THE SCARLET LETTER by Nathaniel Hawthorne

One of my favorite lines in literature was written by Arthur Miller for Death of a Salesman and spoken by Linda Loman in order to get her sons to recognize their father Willy’s emotional stability is fragile at best.

Attention must be paid.

Four words layered with meaning; a sentence that forces us to reexamine all that has occurred prior to this moment, and alerts us to the upcoming wreckage we have sensed but cannot see.

Hester Prynne is not Linda Loman. But both women understand any hope for transformation only comes from facing the truth, and for Hester that means living out her punishment on a daily basis.

Hester Prynne, therefore, did not flee.

These six words define her as a woman of strength. Her willingness to face the humiliation of her sin without dwelling in self-hatred or playing the victim opens our hearts to her. But Hester’s true strength lies not in her ability to endure the repetitive judgment that is laid upon her each day, but in how she avoids growing callous as a result.

…she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sins in others hearts.

Hawthorne’s greatest gift as a writer might be his ability to construct complex characters. He accomplishes this by never shying away from the inner or the outer struggle of each character. He conveys both elements through poetic imagery that seems to circle round until it lands dead in the center of what he is targeting. The rhythm of his prose feels like a lost art and is a joy to bathe in.

…his look became keen an penetrative. A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions in open sight. His face darkened with some powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an effort of his will, that save a single moment, its expression might have passed for calmness.

No matter how hard the characters try, they cannot hide their inner torment and as it seeps out of their grasp other characters sop it up.

The young minister, on ceasing to speak, had, withdrawn a few steps from the group, and stood with his face partially concealed in the heavy folds of the window-curtain; while the shadow of his figure, which the sunlight cast upon the floor, was tremulous with the vehemence of his appeal. Pearl, that wild and flighty little elf, stole softly towards him and taking his hand in the grasp of both her own, laid her cheek against it; a caress so tender, and withal so unobtrusive, that her mother, who was looking on, asked herself,—“Is that my Pearl?” 

The deep interconnectedness of these characters is another element to appreciate in Hawthorne’s prose. He wastes no time in connecting the dots between Hester Prynne, Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth. The incident that fuses these three together has already passed. By placing the incident out of our reach, he forces us to tap into the tension that ricochets between the characters. This sphere of tension is what ignites our need to wonder as Shakespeare might say, “How will this fadge?” The situation is a disaster and we cannot look away. Why is that?

No matter how beautiful the prose, The Scarlet Letter is a bleak novel. Why do we stay tuned in? Why do we choose to wade through the fleshy sentences and paragraphs that seem only to underscore the dismalness of these characters’ lives? I believe the answer is found within Chapter One: The Prison-Door.

But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as she went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him. 

This rose bush does more than establish the color red without mentioning it. Roses also combine the delicate beauty of their petals with the pain of thorns. So before we meet any of the characters we accept the idea of pain, but are reminded of beauty and the potential for hope that rises from it. Hawthorne feeds our desire for hope with the presence of Pearl.

But the brook, in the course of its little lifetime among the forest trees, had gone through so solemn an experience that it could not help talking about it, and seemed to have nothing else to say. Pearl resembled the brook, in as much as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as mysterious, and had flowed through scenes shadowed as heavily with gloom. But unlike the little stream, she danced and sparkled, and prattled airily along her course. 

Pearl is the reader’s salvation against the unhappiness and self-torment Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth are determined to carry. Her tenderness, as sporadic as it is, and her effervescence, encourages readers to be mindful in their life choices to avoid what her elders have experienced.

When I first finished The Scarlet Letter my heart was heavy. Weeks later, I recognized that although Hawthorne’s novel could never be considered a light read, at its core it is filled with love, and the story examines how well or poorly we make use of this natural element of life.

Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world.

If this seems unbelievable, read The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck and discover the passion of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Then come back to The Scarlet Letter and bathe in the beauty of another era of life and the written word.

the LACE READER by Brunonia Barry

My head is reeling with the noise of everything in this room that isn’t being said. 

