Home(s)

It was a little more than a year ago when I touched Lake Erie for the first time. The next day we returned to Oklahoma with a handful of lake rocks (I grew up near Lake Superior calling them dinosaur eggs) and a sense that I was getting excited about something that might never happen. I wasn’t sure I would ever have the chance to visit Lake Erie again, so I made a big deal about seeing it while we were in Cleveland for Matt’s job interview. There was some sentimentality to that – Lake Erie would be my fourth Great Lake! How could I go back to Oklahoma, and wherever the job hunt landed us from there, having been so close to Erie and doing nothing about it? So I did something about it. I insisted we see Lake Erie, so we did.

Shortly after we moved here, I started thinking to myself: Why not visit them all? I was only one lake away from completing a HOMES checklist. Lake Huron was my first, as a toddler; Lake Michigan came next as we ferried back and forth to visit family in Milwaukee; then Lake Superior, practically an inland ocean; and, finally, Lake Erie. I had to find a way to make it to Lake Ontario.

(Some people are unfamiliar with the HOMES acronym. Each letter represents one of the Great Lakes, making it easier to name them all. Because of my childhood in Upper Michigan, I have always been familiar with HOMES, even when the maps in our social studies class didn’t even include Michigan’s upper peninsula and, therefore, erased Lake Superior’s existence altogether. I always look for this mistake on every map I encounter. Did they forget the UP again? Why is half of Michigan missing from the map? It’s practically a habit by now, forged by years of being part of a population ignored by mapmakers.)

I like it here in Northeast Ohio. No, no, no. I take that back. I love it here. There was a sense of homecoming for me, of returning to a place I’ve been before but not really. I can’t quite give this feeling over to hiraeth, seeing as I never longed for this place. Perhaps there is a different word out there, formed and better understood by a different culture, but this feeling, for me, is more like finding home in a place I never knew I wanted to be. I’ve spent so much of my life in Michigan and Wisconsin, surrounded by these Great Lakes, that it was like returning from a thirty-year trip across the country. These lakes are all connected to each other. Being here is familiar. Being here is like being home.

So when Matt and I began our drive on I-90 to Buffalo, across Pennsylvania and New York, I never felt like we’d really left home. Lake Erie was never far away. In fact, during some stretches of highway, like in Erie, Pennsylvania, or across the New York state line, Lake Erie was right next to us, showing off her shades of blue during the breaks in the rain. We rented a gorgeous historic rowhouse apartment in downtown Buffalo for two nights, and our only plans involved eating authentic Buffalo wings, seeing Niagara Falls, and touching Lake Ontario. Again, I couldn’t stand being so close to my fifth, and final, Great Lake and doing nothing about it. So I did something about it. I insisted we see Lake Ontario, so we did.

At this point you’re probably expecting photographs of Niagara Falls, but no. Niagara Falls was gorgeous. It literally took my breath away. But I am still blown away by the fact that every single Great Lake finds its way into the Niagara River, churning and swirling and frothing before plunging down 170 feet on its way to Lake Ontario.

And here she is…

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I think back on my years in Oklahoma, when I was grasping at anything familiar to make it feel like home. I begged that it be temporary, and it was. But even those short four years were made to feel longer by my need to feel at home. I might not have known where exactly I belonged, but I knew then, as I know now, that I didn’t belong there.

This is where I belong…for now. Back in the Great Lakes. Back where my earliest memories were formed. Collecting dinosaur eggs on the beach, staring out at the endless horizon, waiting for icebergs to flow by, crossing my fingers for an aurora sighting, and catching a glimpse of the giant container ships as they maneuver their way from one inland ocean to another. From Lake Ontario to the most northern reaches of Lake Superior.

This is familiar. This is home.

