Haruki Murakami’s name fluttered into my world several winters back during a New Year’s Eve Party. The man singing his praises, Greg Pierce, was in the midst of writing the stage play for Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. What a title: it Ping-Pongs around the brain daring you to forget it. I bought the book the next day thanks to on-line shopping.

It was a love-hate relationship I was never able to work through. I appreciated Murakami’s attention to detail. His ability to make the preparation of a spaghetti dinner fascinating and even curious is an outstanding feat. He may be the master of arousing curiosity for the mundane elements of life. I couldn’t stop wondering, what does this mean? Where will this lead? Then he’d slam me with the historical point of view of the novel and lose me. Still, I trudged on, that’s how deeply his curiosity-hooks dig in. I had to learn the fate of all the characters. I was relieved to find out. I also understood a significant amount of time would need to pass before I revisited his writing.

Here’s my confession. I did not pick up Murakami’s memoir on my own. My son, a huge fan of Haruki-san, as his Japanese fans refer to him because he is such an accessible guy, nudged me.

After reading a biography about Murakami that explored the how and when his novels sprouted from his life, my son said, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was probably the worst place to start my relationship with this Japanese author.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was the starting place my son suggested and I’m glad I accepted his advice. Running is a straightforward examination into how Haruki Murakami started to run, why he keeps running, how he trains for his annual marathon and what it means for his work as a writer.

Although I never made time to train for a marathon, I too, was a long distance runner. So, much of what is talked about is something I’ve experienced. But you don’t have to be a runner to appreciate what he shares. He draws you in with keen observations and details that reach deep into your gut.

The trees are barren of leaves, and the thin branches scrape against each other in the wind, rattling like dried up bones. 

Then he hooks you with his dedication to perseverance.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. 

Now I understand how Murakami can take the mundane and turn it into something magical. He has no choice in the matter for he is 100% attentive to whatever he chooses to focus on in his life.

No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative art.

The mundane may be the way Murakami enters a story, but what he ultimately shares is the pain within the underbelly of life.

When we are writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place. 

This toxin of humanity is what I was unable to digest in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I’m sorry I wasn’t ready to receive the lessons that were within the story. I could go back, but having absorbed What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I believe it’s more important to move on, ride the forward momentum of his work and grow as a reader and writer.

Haruki Murakami’s memoir on Running is an extraordinary example of how delving into a specific area of a person’s life can reveal so much about character. Maybe this is another reason his characters create such curiosity for the reader, because he’s able to pinpoint the jugular of obsession in each one. Now, I will have to read more Murakami. I hope you give him a whirl as well.

Discover how far you’ll run to follow your dreams. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

FALLEN BEAUTY by Erika Robuck

Each time I open a book, my wish is for the author’s words to spin my imagination into a kaleidoscope of color so my heart will dance. When I find an author who is capable of such magic early in their careers each novel deepens my admiration, and my desire to hear from them again is wrapped in the hope and promise of greater stories to come. Stephen King may have been the first author to have such an impact on me. My reaction to his hiatus and subsequent return to writing The Dark Tower Series was akin to agony and ecstasy. Have I moved into melodrama? Oh, well, there it is. For the hope, promise and joy I feel for Erika Robuck’s novels is nothing less than a romantic attachment.

The writing in Fallen Beauty is an undertow of words that reel you in, while emotions rise with such force it’s impossible to put down. And yet I had to in order to take notes on character and story, and capture quotes for future reference—even though I know this is a book I will read again and again like The Hours, A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Old Man and the Sea.

I came down a hill, back from raping the earth of her treasures, to see a nymph waiting for me, breathless, angry, uncertain, and I felt the sorrow of seeing the wounded pierce my heart more than she could know. 

These words belong to Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of two point-of-view characters in Fallen Beauty. The second is Laura Kelley, a seamstress whose choice to follow her heart in 1928 leads her to a life of limitations and hardship as she tries to provide for her child who was born out-of-wedlock. The voices of these women and the way they behave place them at opposite ends of a spectrum. The brilliance of Robuck lies in her understanding that for Vincent and Laura to be at opposite ends of a spectrum they must share a through-line, and they do. Both possess a passion and a desperate need to express the beauty they see in the world.

Vincent, the artist in full-peacock bloom, knows her ability to weave beauty and love into words for everyone to experience is a gift—a gift that must be used and fueled or it will be lost.

