Thursday, December 29, 2016

My Year of Reading: Best Poetry of 2016

In his Afterword to the late Larry Levis’ posthumous collection The Darkening Trapeze, David St. John writes: “I continue to believe that poetry remains one of our most vital reservoirs of reflection, solace and outrage within a world replete with horrors.” He wrote those words long before November 8, or the atrocities on the streets of Aleppo, or the year’s final, hard cluster of celebrity deaths, but I believe St. John is right. In a world often draped in the black shroud of greed, bigotry, war, environmental ruin, and hatred, we need poetry now more than ever. The way the words, tailored into truncated lines and stanzas, glow like light-struck gems on the page; the way rhyme and meter make us slow down and take our time strolling through language; the way a poem can go first to the heart and then travel up to the headwe need that reservoir of solace.

In 2016, I drank deeply from that pool of poetry. Nearly 20 percent of the books I read this year were collections of poems (and I’m not even counting The Iliad in that tally). Each morning, I read anywhere from two to five poems, spending time with the words, slowing my darting-squirrel brain, and allowing the compressed gems to tumble through my bloodstream. Here are my favorite poetry books published in 2016, in no particular order. (Sadly, three of these poets are no longer with us: RIP, Jim Harrison, Larry Levis, and C. D. Wright.)

I decided not to provide any commentary on my selections this year, leaving you with a few lines or stanzas selected from the work. I’ll let the poets speak for themselves with their beautiful little puffs of solace and outrage.

Buddy you got no idea how fast it happens,
The tail gunner said to no one in particular,
And flicked the gunsight up with his index finger.
A moment later he turned to a wet rose
Blossoming all at once & too large
For the glassed-in hot house turret to explain—
The bombardier still telling him a joke
Over the now quiet, frozen intercom.

The Darkening Trapeze by Larry Levis

So I sit on the edge, wagging my feet above
the abyss. Tonight the moon will be in my lap.
This is my job, to study the universe
from my bridge. I have the sky, the sea, the faint
green streak of Canadian forest on the far shore.

Dead Man’s Float by Jim Harrison

Maybe we pray on our knees because god
only listens when we’re this close
to the devil.

your whole body in a photo
your whole body
sitting on a crate
pressing your eyesocket
to the viewfinder
of a bazooka
crouched as you balance
the metal tube on your shoulder
in one you guide a belt of ammo
into the unfiring weapon
your elbow out as if
your frame strong
and lightly supporting the gun
a kind of smile
ruining the picture

Look by Solmaz Sharif

A man at a round table, his work boot
heeled on the rung of his chair,
his head in a black plate of blood.
I could see the bottle and the pan bread
through the blazing pine knots;
I watched the man who just shot him
walk the puncheon floor
bellowing My brother, my blood...
hoist the man onto his back
and stumble into a fine, filthy snow.

ShallCross by C. D. Wright

Refuse the old means of measurement.
Rely instead on the thrumming
wilderness of self. Listen.

Bestiary by Donika Kelly

Beware of things in duplicate:
a set of knives, the cufflinks in a drawer,
the dice, the pair of Queens, the eyes
of someone sitting next to you.

99 Poems by Dana Gioia

A piece of the sky breaks off
and falls into your coffee cup.

It makes you wonder how shabby
heaven might be getting and what will

it look like when you get there, if,
in fact, you do.

Not All Fires Burn the Same by Francine Witte

white butcher paper
the tongue wrapped
separate from the heart

The Door That Always Opens by Julie Funderburk

May you find the words you need. May you mutter in sleep,
and may the talk run over into morning’s pale skirts
and steamed mirrors. May a madness possess your mouth,
and may one day the curses lift, a sudden anthem
of clouds revoked from the hypnotic, blinding sun.
May you see cursive when you stargaze.
Words in the sand and words in the sound of the surf.
When you open your mouth, let hornets swarm. In other words,
may your insults sting. May you wake one day
fluent in birdsong and the Arabic of scattered seed.

