STILL WRITING: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

A book that knocks other books off my shelves and receives five bookmarks instead of four, is a book that slingshots me back to my own page while I’m reading. The author of this kind of book churns up characters, or reveals truths about their own lives in memoir form that are so sharp, my own images and realizations will not quiet until I can get them down, black on white. Still Writing by Dani Shapiro is such a book.

Still Writing is a book about craft imbued with the intimacy of a memoir. Dani Shapiro covers her life as a writer and writes for her life. The latter is the way she inspires those of us in the trenches to carry on.

When I read Slow Motion, I realized the most important element of writing was missing from my manuscript. That element was me. I’d been so worried about my protagonist’s relatability and complexity, so focused on skipping the boring parts, pushing the protagonist to extremes to promote change in order to keep tension on every page, I forgot to fuse myself into the character. Without crawling inside my character and getting in sync with her rhythm, readers found my protagonist tiresome, the quintessential dishrag.

To find my way into the character wasn’t easy. Many days I wrote and scratched through more sentences than I kept in my manuscript. What kept me going was the wisdom of Dani Shapiro’s experiences.

Practice involves discipline. But is more closely related to patience. 

The more I tuned up the channel for patience, the more I was able to lower the channel for gimmicks and purple prose. Within the silence of patience, it was much easier to fall with my character into the abyss of the empty white space and rise up hand in hand with story.

Practice and patience isn’t all Shapiro writes about. Still Writing is an excavation into what she has learned as a writer from the beginning and how she plans to continue.

Everything we write will be flawed […] all we know […] is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. […] All we can hope is that […] we won’t succumb to the fear of the unknown […]not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. 

I don’t believe anyone has taken the pressure off of perfection better than that. I can write freely with that outlook. When I read those words my courage rises and a desire to experiment grows. One of the reasons Still Writing is powerful is because Shapiro is able to articulate our fears and crush them. The fears still exist, I don’t believe fears disappear, but Shapiro shows us how to manage them and keep writing.

And what about those sagging middles? Better than providing steps to take, or outlines to follow, Shapiro challenges us to go to the place we’d much rather run from: the truth and heart of the matter.

Middles challenge us to find our tenacity and our patience, to remind ourselves that it is within this struggle—often just at the height of hopelessness, frustration and despair—that we find the most hidden and valuable gifts of the process. Just as in life. 

Each page of Still Writing offers insights into how one writer found her way. Many of the tidbits of advice Shapiro offers have already found their way into my daily practice. But what I love most about this memoir on writing is how she encourages writers to discover the story that forces them to show up and write.

To write is to have an ongoing dialogue with your own pain. To scream to it, with it, from it. To know it—to know it cold […] You are facing your demons because they are there. To be alone in a room and the contents of your mind is, in effect to go to that place whether you intend to or not. 

I didn’t want Still Writing to end. Shapiro’s thoughts feel like mine only sharper and clearer. She feels like my pen pal, best friend and muse. She makes me want to be a better writer. Her story is mine and yours; because Dani Shapiro is Everywriter. Benefit from her experience, embrace it, let it guide you back to the page and let the lineage continue. Then celebrate, for today we’re Still Writing.

THE GREAT WORK OF YOUR LIFE: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling by Stephen Cope

Books entertain, educate, inspire, enlighten and allow us to live lives we’re not brave enough to embrace. Then one day, when you stand at the crossroads filled with doubt, a book presents itself. The material within turns you on your head and all the pieces of your life tumble into place, and the true path of your life crystalizes like the Yellow Brick Road. This was my experience with Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life.

Stephen Cope, the director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, takes us ringside on his examination of the two-thousand-year-old Bhagavad Gita. Much like watching movies with the director’s commentary, Cope educates us on the Pillars of Dharma by offering up the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna from the Gita, and giving examples of these principles in action by shining light on well-known people who inherently embraced their dharma like Jane Goodall, Henry David Thoreau and Ludwig von Beethoven, as well as individuals like you and me. The famous illustrators of dharma at work truly clarify the Four Pillars of Dharma.