 

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Garden Progress: Week of May 28

There’s not much new to report on my bucket garden, except I pulled everything out of the buckets. A friend of mine recently mentioned her concerns about edible plants being grown in used buckets. If you know what the bucket has previously been used for, then it’s probably not a problem. You wouldn’t grow tomatoes in a bucket that once hauled paint or cleaning solution or any other combination of chemicals, right? The moment I realized I planted my edibles in used buckets not ever once used by me, I got nervous. What had been in those buckets the previous owner had left us? Carpet cleaner? Wood floor refinisher?

So I spent part of my weekend re-gardening.

After an already busy day in downtown Cleveland visiting a number of festivals and food spots, I ran to the store to buy new containers and two more 80-pound bags of organic soil. It probably took me close to 4 hours to reorganize all the tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, and beans. The buckets are now the very unattractive homes to marigolds and sweet peas. It all worked out in the end, especially since my friend and coworker gifted me with some giant aster and phlox that was recently pulled from her mother-in-law’s Pennsylvania garden. Coincidentally, my entire body is in so much pain, but my front yard is going to explode in color by the end of the month. Also, I won’t soon be dying of some freaky chemical-via-snap-pea ingestion. Hooray! Thanks for the tip, Kristi!

I’ll share a few photos here of the re-garden, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to share more of what’s happening in other parts of my yard. Though I can’t be certain, I do think the previous homeowners took the time to landscape the property with trees and flowers that bloom throughout the seasons. (This surprises me, seeing as they did not take the time to clear out the garage of any of their old crap.) Currently, my rhododendrons are starting to conk out, but the mock orange that surrounds them are starting to bloom. And just as the lily-of-the-valley and the Solomon’s seal are beginning to go bust, the coral bells are beginning to boom.

As I was digging holes in my front yard beds for the newly-acquired Pennsylvania flowers, I came across this stone – again, left behind by the old owners. It’s in the shape of Ohio. And it’s pretty perfect for a our walkway.

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The re-gardened tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and peas are in these new pots (hey, it’s a special appearance by Teddy!). Now I have to find the time to stake our new trellises into the ground…

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The coral bells and Solomon’s seal (among so many other plants) are in the side yard which gets little practical use. It’s a great spot to put things that are fairly self-sufficient. This area gets the most sun, but it isn’t inside the fence. And deer…well, I’m pretty sure they were nibbling on my cucumbers when I had them prepped in the corner to climb the fence. So, nothing of importance gets put in the side yard.

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The begonias that started it all…

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Another mystery plant. I almost pulled it a few months ago because I thought it was hideous. It’s amazing what a little bit of color can do. Those little pink clusters saved your life, plant…whatever you are.

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Here is my favorite corner for the moment. That’s a begonia, hanging down so beautifully. Beneath it is one of the Pennsylvania transplants. Phlox, I believe. I had never heard of phlox that grow that tall! I’m only aware of creeping phlox. If all goes well, she’ll be blooming bright purple flowers in late June.

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As you can see, the rhodie flowers to the right are starting to wither out. Alas, mock orange blossoms come to the rescue! It’s the perfect convergence, really.

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Back in March, I picked up three seed packets from Monticello: snap peas, nasturtium, and alpine strawberries. The alpine strawberries aren’t doing a darn thing, and today I headed up to the local fruit farm to buy a pint of fresh-picked strawberries off of them. But my Jefferson snap peas and nasturtium are right on schedule. The nasturtium has especially taken off in recent weeks, and I’m hoping to see some blooms from these plants in the next month.

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This is another begonia that I have in a pot in the backyard. I never gave begonias a fair shake all these years. My three potted begonias have really made me a fan (and not to mention that gorgeous salmon-colored begonia that hangs in the front yard).

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That’s really all I have for now. Sadly, I’m still going to the grocery store for zucchini and squash, and I just hope I’ll have enough paste tomatoes this summer to make and freeze homemade pasta sauce and pizza sauce. Yet this is why we have farmer’s markets. Worry not, farmers. I have a feeling I’ll be keeping you in business for a long, loooong time.

