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We reach a certain juncture in life and we realize that there's only so much time left to us now. We look back and ask, Have we done enough, loved enough, been enough? We look ahead and ask, What now?
I have always been real with myself; I have known the me within. What are my passions? Children and stories. What have I done? Raised a son I love more than any story can tell and written books that a handful of kind souls have read. I've been flat-out lucky to publish as many books as I have, given the sales that I've had. I've been unimaginably blessed to be given the chance to take my stories into classrooms and into the open hearts of the young. I learn from them, again and again. Frankly, I love them.
Two Tuesdays ago I taught at a multi-week camp for young scientists and activists at the Fairmount Water Works. The camp is called Project FLOW. My privilege is to get the children thinking and writing about the soul of the river, akin to my own work in Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River(Temple University Press). Kevin Ferris and the Inquirer team made the moment even brighter when agreeing to publish my photo essay (which includes the work of the young people) about that morning.
I'll provide the link when it goes live tomorrow. A few more photos from last week's post are here.
In the meantime, below, all of the children of the 2014 Project FLOW. Here they are listening to Sashoya read from her brilliant river creation myth.
Finally, thanks to my friend, the poet Kate Northrop, whose poem "Things Are Disappearing Here" got us all started.
My love affair with Philadelphia began long before I settled on the University of Pennsylvania as my undergraduate home. I was my mother's daughter, already convinced. I believed in that city.
As a student at Penn, I left the campus alone, prowled the streets of West Philadelphia, wrote poems upon my return. As a new graduate I took a job as a marketing coordinator for an architecture firm, where I, in part, researched and wrote history-rich installation placards for projects at Penn's Landing and elsewhere.
But it wasn't until I was selected, in the mid-1980s, by the team at Center City District to write a series of "permanent" installations about Philadelphia's history that I felt fully fledged and entrenched as a Philly girl. Those permanent installations, created with the graphic designer Lynda Cloud Weber, hung block by block, east by west on Walnut Street until they were not visible any longer.
The permanent installations had disappeared permanently.
Yesterday, however, while researching a series of new stories for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I discovered one of the long-lost panels—came upon it quite unexpectedly. It was as if a story I'd written had been lost and then returned to me. I waited to be alone with the panel. Read it while no one was watching. Shook my head.
I haven't changed much, all these years later. Not in what I write about, nor in how I write it.
With every book I read, I learn not just more about the world but more about my mind and how it receives or won't receive language. Some books rushing through me like a wind, some pooling in my soul, some remembered not at all for plot but for their mood. Some saying, Stay awake, stay awake, there's so much here.
Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers challenged me. I was in awe of how deeply Kushner had imbibed her material—motorcycle racing, 1970s art, rubber trees, Italian gangs, ennui, Nevada salt flats. I was perpetually aware of a story happening at some distance, beyond me, beyond my full capabilities as a reader. Long passages of extreme brilliance. Some interludes with their own internal logic. A study of a time and a place and a certain kind of people. A triumph, in many ways, this book. But perhaps I more fully admired its parts than its whole.
I would like to share here a block, a favorite part. Kushner can write magnificently about almost anything. Here she is writing about the process of becoming. Her acuity is breathtaking. This passage, and many others, reads like notes to a novelist. I study it. I value it. I share it.
... he also drew from me, that night in the Italian restaurant, things I hadn't spoken about to anyone before. What I thought about as a child, the nature of my solitude, the person I was before I went through puberty and became more readably "girl." The person I was before I became more readably "person." We seemed to share certain ideas about what happens in childhood, when you have to place yourself under the sign of your own name, your face, your voice, your outward reality. When you become a fixed position, a thing to others and to yourself. There were times, I told him, at the age of five, six, seven, when it was a shock to me that I was trapped in my own body. Suddenly I would feel locked into an identity, trapped inside myself, as if the container of my person were some kind of terrible mistake. My own voice and arms, my name, seemed wrong. As if I were a dispersed set of nodes that had been falsely organized into a form, and I was living in a nightmare, forced to see from out of this limited and unreal "me." I wasn't so sure I occupied one place, one person, and Sandro said this made sense, this instinct of a child, to question the artificial confines of personhood.
