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Literature, life, reflections on books read and books written. Photography and videologs are integral to the postings.
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In this week's New Yorker,
in a piece called "The Word Shed," Colum McCann writes of his father, a features editor and author, typing away in a shed. McCann, at the time, was a kid. Wanted to play soccer. Didn't pay his father's two-fingered typing much mind.
Until a book his Dad wrote appeared, written for kids, called "Goals for Glory," the story of a boy without much money who dreamed of soccer triumphs. McCann read the story by flashlight, he says. One year later, when the book was published, he took it to school, where his teacher read one chapter per week to McCann and his classmates.
I pick up McCann's telling of this perfect story here:
I will never forget Christopher Howlett, my red-headed desk mate, jumping around like a prayer in an air raid as Mr. Kells reached the final page. Georgie scored the winning goal. The classroom erupted. The kid from my father's shed—that tangle of hair that had somehow sprung up from behind a typewriter ribbon—was carried with us outside the school gates, down Mart Lane, through the swamp, and into the field at the back of Dunnes Stores, where, with a soggy leather ball at our feet, we all became Georgie, at least for a minute or two.
Two days ago, I wrote here
of why I write, of how it calms me, of how it releases me, for a spell, from the world. I'd like to amend that post to say this as well:
I write for that one reader (there need be only one) who may "jump around like a prayer in an air raid" while reading toward or listening for the story's end.
Do we love Colum McCann? Oh, yes we do. Do we love his dad? That, too.
(Oh how I came to own three copies of Transatlantic,
and other McCann love.)
Yesterday, Lara Starr of Chronicle Books wrote to share the news that GOING OVER was included in the BCCB Holiday Gift Guide,
news I read while giving a very old friend a tour of the Penn campus. The entire list is worth reading, for those of you who are still in shopping mode.
(Buy books from real bookstores! Please!)
This morning, Twitter delivers this incredibly gorgeous and smart review of the book
that defined, for me, much of my writing and teaching year. These are words only Colleen Mondor—author, publisher, critic, woman deeply invested in history—could write. I share a final paragraph, but every single word she writes, the perspective she yields about this period, and the photo she used to headline her review matter to me. They put a tear on my face this morning.
Going Over is a teen novel of far bigger ideas than most I have come across. The setting is brilliant and the split narrative, between Ada and Stefan, provides readers with a close look at just how different Berlin became after the split. (Which also makes the reunification that much more impressive.) There are so many novels set during WWII, while the Cold War remains stubbornly overlooked. I'm thus delighted with what Kephart has done here and find these characters, in their decidedly European setting, to be different in the best way. It's a thought provoking title with exceedingly likeable characters and a great ending; all of which make Going Over a winner.
So many thanks, Colleen, and BCCB, and all those who believed in Berlin, and in me, this year. You allow me to keep dreaming forward in ways I'll never adequately explain. To keep writing these small books that take these big risks and hope to find readers who will willingly enter these worlds.
There is hardly time, hardly ever time, but yesterday morning, early, I wrote three paragraphs of a novel.
Closed my eyes to the terrible news of the world, tunneled in, aligned myself with characters who have lived with me for well over a year and who suffer from an extreme deficit of attention.
The headache I'd been having lifted. The calm that had eluded me set in. I wasn't running, racing, rushing, pressing, jammed against a deadline (several deadlines), and the words walked in.
Enough to remember that it's possible. Enough to look back on as the rush, again, begins. Enough to remember why I write in the first place—not to be famous (I'm not), not to be rich (what does one do with richness?), not for the sake of power (I'll choose family and friendship over power any day). But to be at peace. To stop and listen. To imagine a better world than the one the news reports. To live there, only briefly. To escape inside of me.
Ellen Klein, who stands behind Alexandria, VA's fabulous independent children's bookstore, Hooray for Books, (and who introduced me to Debbie Levy, a friendship I'll always cherish), sent a somewhat cryptic note not long ago.
