the-life-you-save-may-be-your-ownOver the years, I’ve given books to friends who come to my house for dinner on Christmas Eve. It’s a joy for me and them, this book carefully selected and then placed on the table to function as their place card. Below are the selections I made this year and the reasons behind my decisions.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
I’ll start with a misfire. It’s not the book you see here. This actually was my first choice, but I second guessed myself and instead gave Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air. With Kalanithi’s book being front and center in the media and on bestseller lists, I knew I was risking that my friend would already have read the book, and indeed she had. That was the misfire, i.e., not listening to my gut instinct. With my first choice on hand, I was able to get it to her the next day — Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, focused on the literary life and religious faith of mid-20th century writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. I thought my friend, an entrepreneur and ordained minister, who enjoys deep, thoughtful topics, would find many pause-worthy moments in Elie’s acclaimed work that The New York Times described as “a freeze frame from another era of the perennial search for truth.”

the-snow-childThe Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
I always look for an absorbing novel for this friend. She’s one of those readers who will stay up all night to find out what happens next. She tells me she must plan her reading so as to miss not just sleep, but also appointments or anything else that would get in the way of The End. And so this novel, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and penned by the lyric Alaskan native author, came to mind for its intrigue of an unusual child’s presence in the lives of a struggling couple. Jack and Mable are trying to make a life together in 1920’s frontier Alaska when the snow child comes into their lives, but is the child fantasy or reality? Ivey released a new novel this past summer, To the Bright Edge of the World, but I selected her first novel because my friend is a specialist in early child education. I thought the combined mystery and child focus would deeply absorb her.

upstreamUpstream: Selected Essays
by Mary Oliver
Oliver is a popular poet whose beautiful words, philosophies and insights transport readers into the natural world and its wisdom. Among forests, rivers, ponds and fields, she presents a kind of peace and acceptance that transcends the hysteria of modern life. An example is her poem “Am I Not Among the Early Risers” in which she writes: “What will ambition do for me that the fox, appearing suddenly / at the top of the field, / her eyes sharp and confident as she stared into mine / has not already done?/” Oliver’s new collection of essays seemed like a no-brainer for this friend who loves poetry and the outdoors. These essays have been gathered together as a sort of autobiography, with Oliver reflecting on the natural world, as well as topics from childhood and her adult writing life. As much as I knew my friend would enjoy the book, though, I afterwards wondered if I should’ve reached for something more unexpected. Oliver’s essays are a best-seller, like Kalanithi’s memoir, and while my friend hadn’t read it, upon opening it, she recognized it. Is there more magic in receiving a book that’s completely unknown?

between-the-world-and-meBetween the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Speaking of bestsellers, here’s another one. I tend to avoid the bestseller list because it is the go-to source for many when they want a book selection – and the list is so limiting, given the phenomenal choices beyond it. Alas, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ phenomenal book also came to mind. I selected it for a friend who read Hillbilly Elegy and loved it. I don’t believe she’s an avid, even frequent reader, and so I thought giving her this important, highly lauded book about ideas of race would capture her attention. Between the World and Me is a letter to Coates’ adolescent son about what it’s like to be black in America today. It’s universally described as “required reading.” Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award in Nonfiction and came in as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

rosemaryRosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Here is another friend whose reading habits I believe are spotty, at best, and by that I mean it’s possible she doesn’t think to read, except maybe when someone hands her a book. Given the Kennedy family story continues to fascinate this nation of readers, I thought this new biography of a lesser-known Kennedy daughter — sibling of the famous Jack, Robert and Ted, her brothers of political fame — would capture my friend’s interest. Rosemary Kennedy was intellectually disabled and kept as a family secret. It’s a tragic story that is the reason her Kennedy relatives established and supported government opportunities and resources for the disabled. In an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, author Kate Clifford Larson said of Rosemary: “She was virtually hidden for decades, but the siblings apparently — or so it has been said — that they were not aware of what happened to Rosemary, or where she was, for nearly 20 years. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate … but they had learned not to ask, and so they didn’t ask.”

Speak, Memory by Vlaspeak-memorydimir Nabokov
Finally, a classic autobiography chosen for a friend who has become an avid reader, one who keeps a list of books to be read, frequents the library and reads every day. She posed a challenge in that I know she reads this blog, and so I didn’t feel I could select from anything I’d written about here. Likely, if it was a good match, she would already have it on her list. I’ve given her literary novels she has loved and not loved so much (yet she has read every page); and then, I remembered she loved Friday Night Lights, a book I recommended a while back. I took that non-fiction cue and immediately this beloved memoir by Nabokov came to mind for its nostalgia, beautiful writing and Nabokov’s insight into his Russian childhood. It struck as a perfect combination of literary style and a true story that my friend would enjoy. From the Humanities article Why Nabokov’s Speak Memory Still Speaks to Us: “After closing the pages of Speak, Memory, John Updike, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, was carried away.” I hope the same for my friend.

You can spot the book collectors at an author’s reading. They’re the ones carrying not just one or two but a stack of books to be signed. At last night’s poetry reading by Mary Oliver in Cleveland, my friend LS and I were the only two with those stacks, and Ms. Oliver’s efficient handler didn’t appreciate them.  When I approached the signing table, she grimaced and barked a firm NO at the sight of my handful and instructed “only two.” (I handed over three.)  She wouldn’t allow me to take a photo, either, so what you see here is Mary Oliver in a 2008 magazine article taped to my office bookshelf.

Such was the tone for this event, a show handled well. It took place in downtown Cleveland’s Ohio Theatre Playhouse Square. I must admit, I was surprised to see such a crowd for a poetry reading; however, it was Mary Oliver, a very accessible poet who through the ages has spoken to many about life’s meaning and beauty, asking urgent questions in her poems, such as, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” Indeed, the young man introducing Ms. Oliver described her work as accessible, poignant and transformational, teaching us to slow down and make decisions with greater care.

I also was surprised by Mary Oliver’s humor.  This was not the inspirational Mary Oliver whose poems I’d read all these years, a humble poet who never gave interviews, letting her work stand for whatever needed to be said. This was not the contemplative poet who through her poems speaks thoughtfully, reverentially, spiritually about our connection to nature, lifting our weaknesses into light. Instead, Mary Oliver at the podium was a delightful, funny woman entertaining us. She was downright jocular. Her salty, endearing, unorganized self kept the crowd laughing ,and then she’d read a poem and they’d sigh. Or maybe they’d laugh again.

Yes, it was all very entertaining, but who is Mary Oliver? Why is she, in her 70s, on the road and funny at the podium? All that humor cadenced between the reading of random poems unsettled me.  I wanted to experience her passion. I wanted to hear her story. She told little about herself that would provide context for her poems, such as growing up in Maple Heights, Ohio, or living her adult years by the ocean in Provincetown, Mass.

During the question and answer period — questions asked about her writing and life — she remarked, “Doesn’t anyone have funny questions?” And so we got them.  “Do you have a sweet tooth? What do you wear on your feet during your strolls?” When asked what books she read as a child, she quipped, “I’m still a child.” Everyone loved that.  It allowed her then to answer, “Harry Potter.”  Everyone loved that, too, and while I laughed right along, I yearned for the real answer.

“What does it mean that the world is beautiful?” someone asked. Ms. Oliver replied loosely, saying, essentially,that it means everything. I just wish the in-depth answer had been more present last night, elaborate and giving as I have known that answer to be in her books on my bookshelf, three of them now signed.

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