fiction

light

Early this summer I packed up my bookshelves, preparing to move again, though only a few miles away this time.  Each move, I designate a special box of books I unpack first where I’m going.  My old friends.  Rick Bass and Kent Haruf, Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Austen, Zola and Hurston, Steinbeck, Ron Carlson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Annie Proulx.

This move, before I closed the box lid and taped it shut, I added one more friend:  Anthony Doerr’s newest novel, All The Light We Cannot See.

bw-books0506

It’s important to note before I say anything else that I’ve been a Doerr fan for years.  His short stories are the sort, like Faulkner’s, that stun and sting, surprising and sharp.  Visceral.  You cannot shake the watermark of them.  This latest Doerr work is a complicated arc of character and time, swooping between years before and during WWII and among characters on both sides of that conflict.

At the heart of the novel is the pulse of radio, a tool that comes to mean emotional and intellectual desire, and how and whether one pursues and uses it.  Radio in Doerr’s pages means yearning for innocence and family.  Radio is a tool used for savage murder.  Each sentence crafted, a surprise, the language exquisite and rich, Doerr’s prose reads like poetry.

The story is complicated, full of characters working to survive.  Marie-Laure’s father, the principal locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, teaches her how to survive blindness.  She learns to navigate in their flat with the aid of twine and bells.  She learns to navigate the streets by first memorizing a scale model her father builds out of wood.  She learns Braille, and thereby learns to navigate the world of fiction and the human thrum of yearning, adventuring with Nemo Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  Despite these skills, and though she is raised up intellectually by her father and Dr. G. at the museum, Marie-Laure is sheltered and must ultimately navigate a war-ravaged terrain alone.

Werner, an orphan in a coal mining town, has early survival built into his existence. A proclivity for math and electronics leads him to be chosen to attend an elite Nazi school just before the war begins, a boon and a curse, although he does not yet know it.  He will not have to work in the mines like all men before him, like his father who died far below the ground; he will do something much worse.  Early on, we see that Frau Elena and Werner’s sister Jutta guide his heart, act as his moral compass, present in Jutta’s refrain, later echoed by Werner’s friend Frederick:  Is it right to do something because everyone else is doing it? 

The way we use and harness light and energy, and the miracle of what we can do for and against each other, is present on every page of the novel.  Blind Marie-Laure cannot see light, and yet she can:  people, events, and sound have color for her—the world is sensorially rich, fully tactile, layered with meanings.  From within her emanates an energy vibrant enough that Werner, when he sees her on the street, cannot help but mark her gait and her aura, and also remember it.  And Werner, too, possesses a special vitality– his shock of white hair, tiny stature and early ability to solve complicated triangulated problems are an engine within him.

Marie-Laure and Werner are not the only ones compelled by fierce energy.  There’s an insistence of self-preservation in every character Doerr unspools, the desires of each glinting like so many facets of the Sea of Flames diamond Marie-Laure’s father tries to protect and the Nazi Von Rumpel risks everything to obtain.  Von Rumpel is Nero here, racing against the clock of war and the sentence of his own terminal illness, and yet his maniacal pursuit is one a reader recognizes.  For who hasn’t been terrified of death and wished to live forever?  To find the Holy Grail? To shout over the rooftops of the world, even if it is crumbling?

By the time these three lives collide in Saint-Malo, for of course they must, the race to save what each cherishes most puts a reader at the top of the narrative scaffolding Doerr has so intricately assembled.  It’s a delicious tableau:  A gem seeker who’s abandoned all sense of humanity, a girl with nothing left but her hope that humanity still exists, a boy who understands, finally, that he’s forsaken his heart for his mind.

I couldn’t help but think about the artist behind the crafting of such work.  My own stories are often dark, full of doomed folk, the creative effort behind them infected with a baseline Eeyoreness I work hard to inject with any kind of hope.  Yet hope is an undercurrent I look for in the work of others, because who wants to read a story about all the useless desires that elude us?

Anthony Doerr understands how to tell a story we want to read.  More than that, I think his secret might be a fundamental hopefulness in human nature.  How else could he have tackled the dark torment of the Holocaust and nonetheless, what rises to the surface is a world emanating with the light of kindnesses, of bravery, of love?