Maybe I am one of the last people in America to see that delicious movie, "Chef," but maybe that's okay: I saw it when I most needed to. It's a Jon Favreau concoction (he wrote it, directed it, stars in it, produced it). It's Roy Choi influenced, cubano-sandwich powered, infiltrated by actors I love—Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Bobby Cannavale, John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, Sofia Vergara. It yields wide patches of time to the fabulous young actor Emjay Anthony. It explores what happens when one's safe world implodes and there is nothing left to lose. You have a job as a chef in a fine restaurant? You have a beautiful girlfriend, an ex-wife who loves you, a little boy who thinks the world of you, security? It all blows up after a bad restaurant critic's review, and you fought back over Twitter? Boom. What are you going to do? Maybe you'll go small. You'll start a food truck.
Affection, humor, tenderness, food you can practically eat off the screen—it is abiding in "Chef." But resiliency is the film's primary theme. Getting back up after someone's been unkind to you, after the unfair thing has happened, after you lose your decorum, your reputation, your holdings in the blink of a Twitter eye. What is the trajectory of second chances? That is what "Chef" is about.
We're out here as writers, and some critics will be unkind. We're out here doing our service jobs, and the person on the other end of the phone has demeaning attitude, that power that comes from being the one in charge, that edge in the curl of their words. We're out here letting the lady at the ATM yell at us because she's having a bad day. We're endlessly holding our own tongues, being the better guy, stepping aside, or stepping up. But, who knows? Someday we may just blow. We may just speak our equalizing minds.
"Chef" is about the guy who blew and the guy who got it back.
It's about hope of another kind. Hope that we can be our best selves again. Hope that the world will make room.
Years ago, when I was a young mother desperate to find more hours in each day, all there was for me was fiction. Short fiction. Published in journals like Sonora Review and Alaska Quarterly Review and International Quarterly and Rosebud. Publishing was my conversation with the world. I had yet to meet an actual writer. I'd taken no classes. I was naive. My critiques came in the form of letters from the editors.
Later there would be attempts at "adult" novels, but always something intervened. The El Salvador novel became the El Salvador memoir (Still Love in Strange Places). The adult novel about southern Spain became, after nearly a decade, Small Damages, a novel for young adults. And so on.
In the meantime, through other projects, panels, moments, rides on subway trains, I met so many special people, including Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, who remains my dear friend today; indeed, I recently spent a blissful Brooklyn afternoon in her company and missed her for days afterward. It was Reiko, a beloved faculty member at Goddard College, who suggested to the Clockhouse team that I might be a right contributor for the second issue of this new and beautiful magazine. An essay, they suggested. How about a poem? I suggested back. But in the end, we went with fiction.
I can't tell you how happy it makes me to see this first sliver of adult fiction, an excerpt from a novel in progress, appear in a magazine produced by such an incredibly kind team, including Julie Parent, Kathryn Cullen-DuPont, and Stacy Clark. I am equally happy that Reiko is the angel on all our shoulders. And I was touched to learn, a few weeks ago, that Heather Leah had been asked to read my story aloud to a gathered few as the printed journal emerged from the press. I wish I could have been here.
“Oh, Love,” Becca said. “Oh, God. Kate.” And she couldn’t lift her, couldn’t hold her, had to keep herself back, no harm, she kept thinking, no harm, and she ran her finger just as gently as she could up and down Kate’s one whole arm, singing a song she remembered from long ago, some idle tune from Prague that Kate had loved, that Kate remembered, she could tell that Kate remembered it now; it was the right thing to sing, it was all Becca could do—no questions, don’t make Kate talk, no harm—and now, at last, from around and above, from a place far away but growing near, there was the sound of sirens.