Waterlines by Alison Pelegrin

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

My Year of Reading: Best Covers of 2016

First impressions are often lasting impressions, especially when it comes to book design. The jacket art, the thickness and geometric dimensions, the typeface, the feel of the pageall of those elements impact our attitude toward the words between the two covers. And I’m not just talking about physical dead-tree books. No matter if we take our literature electronically, design elements come into play: the size and type of font, the margins, the brightness of the screen all influence us. Even on a Kindle, the cover art is still floating out there somewhere in electronic bits and bytes for us to get a fix on the book’s character. As Jhumpa Lahiri writes in The Clothing of Books, “As soon as the book puts on a jacket, the book acquires a new personality. It says something even before being read, just as clothes say something about us before we speak.”

Here are the cover designs of 2016 books which spoke loudest to my eyes...

Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null
Design by Kristen Radtke
One of the stories in Null’s collection is about an eagle who torments a hunter after he kills her mate. That huge eagle eye on the cover of the book likewise torments me. It seems to warn, “If you don’t read these short stories, I’ll peck your eye out, mister!” Losing my sight would mean I could no longer enjoy beautiful covers like this anymore, so I quickly turn to the first page and begin reading.

This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
Design by N. C. Sousa
The high-speed photo of shot-through chalk is dramatic enough, but when we learn that the novel is about a school shooting, the powdery explosion takes on deeper and sadder meaning.

Today Will be Different by Maria Semple
Design by Kelly Blair
This design was the closest thing to an audio-visual cover I saw/heard this year. As I look at the illustration of the woman with her hands over her face behind the blackboard-chalk scrawl of the words, I swear I can hear her muttering the title over and over in an insistent, affirmative chant. (Noteworthy trivia: Semple wrote the repeating title in her own handwriting for the final jacket.)

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston
Design by Kristin Logsdon
The cover for Johnston’s Young Adult novel brings to mind another favorite of mine from years past (also for a YA novel): 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith. In both cases, there is a sense of movementfalling down or rising upand the anticipation of someone being there to catch the mid-air bodies.

All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage
Design by Mario Hugo
This is probably not the designer’s intent, but every time I look at the cover for Brundage’s novel, I think about words rising from a bowl of milk. No matter how you interpret it, this cover is one of the most haunting ones to appear in bookstores this year.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx
Designed by Jaya Miceli
This is another cover I “heard” this year: the woodsy snap of a treetop falling off to one side. Proulx’s novel is a long one, but I can’t think of a better illustration to hold in my hands for 736 pages.

The After Party by Anton DiSclafani
Designed by Jaya Miceli
Miceli’s design for this novel bears one thing in common with the one for Barkskins: they function simultaneously as works of art as well as illustrations that hint at the book’s themeswhether it’s the wilderness-eating greed of the timber industry, or high-society disdain of a party hostess picking a fleck of tobacco off her tongue.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
Design by Keith Hayes
The deceptively simple-looking coverblack words on a white backgroundworks on two levels: every time the title asks me to imagine someone’s disappearance, the ghost letters whisper “No!” in my ear.

My Father the Pornographer by Chris Offutt
Design by Jamie Keenan
Call me slow, but it wasn’t until about a week agoafter staring at this cover for nearly a yearthat I saw the outline of a head. That just adds to the genius of an already-brilliant cover.

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
Design by Alex Merto
While the lush, colorful detail from Margriet Smulders’ photo Fair is foul and foul is fair is attractive, it’s the large, stark simplicity of the title’s font that makes all the difference in this design.

American Ulysses by Ronald C. White
Design Eric White
I love this colorized photo of our 18th President so much, I want to frame it and hang it on my wall. Grant’s gaze (nicely placed just above the title) implores me to read the story of his life.

We’ve Already Gone This Far by Patrick Dacey
Design by Lucy Kim
I can’t put my finger on exactly what I love about this coverthe filled-in letters? the weathered and wrinkled look? the deep-freeze suburban scene?but whatever it is, this is one design I’ve never tired of admiring since I first saw it nearly twelve months ago.

