Friday, March 24, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Derek Walcott

The poet Derek Walcott died last week at the age of eighty-seven. He was born on the island of St. Lucia and growing up on this isolated, former British colony had a strong influence on his life and work. When he was fourteen, a local newspaper published his first poem. Five years later, Walcott borrowed $200 to print his first poetry collection, which he handed out to people on the street. Walcott's extensive bibliography includes poetry and plays; he was also a painter. Recipient of many honors and accolades, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992. His biography can be read here.

This poem is a favorite of many, a reminder that in order to be loved by someone, you must first love yourself.

Love After Love
by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

And if you'd like to listen to this beautiful poem read by the beautiful actor, Tom Hiddleston, here you go:


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

In Praise of Stories and the Graying of Genre

This year, like many, many other viewers, I’ve been taken with NBC’s new series, This is Us. I binge-watched the first ten episodes, and now have to watch and wait, week by week, for the rest. The show’s taken some ribbing for stringing along tragedy and its tendency to induce ugly crying, but fans can’t get enough. And I’ve been thinking about the structure of the show and trying to decide what we would call it, in book form.

For those who don’t pull up every week with a box of tissue and glass of something white or red, This is Us follows the story, past and present, of the Pearson family: mom and dad, and a set of untraditional triplets. Untraditional because one is adopted, while the other two are surviving twins, I guess, from a traditional set of triplets. Anyway, a current-day, linear narrative follows everyone’s lives when the triplets are 36 years old and this narrative is interspersed with stories from the past. Most prominently at first, events from the year 1980, when the parents were expecting, and immediately after the birth; but also, a smattering of stories that can catch the siblings at any point of their childhood, from young kids to adolescents and beyond. These anecdotes are woven through and follow no particular linear path. We may have a story from the year the Pearson brood was seven and the following week, a vignette about one of them as a teen. There is, of course, the current-day narrative binding everything and chugging forward, but some episodes include little or no sight of this train.

So what would we call this form, I wondered, if it were a book? Novel? Short stories? Novel-in-stories? And I was thinking about how, if you ask even avid readers about short stories, most will say they don’t read them. Either because they don’t like them, or they just don’t think about it. This is a generalization based on personal inquiry. Many, many readers appreciate stories of the more brief variety. But I wouldn’t say it’s a popular practice, the regular reading of short stories. Some readers will tell you it’s because they want the more satisfying, deeper experience of reading a novel, the finality of a complete, longer story and the answers they get at its conclusion. And yet, countless television viewers are perfectly content to wait, week by week, for the same answers from a drama like This is Us or many others.

It would seem that short stories or novel-in-stories are forms that follow most closely the way humans interact. Imagine two women at a public park, watching their kids and striking up a conversation. Oh, hello, one might say. My name is ___, and how are you? Which child is yours? Where are you from? Oh, I’ve been there many times. Once, I visited ___ and my plane was delayed and I spent three hours at the very famous ___. Oh, you have? That’s amazing. Etc. etc.

This conversation, mostly likely would not be: Oh, hello, my name is ___ and I was born in ____. My family lived for many years in ____ and as a young child, I was shy and pale, but I enjoyed reading and riding horses. At the age of five, I ____. Etc. etc.

Think about people you’ve known for a long time and yet, are still learning new things about. You can know someone ten years before you hear the story of how they spent their eighth summer in a body cast, or had an affair with that exchange student at nineteen.

Of course, all novels aren’t start-to-finish narratives. Most include things like backstory and foreshadowing, and all sorts of clues hopefully meted out in a way that’s pleasing for the reader. But when you’re dealing with short stories, or a novel-in-stories, you expect each memory, each vignette or moment (each episode!), to have a shiny, finished quality. To be satisfying in its own right, all by itself. So that you can finish a chapter and feel—at least somewhat—full. So that you can turn off the television and feel—at least somewhat—ready to wait a whole week for more.

And so, to those of you who think you don’t like short stories, or maybe even have no patience for something called a novel-in-stories, may I suggest the following, mind-opening reading experiences that might blur your notions of genre (all taken from my own personal list because this is, of course, my blog)? I’m including the genre label for each one, as determined by publisher, for reference only and so later, you can realize how hazy some of these distinctions are.