Blue, Becca thought. The sound of blue. A hard scream into a spring day until the macadam crackled and a van door slammed, and there were two pairs of boots coming, a stretcher between them, Becca calling them around to the rear.
So grateful to have ONE THING STOLEN included in this Spring 2015 Children's Sneak Previews from Publishers Weekly:
Chronicle channels the Force for Star Wars Short and Sweet: A New Hope by Jack and Holman Wang, a 12-word retelling; I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illus. by Tom Lichtenheld, celebrating everyday moments of abundance; The Water and the Wild by Kathryn Elise Ormsbee, a fantasy debut featuring a portal in a bejeweled tree; One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart, about a girl who develops strange behaviors when she moves with her professor father to Italy for six months; and Vanishing Girl by Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkle, a mother-daughter memoir featuring daughter Elena’s struggle with anorexia.
I am focusing hard on the corporate work these days—doing the projects that arrive, finding the projects that don't even know they need me yet. Beth the Marketeer. Beth (yes, some of them call me this) the Machine.
We do what we must.
There'll be little time for my own literary work during these days, and so I look forward to easing my mind away from work pressures with books I bought or acquired long ago and never had the time to read. Books like Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, Louis Greenstein's Mr. Boardwalk, Jayne Anne Phillips' Quiet Dell, Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Violet Kupersmith's The Frangipani Hotel, Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife.
I owe these writers my time. I feel like less than me because it has taken so long. If it still takes me a terrible (not beautiful) forever to report back on these books, know that I am doing all I can.
So far, I can tell you this: 50 pages into Kushner and I'm in awe.
Think of the artist at work—the fits and starts, the long, unhappy spells, the sudden epiphanies that shrink pitiably with the light of the next day, the not knowing, the not ever actually knowing, the blind and buoying faith, the fissures of faith.
Think of a partnership of many years—the slow or sudden love, the deep and necessary trust, the private needs that are not spoken, the small infractions that are, perhaps, lies and isn't any lie a betrayal, and doesn't every betrayal hover afterward, shift the scene and change the light? Doesn't every betrayal threaten a cascade of betrayals? Where will they come from? Will we be ready?
Think of friendship—the tricky, sticky slopes, the little envies, the perfect hours, the grave misjudgments, the accusations, the cowering aftermaths, the ones left wounded on the path. Think of how easy friendship seems, and how utterly fraught, and how nearly impossible to heal when it shatters.
Think of the spooling away of memories—of a mind lost to a disease, of a man and his memories remade, of conversations that have little footing in reality, even though, of course, they are reality, they are what is happening right then. The Alzheimer's father talks. The daughter listens. Nothing is irrefutable, except for how it feels in present time.
In her penetrating and perfectly calibrated first novel, Life Drawing, Robin Black plumbs the depths of art, love, friendship, and memory and surfaces with a book of transcendent clarity. Life Drawing is a book about consequences—the consequences of an affair, the consequences of instinctive but perhaps not well-placed trust, the consequences of honesty, and anger.
Gus, the artist, and Owen, her writer husband, have retreated to a quiet country home in a land of spectral greens; the pond before them is perfectly round. The two are at work on their respective canvases. They abide by conversational rules laid down to protect each other from the things that must not be said or discussed in the aftermath of the affair Gus had several years before. They are interrupted by a neighbor who has escaped a violent husband and whose daughter, Nina, will show up before too long. Gus has a father with Alzheimer's, whom she frequently visits. She has a student, a young woman, with whom she has formed a meaningful connection.
The book is taut, smart, a closed and inexorable world, a stunning page turner. We know from the outset that Owen is dead, and so we want to know why Owen is dead, but even more compelling, at least to this reader, are the questions: Does anyone survive the wounds they have inflicted? Is love bigger than the past?
We turn the pages because we trust Black to know. Because we believe that she has something to say—inside the novel but also outside of it—about how we live our lives. Black is an intensely intelligent writer—nothing superfluous here, every thread that rises needled back down to the open-weave cloth, every color in the tapestry checked for what it tells us about lived entanglements. Her book, deeply emotional and resonantly rendered, is, remarkably, complete. No stone unturned.
