The Faucet

Lately, I have taken to copying down quotes that I find inspirational or soothing, and occasionally writing them on the blackboard in my office. I see the blackboard the instant I walk in, and it’s a good little nudge. A reminder that all writers go through the same ebbs and flows in their productivity, and there’s only one way through.

Faucet

My current quote comes from this piece of advice by Louis L’Amour: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” (The blackboard is too small and my writing too unwieldy to fit the entire quote.)

It’s good advice. The best advice, maybe. So why is it so hard to follow?

Just a few weeks ago, I had a feeling of utter elation. That my manuscript was charging along at a good clip and would surely reach its conclusion by the end of the calendar year. (Keep in mind, this is my first draft we’re talking about.) I felt fantastic. Every writing session was productive. The words poured from my fingers in a neverending storm and the novel filled to bursting. There are too many metaphors in this paragraph.

And then something happened.

I mean, nothing happened. Life, camp ending, a week of being at home with my daughter, planning for the school year, beginning the school year. And I’ve been plunged into drought.

I’m familiar with the faucet concept. You turn it on. There’s some clanking. The first liquid that appears is just spits and spurts, accompanied by air. When the water begins to flow, the stream is weak. It might be dark with rust and entirely unpotable. But, eventually, the stream will run clear. I know this. I’ve been here before. And yet today I cannot get the handle to turn.

Best Books I Read in 2018

 

Do you forget what you read recently? My husband’s aunt was looking for book recommendations recently, and all I could think about was what I was reading at that very moment. Thank goodness for Goodreads, right? It’s such a good way to not only record the books you WANT to read (so so many), but to keep track of the books you HAVE read.

I know we are well, WELL into 2019, but I want to revisit some of the books I read and loved last year.

Invisible Furies

photo from amazon.com

  • A very close runner up would have to be The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel, which was a perfect collection of short stories. The language was so beautifully crafted and the stories were so surprising and tightly drawn.
margaret thatcher

photo from amazon.com

  • Then The North Water by Ian McGuire, which was on a subject I did not know I cared for (maritime disasters!) and the plot was lively, the language was vivid, and the whole thing was full of fascinating historical detail.
North Water

photo from amazon.com

I also really enjoyed History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert,and The Line That Held Us by David Joy – each of which had a LOT to recommend it, from great plot to beautiful writing to thought provoking subject matter and complicated characters.

photos from amazon.com

It’s so funny to look back at this list, which I wrote in December of 2018 when the books were more freshly-read. I am surprised that I listed the John Boyne book first — not because it wasn’t amazing, but because it hasn’t stuck with me over the months the way the others have. I don’t remember the plot of The North Water that clearly (it’s a little jumbled in my head with The Terror TV miniseries, which I also watched last year), but I remember quite distinctly the FEELING that I had while reading it, of invisible, unstoppable horror and blinding ice and cold.

The particulars of Conviction have remained with me fairly clearly, because I keep turning them over in my head. The main character had some, to me, problematic biases and I keep wondering if he really overcame them, and, if not, if that seems real and truthful or disappointing. It’s a testament to the writing and the construction of the story itself that I keep thinking of it, grappling with the messages it scrawled into my brain.

And when I remember the Mantel collection, it’s with unbridled enthusiasm and a sort of joyous awe: I remember it as a near perfect grouping of stories.

About the John Boyne book — which I gave as Christmas gifts to multiple people! — my recollection is a very hazy impression of quality, with a couple of key plot points jutting out of the fog.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Some books just hit you. Deep down in the gut, like someone’s rammed into you head first.

This book is one of those. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Little Bee

photo from amazon.com

Mini-plot summary: Sixteen-year-old Little Bee meets Sarah and her husband Andrew on a beach in Nigeria. What happens there changes all of their lives. Two years later, Little Bee is released from a detention center outside of London. She goes to find Andrew and Sarah, arriving at their home in time for another life-changing event.

And that’s all I am going to tell you about the plot, because I don’t want to give anything away.

But, like I said, I can’t stop thinking about this book. So I want to tell you something about it. Something that will make you go out and buy it/borrow it right this instant.

So let’s start with the writing.

