by Emily Dietrich

December 17, 2016
by Emily
Comments Off on Indie, Quirky, and Forgotten Books for the Reader on Your List Who Has Read Everything

Indie, Quirky, and Forgotten Books for the Reader on Your List Who Has Read Everything

book-giftI figure some of you may not want the most recent, expensive hardcover new releases for the readers on your holiday list. So here are some of my recommendations.

I love books, and I read a lot of them. Far from systematic, my book-choosing method depends on where I’m standing in the book store, what dream I had the night before, what problems my friends are having, a book reading I go to. It’s not the bestseller or the Best Books of the year list from a prestigious newspaper.


Trace by Lauret Savoy (Counterpoint Press, 2015) Poetic and political memoir centered on the geology of the United States. This shakes up your thinking—in a good way.

Reptile House by Robin McLean (BOA Editions, 2015) you’ve never read short stories like this before!

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison (Vintage Book, 2015) Examines color bias within the African American community and

What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas (Scribner, 2015) Her most recent memoir will make you feel better about everything.

So Last Year But So, SO Good

Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberta Urrea (Back Bay Books, 2005) Illuminating novel about Mexican history told in excellent prose and layered story telling.

We Are Water by Wally Lamb (Harper Perennial, 2014) Lamb offers insights into parenting and relationships, different ways to hurt people and to forgive them, too.

Love by Toni Morrison (Vintage Books, 2005) you’ll get what you want from Ms. Morrison

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Juno Diaz (Riverhead Books, 2007) If you don’t fall in love with Oscar and root for him all the way, you’ve got no heart!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Random House, 2000) Chabon writes masterpieces, and he has a new book out, but if you haven’t read this one, it’s time.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Europa Editions, 2006) Not sure how a story about two introverted geniuses can be a thriller, too, but this is.

Graphic Memoirs

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) Now on the reading list of many college classes and a Broadway musical

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon Books, 2000) Iranian Satrapi shows us the Iraq she grew up in and left

Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic Graphix, 2010 and 2014) This set depicts teen angst delightfully

Stitches by David Small (McClelland and Stewart, 2010) This prolific illustrator and author of children’s works lets us in to his own past

Couch Tag by Jesse Reklaw (Fantagraphics Books, 2013) The story of a family’s journey through divorce and moves, adolescence, failure and love

Cecil and Jordan in New York Stories by Gabrielle Bell (Drawn and Quarterly, 2009) Two people trying to make it work

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me:A Graphic Memoir by Ellen Forney (Gotham Books, 2012) Forney’s voice and art pack a punch, as does her honesty about her struggle to get help for bipolar disorder

Some Lovely Novels

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama (Saint Martin’s Griffin, 1994) Lyrical story of stoicism in China and Japan during illness and war (reviewed on this blog–see archives)

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee (Penguin Books, 2009) A regular woman gets swept up in history and finds her strength

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford (Ballantine Book, 2013) An Asian-American orphan searches for his mother in Seattle during the Depression


The Last of the Good Girls: Shedding Convention, Coming Out Whole by Mary Ann Woodruff (2013) Woodruff’s beautiful prose reveals her journey toward coming out

Split: A Child, A Priest, and the Catholic Church: A Memoir by Mary Dispenza (2014) This unflinching memoir highlights faith and love in the face of abuse

Best Classic You’ve Never Heard Of

Vein of Iron by Ellen Glasgow (Harvest/HBJ Books, 1935) Glasgow brought me a new standard in integrity with her characters. Their quiet, strong wills stayed with me through some hard times in my life. I wish everyone I know had read it so I could refer to it.

Groundbreaking work that everyone is supposed to have read but most people can’t get through for the eccentric on your list

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967) Edition I read: (Harper Perennial, 1991) He does a whole thing with subverting the narrative chronology that made fiction rethink itself

Shameless Plug

The Angled Road  by Mount Holyoke College Puget Sound Writers (2016) This multi-genre collection takes its title and theme from Emily Dickinson’s poem “Experience Is the Angled Road.” $9.99 Proceeds support institutions that encourage women’s voices.

For Something Completely Different

The Librarian’s Almanaq by Roy Leban (Almanaq, 2015) This book is not read by a reader by done by solvers. It is to be ripped apart and reassembled for an hours-long puzzle session for 1-10 people (ideally 4-6) people, teen to adult.

Page Turners

Dying Breath by Wendy Corsi Staub (Zebra Book, 2008) Mystery

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult (Simon and Schuster, 2007) Explores vicissitudes of fertility issues amid divorce

Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) Will the wedding ever work out?

The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café by Alexander McCall Smith (Anchor Books, 2014) I can never get enough Precious Ramotswe, the Botswana detective, and the sweet, wise, funny way she gets it all straightened out every time. Note: the author is not from Botswana.

