Allison Weiss is a modern woman, educated at the prestigious F&M College, married to a hunky reporter for a valued Philadelphia newspaper who recently scored a lucrative book contract, mother of one, and a recent transplant to the land of large homes and minivans, i.e., the suburbs. She quits her job at the newspaper to stay home with her daughter and gets a side job writing a blog for a women’s website. Sounds like the idyllic American dream right?
Such is the backdrop for Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel, All Fall Down. Novelists write to entertain, and if they’re good novelists, they entertain and educate at the same time, subtly though, so no one realizes, like slipping broccoli into the brownie. All Fall Down is sneakily shocking, like finding out it was broccoli after all. Far darker than Weiner’s other novels, All Fall Down is beyond relevant, and probably required reading for women of all ages.
Wife of an often absent husband, mother of a difficult child, daughter of a father with early stages of Alzheimers, and now blogger, Allison Weiss prides herself on being able to do it all (a common collective delusion of the modern woman). After hurting her back at the gym, Allison’s doctor writes her a script for Vicodin for the pain. When the script runs out, she gets a refill. Soon she adds a new doc and some Oxycontin, and then another, starting a round robin of doctors until pretty soon she’s shopping online at the Pharmacopeia, Penny Lane, racking up the bills and the tolerance to the meds that threaten to derail her. One, two, ten pills at a time, she’s rattling down the road, out of her mind with need, but rationalizing her actions, and still thinking she can control her addiction — text book behavior for an addict. She gets pretty far, but as the title suggests, a fall is imminent and when it happens, it’s not pretty. With her novel, Jennifer Weiner has opened the door to a larger conversation, one that involves looking in the mirror for more than the time it takes to fix your hair, and taking stock of ourselves, our lives, our entire way of life.
We are living in a time when addictions of all types have become the norm rather than the exception. Who among us doesn’t start the day with the obligatory coffee (or tea, or diet coke…)? Then there’s the glass of wine with dinner. Oh sure, we’ll say we can stop, but can we really? Allison Weiss kept promising herself she’d stop even as she was upping the ante, doubling, tripling, quadrupling the amount with which she started. Watching her spiral down is a gut-wrenching walk through the daily life of an addict who was lucky enough to get to rehab before things become irrevocable.
All Fall Down is a psychological glimpse into the hyper-stressed, but oh-so-normal life of a middle class American mom/wife/woman (and you can easily substitute dad/husband/man), less a work of fiction than a reality check for the masses, a peep-hole view into the homes and living rooms of two-car garage, middle-class America. It will force you to look at it all — your predispositions and predilections; your needs vs. your desires — in a way you never did before. The book’s message is clear: watch out dearie, cause this s*&%’s for real, and it’s without regard for make or model or class or gender. Oh, and the trendy happy Hollywood ending is, if not missing, at least open to interpretation. If Jen ever tires of writing, she has a brilliant career as a psychologist ahead of her. Take note, ladies and gents. Allison Weiss could be any one of us.
Pam Lazos 12.26.14
The Art of War for Writers
In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell kicks writing butt by coupling the principles set forth by the great military strategist, Sun Tzu (544-496 B.C.), a general, philosopher, and all around savvy guy, as well as author of one of the first military treatise ever written with some fine-tuned writing techniques; Sun Tzu’s strategies are transferable, it seems, as Bell ingeniously applies proven military tactics to the art of writing. That writers have employed many of these exercises since the first stories were told is something Bell readily acknowledges, but he’s not afraid to retread a few writing tips in support of the cause. He also provides some very useful advice on getting yourself published.
I found The Art of War for Writers inspiring in ways that other books on the craft fall short. If you’ve been at this awhile, you’ll have read more than a few books on writing and after a bit, the advice all blends together. The great thing about Bell’s book is that even when the advice is nothing new, the presentation is both novel and inspiring. If you haven’t been at this long, then The Art of War is essential as it forces you to break your writing down into small, bite-sized pieces which, as any good writer must accept, is the only way to get anything done. You can only hold one scene or chapter or even paragraph in your mind at once, assuming that you’re in the zone and letting your voice speak through you not the persnickety critic voice, mind you, but your Voice.
The book is broken up into three parts: reconnaissance, tactics, and strategy. Each chapter is headed up with a quote, adopted from Sun Tzu’s Military strategy. Reconnaissance deals with the mental clarity it takes to be a writer. Practically every chapter deals with overcoming a phobia, lazy attitude, or fear, and turns it into a writing event. “Do the thing you fear and death of fear is certain,” was a principle set forth by Teddy Roosevelt with much success, says Bell. As a writer, you should be no less fearful and fearless. Don’t worry, don’t compare, and for Godsakes, don’t compete — just write.
The section on tactics deals with honing skills, not settling for mediocrity, and shaping yourself to acclimate always with the goal of supreme victory in mind. This means you will need to work outside your comfort zone and wrestle your demons into submission, but it will be worth it for your story. Bell wants you to yank your readers into your story from word one, and under no circumstances should you talk about the weather, at least not at first, unless weather happens to be critical to whatever opening salvo you put forth, of course. Tactics are the heart of the book and the place where the most practical advice lives. Finally, there’s strategy, and if you aren’t interested in being published or produced, move on, but if you are, these chapters round out the book like creme brûlée and cognac after a delicious meal so don’t walk away just yet. Agents, publishers, query letters, elevator speeches and writing conferences — they are all there, waiting to guide you into battle along with Bell and Sun Tzu. So grab your weapons — pen and paper — and get to it. We’ll see you on the battlefield.
Pam Lazos — 11.16.14
If you look up the word “time” in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, you’ll see a list of fourteen definitions for time as a noun, eight as a colloquialism, five as a verb, eleven as an adjective, one as an adverb, and no less than forty-one words that start with the word time (time lapse, time-out, time immemorial, to name a few). Judging by the amount of “time” Webster’s devotes to the word, time appears to be as ubiquitous as air. No wonder we don’t understand it.
The time we’re most familiar with is a unit of measurement and the way in which we experience the advancement of our lives. Religious pundits have for centuries described time as a circle, ever evolving upward. Yet every year we experience a birthday, an anniversary, a holiday, making our perception of time both circular and linear. Confused yet? If so, then you need to read Fractal Time: The Secret of 2012 and a New World Ageby Greg Braden. Braden’s perception of time is more like an ever-repeating, ever expanding circle that ripples out into infinity, both a wave and a spiral, like Fibonacci, where each rotation looks very much like the last, but more of it.
First of all, what’s a fractal? In it’s simplest form, fractals are similar, recurring patterns, but in the most complex form, they are the building blocks of all of creation. Everything in nature is a fractal – the spiraling seashell, the leaves on a tree, a snowflake — all patterns built upon the same pattern, Fibonacci’s spirals. Fibonacci goes like this: each number in a sequence is the sum of the two numbers preceding it. So, starting with 1, where the next number is 1, it becomes 1 + 1 = 2, then 1 + 2 = 3, then 2 + 3 = 5, and 3 + 5 = 8, and so on. This number sequence is found repeating in nature’s patterns, in flowers, pinecones, the seeds of sunflowers, the inside of a snail or nautilus shell, hurricanes, even the human face, the repeating patterns, forming a tight, interconnectedness that spreads out as it grows farther away from the center. According to Braden, events that evoke emotion, either positive or negative, are imprinted firmly in each person’s cell memory, perhaps altering the DNA, and then fan out, like Fibonnaci’s spiral which then effects the next phase of your life. Braden explains it thusly. Say you had a traumatic experience when you were ten. Because of the nature of the human psyche and the way time works in conjunction with the emotional body, that trauma created a pattern in your life, one which will be repeated in a defined number of years. Because of the fractal nature of time and because Braden is a scientist, he’s derived a formula, a mathematical equation to help each person ascertain when the next trauma is going to pounce, or rather, when the next fractal will begin, and if you know when it begins then you’ll know what it looks like and when it’s going to end. Because of the presence of fractals, the individual experiencing the original trauma will draw it to him more readily as it will simply be a repeating pattern building upon the last pattern. Note that it’s not just trauma that’s caught up in this fractal business, but moments of triumph as well as life events taking place on the world stage, for example, 9/11. Basically, anything life altering will set this pattern into a repetitive motion since emotion plays a huge role in the repetitiveness.
Do I buy it? Why yes, I do. A trauma occurring at three years old has been repeating itself to a lesser or greater degree at various stages in my life and it’s taken all these years to notice the pattern. Now all I need to do is the math and I can take steps to reduce the likelihood of seeing it again. Sounds like “woo-woo”, but in fact, it’s just math applied to the life. So thank you, Greg Braden, and your scientific mind for identifying it and introducing me to the amazing concept of Fractal Time.