I have very particular feelings about what constitutes “good” writing, I admit it. Which is TOTALLY SUBJECTIVE. “Good” to me might be “interminable” to you. Anyway, I have very distinct thoughts about style and pacing and flow. There are some books I just refuse to read because the writing grates on me. Either it’s too clichéd or too simplistic… Or it’s too self-conscious and overly-wrought. I think nothing bugs me more than writing that’s trying too hard to be literary or clever or beautiful. (Ahem. Note to self when editing your own overly-wrought, tries-too-hard-to-be-beautiful writing.)

Anyway, from the very first sentence, Little Bee is beautifully written. Some of the imagery is what I would describe as poetic. Which is not to say that it’s flowery or anything. I just think it’s extremely evocative. It shows you the world of this book in a new and utterly fresh (and utterly charming) manner.

Let me quote from the book, one of the most beautiful and romantic passages I’ve ever read:

“Whenever I need to stop and remind myself how much I once loved Andrew, I only need to think about this. That the ocean covers seven tenths of the earth’s surface, and yet my husband could make me not notice it. That is how big he was for me.”

This makes my heart ache, it is so apt and yet so freshly described.

Anyway. The writing. The beautifully-crafted phrases, the imagery, the metaphor. These alone are worth reading Little Bee.

But then there are the characters.

It’s a book of few characters. Really, the story is Sarah’s and Little Bee’s story. The others (Andrew, Lawrence, Batman, Clarissa) are sort of just along for the ride. Important in that they are responsible for a lot of what happens to Sarah and Little Bee throughout the novel. But it’s not really about them.

Sarah and Little Bee take turns narrating the novel, chapter by chapter. Which I know has become a little over-used of late, and no longer carries the power it had in Ulysses and As I Lay Dying or even in Everything Is Illuminated. But it works really well in Little Bee. Sarah and Little Bee come from different worlds. And you get to see how their lives join from both sides.

  • Sarah Summers: Sarah irritates me a little. She’s such a first world person, with first world problems and the first world belief that she can – and indeed is entitled to – fix everything. But I think what irritates me most is that she is so real. I could be Sarah, in the situation she found herself in. I hope I would be as brave as she is. As determined. I suspect I would be just as stupid, just as short-sighted, just as over-confident in my chances of making a difference.
  • Little Bee: This teenager is wise beyond her years. She’s seen and done things that no one should ever have to see or do, especially not a sixteen-year-old. She is funny and kind and surprisingly fierce (and not in a Christian Siriano way – but in a feisty little bulldog sort of way).
  • Batman: Yes, I said that Batman was a character in this book. That’s Sarah’s little boy, Charlie. He’s four. He wears his Batman costume at all times, except while bathing. He is the most realistic little boy, with his stubbornness and his sweetness and his complete inability to understand the world in any way except his own.
  • Andrew O’Rourke: Oh Andrew. I hate you and yet I understand why you did what you did.

And finally, there’s the plot.

This plot is the stuff of action movies. I think it would make for a super blockbuster film.

But it’s not pretty stuff, the things that happen in this book. It’s torturous. I could feel myself tensing up at certain points, knowing what would happen, not wanting to read on, willing it not to happen. Spoiler Alert: It happened anyway.

(Side Note: I’m not saying that the plot was in any way predictable. It was surprising and entirely captivating.)

There’s so much to think about once you’ve read this book…

  • The horrors that exist in the world. The way that we first worlders are so oblivious to what’s really happening.
  • What it means to be a woman. How vulnerable a state that can be. How strong it can make you.
  • The difference between right and wrong. How something can be wrong for you and your family but can still be right and necessary and good. How something can be wrong and still be justifiable. How something can be legal and “just” and still be so wrong.
  • What it is to be a family.
  • What it is to be afraid. How fear affects us. How we protect ourselves, and how we strive to protect others.
  • How impossible and necessary and difficult and critical it is to do something, even if it goes horribly horribly wrong.

Should you read it? Yes, yes God yes.

National Poetry Month: Rereading Linda Gregg

What are you reading for National Poetry Month? Ever since her death this past March, I’ve been rereading my Linda Gregg collections. In college, they were some of my favorite poems to pore over, but it’s been a few years now.

Gregg 1

I love her work. Like many poets, she writes about love and loss and finding beauty in everything around you – but she is singularly gifted in how she imbues imagery with so much emotion.

I had the great good fortune of working with her as an undergrad, and what I remember most (besides the hovering cloud of hair, the intensity of her gaze, her unfailing kindness) is how intensely she urged me to find the pulsing center of a poem. It’s not enough just to describe the world around you, and hope that it carries the weight of your intention. No, you need to cut your images down to the bone, until you’ve exposed the blood and the gristle and the meat of the feeling you want to convey.