Ellen had read One Thing Stolen,
she said. And therefore I was read The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender,
a book she has called as "rare and beautiful as Mona Lisa's smile." The author is Leslye Walton. It is a debut. It has turned many heads and now, when I think back on it, I remember dear Kelsey Coons (my cousin's daughter, a beautiful soul, a smart cookie, a holder of a master's degree in publishing, a design talent currently completing a fellowship at Chronicle, and a rising star in publishing) urging me toward the title, too.
I was to read the book, Ellen said, but only if I bought it at an independent. (My preference anyway, though my determination to buy Brown Girl Dreaming
and I'll Give You the Sun
from an independent has been thwarted by sold-out shelves everywhere I turn. Still, I'm holding on.)
In any case, it's been a hectic time. But I found Ava
at the Doylestown Bookshop and last night read the first 50 pages. Ava
is clearly a no-categories book, a concept I embrace from head to foot. It is also astonishingly beautifully written, and while I have not finished (I will!), I stop in my enthusiasm to quote you this, below. It doesn't matter what the story is about (not yet, not to me, anyway). I'm just in love with the vivacious prose:
The day Emilienne met Satin Lush she was wearing her cloche hat, newly painted with red poppies. Her hair was curled and peeked lightly out from under the hat to cup the curve of her chin. There was a rip in her stocking. It was May and heavy wet lines of spring rain streamed down the windows of the cafe where Emilienne had just spent her day serving black coffee and sticky buns to dreamless Irishmen. The smell of glazed sugar and folded pride still lingered on her clothes. As she waited for the rain to let up, the bells of Saint Peter's chimed five times and the water fell only harder upon the awning over her head.
She was thinking of the loveliness of such moments, admiring the rain and the graying sky the way one might admire the painting of an up-and-coming artist, one whose celebrity seems presaged by the swirls of his brush marks. It was while she was in the midst of such thoughts that Satin Lush walked out of the cafe, the clink of his legs disturbing the rhythm of the rain against the awning.
Aren't you in love, too?
It was a weekend of many things—a race through every lit hour, the mind awake at 2 AM, the body running (again) two hours on. Don't forget. Do. Go.
Then, mid-afternoon, today, I was walking back to the car, having taken a very tiny Italian pine tree to my mother's grave. Having reset the wreathe my father had planted there. Having had a quiet conversation.
I had parked, deliberately, at a distance. I had wanted not to hurry through this visit with my mother at Christmas. She has been gone eight years. We talk, still.
It's easy to think of winter as leaching the color from things. Today, returning to the car, less speed in me, more calm, I stopped to see how winter is (in fact) its own quite perfect palette.
The Chronicle catalog is so entirely riveting that one could put a bow on it and tuck it under a tree.
So that it wasn't until several minutes into my perusing that I happened upon this page, for the forthcoming One Thing Stolen,
which is, I think (and I have nothing to do with this) so very beautifully done.
And so to those who develop surprise taglines, to those who tuck existing books beside coming books, to those who find the central questions of a story and lodge them right there, for catalog readers to see, thank you: You do exquisite work.
Those were the days. Siena. Young motherhood. The palio horses coming.
That boy is a man. He's nearly a month into his new job. He's Google Adwording and writing web copy and building new marketing strategies and laying out the demographics for products, and frankly:
I can't do any of what he does. Don't know the terms. Probably couldn't pass the tests.
I'm just here to listen, and frankly:
I am head over heels, just as I was all the years ago.
Yesterday I said goodbye to the pottery ladies—and to Bobby D., too. The semester was over and I know, looking ahead, that there will not be time in my upcoming world for Wednesday-morning clay.
The thing about clay is that it allows you to fail. Smash it up. Try again. Recook the glaze.
The thing about working in a medium where no one expects you to succeed is that you leave without marks, reviews, evaluations. You laugh it off. You dive into gossip. You show up with your hair in a knot and no one asks for explanations. "What are you making?" they might ask. And I will say, "This."
The work here is the work of my semester. I experimented with trays, added an apple to my apple collection, built an old-looking pot, bent a grid, punched holes into a bowl so that I might someday weave burlap through it.
Oh, Pottery Ladies and Bobby D., I will miss you. Thank you for making room for this novice.