Indie Bookstore Day 2017

Last month I rallied up the family for a literary adventure through Cleveland. I had recently heard about Independent Bookstore Day, which is celebrated annually on the last Saturday of April, and I thought it would be a fun way for us to see some of the city while we supported local businesses. Since I was finishing up a final assignment on this particular Saturday, we didn’t have a lot of time. Otherwise we would have hit up more than just the two stores we visited.

Our first stop was Loganberry Books in the Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland. Right away I knew I was going to love this place. I mean, just take a look at the mural that’s painted on the side of their building. It pretty much gives you an idea of how seriously they take their books.

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Once inside, it’s easy to see how Loganberry Books serves as a community anchor. Not only does it extend back and feature a fair amount of new and used books of every genre, but there are other rooms off to the side for author signings and art exhibits. They even have live music events.

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And in the back room, the Lit Arts room, is a bookstore cat. His name is Otis. He really didn’t seem to care that so many people were hovering around, and why would he? He’s used to it. But the day was especially drizzly and gray, and the cat bed was warm. The cat bed was electric! (I have something similar. I have an electric heated mattress cover.) I left Loganberry with two books: Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Land by Lauret Savoy and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America.

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Our second stop was to Appletree Books in Cleveland Heights. It’s a much smaller bookshop, but it still felt very much like a bookshop. The owner seemed very excited to meet and greet everyone who came inside, and was super helpful in locating for me a copy of American War by Omar El Akkad.

The walls of Appletree are papered in book pages. And then there’s the staircase…

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After our short tour of Cleveland area bookstores, we found a soul food restaurant on Shaker Square, splurged on some shrimp po’ boy sliders and red Kool-aid (that’s how it’s listed on the menu: red or purple Kool-aid).

And then we returned home so I could finish a paper on the role smallpox played in the founding of America. I submitted it the following day and received a note from my professor urging me to consider the topic as my master’s thesis. I chose another topic, though, which I’m excited to share here on this blog once I get everything approved. And so it seems I’m committed to one final paper before I graduate, before I can finally get around to reading those three books I just bought.

Believe me, I’m looking forward to it. And I’m looking forward to Independent Bookstore Day 2018. For now, I’ll leave you with a closer look at that beautiful book mural.

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Garden Progress: Week of May 21

Just the other night we spotted a deer in the front yard. They eat everything, I hear. For the moment I have begonias hanging from baskets near the creek, and my lavender, sweet potato vine, calibrachoa, mojito mint, and nasturtium are growing quite well. Those things seem to be left untouched, every time. But I’m not from here so I have to remember the most important thing – I DO NOT KNOW WHAT I’M DOING. The encounter simply reassured me that I had made the best decision to put the garden in our backyard. Our backyard is full of mud and dog poop, but it’s fenced. That is really the only thing that qualifies it as an ideal gardening spot.

The previous owners left us a dozen of 5 gallon buckets, which we almost threw away but, because of my hoarding tendencies (which really only applies to books, dogs, and plants), we remembered how we’d only ever needed 5 gallon buckets at precisely the moment we did not actually have any. So we kept them. Good thinking! They will now be used to grow my paste and cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, wax beans, and snap peas. And, as it turns out, I’m going to have a lot of all of those things.

A few weeks ago I questioned my yard’s exposure to full sun. Or even part sun. Truth be told, I feel like I’m living in a more affordable version of Seattle or Portland, although it is populated with far fewer Starbucks than any other metropolitan area in the world (pretty sure). But it’s always green. It’s always raining. It’s always damp. Half of my yard is moss, not grass.

I decided to try my own trusted technique called Goldfish Gardening. I just made that up yesterday. The name, not the technique. In my experience, whenever I have decided to start a goldfish aquarium, I’ll buy 10 feeder fish with the expectations that 3 will be healthy enough to thrive and survive. I treat my seeds the same way. I’ll seed 10 cucumber seeds with the expectations that 3 will start and thrive to maturity, making good producers. I do not discriminate, mostly because I also do not take the time to learn soil quality rules and watering schedules. If it lives, hooray! (For the record, I do treat surviving goldfish with much better care.)