Gregg 2

One of my favorite Gregg poems, from The Sacrements of Desire, is “The Color of Many Deer Running.” I love how it addresses the duality of aging; the regret of youth seeping into the earth, the vivid new beauty of what’s left behind. I love how spare it is, how simple. And yet every time I read it, the effect is profound.

She seems to understand the world around her in a way that others don’t — to hear the underlying messages of the sights and sounds and activity surrounding her, some sublime, some everyday. It’s been such a joy, to re-read her work. If you haven’t yet picked up one of her books, I urge you to do so.

Gregg Quote

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

One of my husband’s favorite pastimes is wandering through bookstore stacks (or library stacks – he isn’t picky) and adding to the enormous running list of books he needs to read. Sometimes he buys a book right then and there; other times he waits a few days to order online. But he buys multiple books a month. (It’s one of the [many] reasons I love him.)

If I’m with him – and I will state right here for the record that while I LOVE to read and I ADORE buying new books, I HATE browsing through bookstores/libraries – he’ll inevitably hand me a book and direct me to read the back cover.

I don’t like reading the back cover. More often than not, the person who read the copy seems to not have read the book at all. (I just finished a book where the cover copy MISSPELLED the name of a character in the book.) (Deep breaths. We will all get through this.) But even if the person who wrote the cover copy DID read the book, even LOVED the book, well, it’s just too small a space to always convey a book’s awesomeness.

Of course, there is always the misleading cover copy, the kind that tricks you into believing a book will be crazy good… when it may in fact be NOT GOOD AT ALL.

That was a long-winded way of telling you that I don’t put much stock in cover copy. If a book woos me with a beautiful title (which is how I judge a book, while my husband literally picks up books based on their covers), I will read a page or two. Sometimes I will flip to a random page and read a few paragraphs. If I’m not won over by these methods, I’m not buying.

Gah, that’s scary. As someone who would like to WRITE and PUBLISH a novel someday, it is pretty terrifying that a reader takes so little time to discard a book from her list of possibilities.

Anyway, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht was one of the books my husband pulled off the shelf at some point last year. First point against it: It’s got one of those “The [Something] Wife” titles that are far too popular these days. Second point against it: The cover copy was kind of boring. Third point against it: The cover is a mainly black field, topped by the bottom half of a slinking tiger. As in, nothing to write home about.

Tiger's Wife

I did the old flip-open-and-read-a-passage-at-random thing, but I handed it back to my husband. Not for me.

But after it started appearing on all sorts of “Best of 2011” lists… When it made the list of finalists for the National Book Award… And won the Orange Prize… My husband decided I should read it.

So he bought it for me for Christmas.

And I had to read it. For one thing, my dear beloved husband had purchased it for me as a gift. So I had to at least TRY it. For another, I’d managed to fly all the way to Florida for a WEEK without a SINGLE BOOK in my possession.

Internet.

This is the book I want to write.

There. Is that enough to make you buy it?

Because I can’t give it higher praise.

Now, I’m not saying it’s the best book I’ve read EVER. (In fact, I’d give the same high praise to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. And The History of Love. And The Time Traveler’s Wife. Everything Is Illuminated. Lolita. Song of Solomon. Love in the Time of Cholera.)

But it’s up there.

Mini-NO-SPOILER-plot summary:

This story is about Natalia, who is either a med student or a resident or a fairly-new physician, I didn’t pay attention to the details. She and a friend/fellow doctor are journeying across the border to inoculate some orphans who are living at a monastery.

The book is only slightly about that journey. It’s more about other types of journeying. Primarily the journeys that Natalia and her grandfather make in search of answers.

Natalia has a very close bond with her grandfather, and the book is, in part, about their relationship. Like any love, theirs is not a straight line. It has hooks and crags and peaks and valleys.

The book is also about love, in a global sense. Love between parent and child, grandfather and granddaughter. Love between spouses. Love from afar. Love of ritual. Love of countrymen. Love of humanity.

And, perhaps even more so, this book is about the opposite of love: pain.

The pain of love, unrequited and realized. The pain of disrespect. The pain of abuse. The pain of escape. The pain of life. The pain of fear. The pain of knowledge. The pain of uncertainty. The pain of an ending. The pain of war. The pain of peace. The pain of loss. The pain of discovery.

