Thursday, June 4, 2020

What to Read. Now.

A few of the faves from my shelves! 
I consider questions to be good things. I see questioning as a sign of humility and a desire to understand. When I was a reporter I always ended interviews the same way: “Is there something I failed to ask you? What else do I need to know?”

So the fatigue expressed by Black people … especially students of color attending predominately white schools … who say they are SICK of explaining racism to Whites who ask, left me stranded. As a professional question asker, I wondered: what do I do now? 

How do I learn/change/grow if my very questions cause offense?

Luckily, my husband and I have trusted Black friends who didn’t mind setting us straight when we broached this with them.

“Read,” they told us. “It’s all been said. It’s all been explained. Over and over and over. It’s right there. Read.”

As a reader/writer/visiting-author-educator, turning to books comes naturally, and sharing good reads is ... well, almost a bit of a fault. I'm always thrusting a volume or two at someone. So this blog post is devoted to a few resources out there, a few books I’ve loved/learned from, and suggestions from others. 

Dr. Nell Irvin Painter's The History of White People explores the concept of "whiteness" through history and examines how being "white" is a social construct that changes over time. Check out her website to see the full list of her books and articles, plus links to interviews. Her latest book, Old in Art School, is a wonderful memoir about her decision, after a distinguished career as a history professor/scholar, to lean into her love of painting and get her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design.

My book group read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me and James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time together. It was pretty devastating to read these profound accounts side-by-side and see how much hasn't changed.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo will challenge you. Make you mad, make you defensive. Which is the point. I, for one, struggle to square DiAngelo's assertion that white liberals who think they aren't racist are somehow a more egregious group than the Sheriff Joe Arpaios and Earl Lees of this world. But hey: that's just my fragility. At any rate, this book changed the way I think, helped me reevaluate my words and actions and motivated me to set a higher bar for myself. Instead of smugly thinking "I'm not like those lynching sheriffs!" I'm trying to be on my guard for "Karen"-like or Amy Cooper-like biases within myself.

The Fire is Upon Us by Nicholas Buccola brings to life the famous debate about race in America at the Cambridge Union between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr.  I've linked to the review here: says it all, this is a fascinating read.

2019 and 2020 releases!

Covid-19 wiped out half my book tour for How to Build a Heart, which meant I missed appearing on a panel in March at the Virginia Festival of the Book with poet/YA novelist Morgan Parker. I still managed to read her star-reviewed Who Put This Song On? and her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning poetry collection Magical Negro. Expect to be startled: both are amazing. Also cancelled at the Festival was Jaquira Díaz who has just published a memoir, Ordinary Girls, about growing up in housing projects in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach. Visit the Virginia Humanities Council Shelf Life page to hear their interview with Jaquira and other authors who were scheduled to appear this year.

Resources and More Reading

From the Library of Congress Books and Beyond program, October 2015, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely discuss their book, All American Boys.  Not only is this story about police violence and systemic racism a must-read for all young adults right now, but Jason and Brendan are must-see presenters! They relate wonderfully to young people, and even if your school can't afford to bring them in "live," you can share this terrific video with your students.

The Beacon Press, founded in Boston in 1854, is an independent publisher of serious non-fiction. Their books promote values of free speech and thought; diversity; religious pluralism; anti-racism and diversity. Go to their website and be AMAZED at the wonders you'll find there!

The Brown Bookshelf is a fabulous source for books for children and students. Designed to promote awareness of the myriad Black voices writing for young readers, it's a great place to find wonderful blog posts as well as titles ranging from picture books to young adult novels.

Educator Lesley Roessing has written a terrific book for teachers called Talking Texts, which includes lists, topics and How-tos. Check out her Facebook page for her latest excellent suggestions. She's put together a wonderful YA list for novels that deal with "Society. Social Justice and Moral Dilemmas."

Stone Bookworms: An Anti-Racist Reading List This blogpost from Stone Bookworms has a bunch of great titles and reviews, but also additional resource links.

"The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. "The" article from The Atlantic.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. The movie was very good; the book is life changing. It's a must-read, about the work of the courageous civil rights lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative.

Honestly? I'm realizing this list is potentially endless. So, I'll end the blog the way I end my interviews: What have I missed? Tell me what I don't know. Comment away.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Pandemic Dayze

I’m struggling to find Silver Linings right now, even though I’m well aware that we’re the lucky ones. No one in our family is sick. We have a paycheck coming in. We have a safe home where we can sequester ourselves.

Still, I’ve been working overtime to beat back feelings of sadness … and yes, worry, because this is my JOB … over the demise of my book launch for How to Build a Heart. It takes so long to write a book, and the early months of sales are so, so important getting the story out there. We had a few weeks of events before the whole thing stuttered to a halt, and I really don’t know what that means for this title. Sigh.