October 15, 2016
by Emily
1 Comment

It Had A Name: Second Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct

In 1974, my friend and I experienced our first criminal sexual incident. We were 11, just beginning 6th grade. We lived in a nice neighborhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan: trees and lawns and sidewalks for bikes, driveways for hopscotch, backyards with swing sets and jungle gyms, one yard even big enough for baseball games. My father was a lawyer; hers was a salesman. Both of our mothers, former teachers, were stay-at-home moms. We played outside until dark after dinner any time weather permitted. Everyone assumed that was perfectly safe.

That early fall night, my friend and I took a walk down a hill tree-covered hill, walking in the very middle of the street, scorning the sidewalks and our parents’ rules. Our destination: Inkster Bridge. There, believe it or not, we entertained ourselves by waving at the frustratingly infrequent cars passing under us, hoping to be rewarded with a return wave. We goofed around while we waited, chewing gum, kicking some crispy fall leaves around. Neither of us wore a bra yet. We were probably wearing polyester shirts and pants our mothers ordered from catalogues.


Watching cars in the ’70s had in it an inherent game, which we called Love Bug, but I’ve heard others call it Slug Bug. In our game, your goal was to be the first person to spot a Volkswagen Beetle on the road and yell “LOVE BUG” before anyone else. Sometimes you might punctuate your yell with “I called it,” further establishing your claim to the first sighting. My friend and I adored VW bugs, because that summer we had seen the 1968 movie, “Love Bug.” We loved the car and the characters and, without VCR or streaming services, re-enaccted and retold and rehashed it in our own little ways.

So it felt pretty great when a VW beetle pulled up right next to us on the bridge! And stopped!


“EVER SEEN ONE OF THESE BEFORE?” the white male driver shouted at us, angling himself to make eye contact from across the passenger side. Pants pushed to his knees, he was masturbating (we didn’t know that word) vigorously. To me his penis seemed huge. He watched us watch him for who knows how long and then drove away.

I didn’t like that. I didn’t understand what had happened. We didn’t know what to say about it. We didn’t have words for the experience we had just had or the feelings we were now feeling.

We walked home, and I never said a word to my parents. My friend told her parents, an act I scorned and considered weak. To me, I had experienced a grown-up moment, and I expected myself to be able to handle that on my own, since I was growing up, wasn’t I? You’re not supposed to go tattling and telling to your parents. That’s for babies.

I realized as I wrote this that my friend and I didn’t take walks on Inkster Bridge after that. We always walked on Westnedge Avenue, a very busy street where it was impossible for a car to pull over or even to slow down without risking being rear-ended. While our friendship lasted we would say knowingly to each other “Inkster Bridge” or “EVER SEEN ONE OF THESE BEFORE?” And then we’d laugh, though I know I forced my laugh sometimes . . . maybe that helped us process it.

The first time I was mad about it was after watching Thelma and Louise. And now Trump has gotten me mad in a new way. And the first time I wondered what crime had been committed was tonight, so I Googled it.

Mr. EVER-SEEN-ONE-OF-THESE-BEFORE committed Second Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct, punishable by up to 15 years in prison and, following that, a lifetime of monitoring.

And we didn’t even report him to the police. That mother fucker. And what would we have said? As this criminal expected, we were not looking at his face. Amid the masturbation and first sight of a mature, hairy penis, we didn’t know what hit us. We knew the guy was naughty and gross, but we didn’t know it was a crime. And I myself did not know then or for 40 years after that evening, that the crime committed that day against minors under 13 years of age under Michigan law has a very specific name. For my own good I say the name again: Second Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct. His act was very, very Punishable.

Six or seven years later, when I was a 17-year-old Senior in high school walking home from my bus, a similar-looking man driving an indistinct sedan, only two houses down the street from ours, stopped next to me, masturbating. I was as frozen as I had been before. As he drove away, I snapped out of it, started running after his car, pointlessly, yet indignantly. I wish now that I had had a can of mace with me, so I could have held it in his face, yelled “EVER SEE ONE OF THESE BEFORE?” And sprayed the whole thing all over his asshole face.


Now that another white male, a thug named Donald Trump, who has committed and gotten away with sexual assault and who knows what else, is attempting to become the President of the United States of America, women are telling their stories, as I am, and showing that we have not forgotten, that we will not allow it to continue, that we will risk the shame to ensure that the criminal gets consequences.

Check out the internet, Trump: EVER SEEN ONE OF THESE BEFORE? It’s an army of angry women determined to stand in your way.


