In Glaciers, the debut novel by Alexis M. Smith, published in 2012 by Tin House Books, Isabel repairs damaged books at the library, specializing in preservation and conservation. “She loves the smell of old things.” She collects postcards. She likes to … Continue reading
Well there’s a big question… And I belong to a big family–this month we have four weddings–a godson, two nieces, and a son–and Christmas. Still I want to take time out to begin (yes I just mean begin) again to … Continue reading
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
Summer Contrary is online with new fiction, essays, and poetry, as well as reviews of these books :
Poetry: Northerners by Seth Abramson
Essays: Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer and A Journey with Two Maps by Eaven Boland
Fiction: And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips, You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon, and The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen
Here’s the beginning of my review of The Bird Sisters:
When they were teenagers, Milly hoped to marry and have children, while Twiss hoped to stand on the Continental Divide and “to be the world’s most interesting spinster.” Rebecca Rasmussen’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters, opens at least half a century later with Milly and Twiss living together in the house where they grew up. Perhaps, as Twiss concludes, they just didn’t want those other things enough.
Here’s what’s up and coming at
THE WRITING LIFE:
1) ANOTHER LOOSE SALLY - Hunger Mountain’s blog about writers and writing anchored by Claire Guyton (check in every Thursday!)
2) AUTHOR VISITS - interviews with the Hunger Mountain contributors
3) CRAFT SHORTS & ESSAYS - large and small doses of craft (online submissions for both forms now open)
~first short: On Endings: 11 Strategies by David Jauss
~May essay: Conjuring the Magic of Story by Stephanie Friedman
4) LISTS: LITERARY & LAUNDRY - coming soon - postcards from the organizational side of the writing brain
5) WRITER, INC., debuting in September, memos from the business of the writer’s life
6) REVIEWS GONE SIDEWAYS - coming soon – anything but your mother’s reviews.
Check us out here
Structure: 618 short sections grouped into 26 chapters.
Subject: our hunger for the real as opposed to the invented.
Shields makes some strong points and shares some controversial ideas, most of which, in the real world, would require a cite. But Shields does not believe that reality–words, music–belongs to anyone. Random House forced him to credit the sections–there’s a list in the back of the book. But he begs you to cut that section out. Or at the very least not to read it.
Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.
That’s pretty cool. Of course, then there’s
- the novel is dead #327
But perhaps he’s just reading the wrong novels. Still, it’s true, as Martha Cooley wrote in “Novel Anxiety,” in The Writer’s Chronicle:
In content and form, too many novels published today fail to startle, unnerve, or exhilarate us, or to speak in fresh ways to the actual complexities of our experience.
The sense of novel-fatigue out there seems palpable to me…
Shields is FOR a blurring of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction #3. He thinks memoir is as far from real life as fiction is, and that selection is as important a process as imagination #104.
Reality Hunger is repetitive and would have been more powerful if shorter. The stronger ideas would have shined rather than been buried. Still, I’m glad I read it.
I want to explore my own damn, doomed character. I want to cut to the absolute bone. #517
~cross-posted at Contrary
Sherry Turkle asked scientists, humanists, artists, and designers to “trace the power of objects in their lives, objects that connect them to ideas and people.” In Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, published in 2007, you’ll find thirty-four essays on objects such as a rolling pin, a yellow raincoat, an axe head, a suitcase, a stuffed bunny, an apple.
In “Knots,” Carol Strohecker writes, “I understand being pulled; it is something that I know.”
In “The Archive,” Susan Yee writes about studying Le Corbusier’s drawings and how fortunate she feels to belong to a generation that has both created drawings on paper and on the computer. Drawings now, she writes, “are born digital. They will never be touched.”
Turkle divides the essays into six categories: objects of design and play, objects of discipline and desire, objects of history and exchange, objects of transition and passage, objects of mourning and memory, and objects of meditation and new vision.
My favorite essay was “Death-Defying Superheroes,” written by Henry Jenkins and placed by Turkle in the section on Objects of Mourning and Memory. Jenkins had read comics since grade school but became attached to them the week his mother died.
Retreating from the emotional drama that surrounded me, I found myself staring into the panic-stricken eyes of a young Bruce Wayne, kneeling over the newly murdered bodies of his parents. I had visited that moment many times before, but this time, our common plight touched me deeply.
Over the years, as he ages, the comics remain the same.
As such, they help me to reflect on the differences between who I am now and who I was when I first read them.
