March 29, 2014

Book Review: This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage

By : Ann Patchett
Genre: Nonfiction Essays

A synopsis from Goodreads: "Blending literature and memoir, Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder, Run, and Bel Canto, examines her deepest commitments—to writing, family, friends, dogs, books, and her husband—creating a resonant portrait of a life in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage....As she shares stories of the people, places, ideals, and art to which she has remained indelibly committed, Ann Patchett brings into focus the large experiences and small moments that have shaped her as a daughter, wife, and writer."

As I've gotten older, I have become more and more open - or perhaps just more and more aware - of how much good writing and fascinating stories live in the Nonfiction section. I've come to love reading true stories told well, but almost never do I find myself enthralled by a whole book full of them. That's what this collection did: it enthralled me, not just with its ability to draw me into someone else's life, but by the way Patchett deftly knew what small details were worth including and which ones needed to be left out. As a writer, every turn of the page brings some new amazement: she really nails the framing of each story, creating a world that you can, and want, to insert yourself into.

These essays showcase the beauty and confidence you can find in any of Patchett's books, as well as a beautiful honesty. One of my favorites is an essay about an RV trip with the man that would eventually be her husband, a trip that was both about exploring RV culture and whether or not her relationship with said man was going to work out. Most of the essay is really just about the experience of RV parks, of living in a small space, of nights spent with the window open, thinking about the twists and turns of life...nothing dramatic really happens. And yet, she manages to make it both an incredibly beautiful reflection on life on the move AND a reflection on relationships.

It's difficult to pinpoint what is so wonderful about these essays, and exactly why they kept me up late at night. All I know is that I find myself continually returning to them, trying to figure out how she invents such beauty without inventing any of the facts. If you love good writing and you're interested in studying someone who knows how to write nonfiction like a champion, pick this up.

March 7, 2014

Poetry Friday: "On Faith"

I love it when a poem flies like an arrow into you, bringing something to life with words in a way you have never been able to.

"On Faith"
by Cecilia Woloch

How do people stay true to each other?
When I think of my parents all those years
in the unmade bed of their marriage, not ever
longing for anything else—or: no, they must
have longed; there must have been flickerings,
stray desires, nights she turned from him,
sleepless, and wept, nights he rose silently,
smoked in the dark, nights that nest of breath
and tangled limbs must have seemed
not enough. But it was. Or they just
held on. A gift, perhaps, I've tossed out,
having been always too willing to fly
to the next love, the next and the next, certain
nothing was really mine, certain nothing
would ever last. So faith hits me late, if at all;
faith that this latest love won't end, or ends
in the shapeless sleep of death. But faith is hard.
When he turns his back to me now, I think:
disappear. I think: not what I want. I think
of my mother lying awake in those arms
that could crush her. That could have. Did not.

March 3, 2014

Book Review: A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd
Illustrated by Jim Kay

Syopsis from Shelfari: "The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do. But it isn't the monster Conor's been expecting. He's been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he's had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming...The monster in his back garden, though, this monster is something different. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth."

I loved this book for so many reasons. 

First, because it made me cry. Although I'm a fairly sensitive soul, I don't often find myself moved to tears while reading. I can count the number of books that have extracted tears from me on one hand. Well, I COULD count them using one hand, until I read this book. This is a book about a boy in the process of loving his mother: of having to come to terms with losing her, and then having to find the strength to let her go. But that wasn't what made me cry. What made me cry was the way Patrick Ness weaves the story with brutal honesty, but also with a searing compassion that makes it funny as well as sad. It made me cry the kind of tears that are weighted down with the knowledge of recognition: of knowing that this story you're sad about isn't yours, but it holds so much that has or could be yours. I was pulled in completely, and was shown something that my mind and heart continues to return to. 

Second, because it had the feel of the best kind of fairy tale: dark, twisted, and beautiful. The language here is lyrical and rhythmic. It manages to be both haunting and occasionally funny. It begs to be read out loud. 

And third, there are the illustrations. The idea of a book accompanied by pictures brings to mind the kind of children's book that adults aren't meant to read. But it certainly doesn't FEEL like a children's book when you flip through these particular illustrations. It feels more like a work of art. These images are like a nightmare brought to life in ways that are both incredibly beautiful and a little disturbing. I have no idea what method the illustrator used to create these striking and textured images, but they literally took my breath away with every turn of the page. The monster reached out to me from the pages like things I've only encountered in dreams, the kind that feel both incredibly detailed and cloudy at the same time. This book reminded me of something that has continually pulled me towards work in illustrated publishing, but that I often ignore in fiction works: images can weave among the words, enhancing and giving them new life.