Pam Lazos 9.16.14
WINTER [notes from montana]
“It was early September and I was driving, literally, to the last road in the United States, a gravel-and-dirt road that paralleled the Canadian border, up in Montana’s Purcell Mountains. It was like going into battle, or falling in love, or walking from a wonderful dream, or falling into one: wading into cold water on a fall day.” – Rick Bass, Winter
Can Rick Bass help it if his Soul’s been on a nature walkabout for all of his life? In Winter [notes from montana], Bass’s wandering spirit is alive and well and living in the Yaak Valley in Montana without electricity, without heat, other than the wood-fired variety, and without much contact with civilization given that only 30 people lived in this remote valley at the time. To read his writing, you get the sense that Bass has explored every canyon and fissure from a hundred points of view so he could bring us city folk back all the details. Both as a geologist, formerly employed by the Oil and Gas industry (Oil Notes is a great read about Bass’s days in the field, looking for new veins of petrol), and now as a writer, advocating on behalf of nature and her wild places, it’s evident that Bass craves a tactile connection with the earth and is keyed in to her secret language, a language he then translates for us in everything he writes. Winter is a memoir of Bass’s first year spent in the Yaak Valley, living with his then artist girlfriend (now wife), Elizabeth, and their two dogs, living close to the earth — he writes about it while she sketches — about the daily living, and the serendipity of the path, and the sublime and exquisite stillness of the world when you can actually find such an unlikely place, and how it contributes to the growth and grounding of us all whether we know it or not.
It’s cold in the Yaak Valley. Winter, as in the season, starts about September and goes clear through to March. When Bass and Elizabeth moved in, the locals told him them they needed to cut firewood. A LOT of firewood. Bass cut cords and cords of wood throughout much of the book, as a fitness routine, as a commune with nature, as a spiritual experience, as an exercise in survival, all of which are or may be the same, and when he thought he was done, the neighbors laughed so he cut more. Cords later, he called it and it was just enough to squeak past the interminable winter’s finish line. He was sweating it a little toward the end. A couple more weeks of winter and they would have been toast. That’s the thing about ditching our modern conveniences. There’s a raw, feral power in the earth that we humans aren’t so used to anymore. While daily life in a crowded environment puts us off our game, time spent in nature forces us to be present, open our eyes, pay attention. Not only will you miss nature’s little delights if you don’t, but you could end up in a whole heap of trouble. There’s a thousand ways to die in nature, simply because you aren’t paying attention. Yet there’s a thousand more ways to live more fully, simply because you are. Winter is a profound journey into the heart of the earth’s best kept secrets. Don’t be surprised if, after reading it, you want to close up the house and head for the wild.
Rick Bass (1958 – ), environmentalist, writer, geologist and son of a geologist, environmental activist, dog-lover, and watcher of all things wild, Bass started writing short stories on his lunch break while working for the oil companies. He serves on the boards of the Yaak Valley Forest Council and Round River Conservation Studies. Guess we know which part of his spirit won out.
Pam Lazos 5.1.14
Some people want to save the earth with science, others want to spread the word with heartbreakingly beautiful depictions of the natural world in all her glory, and then there are those who would throw the planet a buoy balanced on humor. Carl Hiaasen falls in the latter category. Satire is everywhere in his breakout solo novel, Tourist Season, and in every one of the 12 adult novels he’s written since. His Young Adult fiction has age appropriate satire, but Hiaasen knows the adolescents get it — in fact, that’s what he’s banking on if he’s got a shot to save his beautiful home state of Florida — so he doesn’t skimp. The success of Tourist Season and Hiaasen’s particular brand of the environmental crime thriller has everything to do with his love for the wild places in his native state and the all too bitter knowledge that they are quickly disappearing to overdevelopment, overpopulation, and greed, such as the precious and irreplaceable wetlands that are being given over to high rises at an alarming rate just so everyone can have beachfront property. FYI: native species are going extinct worldwide at an unprecedented rate and Florida is home to 133 on the endangered species list (which includes fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates), and over 55 plant species.
Hiaasen started as a reporter for the Miami Herald soon after college and worked his way up to the opinion and editorial section of the Sunday paper where he uses his years of experience to tackle crimes against nature. His environmental brutes, an amalgam of characters he’s covered throughout his reporting days generally have no redeeming social value whatsoever, and more often than not, the heroes of Hiaasen’s stories (unless they are kids’ stories), don’t have much social value either, at least not in the traditional sense, but when the planet needs you, a personality shift generally accompanies a call to action. In Hiassen’s novels, unlike in real life, Nature and those on her side always win in the end. His unforgettable characters have made Hiaasen’s books quite a lucrative business; they have been translated into 34 languages, making it all that much easier to get his message out to the masses. For his efforts, Hiaasen has raised public awareness regarding these issues like few before him simply because of the nature of his delivery. Tourist Season is about a crazy group of terrorists who go on a bit of a killing spree to dissuade tourists from visiting Florida which sounds creepy and not at all funny, but the plot is so stuffed with half-crazed lunatics, crooked politicians, a self-aware and self-possessed damsel in distress as well as opulent wildlife and an alligator (spoiler alert: all of Hiaasen’s novels have these elements, but maybe not always a live alligator), that in Hiaasen’s capable hands it all feels like a day at the beach with one laugh-out-loud moment after another. Tourist Season was his first, the one that started it all, and is required reading for those who realize the raw power of a good belly laugh.
Carl Hiaasen (1953 – ), novelist, reporter, editorial writer, environmentalist and activist, friends with the late Warren Zevon and the still-very-much-alive humorist, Dave Barry, native Floridian and all around funny guy who would be heart broken if the inanity of mankind completely broke his home state into neatly asphalted and manicured grids so let’s help a brother out and get the word out. Retire in Maine, people, or somewhere else where they need more people. That’s what Carl would want.
I remember being fundamentally altered when I first read Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, altered in a way that I would never look at death the same again. Williams’ book was a symphony sprung from the page as if the earth herself had stirred to speak and once started couldn’t stop. The words, more like poetry than prose, were full of destiny and philosophy and hope. Williams was born a Mormon and while she may not always agree with all of her church’s teachings, there is more than a smattering of that religion, intertwined with the natural world and a family saga, lining these pages. The Catholics teach that Wonder and Awe (also known as Fear of the Lord) is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Wonder and awe is what you’ll feel when reading William’s descriptions of the wildlife and other lives that draw their sustenance from the part of the world in and around the Great Salt Lake. Focused through Williams lens, the connection to Spirit is everywhere, dancing in sparks of life and the precious few moments before death. Refuge chronicles the slow demise of Williams’ mother who is dying of cancer even as the Great Salt Lake is suffering some kind of metamorphic catastrophe of its own as experienced in its meteoric rise. Located in Utah, the Great Salt Lake is the largest salt water lake in the Northern Hemisphere and what the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is to the East: a one-of-a-kind phenomena of nature in all her glorious wonder (and awe). From a record low of 950 square miles in 1963 to a record high of 3,300 square miles in 1988, this is the Dead Sea of the North American content and the largest lake outside of the Great Lakes. The Great Salt Lake’s fungibility is a direct result of its shallowness, like a ginormous playa pond, along with its huge mineral deposits. Millions of birds call the Great Salt Lake their home, and Williams, an avid bird watcher, and naturalist is concerned about the accelerated rise of the Lake that threatens the Bear River Bird Refuge, located on one of the Lake’s three tributaries, and the wildlife that make it their home. She describes the small details of her mother’s last days and the family’s connection to the woman, the land and each other with poignancy and grace. Williams sheer joy at being swept up in life’s more mesmerizing instances can bring you to tears. The simple act of removing the hair from her mother’s hair brush becomes its own prayer, setting it free, out the window, for the birds to use in their nests — death aiding and encouraging life. Is there anything more sublime? Refuge chronicles both Williams’ struggle to let her mother go, and the Lake’s to hang on even as the sea level rises, wreaking havoc on the lives dependent upon it. In metaphysical circles, water is a metaphor for emotion; the two are inextricable which means Williams’ combination works brilliantly. What drives the book is her poignant reaction to these uncontrollable events, moving along seemingly without her. “I am slowly, painfully discovering that my refuge is not found in my mother, my grandmother, or even the birds of Bear River. My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change.” Refuge is full of wise words from a wise woman.
Terry Tempest Williams (1955 – ) is a writer, conservationist, naturalist, feminist and activist for environmental, democratic, and “other” causes that take the shape of justice, freedom, and equality for man and nature, who writes loves songs to the earth, and remains an enduring voice for the natural world.
Throughout time, godparents have been an important, often undervalued resource in the raising of children, providing nurturing counsel and emotional sustenance to their charges. Maybe they didn’t grow us, but they provided strength, love, and an alternative point of view, the ally in our evolutionary corner, always ready to step in when needed. Even the Mother of us All could benefit from having one. Lucky for Her then that there was Rachel Carson, and lucky for us.
