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Great Reads for the New Year

Curl up with a good book!

BLACKOUT: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget ,   by Sarah Hepola

I grew up in Dallas, Texas, wondering why. In the novels and buttery teen magazines I read, people of consequence lived in California and the East Coast, the glittering cities where a Jay Gatsby or a John Stamos might thrive. When I became obsessed with Stephen King books, I nursed fantasies of moving to Maine. Things happened in Maine, I told myself, never understanding things happened in Maine because Stephen King made them happen.

My father was an engineer for DuPont Chemical in 1970, but a crisis of conscience changed our family’s entire trajectory. The environmental movement was getting started, and my dad wanted to be on the right side of history—cleaning up the planet, not pumping more toxins into it. He took a job with the burgeoning Environmental Protection Agency, which was opening up branches across the country, and in 1977, when I was three years old, we moved from a quaint Philadelphia suburb to the wilds of Dallas, a city so far removed from what we knew it might as well have been Egypt.

I’ve often wondered how much of my life would be different if we’d stayed where we sprouted. What part of my later troubles, my sense of estrangement could be traced back to this one simple set change—swapping the leafy and sun-dappled streets surrounding our apartment in Pennsylvania for the hot cement and swiveling highways of Big D?

My parents rented a small house on a busy street in the neighborhood with the best public school system in Dallas. The district was notorious for other things, too, though it took us a while to catch on: $300 Louis Vuitton purses on the shoulders of sixth graders, ski trips to second homes in Aspen or Vail, a line of BMWs and Mercedes snaking around the school entrance. Meanwhile, we drove a dented station wagon with a ceiling liner held up by staples and duct tape. We didn’t have a chance.

Becoming Nicole:  The Transformation of an American Family , by Amy Ellis Nutt

On an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, October 7, 1997, at 12:21, Wyatt Benjamin came into the world, born in the county of Fulton, in the city of Gloversville in upstate New York. Ten minutes later he was joined by Jonas Zebediah. Both babies were five pounds, two ounces, and two weeks early. Wayne and Kelly were present in the delivery room. Doctors had induced labor at about nine in the morning and Sarah had refused pain medication, so Kelly and Wayne, dressed in surgical gowns, held her hands as the babies emerged. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. Sarah had difficulty delivering the placenta and lost quite a bit of blood. It was strange, but Kelly felt like she was intruding and yet at the same time as though she was exactly where she was supposed to be. As one infant emerged and then the other, they were placed into Kelly’s and Wayne’s arms. It felt surreal to hold them, Kelly thought. They each had wispy dark hair, the softest pink skin, and tiny little squeals.

There was no family significance to either name. Jonas Kover was the name of Wayne’s favorite college professor at Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnstown, New York. Wayne liked the old-fashioned name Zebediah, which was his vote for the other baby, but Kelly prevailed with the slightly more traditional Wyatt.

Three days later, Kelly, Wayne, and Sarah left the hospital with the twins, but only after the nursing staff made sure the new parents knew how to feed and change their babies. When it was Wayne’s turn, he sucked in his breath and tried to settle his nerves. Okay, I can do this, he said over and over to himself as he prepared to give them each a bottle. Slowly, he lifted each infant, remembering to cradle their heads in his hand, then coaxed them to suck.

Liar:  A Memoir, by Rob Roberge

1974: Your parents throw a party on a Saturday night. You sit at the top of the stairs listening to their music, their laughter, and the clinking of bottles and ice in a bucket. Smell the cigarette smoke. They play Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash records all night long.

The next morning, while your parents are sleeping, you’re in the basement looking at all the different colors of liquor in the different-sized glasses. You drink them, one by one, a red one first because you tend to like red foods and red candy, so why not red drinks? It tastes fine. Not as good as, say, Hi-C, but a few minutes in, you feel better than you ever have in your life, except for that accidental overdose two years ago on some pill at the mental institution where your father works.

A beautiful new world floods through you. You smoke half cigarettes from ashtrays. You know you have to feel like this again.

From this day forward, if you are not high, you are not happy.

FALL 1985: You and your girlfriend Sasha have broken up. No one understands the kind of pain you are in. Your pain and loneliness are undocumented in the history of human pain and loneliness.

All day and all night, you lie on your bed with your Walkman on your chest and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks playing as loud as the machine can go into your headphones. Your eyes are closed. You don’t move except to smoke cigarettes or drink beer. One side of the tape plays to the end and you open up the Walkman and flip the tape and listen to the other side.

You do this for weeks. Your life is over. You will never know love again—of that much you are sure. Friends try to get you to come out. To drink. To party. To talk. If you had enough money, you might go see the friends of yours who sell Percocet and morphine, but you don’t have the money so why bother seeing those people?

You ignore them all and get wasted and smoke and listen to Bob Dylan because, really, only Bob Dylan has any idea of the amount of pain you are in.

Only you and Bob Dylan have ever known this kind of love and only you and Bob Dylan have ever known what it’s like to lose this kind of love.

