A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway

As a teen I was introduced to many Hemingway shorts and The Old Man and the Sea. When I made a commitment to write with serious intent I moved onto A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises, then The Old Man and the Sea again and again and again. The Old Man and the Sea is one of my favorite books. The warmth and contentment I experienced each time I read The Old Man and the Sea was so complete, I felt no need to read further into Hemingway’s library.

Then along came Erika Robuck’s Hemingway’s Girl, a historical novel with one of the most compelling love triangles I have ever encountered. Robuck led me to wonder why I liked Hemingway. Is it because he’s Hemingway, the man who won the Nobel Prize and helped change the style of English prose? Or are there other reasons? If I had never read The Old Man and the Sea would I still covet him as a writer? I chose to launch my inquiry by reading A Farewell to Arms because it was one of the books that made Hemingway a household name.

Like Shakespeare, his rhythm is steady and catchy. Also, as with the Bard, I found myself needing to slow down to bathe in his metered language before I was able to fully appreciate the depth of the situation. We don’t meet our protagonist Lieutenant Henry until Chapter Two.

His descriptions, which at first appear sterile hold all that is needed. They are steeped in the accuracy of the action and drive the characters forward. Hemingway wrote for the audience who dared to escape and suspend their disbelief; not for the audiences of today who need to be spoon fed and believe reality T.V. is drama, while they text their friends. By page 100 I craved his simplicity.

I leaned forward in the dark to kiss her and there was a sharp stinging flash. She had slapped my face hard. Her hand had hit my nose and eyes, and tears came in my eyes from the reflex. 

I did not crave Catherine. As much as I empathized with Lieutenant Henry, Miss Barkley put me off. Was my dislike for Catherine embedded in an inability to relate to the moral and social expectations of the era in which the novel takes place—World War I? I pushed on to find out and found Catherine’s character increasingly unbelievable and annoying. I couldn’t understand why Henry would fall for woman I felt was silly. As their relationship deepened my frustration grew. I didn’t feel the passion or the love. Where was the love and compassion I encountered in The Old Man and the Sea that oozed off the page? I stopped reading on page 164 and picked up The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh and then The Madam by Julianna Baggott.

Then on the train to New York City after finishing August Osage County by Tracy Letts and The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, I realized I’d short changed Hemingway. While I found the simplicity of his descriptions rich, his lack of emotional attribution with regard to dialogue left me cold. As an exercise I decided to go back and read all the Catherine and Henry scenes as if they were a play. When I did my entire perspective on their relationship changed.

Catherine Barkley remained in the list of people I would not befriend, however, her love and devotion for Henry and vice versa crystalized for me. Rereading the early scenes between the two lovers made me remember that Hemingway trusts his readers to complete the scene, visualize and shade in the landscape. He demands that we become active participants. This was where I went wrong as a reader in the early part of the book. I’d heard their scenes as if I was only seeing the dots on the canvas of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, rather than stepping back and allowing the dots, or the space between the lines to bleed with the emotion Hemingway experienced as he captured the dialogue on the page. My realization allowed me, like the soldiers of WWI to march on.

I’ve seen many films of war, where soldiers battled in the rain. But none of those films capture the endless downpour that most certainly ate away at the men’s morale better than Hemingway’s simple references.

Along the river bank there was nothing and no one but the wet brush and muddy ground. The wind drove down the rain and everywhere there was standing water and mud. Everyone was caught in it and the small rain would not quiet it. 

But while others are losing faith and dying in such weather, Lieutenant Henry refuses to dwell on the worst of times. He believes in his love for Catherine and their future. His patience and persistence to return to her make us want to stand shoulder to shoulder with him.

Hemingway was often criticized for his short declarative sentences. As a reader I find them addicting; they reel me in.

His breath comes in my face metallic with garlic and red wine.

As a writer I marvel at the energy his words evoke and how he stimulates the senses even with inanimate objects without signs of effort.

It smelled of early morning, of swept dust, spoons in coffee-glasses and the wet circles left by wine glasses. 

Hemingway’s writing is rooted in truth, his own and his character’s. Once the truth is delivered, it’s up to the receiver to determine whether or not they can accept it. Some readers may walk away from him. I will not. A Farewell to Arms has illuminated only the tip of the iceberg of reasons of why I love Hemingway. I look forward to discovering more.

A Farewell to Arms

OUTERBOROUGH BLUES: A Brooklyn Mystery by Andrew Cotto

I discovered Andrew Cotto on Twitter. He followed me. The information on his website intrigued me. I followed back and placed his books on my Wish List. Shortly after, I found myself in the Barnes and Noble in New York City’s Union Square. I searched the shelves for his name and was fortunate to snatch up the last Autographed copy of Outerborough Blues. At the time I was reading Lamott’s Bird by Bird, so I placed the novel in my TBR pile.