Towner Whitney, our unreliable narrator, is often overwhelmed by the thoughts of others. Like many members of her family, she possesses the talent to read patterns in lace, or minds. I am not capable of either talent, but my head is still reeling from The Lace Reader. Brunonia Barry’s novel has bewitched me, and her choice to set the story in Salem, Massachusetts has nothing to do with it.

My curiosity and empathy for Towner surfaced so quickly by the end of my first reading session, I wanted to crawl inside the book and hold her hand for the duration of her journey. Barry’s construction of Towner’s world is so real it might be called Velveteen. Whenever I resumed reading I sensed the characters had been carrying on with their lives without me, and, at the same time, waiting for my return so their existence could resonate more fully.

One tool employed to create a Velveteen world is Barry’s use of specifics.

The church is filled with women, all wearing hats and linen dresses, almost southern-looking, out of place here against the cold stone architecture. My eye is drawn to the corner of the church, and a group of women, each one dressed in a different shade of purple and wearing a red hat. 

By allowing Towner to zero in on specifics unique to this moment, Barry enlivens the reader’s senses and we eagerly fill in the rest of the scene in our minds.

Brunonia enhances the mood of her novel with a clear understanding of the essence and power of setting.

It is here that Rafferty finds me, covered with dirt and murdered vegetable matter, surrounded by the fuchsias where the hummingbirds are feeding. I must have wiped out some mint, too, on my way, because I can smell it on me. The mint will take over the flowerbeds if you let it. I remember Eva telling me that. You have to be careful with mint. You have to confine it to its own space. 

Again, notice the use of specifics to guide the reader into another world. Barry’s word selection and orchestration creates vivid pictures and a sense of movement.

When I was in the bin, after Lyndley killed herself, I signed myself up for shock therapy. It was against Eva’s wishes and certainly against May’s (which was part of the reason I did it), but the doctors recommended it highly.

Rhythms like the above underscore facts, enhance mood and illuminate character relationships. This particular passage also shows the quality of inevitability in Barry’s prose. No information is on the page without a reason. Each word and phrase not only reveals, it is a springboard to what the reader needs to know next.

What about character?

Sometimes, when you look back you can point to a time when your world shifts and heads in another direction. In lace reading this is called the “still point.” Eva says it’s the point around which everything pivots and the real pattern starts to emerge.

This “still point” appears to be the place where Barry’s characters emerge. When the reader encounters each character questions surface, but we feel as if we have a solid sense of who they are. Then bam, a chapter or two later information comes to light that tilts our perspective, and a new “still point” roots. At least, this is what we believe until the next revelation. In this way Barry keeps us on high alert. This unmasking of character builds throughout the novel as if we are reading a thriller.

From Towner’s mother May to Rafferty, the police officer investigating the disappearances of the two women that bring Towner back to Salem, the characters are intricately complex and unpredictable. This unpredictability, I believe, is a result of how tightly Barry interlocks events with character action, which brings me back to the element of inevitability.

The Lace Reader is a novel that demands, at least, two readings. The first to bathe in the Velveteen world of Towner Whitney, and the second to analyze the construction of this finely crafted novel.

THE ART OF FALLING by Kathryn Craft

On December sixth I posted the following on Twitter:

Revisiting the agony and the ecstasy of my modern dance training with THE ART OF FALLING by @kcraftwriter Spot On! #Fridayreads 

Craft, a former dancer, has opened a drawer most dancers keep shut: the one designated to body image. The contents spill out without apology and with an accuracy that makes the reader pause. For readers with dance history, the daily struggle between honoring and abusing the body that Craft focuses on may be too close to home. It was for me. I needed a few weeks distance before I could compose a review.

Before you start thinking The Art of Falling is a literary equivalent of the film Black Swan let me clarify: Kathryn Craft’s debut novel is a story about physical and emotional heartache, delivered with a sensitive hand, from a woman who repeatedly shows us she knows what it means to sail feather-like through space.

My body: a still life, with blankets. 

