A Weekend with Lidia

Last year I wrote about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvitch, a book that changed the way I thought about truth, about telling my truths as a writer, as a woman. As my friend Debbie says, “I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere.” This is not a frivolous statement, for if you have read her writing, you know following Lidia means walking naked into the fire. It also means, as I learned this weekend in a two-day workshop with eleven other raw and beautiful souls, walking into an immense, fierce, loving heart.

 

I’m nowhere near ready to write about this weekend’s workshop. What it revealed to me, where it will take me in my own writing—closer and closer to the truth, which is a very scary, necessary place to be—is too fragile. But I can say Lidia led me right back to the slipstream of desires and fears that I dove into earlier this summer in Ireland—a place of deep listening and turbulent silence.

 

I read Lidia’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, several weeks ago and posted this reader response in Goodreads. I recreate it here to encourage you to explore Lidia’s writing, to hear her voice, to follow her anywhere. Prepare to be changed.

 

The Small Backs of ChildrenThe Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc.

 

It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula.

 

It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later.

 

These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad,” we say. “Someone should do something.” And then we turn away.

 

From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas.

 

On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.”

 

What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life.

 

The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution.

 

Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The Waves, The Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention.

 

Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s story, swimming in her stream of consciousness.

 

She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

 

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’.
Here’s another word: raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey’. From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘robber,’ from rapere meaning ‘seize’. Rob. Seize. (Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk)

 

Here’s another word: Captivating. H is for Hawk held me captive with madness and love. Part claustrophobic memoir of grief, part luminous tribute to the sport of falconry, Helen Macdonald’s book is brilliant and tense. It is a story of fury and grace, recounted in pulsing, poetic language.

 

Helen’s father, a famous Fleet Street photographer, dies unexpectedly and Helen, a historian, poet, and experienced falconer, tumbles into the abyss. Retreating from the world, she seizes on the one thing she believes will keep her from being swallowed by grief: she will train a goshawk.

 

Goshawks are the Velociraptors of the raptor world, a hawk of the genus Accipter, not to be confused with its far more approachable and trainable cousin the falcon, of the genus Falco. Macdonald’s Czech-German goshawk, whom she purchases on a Scottish quayside for £800, is “a griffin from the pages of an illuminated bestiary”. The bird appears as a primordial creature, an ancient, disappeared thing rising from the half-life of history: “the lucency of her pale, round eyes… the waxy, yellow skin about her Bakelite-black beak… half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass”.

 

Macdonald names the goshawk Mabel, from the Latin amabilis, meaning “lovable” or “dear”. This is perhaps a hope that Macdonald projects onto the goshawk, for there is always a current of tension and violence running between woman and raptor, and Macdonald never takes for granted that this creature, who lives in her home and perches on her wrist, is built for murder.

 

Training a goshawk is a pressure cooker of isolation and suppressed emotion. The bird is hyper-sensitive to disturbances in its force field and in the early days Macdonald lives like a monk—barely eating or sleeping. She forgets she is human as she works to enter Mabel’s psyche and earn her trust. In this way, she shuts down her human mourning and becomes something feral. She feeds Mabel corpses of tiny birds. Gradually, she reenters the world, Mabel on her wrist. Raptor and woman learn to navigate the outside together, each wholly dependent on the other for cues and sustenance, one emotional, the other flesh.

 

H is for Hawk seduces the reader with the peculiar lexicon of falconry

As a child I’d cleaved to falconry’s disconcertingly complex vocabulary. In my old books every part of a hawk was named: wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train. Male hawks are a third smaller than the female so they are called tiercels, from the Latin tertius, for third. Young birds are eyasses, older birds passagers, adult-trapped birds haggards. Half-trained hawks fly on a long line called a creance. Hawks don’t wipe their beaks, they feak. When they defecate they mute. When they shake themselves they rouse. On and on it goes in a dizzying panoply of terms of precision.

