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.

THE BELL JAR…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bell Jar.


THE MOON SISTERS by Therese Walsh

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

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

GROUND ZERO

The End of the Beginning

* Olivia * 

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

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

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

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

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

—Olivia 

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

—Jazz 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Olivia 

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

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

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

Gather the karma of The Moon Sisters.


HEMINGWAY’S GIRL by Erika Robuck

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

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

“It was good,” I said. 

“So, you didn’t really like it?”

Pause. 

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

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

Before the novel begins Robuck writes to the reader:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turn back to 1935 and meet Hemingway’s Girl.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow Motion: A Memoir of Life Rescued by Tragedy.


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