Eclipse by John Banville

When renowned stage actor Alexander Cleave was a boy living in a large house with his widowed mother and various itinerant lodgers, he encountered a strikingly vivid ghost of his father. Now that he’s fifty and has returned to his boyhood home to recover from a nervous breakdown suffered mid-performance, he is not surprised to find the place still haunted. He is surprised, however, by the presence of two new lodgers who have covertly settled into his old roost. And he is soon overwhelmed by how they, coupled with an onslaught of disturbing memories, compel him to confront the clutter that has become his life: ruined career, tenuous marriage, and troubled relationship with an estranged daughter. Publisher’s Synopsis

No recovering actor can pass up a novel about a thespian who suffers a nervous breakdown mid-performance. But the main reason I scooped up ECLIPSE and savored every word was because of John Banville. The writer in me can’t get enough of the masterful way he handles first person narrative.

The shattered life of Alexander Cleave is big enough to tug on a reader’s heart, but the expansion of the reader’s empathy comes from the way Banville threads the lives of the reader and Alexander together.

It has always seemed to me a disgrace that the embarrassments of early life should continue to smart throughout adulthood with undiminished intensity. Is it not enough that our youthful blunders made us cringe at the time, when we were at our tenderest, but must stay with us beyond cure, burn marks ready to flare up painfully at the merest touch? No: an indiscretion from earliest adolescence will still bring a blush to the cheek of the nonagenarian on his death bed.

Readers don’t need to know the specifics to relate to Alexander’s youthful embarrassments because they are haunted by plenty of their own. Layered upon this basic vulnerability is Alexander’s awareness of who he is— not the image seen by those around him— the elemental core that makes him tick.

There is in me, deep down, as there must be in everyone— at least, I hope there is, for I would not wish to be alone in this— a part that does not care for anything other than itself. I could lose everything and everyone and that pilot light would still be burning at my centre, that steady flame that nothing will quench, until the final quenching.

By acknowledging the positive and negative aspects of Alexander’s nature, Banville primes the reader for the emotional conflict ahead. The nervous breakdown was only the warning bell. Of course, Alexander hopes to escape this personal war by running back to his childhood home, believing the solitude will allow him to restore and refresh. But Banville refuses to leave him in peace. After only a short time, Alexander’s wife returns, unannounced. Unlike the intruders and ghosts that have enabled him to avoid his demons, Lily shoves him into the fray.

Then one day in the midst of one of our rows she turned on me a frighteningly contorted face and screamed that she was not my mother! [] At first I had thought she was accusing me of demanding to be cared for and coddled, but I dismissed that, and in the end decided that what she had most likely meant was that I was behaving toward her as I had toward my real mother, that is, with impatience, resentment, and that tight-lipped, ironical forbearance— the sigh, the small laugh, the upcast eyes— which I know is one of the more annoying ways I have of handling those who are supposedly close to me. A moment’s thought showed me, of course, that what she had screamed at me was simply another form of her assertion that I was treating her like a child, for that, as she never tired of pointing out was exactly how I had treated my mother. 

Alexander’s acceptance of this uncomfortable truth is the gateway through which he begins to unravel the clutter that has become his life. And Banville, writing close to the bone, lets the reader experience Alexander’s transformation from the inside out.

Before I rose I had not known what I would do or say, and indeed, I still did not rightly know what I was saying, what doing, but at the touch of Lily’s chill, soft damp hand on mine I experienced a moment of inexplicable and ecstatic sorrow such that I faltered and almost fell out of my standing; it was as if a drop of the most refined, the purest acid had been let fall into an open chamber of my heart.

I read John Banville because I am in awe of the way he handles first person narration. My awe stems from how raw he allows his protagonists to be. The vulnerability, self-awareness and introspection that they share illuminates the complexity of the human soul, challenges me to excavate my own demons, and leads me to a new level of understanding of what it means to be alive in this fragile world.


WILD and TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS by Cheryl Strayed

Curiosity drew me to Wild. My son mentioned that reading about Cheryl Strayed’s mom made him think of me. Her struggles gave him a deeper insight into who I was. My heart healed a little more that day. So, I wondered where my own reading of the book would lead.

My empathetic connection to Strayed’s mother was palpable. But what impacted me most about Wild’s intricate unraveling of lost-love-found was the fearlessness of the writing. The unvarnished, uncensored delivery of Strayed’s journey to wholeness showed, without a doubt, that she stands by her words.

I try to go one or two sentences beyond what I feel safe saying. Honestly, that’s where it’s at— one sentence that makes you bolt out of your chair because after you write it you feel someone lit your hands on fire. Why We Write About Ourselves

Wild was one of my favorite reads of 2017. The story hooked me, tore apart my heart, then allowed love to pour back in— what’s not to like? More importantly, Wild is now one of the handful of books like The Snow Goose that enliven my passion and commitment for my writing life.

While reading Wild, a small voice kept saying, “You could’ve written this book.” By the time I reached the end I knew it was true. Let me clarify. I do not, for a second, believe my writing chops are on par with Cheryl Strayed. I have also never hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. However, I have done time with Outward Bound, lost a mother, dumped a husband, and created a more harmonious life for myself. But these similarities to Strayed’s life are not the reason my inner voice said I could’ve written this memoir. The awakening of my still, small voice was brought about from unapologetic passages like this:

In the mornings, my pain was magnified by about a thousand […] I’d think: This is not me. This is not the way I am. Stop it. No more. But in the afternoons I’d return with a wad of cash to buy another bit of heroin and I’d think: Yes. I get to do this. I get to waste my life. I get to be junk.

And this:

I didn’t exactly want to get divorced. I didn’t exactly not want to. I believed in almost equal measure both that divorcing Paul was the right thing to do and that by doing so I was destroying the best thing I had. By then my marriage had become like the trail in that moment when I realized there was bull in both directions. I simply made the leap of faith and pushed on in the direction where I’d never been.

What I recognized from the passages above and could no longer ignore in my writing education was this: writing that transforms the reader does so because it transformed the writer first. However, that final state of peace or contentment only arrives after the transformed has been torn asunder. Once Wild showed me how to take the gloves off when dealing with conflict, I knew I was ready to do the same.

Wild may not transform every reader or writer, but I’m certain any time spent with this memoir will lead to self-reflection— something the entire planet could use more of these days. AND if self-reflection is where you end up after devouring Wild, my suggestion is to immediately pick up Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.

My gratitude for the existence of TBT is as humongous as Niagara Falls, and the ceaseless thunder of those falls is the perfect applause for Cheryl Strayed’s ability to cut to the quick of every problematic situation set at her Dear Sugar feet. She is often irreverently funny, but the bulk of what she offers is straight from the heart.

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS will endure as a piece of literary art, as will Cheryl’s other books, because they do the essential work of literary art: they make us more human than we were before— Steve Almond

Strayed, aka Dear Sugar, nurtures our humanity by showing us how to offer one of the most powerful acts of kindness: she listens, truly-uly listens. After brave souls expose the scariest underbelly of their lives, she absorbs every detail and weighs each nuance.