So, among the Silver Linings I’m trying to focus on (which include Zoom Happy Hours with friends around the country; ample time to write and garden; low gas prices … not that we’re going anywhere ...) are the creative ways the internet is filling the void.

No, I don’t mean binge watching movies on Netflix, although YES that is happening.

I mean live streaming book talks and author events and online classes.

The Tumwater High School Digital Book Club
This past week I met with a high school book group 3000 miles away in Tumwater, Washington, and laughed with them and talked to them about How to Build a Heart. This Friday I’ll zoom into a class with students from the College of the Atlantic.

And on Tuesday, April 21st, at noon EST I’ll be kicking off Shelf Life, a twice weekly livestream on Zoom and Facebook, with authors, book talks and all sorts of interesting, bookish “stuff.” I’m a little nervous about the technology (if my audio dies, I’m sunk) but otherwise I’m sure the 40 minutes will fly. And it’s a very cool, low impact way to connect with readers from around the country.

You can join us on the Virginia Festival of the Book Facebook page, or register to “Zoom in” here

The thing to focus on during these Pandemic Dayze: #SilverLinings

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Launch Day!

How to Build a Heart releases 1/28/20
It’s Book Birthday time!  Wheeeeeee! How to Build a Heart is officially “On Sale” today!

Even though my local bookseller has been ringing up copies for a few days now … shhhhhh …

But honestly, Happy Dancing Time! Launch Time! Book Party Time! Reading aloud to students and friends time! Which is my FAVORITE thing to do. I prefer it to writing. Way prefer it. But that makes sense, right? The point is to tell a story, and it’s so much more fun to tell it in person to real live breathing people. As opposed to handing someone a book and saying, “Here. Hope you like it!”


When I talk to students about writing I try to debunk the old “Write what you know,” rule. Honestly? If I only wrote what I “know,” I’d write about grocery shopping and balancing the checkbook. Vacuuming and emptying the dishwasher. Most teens don’t want to read about that.

“Write what you know is emotionally true,” I tell them. Dig deep. Connect with something you feel, something very personal. Chances are you’re not alone. Write about that.

For all my books I’ve tapped into an emotion or an uncomfortable feeling and used it to fuel a particular character’s motivation. In Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, my first novel, I wanted to write about friends growing apart. I remembered being in middle school and feeling terrible as certain friends drifted away from me. It was inevitable (I realize now) as we matured, but at the time it felt lonely and isolating. I don’t know if I behaved particularly well or kindly as it was happening. Connecting with those emotional “truths” helped me write from Brett’s 14-year old perspective, even though I was in my 40’s.

For this new book, How to Build a Heart, I had to dig deep again, this time into my background as the child of a Hispanic mother and Irish father. Growing up, I didn’t think much of it. That’s just who we were. Half our relatives spoke with Irish brogues, the other half spoke with Spanish accents. Dinner might be arroz con pollo followed by a hunk of Irish soda bread. One grandmother was Nana; the other was Abuela. Whatever.

But as I matured I realized: I really wasn’t fully any one thing. I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t look Irish. Whenever I attempted to embrace one identity or another, I felt like a fraud. Growing up was like being a guest at a country club you weren’t allowed to join.

Creating the character of Izzy Crawford, a girl whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is North Carolinian, I tapped into those feelings of ethnic and cultural displacement. I threw in a few more challenges for her — challenges I didn’t share — such as economic instability, a parent’s death. I got on board with her as she travelled the winding road which finally led to a real home, and real self-acceptance. And finally, joined her as she discovered how to define “family.”

I hope readers love Izzy and her little family as much as I do.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Poem for a Friday

The Daughter, who is in medical school, shared a poem with me. Which had been read aloud during class by one of her doctor/professors (which gives me such hope for the future of health care, that young physicians are turning to poetry as well as science as they study the healing arts) and which spoke to us after losing our dear dog yesterday.

The Daughter’s had quite the week. She held a human heart in her hands for the first time. She spent hours in the ICU (and emerged declaring that “Nurses run the world”) learning about patients who are there for 36 hours and others who are there for three months. She made time to call her mom and ask how I was feeling after wrapping my arms around Frisbee and watching her die. She processed her own feelings of loss. Frisbee was her childhood dog. Their childhood dog. Our family dog. Yesterday, as Frisbee slipped out of this world, we all held hands via phone and text: my husband on a business trip to North Carolina; our son from Los Angeles; our daughter in New Hampshire. 