Last September I dusted it off and fell headlong into a vortex of loss and forward motion. Andrew Cotto has written one of the best prologues I’ve ever read. I was immediately interlinked with narrator Caesar Stiles, a haunted soul driven to find peace.

My mother’s mother came to this country in the usual way—she got on a boat with other immigrants and sailed from Sicily. She wasn’t one of them, however: neither tired nor poor or part of any huddled mass. Instead, she traveled alone, with her money in one sock and a knife in the other, coming to the new world with an old world motive—to murder the man that had left her for America.

Film noir is a favorite of mine. Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers never fail to rope me in. The shadows, low lighting, the gritty mood and matching voice of the narrator are only some of the elements of fascination. I believe Andrew Cotto also grew up fascinated by film noir, for his novel is drenched in its style. His descriptions twist and rock to unearth the characters emotional states while steeped in the narrator’s point of view.

She stood across the bar’s curve, her hands tucked out of sight, her shoulders pinched as if she had failed, while dressing to separate hanger from garment.

The grit and detailed mood, the picture window view of character, the way each character zeroes in on the next to form a connection that is unique and delineates the relationship like a crystal fractures light, held me in awe—until it didn’t.

Sometime after Caesar sets out to track down the beautiful French girl’s missing artist brother, I became restless. At the time, I believed the action of the story had gotten lost in the descriptions. I couldn’t keep tabs on Caesar’s purpose, so I stopped reading.

For the next six months I filled my days and nights with other authors and my WIP. Yet, all through those months Outerborough Blues gnawed and haunted me the way only true film noir can. I removed the bookmark from my stopping point, but returned to the beginning, and promised myself to read Cotto’s novel straight through. I could take breaks, but no other books would cross my path until I was finished with the Blues. This is what I discovered.

I pressed through the heat of hard stares and fought the discomfort of being unwanted and possibly in danger. 

Once I made a commitment to the novel, I realized I had been the problem last fall. Multiple reading assignments for a course I was enrolled in, on top of recovering from a physical injury had created more of a distraction than I realized. I never considered being stretched too thin because I often read more than one book at a time without difficulty. On the other side of my course and recovery, I found a resurgence of delight in Outerborough Blues and never thought about putting it down.

The opening lost no luster the second time through. In fact, I appreciated Cotto’s style more. Caesar’s unrest is steady fuel as he takes on his Sam Spade role. True to film noir, we are never certain where he will go next, or how he will handle himself as he digs deeper into the missing person mystery. And there lies our joy. We piece together the clues only as he does.

Cotto’s novel unfolds with a razor’s edge to reveal only what we need to know, when we need to know it. And the six degrees of separation between the characters from past to present remind us to keep our friends close and our enemies closer.

Outside, a sheath of newspaper rattled over the sidewalk like urban tumbleweed.

Outerborough Blues is an underground mystery that taps into the dreams and myths we create to survive and shows us how to sort through them in order to deal with the reality of life, and accept the truth about who we are and what we want. A haunting tale you don’t want to miss.

Step into the streets of Urban Noir with Outerborough Blues.

WOMEN IN BED by Jessica Keener

When I read I want to plunge inside another person’s life until mine fades into the background, as if forgotten. My need to be someone else is why I became an actress. Short stories hamper my need to escape. At least, that’s what I believed until a few weeks ago. Thanks to Amy Sue Nathan, the author of The Glass Wives and creator of the blog, Women’s Fiction Writers, I won a copy of Jessica Keener’s collected shorts, Women in Bed; a little book strong enough to widen my literary choices.

I learned Jessica Keener writes the way great composers shape symphonies when I read her debut novel, Night Swim and her short stories prove I was not mistaken.

Her eyes are grey speckled: smooth stones lying next to the sea. 

Women in Bed ebbs and flows, dives and soars, but first it shakes you out of the comatose way you’ve been living and shows you the truth about life.

A waitress, an independent filmmaker and a girl in a hospital are some of the women who have nothing in common, while sharing the most important moments of their lives. All of these women are at crossroads, on the edge of nowhere facing relationships and situations we often turn away from, hoping the problem will go away through avoidance. These women do not turn away. They face the conflict and move through it by choice.

I held on to the bedrails for cold comfort, waited there and listened to the rumblings under my skin. 

These unforgettable women may start out comatose, but when they emerge from their beds the light shines differently. The sun bounces at acute angles to broaden their awareness and delivers an unexpected mindfulness to influence them for the rest of their lives.

Although the title sounds erotic you will find nothing risqué between the pages, though you may still need a cigarette or a drink afterward. Jessica Keener has found a way to touch on the restless and unsteady qualities of life we overlook, by simply observing the world with better than perfect vision. Her life lens is sharp, often unflattering and 100% spellbinding.

Women in Bed  delivers short stories with depth on impact.

THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath

About a year ago I told my son I wanted to reread The Bell Jar. “You and every high school girl,” he said.  I laughed because my first experience with Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel was as a high school freshman. At the time I knew nothing about the author or the book’s content. I bought the book because the title beckoned.

THE BELL JAR…

What was it? I needed to find out. Yet, before I opened the cover my nerve endings tingled as if they were already in tune with the isolated emotional excess contained within. I never spoke to anyone about my encounter with Plath’s heroine Esther Greenwood. You don’t talk about what you write in your diary. Each sentence of The Bell Jar pulsed as if they were written in my own hand. I don’t recall how many times I perused those pages as a teen, but I remember dog-earring so many of them the novel fanned open like an accordion. Sometime after college the book fell out of my possession, but never out of mind.

By the time I picked up a used copy—don’t you love used books? They remind me of how closely mankind is woven together—a week ago, none of the details of Esther’s breakdown remained with me. I was thrilled to approach Plath’s work fresh, even if I hadn’t forgotten the vulnerability and fear that had drawn me in and spoken to me as a teen.

I’m happy to say my expectations were shattered. The vulnerability and fear that I expected to greet me in those opening pages was replaced by decisive, independent strength. The shift I encountered proved that I have changed over time, that the load I carried as a teen has lightened and I see myself, and the world, from a healthier perspective. As I viewed Esther Greenwood from my new perch I also gained a better appreciation of the timelessness of Sylvia Plath’s writing.

I didn’t want my picture taken because I was going to cry. I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full. 

Haven’t we all been there? Hiding behind a mask, posing for the world that expects one thing out of us while we have something else to give, even though we haven’t a clue what it is. From where I stand in life, I often wonder if this unsteady “mask holding” that Plath exposed in the sixties hasn’t grown into a bigger menace for today’s youth.

In my teens, The Bell Jar hit me on a visceral level. Reading it as an adult I see how Plath is able to continue to touch the souls of so many adolescent girls. She zeroes in on the situations that separate us and feed our inadequacies.

There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more crazy about each other, especially when you’re the only extra person in the room. 

At fourteen I was so thrilled that someone else shared my angst, I missed out on the naked bravery of Plath’s novel. (Remember I didn’t have the slightest idea the author killed herself not long after the book was published.) Reading The Bell Jar with the facts of Sylvia Plath’s repeated suicide attempts and death at age thirty at my fingertips, I can’t help but marvel at how brave she was to expose her darkest hour to the world.

But I don’t think the autobiographical nature of the novel is what makes this work a must read. It’s much more than a potboiler—the label Plath is rumored to have used—or a sensational tell-all often seen on-line today. The heart of the story lies in Plath’s ability to show the fragile state of Esther Greenwood. Esther’s frustration in not being understood by the people around her is born out of not yet, “getting” herself. This is a fault-line we all straddle throughout our lives though we are often oblivious to it. And what Plath does with such simple execution is reveal how easy our point of pain can be exposed. All it takes is one targeted interaction or event to trigger our descent.

While Esther Greenwood is each of us at our most vulnerable she also embodies strength and determination. Even in the last days of Sylvia Plath’s life she churned out her Ariel poems at a feverish pace. Esther doesn’t fully return to her writing by the end of the novel, but her persistence and faith in finding a way to free herself from the bell jar helps keep our own hope alive.

I’ve read countless books about young women with greater drive and more inner turmoil and conflict than The Bell Jar. But like The Catcher in the Rye and The Old Man and The Sea, it’s a novel that needs to be read and reread by writers. Plath wrote her novel just as her chops as a poet were starting to root and blossom. The Bell Jar is an extraordinary example of writer getting out of her own way and trusting her instincts. Within these pages we experience snippets of exquisite imagery interwoven with stark simplicity. But what fascinates me most are Plath’s choices. Whether we are examining the sequence of chapters, the shifts within chapters or opening and closing lines, what we find is the result of a deliberate choice. I don’t think any other book has ever been so clear on this point for me. Maybe this gift was born out of her poetry, or maybe Sylvia became a poet because she inherently experienced the world through palpable moments. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful she was brave enough to share her corner of life with us.

The Bell Jar.

THE MOON SISTERS by Therese Walsh

Authors, publishers and agents often say the bottom line for book sales is word of mouth. I won’t argue. But I believe in something stronger—book karma. Books have energy, a life force that wraps around our hearts, tugs on our minds and makes our fingers itch until the bound pages are in our hands. Books arrive when we need them. I reread books because I have no choice. Certain characters haunt me and I must return to their lives as many times as it takes to learn from the wisdom they offer. The Moon Sisters is such a novel.

I wasn’t surprised. Therese Walsh, the co-founder of Writer Unboxed, mesmerized me so much with her debut The Last Will of Moira Leahy, I wrote my first fan letter. This is my second.