I love how for five long weeks hardly a day has passed that I haven’t thought: But what about Johnny? What will I tell Johnny? I love that one recent evening…I had to stop and put my magazine on my chest because I was thinking about you and what you asked me and so Mr. Sugar put his magazine on his chest…and we had a conversation about your troubles and then we turned off the lights and he fell asleep and I lay there wide awake with my eyes closed writing my answer in my head for so long I realized I wasn’t going to fall asleep, so I got up…

Now that’s magnanimous empathy. If each of us listened with as much openhearted compassion, the world would be a happier place. Even lovelier than the depth to which she listens, is Dear Sugar’s willingness to go the extra mile when she answers. Tiny Beautiful Things avoids the slap-dash, cut and dry advice reminiscent of the Dear Abby columns from my youth. Instead, after chewing on the heart-crushed words of an advice seeker, those dissolved particles lead Sugar to a deeper truth, which she shares only after the surface struggle of the matter has been addressed.

The most fascinating thing to me about your letter is that buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core.

Dear Sugar refuses to let the advice seekers avoid the crux of their problems because she knows the only way for them to find peace and live a bountiful life is to own who they are.

We are here to build the house. It’s our work, our job, the most important gig of all; to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that only echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tells us on a visceral level what to do. You know what’s right and what’s wrong for you.

If you don’t come away from reading the advice of Dear Sugar believing you can accomplish your heart’s desire, and construct the life you long for, well, dear reader, all I can say is— read it again! Absorb it. Truly-uly listen. Chew on it and push yourself to step out of your comfort zone. It’s not easy, but Sugar reminds us of that too. And she shows us again and again, sometimes with examples from her own life, that doing the hard work of accepting the truth and forgiving ourselves and others is the only way to improve our lives because, “Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it to yourself.”

Trust me, the one act of kindness you must offer yourself in 2018 is to read Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar.  Once you’ve finished the love and hope you feared were lost will lift your soul so high, you’ll have no choice other than to tell all your friends to read Tiny Beautiful Thingsso they can spread the word as well.


INTERVIEW with Erika Robuck

I’m a huge fan of Erika Robuck. Her ability to make the personal lives of artists such as Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay accessible to readers is the reason I fell in love with historical fiction. In addition to providing me with hours of pleasure, Hemingway’s Girl, Call Me Zelda, Fallen Beauty, and The House of Hawthorne have given me guidance for how to craft an emotionally powerful story. Then at the end of 2017, Erika surprised me by stepping away from the historical fiction genre she’s known for and self-published a modern-day satire.

#Hockeystrong is timely and thoroughly engaging. Although I rooted for characters, I was appalled by their behavior in equal measure. It is a fabulous ride; a ride that prompted me to re-evaluate how I feel about Social Media and the pressure placed on kids in sports, while reminding me of the importance of a strong, loving family unit. In the midst of this country’s social and political unrest #Hockeystrong is a must read.

Robuck’s decision to layer satire over her successful historical fiction run aroused my curiosity about her debut: Receive Me Falling. This historical drama weaves together the lives of Meghan Owen— who inherits a plantation house on the Caribbean island of Nevis— and Catherine Dall whose family owned and operated the plantation in the early 1800s. Like #Hockeystrong, Receive Me Falling nudges the reader to grapple with their social and moral beliefs as it examines slavery through the rise of the Abolitionist movement through Robuck’s signature storytelling style. Each page is filled with heartfelt prose that forces characters to uncover the truth about themselves and those around them, and although the lives of Meghan and Catherine converge in tragedy, the reader comes away wrapped in love and hope.

Receive Me Falling was a marvelous, uplifting way to start 2018, and I’m thrilled to launch this year’s Interviews with the author, Erika Robuck.

In Receive Me Falling, Meg learns that her father’s estate was built on stolen money. How much did the 2008 Bernie Madoff scandal influence Meg’s storyline?

I had already crafted most of the novel when the Madoff scandal hit, but it was timely in its arrival. I couldn’t help but wonder how the children of criminals feel, especially when their entire lives have been built on lies and exploitation. Do they have any inkling about their parents’ illegal activities? Are they in denial? Or do they legitimately not know about the crimes? And finally, once the deception is revealed, what do they do with their inheritance of sin?

In Hemingway’s Girl, Ernest says, “You never talk about a book till you’re done with it.” Do you believe this is sound advice for writers or superstition?

I’m divided. With my intellect, I know it’s superstition, but there are very few with whom I’m willing to discuss works in progress. It seems as if the collective unconscious begins bubbling ideas up to the surface the moment they are mentioned aloud.

Nurse Anna is so vulnerable and open about her experience of working with the Fitzgeralds in Call Me Zelda, the story often felt like a memoir. How are you able to slip into your characters’ skins and deliver them with such vibrant authenticity?

My grandmother was a psychiatric nurse, so I was able to use my knowledge of her work, combined with interviews of current nurses and readings on the subject, to take on the persona. The combination of extensive interviews and research allows me to become my characters.

In spite of her fame, the character of Edna St. Vincent Millay in Fallen Beauty is clearly the antagonist. Her selfish, child-like behavior, on top of her neediness, is most unlikeable. Yet, whenever we feel the magic of the poet inside we easily forgive and root for her as much as we root for Laura, the novel’s protagonist. What do you believe is the key to developing empathetic characters?

I believe vulnerability is the key. When we see a character’s fears, anxieties, and self-doubt, they become human and redeemable. Vulnerability is almost always revealed in journals, letters, and photographs. They are treasures and, if I’m able to get my hands on them, key to helping me develop multi-dimensional, empathetic characters.

The first chapter of Hemingway’s Girl and The House of Hawthorne begins in the protagonist’s present, and then the story moves into the past, while Call Me Zelda and Fallen Beauty have no timeline shift. What determining factors do you use to help zero in on the best opening moment?

Each story asks something a little different from me, and I try to be faithful to what is asked. I allow decisions on point of view and time period to arise organically from the research, and I’m often surprised about the directions my novels take. That said, I almost always change the beginning of the novel once it is complete.

Can you give us an example of how one of your openings changed, and why you felt the change was necessary?

Hemingway’s Girl initially began at my protagonist’s interview for the cleaning job at Hemingway’s House, but I decided the reader needed to see my protagonist in her element before placing her out of it. Opening the action with her at a boxing match on the wrong side of town, gambling to support her family, provides the right contrast between her world and that of Hemingway’s genteel parlor. The irony, of course, is that Hemingway is also more at ease with the poor boxers and fisherman than he is in the luxurious surroundings of his home.

One of the most intriguing relationships in The House of Hawthorne is Herman Melville’s admiration and obsession with Nathaniel. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne. I’ve also read that MB showed a shift in writing style for Melville. That novel displayed a stronger deftness in the handling of chapters, as well as a richer vocabulary than in previous works. Did you find any evidence that without Melville’s access to Nathaniel, Moby Dick may not have been written?

I found evidence that Melville was borderline obsessed with Hawthorne, and while the relationship initially intrigued and flattered Hawthorne, it ultimately appeared to suffocate him. Melville was an intense, mercurial man who wanted a lot from his friend, that—due to his marriage, his family, and his private personality—Hawthorne was unable to deliver. It was a fraught relationship that has been speculated upon by many a biographer.

If you had the opportunity to talk with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Millay, and Hawthorne what would be the one question you would ask each of them?

