2008: I turn 51

As you might guess from the length of yesterday’s and today’s posts–the squares turning into rectangles–writing these short is getting more difficult. The years feel unwieldy now rather than obscure. I’m working to contain rather than to remember. 2008: I start … Continue reading

summer reading

IMG_0950June 1st, although not officially summer, is in my mind, which makes it time for summer reading!

My recommendations:

  1. The Earth Hums in B Flat (novel) by Mari Strachan. This is out now. I just read it….See my review forthcoming in July in the summer issue of Contrary Magazine!
  2. The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (memoir) by Rachel Cusk. This is out now and is on my shelf waiting to be read. It’s reviewed in the NYT book review below.
  3. The Angels Game (novel) by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This will be out on June 16th. I loved Shadow of the Wind. It’s reviewed in the WSJ book review below.
  4. That Old Cape Magic (novel) by Richard Russo. This will be out August 4th. I loved Bridge of Sighs. Also reviewed in the WSJ book review below.
  5. South of Broad (novel) by Pat Conroy. This will be out August 11th. I loved Prince of Tides and Beach Music. Also reviewed in the WSJ book review below.
  6. Pick a classic you haven’t read off the summer reading table at your local bookstore!

IMG_0987Other lists:

Please share any recommendations you have. Happy Summer and Happy Reading!

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russian dolls

I am fascinated, and continue to find other writers who are fascinated, with the Russian doll aspect of life. With trying to get our minds around the fact that we are the same person who climbed out of a crib in the dark, who sat on one side of a see-saw at Spring Street School, who was pregnant four times.Babushka Dolls

And yet the Russian dolls make it seem easier than it is: they all look alike.  However, they do make clear the layering aspect of life that Georgia Heard was writing about. We are adding on as we go.

In Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk writes (about Solly) “She couldn’t locate a continuous sense of herself. It seemed to lie all around her in pieces, like the casings of Dora’s Russian doll when all the babies were out.”

In An Accidental Light, Elizabeth Diamond writes, “I am all ages rolled into one. I’m newborn. I’m just learning to walk. I’m the age I was when my mother died. I’m an angry mixed-up teen-ager, a selfish young man…I’m even an old man waiting to die, swallowing pills every day and listening to the ticking of his heart.”

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full circle

img_1238In 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.”


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.


The Lucky Ones is Rachel Cusk’s fifth book. 

In it, there is a Contents page, which announces five sections.  Each section stands by itself.  There is a passing reference in each section to at least one character in another section.  With a lovely circularity, the last section ends with, I believe, the only reference to the main character in the first section.

A wonderful collection of linked stories.  But the book, on its cover, calls itself a novel.   Again, I don’t think so. 

Still, the author’s writing throughout is even better in this book than her last.  The final section of The Lucky Ones is my favorite.  In it, she goes into that depth of truthfulness that characterizes a work of substance.

“You’re doing well for yourself,” said Vanessa sourly.

“And all that happened,” mused Serena, “was that I finally worked out that people prefer what’s true to what’s right. 

She writes about shaping a day:  “It seemed to Vanessa that she should do something to please Colin on his return from work, and this ambition immediately rose like a great spire from the humble structure of the day.”

Finally, perhaps my favorite paragraph:

“It was in the mornings that Vanessa most often suspected the existence of a problem.  In the rumpled dawn camouflage of her bed she would open her eyes and think of the coming day and sometimes, just as when sometimes she turned the key in the ignition of her old Honda, nothing would happen.  She lay there, paralyzed by the image of what she had both to construct and then to dismantle before being returned to this same bed, like a book being returned to its shelf, intact and yet somehow depleted of her information.”

time going round in circles

Rachel Cusk‘s fourth book is a memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother.  My favorite line, because of the unwritten premise, comes in the Introduction, where she writes, “…so it would be a contradiction to write a book about motherhood without explaining to some degree how I found the time to write it.” 

The answer is that her partner quit his job to take care of the children “while Rachel writes her book about looking after the children.”

In the author’s words, this book “describes a period in which time seemed to go round in circles rather than in any chronological order.”  Very quickly, the baby develops colic.  Surely, Cusk writes, there is a better word for this, some sort of German word meaning lifegrief. 

At the end of three months:  “I see that she has become somebody.  I realize, too, that the crying has stopped, that she has survived the first pain of existence and out of it wrought herself.  And she has wrought me, too, because although I have not helped or understood, I have been there all along and this, I suddenly and certainly know, is motherhood; this mere sufficiency, this presence.”

My only quarrel with the memoir is that perhaps a better title would have been simply On Becoming a Mother, as these pages are limited to the initial weeks and months after the baby is born, to this transition time of becoming a mother, which the author so clearly does. 

A book to read before you get pregnant, as well as afterwards (if you can stay awake long enough to read.)  And don’t forget Anne Lamott‘s, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year.  Two books that speak the truth.