First, there are some flagships:

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (novel, 1919)

Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (novel, 1959)

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (novel/stories/memoir??, 1990)

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (stories, 2008)

And some recent reads I’d recommend:

We the Animals by Justin Torres (novel, 2011)

The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham (stories, 2012)

See How Small by Scott Blackwood (novel, 2015)

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (novel, 2015)

Another Place You’ve Never Been by Rebecca Kauffman (novel-in-stories, 2016)

I find myself reading in this genre-gray area quite a bit these days, seeking out books that have something to say in a different sort of way, in a way that seems most true-to-life, at least for me. There are many ways to tell a story and to make sense of the stories that, in effect, comprise our lives. I’d love to hear your suggestions for books that gray genre in a good way, and stories that took hold of you and never let go.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Reprise: Poem for the Weekend

A couple of years ago, I had a feature on this blog wherein I shared a poem every Friday. I enjoyed doing this very much. It had occurred to me that I didn't include enough poetry in my reading and this regular feature was a way to force the issue. Readers seemed to enjoy it, and I continued Poem for the Weekend for a year or so, and then I stopped.

It's been a tough year and once again, it occurs to me that often, poetry can be a balm. Sometimes, simple words are the crack to break a dam; poetry can certainly lead the way to becoming a better writer, a better person. And so, I reintroduce Poem for the Weekend, beginning with one of our most prolific and persistent voices, Mary Oliver. You can read about the long career of this poet here, but mostly what you need to know is that her focus is often on the natural world and our place in it. Also, she reads to dogs, which says quite a lot about a person.

by Mary Oliver

You might see an angel anytime
and anywhere. Of course you have
to open your eyes to a kind of
second level, but it's not really
hard. The whole business of
what's reality and what isn't has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don't care to
be too definite about anything.
I have a lot of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but not
for other people. That's a place
you just can't get into, not
entirely anyway, other people's

I'll just leave you with this.
I don't care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It's
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Favorite Reads, 2016

For some time, I’ve been averaging a little more than one book a week, but this year I finished just an even forty. There are a couple of reasons for this. One: I read several longer books, and slogged through some other books that seemed to take a long time because I hated them (they will remain unnamed). And two: I did some of the writing I was procrastinating about in 2015, when I read seventy books. I think this is a respectable reason.   

I’ve chosen twelve books as my favorite reads of the year, and two honorable mentions. So fourteen, total, to recommend. Eleven are novels and three are collections of short stories. As always, these aren’t necessarily 2016 releases, but merely books I read during the calendar year. And without further accounting, here they are:
If I had to choose a "reading event" of 2016, it would have to be the Elena Ferrante novels. As many, many readers before me have already discovered, the story of the friendship between Lila and Elena is dizzyingly addictive, a feast of sights, sounds and drama. Ferrante's portrait of 1950s-to-present-day Naples is one for the ages. It's not often you read something you feel is a major work of the century but in my opinion, these novels will stay and stay and stay. All four were good but I particularly loved #2:
The Story of a New Name (2013) by Elena Ferrante
and #4:
The Story of the Lost Child (2015) by Elena Ferrante
Another big reading/writing event of my year would be meeting the acclaimed writer Richard Bausch, and being fortunate enough to participate in his writing workshop. But before that happened, I had already read this story collection and was as impressed with it as I was with the one that made my favorite list in 2015.
Something is Out There (2010) by Richard Bausch