If Edward Abbey was the godfather of the modern environmental movement, then Rachel Carson was the godmother. When she penned Silent Spring, first published in 1962, Carson probably had no idea that it would be one of the most influential books of the modern environmental movement. A smart, savvy scientist, Carson wrote the seminal book on what not to do in caring for the planet and in the process was the impetus for the creation of that little old place we know as the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Before the EPA, before the Kyoto Protocol, before the U.N. Millennium Goals there was Rachel Carson, a shy, research-oriented scientist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (which would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) who had started seeing patterns where none existed before, patterns of increased incidences of cancer, infertility, mutations and blight. The common denominator, according to Carson was pesticides. Upon publication in 1962, Silent Spring started a s*%t storm of unprecedented proportions by bringing the notion of unsafe pesticides home to the American public, a public who for years had stalwartly believed that such chemicals were safe because that’s what the chemical companies had told them. The central theme of the book is that pesticides, chemical substances used to kill insects that though their very existence reduce agriculture production, were more correctly labeled as biocides. A biocide is a poisonous substance that destroys life. Carson found evidence everywhere that the insect killing chemicals were also poisoning other things like the soil, the water, the air, and the fish and fowl that lived in them as evidenced by massive bird kill-offs in various areas that pesticides had been sprayed. The book was met with ridicule by the chemical companies themselves which means that there was great truth in the research, and from the agriculture industry which had gotten used to spraying the heck out of everything as a way to reduce pests and increase profits which, by the way, only works in the short term. Eventually, the pests come back with a vengeance. Probably the single greatest triumph of Silent Spring was its success in getting the pesticide DDT banned, a chemical so toxic and pervasive in the environment that its effects still persist today. Carson didn’t advocate banning all pesticides, but wanted them to be fully researched before use, and even then advocated using them sparingly and only when necessary and with good judgment. At 52 years old, Silent Spring is not going to teach you something you don’t already know about chemicals in the environment — that is, if you’ve been paying attention — but it will help you refocus the argument and decide what is important: lower cost, lower quality food, or a pesticide free meal.
Rachel Carson (1907 -1964), marine biologist, conservationist, poet, avid bird watcher and literary genius prompted the “Age of Ecology” with her book, Silent Spring. Even while dying of cancer, the shy Ms. Carson pressed on, finishing the book and as a result, left behind a legacy of environmental stewardship that even the most zealous have failed to match. Coincidentally, like Abbey, Carson was born in Pennsylvania.
Have you ever loved something so much that you would die for it? John Vogelin, Billy’s grandfather does. Fire on the Mountain depicts Vogelin’s struggle to preserve his New Mexico ranch as told through the eyes of his grandson, Billy, who lives each school year in the city, high on the expectation of returning to his grandfather’s ranch for a summer of living the cowboy life.
“Brightest New Mexico. In the vivid light each rock and tree and cloud and mountain existed with a kind of force and clarity that seemed not natural but supernatural.”
So does Fire on the Mountain begin with Billy’s view of this rugged land, this “country of dreams.” Billy’s mother has no love for the ranch, but for Billy, like his grandfather, the place is in his DNA. Billy’s barely accustomed to the rhythms of his long awaited vacation when the summer turns sour. One of Vogelin’s horses has gone missing. They later find him dead under mysterious conditions high up along the mountain trail. Vogelin’s suspicions about the identity of the perpetrator are confirmed when the Air Force lawyer arrives soon after. The U.S. government wants Vogelin’s land since it sits squarely in the middle of their new armaments testing site. While Uncle Sam has offered to pay Vogelin well above the fair market value of the property if he’ll give it up voluntarily, Vogelin sees that offer as legally sanctioned theft. The affable lawyer never stops smiling at Vogelin while he explains how the government will have the property one way or another, but Vogelin’s neither buying nor selling it. He was born on the ranch and has lived there his entire life, raising kids and cattle alike, carving out a living. Never mind that Vogelin’s father stole the ranch from the Indians and that theft seem to run with the land. Vogelin has no intention of going, quietly or otherwise, and takes up arms after the U.S. Air Force tacks up condemnation notices. Vogelin’s neighbors sell out one by one, yet even Vogelin’s best friend, Lee, can’t persuade him to do the same. To fight the government is to pick a fight with a bully, and it’s a fight you can’t win, Lee counsels him. Vogelin remains steadfast, the one voice raised in protest against what he sees as an unfair government practice, two if you count Billy. Billy is steadfast in his own way, refusing to leave his grandfather’s side even after his parents order him home, even after the shooting starts. If you’re thinking there will be an intense conflagration at the end, you’ll have it, but it won’t be the one you expect. Fire on the Mountain is the tale of one man’s love not just for hearth and home, but the mountains and rivers and sky that hold it, a boy’s unwavering loyalty, and best of all, a love song to the earth’s wide-open spaces.
Edward Abbey (1927-1989), writer, badass environmentalist, and self-described as “one who loves the unfenced country,” influenced the more radical environmental groups with books like The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), a subversive, environmental espionage thriller of a novel, and Fire on the Mountain (1962). Considered to be one of the fathers of modern environmental writing and dubbed, The Thoreau of the American West, by Larry McMurty (author of Lonesome Dove), Abbey’s work stands today as a testament to conservation and preservation practices.
I’m on this rereading kick and also on a reading-books-about-writing kick and Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, heads the list. Part writing guide, part life coaching session, and part true confessions, Bird by Bird is a delight for readers and writers alike. One summer, Lamott’s ten year-old brother had waited three months to begin a project on birds that was due the next day. Close to tears and unable to even move, he sat among his books and papers at the kitchen table. Lamott’s father, a writer and maybe Lamott’s favorite person ever, put an arm around his son and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” The book is peppered with such sage advice while Lamott remains the quintessential social commenter and odd man out, full of more than a few stories of her life gone wrong. What makes her writing so enjoyable is the rough terrain she’s crossed to bring it to us through glimpses of her childhood and the rest of her life. Lamott shares some of her writing techniques such as sitting at her desk and staring at a small one-inch empty picture frame when she’s out of ideas. She watches that picture frame until something comes to her. Sometimes she gets up to make a phone call or eat a snack while the picture frame sits there as a reminder, but she always goes back to her chair and that picture frame. To be a writer, she tells her students, you have to sit your butt in a chair and not get up until you’ve written something no matter how long it takes or how terrible it is, and then you have to do that again the next day and the one after that. You may write four or five pages before you get one or two good paragraphs, she says, but keep at it. She encourages her students to reveal their most desperate fears and phobias and bring them to the surface for dissection and reassembly as literary gold. Unfortunately for Lamott, her worst moments have become her best prose. Take the most horrible school lunch ever and turn it into a brilliant comedic twist of events. Never miss and opportunity to go for your own jugular, but just flash the knife, don’t really cut your throat. In Lamott’s world, writing is therapy and since she’s taken some of the heaviest stuff of her life and exposed it, often with hilarity, to the sun and wind and elements where it can be alchemized, she’s become her own therapist. Or maybe she still needs therapy, but at least there’s a great story to be told. I question whether the pain and suffering is necessary for the craft or whether it just makes the writer more observant — nothing like fear to sharpen the senses — and hence, more readily able to translate those observations to the rest of the world. Once you’ve mined your childhood for all the despondency and suffering you can recall along with all the nasty characters that have wreaked havoc upon you, stick them between fictional pages for everyone to see, while being careful to obscure them so ingeniously through changes of place or time or hair color that no one will recognize themselves. Also, always give the male character a small penis. It cuts down on potential libel suits. These are your the tools of the trade, says Lamott. Your heartbreak, your inability to fit in, your desire to be part of another family, relationship, community, etc., one that obviously had it better than yours, and your unlimited ability to manipulate facts. Also, never miss an opportunity to capitalize on all your accumulated crap. If you are a writer, Bird by Bird will provide you with a step-by-step guide that will boost your writing by degrees, from shitty first drafts to publication, but my guess is that Bird by Bird will help you with your life maybe just the teeniest bit more.
