge and Reading Ireland Month, and hit a new Goodreads Challenge goal!  So without further adieu, here is my Best of 2017 list (in no particular order.)

  1.  Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  Moving and inventive, unlike anything else I’ve ever read.  Saunders is a master of the human heart and a risk-taker.  I will read anything he writes.
  2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  Searing, violent, suspenseful, and unforgettable.  Whitehead’s finest work to date.
  3. At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor.  A witty, melancholy novel WWII British marriage and motherhood with a feisty heroine.  I’m delighted to have finally discovered Taylor.
  4. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.  Some have loved this, some haven’t, but for me it was beautiful and devastating in the best sense.
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  A young black heroine teens can relate to, a realistic and loving family, and a heartbreaking exploration of police brutality in a poor African American community.  I’m thrilled this has become a best seller and is being made into a movie.
  6. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel.  My only nonfiction to have made the list.  I just adored this slim, page-turning book about a real-life hermit in Maine who survived the elements and eluded capture for decades.
  7. The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.  A gem, a book I recommend for everyone.  Warm, funny, and heartbreaking all at once.  A great way to introduce a very heavy topic (the Civil Rights Movement and the Birmingham church bombing) to younger readers.  I listened to the audiobook and it was terrific.
  8. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  I was captivated by this slim novel that mixed fantasy, dystopian, and contemporary literary fiction elements to create a moving exploration of love and war in an unsettled age.
  9. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery.  The third book in the series, this one focuses on Anne at college.  I loved reading about her being on her own and making friends, having fun before settling down into a more conventional role.
  10. Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery.  The last book in the series, I was take by surprise by how much I loved it.  Darker than the rest, I was enthralled and moved by how the women of the community rose up to meet the challenges of World War I and the emotional toil of sending beloved sons and brothers overseas.

As for the numbers, here are my final reading stats for 2017:

Total books read (as of 12/27/17:) 90

Fiction: 77

Nonfiction: 12

Poetry: 1

Mysteries/Thrillers: 13

Graphic Novels/Comics: 3

Audiobooks: 6

Authors of Color: 18

Middle Grade: 15

YA/Teen: 11

Rereads: 7

Goals I Completed:

Read 6 YA books.

Read 6 middle grade books.

Choose 6 “random” reads.  I was trying to inject more “whimsy” into my reading life.

Goals I Didn’t Complete:

Authors of Color at 35% or higher.  Nope.  I only read a measly 20%.

Authors in Translation.  Not a one.  UGH.

There were other goals I didn’t complete but those were the biggest ones and I won’t bore you with the others.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am a mood reader, I hate reading off of a list (even one I make myself!), and I just don’t do well with self-imposed goals.  (I’m definitely an Obliger, if you follow Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies personality framework.)  Which makes sense that I was able to complete my challenges and readalongs, because those all involved OUTER accountability.  Anyway, next year I am setting NO READING GOALS whatsoever.  I am just going to enjoy reading whatever I want, wherever my curiosity takes me.  I may participate in readalongs and challenges, I may not.

So, how about your own reading goals for 2017?  Any that you’re proud of reaching, or sorry that you didn’t reach?  Have you read any of my Top Ten?  What did you think? Talk to me in the comments below! 

 

 

At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

“Are you any happier here now, love?”  When she could not answer, he sighed.

“Oh, I am hopeless!” she said impulsively.  “I find it so difficult to be happy. I wish it were not so.  Are you happy?”

“Yes, on the whole, I am very happy.  I suppose this life suits me, interests me.”

“What would interest me, suit me, I don’t know.  I daresay I want life to always be pleasure – sitting in the sun, drinking.”

“Pleasure is not happiness.”

“No.”  But she still saw herself beneath a striped awning, at the edge of some pavement, a market square, and its cobble-stones full of shadows and high lights like a tubful of suds.  On the iron table was a glass still clouded with some frosted drink, there was the smell of sun-baked foreign newsprint; warmth, leisure, delight, relaxation, the frosted drink an illumination of contentment at the back of her head; across the table a shadow leaned forward and laid a hand over her hand on the iron table.

at-mrs-lippincotesElizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s is a treasure, a first novel (written in 1945) that sparkles with insight, wit, and a hint of melancholy.

Julia is married to Roddy, a lieutenant in the RAF who is stationed at a base somewhere in the south of England during WWII.  They have one son, Oliver, and they also live with Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, who is recovering from an alluded-to nervous breakdown. They’re renting a furnished home from Mrs. Lippincote, and Julia doesn’t hesitate to explore the drawers and cabinets, speculating about the photographs and mementos she finds.  Eleanor is somewhat in love with Roddy and silently resentful of Julia, whom she suspects is not the wife that she feels Roddy deserves.  Roddy is what you’d expect an RAF pilot from the 1940s to be – solid, conventional, kind of obtuse, and definitely not seeing Julia for who she really is or wants to be.

Julia and Oliver have an absolutely adorable relationship.  Oliver is quite precocious, a voracious reader with a tremendous imagination who for the first part of the book is ill and misses quite a bit of school. (The scene where he asks where babies come from is hilarious.)  Julia frets over Oliver as the mother of an only child would (I definitely identified with this!)

Lying back in her chair, she watched Oliver’s thin hands dealing out the cards with slow deliberation.  “Oh God, make him fat!” she prayed.  “Please God, if only you would, I’d believe in you.  For ever and ever, amen.”  As she picked up her bundle of cards, her mouth smiled, but her eyes flashed and swam with tears.

