“Few forms of life appeal so strongly to the aesthetic sense. They are beautiful; they arouse curiousity; their elusiveness piques the imagination; and by constantly presenting new aspects they escape becoming commonplace.” Percy Taverner (Canadian ornithologist) in a letter written to Louise de Kiriline Lawrence.
Myrtle (yellow-rumped) warbler
Quote taken from Woman Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay by Merilyn Simonds; ECW Press 2022
I’ll start by saying the next three books I read for my prize winning challenge were all on the heavy side. All well-written and I learned a great deal about different places and times, but not exactly uplifting.
The first, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2021. The Edgar Awards are given by the Mystery Writers of America and named for their patron saint, Edgar Allan Poe.
Nine-year old Jai lives with his family in India where there are too many people, dogs, and rickshaws. A smoggy sky blocks the sun, but from his doorway he can see the lights of the city’s high-rises where his mother works as a maid. Jai loves to watch reality police shows, so when one of his classmates goes missing, he enlists the help of his two best friends to try and find her. It almost seems like a game as they question people and gather clues, but when other children go missing, they begin to realize that something sinister is going on in their neighborhood.
This was a tough read but I’m glad I read it. The author worked as a reporter in India for many years. She was able to interview and talk with children who worked as scavengers or begged in the streets. She soon learned that around 180 children disappear in India every day, so she wrote this book to give them a voice and to make others aware of this problem.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2020.
This story takes place in Florida in the 1960’s and is based on the history of a real reform school which operated there for 111 years. Elwood Curtis, abandoned by his parents but raised by his grandmother, Elwood believes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King–he is as good as anyone. Given an opportunity to enroll in the local black college, Elwood believes his future is bright, but when someone gives him what seems to be an innocent ride, his whole world comes crashing down.
Sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood is hopeful that he can do his time, keep up his studies, and get out soon. Unfortunately, Nickel Academy is a place of nightmares rather than reform and hope. This is only my second book by Whitehead, but I love his writing and look forward to reading more of his books. The following quote is from Whitehead on how and where he got the idea for the book.
“This book is fiction and all the characters are my own, but it was inspired by the story of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. I first heard of the place in the summer of 2014 and discovered Ben Montgomery’s exhaustive reporting in the Tampa Bay Times. Check out the newspaper’s archive for a firsthand look. Mr. Montgomery’s articles led me to Dr. Erin Kimmerle and her archaeology students at the University of South Florida. Their forensic studies of the grave sites were invaluable and are collected in their Report on the Investigation into the Deaths and Burials at the Former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. It is available at the university’s website.” Colson Whitehead
The Known World by Edward P. Jones. Won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2004.
“A man does not learn very well, Mr. Robbins. Women, yes, because they are used to bending with whatever wind comes along. A woman, no matter the age, is always learning, always becoming. But a man, if you will pardon me, stops learning at fourteen or so. He shuts it all down, Mr. Robbins. A log is capable of learning more than a man. To teach a man would be a battle, a war, and I would lose.” Fern Elston
Wow! I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. Again, another great piece of writing. Jones takes a few facts about Virginia in the early 1800’s & creates a county much as Faulkner did in his books. It’s a story about slavery, (including black people owning slaves), families, small towns, greed, love, hate, and everything in between. Though not as long as some books written like this, I could see it being serialized on one of the many streaming networks in the vein of Roots or Lonesome Dove. 5 stars
I have now covered nine of the twelve prize-winning books I challenged myself to read this year. (I am currently reading my twelth). It has been interesting to see which books have won prizes and which have come out on top from both the long and short lists. Obviously, much has to do with the judges which change from year to year. Does knowing a book has won a certain prize inspire you to read it? Especially (or maybe only) if it wins in a genre you prefer? Or does that even interest you at all? What does it mean for a book to win a prize? It definitely puts them on people’s radar and many which had been virtually unknown go on to become best-sellers. Fair or not?
I’m sure I could have added a few more pictures, but these are my favorites. The highlight of the month was having a photo-op with a barred owl. As you can see, I took quite a few pictures. He seemed as curious to watch me as I was enthralled with him. To see more of my pictures, follow me on Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/pmgilmer27/
I wrote in a previous post of the twelve prize-winning books I challenged myself to read this year and gave a quick review of the first three I read. Here are the next three.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. It also won the Puddly Award for Short Stories in 2001 and the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel in 2000. This group of short stories portray the immigrant experience, specifically those from India to the U.S. Usually in a group of short stories, there are not only some I like more than others, there are a few I may not like it all. This book proved the exception as I found every story well-written and enjoyed them all.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021. This is an odd little book (which, in fairness, I knew going in), but I can’t say I ever really warmed to it. I would have liked to have read this with a group, as I am sure it could generate some good conversation, but in spite of its short nature, I believe it would be a hard sell for the two groups I am currently in.
