a mercy

img_1070I just finished Toni Morrison‘s new novel, A Mercy.   Which was amazing.  Yet I now regret that, while I was reading it, I spent so much time trying to figure out the story.   I believe that if I had just let myself succumb to the effect of the words, the story would have worked its way to me.  Now I want to read it again for what I missed the first time–allowing the words to roll over me unimpeded by my brain’s search for order.  I want to read it again to let the words weave their magic.  “With you my body is pleasure is safe is belonging.  I can never not have you have me.”

For a short review that goes to the heart of A Mercy, I recommend ‘Moments of Grace‘ by Pam Houston

A few of my favorite lines:

About Florens: “Solitude would have crushed her had she not fallen into hermit skills and become one more thing that moved in the natural world.”

About Sorrow:  “In the best of times the girl dragged misery like a tail.  There was a man in Lina’s village like that.  His name she had forgotten along with the rest of her language, but it meant ‘trees fall behind him,’ suggesting his influence on the surroundings.”

About the women: “There had always been tangled strings among them.  Now they were cut.  Each woman embargoed herself; spun her own web of thoughts unavailable to anyone else.”

I have a new rule for myself:  On the first read, I fall in; on the second, I search for order.

having eaten

Jane Hirshfield writes:


Having eaten the pears.

Having eaten

the black figs, the white figs.  Eaten the apples.


Table be strewn.

Table be strewn with stems,

table with peelings of grapefruit and pleasure.


Table be strewn with pleasure,

what was here to be done having finished.  img_10684

From “Spell to Be Said upon Departure”

The Lives of the Heart



img_1088In Remembering the Bone House, Nancy Mairs writes,

Here I develop that ability to concatenate events which characterizes human consciousness and makes ‘daily life’ possible.”

I had to look it up.  To concatenate is to link together, as in a chain of events or things.

Here, in this space, we concatenate reading, writing, and life.

the yellow house

img_1062 Remembering the Bone House is one of my all-time favorite books.  Nancy Mairs wrote this memoir in 1989.  It was out of print for a while, but then Beacon Press did a new printing in 1995, for which the author wrote a  new preface.  In it, she called this memoir “the dearest of my books to me.”

Although here in this space I try to keep pushing forward with the new books I’m reading, sometimes I like to take a look way in the past at the books I deemed at the time I read them as “all-time favorites.”  I take them off the shelf, blow away the dust, and turn the pages now edged in a rusty color, wondering if they still are.  So far I have not been disappointed.

In Remembering the Bone House, Mairs writes about the different houses she has lived in, as well as about the house she lives in every day–her body, the bone house.  She subtitled the book, An Erotics of Place and Space.  She uses the word erotics in the largest possible sense:  anything to do with her body.  She was forty-five when she wrote the memoir and living with multiple sclerosis.

The last time I read Remembering the Bone House was August of 1996.  I am putting it in my reread pile, which is growing ever larger, and which may eventually match my tower of unread books.  Whenever I get to it, I will report back.

I leave you with her words:

“I will write about the yellow house.  You will read about your house.  If I do my job, the book I write vanishes before your eyes.  I invite you into the house of my past, and the threshold you cross leads you into your own.”

rough red brick

img_1047The 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.


img_1043If I weren’t reading all of Rachel Cusk‘s books to look at how her writing develops over time, I would not have finished her sixth book, In the Fold, published in 2005.  As one reviewer wrote, “too little happened to too many people.”  Or another, the book was “so lacking in anything to capture my interest that I couldn’t even finish it.”

There are other opinions:  it was long listed for the 2005 Booker Prize. 

In the Fold is narrated by a man and full of dialogue. Perhaps an important step in a writer’s development is to try something different.  It gives you a reference point:  You do that better than this.  And then you can go boldly forth.

My favorite thing about the book is the name of the country home where most of the action takes place.  It’s called Egypt–no explanation given.  My favorite line refers to Egypt:  “This is our home.  It’s the place that matters, not the people in it.”

