Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

with our lacks…—we do what we can—we give what we have.” Henry James, “The Middle Years

A writer works with what she lacks as well as what she has. (Watch a dancer adapt a movement to the constraints—the particular length and flexibility—of their limbs. Listen to an actor or singer shift a line’s rhythm to fit their range and timbre.) Assess your lacks to see what use they might be put to. Develop other sources of plenty.

Ask: What do I want desperately to write and how shall I write it? What am I trying not to write? When do my fluencies become clever distractions from what needs writing? How often have I watched with acute irritation a performer’s distractions, hissing silently, “Why don’t you stop making that step, that melody easier than it is? Why don’t you find another way, another technique to get at it? Take the risk that it won’t have the same affect you so admire and covet in some other artist. (That supple arabesque, that quietly sustained high note.) All right. You can’t get that longed-for effect by the same means. Have at it in another way! Can an unexpected tension in the line, a surreptitious harshness in that note make it work?”

Margo Jefferson, Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir (Pantheon, April 12, 2022)


Notes:

Sea of Tranquility: A beat. A sip of water. Pacing is everything.

While (he) slips immediately into the same stasis that overcame him… It isn’t quite listlessness. He makes a careful inventory of his thoughts and decides that he isn’t unhappy. He just desires no further movement, for the time being. If there’s pleasure in action, there’s peace in stillness.

—  Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility: A Novel (Knopf, April 5, 2022)


Notes:

  • Highly recommended.  Let’s just describe this as a Wow. (And if you can listen to book on Audible, a real plus. Excellent narration.)
  • NY Times Book Review: A Dazzling New Foray into Speculative Fiction From Emily St. John Mandel – “In Sea of Tranquility,” Mandel takes up existential questions of time and being…In “Sea of Tranquility,” Mandel offers one of her finest novels and one of her most satisfying forays into the arena of speculative fiction yet, but it is her ability to convincingly inhabit the ordinary, and her ability to project a sustaining acknowledgment of beauty, that sets the novel apart. As in Ishiguro, this is not born of some cheap, made-for-television, faux-emotional gimmick or mechanism, but of empathy and hard-won understanding, beautifully built into language, for all of us who inhabit this “green-and-blue world” and who one day might live well beyond.
  • Image via CBC

Tuesday Morning Wake-Up Call

It’s no good telling yourself that one day you will wish you had never made that change. It is no good anticipating regrets. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.

Beryl Markham, West with the Night (first published in 1942)


I called B.S. when I read this testimonial by Ernest Hemingway. And then I read it. Wow. What a writer.  If you have an Audible membership, this book is free with the membership.  In the must read category.

…she has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer…she can write rings around all of us…I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.” — Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to Maxwell Perkins”

Lightly Child, Lightly.

And maybe that’s better. It makes me feel that rather than worrying and theorising about the state of the world, which helps no one, I should put my energy into living and being happy. When I try to picture for myself what a happy life might look like, the picture hasn’t changed very much since I was a child—a house with flowers and trees around it, and a river nearby, and a room full of books, and someone there to love me, that’s all. Just to make a home there… Never to move, never to board a plane again, just to live quietly and then be buried in the earth. What else is life for?

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 7, 2021)


Notes:

I Live a Life Like Yours

I started Jan Grue’s new memoir listening to his story on Audible. It’s titled “I Live a Life Like Yours.”

Oh, no Jan. You so do not.

I’m walking listening to his story. Free to take a step, not giving a moment’s consideration to how I keep my balance. And then following this step with another and another and another.

Suffering from Sciatica DK? Put out a bit? YOU are suffering?

Grue was diagnosed as a child with a rare form of spinal atrophy. As Michael J. Fox explains in his book review, “all of the wins in his life are come-from-behind —  a person who is much more than what others see. He discovers that “to be stared at, gawked at, is …to be situated in a narrative that has already been written, and that is told by others.” “The world,” he says, “perceives a body with frail arms, legs locked into certain angles…in a large bulky wheelchair” as not…a whole man…He offers messages of wisdom that will resonate long after you’ve finished the memoir. “At some point or another I stopped thinking about myself as someone who needed repairing.