Today I lost something that was important to me. It's no longer here. The one significant thing I'd bought in Berlin, a city I desperately miss. I left this artisan's work, I realize (only today, I realize), in a hotel room a few weeks ago. I've called. There's no hope for it. It's gone.
So this box of treasures is a lesser place now. So I have chastised myself all day long. For taking leave of a hotel in haste. For not being at least a little bit smarter.
(All my life, I've wished that I was smarter.)
But as much as I hate not having this jewel anymore, I've lived today feeling so blessed, too. That my loss is but material. That my loss is, in the end, so small.
There are planes falling out of the sky. There are children not coming home. There are jobs that disappear. There are flood waters inside homes. There are wars and there is terror and there is age and there is hurting and there is impossible injustice, raging.
Sometimes losing is what we need to be even more grateful for all we still have.
I'm not sure how many books have been added to my library courtesy of the great critic James Wood—which is only to say that I read his essays, and I believe him. But this weekend, thanks to this Wood review
in The New Yorker
—this welcome defense of the odd in literature—I bought Samantha Harvey's Dear Thief.
Those wanting a plot summary will have to do (here) with this single sentence: A woman, middle-aged, is writing a letter to the friend that she loved and hated and loves still, and still hates.
What matters, mostly, is the way that letter is written, the compression and elegance of time that it portrays, the unreliability of testimony and the sick power of delusion (self delusion, the delusion of others), and the sentences, one after another, so brilliant.
The anti-instructions on writing, like this:
I have wondered about this kind of thing for the last hour, sitting here turning the piece of Roman jet in my hand and trying distractedly to think of ways of describing it. This is what writing does to you, it seems, it turns objects that used to be just things in your life into things that must be described, and at the same time makes them feel increasingly indescribable.
The statements of paradoxical fact (perfectly bound up with the novel, perfectly true within our own lives):
I wonder if not being able to see ourselves is one of the great paradoxes of being alive—knowing oneself intimately and also not at all. You turn to look at your own profile in the mirror and it is gone. It means we can harbour all kinds of illusions about ourselves that others can see through as clear as day. What I mean is that if you had been able to see yourself objectively that afternoon you might have realised that the game was lost, but instead I think you fancied yourself in some little role in which you were the heroic returner, the one much waited for, the one who would be forgiven by some obscure law of justice that grants immunity to the tragic.
The articulation of life:
We encroach on one another, be it painfully or pleasurably, we encroach and run into each other, and this is what we know fondly or otherwise as life. It is not life to think that to love somebody is never to be where they are and never to intrude upon them.
Obviously I need to say no more.
Just buy it.
Somewhere along the way I've decided to think of this particular holiday season—its every single day—as a gift, which is to say not as a headlong rush.
I will have nothing to do with checklists. I will distribute the gifts as I find them—on Thanksgiving tables, at my father's door, in a bag slipped to a friend at lunch, in packages mailed way too early, but who cares.
I will dance the flawed cha cha once again, for it means time spent with friends. I will head out in the gray slash of wet weather with one of my very oldest friends, searching for barn lights and orchids behind frosted glass. I will wear sequins in a library and stand, grateful for my city, among beloved writers and clients, the daughter of one of my mother's closest friends. I will make my way to the early service at church to sit with my father and to listen to a minister whose words, so often brilliant, embraced, today, dark and light, candles and prayer, the story of a divided then freed Germany. I will set aside my writing "plans" to spend Sunday afternoon among Moravian tiles with the man I love, because
this is the season,
this right now.
I'm not waiting for the calendar to tell me when.
I'm living while I can.
It's been a week of long and important correspondence with friends. Among the topics: How do we manage lives built (in part) of original ideas? Stories that haven't been previously told. Characters that don't come pre-packaged. Books that don't fit the cross "this famous book" with "that famous book" and you have this new easily tagged and marketed and therefore soon to be famous book.
We talk, we ponder, we encourage. We look for signs.
I found one this morning, reading James Wood (oh, bless James Wood) in The New Yorker,
discussing, in an essay titled "Fly Away," the work of Samantha Harvey.