GROUND ZERO

The End of the Beginning

* Olivia * 

The night before the worst day of my life, I dreamed the sun went dark and ice cracked every mirror in the house, but I didn’t take it for a warning.  

A moment of awe followed. I don’t know how long I waited, or how many times I reread this opening, but before moving on I knew I would not turn back, or set the book down until I was done. Walsh is a writer on par with the finest archeological excavator. Every word is selected, polished and mounted against the next with intent. An intent formulated from deep within legally blind Olivia (who can taste words, see sounds and smell sights), older sister Jazz (a bit overlooked and bruised from being delegated as her sister’s keeper), and their mother, Beth (recently deceased whose voice is heard through the letters she left behind).

Through the alternating chapters of the sisters and Beth’s periodic letters we are able to piece together a family dynamic, which is best defined as a unit of hair-line fractures that crack open after Beth’s sudden death. Her husband embraces the bottle. Jazz finds a job in a funeral home. Olivia hits the road. Olivia’s mission is to travel to the setting of her mother’s unfinished novel in the hope of seeing a will-o’-the-wisp in order to lay her mother’s spirit to rest. Reluctantly, Jazz follows to keep her sister safe and put an end to this dreaming nonsense.

The sister’s cross-purposes intersect with two train-hoppers with missions of their own. The foursome’s entanglement leads to unexpected twists, emotional complications and forces Olivia and Jazz to face their personal grief and secrets together and separately. This is where Walsh shines as she sculpts the sentences that build an unforgettable story.

A breeze cut through, slapped leaves on trees, rattled branches in a quick swirl of cinnamon heat, then was gone. Left was the scent of my own desperation.

—Olivia 

A breeze blew up when she dropped my hand, and my panic spiked. This was a change. Not a jabberfest. There was something different about my sister.

—Jazz 

Walsh leaves nothing untouched. Her ability to bring a heightened awareness of the environment to the moment to enhance each character’s personal crisis is a skill to be admired and studied. The above examples are not rare. This kind of seamless craftsmanship permeates the novel, and sutures our hearts to those of the Moon sisters.

This skill, to use the environment as a character, or a means to express character needs to be part of every writer’s Toolbox. Walsh is way beyond basics. Her word choices magnify how Olivia and Jazz struggle with the first four stages of the grief cycle. The first time through The Moon Sisters my curiosity was stimulated by the recurrence of the word rain.

The rain sputtered on. Wind thrashed against the wood. Hobbs came up beside me, seemed to close up and around me like a house. 

The repetition and placement of the word rain was so specific in usage, I knew I had to read the book again. I needed to discover why the word had such a hold on me. Or was I reading too much into the writing? To my delight I uncovered that Therese Walsh’s strength of intention as a writer is coupled with a playful purpose to manipulate the reader’s understanding of character.

Between Jazz and Olivia there are at least forty references to the words, rain, storm, drown and thunder. The majority of these references have nothing to do with actual weather. They are used to amplify the inner turmoil within Jazz and Olivia brought on by their mother’s unexpected death. Beth, however, never uses any of these words. The word she chooses to repeat in her letters is tsunami. Tsunami—a tidal wave of overwhelming proportion, brought about by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. It is the perfect word for Beth, whose first words to us are…

If you live your whole life hoping and dreaming the wrong things…what does that mean about your whole life?

And she is dead by Chapter Two. Walsh’s specificity with words is one of the ways she inspires me as a writer.

While some books only entertain, others offer wisdom and guidance for the questions we might not even have known we possessed, until the appropriate situation was illuminated for us. Jazz and Olivia’s journey is riddled with moments of revelation they had no idea they were searching for.

People give a lot of fancy reasons for what they do, but it usually comes down to one of two things, Hobbs had said. They’re getting something or they’re avoiding something.

I had gotten something…but I was avoiding something too.

—Olivia 

What makes The Moon Sisters special is the way Olivia and Jazz’s realizations entwine with each other. When their interdependence of growth combines the impact for the reader is like an arrow to the center of a target. We can’t help but experience an awakening of our own.

My light bulb moment came through my connection with Beth Moon and her inability to finish her story. Unlike Beth I’ve finished my WIP eight times and am working on the ninth draft. Will I ever be able to move on to the next step, or is there some truth underneath my task I’m avoiding that keeps me locked into the revision process? In the midst of Jazz and Olivia’s journey the idea of reaching the end of my life with an unfulfilled dream still dangling out of reach was so strong, I mourned. But as the Moon sisters grew stronger, broadened their outlooks and faced the truth about their mother’s death, I too understood all was not lost. For like Olivia, I believe hope is an eternal flame that allows us to stay the course and reach our destiny.