We who write, we who create, we who live—we know how elusive, how difficult, how nearly unattainable completion is. A completed conversation. A completed work of art. A completed story, told.
Life Drawing is complete.
I loved it as much as I loved Black's collection of short stories, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, which I read while I was in Berlin several years ago and reviewed here.
Thirty-plus hours into labor twenty-five years ago, the hour ticking slowly toward midnight, I had a choice—deliver this baby of ours on July 19th, so that his special day would always stand alone, or deliver him a few minutes later, on July 20th, so that he and his father would celebrate the big day on the same day each year.
We opted for separate birthdays.
The baby was born, and then, minutes later, just after midnight, I said happy birthday to my husband.
A baby now 25 years old. A marriage 29 years old. An ageless husband.
It is possible to write nearly an entire novel and not know precisely who that mysterious character is until the last late night before the novel is due.
I know that. I'm living proof.
There this character has been all along, a mystery to the others in the story, too, but, hey—she's not supposed to be a mystery to you. You created her, after all. You put her down on the page. You fell in love with her, just a little bit.
Shouldn't you know who she is?
Late last night, which was really early this morning, which is to say 3:30 AM, however you'd like to classify that, the final piece of the novel I've been writing came into view, and I seized it. I said, Yes. I let a small tear fall, maybe another tear, what did it matter? No one was watching.
Every story we write is a gigantic leap of faith. Every sentence is up for rearrangement. But you know a book, even a novel, is true when it surprises you, when the surprise makes you cry, when you think that, at last, you've earned a night of sleep again.
Maybe you can stop obsessing because you know something now. Something new. You know it, and it belongs to you.
Among the things that happen when you don't Google yourself is that you can sometimes overlook very kind words for which you should have long ago given thanks.
Publishers Weekly, I apologize for not knowing of your generous review of Going Over sooner. I share it here now, utterly grateful.
Kephart (Small Damages) crafts an absorbing story of young love and conflicting ideologies set in 1983 Berlin. Ada, 15, lives an impoverished life in West Berlin with her mother and grandmother, while 18-year-old Stefan—who Ada has loved for years—lives with his grandmother in dull Friedrichshain on the other side of the wall. The plot shifts between Ada's life, which includes "graffing" scenes of heroic escapes on the Wall itself and visiting Stefan when she can, and Stefan's dissatisfied days spent working as a plumber's apprentice while developing tentative plans to attempt to overcome the wall, despite the potentially fatal consequences. Kephart alternates between the two teenagers' voices, with Stefan's voice written in second-person; deeply held desires for freedom and escape, both physical and artistic, radiate from each narrative. A subplot involving a Turkish boy in need of help gives the novel additional depth, and the sharpness of the lovers' separation is as deeply felt as the worry that they will never reunite. Ages 14–up. Agent: Amy Rennert, the Amy Rennert Agency. (Apr.)
In Alaska, a new friend asks me what I am reading and I say Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. I show her the book's first page, and she says, "Read it to me. Out loud." I demur. She insists. I read. In the belly of the boat while the glacial mountains float by. "Leaflets," I say, reading the chapter title. Then:
At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.
The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.
I hear my own breath catch. I look up into Kristi's face. She isn't sure, quite, about the passage I've read, wants to know why it has enchanted me. I read phrases out loud again, verbs, that word incendiary webbed into the lush lyric of the cartwheels, the flutter. How can you speak about what you love? How can you convey the genius of Anthony Doerr, who has never been more genius than this new novel of his—541 pages long, ten years in the making, and it reads too fast, you could read it in a day, you cannot read it in a day, for there will be nothing like it again or soon. Doerr is like Ondaatje, Doerr is like McCann, Doerr is like McDermott, Doerr is like Hagy, Doerr is a writer, pure.
