A Distance Not Too Far to Fathom: My review of THE DISTANCE FROM FOUR POINTS

book cover of THE DISTANCE FROM FOUR POINTS by Margo Orlando Littell, with illustrations of plants

Picture London, Paris, or New York. Got it? Now picture Iowa farm country. How about Main Street USA? Easily imaginable places all, even in fiction. Right? Well, you can have them. I’m here to laud the lesser-known and in-between places in books, the fringes, places where the present hasn’t caught up to a promising past, where things are undefined, even messy—and the characters are gritty, trying to make a place their own. I’m here for the settings that remain open to interpretation, invention, and story.

Take Margo Orlando Littell’s recent novel from University of New Orleans Press, for instance.  The Distance from Four Points is set in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, murky territory straddling the Rust Belt and Appalachia. Never heard of it? All the better stage for the author to play out that age-old question:

Can you really go home again?

Quick summary: “Soon after her husband’s tragic death, Robin Besher makes a startling discovery: He had recklessly blown through their entire savings on decrepit rentals in Four Points, the Appalachian town Robin grew up in. Forced to return after decades, Robin and her daughter, Haley, set out to renovate the properties as quickly as possible—before anyone exposes Robin’s secret past as a teenage prostitute. Disaster strikes when Haley befriends a troubled teen mother, hurling Robin back into a past she’d worked so hard to escape. Robin must reshape her idea of home or risk repeating her greatest mistakes.”

In Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the poet says, “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”

By this definition, Margo Orlando Littell is a poet. For me, it’s the setting of Four Points, a fictionalized version of the author’s own hometown, that makes the novel shine. Forty-something MC Robin’s hometown appears to her to be a “poor, indifferent place.” This setting is a lot like the places that dot the Pennsylvania landscape that separates my home in Maryland and my childhood home in Ohio’s Rust Belt, places where invariably my car radio loses NPR’s signal and tunes in only country music. Where tunnels through the mountains, tiled like giant bathrooms, are the highlight of the trip. Where mock-alpine ski resorts attempt to lure passersby off the Pennsylvania turnpike. I’ve happily sped through these places seeking finer points, the reinvented and cosmopolitan Pittsburgh, for one.

The author paints a picture of Four Points from Robin’s perspective: “It was coal country, or used to be, and it wasn’t always terrible. Long before she was born, businessmen made millions here, gaining wealth from the coke ovens in the foothills. Now the crumbling mansions…were barely audible echoes of the town’s better years.” This is a place many leave, but enough stay for unemployment to be high; a place old industry forgot and new-wave industry, like medicine, higher education, and tech, haven’t yet found.

Still, a place like this, steeped in the glories of a crumbling past, isn’t past—but is fully present—to the residents eking out a living there, today. And, upon her return to Four Points, this is a reality Robin has to face, and quick.

The novel starts off rather breathlessly, and we’re thrust into Robin’s predicament. Her husband died and left her with nothing to keep her and her daughter’s heads above water—except some pretty cruddy rentals in her hometown. A hometown she had tried her best to forget, living in a monied Pittsburgh-area enclave, where she’d remade herself—or fooled herself into thinking she had. A “decadence,” of forgetting where she came from and what she did to survive, the author calls it, of forgetting the “familiar equation” of “sex plus money.” This isn’t uncharted territory for women’s fiction—a salacious past comes to haunt the MC’s present—but the author handles it well.

The details of land-lording, re-making this human-built landscape with her smarts and own two hands, raises this bookclub novel to a higher level. Robin, who only recently wouldn’t be caught without her “Va-Va Vino” nail polish, takes to ripping up ruined linoleum in her tenants’ places with those nails, breaking them to the quick. This kind of work, needed to sustain herself and her daughter, does a lot to renew Robin’s sense of self, even in grief. Work, as it often does, has a way of teaching characters (and, by extension, us readers) about their capacity for living: “Tonight, the paint would dry, and in the morning the apartment would be whole. Not new, not beautiful, but ready to live in.”

The author exhibits a local’s keen sense of the distinct sights, sounds, and tastes of this place, where Sheetz and Walmart serve as modern beacons in the wintry gloom. But this is also the kind of place where communities still come out for parades on feast days and fill the same ethnic church pews their grandparents did; at home, old recipes, like Eastern European Halushki, are still passed down to the next generation. Maybe it is in such in-between times, teetering between ages—when will these hills experience their next Gilded age?—when we cling to the traditional foods that comfort, the language (all the “Yinzes!”) shared. Maybe it’s in these moments that we find grace.