Doerr talks about the inspiration for his story here in a Powell’s interview.

And also here:

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: book review, books, fiction, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

resurrection

As she often does, in her latest story “The Resurrections” published at Terrain, Heather E. Goodman writes about complicated relationships that are real, gritty, honest.  Her characters muck around in each other’s hearts and on the land, aiming for grace, yearning to be understood, seeking forgiveness and sometimes getting it.  There’s palpable tenderness rising up out of this hardscrabble life etched by a series of deaths.

The narrator grieves the death of his wife Elna, of his father, of the business he and his father built together, of his youth and the loss of a young man’s full life.  “The Resurrections” isn’t a long story, but it’s stitching is both intricate and simple, giving the impression that Goodman knows exactly what it’s like to be a grieving widower, an older man on a threshold between a past he can’t do anything about and the awakening knowledge that he’s got enough life left in him to hope for the future.

Goodman’s prose is spare, always, and prismed here with the flinty winter landscape and a friendship that resolves to thaw itself nonetheless.  Even the animals have agency and longing, evident in the hound dog Beagle who can’t seem to help digging up his dead friend Smokey, a cat.

Delicious fiction.  Read it.  It’s the sort of story you’ll carry with you.

 

 

Categories: book review, fiction, nature, publishing, short story, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

lemon queen

This spring has been full of firsts.  Spotting meadowlarks and mountain bluebirds.  Watching a pair of screech owls raise their clutch. Rescuing a kitten from the engine of my car (a story on its way in another post) that rode around smashed on top of the manifold for at least 75 miles and lived to tell about it.

Of course, the explosion of life in the natural world is largely about work done behind the scenes beforehand, which is the case with so many other things, and also with fiction.

Blue Earth Review has been kind enough to say yes to publishing “The Lemon Queen” in their latest Spring Issue, Volume 12.  As always, I’m deeply grateful and tickled that another creation is out in the world.

BER Volume 12

 

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depth perception

Deep and sincere thanks to Matthew Limpede and the staff at Carve Magazine, who said yes to including the story “Depth Perception” in their Spring 2014 Premium Edition.  I’m in great company in these pages and ever grateful for the chance to be there.

 

2014_1 spring.png

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McDermott, Chainsaw Artist

I recently read a craft article by Ben Percy on creating and managing conflict in stories.  Trying to figure out the allure in Stieg Larsson’s uber-popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Percy decided to color code the conflicts in the novel’s hefty pages, working to understand the way Larsson had complicated, layered and ratcheted up the various perils facing Lisbeth and Mikael.  According to Percy, the best stories create characters who juggle several problems at one time – these are the “flaming chainsaws” of good fiction, simultaneous crises that increase in threat and rotation.  Necessary tools, because believable, palpable peril is the engine under the hoods of novels.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I read it, aligning his notion alongside of my own stories, which frequently fail in early drafts to be on fire in effective measure.

This week I considered chainsaws in Alice McDermott’s quiet book Someone, the story of Marie Commeford.  In 2012, I read one of the book’s chapters excerpted in The New Yorker, though at the time I didn’t realize it was part of something longer because it works so beautifully as a short story.  Two sentences into this section of the novel, my first experience reading came back to me viscerally in full bloom:  Marie’s first sexual experience with the usurious Walter Hartnett, a boy with a gimpy leg; Marie’s abandonment when Walter found a better offer, a girl with money and a name.  McDermott’s stories, searing and quiet, structurally complex, worth puzzling over, are the sort that stay with you.

In the novel, throughout her life, Marie invokes Walter’s name several times, an iteration that McDermott deftly employs to illustrate the power and lasting watermark of sexual memory.  A girl plagued with poor eyesight, Marie tells her own story, looks back over a life beginning in a 1930s Brooklyn neighborhood. Her lack of sight, the various surgeries she has to correct it, the scenes a reader is privy to through Marie’s hazy vision or which we experience from beneath gauze, become an important trope in the book, which is largely about the way we see the world slant, caught up as we are in dreams and our varied versions of reality.

When it was released in 2013, many critical reviews examined how nothing much happened in Someone’s pages.  Even the book flap reads:  “…this resonant story of an unremarkable woman’s unforgettable life.” Not the best words to recommend a reader sit down right now and give it a go.

