A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

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I love short stories. I love reading them, I love writing them. Doing both is how I taught myself to write. When I first saw this week’s title seven years ago I knew I had to buy it.

It is “If I loved you, I would tell you this” by Robin Black. The title alone grabbed me but then the writing. Oh, the writing and the characters and their stories. Well, I knew immediately that it would be placed on my Permanent Bookshelf. They are exactly the kinds of stores I long to write—honest explorations of what it means to be human.

Ron Carlson once said that literary fiction is about the complications of the human heart. That’s what these stores explore with such grace and depth.

Today happens to be the 7-year anniversary of this book’s publication. I’ve read everything she’s written since including the novel “Life Drawing” and a collection of essays on writing and life, “Crash Course.” Honestly, I’d read her grocery list. And once I learned that she was 48 when her first story collection was published, my writer crush was solidified. As a writer approaching 52, I yearn for role models of women who didn’t give up, who started late, who set their voice loose into the world. Robin Black is absolutely that role model for me. My writing bucket list includes taking a writing workshop with her.

(As a bonus, there’s a great conversation between Black and Karen Russell at the end of the book.)

A sentence I underlined: 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.

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Books Read in May + June.

May June books

“Furiously Happy- A Funny Book About Horrible Things” by Jenny Lawson

This is where I was going to put a simple Mary Oliver quote but instead I decided to replace it with the idea I had for the cover of this book because I’m pretty sure it’ll never get accepted and I don’t want it to go to waste.

A funny book about a lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression? Yep. And only Jenny Lawson could pull it off.

As I read this book, each page either made me laugh out loud or cringe a little or left a little ding in my heart—sometimes all three at once.

If you haven’t discovered Jenny Lawson via her on-line presence as “The Bloggess” (and why haven’t you?) go, right now and check her out. Unless you’re easily offended. Or don’t like edgy, dark humor. But if you do, and if you appreciate a woman who is funny AF and is able to laugh at herself and plunder the depths of her mental illness for all to see then check out her blog and definitely check out this book.

A sentence I love: It’s as if risotto doesn’t know if it’s mashed potatoes or rice so it just decided to be both. But badly.

“Crash Course—essays from where writing and life collide” by Robin Black

The only person in my home who thinks about words more than I do is my younger daughter.

This is probably one of my favorite books on writing. And that is saying a lot. I used to devour writing books in lieu of, you, know, actually writing. The books that really resonate with me are the ones less about craft and more about—well the subtitle of this collection—that space where writing and life collide.

Black covers everything from ADHD to home improvements, from rejections to queries. She writes from her own life and shares a deep, behind-the-scenes look at how her life has impacted her writing and how writing impacts her life.

My favorite essay (if I had to choose just 1!) may be the advice on how (not) to query where she ignored all of the advice on how you should write a query and basically just wrote from her own charming, real self.

Reading these essays felt like I was sitting down over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with a mentor who really gets me and who only wants me to succeed in the space where my own life and writing collide. And for that I thank her.

A sentence I love: I hunt for the points of inaction that my characters might themselves later regret, those decisions that might inspire in them the rich fictions of which we are all such gifted authors when we are sorry to have chosen the safer, less active of two possible paths.

“I Don’t Want to, I Don’t Feel Like It—How Resistance Controls your life and What to Do About It” by Cheri Huber & Ashwini Narayanan

There’s an impulse:

–I want to lose weight, eat better, join the gym.

Aaahh…resistance. That relentless puppy nipping at our heels constantly. This is the first book to not only explain the origins of resistance but what to do to bypass it and live the kind of life you want to live, be the kind of person you want to be.

It’s written in a casual font that helps you to slow down and really read each sentence. There are even simple, hand-drawn illustration throughout. There’s a lot of repletion but it is needed. It’s needed because our Ego doesn’t want us to understand how to bypass it. Ego wants us to stay exactly as we are, as it is.

I love that there are fifteen 2-day exercises to complete at the end to help us implement the tools rather than merely read about them.

A sentence I love: We cannot have the life we want if we are unable to drop the conversation and be present to life as it is.

“The Empathy Exams” essays by Leslie Jamison

My job title is medical actor, which means I play sick.

This eclectic collection of essays explore the idea, role and expression of empathy in our lives. Jamison mines her personal life for spaces where she learned empathy, displayed or encountered it as well as the times it alluded her.

We are given access to her time as a medical actor, pretending to be a patient with a script memorized so medical students could practice on her. They got points for showing empathy. Which led her to wonder what exactly empathy was and how was it expressed. The mere fact that the med student is given points for it takes away from the sincerity of the expression.

She explores her travels outside the country as well her personal health crises and injuries. In the last essay (my favorite) she explores the idea of women and pain, feminine wounds weaving in everything from Dracula to Carrie, from anorexia to cutting.

