Monday, March 25, 2019

The Baltimore Book of the Dead by Marion Winik

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Baltimore Book of the Dead is a compassionate, funny tribute to dead friends, acquaintances and people the author would have enjoyed knowing. I couldn't put it down even though one needs to take a breath after each two-page vignette to savor the beautiful writing, the pinpoint characterization. An unexpected treasure which I started again as soon as I'd finished.

This is from her foreward:
"As far as death at the dinner table goes, some respectful space must be made for grief. Grief is socially awkward, if not all-out anti-social, difficult to accommodate even in one-on-one conversations. Even now, when I mention that I widowed in my first marriage, or that my first baby was stillborn, I see people's faces fall, and I rush to explain that it was a long, long time ago and it was very sad but I am fine now. I really am. But I am also trying to spare them the awkwardness of having to come up with some appropriate or more likely inappropriate response, perhaps making some well-intentioned but doomed attempt to help me get over it, possibly by implying that it was God's will.
Which brings me back to the time when I was not fine, after those deaths and others, as well, and there I find part of my motivation for writing these books, for dwelling so long in the graveyard for finding a way to talk about it. Ultimately, instead of attempting to flee from the pain of loss, I decided to spend time with it, to linger, to let these thoughts and feelings bloom inside me into something else.
Why do we build memorials, decorate grave sites, set up shrines, stitch an AIDS quilt, paint three murals for Freddie Gray; what are these ghostly white bicycles woven with flowers on Charles and Roland avenues?"


Monday, March 4, 2019

Those Who KnewThose Who Knew by Idra Novey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Those Who Knew held my attention from the beginning with its first sentence: "Precisely a week after the death of Maria P. was declared an accident, a woman reached into her tote bag and found a [worn] sweater inside that didn't belong to her." She tries unsuccessfully to return it to the clerk in the store. How did it get in her bag? Who was Maria P. and what did her death have to do with the woman with the bag? There are lingerie mysteries, disappearing stains and ghosts. In short, pithy chapters, the author introduces a small cast of characters living in an unnamed island nation assumed to be in Latin America with its corrupt politics, disparate economy and striking students and its strong connection to the "northerners" assumed to be North Americans. A surrealist script for a play or two, and a journal feed the reader's sense of confusion and questioning. Lena is a key character and her friend and activist, Olga who runs a bookstore called Seek the Sublime or Die, provides a perspective to Lena's resentment of the abusive Senator who kissed her after she made her first Molotov cocktail. His viciousness and suspicious abuse of others threatens his office, although it's a stinky pig farm which topples him. One of my favorite lines: Olga to Lena "I think you're reading too much Saramago." Some rich food descriptions liven Oscar, the baker from the north. And this depiction of a failing marriage: "all that had been solid between them begin to liquefy, the edges of their marriage melting as if it had consisted of no more than a block of ice....[he] felt the drip, drip between them quickening." The book had some editing flaws which irritated me but the writing and pacing made for satisfying reading even with abrupt ending.


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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Mountain LionThe Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford is stunning in terms of prose and story in its beautiful evocation of California and Colorado settings, but most memorably in relating the disgust of children for adults. When her brother's lascivious remark passes the line from childhood to adulthood, ("he has literally beat a rivet of hatred into my heart by a remark he passed on the train today") ten-year-old Molly, two years younger than Ralph, despises him and their special bond is broken. Molly is a fantastic character supposedly based on Stafford, a writer, a misanthrope filled with hatred for herself and others, witty and mean, and a smart aleck " [Molly}returned her cup to the tea wagon and said, “If you will pardon me, this is the pause in the day’s occupation which is known as the children’s hour.”), who seeks funds from the president for a typewriter and collects hibernating ladybugs to send to the university for scientific explanation.
"Ralph's childhood and his sister's expired at that moment of the train's entrance into the surcharged valley. It was a paradox, for now they would be going into a tunnel with no end, now that they had heard the devil speak."
The landscape descriptions are alive.
"There was a silence. Studebaker and Falcon had calmed down now and were cropping side by side in the middle of the meadow. It was not really silent; there was a steady undercurrent of the noises of the land, bu they were so closely woven together than only a sudden sound, like the short singing of a meadowlark, made you realize that everywhere there was a humming and a rustling. And, then, the separate sound, the song or a splashing in the river, was like a bright daub on a dun fabric."
"They saw the mountain lion standing still with her head up, facing them, her long tail twitching. She was honey-colored all over save for her face which was darker, a sort of yellow -brown. They had a perfect view of her, for the mesa there was bare of anything and the sun illuminated her so clearly that it was as if they saw her close up. She allowed them to look at her for only a few seconds and then she bounded across the place where the columbines grew in summer and disappeared among the trees."
I keep finding the best books already on my shelves.