There are different questions I’d have for each to do with his or her own life, but in terms of my portrayals of them, I’d want to know if they felt as if they had been rendered fairly and with redemption.

What prompted you to turn to satire? Was it a reaction to the recent frustration with historical fiction that you spoke of during your poignant post, “Remember Why You Started,” on Writer Unboxed? Or was #Hockeystrong’s story brewing over time because of your experience as a hockey parent?

#Hockeystrong has been brewing for years. I didn’t think I could write satire, but I felt called to social commentary after almost a decade of watching adults lose their minds over youth sports. I gave myself a month to attempt contemporary satire, and within six weeks, had a working first draft of the book. It was an excellent palate cleanser after a rejected historical novel, but my first love will always be historical fiction, and I’m back in the saddle.

John Banville— the winner of the Man Booker Prize for The Seabelieves books should be shelved alphabetically by author, not genre. A genre label is an important marketing tool early in a writer’s career, but can that label become an obstacle later on?

After a time, it definitely begins to feel constrictive. I’m a reader before I’m a writer, and—while I reach for historical novels first—I choose from and enjoy a variety of genres. Authors like Jojo Moyes, Chris Bohjalian, Nora Roberts, Anne Rice, Judy Blume, Stephen King, and A. S. Byatt move between genres with ease, and I enjoy following them. It keeps the writing and the reading fresh.

You’ve written five historical novels and a modern day satire. Research aside, is one easier to write? Will we see more satire from you in the future?

While the contemporary satire was by far the most amusing and easiest novel to write, I don’t imagine returning any time soon. Writing about dead people is ideal; they make far less fuss.

What is your biggest stumbling block as a writer?

When the business side of publishing about market, brand, and sales infiltrates my mind during the first draft, I know I’m in trouble, and have had to abandoned projects because of it. Business aside, I have to be totally, truly, personally consumed with my subjects for them to work.

You have a family and a successful writing career. When you do you find time to read? And when will we be able to settle in with the next Erika Robuck novel?

I’m an avid, obsessive reader. From my prayer and mediation books in the morning and before bedtime, to the newspaper while I eat lunch, to novels while I wait in lines, sit rink-side during my son’s hockey practices, and before I go to bed, I read widely and prolifically. Poetry warms me up to write each day, and there are research books all over my desk. I can’t get enough.

As for my current project, I’m hard at work on historical fiction, but I’ll have to take Hemingway’s advice, and keep the subject quiet. I hope I can tell you more soon.

Thank you so much, Jocosa.

My pleasure, Erika.

Erika Robuck is a member of the Historical Novel, Hemingway, Millay and Hawthorne Societies. She is a contributor to Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion, and Author in Progress: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It really Takes to Get Published. She also writes about and reviews historical fiction on her blog, Muse.

 


INTERVIEW with Kristopher Jansma on WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY

Today, Jocosa’s Bookshelf expands to include interviews, and I’m delighted that the award-winning, best-selling author Kristopher Jansma agreed to launch this new endeavor.

Kristopher Jansma received his B.A. in The Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz, teaches graduate courses at Sarah Lawrence College, and the winner of the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award.

His first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leaopards (Viking/Penguin 2013) was described by The Village Voice as “F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Wes Anderson.” Why We Came To The City (Viking/Penguin 2016) was nominated for the Brooklyn Eagles Prize and its French translation, NEW YORK ODYSSÉE by Sophie Troph and Rue Fromentin is the winner of the Priz du Livre de Voyage Urbain.

WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY follows a tightknit group of friends living in New York who are suddenly forced to confront mortality when one of them falls ill. The book is both a love note and a breakup letter to New York, and Jansma captures perfectly the way young people give themselves to the city, and what the city gives to— and takes from— them. It’s a heartfelt novel, tender and painful and cathartic all at once, and even if the characters belong to New York, the story belongs to us.— Michael Straub, book critic

You painted the energy, hope, doubt and fear of life of being twenty-something in NYC with such accuracy, it was impossible not to recall my own dreams and disappointments of that time in my life. Were you consciously attempting to reach out universally to touch multiple age groups and cultures, or do you feel the universality of the story is simply a by-product of the specificity in your writing?

That’s a great question, and thanks, by the way for reaching out to me to talk more about the novel. I think that when you’re writing, the way to the universal is usually through the specific. When I first arrived in New York City in 2003 and began to start a life there as a writer, I experienced a particular set of things that were unique to that moment in the city. It was shortly after 9/11 and that was still an everyday topic of discussion for most people I met there. The iPhone and the iPod weren’t ubiquitous yet on the subways and sidewalks. The gentrified neighborhood I was in, Morningside Heights, was pushing up into Harlem and there were protests going on all the time about the war in Iraq. So when I think about those days, that’s the New York I remember, which doesn’t quite exist anymore.

The characters in Why We Came to the City are living through the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and so they have a different view of city-life and what finding your dreams looks like than I did a few years earlier. The specifics are different, but that universal thing of “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is always there. And I hear from readers often who lived in the city in the sixties, or seventies, who recall that same energy and spirit and chaos—and when they come to the city now they can’t even recognize it.

And I should say too that this is something universal about cities everywhere—it happens to be New York City, mostly Manhattan, in my novel. But that experience is the same in Toronto or Miami or Seattle or Toledo… the universal parts, anyway, not the specifics. Hopefully that makes the novel relatable, not just now, and not just to New Yorkers, but to anyone at any age, who has dreams and ambitions to pursue.

From 1994 to 2004, the sitcom Friends resonated with your generation the way Thirtysomething previously spoke to mine. The friends in Why We Came To The City feel like the flip-side of the Friends collective, and yet, I sense your characters are going to impact twentysomethings for generations to come. Why do you think this story, set during the financial crisis of 2008, has such an impact today? And what elements do you feel make it timeless?

That’s very true, and there is a little nod to Friends in my book. Some of the characters like to watch a show called Vamanos Muchachos! in Spanish that is like some version of Friends set in Mexico City. And I did that because there’s a little fantasy of city life that I think many of us do get from television. Maybe from novels too. There’s something in my first book, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, about two young men who come to New York thinking it will be like an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel!

But one thing that Friends and Thirtysomething both get to in different ways is how, in a city, you make a sort of second family out of your friends. You can count on them to be there for you in times of joy and crisis. Meanwhile your real family, that isn’t there with you, may not really understand what’s going on the same way. So you turn to these friends for guidance and comfort as if they were your brothers and sisters.

In Why We Came to the City, the larger crisis in the background is the collapse of the financial system. This event really threw a whole sub-generation of Americans for a loop—and came directly in the way of those dreams and ambitions we were just talking about. People lost jobs, had to leave school, sell their apartments at a huge loss. There was suddenly very little momentum. Things just sort of stopped—if you were lucky enough to even hang on. And that presents a big crisis for them in the novel that they have to face… along with some other pretty major crises!

The novel is told from five points of view: three males and two females. Did you ever have doubts about your ability to capture the two female characters? What helped you make the female characters as complex as the men?