And this new book—about a blind girl in France and a smart boy in Germany and the war that brings them together but only after terrible journeys and terrible losses and only for a moment—this new book is wrenching and glorious. Wrenching first. Glorious because of its deep and tender soul. Because Doerr embraces life even in the midst of dying. Because Doerr inclines toward science as he writes his art, which is to say that he inclines toward the curious mysteries of our world. Snails. A massive diamond. Electromagnetic waves. The cell that divides and divides again, until it is a human, howling.
I love this book. I believe in it, wholeheartedly. I believe in Doerr. Why do books still wear labels—YA or A, historical or contemporary, literary or not? Banish them. Now. Anyone who loved The Book Thief will be astonished and grateful for this book. Anyone who swoons over an Ondaatje sentence will recognize the power here. Anyone who wishes to return to France or Germany at the time of a devastating war will be returned in a fresh way, an eyes wide-open way.
Anyone who reads will emerge brokenhearted but also grateful that Doerr doesn't just break our hearts. In surprising and redeeming ways, he heals them, too.
Among the writer friends whose recommendations I instantly trust is Katrina Kenison, whose memoirs have inspired countless readers and whose many years as both an editor of books and the series editor of Best American Short Stories refined, or perhaps announced, her exquisite readerly sensitivities. One day before I left for Alaska, Katrina wrote me a note including this line: Have you read Dept. of Speculation? That's my latest favorite. Also very short, but oh, piercing. So of course I ordered Jenny Offill's newest novel at once. I read it before the plane left the ground. Forty-six chapters in 175 pages. A Carole Maso, Kathryn Harrison, or Cynthia Reeves like intensity. A woman broken and her story broken and each brief paragraph like a scream from the deep dark of a well. Help me. A late-in-the-game inversion of point of view that knocks the reader around and carries the story to an even higher plane. Our narrator is a woman who half loved, then loved, then married, then had a baby with swirls of hair on the back of her head, then watched that marriage fall apart. Our narrator is a woman who is trying, before our very eyes, to regain her footing, to know who she is, to find a rope in the well. Our woman is so stunned by the cruel possibilities of life that she can barely speak more than a few sentences at once. Example of a single paragraph, cordoned off by white space:
A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.
Example of another single paragraph:
Sometimes she will come in complaining about seeing things when she closes her eyes at night. Streaks of light, she says. Stars.
It's like this, in Dept. of Speculation. It's harrowing and brave and (to my way of seeing) deliciously odd. It feels uncalculated (though of course it isn't) and raw (though a book like this takes extraordinary refinement and planning). It feels alive and desperate and worried through, and don't we all have times like these, and doesn't that make this fiction true? Yesterday I wrote of a long book of many chapters—the fantastic Anthony Doerr. Today I wrote of a short book of many chapters—the brave and talented Jenny Offill. Tomorrow, here, I will write of a more ordinary book, one that I didn't read breathlessly during my time away.
What do we have as readers? We have choices. Is there anything sweeter than that?
I carried James Nestor's DEEP to Alaska so that I might learn more about the seas. The oceans that gave birth to us, the darkness where strange life hovers, the gigantic brain of the elusive sperm whale, the unbelievable feats of divers who compete against themselves and their own bodies to dive thirty stories or more on a single lungful of air. (They dive; they must return; they cannot breathe until they do; they bleed; they lose consciousness; they dive again.)
I had been drawn to the book by the New York Times review. I found myself wavering as I read. Intrigued by the content and by our mighty oceans. Feeling boxed in or boxed out by the format. Nestor is a journalist. His book is a first-person exploration organized around sea-level depths. What is discovered 60 feet down, 300 feet, 650 feet, 800 feet down, say. The researchers who are trying to understand. The divers addicted to compression.
There's much to be gained, imagined, felt from a book like this. And Nestor certainly has done his research, is sincere in his desire to meld with his subject matter, is enthusiastically participative. But by organizing this discussion of the ocean around Nestor's own experiences, by writing, mostly, in a clipped present tense, Nestor at times delivers fragments where they might be wholes, more about himself than we might, in this case, need, details that seem out of place.