If anyone is waiting for the house-building analogy, she’s painting and carpeting….Next up, The Lucky Ones.

sheet rock

The Country Life, published in 1997, is Rachel Cusk‘s third novel.  She is spacing them out like children–one every two years.  As opposed to The Temporary, the writing is solid throughout, continuously propelling the reader forward.  The first sentence tells you that the narrator is supposed to take the four o’clock train from Charing Cross to Buckley.  The author then does a very good job of keeping you reading by supplying all sorts of details regarding the departure (although I wanted even more) without stating what Stella, the protagonist, will be doing when she arrives at this new destination or what specifically has caused her to make the journey.

Stella is an intriguing character from the first page.  Late in the novel, she says, “I don’t know what love means.  If it’s just a feeling, then it can stop.  I don’t see the point of trying so hard to preserve it.”

The Country Life was a delightful book to read.  To continue with the house-building metaphor (which perhaps should be dropped, but I tend to like to finish things I start), Rachel Cusk, in her writing life, is past the foundation and the framing, and into the sheet rock.

My three favorite lines:

“We are all, in our journey through life, navigating towards some special, dreamed-of place.”

“In a larger house, a knock or ring is a plea for entrance; in a small place such as my own, it is a demand.”

“…I turned off the light, closed my eyes, and forced myself, as one would force the head of a man beneath water to drown him, into sleep.”

I’ve just started her fourth book, which is a memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother.

the slow construction of a writing life

With her first novel, Saving Agnes, Rachel Cusk laid the foundation for her writing life.  The Temporary is her second novel.  It was published in 1995, two years after her first.  And I see improvement.  The author is using fewer words, and in places, she goes deep.  Overall, though, the writing is uneven.  Here are some highlights:

Waking, Ralph thought, “The hands pointing at one o’clock seemed so impossible, so wild in their assertion that a great swath of time had gone by without his supervision…”

“the terrible membrane of silence”

“He groped for a date and remembered then that it was still only February.  The year stretched before him in all its unavoidable detail, the hundreds of days and thousands of hours which he would endure as if something more lay at their end than mere repetition.  He wished that he could be tricked, as others seemed to be, by the close of each week, seeing in their false endings the immience of some sort of conclusion, like a soap opera.  He wondered why he had never fallen into step with this pattern of days, comprehended in the helpful clarity of a week’s tiny eras–birth, growth, productivity, decline, dormancy, regeneration, played out beneath the celestial presence of longer phases of weather–a system that might ease the slow construction of his life.”

I have sixty pages left in her next novel.  I might finish it tonight.

like watching a house being built

In July, I read Arlington Park and discovered a writer new to me–Rachel Cusk.  She was born in Canada in 1967, grew up in Los Angeles, and now lives in England.  Arlington Park is her most recent novel.  Although I thought it was slightly brusque in its movement between characters and slightly haphazard in its structure, I also thought the writing was outstanding.  Upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to read it again.  Instead I decided to read all her books in chronological order. 

It’s like watching a house being built–seeing how a writer develops over time.

The foundation:  Saving Agnes, published in 1993.  It won the Whitbread First Novel Award (now the Costa First Novel Award).  I started it the first week of September.  It’s kind of chick-litty in subject matter, but after all the author would have been 26 when it was published.  It also seems to take the author too many words to say what she has to say. 

Nevertheless it’s a great beginning for a writer, and it contains some engaging images, like “a row of teenagers sat on a bench like crows on a telegraph wire,” and  “Days when she was expecting a call stretched out before her like empty motorways….” 

It also contains some interesting lines like “She’d never known loneliness until she’d had company.”  And this combination of an intriguing idea and an image to match:  “She had changed, she knew, but she didn’t quite know how or when.  Like an old car, the addition of new parts over the years had left little of her original material, but her form remained unaltered.  Could she, she wondered, still be said to be the same person?”

More tomorrow on the framing…

catching days

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes of schedules as nets for “catching days.”  She says, “I have been looking into schedules.”  Then she describes the schedule of a Danish aristocrat living a hundred years ago, who started his day by getting out of bed at four to hunt grouse, woodcock and snipe.   Wallace Stevens in his forties woke at six to read for two hours.  I long to be an early riser.  Yet, on most days, it takes an alarm to pull me out of bed at seven.

Annie Dillard also writes, “There is no shortage of good days.  It is good lives that are hard to come by…a life spent reading–that is a good life.”  Today I’m reading Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk.  It was the 1993 Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award.  Unfortunately the Whitbread Awards have gone the way of stadiums and are now referred to as the Costa Book Awards, as in the coffee.

That is something I’m aspiring to, by the way.  A first novel.  More specifically, a published first novel.

But back to Saving Agnes, so far my favorite moment is when Agnes is talking to her friend Greta about a weird man, which sends Agnes into her head–one of my favorite places for a character to be.  Agnes thinks, “There was another world beneath the surface of the one she chose each day, a dark labyrinth of untrodden paths.  Its proximity frightened her.  She wondered if she would ever lose her way and wander into it.”

I spend so much time in my head.  The trick, it seems, is how to push what’s in there to the surface.