Thank you, first of all. I hope that they are as complex. I wanted Irene and Sara both to be very full and human characters—they’re both strong women, but I didn’t want that to be the whole thing. I think lots of male writers think they can sort of fake a good female character by just making them entirely tough and “badass” and strong, which is sort of an overcompensation, I think. That’s just as bad as making them all soft or weak or motherly. Any character, male or female, has to have more than just one side to them. Because all people, male or female, have those sides. And that’s the trick, really—we have to just think about people we know and really see them for all of who they are. What are they afraid of, what do they pretend to be, what do they hope for?

Sara, in the novel, is sometimes very maternal to the rest of the group—which is something she often winds up feeling trapped and frustrated by. She’s excited to marry George, her long-time boyfriend, but there’s some debate about whose apartment they will both move into, and when they finally do get married there’s not a quick happy ending there either. Irene, on the other hand, is even more complicated. She’s an orphan, she’s bisexual, she’s trying to be an artist, and, as the novel opens, she’s struggling with a potentially terminal cancer diagnosis. She falls in love with William, somewhat by accident, in the opening chapter, at what kind of turns out to be the worst possible time for both of them. She’s not very trusting of him, but she’s also very curious about him and his family and his private world. And then as fate would have it, these two misfit lovers end up together during this very scary time in her life.

Sarah, George, Irene, Jacob and William are all flawed as characters, but we love them because we’re able to feel their vulnerability in spite of the flaws. How do you navigate into the hearts of characters with issues?

Well, I love characters with issues because, again, I love people with issues. I love their issues. I am fascinated by my friends and my family and people around me. Watching people I love struggle through these things is something that brings me a lot of hope for us as a species, you know? And I think it is necessary to present people honestly in books like mine because that is the exact thing you want to replicate for the reader. Flaws are what draw me to people in real life, and I think they are what draw us to characters in fiction.

We have, in this book, Jacob, who is in an unhealthy relationship with his boss and hates his job and is somehow both kind of repressed and too loud at the same time. William, who is majorly repressed and a little immature—both maybe partly coming out of a love-hate conflict with his Korean family and traditions. George is, seemingly, something of a saint, but he secretly has a drinking problem, which is a way of covering his massive anxieties. Sara’s a bit of a control freak, and Irene can’t trust people… as we just spoke about. So yeah—I don’t know. Who couldn’t love them? They’re incredibly real to me. They’re trying so hard.

In your Acknowledgements, you say Why We Came To The City was written in loving memory of your sister, Jennifer, who pushed you first. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m also inspired by your ability to tap into what you learned about the grieving process to create a story that, in many ways, feels like a tribute to your sister’s spirit. In your interview on largehearted boy, it’s clear that you used a lot of threads from your personal life to enrich the novel. How do you know when an experience of your own can be extracted, then twisted or transformed for the benefit of a story? Are there signs that tell you, “Oops, if I use this event it’s going to be too much like a therapy session? Or do you feel writing is fundamentally a bit of therapy for writers and readers?

Thank you so much for saying that. I do hope that the novel is a kind of tribute to my sister, Jennifer, who was a wonderful young woman and, I want to say, every bit as flawed and complicated as we were just discussing before. We did not always get along, but we tried, I think, and in the last year of her life she came to stay with my fiancé, Leah, and I, while she got treatment at Sloan-Kettering in New York City. It was one of the most difficult and awful experiences of my life. We took care of her every day, during treatments and side effects… and while just dealing with all the usual catastrophes of life in a big city in your early 20s. It was a dizzying and heartbreaking time. But we also got very close, finally, and I think we came to know each other better as adult people in all the kinds of ways we just talked about.

And I think because of that, I did know that there was going to be something worth writing about in there. For a long time I really fought against my impulse to write about her illness and then her death, for many reasons. I somehow felt like if I wrote about it then I was validating it. Like I was saying that it was OK that this awful thing had happened because at least I’d gotten this book out of it. It all felt so unfair and I couldn’t allow it to be made sense of—and writing fiction is a way of making sense of reality. (And it is a lot like therapy, which I also needed to get plenty of!)

Eventually I basically had no choice. It literally started coming out in my writing whether I wanted it to or not. And when I finally saw what that novel was going to look like, and what it could show people, and me too, then I knew it was going to be worth the pain of getting it all down.

After Jennifer passed, you took a writing hiatus then started a project called Forty Stories. One story called The Murphys’ Odyssey was about a couple on their honeymoon in the Greek Islands, who are trying to get rid of the ashes of a friend who recently passed away. This story became the basis for the characters of George and Sarah, and a variation of the story found it’s way into your novel. You’ve also said your debut The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards was developed through short stories. What can you offer writers about the use of short stories as a tool for novel development?

I think it is a perfect way for many writers to get going. I teach writing as well, at SUNY New Paltz and Sarah Lawrence College, and we start small because that’s how it is easiest to get comfortable with the fundamentals. A really amazing short story is a work of art unto itself—some can take as long to write as whole novels. But it lets you tackle things on a manageable scale for a while. For me, I had tried to jump right into novels because I had all these huge ideas and I wanted room to play with them. But I tried, several times, to write longer works and they always sort of lost steam or fell apart. That was when I started 40 Stories because I wanted to get back to those basics and see if I could get more practice. And it made a really big difference. I just got more and more comfortable with characters and plotting and all that stuff. And then, sort of by accident, I realized one day—this was on the 13th story—that I had written about three people I was in love with and had to write more about. So I sort of cheated, and over the year, I finished the 40 Stories project, but about 8 of them were secretly part of this longer book. But I didn’t focus on the big picture with them as I went. I wrote them out of order and just whenever an idea for those characters came along. And it was, really, amazing. Then of course it took me another year to figure out how the hell to assemble it all into something coherent! But that’s also part of the fun of it.

Based on The Murphys’ Odyssey, you ended up writing the second half of Why We Came To The City first— the portion of the book that deals with how the characters deal with Irene’s death— then you went back to discover how this group of characters formed. How does knowing specifically where the story is going to end help a writer determine where a story needs to start? Can you share a bit about how this process worked for you?

So I also wrote Why We Came to the City in a bit of a scattered way. I did write “Murphys’ Odyssey” first, and that was originally the title of the whole book. But I later figured out it would need to be later in the book because George and Sara were on their honeymoon already. So I tucked that away. Almost a year later I wrote another piece about William, looking for a lost girlfriend who has died and I just knew… hey, this fits. A while after, I wrote what turned into the first chapter of the novel, which was then called “The Vicarious States of America”… and then I had already written the prologue years earlier as its own standalone prose poem. So little bits and pieces started to come together, and soon I could sort of see what the whole thing looked like. I had five characters and I started to work out how they’d all get their points of view into the book. 

The novel begins with the prologue “Why We Came To The City”, the second half is marked with— for lack of a better word— the mid-logue “Why We Left The City” and ends with the epilogue “The City That Is”. These sections read like prose poems and could easily stand on their own. What went into your decision to use these sections to frame the story? And when did you know that they were actually going to be written by Jacob’s character?

So the prologue was, originally, its own piece and it was always a bit of prose poem. I had taught Thoreau’s “Why I Went to the Woods”, which is a piece of Walden, many times to Freshmen, and I wanted to see what would happen if I inverted it, basically. And that came out. But as a standalone story I had never really been able to do anything with it. Finally, with this book, it had a home.