But it turns out ALL MY SEEDS have started. Like, ALL OF THEM. I don’t have enough buckets, garden pots, bowls, what have you. I’m considering saving my milk jugs and cutting off the tops just so I’ll have a decent space to fill with garden soil and let my veggies go to town. Hmm…I just made that up, too, but it’s not a half-bad idea. My summer goal is to turn my backyard into a flowering oasis, with sweet peas and poppies, aster and dahlias, daisies and gazanias and yarrow, oh my. My climbing vegetables will happily live in their buckets/milk jugs/coke-bottles-cut-in-half and use our 6-foot tall dog fence for supports. I’m growing all the things we need for delicious summer salads and mint mojitos. We will not go hungry, that’s for sure. And with all that mint, our sobriety may be at risk.

I plan to continue updating progress on my garden-ish backyard space, so here’s the first look at what will hopefully grow to become my backyard wonderland. (And, for good measure, I planted sunflower seeds at the top of the driveway and sprinkled wildflowers seeds everywhere else. After months of winter, a summer full of flowers will be my reward, dammit.)

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Road Trip through the Dirty South

Winter in Northeast Ohio had taken its toll on me, as I knew it would. Though this winter was, in hindsight, considered mild, it still left me feeling unmotivated, closed in, and cold. Always cold. Luckily I had the forethought to plan a trip to Florida during spring break.

My daughter and I left early on a Friday morning and didn’t return until two Sundays later. In those nine days I drove through Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. And that was just one way. Coming home, we added Maryland and Pennsylvania to the list. Nine states in nine days. It was as exhausting as it sounds.

What was really great about this trip was that I had never made this particular drive before. I had never been through southern Ohio, and it was my first time in West Virginia. Every highway, every vista, every overlook was new to me, at least until we reached Charlotte, North Carolina. Then, as one would expect, I was home. Still hundreds of miles from my actual home, but home in the sense that I didn’t have to wear a coat in the middle of March, and sweet tea is a restaurant staple. I saw a palm tree. I needed nothing more.

In Charlotte, we visited with one of my best friends and her daughter, to whom I inadvertently spilled the beans that Santa isn’t real. (Shit. Sorry, D.) Another friend and his family stopped by our hotel room for a few hours. I hadn’t seen him in at least six years, and I finally met his wife and children. The little ones played in the hotel pool while we grownups snitched to hotel management on a group of reckless teenagers. (Boy, have the times changed. It feels like not too long ago that group of reckless teenagers used to be us. And then I became hotel management.)

In Jacksonville, we spent time with the entire family, including my parents, my brothers, and the dogs. There are always dogs. Nick flew in from New Hampshire. Brian drove up from Orlando. We met the girlfriend, watched Hell or High Water, reunited with friends from the neighborhood, got sunburned at the zoo, and spent a day at the beach. The water was freezing, but I didn’t mind. I only needed the sun and the sound of the waves.

In Charlottesville, I purposely booked a hotel designed after the German Tudor style. We spent the entire afternoon with one of my oldest friends and his wife touring Monticello and Jefferson’s gardens. (I purchased seed packets from the Monticello garden and, at this very moment, my nasturtium is starting to come through the soil. Minicello may be on hold, but my desire to grow Jefferson-approved flowers will not be quashed.) My intention while in Charlottesville was to visit James Madison’s house, as well, and maybe take a foot tour of University of Virginia, but by this point I was exhausted. That we stayed up sharing stories until well past our bedtimes (ahem…10pm) only made things worse. But, oh…the stories. And my daughter learned so much about me over dinner. Ha!