I would have liked a bit more rumination in these pages on the grace found in this novel’s place. We get a brief mention of it, and there are fleeting prayers for Robin, who won’t budge from the necessity of sending her daughter to Catholic school, even when money is terribly scarce.

That touch of grace and Robin’s role as landlord reminded me of the biblical parable of the wicked tenants (Robin does have one or two), but more loosely about the need to be worthy “tenants” in this life leased to us here, in the earthly communities we call home. Will Robin turn her back again on her home, on a hard-won livelihood “cleaved to boilers and shingles, sewage stacks and electric grids.” Or, will she waste her gifts, trying to run away from herself again?

I’ll let you read to find out.

In a bit of life imitating art, the author also tried her hand at being a landlord in her hometown during the course of writing this book, and her expertise shows in her prose. You can read about that backstory and everything else related to The Distance from Four Points at her website: margoorlandolittell.com

Paris in springtime? Let’s face it: none of us is flying anytime soon. So, how about Four Points at the turning of a season—from the pages of this engrossing novel:

Robin left Four Points at five, the magical hour when the light over the mountains turned fiery and lit every branch on the maple-blanketed hills. The world was wet and weary, winter pulsing deep as blood, but in the pink sky and dripping ice from the bridges, she sensed spring. It really would come, softening those bristly mountains and coloring the sooty landscape of steel and coal. Another winter was breathing to a close…