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams
Design by Dan McKinley
It’s the scattered zig-zag pattern of the title’s “Fine”s laid over the cover art from a pulpy 1960s novel that keeps me coming back to this one. You want me to buy this book? Okay, okay. Fine, fine, fine, I’ll do it!

Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker
Design by Oliver Munday
Parker’s novel in stories is narrated by objects surrounding the titular warrior: shoes and boots, a helmet, a bag of fertilizer, a medal, a beer glass, a snowflake, dog tags, etc. The cover design makes it clear that, yes, we could assemble the character like a snap-together model, but at what price?

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
There is such watery menace in this ship’s porthole that I’m chilled long before I open the book to the first page.

Not All Bastards Are From Vienna by Andrea Molesini
Design by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich
I’ll confess, I am so in love with this cover design, if I was a cheating man, I’d be making it my mistress. The colors pop and glow, the beauty establishing a sharp contrast to the word “bastards” in the title.

Monday, December 26, 2016

My First Time: Joseph Mills

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Joseph Mills, author of the new poetry collection Exit, pursued by a bear. A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Mills has published six volumes of poetry with Press 53, including Somewhere During the Spin Cycle, Sending Christmas Cards to Huck and Hamlet and Love and Other Collisions. His fifth collection, This Miraculous Turning, was awarded the North Carolina Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry. More information about his work is available at

My First Time Bathing with the Bard

After college, I travelled around in a Toyota pickup with a camper shell, and the only book I kept permanently in its back box was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It was a heavy blue-bound tome that I had bought at Powell’s Books in Chicago. I imagined reading it by campfires, delighting in the playwright’s timeless wisdom and his understanding of human relationships. I was, of course, also imagining myself as being the kind of person who read Shakespeare by a campfire.

But I wasn’t.

I never finished a single play in that collection.

There were physical reasons for this. Campfires don’t give off much light, and the type was tiny as the volume jammed together multiple columns on a page. Also, the book was too big. Literally. It was difficult to hold. It was a book to own rather than read.

There were other reasons as well. It turned out that I didn’t actually want to read Shakespeare. I wanted to be someone who had read Shakespeare. I wanted to be that erudite person who recognized phrases beyond “to be or not to be” and who got the reference when someone named their dog Portia or Shylock.

So I hauled the book around for a while then finally abandoned it out West, like those who jettisoned their possessions along the Oregon Trail.

Years later, on a New Year’s Day, I resolved again to be the person that I wanted to be (or thought I should be), and I decided to commit to reading a Shakespeare play a month. This time, I bought individual texts, ones that fit in the hand and the pocket. I had come to understand that part of the pleasure of reading is the physical experience of holding a book. It is a tactile relationship.

But I still wasn’t reading for pleasure. By that time I had read several Shakespeare plays at different points in my education (writing papers with arguments like “Hamlet can be read on many different levels” and “King Lear can be read on many different levels”) but, although I admired the work, or at least professed to, I didn’t emotionally respond to it. Instead, I started the project thinking it would be “good for me,” like going to the gym. In this mindset, I dutifully worked through a couple plays. Then, something unexpected happened.

One night, I took Henry VI, Part 2 into the bathroom. It is most famous for the line, “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers.” In high school, I bought a coffee cup with that quotation for a friend who was pre-law. (Thinking back that was a jerk gift. Sorry, Denny.) As I read the play in the bath, Jack Cade, the Irish rebel, walks on stage holding two heads. He makes them kiss, separates them, then says he will ride through the streets “and at every corner have them kiss.” I laughed out loud at the audacity of this passage. It was dark. It was funny. At that moment, Shakespeare’s work opened to me in a way that it hadn’t before. I hadn’t responded to the “comedies” and at what I thought I was supposed to find amusing or witty. The archaic sex “jokes” often took too much work to figure out; by the time I realized what was happening, they weren’t funny. But this, this was a sardonic humor that I understood.