It’s also about mythology, and the role it plays in our lives and behavior and thought-processes. In fact, the bleak reality of the book – which takes place in an unnamed war-torn area of Eastern Europe – is off-set by legend and superstition, both of which are so important a part of the characters’ lives that they become real in their own way: A man becomes a bear. A tiger becomes a husband. Death becomes a human being.

But these wild, fantastical elements are not absurd in the way of much magical realism, nor do they seem out of place or artificial. They are woven so tightly into the fabric of the book’s world that they are almost indistinguishable from fact.

It’s about all of these things and about that single thing we all have in common: death.

So much in this world is horrible. There’s heartbreak and war and murder and indifference and illness and cruelty. And all the struggling just leads us closer to the day when Death will reach out his hand and guide us into his home.

But there’s beauty, too. In the most unexpected places: the brush of tiger fur against skin; a childhood book tucked inside your pocket; boot-legged music played on a car stereo.

And there’s love. Complicated, inexplicable, tangled-up love.

This is the story I want to write.

Should you read it? You know, I recognize that every person reading this post right now has her own idea of what The Perfect Book is. Maybe you won’t think this book is perfect. Maybe you won’t like it one bit. If you don’t, I promise I won’t love you any less.

But oh, Internet.

The prose is lovely, vivid. This is the kind of story told to children in hushed voices as they’re drifting off to sleep. The kind of tale that comes alive in the brain, as real as if you were watching it happen in person.

And it was satisfying in the way only a great book can be. For instance, the plot is twisty and full of mysteries. But there ARE answers. Some, at least. Or at least semi-answers that are complete enough that you can fill in the rest for yourself.

The themes are universal, which means – I think – you will relate to the main characters and their journeys. But even though this is a love story, a death story, a story of loss like so many, many stories are and have been and will be, it plays out in a truly fresh, interesting way.

Will this help persuade you? I got to the end and I wanted to start right over and read it through again. I read every word in the book, from the author bio to the reader questions to the (overall dull, although at times very interesting) conversation between Obreht and Jennifer Egan of Goon Squad fame. I recommended it to my book club – just so I could talk about it with someone, anyone! And I have been thinking about it non-stop since reading the first chapter on Christmas Day.

Now, the book isn’t perfect. I have unanswered questions. I see loose threads wafting in the breeze made by the cover falling shut. Perhaps Obreht intended them to float there, unfinished. Perhaps she couldn’t find a way to do so without tying too neat a bow on the whole thing. Perhaps she recognized that loose ends are part of life.  In any event, I wasn’t frustrated by the loose ends. I didn’t feel let down, the way I did after reading, say, Life of Pi. I felt glad to have read it. And certain that I would read it again.

It’s a great book, Internet. Beautifully written, beautifully told.

Give it a try, won’t you?

**********

Anybody else read this book? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Warning: May contain spoilers.

Advice That’s Hard to Follow

I was fortunate enough to attend a fantastic writer’s conference a couple of years ago. It was a fantastic experience on many levels, and I hope that I can return someday when I have a completed manuscript to share.

One of the benefits of the conference is that you get in-the-moment advice on your work in progress from published authors. (My daughter would say “real, live authors!”) It’s such an honor, to have these talented men and women read your work and offer you suggestions.

One of the pieces of constructive criticism that’s stuck with me the most was that I am overly reliant on figurative language. This is not a surprise to me. I know it well. I spent many years reading, writing, and studying poetry, and the poems that most resonate with me are those that use imagery as stand-ins for feeling or to evoke a particular emotion. I can’t resist a good metaphor. I enjoy personifying inanimate objects, especially elements of the natural world. I love analogy and allegory. Figurative language is my JAM. (Are we still saying “my jam”?)

I gravitate toward fiction that also uses figurative language. The book that leaps to mind as an example of figurative language done expertly is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.  I feel like you can open any page in that book and find at least a few instances of metaphor and simile and beautiful imagery. It’s a big part of why All the Light We Cannot See is one of my all-time favorite books.

Doerr 1Doerr 2

That said. I do understand that you can have too much of a good thing. Besides, just because you use a metaphor doesn’t mean it’s a good metaphor. Or that it fits the narrative. Or that it moves the plot forward. The wrong descriptive passage, the wrong verb, the wrong simile can pull you right out of the experience of reading and break the spell of the book.