It’s hard to lean into suffering. It’s hard to see pain as anything but the Awful that it is, the great interrupter of “normal” life, the barrier between the simple things we want to accomplish or the person we want to be. It’s hard to recognize the opportunity for light and learning and redemption in the midst of pain, whether that’s physical or emotional pain. I know when I’ve been in it, I’ve only had the capacity to thrash, barely keeping my head above it.  

This morning, a friend called and invited me over for a warm fire in the wood stove and tea. She lost her dog several years ago and woke this morning knowing how empty our home would feel today, the first day without our dog’s constant, loving presence. No sooner was I off the phone than another friend called from Vermont: she’s lost three dogs. She knows what that quiet house feels like.

Nothing takes away the sadness we feel, but what a light these calls have been! 

Here’s the poem. How amazing that something written in the 13th century by a man who lived in the part of the world we now call Afghanistan, so far from my cold little corner of what we’re currently calling Brunswick, Maine (formerly Massachusetts; I have no idea what the Abenaki and Penobscot people called it) could tap me on the shoulder and speak to me this morning. But there you have it.

by Rumi

Muhammad went to visit a sick friend.
Such kindness brings more kindness,
and there is no knowing the proliferation from there.

The man was about to die.
Muhammad put his face close and kissed him.

His friend began to revive.
Muhammad's visit re-created him.
He began to feel grateful for an illness
that brought such light.

And also for the backpain
that wakes him in the night.

No need to snore away like a buffalo
when this wonder is walking the world.

There are values in pain that are difficult
to see without the presence of a guest.

Don't complain about autumn.
Walk with grief like a good friend.
Listen to what he says.

Sometimes the cold and dark of a cave
give the opening we most want

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A Good Dog

Frisbee, January 9, 2020
Here’s the thing: this puppy chose me.

Skowhegan, Maine. November, 2004. I’m sitting within a small pen surrounding by squirming, teetering-toppling balls of fluff. All puppies are delightful but Australian Shepherd pups are inordinately adorable. I’m here to pick one. Choose the future canine member of our family who will make her surprise appearance for the kids under the tree on Christmas Day … and I’m examining their coloring, their eyes, their energy. I think I know what I’m looking for ….

Then the biggest, quietest, slowest, with the least “perfect” Aussie markings (I’ve done my homework!) shoulders all the others out of the way, maybe even stepping on a few in the process, climbs into my lap, curls up contently, and before settling in (and sending her sibs a very clear Back Off! message) turns to face me. To look straight into my eyes.

Hey. Where’ve you been? those eyes seemed to say. A familiar stranger. And like that, we were matched.

This dog has been my constant companion for 15 years and five novels. Her walks have been part of my writing routine. On days when it felt lonely to be trapped in an office, at the computer, while the sun shines, I would look up and see her watching me, waiting for me to take a break and go throw a ball or play hide and seek with her (she could always sniff me out!) And somehow her quiet patience helped me feel like what I was doing was important, worth waiting for.

She has been with us through extremely difficult and extremely joyful times. We have marked the years of our family through her presence.

She had an uncanny sense of our distress, and when you were sad she would press up against you.

She had teeth like razors, and if you stopped to chat with a neighbor during one of her walks she’d bite clear through the leash in order to keep moving. But if you had the tiniest treat to feed her, her little lips could sense your fingers and expertly pluck the bit without even the slightest nip.

She inhaled her meals. She was always hungry; she never said no to food. But these past days I’ve been hand feeding her kibble one pellet at a time, because she can’t bend low enough to reach the bowl. 

My husband hung jingle bells on our doorknob and trained her to ring them whenever she needed to go outside to pee. But in past weeks she has become incontinent, and distressed by her inability not only to control her bladder but to even tell us she needs to go.

On summer evenings we’d take her to the athletic fields at Bowdoin College and hurl frisbees into the air for her. She'd race, feet pounding, Seabiscuit-like, practically half a football-field’s length, leap high and snatch the dang thing from the air. But these past days her back legs have failed her, and she collapses when she tries to stand. I need to hold her up to urinate, to drink. 

This is a bluebird day, and when I brought her outside she seemed to know. She managed to prop herself into a sitting position and point her face toward the sun, and remain like that, still, for a while. Like she was soaking in the last of this dear world which she exulted in. She loved charging through the snow, racing through the woods, chasing pretty much anything we’d throw. She loved going places, anywhere, and when we’d say, “Wanna go for an automobile ride?” she’d run to the car.

These last few days I’ve watched her become imprisoned by her failing body, and it’s time to set her free. This dog chose me and trusted me to always care for her, and hard as it is to let her go it’s the last loving thing I can do. 

The poet Mary Oliver loved dogs, too. Her words help:

A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house,
     but you
do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the
trees, or the laws which pertain to them.

Bye, Friz. Thanks for being our dog.