It was as if suddenly I had become attuned to how to read some of the plays. For example, the morning after Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have killed King Duncan, people arrive at the castle and emphasize how “unruly” the past night had been. One character notes that chimneys blew down, screams were in the air, birds were clamoring, and “some say the Earth/was feverous and did shake.” To this, Macbeth responds only, “Twas a rough night.” That is funny. Sly and ironic and dark and self-knowing.

I finished Henry VI, Part 2 in the bath. This, for me, is an unofficial mark of a good book. The cold water test. I discovered the novels of Dawn Powell when I took a bath with Angels on Toast and stayed there for hours.

So although I initially encountered Shakespeare in high school and had read various plays over the years, “my first time” truly responding to him was in a tub laughing at a dark dark scene. I don’t think it’s coincidental that it happened there. I had to strip away expectations of what Shakespeare’s work should be or who I should be while reading it. In a sense, I had to become a naked reader. So, it probably was just as well that I wasn’t by a fire.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

Odd that a festival to celebrate the most austere of births should end up being all about conspicuous consumption.

Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Big Christmas Read

This year, I’m seeking comfort and joy in Christmas books. I don’t always find itsometimes the seasonal stories I pull off my shelf are so lame, it’s like reaching into my Christmas stocking and pulling out a brick of fruitcake (regifted from last year) dusted with black from a lump of coalbut in these days of presidents-elect tweeting us into a nuclear winter and the grief of finding 3,000 dead snow geese in a pit one mile north of my house, I have to jingle my bells in whatever way I can.

Sticking to tradition, I’ve loaded my end-of-year reading with a selection of Yuletide literature, forsaking the last of 2016 novels I’d hoped to squeeze into my Best of 2016 list for pages filled with snowflakes and figgy pudding. This year, my Big Christmas Read includes the following:

Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson
The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P. D. James
Afterward by Edith Wharton
The Diary of Mr. Poynter by M. R. James
The Signalman by Charles Dickens
One Who Saw by A. M. Burrage
The Crown Derby Plate by Marjorie Bowen
Snowflake by Paul Gallico
The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico
Miracle in the Wilderness by Paul Gallico

I’ll start with the most enjoyable book from the stack. Christmas Days is nothing short of an instant classic. Sure, I know it normally takes decades to slap the “classic” label on a work of art, but Winterson’s twelve stories are so perfectly pitched that I’m going to call this a required-reading masterpiece ahead of its time. See if you don’t agree with me thirty years from now. Admittedly, I’m only halfway through the book, but I’ve been around the block enough times to know when I smell greatness, and Christmas Days is as satisfying as the kitchen-filling scent of fresh-baked gingerbread cookies (which, by the way, my wife made for me yesterday). Winterson writes: “Stories round the fire at Christmas, or told with frosty breath on a wintry walk, have a magic and a mystery that is part of the season.” These tales, interspersed with recipes from the author’s file box, deserve to be read aloud on an annual basis. There’s warmth and sentimentality (“Christmas in New York,” in which the kindness of strangers is as sweet as Scrooge’s reformation), frightening ghost stories (“Dark Christmas”), Grimm-Brothers-style fables (“The Mistletoe Bride”), and magical realism (“Spirit of Christmas” and “The SnowMama,” which features the best snowpeople since Frosty led a parade of kids through town). And funny! Boy, are these stories glittered with witeven the recipes, like when she writes in the one for Mrs. Winterson’s Mince Pies, “Mrs. W had a gas oven of terrifying heat. It behaved like a castrated blast furnace roaring for its balls.”

