On myth, taboo, and the making of boys

One of my favorite shots of my boys (age 6) and me (not age 6)

When I was on bed-rest, hugely pregnant with my twin boys, I did what I do in any anxiety-producing situation, especially one that would have me lying on my side for three months: I read. In addition to the care-and-feeding-of-babies books, I read about the raising of boys into men, the emotional aspects and the pitfalls to avoid.

In my reading, I found prevalent boy-myths to steer clear of (in life, not in writing–myths are fun there, but more on that in a bit). Two common ones: boy as animal (he simply can’t be good); and boy as prince (he can do no wrong, no matter how he tries).

Once I delivered my boys into the world, I became uber-focused not on their boyhood but on their infant hood–a precarious time made more precarious by sleep deprivation (mine, not theirs). “Your job is to keep them alive,” the pediatrician said. (If that sounds dire or needlessly heartless, I’ve since learned this is something pediatricians regularly say to moms of twins.) For me, nursing day and night, there was no time or energy for thinking ahead to boyhood–or mythologizing or otherwise romanticizing it in any way.

Amid the mental and physical haze of exhaustion, I did fall prey to infant-mom advertising: you know, the stuff of soft lighting illuminating mother placidly cradling baby in her arms–that’s one baby, not two. And so much gazing–lovingly–into each other’s bright eyes. Kenny G might have been playing his muzak as soundtrack to the ad–trying its best to sell me bottles, bjorns, fancy diapers, or other stuff I wasn’t buying.

What I was buying, however, (and internalizing like the marketing writer I am by day) was that romantic image presented. I was buying that hook, line, and sinker. Yet, I remember a turn of phrase that left me feeling heartless and creeped out all at once: fall in love with your baby boy.

Of course, myths abound in culture and literature through the ages that feature a mother falling in love with her son: not Pampers-love, but romantic–even erotic–love.

Today, my boys are almost 10. You see, I managed to keep them alive and come to love them–even if we never fell in love (eww). My boys are neither animals nor princes, but they are their own individual, forever-blooming selves, as they approach the cusp of adolescence recently coined tween-hood. They don’t require me every second of the day and night anymore; but we still share a lot of time, and it will come as no surprise that much of our shared time is spent in books.

We’ve found we all have a thing for myths–not surprising since the apple doesn’t fall far… and since the boys have been steeped in Catholic traditions (redolent with myth) since before they could talk. We have fun tracking myths–a Greek whale and a biblical whale. Same for the big flood. And same for the taboos that pop up in the myths we read about. God bless children’s authors, especially Rick Riordan, who, as the narrator Percy Jackson, manages to provide a wonderful introduction for middle-grade readers to the Greek myths without creeping me–or my kids–out. Yes, even those filed under “taboo.” [Great academic article on “The Sacred and the Profane in Rick Riordan’s Mythical Middle Grade Novels,” here.]

Yep, even the doozy: the Oedipus myth. You remember, boy grows up, kills dad, and beds mom. Maybe it’s because–and not in spite–of my Catholic upbringing that I am drawn to such taboos, as put down in literature. (For instance, I like Nabakov’s Lolita, because it presents the writerly challenge of a morally despicable main male character, and I like a challenge.)

Which brings me to the last book I read, Ed King (2011) by David Guterson, which presents the reader with a retelling of the Oedipus myth. Here, the author presents: “…the story of a baby boy given up for adoption, who goes on to become one of the world’s richest and most powerful men. While, of course, killing his father and sleeping with his mother along the way.” [Read the rest of the fairly positive Guardian review by Viv Groskop here.]

As always, Guterson’s writing is clever, but what interested me most about the novel was the challenge of knowing exactly where the story is going from the start–because the plot follows that taboo Oedipal path we all know so well. The question the reader asks is not: what happens next? But just how will it all go down?