For most of the book, there are only two characters. Piranesi is the narrator of the story and he lives in a building which seems to be a never-ending maze. If that’s not enough, it is built on (in?) an ocean and knowing and understanding the tides is critical. Piranesi has lived there long enough to find his way around and to understand the tides.
The other character doesn’t live there but visits Piranesi twice a week to ask Piranesi to help him with some research. Piranesi only calls this man “The Other”. When Piranesi finds evidence of the existence of another person, things begin to change between P and The Other; and not in a good way.
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1993 as well as the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. It also won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1992.
I admit, Doomsday Book was a bit of a slog at times, but overall, I enjoyed it. A book of time travel where a young woman, Kivrin, is sent to the Middle Ages, but, unfortunately, lands in 1348, the beginning of the Black Death. Meanwhile, back in London, an unknown virus breaks out and quarantine is placed around Oxford, making it impossible to find out what has happened to Kivrin, never mind bringing her back. I loved the characters and was amused at some of the predictions Willis made back in the 90’s (in her world, the only improvement on phones was a visual and this was supposed to be in the 2050’s), and the way a pandemic was handled in this futuristic England. The descriptions of the Black Death made me thankful the pandemic we are facing (as bad as it is) is hardly so grim. Interesting that there are so many extremely negative reviews on goodreads for this book that won so many awards. I think sometimes people try too hard to read books that just aren’t right for them. Or maybe they just enjoy writing negative reviews. 5 stars for me.
It’s that time of the year when everyone is making lists of their favorites or what they consider the best of . . . My favorite reads from the past year are a bit all over the place since I read from many genres, but I suppose it’s no surprise that many of these are historical fiction. I’ve finished 142 books this year, but I didn’t try to pick out 21 of the best. (I came close though). These were not (necessarily) books published in 2021, but books I read in 2021. I will list them (in no particular order) along with a short review.
The Beacon of Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw, first published in 1986.
Historical fiction taking place in the 4th century AD. A young woman wants to be a doctor, but women aren’t allowed to study medicine, so she disguises herself as a eunuch and leaves her home in Ephesus to go to Alexandria where she hopes to find someone who will take her on as an apprentice. She soon apprentices to a Jewish doctor, becomes caught up in church politics and has to flee again. This time she finds herself as an army doctor for the Romans, but life continues to be complicated. I have loved every book I have read by Bradshaw and this is no exception. Great characters and interesting historical background.
The Truest Pleasure by Robert Morgan (1995) takes place in North Carolina after the Civil War and into the 20th century. Ginny’s father has returned from the Civil War but keeping up their farm in the western North Carolina mountains is a huge task for the two of them. When she meets Tom (whose father didn’t return from the war), their attraction for each other and the land are enough for them to marry. Though Ginny wonders at times if Tom was really more attracted to her father’s land than her, they continue to work at their marriage. Their struggles come when Tom becomes obsessed with making money, and Ginny wants to spend time at Pentecostal tent meetings. Both see the other’s passion as foolishness.
The Night Watchman Louise Erdrich (2020; Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2021). My first book by Lousie Erdrich. Erdrich based her story on her grandfather and his fight to stop a bill in Congress which wanted to terminate Native Americans in the name of freedom. It is 1953 and Thomas Wazhashk, a Chippewa Council member and a night watchman at a jewel bearing plant near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota learns of a bill that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land. He meets with others on the council to try and decide what they can do to stop this. Another main character, Pixie or Patrice, also works at the jewel bearing plant and desires to do something with her life besides get married and have kids. She has an older sister, Vera, who has disappeared in the city of Minneapolis, so Patrice decides to try to find her. What she finds is exploitation and soon needs to escape herself. Great characters and a fascinating story.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (2013). I’ve heard a lot about O’Farrell (even before she won the Women’s Prize for Fiction last year), but this was my first book by her, and I couldn’t put it down.
While taking care of everyday business at her vintage clothing shop, Iris Lockhart receives a letter, then a phone call. Cauldstone Hospital is closing and they need to know what she wants to do with her great-aunt Esme. Iris is sure there is some mistake as she has never heard of this woman. She soon learns that her grandmother’s claims of being an only child were false and that her sister had been committed (and ignored) to this hospital over sixty years ago. Once she meets Esme and does some research, she is horrified to learn how little it took for a family to get rid of an unwanted and embarrassing relative.