The “mid-logue” (I like that!) came very late in the game. I knew I needed something like that in there between the first and second parts of the novel, but by then it had been so many years since I wrote the prologue that I was nervous about trying to replicate the tone and match the detail. But I finally sat down with Walden again and found the part at the end where he talks about deciding to go back to civilization. And it just came right to me.

The epilogue, “The City That Is”, came suddenly too, but I was less sure I needed it. I think this, and the mid-logue were both actually things written late in the editing stages of the novel. We all felt like it needed some balancing. I had originally ended the novel with George and Sara flying back from their honeymoon and seeing the city down below through the plane window, and them thinking about it from this great distance finally. And it sort of worked, and sort of didn’t. It seemed wrong to end with just their points of view, and I wanted to make it more universal again. And to also acknowledge that their collective experience of the city was just one tiny facet of it—that the thing about a place like New York, but again, almost any city—is that we’re all down there living in slightly different cities from one another, and they overlap but we hardly ever see so much of it. For this I looked at another old favorite of mine, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and it worked beautifully.

Lastly, the idea of Jacob being the author of these poems did not come to me until very late, again maybe not until the final edits. I wanted something for him to be contributing to the wedding—a gesture of his participation and approval after all his naysaying, and also for us to see him getting his poetic voice back again after all this time. So it all pointed in that direction, and I hope there’s some catharsis there for the Jacob lovers, of whom I am one.

Jacob’s last words to Irene, which we don’t discover until nearly the end, are unexpected, and at the same time capture their relationship and his heart so well. Did you know while you were writing the death scene what he said, or did the words reveal themselves later? Jacob gives Sarah and George two completely different answers when they ask him what he whispered to Irene. Were those answers ever serious options, or simply part of your process of discovery?

Yes, I did know what those words would be from the very beginning. It was, to me, what the entire emotional journey he undertakes is about. He is a natural skeptic, though as we find out in that section, he is the kind of skeptic hardened so much because he used to believe. I’m not a very religious person, but I try to keep an open mind and heart. I’m mostly interested in people and how faith helps or hinders them in their progress. This was, I think, a very spiritual book for me to write—Jacob is Jewish, George is Catholic, Sara is a Protestant, William is tied to a Korean mysticism through his mother. Irene alone is not religious, though she does have something of an artistic/spiritual vision in the hours before her death—she sees the city, connects to ancient Greek and Roman myth, and realizes she ultimately wants to be with her true family, her friends. But anyway, I knew from the beginning that Jacob’s last words to her would be what they ended up being. “When you get there, just let me know you made it, all right?” It is what his own mother says to him before he boards a plane earlier in the section. And it means that, underneath all the skepticism, he believes she will live on in the universe in some way.

Let’s go a little further into the character of Jacob with a passage from the first section of the novel.

Though the 1 Train was quiet in an early-afternoon sort of way, Jacob transferred to the express 2 train at 96th Street, hoping to move even more swiftly to Fourteenth Street and the coffee shop that he required to sit in and write his poem. It was the only place he could breathe easily enough to tease it out. The challenge, as always, was to hold his impish idea in his threadbare net until he could get there…

For this was what writing poetry had become: a delicate extraction, done in quarter-turns, where the slightest jostling meant starting all over…

In high school he’d written like blinking. On the backs of napkins. In textbook margins. On the edges of his desks. On the dividers in the bathroom stalls. On the chalkboards of empty classrooms.

When I read that passage I thought, “I get it. I’ve been there, and yet, a part of me recognized his perspective as a kind of fearful procrastination. Is fear Jacob’s biggest obstacle? How do you tackle fear in your writing?

I think Jacob’s biggest obstacle might be fear, in the form of a kind of perfectionism or purity? Writing is hard work! It is messy and requires a lot of patience. And faith, I suppose. Jacob wants to think that he will just sit down at the page and write brilliant things almost reflexively. I think that’s how a lot of us feel, especially in the beginning when we’re maybe almost a little amazed by our own abilities. It can feel like a super power when it is going well. He thinks about being young and having it all just flow out… but as you get older and you read more and you realize how difficult it really is to write something good, that can be paralyzing. He’s had some success the old way—in the beginning of the novel we learn he once won a prize for an epic poem called “In the Eye of the Shitstorm” which he wrote all in a rush after his uncle’s suicide. But now he looks back on it and hates it! So he’s not sure what to do.

And the only way through this, I think, is to just accept that drafts are flawed—that it takes time and dedication to work things out. But you have to keep at it and not get discouraged, even as you recognize everything that is wrong with what you’ve put down on paper!

Jacob actually works in a private psychiatric facility, where he eventually uses his background in Classics to help the patients on his ward. Unfortunately, Classics are no longer an integral part of our educational system. Did you ever worry that the references to the Iliad and the Odyssey would be an obstacle for your audience? Or did you hope the use of Homer’s work would spark a fire in your readers? Or was the Odyssey just a perfect fit for the tale you were telling?

It’s funny, I don’t know if I thought that much about that. I do remember reading The Iliad in high school English class, though I don’t remember liking it much. I studied Latin in middle school and had to translate The Aeneid as a project once. I think that there are texts like The Odyssey that, God knows, we should teach more to students—but which are so ingrained in our culture that we come across them in some way. We talk about going on an Odyssey. You can go on an Odyssey in your Honda Odyssey™ right? I remember as a kid watching a Duck Tales episode where they are sailing around and there’s a Scylla and Charybdis thing—there’s a Simpson’s episode probably, I’m sure. Anyway, I think that most people have some sense of the basic idea that mattered for me in the writing of this book, which is that you have first, The War, and then, the Journey Home after. And I did have fun playing with specific references to the actual poems, which are there for readers who want to dig around and who know their Classics. There are also a number of references to The Waste Land, by TS Eliot and The Bridge by Hart Crane, which were two more epic poems that helped me figure out the emotions that Jacob and William, especially, were going through.

Another interesting character choice was George’s work in astrophysics. Is astrophysics an interest of yours? Or did you see the moment when George feels the last four years of his research has been a waste of time as a reflection of the stressful transformations these friends would undergo?

Yes, this has long been a weird side interest of mine. I joke sometimes that I know more writers who used to want to be physicists… I think in an odd way it makes sense. Both writing and physics are, at heart, about answering big questions about life and the universe. Why are we here? Is there some order to everything around us? George solves for these things with equations and numbers. I solve for them with characters and plots. Of course, as an armchair physicist who barely passed Calculus, I had to make sure I checked a lot of George’s parts out with people who really know what they’re talking about. I had some great help here from a friend of a friend, Dr. Joel Green, who is currently working at the Space Telescope Science Institute at my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. And, no spoilers, but I will likely be calling on him again soon for some more help, as my new book (which is coming along!) has a lot more of this stuff in it. I think it is fun, and I like knowing I can write about more than just writers and artists sometimes!


AUTHOR: A True Story by Helen Lester

Helen Lester and I met when I was working in a dental office. At the time, she was a multi-published children’s author, and I was twisting through the story maze of my first manuscript. We spoke of our love for the mysterious process of writing. When she returned, she gifted me this delightful personal story.

Author: A True Story is an honest and humorous look at one writer’s journey to publication. Helen’s charm— she is a three-year old when the story starts— will capture the hearts and imaginations of children, whether or not they have artistic dreams.