Dwight Garner is his book review describes “A Life Like Yours” a quietly brilliant book that warms slowly in the hands. And that it does. I, highly recommend the book.

Let me close with a passage from his memoir.


Since an early age, I had known that I had spinal muscular atrophy… I would like to think myself away from my body, away from my injured, worn ankles. But there is no me that exists apart from this body, in some unmarked form. That body would have lived an entirely different sort of life. And yet it haunts me. It casts another kind of shadow. I shut my eyes and go skiing each winter, I run 10K each morning. I dash off to another country at a moment’s notice, grab my carry-on, run out the door and hail a taxi, make my way quickly through the security check and sprint to the gate. I haven’t made arrangements for where I’ll stay when I arrive, I climb into a taxi and simply say: Drive me somewhere I haven’t been before.

I open my eyes.

— Jan Grue, I Live a Life Like Yours: A Memoir. B. L. Crook (Translator). (FSG Originals, August 17, 2021)

Some days I am very raw, as though my outer layers have been peeled away

Some days I am very raw, as though my outer layers have been peeled away, exposing the new parts of myself to the wind and the sea spray… I feel very sensitive to different consistencies of light. The speed of the wind. The pull of my clothes against my arms. Everything has a texture. I had stopped noticing it. I have a new pleasure in holding objects. A cold, round apple is solid in the palm of my hand. I stroke the smooth, hard squares of Scrabble letters. I run my fingers over the rough wooden surface of the table. I wonder if this is how my mother felt when we came here during those long, brooding summers.

~ Jessica Andrews, Saltwater: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 14, 2020)

I loved it. Recommended for you? Hmmmm. Read a Kindle sample to get a taste.


Notes:

Sunday Morning

I want to be a monk because I think that would be a very good use of me, he continued. Does that sound strange? It sounds a bit arrogant, I suppose. I don’t mean to be arrogant. I want to be an implement. Something like a shovel with a beard. If I live with humility and intent, if I do what I do well and gracefully, that is good. Beyond that I cannot go. When I speak to children they will ask me things like, if I do enough good, and other people do good, then the good stacks up, right? and the good eventually beats the bad, right? and I cannot say this is so. I am not very interested in speculation about such things. I was never interested in theology. I think theology is an attempt to make sense of that to which sense does not apply. I cannot explain why I hope that what I do matters; all I can do is do what I do, either well or ill, patiently or not, gracefully or not. And I do find that doing things mindfully, patiently, easefully, makes the task far more interesting. I love to cut the grass here, for I sometimes come to a sort of understanding with the grass, and the hill, and the creatures in the grass, and with my legs and arms and back, a sort of silent conversation in which we all communicate easily and thoroughly. Do you have any idea of what I mean with all this?

~ Brian Doyle, from “Because It’s Hard” in “One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder” (Little, Brown and Company, December 3, 2019)


Notes:

About right.

Is this verbal violence, then, simply incompetence? Is it the verbal equivalent of someone who has not learned the piano sitting down and trying to play Rachmaninov’s Third? The rudeness of these public figures gives pleasure and relief, it is clear, to their audiences. Perhaps what they experience is not the possibility of actual violence but a sort of intellectual unbuttoning, a freedom from the constraint of language. Perhaps they have lived lives in which they have been continually outplayed in the field of articulation, but of this new skill – rudeness – they find that they are the masters.

