This list may look familiar because the books I finished in June are the same five I listed in my ten year meme post, plus one.
The Eleventh Draft, edited by Frank Conroy was a great recommendation from Tim Hallinan. This 1999 collection of twenty three essays was written by authors who are graduates of and/or teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The authors are: T. Coraghessan Boyle, Ethan Canin, Justin Cronin, Charles D’Ambrosio, Stuart Dybek, Deborah Eisenberg, Tom Grimes, Doris Grumbach, Barry Hannah, James Hynes, William Lashner, Fred G. Leebron, Margot Livesey, Elizabeth McCracken, James Alan McPherson, Chris Offutt, Jayne Anne Phillips, Susan Power, Francine Prose, Marilynne Robinson, Scott Spencer, Abraham Verghese and Geoffrey Wolff, with an introduction by Frank Conroy.
Conroy was intentionally vague with his instructions to the authors. He told them to write about writing. Some wrote essays that might have been classroom lectures on craft, some on creativity and process, some are deeply personal, some philosophical and some are about the publishing business. I got something from nearly all of them.
Ethan Canin’s essay, Smallness and Invention was one of my favorites. He talks about his experience arriving at
“I would seek out those elongated phrases, those elided leaps into the world of ardor and transcendence and unearthed human longing that shone in his stories like gems beneath a stream.”
He claims his first stories were “dismal”, although somehow I doubt that’s possible. He went back to Cheever for inspiration and began typing out paragraphs of his work. This, he claims was as important an exercise as he’d ever performed because he noticed that what he considered to be Cheever’s brilliant insights were always preceded by and usually followed by a great deal of small detail. He initially attempted to layer more detail into his own work, only to discover:
“…that the progression from detail to epiphany is not a technique used merely for its effect on the reader, but that this method is in fact how a writer discovers his own material.
This changed my writing forever. To put it another way: I had chanced upon the discovery that for the writer is not a moral pondering or grand emotion that are the entrance to a story, but detail and small event.”
Rose’s Garden, by Carrie Brown, was a gift from the lovely and talented Jennifer Duncan. This wonderful book swap came about when I did a first lines post and Jennifer said she’d keep reading The Dogs of March, by Ernest Hebert. I love the book and told her I wanted to send it to her. Jennifer then told me she wanted to share one of her favorite authors and she sent me Carrie Brown’s first novel, which is also set in
Carrie Brown is the author of four novels and a collection of short stories. She has won many awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. There’s a great interview with her from May of 2002 here.
Publishers Weekly said this about Rose’s Garden:
“When Conrad Morrissey's wife, Rose, dies after 50 years of marriage, it takes an angelic visit to save him from his grief. That is the familiar premise of Brown's sweet, gentle first novel, set in the small town of
, N.H. Once the ghost of his dead father-in-law prompts Conrad to concern himself with the living instead of the dead, he discovers that Rose's mysterious friend Hero, a slightly retarded girl with whom she shared a love of gardening, has also been receiving instruction from the dead. "And what had it been to Hero? He could not guess, except to believe that her world had always been filled with voices, the spokesmen of recrimination and doubt." As rain threatens to obliterate Laurel Laurel's ancient dam, and the town itself, Conrad finds new meaning in the memory of his wife and in devotion to the White Mountainscommunity where they both spent the best years of their lives. A town full of sympathetic characters, including the widowed neighbor who can only sleep when every light in the house is on, and the beleaguered editor of the local paper, round out this sensitive debut.”
This is a beautifully written book and Carrie Brown’s prose is lyrical and lovely. The story builds up slowly in the beginning and less patient readers may have trouble with the pacing. I enjoyed the slow read and I delighted in getting to know the characters so well.
This excerpt takes place in the local newspaper office, after Conrad, the main character, has seen an angel in his dead wife’s garden and wants a story on the sighting published.
“Betty Barteleme, the walleyed gatekeeper at Peak’s newspaper, lowered her glasses when Conrad came back into the front office. He lingered there, trying to find the words to say what he felt. Nonsense? He thought. What does he know?