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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

American Audacity

American Audacity: In Defense of Literary DaringAmerican Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring by William Giraldi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Smart, opinionated, I must add this book to my overflowing library. I complain about uncommitted lackluster book reviews, not Giraldi. He has something to say and strong ways of saying it. Nathaniel Rich reviews the book in the New York Times and the first paragraph is exemplary:

"If literature, as William Giraldi writes in American Audacity, is “the one religion worth having,” then Giraldi is our most tenacious revivalist preacher, his sermons galvanized by a righteous exhortative energy, a mastery of the sacred texts and — unique in contemporary literary criticism — an enthusiasm for moralizing in defense of high standards. “Do I really expect Americans to sit down with ‘Adam Bede’ or ‘Clarissa’ after all the professional and domestic hurly-burly of their day?” he asks in an essay bemoaning “Fifty Shades of Grey.” “Pardon me, but yes, I do.” The only insincerity there is the request for pardon: Giraldi is defiantly, lavishly unforgiving."


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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Hot MilkHot Milk by Deborah Levy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hot Milk is a wild ride. Sometimes the richness of her writing is almost too much, like a cheesecake layered with caramel and chocolate but imaginative. The plot involves a young anthropology graduate, Sophie, fond of field studies, and her wheelchair-bound mother who drinks water "as if she had been asked to drink her own urine." They seek a medical cure for Rose at an unusual clinic in the Spanish beach town of Almería. Dr. Gómez runs the clinic with his daughter and he is as unpredictable as his dialog and passion for cats "We were talking about Wi-Fi," Gómez continued. 'I will tell you the answer to my riddle. I say "wee-fee" to rhyme with "Francis of Assisi." His mouth is black from eating pulpo sharing it with the felines.
A brief visit to Greece lets Sophie reconnect with her indifferent father and his child bride and new baby daughter. The author uses objects in every sentence to describe her characters and their relationships, lives, activities.
Levy's new memoir is next on my list.

"All summer, I had been moonwalking in the digital Milky Way. It's calm there. But I am not calm. My mind is like the edge of motorways where foxes eat the owls at night. In the starfields, with their faintly glowing paths running across the screen, I have been making footprints in the dust and glitter of the virtual universe. It never occurred to me that, like the medusa, technology stares back and that is gaze might have petrified me, made me fearful to come down, down to Earth, where all the hard stuff happens, down to the check-out tills and the barcodes and the too many words for profit and the not enough words for pain."

More quotes:

"I had been entitled to free school meals at my school and Rose knew I was ashamed. She had made me soup in a flask most days before she left for work. I carried it in my heavy schoolbag while it leaked all over my homework. That flask of soup was a torment but it was proof to my mother that the wolf had not yet arrived [at the door]."

"His hands were full because of the box of clothes, so he waggled one of his white espadrilles in my direction for emphasis."

With Juan the medical tech who treats her jellyfish stings:
"I like how he is not in love with me.
I like how I am not in love with him.
I like the yellow flesh of the two tiny wild pineapples he bought in the market.
He is kissing my shoulder. He knows I am reading an email from Alexandra."

"Ingrid sat astride the Andalusian in her helmet and boots. High in the dizzying sky an eagle spread its wings and circled the horse. The delirium of the music thundered through my headphones as she galloped towards me. Her upper arms were muscled, her long hair braided, she gripped the horse with her thighs and the sea glittered below the mountains."