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II ,       by Liza Mundy

Fresh out of college, Dot Braden had never taught before she took the job in Chatham. In her first week she found that she was now the high school’s eleventh-and twelfth-grade English teacher, its first-and second-year French teacher, its ancient-history teacher, its civics teacher, its hygiene teacher, and its calisthenics teacher, assigned to enforce a new exercise program the government had put in place to encourage fitness among young people. The latter responsibility mostly entailed marching the senior girls back and forth from lunch. She had to suppress a laugh at being called “General Braden” during this exercise, but Dot—blue-eyed, brown-haired, five feet four inches tall, determined, forceful—did all she was asked. When the physics teacher departed, there was another panic and scramble: During one faculty meeting Dot unwisely mentioned that her graduation certificate qualified her to teach physics, and lo and behold, she became the advanced physics teacher as well. Five days a week, eight hours a day, Dot Braden ran from classroom to classroom, teaching, lecturing, grading, marching. For her pains she was paid $900 a year, or about $5 a day.

Dot was accustomed to hard work, but if anybody had asked her—and nobody did—she would have said that teaching anybody anything while America was at war in this way was impossible. The school’s sophomore class (whose own ranks fell by half over the next two years, as even teenagers took full-time work to serve the war effort) later noted in their graduation yearbook, The Chat, that the 1942–43 year was “the most confusing” of their educational careers. “It was terrible,” Dot recalled later. “I mean to tell you, they dumped everything on me.”

The straw that broke the camel’s back occurred at Christmas. Dot and another female teacher were boarding with the sheriff and his wife. Halfway through the year her roommate also left to get married—just up and quit—and Dot inherited her English composition classes. This happened at about the same time that the restaurant where Dot was taking her meals closed down, a victim of worker shortages and the rationing of meat, coffee, butter, cheese, and sugar—most anything a person would want to eat or drink. The sheriff’s housekeeper began preparing her meals and Dot ate alone in her room each night, exhausted.

Promise Me, Dad , By Joe Biden

A story ran in the Wall Street Journal on our last day in South Carolina. WILL HE RUN? the headline read. BIDEN SPECULATION MOUNTS. “It’s no secret that Beau wanted him to run,” was how the Journal quoted one of my longtime friends and political supporters. “If he does what Beau wanted him to do, he’ll run.” The story didn’t get much traction in the press, for which I was grateful, because I was really struggling. In the immediate aftermath of Beau’s passing, just thinking about running for president was beyond me. “Everything we talked about is over,” I had said to my chief of staff, Steve Ricchetti, who had been overseeing my campaign planning along with Mike Donilon.

Running for the Democratic nomination was all tied up with Beau. Was all tied up with the entire family. Before he got sick, Beau felt strongly that I should run, as did Hunt. Jill and Ashley had been very supportive. We all knew how much was at stake for the country, and we all believed I was best equipped to finish the job Barack and I had started. If Beau had never gotten sick, we would already be running. This was something we would have done together, with enthusiasm. Remember, Dad, Beau would be saying. Home base. Home base. The thought of doing it without him was painful. But as the days passed, the idea of not running started to feel like letting him down, like letting everybody down. Hunt still thought the race would give us purpose—something big to focus on that would help us deal with our profound sorrow. Jill thought we should continue to consider the possibility. I sometimes reflected on the courage Beau showed in his battle with an almost certainly unbeatable foe. “Beau lost his fight,” one of the doctors at Anderson had said, “but he was never defeated.” I wanted to be able to summon the courage to live up to Beau’s example. But I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find the emotional energy, and I knew from previous experience that grief is a process that respects no schedule and no timetable. I would be ready when I was ready, if I was ready, and not before. I had no idea when that would be.

But I also knew that if there was any chance for me to run, the complicated mechanics of mounting a campaign had to be considered. So I asked Mike and Steve to take some time outside of their regular day jobs to do a serious analysis. Was there still a path? Could we actually have a campaign ready in time to win? It didn’t take them much time to restart the process. The truth is, we had begun talking seriously about the 2016 presidential race in the summer of 2013. When Steve dropped me off at the train station for the August vacation that year, we had already developed a message and a game plan we were going to begin to execute. But just a few days later Jill and I and the entire family had found ourselves at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center absorbing the news of Beau’s diagnosis, and we had put everything on hold.

The Rules of Magic , by Alice Hoffman

Once upon a time, before the whole world changed, it was possible to run away from home, disguise who you were, and fit into polite society. The children’s mother had done exactly that. Susanna was one of the Boston Owenses, a family so old that the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and the Daughters of the American Revolution were unable to deny them admission to their exclusive organizations, despite the fact that they would have liked to close the door to them, locking it twice. Their original ancestor, Maria Owens, who had arrived in America in 1680, remained a mystery, even to her own family. No one knew who had fathered her child or could fathom how she came to build such a fine house when she was a woman alone with no apparent means of support. The lineage of those who followed Maria was equally dubious. Husbands disappeared without a trace. Daughters begat daughters. Children ran off and were never seen again.