Quietly and resolutely, with careful attention to people and their foibles, Bausch has a way of getting to what he says should be the genesis of every story--what the trouble is. Relationships and regret, longings and mistakes: his characters are our neighbors and friends, our family. And through all the trouble, always a glimmer of hope. Beautiful writing.
 All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr
I challenge you to find someone who read this Pulitzer-Prize-winning best-seller and wasn't completely enraptured by it. Because I can't. And enraptured I was. This story of a blind French girl and a German boy during World War II has absolutely everything you could ever want in a novel. Beautiful writing, amazing scope, unforgettable characters. A stunning achievement, truly.
The Remnants (2016) by Robert Hill
A quote: Wandering is as much rootedness as aimlessness as ambition. Had the screech in the night not drawn dweller out of his dark cave, nor hunger, nor a tingle in his loins that pointed the way to something he couldn’t quite put his opposable thumb on, he’d have grown restless on his haunches no matter what and been out of that rock hold just because out was not in. It’s the need for a single moment to shift in shape if only slightly from now to then, here to there, this to that…that compels the every twitch, blink, sniff, step and reach.
 Here's my review for The Rumpus of this difficult-to-describe, utterly unique novel.
The Door (1987) by Magda Szabó
The narrator of this novel is a writer whose work, along with that of her writer husband, has been banned by the Hungarian government. But the ban has been recently lifted; they sequester themselves in a village to write. The wife sets out to find a housekeeper, and her relationship over many years with the older woman she hires is the focus of the novel. It's a flawed, complicated union, one that put me in mind of Ferrante's Lila and Elena, in the many ways these two women are inextricably joined. The novel was recently brought to a U.S. audience with a 2015 edition courtesy of New York Review of Books Classics.
The Keepers of the House (1964) by Shirley Ann Grau
This modern classic focuses on the Howland family, denizens of the American south, and keepers of their sprawling estate and many secrets. A novel of haunting imagery and poetic flashes, it reads at times like the best suspense novel. A classic that well deserves its continuing audience.
Thirteen Ways of Looking (2016) by Colum McCann
This collection is comprised of three stories and the title novella, the story of an elderly judge's final day and the converging forces that conspire to end him. In "Sh'khol," a mother keens and searches for her special needs son, who has disappeared after a swim off the coast of their home in Ireland. McCann's characters weather the forces of fate, while clinging to what hope remains.
 The Cove (2012) by Ron Rash
It's hard not to think of Carson McCullers when a mute flautist enters center stage in Rash's novel set in 1950s North Carolina. Rash writes with the same spare intensity, the same attention to the quiet, everyday moments that define life. Laurel and her brother live alone out by a murky cove. She is believed to be a witch; he has lost a limb in the war. When the mute enters their lonely existence, their world spins apart. I suppose it isn't a perfect novel but because of the sheer force of it, I didn't care.
The Beauty of Ordinary Things (2013) by Harriet Scott Chessman
This novel slowly reveals the connection between Benny, a soldier recently returned from Vietnam and Sister Clare, who is also adjusting to a new normal as she becomes accustomed to cloistered life. This slender book packs so much humanity, spirit and grace into its pages, with writing you'll want to savor and illuminating moments that leave an indelible impression. A lovely read.
Fourth of July Creek (2014) by Smith Henderson
Pete Snow lives in an impoverished area of rural Montana, trying to make a difference to dysfunctional families in his role as a social worker. Trouble is, his own family is falling apart too. I raced through the first 2/3 of this book on a long flight, entirely transported by the often-dark world and the characters Henderson depicts. Abuses and neglect, bad decisions and lack of self-control; at times the story felt like a tanker headed to an iceberg. And although the final sections of the book tied up in ways that disappointed me, it couldn't diminish the punch of the rest.
Alberto's Lost Birthday (2016) by Diana Rosie
Alberto has no memories prior to his arrival at an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. When his young grandson discovers that Alberto doesn’t know the date of his birthday, the two set out on a journey to find it. This was my third read of this wonderful story, because Diana is an acquaintance from the former, where we met while trying to get our novels published. I was thrilled to discover hers, finally, in a bookshop at the Barcelona airport when I passed through this summer. I wrote about it here.

100 Years of the Best American Short Stories (2015), Lorrie Moore, editor

One of my longer reads of the year and because it's a sundry collection of stories, difficult to choose as an overall favorite. There were stories that knocked my socks off and several I had a hard time getting through. I suppose with any edited collection, there will be disagreement about the choices. Many of the stories here are stellar, though, and well worth the hardcover price.
Outline (2015) by Rachel Cusk

A book I can't stop thinking about, unlike any novel I've ever read. Readers will love it or hate it but like me, I think you'll be unable to shake it. A novel for writers that feels at time like a puzzle, at others like a tease. Wholly intriguing.
 As always, I'd love to hear your favorites of the year because what's a To-Be-Read pile, if it isn't completely unachievable? Happy reading in the new year!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Birth of a Story

The story comes in the wee hours, the witching hours, the stuck-between-night-and-day hours of three and five. It plays like a movie. There she is in her sweatpants, the main character. She’s anxious, unsettled (as you are), looking through the windows of her house. The rooms are nice and orderly. Out back, there’s a creek, nestled amongst the tall grasses and low-growing trees that often bend and surrender to its flow. The woman thinks about that creek and wants to make a change; she can’t keep on like this.

In the other room: the sturdy presence of her husband, like an old couch with a pattern in the fabric you haven’t noticed for a long time. There’s another man, a traveler. He’s a different sort; she doesn’t recognize him but sees something of herself in him nevertheless. He shows her passages.

Perhaps Jackie (that’s her name, suddenly) has trouble sleeping too. She worries about her ill father, her son, her daughter who lives far away. An entire cast of worry, marching around the room as she tries to sleep (as you try to sleep). The quiet desperation of the house after Les (that’s her husband) goes to work. The murky idea that takes hold.