McDermott herself, when interviewed by The New Yorker about the novel, said, “novels about unremarkable women, especially those written by unremarkable women, seem a thing of the past. But that’s what the novel wanted to be. . . . It’s the contrarian in me, I’m afraid.”

There’s the undeniable beauty of McDermott’s writing, spare and unassuming, a fitting match for the characters, who soldier on without the kind of histrionics present in louder stories.  And McDermott’s fictive world is certainly universal– the novel depicts a world we might recognize in our own neighborhoods, sensorially rich but compressed, too, in the way stories about others often come to us.  Constant in every page is the aching gap between the intimate knowledge about ourselves we accept or refuse or dress up as something else, and the way we never really know the heart of another.

And yet I found McDermott’s unremarkable story surprisingly compelling, and though it’s not the stuff of Stieg Larsson’s edgy-sexual-action-adventure-murder-mystery-thriller, it IS full of the sorts of chainsaws one recognizes.

girl with fire

Inspired by Percy, I started making a list of McDermott’s chainsaws, struggles essential to the becoming of Marie.  There are Marie’s internal issues– the effect of her father’s sickness and early death; her trouble with her sight and later, the fear of blindness and the surgeries to avert it; her sexual awakening with Walter Hartnett; her desire to understand and to help her brother Gabe, which is largely a useless desire, until the end.

Orbiting all around Marie is another set of struggles, all within spitting distance of her Brooklyn stoop.  There are the neighborhood deaths that dot the landscape of these pages — her neighbor, Peegen Chehab, who dies falling down a flight of stairs, and whose name, like Walter Hartnett’s, is invoked again and again throughout the novel; young Mrs. Hanson, her best friend Gerty’s mother, who dies in childbirth, echoed later in Marie’s own medical scare with her first child; blind Bill Corrigan, the arbiter of street baseball, who commits suicide.  And later, once young Marie broadens her world view, there is the parade of death she must help assuage the pain of at Fagin’s funeral home where she works.  There’s spiritual crisis, abandonment, widowhood, urban blight, complications of Marie’s own child birth, the question of whether and how one can save others from themselves.

The list is much longer than this, but I’m surprised at the way this quiet story is so fraught with struggle.  McDermott’s Marie is not being chased by madmen or facing the end times, but her chainsaws have heft and urgency enough to give Marie the kind of agency readers seek.

And while I never fully understood why McDermott didn’t choose to let fully rise to the surface what’s really wrong with Gabe, I did find it interesting how she uses the unknown surrounding her brother to pull us along through the narrative.  The issue of Gabe rises above another rotating danger – bearing and raising children, which, as Marie shows us time and again can be treacherous and heartbreaking.  It is all around Marie in those she knows.  It is also her own treachery–bearing a second child after almost losing her life to the first is a defiance she justifies out of desire, courage, stubbornness.  But this danger is muted by our early understanding that Marie is looking back, that she’s successfully had children.

Flaming chainsaws at work in a story reach a place where they are dangerously aflame.  The “constant, rotating threat of them,” as Percy says, must be extinguished.

Gabe’s breakdown and time in an institution, the way Tom and Marie bring him home like a child (though, even to the end, Gabe remains the zen-master about the world and the human heart), are a surprising inevitability.   Ultimately, Marie believes she “saves” Gabe from himself by pocketing his pills, saves him from “falling down” like poor Peegen Chehab.  I’m not sure it works, this choice, but I take McDermott’s point.

It’s not a movie, after all, it’s a life.  Full of all that cannot be seen or known, of falling and failing, and the celebration of triumphs, both real and imagined.

http://jockmackenzie.wordpress.com.  maybe the best part of this hard-to-find image is the fact that this guy is a teacher and juggled flaming chainsaws for his students...

http://jockmackenzie.wordpress.com.
Maybe the best part of this understandably hard-to-find image is the fact that this guy is a teacher and juggled flaming chainsaws for his students…

Categories: book review, fiction, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

arturo

what yearning looks like

what yearning looks like

For our dog Zora, spring and fall are full of yearning.  Each cusp season, she becomes a quivering, drooling, yowling mass of desire. She desires cats.  She desires birds.  She desires the mail carrier.  But what she desires most is squirrels.  Whatever constellation of breeds she’s sprung from has programmed her to believe  she will actually win a squirrel.  Any day now.