Is there any more frightening statement than the above for a dancer? This is our introduction to Penny Sparrow, a dancer who is lucky to be alive after a traumatic fall. A great opening and not just for the reader, for our heroine as well. Unable to move, she must decide, right from the first page, how willing she is to face the truth about her past, in order to navigate the present. Her choice to tackle this exploratory journey is not what brings out our empathy for Penny. Craft maneuvers Penny into our hearts by the way she allows Penny to experience the full blown anger and frustration that corresponds with the type of injury she sustains. In this way, Craft makes the most of the advice to writers that says, “Chase your protagonist up a tree and throw stones at them.” The Art of Falling shines as a result.

Novels don’t make it onto the shelves without strong protagonists. But a protagonist’s strength is not always evident to the character, which is why truly skilled writers select their secondary characters carefully. Kathryn Craft soars with her secondary choices. Penny’s best friend Angela has Cystic Fibrosis. A woman frustrated because she may never dance again befriends a woman who struggles daily to live. Now that’s character dynamics.

“So how old are you?”

“Five months past the expiration date stamped on my butt.” She looked at me with a mischievous smile. “I’m twenty-eight.”

Her punch line sobered me: we were the same age. […] With what I knew of CF, Angela could be near the end of her life.

The counterpoint of this duo’s struggle for their individual ideas of life, is at the center of this novel’s composition and one reason The Art of Falling keeps the reader hooked.

Angela isn’t alone in nudging Penny into awakening. All the secondary characters take a shot. They push into and crack the walls she puts up until she has no other choice than to let the festering emotions out, as she does with her mother.

“Because YOU-ARE-FAT!” I want to smack her with this proclamation and all of its implications: that I no longer could witness this long slow death. That she should care more about herself. That she’d been a crappy role model and an embarrassment. That I hated my body because I feared its similarities to hers.

There are many interactions like this where Penny is maneuvered into self-realization. Each one of these moments is crucial to her evolution, and the order in which they unfold has an inevitable flow. However, sometimes her self-awareness was so insightful it prevented me from worrying about her. I don’t believe I ever considered she might fail.

Perhaps it appeared to the others that riding up front by Dimitri’s side gave me an unfair advantage. An added layer of job security. And it was a more comfortable ride, while it lasted. But didn’t they know the survivors in a plane wreck are usually found near the tail? 

On the other hand, to be a dancer demands a level of awareness that escapes the average person. Every second a dancer is in motion, they must simultaneously know exactly what their body is doing, and be capable of escaping the technical aspects so they can embrace the complexity of emotion the dance was designed to illuminate.

This ability to express the inexpressible through the slightest movement of the body is why we are drawn to Dance. It is also another reason The Art of Falling is a compelling read. Kathryn Craft has found a way to transfer her talent as a dancer to the page. Doing so, she is able to communicate the essence of what would normally be unexplainable with a powerful beauty.

A wisp of memory, a trace of the movement I had loved, that imagined kiss: something hibernating in the darkness within me awoke and reached tentatively for the sun. The fierce beauty of it stilled my step. 

The Art of Falling, a story of the dance we know as life.

THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE by Erika Robuck

If Erika Robuck were an athlete she’d win MVP year after year for her willingness to push beyond expectations. This was evident in her novel Fallen Beauty. While she plumbed the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, she uncovered a different well of emotion; one that infused her prose with an urgency so powerful, the reader could easily forget he took the time to turn the page. Fallen Beauty illuminated one of Robuck’s finest skills; her ability to meld with her subject. In The House of Hawthorne the emotional essence of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne is so palpable, raw and fluid the reader dances through the pages.

…his face a tempest of confusion and despair, his heart divided between the great truth that is reinforced with each passing year of our lives: one hand is open, overflowing with an abundance of joy and vitality, the other is a fist, clutching a void so desperately that the nails dig holes in the skin. 

Sophia’s imagery is an integral part of who she is: an artist, a painter who can not create fast enough.

Something about the concentration of all that color and power on the point of a brush, instilling life on a canvas with each motion, brings me such ecstasy and torture. I am left breathless at the thought.