From Margo Orlando Littell’s The Distance From Four Points

Anyone from such a place will tell you that harsh winters are worth it for the release of spring that follows—springs worth a whole book, and many more trips home.

~~~

Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Mid-Atlantic Fiction. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

Note: I received an electric copy of this book from the author’s publicist, in the hopes I would enjoy it, which I did. The book’s summary and the author’s bio, along with all the quotes, are from the book. The author was kind enough to supply photos (along with their captions) from her hometown.

Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. What are you reading and writing this week?

Reality, layoffs, and all the rest, bite: Discover Prompts, Day 11

Photo credit: Erik Drost / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

What doesn’t bite? A surprise gift. One of my favorite surprise gifts I received this past Christmas was a book (shocker, right?): Cleveland Then and Now by Laura DeMarco, with Now photography by Karl Mondon.

The large-format book celebrates the storied history and vibrant present of my home city of Cleveland. (Granted, I grew up in Cleveland’s hinterlands, but Cleveland–and especially its Playhouse Square, where I danced with the School of the Cleveland Ballet–has my whole heart.) Having left home at 19, I now have lived longer away from Ohio (and below the Mason Dixon, God forbid) than in Ohio. Still, I consider it home.

Much of my Christmas afternoon was spent poring over the landmarks in this book. There’s Cleveland’s most beautiful building, the historic Cleveland Arcade (pictured below), where my dad worked for a time; hippie haven Hessler Road, where my mom lived when in college; Little Italy, where my parents married at Holy Rosary Church; the Cleveland Museum of Art; Playhouse Square, the largest center of performing arts between New York and Chicago; the Streamline Moderne Greyhound station, which I rolled in and out of on trips home from college in Virginia; and much more.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

The book’s author: arts and culture reporter and editor for the Plain Dealer–Cleveland’s newspaper of record–a reporter who specialized in local history and lost landmarks in the city. As many newspapers have, my hometown paper has seen its share of layoffs in recent times. Then, just last month, the news about more layoffs started coming fast and furious into my Twitter feed. Or more aptly put in this article with all the ins and outs: it was a “gutting” of a newsroom and a sure blow to journalism and journalists the Northeast Ohio community relies on. When remaining journalists were faced with losing their beats and told they would no longer be able to cover the city, a round of resignations yesterday included that of DeMarco.

Since the coronavirus reared its ugly, spiked head, journalists, writers, and bloggers have found ways of making sense of pandemic-havoc by telling the stories of our communities. While my platform is small, my community, my “beat,” during this isolation, is my family. And so I’ve been using these daily prompts to tell our stories: there’s Isolation Lent; Reviled Remote School; Close-Proximity Parenting (if my kids say to me, “OK, Boomer,” one more time, I might lose it); Extended Family Worries, and all the rest.

I’m keeping it together as best as this (ahem) Generation X-er can, which, according to DeMarco, might be pretty OK. In a piece she wrote last month, she notes that our Reality Bites generation is getting this isolation thing right: “While millennials and Gen Z kept partying and going to the beach, and boomers who didn’t want to recognize they are not so young anymore kept brunching, Gen X stood up and took action — and stayed in.” In this fun piece, she highlights the voices of several local Gen X-ers. The story brought to mind my own time in Cleveland with my best Gen-X girlfriends…dressed like we’d shopped at a Depeche Mode garage sale…drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes…watching the skaters outside Arabica on Coventry…acting all moody, sorta like isolating even when not alone.

Yeah, today’s reality–and it’s far-reaching impacts on our society–bites, and my heart goes out to all who are suffering from job loss and worse. What can we do? It is a very small thing, but today I’ll tell it like it is and hope for a better tomorrow. I hope you’ll join me.

I’m chronicling our isolation with the help of WordPress Discover Prompts. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompt: Bite. Care to join in? Read others’ responses here. My other Prompts responses:

Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more.

A pair of hands: Discover Prompts, Day 9

Photo by Vova Krasilnikov on Pexels.com

When did I stop thinking about my hands? I used to gaze over my hands with petal-fingers at the end of a port de bras, dancing. I wrote about how my hands are my mother’s hands, long-fingered and veiny, when my grief for her was fresh. A mother, myself, I watched my hands hold infant sons–one arm a sling, one hand cupping the back of a downy-soft head. Then I made a church and steeple of my hands for the toddler boys who needed entertainment in the pew. “And here’s all the people,” I would whisper, wiggling my fingers.

Mostly now, my hands are tools to get my thoughts on the page, tools to turn a page, to scroll and swipe. But I don’t think of them much. I think of my knee that grinds, my ankles that pop. I think of my hips, which sometimes hurt, and which I baby. I am pillow-between-my-knees-as-I-sleep years old.

Maybe I’m thinking more about my hands now because I’m washing them so much. This morning, my dad called to tell me that a bit of dish-washing liquid and water works in the foaming hand-soap dispensers. Just in case. We are all worrying over hand hygiene now. Do we glove-up or not? Wash, dry, repeat. Palmolive, he said. And I thought of those old commercials. “Soft on hands.” Palmolive was my mother’s dish-washing liquid.