Training for the big day involves a regimen of smearing the glass with her nose to track squirrels in the backyard, whine-singing a song that will lure them to her, hurling herself at the fence they like to traverse, and going in and out twenty times a day to monitor the premises.  There are also hours of daintily gumming a stuffed chipmunk she’s had since we got her five years ago.  Other toys roughly approximating real animals have died quick deaths in a blaze of stuffing and plastic parts.  But Chippy is very precious –she would never fully ingest it.  Chippy’s squeaker is broken.  Chippy is also missing an eye and part of an ear, and looks a little an object used to foreshadow murder in a bad horror film.  It makes me wonder what she’d actually do if she managed to catch the real thing.

Zora spent the first month she came to live with us wearing a muddy track from the mimosa tree to the telephone pole to the gate to the garden in the backyard.  We’d just redone the landscaping, which she destroyed.  Her sole quest was chasing gray squirrels, especially a pair that came to play every morning about the same time.  One day I came home to find the three of them faced off, Zora crouched at the base of the telephone pole, the squirrels immobile, noses touching, fifteen feet up.  No one moved for three hours.

At our new house we also have squirrels, red ones, who make their gray cousins seem lazy and stupid.

It wasn’t long after we moved in that we met the new object of desire.  Arturo.  He’d come calling mid-morning, squatting by the back door while eating a sunflower head from our garden and looking at us through the glass.  Which is to say he was very close to the glass.  So close he used the window as leverage to extract seeds, never taking his eyes off our lives inside.  This, of course, was a thrilling new development for Zora, who could somehow hear him no matter where she was in the house.  Arturo would stay an extra beat, watching her smash herself into the glass, frothing at the mouth, just on the other side of his nuts, before he’d scamper off the deck and up into the oak tree.

Although I do often name things when I get the itch (We have a lamp called Celeste, I’m not sure why.  My truck’s name is Stella.  John’s mountain bike’s name is Jolene, as in please don’t steal my man…), I’ve never named a squirrel before.  I don’t know why Arturo is this creature’s name, except that he is VERY distinct.  He is easily the largest squirrel I’ve ever seen.  I mean, almost the size of a small house cat.  Despite his girth, he’s fast enough to still be alive, savvy enough to dodge all my attempts at taking his photo, and very decidedly the boss of this territory.

Arturo still comes calling every day, to the delight and crazed desire of Zora.  On the deck we’ve left an acorn squash that fell out of a shopping bag, one he quickly helped himself to, so he’s got extra inducement to make an appearance.  He’s clearly getting enough to eat.  He’s bigger than ever, even for a squirrel preparing for winter.  I’m a little worried about how much more weight he can gain and still get the job of squirreling done.

arturo's snack bar

arturo’s snack bar

Lately, he’s taken to sitting up on the fence near the deck.  Other squirrels in Arturo’s posse hang out there too, though not when he’s there.  In pairs usually, they run along the fence, making a chittering racket, doing a snake-charmer thing with their tales, dancing squirrel hip-hop with their back feet.

Arturo is always alone.  And he never does any hoorahing.  He just sits.  His posture is much the same as the sunflower seed window squatting, but his safer vantage point gives him extra time to taunt Zora.  Seemingly unperturbed, he eats, unblinking, languorously, while Zora throws herself against the fence beneath him, begging him to come down.

From the kitchen window the other day, I watched Arturo sitting on the fence, surveying the yard like some kind of mob boss while he consumed an entire chestnut.  It was a long squat, even for Arturo.  Maybe he’s got henchmen to deal with the Red-tails and Cooper’s hawks that troll the yards around here.  Maybe he thinks he can take out any house cat that crosses him.  It’s hard to say.

But he was clearly feeling very comfortable, because hanging down and resting against the fence was his massive nut sack.  I had no idea male squirrels could possess such impressive jewels.  But they there were, huge and hairy and disproportionate to his frame, on display as if was a rodent porn star.

