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?

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

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.

My interview with author Amy Jo Burns

Bio Pic-1

Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Good Housekeeping, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Tin House’s Open Bar, Ploughshares Online, and in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad. Her novel Shiner is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.

Amy Jo was gracious enough to answer a few questions from another Rust Belt girl–me–about her literary memoir, Cinderland, which I discussed in a previous post; about her Rust Belt upbringing; about juggling the responsibilities of writing and motherhood; and about her upcoming novel, Shiner, which I can’t wait to read!

Amy Jo–your memoir, Cinderland, is set in your hometown outside Pittsburgh. How did that particular post-industrial place inform your upbringing? Does your memoir’s title reflect the place in which you were raised, the abuse you suffered as a girl, both?

I chose the title Cinderland because it represents an inner fire that remains after old, unnecessary things have died away. I see so much of myself in the landscape that I grew up in. The abandoned buildings, overgrown lots, and empty warehouses of my youth were (and are) placeholders for new things to come, and they are so beautiful to me. The story of the Rust Belt is still being written, even if some people call it a dead zone. There is life inside! Rust and cinders aren’t dead things. They’re just in a state of transformation, and I think that became a powerful metaphor for me to explore my own coming of age in my memoir.

BURNS-Cinderland

In your memoir, you discuss your Christian upbringing and throughout the book use biblical allusions. (Your abuser you call Mr. Lotte.) In using the language of the Bible, did you feel like you were wresting some control over that part of your childhood? Something else?

The Bible was my first introduction to language, so it felt very natural for me to use biblical references as a way to represent how I see the world. This was such a good question for me to consider, because I just realized in borrowing some of that language, I was actually able to release some control over the painful parts of my past. For so long I tried to manage what had happened to me and my grief over it, and it only ended up suffocating me. I was afraid to let it be what it was.

Sometimes I think “religion” tries to manhandle who God is, and having faith is the opposite: letting God be God, and finding rest because of it. For me, that meant letting Mr. Lotte be held accountable for what he did. It was not “Christian” for me to try to hide away his transgressions, even if some people in my community swore it was. When I was writing the book, I came across this verse in Proverbs 17:15:

“Whitewashing bad people and throwing mud on good people are equally abhorrent to God.”

I’d never heard that before. It’s not an exaggeration to say it changed my life to see that God has no interest in camouflaging a man’s true character for the sake of fake peace.

You were a student of ballet, growing up. Had you known the true story you present in your essay, “Body on Fire,” of Emma Livry, a young ballerina whose costume caught on fire during a performance at the Paris Opera in 1862, or did you come upon it more recently? Can you talk about this idea of burning or “consuming” of women with respect to today’s #metoo movement?

I came across that story about two years ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Emma Livry had GUTS as an artist and as a woman, and I think she probably felt just as frustrated to perform for an audience full of men she didn’t trust as so many women still feel right now. Livry’s biographer, a male, seemed to suggest she was a victim of her own making, that it was her own vanity in wanting a certain kind of ballet skirt to wear that ultimately killed her when her tutu caught fire. I call foul! I think she knew her patrons saw her as nothing but a body for consumption. She fought to dance the way she wanted– wearing what she wanted–for herself, first and foremost. She paid a price for it. Livry wasn’t spared because of her talent or her drive. Instead, she was treated like a piece of machinery. That’s what resonates for me with today’s #metoo movement–she was blamed for choices that were never really hers to make.

Have you changed as a writer since becoming a mother, besides having less time and energy to write?

Yes! I wanted to finish Cinderland before I had children because I thought parenthood would make me overly sentimental. I didn’t want to write about my own childhood with too much nostalgia. It’s funny, though, because the opposite has been true. I’m much more raw as a person and as a writer now that I’m a mother, and I like it. My sense of self has totally shifted. I’m constantly becoming someone I’ve never been before, which is weird and wonderful and a little scary. There’s a new urgency to what I write now, like I’m trying to capture each meaningful truth before it disappears.

Also: now I write while Paw Patrol plays in the background. I gave up on trying to find the ideal working environment. It doesn’t exist. That helps me value my writing time without letting it become too precious.

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Throwback Thursday: Why half the world should read IN ZANESVILLE

index

Even if you’ve never been there, you’ve heard enough to know the American Midwest isn’t sexy. I’m hardly the first Midwest native to admit to being from a Regular ‘Ol American Place.

The Midwest is “flyover country”–its detractors call it–between the glittering East Coast and shining West Coast. Yep, no matter how many Northeast Ohio boosters try, most of the U.S. will never be convinced of the beauty that is the “North Coast.” And that’s okay.

But…the insult that really stings: “Ohio is flat.”

It stings–not just because it’s a blanket generalization and untrue of my rolling Ohio hometown. (In fact, it stings more than memories of the same thing being said about my 6th grade chest–and that stung.)

It stings because flat is sameness. And don’t we (even States–if States had egos) want to feel special, unique, memorable: the opposite of same, boring, forgettable?

I am more than a home state booster; I’m a home state narcissist. You see, I picked up Jo Ann Beard’s novel, IN ZANESVILLE (pub. 2011), thinking it was set in Zanesville, Ohio.

It’s not. It’s set in Zanesville, Illinois, which, I sheepishly admit, is pretty much the same. In fact, it’s the sameness, the universality of the experiences of the novel’s fourteen-year-old narrator, that makes this novel so special–and yet relate-able to any reader who is or was ever a girl. And that’s about half the world. Read more

AMERICAN RUST, restless ruin: a book review

9781742374772American Rust by Philipp Meyer, reviewed.

Ah, America. Rags to riches. Dream fulfilled country, right?

Nope.

Without spoiling too terribly much, this is not that book. This is not romance.

American Lit. nerd time-out: in his Criticism and Fiction, realist writer of the 1800s, William Dean Howells, argued that a story where “all grows naturally out of character and conditions is the supreme form of fiction.” Down with the sentimentality of romantic fiction! Realism was best suited to express the spirit of America. Then, real got real-er, and naturalist writers like Theodore Dreiser and Jack London showed what happens when natural forces overwhelm us silly humans.

American Rust is real-natural in that way. And I like it. Realism has always appealed to this Rust Belt native for whom romantic lit. often feels at best, false, and at worst, dangerous.

For me, this debut novel’s strengths are in the real and natural way Philipp Meyer’s dark story grows out of the ruinous conditions of its modern Appalachian Pennsylvania setting: post-industry, post steel money, post employment, though still (or again) naturally beautiful.

This is a story of two very different young men from the same place. Isaac is small, awkward, and MIT-smart; Billy is handsome and strong, a former high school football star. One night, the friends get caught up in/perpetrate an act of terrible violence, just as restless Isaac has decided he must head to Stanford to put his genius to work. Post-crime, Isaac makes good on his promise to leave their hometown, and Billy stays. Each man suffers for his decision, Isaac on the road and in train yards where lawlessness reigns, and Billy in prison. The men’s families become entangled in the tragedy, as does the local police chief, Harris, who must weigh his job as a lawman against his love for Billy’s mother, Grace. All suffer in the aftermath of one violent mistake.

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