The Moon sisters’ journey is born out of love, fraught with fury and fear, and takes us to a place where miracles reveal sides of ourselves and others, we never imagined was possible. Jazz and Olivia learn happiness is determined by how they choose to see and live their lives. Thanks to Therese Walsh’s finely crafted tale, maybe we will do the same

Gather the karma of The Moon Sisters.

HEMINGWAY’S GIRL by Erika Robuck

My introduction to Erika Robuck came through Amy Sue Nathan’s blog Women’s Fiction Writers in 2012, when Robuck shared her journey to publication. It’s an inspiring interview, which I saved and reference from time to time.

For the booklovers who frequent my Bookshelf, you know that I like to zero in on what works and what doesn’t work for me—an ingrained curse of a writer struggling with a debut novel. I’m delighted and surprised to say Erika Robuck nudged me out of habit. When I finished the novel my son asked how I liked it.

“It was good,” I said. 

“So, you didn’t really like it?”

Pause. 

“No,” I said. “You’ve completely misunderstood. I loved it. I was swept away, hardly took any notes. In fact, Erika Robuck made me forget I was a writer.”

A theory exists to help readers choose books. I came across it on The Kill Zone with a blog post titled The Page 69-Bomb. Select a book and turn to page 69. If you like that page you’ll probably like the book. If you’re unable to get a sense of the book’s heart by then, best to leave the book on the shelf. How did Hemingway’s Girl stand up? I didn’t test the book ahead of time, but I can say, without hesitation, my allegiance and investment in heroine Mariella Bennet was complete after the first four pages. By page 43 I had to force myself to stop reading in order to get anything else done during the day. Now that’s happiness.

Before the novel begins Robuck writes to the reader:

After reading all [of Hemingway's] novels and eventually ending up in his home in Key West, I had a strong desire to tell a piece of his story and inspire others to read his work. 

I’m thrilled to say Robuck’s wish came true for me. Although I’ve read The Old Man and The Sea four times, A Moveable Feast and a few short stories, Hemingway’s other novels have remained a mystery—until now. I’m currently in the midst of A Farewell to Arms thanks to Hemingway’s Girl. And I have a growing interest in reading about the women in Hemingway’s life.

I can’t imagine writing a historical novel. The research alone would intimidate me. Luckily for us, Erika Robuck did not let fear get the best of her. What she learned about Key West, the Veterans of WWI, Hemingway and the Depression enriches, but never overpowers the page. The truth of 1935 and the characters she writes about seep under our skins until we feel like active participants in the action.

Another strength is Robuck’s understanding of the mind/body connection that is essential to creating fully formed characters.

Pauline regarded Mariella for a moment. Mariella could feel the woman testing her, wondering whether she could fight, cry and live in front of Mariella without actually having to think about her. Mariella relaxed her posture so she wouldn’t appear aggressive and folded her hands in her lap. 

These kinds of nuances are woven into each character and illuminate their humanity and inner turmoil, which keeps us glued to the page.

In the Reader’s Guide Robuck admits to being intimidated about putting words into Hemingway’s mouth, which was one of the reasons she left him out as a point-of-view character. Be that as it may, her portrayal of this legendary writer rings true—as Hemingway would say—and shows a total empathy for the character that may have been lost in the hands of another writer. Papa’s gusto, from his need to party into the night to his passion for hunting and fishing at the expense of his family is drawn beautifully from the moment we meet him on the page. But what Robuck does with greater delicacy and balance is show Hemingway’s vulnerability, which shines in an early fishing scene between Papa and Mariella, where they discuss Hemingway’s father’s suicide. The tenderness of this moment allows readers to tolerate the character’s future brutishness, while hoping to see more of his underbelly.

But my favorite part of Hemingway’s Girl is the love story. The triangle of tension between WWI Veteran Gavin, Mariella and Hemingway was a fantasy come true for me. What I found unique about this particular love story was Robuck’s ability to keep me guessing. I was never 100% sure who Mariella was going to end up with. And the twists and turns in the story, especially near the end are so surprising I was disappointed and pleased by how everything resolved. My desire to root so passionately for a particular ending is a testament to Erika Robuck’s talent for whipping a reader up into the undertow of the story and carrying them effortlessly through to the end.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to A Farewell to Arms, while dreaming of Erika Robuck’s next adventure with Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.

Turn back to 1935 and meet Hemingway’s Girl.

SLOW MOTION: A Memoir of Life Rescued by Tragedy by Dani Shapiro

I encountered Dani Shapiro by leafing through a Kirpalu magazine. She wrote an article about the risks of the writing life.

There is only one reason to [write]: because you have to. Because a still, small voice inside of you is insisting that you have a story to tell. If you heed that voice, it will lead you to scary places, and to beautiful ones. It will show you yourself, and what matters to you. It will be your beacon and your mirror, your torture and your salvation. It owes you nothing, but it will teach you everything. 