 Look to Your Dharma

Do it Full Out

Let Go of the Fruits

Turn it Over to God

However, it’s the ordinary individuals that make this book hit us where we live. Each one of these stories shed light on my own struggles throughout life and provided me with an objective window to examine where I’ve been, and where I ultimately must go to live a fulfilled life.

After reading The Great Work of Your Life, I wish I could find a way to get every junior and senior in high school, every college student, teacher and parent to read this book. I was a college professor, so I know first hand too many students study for degrees because their parents have corralled them into it, or the media has made them believe it’s the only way to be successful. Students spend four years making their parents happy, or living under delusions of grandeur, then they spend the next ten to fifteen years—sometimes more—trying to undo the damage, or in misery that seems to them has no real source, while their parents watch from the fretful, criticizing sidelines. All of this can be avoided if students, parents and teachers understood how to tap into their own dharma.

It is better to fail at your own Dharma than to succeed at the Dharma of someone else. 

And remember the wisdom of mystic Thomas Merton.

Every man has a vocation to be someone, but he must understand clearly that in order to fulfill this vocation he can only be one person: himself. 

My wish, of course is impossible. It is also impractical because in order to find your true dharma you must be in a place in your life where you are ready to receive it. An addict can go through a slew of interventions, but unless he is ready to change his life for himself, in many ways those meetings are nothing more than hot air.

We only know who we are by trying on various versions of ourselves. We try various dharmas on to see if they fit. 

Still, it’s a relief to know The Great Work of Your Life exists. That it’s on the shelves ready to fall into reader’s hands, or to be recommended to someone, even if they’re not ready, because one day they’ll be tangled in doubt and they’ll reach for it.

Cope’s book is not only for those individuals who are lost and confused. Many people become content with vocations they did not desire. My father’s dream was to become a Veterinarian. Then the war came, and a marriage and children. He took a job as an estimator for a construction company. He gave everything to his job and became one of the top estimators in the area. He bought a house and sent three kids to college. I wouldn’t call him a happy man, but he has lived a contented life. So what can this dharma stuff offer a man like my father?

…we are likely to interpret feelings of exhaustion and boredom as the signal to retire. But couldn’t they just as easily be the call to reinvent ourselves?…

We tend to think leaping off cliffs is for the young. But no. Actually—when better to leap off cliffs? (T.S. Eliot said it: “Old men ought to be explorers.”) 

Life continually throws us curves and canyons to jump over. Knowing who you are and embracing your path won’t eliminate the troubles of life, but it will make life easier to navigate. When we are centered and whole, we are open to options we otherwise would be blind to.

I imagine a certain percentage of readers are thinking, “But I’ve already read The Secret and The Power of Now, what do I need this book for?” Well, I’ve read those books too. If I were going to recommend one of those books I would pick The Power of Now. For me, Tolle’s book explains why the material in The Secret works. When I read Eckhart Tolle’s book, every word resonates with me. The trouble comes after. How do I go about incorporating the concepts into my daily life? Let me clarify, The Great Work of Your Life is not a how to book. It doesn’t say do this and you’ll get that. What Cope’s work does do exquisitely is reveal that all of the answers we’re looking for are within us and shares the blueprint for how every individual can embrace their own. Oh, Happy Day!

Meet your Dharma. Read The Great Work of Your Life.

CALL ME ZELDA by Erika Robuck

Look at Scott and Zelda, slowly killing each other by stray bullets meant for themselves. That’s what happens with love. It ends by death or separation. 

We are a third of our way into Call Me Zelda before we breathe in this line of sorrow and yet, the essence of this line is with us from the opening of the novel. This is one of Erika Robuck’s strengths; her ability to establish the mood and let it roll and gather momentum much like the fog rolls over the moors of Scotland.

