Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley


I’ve just finished reading The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope and by “just finished” I mean moments ago, because I had to sit right down right in the middle of the day and finish it, which is something I rarely do. Oh, I loved this book. But I find myself in the strange position of loving a book, wanting to share the book and yet, not wanting to say much about it at all. Because Rhonda Riley’s debut is like nothing you’ve read before and should be experienced without predeterminations. It’s a family saga, a bit of the supernatural, a touch of historical. Above all, it’s one of the most unique and compelling love stories I’ve read.

A short plot summary: When Evelyn Roe’s great-aunt dies, she is put in charge of the North Carolina farm she left behind. Evelyn is the eldest of the family and the only one who’s ever shown an interest in working the land. So at seventeen years of age, she finds herself living alone for the first time in her life. During a turbulent storm, she discovers what she believes to be an injured and disfigured solider, almost completely buried in patch of mud. She nurses the stranger back to life and thus begins the love story of her time on earth.

What can I say about this magical and inventive novel? The language is beautiful and nuanced and the story is told with a patient and measured pace. Amidst the day-to-day toil and beauty of family life, glimmers of deeper meaning break through. Riley’s examinations of this extraordinary relationship raise universal questions about the nature of all relationships; her ponderings about what it means to know a person, to love a person, will lead you to contemplate your own entanglements. The novel surprised me again and again and never took a false turn. It operated on so many levels, it made my brain hurt. Riley’s debut has been compared to The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle—both books I loved, and you could certainly do worse than to be their hybrid offshoot. I loved this book and although it’s only still April, I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t included in my top reads of the year come December (book was first published in 2013, however). Warning: Don’t read lots of reviews before you dig in! Best to discover the mystery on your own, I think. Amazon link here, but available everywhere.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Writers: Cover Your Mirrors

Recently, I was watching this documentary called Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. It’s sort of a day-in-the-life view of the way a ballet company is run and into the lives of its dancers—the politics, the training, the sacrifices. The discipline it takes to be a dancer always amazes me. Most start at a young age and are sent away for training. Most love their vocation passionately. At one point during the film, a dancer is discussing the challenges of working with different choreographers. He talks about switching from, say, a classical ballet one week, to a modern piece the next. He mentions a certain modern dance choreographer who likes to cover the mirrors in the studio, because the ballet dancers are accustomed to “correcting” themselves. That is, they are constantly checking in the mirror that the lines of each arm, each leg, are correct. They check their posture, the turn of their feet, the curve of their backs—basically, everything they’ve been trained to do from an early age. The choreographer of the modern piece wants them to focus more on feeling and emoting, and not worry so much about perfection.

I found this so interesting, and it leads my thinking in two directions. First, to an ongoing discussion I had with a friend during my college years. This friend liked to read mostly twenty-first century stuff, had a thing for ee cummings if I remember correctly, and didn’t hold a reverence for the literary classics. I, on the other hand, was resolutely working my way through a list I had found somewhere, something like 500 Classics You Have to Read to Be a Worthwhile Person, and I was finding many of them quite incredible, of course. So our argument was framed around the question of whether you should immerse yourself in what has come before to move forward, if there is a value to studying what the higher-ups have determined to be the canon. I have no answer for this, even now, although I’m happy to have read enough to feel part of the literary conversation. At least the American literary conversation, and enough to dip my toes, perhaps, into a discussion of worldwide literature. But when it comes to writing your own stuff, you really have to find your own way, without regard to what has come before. I would say that each writer’s path is probably different but as long as you’re reading something, all the time, you’ll be okay.

The other way my thinking goes, when I contemplate those covered mirrors in the dance studio, is towards what the choreographer described as emoting. There seems to be, for writers, a delicate balance between looking outward and looking inward. If you are too introspective, too self-aware when it comes to the world, you will probably write the same character over and over. This works for some writers. And I would say that tapping into your own experiences and emotions is very important in the process of writing. Sometimes, however, I think it’s helpful to cover the mirrors and try to look outward. Be a conduit rather than the source. Observe without applying it to yourself. Imagine another way of viewing a situation, another value system, simply perceive without applying your usual patterns of thought. This takes a certain discipline, I suppose, and eventually you’ll have to restrain yourself to a pen and paper or a keyboard, doing as so many who have come before have done. But if you love your vocation passionately, you’ll have no other choice but to keep bouncing from what you’ve learned to the brave new world you want to create, no choice but to keep showing up, day after day, to practice.
"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