In Harper’s Ferry, our last stop before heading back to Cleveland, we spent the night with another of my closest friends at her parents’ home in the mountains. Again, I had every intention on visiting downtown, or at least taking in some of the historic sites around Harper’s Ferry, but I could barely muster the energy to stay awake at this point. I even had to insist we stay in to eat dinner because another minute in the car would have been the end of me! I’m so glad I made this stop, though, and I feel like my road trip would have been incomplete without seeing them. And now our kids are the same age we were when we met. What?

How does time fly so quickly? Where did it go? This trip, for me, was more about the people than the places. I know time cannot be reclaimed, but please…let’s not wait too long before we do it all over again. In new cities. In new places. Just like we always do. Just like we did. To see my family and my oldest friends –  sometimes I need nothing more.

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Spring, again.

My parents had told me to keep an eye out for funnel clouds as I lay in the backseat of the car. I was 11-years old. They had driven up from Gwinn to Escanaba in nasty weather to pick me up from the Girl Scout Jamboree after a long night of throwing up. I’m pretty sure my troop leader was happy to be rid of me, although during the parade preparations that morning I simply handed my troop’s flag off to some unsuspecting girl from L’Anse, fearing I was about to be sick again. Somehow I made it to a Red Cross tent and they diagnosed me with food poisoning (thanks, Arby’s) and heat exhaustion.

I have no idea if my troop’s flag was ever recovered. I have no idea who the girl from L’Anse even was. In fact, the only thing I know is that I left the Jamboree at just the right time. That night, while I was back home recovering in my own bed, a tornado hit the campground. A man who was chaperoning a different Upper Michigan troop was blown across the field, hundreds of yards away, while still in his tent. He slept through the whole thing, according to my troop leader. She had called my parents after the storm to check on me, and we shared a laugh over this man who snored like a freight train and, since he was apparently as loud as the storm he was also unaware of the tornado that could have killed him. Anyway, he was fine, but hundreds of campers’ coolers and tents and other belongings were strewn across the field. Not a single injury.

There have been other times, other close calls. One U.P. storm landed my brothers and me sheltered beneath the basement stairs, packed in with the protection of storage boxes while my mother drove my father to work (he was considered military essential personnel). In Southern Maryland, while in a movie theater and oblivious to the weather, my friends and I walked out to discover the car was missing. A few minutes later we found it on the other side of the parking lot. It was still intact. After a long afternoon shift at the hotel in Gainesville, Florida, I drove home one night and found myself completely disoriented. So many trees had been ripped out of the ground just a half hour earlier that the place was almost unrecognizable.

The ones I will never forget, though, were in Oklahoma. We had been warned in advance that May was going to be a big month, weather-wise. It was my first spring in Oklahoma and I had been assured by almost everyone that our area just doesn’t get hit. It just didn’t happen. Ever. Theories of a heat dome created by Oklahoma City’s concrete and pavement abounded, that the dome bumped off any tornado’s attempt to get in. For the time I lived in Oklahoma City, a short four years, really, I eventually came to believe it. But this was my first round with real tornadoes. My first encounter with the kind that make history. And the ones in May of 2013 made history.

I was home the afternoon of May 20th watching the weather forecast which, on days like that, showed one tornado dropping after another. Across the state, but mostly south of OKC, funnel clouds would hit the ground and the stormchasers would go nuts. Reports being called in. Coordinates being shot off to the meteorologist on-air. At some point, tornadoes were dropping every other minute. The screen broke into four pictures. All this just so the weather experts could keep tabs on every tornado that was on the ground at the same time.

My husband sent me pictures of the supercell, a massive storm cloud that could be seen from his downtown office. It was heading toward Newcastle and, eventually, to Moore. Suddenly, the quad screen turned into one. This tornado was the focal point. This tornado was going to kill someone. I listened to the stormchasers scream about a school. I listened as the stormchasers screamed about another school. Two elementary schools were hit. As I drove to my own daughter’s school to pick her up, I learned there were parents already at Plaza Towers elementary school sifting through wreckage to find their kids. It turns out a structurally deficient wall had collapsed onto a group of children taking shelter, killing seven of them. I sat outside my daughter’s school weeping and watching the sky, and when she climbed into the car it became her job to keep an eye out for funnel clouds. We made it home just as another siren screamed at us to run into the house.