Her hunger to express herself creatively may seem trivial today, when so many people appear to be seeking their fifteen minutes of fame. This was not the case in the 1800’s, a time when women were expected to marry and roll immediately into motherhood. Sophia’s quest was a rebellion and a cross to carry when she fell in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thanks to Robuck’s expert storytelling, the reader comes to understand how every aspect of an artist’s life becomes a choice they may or may not have an easy time living with.

It pains me to acknowledge it, but I do sometimes imagine what my life would have been if I had never entered the parlor that day to meet Nathaniel. […] Would I be a world-famous painter by now if I had not chosen domesticity? Would I want such a thing, when the pressure and art of creation often brought me such physical misery?

Whether you are an artist or not, connecting with Sophia is as inevitable as breathing because we are never separated from her personal point of view. Everything we learn of her past through the present situations draws us deeper into her inner landscape, where the real story evolves.

I am entranced by her figure in a billowing crimson gown, framed by the rays of the sun slipping through flimsy curtains dancing in the breeze. The scent of jasmine has filled the room from where it climbs around the doorways of La Recompensa, and I might be walking the landscape of an opium haze, which I recall fondly from when I regularly took the drug while under a doctor’s care. 

Unlike Robuck’s previous novels about deceased writers, The House of Hawthorne explores the real-life relationship of Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although their love for one another is not threatened per se, their artistic temperaments coupled with the societal restraints and obligations of the time complicate their destiny.

I crumple the letter and throw it across the room. He moves like one stuck in tar pits and I long to drag him out by the collar. I am nearly thirty years old! He is thirty-five! At this age, most women have died from having their fourth child, and most men are widowers, and yet we are virgins! 

Doing justice to these amazing artists is unfathomable to me, but Robuck is at home in the past, in the same way Sophia and Nathaniel are at home with each other. Her talent for lifting the truth from journals, letters and biographical accounts and weaving it into a tapestry of passion so personal it makes you want to fall in love all over again.

When I enter, Hawthorne’s eyes meet mine, and he rises. By the holy angels, I feel my soul at once aflame and reaching through my breast toward him. […] My sphere has never been so disturbed by another’s as it is now, and I know that Hawthorne must feel the same way. 

While The House of Hawthorne is driven by the love of Sophia and Nathaniel, it offers more. The Hawthorne’s circumstances give the reader a chance to examine the compromises and sacrifices needed to attain personal and professional success and to question the limitations and judgments we often thrust onto others without understanding their situation. Their story is also an inspirational wellspring.

“Please, Sophia. You have no idea how your journal has fueled a writing fire in me, one that was in desperate need of kindling. I am on the edge of something.” 

The House of Hawthorne is a history of two unique artists whose love is the Muse with which they create a life most people only dream about. Their commitment and support of each other, shown to us through the heartfelt prose of Erika Robuck, will encourage you to dream bigger and delve into your soul’s deepest secrets to create with the wild abandon you were meant to share.

THE FALLEN SNOW by John J. Kelley

I met John J. Kelley at the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in Salem, Massachusetts. When he spoke of his debut The Fallen Snow, he called it a quiet novel. Quiet is an accurate description of how the story unfolds, but the impact of Joshua Hunter’s journey is huge. He is a character you will carry in your heart for the rest of your life.

“Specifics beget Specifics,” said writing coach Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, at the WU Un-Conference. The clearer a writer is about the past, which shaped the hero’s life, the more precise the writer can be about the hero’s goal(s) and the obstacles that get in his way. The Fallen Snow is an excellent example of how specifics establish character, clarify relationships and provide the context for the world our hero must navigate.

The first steps were the hardest. The cold didn’t help, though it was more than stiffness. More like his leg muscles had to relearn the motion, as though they’d forgotten their purpose. Maybe that was why he’d felt the compulsion from the time he’d awoken at the field hospital. He had to keep pushing lest he find himself trapped, or paralyzed. Or left for dead. 