Another interesting point:  without realizing I had done it, two of the titles of posts on Rachel Cusk involve circles.  In this novel, the narrator’s wife says, “He’ll come around.”  The narrator then explains that she must be talking about the ‘big wheel,’ a theory whose basis is that “existence is not linear but circular and repetitive.” 

Next in the series, Rachel Cusk’s most recent book, Arlington Park–the novel which prompted me to take this journey.


From Sight Hound, by Pam Houston, a novel with twelve different narrators--nine humans, two dogs and one cat.

“I wonder what it would be like,” she said to me on one of those days that make you feel that you have chosen the right profession, “if I could once and for all get my mother out of my head.”

“Picture it,” I told her.  “Tell me what it looks like.”

“It’s a big white room.  Massive.  Sunny,” she said.

“Anything in the room?” I asked.

“Just me,” she said, “and about a hundred thousand crayons.”



Just as Home, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award in Fiction, has been called a companion to Gilead, this post is a companion to yesterday’s.  Prompted by comments, I wanted to add that if you enjoyed Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson‘s first novel, you might enjoy Home, her latest.  In style of writing, Home more closely resembles Housekeeping, rather than the epistolary slowness of Gilead.  And in sensibility, compare these two passages: 

img_10301From Home: “Glory went up to the attic, the limbo of things that had been displaced from current use but were not in the strict sense useless…Other pious families gave away the things they did not need.  Boughtons put them in the attic, as if to make an experiment of doing without them before they undertook some irreparable act of generosity.”

img_1031From Housekeeping:  “Who would think of dusting or sweeping the cobwebs down in a room used for the storage of cans and newspapers–things utterly without value?  Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping, and because she considered the hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift.”

And notice the covers–and here I admit I often judge a book by its cover–at least for the few seconds before I open it.  See the curtained window on each.  See how Paul is the only Beatle in bare feet.

I wonder if Robinson’s next novel might not take us inside another person’s home in the same place and the same time.  In other words, I wonder how many ways she can tell the same story, which is in fact not the same story.  And with each telling, if she will manage to show how a story we thought complete was in fact not.



For anyone who enjoyed Gilead, Marilynne Robinson‘s second novel, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, you will love her new novel, Home.  For she has just crossed town, so to speak, and turned around to tell us the story from a different porch. 

On page 29 of Gilead, narrated by John Ames, he tells us, “I walked over to Boughton’s to see what he was up to…Glory is there doing everything she can think of to make him comfortable…”  It is here at Boughton’s that most of Home takes place. 

Again in Gilead, on page 86, “Glory has come to tell me Jack Boughton is home.” 

Home is written in the third person from Glory’s point of view.  Although each of these novels is complete in and of itself, together they become two halves of a greater world.

Some of my favorite lines in Home:

“Such times you had!” her father said, as if the present slight desolation were confetti and candy wrappers left after the passing of some glorious parade.”

“The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.”

“There is so much to be grateful for, words are poor things…”

“How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant.  That is what her mother always did.  After every calamity of any significance she would fill the atmosphere of the house with the smell of cinnamon rolls or brownies, or with chicken and dumplings, and it would mean, This house has a soul that loves us all, no matter what.”

“And here is the world, she thought, just as we left it.”

who would you be

img_1007“That’s not what she means,” I said.  “She means, like, we are what’s happened to us.  So if you take away what’s happened to us, then, you know…Well, who would you be?”

“I’d be someone different.”


Dialogue from Nick Hornby‘s A Long Way Down.

What is ironic about this bit of dialogue is that in the specific situation of the book, being someone different would be a good thing.  On New Year’s Eve, four people meet on the roof of Toppers’ House, a famous London suicide spot.

Again, good dialogue in a book often leads to a movie.  Nick Hornby has four to his credit:  Fever Pitch (his memoir) a UK and a US version, High Fidelity (novel), and About a Boy (novel).

