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 authonomy.com, 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.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Things You Learn on Your First Writing Retreat

-     Writing some place outside of your house and writing inside your house are two vastly different enterprises. With one, there are additional tasks constantly clamoring for your attention. With the other, your only distraction is yourself. And the internet. And food.
-     If a rental place looks rustic online, it is probably very rustic. Very.
-     If a rental place looks like it offers exposure to natural elements, it is very likely those natural elements will come to visit you inside the rental place.
-    You may lose some time chasing ants out of the kitchen.
-    You can really get a ton of writing done if you’re sitting in that chair twelve to fourteen hours a day.
-     Your house, with you not in it, will not burn down (probably).
-     Your husband, the fire chief in your absence, deserves a medal.
-    On retreat, many more meals and snacks are required than when you’re not on retreat. It’s probably good that retreats don’t happen often, or all writers would weigh six hundred pounds.

-   When your weather app says it will be 100 degrees in Joshua Tree, it will be probably, in fact, be 100 degrees and therefore, too hot to sit on that patio you admired online.

-   Your kid will still expect you to be the house’s IT person, even though you can’t really do much about his iPhone from Joshua Tree.

-   Natural elements make a lot of noises. Especially at night.
     -  When you cry over your writing while on retreat, nobody knows about it except you, and the desolate desert nightscape, and that goddamn, unidentifiable bug that can somehow fly AND crawl AND hide under the covers.
-    Motrin PM will help you sleep while the bug crawls over your lifeless body.
-    Just like at your house, three hours can pass in an instant when you’re immersed with your characters.
-    All of the stories you write on retreat will involve characters drinking wine.
-    Twenty minutes of yoga a day is not enough to combat the excess calories entering your body. But don’t worry about that...keep writing!
-    You will feel guilty for missing your kid’s baseball game, and your other kid’s first day of camp, but you’ll know you’re doing them a favor by expending your creative urges. Really.
-    You will have no dogs to snuggle while on retreat and there’s nothing positive about that, except you’ll gain at least an hour a day you would have wasted at home, snuggling.
-    On the third day, when a mouse runs across the floor of your tiny rental place, you will be 100% justified in packing your bags and leaving said rental place within the next twenty minutes.
-    You will cry big, fat tears of relief when you see the fluffy, white bedspread at the Hampton Inn, the pristine white tub, and the proper desk with a comfortable, leather chair. No one will know except you and--that's it, actually, because there are no bugs or mice at the Hampton Inn.
-     You’ll discover something you already sort of knew, in your heart of hearts. You’re a HOTEL person, not an OUTDOORSY person. Nice try, though.
-    You will end your experience with 10,000 new words and an appreciation for your same old desk, at your same old house.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Ordering of Place

I was reading a memoir recently, and the author talked about sitting down to draw a detailed map of a home where she felt safe and happy when she was a child—her grandparents’, I think—and I took a breath because I have done the exact thing; once, I pulled myself from bed to draw a recollection of my grandmother’s house, blueprint-style, with what I imagined was true-to-proportion squares and rectangles for each bedroom, the hallway, and the kitchen where it was always cool, clean, and bright. My grandma had a house that would be considered cramped by today’s standards—three small bedrooms, a living room, a dining area within the kitchen. No family room, no loft, no “bonus room.” And yet in it, she raised three children with my grandpa, and continued to live there after he died in his early sixties. I was eight years old when he passed and do remember my grandpa a bit, but I still think of the house as hers. To this day, I can visualize her well-organized closets and cupboards and what was kept in each one. I remember the sheen on her dining room table, the pattern in the dark green carpeting.

I wonder if everyone thinks about special places this way, or if it’s those of us drawn to some sort of creativity. Among writers, there’s lots of talk about place and how it figures into the stories we spin. But when we say “place,” surely there’s much more involved than the placement of linens, the size of a bathroom, the view from a quiet bedroom to the empty clothesline outside. It’s not where the rooms are, of course, but how we felt in them.