Miss Barteleme sniffed, waved her letter opener at Conrad. ‘Go on home now, Conrad Morrissey,’ she said through her nose as Conrad stood there, gazing at her, thinking. ‘You’ve bothered Mr. Peak enough already for one day. Go on home before I take a broom to you and your feathers.’ But then, as if remembering Conrad’s recent loss, she softened. ‘There’s no point in waiting. He’s not going to see you again this morning. He’s a very busy man. Very, very busy.’ She leaned over and patted his arm. ‘Go on.’ And she waved the letter opener toward the door.
Conrad looked down, brushed at this trousers, saw a feather drift across the floor toward Miss Barteleme’s dimpled ankle, turning over on itself like a tumbleweed. Miss Barteleme, of the fat, powder white Pan-Cake cheeks and penciled eyebrows and two-tone pantsuit – sizing her up, Conrad imagined that she now fancied she herself had a way with words, as if the talent for it were contagious. She guarded
like a little flat-faced dog, irksome and loyal. Now here was Conrad, squared off in a wordless confrontation with this officious woman who acted as though any business of the paper’s readers was entirely irrelevant – even a hindrance – to the higher purpose of her beloved Peak’s mysterious mission. Nolan Peak
Well, you two deserve each other, Conrad thought.”
Thank you, Jennifer for introducing me to a gifted author. I plan to read more of Carrie Brown’s work.
The House on Fortune Street, by Margot Livesey was released in June and Margot Livesey’s essay in The Eleventh Draft motivated me to read her.
From Publishers Weekly:
“The absorbing latest from Livesey (Homework) opens multiple perspectives on the life of Dara MacLeod, a young
therapist, partly by paying subtle homage to literary figures and works. The first of four sections follows Keats scholar Sean Wyman: his girlfriend, Abigail, is Dara’s best friend, and the couple lives upstairs from Dara in the titular London house. While Dara tries to coax her boyfriend Edward to move out of the house he shares with his ex-girlfriend and daughter, Sean receives a mysterious letter implying that Abigail is having an affair, and both relationships start to fall apart. The second section, set during Dara’s childhood, is narrated by Dara’s father, who has a strange fascination with Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and shares Dodgson’s creepy interest in young girls. Dara’s meeting with Edward dominates part three, which mirrors the plot of Jane Eyre, and the final part, reminiscent of Great Expectations, is told mainly from Abigail’s college-era point of view. The pieces cross-reference and fit together seamlessly, with Dara’s fate being revealed by the end of part one and explained in the denouement. Livesey’s use of the classics enriches the narrative, giving Dara a larger-than-life resonance.” London
The characters are complex and deeply flawed, and there are no happy endings for anyone in this story.This New York Times Sunday Book Review by Liesl Schillinger is excellent.It’s an intricate and deeply layered character exploration.
Abigail is an independent woman, focused on self-preservation who appears to need no one but herself. She’s got an innate ability to attract men and keep them around for as long as it suits her and to just as easily discard and forget about them. She’d be entirely unlikable and shallow if you didn’t know anything about the circumstances of her upbringing.
Dara is the opposite. Relationships and sex are meaningful and serious, but men don't flock to her. She’s compassionate and sensitive and the sudden, unexplained disappearance of her father from the family’s life when she was ten explains everything one needs to know about her.
While reading this book, I found myself continually bringing aspects of the story up to Scott. It’s the kind of book you can’t wait to discuss with someone. If there were a book club full of people who like the same books I do, this would be a perfect selection.
This was a page-turner and I fear that Margot Livesey has done far more with this story than I was able to pick up and appreciate with one rapid read-through. I suspect I will be re-reading this one, and seeking out more of this author’s work.