Maybe you’ve heard about the novel, Gone Girl, the runaway bestseller by Gillian Flynn, soon to be a movie with Ben Affleck and British actress, Rosamund Pike. If it sounds like a big deal, it is, especially since it’s being directed by David Fincher, yet all I can think of is how I hated the Amy character with all her pretentious, rich girl B.S., and her need to be in both control and demand. I also despised her husband, Nick for his inability to communicate and his total guy-ness, standing his wife up whenever he felt like it, then blowing it off with a characteristic grin and some makeup sex. [For the record, the developed world is inundated with rich socialites and Wall Street types like these two who think we owe them something which is why the developed world is in such a crap-tastic, soulless state right now.] On the stress scale, losing your job is up there in the top ten along with losing your spouse and moving, yet Nick loses his life compass in the process and that single event unravels him as if getting another job was something that never crossed his mind. As a result, I struggled with a vague literary irritation for a chunk of part one – Boy Loses Girl. Then just before part one ended and part two — Boy Meets Girl began, wham, I couldn’t stop reading, needing to know what and where and when and how? You will thoroughly enjoy this intriguing and intellectual game of one-upmanship. The book stands alone as a mystery, but it’s the psychology in all its multi-faceted permutations, love, hate, anger, manipulation, controlled rage, subterfuge, that keep you turning the page. Nick and Amy are two self-indulgent early thirty-somethings with a fab apartment in New York, great jobs, his as a magazine writer and hers as a quiz writer for magazines, (the latter a central theme in the book), with great bone structure, great prospects, and great luck. Amy has always been “Amazing Amy” because of her parents predilection for writing best selling stories about their daughter’s “fictional” life. The stories went on a little too long, however, and by the time Amazing Amy was getting married to Able Andy in the book series, the sales had tanked and the money gone the way of a rent-controlled New York City apartment. In a pinch, Amy’s parents ask to borrow back money from Amy’s trust fund which leaves Amy considerably less wealthy than when she married Nick. Amy and Nick had been floundering for years, but for some reason, they stuck it out even when there were probably better ideas out there, and together head back to Missouri, to Nick’s hometown to care, ostensibly, for his aging father, but also for Nick to open a bar with his twin sister, Margo, borrowing the last of Amy’s money to do so. To say Amy would rather die than live in Missouri is overstating it, but only a wee bit. To her, the place is a hellhole. Adding to the complications, Nick’s father suffers from dementia and rarely calls Amy anything other than “bitch.” Oh yeah, and Nick’s doting mother is dying. Where’s Nick in all this? At the bar. The best part of Gone Girl for me was how it defied characterization. You’d think it was a relational edgy romance until it became a mystery until it became a psychological study of the inner workings of a dysfunctional marriage and the lengths partners will go to win, played out on a national stage in this paparazzi-fueled age of sound bites and photo montages and very little reason. You want to see crazy masquerading as sound and sane and amazing? Read Gone Girl.
Why do any of us ever stop reading Young Adult (YA) novels? When my 13-year old daughter made me promise to read The Fault in Our Stars,I shrugged, agreed, and threw it on the pile with all the other books I have promised to read, knowing it would be a while given that my have to list numbers in the double dozens. She kept after me though, and her relentlessness paid off. The Fault in our Stars by John Green, a lovely piece of literature, posing as a YA novel and named Time’s Best Fiction book of 2012 (where’ve I been?), is loaded with rich and fertile subject matter akin to great literary works. Yet while epic life and death themes wax and wane throughout, TFioS retains all those things sacred to teens like swaggy dialogue and biting wit along with the occasional teen tantrum. Result? Texture and comedic relief temper the grand emotions sweeping through this book like so many divergent currents. Hazel Grace Lancaster is dying. She’s been the cancer kid for a few years now, always on the verge of checking out since her lungs seem uninterested in doing the single job to which they have been assigned: providing air to the rest of her body. In Hazel’s world, everyone she meets suffers from some Herculean illness so her life seems not so bad, considering. At a Support Group meeting in the Literal Heart of Jesus (you’ll see), she meets hunky Augustus Waters and his friend Isaac. Augustus has a touch of cancer himself, but is currently NEC (no evidence of cancer). One thing leads to another and then, badda-bing, badda-bang, Hazel and Augustus are hanging out. I can’t say dating because Hazel holds back, knowing she’s going to die soon, and not wanting to bring anyone else down with her; she’s already suffering tremendously over the fact that her pit crew — mom and dad — will be out of a parenting job once Hazel’s checked out. Augustus, clever, hot Augustus doesn’t take no for an answer and wins Hazel over with a variety of his many charms and abilities, the most important being making contact with Hazel’s favorite author, Peter Van Houten, who wrote her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction. Hazel’s own life seems inextricably interwoven with AIA and she is determined to find out the fate of the characters after the heroine dies, leaving the book in mid-sentence, and the rest of the characters to an unwritten fate. Hazel has written to Van Houten repeatedly, practically begging for answers. Knowing may help disentangle some of her tightly strung parts, or maybe she just wants to know for the sake of knowing. But Van Houten’s not talking until Augustus emails Van Houten’s assistant and receives a response. Perhaps because of his touch of cancer, Augustus is one of those rare teens who asks the hard questions such as what does oblivion feel like and how can I avoid it? He realizes what so many of us go to great lengths to avoid — the knowledge that all life is loss, since even the most fabulous ones end in death and oblivion, so get used to it. The pair travel to Amsterdam using Augustus’s long-unused “wish” (despite his view that “life is not a wish-granting factory”) to meet Van Houten who turns out to be a prick of the highest caliber. It all works out in the end if you consider death a method of working it out. The book is sad, but never mopey and triumphant in a, “yes, oblivion is still waiting around the corner, but deal with it,” kind of way, which is okay, because what I hear Green saying is that even in death there are tremendous amounts of life at stake. Books like TFioS hold the key to the silly, unnerving, unrelenting and magnificent universe without even knowing it, reminding me how I felt as a kid: idealistic and invincible with all the answers. Reading it will bring back all those important, self-aware notions you thought you’d left behind years ago, and give you a fresh clear lens with which to look at them. Oh, and it will help you not forget to be awesome.
If you’re looking for a book that blurs the lines between reality and sci-fi so convincingly that you aren’t sure whether you’re reading fact or fiction, then The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is for you.
Rebecca Skloot delivers a true tale in the purest sense, yet I often had to remind my self that this was not a work of science fiction, but real life in all its complicated glory. Henrietta Lacks, born Loretta Pleasant, and nicknamed Hennie, was raised by her grandfather in a two-story log cabin — at one time slave quarters — following her mother’s death when Henrietta was four. The log cabin was originally part of the slave plantation belonging to Henrietta’s white great-grandfather. As a child, Henrietta shared a room with Day Lacks, her first cousin, and at the age of fourteen, gave birth to the first of their four children. Henrietta likely was sick while pregnant with her fourth child since, four months after he was born, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Henrietta was treated with radium at Johns Hopkins, but not before a part of the tumor was removed along with a sampling of her healthy cells, all without her consent, and sent to the Hopkins lab. There, Dr. George Gey used some of Henrietta’s tissue in his ongoing experiment to grow what he referred to as immortal cells, i.e., a cell line which would reproduce indefinitely and hence be used to study pathogens and their reactions with human cells. The concept was important for science since it would eliminate the need to test potential cures, at least in initial stages, on live human subjects. Gey had been unsuccessfully at it for quite sometime; then HeLa cells came along. (HeLa is a combination of the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names.) Henrietta’s diseased cells proved to be prolific breeders while the healthy cells died like all Gey’s other experiments.
Fast forward to present day: Henrietta’s progeny are struggling. Most don’t even have health insurance, and yet the industry which grew up around Henrietta’s cells is valued in the multi-billion dollar range. Henrietta’s cells could circle the globe several times if laid end-to-end; have been on space missions; and used to create all kinds of meds, some of which Henrietta’s own children are on; and yet despite the fact that Henrietta never gave her permission for the use of her cells, today they are sold for upwards of hundreds of dollars a vial. The greatest casualty of it all, however, were Henrietta’s children, especially her daughter, Deborah, who had little to no recollection of her mother and, as a result, struggled for years with depression, among other things.
Enter Rebecca Skloot. Skloot’s interest in HeLa cells started much like Henrietta’s own cells as they first grew in Gey’s test tubes, slowly at first, while Gey figured out what they were and what he could do with them, and then it was all-consuming. Skloot first became aware of HeLa cells in biology class. Henrietta’s cells had led to so many scientific breakthroughs yet next to nothing was known about her. Years later, Skloot began investigating and eventually tracked down Henrietta’s family although it took almost a year from her initial conversation with Deborah to even have a second one. Persistence paid off and eventually, Deborah’s assistance was the lynchpin that brought the book together. A brilliant recreation of a life whose death made more lasting contributions to science than just about any other single entity, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is an unfiltered look at race and class and life and science. You owe it to yourself and all Henrietta has done for you to read it.
Thank God for Richard Louv who’s written what should be required reading in all high school and college level classes. Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, is a superb study of an essential yet fading resource, one that we can’t afford to lose. Part science, part self-help and part spiritual advisory, Last Child in the Woods takes a hard look at what separation from the natural world is doing not only to the human psyche, but to our natural intelligence. There are things learned in nature, Louv posits, that cannot be learned anywhere else, not from books, or stories, or even the finest universities. In fact, schools themselves may be partially responsible for our disenfranchisement from nature since the naturalist curriculum has been all but dropped from today’s scholastic regimen. Gone are the terrariums, the aquariums and the mini biospheres. Math and sciences such as microbiology and chemical engineering have taken center stage while naturalists have become the poor second cousins. And yet, where would the world be without naturalists like John Muir or Teddy Roosevelt? Without state and national parks is where had Muir and Roosevelt not had the contact with the natural world they’d both experienced as children.