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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Review of The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

The FriendThe Friend by Sigrid Nunez
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My kind of book, Sigrid Nunez writes fondly of dogs, more critically of writing and writers (Rilke, Kundera, etc.), but mainly about grief. Told in the first person by a writing teacher after the death of a colleague and friend, it is poignant, absorbing and smart. She ends up with aged 185-pound Great Dane in her tiny, rent-controlled "no-dogs-allowed" rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan where she's lived for decades. She is unable to write. She is barely able to teach and she keeps getting threatening notices from the apartment management about the canine occupant who she grows to love. A book to savor and ponder on death, on faith, on animals and on love.


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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Hundred Packets of Seed while a Real Writer Muses (annuals, flowers, wriiting, James Fenton, 750words.com)

With thanks to Vonetta Young https://brevity.wordpress.com/2018/03/21/you-are-not-a-real-writer/
A real writer sits at a clean, tidy desk on a green ball or a standup affair to produce a submittable essay or story.
A real writer has requests pouring in from publishers, agents, editors.
A real writer knows who her readers are.
A real writer easily moves from Executive to Peon, structuring and generating.
A real writer writes more than an hour a day.
A real writer doesn’t go out to lunch unless she’s pitching a story.
A real writer has a resume of publications, not just one online travel piece.
A real writer understands chronology and knows the difference between the situation and the story.
A real writer has multi-dimensional characters even in her memoir.
A real writer reads for craft and understands the difference.
A real writer supports her fellows by attending readings and signings.
A real writer has a notebook with her at all times to jot down thoughts, ideas.
A real writer keeps a pen and tablet by the bed for nocturnal enlightenment.
A real writer uses a fountain pen.
A real writer revises online but generates with a pen.
A real writer has a MAC.
A real writer is not afraid to email her editor for help.
A real writer doesn’t take any more craft classes which are just an excuse.
A real writer does go to workshops but more often she goes to retreats for solitary work.
A real writer puts her social media on hold while working.
A real writer has an elevator pitch for her project.
A real writer of memoir has read the key memoirs, the Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, Nabokov and can rattle off their techniques.
A real writer has a neat office in which to work and an unshaded window from which to gaze, vacantly.
A real writer has a log of production and submissions just like Priscilla Long recommended.
A real writer interviews subjects of stories.
A real writer has a book in her, either online, on paper, or in her mind.
A real writer does not jump up to answer the buzzer.
A real writer is dedicated to her craft.
A real writer would rather write than watch movies or read or go out drinking.
A real writer feels the call.
A real writer has a filing system, on word docs and on her desk and in her cabinets.
A real writer focuses.
A real writer does not noodle around like this.

There is an orange aeroled daffodil against a royal blue vase in a grey-tiled bathroom. How can the scent of almond cake extend all the way to my study while I work vigorously on a shiny new laptop without touching it? Without laying hands upon its pristine keys because I have a little plastic keyboard which is at an ergonomic height. The new laptop sits where the old Dell did. It perches atop two gardening encyclopedias and those rest on a wooden box. Is there anything in the wooden box. I have no idea. Packets of seed. Articles on pruning. Old photos. Perhaps a copy of James Fenton’s little book, One Hundred Packets of Seed, a gem in itself. I pick up that book - but where is it? - and I am compelled to plant at least thirty or forty packets of seeds. Fenton had a little more room on his British acreage than we do here on our urban farm. Some of my past enthusiasms still appear, the bluebells (heaven help me), the bachelor buttons, but there are many I would like to see again: cosmos, that intense lime green plant which looks so good in a vase of flowers, starts with an E?, Stock and morning glory and dianthus and foxglove, lupines, sea holly, yarrow, that drippy fuzzy red plant, poppies, pom poms. As The Guardian reviewer, Tim Adams, writes:

"What Fenton delights in mostly are intensity of colour and vibrancy of life. He rejects prissy notions of subtle palettes: the extension of the good taste greys and blues and whites of the Elle Decoration living-room beyond the French windows."

So, you see, Dear Reader whoever you are, I have gone from bemoaning the state of my writing to a tiny treatise on what I want to be doing, at least metaphorically, planting seeds for a colorful and  vibrant garden. A garden of words. And so it happens right here on 750 words. And the day drifts along.