Go down it does. “Most of all, though,” says Groskop, “it’s a tale of human error and hilarious idiocy.” Yes, idiocy. What’s that saying?… Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is insanity? I’d stretch that to lunacy–or idiocy. And isn’t that what we do when we retell myths? Go down the same well-trod narrative path? (Good on ya, brave Guterson.) Call me crazy, but I had fun following Ed King meander from myth to taboo to eww. Less the making of a man but the unmaking of one. Even a cautionary tale (dressed up in really fun literary fiction)–and isn’t that just what taboos are meant to do? Beware all ye who enter here.

Which brings me to my own writing, as I return to my work-in-progress and pull in myth–not as a plot device but to provide powerful images for my female characters. Sorry, boys. While the Greek and Roman myths, with which we’re all so well acquainted, often figure males in the leading roles, I’m discovering more female-centered myths in Finnish folklore, particularly in the tales set down in the Kalevala. I’ll keep you–and my avidly-reading boys–posted on my mythical meanderings.

Now, it’s your turn. What’s your favorite myth? What’s your favorite myth retelling? What are you reading right now?

Looking for interviews, writing advice, or other news you can use–see my handy categories above. And thanks for stopping by!

On reading GLORY DAYS…and other summertime scares

It starts with fire sirens, so loud the littlest children clap their hands over their ears. But not my guys, old enough now to tough it out–and join the parade on their decorated bikes to cheers from neighbors lined on both sides of the street.

Only … this Fourth of July Parade, one boy returned after he’d finished the short parade route, red-faced and sweating. The other wasn’t with him. “Where’s your brother?” was answered with a shrug. The street was empty. And I had the feeling of dread every parent knows, that hollowing out, followed by cold palms–on a very hot day.

I had to wait only a minute. A minute, and I spotted his smiling face, which I’d never loved more. He’d taken another lap around the parade route, winding up riding between a couple of police cruisers, utterly safe.

Still, I thought later about the hair’s breadth that separates joy from fear–and how that razor’s edge feeling works in life and on the page, to heighten our senses, arrest the world, and focus our intentions.

A part of us–the primitive brain part maybe–delights in the gooey sweet center of darkness. You know: the rickety roller coaster, the scary clown, the creepy circus music.

Which brings me to my latest summertime thrill-read: GLORY DAYS, a novel in stories by Melissa Fraterrigo, which I initially selected for my sister, who likes “creepy circus books.” It’s not creepy, but it is dark. And, if it’s important to eat with the season, I figure why not read with the season. What better season to settle into sticky-hot, unsettling stories set around an amusement park than summer?

Glory Days by Melissa Fraterrigo, from the Flyover Fiction Series ed. by Ron Hansen

Reading this book feels dangerous, like the Tilt-A-Whirl ride gone wrong when I was maybe 8, my brother 6, the safety bar broken–when I felt sure the centrifugal force would send him flying. No one flew, but still that dangerous, ecstatic feeling remains written on my middle-aged heart.

Glory Days feels like that–decidedly thrilling. Like being a mom or a roller coaster junkie: one in the same.

From the summary on the back cover: “At the center of this novel is the story of Teensy and his daughter, Luann, who face the loss of their land [to developers] even as they mourn the death of Luann’s mother….When Glory Days–an amusement park–is erected,” the past of Midwest ranchers and farmers is beat out by new money, drugs, and greed… “In Glory Days Melissa Fraterrigo combines gritty realism with magical elements to paint an arrestingly stark portrait of the painful transitions of twenty-first-century, small-town America.”

If you loved Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, a National Book Award finalist, you’ll like Glory Days. If you like novels in stories… If you like your summer reads with a side of eerie… And there’s the amusement park seer, Fredonia the Great, a great conceit and even better, heartbreaking character.

This book–set in its fictional Nebraska town of Ingleside–contains a multitude of envy-inspiring invention, like a roller coaster named Tornado. But it’s the language that arrested me. Fraterrigo is full-on gritty, without going too spare. She lets us settle into this unsettled landscape of new haves and historic have-nots–a tinderbox for conflict.

From the titular story:

Fredonia recalls the sound of the balers, dust rising up from the till. Back then Ingleside had dirt roads and banks of trees and always the river with its green fertile scent. She wakes with a start and remembers all over again that the fields have sprouted new weekend homes, and not too far away stores that are as big as football fields stretch out where corn tassels once swayed. Still, it is hard to look and not see the farms cowering. Now there’s the chatter of rides on their tracks, screams clinging to wind.