In every generation there were those who fled Massachusetts, and Susanna Owens had done so. She had escaped to Paris as a young woman, then had married and settled in New York, denying her children any knowledge of their heritage for their own good, which left them with nagging suspicions about who they were. It was clear from the start that they were not like other children, therefore Susanna felt she had no choice but to set down rules. No walking in the moonlight, no Ouija boards, no candles, no red shoes, no wearing black, no going shoeless, no amulets, no night-blooming flowers, no reading novels about magic, no cats, no crows, and no venturing below Fourteenth Street. Yet no matter how Susanna tried to enforce these rules, the children continued to thwart her. They insisted upon being unusual. Eldest was Frances, with skin as pale as milk and blood-red hair, who early on had the ability to commune with birds, which flocked to her window as if called when she was still in her crib. Then came Bridget, called Jet due to her inky black tresses, a girl as shy as she was beautiful, who seemed to know what others were thinking. Last there was Vincent, the adored youngest child, a surprise in every way, the first and only boy to be born into the family, a gifted musician who whistled before he could talk, so charismatic and fearless his worried mother took to keeping him on a leash when he was a toddler, to prevent him from making an escape.

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 , by David Sedaris

We went to Lance’s for dinner last night and I learned that he keeps a dead rattlesnake in his freezer. He found it on the highway somewhere. The snake’s not messy dead, just missing some guts, and even frozen solid it still looks alive. Margaret wants to photograph it in my freshly painted apartment, but I’m afraid to even remove it from the bag. Were my dad to see it, he’d drop dead of a heart attack—wham, no questions asked. Half the people I know have dead animals in their freezers: reptiles, birds, mammals. Is that normal?

February 17, 1981
Raleigh

Mom took me to the IHOP for lunch and told me not to worry about the $20 I owe her. It’s her birthday.

February 20, 1981
Raleigh

I went tonight to the Winn-Dixie on Person Street, across from the Krispy Kreme. It’s a low-income neighborhood, right on the line separating the white and black areas of town. I was walking from the parking lot to the front door when I saw a man enter. He was tall and black, clearly drunk, and behind him were two girls, laughing and pointing. The man was pushing an empty cart, and just inside the door, one of his feet caught on the carpet. He fell to his knees, and a moment later the cart he’d been putting all his weight on fell over as well. With nothing to support him, he crashed face-first onto the floor. I was maybe twenty feet away but didn’t rush forward to help him. No one did. I was looking for magazines, so I decided at the last minute to try the Fast Fare across the street instead. When they didn’t have what I wanted, I returned to the Winn-Dixie, where the man was still lying on the floor. It made me uncomfortable, so I decided to skip the magazines and just go to Krispy Kreme instead.

February 25, 1981
Raleigh

Jean Harris was convicted of second-degree murder. I kind of liked her.

February 26, 1981
Raleigh

Mom dropped by this morning with at least $60 worth of groceries: pork chops, chicken, hamburger meat, salami, cheese, cereal, eggs, oil, pancake mix, broccoli, canned tomatoes, corn, beans, pasta, bread, syrup, oatmeal. I feel guilty and grateful.

Later I went to the design school and saw Komar and Melamid, the Soviet dissident artists, who are funny. They showed a photo of a human skull placed atop a horse skeleton and claimed it was a Minotaur. Then they showed three bones glued together and said it was a triangladon. I sold them my soul for $1.

The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Oympic Glory , by Julie Checkoway

On Friday, August 20, 1937, three thousand people brimmed the bleachers at the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium—working stiffs and hoi polloi in general admission, swells in the reserved seats, and just outside the concrete walls, barefoot local kids climbed the hau trees for the gratis view, perched on boughs like avifauna in silhouette. On the deck, hacks from the Advertiser, the Hawaii Hochi, and stringers from the radio service puffed on Lucky Strikes and Laramies and bumped gums about celebrities that they spotted in the grandstand.

The Depression had dealt tourism a blow, but at last healthy, wealthy, and bohemian types were returning to Hawaii, lured by colorful brochures describing liquid sunshine and simmering volcanoes wreathed in misty clouds like angels’ robes, a paradise where, it was said, it rarely rained, but when it did, the shower of it was brief, polite, and generous: it left behind a signature of double rainbows.

In the late 1930s, tourists had come back again, and the windows of the Royal Hawaiian hotel winked on in shades of ochre and gold. Lip-locking lovers perambulated on the seaside piers, and holidaymakers gathered at the shore for luaus under Maxfield Parrish skies. In town for the summer were the likes of Cliff Durant, the dashing racecar driver, and Charlotte, his—fourth—wife; the stars Jeanette MacDonald and Alice Faye had come to Eden in the lull between shooting pictures; and members of the moneyed class whose names appeared with regularity in Mainland society columns had arrived as well: the Dr. Andrew J. Timbermans of Columbus, Ohio; the Mr. and Mrs. Stocks of Philadelphia; and the eminent Professor Edward August Kracke, PhD, Harvard, historian of the late Sung dynasty. Even nine-year-old Shirley Temple, 20th Century Fox’s biggest asset, had been toodling about the town, visiting the former royal palace, reviewing the scores of naval troops recently arrived at the Schofield Parade Grounds, and taking lessons on her brand-new ook-kay-lay-lay.

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