 

Macdonald herself has the soul of a poet and uses language to a lyrical, gorgeous degree in her book. Upon bringing Mabel home for the first time, she tells us the bird fills “the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.” She stands in a field “washed pewter with frost”. Pages of this beautiful wording fill the memoir. And strikingly, so does a strain of literary thriller, a masterful touch that lifts the narrative sharply from Macdonald’s heavy grief. Each foray the pair makes outside is fraught, first with fear—how will Mabel respond the hurly-burly of modern life—then, as the raptor is allowed to fly with increasing liberty, there is escape, violence, death. Macdonald snaps the necks of the rabbits that Mabel attacks; she pockets the pheasants that Mabel poaches. She watches with her heart in her throat as Mabel flies free, away from her, and realizes she has transferred all her hope and madness into this raw, fierce, creature.

 

Paralleling Macdonald and Mabel’s journey is the story of the British writer TH White, best known for The Sword in the Stone, his epic retelling of the Arthurian legend. White was also a falconer and wrote of his experiences trying to train a goshawk. His tribulations with Gos become something of a metaphor for his troubled life. Macdonald recounts the abuse and neglect he suffered at the hands of his parents, the depravity of his boarding school classmates, the cruel repression of his homosexuality, and his struggles as a writer. Macdonald seems to use the sadness of White’s life as a way to cope with her own, as well as a cautionary tale of how not to build a relationship with a goshawk.

 

At her father’s memorial, many months after his death, Macdonald has a crystalline epiphany: “…human hands have other hands to hold; they shouldn’t be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.” There are many turning points and milestones in the training of Mabel, but it is this moment when we see a human animal transform. Balancing between the dreamlike world of falconry and the prosaic demands of home, job, and relationships, she regains her footing.

 

As Macdonald so beautifully states, the “archeology of grief is not ordered.” There is no formula for surviving the worst the world can conjure. We each struggle our way through the morass. Helen Macdonald found her redemption in the keen, wild soul of goshawk.

 

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The Waves by Virginia Woolf #ReviewWomen2015

The WavesThe Waves by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For three weeks I have looked at this book on my desk, trying to summon the necessary courage to write my thoughts. Courage, because whatever I say will be an inadequate, tepid articulation of how The Waves made me feel.

 

‘I was running,’ said Jinny, ‘after breakfast. I saw leaves moving in a hole in the hedge. I thought “That is a bird on its nest.” I parted them and looked; but there was no bird on a nest. The leaves went on moving. I was frightened. I ran past Susan, past Rhoda, and Neville and Bernard in the tool-house talking. I cried as I ran, faster and faster. What moved the leaves? What moves my heart, my legs? And I dashed in here, seeing you green as a bush, like a branch, very still, Louis, with your eyes fixed. “Is he dead?” I thought, and kissed you, with my heart jumping under my pink frock like the leaves, which go on moving, though there is nothing to move them. Now I smell geraniums; I smell earth mould. I dance. I ripple. I am thrown over you like a net of light. I lie quivering flung over you.’

 

The Waves made me quiver. It made my heart jump under my frock like the leaves. I don’t know when I have read such a thing of beauty, a work that soars in joy and plummets elegiacally, rising and falling, ever in motion, and yet caught in stillness. A listening.

 

Woolf writes the silence between the words, the spaces that we rush to fill with chatter and speeches. She writes the heartbeats we take for granted.

 

Look, when I move my head I ripple all down my narrow body; even my thin legs ripple like a stalk in the wind. … I leap like one of those flames that run between the cracks of the earth; I move, I dance; I never cease to move and to dance. I move like the leaf that moved in the hedge as a child and frightened me. I dance over these streaked, these impersonal, distempered walls with their yellow skirting as firelight dances over teapots. I catch fire even from women’s cold eyes. When I read, a purple rim runs round the black edge of the textbook. Yet I cannot follow any word through its changes. I cannot follow any thought from present to past. I do not stand lost, like Susan, with tears in my eyes remembering home; or lie, like Rhoda, crumpled among the ferns, staining my pink cotton green, while I dream of plants that flower under the sea, and rocks through which the fish swim slowly. I do not dream.

 

The Waves transcends literary convention. It is beyond poetry, it defies prose. It loops in and around itself, carrying the characters through their linear lives—youth, the obligations of adulthood, the melancholy of aging—within the circular swell of internal thought.