O’Farrell tells Esme’s story through flashbacks, some from Esme’s viewpoint and others through her sister’s whose mind is now clouded with dementia. I found her storytelling compelling and engaging, though, like Iris, I was also horrified to think of the many (mostly) women who may have ended up in institutions such as this with no one to plead their cause. I will definitely be reading more from O’Farrell.
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle Monique Roffey (2009). This is the story of a marriage and also a snapshot of the history of Trinidad. I lived in Trinidad for a couple of years (the years portrayed at the end of the book) and I wish I had been able to read this then. I’m sure it would have given me a better understanding of the country’s history and politics.
Still, in spite of the unusual way it was told (the last years are told first), I found the story of George and Sabine compelling, sad, and relatable. From England, George is offered a job with his company in Trinidad and he promises his wife they will only be there for a couple of years. George immediately falls in love with the country, and Sabine–does not. She grits her teeth and determines to stick it out, but as the years go by, the strain is felt on their marriage. Fiction shortlist for Orange Prize in 2010.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January Alix E. Harrow (2019). Loved this stand alone fantasy. January is of mixed race and questionable origin being raised by a white man in London while her father travels the world finding unusual artifacts for this wealthy man. Is he a benefactor or a prison warden? January finds a door to another world early in her childhood but her guardian insists it is in her mind and when she goes back to find it, it has been destroyed. When January is 16, everything she knows is being questioned and her life and sanity become endangered. I could write more & more about this book, but if you want to read a good stand-alone fantasy, just read it!
Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese (2009). Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born in Ethiopia in 1954. Orphaned by their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, they are raised by two doctors from the hospital where they were born, and not surprisingly, they both become interested in medicine though in different fields. Revolution and untold secrets cause Marion to have to flee to America where he learns more of his father’s history.
A fictionalized version of what might have happened when Agatha Christie first rode the Orient Express. Trying to escape the shame and hurt of her divorce, Christie rides incognito and soon meets two other women with secrets of their own. Together, they help each other out and even become involved in an archaeological dig when they reach Baghad.
I listened to several excellent audio books this year which was in no small part due to the excellent narrators. The first of my top five audio books: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by Victoria Schwab (2020), narrated by Julia Whelan. In France, some 300 years ago, Addie is about to be married to a man not of her dreams. She runs into the forest and calls out for help though she has been warned never to call to the gods of the night. When a man in black offers to give her the life she wants in exchange for her soul, Addie gladly accepts, not understanding the consequences of such an agreement. She will have a (very) long life but will not be remembered by anyone who meets her.
Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory (2020), narrated by Louise Brealey. I reviewed the first in this two book series last year (Tidelands) which I also listened to on audio. Midsummer Eve 1670 at a warehouse on the River Thames, Alinor receives two unexpected visitors and neither are entirely welcome. James Avery is the lover who deserted her years earlier. The other is a Venetian woman who claims to be the widow of Alinor’s son, Rob. Alinor refuses to see the first and though outwardly she accepts the widow’s claims–inwardly, she does not believe her son is dead. Her daughter, however, is taken in by this glamourous Venetian, so Alinor must bide her time to learn what has truly happened to her son.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016). Though unfamiliar with Noah’s comedy routines, I had heard he read this memoir himself and did a great job. I totally agree that his reading was excellent and often humorous, but it is much deeper than just a comedy routine. Born to a black mother and a white father in apartheid South Africa, Noah’s birth was literally a crime. Noah tells what it was like growing up where his mother and grandmother often had to hide him to keep him from being taken away and themselves arrested. His mother plays a key role in his life and is a delightful character as well. Noah gets into many escapades, but his mother makes sure he gets an education and never wavers from making him learn and to always do his best.
When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain (2021), narrated by Marin Ireland (one of my favorite narrators). Anna is a missing persons detective. When a tragedy occurs in her life, she takes off and goes to a small town where she had felt comfortable and loved as a foster child in high school. One of the first things she sees there is a poster for a missing teen. Even though she is there to escape her own grief, she soon becomes involved in this case. She meets old friends and uncovers old secrets.
Honorable mentions: Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018).
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012). Another that was excellent on audio. Narrated by Julia Wheland and Kirby Heyborne.
September by Rosamunde Pilcher (1990).
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron (2001).
Wintercombe by Pamela Belle (1988).
The last three were rereads, something I seemed to do more of this year. Happily, these three were still enjoyable and fun to read.