I’m not going to contact Guinness Book of World Records or anything, though a quick online search tells me I’m not the first to be stunned by squirrel genitalia.  Arturo’s junk puts every photo I saw on the interwebs to shame, though.  Also, according to Uncle Google, red squirrels are supposed to be smaller than gray squirrels, and they’re more territorial than most species.  They store their booty in caches crammed with nuts, called middens, which are usually in the middle of their territory.  I’ve seen Arturo win some impressive arboreal battles against smaller squirrels.  It seems safe to say that our yard is Midden-landia for him, and if it’s true that he can live up to 10 years or more, Arturo’s here to stay, nut sack and all.

I don’t know how old Arturo is.  This season could be his swan song.  And it’s not all about love and admiration.  Days when I know he’s been mucking in my garden, gleefully digging up garlic bulbs when there’s plenty of food if he’d just climb a damn tree, I’m tempted to get a bb gun.  Not that I’d be able to hit him.  He’s far too crafty to get taken down by the likes of me.

Still, out of love and respect, Zora and I could help him lose a little weight by both chasing him, maybe help prolong his life.  After all, we are in his territory, and until one of his minions can figure out how to arm wrestle him out of it, Arturo’s the boss.

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it’ll keep you up at night, and it’s worth it

At our house, buying a hardback book is a big event.  We splurge when authors we adore publish something new and we can’t possibly wait our turn at the library or for the paperback.  We’ll also get our wallets out for the promise of a read we can’t resist.  Not being able to resist was the impulse behind acquiring Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

Signature of all Things

In full disclosure, I never read Eat, Pray, Love.  Then and now, I rankle at the gimmick of it, at the way Gilbert pitched to her publisher a trip for healing from divorce; in three countries she’d search for love and spirituality and then write a book about it.  What really chapped my hide, in truth, was the notion that a pre-planned and pre-paid guide to healing was a self-helpish story to tell rather than a private journey.  I’m pretty sure enlightenment isn’t something you can decide to acquire, nor a thing you can pay for.  Probably I’m jealous and kind of a bitch and resistant to popular things. Divorce is shitty, to be sure, and Gilbert likely wanted to crawl in a hole and hide but resisted, but it’s been my experience that both love and spirituality are quests you can’t engage in with a head and heart full of lists and expectations.  Love and enlightenment come winging at you when you’re NOT questing, when you’re vulnerable and off-guard and open to the great mystery of being alive.

That almost every woman I knew was in a hot lather over how amazing and life-changing the book was, one they felt made them more thoughtful and stronger as a woman (a comment I heard repeatedly), only made me want to read it less.  And then even less during Gilbert’s 187 week stint on the New York Times Bestseller List.  And then even less when her story of love and spirituality became a movie (also pre-paid, I’d imagine).

Still, I was intrigued by the mission of Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, by its ambitious romp through more than a century and across the globe, and also worried that she had “gotten” to the idea of my own novel, at least a little, before I’m finished with it.  She didn’t, I’m safe there, not that we’d be allowed in the same literary room anyway, honestly, unless I’m asking for her autograph.  But this much I believe to be true:  Elizabeth Gilbert’s book will, or should be, on the list to win the Pulitzer this year.

Gilbert’s Henry Whittaker is a plant thief in 18th century England, grifting the plants and clients of his father’s employer at Kew Gardens, making his mark in the world one small exotic cutting at a time, and then transplanting himself to Philadephia to build his own botanical pharmaceutical dynasty.  Henry’s daughter Alma inherits this vast network of wealth and her father’s love of plants. A polyglot, a seeker of wild places, a solitary child, Alma gets her mother’s sharp intelligence and curiosity, and also a reserve that renders her emotionally daft in the world.  And then there’s Alma’s figure, big and strong as a man’s, and her face, tragically plain, anything but feminine, next to the stunning beauty of her adopted sister Prudence.  Such is the stage upon which Gilbert sets her tale.

And what a stage it is.  What rises to the surface, above every disappointment heaped upon heartbreak for every character, not just for Alma, is the utter loneliness braiding these characters together, and the way they soldier on in the name of survival.  For, of course, their fates are as connected as those of any Dickensian tale.  Also, pinging around the edges of the narrative are Darwin’s theories, after all.  Alma attempts to understand the human condition inside science, seeking to crack the code of what makes mosses, a microcosm of the natural world, work in order to understand people and the way they love.  There’s scientific genius in her, which a reader believes because Gilbert’s clearly done her homework, but Alma’s quest is also driven by her own aching heart.

