Books of 2016: A Gift Guide

Need books for your friends and family? I haven’t read all of the books in 2016, but I’ve read my fair share. Some gift ideas from my shelf:

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For the music lover: Anatomy of a Song by Marc Myers

Myers traces America’s Rock & Roll roots in an oral history account of groundbreaking songs. This is a funny and compelling collection of short pieces. You could read it in any order, and you can give this to someone who isn’t a fan of longer reads. Myers does a nice job of weaving together details from each song with trends in American history. In an era when you can find a lot of information about music online, Anatomy of a Song still feels like something special.

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For the history geek: Alison Amend’s Enchanted Islands

Amend’s novel is based on the real-life story of married spies living in the Galapagos islands before WWII. Come for the spies and oblique historical references. Stay for the lush descriptions of Galapagos and the complex takes on marriage and friendship.

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For the word nerd: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has a little fun with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which she sets in a prison literacy program. Only because this is Atwood, there’s a play within the play on Shakespeare’s play. It’s full of literary “Easter eggs,” and charmingly readable. No worries if you haven’t read The Tempest. You’d be okay either way–but it’s only a two-hour listen on audible if you’re into that. You know I am.

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For the pal who likes creepy tomes: Ali Shaw’s The Trees

Overnight, a dense and nearly impenetrable forest blankets modern-day England. Panic, alliance-forging, and heroic journeys ensue. Bonus points for freaky tree creatures, and a little bit of mythology. Plus, this is some amazing cover art, right?

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For the cousin who is into smart/sad short stories: Desert Boys by Chris McCormick

People “don’t know how un-California most of California is,” Chris McCormick writes, in one of my favorite sentences of 2016. Desert Boys is a nostalgic, bleak, and beautifully rendered collection about identity and growing up in the harsher parts of the Golden State.

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Something unexpected: Marisa Silver’s Little Nothing

Silver’s dark fairy-tale manages to feel both old and new. This is a book that draws on our associations with fables, but also asks us to examine what still happens to women now. Silver’s protagonist, Pavla, a dwarf, undergoes several transformations in the book, and you’ll have to take some magical leaps. Silver will force you to really think about time. Weird and different. Loved, though, and got lost in it.

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For the binge-watcher: Every Kind of Wanting by Gina Frangello

Every Kind of Wanting is about six lives entangled in a messy plan to conceive a baby through surrogacy. Just as in life and in the best bingewothy dramas, everyone is lying, and everyone has something to lose. This book goes there; Frangello is a fearless writer, but her greatest strength is writing with empathy. You’ll be thinking about these characters long after you finish reading.

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For the reader who likes a challenge: David Means’ Hystopia

This book is weird: an alternate history where Kennedy’s assassination is unsuccessful, and the Vietnam war rages on while subsequent attempts on the president’s life are made. The conceit of the book is that it’s told as a series of notes about a found manuscript. There are so many layers to the thing that it is really difficult. It’s an incredibly dark and a tangled narrative. And great.

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If you want to support a new writer: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This debut novel (and winner of the National Book Award’s 5 Under 35 for 2016) traces the lineage of two half-sisters’ lines, and spans 300 years of history. Each chapter tells the story of one generation, so it’s not a linear novel, but more like a novel-in-stories. The form mirrors Gyasi’s message about broken links between the families sold into slavery. Homegoing is a stunning debut.

Speed round…

Quirky and touching mother-daughter genre-bending story: The History of Great Things by Elizabeth Crane

Super brainy, religious, and weird if you can handle that: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

I haven’t read it yet, but I can’t wait to… This year’s “it” book, and a NY Times Holiday Gift Guide pickGrace by Natashia Déon

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My recommendation for just about anyone on your list: Michael Chabon’s Moonglow

This novel is getting all kinds of attention for being written as a memoir. That conversation obscures (a little bit) the fact that this is just a damn good story. Chabon’s narrator is retelling his grandparents’ history as told to him on his grandfather’s deathbed. There are several intertwining storylines, and Chabon is just a master of weaving the historical into the personal. Moonglow touches on everything from rocket science and Nazis to python hunting at a retirement homes in Florida. I enjoyed it so much, and it’s a good bet for just about anyone on your list.