I led a book group on this and the discussion was fascinating. The feeling that Jamison failed to display the very empathy she was attempting to explore by viewing herself so closely and mining others’ struggles came across as the antithesis of empathy. I find it a fine line writers must straddle when writing from personal experiences. When does it cross the line into navel-gazing? I felt she balanced it all, risking alienating some (as in my book club) by delving deep into her own pain in order to illuminate how we can feel the pain of others.

A sentence I love: [On anorexia] Not just at the familiarity of these metaphors—bone as hieroglyph, clavicle as cry—but at the way they risk performing the same valorization they claim to refute: ascribing eloquence to the starving body, a kind of lyric grace.

Books Read in March + April.

March April books

“The Great Spring- Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life” by Natalie Goldberg

People come up to me and say, “I love your book.”

I read this one slowly, savoring the words, thoughts, energy of a teacher who had started me on this writing path all those 30 years ago with her first book, “Writing Down the Bones.” She cracked open my mind through the idea of writing practice. I filled notebook after notebook with my practice. Writing became the way I connected to the raw, uncensored deep and still yet chaotic part of myself.

Reading this book, all these years after Bones, it felt like all that practice had distilled into her very marrow, into her cells. Her writing, her observations, her breath and energy rose off the page to meet me at this moment in my life, on my path. At times I felt overcome with emotion, like she was touching a part of me.

She hasn’t changed in that she remains rooted and committed to the practices of writing and Zen. What’s changed with me is that I now have a regular meditation practice, something I resisted even after studying with her at the Mabel Dodge Luhan house where she practically guaranteed that meditation was the secret to writing.

Now, I know she is right. Both practices ground me in the present moment. Both allow me access to observing my mind, riding the wild waves and combing the still waters.

Some of my favorite sentences:

“I had written intensely all that morning, leaning over the notebook, deep in relation with my mind.”

“The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all moments.”

“Crash Course- Essays from where Writing and Life Collide” by Robin Black

The only person in my home who thinks about words more than I do is my younger daughter.

I adore Robin Black. As my oldest daughter would say, I consider her my spirit animal. She writes the kind of stories filled with depth and characters that resonate deep within my bones— the kind of stories that I can only hope to write myself.

These essays give us a glimpse into her life—her life as a wife, mother,daughter, friend and her life as a writer. A woman just trying to lay down word after word in hopes of making sense of what is inside of her.

She’s not afraid to delve into the messy parts of life. In fact, that is where she shines.

I wish I could land on one chapter that I loved the most but the beauty of this book is that they all merge together to create a moving portrait of a writing life.

I underlined SO many sentence but here are a few.

Sentences I love:

“But perhaps more critically it means being able to survive rejection from oneself, to weather the huge number of failed attempts and dashed hopes, the daily sense that one is not actually good enough to do what one wants so desperately  to do.”

“I possess: this hunger to comprehend the complexity of human behavior, to look beneath what might be dismissed as only hurtful, to discover what may neutralize simple dispositions of blame, to convey this to the world, if only to convince myself.”

“…my interests were so entirely rooted in people’s emotional interiors.”

And from the acknowledgements…

“They taught me, through example and with lots of laughs, what kind of writer I want to be —not what I want to write, but who I want to be while I write.”

“The Chronology of Water” by Lidia Yuknavitch

“The day my daughter was still born, after I held the future pick and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her,then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge.”

This book. What can I say about this book? Book seems too small of a word. So does story. So does memoir. It is her heart, her blood, her tears, her pain, her determination to be fully present to what happened to her, to where she got to where she is laid bare on the page.

Bare. Raw. Intense. Real. Honest. Naked.

True.

I’ve never read a memoir that reads more true than this one. She never hides. From anything, least of all herself.

I had tears in my eyes by the second page and I rarely cry over books.

I read the whole book with a pen in my hand, wanting to capture the magic she creates with words but getting too caught up in the words to remember to make  a mark.

This is a book I will return to again and again.

Sentences I love:

“Little tragedies are difficult to keep straight.”

“Everything collected in my memory curls like water around events in my life.”

“In my throat I swallowed language.”

“We laughed the laugh of women untethered, finally, from their origins.”

“Big Magic- Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Once upon a time, there was a man name Jack Gilbert, who was not related to me—unfortunately for me.

I read this for a second time after choosing it for our book club at the yoga studio where I reach. I devoured it the first time, so looked forward to reading it through again, savoring her words, savoring her ideas, savoring her perspective on life,on art,on creativity.

And what perspectives they are.

In the middle of reading it for the second time, I had the privilege of attending a workshop with her, an opportunity to explore the ideas put forth in the book. It unlocked the ideas in a way that merely reading them didn’t afford. Really connecting with her pillars of creativity.

What I love about her is, despite her huge success with “Eat, Pray, Love” she remains humble and in service to the art, to the process of writing, of creating.