Another strength, or gift is her ability to weave historical facts into fiction so that the material reads like a memoir. From page one I felt caught up in a gaper’s block on the highway; horrified by what I saw and unable to turn away, and too engrossed to be embarrassed by my rudeness. Robuck’s words cast a spell over her readers, keeping them transfixed until journey’s end.

Current events and history have always put me to sleep—a knee-jerk reaction left over from childhood; a story for another time—unless the material relates to the character I am developing for the stage or page, and then I can’t get enough. Erika Robuck was born to get people excited about history. When she wrote Hemingway’s Girl, she hoped to stimulate an interest in Hemingway’s life and writing. Her success prompted me to read A Farewell to Arms. And now she’s worked her magic with the Fitzgeralds. I’ve placed their novels and many biographies onto my wish list. I hope I have time to read them all. Whether she knows it or not, Robuck is one history geek who can’t be ignored. She dangles the facts in front of us just long enough to stir our appetites and we grow hungry because of her storytelling.

But maybe it was my selfish desire to be needed. Deep down I knew I longed for the blissful anonymity of becoming part of something beautiful and tragic and even historic—like a single stroke of paint on a large and detailed landscape.

Anna, Zelda’s nurse, is not the only one who longs to be part of something greater than herself. Scott and Zelda are also driven to rise above the dust that is now their life. These three make up a triangle of enablers—a stellar choice for Robuck. She exposes and underscores the dangerous quality of love that bound and tore the Fitzgeralds apart, not by showing us their evolution, but by allowing Anna to experience it first hand. Anna is dropped into the middle of a tsunami and all we can do is pray for someone to float to the surface.

One of the saddest and most sensitively written parts of the novel was a wonderful surprise for me. When we see Scott and Zelda depicted on screen as the wildly, carefree couple who symbolizes the Roaring Twenties, one element of their lives is overlooked—their daughter, Scottie. Robuck does not forget. Scottie’s presence is a touchstone for each of the characters. This little girl, who is treated like a second-class citizen because she was born into a chaotic world of savage artistic temperaments, forces the other characters to break free from their self-centered battles long enough to remember the goodness and love that resides (though often hidden) in their hearts.

Sadness and turmoil propel much of Call Me Zelda, but I wouldn’t label it a dark tale. The friendship that grows between Anna and Zelda begins with shared fear and loss, and is transformed through love and offers hope—a Fitzgerald essential. Hope…

…the light at the end of the dock [that leads us] to safety.

Call Me Zelda, a delicate and beautiful story of the destructive and healing power of love.

THE DEATH OF SANTINI: The Story of a Father and His Son by Pat Conroy

The Death of Santini is Pat Conroy’s memoir about his love-hate relationship with his father. For those who have read the book or seen the film The Great Santini, it may also feel like a sequel—picking up where the autobiographical novel leaves off to show us what happened to the family members who were raised under the iron will of an extreme Marine. Within the first few lines I discovered The Death of Santini is a memoir, a sequel, and more importantly, a reference for how writers are born and shaped out of personal trauma.

I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own story has been my theme[…]It is both the wound and foundation of my work. 

Many writers, such as Jodi Picoult, have written superbly about writing about what you don’t know. Stretching one’s knowledge and imagination is a vital part of becoming a writer. But I believe, especially when a writer is starting out, the best gift you can give yourself is the emotional support to write honestly about what you do know without censoring. Unless we can embrace truth on a personal level, we will never be able to do so on an imaginary plane. For what is a writer, if not an overstuffed container of emotions and questions that must be channeled through a story in the hope of finding closure or enlightenment.

If I was going to be a truthful writer, I had to let the hate out into the sunshine. 

Truth—the essential ingredient for any written form that is destined to last. Find your truth and the readers will come. But Conroy learned, like the Greeks before him, that truth needs an imagination as much as tragedy needs comedy, to ensure life is portrayed in believable proportion.