 

What is this book? What words can describe the effect the moon has on the tides, the tilt of the hemisphere has on the seasons? A colloquy of six characters. Streams of consciousness flowing into a sea that encompasses the whole of life. A tragedy like all of life is a tragedy. Is it something to love, to admire, to imitate, to despair of?

 

Like and ‘like’ and ‘like’ – but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?'” How do words relate to the world? What is constant in the flux of identity? How do we know ourselves and each other, how do we understand a moment or a life in those terms?

 

Bernard, the writer, is our anchor. If there is anything conventional to The Waves, it is Bernard who serves as a main character, like a Maypole around which the others twirl, their lives entangling, unraveling, dancing on. It is he who reminds us of the impermanence and unreliability of our personal narrative.

 

But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story – and there are so many, and so many – stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true. Yet like children we tell each other stories, and to decorate them we make up these ridiculous, flamboyant, beautiful phrases.

 

And what lives these are, these characters representative of Woolf’s England: the expatriate, the mother, the ingénue, the depressive, the artist, the scholar, and, in one character mourned for but who is never given a voice, the hero.

 

Louis, stone-carved, sculpturesque; Neville, scissor-cutting, exact; Susan with eyes like lumps of crystal; Jinny dancing like a flame, febrile, hot, over dry earth; and Rhoda the nymph of the fountain always wet.

 

As I neared the end of The Waves, I read through a conversation in an online writing group started by a writer who works as a first reader for a literary agent. She is tasked with culling through slush pile manuscripts, making the call whether or not a novel is sent on to the agent for the next round of consideration. She came into our group bemoaning the terrible state of many of these manuscripts and suggested several writing craft guides that she wished the hapless authors of those rejected manuscripts would have consulted as they wrote. Guides that trace character arcs into percentages and tidy packages of outlines and moments. I died a little inside as I witnessed other writers scrambling to write down the books she suggested. Books I have read. I get it. I understand. Convention sells books. But for one moment, I wished the human experience could be released from genres and arcs, released to ride the waves of thought and experience.

 

How impossible to order them rightly; to detach one separately, or to give the effect of the whole – […] like music.

 

Then again, if dancing out-of-bounds became convention, it would lose its fragile, precious power.

 

I am forever changed by The Waves. I am filled with the wonder and possibility of a mind freed from convention and embracing humanity, of what happens when we allow in silence and at last hear the roar of our own hearts.

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Elena Ferrante #ReviewWomen2015

Discovering authors whose works I’ve either never heard of, or for some reason passed by, is one of reading’s great joys. Something—a friend’s recommendation, an author interview read or heard, a change of heart—compels me to read one of the unknown or forgotten, and I find myself in the lovely spot of suddenly having an author’s backlist to catch up on. Because the book, the writing, the everything is THAT GOOD. It’s like finding $50 in your pocket, just as the clouds clear on a dreary day and the sun beams through.

 

I’m already in for two new-to-me authors this year, and 2015 isn’t even three months old. The first was Lily King, whose Euphoria I waxed euphoric about last month; I read another of King’s right away, and was enthralled once again: Father of the Rain. The second is Italy’s enigmatic Elena Ferrante.

 

I don’t have time to determine why these writers’ previous works escaped my notice; I have too much reading to do.

The Days of AbandonmentThe Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.

 

And so begins Olga’s descent into the heart of her own darkness. The Days of Abandonment packs a wallop of tension and cringe-inducing desperation into 188 pages of elegantly-rendered narrative. This isn’t the story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this is THE nervous breakdown, in all its raw ugliness. We may tut-tut as we read Olga’s hair-raising mayhem, but really, isn’t this what we fear, in the wee hours, in our most vulnerable moments? As Shakespeare’s Polonius declares in Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

 

The method is familiar: husband leaves wife for younger woman (in this instance, the very young daughter of a former family friend). Wife, who hasn’t worked outside the home for many years, is left with the children, the house, the bills, and her own aging body. Disbelief, depression, anger, the divvying up of friends, the hope and fear of running into the ex and his paramour ensue. But Olga’s madness? There is nothing expected in the way Elena Ferrante portrays Olga’s domestic drama.

 

Olga’s recounting of her freefall is detached and unsentimental. She tells it some years distant, but I also wonder if there is not some translation styling at work here. Although Ann Goldstein has translated all Ferrante’s Europa Editions-published works, so I have to assume her tone is true to the author’s own.

