the next writer in the series: july 1, 2014

fenton johnson

In  The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote, I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we … Continue reading

the next writer in the series: february 1, 2014

A Design So Vast

In  The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote, I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we … Continue reading

I give, from 10-29-09

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I wanted to do a post today.  Usually I post much earlier. This is my fourth try.

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Each time–writing about a book, about my writing process (ok, obsessed), and even about a single picture I had taken on Tuesday–I was not happy with what I was doing.

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I kept wanting to include not one but three pictures. Just a minute ago, I interrupted my last attempt to post so I could accompany my 16-year-old to the door. He was leaving for a late basketball practice.

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As I shut the door, I saw the last light of day caught in this dogwood tree. And I thought, I give, as I went in search of my camera.

the girl who fell from the sky

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

life is meals

I’m approaching this post as I do my writing these days: without a plan in mind, I just sit down in front of the keyboard and continue.

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.

the ordinary day

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:

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I’ve found a book

IMG_2033 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.IMG_2031

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.

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