The negative (for me) term for figurative language is “flowery.” I am wrinkling up my nose just thinking about flowery writing. That’s the kind of writing I skim. To me, it’s excessive, it’s clichéd, it’s not teaching you anything about the universe of the book or the motivations of the characters. Yuck.

I don’t want my writing to be “flowery.” I don’t want a reader to trip over my metaphors and lose interest in reading.

But I also LOVE figurative language. It’s the way I think. It’s the way I write.

And I have to tell you, if I think about avoiding figurative language while I’m writing… I stop writing. Trying to avoid it makes me very self-conscious.

So I’ve been struggling with that piece of criticism. Valid though it is, I don’t know how to retrain my brain to write plainly. Part of me wants to believe that this is a wholly subjective opinion, and I should feel free to reject it. (The reasonable part of me realizes that writing this off as subjective is arrogant and dumb.) Part of me thinks that what I need to do instead is to MASTER figurative language. If I can do it at a high enough level, even people who don’t really care for metaphor and allegory and symbolism will love it anyway. Well, I have a LONG way to go before I am a master, that’s for sure.

My current plan is to ignore the suggestion to write plainly, fill up my WIP with metaphors and similes and symbols and imagery and analogies, and then try to weed most some most of them out in the editing process. That way, I can get it all out of my system… and hopefully I’ll pare my writing down until only the very best, strongest, freshest, most apt language remains.

Aristotle Quote

When I’m Not Writing, I’m Reading

Saramago Quote

One of the charges of any would-be writer is to read. I accept this challenge with resolute dedication, especially when it comes to reading books I would have liked to write.

You can imagine, then, that at any given moment, my bedside table has dozens of books stacked on top of it, waiting to be read.

Or, in some many cases, waiting to be finished.

 

LaRose 2

I started LaRose  in 2017? Right when it came out in 2016? I’m no longer sure. I adore Louise Erdrich. She is one of my favorite writers. The way she can craft a story… the immediacy of the landscape in her books… But LaRose is hard for me to read. A man accidentally shoots and kills a child. As penance, he and he wife give their own child to the other’s parents, to raise as their own. A striking premise for a book, no? It’s beautifully written but it fills me with such grief and horror that I keep picking up the book and putting it down again.

My husband gently suggests that I might want to give it up, at least for now. Let it wait on our bookshelves rather than in a teetering stack on my nightstand. And I HAVE given up on books, on occasion. Sometimes, a book just isn’t right for me. Sometimes it’s not the right season in my life for it to resonate. Sometimes it’s just not my style.

(Although I haven’t yet figured out exactly when to say I’m giving up.)

LaRose 1

Should I shelve it? I don’t think so.

I’m certainly not yet ready to give up on LaRose. I want to finish it. So it waits for me, on my nightstand, among a rotating cast of characters.

Bedside 1

Not pictured: bedside table

Well, some rotate. Others stick around. I’ve finished the Jane Harper book– engaging plot, relatable and complex characters, enormous and formidable setting in the Australian outback – and it will go back on my shelves sometime soon, when I’m ready to part with it (not yet). I haven’t yet begun Amy Tan’s memoir, Where the Past Begins – some books, you need to save… because you know you’ll gulp them down too quickly once you get started. And I have yet to read Wolf Hall, which I recently added to my collection after reading Mantel’s absolutely perfect short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

Believe me when I say this is just a small handful of the books I’m surrounding myself with these days!

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

I just finished a book with which I fell so completely in love, I want to FORCE everyone to read it immediately.

Of course, in my intense desire to expose everyone to this perfectly wonderful book, I am fearful that maybe you won’t, in fact, like it. Which wouldn’t make me like you less, I promise; I know books of all things are highly subjective, and you might find the style irritating or disjointed or you might find the subject matter maudlin or disturbing.

But I still feel this strong, nay, irresistible urge to COMPEL you to read it, and then get all your friends and family members to read it as well.

Am I putting too much pressure on it? I’m putting too much pressure on it.

Eh, you may like it, you may not. Whatever.

Let me see if I can pinpoint, for myself, why I liked it so immensely. And maybe that will help you determine whether you think you might like it.

The book in question is “The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez.

the friend

Image from amazon.com

And, by the way, Sigrid Nunez is nearly 70 years old, which I find appealing as well. (You don’t necessarily hear a lot of buzz about older authors.) (Her protagonist in this book is also older; I envisioned the protagonist as a stand-in for Sigrid, although who knows.) She didn’t publish her first book until she was 44! She is a critically acclaimed author, and I am deeply embarrassed that I haven’t read her work until now. I feel an urgent need to read ALL her books now, in quick succession.