Remember the George-as-a-hand-model episode of Seinfeld?

What’s the sound of one hand clapping? That’s from a Zen koan or philosophical riddle and is also a line from one of Van Morrison’s songs I like to sing. I neither chop wood nor carry water with my hands, but maybe I should.

This morning, over English muffins, my boys and I prayed a special one for Holy Thursday. I took little notice over how my pair of hands fits so neatly together in prayer, fingers interlocked. It took a pandemic for me to stop biting my fingernails–I’ve noticed that.

Then, beginning my writing day, I flipped through poet Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which I highly recommend whether you think you like poetry or not. I came to his “ode to drinking water from my hands,” which you can read in its entirety here at poems.com. (Or just buy the book to hold in your hands.)

As Gay’s poem begins in a garden, you won’t be surprised that, today, the first day of the Triduum, I had in mind another garden, the Garden of Gesthemene. Maybe Gay did, too. And maybe this small snippet will quench your poetic thirst and make you consider your own pair of hands, as I am now.

and I drink / to the bottom of my fountain / and join him / in his work.

From “an ode to drinking water from my hands” by Ross Gay

I’m chronicling our isolation with the help of WordPress Discover Prompts. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompt: Pairs. Care to join in? Read others’ responses here. My other Prompts responses:

Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more.

Sing First, Feel Second: Discover Prompts Day 3

“I’m so happy, I could sing.” I’m saying that never these days. Sure, there have been moments during this isolation when I’ve put my fear aside long enough to engage in a little car-trip sing-a-long. It was Day 14, when I had to go out to retrieve books from my kids’ school and rescue my dry cleaning from its hold-up situation. In the car by myself, all alone, I belted out notes along with Patti LuPone in Evita (read more about how she’s entertaining her fans from her basement right now). Then I mixed it up and got a little angsty–no surprise there–with Amy Winehouse. Finally, on my way home I swung from the vocal chandelier with Sia. It was a wonderful release.

Still, I can’t bring myself to practice the choral pieces I would have sung over Holy Week and Easter. I want to. In “Open Wide” I talked about my re-upped hobby (now that my boys are old enough not to need this enforcer in the pew). I talked about joining my middling soprano voice with others’ in praise of something bigger than all of us. Now, it won’t happen–at least it won’t happen the way I thought it would.

Maybe I need to do it, first, and feel it second? Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from my creative writing program was that there is no writing muse. Not really. There is inspiration, sure. But, it’s closely followed by work, more work, a dash of intuition at times–which sometimes feels like a muse–and then more work.

Now, I’m thinking maybe I need to treat singing like I do writing. Do the work. Do the vocal exercises like I respond to writing prompts like this; blog, little by little, and don’t wait for inspiration. Make the inspiration. Make the song. I was just going to write: “be the song.” But, really, I’m not there yet.

This was was in response to Discover Prompts, Day 3: Song.

Be well–and maybe sing today! I’ll be listening out. ~Rebecca

Looking for a good weekend read? Check out my categories above for author interviews, some of my own fiction, and more. Are we socially connected? Find me on FB and @MoonRuark on Twitter

Open…water, heart, art: Discover Prompts Day 2

My boys and me on open water, cruising on the Rebecca T. Ruark (no relation but regional) one of the oldest working skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay

I’m trying to remain open, these days of isolation, to what might pass for connection now. I try not to rail against the world for small annoyances–and thereby close my heart to possibilities. I try not to cry at the faulty internet connection that makes me drop my first-ever Zoom call. I should be happy for technology, for the virtual happy hour with my friends in town, happy to have friends, a town, a house, a basement I can sit in–which is dry despite all the rain–where the Wi-Fi works best.

Another friend dropped toilet paper at my kitchen door today–the best kind of pandemic calling card. Yet another friend, far away, is teaching her four-year-old his letters and decided to bring pen pals back. My own boys are practicing their cursive on loose-leaf (I’m glad we don’t have to re-purpose for the bathroom) and have discovered the joys of snail mail. My freelance work has me writing for hospitals, which makes fiction feel not just false but useless. My creative writing is changed, not closed, but working through different channels now.

A novelist friend, when addressing how to write at such a time as this, suggested acting like a different kind of artist. Writers, try on your dancing shoes. Performers, take to the page. That kind of thing. I desperately miss singing in my choir, raising my voice in song. I’ve written about it here and here and mused on singing for Ruminate, here. But I don’t seem to be able to open my mouth in song today.

I recent days, I have written a short essay and a flash fiction piece, departures from my WIPs–historical novels that don’t let me address this present moment. It’s a moment I don’t want to close myself off from–or forget–for the lessons it might teach me. Meanwhile, I should be teaching my kids; we should be writing a middle grade book together. Maybe we will, and set the story in a wooden boat.

The day before my state’s governor issued the latest isolation mandates, my husband and sons took to the water. My younger twin named the dinghy, “Aqua Dove”–big name for a small boat. With oars, a centerboard, and a little sail, I hope it will give my boys a sense of freedom on open water, when this is over.