If I don’t use my words for truth, I will never get new words. I will not be able to write. 

She often nurtures her poetic gift with behavior not accepted by society. But she doesn’t care about their judgment. Her purpose is not to please the masses, but to live as fully as she can in order to enlighten those who will listen to the power and glory of love and beauty. She wishes to open people’s hearts to a range of emotions so they too may bring themselves fully into the world.

Laura covets Vincent’s free spirit and her gift. She longs to spin fabric into costumes that bring the essence of the characters, or the person wearing them to life. But to do so is a betrayal to her sister and the way she was raised. She doesn’t realize that to stifle her spirit only brings more pain into her life.

I know she turns the pain of the town’s judgment on me, because we all need something lower than ourselves to hate. Otherwise we would be left to absorb all the bad energy and it would destroy us. 

This too is Vincent. Her compassion for Laura is why we are so willing to forgive and look past her actions that we would not ordinarily tolerate. This is another of Robuck’s strengths: her deftness in maneuvering characters into situations where they have no choice other than to see themselves in another character. These moments of realization often ricochet the character forward to do things they never believed possible; other times the character steps back. Here’s Laura.

I shoved my hands deep in my pockets, and tried to concentrate on the shafts of moonlight slipping through the trees. I hated that I couldn’t find a single word to say to him. I was sabotaging something real, and possibly good […] I hated that I was a prisoner of my past. 

The way Robuck’s characters pierce and paw at each other keep the conflicts high, and the passion running deep. Fallen Beauty has given Robuck a chance to take off her writing gloves. She allows her characters to street fight with words, pushing each other in and out of corners, round after round until the final bell rings. She may never have trained as a boxer, but she’s one of the champion writers on my shelves.

Ignite your passion with Fallen Beauty.

THE JUNGLE EFFECT: The Healthiest Diets From Around The World—Why They Work And How to Make Them Work For You by Daphne Miller, MD

I was a devoted Vegetarian turned Vegan until 2013, when an exercise injury left me unable to walk or stand longer than five minutes. After months of tests, traditional medical specialists found no reason for the excruciating pain. I tried all the alternative therapies that were available to me. A Chinese acupuncturist was able to lessen the pain, but it always returned, sometimes worse than before. By the time I started to think I might never be physically active again, the acupuncturist said my Vegan diet might be hindering my recovery. According to Chinese medicine pain comes from stagnant chi. He believed if I added animal energy—meat—to my diet, the chi would slowly begin to flow again. The pain was so bad I jumped on the meat wagon and indulged in steak that same night.

Maybe it was psychological desperation, but I believed I felt better the next morning. My body also seemed to crave more meat, so meat became a staple on my shopping list. My mind kept saying, I’m doing this for my health, but emotionally I was torn. I’d been a vegetarian for so long eating meat felt like a betrayal. I couldn’t accept that adding meat back into my diet wasn’t any different than choosing to eliminate it. To me it wasn’t a dietary choice, it was a Cardinal Sin.

Only then did I see the ultimate problem. I was afraid of meat, or more precisely, afraid of food. Before I became a vegetarian I had gone through an anorexic phase, which was followed by a phase of secretive binging. The meat issue made me realize my choice to be vegetarian or vegan was just another way for me to wage war against my fear of food. Enter Daphne Miller, MD and The Jungle Effect, my bridge to finding peace with food.

Dr. Daphne Miller is a board-certified family physician. She has a private practice in San Francisco and teaches nutrition and integrative medicine at the University of California. Dr. Miller’s research into indigenous diets was prompted by her patient Angela whose battle with excess weight, high blood pressure and knee problems were eliminated when she returned to the foods she ate while growing up in the rainforest.

I’ve eaten and sweated through an eclectic mound of diet and exercise programs. They all seemed logical. None had staying power. The Jungle Effect is not a diet book, or exercise program. It is however, a book that will provide such outstanding information and evidence that your current point of view on food and exercise will be shaken and may, in fact, change. This healthier attitude will stem from the combination of Dr. Miller’s research and the patient stories she shares. Each patient story is from a person like you and me—no celebrities with personal trainers and culinary chefs on their payroll are highlighted these pages. Yay!