Glory Days would make a great Midwest tandem read with Sarah Smarsh’s memoir Heartland, which I discussed here on the blog this spring.

Now, it’s your turn. What are you reading this summer? Do you look for a light read? Dark? Is it just me, or are suspense and horror novels popping up more and more on the What to Read this Summer lists?

Looking for a poem to start your day? A flash fiction piece over lunch? Short story or essay at bedtime? We’ve got you–over at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where there’s a brand new issue up for your summer reading pleasure. I also encourage you to check out our Features section, edited by yours truly–for essays, reviews, and interviews. (For you writers out there, submissions are always rolling!)

Happy reading and writing.

~Rebecca

The Shape of Things: Reading Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

One particular shape captured my attention freshman year of college. That was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory triangle. Remember that one? A foundation of basic needs building up, I.M. Pei style, to more lofty psychic needs, like self-actualization: the needs-lite, if you will, that keep people like us writing and reading.

I don’t recall taking any social science courses in high school, so introductory Psychology and Sociology were a revelation. Our high school courses were cut and dry: dates, times, rules of usage, facts, and figures that were set, that didn’t depend on personal or group experience. An isosceles triangle was the same, whether it sat in a wheat field in Kansas or a steel mill in Ohio.

Of course, like shapes, people are also the same everywhere. Isn’t this what we like to think? Americans are Americans, wherever they’re set down? Heck, I grew up in Ohio, The Heart of It All (my home state’s tourism slogan then). The world was my oyster, or, perhaps, zebra mussel. But I digress…

I did not grow up in Sarah Smarsh’s American heartland of Kansas. Yet, Smarsh, the author of HEARTLAND: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, and I share enough similarities that I recognized much of the emotional terrain of her memoir. We’re both white females who were born into Catholic Midwestern families of German extraction with Amish down the road; we’re both college educated (at state schools). Only, our roads to college were decidedly different, due in large part to what sociologist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich calls “America’s most taboo subject”: class.

As it happened, I heard Ehrenreich, who is a pretty big deal and author of NICKEL AND DIMED, (a book for which she went undercover among the American poor), speak at Johns Hopkins University–to a group of us communications folks. I remember thinking the statistics and stories she shared that day seemed to me like from another world–foreign–and yet her research centered on the poor of Baltimore, not far from where I live now.

In contrast, there was no going undercover for Smarsh, born into a family for whom there were no bootstraps big enough to change their class: working poor. From the book flap summary:

Through her experience growing up as the child of a dissatisfied teenage mother–and being raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita–she gives us a unique look into the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the middle of our country.

I can’t say I loved this book, because it’s not a book to be loved. It’s not easy to read about statistics writ personal on the author’s immediate and extended family–generation after generation–in the way of teenage pregnancies, alcoholism, and domestic violence.

Smarsh is born a fifth-generation Kansas farmer, and yet, instead of each generation doing better, it seems the opposite was true. Such is the power of the stranglehold of poverty–as destructive as the tornadoes that so often whip through the author’s home state.

I come to memoirs looking for at least two of three elements: a story worth telling, with logic to support, and emotional resonance to make me feel. That HEARTLAND is Smarsh’s story, which she supports through sound journalistic research, and narrates in such a lyrical way, made this a very satisfying read.

The swirling clouds were just above my head, reaching down with little arms…They spun around a middle void, stretched and grabbed at one another, pulling back into themselves–the beginnings of a funnel.

A supercell, as meteorologists call it, swirling over the plains is still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Sarah Smarsh

Note: I didn’t say the memoir was an easy read. Passages that begin “Being broke has a way of separating families…” made me recall the ups and downs of my mom’s upbringing, born just 15 years after the worst year of the Great Depression. The last of four kids, she was sent away for a time to live with relatives, something not all that unusual then. And then there was the emotional poverty in families touched by the Depression and the use of alcohol as a balm. In this way, Smarsh’s story feels like a story out of time, like something from high school history stories of the Dust Bowl. But no. The story of American poverty and its tendrils is, unfortunately, evergreen.