WordPress is doing daily Discover Prompts. This was my response to Discover Prompts, Day 2: Open. I hope you might join in!

The Dead Mom Club…and other lessons in grief

How are you? Three words. That’s about all we need to say right now, or during any period of grief, isn’t it? Then listen to the answer. But, let’s chat awhile. Really, what else do you have going on right now?

True story: lots of the typical emotional terribleness happened to me after my mom died, but there were some bright spots, too. Among them my induction into the Dead Mom Club.

Mom

OK, it’s not a real club–or maybe it is and my invitation’s been lost in the mail for 14 years. But, suddenly, I had a monumental thing in common with many people. However, being 30 at the time, I wasn’t friends with lots of those people. Most of my friends still had both their parents. But my husband had a couple friends who’d lost a parent on the youngish side–and suddenly we had this life-changing fact in common. That’s heavy. Whether we wanted to be or not (I choose not!) we were members of the same grief club.

Now, here we are in 2020, suffering from grief as a global entity. It’s a much bigger club no one gets out of belonging to. Let’s just hope the dues don’t skyrocket.

Sure, it’s grief we’re feeling–not that I recognized it as such, right away. It took something novelist Amber Sparks (a fellow native Midwesterner) and the funniest writer on Twitter said:

I just thought ‘I should call my mom, I need a mom right now,’ and I felt immense relief, and then I remembered my mom is dead and I am my own mom now.

Amber Sparks @ambernoelle, author of And I Do Not Forgive You

Oh, it’s grief alright–even if the symptoms manifest differently for each of us. Even if we’re grieving different stuff on our own micro level. For me that’s missing experiencing the regular-level penitential stuff of Lent, rather than this penance on steroids. That’s taking part in a spring Lit Walk in my old ‘hood of Richmond, VA. That’s watching my kids play with friends that are not their twin. And don’t forget eating anywhere besides my own house.

Yep, what started as ennui is making its way through the ol’ stages of grief named by Kübler-Ross and co. Don’t believe me? Ask Harvard.

Now that we can name this heaviness, maybe we can do something about it. In the Harvard Business Review piece, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” writer Scott Berinato interviews David Kessler (one of Kübler-Ross’s and co.) for ideas on how to manage our pandemic-induced grief. My top takeaways and my own spins:

  1. “Acceptance…is where the power lies”
  2. Don’t ignore your anxious thoughts, but “find balance in the things you’re thinking”
  3. Let go of what you can’t change, and focus on what’s in your control (i.e. washing your hands for the 512th time today)
  4. Pull meaning from grief–for instance, appreciating the connections we can still make through the miracles of tech (i.e. what we bloggers have known all along!)
  5. Allow your feelings to happen

I’ll admit it took awhile for this grief to hit me. I was busy figuring out how I was going to manage my kids’ schooling on top of my work and the care and feeding of boys all day. I got lost in the minutia. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Bricks of song. Follow me here: my choir director reached out with a choral piece on YouTube to share–because we choir members have been unable to share our voices with each other. So, I listened to the gorgeous choral strains and ugly-cried all over my keyboard. And then I felt a little better.

I’m not going to pat myself on the back for reaching the level of acceptance, because grief isn’t linear. I know that all too well.

But I also know that we’re in this club together, and for that I’m happy.

So, how are you? How have you been keeping? What have you done this week that’s made you smile? (Around here, we traveled in the way-back machine to introduce the boys to Jim Henson’s Muppets. Last night it was The Muppet Movie–I highly recommend.)

Have a little time on your hands for some more reading? I’ve been busy with my editing gig at Parhelion Literary Magazine, and wrote a short essay here. It’s light and optimistic and nature-y. If you like that, I encourage you to read around PLM’s Winter 2020 issue, with short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and nonfiction for every literary taste.

A Strange Communion

From my second wedding–same groom
as the first. A story for another day.

The holy water font had brown cardboard over it–a haphazard lid to signal emptiness. The water had been drained from all the fonts at the church entrances but not the baptismal font. Not yet anyway; somebody said there was one baptism after Mass that morning. I saw the baby–rosy-cheeked in his mother’s arms–on my way out of church. My last Mass, maybe for all of Lent. My last time singing with the choir. I haven’t sung a note since, as if doing so would signal that this is the new normal: sad, bad impromptu soprano solos locked in my home office, dressed in my bathrobe, alone.

Gone was the singing in communion, the holy water, the hand-holding, and hand-shaking at the Sign of Peace. The next week, there would be no Mass at all. Should we shake some of our holy water around the house? My husband and I brought bottles home from Knock, Ireland, the only shrine I’ve ever visited, which we did for a day on our honeymoon, in between pubs and church ruins. We may have a bottle around still, though it might have gone moldy. We’ve been married 16 years as of yesterday. We got carry-out to celebrate, our first since we started playing keep-away from everybody we don’t live with, and it was wonderful. Every stranger-interaction–even picking up carry-out at a curb–seems imbued with a little holiness now, or grace, or gratitude in communing, however you like to see it.