Happy reading!

One.

or: My failure to attain complete enlightenment after reading one book on Buddhism and embarking on a half-hearted three day social media fast.

I’m lonely.

Gosh, I’m lonely. That’s a hard thing to own.  It’s so hard to admit because it seems like you’re begging people to give you something. That’s not it, though. “Mrs. P, do you want a hug?” a kid asked me today. I really didn’t. Not from her. But did I? Yes, from the right person. This is the way it’s all wrong.

I’ll back up.

I’m lonely because I took myself off of social media. I’m on time out because I can’t handle it lately and you can think what you want about liberal crybabies, but I can’t handle reading what conservatives are writing right now, and I can’t handle reading what liberals are writing right now, and I certainly can’t handle what any fake clickbaity news sites are writing right now. I can’t handle what people are writing right now about what went wrong, or what they’re writing right now about what might happen in the future (what is all that, anyway, except noise?), and this, coupled with my unhealthy pattern of website checking and the infinite scroll means my habits are in need of a break. Time. Out. I was filling hours of my life with a twitchy greed for headlines and statistics. Statistics!–Math for liars. No good can come of hoping for the one statistic that will make everything right, because statistics are manipulation. Like writing, but without the secrets that make us feel human.

So I’m off social media, except Instagram, because I figured it’d be safe to look at pictures of brunch and calligraphy and ballet dancers and Yosemite. It has been, mostly.

And I read a book. You’re not shocked. Before I logged off Twitter, I saw Aimee Bender recommend When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. It helped. It really did. In my 20s, when my nervous system went haywire, and Christianity’s steadfast answer to my anxiety disorder was basically, hey, God said don’t worry, so just tell your mind to knock it off because not trusting Him is a sin, I gave myself permission to seek other help. To get alternate cell phone coverage for the same calls, as it were. Mindfulness and meditation work well for me when I practice them, and Chödrön’s book, a primer on Buddhist philosophy about pain and suffering was particularly right for me this week.

I’m saying I’m anxious. I’m saying I feel bad for a million reasons.

Chödrön writes a lot about leaning into the sharp points: about how our nature is to try to turn away from pain, or to run from it, or hide. I’ve always found this to be true of my anxiety. The more I try to hide it, the worse it gets. The more I try to pretend it away–this happens when I play the nice girl or don’t let myself get mad–the more my body will tense and rebel with an inconvenient flush of adrenaline. Chödrön’s philosophy is the Buddhist philosophy that suffering is unavoidable, but that it is resistance to it that brings us trouble. (Duh, right? But also, yes.) Chödrön says it better than I am, and this is not a book review, so I’m not going to quote it. If you want to read it and read about how to get pointy with your pain, it’s easy to find. There are some nice bits about hope and how expectation sets you up for more suffering, and those parts gave me a big oof.

Anyway, back to social media. It is driving me mad to stay off, but I’m trying to pay attention to that feeling. To ask what I feel when I want to get online, rather than filling that bad craving immediately with a constant scroll of words that feel important. Or validate me or my views. More than anything, I know I go online because I want to have company. I go to my phone so often because I’m lonely. When I sit in my office by myself in the morning, just after I finish writing, I’ll check my feed. When I take a break and walk to the bathroom between classes at work, I’ll check my feed. When I sit in the car and wait for Henry after school, I’ll check my feed. And this one hurts: when I lay in my bed and I’m lonely because the other people in my house aren’t hanging out with me, I check my feed. I am married, I have two children and a bunch of friends, and I’m lonely. A lot. There are not a glut of people walking around who want to talk books, writers, and publishing. So I go online obsessively. It’s easy. Is it too easy? I genuinely don’t know. Is it replacing something better that I could have, or is it filling the emptiness of something I do not have? This is what I am wondering.

My life got so much better when I found a literary community. But since I live in northern California, these people exist, primarily, in my pocket-sized computer. So while it’s keeping my election-anxiety at bay to avoid the news and stay off social media, it’s aggravating a different anxiety to separate myself from these real friends. What I wonder right now is if I only feel like I have people.