My portrait of my father was so venomous and unforgiving that I had to pull back from that outraged narrative voice, and eventually decided to put the book in third person. But even then, the words flowed like molten steal instead of language[…]to make my father human, I had to lie. 

Of course, many writers have the opposite problem. By shying away from flaws they create overly sympathetic characters and the result is whining boredom. After reading The Death of Santini, it’s clear that one of Conroy’s strengths is his power of observation and ability to recognize personal flaws.

You sock me in the face and I’ll beat, the living shit out of you and toss your body in the casket with Tom, I said[…]sorry that the words had flown out of my mouth. 

His personal experience reminds him to allow his characters to say the most horrible things when they are under stress, for this is human behavior. Conroy’s portrayal of the human condition in all his stories is one of the reasons his books resonate with so many readers.

At one point Conroy says his mother always made him feel as if he was living inside a badly lit, moss-draped Southern movie. The facts within this memoir show he may very well have done so.

I was the oldest of seven children; five of us would try to kill ourselves before the age of forty. My brother Tom would succeed in a most spectacular fashion. 

I don’t know if I’ve seen a more powerful hook in the beginning of a memoir. The information sets the mood and peaks our curiosity. Conroy reinforces this hook, with particular attention to himself at least nine times. Each reference to his personal instability deepened my concern for him as a person and a writer. And I looked forward to learning how he was able to move through these dark moments of his life while he continued to write.

But I was misled. Conroy is forthcoming about his dysfunctional family. He shares how his ability to tell tales stems from his mother’s natural ability to lie. He has no reservation in pinpointing his sibling’s craziness or their incapacity to support each other emotionally with specific scenes from his past that illustrate his father’s inability to express love to his family. But Conroy never once shines a specific light on his personal struggle and triumph over his own demons. He sets us up, but never pays us off.

Or maybe his evasion is the biggest hook of all. I’m sure Conroy’s computer is filled with stories and I plan to stay tuned, and you can catch up with The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son.

THE MADAM by Julianna Baggott

Some of the happiest times of my life have occurred while reading, alone. As a child I hated reading out loud. As an actress I despised read-throughs of scripts. Both situations made me self-conscious and clumsy. I would mispronounce words and butcher punctuation so sentences made no sense to the listeners and less sense to me. I needed privacy to understand the material I was reading, or at least a solo rehearsal so I could transition from myself into the character I was supposed to portray.

Over the last two years, I have finally managed to shrug off the curse I believed had been cast upon me. By reading to my Aunt on a regular basis, I have found a way to relax and become one with the book, in order to step comfortably into the characters the author has created. I look forward to our reading sessions. My happiness has now reached a new level of enjoyment thanks to The Madam by Julianna Baggott.

The Madam is not what you might expect from a novel about a woman who chooses to run a whorehouse to provide for herself and her children. The characters are loners with troubled souls and inadequate communication skills, and yet, they draw you in with their raw observations of the world. Much of what they feel or think about underscore their individual strangeness. But it’s impossible not to worry and wonder how they will survive or if they’ll ever experience true happiness. Our endearment to the characters happens through Baggott’s poetic prose.

Bagott’s storytelling is mesmerizing. This particular novel is also a marvelous example of craft elements in their finest execution. Stay away from clichés; avoid stereotypes and predictable images, phrases and events. I don’t believe Julianna Baggott has ever colored inside the lines. Her characters communicate with a freshness that dares you not to laugh.

Wall-Eye, if you don’t stop playing that bagpipe, I’ll shove it so far up your ass, your farts’ll come out duck calls for the rest of your life. 

Point of view is crucial in delineating characters and deepening our understanding of how characters feel about themselves, relationships and situations. The unique ways Baggott’s characters see the world do all the above, plus create a layer of individualized unrest and tension.