I'd like to share the opening paragraph:
The odds are powerfully stacked against Samantha Harvey's third novel, "Dear Thief" (Atavist): sometimes you feel that the author has enjoyed building a trembling wall of them. Her novel takes the form of a long letter, written by a woman in middle age, to her childhood friend, and so most of the narration languishes in the corridor of the second-person singular. The friend (the "thief" of the book's title) disappeared a decade and a half ago, and so the narrator does much reminiscing, with the danger that the novel drifts fairly often into the pressureless zones of retrospect. And the narrator's lost friend was a "character," a large personality remembered, with loathing and love, for her enigmatic singularity: so, most perilously, Harvey's novel must work to convince us that this vague "you" of the narrator's letter deserves her extravagant reputation and the time spent recalling her. The book is sometimes precious or whimsical, and can be frustratingly diaphonous. It has nerves of silk; it could probably do with more robustness, and a bit of comedy.
So it is odd, Wood tells us. So it veers. So it isn't what we "expect." And yet, the rest of this fantastic essay is devoted to the beauty and success of this novel "with no interest in conformity."
To which I say, Yes. Through which I decide, I am buying Samantha Harvey.
Thank goodness for James Wood and The New Yorker
(which also celebrates the poetry of Olena Kalytiak Davis
is in this issue). Thank goodness for publishers who believe that there are readers out here who are willing to venture into non-conformist territory. Thank goodness for editors who say, It's worth the risk. You
And thank goodness for my friends who believe, with me, in the odd and the new.
Maybe it's the time of year, but I'm feeling nostalgic.
For a time when I believed (at least) that there was more justice in the world. For a legal system that did not turn away from videographic evidence to render an incomprehensible decision. For an era of greater self-restraint—less lambasting, say, of the unprotected innocents; less strutting with keystrokes.
For a time when we all paused another beat or two before we pressed Send.
We live on a crippled planet, and we've placed each other on edge.
Yesterday, following a zany corporate work week, I took a walk in the bright chill air. Didn't know where I was going really, just had to get out, away, unto myself. I ended up in a shop a mile or so down the road and there encountered a former classmate from Radnor High. I see her, from time to time—at the gym, out in the world. She is a first-rate beauty, that miraculous kind who doesn't seem to know it, or, if she does, to care. We talked about the things that matter most—our families, our children. About loving our parents. About the ways our children are carving out their lives. About the digital age and Google Adwords and small apartments and courage.
It was real, personal, connected, meaningful—this chance conversation—and as I walked away I thought again of all those people from my past who keep returning. Who show up at NCTE and tell me the story of a life. Who gather at Chanticleer for an almost evening. Who slosh through a rain storm for a reading. Who stay in touch in gentle ways.
I thought, I think, of how I didn't know what I had, who I wanted to be, or what I was building toward, all those years ago, and yet, somehow, the past finds me. The past, which seems necessarily gentle to me now and more whole. The past, which yields perspective. The past, which pauses and which is, somehow, more comprehensible than so much of what is happening in the present.
I'm absolutely certain that Olena Kalytiak Davis would not have loved the idea of me sometimes looking for the ephemera of her when I visited Alaska this past summer.
But I did. I searched. Couldn't help it.
I'd met her at Bread Loaf. She'd haunted us all. Reading in the moted light about a wedding dress. Sitting on a stoop in the early morning, the smoke of a cigarette swirling. The things people say and the things she said, and the delicate and fierce in her, and later, riding a train from DC with a fellow National Endowment for the Arts juror, the talk between him and me was almost all Olena. Where she was. What she was doing. How much better mystery is, than fame.
She lives in Alaska. She's a single mom and an attorney. She has a new book out, a third, "The Poem She Didn't Write and Other Poems." And also: Dan Chiasson just gave her two amazing pages in this week's issue of The New Yorker.
I gasped when I saw it. Hadn't find her in Alaska. Found her here, in the dark, after a many-hour work day, when I needed a little actual poetry.