I got to bring my child home from school that day.

Eleven days later, on May 31st, we did it all over again. Except that afternoon, everyone was home – no school pickups, no late highway commute from work – and I didn’t think I could feel that kind of terror again that I’d felt on May 20th, that helplessness mixed with an intensity you feel only when you’re about to take on unprecedented confrontation. I was wrong. My husband and I had Ella in the basement with the dogs, trying to keep them all entertained. While he and I watched the storm move closer and closer, it was determined that Oklahoma City’s supposed “heat dome” wasn’t going to help us one bit. This storm was just too massive. The meteorologist determined our neighborhood had approximately fifteen minutes to find shelter from the tornado if it continued on its northwesterly track, which would have put us directly in its path. I went into the basement to prepare Ella for a direct hit and placed her beneath the staircase. This way she wouldn’t be crushed by our queen bed or the refrigerator in case the first floor collapsed onto us. This is the stuff you have to think about. Or maybe it’s just the stuff I think about.

A few minutes later my husband, in the first and only time I can recall him being shaken, called down that the tornado had miraculously lifted. It killed eight people, including three veteran stormchasers, a new mother, and her baby. There were multiple vortices inside the tornado, winds gauged to be 295 mph, and its size, over 2.5 miles wide, makes it the largest twister ever recorded. Not surprisingly, it was designated an EF5. If this tornado had actually reached any further east of Banner Road, where it died out, there’s no telling how many more people would have been killed.

Here in the outskirts of Cleveland I have yet to worry about a tornado. There was a twister that came through our small town a few years ago, an EF1 that blew the roof off the local Giant Eagle grocery store. The liquor store off the main drag lost its roof recently, too, but that was due to straight line winds. Our house is surrounded by so many trees that it’s not unusual to wake up the night after a windstorm to find branches and limbs, and sometimes entire trees, down. I don’t worry about tornadoes anymore. At least not the way I used to.

Here I deal with rain, mostly, and freak snowstorms in April.

Oklahoma welcomed me with quite the first-timer’s hazing. An initiation into a lifestyle that I never actually chose, one I just inherited through marriage. For the four years I lived there, I worried about the next tornado season. Would I finally see a tornado? Would I live through one? Would I stick around afterwards if I did? Well, I never did see one. I never did experience one. And I’m pretty certain I would have moved the hell away if I had. That saying about lightning never striking the same place twice is bullshit. That “same place” is everywhere surrounding Oklahoma City. But now I have a connection to that land in the people I met, in the strangers who offered me a friendly welcome, and in the friends I made. They still live there. And I find myself, over a thousand miles away in northeastern Ohio, worrying about this tornado season. And the next. And the one after that. My Oklahoma friends and loved ones may not be worrying, but that’s probably what makes them Oklahomans by nature. They’re just tougher than me. 

I have a new appreciation for spring, thanks to Oklahoma. Time does make the heart grow fonder. I’m in no rush to get back there (I’m quite happier up here where the temperature doesn’t reach 110 degrees), but there are some aspects of the place that I do miss. The wide open spaces. The sunsets in winter. The endless sky. I feel a little heartsick for that damn place, wouldn’t you know it?

And with this, I welcome spring with open arms. Seriously. It can show up any minute. Any minute. No, really. Spring in Ohio will happen, I’m certain of it. Hopeful. Cautiously optimistic, at least. And when it does I hope to have loads of garden photos, stories of outdoor adventures, trips to the lake, exploring the history of the region…

It’s been too quiet around here.

Favorite Books of 2016

On New Year’s Day of this year, I set my Goodreads challenge to 40 books. This seems to be my standard goal. I try and account for busyness, which would average me out for 1 to 2 books a week, depending on how many pages I’m up against. I include in this mix all of my academic textbooks, too. Considering they are the reason why I don’t read more books of my own choosing, I’m counting those, even if it’s just because of interference.