My writing was the prettiest in the class…And it was perfectly backwards…There’s a name for somebody with this problem. I was a “mirror writer.” My teacher had to hold my work up to a mirror to understand what I had written.

Reading Lester’s story at the beginning of my own journey fortified my desire and commitment to go the distance. I reread Author periodically until my first manuscript was completed, then other books on craft and creative inspiration pushed the book to a less visible place on my bookshelf.

Shortly before this New Year, I removed all the books from my office in order to revamp my writing space. Author went unnoticed until I was tucking my books into their new bookshelves, but as soon as I saw it I sat down for a read through.

My road to publication is now in its fifteenth year, and I’m twisting through my fifth manuscript. Whether I will reach the status of author like Helen Lester is uncertain; however, persistence in the face of rejection worked for her, so I’m hoping it will do the same for me.

In addition to rejection, Author touches on insecurity, writer’s block, artistic flow, and the importance of rewrites. Although it’s categorized as a children’s book, I believe the story will recharge writers off all ages and at every stage of the writing process.

Sometimes inspiration comes from the most delightful places— Author: A True Story.


TONY PARTLY CLOUDY by Nick Rollins

The back cover of Tony Partly Cloudy states that the story combines elements of comedy, satire and romance in the style of My Cousin Vinny or Analyze This— all true. But when I think of summing up the story I only need one word— happiness. For me, even though it was published in 2013, Nick Rollin’s debut is the feel-good book of 2016.

…the tale of a Mafia goon who defies the odds to become a famous TV weather anchor. 

If the word “fluff” comes to mind after reading the description above— fuggedaboudit! The tone of Tony Partly Cloudy is light-hearted, but the content is serious. The story opens with Tony Bartolicotti— who becomes known as Tony Partly Cloudy after his classmates deliberately mispronounce his name— at the age of seven. He is a boy with a gift for accurately predicting the weather just by standing outside and inhaling the air; he’s a fascinating character. Even more curious is the environment where Rollins chose to place his hero. Tony could’ve been tucked into a private school where he was picked on because of his name and out-of-the-norm passion for weather. In such an environment, Tony might’ve easily morphed into the woe-is-me-I’m-so-misunderstood teen, who turns into an antisocial adult and either seeks revenge or is saved by love. But Rollins chose not to be predictable. And even with Tony’s Italian background and a father that drives for a moving line and does stuff for the family business, Rollins successfully avoids the well-worn Michael Corleone storyline because the focus in Tony Partly Cloudy is on character.

My bookshelves are stuffed with characters I’ve bonded with so strongly, I could re-enact the scene in Wuthering Heights where Catherine Earnshaw says, “I am Heathcliff,” every second for at least an hour simply by substituting his name for Scarlett, Jack, Edna, Mayumi, and the list goes on. But it wasn’t until I read Tony Partly Cloudy that I actually saw, as a writer, how a relatable character is born.

Rollins begins with inherent conflict. Tony, who would like to turn his gift into a career, is surrounded by family and friends who expect him to follow in his father’s footsteps. And Tony’s father is not an open-for-discussion kind of guy.

“So you need to ask Frankie B how much money he makes.”

Vinnie was starting to get it. But his casual use of Tony’s Father’s name was teenage bravado— nobody under the age of twenty-one would ever address the man to his face as anything less formal than Mr. Bartolicotti or sir, not if they liked the way their teeth were currently arranged.

The issue of parental approval begins in childhood and often lingers into adulthood. By establishing this obstacle for Tony on page one, Rollins effortlessly connects his readers to his hero.

Frankie looked at his son a longtime. There might’ve been something resembling affection in his gaze. Or at least an absence of murderous intent— with Frankie that was about the most you could hope for.

The above is an example of where Rollins shines as a writer. He is all about specifics, and those specifics come through his characters’ inner landscapes. The reader is always clear about how the characters in the scene see each other, how they feel about the exchange and what the impact for them is personally. But the real pay off is watching Tony evaluate and re-evaluate his relationships.

Tony had never seen his father— the legendary Frankie B— being so…so…nice to anybody. Frankie was usually a blustery take-no-prisoners guy, and suddenly he was all humility and manners. It was weird to watch, but it also reminded Tony of exactly who he’d been playing poker with for the last few years. […] Tony smiled, still getting accustomed to the concept of actually liking his father. He had always loved him. But this liking— this was new.

Initially, I questioned the wisdom of starting Tony’s story at the age of seven; however, the transformation of his relationships run parallel to his internal growth, and this combination is the reason I found him adorable. Adorable is probably not the adjective usually associated with a male protagonist with ties to the family business— no one on the inside calls it the Mafia— but it fits, and this quality is one of Tony’s strengths; it’s also the obstacle to his career. Tony’s adorableness and his naiveté about life is the reason everyone inside and outside the family business like him. Unfortunately, part of what makes him adorable is the way he talks, which reminds everyone he meets— especially his boss— of the characters in GoodFellas and The Godfather. This is not the kind of image the television networks want to endorse; after beating the odds to make a living forecasting the weather, Tony’s career hits a plateau.

About this time, I wondered if the story would fizzle out because even the importance of Tony’s gift appeared to have faded from the frontline of the story. Then Nick Rollins flexed another one of his strengths; he takes advantage of what’s integral to the story— no deus ex machina for him. He uses Tony’s personality and members of his family to ratchet up the tension and catapult the story forward. Once these elements were recharged I remembered Tony’s rise to fame was inevitable (this plot point is in the back cover synopsis). But the delivery of this underdog element of the story is handled so well, his success felt unexpected and made me cry. Then just when everything is going well for Tony, Rollins dips back into Tony’s past and all that is good unravels. This left hook not only increases the tension, but also realigns the reader with Tony on a deeper level. In order to stop the dominoes of destruction in his life, he must come to terms with who he is and what he stands for.

In a year where politics and personal agendas seemed to have hijacked the focus of what it means to live a useful and compassionate life, I can’t think of a better book to read before heading into 2017. Tony Partly Cloudy is filled with humor and suspense, but the secret ingredient on every page is heart; I have no doubt that Tony’s journey will help readers unite, heal and hope, always.


VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar

Virginia Woolf was never introduced to me in school with a three-week analysis of her work like Emily Dickinson, or Edgar Allen Poe. No memories reveal a conversation with a friend saying, “If you read nothing else you must read Mrs. Dalloway.” Like Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, my exploration of Woolf’s writing came after my fascination with her life. The Bloomsbury Group, founded in part by Virginia and her siblings, Vanessa, Thoby and Adrian, was a group of writers, philosophers and artists, intent on the development and promotion of the arts, as they flexed the rules of Victorian society. Information about the liberal nature of this influential group is abundant, but it wasn’t until reading Vanessa and Her Sister that the intellectual stimulation, the professional frustrations and personal jealousies of these extraordinary friends truly came to life. Priya Parmar’s novel made me wish I could travel back in time to mingle with the Stephen sisters and their peers.

Settling in with Vanessa and the Bloomsberries was unlike any other reading experience. Initially, I was overwhelmed by the cast of characters, ten family members and eighteen friends to keep straight, and feared an exam would be given in the end. For readers who have no background in the era of the Bloomsberries getting cozy with the characters might involve more patience than usual, but the payoff is more than worthy of the early uncertainty of who is who. The bulk of the story is conveyed through Vanessa’s diary entries and the rest is filled in through letters and postcard exchanges. This format, too, requires the reader to double check the cast of characters from time to time until all the relationships tumble into their notches. Then whoosh, the reader is in the flow.