P. D. James’ posthumous collection of four short stories is also a classic in its own way. It’s always great fun to read a mystery story which peels away its clothes and flesh, stripping down to the good old bones found during the so-called Golden Age of Mysteries. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories locks its rooms and cooks casseroles of red herrings as delicious as anything Agatha Christie ever wrote. Indeed, James makes explicit nods to the Queen of Crime, from this mention in the title story
I expect you are thinking that this is typical Agatha Christie, and you are right; that’s exactly how it struck me at the time. But one forgets, homicide rate excepted, how similar my mother’s England was to Dame Agatha’s Mayhem Parva. And it seems entirely appropriate that the body should have been discovered in the library, that most fatal room in popular British fiction.
right down to the book’s very last line when police Sergeant Adam Dalgliesh’s aunt asks him,
     “Is the case concluded? What did you think of it?”
     “What did I think of it?” Adam paused for a moment and considered, “My dear Aunt Jane, I don't think I’ll ever have another case like it. It was pure Agatha Christie.”
Each of the cases James lays out in this collection are perplexing and wholly satisfying with plenty of I-didn’t-see-that-coming moments. And, yes, Christmas decorates each of the tales, save for one (“A Commonplace Murder”), and yes, mistletoe is a key clue to solving one of the murders. I think I’ve read through every one of Christie’s mysteries set during Christmas and needed a fix this year, so this last book of James’ is a welcome gift of classic crime to unwrap this year.

For the past couple of Christmases, I’ve looked forward to reading (and collecting) the special series of classic stories beautifully repackaged by Penguin Books. This year, sadly, the Penguins didn’t gift-wrap anything for us...but when I was browsing in Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, earlier this month, I came across the equally-gorgeous series issued by Biblioasis last year, Ghost Stories for Christmas “designed and decorated by Seth.” I have long been a fan of Sethin particular, his illustrations for this Lemony Snicket seriesso I immediately grabbed all the pocket-sized Biblioasis books and took them to the front counter. While we usually associate ghost stories with Boy Scout campfires and Halloween, the fact is that Christmas ghost stories are a long-standing tradition (the best-known being Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, of course). While Christmas is not always explicit in these tales, there is something about the shortened days and cold nights that lend themselves to spooky stories about phantoms who can’t let go of this world. As Winterson writes in her introduction to Christmas Days:
     Telling stories round the fire is as old as language. And, as fires are lit at night and/or in wintertime, the winter festivals were natural story-telling opportunities.
     But the ghost story as a phenomenon is a 19th century phenomenon. One theory is that the spectres and apparitions claimed in so many sightings were a result of low-level carbon-monoxide poisoning from gas lamps (it does cause fuzzy, drowsy hallucinations). Add in the thick fogs and plenty of gin, and it starts to make sense.
Or, as the note at the beginning of the Bibilioasis books tells us, these classic stories add “a supernatural shiver to the seasonal chill.” In The Crown Derby Plate, Marjorie Bowen writes:
Martha Pym said that she had never seen a ghost and that she would very much like to do so, “particularly at Christmas, for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost.”
Here’s the capsule summary for each of the Biblioasis stories:

Afterward by Edith Wharton: A rich young couple retires to England in search of a charmingly haunted estate. Their realtor ensures them the mansion of Pangbourne is indeed haunted—but those who have seen its ghost only recognize it long afterward. Delighted, they purchase the home, where they soon discover a secret stairway to the roof. There they see a mysterious visitor on the grounds below. Surprised, the husband races down to meet the man. Oddly, though, he can’t be found...

The Diary of Mr. Poynter by M. R. James: When James Denton discovered an ancient bit of fabric within an 18th century diary, he showed it to his aunt, who insisted the wavy, hair-like pattern would be perfect to accent his windows. The sensitive artisan tasked with the copying of the cloth, however, saw evil in its design. The curtains, now hung, do fill Denton with a creeping unease. Surely, he thinks, absently reaching down to pet his dog, the feeling must be imagined...

The Signalman by Charles Dickens: First published in 1866 for a special Christmas issue of All the Year Round, Charles Dickens’ The Signalman has since fallen into obscurity. An eerie story of isolation, dread and supernatural visitation, this book is a small treasure, meant to be read aloud on a cold, dark winter night.

One Who Saw by A. M. Burrage: Originally published at Christmas in 1931 and widely regarded as the author’s masterpiece, One Who Saw tells the story of a writer enchanted by the spectre of a weeping woman. His obsession builds until her ghostly hand falls from her face and he, in horror, becomes the “one who sees.”