How to be Good, published in 2001, was the first book of his I read.  A friend loaned it to me, but as soon as it came out in paperback, I bought my own copy. 

The first sentence:  “I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him anymore.”  

Then, “David isn’t even in the car park with me.  He’s home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s class teacher.  The other bit just sort of …slips out.”

What Nick Hornby does so well.  The truth made more accessible by humor.  Humor made more poignant by the truth.

truth in versions


Playing with Fire was Dani Shapiro’s first novel.  It was published in 1989.  It begins, “There are many versions to this story…”  And indeed, nine years later, the author published another version–“the true story,” the cover of Slow Motion reads.

Close to the events–fiction.  With distance–a look at what really happened.  Younger, the story.  Older, the truth.

The time frames are slightly different.  The phone call that begins the memoir comes on page 262 of the novel (of 304 pages).  The real time of the memoir moves forward from that call, with the relationship with Lenny coming in as backstory. The development of the relationship with Ben (neither name the real name) creates the forward movement of the novel, along with the development of the relationship with Carolyn, the you to whom the novel is addressed.  And the memoir deposits us a little further down the line, as her first novel is sold to a major publisher and she is receiving her MFA.  In the last pages, she writes about writing the novel.

“I see that there might be some way I can take the raw material of my life and transfom it into somethig that transcends my own experience.  I can organize the noise in my head into something that has order and structure.  I can make sense of what, until now, has been senseless.”

Memoir and fiction.  Truth.


island eyes


“Island living has been a lens through which to examine my own life…I must keep my lens when I go back…  I must remember to see with island eyes.  The shells will remind me; they must be my island eyes.”

Amelia Island, Florida

Amelia Island, Florida

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

One thing to remember, to breathe–in and out like the waves.  And with each breath, to notice the treasures that appear.


“Wordstruck is exactly what I was–

and still am: 

crazy about the sound of words,

the look of words,

the taste of words,

the feeling of words on the tongue and in the mind.” 

Robert MacNeil

 from his 1989 memoir,


Robert MacNeil’s love of words came from his father.

“He always wrote on the flyleaf of each new book the date and where he was, so I can follow him…He treated the bindings of his leatherbound books with oil to keep them supple.  He loved the feel of books, good paper, well-sewn bindings….He made them seem delicious, like something good enough to eat.”

In the back of all my books, I write my initials and the year and month.  Now I may add a few more words…


*a word not found in the dictionary 🙂

explaining myself to myself

What often stands out to me in Richard Russo’s writing is the dialogue. Which makes sense as he is also a screenwriter. Here is a short piece of dialogue from The Bridge of Sighs.

“Mom says you’re writing your life story up there.”

“Nothing quite so grand as that,” I tell him, though it’s true I’ve written far more than I expected to, having underestimated the tug of the past, the intoxication of memory, the attraction of explaining myself to, well, myself.”

It’s simple. It pulls you right in. And the little exposition there at the end has such a beautiful rhythm that I just want to read it out loud over and over again.

Last January, Richard Russo was in Columbus to encourage support for the Columbus Public Library.  On Sunday, the 27th, I was the lucky one who got to drive him back to the Atlanta airport. It’s true.  Richard Russo was trapped in my car for an hour and a half. He could not have been more gracious and pleasant. He signed my books.  He encouraged my writing. He talked about his friendship with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.  If I remember correctly, that friendship started when Paul Newman starred in Nobody’s Fool, another Richard Russo novel that was made into a movie in 1994.  Paul would call Rick to ask about specifics.  How exactly would Sully stand? Where would his hands be?

I’m looking forward to reading Straight Man.  It’s waiting in my tower of books.

the extra hour

“Here she is with another hour before her.” 

The Hours, Michael Cunningham

One of the reasons I love reading this novel is the way the author intertwines the lives of the three women with recurring words and images–steps forward, cold water, failure, flowers, hours everywhere, the soul, the word yellow…It’s like a treasure hunt. On every page, a discovery. 

Spend your extra hour reading–something old or something new.