 

Contrary to that sense of emotional detachment, The Days of Abandonment is an intensely physical story. Olga is both obsessed with and horrified by her body, which at thirty-eight is showing the inevitable signs of age. She ruminates frequently about sex, reducing it to a purely animal act, torturing herself with images of her husband Mario, and his young lover, and then seducing her neighbor in a pathetic cry to recapture her crushed sexual self. Ferrante uses pain-an errant piece of glass in pasta sauce that pierces the roof of Mario’s mouth; the threat of a mother to cut off her daughter’s hands with sewing shears; a child’s forehead smashing into the windshield to the sound of screeching car brakes–to frame Olga’s sanity. It’s almost as though pain is a stand-in for emotion: as long as Olga can envision pain and feel it, she’ll be alright. She had reinforced locks put in the front door and at her lowest point, she struggles to open the locks, finally resorting to using her teeth. At one point, Olga asks her daughter Ilaria to poke her with a paper cutter if her concentration wanders

 

I immediately pulled my mouth away from the key, it seemed to me that my face was hanging to one side like the coiled skin of an orange after the knife has begin to peel it. …For a while I let myself sink into desperation, which would mold me thoroughly, make me metal, door panel, mechanism, like an artist who works directly on his body. Then I noticed on my left thigh, above the knee, a painful gash. A cry escaped me, I realized Ilaria had left a deep wound.

 

Most disturbing is the toll Olga’s depression takes on her children and Otto, the family dog. The upsetting scenes of abuse and neglect may well kill any empathy you develop for Olga as an abandoned woman. But without them, Ferrante’s narrative would simply be a mildly prurient glimpse into the life of the newly forsaken.

 

Olga wrestles with her post-abandonment identity, and her struggle is an alarm bell the author sounds relentlessly as she mocks the absurd circumstance of marriage that calls upon women to set aside their professions and their physical freedom, to attend to home, family, husband.

 

I had carried in my womb his children; I had given him children. Even if I tried to tell myself that I had given him nothing, … Still I couldn’t avoid thinking what aspects of his nature inevitably lay hidden in them. Mario would explode suddenly from inside their bones, now, over the days, over the years, in ways that were more and more visible. How much of him would I be forced to love forever, without even realizing it, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved them? What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn’t die, it doesn’t want to die.

 

What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is… Indeed. Foamy. An interesting choice of word. So sensual, evocative, invoking the fluids of sex, but also foaming at the mouth—a sign of madness, a rabidity of rage.

 

The Days of Abandonment is frank, gutting, oddly funny, and awfully sad. But it is not without hope, and throughout you are reminded that Olga survives her madness. Even swirling in its whirlpool, she has one hand above water, reaching, grasping.

 

Elena Ferrante’s brilliance is withholding her judgment of her characters. She writes their truth and allows readers to create their own morality. Her writing, though not warm, is full of heat. The carapace of narrative rage cracks to reveal tender new skin beneath.

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Euphoria by Lily King #ReviewWomen2015

Last year, writer Joanna Walsh began the #ReadWomen2014 campaign to shed light on the marginalization of women writers in the literary world (as quantitatively evidenced by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts) and quite simply and joyfully, to bring more readers to books written by women.

 

The #ReadWomen2014 hashtag took off across social media. Debate and discussions regarding literature written by women, “women’s fiction,” the paucity of reviews in mainstream media, and representation of women in the literary arts continue to grow.

 

Journalist and author Hannah Beckerman proposed that 2015 be the year we focus attention on reviewing books written by women. She’s created both a hashtag and a Twitter account #ReviewWomen2015 @ReviewWomen2015  I’m delighted to contribute my words to this effort. I’ll be blogging reviews of books written by women writers this year; only women writers. My Goodreads reviews are posted here View my reviews, but what makes it to the blog are books that set my head and heart spinning, like this extraordinary novel from Lily King.

 

EuphoriaEuphoria by Lily King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picture Lily King in her office, surrounded by a library’s worth of research materials. Drafts of Euphoria are stacked in descending towers along one wall, each draft a stair-step lower. I picture a writer chipping away at her words, like a sculptor to marble, until the true work reveals itself; the words coming to life in the reader’s imagination the way hard, cold stone warms like flesh under the hand.