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What is it?

What is it when you’re stuck in a pattern of unsuccessful connection? When you get yourself through a frozen, tough stretch, when you get to yes, I need people, and I know I need to step forward and dial numbers and hit send, but the people aren’t there? When you’re voicemailing hard, trying not to sound too eager, like hi (voice cracking, the almost cry), I’m, uh, hi… and you’re both pretending you don’t know they hit decline on your call. What is it when your every call is returned with a text? When you do talk, what is it when you feel them leave before they go? The flipping to another screen? You sense the pull of the game, the twitter feed looming. The better thing in another room. You know why they don’t stick around because you’re trying to get yourself out of this, too; it hurts to stay open on the single screen of yourself. But you want someone, you need someone, and not the someones who bark at you at work. What is that? You can’t say hey, stay here, please? because do you even know what you want besides a person more patient than you? This feels like poor aim. Like being a freshman in high school, like not knowing how to stand in your own jeans. Like your sweatshirt is hitting you at the wrong places when you try to talk, and your skin is erupting with the awkwardness inside.

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I’m as cranky as ever about our life on a sport schedule. Yes, I do think my kids swimming competitively is wonderful and yes, I know it makes me a jerk to complain about it. My crankiness has changed a little over the last few years. Does this matter? I am 100% less resentful of having to sit at the pool for an hour or two while the kids swim laps; I am 100% more excited about watching them compete. But practice? Pfft. I find the pool calming and I generally find it to be a good place to work (in my car at the pool, that is). Eric and I share driving duties. But I’m still cranky about the usual things: having to talk to other parents, having to eat dinner at weird times, having to not see my husband most nights, having to cajole the kids into putting on suits when they feel tired/angry/hesitant.

This is parenting. This is parenting. This is parenting.

Eric just left to pick up Addie from the pool, after driving cross-town twice to get them both there and then bring Henry home after he was done so he could avoid the wind. I just stayed home to stare at the wall. Tonight, everything is difficult. I thought that not having Henry play baseball this year was going to mean more ease. Ha.

AWP and LATFOB blinded me–as all writing/book gatherings do–with a flash of too-bright inspiration, followed by a heady sadness. Sadness for what? Nothing real. I’ve visited nerd land enough times to know it is a magical fairy illusion–one where I wear my best clothes and my best hair and most eager smile–and one that in no way corresponds to the life where I go to Costco to buy TP, or tell my freshmen every day to sit down and do school. I have zero desire to try to live in that imaginary space, and in fact I leave these nerd conventions feeling exhausted. But I also usually feel sad, a reasonless sad that seems to always manifest in a frustration with my schedule, lack of time, lack of energy for doing everything I want to do, etc. So today I’m pissed at swimming. I’m pissed at my job. I’m pissed at the hours it takes every day to transport two kids up from schools just miles from our house. I’m pissed that tonight when I went to cook rice, we were out of rice. So dumb. It’s the chafe of wants against have-tos, the old feeling like I have to be too many things to too many people, when I want to be alone, in my red sweat pants, writing for me (or, let’s be real, for someone who wants to pay me in US currency). I want to ditch the Mrs. Partington persona and shut down the HSP show. I want write and be impolite and and have energy for it and walk out of my office occasionally for hugs from my three people. Swimming gets the brunt of my frustration only because it’s the new thing in our schedule and if you’re going to parent someone who does a thing, you really can’t suck at making them go.

I am treading water in my critical career. I am pushing and pushing. I want to quit every night. I’m afraid to rest. This is writing.

We’re fighting about money. Getting married on tax day seemed funny 16 years ago.

What is this post? I’m trying to keep moving. I am staying up because I don’t know how to do the ten minutes where I lay in bed before I fall asleep. I am dreading that tonight. If I stop, I have to feel it pull me down. I have to wake up and do it again tomorrow. Nothing in my life is bad. But today I’m over my head.

