Sunday, March 25, 2012


I may be the last person on the planet to have read Andre Dubus III's heartbreaking and wonderful Townie, but I'm glad I finally did. I'm not a huge memoir reader, so it was with great trepidation I began, even though some of my favorite readers have recommended it. Memoirs can be so dry, and self-protective, and just plain boring. Not to mention poorly written, sometimes especially when by someone with as much literary clout as Dubus, although you'd think the opposite would be true. At any rate, my fears were quickly done any with. Right from the start Townie is gripping, and honest, and almost book-shutting raw. What a great balance Dubus strikes between telling his story and not making us break out the tissues, and then be mad at him for being sappy or over-sentimental. I suppose that's what makes a master a master.

Also this weekend, I spent a good amount of time listening to NPR as well as the Telling Room's podcast of their latest Slant storytelling series (the podcast is available free on their website). Hearing stories like Jonathen Safron Foer's excerpt on Selected Shorts reminds me of how heart-stoppingly beautiful words can be, and why I persist in this often-daunting craft.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Made for You and Me

I'm not a big memoir reader but I picked up Caitlin Shetterly's Made for You and Me: Going West, Going broke, Finding Home because I was signed up to take a workshop facilitated by her on Saturday. The book didn't arrive at the library through inter-library loan until Saturday, which meant it was too late to read it before the workshop, but I read it anyway, belatedly. I read it in two days, so that tells you something right there! I couldn't put it down and when I finally did put it down, I dream of Cait and her husband and their epic, heartbreaking journey across the country and back.

Reading this book and attending the workshop made me start to think about my own life--something you might assume a writer already does, a lot. But for me, writing is really escapist, and I almost never write anything even near the truth of my life. This made me pause, once I realized it, and it made me wonder if that's what is lacking from my writing. Maybe I don't need to write a memoir (I'm really not ready for that anyway), but I've started jotting things down, trying to unravel some truths inside all the emotional baggage, trying to find the heart of the story. I think I've been afraid to lay blame to certain things that have happened, to cast people I love in a bad light (or myself, if the truth be told). But reading Caitlin's book made me think that maybe there's a way to get it all out there, to be honest and raw and still kind.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Salvage the Bones

By Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones reminds me of something by Zora Neale Hurston in that lyrical, almost poem-like quality of the narrativee. I don't usually go in for books that have even a hint of animal violence but this was so beautifully written I could not put it down, even after some fairly disturbing scenes. Ward is a true talent at revealing the depths of human emotion, and not all of it despair despite the dark circumstances of this novel. Much of the novel's beauty comes from Ward's carefully chosen, perfectly crafted sentences that land like little poems throughout this world of hurt. But even though this is a novel of death, and poverty, and nature's destruction, it is also a story of family, and rising up, and hope.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Madeline is Sleeping/Ms. Hempel Chronicles

A month or so ago, on a road trip to see my step-son graduate from boot camp at Ft. Leonardwood, I took along Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's Ms. Hempel Chronicles. I was utterly mesmerized by this charming collection of short stories, centered around the title character as she begins her life of teaching, and loving, and newly exploring the world as an adult. (of course, the down side to that is that the rest of what I brought along with me to read on the trip paled mightily in comparison).

Finally, and with much anticipation, I picked up the acclaimed Madeline is Sleeping. Whenever a book like this gets as much praise as it has, I hesitate to criticize it because I feel like maybe it's a reflection on my pedantic tastes. (for example, as much as I wanted to, I didn't understand Tinkers, prize-winner or not).

Madeline is Sleeping is written in vignettes, and I have to admit I was a little put off by that. But then, I've recently read We the Animals and that was short little "chapters" and I liked that. So I began. Strange things happen, right away, and inexplicably. And then more strange things. Very strange people show up and then go. Let me say here that I am a fan of the non-traditional, of mixing the fantastical with reality (I have a short story that has been widely disliked because of a lion in a woman's stomach). But, maybe it was the combination of the non-traditional structure and the fantastical elements that kept this story from being a true hit with me. In the end, I finished it feeling like there were some stunningly beautiful words and scenes and character renditions but for me it lacked the pull of a complete story.