~ Rachel Cusk, from “On Rudeness” in Coventry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. September 16, 2019)


Notes:

Waiting for Eden

She’d heard the stories about when they’d brought him in. The rush to the roof, his helicopter landing, and how close to death he’d always been. Between shifts, the older docs and nurses spoke quietly about the guy up on the fourth floor burned so bad it was a miracle he’d survived. They always talked about him quickly, in murmurs over their coffee or standing close to each other in an elevator. What they’d say was always the same: worst wounded guy in both wars, don’t know if I’d want to live like that, and just a matter of time. They all said that one: a matter of time…

His skin, already see-through with burns, didn’t sweat, it couldn’t. Instead it shone, the fever trapped inside…His body seized and then did a sort of whip-crack, struggling for breath even as he gasped…She climbed up on his bed and leaned in, not touching his burns but so close that her smell would linger around him. Before, when they would be in bed together, she’d often wake when he’d bury his face deep into the nape of her neck, covering himself in her dark hair to what she worried was the point of suffocation. One of the first things he ever told her was that he liked her perfume, but she never wore any. Her smell was of soap and water.

~ Elliot Ackerman, excerpts from Waiting for Eden: A Novel (September, 2018)


Notes: A mere 192 pages, but a story that will be seared into memory.  A National Book Award Finalist. An Amazon Book of the Month in October, 2018.  A book that reminded me of The Sea Inside and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  A NY Book Review by Anthony Swofford captures it beautifully: “To identify this book as a novel seems inadequate: ‘Waiting for Eden’ is a sculpture chiseled from the rarest slab of life experience. The sculptor’s tools are extreme psychological interrogation and clear artistic vision.”

It could not even see or hear. It simply smelled and tasted and touched its world

snail-elizabeth-tova-bailey

I finished this book a month ago and it hasn’t left my consciousness. Who would have thought a book about a snail would have so captured my attention, and held it for so long.  Here’s the book summary from Amazon:

“While an illness keeps her bedridden, Bailey watches a wild snail that has taken up residence on her nightstand. As a result, she discovers the solace and sense of wonder that this mysterious creature brings and comes to a greater under standing of her own confined place in the world. Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing a candid and engaging look into the curious life of this underappreciated small animal…told with wit and grace, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a remarkable journey of survival and resilience, showing us how a small part of the natural world illuminates our own human existence and provides an appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.”

And here’s a few memorable passages:

“…I observed without thinking, looking into the terrarium simply to feel connected to another creature; another life was being lived just a few inches away.”

“By day, the strangeness of my situation was sharpest: I was bed-bound at a time when my friends and peers were moving forward in their careers and raising families. Yet the snail’s daytime sleeping habits gave me a fresh perspective; I was not the only one resting away the days. The snail naturally slept by day, even on the sunniest of afternoons. Its companionship was a comfort to me and buffered my feelings of uselessness.”

“…my snail could not see the moss over which it glided or even the plants it climbed. It could not see the trees, nor the stars overhead. It could not hear birdsong at daybreak, nor the midnight howls of coyotes. It could not even see or hear its own kin, let alone a predator. It simply smelled and tasted and touched its world.” [Read more…]

A Whole Life

a-whole-life-robert-seethaler

According to his birth certificate, which in his opinion wasn’t even worth the ink on the stamp, Egger lived to be seventy-nine years old. He had held out longer than he himself had ever thought possible, and on the whole he could be content. He had survived his childhood, a war and an avalanche. He had never felt himself to be above doing any kind of work, had blasted an incalculable number of holes in rock, and had probably felled enough trees to heat the stoves of an entire town for a whole winter. Over and over again he had hung his life on a thread between heaven and earth, and in his latter years as a tour guide he had learned more about people than he was able fully to understand. As far as he knew, he had not burdened himself with any appreciable guilt, and he had never succumbed to the temptations of the world: to boozing, whoring and gluttony. He had built a house, had slept in countless beds, stables, on the backs of trucks, and even a couple of nights in a Russian wooden crate. He had loved. And he had had an intimation of where love could lead. He had seen a couple of men walk about on the moon. He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death. He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.

~ Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life: A Novel 


Notes:

 

 

What is the most important thing that happened yesterday?’

marion-milner-diary

Eternity’s Sunrise explores Marion Milner’s way of keeping a diary. Recording small private moments, she builds up a store of ‘bead memories’. A carved duck, a sprig of asphodel, moments captured in her travels in Greece, Kashmir and Israel, circus clowns, a painting – each makes up a ‘bead’ that has a warmth or glow which comes in response to asking the simple question: What is the most important thing that happened yesterday?’

~ Introduction to Marion Milner‘s, Eternity’s Sunrise: A Way of Keeping a Diary

 

 

The Heart

red-coat-hands

It’s 4 a.m.  Zeke’s asleep on my right, his front legs are stiff armed, fully extended and laying on my chest. No, on my Heart. But for his breathing, I could be laying in bed in the “world’s quietest room“, so completely quiet that I can hear my own organs pumping.  The hypnotic page-turning ride continued:

“She paces the room. If this is a donation, it’s a pretty unusual one, she thinks. There is no donor in this operation— no one intended to make a donation— and likewise there is no donee, because she is not in a position to refuse the organ: she has to accept it if she wants to survive. So what is it exactly? The recycling of an organ that can still be used, can still fulfill its function as a pump? She begins to undress, sitting on the bed: she removes her boots, her socks. The meaning of this transfer, for which she was selected by an incredible alignment of coincidences— the almost perfect compatibility of her blood and her genetic code with those of someone who died today— all of this becomes hazy. She does not like this feeling of unearned privilege; this lottery, it’s like winning a little stuffed animal snagged by the metal claw from a jumble of toys piled behind glass in one of those arcade games. Worst of all is that she will never be able to say thank you; that is the crux of the matter. It’s simply impossible. Thank you— that radiant phrase— will fall into the void. She will never be able to express any kind of gratitude to the donor or the donor’s family, never mind offer a gift in return in order to free herself from this infinite debt, and the idea that she will be permanently trapped crosses her mind. The floor is ice-cold under her feet. She is afraid. Her whole being flinches…

She hopes that she will be able to kiss her sons before she puts on this tissue-paper gown that flutters without covering her up, making her feel as if she is naked in a breeze. Her eyes remain dry, but she is struggling to get her head around the enormity of what she is about to go through. Placing her hand there, between her breasts, she feels her pulse, still slightly too fast in spite of the medication, still somewhat unpredictable too, and says its name out loud: heart.”

~ Maylis de Kerangal, The Heart: A Novel

I’m done but it won’t be done with me – ever – an unforgettable story.


Notes:

And when things didn’t go quite as expected, Americans lost their shit.

the-forgetting-time-sharon-guskin-cover-880x1410

Haven’t read fiction in months.

Sharon Guskin‘s debut novel is an Amazon Best Book of February, 2016.

I don’t believe in reincarnation.

NY Times Book Review: “Sounds ludicrous. It shouldn’t work. But Guskin pulls off the silly premise with a gripping, deft and moving mystery.” 

And, swept away by this page turner.

Here’s a biscuit…


“This never would have happened in India. In India they understood that life unfolded the way it unfolded, whether you liked it or not: the cow in the road, the swerve that saves or kills you. One life ended, a new one began, maybe it was better than the last one, maybe it wasn’t. The Indians (and the Thais, and the Sri Lankans) accepted this the way they accepted the monsoons or the heat, with a resignation that was like simple good sense. Damned Americans. Americans, unschooled in the burning dung heaps and the sudden swerves, Americans couldn’t help but cling tightly to the life they were living like clutching a spindly branch that was sure to break … and when things didn’t go quite as expected, Americans lost their shit. Himself included.”