I fell in lust with her for this. I’ve heard similar thoughts from Anne Lamott and Julia Cameron, but something in Shapiro’s voice resonated in a deeper way. Possibly because I’ve been on this writing journey for what feels like an eternity, and only at this moment, do I sense enough courage rising to jump into a ring of fire—one that will either purify and expose my true nature on the page, or snuff out the embers for the rest of my life.

The article in Kirpalu sent me to Dani Shapiro’s blog. Her posts are raw and insightful. I treasure them, like a child savors Halloween candy, reading only one entry a day. I’ve been doing so for over a month now. Soon I’ll come to the end of her archives, but I won’t experience sadness for I can reread. Her posts are so layered with truth and nuance, like Shakespeare, they will provide fuel for years to come. Whether she’s specifically examining writing or a moment in time, what she shares soothes my own frazzled nerve endings that cry for expression. She’s my means where by I reconnect with the page.

Her blog stimulated my itchy book-buying-finger. I placed all her books on my wish list, except for her first memoir: Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy arrived in the mail last week.

What is Voice? How does a writer find it? Develop it? If a writer’s voice is elusive to them and unrecognizable to others is there any point in writing on? These are the questions I’ve wrangled with over the last few years. They’ve ignited a nightmare that haunts every rewrite, and makes it impossible for me to quit. Dani Shapiro speaks of her own doubts and fears, but I’ll go to the mattresses with her if she says she ever struggled with voice.

Reading Slow Motion is like a child falling into a conversation with an imaginary friend—the transition is so effortless you can’t imagine living your life without her. Her writing is so personal, with every nugget of emotional and physical pain laid out on display, I want to crawl inside her body and wrap myself around her heart.

When I think of anything that’s ever harmed me—cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, Lenny—they’ve all had one thing in common: revulsion, the nausea that I’ve had to fight past before I could take them in.

Shapiro’s willingness to expose the inner workings of her heart and mind make me realize what my own novel writing is missing—me!

Slow Motion centers around the family tragedy that forced Shapiro to shift her trajectory and become the writer she is today. But her story is much more, it’s a poem for life. Her words flow with tenderness and ebb with jagged reality. Her realizations and choices prompt us to place a magnifying glass up to ourselves and ask, Is this, in fact, how we want to live our lives? Is this not the mark of a powerful poet—someone who places the focus on what we have missed and urges us to stay present.

It was clear that I needed to wrestle my past to the ground. I needed to pin it in time, to capture it as if it were a wild animal that I could domesticate—or at least put behind bars.

Dani Shapiro wrote these words for an essay in the Los Angeles Times after her memoir came out. This passage reflects the action of the book better than I ever could. Each page shows a small conquest or defeat along her journey. The courage it took to endure what she did and share it with us is a testament to Shapiro’s devotion to her career as a writer, and an inspiration for all of us in the trenches.

Slow Motion: A Memoir of Life Rescued by Tragedy.

LIVE WIRE by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben is the Spencer Tracy of Fiction. Katharine Hepburn said Tracy was like a baked potato, simple and honest. I don’t know any better way to describe Coben’s writing. And here’s the payoff: his characters are so grounded and their connections to each other are so real, as they continue to interact the tension escalates faster than wind whips across the plains. Coben’s interplay with the elements of fiction is so simple it feels complex.

His clarity in storytelling was amplified for me in Live Wire because it was my first encounter with the sports agent sleuth, Myron Bolitar, whose series began in 1995. I anticipated spending the first third of the book playing catch-up. I was wrong. Live Wire was the perfect story to become acclimated to Myron thanks to Coben’s ability to drop in background information without interrupting the flow of action.

If you’re a writer and can inhibit yourself from falling under Coben’s page-turning spell long enough to study his scene work, you’ll discover each chapter has a simple formula: establish the characters, their relationship, the conflict and get out. In addition, all dialogue reveals new information, raises questions and adds complications—all the essentials needed to advance the plot.

Coben’s writing is simple, but far from barebones. His characters are drawn with such specificity they jump off the page.

His skin was too oily, too shiny, so that he looked a bit like something Madame Tussaud created on an off day. The neck gave him away. It was scrawny and baggy, hanging loosely like an old man’s scrotum.

What I admire most about the storytelling of Harlan Coben is his ability to make us forget what we know. The entire gist of Live Wire is on the jacket flap. But Coben coaxes us so far into Myron Bolitar’s world, as the story unfolds, we only know what Myron knows. So, when events happen we’re as surprised as he is. How is this possible? I believe it stems from how Coben uses what if—the two-word root of every memorable story.

The harm that has fallen upon Myron’s friends and family stirs up past regrets and leads everyone to wonder what if they had acted differently. And as the characters run from poor choices, or attempt to undo the damage they’ve caused, the reader also begins to play the what if game. Our investment keeps us turning pages, but Coben’s characters are always twisting or unknotting the facts a fraction of a second faster than we can make sense of them. And that’s why his novels pack a wallop.