Maybe I’d been spoiled by the choir voices around me, the Signs of Peace aplenty, a whole church full of, if not all friends, congregants–the whole of us choosing to be in the same place at the same time, for the same reason, more or less. I try to remember that it only takes two or three gathered in His name, but there is comfort in a crowd. In Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, a title that just keeps feeling more and more prescient, author Nick Ripatrazone says, simply: “Catholicism is a communal faith.”

In his book of essays, Ripatrazone unveils the role of Catholic storytelling in the American literary cannon. He takes the reader from Flannery O’Connor through Andre Dubus to living writers, like Cormac McCarthy, Alice McDermott–and Phil Klay (whom I’ve yet to read)–among others. Raised on the Mass, these writers share some sensibilities: the idea of faith in community, of liturgical seasons–rituals a comfort. Says Ripatrazone, “Catholics raised on a religion of mystery, image, smell, and song are particularly vulnerable to the pull of sentimentality.” Can me sentimental then.

Another modern novelist, Ann Patchett, has credited the Catholic faith for giving her “a boundless capacity for creativity and appreciation for metaphor.” If you’ve ever stepped foot in a Catholic church you can probably see that: everything is imbued with meaning. From Ripatrazone:

Catholicism is an assault on the senses. The thickly sweet smell of incense clouding a church. A finger dipped into the holy water fount; the almost otherworldly touch of it. The feel of a back against the hard pew…The Rise and refrain of hymns…the silence of prayer…the high drama of Lent.

It all means something, more than one thing. And certainly, there’s a performance aspect to the faith that isn’t lost on this Catholic kid raised on church and ballet–pretty much in equal measure. I recently, mistakenly, called the altar “the stage,” and it’s no wonder why. There’s the Mass’s “script,” with its accompanying ritualistic movements–very much body-centered–a reverential dance of signs and postures. There are “costumes” whose colors are filled with meaning. Right now, we’re penitential purple. Are we ever.

Which might be why that piece of ordinary brown cardboard over the drained holy water font bothered me so much–the lack of performance or ritual. Or, preparation. Ritual takes preparation, and none of us had any rehearsals for the effects of this pandemic.

So, my hope today is that we all lean into the rituals that provide us some comfort and connection–even if virtual.

What are you reading? How are you dealing? What rituals are you keeping or instilling in your household as you physically distance yourself from others?

Looking for a new author to read, a poet or memoirist? Check out my handy categories above, where you’ll find my writer interviews, book reviews, essays, writing advice, and more.

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On Twins and Twinning in Life and Lit, feat. Domenico Starnone’s TRICK

Image shows a portrait of twin boys, one unhappy, one unhappy, with a shadow behind.
My twins, plus sinister shadow

As a June baby, I never gave much credence to astrological signs or birth stones, for that matter. (I mean, pearl, alexandrite, or moonstone. Really?) But back to signs: I’m a Gemini, the twin sign, and the “liveliest” of the air signs, whatever that means. I share this honor with dead Gems like Marilyn Monroe and live ones like Kanye West. So, I’m in complicated company.

Anyhow, this twin married another one just about 16 years ago. Six years later, we twinned Geminis had a set of actual twin babies. But even before they were born, I prepared myself to be a twin-mom. It’s a whole thing. I read (as I’m wont to do) the dos and don’t of twin-parenting, and I found that much of the emotional-care advice falls into two buckets.

  1. Do treat your twins like two individual people and not a BOGO deal
  2. Don’t fall into the trap of making twins into neat polar opposites for shock value or as a handy literary trope.

You know, as in good twin-bad twin, smart twin-dumb twin, funny twin-serious twin. It’s not only cruel but, in the case of good characterization (since this is a writing blog), just plain lazy.

So, I’m on the lookout for nuanced twin tales. Tell me what you’ve got in the way of literary fiction for adults and maybe YA, too, that features twins. I’m curious (and kinda self-quarantined, so I’ve got a little time).

I’m also interested in the way two characters who are not twins can be “twinned” in stories. Which brings me, a bit late (but really, we’re all self-distancing, so what else do you have to do?) to my latest read: Domenico Starnone’s novel, Trick, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. (It’s true, she’s amazing in Italian, too.)

Image shows the cover art for Domenico Starnone's novel, TRICK, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, from Europa Editions.
Cover image pulled from Europaeditions.com

A wonderful, surprising, and layered novel, Trick deserves an in-depth discussion–of setting, plot, inspiration, and characters. (In order, that’s Naples, Italy…grouchy grandfather babysits precocious grandson for a few days…a Henry James ghost story, card games, and more…and the aforementioned grandfather and grandson.)

Though separated by a 70 year gap in age, the grandfather and his grandson are twinned by Starnone, who breaks all the rules of twin-parenting while creating characters that are so real-feeling I half expected them to pinch me from the pages of my book. Indeed, Starnone treats the grandfather and grandson as a unit–in the Naples apartment, on the streets, and even in the bathroom where they take a pee together. (Never have I found a bathroom scene so endearing!) In conjoining these two disparate humans, the reader realizes how similar they are. (How similar we all are!)