How to break the cycle? How to scale that steep slope representing the hierarchy of needs? For Smarsh, like so many others, the answer lay in “getting out,” getting an education. Of course, it’s not as easy–or easy on the heart–as all that. Because getting out means leaving behind.

…as college experiences took me outside my home state, I realized that Kansas as a whole suffered from a similar disconnect with power. The broader country viewed states like mine as unimportant, liminal places. They yawned while driving through them, slept as they flew over them.

Sarah Smarsh

Smarsh’s HEARTLAND and so many stories coming out of the American Midwest right now are sounding the alarm. Let’s hope we wake up.

Now it’s your turn? Have you read Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND or another book on the American Midwest, on class? What are you reading right now?

For ideas, here’s a must-read list of 100 books featuring the Midwest at Book Riot.

Comment below–I always love to get ideas for new reads!

Today’s Book-Love Triangle…

Photo credit: me, on my recent writers retreat with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia

We know we must read–and “read enthusiastically and omnivorously”–to become better writers, and better everything else-ers, really.

Yet, for this reader, it sometimes feels like directionless reading. Oh, I have my reading piles: one to inform this blog, one to inform my completed historical MS; one to inform my new MS; one for pure pleasure, which typically dwarfs the others out of neglect.

And, so, to experience a moment of reading kismet, when one book I love references another book I love, is a thing of beauty: a book-love triangle, if you will. This particular book-love triangle also happens to connect my blog reading with my pleasure reading, making me feel on this cold and dreary “spring” day a little more whole.

Enough lead-up, here it is: In Anthony Doerr’s memoir, Four Seasons In Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, he quotes a line from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead:

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

There are as many reasons Doerr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has long lived in Idaho, would quote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robinson, who was born in and has set stories in Idaho. Doerr and Robinson share more than external landscape; they share a sensibility, an exploration of the internal landscape of the spirit, spirits accustomed to the miracle of the everyday.

Any parent of twin infants will tell you (if they’re being honest), one baby at a time would have been sufficient. Because I am a twin parent, myself, Doerr’s memoir was recommended to me, though it didn’t make the tough moments in the memoir easier to read from having gone through similar ones myself. Still, it always seemed, the fog of nursing, holding, walking, changing and bathing sleepless little people would eventually lift, if for only a fleeting moment.

In one such moment of sleep deprived twin-parent frustration, the fog lifts for Doerr by a baby’s “first,” one of those little everyday miracles in the life of a parent: the first finger-squeeze, first smile, first crawl. In this instance, one of Doerr’s boys says “Ciao” to a Roman man passing in the stairwell. His first “Ciao.”

One of “a thousand thousand” reasons… And we could spend time here talking about the meaning behind “sufficiency” and behind “thousand” for Doerr, who quotes Robinson, America’s most famous living religious author–who, no doubt, uses “thousand” as the Bible does, to signify a multitude, a vast abundance. You can read my thoughts on Robinson’s Gilead, which I read for the first time only recently, here. You can read my initial thoughts on Doerr’s memoir, which I tandem read with The Gondola Maker–for a centuries-spanning “trip” to Italy–here.

But here is where I stop, today, to return to reading, for the multitude of little miracles that happen when we make connections across the piles of tomes of words that are waiting for us.

Have you experienced a book-love triangle you’d like to share? A baby’s “first”? A fog lifted? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

This week’s tandem read…

I spent the loveliest Sunday celebrating St. Patrick’s Day–my own way. After Mass and brunch at a Greek restaurant, I found the sunniest spot on my porch, enjoyed a Bailey’s, and started in on this week’s tandem read: Pulitzer-prize winning (Cleveland, OH, native) Anthony Doerr‘s memoir, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World and art historian and travel writer Laura Morelli‘s debut novel, The Gondola Maker.

Do you do much tandem reading?

Tandem reading provides many such textual mirrors and prisms. I highly recommend it.