This passage is our introduction to Joshua Hunter, a WWI infantry sniper sent home after receiving an award for valor. These few lines tell us nothing of his past, but they clue us in on all we need to know about his character. Even in the face of great fear he is determined to move forward. We also sense Joshua’s fears run deeper than his physical injuries, and although the coming days will not be easy, he will not be beaten. He has something to live for, even if, like his legs, he is unable to articulate it at this time. We, the readers, haven’t even turned the first page, but we know we will because no one can step away from a character with such courage.

As Joshua reconnects with family and friends in his hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we become steeped in what it means to live in Appalachia in 1918. Kelley places us there without effort by allowing us to look through his characters finely focused lenses.

Some women took snuff in private or sipped from a flask hidden on the back step, like Mrs. McCullough across the way. Elisabeth Hunter dug at her worries while gazing down the ridge towards the town. 

The Fallen Snow is all about relationships during a very particular period of time in this country. Kelley depicts the expectations and parameters that exist between friends, spouses, siblings and lovers with great accuracy to reinforce the world we have come to know. But the resonance these relationships have for us lies in his ability to expose the inner conflict of each character with a light hand, like when Elisabeth Hunter ponders her sick husband.

He could scowl all he wanted. Her husband carried an angry boy inside, acting up whenever he was frustrated. She could handle it. She had for years. It was the silence he’d leave behind that scared her.

Silence is a strong silk thread that leads us from one inner conflict to another in this beautiful debut. Kelley’s respect for silence allows him to magnify the unrest and overwhelming fear that surrounds Joshua’s life as he struggles to come to terms with who he is, without beating us over the head with proprieties. 

Watching him was mesmerizing. Aiden was handsome…masculine.

Joshua tore his gaze away. He fidgeted, as if caught. No one was paying attention, the men nearby listless from the motion or busy in their conversations. Tommy remained fast asleep.

He turned his focus to the dirty floor, burying the feelings. It was a practice he’d perfected…automatic, instinctive. In a minute he’d convince himself it hadn’t happened, like always. 

These seeds of attraction slip delicately into the fabric of the novel and show us a very different world than the society of 1918 that Joshua returns to, and might have maneuvered The Fallen Snow into a novel about gay rights, if it weren’t for Kelley’s deft handling of the material. Kelley touches on the pain of rejection based on incomprehension and in so doing, slices our hearts to bits. In that moment we understand that although The Fallen Snow is a quiet novel, it is also big, for it shows us the agony of what it means to live against the truth within your soul.

Step into the powerful stillness of The Fallen Snow.

THE SNOW QUEEN by Michael Cunningham

Whenever my hands hold the newest book by Michael Cunningham, I’m hit with an adrenaline rush on par with all the firsts in my life: My imagination is primed and a crescendo of music holds me up until I turn to the first page and let myself couple with the opening sentence. Cunningham has his finger on the pulse of human emotion, and with the skill of an ace dissector he lays the depth of it before us with pathos and humor.

A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love. 

Cunningham is as far from Harlan Coben as you can get. There are no big events, no cliff-hanging chapter endings. Instead, we are riveted because of our investment in the characters. Their inner journey is what propels and intrigues. The desire of intent, for all his characters, is as powerful as the events of a thriller.

He doesn’t need to be Mozart, or Jimi Hendrix. It’s not as if he’s trying to invent the flying buttress, or crack the time-space continuum.

It’s a song. All Tyler requires of it, really is that it be more than three and a half minutes worth of pleasantly occupied air.

Or. Well okay. All Tyler requires of it is that it be better—a little better, please, just a little—than what he’s technically capable of producing. 

The inner journey of his characters allows the reader to catch a glimpse of the understated simplicity of life that is often mistaken by the characters as something unlikeable. This unrest with the current circumstances drives the characters to reexamine what it is in life that they truly want. How they come to embrace their heart’s desire is a process and they are often led to uncover it only after they come into a state of heightened awareness.

The rim of the kitchen table, ridged aluminum, is nicked at the rear corner, a small vee, at the base of which a breadcrumb stolidly resides. 

Minute details, such as the above, also underscore the isolation and the off-kilter quality of the characters and the situation. Cunningham is all about selectivity and specifics, and he wins big in The Snow Queen. By choosing to set the events of the story during the 2004 term of George W. Bush’s presidency, the disastrous effects of his time in office smashes against the faith and hope these characters pray to survive on.