What’s interesting about the storytelling for Vanessa and Her Sister is the structure itself allows the reader to feel as if they are in midst of an actual gathering of the Bloomsbury Group. The chaos of keeping tabs on everyone’s love life, the invitations to travel to nurture their creative interests and explore the innovations of the characters’ contemporaries, and the observations of character that are integral to regular interactions swirl around the reader with such specificity it was sad to remember I wasn’t really there.

The tug of these characters was so strong, when I wasn’t reading I often found myself thinking of Gil Pender’s obsession with Paris during the 1920’s in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. So, I asked myself, what is “calling to me” about these particular people in the early 1900’s in London?

And what if people are shocked that we have no curtains and hold mixed at homes and invite guests who don’t know when to leave? Only we live here, and we can do it how we like.

The boldness to be at the forefront of change is enviable. What artist doesn’t long to be the first to break with rules, question expectations and ignite self-awareness? Witnessing the Bloomsberries in action has nudged me to think twice about where I’m going as a writer. Another aspect of these extraordinary individuals that kept me plugged into the story was the timelessness of their frustrations. Today we speak of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and those they admired at the time like Matisse and Picasso, because of the impact they had on their particular field of expertise. Yet, they too, were struggling and wondering if they would ever break through.

The rest of us are still living on the borrowed fuel of potential and so far have not left deep footprints. But together we carry a brackish air of importance. As if we are doing something worthy in the world. Maybe how we live our lives is the grand experiment? Mixing company, throwing out customs, using first names, waiting to marry, ignoring the rules and choosing what to care about. Is that why we matter? Or perhaps Miss Warre-Cornish is right and we do not matter in the least.

Delving into the lives of Vanessa and Her Sister also reminded me of what no longer seems appreciated: silence. One of my secret wishes is for the internet, all cell phones and television to go on the fritz long enough for everyone, who is wired in, to have enough time to discover the wonder of sitting with their own thoughts, and then take those discoveries and develop and channel them into something other than a sound bite.

Tonight the talk was purposeful, intentional. No one spoke unless there was something to say. When there was nothing to say, we made room for silence, like a thick blue wave rolling through the house.

The most delicious element of Parmar’s novel is again, wrapped in the storytelling structure. Letter writing has become an underrated, if not lost, art form. However, Parmar’s use of diary entries and letters to illuminate the intimate story of two sisters and their legendary friends shows us, and will remind many, of how breathtaking it is to bare one’s soul on the page. And how the exchange of thoughts through letters encourages the writer to not only share how he feels, but to thoroughly understand why he possesses those feelings.

Nessa is powered by some internal metronome that keeps perfect time, while the rest of us flounder about in a state of breathless pitching exaggeration, carried by momentum rather than purpose.

Virginia has a vibrancy about her that makes time spent with her seem inherently more valuable than time spent away from her; minutes burn brighter, words fall more steeply into meaning, and you feel you are not just alive but living.

Vanessa and Her Sister is an intimate portrait of Vanessa and Virginia Stephen as they struggled to define themselves as women and artists in an era dominated by men, and in the process helped launch a movement of artistic freedom that continues to resonate. Since finishing Vanessa’s tale I have reread A Room of One’s Own and The Voyage Out and still feel compelled to revisit the rest of Woolf’s published works and learn more about her sister and their contemporaries. And that, dear reader, is the reason I believe Vanessa and Her Sister exemplifies the power of historical fiction.


ROOM by Emma Donoghue

Room is Emma Donoghue‘s seventh novel. It became an international bestseller from the moment it reached the shelves in 2010 and was short-listed for the Man Booker prize. I’m embarrassed to say I knew nothing about Room until the trailers for the film version came out. The reason I share my shame is because everyone lives in some kind of isolation from the world. In 2010 I was in the thick of balancing writing, childrearing and disgruntled patients in desperate need of root canals. I’m not saying my isolation can compare to what the protagonist in Donoghue’s novel endured, neither will yours. Yet, isolation is one of the common grounds through which we are able to connect with this extraordinary journey.

Room is the story of a five-year-old called Jack, who lives in a single room with his Ma and has never been outside. When he turns five he starts to ask questions, and his Ma reveals to him that there is a world beyond the walls. Room is told entirely in Jack’s voice.

Twelve days have passed since I finished Room and I still miss Jack.

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.

The first two lines, Jack’s first thoughts and I fall in love. His energy, wonder, imagination, faith and trust resonate in every line and the spaces in between. But his wonder is where the magic happens. All children possess a sense of wonder but Jack’s is magnified because all he knows of the world is contained in Room, thanks to his mother’s genius in explaining life so it fits within the four walls of their existence.

The moon is God’s silver face that only comes on special occasions.

Nothing more than this and yet, we know Jack feels how fortunate he is to have this opportunity to see the Crescent Moon. And it’s not because he feels deprived because there are thousands of things to do each morning. Jack’s enthusiasm for every element of his life is the counter weight to what the readers understand about the horrible truth of his existence through his mom’s explanations.

“Remember we have to choose things he can get easily…I just mean, he might have to go to two or three stores, and that would make him cranky. And what if he didn’t find the impossible thing, then we probably wouldn’t get Sunday treat at all.”  

“But Ma,” I laugh. “He doesn’t go in stores. Stores are in TV.”

The power of what goes unsaid lingers and smacks against every moment of Jack’s joy, so the tragedy of the situation weighs heavy in the readers hearts.

Still, whenever I think of Room I never think of tragedy. Instead I marvel at the resilience of the human spirit, the inherent hope and faith that belongs to each of us, and the power of love. The bond between Ma and Jack is infectious. We love both of them instantly because of the strength of the love they share. We want to protect the two of them as much as Ma wants to protect Jack from Old Nick, and the equally frightening possibility that Old Nick could permanently abandon them. The love Ma and Jack share is the purest form of love between a mother and child. They are each other’s lifeblood, happiness and sorrow. When their circumstance changes and Ma is taken away because the doctors are trying to figure out what she needs, and Jack offers the cure…

Me, she needs me.

It’s difficult to swallow how no one else seems to grasp this truth. The simplicity in Jack’s solution winds us back to his level of wonder—far beyond our own. Jack’s time with Ma in Room, removed from the bustle of the outside world provided him with five years of contemplation and space to appreciate every aspect of his existence. He experiences disappointments as well—no birthday candles for his cake—but these moments never overtake his spirit or his gratitude for having the opportunity to come from Heaven into Ma’s tummy to save her.

Contemplation has been at the forefront of my days since reading Room. Marveling at the wonder of Jack and his extraordinary journey has showed me there are really only three kinds of fiction. The first dazzles and expands our imagination and leaves us with a new perspective on who we are and what we are capable of. The second is an undercurrent that washes through us and opens our awareness to our self and the world on a very personal level. The third blooms from the author’s heart and zooms directly into our own; the depth to which these stories touch us is so difficult to explain, sometimes the only thing you can do is hand the book to a friend and say, “Read this.”—this is Room.


