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


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.


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.


CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler

My admiration for Kathryn Stockett’s The Help made me hesitant about Calling Me Home until I read an interview with Julie Kibler on Women’s Fiction Writers. The material Julie shared peaked my curiosity as a reader and writer. I ordered the book, but when it arrived I shelved it.

Four months later I tossed it into a book bag with a few other novels and brought it to my aunt’s apartment for our weekly Story Time. My aunt loves non-fiction and biographies and has little tolerance for genre fiction. When her eyes started to go and she was forced to read large print books she was incensed. “Why do publishers think old people are only interested in mysteries and romance? We may forget what we had for breakfast, but we haven’t misplaced our intelligence.”

Imagine my surprise when Calling Me Home, a novel categorized as Women’s Fiction, earned this response from my aunt after I read the book flap. “That’s the one. I’m already hooked.” Once I started reading I knew the reason for her infatuation. My aunt is a ringer for Isabelle: eighty-nine, loves crossword puzzles, a bit cantankerous and although she didn’t marry a black boy, she eloped at sixteen to get out from under a repressive household and community.

If I read Calling Me Home on my own, I would’ve zipped through the pages. Reading aloud to my aunt allowed me to appreciate Kibler’s strength for characterization. Whether they were in the past or present, I never had to think about how to portray either Isabelle or Dorrie. Their vocal qualities shifted inside me as easily as a breath moves in and out.

Another area of effortlessness is Kibler’s ability to show Isabelle’s naivetés about the world and love. Seventeen-year old Isabelle’s thought process or lack of thought and prominence of emotions is so accurate it’s funny, and sad, given the complex situation she has thrust herself into.

But in spite of the heartfelt rendition of Dorrie’s and Isabelle’s stories, I kept the women at a distance until page 194 when Isabelle’s dreams were torn from her. During that scene my past rushed forward and all of my reluctance to read and embrace the novel became clear; Calling Me Home was too close to home. Isabelle’s story reminded me of how sweet I was on Jerome Blakemore when I was sixteen and how my father’s bigotry crushed what might’ve been a lasting relationship, just like Isabelle’s brothers and mother came between her and Robert Prewitt.

Once my catharsis ran its course I was all in. Throughout the rest of our time with Dorrie and Isabelle, my aunt and I cried, laughed and yelled at the characters for the decisions they made and the things they didn’t say. Is there any higher praise for an author than for readers to talk to their characters as if they are real? Bravo, Julie.

Calling Me Home is a story to read, share and talk about with all generations; a personal story with universal ripples.


A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT by Norman Maclean

Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novella is surprisingly suspenseful and laugh-out-loud funny. I never expected to write such a statement when I first decided to read A River Runs Through It.

The film is one of my favorites. I’ve seen it so many times the DVD is worn out. Because I was aware of the humor and tragedy of life that lay within the pages of the novel before I started to read, suspense was the last element of storytelling I expected to encounter. The suspense is driven by Maclean’s brazen humor and the combination allows A River Runs Through It to flow in soul-wrenching harmony.

Riveting storytelling is grounded in details and Maclean’s selection and communication is masterful. His descriptions are often ethereal and transport you to a meditative state in one line, then slam you into reality in the next.

If you have never seen a bear going over the mountain, you have not seen the deed
reduced to its essentials. A bear leaves the earth like a bolt of lightening retrieving
itself and making its thunder backwards.
 

A River Runs Through It shows us a family of distinctly different people who respect each other’s space enough to agree to disagree and love each other regardless.

You can love completely without complete understanding.

This may sound like an easy task, but if you have ever attempted to write a novel or short story you know delivering the goods is no ice cream social. All character actions must link to intention and every intention needs motivation with resonance, otherwise the reader doesn’t care. Craft books often suggest a light touch when revealing intention, motivation and theme. Maclean is not subtle. His younger self, who narrates the novella, is blatant about what he wants and what he fails to accomplish. His ability to expose his regrets endears us to him. His journey to unravel the mystery of his brother’s life becomes our own, along with the lessons learned.

The underlying power of A River Runs Through It is wrapped up in Maclean’s wisdom about living. I don’t know whether his insight is due to the fact that he didn’t write this novella until he was in his seventies, or because the rhythm and wonders of life were second nature to him as a result of learning to fly fish before he was old enough to master cursive writing, or because his father was a Presbyterian minister. But the why doesn’t matter.

As in all great storytelling what reverberates are the zingers of truth; the sentences we return to again and again for their beauty and enlightenment. A River Runs Through It is packed with such gems. It is more than a novella it is a reference for life.

Step into the rapids of life with A River Runs Through It.


THE THIEF OF AUSCHWITZ by Jon Clinch

Just when you think it’s impossible to tolerate another tale about the holocaust, The Thief of Auschwitz sucks you in. Jon Clinch possesses a slight of hand magic with words. Their simple declaration of truth is woven on the page as if he is about to entertain us with a fairytale, except this one is dark and twisted like The Black Swan, and we can’t turn away.