Likewise, by showing the characters as dichotomies–old versus young, fragile versus agile, learned versus unlearned–Starnone illustrates how much we humans have in common. And this is true not only at the beginning and end of life (when frequent trips to the bathroom are necessary) but throughout the spectrum of our human existence on Earth. We all laugh, cry, yearn for love, endure pain, seek pleasure and distraction, and will die.

Starnone twins, or adds layers to, his characters using ghostly images–that pop up in the drawings the illustrator-grandfather makes and also in the older man’s imagination. The grandfather is also further layered by his memories of his dead wife, which cling to him–specifically his wife’s criticism. As a husband, he was distracted by his art, so much so that it made him at times into a “stranger,” a “tenebrous version of myself that had frightened her.” Perhaps he has always been someone with multiple versions of himself. As a child in Naples, “numerous me’s were in bud since early adolescence and yearned to assert themselves…”

Don’t we all have numerous me’s? It’s a trait sometimes foisted upon us Geminis, who are sometimes called two-faced. But shouldn’t we be many-faced–whether we were born in June, born singletons, or born twins? Isn’t this the kind of multifaceted characterization, which we readers and writers hope for? Why would we want life to be so much simpler, flatter?

Toward the end of the novel, Trick, the grandfather talks of clones of oneself, and the moment “you repel yourself.” That’s some trick, but the whole novel can be seen this way–as a sleight of hand, a trick of the eye.

Then there’s the “I” of youth, our youngest self. “How we love–all of us–our chatty little imp,” the grandfather muses. Which brings me to the climax of the novel. I won’t give away any spoilers here. But it happens that the grandfather and grandson are on the opposite sides of a glass door–and so ensues in the glass reflections a twin twinning. And everything is flip-flopped, when the “I” of youth saves the “I” of maturity–or does it?

“I’d wanted to keep the horror,” the grandfather thinks, “that spread through the house, through the street, on the face of the earth, at a distance… Instead it stretched, it split at the seams, it suffered, breaking into shards.” What image–of ourselves or another, a child or an adult, hasn’t suffered such a split? We are all many more than one thing. More than one reflection, one opposite, one twin.

Do you abide by astrological signs? Do you know any twins? Give me your favorite set of twins from popular culture. What are you reading and writing to endure this period of self-distancing?

Stay well!

~Rebecca

Violence and Ascendance in Elena Ferrante’s MY BRILLIANT FRIEND

Italian author Elena Ferrante has had quite the effect on the American literary community–with her Neapolitan quartet of novels starting with My Brilliant Friend especially. Much of the more recent response (My Brilliant Friend was published in English in 2012) is likely due to this New York Times article: “The Ferrante Effect: In Italy, Women Writers are Ascendant.” And then there are the spoofs, including this one in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency called, simply, “I am Elena Ferrante,” that confirm Ferrante (a pen name, her real identity a mystery) has captured the American imagination.

She has captured this American’s imagination, anyway. Selfishly, I love the idea of women writers being ascendant anywhere, especially in a patriarchal culture dominated by, well, men–in literature and at home, in the neighborhood, at church…

Not all women readers have been as impressed by Ferrante as I have been, albeit only one novel into the quartet. A quick scan of Goodreads reviews of My Brilliant Friend, which follows the childhood and adolescent friendship between Lila and Lenú–sometimes fond, sometimes rivaling, always close–set against the backdrop of a poor neighborhood in post-war Naples reveals some dissent. “Why are the kids always throwing stones at each other?” one confounded reader asks.

Having studied up a bit on Italy between the wars for my own writing, it’s the stone-throwing, writ large–over the girls’ neighborhood, over their city, and over their country–that is most interesting to me. Often it’s stone-throwing in lieu of seizing any real, lasting power. (No real spoilers in this post–if you’ve read the summary.)

Oddly, some of the moments that describe the history of violence in this place are more lyrical than the moments devoted to friendship:

So she gave concrete motives, ordinary faces to the air of abstract apprehension that as children we had breathed in the neighborhood. Fascism, Nazism, the war, the Allies, the monarchy, the republic–she turned them into streets, houses, faces…

Isn’t this act of turning formless fear into places and characters just what a good writer does? So too do Ferrante’s characters expose this strange place to us through the everyday, the neighborhood. Leaving one of the girls to believe the other “…enclosed me in a terrible world that left no escape.”

The domestic, the old hearth-and-home, offers no respite from the violence, but only offers a different kind of violence. The neighborhood in this novel produces rival gangs, even agents of the Camorra (Neapolitan Mafia). Even inside Lina and Lenú’s homes there is violence–between husbands and wives, parents and children, mothers and daughters. No one is safe; certainly no one is ascending anywhere.

Perhaps the most startling admission in the (at least somewhat autobiographical) novel:

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.

How to rise above it all? How to escape the cycle of violence and poverty? This is Italy. So, God? No, Lenú ranks faith wholly inadequate to the task of pulling anyone out of her neighborhood, in a scathing derision of the Catholic Church–made all the more scathing as it’s delivered by a teenage girl:

[I] said that the human condition was so obviously exposed to the blind fury of chance that to trust in a God, a Jesus, the Holy Spirit–this last a completely superfluous entity, it was there only to make up a trinity, notoriously nobler than the mere binomial father-son–was the same thing as collecting trading cards while the city burns in the fires of hell.