Writer and Book-seller Michael Berger

This book pairing is pretty obvious: both are set in Italy (the first in the 2000s Rome; the second in 16th-century Venice), with all the inherent romance an Italian setting prescribes–from fine literature, art, and architecture to finely-honed craft and familial trades passed down through the generations. And there will be your standard romance to come–more in Morelli’s tale, I’m afraid, than in Doerr’s memoir. (Like Doerr, I suffered from sleepless nights due to twin boys, only not in Rome.)

What’s 400 years between stories? I’m enjoying the tandem view of Italy spanning centuries, geography, and outlooks.

So far, I’d recommend both books.

With humor and his trademark attention to detail, Doerr chronicles his family’s year in Rome, where he begins work on his novel ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE–when he’s not distracted by the writing of Pliny, the Elder; struggling with his Italian phrasebook; or carting his twin babies around an ancient city not meant for hulking twin strollers.

My favorite excerpt so far:

Jet lag is a dryness in the eyes, a loose wire in the spine. Wake up in Boise, go to bed in Rome. The city is a field of shadows beyond the terrace railing. The bones of Keats and Raphael and St. Peter molder somewhere out there. The pope dreams a half mile away. Owen blinks up at me, mouth open, a crease in his forehead, as though his soul is still somewhere over the Atlantic, trying to catch up with the rest of him.

In The Gondola Maker, Morelli’s expert research makes Venice more than a vibrant backdrop but a fully-fleshed-out character among the cast of this historical coming-of-age novel. I find her description of the craft and trades surrounding gondolas fascinating. (I’m eager to read her latest novel, The Painter’s Apprentice.)

My favorite passage so far:

I begin to absorb the unspoken language of Venetian boatmen, a complex set of hand gestures this cadre of men has developed over generations to communicate silently to one another across the water. Some of the signals are easy to divine: twirling fingers for “Let’s met for a plate of pasta at the midday meal” or a left thumb over the right shoulder for “incoming tide.”

Communication–through language spoken and unspoken–is another bright thread that binds these two books and makes this tandem read interesting and relevant to my writing right now. Tomorrow, I head to a writers retreat where I will continue working on my latest project, a multi-generational novel, featuring, among other related characters, a young woman who is losing her hearing–and must gain the ability to communicate in new ways. (Best advice to bear the long wait after querying agents about the first novel? Work on the second!)

Quick shout-out to my new followers who found this blog by way of my second WordPress Discover feature, My interview with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas. And thank you for getting me past the 1,000 follower mark!

With other interviews, as well as book reviews, story excerpts, essays, and other musings on reading and writing the Rust Belt (and beyond), I hope you’ll stick around. See my categories above for more.

Now, it’s your turn. Are you a serial monogamist when it comes to reading books? Or, are you a tandem- or poly-reader? If so, what’s been your favorite tandem read so far? Comment away! I always respond.

Of Fathers, Sons, and Seasons: Reading Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD

The first good snow of the season on our Crepe Myrtle

I was weeping before 8:30 am. Not because of the cold and old pipes and our living room soaked, stripped, and drying now–like a child pulled from a furtive dip in the lake. No, I was weeping over a book about fathers and sons and the seasons of life–and wouldn’t you think my avid reader-cynicism could have borne me up better than that? Nope, there I was weeping, listening to the end of the story, as I trained my eyes on the winding roads that take me from my sons’ school to home and back, again and again.

Not a chance I could have held it together in the face of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, narrated by Tim Jerome of Broadway fame. From the cursory Goodreads summary: Gilead presents an “intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart.”

I will admit right here that it took me this long to read anything by the matriarch of the Midwestern religious novel, and I’ll tell you why. I thought it would be not just “churchy”–an attribute Robinson has said did not define her background–but preachy. After reading (and weeping), I’d define the novel as “teachy” maybe, but only in the best way–as the narrative is presented as a sort of last will and testament from an elderly father, the Reverend John Ames, to the seven-year-old son he won’t get to see grow up. In short, it’s a quiet wonder of a book.

Read more

Rounding Up the Best Reads of 2018

No, not beach reads. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Revived from my Thanksgiving food coma, my family made our almost annual trek to the beach for off-season rates on a boardwalk-front room, rainy trips to the arcade (we can all agree on skee ball), and reading to the tune of some pretty good surf (or so I was told).