According to Louv, today we live in a world where we’re “continually on the alert,” from increasing modernization of the natural world as more of it is lost to pavement, to the incessant images pouring from our televisions and computers and iPhones. Louv doesn’t point a single finger, but a dozen. He considers various factors such as suburban sprawl which takes away the number of places a child can find solitude in nature, as well as a hyper-vigilant society that is always worried about where our children are and whether any harm may befall them in this minute. The latter is not a bad thing. However, it is significant to note that our children are in no more danger today than at other times in history, it just seems that way given our 24/7 newsfeed and that fact that bad news sells much more readily than good news.
These are not the only factors, of course, but part of a long list which includes structured play such as soccer and various other children’s sports. Louv surmises that while structured play provides exercise it is sorely lacking in the very thing that unstructured play provides to kids: time to breathe and grow and make connections they may not have made because every second of their day is accounted for; time to formulate opinions; time to dream. Kids gravitate to the corners of a playground, Louv says, the tree line, the rock formations, the nooks and crannies, the creeks. A wide open space with nothing but grass is a bore. Kids need less structure and more dimension to spur creativity. For Louv, building a tree fort in his backyard and keeping a turtle that his father had saved from being run over on the highway opened up more synapses in his brain and avenues in his life than winning any soccer game ever could.
If you’re thinking Louv’s one of those uber-environmentalist that just wants to get everyone worked up, you’re wrong. Louv draws on study after study to prove his point. Neither harbinger of doom nor bell toller, Louv offers positive suggestions about how to begin solving some of these very complex issues — starting with getting the kids off the couch and back out into the yard — and paints a beautiful portrait of where, with just a bit of effort, we all could be.
Knowing only that it was akin to the Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, it was with great delight that I dove into Living Well is the Best Revenge, a satisfying romp and a Who’s Who of American expats living in France during the artistically exuberant and modernistic revolution of the 1920’s. First published in 1971, the book has been reprinted with a new introduction by the author, Calvin Tomkin’s, who has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1960. I read a dog-eared copy my sister gave me, complete with grainy black and white photos yellowed with age, but maintaining their exquisite aura.
Living Well is Tomkins’s account of the lives of Gerald and Sarah Murphy. Upon arriving in France and looking for a creative outlet, Gerald and Sarah aligned themselves with a dance troupe at a local theatre. Gerald, a landscape architect, soon branches out and takes painting lessons, proving to be remarkably adept. From 1922 to 1929, he produced fourteen works, about one per year (only seven have survived), every one a unique modernistic masterpiece. The Murphy’s activities expose them to a circle of brilliance and some of the greatest creatives minds of the era: Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger (filmmaker, sculptor, painter), Ernest Hemingway, and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. The Murphys, in fact, were the character study for more than a few scenes in various Fitzgerald novels. The Fitzgerald’s were not the only ones to frequent the Murphy compound, sometimes spending weeks at a time, first in Paris and then in Antibes, the seaside town on the French Riviera which initially had a fairly uninhabitable beach, and which Gerald himself cleared a section of one meter at a time.
Dynamic, tasteful, and visionary, the Murphy’s, particularly Sarah, imbued everyday events with an artistic grace that always attracted people who were drawn by a combination of the Murphy’s mystique, and a real concern for their friends. While the Murphy’s exhibited their own creative nature and an innate sense of style, they did not have the characteristic eccentricities of the artist, but rather that je ne sais quoi we all aspire to possess. They threw wonderful parties, not big, but with great attention to detail, and had an eye for trends. They were always available for their friends, even the crazy, prodigal Fitzgeralds who were both a mess on more than a few levels. Everyone within the Murphy’s sphere came to rely on their characteristic warmth and comfort as if they were part of the Murphy’s extended family. The couple was so inviting, Picasso often brought his aged mother. Yet despite the celebrity nature of their lives, the Murphy’s were nonplussed: their children informed their decisions. Unfortunately, when their son, Patrick was diagnosed with tuberculosis, eventually dying after years of battling the disease, and their son, Boath contracted meningitis and died, strangely enough, two years before Patrick, the light seemed to go out in the Murphys. Gerald stopped painting, Sarah became withdrawn, the well part of living was over. The Murphy’s stay in France ended in 1929 and Gerald and Sarah returned to the states where Gerald resurrected the ailing family business.
Interestingly, Gerald had a Paris show in the 1920‘s and some 50 years later one in New York City, this one a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and a testament to his influence on Pop Art.
Illustrated with nearly 70 photographs from the Murphy’s family album and with a special section on Murphy’s paintings, Living Well Is the Best Revenge presents a fascinating look at a highly original couple as enticing as the generation of expatriates with which they’d surrounded themselves. Reading it, you’ll wish you had been friends with the Murphys, too.
When Margaret met Bruce she had an electric surge that started in her heart and traveled like lightning throughout her body, putting her senses on full alert. She gasped. Her hand went to her heart. Bruce responded with a look, but did not return Margaret’s googly-eyed stare. What had happened to spark Margaret’s reaction, and what later brought and held the pair together is the subject of The Honeymoon Effect: The Science of Creating Heaven on Earth, Bruce Lipton’s third book. Part common sense, part hard science, and part personal memoir, and always informative and entertaining, The Honeymoon Effect is a physiological and often philosophical accounting of what makes people fall and stay in love. Lipton, formerly a cell biologist who pioneered early stem cell research currently lectures as a developmental biologist and is a professor at the New Zealand College of Chiropractic in addition to being one of my favorite New Age-type visionaries whose work has long been on the cutting edge of thought. Just listening to a one of his webinars and tapping his extraordinary energy field gives me a boost like a double shot of espresso as the energy travels through the air waves straight to my grey matter; the transmitted thoughts have a force of their own. Thoughts have power, Lipton has long said in his previous books, The Biology of Belief – Unleashing the Power of Your Consciousness, Matter and Miracles; and Spontaneous Evolution – Our Positve Future and a Way to Get There From Here, which are both testaments to Lipton’s metaphysical view of the world. While The Honeymoon Effect is ostensibly a self-help guide to finding and keeping the partner that’s the best fit for you, Honeymoon, is, moreover, a molecular distillation of the mind/body/spirit connection and the reasons why, on a cellular level we fall and stay in love. There are physiological reasons for the falling, a chemistry to love like the poets say, and not just in the metaphoric sense, but one that resonates in our cells. We fall in love, but rarely stay there. That’s the terrain of the lucky few. According to Lipton, however, it could be the terrain of everyone if they just knew how to use the tools at hand. “We create our lives with our beliefs, and we broadcast those beliefs into the energetic environment around us,” Lipton says. Yet, it’s not enough to say that this book is about beliefs and the power of positive thinking; it’s also about the grand design of which we are a small part, and how we can cultivate our emotions with something akin to mathematical precision if we know how it works. The Honeymoon Effect is a gem of a pocket companion for anyone looking for love and for those who want to stay there. Read it, not just to find your One and Only, the exciting and amazing partner of your dreams, but to find and fall in love with, once and for all, the most important person you’ll ever know in your life: You.
Summer reading has officially begun. With B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger: A Novel, we are invited to sit back and follow the intrigue as a promising young artist crosses the line between legit and starving, to slightly shady and flush with more cash than she can spend without calling attention to her change of circumstance.
Claire Roth is a painter of great talent and an expert of Edgar Degas in all of his impermeable shades of genius. By day she is a “legitimate” copier of famous artworks, churning out copies for Reproductions dot com. Claire feels good about her work, because it pays her enough – barely – to sustain the more important original paintings she creates.
From the outset, Claire is plagued by a past that sent her skittering to the sidelines of the art world. Before her mentor and lover’s untimely death, she collaborated on a painting with him which garnered immediate commercial success, and for which he took all credit. In the shock of betrayal, Claire challenged the authenticity of her mentor’s work, claiming it (rightfully) as her own. Critics and art experts agreed that the work she claimed was not her own, and she was disgraced by the elite clutch of experts that could make or in her case, break, a career.
Fast forward several years, and Claire is surprised by an offer from the celebrated Aiden Markel, owner of the Markel G gallery, to create a copy of a famous work. No one is more surprised than she is to find that the “copy” is to be the famous After the Bath by Edgar Degas, a masterwork missing since a daring theft at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Markel assures Roth that the Degas is an original and that she is doing the art world a favor by creating an exact replica so that the black-market clients who are clamoring for the painting with never get their hands on the real one. The trouble is, when Claire begins to painstakingly examine the painting, it becomes clear to her that the stolen painting is itself, a copy.