Perhaps this compulsion to document the layout of my grandmother’s home is a way to begin to give order to memory. This ordering must come first, because while it’s very well and good to talk about how wonderful it was at Grandma’s, someone has to make sense of it—the whys, the hows, the everlasting ripples of memory, what it meant to be warm and safe and happy within those walls. This sometimes unwelcome task falls to the creative types, I suppose, just as certain tasks fall to grandmothers, and grandfathers, and children whose only job it is to absorb, and live, and love.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Word Mantras

Every so often, usually around Mother’s Day, lists are circulated which detail the extensive duties filled by anyone with the job title “Mom.” Housekeeper, Chauffeur, Chef, Teacher, EMT, Janitor, etc.—the point being, mothers fill many shoes, on the daily. And it occurred to me that people who choose writing are often expected to master a variety of roles as well. Apart from the artistic requirements of the job (too extensive to get into here), a writer is also Administrator, Secretary, Public Relations, Marketer, and much more. But I think the most challenging expectation for a writer (and mother, for that matter) is to be her own best counsel and at more dire times, her own therapist.
The peaks and valleys of the writing life are relentless. Small victories followed by demoralizations; any bit of burgeoning confidence soon squashed by doubt. At least that’s how it seems sometimes. Lately, I’ve been grappling with uncertainty. I started a novel for NaNoWriMo last November but have lost the spark. I can’t decide what it’s about, or remember why I started it in the first place. I’m not sure if I’m writing it for myself, or whether my motivations are murky with outside influences. I can’t determine whether it’s worth pursuing.
Outside factors press in, as always. I’m distracted by other, non-writing things. I can’t focus, can’t find time. I wallow. And then, as we writers always do, I began to undertake the long process of picking myself up, dusting myself off, and rebuilding my mental stamina for another round. Basically, I’ve been giving myself therapy. Okay, well really, I’ve been avoiding that damn novel and once in a while, giving it a think until my brain starts to hurt. In the meantime, I’ve been reading and reading. My balm. My respite.
I read Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels and for several weeks and almost 2000 pages, let myself get lost in another time and place. Books can do that! my therapist self reminded my despondent self. As I pondered the purpose of writing anything at all, this essay claimed “the purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair.” This seemed like a good litmus test, my therapist self said, should I decide to dive back into that abandoned novel. I mulled this over for days. And when I read a novel that surprised, delighted, and joyfully embraced language, sentence by sentence, (my review here), my therapist self suggested that I break things down to basics.
Words, words, words. For some time, I had been obsessing about the word despair. Sitting at the veterinarian’s office, an injured dog came in—panting, head tilted, unsteady on his feet—and I thought: “despair!” In a parking lot, a woman shrieked in anger when someone took her parking spot—and I thought: “despair!” An old man trudged along the sidewalk, mumbling to himself—surely, “despair!” Often, I recalled that Thoreau quote about countless lives of quiet desperation and thought: “Yes, despair!” It was everywhere. I was invoking it and inviting it.
Then I found this poem by Wendell Berry, a sun beam that broke through my despair-filled cloud cover.
I began to fixate on another word: resolute.
From the Latin resolutus, past participle of resolvere (loosen, release, disperse). First known use: 1533. Synonyms: bent, bound, hell-bent, purposeful, determined, set.


Each version has a crisp, decisive sound, an accented syllable to signify purpose. I highly recommend finding the audio pronunciation online and playing it over and over, when you tire of saying it to yourself.

“It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.” –Theodore Roosevelt

“To a resolute mind, wishing to do is the first step toward doing. But if we do not wish to do a thing it becomes impossible.” –Robert Southey

“There is nothing in this world which a resolute man, who exerts himself, cannot attain.” –Somadeva

First and most basic job tile an author must take on: Craftsman or Artist, whichever you prefer. Keep it simple, my life coach/therapist self says. And so I return, once again, to the basics: stories, sentences, words. Resolute. Try saying it a few times, try imagining it on a page, the determined black lines and curves of it. Resolute. It’s a great word.
"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