Have you ever thought about the conversations between Jesus and Satan when Jesus was living in a physical body on this earth? We get some hints of what this may have been like from the book of Job where a conversation between God and Satan is recorded, but other than knowing that Jesus was indeed tempted, we don’t have much to go on. Some years ago, I wrote an epic tale of the Christ and his struggle with his Adversary, Satan. And, yes, I used The Odyssey as a model for my format (not the content). Divided into “Books” (the first being an introduction) the second Book is entitled The Wilderness Temptations. Here is an excerpt which I hope you will both enjoy and will provoke some thought concerning the Christ and his earthly life.
The First Temptation
On that forty-first day, the God-Man woke
to hunger pangs and discovered his body
had become weak from that month-plus trial.
As his eyes focused to face the day,
he saw his Adversary standing at
his feet, smiling a crooked smile and shining
bright as the desert sun. “Good morning,
old friend,” he said. “Surprised to see me? But
didn’t I promise to come back? You will
find that I, unlike some others, keep all
my promises and will never forget
you or leave you for too long, for I am
concerned about you and how you’re spending
your life and squandering your potential.
I suppose with all this time to think and
consider, you’ve come to realize that you
could not possibly be the Son of God?
Since I am the one who has come to check
on you and see if your needs are being
met, it is obvious,” and his eyes swept
the horizon and the God-Man’s surroundings
and came back with a look of distaste, “that
your Heavenly Father,” and he spat the
two words out, “has not been by or if He has,”
and he smiled a sinister smile, “He has
done nothing to secure your belief that
you are His Son, has He?” Unperturbed, the
God-Man rose to his feet and answered, “Quite the
contrary. He has been here in many
wonderful ways–ways you could never see
or understand–and He has only confirmed
my belief and my profession that I Am
His Son and His Chosen.” Satan attempted
to mask the furious anger that welled up
within him with a strained smile which truly
appeared as a grimace. Then with eyes ablaze,
he said in a voice dipped in honey,
“Of course, you are. Whoever said you weren’t?
But, tell me, have you had breakfast yet?” As
if in answer, the God-Man’s fleshly insides
began to grumble, bringing delight to
his Antagonist though he tried to cover
this with a false look of concern and
pity as he waited for an answer. “No,
there’s been no breakfast here. Only rocks and
dust, as you can see.” And Satan nodded as
if in sympathy but then he appeared
to have an idea and said with great
enthusiasm, “But you are the Son
of God, remember? If you are the Son
of God, you should have no problem coming
up with a substantial meal and then we
can talk over some business.” Eyebrow arched,
the God-Man gazed at his rival and said,
“I was not aware we had any business
to discuss.” And Satan again smiled that
patient smile. “Of course, but how can you think
on an empty stomach? An empty
stomach causes the head to be light and
the heart to be weak. Come, you say you are
the Son of God, let us see you come up
with some breakfast. The Son of God shouldn’t
be out here in this wilderness where the
wild beasts are quite well-fed, yet here he is,
his guts crying out in torment, as he
stands by, as if helpless. You say you
are the Son of God but for thirty years
you have lived in practical poverty
submitting yourself to the surroundings
into which you have been thrust and now you bow
to the elements. To the things which you,
yourself, claim to have created. How can
you possibly allow yourself to be
subdued by the works of your own hands? Come,
if you are the Son of God, tell these stones
here to become bread for your breakfast. They
will be glad to be of service to their
Master, for isn’t that why they were formed?
To serve their Master and obey his commands?
In fact, I daresay that your creation
has been watching you in wonder and has
been speculating as to why you have
not called on them earlier. Can you not
see their eagerness to serve you? Come, Son
of God, call on them; exercise your power
and authority. You say God has now
anointed you to be King, so be King.
Prepare your breakfast so we can discuss
deeper matters.” Folding his arms, Satan
stood back and waited, his impatience
obvious, but the God-Man refused to
make a hasty decision knowing well
this was not as simple a matter as
his Adversary portrayed it. He
also knew the power he possessed had
been given to him by his Father, so
consideration of his Father’s will
must be made. But he was hungry and his
insides churned once more as if to remind
him of his responsibility to
them, too. He gazed on the stones and easily
imagined them as loaves and could almost
smell them baking in the sun and taste
their flaky crusts and their soft middle–
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. His
Adversary watched him intently, though
he tried to appear both nonchalant
and impatient. Impatient as in:
‘This is no big deal, you know, get on
with it.’ And nonchalant as in: ‘But then
again, it is no matter to me, one
way or the other.’ A faint smile played on
the God-Man’s lips as he read all this in
his Opponent’s face which caused that angel
to simmer. He managed to keep his
temper in check and gazed calmly back at
his prey as he waited for an answer,
a decision to be made. Then Satan recalled
another king he had tempted, that first
king of Israel whom he convinced that
waiting for God’s provisions and living
strictly by His rules was not only
unnecessary but also senseless
when you could take care of the matter
yourself. So, Israel’s first king bent the rules
of a God of no compromise–not once
but twice–and he who was to be a
great king and leader was instead a
failure and died a scorned and rejected
king and man. Satan knew he did not need
to lead this present and final king
to compromise more than once for once
would be enough. Now he almost became
excited before the deed was done, smelling
the sweet smell of such a victory, and he
trembled but caught himself when he saw the
curious look from his prey. “Come on,”
he snapped. “What’s taking you so long? You act as
if you faced a monumental decision.