 

 

 

 

Interview: Dorothy Rice, author of THE RELUCTANT ARTIST

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Dorothy Rice, author of The Reluctant Artist

Dorothy Rice’s memoir and art book, The Reluctant Artist, is a meditation on the author’s relationship with her father, and her efforts to catalog his extensive body of work. The artist, Joe Rice, was dedicated to completing a painting a week, yet despite creating a plethora of striking work, he never showed it or sought recognition for his art.

I recently corresponded by email with Dorothy (a good friend from my time at UCR Palm Desert’s MFA program) about writing the memoir, her father’s lasting lessons, and how she came to publish The Reluctant Artist through Shanti Arts.

Heather Scott Partington: How did The Reluctant Artist come about? What was its path to publication?

Dorothy Rice: The project began with an essay I wrote while taking taking community college classes at American River College. That essay, “The Paintings in the Rafters” told the story of an afternoon when my sisters and I got our father’s permission to haul a dozen or so paintings down from the rafters in his garage, where they had been stored (wrapped and taped up) for over twenty years. The essay was first published in the American River Review and then reprinted in the Still Point Arts Quarterly, an arts magazine that I found via the writers’ resource Duotrope. The editor of the Arts Quarterly, Christine Cote, was drawn to the art. She published several full color photos of my father’s work along with the essay and asked if I was interested in working with her on a book about my father and his art. I developed a proposal and we entered into a contract whereby I agreed to deliver text and photographs and she to publish the book.

I had no clear idea of what the text would be when I began but it eventually took its present shape, as a memoir touching on the ways in which the artwork affected me as a child, a young adult and throughout my life and, in particular, how my father’s lifelong pursuit of the arts inspired and fed my own creative aspirations. Because my father was always a very reserved man, the artwork had always seemed significant and important to me as manifestations and windows onto an interior life he kept mostly to himself.

thequeen copyHSP: Was there anything about the format of the book (art + prose) that presented a unique challenge or opportunity? Can you talk about how the book came together in terms of layout?

DR: The layout was primarily the purview of the publisher. She shared sample fonts and approaches to the layout with me, but to a great extent I deferred to her design expertise. When she first began to layout the project she had hoped the photos of the work could be interspersed with the text and placed near to where they are mentioned in the narrative. But she found this too cumbersome and instead opted to put most of the artwork and photos at the back of the book, with only a few images at the beginnings of the sections.

We did review several cover designs before arriving at the final. I knew that I wanted the self-portrait I call “The Green Man” on the cover and, for her, that posed some initial difficulties as the image is dark and dominant. We compromised on a smaller photograph that deemphasizes the starkness of the image. I had also wanted to use the title “The Green Man” for the book itself, but arrived at the compromise “The Reluctant Artist” after discussing with her the potential redundancy of the artwork and the title being so closely aligned.

What intrigued me the most about the publisher’s approach to the book was that she was wanted a full sense of the artist and his life and was therefore interested in including family photographs and other items of a more personal nature than I would have thought to include in the project without her encouragement. Her publications, at least in my experience, are an unusual blend of art and literature with a strong focus on visual presentation.

HSP: In the book, you say “I tuck things away for safekeeping.” Do your family members have a sense that you remember things better than they do? Or differently? What has your family’s reaction been to the memoir you’ve written about your memories of your dad?

DR: I think I have a reputation of “not letting things go,” of holding on to bits of information for later use. In terms of my father and his art, I was probably very irritating at times in terms of keeping track of where everything was and of what had been photographed and what remained to be done. For several years it was a kind of compulsion to gather the complete record and document his art on a website I created as a sort of online archive. Now that the book is done and there is something to show for those years, family members are very supportive and, I think, touched that we now have this unique memento of our father, who, in many ways, was an enigma to us all.

As far as memory, I think I have an amazing memory and that I recall many incidents complete with dialogue and other details. Yet I have learned from working on memoir projects these past view years that memory is mutable and that my “truth” isn’t always someone else’s. Our minds all work differently and it has been interesting to hear my sisters’ different takes on the same events. I did have several family members review the manuscript before it was finalized and made a few tweaks in response to their comments, not because I had it “wrong” necessarily, but because different wording could better capture how we all remembered things. For example, as I tend to be more pessimistic by nature than my sisters, my take often reflects that bent.