Here’s his shape, the vee of his torso, the compact, shaven helmet of his head, as if standing were part of a dance for which most of the population has somehow failed to learn the steps.

The brevity and depth of each thought he lays upon the page blows me away. How does he do it over and over again, select exactly the right words for placement, in just the right order so we, the readers, feel as if we are caught in an emotional snowball rolling down hill to the finish line?

People are more than you think they are. And they’re less, as well. The trick lies in negotiating your way between the two.

Loneliness pervades Cunningham’s work. His characters stir in a world where they feel lost and alone, and yet, somehow, rather than sadness, beauty is the essence. The tenderness of embracing all of who you are and finding the strength to own it is like sinking an anchor into the earth and announcing, “I’m here.”

Faith, Hope and Awe for Life: The Snow Queen.

TANTALUS by Jane Jazz

When my son suggested I share my reviews on Twitter I couldn’t comprehend how that would work. Two years later I’m still learning how to navigate this cyberworld (by the way, if anyone can explain what a #hashtag is and how to use it, in a way that doesn’t fry my nerve endings, I’ll be happy to name one of the characters in my next novel after you) and yet, I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Without Twitter I would never have learned about English author Jane Jazz and her debut novel, Tantalus.

The fascination with the unknown and the improbable that is embedded in the foundation of Tantalus reminded me of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story The Woman In Black.

The room was dimly lit by long fingers of cool moonlight, and there was something…intangible…in the air. 

I was immediately filled with the possibility of magic and charmed by how Jane Jazz formulated the kind of romance we only dream about. Through Tantalus she makes the impossible probable.

Like Pyramus and Thisbe, Thomas and Sylvia are separated by a physical barrier. Unlike those star-crossed lovers Thomas and Sylvia meet in different times, 1924 and 1975 respectfully. It is improbable, but not unbelievable, especially once they start exchanging letters.

I will happily retire to bed, for only in sleep can I step through your torn sky of time, and into a land where strawberries grow in snow and Sylvia can lie in my arms. 

Tantalus sweeps us away like all powerful love stories do. Does the honeymoon last? Of course not. Sylvia and Thomas battle the realities of their situation and the improbable re-enters the readers’ mind. Then Jane Jazz excavates the newest chink in the story and the reader is swept away all over again.

In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning.

This quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald opens Chapter One. While it portends the event that will upend our heroine’s life, it also filters into the reader’s psyche, priming them to leap where they normally would hold back. Choosing to set the interactions between Thomas and Sylvia in the wee hours of the morning speaks to our secret desire to come face to face with whatever is ultimately holding us back. This is the real magic of Jazz’s debut; a story that shows us how the union of two souls transform these people into the artists they were destined to be. Who isn’t intrigued by that?

As engaged as I was there were times when I felt cheated as a reader, especially in the scenes between Sylvia and her best friend Clemmie. Because of the way these scenes unfold, it dampens the impact of the events that lead to a major upheaval in Sylvia’s life. Yet, in the end, none of those blips mattered, for the overriding premise of an artist foraging through the emotional minefield of life was a pay off I couldn’t live without.

Tantalus is a love story that spans time on par with Wuthering Heights, without the cruelty. A true romance for the artist’s soul.

WHAT LIPS MY LIPS HAVE KISSED by Daniel Mark Epstein

Daniel Mark Epstein’s book on The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay zooms into her world so closely I felt like a stalker. Even though Millay’s personal life is documented through letters, journals and her poems, I can’t help wonder if we have a right to know all. Probably not, but I was too spellbound by Epstein’s work to turn away. His presentation of the material has a flow that aligns with Millay’s poetry and supports the ebb of emotion, the stillness of expectation and the delight of her exuberance for life.

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed reveals Millay’s single-minded devotion to love and her obsessive need to share her experience through the written word. Reading about her life makes you want to be a poet the way Isadora Duncan makes you want to dance, and Erika Robuck makes you want to write historical fiction.

