2014 literature year-in-review

It was nearly three years ago that my Kroymann aunts, cousins and I formed The ‘Fun Book’ Book Club. As with any group, there have been lapses in our gatherings, schedules get tight and life’s pace quickens, yet through this we’ve managed to keep at it. And I think we’re all pretty grateful for the constancy this group provides.

While all our meetings eventually dissolve into fits of laughter listening to one another’s stories, we’re getting better at actually talking about our books. But honestly? The books may be the reason for our gatherings, but it’s our relationships, the varying hues love takes between family members, that keep us coming back.

Given the busy time December is, last year we did not choose a book for our January 2014 gathering and did not kick off the year until February with Mary Lawson’s “Crow Lake,” the story of four orphaned siblings and how they navigate life in their quiet Canada community.

In March, we took on the issue of brain injury in the story “Left Neglected” by Lisa Genova followed by April’s choice of “Emily’s Story” by Wisconsin writer Clark Kidder who some of you may remember provided the backdrop for the “West by Orphan Train” documentary that premeired in DeWitt earlier this fall.

May had us reading Nora Ephron’s reflections in “I Remember Nothing,” before taking a break in June. July had us enjoying the mysterious young-adult tome “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart that kept us guessing until the very end.

With the Iowa State Fair and school’s early start, we skipped August and resumed in September with Jodi Picoult’s “The Storyteller.” Although several of us agreed there were ways to easily trim this 480-page behemoth, the instinct for survival in Nazi Germany reminded us how easy it is for human nature to spin out of control in the face of “mob mentality.”

Like January, April, June and August, October was also a miss, but in November we tackled “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan. A non-fiction reflection of the Dust Bowl era told by survivors of that man-made disaster, “The Worst Hard Time” provided the backdrop for Ken Burns’ 2012 PBS documentary ”The Dust Bowl.”

One Dec. 1 we met under the guise of discussing that month’s selection, Lisa Scottoline’s “Don’t Go,” but used it as an excuse to enjoy the PBS premiere of “West by Orphan Train.”

After discussing Scottoline’s mystery about a podiatrist serving in Afghanistan whose wife dies while he’s overseas. We agreed this riveting whodunit kept us guessing until the last pages. Then we watched the movie and just as when we read “Emily’s Story,” again we were astounded by the strength of orphan train riders who truly rose above terrible circumstances. ***

At the end of this month’s meeting, one person had a copy of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Olive Kitteridge” and offered to let another member read it. When all of us piped up that we wanted to borrow it, we opted to make that our January 2015 choice. Already, we’re off to a better start than in 2014! (And having finished it, I now understand why it was recently made into a mini-series for HBO! A truly wonderful tale of community, marriage, perspective and age.)

In addition to The ‘Fun Book’ Book Club, my nightstand held a steady flow of varied and enjoyable literature starting with the awkwardly wonderful David Sedaris and his nutty collection of essays, “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.”

Swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, I simply adore author Anne Lemott. Recently she authored a trio of small tomes, the first of which I read this year, 2012’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” I have yet to devour subsequent books, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair” and “Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace,” but they are on my bookshelf, at the ready.

Like Sedaris and Lamott, some authors you can absolutely trust to captivate and entrance while others? Not so much. Fortunately, of the 26 books I read this year, only four were disappointing: “The Outcasts” by Kathleen Kent, “Whores on the Hill” by Colleen Curan, Marissa Silver’s “Mary Coin” and, in spite of its Pulitzer, Donna Tart’s “The Goldfinch.”

The rest were delish, including Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” about a researcher who is sent into the Amazon in search of colleague’s remains. Though the book’s ending leaves you to decide what happens, the story and writing were gorgeous.

Similarly “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats” by Jan-Philipp Sendker was a sweeping tale of an adult daughter’s search for her missing father that takes her from New York to Burma. Captivating in the telling of the two lives her father lived, this tale was a beautiful example of love and sacrifice.

Additional adult books included “California” by Edan Lepucki, which I wrote about in September, “The House Girl” by Tara Conklin, “The Telling Room” by Michael Paterniti, Barbara Kingsolver’s debut novel “The Bean Trees,” Fr. Thomas Keating’s “Finding Grace at the Center” and “The Story of Beautiful Girl” by Rachel Simon who also wrote “Riding the Bus with My Sister,” adapted for tv starring Rosie O’Donnell.

For lighter reads, I ventured into young-adult lit. In addition to “We Were Liars,” I discovered “Radiance” by Alyson Noel, the first in a series about a young girl’s mission in the Afterlife. Then Ransom Rigg’s came out with his second in his “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series, “Hollow City,” continuing the journey of the peculiar children’s effort to save their beloved mistress Miss Peregrine.