I only want you to eat, so we can talk.
Sustain yourself, my friend,” he added
more gently, his words becoming
like honey at his command, causing
the God-Man to once more remember his
hunger. Again, he looked at the stones, but
this time they brought to mind days of old,
and he saw the children of Israel
led into a similar desert and
led into a similar temptation
to be taught . . . what? Obedience. Yes, that
was it–obedience. Now he recalled
they had failed their test and he reflected
on why. He remembered their grumbling
and identified their discontent as
an expression of their lack of trust
and confidence in God as their provider.
Knowing himself to be the new Israel,
he realized if he treated himself to
breakfast (as his Adversary had so
artfully suggested), he would be
expressing the same lack of confidence.
So, summoning up the Scriptures in his mind,
he recalled God’s word on it all: ‘Remember
how the Lord your God led you all the way
in the desert these forty years, to humble
you and to test you in order to know
what was in your heart, whether or not you
would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing
you to hunger and then feeding you with
manna, which neither you nor your fathers
had known, to teach you that–‘ and he stopped and
smiled as the answer was there and the
clarity in his mind shone on his face,
and Satan inwardly recoiled as he
caught a whiff of the air of defeat.
But stiffly he waited and then it came
as in a clear and steady voice the God-Man
said in his new-found strength, “It is written:
‘Man does not live on bread alone but on
every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.'”
I have often considered writing “my story,” my testimony, something to leave to my children. Several weeks ago, my pastor encouraged us as a congregation to do that very thing. Write down your story. Why? Because it is your testimony of God’s power in your life. No one can argue with your story, discount it, discredit it. It is yours and it is God’s gift to you. Why do we hestitate to share it?
In Your Story Matters, Fields leads you chapter by chapter in how to seek out, put together, and tell your story. Why? “And since the One Who is Running All Things, including galaxies, takes care to notice lost sheep, dying sparrows, and falling hair, we should notice as well. Writing helps us notice what God notices. So write your story because God attends to every moment of your life and you should too.”
Writing your story doesn’t mean writing about your life from birth until the present. It’s not about telling every childhood memory (whether good or bad); it’s not about spilling the beans on your personal or family secrets; and it’s definitely not about a chance for revenge. It should be about a significant moment of your life, a turning point, and–if you’re a Christian–a refining moment between you and God.
“The inner story is not the record of everything that has happened to you; rather, it focuses on a key theme and transformative event in your life.”
You may not believe yourself to be a writer and may have no interest in writing anything else, but this book is for everyone because everyone has a story. At the end of each chapter are writing prompts and assignments with practical steps for discovering and writing your story. I read through the book first, but I now plan to go back and do the assignments and write my own story. I can’t wait to see where God will take me in this adventure.
If you’ve been wanting to share your story, but not sure where to start, I highly recommend reading this book and following the writing exercises.
This book is now available for preorder wherever you buy your books.
*A pdf copy of this book was provided to me for an honest review.
Last week I attended a writers’ conference in Liberty, N.C. put on by Serious Writer (www.seriouswriter.com) Going to a conference can be a big commitment as well as an extra expense–especially for struggling writers. What are some reasons for attending a writers’ conference?
To meet other writers. Why is this important? We writers spend our working hours alone and a lot of time just in our own heads. To meet others who also have this strange way of living is refreshing and encouraging. As C.S. Lewis put it: “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another ‘What, you, too? I thought that no one but myself . . .'”
To meet people in the “business.” You know, editors, agents, publishers, and, did I mention other writers?
To attend workshops that will help you better your craft.
To have your questions answered. To learn what your questions should be in the first place.
To hear other people’s stories. You know, other writers.
Encouragement. I had to force myself to make some appointments to pitch my book, but I’m glad I did. I don’t know yet what may come of the appointments, but I did get some positive feedback.
Worship. As Christians, we should worship God in whatever we do. Attending a conference with other Christians makes this easier and is a good reminder of Who we’re working for.
I’m already looking forward to next year. What about you? Have you been to a writers’ conference this year? Making plans to go soon?