Stuff that makes me spin

A Weekend with Lidia

Last year I wrote about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvitch, a book that changed the way I thought about truth, about telling my truths as a writer, as a woman. As my friend Debbie says, “I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere.” This is not a frivolous statement, for if you have read her writing, you know following Lidia means walking naked into the fire. It also means, as I learned this weekend in a two-day workshop with eleven other raw and beautiful souls, walking into an immense, fierce, loving heart.

I’m nowhere near ready to write about this weekend’s workshop. What it revealed to me, where it will take me in my own writing—closer and closer to the truth, which is a very scary, necessary place to be—is too fragile. But I can say Lidia led me right back to the slipstream of desires and fears that I dove into earlier this summer in Ireland—a place of deep listening and turbulent silence.

I read Lidia’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, several weeks ago and posted this reader response in Goodreads. I recreate it here to encourage you to explore Lidia’s writing, to hear her voice, to follow her anywhere. Prepare to be changed.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc.

It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula.

It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later.

These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad,” we say. “Someone should do something.” And then we turn away.

From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas.

On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.”

What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life.

The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution.

Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The WavesThe Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention.

Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s story, swimming in her stream of consciousness.

She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

Whiplash: The Power of Story

Sunday afternoon, in the warm, dark cocoon of a movie theatre—my husband working, the rest of the immediate universe watching the Superbowl—I saw a powerful, brilliant film. One of the best I've seen.  

Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, is a small-budget marvel that brings home the power of story, reminding us how few bells and whistles are needed to rivet an audience. A simple plot, a clear theme, a setting that inhabits the characters, but doesn't draw attention away from them. A story driven by the will and force of its characters. Characters you cannot turn your mind away from.

 

Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman at a fictionalized New York music conservatory, is a gifted, introverted jazz drummer who goes to movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) and stares longingly at the pretty girl who serves him up a bucket of popcorn (Melissa Benoist). Andrew's talent catches the ear of the school's reining jazz God, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and he's invited to join Fletcher's studio band. Studio band is the school's most prestigious—the one that wins competitions and makes or breaks careers. What follows is an emotional thriller that is as taut as the skin stretched over a drum.

 

It's been twenty years since I've reacted so viscerally to a movie (The English Patient. It still destroys me. Oh, that movie.) At one point, I felt a hot, woozy wave wash over me and I feared I'd either faint or vomit. I dropped my feet from the seat—I'd been curled in a tight ball of tension—and slid them back into my tennis shoes, preparing to flee if need be. That's how wrenched and gutted and caught up in this story I'd become.

 

It's facile fun to get lost in a fast-paced nail-biter, to fall over the edge into a cliffhanger, yet I don't read many thrillers. But that's not what I'm talking about here—the power of Whiplash isn't in hitting the conventional story arcs at the right times; it's in the profound dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher, a story that shoves aside all unnecessary filler and fluff to drive right at the heart with searing emotion and at the intellect with questions of ethics and the cult of personality.

 

One theme: power. Arguably, how hard one is willing to work for a dream could be another, but I find that trite. This movie is about power. Two characters. A limited range of settings used to stunning effect. A tightly-plotted script. Realistic, unaffected, loose dialogue from one character; a calculated cascade of abuse or soothing manipulation from another. A story that is largely autobiographical, from a director and screenwriter working out his own rage and hurt. He isn't showing us what he knows, Chazelle is showing us what he feels. He lets the characters work out what they know, or what they convince themselves of. A denouement that releases you into a false sense of relief, before electrifying you with an ending that offers both redemption and ambiguity. It is storytelling perfection.

 

As a viewer, I was captivated. Twisted into knots. Gutted. Exhausted. As a writer, I was all, THIS. THIS is how it's done.

 

 

My Reading Year: Best of 2014

I wondered as the year began—my first as a full-time writer—if I would have much time to read, if I could afford the time away from writing. One hundred and thirteen books later, I no longer wonder. The more I write, the more reading has become essential to my writing, as I chronicled earlier this year: If You Don't Have Time to Read.  

This has been the most astonishing and revelatory year of reading for this writer, ever. A year which saw me read my first Virginia Woolf and Sherman Alexie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; discover Francesca Marciano, Rene Denfeld, and Leanne O'Sullivan; and be rewarded again by Tim Winton, Colm Tóibín, Niall Williams, and Margaret Atwood. So many books touched me, tore me open, provided delight, and a very few that just didn't connect. It happens.

 

Some stats: Female/Male Authors: 57/56; Memoir: 11; Poetry: 4 (oh, my reading goal for 2015 is to triple this!); Writing Craft: 6; Religion/Philosophy: 7; Young Adult: 5; Food/Wine: 1; Mystery/Suspense: 7; History/Reference: 6; Essays: 3. The rest, sixty-three if I did my math correctly, would be literary fiction, including seven short story collections.

 

I've pasted excerpts from my Goodreads reviews in the list below.10885357_10203486144010376_5329045514422083153_n

 

NON-FICTION

This was the Year of the Memoir for me and three very different memoirs stand out:

 

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr (2013)

Food is one of the most vibrant reflections of culture, and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

 

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (2014)

At its tender heart, My Salinger Year is a coming of age tale of a writer and an ode to being young and sort-of single in New York, living in an unheated apartment in Williamsburg and taking the subway to Madison Avenue to speak in plummy, tweedy tones with other underpaid literati. It is a gloriously, unabashedly nostalgic memoir and utterly charming.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (2011)

This isn't for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly and life is too short to waste reading about someone else's tragedy and self-destructive behavior. But something about this story—the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality—gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch's word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

 

FICTION

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Race in America is an uncomfortable subject, mostly for white Americans. We still don't know where to look or what to do with our hands. We fidget and prevaricate. We, like blond-haired, blue-eyed, wealthy, liberal Kimberley in Americanah, use euphemisms like "beautiful" when we refer to black women so that everyone will know that not only are we not racist, but we think blacks are particularly worthy of our praise. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reflects our beliefs and behaviors back on us, illuminating our silliness and our masquerades, our ignorance and our misguided, but earnest attempts to understand the impossible: what it's like to be something other than white in this race-anxious society.

 

Life Drawing by Robin Black (2014)

Perfidy in marriage is a tried and true theme. Perhaps even time-worn. Oh, but not in Robin Black's hands. Her craft is brilliant. In a year when I have read some massive tomes (e.g. The Luminaries, Goldfinch, Americanah), Black's sheer economy of word and image is powerful and refreshing. Yet there is nothing spare in her syntax. Her sentences are gorgeous:

The day is thinning into darkness, the light evaporating, so the fat, green midsummer trees not fifty feet away seem to be receding, excusing themselves from the scene.

and

Bill and I had been tender with each other in the way only lovers with stolen time can sustain. Even in parting, gentle, gentle, gentle, like the tedious people who must unwrap every present slowly, leaving the paper entirely intact.

 

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (2014)

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity's darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to the hopelessness of prison and death row. She pries open our nightmares, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes with grace on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Redeployment by Phil Klay (2014)

These are masterfully crafted stories of war. Phil Klay walks in the footsteps of Tim O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway, and Wilfred Owen before him, but with a vision all his own. What elevates these stories above voyeurism and shock value is his pitch perfect writing. Klay's ear for dialogue, his eye for detail—offering just enough poetry in his prose to seduce, but not to saturate—and the immediacy and emotion of his characters’ voices reveal the power this young writer wields with his pen.

 

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano (2014)

As a reader and writer for whom place is nearly as important as character, I was delighted to find that Marciano speaks my language. From her native Rome to a haute couture boutique in Venice, from an old bakery turned House Beautiful in Puglia, to post-colonial Kenya, a remote village in Greece, central India, or to New York City, Marciano shows us how place defines character, and how travel strips us of our inhibitions and sometimes, our conscience.

 

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O'Sullivan (2009)

This slim volume of sensuous poetry takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag's many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. O'Sullivan's images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures.

 

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2014)

As readers, we often gravitate toward lives played out on a grander scale—adventures, dalliances, crimes, and misdemeanors far more colorful than our own. But reader, if you haven’t experienced the transcendent storytelling of Ireland’s Colm Tóibín, you may not know what it’s like to feel the earth tilt with the most subtle of emotional tremors.

 

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (2014)

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you'll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it's a primer on Western literature's greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won't make it through this with dry eyes.

 

Eyrie by Tim Winton (2014)

Eyrie is a vertiginous wobble through lives disintegrated by the slow acid drip of despair and addiction, held together by the thinnest strands of determination, survival, and devotion. Winton, like Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Colm Toibin, Edna O'Brien, is a writer-poet. His prose has such density and texture; it is sensual and viscous. Australian vernacular is particularly rich, to the point of cloying, and Winton uses it to demonstrate the sharp class divides in this country that we think of as a model of social egalitarianism.

 

My last full read of the year was  Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. I'm still haven't found the words to describe it, either as a book or as a reading experience, so I won't even try. I'll just keep reading.

 

Happy New Year to All!

 

 

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist: EssaysBad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

I became aware of the “I don’t need feminism because . . .” meme several months ago. You know—that Tumblr photo collection of young women holding up signs that read things like, “I don’t need feminism because I am capable of critical thinking,” or “I don’t need feminism because I am not a delusional, disgusting, hypocritical man-hater.” I shook my head, rolled my eyes, but still, these weird declarations chilled me. How did a sociopolitical movement founded on the principles of empowerment and equal rights become reduced to “disgusting man-haters”? Who are these ignorant young women who believe that feminism is a dirty word, something to be ashamed of, and how do they not understand what they owe to the generations before them and how much work there is yet to do?

 

For the purpose of this review, these questions are purely rhetorical. The answers are there, they are complex, and the subject of many a dissertation, I am certain. Which is probably why Tumblrs of anti-feminist rants exist—we stopped talking about what feminism means on an everyday cultural level. Feminism removed itself to the alabaster towers of academe, where concepts such as intersectionality, essentialism, Third Wave feminism, and patriarchal bargaining are no match for the mainstream, which is still shuddering over 80s shoulder pads as wide as an airplane hangar.

 

Well, thank God for Roxane Gay and her collection of intimate, generous, witty, and wholly accessible essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is the first I’ve heard say, “It’s okay to be messy, to hold conflicting opinions, to do things that don’t follow the party line, to question and be confused, and STILL be a feminist.”

 

As she says in the collection’s closing line, “I’d rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

 

First, a few things you should know about Roxane Gay: she’s a writer of novels, short stories, essays; a professor of English; a literary and cultural critic; a native of Nebraska, the daughter of Haitian immigrants. You will learn much more about Roxane by reading her essays. Some of what she shares will make you laugh. Some of it will break your heart. At some point, she will hit a nerve and piss you off (though not when she writes about participating in Scrabble competitions-she's adorable and so, so funny here). She ruminates, chats, gossips, but rarely does Gay conclude. Her essays hinge on the ellipses of what makes us human: our vulnerabilities, our inconsistencies, our flaws. Like each of us, she is “a mess of contradictions;” hence, her admission, her claim, to being a “bad feminist.”

 

Don’t look here for a historical treatise or a modern exposition of feminism. This is not a textbook. It is not a quick and dirty “Feminism for Dummies.” It is one woman’s thoughts (many of these essays have been published previously, giving to a loose and rangy feeling to this collection) on a wide range of contemporary American issues, political and cultural, with the basic theme of how feminism can confound and inspire.

 

A pop culture enthusiast, Gay examines contemporary race and gender relations through the filter of current cultural touchstones. She is an unabashed consumer of what are pointlessly referred to as ‘guilty pleasures.’ I floundered at times, feeling like I was smushed into a corner booth with a bunch of girlfriends at brunch, squirming and looking around the diner, unable to contribute to the conversation. I haven’t had television since 1993 and I don't read fan-fic.

 

Still, I soaked up what Gay had to say about the pop culture phenoms, even if I couldn’t relate to the details. She has this raw way of setting forth her opinion, often pointed, contrary, angry, or biting, but without a hint of snobbery. You get that she gets this is opinion, not gospel.

 

She makes many points that resonated deeply with this reader. In the essay Beyond the Measure of Men, Gay writes:

The label “women’s fiction” is often used with such disdain. I hate how “women” has become a slur. I hate how some women writers twist themselves into knots to distance themselves from “women’s fiction,” as if we have anything to be ashamed of as women who write what we want to write. I don’t care of my fiction is labeled as women’s fiction. I know what my writing is and what it isn’t. Someone else’s arbitrary designation can’t change that. If readers discount certain topics as unworthy of their attention, then the failure is with the reader, not the writer. To read narrowly and shallowly is to read from a place of ignorance, and women writers can’t fix that ignorance, no matter what kind of books we write or how those books are marketed.” 

But in a later essays, The Trouble with Prince Charming, The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help, she takes to task both the writers and readers of Fifty Shades of Gray, Twilight, and The Help. Gay draws the inclusive reading line at irresponsible writing of poor quality that celebrates the subjugation and abuse of women and at writing that craps all over the black American experience.

 

Gay also, naturally, discusses feminism from the perspective of a woman of color. This opens worlds of opinion and perspective that this reader craves. In light of this summer’s controversy over domestic abuse, the NFL, and the punishment Janay Rice suffered at the hands of her husband and the media, as well as the killing of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, MO, I want to ask those young women of Tumblr, “How’s that ‘I don’t need feminism’ working out for you?” For I do not believe that feminism is the purview of women. It belongs to all who advocate for social justice and human rights.

 

In so many clever and self-effacing ways, Gay show us how we have isolated ourselves in our narrow categories. Feminism is not spared her scorn: it has largely excluded women of color, queer women, transgendered women, it hasn’t dealt adequately with fat-shaming, it doesn’t recognize privilege, it offers up highly educated, wealthy, successful white women (Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandburg) as proof that things have changed. But what is most striking about Bad Feminist is to hear a strong, wise, accomplished, vocal woman say, “I’m still trying to figure out what feminism means to me.”

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The Ray Rice Effect

I'd planned to tell you about the writerly "Eureka" moments I've experienced these past two weeks as I work through the professional edits of Refuge of Doves. But I can't. Not this week. This week, I've had different sorts of moments. If I don't speak out, I will begin to question my value as a writer, as much as my experiences have caused me to doubt my value as a woman.  

Unless you live outside the United States or under a news-free rock, you are aware of the public firestorm caused by the NFL's recent two-game suspension and fine of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for beating his fiancée, now wife, unconscious in February. Her name is Janay Palmer.

 

My knee-jerk reaction to this travesty was to bemoan the violent nature of football, and the gladiator-worship that has far more to do with money and celebrity than a celebration of athleticism. I'll own that I despise professional football. But my view of football isn't the issue here. In fact, during the river of adoration that gushed through Washington state in the run-up to the Seahawks' Superbowl win this year, I set out to recalibrate my prejudice against the sport by learning what football can be. I acknowledge that the sport can be played with dignity, that strategy can trump brute force, and that professional athletics can be used as a force of positive cultural change. I hold out hope that these become the norms, instead of the exceptions.

 

Ray Rice's behavior should be an opportunity for the NFL to send an unequivocal message to fans that abuse is alwaysalwaysalways wrong, that consequences matter, and the victim should never, ever be blamed or held accountable.

 

I'm not an activist writer. I shy away from confrontation. I will be the loser of any face-to-face debate because I suck at verbal articulation. I don't think fast. I speak softly. I get easily overwhelmed by emotion and I have a very thin skin. I feel deeply, passionately, recklessly, and possess solid convictions, but I do most of my speechifying to my husband, with whom I am of a mind in all matters moral and political. Our discussions are really harmonious duets. After the Newtown massacre in December 2012, I vowed to cease posting anything political to my Facebook page, because the personal cost of responding to anti-gun control advocates was too high.

 

I broke that vow this week, when I posted Keith Olbermann's impassioned televised op-ed regarding the Ray Rice controversy. I picked up the video via a Facebook friend and shared it on my page. The segment includes devastating footage of Ray Rice pulling Janay Palmer, unconscious, out of an elevator.

 

I don't have television and I don't watch the news online. I wouldn't have been able to pick Keith Olbermann out of a lineup. I don't care what his politics are, which network signs his paycheck, or if he eats his vegetables. He did what the NFL did not do. He spoke up for women. He spoke out against sexism, misogyny, and the most horrible manifestation of a male-dominated society: violence against women.

 

It took all my courage to share Olbermann's video on my feed, because of the deafening silence that I knew would follow. Because professional sports and celebrity are such sacred cows in our culture, and violence against women is still acceptable behavior. Because interest in Ray Rice and Janay Palmer is prurient and short-lived. Because of the roll-of-eyes attitude of those who see this as a "whatever" matter between a man and the woman who defended him after he beat her senseless.

 

My writing is infused with my experiences, observations, beliefs, passions, fears, and questions; what my characters experience and how they react come from all the tiny threads that, woven together, form this writer. But I'm a storyteller. I surround myself with the imaginary and never write with the intention of using my fiction as a political platform.

 

I wrestle with how raw I will allow myself to become and how opening up on the page will affect my ability to tell a story. I've realized in recent months, after reading the beautiful and brave prose of Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed, how much I hold back for fear of being judged. I have certainly bled on the page writing stories about women who've experienced miscarriage, and publishing an essay about my experiences with child loss--an essay I've read aloud to rooms of strangers. It doesn't get much rawer than describing what it's like to eliminate your baby's fetus into a toilet.

 

I shared, and will continue to share, those experiences because I believe in shattering the silence and shame of infertility and miscarriage. I will continue to write through frame of these experiences because I believe my words can speak for those who cannot, for those who are desperate for the embrace of someone who says, I understand. It's not your fault. We write and we read for many reasons, not the least of which is the catharsis of shared human experience.

 

The Ray Rice/NFL debacle this week filled me with shame and fear. Fear that if I speak my heart, my truth, I will pay the price. No one has ever punched me or dragged me from an elevator. I have never been hurt by a boyfriend. I am married to a man of tremendous integrity and compassion. I am smart. I am strong, physically and emotionally. I am privileged to have been born white, in an established democracy, to a family that valued education. Yet, I am ashamed of my own vulnerability. I am ashamed that fear has prevented me from speaking up and fighting back. I am ashamed of the times I was not strong enough to protect myself.

 

Has a man ever used his superior professional position or greater physical strength to intimidate or manipulate me? Yes. 

Have I refrained from reporting abuse because I feared the consequences for me would be worse? Yes. 

Has a man ever made me fear for my physical safety? Yes. 

 

I am not a victim. I am a woman. I am a voice. And I haven't finished speaking. In fact, I've hardly begun.

 

 

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

History of the Rain: A NovelHistory of the Rain: A Novel by Niall Williams My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A novel of beauty and grace, showing again that Niall Williams is more than a writer, he is a composer who elicits music from the magical combination of letters we know as words.

Young Ruth Swain has returned home from university to convalesce in her attic bedroom, where the rain of Co. Clare pours ceaselessly on the two windows above her head, and three thousand, nine hundred and fifty-eight volumes of classic prose and poetry surround her in teetering stacks. Her father is gone and Ruth seeks him, his history, and his truth, in the vast library he left behind. Her clear, funny, and poignant voice guides us through misty decades of Swain and MacCarroll family lore to illuminate how her father, Virgil, and her mother, Mary, came to farm the worst fourteen acres of land in Ireland.

The reminders of present-day Ireland—references to the Crash, the internet, Marty in the Morning on RTE's Lyric FM—jolted me out of the dreamlike meanderings in a timeless world, casting a surreal glow over this rain-sodden ode to Ireland, literature, and love. But the anachronisms make the story more bewitching; Williams shows us that even in this hyper-connected world, it is possible to escape. And the greatest escape is found in the pages of a book.

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you'll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it's a primer on Western literature's greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won't make it through this with dry eyes.

Tied up in my delight with History of the Rain is my love for Ireland, particularly the west. Williams, as he always does, captures this incomparable spirit, the particular state of longing that I feel when I am in Ireland, or just thinking about being there:

We're a race of elsewhere people. That's what makes us the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world's worst bankers. ...It's in the eyes. The idea of a better home. Some of us have it worse than others. My father had it running in the rivers of him.

Let this river of words take you away. But be forewarned: you won't want to return.

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The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch

The Chronology of WaterThe Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is so fitting that the original cover of this book, which you see depicted here, arrives from the library marred by a plain, gray wrapper around the offensive bit—you know, a woman's bare breast. It is metaphor come to life for Lidia Yuknavitch's searing memoir, The Chronology of Water: hide and deny what is most natural, until it becomes a thing of shame.

Yet it would seem that Lidia Yuknavitch hides nothing. The Chronology of Water is ripe with shock-jock language and imagery. It is angry and lurid and reeks of booze and sex and blood. It's one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. The day I finished the book, I went and bought a copy of my own--no wrapper around the front cover, just a woman's beautiful body disappearing in a shimmer of torso, cut in half by the air above and the water below.

Water is the thematic structure around which this narrative is built—fluid from the body that spills in birth, in sex, in menstruation, in vomit and bile; water that offers healing and and generates power as a strong body sluices waves to win swim meets or meets an object of one's desire in a hotel swimming pool; water that can take life in a vulnerable moment as one's father collapses in the ocean.

But it's her body that Yuknavitch offers up for examination: a body that in the opening chapter is ruptured by birth. That experience is bookended by years of incest on one side and self-flagellation on the other, until the author meets herself full circle as a wife, a mother, a writer, a woman.

She conceals much in her narrative of abuse, but we are allowed a glimpse behind the wrapper of her shame and sorrow and witness a woman's soul torn in two by violence and fear.

In my house the sound of leather on the skin of my sister’s bare bottom stole my very voice out of my throat for years. The great thwack of the sister who goes before you. Taking everything before you are born. The sound of the belt on the skin of her made me bite my own lip. I’d close my eyes and grip my knees and rock in the corner of my room. Sometimes I’d bang my head rhythmically against the wall.

I still cannot bear her silence while being whipped. She must have been eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Before it stopped.

Her father physically and sexually abused Yuknavitch and her sister; their alcoholic mother existed in a fog of denial. Yuknavitch became a woman full of rage. She turned on herself, turned against her body, which had been made beautiful and powerful by water. She squandered a college swimming scholarship through drugs, alcohol, and sex with anything that moved. She punished herself over and over, for years, trying to root out the evil that abuse had buried in her.

Writing became her salvation. Time and again, as she lurches from mistake to affair, from addiction and obsession, it is writing that buoys her above the waves of her own destructive seas.

Caution must be taken not to romanticize Yuknavitch's scary history. The author as addict, the notion that one must suffer to create great art, is a cliché that works because it is true time and again. But separate yourself from the literal and sink into the sheer beauty of her language, the way she wraps her arms around you and won't let you go, you will be rewarded with tears and laughter, with frustration and rage. You will feel. And isn't that why we read? To feel, deeply, achingly, painfully, blissfully.

The nature of memoir, as distinct from autobiography, is like looking down at your body in a pool of water: shapes are distorted, disjointed, appearing larger or smaller or not at all. Memoir is not a chronological connection of facts. Memoir is a work of prose, an interpretation of one's life just as a painting is an interpretation of a scene or a theme. Whether or not every event described by Yuknavitch, or any other memoirist, really happened is not the point of memoir; the point is to offer the reader a powerful piece of writing with experiences that elevate the personal to the universal. Yuknavitch says it best:

All the events in my life swim in and out between each other. Without chronology. Like in dreams. So if I am thinking of a memory...there is no linear sense. Language is a metaphor for experience. It's as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory-but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.

This isn't for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly, messy, and life is too short to waste reading about someone else's tragedy and self-destructive behavior. That's pretty much me, really. But something about this story--the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality--gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch's word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

“Listen, I can see you. If you are like me. You do not deserve most of what has happened or will. But there is something I can offer you. Whoever you are. Out there. As lonely as it gets, you are not alone. There is another kind of love.

It’s the love of art. Because I believe in art the way other people believe in god.

In art I’ve met an army of people – a tribe that gives good company and courage and hope. In books and painting and music and film. This book? It’s for you. It’s water I made a path through…Come in. The water will hold you.”

N.B. Lidia is a Northwest writer, one of our regional treasures. I had never read her writing until this memoir and I fell hard, fast. And was gutted to learn I had missed her 2-day writing workshop here, in my little village, by two weeks. Alas, she's hosting a repeat in October. When I shall be out of the country. Le sigh. Come back, Lidia. Come back when I am here. I'm ready for a swimming lesson.

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Shattering the Silence: Three Minus One

18669335Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love and Loss by Sean Hanish My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure note: I am one of the contributors to this anthology.

In July 2009, my first pregnancy ended. In July 2012, my second pregnancy ended. There will be no others. Those experiencesas well as the years of baffling infertility that preceded the losses, the attempts at adoption, the anger and hope, resolution and relief, the sense of a life unfinished and unfulfilledhave shaped me as an adult. They have affected me as a woman, a writer, as the mother I will always believe I was meant to be, as a wife who shares forever-grief with her husband.

In 2005, the wife of writer-director-producer Sean Hanish gave birth to a stillborn son. In their journey through sorrow and healing, Sean wrote the screenplay for a film. That film, Return to Zero, starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, premieres worldwide on Lifetime Network, Saturday May 17, 2014, 8:00 p.m. EDT. Return to Zero. Sean's original intention was to see this film distributed on the big screen. But realizing he would reach a vastly greater audience on a solid television network, he signed on with Lifetime at the Rome Independent Film Festival in Italy earlier this year. Bravo, Sean. Congratulations for your brave and beautiful work.

In tandem with the release of the movie and in the spirit of shattering the silence surrounding neonatal death, stillbirth, and miscarriage, Sean and Brook Warner, editor of She Writes Press, conceived an anthology of prose and poetry written by women and men affected by child death. Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love & Loss is the result of their collaboration and ourthe contributors'journeys.

This collection of essays and poems speaks of pain and loss so profound, you are left breathless. Yet there is also incredible beauty, joy, and redemption. The writing is extraordinary, each voice unique in its expression of universal themes, experiences, and emotions. The relief to know one is not alone is profound.

In just a few lines Heather Bell's poem, Executioner, captures the absurdity of grief--the acknowledgement that life goes on, even as yours is falling apart, and the strange, sad ways people reacttrying so hard to empathize, to understand—yet botching it all, bless their hearts:

And the baby is dead but we need lettuce in the house, maybe some bread for morning toast so

I am at the store touching the potatoes at the spin, the slim wrists of carrot. And the baby is dead so

this entitles humans to talk about their dog's death, or gerbil's. This means I am expected to sympathize at

their loss. Because all death becomes, somehow, equal

Gabriela Ibarra Kotara reveals the Masters of Disguise that grieving parents become after the loss of a child: "I am that cautionary tale. No one wants what happened to us to happen to them." In Address Book, Meagan Golec reflects on how her friendships have changed since her child was born dead at 38.5 weeks. Elizabeth Heineman's What to Do When They Bring You Your Dead Baby in the Hospital is a tender, beautiful, elegiac prose-poem that I read over and over, wanting to sink inside her words. Marina del Vecchio, Silent Miscarriage, Shoshanna Kirk, To Balance Bitter, Add Sweet, and Susan Rukeyser, Our Bloody Secret, made me realize for the first time that I was not crazy for wanting to miscarry in my body's own time, even though it took weeksthe first timeor left me writhing on the floor for hours, hyperventilating in painthe second timeand that searching in the mass of blood and tissue for signs of your child's body is horribly, gruesomely, okay.

All this death and loss is not a thing you talk aboutnot in polite company. Not with strangers and rarely even with friends. But death brought me to life, as it were. The deaths of my children brought me at last to the page, to be the other thing I've always known I was meant to be: a writer. Isn't that strange and awful and wonderful? I can't fulfill one destiny, but in its denial, I am walking the road of another. My essay Their Names touches on the discovery of another way to create life.

Miscarriage affects an astonishing number of would-be parents: an estimated 30% of pregnancies ends in loss. Mercifully, many of these occur so early that the mother doesn't know she was pregnant. But many of us spend weeks and months planning for and anticipating life.

Stillbirth occurs in 1 of every 160 births in the US and neonatal deathdeath within the first 28 days of life1 in every 85 births. Shocking, isn't it? It's probably happened to someone you know. If and when it does, a simple "I'm so sorry for your loss" and a hug would be a beautiful gift. Offering Three Minus One would be a precious gift, as well. Parents in mourning need to know they are not alone. This book offers all the right things to say and do and feel and not feel. It is an embrace of compassion and empathy.

N.B.: The following readings by contributors from Three Minus One are scheduled in the Seattle Area (* I will be reading):

May 9, 1:00 p.m. Pacific Northwest Writers Association Cottage, Gilman Village, Issaquah

*May 22, 7:00 p.m., Third Place Books, Roosevelt, Seattle

*June 15, 3:00 p.m. Elliott Bay Books, Capitol Hill, Seattle

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The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

The Memory of LoveThe Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel opens quietly, as if the writer were a doctor, cautiously revealing a wound, warning the reader to look, but don’t touch; as if she were a psychiatrist, probing delicately at the mind, but who avoids coming too close to the main issues, for fear of doing her patient greater harm.

The wounds in Aminatta Forna’s devastating and beautiful novel The Memory of Love (why am I certain the author had another title in mind, but was convinced by her publisher to go with the banal to encourage mainstream readers? Sadly, this is the second novel entitled The Memory of Love I’ve read in the past four months and both deserve better titles. No offense to Elton John.) aren’t inflicted on just one person; they are the wounds of a nation brutalized by war.

The decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone was relegated to Page Five international sections in this country, overshadowed—if one paid attention to the many tangled messes abroad—by the War in the Gulf, then the Balkans, Rwanda and even Sierra Leone’s southern neighbor, Liberia. This beautiful West African nation was first a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, then became an important symbol of resistance. Its capital, Freetown, was so named by repatriated slaves at the end of the 18th century. Its modern history is at least as complex: a land rich in natural resources, with an infrastructure and population that attained stability and productivity, reduced to horrific footnotes of “blood diamonds,” boy soldiers, hacked-off limbs and a generation of children born of rape.

But all politics is personal. And The Memory of Love wraps the war around multiple characters and two eras to show the progression from hope and happy times to defeat and resignation.

The central characters in this story are men: Elias Cole, a mid-grade professor of history and his charismatic alter ego Julius, married to the woman on whom Elias develops a obsessive crush; Adrian Lockheart, a British psychotherapist fleeing a loveless marriage in the UK to treat PTSD sufferers in a Freetown hospital; and Kai Mansaray, an orthopedic surgeon whose work schedule seems to be self-inflicted retribution for having survived the war when tens of thousands of his fellow citizens did not.

The story opens just before the 1969 Apollo moon landing, when Freetown bustled with progress. Elias Cole, a young professor at the time, relates his story in first person to Dr. Lockheart, who comes to Sierra Leone thirty years later, after the civil war ends in 2001, to a crumbled city beset by poverty, crime and disease.

Women are central to the narrative, though we never hear their voices directly: the enigmatic Saffia, Julius’s wife; Ileana, the chain-smoking Romanian doctor who navigates crazy, sad Freetown with wry dexterity; Kai’s former lover, Nenebeh and Adrian's new lover, Mamakay. And there is Agnes, a Sierra Leonean psychiatric patient suffering from a rare “fugue” state where she wanders off for days, lost in a world of memories. There are prostitutes and slutty foreign aid workers, cuckolded wives and neglected daughters. Women bear the greatest injustices and losses in this novel but their experiences are interpreted by their lovers, husbands and physicians.

Aminatta Forna explores betrayal on an epic, political scope and an intimate, every-day relationship level. The Memory of Love is many individual but linked strands of characters doing whatever they can to survive, even if it means survival of the body but decimation of the soul. Friendship is one of the central themes—how easily we find and create connections and how it takes just a moment, a misunderstanding, a cruel coincidence, to tear them apart.

This complicated and intelligent novel demands careful, slow reading to keep track of the multiplicity of characters, the frequent changes of points-of-view, time and place. Aminatta Forna’s writing is evocative, deliberate and authentic. She infects the narrative with tragedy and anger, then lances the wounds with sweetness, affection and hope. There are competing feelings of pent-up illness and catharsis that are partially, but not fully, resolved by the end. Not an easy read, but an important one.

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Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear SugarTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dear Sugar,

I didn’t want to read your book. I don’t read advice columns as a matter of principle. Needy people, foolish people frustrate me. To read an entire book of advice column Q&A seemed about as necessary as professional football, with the same end result for this reader as for those players: heads bashing into unmovable objects.

But my book club selected it. Duty calls.

A bunch of shit happened in the three days I took to read your book. Like, universe is speaking to me shit.

The First Day (Parts I & II): On this achingly bright morning I was securing a hank of hair in a little clip when I noticed gray hairs. Now, my first gray hair appeared in 1999 when we bought our first house and I’ve had a few more here and there over the years, but they’ve always been curiosities, anomalies. This morning, however, my hair was streaked in silvery white strands. I’m crazy-nearsighted and in the months since I’ve become a full-time writer, I have little reason to examine my face in the mirror; I think I last wore mascara in October. So maybe that gray has been there for a long time and it took the rays of sunshine through the skylight at just the right time to expose my new middle-aged reality.

I checked the next morning at the same time, with the same intense sun pouring through the skylight. Yep. Still there. But the hair isn’t gray. The strands are silvery white against my natural auburn. They are beautiful. I can’t fathom trying to cover them up with chemicals.

I won’t complain that people often assume I’m several years younger than I am, but along with that assumption comes the presumption that I haven’t lived, haven’t experienced, don’t quite know or get or “Just wait until you’re my age …” This beautiful hair says “Yeah, baby. I’m forty-fucking-five. I’ve lived it. I get it. I’m older than you know.”

I almost stopped reading after How Do You Get Unstuck—only the second Dear Sugar— about the woman suffering after her miscarriage and you sharing the horror stories of the young women you’d encountered as a youth advocate. It was all too raw for me. It hit too close to home. But I kept going and a few dozen pages later, you rewarded me with Write Like a Motherfucker, a statement I printed in Sharpie on a Post-It and pinned to my bulletin board.

Dudes in the Woods gave me a different way to think about friendship and I realized I needed to share a piece of knowledge about someone with a mutual friend—that it wasn’t gossip, but a search for the best way to help. Turns out that mutual friend was suffering, too, and now we’re able to move forward together.

The Woman Hanging on the End of the Line slapped me in the face with the force of my bitterness and rage at a few individuals who wronged and betrayed my husband and me and the price I’ve paid for that rage. I’m not sure I’m ready to let it go just yet, but now I accept that I have a choice.

The Second Day (Part III & IV): I went to coffee with a new writer friend (three lovely words, don’t you think?). We shared our writing journeys. I explained I’d wanted to be a writer my entire life, but I quit writing at ten, when my parents split, and didn’t resume until I was 41, after I lost my first pregnancy. And finally found the courage to begin my novel days after losing my second, when I was 43. Those are the facts.

You succeeded in making me cry with Beauty and the Beast and laugh out loud with The Known Unknowns: “I’d rather be sodomized by a plastic lawn flamingo than vote for a Republican…” Can I use that? I’ll credit you, of course!

But it was A Glorious Something Else I’ll carry with me: “…boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well the as the responses you will have to those behaviors.”

Day Three (Part V): I finished your book this morning. Of course you would end with a letter from a reader who wondered what your now-forty-something self would tell your twenty-something self that made me cry. I closed your book and cried loud, cathartic sobs. My twenty-something self had already found an amazing guy and was deep into a rewarding career, so it’s not like I could relate to your encounters with the Ecstasy-dropping gay couple or your heroin addiction or failed first marriage. But there are other pains, other regrets, other mistakes, betrayalsabandonmentslosseshates for which I cried. It was a collective of tears for the stories I’d read and the empathy I’d felt.

Moments later I learned a friend’s marriage is ending, with a bitter custody battle underway. Reading her words, I became my ten-year-old self, caught between two bitter, angry, vengeful people who had a choice. And didn’t choose me. Didn’t choose what was best for me. They chose hate and recrimination instead of cooperation and love. I wrote to my friend with that little girl’s soul, hoping she would make the right choice for her young child. And then I went for a run.

I ran in the same aching light that three days before had revealed the undeniable proof: my body is fading from the solid brilliance of youth to silvery, tenuous old age. I ran straight into the epiphany that I stopped writing when the child I’d been was abandoned and her world fell apart and didn’t begin again until I accepted the loss of my own children and let go the hope of being a mother. I knew these as facts—I had relayed them to my new friend two days before—but I hadn’t felt the facts as emotions until that moment, in the 16° wind chill and determined sunlight. I had to stop running. I was laughing and crying so hard, I couldn’t breathe.

Dear Sugar,

I'm ETAing to let you know that one of my brothers called me a few days after I posted this review to my blog. He said he'd learned more about me from reading my review than he'd ever known. But isn't that why you published this collection? To learn about yourself? Good on you. I reckon it worked.

Yours,

Going for Silver

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And the Winner Is...

And now I break from my regularly-scheduled programming to accept the honor of the Versatile Blogger Award. Blogs are strange little creatures. I wouldn't be a writer without mine, for I started it with the sole intent of forcing myself to write as if I had an audience. Of course, I had not a single follower when I started, which was the ONLY reason I began to blog. Much to my mortification, people— strangers, friends, colleagues—began to follow and comment. I still babble away to myself here and I'm still astonished that anyone reads, but as long as you do, I hope I say something of value every so often.

But awards such as the VBA aren't about the blogger herself. They are an opportunity to recognize and spread the word about a valued community. Many supportive, creative, passionate souls have appeared in the time I've been filling this space and getting settled into this writer's life. We blog in isolation but if we keep at it, we'll be rewarded with feedback and followers who assure us our voices are heard and appreciated.

Accepting the Versatile Blogger Award means following the rules. I'm not so good with rules, but in the spirit of this great community, follow them I shall. The most important rule is to call out and thank a few of the bloggers I follow. Their words, appearing in my e-mail or blog reader several times a week, remind me how and why writing changes lives. Y'all are so great.

 

Thanking first the blogger who nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award: 

Anawnimiss  Thank you and Peace.

 

Blogs I Follow, for Inspiration and Empathy:

Writing and Other Forms of Suffering

Kev's Stuff

Dragonscale Clippings

Highland Hind

Grace Makely

Sylvie's World is a Library

BG Bowers

Claudia Cruttwell

Velvet Skies

Journey with Julia

Mag Offleash

Celenagaia

An Amateur Author

Ordinary Canary

Unexpected Paths

 

And Those Seven Things You Probably Don't Know About Me. For Good Reason.

  • Introvert that I am, I'm quite good at public speaking. In fact, I love being on stage.
  • Dancing makes me outrageously happy. Me, dancing I mean. Not watching other people dance. That's nice, too, but not the same.
  • I have a potty mouth. Particularly when driving. It's best I drive alone. You would be shocked.
  • Clumped-together seeds in or on fruit give me the heebie-jeebies. Like the inside cores of bell peppers, or seeds on strawberries spaced too closely together, or seeds inside gourds. Oh, I just get the willies. Does this make me completely insane?
  • I weep easily at movies. Or touching commercials. I'm a weeper. Completely sentimental. "Titanic"? Fuhgedabboudit. I bawled.
  • I hate going out at night. And for me, night starts at 5:30. I'll do it, for your birthday, or a concert, or for Lord of the Rings. But mostly, it's torture. I just want to curl up and read, then go to bed at 8:30. Leave me alone.
  • It took me a week to come up with this list. Who wants to talk about themselves? That's why I write stories about other people.

    Impromtu Improvisation

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wonder how it feels to be one of the thirty-one agents who rejected The Sparrow?

Oh, but I shouldn’t be so hard on hapless agents unable to recognize genius or unwilling to take a risk. It took me many years (seventeen from its date of publication, five from when I became aware of it) to pick up Mary Doria Russell’s debut novel. And four days to devour it.

The threaded narrative is split in two by time and space, but follows the story of one man: Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico with preternatural linguistic abilities. In 2022, Emilio and seven other crew members board the Stella Maris to explore the recently-discovered planet Rakhat. In 2059, Emilio returns from the mission alone, physically and psychologically broken. Although nearly forty years have passed on Earth since the doomed crew embarked on their voyage, Emilio—who travelled at light speed—is fresh from the horror. Not even three years have passed in his life since the Stella Maris's departure. The story of what happened to the crew had been relayed by another mission that followed a few years behind the Stella Maris. It is horrific—or we suppose it must be— for Russell raises the tension ante by shifting back to the recent future, keeping her hand on the release valve of the truth as the storylines gradually merge. Whatever happened, Emilio isn’t telling. His hands have been mutilated, he suffers debilitating migraines, and he refuses to defend himself against terrible accusations. The Father General of the Society of Jesus, Vincenzo Guiliani, gives Emilio two months at a retreat outside Naples to heal, then the questioning will begin.

Journey is a core theme of The Sparrow and the characters undertake many. The literal journey from Earth to a distant planet is the heart of the novel’s gripping premise, but the internal journeys make it fascinating and heartbreaking. There are journeys of faith, love, marriage and ageing; journeys that test physical limits and break the spirit. The spiritual journeys resonate and Russell’s masterful plotting enthralls.

I’ve been thinking hard about this in the days since I finished The Sparrow and I struggle to come up with more than a few titles of books that have been as holistic a reading experience, in which my every literary need and desire have been so exquisitely satisfied. I managed White Dog Fell From the Sky, Eleanor Morse; Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell; Atonement, Ian McEwan; Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes; The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco; A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth. An eclectic mix, to be sure, but what they have in common is riveting story, characters who get under your skin, a scope awesome in size-either in research or world-building (or both) yet with deeply personal themes, and gorgeous but accessible prose. Each of these books changed me not just as a reader, but as a person. I add The Sparrow to this estimable collection.

Although I could have appreciated The Sparrow many years ago, I wonder if it would have touched me in the same way. The story caught me at a juncture of my own spiritual journey: the road that led me far from religion has crested a rise and I can see past the morass of dogma to the more orderly pursuit of theology. I am left with an inexplicable sense of beauty and hope and a renewed determination to continue my quest.

After forgoing The Sparrow for so long, why now? Well, that’s an easy one. I was gobsmacked by Mary Doria Russell’s most recent novel, Doc (review linked). If I could be this rapturous about a “western,” I was willing to follow her into science fiction. After The Sparrow, I’d follow her anywhere.

Just a sidebar about genre. I understand it’s in our genetic code to sort and classify. But it’s a damn shame to pigeonhole literary fiction with nugatory genres. How many times have I heard “Oh, I don’t really like westerns” as I’ve waxed enthusiastic about Doc in recent weeks (after moaning and groaning myself before digging into this book club pick)? More’s the pity. Ditto The Sparrow—often categorized as science fiction. I resolve henceforth to ignore simplistic classifications and explore a book based on the quality of its storytelling and prose, rather than knee-jerk a rejection because a novel is set in Dodge City, KS or on Planet Rakhat. End of soapbox. Continuation of reading bliss.

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My Annual Jane: Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility by Jane Austen My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“We have neither of us anything to tell; you because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.”  Marianne Dashwood to her sister, Elinor.

And thus is Marianne’s yang to Elinor’s yin. Two halves of a whole, two women bound in love and in blood, as different and dependent as the sun and moon. Passion and logic. Emotion and propriety. ESFP and INTJ.

Jane Austen first crafted this story as an epistolary novel and titled it “Elinor and Marianne.” Although the structure would change as she revised the novel over fifteen years until it was published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility, the relationship between these two young women remained its core.

But this novel isn’t about a conflict between sisters with opposing characters, one directed by Sense, the other driven by Sensibility. It’s about recognizing the sense and sensibility we each possess and how to release one and harness the other when love beckons and threatens in equal measure. It is about a quest for harmony and the embrace of one’s true self, about the ability to admit fallibility while still seeking personal growth. Sense and Sensibility is the Tao of Austen.

The moments of self-actualization are many and profound. Elinor’s is the least notable because she enters and remains the most centered and stable person; Colonel Brandon’s came many years before the novel takes place—we learn of it as he relates the sorrowful story of his lost love and the child he takes on as a ward; but John Willoughby, Edward Ferrars, Marianne Dashwood—each has a period of reckoning that challenges the weakest aspects of their characters and each arrives at a resolution.

Elinor may well be my favorite of Austen’s women (I hedge, because as soon as I reread Pride and Prejudice, I’ll claim it to be Lizzy). She is certainly the most dignified and humane. She is also the most relatable. Her compassion is justified and deeply-felt, which makes her uncharitable thoughts all the more delicious. In this comedy of manners, Elinor is above reproach, but beneath her unflappable surface is a wry sense of humor, prone to irony and exasperation.

Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavour to appear to advantage.

And although Edward Ferrars does not make my heart thump in the slightest, not compared to the enigmatic Mr. Darcy, the dashing Mr. Knightley, or the heroic Christopher Brandon, I have the most tender of spots reserved for the most hopeless of introverts:

"My judgment," he returned, "is all on your side of the question; but I am afraid my practice is much more on your sister's. I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy, that I often seem negligent, when I am only kept back by my natural awkwardness. I have frequently thought that I must have been intended by nature to be fond of low company, I am so little at my ease among strangers of gentility!"

Sense and Sensibility has Austen's most rousing cast of secondary characters, with the wicked witch Mrs. John Dashwood (portrayed with perfect insufferableness by Harriet Walter in the 1995 film adaptation. The one I must watch at least once a year), effusive, lovable busybody Mrs. Jennings, sly and silly Lucy Steele, and the preposterously mis-matched Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. But it is Elinor for whom I turn each page, in admiration and tenderness. It is Elinor who I most aspire to be, to create, who I wish I could have known, who I mourn because she is the closest connection to the author herself. Elinor had the Happily Ever After that Jane was denied.

“Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope.”

The Tao of Elinor. The Tao of Jane Austen.

And now. I’m done parsing. For that is Sense. I read Jane Austen to indulge my Sensibility. I sink into her novels and want them never to end. I cherish her language, I adore her characters, I marvel at the simplicity and perfection of her plots, I cry because love triumphs in the end. There is just no making Sense of why I adore Jane Austen. There is only Sensibility: Capacity for refined emotion; delicate sensitiveness of taste; also, readiness to feel compassion for suffering, and to be moved by the pathetic in literature or art. (Oxford English Dictionary; 18th and early 19th c. Usage); the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity (Modern Usage).

Until next time, Jane.

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Book Club Redeemed: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

DocDoc by Mary Doria Russell My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you follow me Goodreads, you’ll know I’ve disliked, vigorously, most of the titles our book club has selected in recent months. My reading philosophy forbids wasting time on books that don’t capture me in their opening chapters, but I’ve had to bend my rules to honor book club commitments. Number Five—a memoir—fared better, but only by a thread. Number Six was my pick. I loved it. I feel sheepish because it was my selection, but after months of insufferable duds, I went after an author I adore.

Enter Lucky Number Seven. Last month one of our club members selected Doc by Mary Doria Russell for our November read. Cue inner cheer and moan. Russell has been on my “must-read” list for eons. Okay, truth. She felt like one of those writers I should read. But the spark hadn’t lit. A book club obligation seemed like a good way to tick the Mary Doria Russell author box. But, God, a WESTERN? Do I have to read a book about Doc Holliday? Seriously? Sigh.

O vos pusillae fide

He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.

And from this sentence on, I was spellbound. I have a new writer crush (sorry Jess Walter, you’ve been displaced. Love ya,babe).

Doc is based on a very brave conceit. Russell takes an element of our collective cultural imagination—the sepia-toned Wild West—and gambles that we’ll embrace her rendering of its most iconic figures and places. Or that we'll even care about one more depiction of the Earp boys and world-weary, hack-a-lung Doc Holliday. What Ms. Russell needs to know is that she touched this reader, who had to go out of her way to pick up a novel set in the American west, with some of the most sublime storytelling I’ve read.

John Henry Holliday became a dental surgeon at twenty-one and was stricken with tuberculosis that same year. He boarded a train for the West, in search of drier climes. By twenty-two he was a heavy drinker and gambler. By twenty-six he was a frontier legend with a permanent limp from a gunshot wound and a multi-lingual Hungarian aristocrat-turned-prostitute on his arm. And he hadn’t yet set foot in Dodge City, Kansas.

But follow Mary Doria Russell there, as she takes Doc to his single season of happiness. She will prove to be a cracker-jack guide—nimble, sophic, soulful. Doc is a character study, with its title protagonist the sun around which a host of personalities spin. Russell sinks the reader into the skin of her characters-and there are heaps, as evidenced by The Players section that prefaces the narrative. But it’s Doc as the sun, Kate Harony, his companion, as the moon, and Wyatt Earp as the grounded Earth who make this universe breathtaking and epic.

Russell creates a world that will consume each of your senses until you are wiping the Kansas grit from your skin, gasping at the sweet-sour burn of bourbon, pausing to wonder at the beauty of a prairie sunrise, cringing at the wet iron scent of fresh blood, and hearing the crack of gunshot and drumming of hooves as Texas boys pound into town for a night of cards and whores. The details of time and place are artfully offered without ever being cliché. We know this world—we grew up with these legends—yet Russell brings freshness to the American frontier. It’s not retread. It’s raw and unaffected worldbuilding.

The narrative is a slice of Doc’s life. Outside the brief chapters chronicling his early years and an even shorter Epilogue, Doc takes between April 1878 and April 1879. It’s the year Doc spent in Dodge City, Kansas, endearing himself to Wyatt, Morgan and James Earp, an Austrian priest, an Irish entertainer, a Chinese entrepreneur, not a few prostitutes (though Kate was his only lover) and making enemies with just about everyone else. Russell weaves a subplot into the narrative—the suspicious death of a young faro dealer of black and Indian heritage. The investigation of the boy’s death becomes the linchpin of the story, allowing us to witness the players and politics at work in Dodge City.

This is as fine a work of historical fiction as I any I have read. I’m not well-versed in literature of the American west, but I have taken John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Louise Erdrich and Cormac McCarthy out for a spin. Doc slips easily into the tremendous canon of these writers.

The moment I turned the final pages of the Author’s Note I hopped lickety-split to Mary Doria Russell’s website, where she had announced the same day a sequel to Doc, entitled Epitaph, will be released early 2015: Epitaph update: bad news, good news And she’s committed to writing a novel about Edgar Allen Poe. Oh, we lucky readers!

Doc makes up in spades for the months of dreary book club reads which preceded it.

Mary Doria Russell, you are my huckleberry.

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Citizen Vince by Jess Walter

Citizen VinceCitizen Vince by Jess Walter My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Vince Camden and I had our political awakenings at the same time: Autumn, 1980. Jimmy and Ronny, the embassy hostages, Afghanistan, Iran—Iraq War, Abscam, inflation. Not too mention John Lennon, Mt. St. Helen’s, Rubik’s cube, the Moscow Olympics, Bjorg and McEnroe, Sony Walkman. Bruce, Billy, Pat, Blondie, The Police, Dire Straits, ska, New Wave. Come to think of it: 1980? Monumental.

The thing about my intellectual awakening vs. Vince Camden’s: I turned 11 a couple of months before the Gipper was elected. Vince? Vince is in his 30s. I was navigating long division. Vince, the federal witness protection program.

I cried the night of my oldest brother’s high school graduation in June, 1980. Here I was, 10 going on 11, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Vince Camden doesn’t strike me as the crying type, but I bet he fretted too, when he left behind his life as Marty Hagen--a two-bit hustler in New York City-- to become Vince Camden in Spokane. Spokane! About as far as you can get from New York City without entering Canadian airspace, geographically and culturally.

But unlike my 10-year-old self who had to make her own way, the Feds not only gave Vince a new home and identity, they subsidized his job training. Vince did something that I once considered and probably should have followed through with, given my current zero-earning state: he completed a baking and pastry program at the community college. Now Vince bakes crullers, fritters, cinnamon rolls, maple bars, and jelly-filled delights at Donut Make You Hungry. He’s also running a credit card scam with his mailman and Lenny, a local pawn shop owner. You can take the boy out of a life of crime, but can you take the criminal out of the boy?

While Vince is awakening to the future—the book is staged during the week leading up to the 1980 election—his past is catching up to him. The appearance of Ray Sticks, a Philly hitman moonlighting for the New York mob, sends Vince scurrying back to New York to make amends to the guy he stiffed (that guy being John Gotti—oops) See, Vince realizes he really likes his new life. He’s getting into this being a part of a community thing. There’s a sweet prostitute who could use his help raising her son, there’s a local politician and Vietnam vet who could use Vince’s savvy with Spokane’s underground to win new voters. And who woulda thunk it, but Vince is a great baker. He’s got dreams about opening a restaurant, owning a home, having a wife and kid…

It’s just that Vince’s got a hit on him. Complicates his future prospects. Or rather, his prospect for a future. And then there’s the matter of which yahoo to vote for, come Tuesday.

A little bit Elmore Leonard, a little bit Philip Roth, a little bit Nick Hornby, but completely, wonderfully Jess Walter. As dark as he can wring it, Walter just can’t hide a big heart (maybe a little Frank Capra, too?). It’s impossible not to cheer for Vince, even when he’s stealing your credit cards.

But you know what really makes Vince want to follow the straight and narrow? He receives his very first voter registration card. And on his way to face the music, Vince insists that he be allowed to vote. Which he does. But for whom? Carter? Reagan? Anderson? Hmmm...I’m not telling.

This is some of America’s best contemporary storytelling. Read it and weep. Giggle a little, too. Oh, and don't forget to vote.

There is what you believe and there is what you want and these things are fine. But they’re just ideas, in the end. History, like any single life, is made up of actions. At some point, the thinking and believing and deciding fall away and all that’s left is the doing.

~Vince Camden

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr. Kellet. ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.’ ‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’ ‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

A preternaturally wise ten-year-old Ursula Todd offers us this succinct thematic summation of Life After Life near the book’s end, after she has lived and died many times.

A palimpsest is also the perfect metaphor for Kate Atkinson’s luminous novel. Its multiple layers of theme and plot pile up like shadows, visible through the translucent onion-skin of imagination. It is a novel of faerie tales—the fox, the wolf, and little girls snatched while walking through the woods. It is about the brutal realities of war—Atkinson brilliantly captures the interminable months of the Blitz, where nightly bombings are endured with aplomb and scooping up bucketsful of your neighbor’s flesh is just what you do to get on to the next day. It is a story of a family—a familiar motif in Atkinson’s literary worlds—with a set of messy, vexing, endearing characters whose personalities remain constant throughout the crazy quilt of this narrative, even if their outcomes change, depending upon the version of life they are living.

Ursula Todd is born at Fox Corner on a snowy night in February 1910, the third child of an upper-middle class family ensconced in the genteel English countryside. She dies at birth. She lives, just barely. She drowns as a toddler. She is rescued at the last minute, clutched by the hand of an amateur painter before the current sweeps her out to sea. She is taken by the Spanish flu just days after Armistice. She is raped on her sixteenth birthday and dies after a botched abortion. She is kissed tenderly by the neighbor boy, a Sweet Sixteen gift beyond her wildest hope. She marries an English psychopath who murders her. She marries a German intellectual. She can never have children. She has a little girl named Frieda who becomes the pet of Eva Braun. She is trapped in Germany during the war and dies from her countrymen’s bombs. She survives the terror during and the deprivation after World War II in London, rising through the ranks of British civil service to become a model for working women in the 1960’s. She assassinates Hitler in 1930, becoming a martyr for peace and the prevention of a Holocaust that no one could believe possible in the desperate years after the Great War.

The first snippets of life and death and life again are jarring. Atkinson opens the door wider each time until you are inside the maze and there is no turning back. But she doesn’t abandon you to aimless wandering. Through the constancy of the characters, you follow the crumbs of her tense and nimble plotting. Her writing, as always, is sheer pleasure to read, with lovely and supple language. She balances the queer and violent with humor and tenderness, leaving her lipstick on the glass with those particular Atkinson markers: affection for children, dogs, and an essential Britishness that mixes poignancy with a wry self-regard.

Atkinson leaves room for the reader and the characters to approach reality on their own terms. Ursula shifts with each life, responding to a sense that if she just did this, something fundamental will change. Is she aware that she is reliving her life? Are her choices conscious, or is it an awareness buried deep inside her, a sixth sense that emerges as déjà vu? You’ve simply got to read this for yourself for the answers. But don’t expect any.

The more I think about this book—several days now after reluctantly closing the back cover—the more in awe I am of one of my favorite authors. Kate Atkinson has crafted a lyrical rendering of metaphysics and a brave manipulation of narrative structure that is at heart a wonderful story—albeit with layers as delicate and impermanent as a croissant’s and as delicious to consume. I’m still licking my fingers. Brava.

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Book Review: Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Love MedicineLove Medicine by Louise Erdrich My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Her clothes were filled with safety pins and hidden tears

Last week I sat on the steps of a downtown pier, stalled in the summer sun, reading my 1989 paperback edition of Love Medicine. With its Washington Husky-purple cover and title blaring in giant Britannic Bold white font, the book must have appeared to the uninitiated like a pulp romance. Little did they know it was one of the most significant works of American fiction published in the 1980s, by an author who has become a national literary treasure.

Louise Erdrich squeezes the back of our neck and pushes our resisting head to look directly into the lives of Native Americans on a reservation—a part of North American culture about which most of us know very little, segregated as reservations are by politics, geography, contempt, and pity. And the reader does more than observe—she sees, hears, thinks, feels, loves, and suffers as Erdrich’s characters do, through fifty years and the countless episodes of heartbreak, laughter, rage, and grace.

Love Medicine opens in 1981 with the death of beautiful but broken June Kashpaw. June stumbles from a truck cab and runs from a stranger who calls her by another woman's name as he makes love to her. She sets out for her home on a North Dakota Chippewa reservation, following her instincts through a later winter storm. But her sharp survival skills, honed in a lifetime of living out-of-doors, cannot overpower the snowstorm or keep her warm in a pair of jeans and a thin jacket.

June’s death propels the narrative down a path of memories connecting two Chippewa familes—the Kashpaws and the Lamartines. Love Medicine is the first in Erdrich’s symphony of novels featuring characters from the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, set in and around the reservation. Although she dies in the story’s opening scene, June’s spirit holds the narrative together. The thread of her life is woven through each character’s story.

The author uses a conversational first-person give the reader a sense of second skin with the characters. Mixed in are handful of third-person limited narratives that imbue the story with a lyrical, almost mythical tone.

The writing is gorgeous. The characters are so vividly rendered, you feel them in your blood.

She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved.

AH! Could there be a more perfect sentence?

She was a natural blond with birdlike legs and, true, no chin, but great blue snapping eyes.

Gordie had dark, round, eager face, creased and puckered from being stitched up after an accident. His face was like something valuable that was broken and put carefully back together.

Even as the characters speak directly to you, drawing you into their secret thoughts, shames and desires, Erdrich’s prose is like music, full of shifting tones and rhythms, crescendos and counterpoints.

Veils of love which was only hate petrified by longing--that was me.

So many things in the world have happened before. But it's like they never did. Every new thing that happens to a person, it's a first... In that night I felt expansion, as if the world was branching out in shoots and growing faster than the eye could see. I felt smallness, how the earth divided into bits and kept dividing. I felt stars.

There they were. And he was really loving her up good, boy, and she was going hell for leather. Sheets were flapping on the lines above and washcloths, pillowcases, shirts was also flying through the air, for they was trying to clear a place for themselves in a high-heaped but shallow laundry cart.

There is evil and mystery, as Marie Lazarre escapes the horror of the convent on the hill in the 1930s; Sister Leopolda’s fingers like a “bundle of broom straws, her eye sockets two deep lashless hollows in a taut skull” will haunt your dreams.

There are stories of betrayal: Nector Kashpaw turns away from his wife for the comfort of his first love, the easy, sensual Lulu Lamartine, mother of eight boys by eight fathers; June has an affair with tribal legend Gerry Nanapush, whose 6’3”, 250-pound frame cannot be contained by any prison, and leaves their son to be raised by the tribe as she had been.

You will ache for Henry’s future, wasted in the jungles of Vietnam and pray that Albertine, the first of her family to attend university, doesn’t waste hers. There is deep despair, as Gordie, wretched with alcohol, hallucinates the deer he has hit is his dead wife, June. He bundles the deer into the back seat of his car and the scene which unfolds is sickening and desperately sad.

And there is redemption and love, as tender and insightful Lipsha Morrisey, who isn’t aware until he is a grown man that June is his mother, finds a way to forgive and love the woman who cast him off; as Marie opens her home and heart to stray children; as two old women, enemies since childhood, come together in their final years.

It is challenging to keep straight the shared bloodlines and histories. I believe later editions contain a family tree of sorts. But Erdrich explains these connected lives in a way that you realize they are like the root system of an aspen tree—one tree, standing alone, is really part of a vast forest:

They moved in dance steps too intricate for the noninitiated eye to imitate or understand. Clearly they were of one soul. Handsome, rangy, wildly various, they were bound in total loyalty, not by oath, but by the simple, unquestioning belongingness of part of one organism.

Whatever its flaws, and apparently Erdrich found enough to revise the book and publish new editions in recent years, Love Medicine is the reason we read: to be shaken to our core by characters we hate to leave behind as we turn the final pages.

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Book Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The InterestingsThe Interestings by Meg Wolitzer My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not certain what 44 looks like, other than what I’m presented with in the mirror each morning. The Social Security Life Expectancy calculator informs me that I’ve lived half my anticipated span. The tired maxim encourages me not to think of the years in my life, but the life in my years.

Now that I’m marooned in middle age for a spell, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the life in the years ahead of and behind me. Have I achieved something of value in my work, my relationships? Is what I do enough to sustain me intellectually and emotionally for the next forty-four years? Do I measure up to my peers? Am I happy? Am I interesting? This quest for fulfillment and self-actualization is the premise of Meg Wolitzer’s sprawling, cracking good novel The Interestings.

In the summer of ’74, Julie Jacobson, a middle class average achiever from a nondescript upstate New York town, earns a spot at an exclusive arts camp in New England. She is selected to enter the inner circle of the five coolest kids in camp, each a precocious, urbane specimen bred in the hipness of New York City. Julie becomes Jules and we follow her and those five other teenagers for the next thirty years.

Jules is obsessed with the self-dubbed The Interestings--the talented and/or privileged people to whom she devotes so much emotional energy. The cult of personalities made me squeamish at times—I wanted her to walk away from the past and create a life of her own. But her devotion to their supposed ideal reveals one of the truths of human nature—we hang onto the golden coming-of-age memories, hoping those few perfect moments of childhood will carry us through the disappointment of growing up.

It took me a long time to track on the Jules Vibe. I never quite believed in her intimate friendship with Ash Wolf, the faerie child around whose axis the group of friends spins. Nor did I fully embrace Ethan’s constancy of passion for her. She just wasn’t, ironically, that interesting. Even her physical presence remained shadowy for me. The others I could picture perfectly—lumbering, awkward Ethan; delicate, perfectly formed Ash; bombshell Cathy; finely etched, beautiful Jonah with his sweep of long, dark hair; golden God turned bloated addict Goodman. But Jules, other than her unruly hair, remained indistinct.

Yet, as she matured, growing into her role as friend, counselor, wife and mother, Jules begins to take shape. She became the character I most wanted to get stuck in the middle of a book with. Which is the genius of Wolitzer’s narrative—the novel’s most enigmatic character becomes its core strength.

Not that you’ll get stuck in this book. Despite its length and scope, The Interestings impels the reader with sparkling dialogue and description. I did tread water with some lengthy expository and flashback episodes, but it easily becomes one of those books you just can’t set down.

If you say you don’t compare your external successes and failures (e.g. material possessions, presumed income, job, weight, health, marital status, kids’ college admissions, job prospects) with your circle of peers, I say “more power to you.” Forgive me if I don’t believe you. Meg Wolitzer probably wouldn’t believe you, either. It’s what we do, we flawed, insecure, fickle humans. We’re hard-wired to want what we ain’t got.

But we can learn to accept what we’ve been given. Do The Interestings? Read and find out.

I’m five years too young to fall within the brackets of the Baby Boomer generation (cut-off birth year is 1964), and ten years younger than the main characters of The Interestings, but I can relate many of the novel’s cultural reference points and Jules Jacobson’s feeling that she just missed out on the badge of cultural honor bestowed those who came of age in the late ’60s.

I’ve walked away from traditional success a few times, always choosing the interesting over expected. Perhaps because I fear the fall from lofty heights will be harder to recover from than the soft bounce of relative obscurity. Perhaps I’m just lazy. Here’s to the second half of the journey.

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Book Review: Flora by Gail Godwin

FloraFlora by Gail Godwin My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To paraphrase Colm Tóibín, skilled writers explore not the spaces crowded with words and stories, characters and events; they explore the empty spaces, the quiet that most of us seek to fill with the noise of life.

In her gently menacing Flora Gail Godwin creates a character of the empty space. It hovers just beyond the threshold of every doorway at the sprawling One Thousand Sunset Drive and in the dense North Carolina woods that may someday swallow whole the lodge and its remaining inhabitants. It listens in on whispered conversations behind closed doors, it reads letters tucked in the top drawer of a bureau, and it haunts a little girl’s dreams.

In the summer of 1945, deep in the woods of Appalachia, Helen Anstruther is approaching her eleventh birthday. She comes to us by way of her seventy-something self, looking back on that long-ago summer with tenderness and remorse. We know this little girl is about to face something terrible - Godwin’s careful foreshadowing releases a current of dread from its opening pages. But the narrator takes her time, giving us empty spaces to fill with our own coming-of-age memories.

Helen’s world contracts dramatically as school ends for the summer. Her father is called to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work on a secret military project and leaves her in the care of her young aunt, Flora. We know, of course, what Oak Ridge means and how the summer of 1945 ends, but to Helen, World War II is in the abstract – something that fills radio hours and sermons. Not long after Flora arrives from Alabama, there is a polio outbreak in town. Helen’s father quarantines his daughter and Flora to the lonely lodge on the mountain. Their only relief from each other is the weekly visit by Mrs. Jones, who cleans Astruther Lodge, and by Finn, who delivers for the town grocer. During these “three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August” we quietly explore the head and heart of a lonely little girl.

But the novel’s title is not Helen, it is Flora. And it is Flora's behavior and essence adult Helen attempts to reconcile with her memories and her excavation of the quiet spaces during the summer of 1945 at One Thousand Sunset Drive.

This is not a novel of events, though the few that occur are earth shattering. It is a work of voices- voices from the past, from the grave, from letters and awkward telephone calls, voices from inside. It is the voice of child who is just discovering her own power but has no idea how to restrain it or use it only for good. It is the voice of longing and regret.

It’s the perfect time to read this novel, on the cusp of these long, warm days filled with such promise. Do you remember how it felt to be a child at the start of summer break, long before today’s hyper-programmed “vacations”? Recall that feeling of freedom and possibility, with just a tinge of loneliness and boredom. Now imagine how your world could turn upside-down in just a few short, golden weeks. Allow yourself some empty space.

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Wherein I rail against cheap wine and contemplate unemployment.

For many years, the résumé folder on my hard drive remained unopened. A small lifetime of sorts passed by, rendering those dozens of NAFSA: Association of International Educator conference presentations meaningless and nullifying my skills in various software programs (PeopleSoft? Access database? Anyone? Bueller?). I let the bones of my career as a study abroad program administrator calcify. Once I turned my back on the Ivory Tower for the green shores of Aotearoa, I never looked back on that decade-plus of world travel and helicopter parents (would I have turned to salt had I tossed one last glance over my shoulder?). Then it was off to the world of wine, first in vineyards, then in store aisles and finally in a cramped office in Seattle’s University District, sipping and spitting dozens of samples a week. A terrific gig, really - leading people to phenomenal wine is awesomesauce.

Inserting impassioned parenthetical:

Working in vineyards in foreign lands sounds very glamorous, but the months spent pruning and training vines wrecked my hands and wrists: for several months I couldn’t hold a coffee cup, I had to sleep on my back because of the pain, my liver suffered from the massive doses of NSAIDs. It was bliss. Best job I ever cried in pain over.

So when I see people who would bite off their right pinky toe before tossing Kraft Cheese Singles on their grilled sammie throw good money after cheap wine, it breaks my heart.

Ever ask yourself how a labor-intensive, high-overhead agricultural product made from raw ingredients subject to the vagaries of weather and disease can be produced so cheaply? Because the "winery" used crap juice. Best case scenario the juice was rejected by producers who don't want their names associated with poor quality, so they bulk it off. Worst case, your $5 steal was produced not by people, but by machines, factory-style. It’s made from fruit laden with herbicides and pesticides grown on a massive farm with little regard to land stewardship, and the wine was manipulated to taste exactly the same every time, vintage in-vintage out (if it even boasts a vintage). You paid for a bottle or a box, a cutesy label, overhead, maybe even an ad campaign. You did not pay for wine anyone gave a shit about, except to rip an easy buck from your wallet.

You can do better. You should do better. You don't have to spend a lot for quality vino. Ask me for a $10-12 wine recommendation. I'm thrilled to oblige. Because I love wine. I love the process. I love the people who grow the fruit and craft the wine with passion and integrity. Because I will never forget the shooting pain in my hands as they closed around a pair of pruning shears or wrapped a cane around a wire. Those tortured hands were producing something of beauty.

IMG_1132

Alas, a manifesto for another time.

I find myself opening that résumé folder not once this spring, but twice. I may be in for a record number of W-2s to track down next year. So far, the count is three (Wait, you say, I missed one! Yeah, well, you blinked). Pretty sure I’m guaranteed a fourth.

Unless.

Here’s where I admit I am strangely relieved that the non-profit for which I have been Business Manager since April is about to go belly up. The Board of Directors recently passed a unanimous vote to close it down over the summer (ahem, not my doing, folks – this is a disaster eight years in the making. I’ve just been paying the bills for six weeks. In theory. Well, not the bills - there are plenty of those. How to pay them, and myself, is another matter entirely).

How can I be relieved the spectre of unemployment and over-paying for inadequate private health insurance is now a real-life ogre? Because it has forced me face what I’ve been pushing off for yet another “Someday.” It’s giving me an out.

I’ve known since those anxiety attacks of mid-April, which I wrote about here, that my head was trying desperately to tell me something. The message finally found a way through my heart, with those terrifying moments of choking panic (which have ceased, tap wood). And this is, in part, what I believe the message to be:

...  ... ...

This is the hard part. The part where I stare out the window for long moments, check my iPhone for possible life-changing Facebook updates, rearrange the coffee shop punch cards in my wallet. Because it’s so difficult to come out and just say it. Here's a practice run:

I think I should let this job run its course, not look for another one for (an undecided period of time) and write. Finish my novel? Maybe. At least get it to the point where it's ready to be turned loose on beta readers, which means a couple more rewrites. Pour out some of those short stories clamoring for attention. Pull together a book proposal - a several-week endeavor. Submit said book proposal to those agents and publishing companies I have yet to research. Attend at least one week of the Centrum Writers' Conference in July (located conveniently one mile from my house).

And heal. Heal after a year of loss and anger. Run and bike, walk on the beach, cook healthful meals, open my home to friends, read Thomas Hardy, find a park bench overlooking the bay and sit. Sit still. Work on being present, not six months or six years or twenty-six years in the past or similar time spans in the future. Be amazed to have a partner who needs no explanation, who asks “What are you waiting for?” Have faith that even without my income and with the added burden of said stupid health insurance policy, we’ll make it.

Step off the ride, leave the carnival. Do Not Pass Go and definitely do not collect $200.00.

There. I’ve gone and said it. I might just do this thing. This “What do you do, Julie?” “Who, me? Like, what do I do for work? I’m a writer.”

Right. Well. I just submitted a résumé to an art gallery in town, in response to a Help Wanted in the weekly paper. My résumé’s pretty cool, actually. I mean, how many people do you know who have a Masters degree in International Affairs and can boast a stint at a slaughterhouse in New Zealand? What’s that? You say you want to see this résumé? What, you hiring?

Then again, I promised my husband if I ever sell this book, I’d buy him a vineyard in the south of France. Because next to growing stories, growing grapes is the best job there is.