The majority of serious health problems that we are experiencing in the United States can be traced back to poor diet […] Each patient whose story is featured in this book has a different ethnic and cultural heritage as well as a distinct set of health issues […] A return to an indigenous style of eating helped them accomplish a diverse set of health goals including weight control, blood sugar and cholesterol management, and improvement in energy and mood. 

The Jungle Effect takes a look at specific cold spots—places in the world where the rate of certain health issues are minimal because of the indigenous diet eaten—such as Mexico, Greece, and Iceland, and shows us how to regain control of our health and prevent disease. You’ll learn how avocados and sweet potatoes can prevent Colon Cancer, something relatively rare in West Africa, and how tomatoes, watermelon and egg yolks offset breast and prostrate cancers in Okinawa, Japan.

The entire book was fascinating, the more I read the more I wanted to read. But the most helpful portion of The Jungle Effect for me was Part Three. This is where Daphne Miller shares the recipes she acquired on her indigenous food journey and how to go about shopping for these foods in our modern world. She also included a section on the best ways to cook certain ingredients. For optimum health she recommends you rotate through all the recipes in the book. It’s a marvelous idea. I wish I could say I’ve done it.

I have, however, tried many of the recipes, even the meat dishes. They were delicious. And thanks to The Jungle Effect, I’ve experimented with all kinds of foods and kept a journal about how my body responded for the last nine months. During that time I got rid of my sense of betrayal over eating meat and discovered I could enjoy it. But my experimentation has shown me how much I prefer a vegetable based diet. I could call myself a vegetarian, but I now prefer to say I’m a whole-food foodie who doesn’t eat meat. I buy fresh, local and organic at least 90% of the time, and my new favorite place for recipes is on-line at New Roots.

For the first time ever, I no longer fear food. I have Daphne Miller to thank for this extraordinary change in my life. Whether you’re afraid of food or not, The Jungle Effect is one book on health that needs to be required reading because everyone needs to eat, and health makes living a lot more fun.

NEARER HOME by Joy Castro

Joy Castro’s ability to capture the sensory essence and pulse of New Orleans in Hell or High Water made me homesick. I’m nostalgic all over again thanks to Nearer Home.

Nola Céspedes, Castro’s protagonist, is a straightforward, no-nonsense reporter with more baggage and character flaws than Nick and Nora Charles could sort through. But I do believe the three of them would get along. Nola may not run in the same society circle as Nick and Nora, but she’s not afraid to have a good time and she has a way of gaining a person’s trust. Both of these characteristics often lead her into more dangerous situations than she planned for, and that’s just one of the reasons it’s hard to put Nearer Home down. Without chapters ending in gimmicky hook lines, or deliberate breaks in action, turning the page was still a must for me because Nola is one intriguing dame.

Nola’s friends are an authentic group of women that cross cultures, races and classes. In addition to her job as a reporter, she volunteers in the community as a Big Sister—a position she has a natural sensitivity for even though her family background has major holes. The fact that she’s willing to accept the challenge in spite of her doubts is why we’re on her side. Nola extends herself when it’s easier to pull back. Her courage, shaky as it often is, turns a light on the reader’s conscience, and that’s one of the marks of great fiction.

In therapy for post-traumatic stress and a series of unhealthy copying mechanisms that include no-strings sex with strangers, Nola is an ideal protagonist for the crimes she gets involved with much like Mariska Hargitay’s character, Olivia Benson from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Major plot points that trigger issues for the main character add layers of complexity, vulnerability and tension to story. Nearer Home is full of all three.

Joy Castro has a unique character in Nola Céspades, and Nola’s voice feels like the reader’s own. It’s a winning combination that soars thanks to Castro’s choice to place this particular crime reporter in New Orleans.

We’re always in a context that’s bigger than we are and moving fast. We can never see all the pieces. We’ve all got our lurking pockets of prejudices and fear. And the Ninth is a scary place. Cops get killed there. Show me someone whose vision’s not tainted by the past, and I’ll show you a saint. 

Writers know characters make choices based on what they’ve been through, what they’re currently struggling to release and what they want. Post-Katrina New Orleans is one of the most fertile locations Castro could’ve chosen for her flawed heroine. What Nola isn’t struggling with, her city is and that makes the landscape and conflicts of Nearer Home palpable and often too real, which is exactly why this reader will turn to Castro and Nola Céspades again and again.

If you’re curious about New Orleans, love suspense and character with loads of spunk, flaws and heart read Nearer Home.

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.

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