The Crown Derby Plate by Marjorie Bowen: Old Miss Pym returns to Hartleys, an eerie house on the marshes, to recover the missing plate in a precious set of china she bought years ago. The person who greets her at the door—a gross, flaccid figure in a shapeless gown—guides Miss Pym to the object of her desire. Yet soon after holding the plate, she becomes aware of a smell. A foul smell. A very troubling smell indeed.

Could you get these stories elsewhere in other anthologiesor even read for free in the online public domain and save yourself the $7 for each book? Of course, but then you’d be missing out on Seth’s illustrations (several per book) and that would be a shame. His stark black-and-white drawings emphasize the spookiness of the tales in the series. Besides, each of these volumes is the perfect size to stuff in your favorite book lover’s stocking.

Photo by Walter Hinick
Just after Thanksgiving this year, a migrating flock of about 10,000 snow geese landed on the turquoise waters of a lake a few blocks away from my house in Butte, Montana. Normally, that would be a beautiful sight to seeall those white bodies floating and swirling in the air above my townan early Christmas gift, perhaps. Sadly, not in this instance. Within a week, nearly all of those geese were dead, their bodies slowly sinking below the surface of the Berkeley Pit, the former open-pit copper mine that has come to negatively define my town. Those pretty waters are deceptive. The abandoned pit, now a Superfund site, is laced with copper, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and sulfuric acidwater acidic enough to liquefy a motorboat’s steel propeller. It proved to be a deadly cocktail for the geese who dipped their heads to drink after a long flight. I’ll spare you the horrible details, but the birds died a painful death as the chemicals burned the esophagus and internal organs. It’s a sad story, particularly for the local mine workers who did their best to prevent the birds from landing by hazing them with sirens and gunshots, to little avail.

To mourn the loss of the birds, in my own small literary way, I turned to Paul Gallico’s 1941 classic, The Snow Goose.
Above the sea and the wind noises he heard a clear, high note. He turned his eyes upward to the evening sky in time to see first an infinite speck, then a black-and-white pinioned dream that circled the lighthouse once, and finally a reality that dropped to earth in the pen and came waddling forward importantly to be fed, as though she had never been away. It was the snow goose.
Though it’s not about Christmas per se, The Snow Goose does carry the message of hope and the belief in something magicalin this case, a single waterfowl who brings a hermit and a child together and who ultimately helps save the lives of soldiers during World War Two. Philip Rhayader, a hunchback with a crippled hand (“thin and bent at the wrist, like the claw of a bird”), lives on a marsh on the Essex coast, “one of the last of the wild places of England.” This is a fortunate place to dwell, for Rhayader is “a friend to all things wild.” A twelve-year-old girl named Frith“slender, dirty, nervous and timid as a bird, but beneath the grime as eerily beautiful as a marsh faery”brings the recluse a bird, a snow goose, which has been blown off course during migration and shot by a hunter. Beyond the marsh, the world “boiled and seethed and rumbled with the eruption that was soon to break forth” (i.e. war, and specifically the Battle of Dunkirk). This sets the stage for the novella’s sadbut magical!ending. The Snow Goose unfolds like a fairy tale; unfortunately, for most of the characters, like the thousands of real geese that died in my town, there’s not a happily ever after.

Paul Gallico’s books have been on my shelf for a long time, but have gathered the Dust of the Unread. When I was growing up, he was a popular author, thanks to his career as a sportswriter and the smash success of The Poseidon Adventure. Today, he’s all but forgotten. I’ve only read one full-length Gallico novel, The Boy Who Invented the Bubble Gun, and that was when I was eleven years old. As a pre-teen, I loved that book to death; from what I can recall, it was about a kid who invents a gun that shoots bubble (pretty self-explanatory from the title) and then takes a cross-country bus ride where he meets several eccentric characters whose lives he’ll change with his innocence and pluck. At least, that’s how I remember it from forty years ago. I have a copy on my bookshelf, but I haven’t dared open it for fear it would melt in a treacly puddle of goo under my older and wiser eyes. But this Christmas, I couldn’t resist pulling out three of Gallico’s shortest books to help me celebrate the season.

