Winter Book Reviews: 1 of 3

It’s the notion that there is no perfection—that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say hallelujah under those circumstances.—Leonard Cohen

I received so many great books for Christmas the stack of winter nightstand reads is expanding to include a few not pictured, specifically Anne Lamott’s ALMOST EVERYTHING and Sigrid Nunez’s THE FRIEND. Along with THE GREAT BELIEVERS, these forays into stories and examples of hope give me hope for 2019. 

THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai. 

Makkai worked on this beautifully executed novel in Albert’s Room, the same room at Ragdale where I finished my manuscript in September. We are fellow Albertinians where legend has it writers staying in the room are more productive. The magic of the room certainly worked its way into TGB. I loved this book. 

Yale and Fiona are friends in the 1980s as the AIDS epidemic sweeps through Chicago. Fiona loses her brother to the disease. In her grief, Fiona becomes caretaker to her brother’s sick friends while Yale is trying to secure an art collection for the gallery he works for while dealing with opposition from the family. Fast forward thirty years and Fiona is in Paris trying to find her adult daughter to hopefully mend what little relationship they’ve had over the years. Although the situation is the loss of so many to AIDS, I found the real story, the blood and soul of the novel,  told by the female characters on the burdens and privileges of being the curators of the memories of all those lost to oblivion. 

Favorite line(s): She was struck by the selfish thought that this was not fair to her. That she’d been in the middle of a different story, one that had nothing to do with this. She was a person who was finding her daughter, making things right with her daughter, and there was not room in that story for the idiocy of extreme religion, the violence of men she’d never met. Just as she’d been in the middle of a story about divorce when the towers fell in New York City, throwing everyone’s careful plans to shit. Just as she’d once been in a story about raising her own brother, growing up with her brother in the city on their own, making it in the world, when the virus and the indifference of greedy men had steamrolled through. She thought of Nora, whose art and love were interrupted by assassination and war. Stupid men and their stupid violence, tearing apart everything good that was ever built. Why couldn’t you ever just go after your life without tripping over some idiot’s dick?


Lamott’s books are like prayer books in subject matter and appearance. Preaching has never read so well. And in this memoir, we learn “almost everything” Lamott knows and believes. First, the paradoxical nature of going deeper into life and finding it uncomfortable but that uncomfortableness meaningful. Sometimes this requires “unplugging” from our gadgets and not allowing the haters in the world to get you to hate them. Yes, I know, a paradoxical conundrum for the courageous. She writes about teaching creative writing to adults and children with the same set of instructions. “Grip those pencils . . . close your eyes, let your heads drop to your chests while you study what is on the screen behind your eyes.” The importance of showing up and spending time with the sick and elderly. Lamott writes: “More than any other sentence I have ever come across, I love Ram Dass’s line that when all is said and done, we are all just walking each other home.” Included are Lamott’s take on God and food and my favorite chapter on families, titled “Famblies,” where my favorite line(s) come from.

Favorite line(s): If the earth is forgiveness school, family is your postdoctoral fellowship. Family is hard hard, a crucible. Think Salem witch trials, or Senator Joseph McCarthy and House Un-American Activities Committee, great pain from which great transformation arises. The family is the crucible in which these strange entities called identities are formed, who we are and aren’t but agreed to be.


THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez 

The winner of the National Book Award in 2018, THE FRIEND, is a distillation of one woman’s grief and surprise at love after losing her friend and mentor and then becoming the caretaker for the late friend’s dog. The narrative reminded me of the movie, “Forrest Gump.” Forrest is sitting on a park bench waiting for a bus all the while telling the story about the Vietnam War, Greenbow, and Jenny to different strangers sitting next to him. Nunez’s unnamed narrator, a creative writing instructor, tells her story to her dead friend, and to us, her readers, in mostly short passages of internal ruminations. She vows to take care of the dog no matter his age, his Great Dane size, and the threat of eviction from her apartment, which doesn’t allow dogs. It is a beautiful story on the meditations of writing and the writer's life, of friendship and suffering, both human and animal. I laughed. I cried. Headed to the Favorite Books Shelf. 

Favorite line(s): “It’s not his fault he’s not a cute little puppy. It’s not his fault he’s so big. And it might sound crazy, but I have this feeling that if I don’t keep him something bad will happen. If he has to move one more time, he could develop so many problems he’ll end up having to be put down. And I can’t let that happen. I have to save him.” 

    Wife One says, “Who are we talking about?”

    Is this the madness at the heart of it? Do I believe that if I am good to him, if I act selflessly and make sacrifices for him, do I believe that if I love Apollo—beautiful, aging, melancholy Apollo—I will wake one morning to find him gone and you in his place, back from the land of the dead?