This year I surpassed my reading goal (51 books!) and, quite honestly, I was surprised. I took four months away from graduate school, in part to recover from the emotional exhaustion of back-to-back-to-back courses in Russian history/the Third Reich/African-American history. With four months of freedom from multiple academic history books, I thought I’d fall short. And I had less free time than I thought I would since we spent all it preparing for a move we didn’t even know we’d have to make – and then we made the move. Sitting down for an hour with a book became a luxury.

Here’s a look at my favorite books I read in 2016. You may notice a theme in both genres. Nonfiction favorites are, of course, filled with misery and tragedy and trauma and WHAT DO YOU EXPECT FROM ME? but you should pick up on the fact that one is not like the others. And my fiction favorites were all written by a diverse group of women. This was a happy accident.

NONFICTION FAVORITES
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A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold: As soon as I heard Sue Klebold had published a book, I knew right away I wanted to read it. Often we forget that there is a family behind the shooter. We also forget that their lives continue amidst the death threats, the grief, the guilt, the questions. Anyone who is a parent knows that raising kids is a crapshoot. I live near a town that was the site of a mass school shooting in 2012. Just recently, the state of Ohio proposed new hearings for violent young offenders and this law, had it passed (which it did not), would have affected the life sentence imposed on this young, troubled teen who shot five people, killing three students. I don’t know where this shooter’s family lives now, and I don’t know how they’ve been supported throughout their own ordeal. Klebold’s book poses a question many of us have often wondered ourselves: When one family’s tragedy becomes the entire country’s tragedy, who is or is not allowed to mourn?

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger: This was in no way written with the same dramatics as The Perfect Storm, and I think that was Junger’s intention. The information in here is dramatic enough. I was originally drawn to this book because of my own sense of geographic misplacement, but also because PTSD is, sadly, more prevalent than we as a society seem ready to accept. Most countries in Europe have been tackling the issue of trauma for decades. As usual, the United States is behind and, as usual, nobody knows how to deal with it.

Sick from Freedom by Jim Downs: This should be required reading for all high school history students. Emancipation was just the beginning of a very long road to freedom for African-Americans. However, emancipation and the subsequent humanitarian failures during Reconstruction led to the worst biological disaster in American history. What does that mean? Death, disease, and suffering. It affected mostly freed blacks who no longer had access to healthcare and proper nutrition once they’d fled the plantations and fields and the care of their masters. Disease was rampant throughout the country. Uncontrollable outbreaks traveled with the freed men and women as they made their way to large cities in search of work and shelter. The War Department, having been tasked with funding both Reconstruction and the newly created Freedmen’s Bureau, failed the newly freed slaves by giving most of its budget to Reconstruction projects.

Masters of Death by Richard Rhodes: The Einsatzgruppen isn’t often talked about in the grand scheme of Nazi Germany. However, once you start digging into the details of Nazi atrocities you can’t avoid learning more about the them, probably more than you bargained for. Comprised of three groups (officially referred to as A, B, and C), they terrorized villages all across Europe one by one. Known as the Nazi Death Squad, they encouraged villagers to turn against one another within days, which led to mass killings and even parades celebrating the deaths of tens of thousands of these villagers’ former neighbors. The Einsatzgruppen’s sole job was not to fight, but to kill. Although a few death squad soldiers had what could be called a conscience, and they would press villagers to do their killing for them. This is one reason why European countries have been successfully dealing with trauma and PTSD. It’s in their history. Everyone suffered in 20th century Europe.