 

Euphoria was inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead and her experiences along the Sepik River with her husband Reo Fortune and the British anthropologist who would become her second husband, Gregory Bateson. But the story is entirely of King’s invention, including the tribes and their cultures. The novel is a feat of research, imagination, passion, and restraint.

 

A sense of menace pervades the narrative, beginning with the first paragraphs. It is the early 1930s, and American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen are fleeing the aggressive Mumbanyo tribe in a canoe when something is tossed at them. It lands near the canoe’s stern but Nell can’t see what it is: Fen has broken her glasses. He remarks that it’s, “Another dead baby.” Nell can’t tell if he’s joking. When her infertility and miscarriages are later revealed, Fen’s caustic remark becomes unforgivably cruel.

 

Yes, their marriage is a hot mess. Both are gifted anthropologists, but it is Nell, the author of a best-selling, controversial ethnography, “The Children of Kirakira,” who garners acclaim and grant money. Fen can hardly be bothered to carry a notebook and pen. Their months with the Mumbanyo have nearly destroyed the couple physically and emotionally, and they are returning to Australia to regroup and then embark upon a study of the Aborigines.

 

Enter Andrew Bankson, an Englishman who has been in New Guinea for years, studying the Kiona tribe. Bankson, escaping the shadow of an overbearing mother and the ghosts of two dead brothers, is on the brink of suicide. He invites the Stones to return to New Guinea, but they are aware of the competitive nature of anthropologists and fear there’s no more room in the territory for them to set up camp. Bankson, loneliness seeping from his pores, introduces the Stones to the Tam tribe and the three become a triangle of intellect and intrigue.

 

The narrative is told in third person from Nell’s perspective, in first person from Bateson’s, and through Nell’s journal. The alternating voices, the shifts in time, and the retrospection serve to enhance the tension. Bankson leaves clues that something terrible has happened, but the author reveals only enough to compel the reader onto the next page, and the next. This is a novel that will make you late for work, or keep you reading far past your bedtime.

 

The anthropologists devise an ingenious grid to classify all of human culture (riffed from a classification theory that Margaret Mead herself devised), but they are utterly incapable of understanding their own hearts. Bankson falls hard for Nell the moment he sees her, and she is torn between her partnership with Fen, her ambition, and the shelter she finds in Bankson’s adoration. But there is nothing maudlin about their interactions; King maintains the sexual and emotional tension like a piano wire plucked and humming.

 

Vivid and extraordinary are the encounters between the Stones and Bankson and the tribes under their study: Tam and Kiona, respectively. These are the genius moments of Euphoria, as these three Westerners assume the role of cultural scientists with the arrogance born of ignorance. Theirs is a new science and they are eager to experience the euphoria of discovery and understanding. When a breakthrough is made, they feel they could “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” Here, too, there is intrigue, as Nell is allowed deeper into the female-dominated society of the Tam while Fen—in all his petty jealousy and arrogance—secretly plots to obtain his own piece of fame.

 

Lily King had so much rich material to work with. She could have offered us a doorstop of a read, a cultural and emotional epic. Instead, she chiseled away until she reached the heart of darkness. Euphoria is all the more profound and moving for her restraint. An excellent novel.

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

My only reading goal for 2015 is to read more poetry. Without design—just luck of the queue at the library—brown girl dreaming, a memoir in verse, was the first book that landed in my hands this year. There is something sublime in that serendipity. Each and every page of brown girl dreaming is a gift of wisdom and innocence and discovery. Heartbreak. Joy. Family. Loneliness. Childhood. History. I savored and smiled as I read. I wept. After I read it, I rushed out to buy a copy for myself. I wish I could buy copies for the world.

 

The book’s opening poem signals the story Jacqueline Woodson seeks to tell:

I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
A country caught

Between Black and White.

 

Woodson reminds us that when she was born in 1963, “…only seven years had passed since Rose Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus” in Montgomery, Alabama. The author, too, is of the South, but also of the Midwest and of the North. She moved with her mother, sister, and brother to Greenville, South Carolina—to her mother’s family—when she was a toddler, and then to Brooklyn, New York in elementary school.