From the last paragraph in this exquisite bit of appreciation, lessons on poetry, thoughts on Davis:
The medium of poetry isn't language, really; it's human loneliness, a loneliness that poets, having received it themselves from earlier poets, transfer to their readers. Like bees in a honeycomb, writers and readers experience isolation and solitude communally and collaboratively.... Writing a poem, you create that vivid otherness; reading one, you re-create it in your own person. These two lonely souls, writer and reader, are bound to one another. They can be miles or centuries apart, but in Davis's book the passage between them sees some heavy traffic.
In today's Inquirer I write of a recent visit to the Paul Strand exhibit, and the marathoners—and winners—who crowded the streets. The full story can be found here.
With thanks, as always, to Kevin Ferris. And to the city I love.
More than a year ago (perhaps two) I had an idea for a novel. A really cool novel. A genre-breaking novel. A let's-drop-the-categories novel. A novel I'd have given anything to find a swatch of time to write.
That isn't my life. Time is elusive.
Every now and then, on the sly, I scratched out a page or two. Then weeks would go by, months, of utter dormancy.
It's no way to write a novel, right?
But, for me, it is. It has to be.
Yesterday, and the day before, I found an hour to return to this book. What struck me is how much I had taught myself about the story and the way it was getting told throughout the months of not writing a word. I'd solved problems I hadn't even articulated to myself. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong,
I thought, as I read over my own shoulder. Then: Here. This part. That's right. Do more of this.
Today the corporate work swirls once more. Today and tomorrow and perhaps for much of December then in through the spring semester at Penn there will not be much novel time. And yet, progress has been made, the book comes more clearly into view, my mind keeps telling some part of my mind the story, as it waits for typed-out words.
I write all this, put it here for you to say: If time is running short on you, do not despair. Somewhere in your head, your story is waiting for you.
There's a very special young woman at Chronicle Books (I think I've mentioned this) named Taylor Norman. Has books—and kindness (and smarts)—in her blood. Is out there reading our manuscripts, tweeting our stories, talking about our books, talking us off cliffs if, indeed, we find ourselves standing on cliffs.
A few days ago, Taylor, who, read One Thing Stolen
, my novel about Florence, Italy, art, obsession, and mental wellness, when it wasn't much of a book at all (oh, poor Tamra, and oh, poor Taylor), sent this link from The New Yorker.
It tells the tale of an exquisite fiber artist, Judith Scott, whose work involved the making of secrets—embedding umbrellas and tree branches and other found objects within weaves and knots.
But that is not all of who Judith was. Judith was a twin sister, born with Down syndrome, whose profound deafness went undiagnosed while she lived out her years in an institution. Here is the story,
in the words of New Yorker
writer Andrea K. Scott:
Scott died in 2005, at the age of sixty-one, and didn’t start making art until her mid-forties. She was born with Down syndrome, went deaf as a child, and never learned how to speak. Languishing in an institution in her native Ohio for more than three decades with her deafness undiagnosed, Scott was considered so beyond help that she wasn’t allowed to use crayons. In 1986, her fraternal twin, Joyce, brought Scott to San Francisco and enrolled her in Creative Growth, a community art center for disabled adults. At first, Scott dabbled in drawings. A smattering are in the show, but they’re no match for the radical beauty that followed, when Scott took a textile workshop and had a breakthrough, loosely binding sticks into an uncanny totemic cluster. As her work gained complexity, the Bay Area began to take note; by 2001, Scott had been the subject of major shows in Switzerland, Japan, and New York.
So much about this story sears. And yes, Taylor, this reminds me, in so many ways, of Nadia Cara, my character, whose art is also a secret as well as a compulsion coming from a secret place.
Judith Scott's work is now on display at the Brooklyn Museum. I intend to see it.
Deeply grateful to Laura Fraser and Peggy Northrop and the entire Shebooks team for including Nest. Flight. Sky.: on love and loss, one wing at a time
in a first print anthology that also features the work of Mary Jo McConahay (on war reporting in Central America), Faith Adiele (on women's health), Barbara Graham (on abuse), Ethel Rohan (on survival and forgiveness), and Susan Ito (on the search for a birth mother).