In the case of Snowflake, I should have resisted the urge. In short, the book is awful. Awful. AWFUL. Unless.... Well, maybe you’re the kind of person who tolerates 64-page metaphors about metaphysics in the form of a snowflake who muses on page 6 about life (“Here I am. But where did I come from? And what was I before? Where have I been? Whither am I going? Who made me and all my brothers and sisters all about me? And why?”). Or perhaps you like children’s fables in which a snowflake has sex with a raindrop (page 33) and then names their offspring Snowdrop, Rainflake, Snowcrystal and Raindrop-Minor (this last watery child will undoubtedly be in therapy for years with a name like that). Or maybe you don’t gag uncontrollably at the thought of Biblical parables on steroids. If so, then this is the book for you!

Hey, I know Mr. Gallico had the best of intentions and if I’d read it back in 1953 my heart’s cockles might have been warmed. But in 2016, I'm just cynical enough to want to toss this Snowflake across the room. My advice: read Jeanette Winterson’s infinitely-better ”The SnowMama” instead. That one is positively cockle-warming.

Gallico’s final book of this Christmas trinity is slightly better than Snowflake, but not quite as good as The Snow Goose. I remember reading Miracle in the Wilderness when it came out in 1975. The 53-year-old David may not have thought this was as groovy as the 12-year-old David, but at least Gallico stays away from weather pornography in this one. Instead, we get one of those pay-attention-because-I’m-about-to-lay-some-heavy-religion-on-you stories that feature animals talking on Christmas Eve and the hearts of savage mortals being changed due to this Miracle with a capital M. Subtitled ”A Story of Colonial America” and released in a Special Bicentennial Edition, Miracle in the Wilderness is set on Christmas Eve 1752 and tells the story of a young couple with a babe in swaddling clothes (no, their names are not Joseph and Mary) who are taken hostage by an ”Algonkin raiding party.” The group travels through breechcloth-deep snow in northern New York, pursued by another band of ”savages” in cahoots with the French. Most of the tension stems from whether or not the Algonkin leader Quanta-wa-neh will kill Jasper and Dorcas Adams and their infant son or whether the Natives will ”see the light” and, in the spirit of the Nativity, let them live. Then, in a clearing, the winter travelers come upon a family of deer kneeling in the snow and praying aloud.

Yeah, you can pretty much guess how it all ends. And, truthfully, it’s okay for what it is: a simple story that can be devoured faster than a mug of eggnog, but which leaves a slightly sweeter taste in the mouth. It could have been worse. Jasper and Dorcas could have named their son Christmasflake.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

My Year of Reading: Best First Lines of 2016

In 2016, I read somewhere north of 100 books (the final tally is still to come). In those same twelve months, I bought, received in the mail, downloaded onto my Kindle, or was gifted nearly eight times that number of books. They passed through my hands like a slurry caught in never-ending water. With so many new books rushing past my eyes, it takes something bold and unique to catch my attention. Sure, I’m attracted to plot, character and sometimes by the reputation of the author, but it’s the language which really matters to me. A book must work overtime with all its muscle to make me add it to the ever-towering To-Be-Read stack (aka Mt. NeveRest). That’s where the first sentence comes in. The best opening lines are snakes rearing up from the grass, a fire-blaze of sunset, a jack-in-the-box clapping its hands, the tastiest forkful of the best wedding cake ever baked. Surprise me, puzzle me, scare me, warm me with light. Make it impossible for me to resist the second, third and fourth sentences. Open the door so I can step into the book.

Here are my favorite first sentences from books published in 2016, in no particular order. If you’re like me, they’ll make you want to eat the whole cake.