With November and its captive, NaNoWriMo, losing their grip, I turn to logging some of my best reads of 2018, including Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas’s book of poems called Weather, which (trust me) is a perfect name for a collection including many place poems set in Northeast Ohio. (More on this poet soon, I hope.)

Seems I’m “on” again with poetry, a reading practice which helps the fiction flow. But I haven’t stopped mooning over my fave novel I read this year, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, which I talked about here. (Expecting some kind of twice-tolling timepiece this year, Santa!)

So when my favorite writing- and book-blogger from New Zealand, Kim at Writer Side of Life, asked for 2018 fave books, I couldn’t resist singing the praises of that very Gentleman. Here is Kim’s entire list of Bloggers’ Picks: Best Reads of 2018, which includes historical and modern novels, the literary and popular, a memoir and even a murder. Of that list, I’ve read three–including Charles Frazier’s Varina, which I talked about here and Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, which I…um…didn’t. What would you add to this Best Reads list? Comment here or on my Facebook page.

And since we’re heading into gifting season, what are your fave books to gift–for children and adults?

*For those of you who pay attention to my nonsense, my new muse in stone (likely actually Zeus or Heracles/Hercules) has been (diplomatically) dubbed: Grateful Edgar deVacca and titled muse of resourceful NaNo writers everywhere. (More on NaNo lessons learned coming soon…)

a bit of writerly advice for #NaNo day 13…

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Free image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

Read.

Yep, that’s my writing advice for this luckiest of days during NaNoWriMo (at a point when my word count is stalled at 8,237).

Last night, I finished the novella (remember those; they’re having a renaissance, I hope) titled Camp Olvido. I could have been writing or plotting (ha, that’s a joke), but I needed to recharge. So I read.

Written by Lawrence Coates, Camp Olvido is set in a Depression-era migrant workers’ camp in California and will remind you of Steinbeck’s work, but this 2015 book is its own rare and wonderful gem. Read it for the compelling history, story, images and language that will leave you awed. It’s that good.

So, I wrote the author to tell him. OK, maybe it’s two pieces of writing advice today: No. 1: read. No. 2: respond to what sings true and clear for you on the page.

Happy reading and writing. Happy NaNo!

How’s it going, if it’s going? No NaNo for you this year? What are you reading and loving right now?

Feeling social? Let’s connect on FB and Twitter. Like a post of mine; I hope you’ll share with your friends–both social and otherwise!

 

 

CHERRY has Me Seeing Red: an Unreliable Book Review for an Unreliable Narrator

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Image courtesy of goodreads.com. (Can you see what’s looking at you?)

Let’s preface this pseudo-review with the fact that I am a dogged Northeast Ohio booster, clapping the backs (but not lining the palms, sorry) of any and all creative ventures to come out of my native place. Lifting it up, bearing as much as I can its failures and successes.

I love the Cleveland area as only a daughter at a distance can—with rose-colored glasses adorned with sparkles of half-memories of a cherished childhood I can’t forget or relive.

This got me thinking prodigal daughter. Or, prodigal son. Yeah, let’s start there, with one of the most memorable and infuriating stories of the Bible. Shall we? Let’s do, because this is a shared knowledge: You see, Nico Walker, author of this memoirist fiction, and I (and so many Cleveland natives) have Catholicism in common. What pisses off us well-behaved Catholic kids about the story of the prodigal son? The guy did everything wrong and got lauded for it. The party and the fatted calf, or maybe it was a goat or a lamb. (I said Catholic, not Methodist.) Anyway…

The cursory summary: Cherry by Nico Walker follows an unnamed young male narrator (ahem) from a failed semester of college and young love in Cleveland; to Iraq, where he is “a cherry,” a new guy, in military jargon, and then a warrior medic; and back to Cleveland, where he ends up addicted to heroin. When he turns to robbing banks to support his addiction, he gets caught. Walker wrote this book from prison.

The author’s note:

This book is a work of fiction.

These things didn’t ever happen.