A beautiful, moving, one-of-a-kind read that I won't be forgetting in a hurry.

March 2, 2014

Poetry Friday (or maybe Sunday): "Siwashing it out once in Siuslaw Forest"

I first read this poem in college in my Poetry Writing class. Our professor, Dr. Paul, would have us do something he called "imitation poems:" we were tasked with choosing something (whether it be content, or rhythm, or line length, or mood) from the poet at hand and try to use it in our own work. I remember being struck by the way Snyder seamlessly blends memory with actuality, physical environment with emotional landscape. As I teach Gary Snyder to my high school students and have them complete their own imitations, I continue to be struck by it. Thanks, Dr. Paul.
Siwashing it out once in Siuslaw Forest
         by Gary Snyder
I slept under rhododendron All night blossoms fell Shivering on a sheet of cardboard Feet stuck in my pack Hands deep in my pockets Barely able to sleep. I remembered when we were in school Sleeping together in a big warm bed We were the youngest lovers When we broke up we were still nineteen. Now our friends are married You teach school back east I don't mind living this way Green hills the long blue beach But sometimes sleeping in the open I think back when I had you.

February 21, 2014

Poetry Friday: "The Act"

I love how much this poem suggests without actually stating anything other than this: a flower is considered, then picked.

"The Act" by William Carlos Williams

There were the roses, in the rain.
Don’t cut them, I pleaded.
They won’t last, she said.
But they’re so beautiful
where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she said,
and cut them and gave them to me
in my hand.

February 18, 2014

Lighting A Fire

My wonderful critique partner, Ryan Graudin, saw the launch of her debut novel, All That Glows, this past week! (It is so very good! Get yourself a copy.)

While I wasn't able to head down South to party with her, I of course rushed out to buy a freshly minted copy (or two).

I wanted to buy all the available copies, but figured
that would make me greedy.
This long-anticipated event has filled me with pride and warmth and all the good feelings. It has also lit a hot, hot fire under my posterior to finish my current WIP and get it out into the world. Anyone who's allowed me to chatter in their ear about my writing knows that finishing this WIP has been one of my biggest challenges in the past (wow, almost two) years. I wrote the first 65,000 words in four months - a new record for me - and then two jobs started happening, and moves and trips and crazy deadlines, and I started having to get up at 5AM just to carve out that little bit of extra time. It's been a molasses-slow crawl, even at the best of times.

It's not because I don't love this novel. In fact, I love this novel more than anything else I've ever written. It's the number of hours in a day. It's how cold it is at 5AM.

But I can feel that fire under me, burning away at my writerly skin. I'm so, so close to being finished.
So I am making a proclamation.

I am 78,392 words into this novel. I have entered the portion of the story that I like to call the Everything Explodes period, where everything comes to a rather startling head. I am ALMOST THERE. And so, I have decided that I absolutely, positively must finish this book by my brother's birthday: March 15th. I started this book in the spring, it is set in the spring, and it will be finished before the first breath of spring.

And with that, I give you some writer's quotes I enjoy quite a lot.

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
- Jack Kerouac

"Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page." - Margaret Atwood

"The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter." - Neil Gaiman

"Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones ­until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you'll get is silence." - Al Kennedy

February 17, 2014

Book Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

Genre: Adult Historical Fiction (set in the South in the 1920s)

This is a beautifully rendered, atmospheric gem of a book about a young girl learning who she is without her family. There were many things that surprised and delighted me about it. But first, here's a synopsis from Shelfari:

"A lush, sexy, evocative debut novel of family secrets and girls’-school rituals, set in the 1930s South. It is 1930, the midst of the Great Depression. After her mysterious role in a family tragedy, passionate, strong-willed Thea Atwell, age fifteen, has been cast out of her Florida home, exiled to an equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes. High in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its complex social strata ordered by money, beauty and girls’ friendships, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a far remove from the free-roaming, dreamlike childhood Thea shared with her twin brother on their family’s citrus farm — a world now partially shattered. As Thea grapples with her responsibility for the events of the past year that led her here, she finds herself enmeshed in a new order, one that will change her sense of what is possible for herself, her family, her country. Weaving provocatively between home and school, the narrative powerfully unfurls the true story behind Thea’s expulsion from her family, but it isn’t long before the mystery of her past is rivaled by the question of how it will shape her future. Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is an immersive, transporting page-turner — a vivid, propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Depression — and the major debut of an important new writer."