To muddy the waters even further, Aiden Markel is smooth and seductive and when she questions the authenticity of the work or the danger of copying a master like Degas and trying to pass it off as original, he assures her he has it all worked out, that none of the work can be traced back to her. It eases her conscience to know that she is merely copying a copy, but still, Claire is walking the finest of ethical lines. Markel manages to seal the deal and win over Claire’s mind and heart however, when he offers to host a show of her original work at his ultra-hip uptown Markel G; offering her the legitimacy that she so craves. Success is not without its price however, and in the end, both Roth and Markel pay dearly.
A fun read, The Art Forger is a clever whodunit that makes perfect poolside reading.
For a long time I resisted. People on the train were devouring it; colleagues at work were raving about it; people at the gym were engrossed while on the StairMaster; and still I resisted. Not because I didn’t think it would be good. Quite the opposite. I’ve read books like this before. Big-a@% tomes that start off quick as a flash and keep you going, two, three, four books later, a sprint and a marathon combined; you’re panting for air, but need the words, and until you get to the end you can’t sleep, you can’t answer questions, you can’t even look at another book, you just need to keep reading to see how it ends.
A Game of Thrones is five books long and counting. I’ve finished book one and at the rate I read — a book or two a month — I see where my next few months is headed. That sounds like disdain, but I am in no such place. I want to know what happens to young Bran and his climbing skills; to Arya and her desire to be a master sword fighter instead of a lady; to Sansa and her dream of a prince who will sweep her up and make her his queen; to Robb, the oldest of the clan at 15, and his desire to be lordly and brave like his father; to Eddard (Ned) Stark, the noble Lord of Winterfell, who along with his wife, Caitlin, mother to six of Ned’s children, not counting the bastard Jon Snow — and he’s always referred to as the bastard Jon Snow, poor kid — rule as Lord and Lady of Winterfell in the north, a provincial, well-regarded if ridiculously cold region of the Seven Kingdoms.
Winter is coming, they love to say even though ten years have gone by without one, but the castle is warm, its walls heated by hot springs, and well-protected by Ned’s men and the direwolves that Robb and Jon Snow found as pups, one for each of the Stark children. Man and beast alike cower when they see the direwolves; coincidentally, the direwolf is the sigil of the House of Stark.
The Seven Kingdoms are ruled by King Robert Baratheon who stormed the Trident along with his best friend, Ned, and overthrew mad king Aerys Targaryen from the line of the blood of dragons because Aerys stole Robert’s betrothed, Ned’s sister, Lyanna who died soon after. Aerys’s heirs, Viserys and Danerys escaped as children or they, too, would have been murdered in the melee. As adults, neither intends to take their family’s overthrow lying down.
Then there’s the Lannisters, an old and powerful family to whom King Robert is heavily indebted. Robert’s wife, Queen Cersei, is one of them and she hates her philandering husband because he loves the dead Lyanna more than her. Cersei has managed to surround Robert with nothing but Lannisters in various positions of power which is why Robert leaves the castle — he can smell a hostile takeover coming — and rides to Winterfell to enlist Ned as The Hand of the King. The last Hand died an untimely death (hint, murder), but Ned, ever noble cannot refuse his king and agrees to go.
Sounds like I just gave away the entire book, but this all happens in about the first hundred pages. There’s leagues to go from there and here’s the rub: it’s all so medieval with knights and ladies; boiled leather and mail (armor); swords and anvils; throw in a dynasty that claims dragon blood; and the Others, the blue-eyed dead that come to back to life to slaughter the living and until now have only been seen beyond The Wall, and you’ve got a recipe for crazy. The Wall, a massive ice structure that separates the civilized and feral worlds, is guarded night and day by the men of the Night’s Watch who swore an oath of brotherhood and to dedicate their lives to protecting the free world which is where Jon Snow and his direwolf Ghost have gotten themselves to. It’s this and a whole lot more that earns this book the genre title of Sci-Fi, but for those in the know, it’s historical fiction with a big twist. So if you want a taste of what life was like during the dark ages, the fear and the fearlessness, the lust for power, and the near complete disregard for human life, with a bunch of magic thrown in for good measure, this is the book for you.
Set in the first decade of the 1900‘s, By Nancy Horan: Loving Frank: A Novel
is part soap opera, part Architectural Digest, part travel guide and a must read for feminists and Frank Lloyd Wright-ophiles alike. It’s easy to see how the uber-talented Wright struggled to make a name for himself and his Organic Architecture in the stifling mindset of the early 20th century. Wright, who liked to say he saw God in nature, strove to make his buildings so in tune with their natural surroundings it looked as though the buildings were birthed from the very ground upon which they sat. It’s also easy to see how an intellectual feminist, suffragette and very married woman, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, gave up everything she thought was hers: devoted husband, Edwin; two beautiful children; a warm relationship with her sister, Lizzie who had sacrificed much to put Mamah through college; and a cushy, affluent lifestyle in the suburbs of Chicago; and threw in her lot with Wright. Mamah was married — one of the few options open to women at the time — but not terribly happy. She’d turned over the raising of her children to their nanny and busied herself with women’s issues and lectures at the University, but couldn’t really find her niche. She and Edwin were more like partners who ran a home and raised children together rather than soul mates. Along came Wright, flamboyant, eccentric and completely self-assured in his craft, despite the lack of a formal architectural education, with charisma and genius out the wazoo. Married at the immature age of 19, Wright had six children with his wife, Catherine, and while Catherine threw herself into their children, Wright threw himself into his work and giving “his gift” to the world. Mamah loved Edwin in a way, but Frank’s marriage to Catherine had been a shell for years. Still she would not give Frank a divorce. Frank and Mamah’s relationship started innocently enough, he the up and coming architect with wild new ideas, and she the sublime intellectual with her feminist ideals and steady husband, the clients, yet the magnetism between Frank and Mamah was inescapable. A spark ignited, one that almost sent the lovers up in flames after the media in Oak Park got wind of the scandal They tried to fight it for the sake of their families, but the pull was too great so they ran to escape, these two highly individualized citizens of the world, to Germany where Mamah met the Swedish writer and feminist, Ellen Key a meeting that again altered her life. Mamah took a solo trip to Sweden to learn the language as a prerequisite to being hired to translate Key’s works into German and English and then she and Frank were in Paris, and Italy, and Japan and with much trepidation on Mamah’s part, finally back home to Wisconsin, Wright’s boyhood home, where he built Taliesin East, an architectural marvel and the first place since childhood that Mamah truly felt she belonged. At the time it was the consummate dwelling and encompassed all Wright believed about organic architecture. Perhaps in the 21st century, the lovers could have lived at Taliesin in peace, but the early 1900’s was not a broad-minded, forgiving time. That the book ends in tragedy is both shocking and expected. The world wasn’t ready for this kind of love, and maybe not even this kind of architecture, but their love, like Nature herself, was resilient, and the legacy lives on through Wright’s masterpieces, and now, Horan’s writing.
I read Kelly Corrigan’s second memoir, Lift, in one sitting, and wished it would go on forever. Lift, a pastiche of Corrigan’s family life told through several insightful, elegant, sometimes heart-wrenching vignettes is imbued with a perception and candor that is Corrigan’s hallmark. This is a woman who knows what’s important in life, who knows when to ask questions, when to take notes, and when to put the pen down. It was Corrigan’s deposition-like questioning which earned her the title of the book. During one such session, a friend’s husband who loves to hang glide revealed that lift is what one gets when, while hang gliding, you encounter an upward force that counteracts the force of gravity, a change in the direction of a moving stream of air. In the sport of hang gliding, it’s your sole method of propulsion. His description, more dangerous than his wife knew or had cared to admit, and Corrigan’s retelling of the moment her friend realizes the danger her husband periodically subjects himself to is demonstrative of Corrigan’s brilliance as a writer. In a sentence, a single snapshot of their lives, she reveals the scope of their relationship, exposing both strength and vulernability with a simple turn of phrase. This ability to weigh life in words and to make it universal is the mark of a fine write.
Lift is ostensibly a letter to Corrigan’s daughters, something for them to have when they reach a certain age, or maybe one day when their mother is gone. Perhaps it was Corrigan’s bout with breast cancer that started her thinking about things. She chronicled that experience, interlaced with her own childhood stories, in her first book, The Middle Place. Or maybe it was the horror of ovarian cancer which cost her not only her ovaries, but the chance for more children, something she says she may never get over. Whatever the genesis, Corrigan’s cancer allowed her to let people in and do for her as she never could before. As a result, she doesn’t look at life the way most people do. She knows that the long haul could be short indeed, and she views each moment through her close up lens — Corrigan is also an excellent photographer — knowing that it’s a crap shoot, that we could get just this one day or 10,000 more, and soaking it all in while it’s there in front of her. I met her briefly at a Junior. League Author’s Luncheon in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; the woman has an uncanny ability to connect with everyone she meets, size them up in a few seconds and give them exactly what they need — no veils or hidden doors, just open communication and full on love — as if there’s not a moment to lose. At first you think she might be BS’ing you, or that maybe she’s looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but then you realize she’s popped out the lenses and there’s nothing obstructing her view. Plus, like her writing, she’s funny as hell.