Simon Says, by Kathryn Eastburn. I read this because it’s the tragic true account of a triple murder that was planned and carried out by four
From Publishers Weekly:
“On New Year's Eve 2000, Isaac Grimes, a
Colorado Springshigh school sophomore, went on a sleepover at the rural home of the grandparents of his former best friend Tony Dutcher. There, Isaac confessed three months later, he slit Tony's throat while his accomplice and fellow student Jon Matheny shot to death Carl Dutcher, a military veteran and licensed arms dealer, and his wife, JoAnna. Grimes and Matheny blamed high school senior Simon Sue for planning the triple homicide; Sue had bullied them into believing they were guerrillas following orders in a Marxist Guyanese paramilitary organization. At 15, Grimes became the youngest inmate in the adult prison system after he was convicted and sentenced to 60 years; Matheny and Sue were sentenced to 66 and 53 years, respectively. Eastburn, who covered the case for the Colorado Springs Independent, offers a well-researched, fast-paced account of events. The crime is ultimately more interesting than the criminals, who shed meager insight into their own motives and psyches.” Colorado
I was once a true-crime junky, as was my Dad, and our conversations and encyclopedic knowledge about serial killers tended to freak out the rest of the family.
My fascination was always about what made people who were capable of committing such horrible acts different from the rest of us. Naturally, I never found any answers. Serial killers don’t seem to have any obvious similarities to each other. My interest in this grisly subject eventually tapered off, but since my interest in juveniles who commit murder has surfaced, so has my interest in learning what I can about them and their crimes.
Within the genre of true crime, this book is exceptionally well written and very balanced. For people looking for answers about why these juveniles did what they did, you won’t find them in this book. You won’t find them anywhere.
What none of these books talk much about, is the aftermath of violent and tragic events like these. The despair continues for all those left wondering why. In this case, the mother of the fifteen year old murder victim, who was a stripper for most of the victim’s life left her job at a
The parents of the convicted killers are devastated and their lives have been destroyed. One of the killers’ mothers (who I've met through another association) told me that almost immediately after her son was arrested, most members of her family turned their backs on her. Her marriage ended and she lost her home and her friends. I cannot fathom what it would be like to be the mother of a murder victim or the mother of a murderer.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was one I reluctantly read after so many people had recommended it. I say reluctantly because I admit I am a total ass and since so many people loved it I figured it couldn’t possibly be anything I’d like. I was wrong. I consumed this fairly long book over a weekend and was captivated the entire time.I’m not going to go into much detail about this book because based on the number of comments I had on a previous post, I have to believe I’m the last person on the internet to read it. Thank you to Karen at Beyond Understanding for letting me borrow her copy.
The Bright Forever, by Lee Martin was a recommendation from Amy at The Writers’ Group and I’m glad I listened to her. Lee Martin is the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Bright Forever; a novel, Quakertown; a story collection, The Least You Need to Know; and two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones. He has won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, a Lawrence Foundation Award, and the Glenna Luschei Prize. He lives in
The story begins sometime in the 1970’s when a nine-year old girl in a small town in
“I’ve never been able to tell this story and my part in it until now, but listen, I’ll say it true: a man can live with something like this only so long before he has to make it known. My name is Henry Dees, and I was a teacher then – a teacher of mathematics and a summer tutor for the children like Katie who needed such a thing. I’m an old man now, and even though more than thirty years have gone by, I still remember that summer and its secrets, and the way the heat was and how the light stretched on into evening like it would never leave. If you want to listen, you’ll have to trust me. Or close the book; go back to your lives. I warn you: this is a story as hard to hear as it is for me to tell.”
* * *
Since only four of the six books I read this month were novels, I find it a little disturbing that two of them featured characters with unnaturally icky feelings about little girls. Actually, three out of six if you count The Time Traveler's Wife. It doesn't actually go there, but it sort of forces you to worry that it might.
Note also the prominence of the color green on most of the book covers. Hmm. I must consult the cards for hidden significant meaning.
Scott and I did watch one especially good movie on pay per view. For a bit of American history that is both inspirational and sobering, watch The Great Debaters. If this one isn’t nominated for at least one Oscar, I’ll eat my remote.
Last night we watched Untraceable, which is described on the movie’s home page as “Silence of the Lambs for the internet age”. This thriller isn’t destined to win any awards, but the premise is one of the most original and unsettling I’ve seen in a long time.
So, summer reading? Are you reading more books now that it’s summer? Less? Light reading? Tackling the heavy stuff?
What have you been reading and/or watching?