The book is here, with me, and and now available for order. I am especially grateful to Beth Hoffman, the incredibly talented and generous author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
and Looking for Me
, for lending her voice to the back cover.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, Ann Marie Anderson
, Avery Rome
, Gary Kramer
, Kevin Ferris
, Micah Kleit
, Philadelphia Inquirer
, Philadelphia: A Love Affair
, Temple University Press
, Add a tag
A year from now, Temple University Press will release Love: A Philadelphia Affair,
a collection of thirty-six essays on the intersection of memory and place. Thirty-eight of my black-and-white photographs will accompany the text.
Some twenty of those essays first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer—
pieces I was lucky enough to write for Inquirer
editors Avery Rome and Kevin Ferris.
Others have been written over the past few months for the book itself, taking me into and around the city on days of rain and sun to consider the streets, the architecture, the gardens, the sidewalks, the highs, the lows, and the communities that have played such a powerful role in the ways that I see, the books that I write, and the stories I teach. Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, Dangerous Neighbors
(1876 Philadelphia), Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent
(1871 Philadelphia), Small Damages, Handling the Truth,
and even One Thing Stolen
all reflect, in different ways, my love for this region and the people I have met here.
My great thanks to Micah Kleit, Ann Marie Anderson, and Gary Kramer at Temple University Press for helping me to see this dream through. My deep gratitude to Kevin Ferris and Avery Rome, who made my writing about this region such a pleasure. And huge appreciation to my agent Amy Rennert, who saw the details of this project through.
Micah and I wrapped the book up yesterday, from an editorial and photography perspective. I can't wait to hold this book in my hands, to be able to tell the world again and in new ways why I love where I live.
Oh, that Philadelphia Inquirer.
Oh, Kevin Ferris and your design team. You make waking up every fourth Sunday such a pleasure. Thank you for the glorious celebration of the Reading Market in today's Inquirer.
I loved writing this piece and taking those photographs. I love being a Philadelphian.
The story can be read in its entirety here.
This essay is one of three dozen that will appear in LOVE: A PHILADELPHIA AFFAIR, due out from Temple University Press next fall. More on that here.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, Clare Dunkle
, Elena Dunkle
, Elena Vanishing
, Ginee Seo
, Hope and Other Luxuries
, Jaime Wong
, NCTE 2014
, One Thing Stolen
, Sally Kim
, Tamra Tuller
, Add a tag
A few years ago, in a novel called The Heart Is Not a Size,
I wrote of Juarez, of a squatter's village, and of two best friends, Georgia and Riley, each of them navigating this foreign terrain while also navigating secrets. Georgia was privately negotiating anxiety attacks. Riley was declaring to anyone who asked (and Georgia, seemingly unwisely, had begun to ask) that she did not—absolutely did not—have an eating disorder, that she was not starving herself.
I wrote the book and created the characters because I understood both conditions all too well.
This coming spring, Chronicle Books will publish two companion books—true mother-daughter stories—about a young woman's struggle to stop hearing the hectoring internal voices that left her body starving, her heart working too hard, and her future imperiled. Calories were Elena's enemies. A bite of toast was a grave mistake. Numbers were everything. And Elena Dunkle was, in too many terrible ways, dying.
In and out of hospitals. In and out of rehab. In and out of conversations with the family who loved her and the specialists who seemed incapable of hushing the terrible voices. In Elena Vanishing
, a memoir written by Elena's mother, Clare Dunkle, and grounded in extraordinary medical records, journals, and conversations, Elena's story gets told in a high-velocity, present-tense voice. We see Elena's world. We hear the voices in her head. We rush headlong into an illness that may have a name but still remains, for every person afflicted, a mystery. Where does anorexia begin? How is it finally controlled? Where is the key that fits the lock, that stops time from running out?
You will read, your heart pounding. You will remember a version of someone you were, or someone you loved, or love still.
Ultimately, as Clare reminds the reader, "this isn't the story of anorexia nervosa. It's the story of a person. It's the story of Elena Dunkle, a remarkable young woman who fights her demons with grit and determination. It's the story of her battle to overcome trauma, to overcome prejudice, but most of all, to overcome that powerful destructive force, the inner critic who whispers to us about our greatest fears."