These people didn’t ever exist.

Genre: er, memoir disguised as fiction, which is perfect for this creative-Cleveland booster, because now I can’t be mad at you, author Nico Walker. For writing a story that glorifies misogyny and drunkenness and drug abuse and so much self-harm I read this book through my fingers, shielding my eyes. Because I’m not just a reader; I could have known you, Nico Walker; we could have driven down Mayfield on the same night—me, home from grad school, you, in high school. We could have hung out on Coventry, eaten Presti’s doughnuts at 2am. We could have sat in the same church pew at Midnight Mass. Only, when I was feeling sorry for the well-behaved older brother of the prodigal son, you were taking notes on the younger rebel.

If I sound mad, I’m not. Maybe just disappointed. (God, didn’t we hate to hear that from our Catholic parents?) I’m disappointed in the man, Nico Walker, but not the author. I’m disappointed–or maybe just plain scared–because I’m not just a reviewer; I’m a mom of boys who will be young men too soon, and the world carries one frightening epidemic after another, threatening to eat our bodies or our souls or both. Or, maybe I am angry at author Nico Walker, because there’s no hope in the life of this book. Lives are wasted and the stories are stupidly tragic, and it makes my skin crawl like no book should. Or should it? (My head is not in the sand: last year, my Maryland county suffered 214 deaths from opioid overdose.)

Language: graphic, crude, slurs, at once up-in-your-face spitting and detached, cold. Generation Kill kind of stuff, but more removed. Lots of second-person, addressing the reader, “you,” when the narrator means himself. Once in a while quite staid.

…everything dismal as murder.

…you couldn’t remember the last time it had rained. [Note: it wasn’t rain.]

And we smoked cigarettes as we were wont to do.

Style: spare, reportage-ish, which belies the unreliable narrator. The young man on the page doesn’t spin tales to get you to like him. He doesn’t care if you do. He reads Vonnegut. Hemingway-esque, other reviewers have said of the author’s style. Denis Johnson resurrected. What saved me was the humor, that kind of sad laugh that leaks out at funeral jokes. Nico Walker is damn funny; irreverent doesn’t begin to cover it.

The ornaments were stick figures depicting the Stations of the Cross, metallic stick Jesuses hossing the crosses around. Sometimes Jesus would have the cross about upright. In other places He’d be about collapsed under its weight. I said to Emily that it looked like a man suffering an accident while setting up a basketball hoop.

And…

If you’re known to rob things people will just give you guns. It’s kind of like sponsoring missionaries.

If this were truly fiction, I’d say the author was glorifying the basest of our natures, and I’d close the book. If this were truly memoir, I’d cry for the lost lamb. But, this is creative-limbo-work here, expertly written, and ferried by way of editors, publishers, and publicists who have set this in my lap. There will be a film deal.

A book is a thing without a soul to be critiqued—separate from the teller, even of memoir, which this isn’t. (Or is it?) Published. The author still in his 30s. By a major publishing house. Am I jealous? Hell, yes, and never ever.

It’s early in the book when the narrator describes a church’s Stations of the Cross: Jesus’s bearing up and falling down under the weight of the cross on his back. The young protagonist’s descent mirrors for me Jesus’s falling. Would-be Nico Walker falls the first time for a girl (aren’t we the root of it all still, Eve?); then for the masculine ideal of the soldier, he never really inhabits; then, after war, for that faux-savior opioids. Only, Jesus was falling for the rest of us.

And I can’t. Or I could–maybe I did–do a proper review and talk about layers of meaning here.

And a sophomore effort from the author: I hope for one, because I hope for Nico Walker, the man, to rise after so much falling.

In praise of twice-tolling timepieces and other miracles of invention: reading A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

My powers of observation are not so keen that I’m going to brave the very crowded depths of reviews of A Gentleman in Moscow. (Want to read my reviews, I’ve got a whole category, above.)