Of course, this speech of Lenú is devastating–if also a bit humorous. We faithful, and we writers, alike, love a trinity, don’t we? But what a powerful image, those trading cards–reminiscent of the prayer and saint cards we Catholics receive at funerals and other ritualistic events. Were I to write about my own childhood and adolescence adhering to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, there wouldn’t be much grasping at God. Rituals and ceremony, yes. What do I remember of my first communion in second grade? The white dress and veil I wore–the last veil I wore, not carrying on that particular tradition at my wedding, when I wore a tea-length dress to show off my legs.

If not God, where then can these adolescent girls, Lila and Lenú, turn to ascend from this violence they call home? Like all young people they dream of riches and fame–that would result, in their fantasies, from publishing a book “like Little Women…” But that dream fades as the girls’ intellectual and feminine powers grow. Lenú goes to high school, excels in languages, history, and even religion, mentored by a female teacher, a Communist distrusted by Lenú’s very-traditional mother. Lila turns her attention to a young man as savior. “He’s rich,” she says to her friend. “Also nice, also good.” Lenú considers those two adjectives as providing the “final blow to the shrine of childish fantasies.”

“Blow” such a telling action there–a violent end to a kind of shrine (a place of faith–even if fanciful). One chapter of life ends. The friends’ lives have diverged, a bit violently, one down the path of marriage and family, the other down the path of education:

Was it not true, then, that school was my personal wealth, now far from her influence?

Lenú weeps at this realization of the separation between the friends who have known each other, always.

This is a book that captures the violence of a time and place as it captures a female friendship, the portrayal of which–in my mind–makes these characters ascend (like their creator, Ferrante, a female writer in Italy) from their hurtful home. At least, I hope they do. There is more to come.

I can’t wait to see where Lina and Lenú go next.

Have you read any Elena Ferrante? Have you read My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the quartet? (No spoilers!) What did you think?

Have you known any of your current friends since early childhood? How have you traveled the same paths in life? How have your paths diverged?

Looking for a review? See my categories above for book reviews, author interviews, and more. And find me on Goodreads, where I try to at least rank what I’ve read. Let’s be friends there!

Open Wide

Image by Erich Westendarp from Pixabay

Nope, not a post on eating, or on embouchure (a new favorite word meaning lipping, or using the lips, face, tongue, and teeth to play an instrument–including our first instrument, our voice). But close.

Today I’m going to talk about singing. Yep, on a reading and writing blog. Stop me. You’ve heard me say here before that my next-life career plan is to be an opera singer. I feel pretty confident my lack of planning for the rigors of this job isn’t going to bite me in the ass, since I’m pretty sure my next-life ass will be incorporeal.

Lack of planning for this-life careers can hurt, however. Which is why I want to talk about the glories of hobbies and my new hobby. Wait for it…

Backstory: I was never one much for hobbies. By the time I was in middle school, ballet had progressed from hobby to vocation, as serious as a religious calling in my mind: all time-consuming and all identity-consuming. I was not a girl with hobbies but direction.

When injury knocked me off that career path, I briefly considered going to culinary arts school. I mean, I liked to cook–it was fun. Why not make a job of it? (Truth be told, I think I was just excited to, finally, eat.)

Next stop: English major. And here I am, writing for my job-and-passion.

However, it’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve been able to start separating job-and-passion and realize I don’t have to make a gig of everything I’m passionate about.

So, we arrive at singing. My mom and her mom both enjoyed singing, both sang with their church choirs, and plied Christmas carols at the piano on the eve. (Can you hear my children groaning at the very thought?) Neither woman conspired to rise in the ranks of the choral world or make a single cent off their voices.

Is it me, or does today’s gig economy-mindset encourage us to turn any talent, penchant, or hobby into a job? To monetize passion. And in doing that, does the passion remain? (I’ll let you know from the afterlife how the opera goes.) Here and now, I have to say, I started this blog as a little passion project and have rejected the idea of making money from it–maybe, partly, because it would make blogging a job. (And I have one of those already.) Do hobbies now smack of privilege?

They say that if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life—but what if what you love becomes nonstop work?

From “The Truth About the Gig Economy” by Julia Tache

Who has time for hobbies? Maybe none of us. Maybe we all should be striving to monetize every facet of ourselves. But, really, no one is ever going to pay me to sing.

Yet, that didn’t stop me from belting out the carols as the newest member of the soprano 1 set in my church choir. (Don’t laugh–or do. Either way, I loved it.) I loved it, even when I messed up the last few stanzas of “Come Join the Angels Singing.” I loved it when I probably didn’t quite hit the high note in “Carol of the Bells.” I loved it so much that when my boys hugged me after the concert, I didn’t think to turn the moment into a photo op.

So…jobs, passions, hobbies, gigs. What’s your take? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

But first, Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it. I hope that all the voices you hear sing sweetly as angels!