As Turkle writes in her introduction to the essays, “We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with.”
~cross-posted at The Contrary Blog
Excited to have my most recent review picked up by the National Book Critics Circle and Powell’s Books as the Review-a-Day for today:
The Contrary Blog–the blog of unpopular discontent–is up and running. Click over and take a look at this new voice on the internet, the brainchild of Jeff McMahon, Contrary‘s Editor. It’s a multi-author blog, anchored by David Alm. Its focus is broad–on arts and letters–rather than only on the the journal itself. And its aim is to engage with the wide scope of ideas. We welcome comments and of course disagreement.
Here are the three most recently posted articles: Why know-it-alls make bad authors, Let’s talk about Shop Class (a review of Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry Into the Value of Work), and Piko in Page–ancient Swahili lady lessons on pleasure and pain. A misplaced medias, a report on AWP that blends fiction and nonfiction, is one of my favorite posts. In Bad writing, defined, David Alm quotes the poet D.A. Powell, who then comments on the post. If you find an author whose writing you like, you can follow the RSS feed of that particular author.
Instead of leaving a comment here, leave one over there. Go ahead. Be contrary.
What a great name for a little boy. And for the title of Summer Wood‘s second novel, out today from Bloomsbury [no spoilers].
Chapter One begins with these two sentences:
It was the middle of the afternoon, January 1969, and a half-hearted rain dampened San Francisco and cast a gloomy pall over the hallways of the Social Welfare building.
Len stood waiting for his life to change.
On page 13, there’s a space break, and the reader thinks now we’re going to move in close to Wrecker, but no, we ricochet off him.
They thought of him as a puppy and took him in.
Like those at Bow Farm, we circle him. He’s apt to run off, and we try not to lose him.
It turns out the book is less about Wrecker than it is about how Wrecker affects the lives of those around him–Len, Meg, Melody, Ruth, Willow, and Johnny Appleseed.
And that narrative approach couldn’t be more fitting for a story about a little boy named Wrecker:
And at 8 “still harbored that same dangerous mix of curiosity and enthusiasm and utter lack of caution that he’d come with.”
On page 92, Willow says to Melody about raising a child:
“It’s no walk in the park.”
“I don’t expect it to be easy.”
“Easy?” Willow gave a little laugh. “Easy’s not even on the spectrum. Try all-consuming. Try heart-breaking. You might start by giving up everything you ever wanted just to do this one thing…”
An engaging story. Lovely writing. Soft, recycled pages “made from wood grown in well-managed forests.” Today meet Wrecker. And on Monday, February 28, 2011, at 7:30 PM, meet Summer at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne in Portland.
Crossposted at Contrary’s Blog.
The Winter issue of Contrary is live, and there’s lots to celebrate. First, Writer’s Digest voted Contrary one of the 50 Best Online Literary Markets. Second, my story, “The Empty Armchair,” published in the Autumn 2009 issue, was one of the top ten most viewed pieces for 2010. Thanks to all who clicked over to read it. Third, I’m the new Review Editor for the journal. I had no idea how much I would enjoy editing. Lots of interesting books reviewed in this issue too–Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes; Horse, Flower, Bird by Kate Bernheimer; Voices at the World’s Edge edited by Paddy Bushe; and more…
It’s not unusual for a character in a book to find herself in an unfamiliar place, but what is unusual is for a reader to experience firsthand the sensation of unfamiliarity as she reads about the character. In Susan Froderberg’s début novel, Old Border Road, the reader finds herself in the unfamiliar world of repetition. Repetition—which Froderberg wields like a wand, transforming familiar words into unfamiliar sentences.
Happy New Year to all of you!
A stilt house off the shore of Miami is a wondrous and fragile thing, built against all odds of survival. As is a marriage. Although we know that nothing lasts forever, still we hope that some things will. Stiltsville, the debut novel by Susanna Daniel, is straightforward and unsurprising, and each day that I was reading it, I could not wait to return to it.
There was nothing there but sea and sky, but then a few matchbox shapes formed on the hazy horizon. They grew larger and I saw that they were houses, propped above the water on pilings.
Jane Addams was a political activist who worked toward, and spoke out, for social justice, including women’s suffrage. I had heard of her but had no idea…
She was born in 1860 and lived until 1935. She was a writer and she loved books:
Is it the child who loves books who becomes a dreamer? Or is it the born dreamer who, inevitably, loves books? Whether cause or effect, books were Jane’s passion throughout her life. The day she died, she had a pile by her bedside she was reading.