Lift is not a memoir in the traditional sense, but a brief historic family interlude told through its still strong, still beating heart center. You can read Lift in an afternoon, but like Corrigan herself, you’ll remember it for a lifetime.
When Alexandra Fuller first arrived with her parents and older sister to gaze upon the wide plains of the African landscape and breathe the humid, sticky air, she was just two. Her parents had already lost a son, a toddler, while living in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and afterwards had moved to Derbyshire, England where Fuller was born, perhaps to ease their grief. The lower-income farmhouse they’d rented in England didn’t pan out and two years later, they moved with Alexandra and Vanessa, back to Rhodesia. Although Fuller now lives in America with her husband, Africa is where her soul resides. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight recounts Fuller’s childhood years, living in Africa in the country her soul refuses to let go.
Africa is nothing if not a wild place where the living is close to the very heartbeat of the earth and sometimes the only way to trump wild is with wild. From the beginning, and much like Africa itself, there was nothing easy or serene about Fuller’s existence. The family eked out a living, raising tobacco, or cattle, and growing veggies when conditions were sufficiently hospitable. Wrap Indiana Jones and McGiver together and you’ll get Fuller’s father. There was nothing this man couldn’t handle, from running a ranch to spear-heading raids from the bush during a revolution. Fuller’s mother had her own skill set, part field nurse, part farm wife, part drunk. Five pregnancies and only two live babies to show for it would probably push any sane woman over the edge. It was not uncommon for Fuller’s mother to stay up all night drinking and arguing politics with guests, and when the last of them finally passed out, singing along to her tired record collection or listening to the radio station until morning when the family would find her sitting in the lotus position on the front porch. In America, such behavior would be aberrant, but in Africa, it’s perhaps necessary, especially when rebel troops are fighting army dudes in the hills behind your house and you need a convoy into town just to assure you don’t get blown to bits by a land mine on your way to buy food and supplies. Under these circumstances, there’s a few more important things to worry about than how much you had to drink last night.
Fuller’s parents were enlistees in the police reservists, the American equivalent of our nation’s Army Reserves, yet unlike America, the action they saw met them right at their front door. The family had moved to a farm at the edge of Rhodesia, bordering the hills of Mozambique, a country fully embroiled in a raging civil war already ten years old. Even without their police reservist titles, the war would have come to them by virtue of their location. Fuller’s mother worked the radio and her father was sometimes gone for weeks, hiding out in the bush, sabotaging enemy forces while her mother tended to the ranch, the kids and the hired help, a shotgun and a few dogs by her side. Fuller’s mother could field dress a wound with little more than saline and bandages and saved a few lives, during both war and peace time, including the family’s housekeeper after she was brutally stabbed by the Fullers’ cook who then made off with everything worth stealing. Fuller’s father tracked the cook over many miles and brought him back home where the villagers administered African Justice before hauling him off to jail.
As an aside — which is almost the way this memoir is written — Fuller recants how she nearly died once from drinking contaminated water, yet in her fever haze she still swore an allegiance to Africa, a country whose untamed spirit might kill her, but for which she would never lose her undying devotion. Fuller’s got a trunk full of such anecdotes, life and death moments with all the beauty and glory of a wide-open prairie. It takes a special breed to flourish under such conditions. Fuller is that special breed and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is a love letter to the country that molded her.
You have to love a book about a woman who discovers her innate worth on a chicken farm in rural Oregon. You must adore a heroine who follows her heart even when doing it means turning her back on a sure bet. You might say you need to love a girl who walks out on a blue-blood fiance because unhappiness threatens to swallow her whole. Most of all, you have to admire the chica who hangs her wedding dress on the limbs of a tree that is dead dead dead and drives straight out of town. Julia’s Chocolates delivers all these succulent details, and more.
Cathy Lamb’s novel, Julia’s Chocolates, touches a nerve that any woman with a heartbeat will relate to. It seeks out the insecurities we all carry around like little designer bags to reveal them to the world. Who can’t love that? Julia has a weakness for a man in charge. So she’s not perfect. So she carries a few extra pounds. What girl doesn’t harbor imperfections? But the difference between me and you and Julia is that we (I pray), don’t let the man who declares his love for us slap us around, say hurtful things for kicks.
One day, Julia is tired to the grave of her lover’s abuse and despite a gnawing fear that he will hunt her down no matter what, she leaves. She lights out for the one person she thinks can save her. Lamb’s narrative is lyrical and lovely and the quirkiness of her characters adds an elegant counter-point to the deadly violence that tracks Julia across the country, threatens her with messages that pointedly say I know where you are and I’m coming for you.
Meanwhile, out in Oregon, Aunt Lydia is a woman worth knowing. She has enough love to make Julia believe that she is beautiful and worthy and valued. Aunt Lydia has a magic all her own and when she calls together one of her womens’ circles, her niece cannot refuse. Julia believes she has a Dread Disease that will kill her. . .that is if her psycho ex-fiance doesn’t do it first. What she really has is anxiety, but it’s something she learns to live with, like the garden of porcelain toilets in Aunt Lydia’s front yard.
For all her auntie’s eccentricities, Julia discovers a family in Lydia’s community of friends and lovers and she feels prized for perhaps the first time in her life. She meets a man she calls Paul Bunyan because he is big and burly and handsome enough to stop her heart. She works part time at a library in the next town and delivers newspapers from her car because those are the only jobs she can find. With Aunt Lydia’s sensible care, Julia begins to come out of her cocoon, she begins to make friends, even meets a really nice man who doesn’t seem to notice her fatal flaws. She begins to make what quickly become chocolates that people will drive miles for, but then the hammer falls. Lydia is diagnosed with cancer. The fiancé is on his way and makes it clear that she will be punished for her betrayal.
This is a funny, sadly earnest novel that is far too real in too many ways. The sweetness of Julia’s Chocolates comes from the courage of a woman who has been given no reason to hope, but she does it anyway and when she does, love follows.
Our society is obsessed with the search for youth, and so unhinged by the notion of death that we take Herculean steps to keep people alive, sometimes using methods that defy logic. Not so many generations ago, people died at home, surrounded by their loved ones who nursed and fed and cared for them during their last days. Today people die in the hospital, surrounded by the whirl and hum of high tech gadgetry and if they’re lucky, the occasional relative. Death is no longer the spiritual experience it once was.
Lucky for us there are people like Jan Groft who, through her writing and example, help us to bridge the ever-widening gap between life and death. Prior to writing As We Grieve, Discoveries of Grace in Sorrow, Groft conducted half a year of research, reaching out to friends and loved ones with a single question: what is your most poignant memory of the death of a loved one? In doing so, she created a sacred space for dozens and dozens of people to chronicle one of the most significant events of their lives. Even now that the book is published, Groft is still collecting anecdotes, listening with an almost preternatural ability to people describe the pain and the process.
While the research took six months, the real work for As We Grieve began earlier and was rooted in Groft’s own pain. She cared for her father, or as she says, “it felt more like accompanying him on a journey, a very bumpy one” as he lay dying. “He found ways to make everything — even struggles, even dying — worthwhile and rewarding, as weird as that may sound.” He was gone in a season, and as part of her grieving process, she wrote her first book, Riding the Dog, My Father’s Journey Home. The seeds of As We Grieve were sprouting. They had been planted years before with one of her sister’s deaths, and continued to grow each time a friend or family member died. Groft began to think about the moments of grace she had experienced with the death of two of her sisters, her parents, her best friend. The bones of the book took shape. So Groft collected stories, as all good writers do, and noticed how others’ experiences aligned with her own. She asked friends and relatives, people at her church, and anyone with an interest to share their own stories. The heart of the book began to beat and she was rewarded with grace. Groft was the farmer, planting the seed, tilling the soil, watering with great care, pruning where necessary. People intrinsically knew they could trust their most intimate stories with her, knew that she would handle them with respect. Groft took their raw, unfettered emotions, wrapped her inherent and hard-earned wisdom and compassion around them, and produced a jewel of a book. As We Grieve, reveals Groft to be part counselor, part confidant, part best friend. “I hope it feels like a companion to them, like an embrace at a time when all of us need it most.”
I cried intermittently throughout my own reading of As We Grieve, cried for each of the contributors and what their pain reflected back to me of my own heart. Some I knew personally, most not, yet all of their stories resonated with a poignancy, a universality that gave me a safe place from which to review my own emotions. For anyone who has lost a loved one or is currently experiencing that most profound emotion we call grief, As We Grieve will provide, if not complete relief — because only time and grace can do that — at least a bandaid with a big old squirt of the stuff that takes the sting away.
Check this out! Portland writer and illustrator Charlotte Vivian Rodenberg’s beautiful book is a magical place where heart and art converge. This Jurasic tale will charm readers of all ages.
