The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, the debut novel by Heidi Durrow, is a story that will make you ache in all the best ways. Barbara Kingsolver chose it as the winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction in 2008, and it was published by Algonquin in 2010. It is a story simply told, as in
I want to write something/so simply/about love/or about pain/that even/as you are reading/you feel it…*
264 pages, 2 parts, and 6 points of view. With solid details like ten-dollar bills wrapped in aluminum foil.
On page one, Rachel is leaving the hospital. On page two, she refers to the accident. What has already happened is revealed (not here) slowly over time, never making us angry or confused and building a picture we want to resist for so many reasons but that ultimately we can’t avoid seeing.
From Rachel, who is in sixth grade when the book begins:
I am caught in before and after time. Last-time things and firsts. (8)
Grandma uses a sharp comb and it feels like she’s dividing me in half. (11)
From Jamie, who will adopt the strong name Brick:
When he finally reached the courtyard, he saw that his bird was not a bird at all. His bird was a boy and a girl and a mother and a child. (19)
With assured echoes from the beginning of the book to the end and from mother to child, The Girl who Fell from the Sky is at the same time a story we have never read before (as Barbara Kingsolver writes on its cover) and a story we all carry with us.
* from “I Want to Write Something So Simply” by Mary Oliver Evidence
As part of a series at Douglas Glover’s Numéro Cinq, my childhood…
Taking a break from the Christmas list, I wonder whether to write about the holidays, which reminds me of the first line of a Dickens novel…or whether to write about something other than the holidays. I think about what I’d like to read myself.
One of my favorite books ever is Light Years by James Salter. It was published in 1975, and I read it for the first time in 1990. One of my favorite (maybe my favorite) quotes in the book is this:
Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.
James Salter and his wife Kay wrote a book together that was published in 2006– Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days. The entry for December 18th is on dining rooms. Apparently Thomas Jefferson used the State Dining Room in the White House for his office and let his pet mockingbird fly around. I remember I used to let the kids play ping-pong on our dining room table. You can still see faint ping marks.
My husband just forwarded me an email, sent to him by a law school and golfing buddy, with a YouTube video of Katrina Kenison, the long-time editor of the Best American Short Story series, reading a seven-minute excerpt from her new memoir.
As an antidote to these list-oriented days, I am passing on The Gift of an Ordinary Day:
At the beginning of The Northern Clemency, a novel by English writer Philip Hensher, Francis is nine. His father announces that he’s found a house. “‘I’ve found a book,’ Francis wanted to say to complete everyone’s happiness.”
Late in the novel, an older Francis is packing for a trip. As I do, he spends more time on choosing what books he will take than on choosing his clothes. He has, as you will see, also become a writer, and in more ways than one. This quote mentions many of the issues in recent posts, including favorite pens, whether or not we separate the books we’ve read from the books we haven’t, as well as a unique approach to the books we have yet to read.
“Most of the books on the shelves were old ones, favourites from his childhood…But others were fat books he’d read, had always meant to read, had been saying to himself so long he had read them that he believed they had actually been read. He packed The Idiot; he packed Dead Souls…Francis took out the half-finished bulk of his own book, eight inches thick, an A4 notebook with black binding and three green Pentel pens. He’d always used those Pentel pens; he liked the flow of the ink-soaked ball under pressure.
The book was the third novel Francis had written. He had sent the first out; he had sent the second out; he rather thought he would finish this one and put it back into his drawer.”
The Northern Clemency is about two English families who, shortly after the novel begins, live across the street from each other in a small neighborhood outside London. It was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
Each of its 597 pages is compelling because of Hensher’s ability to go deep into the ways families operate:
“Everyone did their best to be cheerful, talking around rather than to Sandra, and by the time they had finished [eating], they could look directly at her.”
“She [Jane] didn’t mind being told things more than once: it was a signal that everything was all right in the world.”
At least part of the reason he’s able to go deep into the lives of these families is that he goes deep into the life of each member of the families. Also, he takes his time with each moment in the story. Notice his attention to detail.
“She [Alice] sat in the warm pool of light cast by the green-shaded Tiffany lamp over the green-topped leather desk in the spare room. With her father’s fountain pen, on the heavy embossed Italian writing paper Francis had given her last Christmas, both saved for special occasions such as a letter to Sandra, she went on writing, perseveringly.”
Philip Hensher does not have a writing room, nor does he want one. He usually writes on the arm of a sofa, in a hardback A4 notebook, just as his character Francis does.
My husband and son just left the house to take his mother (my son’s grandmother) to church and to lunch. I declined. It is, after all, Mother’s Day. As the mother, I should get to choose what I want to do. And I still choose what I began choosing that first mother’s day–time to myself.