We follow Julia as she strikes up a friendship (mild flirtation?) with Roddy’s Wing Commander, an intellectual man who shares Julia’s interest in the Brontë sisters.  (He seems to observe Julia more shrewdly than her husband does.)  She also goes out occasionally for a walk and ends up chatting with a Mr. Taylor, an old acquaintance from their pre-war London days who is not physically or mentally well.  They have some interesting conversations but nothing untoward.  However, Roddy is hostile to him and doesn’t like Julia going out by herself at night.  He expects her to be more conventional and more attentive to his needs.

She exasperated him.  Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behaviour of women.  One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes.  Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe.

Julia is a fascinating character – she is more direct and more moody than Roddy would like her to be and I love her for it.  She seemed authentic to me.  She adored her child but felt stifled in  her role as wife and mother.  She seemed to long for intelligent conversation and more freedom.  She sees Roddy much more clearly than he ever sees her, but she seems resigned to that role.  Perhaps she will lobby Roddy for more freedom, perhaps they will part… the ending is ambiguous, but I feel a strength coming from Julia for her future days.

This novel was a real treat to read.  This is an author that I suspect I am going to thoroughly enjoy getting to know.  She reminds me a bit of my beloved Barbara Pym, only more acerbic and a bit edgier.  I’m delighted to have finally discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing – and I’ve got THIRTEEN more of her novels to read!  Merry Christmas to me!

And Merry Christmas to all my blogger friends who celebrate, and if you have time off from work in the coming days, may your reading time be plentiful and satisfying!

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I have NO idea what made me pick up My Name is Lucy Barton.  I didn’t even have it on my “To-Read” shelf on Goodreads!  Or rather, I did have it on my To-Read shelf, but somewhere along the line I had taken it off in one of my periodic purges.  Perhaps I just wanted something short to read (it’s 191 pages in hardcover.)  Behind on my Goodreads Challenge, I probably wanted the feeling of accomplishment that finishing a book can bring.  Once I started reading this, I didn’t want to stop.  I just loved it.

25893709This is a small story, told in snippets, of Lucy’s time in the hospital battling a serious infection, and how her emotionally and physically distant mother came to stay with her there for a short time.  It’s breathtaking in its spareness, with small moments of heartbreaking beauty surfacing from Lucy’s memories of that time.  We also get glimpses of her horrible, impoverished Midwestern childhood – just enough to show us their tragedy but not enough for the reader to become overwhelmed.

There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking:  It was not that bad.  Perhaps it was not.  But there are times too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived.  This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. 

She escaped her upbringing because a teacher introduced her to reading, and she fell in love with books.  Also, she stayed as long as she could at school each day because it was warm, and her house had no heat.  She earned a full scholarship to a college in Chicago, and when she came home for Thanksgiving, she couldn’t fall asleep at night because she “was afraid I would wake and find myself once more in this house and I would be in this house forever, and it seemed unbearable to me.”  We get a glimpse of a horrific incident between her father and her brother when the brother was caught wearing his mother’s clothes, and we are told of times that Lucy was locked inside the family truck, before she was old enough for school, either as punishment or as a substitute for daycare.  Gilbert expertly portrays a young child’s terror at being left alone and thinking that no one is coming back to save her.

But this book sounds so bleak when I write of these things!  Where is the beauty, you ask?  What made you love this book, Laila?  Well, the beauty is in the small ways in which Lucy and her mother fumble and try to connect while she’s in the hospital, the gentleness of Lucy’s doctor, the way Lucy falls in love with New York City, in the way she writes of her first husband and their early days.  It’s in the way Lucy clawed her way out of a horrible life.  Strout is simply a master as gutting the reader with the simplest of images and the most precise sentences.

What else made this book resonate so strongly for me?  Well, maybe it was the feeling I got while reading it, one of intense longing for my childhood.  My childhood was pretty good overall, no traumas like the ones Lucy faced.  My parents and extended family always loved me, of that I never once doubted.  But my parents are divorced, and I admit that if they told me today that they would get back together I would be overjoyed.  I know that my relationship with my mother has never fully recovered.  This is a story of mothers and daughters, a very specific, troubled mother-daughter relationship, but a reader like me can feel echoes of my own past here.  I also felt the nostalgia for the places of my childhood, like my grandparents’ house, which is no longer in the family, as they have both passed away.  So much of my life was spent there in middle Tennessee, in summers and on holidays, and now it’s just gone.  We have no reason to travel there any more, and it breaks my heart.  Lucy’s past was awful, but there were moments when she seemed like a little girl rather than a grown woman with kids, and she just wanted the security and reassurance of her mother’s love, like any of us want that from time to time.  What was most heartbreaking was the sense that she was worth more than the tiny scraps her mother was able to give her.

This was a book that connected deeply with me, but I’ve read Goodreads reviews and blog reviews where this was not the case.  So I don’t know – maybe it will resonate with you or may not.  I love that it took me by surprise, and that I randomly picked it up after disregarding it for so long.  I devoured it in two days, and still I wanted more, but I also felt like I knew Lucy enough to see her as a fully formed character.  She was doing the best with what she’d been given – she had flaws, but she also has great strength.  (I haven’t even mentioned that she became a writer!  There’s this whole side story line with a New York City author who inspires Lucy, it’s beautifully rendered.)  I immediately checked out Strout’s follow-up that came out this year, Anything is Possible.  I’m trying to not get my hopes up too much, trying to let it have room to surprise me in a good way as well.  My Name is Lucy Barton is going on my upcoming year-end Best Of List.

Have you read this, or any other of Strout’s novels?  What was the last book that surprised you in a good way?