The book, for example, begins like this:
I'm a guest here, a journalist covering a sporting event that few people have heard of: the world freediving championship. I'm sitting at a cramped desk in a seaside hotel room that overlooks a boardwalk in the resort town of Kalamata, Greece. The hotel is old and shows it in the cobweb cracks along the walls, threadbare carpet, and dirt shadows of framed pictures that once hung in dim hallways.
It takes fifteen hours, three meals, four small bottles of wine, seven films, and five trips to the bathroom to fly from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia. Next, there is a four-hour layover in Sydney International Airport (one bagel, a twenty-minute nap on the floor, one bag of cashews, forty-five minutes at the newsstand reading Rolling Stone) before the connecting flight to Saint-Denis, the capital of Reunion.....
There is more of this sort of thing—a lot of it, in fact—woven in between the interesting histories of oceanic research and the images of the wily creatures of the deepest depths. As a reader interested in oceans, I learned. As a teacher of memoir who celebrates the first-person voice, I wondered, often, whether a book like this was a proper use of the first-person present. Would a different tense have allowed the ocean to take center stage? Would a close-over-the-shoulder third person have given Nestor more room to make this an even greater, more sweeping study of the seas?
Readers of this blog know that I take no pleasure from reviewing books that dodn't turn out to be quite my kind of book. I know how hard writing is. I know how big the hopes of writers are. I am the last person in the world who wants to disappoint, or hurt.
But when reviewing for the Chicago Tribune'sPrinters Row and elsewhere, my first responsibility is to the readers. And so I admit that I was challenged by this new immersion memoir by Rachel Bertsche, despite the fact that I suspect that the author herself is kind and openhearted.
In Alaska you see not just the glaciers, but where the glaciers so recently were—the stones scraped back as the ice retreated, the rocks barren and unsure.
You are told stories about the ravages left behind by ocean-scraping shrimping technology, about the muck of salmon farms, about the flowers that haven't bloomed yet, perhaps won't.
You see brilliant sunflower starfish, and you are told they are dying.
You see a sea lion choking on a fisherman's net, and you groan, and you are told, "Do you eat fish? If you do, you are partly responsible."
You see children loving the world as the boat glides by, and you want this world for those children.
You see your own face reflected up from the 38-degree sea. You, photographing the blues and purples, the otters and the whales, the mist. You, seeing.
You love this earth. You love it fiercely. And your heart is breaking.
Among the many brilliant writers who have been exhorting us to care more deeply for the world is Elizabeth Kolbert, whose work calls out to us from the pages of The New Yorker, and whose books, Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction, are brutally honest and devastatingly clear.
Humans have marched themselves up to the precipice. We are standing on the cliff. We are still not doing what needs doing. Despite the fact that the glaciers are dying, the seas are rising, and nations are disappearing. Despite the fact that super storms blow in now with terrible regularity—proof of all the acid we've dropped into the sea, proof of the power of sea inches.
I don't mean to lecture. I'm not a scientist. I read. I urge you to read Elizabeth Kolbert. I give you this, the final paragraph, of The Sixth Extinction.
There are choices, still, to be made:
Obviously, the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately. But at the risk of sounding anti-human—some of my best friends are humans!—I will say that it is not, in the end, what's most worth attending to. Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have—or have not—inherited the earth.
and, always, there, I find what I didn't know I was searching for.
In the dark hours of this cloudy day, just ahead of the morning I will spend with the seventh graders of Project Flow at Philadelphia's Water Works, I turned to Kate Northrop, Stanley Kunitz, Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, and Greg Djanikian and found:
* a title that leads me toward a game * a scene that leads me toward a prompt * a pair of divine metaphors * a myth that will inspire myths
Whomever thinks poetry is superfluous has not spent a morning with children.