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.
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.
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!
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!)
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.
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.
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…)
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?
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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.
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.
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.