This particular book won the National Book Award in 2018, if that makes any difference to you.

Do I need to include a trigger warning here? Probably. The book deals, in large part, with suicide. So if that is a problematic topic for you, I sadly recommend against reading the book. (I can’t remember any specific, upsetting descriptions of the death, but I suppose I could have forgotten them.)

But its larger themes are more philosophical: Grief, and its forms. Love, and its actors, and its varying forms. Growing old, and what that means, and its inevitable conclusion. Writing, and what it means to be a writer, and the changing view of writing/writers. Those are the big ones.

More specifically, there is a woman whose mentor dies, and who – unexpectedly, without warning her or asking her – leaves her his dog. Not just any dog, but a giant Great Dane. (She lives in a tiny pets-free rent-controlled apartment in New York City.)

From the get-go, I was skeptical of the book. While I don’t dislike dogs, I certainly don’t love them. I didn’t want to read a book about a dog. I didn’t want to read a sad book about someone losing her friend. I opened it with great reluctance. I was soothed to find that the protagonist prefers cats to dogs as I do.

Also, the book is (sort of) epistolary. It’s written in the second person, directed at the mentor she’s lost to suicide. That’s unusual enough that it could be distracting or annoying or tiresome.

Some things I loved about the book:

  • The style is unlike anything I’ve read before. Some reviewers refer to it as “stream of consciousness,” which I get. But I sort of think of “stream of consciousness” as a semi-derogatory way to describe someone’s prose (I don’t know why). I think of it as a Joyce-ian, Molly-Bloom-ian type of style, with long voluminous paragraphs and few sentences and winding, difficult-to-untangle threads of thought. (Maybe that’s why I think of it as derogatory; I did NOT enjoy Ulysses.) This book is NOT like that. I thought of it more as reading someone’s diary: there are discrete paragraphs, often unrelated or related only in that way that thoughts link to one another in your brain. Sometimes it feels like you are reading her notes, as she researches a particular subject: Here she is, going through her research about (for example — may not actually appear in the book) student/professor affairs; there is a paragraph about an author who had a famously disastrous affair with a student; there is a summary of the changing cultural attitude toward student/teacher relationships; there is a literary quote about the lawlessness of the heart; there is a paragraph about university regulations around fraternizing with students; there is an anecdote from her personal life about someone she knew who had an affair with a student. I can see how this might sound unappealing; there is no singular narrative that flows from beginning to end. I mean, there is, but you get all these ebbs and flows as she interjects and retreats. But I found it wholly appealing – a very fresh and interesting way to approach telling a story. And she does it so deftly that I felt as though I was riding around in her brain with her. The little intuitive leaps made sense and even when she turned away completely from something, it felt… right, and understandable. Nothing ever felt disjointed or incoherent, each thought became simply a new tiny wave breaking on the shore and then melting back into the larger narrative sea.
  • The prose is so clean and well-written. She has a very spare writing style, nothing extraneous, every word chosen precisely and with reason. Which is not to say that there isn’t a great deal of beauty in her words – on the contrary, her writing is lovely and evocative. I found myself rereading some sentences many times, marveling at their clarity and simplicity.
  • The subject matter is so heavy, yet she treats it so lightly. No, that’s not right. Maybe, she treats it with such a light hand. She seems so comfortable with the inevitability of the subjects of aging and death and grief… and she writes around the topics with such depth and breadth… that the gravitas isn’t pulling you under with each new sentence.
  • Related: she has a great sense of humor. You’ll be talking about aging and then suddenly you’re talking about poop. But not in a jarring way. In a charming, amusing way. (Oh clod I am not doing this justice at all. I should just stop talking.) There’s this one point where she relates a conversation with a friend. The friend wonders if she’s ever considered finding a therapist; she thinks the friend is talking about a therapist for the dog; the friend is not. It’s gentle humor, but helps keep the book light.
  • The book is meticulously researched. As I was reading, I was certain that any subject she raises in the book has been thoroughly and comprehensively researched. She’s read all the literature related to suicide or dogs or whatever. She’s got all the relevant quotes. She’s dug into the pertinent scientific journals. She’s read related news articles. She’s combed through Wikipedia. You know this only because she pulls out the best tidbits to share – again, kind of like you might scrawl off a particularly juicy detail about, I don’t know, a work project, in your diary – and they are fascinating. But it is clear that they are the gems she plucked out and shined up, and that there are truckloads of dirt clods that she left behind. It’s impressive and, frankly, kind of awe-inspiring.
  • She handles the central relationships of the book with such care. Basically, you’ve got a woman and her dead mentor. And you’ve a got a woman and her dead mentor’s dog. And, really, you’ve got a woman coming to terms with herself without her dead friend. Each of these relationships is drawn with such tremendous compassion and thoughtfulness and grace (this seems like the wrong word, but I keep coming back to it) that I was wholly drawn in, wholly won over.
  • Lurking in the background is that this book is about a writer, writing. Writing figures into the overarching narrative as kind of a linking force and maybe even a personal imperative. The protagonist is a writer, her mentor is a writer; their writing brought them together, kept them together. And she’s figuring out how writing fits in to her grieving process.