Some of her favorite characters were Jo in Little Women and Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. She named Leo Tolstoy’s My Religion as “the book that changed her life.”
In a speech on the Pullman Strike in 1894, she “compared George Pullman with King Lear…” And ”Need a Woman Over Fifty Feel Old” was the title of an editorial she published the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1914.
A biography of substance about a woman of substance. September 6th will be the 150th anniversary of her birth.
Robin Oliveira was a graduate assistant during my first residency at Vermont College. I met her only months before her first book would be published by Viking.
Mary Sutter is a midwife, and what she wants is clearly stated in dialogue in the first chapter: “I want to become a doctor.” The reader also knows the obstacles at the time of the Civil War: women are not doctors.
My Name is Mary Sutter is 364 pages and fifty-four chapters plus an epilogue. It has a strong female protagonist, lots of characters, and many different points of view. It’s historical fiction with an epic feel to it, and it’s difficult to believe it’s a first novel. It was quickly selected as an Indie Next Great Read and was on Oprah’s Summer Reading list.
The writing is skilled and lyrical. Even with all the different points of view, the reader is never lost. Listen to some of the voices:
From the omniscient voice, a metaphor:
On Amelia’s river of words, everyone was swept down the hallway to the dining room.
The roast was delicious, but unimportant.
From Mary’s brother, Christian, a moment:
He did not know what to say, but instinct kept him there. Between them there was perfect stillness. He did not move, only breathed in silent rhythm with Bonnie’s muffled sobs. Time flickered and then flared, with its peculiar ability to alter perception. In its throes, we enter another life, one of possibility: I will overcome.
From that omniscient voice again, breadth:
The head wounds were hopeless, the abdominal wounds impossible. By then, the thirst and humidity, gunsmoke and cannon powder had rendered everyone slightly mad. It seemed to affect even the air. That’s what would be said for years afterward. Conjured our own weather that night. You remember?
As a plane heads down a runway, a stranger reaches for the Narrator’s hand. “Here comes the dangerous part,” he says. Not terribly subtle, but such layering makes a story feel alive. Love in Mid Air, the debut novel by Kim Wright, is rich in “shadow truth” as Charles Baxter refers to subtext. “What is displayed evokes what is not displayed.”
An Equal Stillness, the debut novel by Francesca Kay, who grew up in South-east Asia and India and now lives in Oxford, was one of the best books I read in 2009. My review of this book is now online in Contrary Magazine‘s Winter Issue. An Equal Stillness also won the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers.
I imagine that the inspiration for the UK edition’s book cover came from this passage:
“In her great painting of that time, simply called Santiago, the foreground is a block of saffron broken by a line of deepest blue, above which is a band of blue that is even darker, so dark it might be black if it were not for the light contained in it which magically shines through.”
When Mari Strachan was a little girl, she used to create pretend newspapers, carefully writing the stories in pencil, drawing a picture to go with them, and then sewing the pages together. She says, “I’ve always loved the physicality of books and paper and writing instruments…”
Now she is 64 years old, and has just published her first novel, The Earth Hums in B Flat. Her first novel! Congratulations, Mari!
Mari Strachan is Welsh. She lives part of the time in Wales and part of the time in London. As early as she can remember, she has loved books and reading and words, so it makes sense that she grew up to be a librarian, a book reviewer, a researcher, a translator, a copy editor, and a web editor. And now an author.
In The Earth Hums In B Flat, the main character is 12 1/2-year-old, Gwenni Morgan. Strachan reveals Gwenni’s personality in the way Gwenni interacts with objects in the world around her.
For example, early in the novel, imaginative Gwenni sees faces in the distemper [a kind of paint] in the scullery:
“The green distemper on the walls is beginning to peel and flake, shaping faces with sly eyes and mouths tight with secrets. There are new faces there every day.” (page 6)
Gwenni is, in fact, surrounded by people with secrets. Strachan pulls this thread through the novel.
“They’re not watching me this morning. They’ve closed their eyes and grown long ears so that they can listen…” (page 43)
She uses the faces to show Gwenni’s emotions:
“You scared the faces in the distemper, Mam.” (page 92)
“Will the faces open their mouths to scream out our secrets as the new distemper washes over them like a wave and drowns them?” (page 93)
It’s Gwenni’s relationship with the world around her that makes her such a compelling character. For more on this novel, please check out my review in the summer issue of Contrary Magazine as well as this interview with Mari Strachan at The View From Here Magazine, in which Strachan talks about where she writes, the difference between drafting and writing, and her favorite words.