What I loved about this book, in no particular order:

1. It's atmospheric as hell. I felt myself being sucked in from the very first page by the two rich worlds the author created: the tangled Florida orange groves and stately house Thea grew up in, and the pine-wooded, mountainous North Carolina girls' camp she finds herself outcast to. Both settings were ones I found myself happy to get lost in for hours at a time, sucked in by the fascinating details and the deft way she made each place an important character in Thea's story. This aspect of the writing reminded me very much of Charles Frazier's Nightwoods - the highest compliment a book can get, in my world.

2. The story revolves around a mystery that takes its take revealing itself. We are given to understand, early on, that Thea gets sent away to camp because she's done something bad, very bad (which, for a girl in the 1920s, can safely be assumed to have to do with sexual misconduct). Instead of finding out about it all at once, the story takes us back and forth between her childhood memories and her present time at the camp, weaving the two together so that they blur beautifully, but never totally merge.

3. The heroine herself. Thea felt to me like a real teenager: she's sometimes fragile, sometimes strong, often confused but also steadfast. She was full of all the contradictions that we all carry, but wrapped in the notion that she is defined by her family. I loved watching her slowly come to realize that there was both pain and real freedom in knowing that she is her own entity, separate from the people who 'own' her. She was not a wilting flower, and she was not afraid to make mistakes. 

4. The finely-woven relationships: between twins, between girlfriends, between parent and child, between young girl and inappropriate lover. I loved the way this author told us volumes about these relationships without stating it explicitly, through hand gestures and things done unsaid.

And, of course, the writing itself: it is lyrical and lovely, does a wonderful job with dialogue, and generally feels as if it's been sewn together by a masterful hand.

It may be early to call this, but I'm going to go ahead and say it: this is going to be one of the most surprisingly magical and memorable reads of my year.

January 18, 2014

Best Books of 2013

Before we get any further away from 2013, I've got to recap my favorite reads of the year. The general theme within my favorites can probably be summed up as: dark, lyrical, and full of everyday magic.

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
YA Dark Speculative Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: Gansey has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on the hunt to find Glendower, a vanished Welsh king. Legend has it that the first person to find him will be granted a wish—either by seeing him open his eyes, or by cutting out his heart. Blue Sargent, the daughter of the town psychic in Henrietta, Virginia, has been told for as long as she can remember that if she ever kisses her true love, he will die. But she is too practical to believe in things like true love. Her policy is to stay away from the rich boys at the prestigious Aglionby Academy. The boys there—known as Raven Boys—can only mean trouble. When Gansey and his Raven Boy friends come into her life, Blue realizes how true this is. She never thought her fortune would be a problem. But she was wrong.

This book, Part 2 in the four-part Raven Cycle, offers some of Maggie's strangest, most complex, and most accomplished storytelling yet. It strikes a perfect balance between all of my favorite things: a subtle, mostly unspoken, angst-ridden romance; complex characters that are both horrible and wonderful; a strong mystery and a world full of speculative elements built up in a way that makes it all feel very REAL. I enjoyed a whole host of things about this book, but here are some of the highlights:
  1. It is incredibly atmospheric. You fall into her descriptions of teenage male bonds and of rich kid high school parties, and they all feel richly drawn and very true. She didn't shy away from painting her world in honest details: her characters swear. A lot, but not gratuitously. She talks about drugs, but they aren't some racy prop meant to prop up the drama. She makes a conscious choice not to shy away from the rougher edges of teenage (particularly wealthy teenage) life and problems, and her book is all the better for it. 
  2. It involves the ability to take things out of dreams. There is a character who can take things out of his dreams. While this could easily become overdone, this author's deft touch makes it dark and tangible and pleasantly haunting. I've wanted for years to describe what it feels like to wake up from a dream and feel like it's followed you into waking--Maggie does it in ways I could never have imagined. 
  3. This book is beautifully written. It is what I would like my writing to be when it grows up.
Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff
YA Dark Speculative Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: A girl haunted by the troubled ghost of her best friend finds herself sucked into a darkly mesmerizing string of murders, in which a serial killer who leaves a paper-heart 'valentine' on his victims' bodies draws ever closer.