The Residence by Kate Andrews Brower: What’s this? A feel-good book? YES! Well, kind of. I was not aware that the White House staff remained intact even as the president’s administrative team was constantly restructured. This book led to a few a-ha! moments, because I was reading it (voluntarily) in tandem with my required readings for my American political history course. Was Lyndon Johnson a horrible president? No. Was he a jackass? ABSOLUTELY. Did this seep into his presidential abilities? No question. It’s the little things in this book that make sense of some of the big things. Johnson had an obsession with his shower’s water pressure. It might have been one of the few things he felt he had control over. Hillary Clinton once removed the kitchen staff so she could personally make Chelsea scrambled eggs while she recovered from a stomach virus. Sometimes being a mother comes first.

FICTION
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The Vegetarian by Han Kang: There is no way to accurately describe this book. The main character, Yeong-hye, is convinced that the only way to save herself from seeing the gory, bloody images in her mind is stop eating meat, start eating plants, become a plant. Her relationships with herself, her husband, her child, with everyone, begin to change so dramatically that you realize you are reading about someone’s uncontrollable fall into the depths of mental illness. I was conflicted through most of this novel. Part of me wished, as her family did, that she could just find her way back to herself. The other part of me wished everyone would let her be. It was almost like her mental illness was her way to finding inner peace. The scene in which Yeong-hye is being force-fed meat is traumatic. With writing like that, Kang’s debut has made me look forward to every word she writes from now on.

Blue Angel by Francine Prose: Blue Angel was one of the first books I read after we started to settle in our new home. I couldn’t wait to get back to it every night! It’s a story about the inevitability of getting older, of reevaluating your life and accomplishments. It’s also a story about being young and mapping out your life and future accomplishments. The reputation that followed this book in reviews made me feel like there would be a lot of inappropriate meetings of the two, of the young and the old, but the scene in question is brief and hardly graphic. What follows, however, is how such a lapse in judgment can alter the lives of all involved, directly or indirectly. Manipulation runs thick on both sides, proving that older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser, and that self worth is a thing we all struggle to determine. Some for our entire lives.

Speedboat by Renata Adler: I chose to read this book on two points alone. First, the cover. I totally judge a book by its cover (have you seen the cover of Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho or Heidi JulavitsThe Folded Clock? For real, click on those links!). Second, a textile artist I follow on Instagram recommended it. I really like her art so I was certain I’d like her book recommendation. I was right! How does one explain the premise of Speedboat? There really isn’t one, but there is. The main character, Jen, doesn’t exactly tell you anything about herself, or about anyone or anything. Everything you learn is from the bits and pieces she shares in an almost diary-like order. Her life is so uninteresting to her, yet it was so interesting to me. I couldn’t put it down.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: How many time can we survive heartbreak? (Numerous times, actually, as evidenced by my own ability to survive 4 out of 5 of my nonfiction picks, and both this novel and McCreight’s.) I’m not giving anything away when I tell you the daughter dies. That’s what this entire novel is about – the daughter’s death, the family’s (in)ability to recover, and how each of them respond to what is now required of them to help each other. Throughout the book, I couldn’t help but imagine this was my own daughter. My one and only child. Gaaaawwwddd!!! Ng just kept breaking my heart, over and over and over again. And the story’s ending? Kablooey. You’ve been warned.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight: I had apparently not learned my lesson when I read Celeste Ng’s novel about the sudden, unexplained deaths of teenage daughters. McCreight’s novel explores the relationship between a single working mother and her only child. So how well do we know our kids? Even though Amelia’s shocking death is ruled a suicide, her mother is unconvinced. What follows is her heartbreaking discovery of what Amelia’s life was really like in the months leading up to her death. Did she jump from the roof of her NYC school? Or was she pushed? McCreight’s character development is enough to leave you suspicious of everyone, but I was left with questions. Was this intentional? Am I supposed to just accept what I know, just as Amelia’s mother had to? Maybe. And while that’s disturbing, it doesn’t take away from the novel at all. Do we ever know all the details, about anything?

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And there you have it!

Anyway, I’m currently working my way through This is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick. What about you? Tell me, what are some of your favorite reads of 2016? And what are you reading now?