Books Read in May

“The Illumination” a novel by Kevin Brockmeier

It was Friday evening, half an hour before the light struck, and she was attempting to open a package with a carving knife.

The Illumination, as it comes to be known, is a worldwide phenomenon in which every person’s pain emits a light of some sort from a glow or shimmer, to bright blazing light. Nobody can hide their pain. It is visible to the entire world and what a freeing yet vulnerable position that puts a person in.  I am amazed at Brockmeier’s ability to take such a premise and make it seem completely plausible. Within the story of The Illumination is another story, of a beautiful journal that makes its way into the hands of six recipients after a fatal car crash. As we follow the path of the journal we learn of each person’s story, their pain and how we are all connected.

What I learned: That a character can be deeply revealed through a mere list of things her spouse loves about her, and in turn he is revealed as well.

 “Little Bee” a novel by Chris Cleave

Most days I wish I was  British pound coin instead of an African girl.

I read on the back cover that this novel is in development as a feature film. After reading it, I feel as if I already saw the film. His prose is cinematic in its scope and tender in its rendering of these unforgettable characters. It is the story of two women from two different worlds. Their lives collide on one nightmarish night and again two years later. That is where the story begins. Through alternating points of view, we learn the story behind their meeting and the time in between their next meeting. It’s a story of how we are able to live in a world where horrific acts occur.

 What I learned: That pacing is an essential force in a novel.

“You Are Free” stories by Danzy Sensa

The letter was unexpected.

I found these stories lovely and moving. Sensa makes the writing seem effortless which is proof of her immense talent. The stories explore racial identity in a contemporary world, within the boundaries of marriage, friendship, parenthood, I adore “Triptych” which should be assigned reading in every writing class on the value of specific detail and how it reveals/changes a story.

Some sentences I underlined as I read:

“Andrea lies in the dark of her bedroom staring at the embers of her teenaged self.”

“Her mother looked almost beautiful in that hospice bed, androgynous and tiny, translucent.”

“She can’t remember what her mother looked like before the illness. Hard as she tries, she can’t conjure up her face. It’s slipping away already. She knows there will come a day when she doesn’t miss her mother anymore–a day when she only misses the feeling of missing. But she’s not there yet. She still feels something of the dead hovering inside of her. It lives for a moment in her chest, misshapen and bruised as a backyard fruit.”

 What I learned: That I want to try writing my own triptych.

“Swim Back to Me” stories by Ann Packer

September 1972. It was the first week of eighth grade, and I sat alone, near the back of the school bus: a short, scrawny honor-roll boy with small hands and big ears.

Packer’s previous story collection made it onto my permanent bookshelf, as will this one. She writes the stories I try to write, writes sentences I wish I had written:

“She had a little of each parent in her, Dan’s gaiety, Joanie’s warmth, plus something essential and not altogether pleasant that was entirely hers, like a back note of pepper in a rich chocolate dessert.”

“Her body gad become a scale, a device for measuring grief. The shifts still catch her by surprise.”

“She’s like a shy teenager with a guitar: her sketchbook helps her connect with other people while keeping her at a safe, busy distance.”

 What I learned: To slow down in my writing. Don’t rush through or even past a scene. The juicy stuff is waiting if I just let myself see it.

“The Wilding” a novel by Benjamin Percy

His father came toward him with a rifle.

Percy is one of those rare authors who is able to write both short stories and novels with equal depth and finesse. I’ve adored his stories for years. Have you read “Refresh, Refresh”? I came to his novel, a little skeptical not only because it is his first but because it seemed very outdoorsy. Very much a guy’s novel. So wrong. And, by the way, how snobbish of me. While much of the story is set brilliantly in a small pocket of wilderness in Oregon, the characters are what lured me in. And his writing. You can tell he writes until he uncovers just the right sentence:

Describing a tent: “Its front flap is unzippered, gaping and fleshy and trembling, like an old man’s mouth.”

“Trees wall the roads she runs.” (I love nouns used as verbs.)

What I learned: You gain the trust of your reader when your expertise  is revealed in the details. I trust that Percy researched or knew how to load a rifle or skin an animal because of his precise depictions.


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