Over the years, my children have criticized my choice. My husband jokingly blows it up as “we’re leaving-that’s what she wants.” Even with three children no longer living full-time at home, I still never seem to have enough time for me.
We, as mothers, should tell that truth.
In a little while, I’ll make another cup of tea and move from my desk to my chair with a stack of lovely books…Mothers, an anthology of stories about mothers, I‘ve Always Meant to Tell You–Letters to Our Mothers by Contemporary Women Writers, Don’t Cry (the book I’m reading now), the New York Times.
Later I’ll call my mother…
My family knows now how I like to spend this day. My husband could not be any nicer–supporting me in my choice, taking care of any obligations that arise and offering to fix me whatever I’d like for breakfast and dinner, wonderful cards. My children not at home all called, which I loved. I look forward to this day every year.
I certainly can forsee some time in the future when I have no children living at home and I never see them that I would choose to spend Mother’s Day with them if that were a choice. But for now, I’m in my study, my tea on my coaster, a bergamot candle scenting the air, the tree branches blowing in the wind, remembering who I am when I’m not being a mother.
Before and After by Rosellen Brown was published in 1992. I read it in August of 2006 and gave it to everyone I knew for Christmas. It’s about a marriage and a family. It’s narrated in alternating chapters primarily by the husband and wife, Ben and Carolyn, and also by one of the children, Judith.
You won’t be able to put it down. And be sure to notice how the narrative is strung along this thing that happens, but the story–what it’s about–is the relationship between the members of the family, in particular the husband and the wife.
At the beginning of the novel, the wife’s voice, although in the past tense, is more immediate to the action. She’s at work and then washing her hands at the sink. We live through the events with her. The husband’s voice, on the other hand, is distant to what happened, more reflective, beginning in the present tense, speaking to us from some future time: “I’m going to talk about that day…I’m coming toward it slowly. I can’t rush up on the seam between before and after. (Not seam, no way. Excuse me. Chasm.)”
Just discovered it was made into a film in 1996, starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson.
I made it. Quit my legal career when I was pregnant with child number three and sick, falling more and more behind on everything with each tick of the clock. For whatever reason, there was no voice, from inside me or from anywhere else, encouraging me not to quit, telling me that it would only be this bad for a very short time, and that the risk of giving up my ability to support myself was too great to give in so easily. My husband was supportive of what I wanted to do, and even after I stopped work, he shared the parenting and the housework that was not done by others. And I’m still married. And I ultimately discovered something I enjoyed more than practicing law. I was lucky. A lot of women are not.
Apparently, now, 40 years later, significant numbers of women are retreating from the workplace to the home. Leslie Bennetts wanted to find out why and how it was working out. It is the stories of these women–some using their real names but most not–that propel the reader forward. It is unnecessary toward the end of the book, when the author writes, “So the main thing I want to say to other women is this: Protect yourself.” A man is not a financial plan.
Take maternity leave. Work part-time. Lower your standards (House, episode 1-19-09). Switch jobs. But don’t drop the thread. It’s all but impossible to start over again from scratch. And to quit work because you only make enough to pay the sitter is to ignore the long-term earning potential of your job. “Your career is an investment you make in yourself…”
Women must take the lead in insisting that everyone wins when both parents participate in raising the children and taking care of the home. Investment in a career you love as well as in your family will give each of us “the fullest possible life.”
“It has become inescapably clear that choosing economic dependency as a lifestyle is the classic feminine mistake…it’s simply too risky to count on anyone else to support you [and your children] over the long haul.”
In July, I read Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, a writer I’d never read before. Upon finishing the novel, I immediately wanted to reread it. Instead, I began a journey that has lasted four months: reading each of Rachel Cusk’s books in the order she wrote them. With this post, we come full circle, back to the book that started it all.
Watching Rachel Cusk develop as a writer was like watching a house being built. With Arlington Park, her most recent book published in 2006, not only is the house built and decorated, but the author is now sitting by the fire with a latte.
Arlington Park is well written and digs deep into truth. It’s about women–real and flawed. It’s about marriage. It’s about not only the lives we plan to live and choose to live, but the lives we end up living. In an article written in 2005, Cusk said, “I remain fascinated by where you go as a woman once you are a mother, and if you ever come back.” Arlington Park is one of the best books I read in 2008, and a new addition to my all-time favorite books.
The first sentence: “All night the rain fell on Arlington Park.” The falling of rain appears like a refrain throughout the book. The rain falls on everyone in Arlington Park. It falls on all of us.