MAYUMI AND THE SEA OF HAPPINESS by Jennifer Tseng

This August will mark my fourth year of reviewing books. The journey has impacted my writing life in so many ways, I feel like Robert Redford in his last scene with Bearclaw in Jeremiah Johnson.

Bearclaw: You come far Pilgrim.

Jeremiah: Feels like Far.

In the beginning I wrote purely about my love for the story. The further I dug into my own manuscript, the more I evaluated the books I read based on the elements of storytelling I was wrestling with at the time. Over the last six months, I’ve wondered if I would ever be able to read a novel without thinking like a writer. Would I ever again be able to read for the pure fun of getting lost in another world, without a care in the world—other than my care and concern for the protagonist? The answer is, YES. Thanks to Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi And The Sea of Happiness I’ve come home to my love of reading.

So what is it about Tseng’s debut novel that reawakened the pure Reader in me? At first I believed it was a result of Tseng’s roots in poetry. Her first book of poems The Man with My Face won the 2006 PEN American Center Open Book Award. Her second book Red Flower, White Flower won the 2013 Marick Press Poetry Prize. There is a satin cadence in her writing that reels us in with a dose of surprise that positions us on the edge of danger.

I was a librarian after all, near-sighted, spectacled, sitting at a desk, legs crossed, mind adrift, a woman who, at any given moment, would have rather been reading.

My reawakening may have started with Tseng’s mastery of words, but the reason she blew the analytical writer out of my head is the strength of her uncommon tale and a protagonist who, in spite of her inappropriate behavior, felt like a part of me.

Forty-one years old, discontented wife and dutiful mother, Mayumi is a librarian on an island off the coast of New England. Her work feeds her passion for reading […] but it does little to remedy the dulness of her daily routine. […] until the day she issues a library card to a shy seventeen-year-old boy…

I don’t know whether my connection to Mayumi’s discontentment is a natural side-effect to the responsibility of motherhood, or if my restlessness is an understandable off-shoot of an artistic spirit who inadvertently ended up steering the family ship. The answer probably lies somewhere in-between, or maybe it’s something else. What matters more is that I’m asking the question, wondering, probing and observing more careful the actions of myself and others. This is why we read.

What I appreciated most was Tseng’s patience in delivering the story. The first third of Mayumi’s journey is a wrestling match with her conscience.

How does one do something inappropriate in as appropriate a manner as possible?

The tug between guilt and desire creates an ever-present tension we cannot turn away from because we’ve been there. Perhaps not because of lust, but who hasn’t wanted to do something they ultimately knew was wrong. As Mayumi’s obsession with her seventeen-year old grows, so does our obsession to understand how she will deal with this crisis. The mind-loops of justification, rationalization and her attempts to prevent this inevitable act are grounded and sane because Mayumi is a sane human being. She doesn’t live on the edge of psychosis, or the border of mental illness. She’s simply a woman who wants something society has told her is wrong. She needs to figure out how to deal with it, and because she could be a librarian in our own town, we root for her to come to her senses, while being swept up in her logic to commit the crime she may very well go to jail for.

Another powerful element of Mayumi And The Sea of Happiness that makes this debut novel impossible to put down is the inevitability of Mayumi’s transgression. By the time we reach the consummation of the affair we, too, have accepted there is no way for her to resist. Having written that statement, a part of me is shocked that I’ve done so. How can I admit that there was no way for her to back away? This alone, is a testament to how thoroughly Jennifer Tseng has delivered the complexity of Mayumi’s inner turmoil.

Alone with my secret, I indicted and rehabilitated, analyzed and haggled. I accused myself of rape, molestation, and willful negligence. Alternatingly, I defended my right to feel pleasure and love, my right to refuse loneliness.

But perhaps the most beautiful part of the telling of the tale is how empty the pages are of sex. Mayumi’s relationship with her lover is absolutely a relationship. Our interactions cause us to grow, and Mayumi’s affair might, very well, be considered her MFA in self-awareness and life. Her time with the boy is filled with questions, musings and wonderment at how her life has unfolded, while containing many of the struggles of conscience she wrestled with in the first third of the book. The affair is an enormous event in her life, but in the end it is only one aspect of her life. She is a wife, a mother, a librarian, a woman and all of these aspects of her personality are given a thorough reexamination because of this one event.

Mayumi And The Sea of Happiness is an exquisitely told tale of inappropriate behavior that takes our breath away, while giving us pause to examine the line we walk, perhaps everyday, between guilt and desire.


HEART-SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill

One of my favorite ways to replenish the creative well is to saturate my senses with something from the world of dark fantasy or horror. As I stated in my review of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2when a writer with a well-packed Toolbox offers up the impossible as real, we can’t turn away. Heart-Shaped Box is such a story.

The opening chapter, where we learn of Judas Coyne’s macabre collection, reminds me of Poe, with a sense of foreboding invisibly woven into the fabric of each sentence. The atmosphere is tense and eerie, which normally makes me zoom ahead, but my level of awe was so grand I deliberately slowed down to savor the story’s unfolding.

…when Danny Wooten, his personal assistant, told him there was a ghost for sale on the Internet and asked did he want to buy it, Jude didn’t even need to think. It was like going out to eat, hearing the special, and deciding you wanted it without even looking at the menu. Some impulses required no consideration.

The ghost supposedly inhabits the Sunday suit of the dead man and arrives in a heart-shaped box. The item appears harmless enough when it arrives, then Judas’s girlfriend Georgia asks if he’s going to wear it.

His own reaction surprised him. His skin crawled, went rough and strange with gooseflesh. For one moment, the idea struck him as obscene.

From this moment, just like Dorothy, we know we are no longer in Kansas and the curse that has been delivered to Judas Coyne arrives shortly thereafter.

The black mark on you will infect anyone who joins your cause. You will not live, and no one who gives you aid or comfort will live.

What Joe Hill unleashes from here is extraordinary; he holds nothing back as a writer. He thrusts his protagonist into situations without hope, which leads the reader to believe the only way Judas will survive is through some deus ex machina. Yet somehow, Hill’s storytelling drives forward, navigating through the impossible while continuing to up the tension.

We know from the moment of the curse Judas is heading towards his demise but we believe in him. Here’s a perfect example of how Hill manages to push his protagonist through the worst. Even as Judas appears to be giving up, we feel his strength and that gives us hope.

He clenched his teeth and began to scream. He had always known he would go out this way: on fire. He had always known that rage was flammable, dangerous to store under pressure, where he had kept it his whole life.

My inkling of how Hill is able to maintain such powerful forward motion has to do with the character’s inner turmoil. Hill never allows Judas to rehash what the readers already know. Instead, Judas always deals with his confusion in a state of clear and present danger.

The thought was so urgent, so demanding—get in the car and get out of here—that it set his teeth on edge. He resented being made to run. Throwing himself into the car and taking off wasn’t a choice, it was panic. This was followed by another thought, disconcerting and unfounded, yet curiously convincing: the thought that he was being herded, that the dead man wanted him to run. That the dead man was trying to force him away from…from what?

The Heart-Shaped Box is storytelling at its best. The potential of every character, pets included, is mined—their strengths and weaknesses adding to the complexity of the tale and forcing our protagonist to face his secrets and fears. A truly out-of-the-box tale.


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