Live Wire made me fall for Myron Bolitar and his entourage. So you can imagine how disappointed I was to hear that the Bolitar series may have come to an end. Fortunately for me, I still have an entire series to catch up on. Or, I can get my fill of Myron by reading Coben’s New YA series starring Myron’s nephew Mickey. That’s Harlan Coben, simple, honest and a dependable baked potato.

Dig in to Live Wire.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

Word usage is constantly changing. In my lifetime, swell was replaced by cool, which transmuted into far-out, then rad, awesome, hot and the shift goes on and on. I don’t mind the changes. They’re a kick. Do people use kick anymore? As words come into fashion others get lost. One word that has fallen away, but never fails to tickle me is druthers. I often find myself wishing to use it, only to choke it back for fear people will not understand me. No more. Thanks to Harper Lee, I plan to use it the rest of my life just like Atticus Finch.

Jem, she’s old and ill. You can’t hold her responsible for what she says and does. Of course, I’d rather she’d have said it to me than to either of you, but we can’t always have our ’druthers.

Atticus Finch is a man to admire and emulate. He isn’t fearless, but he isn’t afraid to follow his heart.

This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man. 

Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong… 

They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions, but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

I had just entered my teens when I first read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but the impact of her story was lost on me. During that same period of time I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son. Those books were much more to my liking then. The combination of my raging hormones and the melodramatic flare Stowe and Wright brought to their stories overshadowed To Kill a Mockingbird. Although in reality I was Scout, I desperately wanted to be Eva. Such is the way of teens and literature, which is one of the reasons to reread the classics.

One of the reasons to love Lee’s novel, which escaped me as a teen, is her simplicity. From the accurate description of kids being kids, to the way she conveys the south, she plops the reader into the story and we have no other choice than to connect with the situation—like when Jem and Dill decided to peek in on Boo Radley late one night.

Because nobody could see them at night, because Atticus would be so deep in a book he wouldn’t hear the Kingdom coming, because if Boo Radley killed them they’d miss school instead of vacation, and because it was easier to see inside a dark house in the dark than in the daytime, did I understand?

Of course, we understand. The thought process makes perfect sense. The beauty and simplicity of a child’s point of view is another way Lee is able to drive the injustice of racism home. Once the reader is in the shoes of a child, it’s hard to stomach the complex excuses and narrow-mindedness that adults learn to accept. I found myself so tuned into Scout and Jem’s way of processing the world, even though I knew the story and had seen the movie almost a dozen times, I was as shocked as Jem when the Tom Robinson’s verdict came in.

Another point of admiration comes from Lee’s execution of Scout’s character. Scout shares the events of the 1930′s as an adult looking back, but there is no structural effort as she moves from adult narrator to Scout as a child; no technical means, such as space breaks or use of past perfect to signal the reader of the switch. Lee simply moves from one world to the next by allowing herself to be fully present in the telling of the tale.

When I was almost six and Jem was nearly ten, our summertime boundaries (within calling distance of Calpurnia) were Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house two doors to the north of us and the Radley Place three doors to the south…That was the summer Dill came to us. Early one morning as we were beginning our day’s play in the back yard, Jem and I heard something next door to Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch. We went to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy—Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting—instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke: “Hey.” 

The story unfolds through Scout’s eyes alone. She is a curious, observant child eager to understand the complexities within which the adults of her world exist. Her desire to understand gives her a boldness many people only dream about. In some ways she reminds me of David up against Goliath, especially when she barrels through the gang of men, who want to take care of Tom Robinson in their own way, to reach Atticus.

They were sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men who seemed unused to late hours. I sought once more for a familiar face, and at the center of the semi-circle I found one. 

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”…

“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?…I go to school with Walter…He’s in my grade, and he does right well. He’s a good boy, a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?” 

In a matter of seconds, Mr. Cunningham orders the men to leave. No arguments, no resistance, the men just shuffle away because a child’s openness disarms them. Lee’s choice to use Scout to end what could have been a horrific event helps underscore the rigid and uncompromising nature of the adults in Maycomb. It also helps raise the reader’s dander throughout the trial. If a child, who only speaks the truth, can soften adult hearts, why can’t the truth from their peers soften their minds? Children are a universal constant of tenderness and forgiveness, and makes Scout the perfect narrator for this story because she naturally shines a spotlight on what is ugly.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s story is, unfortunately, a timeless one. I’d wager it would garner the same success if it were published today rather than in 1960. And yet, I wonder how it would fair with editors. In a time when readers like writers to cut to the chase, I suspect Lee, as a debut novelist, might’ve been asked to trim some of the Maycomb lineage, or start the story later—perhaps with Chapter 9:

“You can just take that back, boy!”

