There wasn’t much to anticipate in Summer 2020. There would be no outdoor music, no swimming pools, no tasty cocktails under a night sky at the neighborhood watering hole. But you all know this because it was the same for you. I amused myself by hanging on to summer offerings that remained and while I was happy, I was not satisfied. Gardening and beach combing didn’t add up to the whole I had planned before Corona crashed my summer vacation.
Then the wildfires came and just like that even beach days were no longer an option. Andy and I rushed from the coast to Portland under blood orange skies. And for the final two weeks of summer, we were in double-lock down because the air was poisonous with smoke. Store parking lots a few miles down the road from our house filled with evacuees’ tents and trailers, pets and farm animals.
In Portland I got a note from a neighbor at the coast asking how we were, if we made it back without trouble, and how we were enduring the smoke. I likely moaned a response about what a crummy summer it was and to top it all off, the damn fires. She responded,
Do not forget that the ashes falling from the sky are all that remain of the pine and grass and thistle and bear and coyote and deer and mouse that could not escape. Gather some in a sacred manner, take it to your altar, and offer prayers for these beings. Honor their death. Pray for life. Call in rain. Remind Fire that it is full, that it has gobbled enough, and it can rest. May all beings be safe. May all beings be loved. May all beings be remembered. May all beings be mourned.
My neighbor really talks like this, with an otherworldly sincerity. I couldn’t tell her I didn’t have a personal altar because I worried I would disappoint her. But her words gave me pause long enough to get to an ‘oh yea’ moment.
Wow, that was a long way around to this: sometimes it’s a gentle thoughtful neighbor and sometimes it’s a well-crafted story that gets me right again, that gets me out of my head and into a more empathetic place.
Here are two books I read this summer that 86’ed me straight out of the pity party I was hosting even as wildfires ripped across Oregon. The fires killed 11 people, burned more than 1,000,000 acres, and destroyed thousands of houses. Not to mention all the death and destruction rained down on forest animals.
Charlotte McConaghy is the author of Migrations, a book that is set in the near future during the death throes of our natural world. At the center of this story is climate change disruption and its impact on the survival of animal species.
The protagonist in Migrations is Franny Lynch, a woman fueled by a steadfast determination to track what is likely a final migration of the remaining Arctic terns from Greenland to Antarctica -the longest migration any animal takes. To accomplish this, Franny talks her way onto a fishing boat (there aren’t a lot of fish left in the ocean at this point and fishing has become a dangerously competitive profession) by assuring the crew that while on their journey the terns will lead them to fish.
Franny quickly discovers that being a deckhand on a fishing vessel is not easy and being a greenhorn on a fishing vessel is even harder. She endures the blistering deck work, the roughneck crew and dangerous seas, but it nearly kills her. As she works day to day her near-mystical past is revealed through flashbacks.
This novel is not a tough read even when weighing the subject. I credit McConaghy’s skill as a writer, she has created a work of art page after page and its beauty will carry you away. This is how it begins:
The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.
Once my husband found a colony of storm petrels on the rocky shore of the untamed Atlantic. The night he took me there, I didn’t know they were some of the last of their kind. I knew only that they were fierce in their night caves and bold as they dove through moonlight waters. We stayed a time with them, and for those few dark hours we were able to pretend we were the same, wild and free.
Once when the animals were going, really and truly and not just in dark warnings of futures but now, right now, in mass extinctions we could see and feel, I decided to follow a bird over the ocean.
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor is absolutely the book to take up when you are ready for an immersion into the quiet. Reservoir 13 is set in an unnamed town in the English countryside and opens with a familiar terror, a young girl has gone missing.
The girl is not a local and had been visiting on a family holiday, staying in a converted barn. It’s that kind of place. While the locals have only minor recollections of her, they begin a rigorous search throughout the village and into the countryside around the 13 reservoirs that dot the perimeter. First chapters introduce the readers to many of the townspeople and also share backstories about the missing girl. Initially I assumed the book would evolve into a familiar English countryside mystery.
Time passes and village life goes on. With each chapter a year unfolds (13 chapters in all). And with each chapter the missing girl fades into the background and the locals come into focus. The swallows come and go, sheep are sheared, gardens are planted, fox kits are born out by those reservoirs. And then there is this: people get sick or fall in love or crankily tend to farm chores. In other words in Reservoir 13 we are shown what remains as the years move on and an unsolved mystery settles in.
The prose in Reservoir 13 is faultless, lyrical. Each page is filled with a spare loveliness about the measure of time. With each chapter, the detail of people’s lives is layered in. I reread long passages in this book so I could fully appreciate what McGregor has given us. For instance,
“ Jones the caretaker lived with his sister at the end of the unmade lane by the allotments, next to the old Tucker place. His age was uncertain but he’d worked at the school for thirty years. His sister was younger and never seen. She was understood to be troubled in some way.”
I’ve read a lot of books this year and both Migrations and Reservoir 13 tie for the most mesmerizing writing of 2020.
More reading considerations:
The Last Flight by Julie Clark. If you are reluctant to abandon fun summer reading, get this one. The Last Flight has swapped identities, edge-of-the-reading-chair suspense, shadowy figures, a murder mystery, and enough twists to keep a reader going all night.
Eva James and Claire Cook are the two protagonists and each narrate their own stories before and after they decide to switch identities. This one has hints of Strangers on a Train but feels trickier and much more modern. Now I think about it, this book might be a better fit for the long dark days of fall and winter. And it would certainly make a scary fun movie.
Devolution by Max Brooks. Max Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. It seems the comedic gene has passed on to Max. Max however wrote this book with a subtle wit – more like Mel Brooks passed through a Jane Austen filter. In Devolution Brooks pokes gentle fun of a privileged group of people who have enough money to live in a luxurious eco-village outside of Seattle.
And then like all devilish creators, Brooks gets revenge on the group by setting Rainier off with a massive explosion and everything goes awry. The story evolves into both a survival narrative and horror story. One of Brooks’ books, World War Z, was made into a movie – this one too would be fun to see on a big screen.
The Last by Hanna Jameson is a perhaps end-of-the-world story. Jon Keller, is an American historian attending a conference at a remote hotel outside of Zurich when a nuclear war destroys the major cities of the world.
Jon, like any self-respecting historian, remains to record the days and lives of those who stayed in the hotel. There are a few unique twists in this one including the discovery of a dead little girl in a rooftop water tank. Jon vows to find her killer and the book sprouts another appendage, a mystery tale. Oh yea, in case you were wondering, the end of the world appears to be mostly Trump’s fault. No surprise there.