 

brown girl dreaming is also the story of a little girl finding her voice. In Woodson’s case, it was the discovery that words and stories belonged to her—she just needed the time to meet them on her own terms:

I am not my sister.
Words from the books curl around each other
make little sense
until
I read them again
and again, the story
settling into memory. Too slow my teacher says.
Read Faster.
Too babyish, the teacher says.
Read older.
But I don’t want to read faster or older or
any way else that might
make the story disappear too quickly from where
it’s settling
inside my brain,
slowly becoming a part of me.
A story I will remember
long after I’ve read it for the second, third,
tenth, hundredth time.

 

There is such joy and love in her verse, a profound appreciation for her family and for the places that make up her visions of home. She writes of her mother’s parents in South Carolina:

So the first time my mother goes to New York City
we don’t know to be sad, the weight
of our grandparents’ love like a blanket
with us beneath it,
safe and warm.

And of Brooklyn:

We take our food out to her stoop just as the grown-ups
start dancing merengue, the women lifting their long dresses
to show off their fast-moving feet,
the men clapping and yelling,
Baila! Baila! until the living room floor disappears.

 

 

You may find brown girl dreaming on the fiction shelves of bookstores and libraries, for it is classified as a “fictionalized memoir.” Leaving aside debates of genre, it is far more likely to find a readership from these fiction shelves, and that is a good and necessary thing. Memoir and free verse may seem like odd companions, particularly in a book meant for younger readers, but oh, what a stellar opportunity to read and teach the power of poetry.

 

brown girl dreaming received the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and is ostensibly a book meant for middle-grade readers, but it is timeless in its grace and eloquence. I recommend it to everyone, regardless of age.

 

Were I a pre-teen, I know I’d be reading this at every available moment: at the breakfast table, on the bus, in the cafeteria, in my room instead of suffering through long division homework and answering questions on the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of chapter 27 in my Social Studies text. The intimacy and immediacy of brown girl dreaming feels like a secret passed between BFFs, a Technicolor “now” of an After-School Special, the story of an American kid my age that is at once familiar in emotion and exotic in setting.

 

Were I the parent of a pre-teen or a younger child, we would read this together, for this is the history of America in the 1960s, and it offers so many of those “teachable moments”: opportunities to reach for history books, to seek out primary sources, to watch videos of speeches and documentaries of a time that is both distant, yet still very much at hand. The same would hold true for a book club of adults. brown girl dreaming can serve as a touchstone for African-American literature and history, which is our shared history.

 

As an adult, I read this with humility and wonder, enchanted by the voice of young Jacqueline Woodson as she discovers the importance of place, self, family, and words. As a writer, I am awed and overjoyed by the beauty of her language, by the richness of her verse.

Even the silence
has a story to tell you.
Just listen. Listen.

View all my reviews

My Reading Year: Best of 2014

I wondered as the year began—my first as a full-time writer—if I would have much time to read, if I could afford the time away from writing. One hundred and thirteen books later, I no longer wonder. The more I write, the more reading has become essential to my writing, as I chronicled earlier this year: If You Don’t Have Time to Read.

 

This has been the most astonishing and revelatory year of reading for this writer, ever. A year which saw me read my first Virginia Woolf and Sherman Alexie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; discover Francesca Marciano, Rene Denfeld, and Leanne O’Sullivan; and be rewarded again by Tim Winton, Colm Tóibín, Niall Williams, and Margaret Atwood. So many books touched me, tore me open, provided delight, and a very few that just didn’t connect. It happens.

 

Some stats: Female/Male Authors: 57/56; Memoir: 11; Poetry: 4 (oh, my reading goal for 2015 is to triple this!); Writing Craft: 6; Religion/Philosophy: 7; Young Adult: 5; Food/Wine: 1; Mystery/Suspense: 7; History/Reference: 6; Essays: 3. The rest, sixty-three if I did my math correctly, would be literary fiction, including seven short story collections.