This order, given by me to Cecil Jacobs, was the beginning of a rather thin time for Jem and me. My fists were clenched and I was ready to let fly. Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fighting any more: I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in, the better off everybody would be. I soon forgot.

I’d like to think not. I’d like to believe the readers of this world still yearn for books of simple truth that unfold in the same gentle way a flower blooms. Harper Lee captured the South with all its idiosyncrasies. Her story seeps into our souls just like the humidity that hangs and presses against us on the dog days of summer. It is an uncomfortable and necessary experience that wakes us up and begs us to reexamine the way we live with others.

To Kill a Mockingbirda book to read and reread.

TIME FLIES by Claire Cook

Dark and introspective tales that claw through my intestines and torque my heart tend to shuffle to the top of my TBR pile. But I get as excited about Stephen King as Virginia Woolf. I quiver over a tight mystery—thank you, Sara J. Henry—and Nora Roberts and Sandra Brown have satisfied my romance cravings on more than one occasion. Mixing it up is part of the fun. I had just finished Doctor Sleep and 1 Dead in Attic and needed a story with humor, so I reached for Claire Cook’s Time Flies.

Since I have never had the slightest desire to attend any of my high school reunions, the premise intrigued me. Melanie, also a woman of a certain age, is nudged into attending her HS reunion by her best friend BJ and an old flame, Finn, she doesn’t quite remember. My friends have coaxed me to do some zany things, and there are plenty of people I don’t remember from high school who have remembered me over the years. Melanie also has a driving phobia that may keep her from following through on what could be not only an adventure, but also a turning point in her life. I experienced a short-lived driving phobia when I was pregnant with my third son. So I was all in when I cracked the spine of Time Flies.

Cook presents her heroine as a woman of a certain age with the worries and energy of a twenty or thirty-something. Thank you. Thank you. I’m far closer to AARP than twenty-one, but inside I don’t feel any different than I did in my late twenties. Women are girlish and womanly all at once, all through their lives. Cook gets that. I saw Melanie as the silly me I often wished I was in high school. That said, I found it difficult to believe the sexual overtones Melanie encouraged accidentally, on-purpose with Finn. And I can’t remember the last time I flirted. But I often imagine how much fun it would be to fall in love all over again.

Perhaps there was even an air of mystery about me. I liked that.

I liked Melanie, and related to her desire for change. She’s independent and confident in her career, while behaving as a social misfit in her personal life. She is real. A woman we can recognize. And if writers ever question what it means for a character to see the world through their specific point of view, Claire Cook can show you the way. Melanie sees everything in the world through her eyes as a metal sculptor. Here’s a moment after she cuts up her marriage mattress with a chain saw.

Even before I worked the first steel spring free from the mattress foundation, I knew it would be a skirt. A great big Southern hoop skirt that twirled around and around and around. Next would come a parasol with a handle made of steel rebar, or even a splurge of copper pipe. 

I enjoyed all the above, but my women’s fiction craving wasn’t satisfied. Halfway through the novel I was still waiting for the action. As quirky as some of Melanie and BJ’s antics were, the chapters on the road came across as an extended set up rather than advancing the plot.

As much as I liked Melanie, I disliked BJ. Her self-centered, desperate-to-be-the-life-of-the-party attitude combined with her denial about how important she was in high school, and how important high school is in the grand scheme of life annoyed me. The way BJ and Melanie treated their friends Jan and Veronica irked me. The interactions with Jan and Veronica turn out to be key moments for Melanie’s transformation in the end. And BJ also has a bit of an awakening. However, even though the pay off came, I wondered about the delivery. Could there have been a stronger way to tighten the action and enhance the conflict within the scenes that eventually bring about change? There are plenty of external complications, but I wanted more inner turmoil or conscious struggle in those moments.

I think part of me was disappointed with Time Flies because I so enjoyed Must Love Dogs. I was also disappointed in my disappointment. Than a couple days after I finished Cook’s novel I understood why. Throughout Melanie and BJ’s journey they often refer to either Thelma and Louisea screenplay I enjoyed with characters I could connect with completely—and Romy and Michele, characters I knew nothing about until I caught Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion on cable. As I watched the film I realized why I didn’t fully connect with Cook’s characters: I’m not her target audience. I wasn’t even slightly amused by Romy and Michele, and I like both Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino. A lot of the humor in Time Flies is in the same vein and that funny flow is not what floats my particular canoe. So it’s not so much Cook’s novel as me.

In the end, I have to say Time Flies is the sherbet of Women’s Fiction. It’s not for everyone, but it’s as important as an actual dish of sherbet served to cleanse the palette between the meat and fish courses, and provides much needed variety.

Time Flies is a trip down memory lane for many woman of a certain age or younger. It will lighten your mood while dishing up lessons of storytelling every writer needs to know.

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