“Water for Elephants” a novel by Sara Gruen
Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook.
I love the juxtaposition that frames this novel: a traveling 1930’s circus and the Depression. Add in a a love story, an elephant named Rosie, a dwarf as well as a host of other colorful characters and you have the recipe for quite a literary romp. Her diligent research paid off as I felt completely drawn into the world of this particular circus that traveled the countryside. I only wish I had read it before the movie came out. I’m not a huge Robert Pattison fan and I didn’t like having his picture in my head for the character of Jacob. Gruen also does an amazing job of framing the story with 93-year-old Jacob’s current life with his life in the circus many, many years ago.
What I learned: Impeccable research leads to a rich, complex story.
“The Fates Will Find Their Way” a novel by Hannah Pittard
Some things were certain; they were undeniable, inarguable.
First person plural is a tricky point of view but Pittard uses it beautifully. We are steeped in the consciousness of this group of neighborhood boys, then men, who can not let go of the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Nora Lindell. She haunts first their adolescence then their adulthood as they propose and probe various suspicions and rumors. The story is wildly engaging.
What I learned: To be bold in the choice of point of view and then commit fully to that choice.
“Soft Apocalypse” a novel of the near future by Will McIntosh
We passed a tribe of Mexicans heading the other way, wading through the knee-high weeds along the side of the highway.
Here is yet another novel to feed my rather morbid fascination with possible apocalyptic scenarios. This one, however, left me the most disturbed, not that the story was more chilling than say “The Road” but because it feels more like a prophecy of where we are headed rather than a merely a story. We follow Jasper and his tribe, former middle class Americans with college degrees now living as nomads, wandering the southeast in a country where resources have become scarce, jobs few and far between and a huge gaping divide exists between the super rich and the poor. Sound familiar?
What I learned: That I may want to explore my own “soft apocalyptic” story some day.
“Silver Sparrow” a novel by Tayari Jones
My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.
With that simple and compelling first sentence we are plopped right into the heart of this story: one man, two families, two daughters only one of whom knows the truth. Divided into two parts, we see behind the scenes of both daughters, and learn where their stories overlap and where there are gaps. The structure is perfect. Two parts. Divided. Their lives have been divided. His love and attention have been divided. Loyalty is divided. It’s a story not only about bigamy but about regret, the possibility of redemption, envy, and our need to be loved but most of all seen and acknowledged. It’s a beautiful story, beautifully written.
What I learned: To let every character, no matter how big or minor, have a rich history that allows them to be beautifully flawed.
“If I loved you, I would tell you this” stories by Robin Black
At seventeen, Jack Snyder’s daughter is slender-faced and long of limb and still able to startle her father with her seeming certainty about everything she thinks.
This book appeared on several lists I keep of books I want to read and after finishing it I can see why. These stories are everything I hope to write myself. Each story contains an entire rich, complicated world with characters struggling with their choices. Although the stories cover familiar topics such as infidelity, grief, and loss they seem as if it is the first time they have been written about. Each story is fresh and unique, layered with the unexpected such as a childhood gamer of Anne Boleyn, a street painted with flowers or a bizarre fence erected by a neighbor. I got so caught up in each story I neglected to take note of sentences I loved but here are a couple:
Every once in a while, though, that softening patina an extra glass of Chianti can give, that velvet cloth it lays over every jagged edge, evokes a kind of humble gratitude in me.
One birthday, he had accidentally given her a card that she herself had composed and the experience of reading herself tell herself how much she loved herself had made her feel distinctly pathetic in ways she preferred not to repeat.
What I learned: So so much and will have to read this collection several more times, perhaps type out certain passages or stories or even use some of the stories as skeletons for my own as an exercise. I did like what Black says about writing dialogue in the wonderful interview with Karen Russell: “Learning to write dialogue for me has been a matter of learning to resist the impulse to have characters say exactly what they mean.” Seriously, this may be my favorite collection ever.
“Half a Life” a memoir by Darin Strauss
Half my life ago, I killed a girl.
This one essential fact cast a shadow over Strauss’ life. Perhaps even defined it. He was a senior, about to graduate high school, out with his friends when a girl swerved into his car on her bike. She died. As I read, an image of an archaeologist carefully excavating delicate treasures came to mind. His touch is delicate yet firm, precise while still acknowledging being lost. His relentless pursuit of the truth of this event is mesmerizing.
What I learned: That you can’t write about the painful events in your life but rather into the heart of them.