There is depth, beauty, horror, and beauty again in Elena Vanishing
. You'll read it, as I did, in a single day. You will think not just about the story that got made, but the story as it was being made—this mother, this daughter, remembering together, writing together, reaching out to the world together.
And when you are done there is a book called Hope and Other Luxuries
to turn to—Clare Dunkle's memoir about loving this vanishing daughter of hers. Both books are being released by Chronicle next May. Both were edited by Ginee Seo, who poured her heart into these true stories and, once again (in Chronicle fashion), broke new ground by deciding to publish both sides of a story about an illness that affects millions of people around the world.
I own, it seems, the first two signed ARCs of both books, for I met Clare and Elena at the Chronicle booth at NCTE yesterday morning. I would like to thank Chronicle, as I close this blog, for including me at this event, for making such a home for me, for extending your friendship so warmly. Ginee Seo, Sally Kim, Jaime Wong—you threw one heck of a party, you look so good surrounded by Chronicle blue, and I am so proud to be a Chronicle author (and a Tamra Tuller writer).
Deepest thanks to those who stopped by to say hello, who stood in line for One Thing Stolen,
who came and surprised, who spoke with me over a delicious meal. Twenty-four hours at the National Harbor. Not to be forgotten. Nor are these two books, by a mother and daughter.
For the friends we have made, and keep on making.
For the quick lobby Lisa embrace. For the spontaneous crisp-night-air talk with Paul. Because Mark stops when you call his name. Because Michael is there. Because Ilene finds you, and Mary does. Because Susan is there, right there, in the atrium. Because a Freckled Librarian brings her megaphone. Because a friend from long ago surprises you. Because Joan has another Ted Hipple Special Collection book for you to sign. Because Jennifer and Susannah are in the house. Because Edie tells you stories and because Melanie really does have that color hair and because you have found Liz weeks after the panel she moderated and you can tell her (again) how intelligent she was. Because Michaela and K.E. are so talented, and because you have much to learn from Christine and Shanetia (and because you will come to covet Christine's coat and Shanetia's easy dancing heart). Because your sister is there.
Because Chronicle Books is that kind of company, the kind of company you deeply want to keep.
And because Debbie Levy is in the mix—Debbie with her wide intelligence and big heart, who drives you, when it is all said and done, to the shadows of the Capitol and to a reservation she has made in a restaurant called (appropriately) Art & Soul. Debbie, who has given you two of her most recent books—the award-winning We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song,
illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton and utterly smart as it offers the biography of a rich and prevailing song; and Dozer's Run
, illustrated by David Opie, the adorable true story of a dog that ran a marathon, and then ran home. Debbie, who has given you, as well, "Dark Lights," the original jazz recordings of Alex Hoffman, her very talented son.
We go to NCTE for the people we find there.
You know how it is—the winding and wending through book booths. The writers signing, the multiples of the new fresh things in stacks; it's hard to take it in, at least for me. I never return home from The Events with a bag full of randoms. I return home with the books sought out or placed in my trust. A handful.
But there I was, Friday, at the National Conference for Teachers of English at the National Harbor Convention Center. I'd be doing my own signing in fifteen minutes, but I had time. And so I walked, my eyes cast down, and there it was, a pile of books, the cover whitish and thin, two streaks of color, a title, a name. Abigail Thomas,
I read. Kept walking. Stopped. Backtracked.Abigail Thomas?
"Um," I said, to the Scribner person.
"Are you giving these ARCs away? By chance?"
"You want one?"
"So go ahead."
It was mine! The new Abigail Thomas memoir, coming in March 2015, but I don't have to wait that long. Not me, who loves Abigail Thomas, who sang her praises in Handling the Truth,
who reads her words out loud to my Penn students. Not me. I have What Comes Next and How to Like It
. I read it when I was supposed to be writing, which is to say I read it today. All day and now I'm done, I'm finished, and I'm sad about that, because books this good don't come around too often. Books this good need Abigail Thomas to write them.
"Abigail Thomas is the Emily Dickinson of memoirists," Stephen King has said. UmmHmmm.