Millay was a woman devoted, and in some ways enslaved, to her mother and sisters. Still her commitment to love and her expression of it allowed her to swing blissfully into independence. The boldness in which she was able to express her emotions is enviable, inspirational and brave.

My love for you is something more than just thought, it is the love of Everywoman for Everyman. It is all primitive female life desiring its mate, it is all hunger crying for food, all weariness sighing for rest, it is the instinctive reaching out of the universal soul. 

She is a woman to be studied and admired. Anyone searching for who they are will be inspired by her strength to stand by her open relationships and her commitment to fulfilling her dreams.

We see from first to last of the poet’s oeuvre […] the cultivation of a multitude of rich voices from a profound and androgynous emotional center. If the male in her was not so firmly in touch with the female, she could never have written so insightfully of men and women in love. 

I don’t believe I’ve ever read of an artist so in tune with their passion that they actually become a living entity of it. Her life sparks imagination and fantasies so vivid, if you are any sort of artist you will be driven to dig deeper into the depths of your medium.

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed may be nonfiction, but it feels like a novel in its suspense and inevitability of action thanks to Epstein’s prose.

She meant to drink deeply from the spring of Eros, as any man might, as men had been doing since the beginning of recorded time. It was a game that could not be played without someone getting hurt now and then, and the excitement did keep her pen moving. 

Epstein’s commitment to be true to Millay’s life and loves combined with the tender way he reveals all is enviable. He makes me wish I could be as devoted to one artist in history. Of course, coveting other writers’ work is part of what writers do, isn’t it? Through one writer’s insight, curiosity rises and new stories unfold. Erika Robuck said What Lips My Lips Have Kissed was one of her favorite books when researching Millay for her novel Fallen Beauty. If you’re like me and read both books you’ll see just how brilliantly Robuck captured Millay’s life.

Oh, how I love how one book leads to another. Snatch up What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay  and see what follows.

SYMPTOMS OF WITHDRAWAL by Christopher Kennedy Lawford

If you ever shied away from writing a memoir because you couldn’t summon the courage needed to tell the ugly truth, you need to read Christopher Kennedy Lawford’s Symptoms of Withdrawal.

Let go of the myth. It is a lie. 

With tons of humor and a tongue that cuts faster than you can blink, Lawford shares the drug-addicted journey he embraced to cope with the unrealistic expectations of growing up under the Kennedy legacy and his own self-hatred.

An addict continually makes choices and takes actions in his life to support his self-hatred. This is what allows him to keep using. 

Once you’ve navigated through the waves of his withdrawal you may find you still don’t have the guts to tell the truth in your memoir. Or, you may discover you have a greater need to stop pretending you’re writing the truth and just lay your embarrassing ass on the page because it’s the only way to move on from the past that haunts you.

Symptoms of Withdrawal

I picked up Lawford’s memoir as soon as it was published. When I saw the title I thought, “How catchy, a phrase that makes you want to peek inside.” While reading it aloud to my Aunt just recently, I truly saw how Symptoms of Withdrawal reflects every aspect of Christopher Lawford’s life apart from his addiction. Now that’s title perfection.

Many authors prime the reader with quotes from poets or literature. It’s a way for the reader to be on the appropriate wavelength when they dive into page one. My general response to opening quotes is, “Gosh, I wish I could find a quote for my manuscript.” Or, “Interesting.”  Then I return to the quote periodically as I read to see if I’m truly experiencing what the author desired. Sometimes I don’t get the connection, my fault, and that’s okay. I’ll probably figure it out later in my life. Lawford gave me an understanding of his life story, without wiggle room, from this quote by Proust.

We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. 

Proust’s thoughts provide the perfect mindset for this memoir, and also sum up the reason I prefer memoirs to biographies. The author’s interpretation, the why’s and wherefores of how his life unfolded allows us to check out the fit of their shoes and come to a more accurate conclusion about how we feel about them. Of course, the big question is, “Can we trust that the author is telling the truth?” In this case, yes. You’ll be as certain as I am as soon as you read Lawford’s Preface.