One thing that has been very heartening, and affirming, is that several family members (immediate family, cousins, nieces, uncles) have remarked that I captured Joe Rice, that my portrayal of my father felt true to them. Also, my memories have triggered deeper remembering for them, which was an important reason for putting the book together, to keep his memory alive. Other readers (i.e. non family) have expressed that the portrayal of my father resonated for them because of their own communication issues with a parent, spouse or other loved one. It has invoked the universal difficulty inherent in really knowing another person, particularly when that person is far from transparent. Also the notion of a person quietly pursuing their passion for decades (art in this case) without fanfare and seemingly with no need or interest in any outside approval or acknowledgement has also been a source of inspiration and interest for readers, as it has always been for me.greenman copy

HSP: You write that your father “had a distinct way of speaking”–how do you think his speech, and to some degree, his art–reflect the man that you came to understand him to be? Do you feel like you truly knew him?

DR: Interesting question. I always assumed his speech–he would sort of hesitate as if gathering his thoughts and then speak slowly and clearly, enunciating in an almost exaggerated way–had something to do with having come to this country in his early teens from the Philippines. But thinking about it, it could also have simply been that he was a man of few words and he didn’t take them lightly. He always thought before, and while, he spoke. His best art, to me, is careful art–the plotted geometric and surrealistic images of the 60s and 70s, so perhaps there is some concordance there.

HSP: Can you talk about the intersection of your dad’s life with some of the interesting figures in San Francisco in the 60’s?

DR: My Dad was an extreme introvert, so his life didn’t intersect with anyone’s in any obvious way. However, he was well read and aware of what was happening in the art world and therefore conversant about artists and art trends. Some of my fondest memories are of visits to museums and galleries and discussions about tastes in art. Like me I suppose, my father was not a joiner, of anything, and he avoided most social events that weren’t mandatory.

HSP: What do you wish you could ask your dad now?

DR: Related to the question above, I wish I knew more about artists he admired, artists he may have worked alongside or taken classes from at the San Francisco Art Institute, or earlier in undergraduate or graduate school. I always wanted to know what art meant to him, why he did it, why he had no interest in sharing or showing. It honestly puzzled me that as his health began to decline it became clear he hadn’t kept any kind of record of the things he’d created, no notebook or list. I would mention paintings or show him something on my website and he would be surprised, pleased too usually, and say he’d forgotten all about that one.

But, to be honest, I realize there’s no use wishing I could ask him things as he probably wouldn’t have answered in any way that I would find satisfactory. I asked lots of things along the lines of my questions above while he was still alive and received monosyllabic responses at best, more often only a wry smile and a wrinkled brow, as if to say, “what’s it to you, nosey pants.”

HSP: I know The Reluctant Artist took several forms before it was a memoir and art book. What might readers be surprised to know about those earlier versions?

DR: Well, I was always inspired by my father and his art, but I had also always wanted to be a fiction writer. So initially I fictionalized his life and thought it could be some kind of novel. Then, when I began taking writing classes and going to workshops, one instructor suggested I turn my novel into a murder mystery to liven it up. “Throw a dead body onto page two,” was his exact advice. So I did that and spent several years churning out a murder mystery, complete with San Francisco Irish detective, crazed hippies, one victim tossed from the allegedly haunted tower at the San Francisco Art Institute, the other strangled with her pearls in a dank basement. Very noir, very lame, very out of my wheel house. That novel resides in a drawer in my office, well actually, on the floor behind my desk.

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HSP: What’s your next project?

DR: I am working on a memoir inspired by my experiences as a mother. I never planned to have kids yet I ended up having a child in my 20s, 30s and 40s, one every nine years, plus two stepsons who came into my life with my third marriage.

This year, with my youngest child leaving home for college in the fall, I find myself reflecting on the journey, three decades during which I have been many kinds of mother—single, married, step, involved, neglectful and merely misguided. That said, who knows where it will lead.

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The Reluctant Artist is available for purchase here.
More information about Joe Rice can be found here.
More information about Dorothy Rice can be found here.
Photos of Joe Rice’s artwork used with the author’s permission.