I don’t write memoir. But I like the way Abigail Thomas writes, the way she tells the truth. “My truth doesn’t travel in a straight line, it zigzags, detours, doubles back. Most truths I have to learn over and over again.”
I got hooked on the truth in her fiction first, Getting Over Tom, An Actual Life, and Herb’s Pajamas–the last two are little hardback squares. I loved Safekeeping, her first memoir. Its short sections are a concrete example of her life zigzagging and doubling back, the many truths of herself.
Thinking About Memoir is another little book. A rectangle instead of a square. Thomas writes, “Memories survive on a wisp of a fragrance, or a particular shade of blue…” Then a phrase you’re probably sick of me using, but oh, then I really knew I was in: “This is… about letting one thing lead to another. Follow the details.” She concludes the two-page preface with this,”Memoir is the story of how we got here from there.” And this story is fascinating whether you write fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or memoir.
She writes, “Be sure to include what you can’t make fit neatly into your idea of yourself, or whatever it is that ruffles the smooth surface of your life story.” This may be the most important thing I’m taking from this book at this moment. Nothing is supposed to be perfect. Let the messy real show through.
The only book of hers I have not read is Three Dog Life, a memoir of her husband’s brain injury. In an article published on June 20, 2009, Marion Winik recounts a moment in that book where Thomas writes about being accused of “stealing a memory.” “Is memory property?” Abigail Thomas asks. “If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong?”
And here in this book she adds, “Memory seems to be an independent creature inspired by event, not faithful to it…” I can just imagine this little creature up in my brain somewhere, in a little cave with a kodak instamatic and a pen and a pencil, maybe some file cabinets, doing the best he can to keep track of everything, and interrupted yet again as I get a whiff of something sweet. His long, floppy ears perk up, and off he goes, scurrying around, eventually delivering summer camp in Vermont, walking to the stables.
The Writer’s Notebook, with its title taken from the journals of Somerset Maugham, consists of 17 essays on the craft of writing. Some, but not all, are based on craft seminars given at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. I did not read them in order, but read the ones first that I thought might help me with a story I was working on called “Hidden Tracks.”
I’ve been working on this story off and on for years. The language is dream-like and more complicated than my normal writing. So the first essay that jumped off the Table of Contents was “When to Keep it Simple” by Rick Bass. “Your ideas can so easily become tangled in your words….begin breaking apart the truths…What is the one thing, the main thought, the simplest thought?” So I went through the story, breaking down sentences and deleting. Keep it simple, I told myself.
People who’ve read this story in workshops kept saying, Why would she do this? So the next essay I read was “Character Motivation” by Aimee Bender. “I don’t always know what a character wants. I know some things about the character, but to know what he or she wants feels like the final answer, why I’m writing in the first place.” When I began writing the story, I didn’t know where it was going, but after I wrote the ending, I knew. What I had neglected to do was then to go back and set up the beginning.
I also have to admit that this is a weird story, as in doesn’t exactly follow the rules of this world, also unusual for me. Readers complained they didn’t know how to read the story. So, I thought Kate Bernheimer’s essay, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” might be useful. In a fairy tale, she wrote, “The day to day is collapsed with the wondrous.” The trick, it came to me while I was reading, was to somehow signal the reader that they were reading a sort of fairy tale where the rules would be different.
In “Performing Surgery Without Anesthesia,” Chris Offutt wrote, “I have one story with drafts that run back eighteen years–but it’s getting better.” Well, that certainly made me feel better about having such a hard time with my weird story.
I put off Susan Bell’s “Revisioning The Great Gatsby” because well, I loved The Great Gatsby, but what does that have to do with my writing in general or this story in particular. Wrong. Best essay of the bunch. Listen. “Although Gatsby needed to be enigmatic, his mysteriousness had to suggest something precise behind it, and Fitzgerald had to figure out what that was.”
This was the problem with my story. I was leaving it up to the reader to figure out something that I myself had not yet figured out. Which was precisely why the readers couldn’t figure it out. Well, I took my story, and I took a stand. I took hold of it, and we’ll see. I just sent it out to my writing group for yet another critique.