This book shares some of the same qualities as Maggie's Dream Thieves--it is dark, atmospheric, deals with taut issues of friendship and love, and delves into a well-drawn (but by no means overdone) love story. I love the way Brenna does the Seemingly Broken, Bad Boy with a Good Heart. As a love interest, Finny is endlessly fascinating. Brenna has a mastery of spare detail that makes his interactions with the main character feel both very true, and very real. Her characters are always complex, and not always lovable, but she finds ways of making you love them, even when they're a total mess. It's the murder mystery and the way she deals with ghosts that really intrigued me. I was drawn into this book from the very first page.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Adult Speculative Historical Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: The circus arrives at night, without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within nocturnal black and white striped tents awaits a unique experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stand awestruck as a tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and gaze in wonderment at an illusionist performing impossible feats of magic. Welcome to Le Cirque des RĂªves. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is underway - a contest between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in "a game," in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

I can't quite describe how deeply and immediately I loved this strange and beautiful book. She creates an incredibly unique and richly-drawn world in The Night Circus: I can't imagine anyone reading this book and not yearning to be amongst the crowd experiencing all the wonders it holds. The book features many characters and side stories, but they all end up being woven together beautifully, in ways that make you feel as if you're reading the work of someone who TRULY knows what they are doing. I particularly liked the slow burn of the love story between two young magicians brought up to be rivals, but who fall in love through the magic they create: whose tricks meant to thwart the competition actually turn into a kind of magical love letter, written in a language only they can truly understand. This book feels like the product of Pride and Prejudice marrying Lev Grossman's The Magician, and then holding hands with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This book created the kind of awe and absorption that reminded me why I love to read.

All That Glows by Ryan Graudin
YA Speculative, History-tinged Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: Intense and electric, this is the ultimate tale of forbidden love. Emrys, a spirited and charismatic Faery Guard of the British monarchy, is sent to London to guard Richard, the bad-boy prince of England, from assassins and paparazzi. Despite her status as a guard of the royals, Emrys struggles with her feelings as she tries to not fall in love with the charming prince. But when an ancient Fae murders the king, Richard’s father, and starts attacking the other royals, Emrys must risk everything to hunt through London’s magical dark side in order to protect her charge—and the boy she loves.

While this book by my fabulous critique partner Ryan Graudin doesn't officially come out until Feb. 11, I'm excited to call it one of my favorite books of this year! All That Glows is a YA Historical Fantasy that tells the story of a modern-day prince guarded by the young fairy who has to protect him from all of the forces that threaten his life, and the powerful pull that threatens her heart. I've read this story several times over the course of its budding life and have remained sucked in by how atmospheric her descriptions of both London and the fairy world. She makes you feel like you're there, walking the darkened streets of London. Even in scenes of violence and darkness, she makes you want to step into the pages and be there with her characters. She deftly weaves bits of Arthurian legend into the trials of a modern-day prince, giving readers a window into what it might be like to be a royal, and crafting a beautifully-drawn fairy world that exists parallel to it. The strength and beauty of Ryan's writing definitely make her a writer to watch!

The Great Gatsby
Literary Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: The exemplary novel of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald's third book, The Great Gatsby (1925), stands as the supreme achievement of his career. The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties in West Egg, Long Island, at a time when The New York Times remarked, "gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession," it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s that resonates with the power of myth. A novel of lyrical beauty yet brutal realism, of magic, romance and mysticism, The Great Gatsby is one of the great classics of twentieth-century literature.

While this isn't the first time I read Gatsby, it was the first time I had the privilege to teach it. From the day I first introduced them to the America of the 1920s to the day we held a dramatic reading of the 'hotel scene' in our classroom, I got to watch my students collectively fall in love with Fitzgerald's novel in a way I've never seen students do before. It reminded me what I've always loved about this beautiful novel: the powerful, stunning sweep of the language, the magnetic pull of its opulent, devastating world, and the subtle exploration of what it means to try to something lost and to define your life by your love for someone else. This is the ultimate exploration of the American Dream and whether it exists in life, or only in our country's imagination. If I had to read one book every year for the rest of my life, I think this would probably be it.