August 1, 2016
by Emily
Comments Off on Love and Jazz in the Time of War

Love and Jazz in the Time of War


Esi Edugyan’s prize-winning novel Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen, 2011) tells the story of struggling African-American jazz musicians in World War II Europe. Her narrator, Sid Griffiths, is the heartsick drummer, hoping in 1992 to redeem himself from the events from 1940. Called back to commemorate a documentary about their lives in Germany, Sid asks himself to put things right, but first he re-experiences the terrible fear and painful love he felt amid Krystallnacht and the Nazi occupation of Paris.

In 1940 Berlin the young jazz ensemble’s lives are unbearably taut. The competition between them holds its own agonies, yet the musicians seem as close as brothers. Never quite measuring up as a drummer, Sid doubts everything about himself, especially in comparison with his German/African friend Hieronymos Falk, a Wunderkind who has both Louis Armstrong’s attention and that of Delilah, Sid’s heart’s desire. Making it in music, making it in love–the two are equivalent for the talented, inexperienced musicians. Their music depends on each other–but so does their survival. With Germany falling to Nazism, they leave behind the inroads to success they’ve made as jazz itself has become suspect, and the musicians flee France.

But Paris brings  failure and betrayals and instead of safety, and still, over 50 years later, everything aches. Sid may be able to release some of his guilt and shame, but not without hurting someone he loves.

Erdugyan creates these relationships and personalities using an idiosyncratic and jumpy discourse between the musicians. Their conversations and their reunion concretize–for the characters and the reader–the historical and emotional moment that has come into being when people in their 20s share remarkable experiences. Erdugyan illuminates both the historical period and the cruel bargains hearts make.

Half-Blood Prince the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was a finalist for Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Awards and the Man Booker Prize. Esi Erdugyan lives in Vancouver, Canada.

July 19, 2016
by Emily
1 Comment

A Delusional Adventure to the Arctic

in the kingdom of iceIn the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides reads like a steampunk fantasy, but it is a true story–hard to believe and surprising to read. The late nineteenth century version of reality TV, this voyage was produced and undertaken under the auspices of James Gordon Bennett, Jr. and his notoriously unreliable newspaper the New York Herald in an unabashed effort to sell papers. Using the latest, most up-to-date theories and technology, this voyage to the North Pole embarked under the delusion that the arctic circle was really open sea, free from ice. The Jeannette and its crew, however, were almost completely crushed by ice instead.

Hampton Sides’s deep and thorough research takes us all over the world as he traces the history of the quest for the North Pole, through the science of navigation, map-making, ocean currents. He does the crew justice, too, describing the complex and compelling characters, most of whose lives were given to the cause of exploration and knowledge. For example, George De Long, the Jeannette’s captain, and his new bride conduct their marriage through sweet letters and telegraphs, and Sides goes as far as historical fiction can in depicting their relationship of love, suffering and loss fully and realistically. My favorite part of non-fiction books is the center pages with all the pictures, and In the Kingdom of Ice boasts a plethora of portraits of people and crafts to pore over.

This voyage did earn its place on the map, discovering uncharted islands, for example. It merits a place on your reading list for its unforgettable scenes of the men’s journey over the ice after the Jeannette is crushed by ice. Their sickening hardships and ordeals, as well as their many meaningful triumphs, seem cinematic in scope. I would definitely watch this movie, and I’ll never forget this book.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. Anchor Books, 2015.

July 1, 2016
by Emily
1 Comment

Shadow and Shine in Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Claire of Sea

I consume literature, movies, TV with the absurd idea that I can learn from others’ misfortunes how to anticipate and avoid them in my life and the lives of those I love. Ha! With Claire of the Sea Light, I hoped from the beginning to turn the tides against what Danticat presents as the sad outcome. I mean, it could happen, right? All could be well?

But it’s Haiti, and things are hard. People are poor. Many suffer. Yet the impoverished life of Claire and her father Nozias seems sufficient for happiness, shining with the light of the sea and shore, a roof overhead, food and love. Their village has its dramas and secrets. Most have tragedies to color their lives. Claire, seven years old, knows only what she knows, and that is the obvious necessity of her life with her father.

Danticat’s prose swells and shines, pulling us into and through the Haitian milieu. The sea light is a presence throughout, beautiful but fierce, comforting but unyielding. Nozias and Claire live in this light, but Nozias, unlike Claire, feels bound to search for the better life–if not for himself, at least for his daughter. The only way she can fight back is to disappear.

In leafing through this novel to write this entry, I felt ready to read it again right now, to remember the details more clearly and savor the moments when the currents yielded a moment, letting the narrative, the reader, the characters, rest, look around, absorb the beauties and realities, before being pulled again, away from what? toward what?

This novel was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and NPR. Edwidge Danticat has written 5 novels and was a MacArthur Fellowship recipient.