The clowns came to get him when it was time for the hanging.
Champion of the World
by Chad Dundas

This is not my beautiful life.
The Next
by Stephanie Gangi

Getting out of prison is like having a rotten tooth pulled from your mouth: it feels good to have it gone, but it’s hard not to keep touching at that hole.
Every Man a Menace
by Patrick Hoffman

On the day that he would first meet Thomas Edison, Paul watched a man burn alive in the sky above Broadway.
The Last Days of Night
by Graham Moore

The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.
by Ann Patchett

Once, years ago, I left home looking for a grand adventure and spent five months staring at mud.
On Trails
by Robert Moor

With the tops of the trees around the house lost in fog, Michael and Nancy James prepared for the last party they would ever have, though they didn't know it at the time.
Stranger, Father, Beloved
by Taylor Larsen

I was born blue.
The Opposite of Everyone
by Joshilyn Jackson

When I found my husband at the bottom of the stairs, I tried to resuscitate him before I ever considered disposing of the body.
The Passenger
by Lisa Lutz

Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep.
by A. Igoni Barrett

Every night, Frank played harmonica for the cats.
The Flood Girls
by Richard Fifield

You’re not allowed to read this—I’m not even really allowed to write it.
Enchanted Islands
by Allison Amend

The Civil War started in darkness.
City of Sedition
by John Strausbaugh

As True Bliss lay in her bed on the morning of the eve of her one hundredth birthday, the thought that circled her mind, in the applesauce eddy of her mind, the first chunk in the applesauce eddy that her mind could sink its teeth into was please don’t let this day be my last day on earth.
The Remnants
by Robert Hill

It is one of those better-to-be-dead-than-alive days you get in the north of England in February, the space between the land and sky a mere letter box of squeezed light, the sky itself unfathomably banal.
Shylock is My Name
by Howard Jacobson

I first met Marine Corporal Aaron Mankin in Fallujah in early 2005, just before he lost most of his face in the Iraq War.
The Mirror Test
by J. Kael Weston

In early January of 2011, forty-five hundred red-winged blackbirds fell dead from the Arkansas skies.
The Atomic Weight of Love
by Elizabeth J. Church

When I insisted on keeping the baby, Ned threw his hands into the air palms-forward. He looked like a mime climbing a wall—one of the few times I’ve ever seen him look clumsy.
Sweet Lamb of Heaven
by Lydia Millet

See them in their golden hour, a flood of girls high on the ecstasy of the final bell, tumbling onto the city bus, all gawky limbs and Wonderbra’d cleavage, chewed nails picking at eruptive zits, lips nibbling and eyes scrunching in a doomed attempt not to cry.
Girls on Fire
by Robin Wasserman

We came to the city because we wished to live haphazardly, to reach for only the least realistic of our desires, and to see if we could not learn what our failures had to teach, and not, when we came to live, discover that we had never died.
Why We Came to the City
by Kristopher Jansma

I disappeared from my life in the time it takes to buy a bottle of Yoo-hoo and a package of pork rinds.
The Miracle on Monhegan Island
by Elizabeth Kelly

Only a lunatic would live on the Moon.
The Dark Side
by Anthony O’Neill

On the eve of her thirty-ninth birthday, on the bleakest day of the worst February in memory, Janie made what would turn out to be the pivotal decision of her life: she decided to take a vacation.
The Forgetting Time
by Sharon Guskin

Dear Mrs. Haven—
This morning, at 08:47 EST, I woke up to find myself excused from time.
The Lost Time Accidents
by John Wray

So here I am, upside down in a woman.
by Ian McEwan

This is the story of a ruthless killer, a scofflaw, a keeper of brothels and bordellos, a tax cheat and perpetrator of frauds, a convicted felon, and a mindless, blubbering invalid.
Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend
by Dierdre Bair

Ted McKay was about to put a bullet through his brain when the doorbell rang. Insistently.
Kill the Next One
by Federico Axat

For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.
Another Brooklyn
by Jacqueline Woodson

The car was a late-model Oldsmobile, the interior dank and musty, and the driver bore the distinctly sweet, rotting smell of overripe bananas.
Angels of Detroit
by Christopher Hebert

Even before the man with rough hands brought the boy to the locked room, even then there was always already the albino ape sitting on the chair beside the nightstand, waiting for the man and the boy to come.
A Tree or a Person or a Wall
by Matt Bell

Everybody wants to own the end of the world.
Zero K
by Don DeLillo