Where to start, or have I said enough? A book about friendship and motherhood, about painting and words, about comfort and soup, about sleeping all day, about waking ourselves up, about love, an "elastic" word, Thomas tells us. Proves it. Thomas could blare, in her bio, about a lot of writerly things, but what she says first is this: "Abigail Thomas is the mother of four children and the grandmother of twelve." Yes. That's how Thomas describes herself because that, with infinite beauty, is who she is first. Who she will be. What makes her the powerhouse writer she is. (Though to that description one must add a pile of dogs.) Thomas writes, in this new memoir, about how we hold on knowing that one day we won't. How we outlast ourselves, or live with the fact that outlasting doesn't last.
I loved every torn page. The arrangement of the pages. Thomas's smart abhorrence of chronology. How many times, in class, to students, to writers, have I said: Don't tell me the story in a straight line. Break the grid. Steer your way toward wisdom by scrambling the sequence of facts.
Now I'm just going to read Thomas:
I hate chronological order. Not only do I have zero memory for what happened when in what year, but it's so boring. This comes out of me with the kind of vehemence that requires a closer look, so I scribble on the back of a napkin while waiting for friends to show up at Cucina and it doesn't take long to figure it out. The thought of this happened and then this happened and then this and this and this, the relentless march of events and emotion tied together simply because day follows day and turns into week following week becoming months and years reinforces the fact that the only logical ending from chronological order is death.
Yes. And that, by the way, is a single chapter in a book built (miraculously) of brevities. A book in which the page by page sequencing is as shattering as the pages themselves.
This photograph was taken a few short weeks ago, during our first slight snowfall, when the leaves on the trees that shelter my deck were still clinging to their limbs, or falling in red surges.
Today we watch rain turning to slush turning to snow and wait for those we love to find us.
These are restless days in our nation, and on our planet. I wish you peace as you wait, as you watch, as you wrangle with the news which is always, ultimately, personal.
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"Also: it's not a Federal crime to put something in someone's mailbox, if you tell them, right? OK bye."
Wrote Kelly Simmons. In a text message. After she told me to be sure to look for the setting sun. While I trained back to Philadelphia from DC.
Not a crime, I thought. Not when it's Kelly Simmons.
It was dark when I outted Kelly's secret: a copy of the Civil War novel, Neverhome, by Laird Hunt. She'd read it not long ago and raved. She has exquisite taste. She knows what I love. She knows we often love the same thing (see Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See). There it was.
First sentence: "I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic."
Oh, Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, I thought. I'm a-gonna love this book. And so I read. Couldn't stop reading. Had soup to make, cranberry sauce, potatoes. Had gifts to (skim through and then) wrap. Had my gorgeous son home with me, but I just sat there reading. The story of a woman who goes to war as a man. Who emerges as a song and a myth. Who starts out with some tenderness in her heart and who hardens over time, temptation, warship. She's known as Ash Thompson. She can shoot a squirrel at many feet. She can crawl herself out from under the heavy load of a fallen tree. She can confuse most but not some. She can help a one-armed man carry the photographic plates from which a greenhouse will be built. (Oh, that image, one of my favorite ever found in a novel.) And she will never, really, get home again. She will tells us her story in her broken-poem way, even though she isn't trying for poetry, not even close. Poetry is just how her words come even when she's talking about the rut of damage on her arm:
The flesh of my arm crept each day closer and closer together. Like two ragged companies didn't know yet they were fighting for the same side.
Or what happens in a ruined asylum when she's trusted with a razor:
I shaved him, then shaved his friend, and every now and then after I got called on to scrape a face. Mostly it was guards but twice or three times there was a prisoner in the mix. These were big-bearded things attached to some flaps of skin, some ruins of shoulders, some piles of bones. When I shaved them up there was anything left to them. You could of just dug at the dirt and kicked them straight into the hole. They were happy, though. Smiled and winked.
is a book magnificently well made, but that doesn't mean the story isn't hard to live with. The ending that you see coming isn't easy to take. But you take it because it's smart and vivid and so real that I started reading again at 3 AM last night and finished this morning so I could tell you, on Black Friday, that if you have to go out buying things, buy this book for a friend.
I'd have bought it for Kelly Simmons. But she's already read it.