Finally, this year saw a few books adapted to screen, including “Rosewater,” the directorial debut of The Daily Show’s John Stewart. Based on the personal narrative by Maziar Bahari, “Then They Came For Me” tells of Bahari’s imprisonment and torture in an Iranian prison for his journalism. I’ve yet to see the film, but this book reminded me that despite our imperfect system, it’s good to be American.

To finish out 2014, I’m currently reading Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” a weird look at the various idols and stories that built our history and shape our present views.

While 26 books in a year could be many to some or just a few to others, whatever you do KEEP READING! Happy New Year!!!

Originally published 27 December 2014 in The Observer.

From ‘The Giver’ to ‘The Roosevelts,’ HOPE

I can’t remember which book I read first, Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” or Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It was only a couple of years ago, but what I do remember is feeling hopeless.

If that was how those books made me feel, why read more? Admittedly, I can be a little dense and it would take several more brushes with dystopian literature before I’d grasp the meaning of such a category.

There was the buzz over “The Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins. With the first movie set for release in 2012, I read all three before. Then there was Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series.

Fortunately my mom, aunts and cousins formed a book club before I could read Roth, thus steering me away from such bummer reads. That, and the ridiculously addictive “50 Shades” was released that same year.

But eventually I found myself back in the future, watching the big screen version of Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” and reading Edan Lepucki’s “California” this summer.

As mentioned, I can be a little simple and while I’d heard the word “dystopian” thrown about, it didn’t dawn on me that this was the category of literature I’d been consuming until this summer when muscling through Lepucki’s debut tome about life after the collapse of the U.S. government.

My husband asked me what it meant, dystopian literature. I said, “Think the opposite of ‘utopia.’”

I’m not sure what came first, my current episode of depression or reading this depressing genre, but they certainly haven’t helped one another.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when a close friend recently asked me to stop reading dystopian literature, “at least for the rest of the year.”

She should’ve included movies in that plea as my daughter and I saw “The Giver” over the weekend.

I’ve heard some fans of the book argue the movie did not follow the story as much as they’d hoped. Myself, I didn’t like the movie (or the book) because it’s so dang depressing!

My critics would argue all these books and movies end on hope-full notes, that the characters realize the err in such a life and seek change for the better. I, however, get snagged on the society those characters are pushing against—how did it get that way?!

With “The Giver,” life has been sterilized against all emotion, all choice in exchange for an easily controlled, peaceful society. Daily medication is administered to everyone in an effort to keep the senses dulled and the mind clouded.

But when the lead character, Jonas, nears graduation, he begins to glimpse moments of color. At graduation, when teens are assigned their careers, Jonas learns he’s going to be trained as a “Receiver” and in meeting with the “Giver” (played by Jeff Bridges) Jonas starts to question everything.

As memories of the human race are transmitted from the Giver to the Receiver, Jonas begins to understand society has been robbed of all the freedoms that make us human—freedom to feel, freedom to see, freedom to sense.

The book version ends with Lowry leaving the reader to decide what happens to Jonas. The movie chooses a more definitive, happier ending. Both endings left me sad.

How does a society implode in such a way that results in having all choice removed?!

I’d like to imagine we’re far from such a dystopia, but we’re not. Look at the state of our nation.

Our government doesn’t work. Our nation remains hung up on skin color and gender. Our Supreme Court ruled money talks. Our middle class is dying from stagnant wages, rising costs and an unfair tax code. Our manufacturing was exported. Our jobs were out-sourced. And the only people benefitting from America’s current way of life is our elite class, the 1 percenters.

To me, it feels as if our country is barreling towards an abyss from which we’ll never recover, so thick is the hatred and greed.

But then came Ken Burns. This amazing film maker has released yet another series, the seven-day “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” on public television, which concludes tonight.

I find hope in Burns refusing to let history be forgotten, in his innate ability to show people the similarities between their then and our now.

With “The Roosevelts,” Burns is able to show how important it is for government to intercede when the “ruling class” refuses.

From this early 20th century era, our country saw positive change come to the working poor with improvements made in wages, working conditions and hours. Women gained the right to vote. Monopolies and trusts were destroyed.

What happened? Several decades of “can-do” Americanism, though some will try to argue this impetus.

I take heart in knowing others have been watching “The Roosevelts” and will acknowledge its parallels to today’s weakened America. My hope is still others will begin to recognize the lies some media are selling them, will grasp the necessity for helping the less fortunate, will see that 99 percent of us are held hostage by the ruling class.

My main hope, however, is that people will open their eyes and ears and hearts to understand that the society in which we live is broken. But, most importantly, that we can do better and thus avoid a dystopian reality.

Originally published 20 September 2014 in The Observer.