And then he was embarrassed by the way she lay here, regarding him listlessly. He tucked in his penis, snaillike, a little slick and shrunken, a soft nub of okra and tightened his belt. 

Part of the poetic strength in Baggott’s writing stems from specificity. What she leaves out smacks up against what she highlights to ground us in the richest of atmospheres, our senses tingling.

Everything is dusted in dog hair, but the dogs have run off. Their scent rises up alongside the smells of bowels, decay, like under-earth, like the death-rot stench of wet leaves. 

What I covet most about The Madam is the rhythm; a ceaseless current slowing only around punctuation with the occasional pause for a period. The rhythm of the words, chosen with a surgeon’s care, mingle with the reader’s pulse and urge him ever onward. Read the following excerpt out loud and see for yourself how disappointed you are when you have to stop. 

Delphine dips the needle into the bottle, then tries to steady the glob over the lamp. Her hands are shaky. They’ve been shaky for as long as she can remember. As the opium bubbles, swells, doubling and tripling in size, she recalls dropping her mother’s butcher-wrapped meat off a trestle bridge over the coal-clouded Monongahela. It was iced over. The meat skidded, leaving a pink trail of blood. Her mother made her climb down through the iced reeds to retrieve it. Her mother, her scarf wrapped around her throat to hide the goiter, nearly as large as a baseball, at the side of her throat. The ice cracked, splintered. The river’s jaws opened and set to swallow her whole.

No book deserves to be read aloud more than Julianna Baggott’s The Madam. In fact, I dare any reader to pick it up and not fall in love.

DEVOTION: a memoir by Dani Shapiro

If you’ve ever been in a class where the material was over your head, chances are you prefaced a question with, “This may be a stupid question, but…” And the teacher encouraged you by saying, “There are no stupid questions. There’s probably a lot of other students in the class wondering the same.”

In Devotion, Dani Shapiro has asked all the questions we have wondered about and been too afraid or embarrassed to voice, or explore. By sharing her quest for spiritual answers she opens the door for others to pick up their bravery and journey forth.

Devotion is a personal journey that resonates universally because it embraces a massive phenomenon—our society’s inability to be comfortable with our own thoughts.

I wasn’t hearing my own breath. I was always either stuck in the past, or obsessing about the future, while the present heaped its gifts on me, screaming for attention.

When silence knocks we run in fear of what we may find when we come face to face with what’s inside of us. 

Some powerful piece of my identity withered like an underused muscle.

As I accompanied Dani Shapiro on her journey each page was a wake up call for being present and I was grateful. Thankful that Devotion wasn’t a how to book on finding religion, or a step-by-step guide for developing faith. Shapiro offers no concrete answers.

The moment you say ‘I have got it’, you have lost everything you had…the moment you say ‘I am satisfied with that,’ that means stagnation has come. That is the end of your learning…let me do what I cannot do, not what I can do. —B.K.S. Iyengar

Shapiro’s willingness to live with the questions of faith reminds us that our questions are our fuel—they keep us alive and active. The quest outweighs the answers in importance because who we are, where we are going and what we need is always shifting. 

Moving through fear is its own leap of faith.

After reading both of Shapiro’s memoirs I am ready to leap anywhere she goes. She writes with a clear authenticity that is unmatchable. In Devotion, she jumps from one memorable moment to another, she’s all over her life. It could be chronologically confusing, but her investment in each event deepens our trust and we never doubt the end will provide illumination.

Those who have read In Slow Motion know that Shapiro’s backstory is not idyllic. Her references to the past in Devotion could’ve reeked of self-indulgent woe, but her attention to clarity allows the backstory in while keeping the present journey crisp and lively. Whether you look at the content of the memoir or the craft in her writing it’s impossible to miss the underlying theme of choices that runs through Shapiro’s life—another constant that resonates through all our lives, which we often spend too little time examining. Maybe it’s time to start asking the tough questions.

Choose Devotion.

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.


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.

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