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.