Perhaps you should know, before you read it, that I finished reading, closed the book, and wept like a child. Great body-shaking sobs that I could not control or suppress. And yet I welcomed the tears, because they were so well-earned.

Have I managed to make it sound dull and off-putting? Possibly. Hopefully I have not done more harm than good in recommending it to you.

Well, I think you’d be best off just reading the book. I loved it. I wish I could read it again for the first time. I look forward to returning to it again. And then again. I am so very glad I read it.

If you read it, let me know, will you?

The Road Paved with Novels Previously Read

Some people, I have discovered, do not reread books. I resisted the urge to end that sentence with multiple exclamation points, but that’s how it feels to me, the refusal to reread — shocking! Exclamatory! Worthy of gaped mouth and wide eyes.

You may understand this to mean that I am an avid rereader. And why not? If you love a book once, doubtless you will love it more upon rereading it! You may even discover that it contains unplumbed depths!

In fact, I’ve been in a rereading spiral lately.

These past few months, I can count on one hand the number of new (or new-to-me) books I’ve read. Instead, I’ve been plowing through books I’ve read before.

Sue Grafton started it, I think. Well, not exactly Sue, herself — she and I aren’t exchanging emails or anything. But her Kinsey Millhone books.

Wait — now I remember. My DAUGHTER started it. We were in my office and she wanted to read to me (note: she is three and a half and so far can read “cat,” “mom,” and “dad” and can recognize her first name). I sat down in my chair, expectant, assuming she would dash into her room and return with one of the Frog and Toad books, or maybe The Skunk, which is one of my favorite picture books.

Instead, she went to one of the three bookcases in my office and pulled out D Is for Deadbeat by Sue Grafton.

Sometime after she’d read it to me (“read”), I think I read the blurb on the back and thought, Hmmm, I don’t remember this at all!

And that, somehow, led to me reading the entire series from A Is for Alibi all the way through to Q Is for Quarry, which I am currently hosting on my nightstand, having finally lost my Grafton-fueled steam.

I can read books at a pretty good clip, if I have the time. But still: sixteen books takes awhile to get through. But, even now that I’ve kind of cooled on my Grafton frenzy, I still haven’t really gotten back to the new stuff. The recent Guardian article by Margaret Atwood (“What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump”) prompted me to pick up The Handmaid’s Tale again. And once that was done, it was only logical to move on to Orwell’s 1984. Does this mean I’m going to have to (“have to”) reread Brave New World next? And then Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy? Then where does it stop?

Because my next thought is something along the lines of, Well, if I’m rereading old favorites, might as well go through the entire Tana French canon, too. And while I’m looking at the Tana French section of books in my office, my eye falls on my Jonathan Safran Foer books, and I wonder if I’d be more into Here I Am if I reread Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — you know, get into the Foer mainframe. And that makes me think about Foer’s ex-wife, Nicole Krauss, who has a new book coming out in September, so I wander over to the Ks to run my fingers across my three Krauss titles, wondering if History of Love is etched as deeply into my brain as I think it is and shouldn’t I probably find out. And then Jhumpa Lahiri’s name catches my eye, and I feel that creeping book hunger to reread The Namesake, which will undoubtedly inspire me to reread all of her books.

It’s endless, this desire to read, to reread. And it’s both thrilling and shattering to know that I will never, ever reach the end. There will always be another good book to read. An old favorite waiting to be rediscovered.

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