The events of the story stab and gut us and we are mesmerized by the horror. Not because we are evil, but because we are human. Our fascination lies in our need to prepare for the worst, for it is unthinkable that such cruelty exists. Our willingness to observe how others suffer reminds us to give thanks for the fortune in our lives.

What we reap from Clinch’s story is the result of the fine art of selection. Each word piles on top of the next—precise words in exactly the right order—to form sentences that reach into our hearts and squeeze our humanity. His ability to capture, with empathy, a situation he could not have experienced—the entire horrible truth of it—is a gift.

It’s true enough that in the city you never know what’s lurking around the next corner, but in the wide open spaces you just never know, period. Anything could happen. In the city you’ve got a fair chance, but out in the open you could get struck by lightening, or the earth could open right up or you could just get lost without one single thing to help you tell one cornfield from another.

Don’t call it paranoia, either. It’s not paranoia. It’s an acquired response. It’s one more souvenir I picked up at Auschwitz. Try working in the sun and the wind for a year or two, with Ukrainians pointing machine guns at you the whole time—or try lining up in a big open square every day for something that’s ostensibly roll call but that’s really a kind of random selection process for who’s going to get a bullet in his brain this morning—and you’ll decide that a blind alley with a broken streetlamp is a pretty good alternative to the great outdoors. Try watching the clouds race overhead when you can’t go anywhere yourself. Try watching the seasons change.

You’ll end up like me.

The Thief of Auschwitz is a compelling tale of Jacob, Eidel, Max and Lydia Rosen. Their situation portends death, but their hearts ooze with hope, strength in the presence of frailty and courage within a constant state of fear. They are exquisite examples of Sun Tzu’s wisdom that opportunities multiply as they are seized.

You may enter the world of Auschwitz with trepidation. You will exit with the certainty that love is the strongest thread in our lives.

Allow your heart to be stolen by The Thief of Auschwitz.


GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

I’ve experienced the love and angst of Scarlett O’Hara four times on the page—can’t count the times I’ve seen the film. Scarlett’s tumultuous love life is one of the greatest examples of how to keep lovers apart and prevent them from saying what they need to say in order to be together.

But what fascinates me more is the complexity of Scarlett’s relationship with Melanie. She hates her mealy mouthed sister-in-law. Her jealousy is palpable, and yet, Scarlett can never bring herself to do wrong by her—even when it places her own life in danger. This is the kind of inner struggle that enriches a character’s journey and keeps readers turning pages.

Get swept away with Gone with the Wind.


OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W. Somerset Maugham

A handful of small books exist whose characters capture our imaginations so fully, and the prose is delivered with such precise detail and movement, we can’t stop ourselves from rereading them again, and again. Of Human Bondage is not one of them. But you must devour it at least once.

I have no doubt about the love affair that will form between you and Somerset Maugham, however, his first 100 pages may lead you to believe he isn’t interested in capturing your heart. For many readers investing in his opening will be like watching a black and white film when all prior movie experiences have been color. The style is foreign. But with a bit of patience you’ll slip into his rhythm and his prose will feel like sable.

Do we love our protagonist Philip Carey? Probably not. Throughout the novel the reader may be overcome with an uncontrollable urge to shake him and say, “Dump her and get a life!” Today, our protagonist would probably be on a slew of antidepressants and addicted to therapy. But in the early 1900’s these options weren’t available. So, although we may not love him, we have to admire his stamina as he deals with the emotional pain of his life while his physical security is threatened.

We also cannot help empathizing with his journey—a coming of age story to rival Holden Caulfield. Philip possesses none of Holden’s sense of humor and he lives in a time period detached from our sensibilities, but his search for happiness, love and a desire to understand the meaning of life when life is not a plate of caviar is something we all wrestle with at one point or another.

Philip’s struggle to create a life worth living is the very reason we stay glued to the page. Who hasn’t thought about greener grass in a different job or city? Who doesn’t wonder if their finances will hold out? And show me a heart that hasn’t yearned for an impossible mate?

Of Human Bondage is an expedition into the lives of people who thrive and wither in the company of others, but wouldn’t dare live in isolation. Jump into the fray and explore the delicacies of a time long gone and all too close.

Join Philip Carey’s journey of self-discovery through Of Human Bondage.


THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

I’m excited to say, I came across the Help long before it became the rage. Makes me feel as if I discovered something special.

In the midst of struggling to find my own voice as a writer, I was immediately taken with this southern novel because the voices of the three point of view characters drive the story. As a reader I empathized with each character’s inner and external conflicts, and found myself fretting throughout the day over how the lives of these people would resolve. Would they find peace and happiness, or was there something waiting for them even bigger than their wildest imaginations could provide. This kind of reader angst stems only from great storytelling. the Help is a story that had to be told and must be read.


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