Let’s just agree that Amor Towles’s second novel is a modern masterpiece, shall we? If you are one of the four people on the planet who haven’t read or at least heard about this story of Count Alexander Rostov, here’s a brief intro (from the jacket copy):

When, in 1922, the thirty-year-old Count is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin…the [erudite and witty] Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships…

Basically, drama, relationships, and meaningful meditations ensue. Just read this novel about the Russian soul–its art, history, toil, treasures, and catastrophes. (And be sure to watch the best novel trailer I’ve ever seen at Towles’s website, above.)

Just as this former kid ballet dancer (me) can’t watch a ballet without my feet twitching,  my calves contracting, my back straightening, and my head lilting this way and that with those on stage, I can’t read a book without wondering how?

But here’s not the place for a deep-dive into craft. I simply want to note a few miracles of invention in A Gentleman… and provide a word of caution to the dutifully outlining and character backstory-charting new(er) writers out there.

An image of note: the Count’s twice-tolling clock is much more than a clock that tells time by tolling only at noon and at midnight. It provides a mechanism to discuss industriousness, for Towles to tell us of the Count’s father, who had the clock made because a man (of a certain class, time, and place) should be too busy with work to heed the chimes between waking and noon. And by noon, having had an industrious morning, a man should then leave his work to commune with others. Should he hear the midnight chime, he is too late to bed. And the replete uses for this image are only beginning…

Description of note: readers come to a book like this expecting description befitting its learned main character. Towles delivers, but fear not, he doesn’t (like in real Russian novels) let his pacing lag in many-paged sections of description. No, his descriptions are just as clippy and cutting as his dialogue.

Take the goose chase section (trust me), a funny and farcical bit that brings together in a hotel hallway a melange of worldly guests: two French journalists, a Swiss diplomat, three Uzbek fur traders, a representative of the Roman Catholic Church, a Russian opera tenor with his family of five, and an American general. (All that’s missing is a partridge you know where, but then we do have geese!) Each becomes a character–and a caricature in the Count’s eyes–in the briefest of scenes, thanks to Towles’s powers of description. The ambassador from the Vatican advised; the Swiss diplomat heard the Russian and the Italian out, mouth shut; the tenor, “who spoke only a few words of Italian, informed the prelate (fortissimo) that he was not a man to be toyed with.” The American general, from “The Great State of Texas” took charge and threw the geese out the window.

A sleight of hand (and humor) of note: recently I read a wonderfully-informative and instructive piece on Brevity‘s nonfiction blog, “The Sound of a Memoir,” about shying away from using song lyrics in our writing (whether fiction or nonfiction). Practically-speaking, citing song lyrics (titles are OK) can be an expensive endeavor–if a writer manages to get permission to use them. Creatively-speaking, there are better ways to note a song in a story–to provide a bit of soundtrack to a piece, to get the reader’s foot tapping and put him or her in mind of a certain time when that song said so much! (If you now, as I do, have Elton John’s “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” in your head, you’re welcome.)

Back to Towles’s mastery: In A Gentleman… the author artfully explores the passing of time and trends, in one part commenting on jazz music. In not one but a few places the author has the Count muse about the popular jazz tune that speaks of a distinct absence of bananas, a lack of bananas, for want of bananas… You get the idea. Anyone who hasn’t lived his entire life in a cave knows the song is Louis Prima’s “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” (hear the song here) but by not citing even the title, the reference becomes more than a song but a clever running joke.

All that’s to gush, yes, and also to provide a word of caution to the new(er) writers out there looking for the keys–not only to plot but to imagery and motifs, the characterization and quirks–that make a piece of writing beautiful. How to make these little miracles happen on the page? If I knew, I would be doing it, right now. But I think one of the keys to being a great writer is being a great reader. Another is to trust your mind to make the miracles as you go. Call it a state of flow or the (ahem) muse catching you by the hand, whatever, but writing is more about writing than planning. (OK, you caught me; I’m a panster.)

Yes, you can plan for plot. Outline all you like. Get a sense of your characters before diving in. But can you plan for the clever bits, the brilliant tropes and descriptors and “bananas” that make a piece sing, I’m not so sure.

What do you think? What miracles of invention have you encountered thus far in your summer reads? I’d love to hear from you!

 

*I grabbed the American and UK cover (which I prefer) images from Goodreads.