Review by Pam Lazo
If Graham Swift weren’t a writer, he would be a historian, and not just your average historian, but a historian’s historian, the way Tony Bennett is a singer’s singer. Waterland, a Booker Prize nominee and “The Best English Novel of 1983”, according to the British daily newspaper, The Guardian, is set in the Fens: 1,200 square miles of marshland located along the Eastern England coast, and bordered on two sides by limestone hills and the North Sea. The majority of the novel takes place along the silt-laden banks of the Great Ouse River, the fourth largest river in England, in Fenland, a dichotomy in terms since without the lock keepers and the sluice and the far-thinkers of the previous generations who employed the ancient engineering practice of drainage, creating valuable real estate where before there was nothing but water, there would be no land.
An American equivalent is the Mississippi Delta which follows its own erratic soul as it ebbs and flows, widens and narrows, jumps its channel. Water by its very nature is a ubiquitous creature and so is Swift’s novel, told in turns by an omniscient narrator who switches from adolescent, to young adult to middle age and around again, and, like history, you don’t always realize what’s going on until you’ve gotten to the end and can see more clearly with hindsight as your ally.
That narrator is Tom Crick in various stages of his life. Crick has become a history teacher and his tutorial begins and ends in the Town of Gildsey, situated near the confluence of the Leem and Ouse Rivers, a town created by centuries of Atkinsons, men who brewed beer and drained the land, and gave people places to live dryly and drink happily. But that’s just the beginning. These generations of Atkinsons who each did better than their fathers in business, that is, until the last one, brewed a stout and handsome ale that became famous as much for the Atkinson control of navigation — if one holds a monopoly on shipping, one holds the only product available — as for the fact that the beer was by all accounts exceptional. It wouldn’t have been possible without the generations of Cricks working alongside the Atkinsons, over two centuries in their employ, creating the town and the beer and the life. It’s a painstakingly detailed historical account of the lives and loves of the people who damed and diked the land, who kept the lock and watched the river, who made it hospitable and when necessary, turned it away. At the core of the story is a puzzle, a mystery that is in no way predictable although from the telling, it’s almost as if you knew it all along. That life was harder then, much harder than now, is an unmistakeable truth that runs through every page. That it was also simpler is another.
The novel concludes sometime toward the end of WWII, during the period of time of Tom Cricks adolescence, but we’ve already jumped ahead and know the trials and travails of the older Tom Crick the history teacher, know that that the novel doesn’t actually end there, that Crick’s life goes on and that the road is only temporarily less bumpy. Like a random snap shot of a life in progress, this non-linear ending seems a perfectly natural place as it was this moment in Crick’s life that reconciles all the other voices of his narrative incarnations, one that defined a large part of him, even though that man was little more than a boy at the time. A more beautifully crafted book you’d be hard-pressed to find. Go for the history. Stay for the mystery.
Reviewed by Pam Lazos
In 1933, British author, James Hilton (1900-1954) wrote Lost Horizon, the now classic novel about the mystical land of Shangri-La (notice I didn’t say mythical because I’m hoping someday to discover its existence for myself). Hilton won a Hawthornden Prize for the book, the British literary award akin to the Pulitzer, given for best imaginative work of literature. The feted writer who met with success early in life also penned another classic, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which is perhaps why he lived the latter part of his life in Hollywood, writing scripts and hosting a radio show for CBS.
Lost Horizon had the uncanny good fortune to be the first “pocket book,” or paperback ever made (thereby bringing literacy and joy to the masses!). After a long lead in — the dictates of what constitutes a great start to a book were likely much different in 1933 — the book takes off, literally, with four passengers being hijacked for unknown reasons while on their way to India. Of the four passengers, two are military types known to each other, one is a missionary and the fourth an American business man. The hijacker takes them at gun point over the perilous mountain passes of Tibet, stopping only once to refuel. The wary passengers attempt to speak with the pilot, demanding to know where they are being taken, but before the first words are out of their mouths, the pilot sticks a gun through the cockpit window, ending the conversation. Yet even the most trying of situations are met with English equanimity in this book and when the plane crashes and the pilot dies a day later from internal injuries, no one really panics despite that they are stranded in this remote region of the world without food, water or even a map to guide them. So begins their perilous journey over craggy mountain passes, headed toward an august mountain, standing apart from the rest and shimmering against the morning sky. Now the real story begins.
As luck would have it, the stranded passengers are rescued by a small caravan of traveling lamas who bear a litter carrying an elderly Chinese man, Chan. The lamas are enthusiastic and hospitable and welcome the stranded passengers to return with them to the lamasery. The group agrees, hoping to rest, recover and make further arrangements to return home. So begins their immersion into Shangri-La, a utopian land located in an obscure location in the Tibetan Mountains. The aura of mystery surrounding Shangri-La is tremendous, yet the guests are treated like royalty, and since their immediate needs are met there is no cause for alarm. The place has an air about it that settles into your bones and it’s not just the altitude. After several weeks, all but one of the four are in sync with the rhythm of Shangri-La, no longer in a hurry to return to the mainland. Of course, not everyone is happy, particularly Mallinson who has left a girlfriend behind. More weeks, more inquiries concerning when the porters will be arriving to take them back to civilization, and then a strange transformation occurs: three of the four passengers decide they may just like to stay after all. For behind each door lies a secret: art and music and literature and rooms filled with exquisite antique treasures in this mansion in the sky.
For Conway, an intellectual military man whose life had lost much of its flavor, his stay in Shangri-La activates a zest for life he had long since forgotten. As is customary for each person who comes to Shangri-La, Conway is invited to visit with the head lama, but when that invitation is repeated over and over, it sets in motion unprecedented events. During these visits, the head lama reveals the secrets of Shangri-La. Because of his newfound knowledge, the life Conway has lived until now can never be lived in the same way again. Much more I cannot tell you without giving the book away and ruining its mystery, but as you may have guessed, Conway must make a life-altering decision. Lost Horizon is reflective of every man’s story, the search for paradise lost. Or is it found?
Reviewed by Pam Lazos
When Anne Lamott was almost 40, she received some life-altering news: she was pregnant. Unfortunately, she was also single, and making a living on a fluctuating writer’s income. Despite her panic, or maybe because of it, Lamott turned a fearsome event into a brilliant memoir. Almost 20 years later, Lamott’s son, Sam, finds his girlfriend in a similar situation, and so begins the birthing of Some Assembly Required, a Journal of My Son’s First Son. Part diary, part interview, part survival guide, at turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Some Assembly Required picks up where Operating Instructions left off if you don’t count the twenty intervening years. The book ostensibly chronicles the first year of Lamott’s grandson, Jax Jesse Lamott’s life, but as with all Lamott’s books, it’s really a testament to the power of love and family and redemption. Co-authored with her son, Sam, who wanted Jax to have a book of his own, mother and son deliver insightful observations of the minutiae of child rearing and child spoiling amidst a healthy sprinkling of Lamott’s trademark universal truths. Sam inherited his mother’s sublime wit, and Lamott has not lost a bit of her own.
From within the pages of Some Assembly Required rises the voice of a wise woman, one who’s got the scar tissue to prove it, and her baby adult son, not even old enough to legally drink, having just reached the double-decade mark, yet raising an infant son of his own. Sam may have it tough: full time workload at school, full-on parenting responsibilities, tempestuous relationship with his girlfriend, Amy, but Lamott always had it tougher. The comparisons, spanning those twenty years sometimes make it difficult for her to forget it. Where Sam and Amy can always run to Lamott for help, financial, babysitting, whatever, Lamott never had that luxury. Not that she holds it against them (well, maybe the teeniest of bits). Rather, she continually offers her friendly motherly advice while also realizing that they have the right to screw up their own lives. Mother knows best, after all, and one day, they may realize it, too. While Lamott may not have all the answers, but she’s developed a set of practical tools for dealing with the issues: chocolate, mindful breathing, naps, chocolate, reaching out to wise friends, a good book, chocolate.
Like the Sword of Damocles, dangling above Lamott’s head is the ever present possibility that Amy may take Jax and hightail it back to Chicago, Amy’s hometown and the place where her extensive family and support structure resides. Such a move would essentially devastate Sam and Anne although it’s not clear who would suffer more. To calm herself, Lamott engages her coping strategies of seeking friends’ wise counsel, her own acerbic wit, and food, mainly chocolate. Repeat as necessary.
So many things happen in Some Assembly Required — it is a full year in the life of a new baby and his exhausted parents, grandparent, and various and sundry friends and relatives — but in the end, nothing out of the ordinary really happens. Yet chronicling the beauty and grace of an ordinary life is a hallmark of Lamott’s writing and why we love her. That and because of her gift to tell a tale in exquisitely lyrical terms, as if each day is like an unwrapped present, waiting to be opened and enjoyed. Some Assembly Required is Christmas morning, as gift upon gift is opened on its pages. Every page will break your heart wide open.