~ Sharon Guskin, The Forgetting Time: A Novel


Notes:

You’re a Great Man, Charles Schulz

snoopy-charles-schultz

[…] Given the cavalcade of Peanuts appreciation, one might question the need for a new book. This critic questioned it himself, sitting down with a cup of coffee and wondering how best to write something along the lines of “With all due respect to the man’s genius, one might question . . .” and then the coffee was cold and your humble critic was staring at page after page with a silly grin plastered on his face. “Only What’s Necessary” turns out to be exactly what one wants: a reconsideration of Schulz’s work that fits perfectly with its umpteenth delightful conjuring. […]

An appreciation of Schulz’s clear-cut style puts his masterly writing into even more, um, sharp relief. Schulz’s comic sense is a blank one; however hilarious, there’s always something odd or sad around the edges. When Snoopy keeps sniffing around Charlie Brown’s catcher’s mitt, spoiling the game, our hero has to admit that he has been using some extra padding: a slice of bread. It’s a weird punch line, but right: just the sort of childhood logic that’s simultaneously wrong and irrefutable. Juxtaposed with the tidy little shape that Schulz gives us for the padding, the joke has an extra, doughy layer of blankness. […]

But what makes the biggest impression is how invisible his care is, in the bareness of his work. “Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain!!” is the first draft of a speech bubble. Schulz cuts it to “Rain, rain, rain!!” and then, in its final form, makes it “Rain, rain, rain, rain . . .” One has the feeling that every inked line of rain in the drawing was the result of a similar pensive process.

The result of all this care and thought, both from Schulz himself and from Messrs. Kidd and Spear in arranging this book, is a melancholy familiar to anyone who has seen Peanuts in any of its incarnations. Funny things happen to these kids, but the emptiness of the panels, the starkness of the drawings and the sketches, leave a slight but indelible sadness. I closed this terrific book with a regretful sigh, both that I’d reached the end and that there wasn’t even more. There is, of course, so much, much more available, so it was a little silly to feel this way. Silly and sad, both at once. Charlie Brown has a good expression for it: Good grief.​

~ Daniel Handler, ‘You’re a Great Man, Charles Schulz in a Book Review of Chip Kidd’s ‘Only What’s Necessary


Notes:

Found a quiet spot and opened a book

 […] Although the book indulges in occasional shop talk about the craft of writing, it is foremost a running record of pleasure. Mr. Dirda argues in these essays, drawn from a yearlong column about reading that he wrote for the American Scholar, “that we don’t read for high-minded reasons. We read for aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual excitement.”

In perhaps the book’s best essay, “Then and Now,” Mr. Dirda celebrates his book habit as something more than mere acquisition. Returning to the “down-at-heels steeltown” of his Ohio youth, he stays a few nights in his childhood bedroom, where late-night reading gave him his first real sense of a larger world. “As my father used to say: ‘Live fast,’ ” he writes. “In fact, I’ve lived slow, dithered and dallied, taken my own sweet time, and done pretty much what I’ve repeatedly done ever since my mother first taught me to read so long ago: Found a quiet spot and opened a book.” […]

Mr. Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer for the Washington Post, is an engaging storyteller, but he is not, by his own admission, a flashy one. “If only I had a flair for striking similes and metaphors! Alas, nothing ever reminds me of anything else,” he writes. Newspaper writing, he adds, has strengthened his natural tendency toward plainness. In lieu of vividness, Mr. Dirda gives his readers intimacy: “I like a piece to sound as if it were dashed off in 15 minutes—even when hours might have been spent in contriving just the right degree of airiness and nonchalance.” […]

~ Danny Heitman, Restless Reader, a review of Michael Dirda’s new book titled “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books.”


Notes:

 

He wants to tell us what matters here

cover-kent-haruf-souls

Kent Haruf died on November 30, 2014 at the age of 71.  He finished this novel shortly before he died and it was published posthumously.  The story is based in a fictional small town of Holt, Colorado, the home of his award winning Trilogy: Plainsong (1999), Eventide (2004) and Benediction (2013). Ursula Le Guin’s book review beautifully captures the feeling of this novel:

Ursula K Le Guin:  “I don’t think there’s a false word in Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls in the Night. Nor, for all the colloquial ease and transparency of the prose and the apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word, or a predictable one. Ordinarily the circumstances of the writing of a novel aren’t of much interest to me as a reader, but in this case, I am moved, even awed, to consider that the book was written while the author was dying. It is a report from the edge of darkness, made in the consciousness of responsibility. Haruf is bearing witness. Having gone farther than we have, he wants to tell us what matters there. His knowledge of his situation, and my knowledge of it as I read the book, made me appreciate the rare privilege of being with a person who is past the need to say anything but what needs to be said.  The voice is quiet. All the darkness is there, but we’re looking at the light. A lamp in a bedroom in a small town in Colorado.