It’s all there, the people, as real to you in this hazy time of early, early morning as real people are in daylight. Between the stark hours of three and five, the story spins on the ceiling of your real house, this story of Jackie and her house, and her husband, and her choice. In the morning's white light, she’s still there, a shadowy presence swirling in your tea, the flutter in the green leaves outside. Sit down. Rewind and watch it again. Notice.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Alberto's Lost Birthday - My Favorite Authonomy Book

In 2010, I joined an online writing community run by HarperCollins called Authonomy. Those who know my story know this is eventually how my first novel came to be published. The community was special because so many of us formed lasting friendships and grew as writers through our interactions. Here was a place where we could commiserate about the writing life and share our work with like-minded readers. Throughout the next several years, I read and enjoyed many parts of novels and occasionally, agreed to read a full manuscript. There were so many that deserved publication, so many talented writers in that virtual room, but my very favorite novel was by a writer named Diana. The story was about an elderly Spanish man who, along with his young grandson, goes in search of his birthday. Diana’s writing style is simple yet elegant, and her novel, which I read in full twice, felt like a complete, finished work of art. During the long process of my novel’s publication, Diana’s story was the only one I lobbied for to the higher-ups at HarperCollins, who did not take my advice to have a closer look, for whatever reason.

Diana and I stayed in contact for a while but haven’t been in touch for at least a couple of years. This summer, during a trip to Europe, I was browsing in a book shop in the Barcelona airport and a bright, simple cover caught my eye. The title had changed slightly—I remembered her telling me that might happen—and her pen name was not quite how I remembered it, but I knew, in an instant, here was Diana’s novel. Finally. It was such a happy discovery!

I encourage you to have a look at this lovely book, many years in the making. I’m so pleased for the author, and not only because I feel a certain satisfaction myself, but because it’s always rewarding to see hard work and talent recognized.

About the story:

Alberto has no memories prior to his arrival at an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. When his young grandson discovers that Alberto doesn’t know the date of his birthday, the two set out on a journey to find it. As they search, they find connections to Alberto’s past and discover truths about Spain’s troubled history, and Alberto slowly realizes that his birthday may not be the only thing he’s lost through the many decades of his life. This beautifully written, touching novel will inspire and educate, and have you pondering your own connections to the past and family.

You can purchase the book in the US here, and much more widely, I believe, in the UK, but here’s the Amazon link. Also, here’s an interview with Diana in which she explains her childhood inspiration for the novel.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Things About Grief

Grief is the worst party guest ever.  First of all, nobody invited him. It was supposed to be a fun evening, a chance to relax and God forbid—have fun. And everyone else is having fun, and speaking of things unrelated to Grief’s preoccupation, which only you know about because he whispers it in your ear any time he finds you alone in the kitchen, or the bathroom, or having a thought unrelated to the party. He’s always more than happy to remind you, when you forget.

Grief isn’t rational, not ever. No matter how many times you point out to him that his presence isn’t quantifiable or reasonable, not in any way that relates to time or space or influence in your actual, day-to-day life; no matter how many ways you try to explain him away, he doesn’t care. He stands there, defiantly, staring you down.

Grief has magical, infiltrating ways. Say, for instance, you’re out enjoying a very nice concert. Grief can travel in the strains of a piano, or the lyrics of a song, even one that’s not meant to be particularly sad. Grief can hijack a perfectly nice scent—like cologne, for example—and attack your senses before you even realize what has happened.

Grief loves company. Nothing recharges his batteries more than having a roomful of people to feed on. It’s where he lives, like a virus. 

Grief also loves to be alone. With you, anyway. Because that’s when he can really focus and gets things done. Much like a poet or artist who needs solitude to concentrate and create, Grief does his best work in a quiet room, with no distractions.

Grief is like a friend you can always confide in, but he’s also like the friend who sometimes has several drinks and talks too much. You can forgive Grief, because everyone needs an outlet once in a while, only you wish he wouldn’t have dumped on you this time (again).

Grief is a dark, gray evening and a bright, sparkling morning. He is high noon sunshine and the blackest part of night. He is rain, and snow, and everything that absorbs back into the earth.

Grief accepts no apologies, doesn’t need them. He’s good like that.

Grief stays away from very small children, mostly, and they are the only true antidote against him. Sometimes, he can be deterred by great beauty, such as you find in art or nature, but often he uses it as a shield and weasels his way right in.

You can move to a new house, or travel, or change your habits or job, and I’m pretty sure Grief will find you no matter what. He’s his own GPS. It’s almost a comfort at times, knowing he’s there, although you hope he'll keep his distance. He doesn’t always have good manners or social skills; he can’t read cues.

Once in a while, Grief takes a vacation. I imagine him, lying on a beach chair, pink umbrella in his drink, drifting off to the sound of endless waves. Come Monday morning, however, he’s back and ready for business.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka