BETWEEN THE LINES
December 17, 2014
I read a lot, mostly fiction. It’s an important part of writing fiction. Plus it’s part of my job at the Odyssey Bookshop, where I serve on the selection committee for the bookstore’s First Edition Club. I read to learn, to be transported, to open my brain and heart to the world. And sometimes I read for the pure pleasure of a well-told story.
In July, I blogged about the books I loved most in the first half of 2014, including
A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra
ACCIDENTS OF MARRIAGE, by Randy Susan Meyers
DESIRE OF THE MOTH, by Champa Bilwakesh
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr
REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston
MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY by Faye Rapoport DesPres
WHEN THE WAR CAME HOME by Bill Newman
As 2014 ends, it’s time to add more books to my favorites list.
THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO DO: STORIES by Charles Baxter. Okay, I’m a fan, but this linked collection is something very special. Ten stories – five titled for virtues and five for vices – follow a cast of ordinary characters whose connections are both tenuous and strong, both arbitrary and plausible. And then there’s Baxter’s language, which is sometimes quietly breathtaking.
MAKE A WISH BUT NOT FOR MONEY by Suzanne Strempek Shea. A “dead” mall and an out-of-work bank teller as palm reader are the core of unpretentious, funny, and totally satisfying novel. Shea’s rendering of a community in decline – the physical place, the historical bonds, the emotional connections – is beautifully done and full of hope.
AN UNTAMED STATE by Roxanne Gay. Previously I knew this author’s essays and she’s smart and politically incisive, so I looked forward to her debut novel with great anticipation. It did not disappoint, but I’ve got to admit that this book isn’t easy to read. It’s about an upper class Haitian-born woman who is kidnapped and sexually assaulted while her father refuses to pay the ransom. Gay is fearless in exploring family dynamics both during and after the event. Fearless.
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel. This book is on many of the “best of 2014” lists so you’ve probably already read it, or read about it. I’ll just say that I’ve added it to the books I wish I’d written.
ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES by Emma Hooper is an unashamedly charming and quirky journey story with unlikely heroes and unusual demons. In prose that is both simple and lyrical, Hooper’s debut novel offers a tapestry of memory, loss and hope against the backdrop of the Canadian countryside. I loved this book.
WORLD GONE BY is vintage Dennis Lehane. His characters - powerful and broken, brutal and surprisingly tender - embody the 1940's gangster culture, but reveal the layers underneath of race and class and choices not so different from the bankers and high society. As with THE GIVEN DAY and LIVE BY NIGHT, I am both swept into the epic story, and still thinking about the characters and their impossible choices days afterwards.
LAND OF LOVE AND DROWNING by Tiphanie Yanique. The U.S. Virgin Islands seen through the eyes of Yanique’s characters – two sisters who lost everything when their sea captain father’s ship went down – is a place where global history and racism play out in the workplace and the bedroom. Hurricanes and tourism and beaches and war all weave together in this powerful first novel.
And two books coming out in 2015 that I’ve had the pleasure of reading early copies and loved. Look for these in the spring (I’ll remind you!)
VERA’S WILL by Shelley Ettinger. This novel spans the twentieth century and three generations, transporting us from Russian pogroms to immigrant struggles, from family-ravaging homophobia to GLBT resistance. Ettinger's captivating story is rich with social and cultural detail, alive with generously-drawn characters, and unflinching in its political passion.
PLAY FOR ME by Céline Keating. This novel sings! Empty-nester Lily hears a duo perform in concert at her son’s college, she is captivated by the guitarist, the lure of music and the magic of performance. Keating writes about music with the knowledge of a music critic and the soul of a musician; she totally drew me into Lily’s life-changing enchantment with music and those who create it.
November 7, 2014
I hate umbrellas, and that’s what I told my friend Nancy when she offered one yesterday morning. Sure, it was raining steadily when I left her apartment. And yes, the rain was predicted to last all day. And yes, I had twenty blocks to walk to my lunch appointment and many more before the day was done. But I had my trusty turquoise L.L. Bean rain jacket with hood and I like to walk in the rain. Besides, umbrellas blow inside out and they get caught on other umbrellas on crowded Manhattan sidewalks.
Everyone else in the city had an umbrella. I wove in and out, dodging pointy spokes and trying to think deeply between raindrops. I was in the city to participate in a panel discussion on balancing craft and commitment in political fiction, a program sponsored by the New York City chapter of the Women’s National Book Association and Pace University. Maybe it was my smart and thoughtful fellow panelists (Elizabeth Nunez, Tiphanie Yanique, Marnie Mueller and Celine Keating), or perhaps the engaged and lively audience, or maybe the panel topic in combination with an essay on writing across racial and ethnic borders that I’ve been struggling to finish. In any case, my brain was spinning with it all. I dodged umbrellas poking in my unprotected direction and tried to avoid the flooding at every street corner, but those thoughts were getting drenched.
So I gave in and bought a $5 umbrella from a street vendor. It promptly blew inside out in the wind, and while slicing my thumb on the sharp end of one of the twisted wires holding the joints together, I stepped into a deep puddle. Very deep. So I stopped into one of the omnipresent Duane Reade stores (the first time I saw that name, I read it as “d’you wanna read," and I still prefer my literary pronunciation) and bought a pair of dry socks.
Getting to my three appointments yesterday, I walked several sodden miles, from Gramercy Park to Murray Hill to Tribeca and Washington Square, then back to E. 19th Street. I was drenched with each walk, dried out sitting with friends in restaurants and living rooms and coffee shops, then soaked again. By the time I returned to Nancy’s mid-evening, those spinning ideas were nicely marinated by the wet miles and seasoned by the long, intense conversations with friends. And I had lost the umbrella.
September 29, 2014
Overnight, this tree in our front yard lost half its leaves. It feels like overnight, autumn colors have come to western Massachusetts. That’s okay; I love fall, but it’s such a busy time. Even an overwhelming time. Every activist and nonprofit group I support has some sort of event or activity. Plus, I’m starting to set up events for my second novel, ON HURRICANE ISLAND, which launches in early March. And then there are all the books – there are so many amazing books on my To-Be-Read pile.
Okay, I admit it that I’ve been contemplating a totally forced metaphor about the books piling up like leaves in the yard, waiting for raking/reading. But since my involvement in our yard is limited to watching it from my writing desk, that comparison wouldn’t be quite honest. Plus having all these books is such a happy problem. So, instead of forcing a metaphor, I think I’ll just share the books on my TBR list, and stare out the window at the turning colors.
The Jaguar’s Children, by John Vaillant – I’m halfway through this one
Make a Wish But Not for Money, by Suzanne Strempek Shea
The Commons, by Susan Dworkin
A Story Larger than My Own, by Janet Burroway
There’s Something I Want You to Do, by Charles Baxter
Kindling, by Aurora Levins Morales
The Hawley Book of the Dead, by Chrysler Szarlan
Teach Us that Peace, by Baron Wormser
The Bloody Tide, by Jane Yolen
A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
Angels Make Their Hope Here, by Breena Clarke
This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein
September 5, 2014
Today is the last day of my summer vacation.
The first ten days were hectic and very full of activity, with daughters and partners and grandkids and friends joining Robby and me in our beloved rental house in N. Truro. After Labor Day, they all left to return to jobs and school. The house is now much cleaner and less cluttered with sand and toys and food and beach towels and the row of sandals lined up at the front door. It’s quiet.
Our first day alone was melancholy; I missed them all so much. But today, day three of the quiet time, Robby and I have settled into a familiar vacation pattern: coffee on the deck, morning walk, reading and writing with a short lunch break, a mid-afternoon visit to the beach to stare at the waves and talk, and then dinner at one of our favorite seafood restaurants.
One of the highlights of my vacation is that Robby and my daughters each read the current draft of whatever novel manuscript I’m working on, and make comments. Since the work is often very much in progress, their feedback – always smart and insightful – helps me reshape the story. This summer I’m revising a novel I started in 2001, and have rewritten more times than I can count. So much of the narrative has changed, but the kernel of the story (two sisters who respond to a political crisis very differently and must balance their loyalty to each other with their choices and the consequences) is still alive, still pulling at me to get it as “right” as I can. Two weeks in Truro means that my characters vacation with us. They share sandy apples on the blanket, walk with my daughters and me at the water’s edge, even join in a rousing game of Settlers of Catan when the kids are asleep.
Tomorrow, Robby and I go home. We return to a very busy fall and winter, with a second edition of HOUSE ARREST coming out in a few weeks, and my second novel, ON HURRICANE ISLAND, launching in early March. But today, we’ll savor our last cups of coffee on the deck, enjoy every sweaty hill on our walk, relish the almost-stale sandwiches and squirt out the dregs of sunscreen. And we’ll smile at the two pairs of sandals lined up alone at the front door.
July 12, 2014
I got home last night from a week at World Fellowship Center, a progressive camp and conference center in New Hampshire dedicated to peace, social justice and nature. Summer camp for grown ups – that’s what I called it the first time I went there. It was 1982, I think, and Robby and our daughters drove up for a Red Diaper Baby conference. Over the decades since then, we keep returning, summer after summer. Here’s why:
1. The people. The folks who work there (Andy and Andrea and Howie and Ekere and the rest of the staff) and those who attend. World Fellowship is the kind of place where you can walk into the dining room alone and sit down at one of the long, family-style tables in the dining room, and within ten minutes you have figured out three or four connections with other guests – people you know in common, neighborhoods you’ve lived in, political groups you’ve worked with, passions you share for books or music or art or activism. A great pleasure, if you return, is rekindling those friendships. I was delighted this week to have a change to hang out with Jessica and Ethan and Holly and Alice and Alex, and to make a wonderful new friend, Aurora.
2. The setting. Over 450 acres in the southeast corner of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, in the metaphorical shadow of Mount Chocorua. There’s amazing hiking and biking. There are loons on Whitton Pond, along with swimming, canoeing, rowing, kayaking, blueberry picking. Every day, Howie (CEO of the recreation department. Actually, the whole recreation department) offers organized outdoor activities or suggestions for the exact level and length of view of the trip you want. Or, there’s my personal favorite way to enjoy the setting – settling in an easy chair on the huge wraparound screened porch to read, talk, work on a communal puzzle, nap, or gaze at Chocorua. Priceless.
3. The programs. Choose from a wide and rich variety of arts offerings and body movement groups, plus intensive programs and evening events and concerts and performances. This year I taught a weeklong fiction workshop (part of the Mount Chocorua Writers Retreat), and Robby and I led an evening program/discussion titled Writing our Hot Planet. The 2014 summer includes programs ranging from early music to mass incarceration, from Feldenkrais to global capitalism in Bangladesh, from Zombies to Clamshell Alliance and Zoning out Fracking to a ukelele festival and Why Fungi Matter and Theatre of the Oppressed. Whew and Wow!
At World Fellowship, I feel so connected to the natural world and to a community of people who care. I think of it as part of the Commons – the precious public places and heritages that communities share for the benefit of all, where we nourish, renew and teach each other, where we inspire each other and ourselves to go out and change the world.
I’m just home, still doing laundry and scratching mosquito bites, but I’m already thinking about next summer…
July 6, 2014
I probably shouldn’t talk about A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra again, because I included it in my favorite reads of 2013 post. But I can’t help myself. I recently read this book for the third time, in order to have it fresh in my mind when I led a book group discussion, and I still think it’s the one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I’ll just repeat that it is set in war-time Chechnya and is brilliant and brutal and dark and frightening and gorgeous, offering a close-up view of the worst and best in ourselves and I believed every word.
ACCIDENTS OF MARRIAGE, by Randy Susan Meyers. Meyers knows a lot about emotional battlegrounds. In her third novel (MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS and THE COMFORT OF LIES) Meyers peels back the layers of a family in crisis. She reveals the clashing truths about Maddy and Ben’s marriage from three points of view, in three unique voices. I cared deeply about each of these characters, each searching for a way back from disaster. A veteran of domestic violence programs and interventions, Meyers refuses to settle for convenient excuses or easy answers. This book broke my heart and then began to mend it. Pub date is early September.
Also coming this fall is DESIRE OF THE MOTH, by Champa Bilwakesh. I met Champa seven years ago in a fiction workshop at Sewanee Writers Conference, where we had each submitted a novel chapter. I still vividly remember her chapter about a young Brahmin girl, widowed and shorn and ostracized from life by the customs of the time. It was a hot July in Tennessee and Champa’s chapter was set in southern India. The writing was rich with the smell of flowers and the sheen of perspiration. I still have vivid memories of the beat of the music Champa described, and the gender politics that were so much a part of her story. So I was delighted to hear from Champa that her novel DESIRE OF THE MOTH was being published by Upset Press. And even more delighted to read the finished manuscript and return to that critical time in Indian political history and to the story of a fifteen-year-old girl learning about liberation and making art.
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. This one of those big books in which you can lose yourself and the present day, and then emerge feeling new and even hopeful. In evocative prose, Doerr gives us two children, a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, who grow up into the chaos of World War II. Doerr’s characters have unique and fierce intellectual concerns that intersect with the social and political events in their countries, creating ripples I’m still thinking about. One of my very favorites of 2014 so far.
REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston. One of the things I liked best about this novel is its restraint. It would have been so easy for the author, writing about the disappearance and reappearance of a kidnapped boy, to fall into melodrama and sentimentality. Instead, writing with finely controlled prose and emotional candor, Johnston turns that fraught literary trope on its head and dismantles it, giving us a complicated and devastating portrait of a family’s unthinkable crisis and imperfect redemption.
I’ve previously reviewed Faye Rapoport DesPres’ MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY in this blog, but want to mention it again here. The twenty pieces in this memoir-in-essays are beautifully structured, weaving together encounters with animals and landscape, with meditations on growing older, on illness and loss. The natural world is always present in these pages. It might be magpies quarreling with squirrels, a red canoe leaving its triangular wake and ripples on a pond, the pure white feral cats sleeping in a hollow tree, or – in my favorite essay – a conversation with a blue jay in the January rain. These essays are lyrical and poignant. They weave memory and yearning. They are reflective and surprisingly hopeful.
I had already read many of the essays in Bill Newman’s WHEN THE WAR CAME HOME before the book was published this spring; many appeared as columns in our local newspaper, The Hampshire Gazette, and I’ve known Bill and his family almost since the Kent State massacre that begins the collection. Still, reading the collection as a whole, I was carried along this river of political passion, through the various aftermath rapids of bringing activism home, raising a family, and infusing a life. This is an inspiring and graceful collection.
I’m reluctant to talk about poetry. I rarely write it and lack the necessary critical vocabulary. But I’ve been reading – and buying – more poetry collections in the past few years. I just finished reading Kate Gale’s THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE. These poems are quirky and playful, infused with fragments and quick images and startling juxtapositions. Gale brings bring oddly dissimilar things together and they fit in surprising and unpredictable ways, both funny and profoundly sad.
Next up on my reading list: THE BLOODY TIDE by Jane Yolen, THIS IS PARADISE by Suzanne Strempek Shea, A STORY LARGER THAN MY OWN, edited by Janet Burroway. So many books…
June 12, 2014
Last month at an event in Boston, I saw a friend and our conversation, as so often happens, centered on books. What good books we’ve read recently, and old favorites. Since we also share a passion for political activism, it’s no surprise that we quickly focused in on political fiction.
“I keep a list of my favorites, I told her.”
“Send it to me?” she asked.
“I’ll put it up on my blog,” I said. “Then people can add their own favorites.”
I’m defining political fiction as work that illuminates injustice by dramatizing conflicts of class, race, gender and the environment. A literature that, rather than the common practice of using the political landscape as background for a dramatic story, is actually in opposition to the status quo. Literature that just might encourage the reader to look more critically at our own neighborhood, our own world, and work to make it better.
Here are my favorites. Some are old; some are new. What are yours?
Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett
The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir
Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Civil Wars by Rosellen Brown
Little Bee by Chris Cleeve
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow
The Ministry of Special Cases, Nathan Englander
The Guest of Honor by Nadine Gordimer
First Papers by Laura Hobson
Solar Storms by Linda Hogan
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Like Trees, Walking, Ravi Howard
Small Wars by Sadie Jones
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
The Four Gated City by Doris Lessing
The Chosen Place; The Timeless People by Paule Marshall
White Dog Fell from the Sky, Eleanor Morse
A Stranger in the Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher
The Last Town on Earth, Thomas Mullen
Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien
Strange as this Weather has Been, Ann Pancake
Caucasia by Danzy Senna
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Ties in Blood by Gillian Slovo
The Submission, Amy Waldman
Martyrs Crossing by Amy Wilentz
May 28, 2014
A couple of months ago I was invited to participate in a Virtual Book Tour for Faye Rapoport DesPres’ debut book, a memoir-in-essays titled Message from a Blue Jay: Love, Loss, and One Writer’s Journey Home. I didn’t know how to respond. I don’t know Faye, and I mostly read and write fiction, dipping into nonfiction primarily as research.
On the other hand, I wanted to be helpful, to pass on the generosity other authors have shown me. So I went to the author’s website and learned that the book “examines a modern life marked by a passion for the natural world, a second chance at love, unexpected loss, and the search for a place she can finally call home.” I was intrigued and agreed to read the manuscript and participate in the Book Tour.
I’m so glad I said yes.
DesPres’ twenty essays are beautifully structured, weaving encounters with animals and landscape, with meditations on growing older, on illness and complicated loss. Whether her subject is the availability of Wi-Fi at Walden Pond, her Holocaust survivor father sobbing when his car kills a deer, rescuing caterpillars on a back country road, finding love, or the betrayal of her body, DesPres writes with warmth, clarity, and a sharp eye for details both physical and emotional.
I was struck by the author’s courage in naming not-so-pretty emotions – claiming and examining them with the same detail and curiosity she brings to a blue jay standing in the road. As a fiction writer I’m used to mining myself and everything around me for stories. But in fiction we can change the identifiers and let imagination transform the facts. It takes a different kind of bravery to put your real face, your unadulterated self, on the page and claim it.
As promised, the natural world is always present in these pages. It might be magpies quarreling with squirrels, a red canoe leaving its triangular wake and ripples on a pond, the pure white feral cats who sleeps 15 feet up in a hollow tree, or – in my favorite essay in the collection – a conversation with a blue jay in the January rain. These essays are lyrical and poignant. They weave memory and yearning. They are reflective and surprisingly hopeful.
Like I said, I'm glad I said yes. For all the above reasons, and because reading this book reminded me of the benefits - the pleasure - of reading outside my usual comfort zone. Thank you, Faye Rapoport DesPres.
This blog posting is the last stop on Faye Rapoport DesPres's Virtual Book Tour. The publisher is offering a personalized, signed copy of Message from a Blue Jay plus swag to the winner of their Virtual Tour Giveaway. We invite you to leave a comment below to enter. For more chances to enter, please visit these Facebook pages and click on the Giveaway Tab:
Message From a Blue Jaya>.
May 7, 2014
Art and life
The Supreme Court recently declined to hear Hedges v. Obama, a case challenging a section of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This section permits the U.S. military to kidnap U.S. citizens and hold them indefinitely in military detention centers without access to lawyers or trials or any of the other rights we think of as ours, in a so-called democratic country. In this ruling, attorney Carl Mayer writes, the Supreme Court “has turned its back on precedent dating back to the Civil War era that holds that the military cannot police the streets of America.”
This ruling throws a minor theoretical monkey wrench into my second novel, due to be published early next year. ON HURRICANE ISLAND tells the story of a U.S. citizen kidnapped by the military and taken to a secret detention center for interrogation. A second character, a woman already imprisoned at the facility, is an attorney working on a case very much like Hedges v. Obama.
When I started writing this novel four years ago, I figured that “extraordinary rendition” on U.S. soil was a possibility, but it was still a “what if” in my writer’s brain. After the novel sold, I contacted Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitution Rights and an expert in this area of law, and asked him for a “blurb.” He read the manuscript, and wrote,
“On Hurricane Island is a chilling, Kafkaesque story about what happens when the United States does to citizens at home what it has done to others abroad. Meeropol puts the reader right into the middle of these practices through characters about whom you really care and a story you can’t put down.”
By refusing to consider hear Hedges v. Obama, and to revisit the issue of detention of citizens by the military, the Supreme Court ruling moves my “fictional” nightmare scenario that much closer to reality.
Sure, I can probably “fix” the manuscript. I can tweak the text and maybe add a sentence or two about the recent ruling. That’s not the big problem. The big problem for me, for all of us, is what we can do to take back our country.
(for more information about Hedges v. Obama, click on Truthdig.com link to the left)
April 16, 2014
People assume I’m retired. After all, my hair is graying and I no longer get in my car every morning and drive to the children’s hospital where I worked as a nurse practitioner. I no longer dress like a professional, although I was never so good at that part. Instead, I get up every morning – including weekends – and write, usually in my pajamas or workout clothes, mug of coffee at my elbow.
“I’m not retired,” I correct them. “I write every day. Writing is my job, my work.”
The problem with the “job” of writing fiction is that before now, I never took a break. My characters accompanied me on every trip away. Beach vacation or mountains, road trip or writing conference, they came along. When my laptop wasn’t handy, my notebook was right there.
But this week is different. I’m at a natural breathing spot. My second novel, ON HURRICANE ISLAND, is in production, for publication early in 2015. The third manuscript is with my agent, awaiting her brilliant editing attention. The fourth is well into the third trimester of internal gestation, but not quite ready for the page. The essay I’ve been working on is finished too, and sent off to find its way in the world.
The setting is right for a break as well. I’m in Brooklyn, helping out during school vacation week. My granddaughter is six; her brother is almost two. They are delightful and exhausting. Like all the other graying grandparents, I’m hanging out at multiple playgrounds, lugging scooters and snacks, reading Ivy & Bean, negotiating play dates, and drawing pictures with 36 fine point markers.
Do I miss my characters this week? Nope. Not even a little.