It’s not a flawless tale, especially toward the end when we see where Gilbert’s headed with Alma, but the choices the writer makes for her are true to the story, or more to the point, true to the Alma with whom we’ve spent so many years.

For a few days now, I’ve been unable to pick up another book.  I’m still steeping in the delicious sting of Gilbert’s story, which I took my time to read because I knew I’d be sad when it was over.  I am.

Buy it in hardback.  Read it, but not too fast.  Alma’s yearning interior and lush exterior worlds will keep you up at night.

A few reviews are here if you still don’t believe me.

Barbara Kingsolver in The New York Times

Elizabeth Day in The Guardian

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famine of the heart

Recently I picked up a copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel I somehow missed in my literature studies, though a long time ago his story “Barn Burning,” maybe one of the best short stories ever written, inspired me to become a teacher and a writer.  Also, I wanted to see if I remembered correctly that Faulkner’s work might not translate that well to the big screen.  James Franco is either a genius or out of his mind.  When the film comes to town, I’ll be curious to see which, or if it’s some of both.

What strikes me about Faulkner’s “experimental” novel is two things:  the deception in its structure, which is to say a first impression that its short chapters and multiple voices would make for a quick read; and also that the engine in the novel – the problem of how to get Addie Bundren’s body to her native Jefferson, Mississippi to be buried (her dying wish) despite a flood, and then injury, and then fire — is overshadowed by what motivates her husband Anse and her children Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman to engage in this journey.  The fifteen voices that tell the story, including one chapter from Addie herself, reveal what undergirds every action in the novel:  The inscrutable world is a dark and hard place full of relentless futility.  The best we can hope for is to survive the world or leave it on our own terms, as Addie herself seems to have done.  Faulkner once said his writing was “hammering at…that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.”   (An interview from 1956 is here).  His characters’ insistence on survival, however misguided or self-interested, is the relentless drumbeat of As I Lay Dying.

Faulkner called this novel a “tour de force,” and I suppose it is in the way it was different, an experiment that flouted conventional storytelling.  I spent more time than I’d like to admit keeping track of the book in the plot way.  Time loops around, for one, and I found myself rereading chapters more than a few times to make sure I was getting it.  Addie shows up for just one chapter to speak her mind long after she’s already a dead and rotting corpse on her way to Jefferson, for example.  Anse and the five kids all help to tell the story, and in each of their pages their mundane, repetitive conversations are interrupted by language in italics that seems to represent the lyrical, internal language each character is unable to give voice to on the surface. I’m not sure this technique really works.

But to be sure Faulkner’s intentions were grand.  The title, a line from The Odyssey, is the first hint that Faulkner’s plan is epic in scale.  (Thank you, Wikipedia, for teaching me that As I Lay Dying is also the name of a metalcore band, whose “lyrics and music take no direct inspiration from the novel.”  Dear Faulkner, are you spinning brodies in your grave? ) But it’s a short epic, chock full of unfortunate events not unlike Odysseus’ journey.  There are broken bones, a rotting corpse, a burned down barn, a bad love affair, a hoped for abortion, sexual abuse, siblings sending their brother to a mental institution, and finally, a marriage. By the time we arrive to Jefferson to bury Addie, digging the hole and putting her in it only takes a few sentences, because by this time, the story is about anything but burying Addie.  What has propelled the family to this place has been eclipsed by the fractured agenda of each character, with Anse, who takes something from each of his children in order to serve himself, at the center of it all.

I had the best success as a reader when I focused on giving myself over to each character’s way of revealing the story instead of tallying up my frustrations.  They’re a heartbreaking lot, some of them despicable like Anse, others tragic like Cash, the one character aside from Vardaman whose volition is not about his own needs.

Still, between the work required to be a thoughtful reader of Faulkner’s book, and what I think is the failed technique of those italics to represent what his characters wanted to say, if only they could, I’m not sure this book would be published now.  Unless I’m reading it wrong, I’m not sure most people are willing to work that hard for an ending so dark, what with our penchant for endings in which all loose ends are neatly wrapped and characters leave the scene with no hard feelings.