: A remarkably simple invitation sets things in motion. Addie Moore, a widow, asks Louis Waters, a widower and neighbor, to sleep with her. “Sleep” means both more and less than you might first think for these septuagenarians (in their 70’s).

After dark one night they walked over to the grade school playground and Louis pushed Addie on the big chain swing and she rode up and back in the cool fresh night air of late summer with the hem of her skirt fluttering over her knees. Afterward they went back to bed in her upstairs front room and lay beside each other naked in the summer air coming in from the open windows.

~ Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night: A novel

Kent Haruf’s Our Souls in the NightHighly recommended.

I like the list because it contains the seeds of its own undoing

better-than-before-gretchen-rubin

My favorite passage in the book is a reprinting of Johnny Cash’s to-do list: “Not smoke. Kiss June. Not kiss anyone else. Cough. Pee. Eat. Not eat too much. ­Worry. Go see Mama. Practice piano.” I like the list because it contains the seeds of its own undoing. Habits have an eternal appeal because they remove the element of choice. They hold out the promise that in the future we can improve ourselves almost automatically just by moving through our days, like the evolved operating system in the Spike Jonze movie “Her.” But Johnny Cash understands that temptation is not a virus we can remove. His list isn’t linear, it’s circular. He will never turn into June. He will always be Johnny, and every day he will cough, pee and eat. Just as every day he will have to resist the urge to kiss someone else.

~ Hanna Rosin, Book Review of Gretchen Rubin’s “Better Than Before”


What is it that has etched itself into you?

Karl Ove Knausgård

“In the window before me I can vaguely see the image of my face.  Apart from my eyes, which are shining, and the part directly beneath, which dimly reflects light, the whole of the left side lies in shade.  Two deep furrows run down the forehead, one deep furrow runs down each cheek, all filled as it were with darkness, and when the eyes are staring and serious, and the mouth turned down at the corners it is impossible not to think of this face as somber.

What is it that has etched itself into you?”

~ Karl Ove Knausgaard (My Struggle: Book 2: A Man In Love. P.553)

 


I (finally) finished Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 1 and My Struggle: Book 2.  Highly recommended.

Related Post: That is when time begins to pick up speed (Karl Ove Knausgaard quote and bio)
Image Source: dagsavisen

A life lived well is never wasted

Marilynne-Robinson

Lori, LouAnn and Sandy Sue inspired me to read books written by Natalie Goldberg following my share last month.  So I dove into the Long Quiet Highway and came across this passage early in her book.

“Often when you take on the voice of a great writer, speak his or her words aloud, you are taking on the voice of inspiration, you are breathing their breath at the moment of their heightened feelings, that what all writers ultimately do is pass on their breath.”

I paused and reflected on the “great” writers that I have read.  Marilynne Robinson immediately came to mind.  She has the ability to transport me to another place and time – – writing with such grace, such beauty and such humanity.  She’s won literary “hardware” for her three major novels.

  • HousekeepingNominated for the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and winner of the Hemingway/PEN Award for first fiction novel.
  • GileadWinner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and winner of the National Book Circle Critics Award for Fiction.
  • HomeWinner of the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction award.

Soon after I read Goldberg’s thoughts on great writers, I came this excerpt from a Chicago Tribune article shared at Lit Verve  where the writer asks Robinson about Rev. John Ames, a congregational minister in Gilead, Iowa and the main character in her novel Gilead: [Read more…]

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