My Christmas picks take you from the soil to the supper table. The essays in Dirt: A Love Story (ForeEdge Books) celebrate the mystery and meaning of soil. Artists, scientists, farmers, and writers take you from community gardens transforming the Bronx to the oldest soils in the world in Venezuela to the past and possible future of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.
When you read children’s literature you expect to smile at the quirky characters fumbling to figure out their growing independence. You might expect to cry as you watch characters face the pain of growing up.
You don’t expect to be confronted by current events like a refugee crisis—and inspired to imagine the kind of society we could be even in the face of terror and fear.
I recommend Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mothers, Tell Your Daughters (Norton), a selection of short stories about mostly hardscrabble, down-market women in southwestern lower Michigan. Campbell makes fiction look easy.
Novels that rattled and moved me in the last year or so include Anthony Doerr’s terrific World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner). It’s the best novel I’ve read since Gilead. Like Marilynne Robinson, Doerr achieves a shimmering consistency of tone; it’s one of those books that you finish and then shake your head in quiet awe.
I’ve been engrossed in The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (Europa Editions). The series follows the friendship of Elena (the narrator) and Lila (her fiery and fearless friend) from girlhood to old age.
It was the holy part of the day, my loved ones asleep in other countries, me with no duties and rooms full of quiet. I ate my dark bread with brie and jam, pressed out two cups of dark coffee. And that must be the sun, skulking like a grown-up boy who knows it’s been too long since he visited his mother. He has no excuse but all is forgiven, she will open the curtains, haul up the shades, crack the windows though it’s far too cold for that. We will ring all the bells in the quiet church across the street, unscrew the doors from the jambs, dismantle all the borders, forgive the Russians whether they like it or not. And mercy will pour down like sunshine in the grand photographs in the vast inscrutable book I bought for ten euros at the bookstore downtown, a store full of books translated out of the language I know so that I could read only the authors’ names. Truth must be personal, said Kierkegaard, home from another of his long, brooding walks. And yet not merely private. You shall love the neighbor, he insisted. Outside my window the church is solid and pale, three stories and a squat round tower, in the tower three narrow windows that reveal nothing. Winter sun warms the green roof, but the entrance is still in shadow.
Ten refugees have been selected to compete in the Summer Olympics in Brazil this year. Five of them are runners from South Sudan who have been living in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya. The Sudanese will be joined by two Congolese judo fighters, two Syrian swimmers, and an Ethiopian marathoner. Anjelina Nadai, one of the Sudanese runners, said she first started running while tending her family’s cows. She discovered she could get to the cows in half the time by running instead of walking. These athletes will compete under the Olympic flag, not that of any nation. If any of them should win a medal, the Olympic theme song will be played (The Christian Science Monitor, June 3).