But maybe James Franco’s split-screen delivery will work to unspool for audiences the existential question inherent in the gap between a heart that sings lyrically against the grim wilds of a hardscrabble life.  I gotta hand it to Franco for trying anyway.  When the film comes my way, I’ll be one of the first in line to see it.

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found books

Spring was full of reading disappointments.  Either the book I chose had a stupid plot.  Or characters I couldn’t access.  Mystifying edits. Writing that made me feel I wasn’t in very capable authorial hands.  By May I had begun to despair.  I used to read every book to the bitter end,  the least I felt I could do to honor a writer’s hard-won journey to publication.  I don’t do that anymore – there’s too much great literature to read, too many bad books out there, and too little time.  Now I give a narrative 50 pages, and if it’s not working for me, I put it down.

It’s possible my problem this spring was mostly reader error, what with packing and being distracted, but I don’t think so.  Summer’s surprising, random, unexpected reading list broke several months of stories that failed to delight.  One thing I love best about these reads is the way they came to me.

From the “Take Me” shelf at the coffee shop:

When the Killing's Done

While I waited for my latte at the coffee shop, I looked through the “TAKE ME” bookshelf and found a tome about two centuries of opportunists exploiting the natural resources of the Channel Islands off the coast of California.  The promise of a couple generations of depletion from sheep ranching, a shipwreck that introduced rats to Anacapa, and one very passionate National Park Service conservationist Alma Takesue from the 21st century who wants to eradicate the rats on Anacapa to save a species of shore bird, made me take the novel home.  Always rich and believable, Boyle’s female characters tussle with the natural world and with their lovers.  Boyle is masterful at storytelling with a wide lens on generations and place, but he’s also good at the intimate landscaping that captures the dark forest, as Willa Cather calls it, of the human heart.  And while When the Killing’s Done is far from one of Boyle’s best works – even full as it is of shipwrecks, the sticky wicket of conserving species and how conservation is inextricably linked with destruction, and a very one-dimensional PETA-esque bad guy called Dave LaJoy who gets what’s coming to him on the heels of an act of revenge – in all ways that mattered most to me this summer, it was the perfect read at the right time because I was transported out of my world.

From a rusty wheelbarrow selling used books at a garden shop:

San Miguel

I had T.C. on the brain already.  In the city on my way somewhere else, I walked by a garden shop wheelbarrow and out of the corner of my eye caught the name Boyle. For $2 (sorry, T.C.), I picked up Boyle’s San Miguel, set again in the Channel Islands.  It’s another sheep island story, on a different island this time, and most of it set in the 19th century.  But in both When the Killing’s Done and San Miguel (published less than a year apart), Boyle is scratching an itch about generations of people discovering, exploiting, preserving, and resurrecting the natural resources of the Channel Islands, and the human drama behind such ambitions.  Both books are gritty romances, rife with relationships built upon punishment and power, lust and willful misunderstanding.  He’s fantastic at this emotional geography, map-making a world of tortured souls who often don’t know what they want, or worse, they do know, and their sometimes terrible desires become the gears of the story.  I get it.  An island is an interesting Petri dish for storytelling, with an ecosystem you can manipulate and experiment with, not to mention the outside world sailing over to disrupt the narrative.

I couldn’t put it down, because how could you not careen off the tracks with such characters as these?

From a pile of books a friend gave me:

12731708

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  This book had been on my bookshelf for several months, and I’d purposefully avoided it because of the cover, spring green with a bird and stamp on it that screamed of some saccharine story about women finding epistolary love.  While packing, I left out books from my collection that seemed like good summer reads.  Most of them were mysteries.  Another look at the synopsis of Bradley’s book piqued my interest, so it made the cut.  It took me almost the whole first book to realize that though Bradley’s narrator is a precocious, naughty and very determined eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the book isn’t really Young Adult, though on the surface it seems to be.  I liked the book so well I did a quick search to see what else Bradley has written and was gifted with the knowledge that there are FIVE Flavia de Luce books.  Oh boy.