The novel is divided into ten unmarked sections: 1-the rain fell; 2-Juliet; 3-Amanda; 4-Christine, Maisie and Stephanie at the mall; 5-Solly; 6-in the park/the rain had stopped; 7-Juliet; 8-Maisie; 9-Christine; and 10-party at Christine’s with Juliet, Maisie, and Maggie.
The first time I read it, I was so taken with Juliet that I didn’t want to leave her to switch to Amanda. This time, it did not feel like a brusque change, but felt right. Because it’s not just about one of us; it’s about all of us.
Here’s a little flavor of what you have to look forward to:
Juliet about a recording of a song by Ravel: “The sound of it brought tears to Juliet’s eyes. It was the voice, that woman’s voice, so solitary and powerful, so–transcendent. It made Juliet think she could transcend it all, this little house with its stained carpets, its shopping, its flawed people, transcend the grey, rain-sodden distances of Arlington Park; transcend, even her own body, where bitterness lay like lead in the veins. She could open somewhere like a flower…open out all the petals packed inside her.”
Solly about her inability to communicate with a Japanese student renting out their extra room: “…she became aware of how much of her lay shrouded in this inarticulable darkness.”
Solly: “Suddenly she saw her life as a breeding ground, a community under a rock…There was a lack of light, a lack of higher purpose to it all. How could she have forgotten to find out what else there was? How could she have stayed there, under her rock, down in the mulch, and forgotten to take a look outside and see what was going on? All at once she didn’t know what she’d been thinking of.”
The Gathering, by Irish writer Anne Enright, won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. I read it in April. In this novel, the narrator describes her family of origin in terms of the labels we acquire, as families and as individuals in a family.
- “The Hegartys didn’t start kissing until the late eighties and even then we stuck to Christmas.”
- “There is always one child who is able, not just to look, but also to see. The quiet one.”
- “I am the careful one.”
But what I remember most about this book are the different ways Enright uses memory:
This is what I remember, but that can’t be right:
“It must have been the February of 1968. I was still eight, Liam was nine, and we were going up to ‘say goodbye’ to Charlie. I think I knew, even at eight, that you can say goodbye all you like, but when someone is dead they’re not going to say anything back….My memory has them all bundled in shawls; Ada’s back ascending in front of us in corseted black taffeta. But this is 1968: there would have been patterned headscarves and big-buttoned coats that smelt of the rain.”
I don’t remember that so I must not have been there:
“I don’t remember the hospital. At a guess, Ada did not take us inside.”
I don’t remember that; it’s not what was important:
“I wish I could remember exactly what he said, but conversation doesn’t stick to my memory of Liam.”
Which gives the novel the air of a memoir, of a struggle for the truth.
I’m trying to nail down my first memory. Every time I bring the hammer up, it seems to slip away. I think what I remember is green drinks in glasses and rough red brick.
Dani Shapiro is one of my all-time favorite writers. She knows how to tell a story–how to slowly release details in order to build tension and lure the reader forward. The first book of hers I read was Family History, published in 2003, but which I did not discover until October of 2005.
How does a writer know what to start with? When to reveal a detail? What is just enough to keep a reader interested but not so much that the reader has no place in the process?
“I lie in bed these days and watch home movies–a useless exercise, to be sure, but I can’t stop myself. Ned’s an amateur filmmaker, and ever since we got our first video camera when Kate was born, he has documented our family’s life, not just birthday parties and anniversaries but smaller, more telling moments.
- Playing With Fire, 1989
- Fugitive Blue, 1993
- Picturing the Wreck, 1996
- Slow Motion, 1998
- Family History, 2003
- Black & White, 2007
On my list of top ten all-time favorite books is a book I read in 2000, The Half-Life of Happiness by John Casey. It’s a novel about a marriage and a family, but I haven’t read it since then and can no longer remember any specifics. My yellow highlights, which I’ve since given up in favor of whatever pen or pencil I can find at the moment, have faded, almost to the color of the yellowed pages of the novel. 2000 doesn’t seem that long ago, and yet if you think of yourself as being eight years older….
I’ve never read anything else by John Casey, and I’m not sure why. Checking the internet, it doesn’t appear that he’s had any other books published since 1998, when The Half-Life of Happiness came out. Spartina, published in 1989, won the National Book Award for that year. Testimony and Demeanor was originally published in 1979 and reissued in 2005.
“Garden tools, canoe paddles and fishing gear, their daughters’ toys and sports equipment, Joss’ movie gear…the girls’ wardrobes….All these things spilled from closets and racks and chests so that the whole house was a series of partly assembled kits for family happiness. The house, like their marriage, was a place for storing years that weren’t ever quite what was planned but which he believed might still be made whole by someone turning up with the missing piece.”
The Half-Life of Happiness is going to the top of my reread pile.