I grew up with the Camelot Myth. Lawford takes off the blinders so we can see the Kansas without Oz of his life. Because of his journey, his perspective is very different than what we might have come across had the events been told by Maria Shriver, or one of his sisters. My guess is this memoir is more hard-edged. I say, good thing, for it’s the edge of the sword that allows us to see inside to the truth.

Discussing the tragedies within his extended family, which formed the springboard for his downward spiral, could easily have made the pages of Symptoms of Withdrawal hard to digest. Fortunately, Lawford’s recovery went beyond detox to pure clarity. Otherwise he’d never be able to recognize the bizarre juxtaposition of life within the Kennedy family and the world.

In the summer of 1969, a year after my uncle Bobby died, Neil Armstrong took a giant step for mankind and my uncle Teddy drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick. 

This kind of moment springs up again and again, and sparks a nervous laughter that is much needed for the journey. Lawford is a writer with something to say and he says it with unique flare.

What I love most about memoir is you hear the error of the person’s ways, come to understand where they went astray, how they came into awareness and what they did to find balance. Absorbing this process is inspirational and a reminder that to err is human, and the strength and courage to correct bad behavior is an innate right we all have the capacity to do, as long as we’re willing to get out of our own way.

It became imperative for me that if I was ever going to find out who I was, all bets had to be off and everything had to be up for grabs. I would have to let go of the absolutes and the identifications I had clung to.

If ever I get around to writing a memoir, I will have Christopher Kennedy Lawford to thank. His raw honesty and ability to see the humor of his disastrous choices has shown me that balance is truly possible, as is change.

Symptoms of Withdrawal is one addictive read.

THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW by Matthew Quick

After I saw the film of The Silver Linings Playbook, I was sorry I hadn’t read the book first (now in my TBR pile thanks to Keith Cronin‘s post on WriterUnboxed). So, I purchased The Good Luck of Right Now because I didn’t want to miss out on a good read.

After the death of his mother, thirty-eight year old Bartholomew Neil sets out to find a life of his own with the help of a priest, a “Girlbrarian,” her feline-loving, foul-mouthed brother, and the spirit of Richard Gere. This premise was quirky enough to get me to reshuffle my TBR pile.

I was disheartened early on. I don’t like chapter titles. They chip away at suspense and feel like term paper topic sentences. I also had a hard time accepting Bartholomew Neil was thirty-eight years old. Even after I learned he was mentally challenged I had difficulty seeing him older than college age.

Then Matthew Quick shot an arrow that hit my curiosity bone. Questions pummeled my brain. Was Quick asking us to question our obsession with celebrities? Is it possible that we are all born to do great things, make a positive impact on the world and then sell out because it’s easier?  Here’s the kicker: Why is Bartholomew always nodding?

I nodded because it was the easiest thing to do. 

I nodded because what he was saying seemed logical. 

I nodded because I knew that’s what was required of me. 

There are more variations on that theme. But this specific character quirk was enough to keep me turning pages until the wonder of The Good Luck of Right Now took hold.

Writing is all about choices. Who is the main character? First or third person? How many points of view? Quick’s choice to let the story unfold through the letters Bartholomew writes to actor Richard Gere raised major question marks for me. Why? Why this choice? But all became clear as the situation developed. Letters were the perfect medium because they are intimate. We reveal things in letters we would never share face to face. And since Bartholomew has a hard time talking with people, letters were the best means for him to be open and honest.

It was like looking down and seeing a gaping hole where your stomach used to be and knowing your legs were gone—like Mom and I had somehow each swallowed a live grenade. 

Don’t let the imagery of this passage lead you astray about Quick’s novel. The story drives forward on optimism, not darkness. The hope that gathered within me as I turned page after page reminded me a lot of how I felt when I read Pay It Forward—a book I wish to revisit thanks to Matthew Quick.

I could provide more detailed insight, but some books are best experienced from a place of naiveté. My advice is to not read any more about The Good Luck of Right Now. Purchase the book, open the cover and ride the current. See where you end up. You may not end up in Oz, but the joy of Oz will be in your heart just the same.

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