I checked out the next three from the library, in LARGE PRINT, because those were the only versions they had.  And I was desperate.  In each of the books, set in the 1950s English countryside, Flavia works to solve a murder.  A crackpot chemist with her own chemistry lab in the abandoned wing of their ancestral English home, Flavia comes at problem-solving through science; in fact, a reader can learn a thing or two about chemistry from her.  But some of the best scenes are born out of the passages where we see Flavia acting as a child – mourning the death of her mother, plotting revenge against her two older sisters, looking for a way to talk with her father, who is wracked by grief and who deals with the imminent crisis of bankruptcy by losing himself in his stamp collecting.  The cast of characters flanking Flavia is, of course, also delicious – Dogger, her father’s valet, gardener, butler, and right-hand man, and also Flavia’s closest ally; Inspector Hewitt and his wife Antigone, whom Flavia half longs to be adopted by; her bike, Gladys, which used to be her mother’s and which ferries her to crime scenes and various investigations; and in each book, the characters who come through to people the world of the crime.  It’s delicious fiction – witty, smart, backlit by clever capers for which you can suspend disbelief — and the first time I’ve fallen for any books from the mystery section.

Bradley’s got another installment in the wings, Book Six, due out January 2014, and I’ll wait, mostly patiently, to continue the saga.

Also, there’s going to be a television series.  Oh dear.  Mixed feelings.

In the mail from a friend, because she knows I adore him:

Benediction

Kent Haruf’s Benediction.  A master at impaling his characters on the prongs of their foibles and choices, Haruf’s stories teem with regret and redemption.  His characters labor under the aftermath of failing to act, or emotionally sealing themselves against the world, and the reckoning that comes as a result of hiding from themselves.

His latest, Benediction, is again set in Holt, Colorado.  It’s more ambitious in some ways than his previous novels, in that it braids the lives of five or six sets of characters.  At the center of the narrative are Reverend Lyle, a newcomer from Denver who’s been transferred to Holt for some transgression we can only guess at, and Dad Lewis, dying of cancer, owner of the town’s hardware store, father of two children — one estranged son and one daughter who’s come back to care for him as he’s dying.  Writers are generally advised not to scaffold a story around cancer, a character dying from cancer, so I was skeptical such a seasoned writer would take this plunge.  But the presence of Lyle, a man of God, works to offset Dad’s life of harsh mistakes and complicates one of Haruf’s central questions about what it means to live an upright life.

Readers know, of course, that Dad Lewis is going to die from cancer.  Haruf establishes this on the first page.  We know his wife Mary is there to take care of him, that he’s agitated by regret.  While he waits to die, we see Dad’s life in flashback, which is to say we are transported to times for which Dad feels he must make amends – the firing of an employee and that man’s ultimate suicide, the way Dad alienated his son Frank.  The big question pulling a reader through the narrative is whether and how Dad’s going to see Frank again before he dies.  Except through morphined hallucinations, he never does see his son again, which is inevitable and heartbreaking and earned.  Dad’s absentee and sometimes harsh parenting and his tender care of others instead of his own family have brought him to this place of being alienated from his son, and it hurts like hell.

Readers also know that Reverend Lyle will do something to alter his path — he must have agency where Dad can only recollect his version of it from his deathbed, after all – but we don’t understand why Lyle doesn’t have a better relationship with his son, and what makes him fall away from the church, though it seems admirable enough after a life of passivity.  Still, I’m not sure he’s working to his potential as a character.

The heart of the story, then, is the disconnect between fathers and sons, the bond between mothers and daughters (Haruf has an affinity for stoic women; Benediction is rich in pairs of two generations of women holding what crumbles together), and the way, as in all of Haruf’s work, people quilt family out of the dust of loss and need.

I’ll forgive Haruf for the left turn at the end and its half-hitched deus ex machina with Alice and her bike, since I can see he was grappling with how to deliver the point home.  I was already crying my eyes out about Dad’s death, about Reverend Lyle’s inability to make a relationship with his son, even there in that dark garage.

We have to work for grace however we can, but there’s never enough time, which I guess is largely the point.

Categories: books, community, fiction, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

fiction365

Check out Fiction365, whose mission to publish a story a day is both ambitious and validating for short story lovers.  They chose  “The Water Men” for today’s story. Many thanks, Fiction365, for the honor of being among your storytellers.

Categories: fiction, short story, writing | 2 Comments

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