When a member of my book club asked each of us to come with a list of our top five books of recent years, I panicked. How to choose just five? But over time, my mind settled on an odd assortment.
For the first, as background… When I was in the middle of 8th grade, my mother, brother and I moved to the family farm to take care of my dad’s mother, while my dad was assigned overseas to Okinawa for the next 13 months. Grandmom likely had what we would now call Alzheimer’s, and called the police frequently to report us as strangers who were stealing her things. In her eighties, she would push her dresser in front of her bedroom door each night so we wouldn’t kill her in the night. It was my job, often, to try to open the door in the morning to see if she was still breathing and alive. One of the three of us always had to be home so she wouldn’t inadvertently burn the house down, because she couldn’t remember that she had eaten and would turn the stovetop on, and then forget. The twenty-seven in-bred cats lived in the house, which reeked, and it reeked for years after the cats had died or my mother found homes for some and banished others outside.
We had spent a couple of months in Norfolk, Virginia, but we were really coming from Bangkok, where my dad had been at attaché for the three years from my 5th-7th grades. There, we had lived a glittery life — my parents’ job was to go to parties and gather intelligence, and we had maids and cooks, housekeepers and gardeners. Our compound had a ton of kids, and we flowed between houses and streets and the park in the center. The contrast in our lives in the move to the farm, isolated and without close neighbors, but with a relative who was no longer sane, was profound. Decades earlier, the farm had been named — and I am not joking — “Wit’s End”.
But my grandparent’s home did have books. Lots and lots and lots of books.Bookshelves in every room except the kitchen, which had cookbooks. One popular genre on those shelves was religious fiction — think The Robe and Christy and Dear and Glorious Physician. They offered escape, which I needed, and I have loved that genre ever since. My favorite in the past five years (it is from 2007, but I didn’t find it then) is Kathleen McGowan’s The Expected One, the first in the Magdalene series. A comparative title might be The DaVinci Code, but this is more gentle and loving.
The farm had a quarter-acre garden, so much of our time was spent lugging water (no hoses, the water collected in a bathtub that had been sunk into the springline nearby and we filled the watering can from there). The goats would escape and eat everything young and tender, but even they avoided the large zucchini and overgrown okra. Now, I have my raised bed gardens at the 19th street house (our Grape Street yard has too much shade), but the gardening book I turn to again and again is landscapes, not vegetables. I can’t tell you how often I fall asleep with Lauren Springer’s The Undaunted Garden in my hands, my imagination run wild.
I can’t stand horror, either in books or movies, so it is surprising that I repeatedly pick up a Dean Koontz book — but it’s A Little Big Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog. Dean and his wife adopted a Canine Companions for Independence release dog named Trixie. The part I love most in this absorbing (and as the title promises, joyful) memoir is when Trixie worked very, very hard to get her humans to understand her, by speaking their language, and strained her body to pronounce the word “baw” when she wanted her ball.
In a similar vein, another in my top-five list also deals with language and dogs. It’s Brenda Aloff’s Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide, Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog. The side-by-side pictures of different body language positions has helped so much in my ability to work with our Canine Companions for Independence pups.
And the last is a picture book. I read it for the words, I read it for the art. It is gorgeous and profound and magnificent. It is the story of creation — of the universe, and of each of us. It is the 2018 book The Stuff of Stars, by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes. Almost everytime I buy a book as a gift, this is it.