 

I’ve pasted excerpts from my Goodreads reviews in the list below.10885357_10203486144010376_5329045514422083153_n

 

NON-FICTION

This was the Year of the Memoir for me and three very different memoirs stand out:

 

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr (2013)

Food is one of the most vibrant reflections of culture, and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

 

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (2014)

At its tender heart, My Salinger Year is a coming of age tale of a writer and an ode to being young and sort-of single in New York, living in an unheated apartment in Williamsburg and taking the subway to Madison Avenue to speak in plummy, tweedy tones with other underpaid literati. It is a gloriously, unabashedly nostalgic memoir and utterly charming.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (2011)

This isn’t for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly and life is too short to waste reading about someone else’s tragedy and self-destructive behavior. But something about this story—the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality—gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch’s word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.

 

FICTION

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Race in America is an uncomfortable subject, mostly for white Americans. We still don’t know where to look or what to do with our hands. We fidget and prevaricate. We, like blond-haired, blue-eyed, wealthy, liberal Kimberley in Americanah, use euphemisms like “beautiful” when we refer to black women so that everyone will know that not only are we not racist, but we think blacks are particularly worthy of our praise. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reflects our beliefs and behaviors back on us, illuminating our silliness and our masquerades, our ignorance and our misguided, but earnest attempts to understand the impossible: what it’s like to be something other than white in this race-anxious society.

 

Life Drawing by Robin Black (2014)

Perfidy in marriage is a tried and true theme. Perhaps even time-worn. Oh, but not in Robin Black’s hands. Her craft is brilliant. In a year when I have read some massive tomes (e.g. The Luminaries, Goldfinch, Americanah), Black’s sheer economy of word and image is powerful and refreshing. Yet there is nothing spare in her syntax. Her sentences are gorgeous:

The day is thinning into darkness, the light evaporating, so the fat, green midsummer trees not fifty feet away seem to be receding, excusing themselves from the scene.

and

Bill and I had been tender with each other in the way only lovers with stolen time can sustain. Even in parting, gentle, gentle, gentle, like the tedious people who must unwrap every present slowly, leaving the paper entirely intact.

 

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (2014)

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity’s darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to the hopelessness of prison and death row. She pries open our nightmares, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes with grace on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Redeployment by Phil Klay (2014)

These are masterfully crafted stories of war. Phil Klay walks in the footsteps of Tim O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway, and Wilfred Owen before him, but with a vision all his own. What elevates these stories above voyeurism and shock value is his pitch perfect writing. Klay’s ear for dialogue, his eye for detail—offering just enough poetry in his prose to seduce, but not to saturate—and the immediacy and emotion of his characters’ voices reveal the power this young writer wields with his pen.

 

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano (2014)

As a reader and writer for whom place is nearly as important as character, I was delighted to find that Marciano speaks my language. From her native Rome to a haute couture boutique in Venice, from an old bakery turned House Beautiful in Puglia, to post-colonial Kenya, a remote village in Greece, central India, or to New York City, Marciano shows us how place defines character, and how travel strips us of our inhibitions and sometimes, our conscience.

 

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O’Sullivan (2009)

This slim volume of sensuous poetry takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag’s many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. O’Sullivan’s images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures.

 

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2014)

As readers, we often gravitate toward lives played out on a grander scale—adventures, dalliances, crimes, and misdemeanors far more colorful than our own. But reader, if you haven’t experienced the transcendent storytelling of Ireland’s Colm Tóibín, you may not know what it’s like to feel the earth tilt with the most subtle of emotional tremors.

 

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (2014)

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you’ll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it’s a primer on Western literature’s greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won’t make it through this with dry eyes.

 

Eyrie by Tim Winton (2014)

Eyrie is a vertiginous wobble through lives disintegrated by the slow acid drip of despair and addiction, held together by the thinnest strands of determination, survival, and devotion. Winton, like Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Colm Toibin, Edna O’Brien, is a writer-poet. His prose has such density and texture; it is sensual and viscous. Australian vernacular is particularly rich, to the point of cloying, and Winton uses it to demonstrate the sharp class divides in this country that we think of as a model of social egalitarianism.

 

My last full read of the year was  Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I’m still haven’t found the words to describe it, either as a book or as a reading experience, so I won’t even try. I’ll just keep reading.

 

Happy New Year to All!