Sentences I love:

“My intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing, period.”

“Because this is how it feels to lead the faithful creative life: You try and try and try, and nothing works. But you keep trying, and you keep seeking, and then sometimes, in the least expected place and time, it finally happens.”

 

 

 

Books Read May-July

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“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” a novel by Maria Semple

The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.”

This is the first book I read on my Nook. At first, I had trouble sticking with it. I thought it was the structure of the novel—multiple forms of communication from emails to memos to emergency room bills among different different characters. But now I think it was more about getting used to reading on a screen for an extended amount of time instead of just scanning—my usual MO for anything on a screen.

The unique structure in the beginning gives the reader access not only to the various characters but their relationships as well. It also serves as a nice echo for later in the book.

Bee Branch is a smart 15-year-old who has been promised a trip to Alaska for good grades. She plans on collecting this gift in spite of her mother, Bernadette’s, agoraphobia and general odd behavior that could be seen as bordering on a breakdown. When Bernadette disappears, Bee refuses to believe the worst and sets out to piece together all the information and clues she can get her hands on to try and understand her terribly misunderstood mother, along the way uncovering a secret past her mother has been hiding.

This story tugged at my heart and also made me laugh out loud— a perfect combination that reveals the complexity of our familial relationships with a tender yet light touch, making it a perfect summer read.

What I learned: To not be afraid to play with structure and to be funny even in a “literary” movel.

“Ashes to Ashes” a YA novel by Melissa Walker

I wake up with a jerk, not certain what startled me.

Callie is your average teenager, in love with her boyfriend, lost her mom, lives with her fairly strict dad, has a best friend. She loses it all in an instant in a tragic accident. Instead of finding herself in some beautiful version of Heaven being greeted by her long lost mom, Callie finds herself in what is called the Prism. It’s kind of a stop gap before Heaven. A place where souls go to haunt their loved ones. But haunting doesn’t mean what Callie has always been taught. No ghosts rattling chains, scaring people on earth. At least, it’s not supposed to be that. It’s supposed to be a time of bringing peace to your loved ones, helping them to let you go. Once that happens, Callie is free to let go and move on as well. But when Callie falls in with the wrong crowd of ghosts, she is faced with some hard decisions that threaten the lives of her loved ones as well as her own existence.

What I learned: The details are crucial for creating a world whether it is realistic or fantasy.

“I Can’t Complain” (all too) personal essays by Elinor Lipman

I came late to the essay-writing genre, when various magazine and newspaper editors asked me to expound on a particular topic and I felt it was not only polite but also a good deadline discipline to say yes.

These charming essays offer readers of her fiction or new readers a delightful insight into Lipman’s life. Topics range from parents, children and marriage, sex ed to “Sex and the City”, to the writing life, life and death. They feel like she drew the curtain back so we could all take a peek at the life of a writer behind her fiction. It made me want to start writing my own collection of essays.

What I learned: That our own lives are a rich bounty of material waiting to be mined if only we look carefully.

“Stitches- A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair” by Anne Lamott

It can be too sad here.

indeed it can.

Anne Lamott began writing these little gems of wisdom and comfort in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. As always, her raw, vulnerable, honest, gracious perspective brings comfort to me as she questions how we stay connected and balance when so much evil and such catastrophes befall our world.

What I learned: No matter where I am at in my life, there are the words of Anne Lamott to guide and comfort me.

“Drunk Mom” a memoir by Jowita Bydlowska

One evening I find a baggie of cocaine.

And that is one of the more benign things that happen in this riveting and disturbing memoir.

After three years of sobriety, Jowita Bydlowska finds herself enjoying champagne- lots and lots of champagne. Suddenly, her sobriety is out the window and she is immersed in the downward spiral of addiction with the lies to others and herself and skewed logic that it comes with. Reading this was harrowing. She was young mother of a young son and even that couldn’t make her stop drinking. Her bad choice after bad choice just made me cringe. But her raw honesty as she exposes the dark underbelly of addiction was inspiring.

What I learned: That you just never ever know what anyone else is truly going through.

“Life Drawing” a novel by Robin Black

In the days leading up to my husband Owen’s death, he visited Alison’s house every afternoon.

Confession: Robin Black is my latest writer crush. You know, that writer you want to write like, the one that you’ll read anything they write—even a grocery list. I first discovered her through her short story collection “If I Loved You I would Tell You This.” I was so very bummed when I learned that was her only book and have been waiting for her next one. I had the pub date for “Life Drawing” written on my calendar and bought it that day.

It tells the story of a long marriage between Gus and Owen, a painter and writer. She reveal the complexities of marriage with such compassionate precision that it left me breathless at times.

My favorite lines:

There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when the second, silent one has begun.

I loved the intimate, behind-the scenes look at a marriage after betrayal as well as the dynamics between two artists living, working, creating (perhaps competing?) together.

It was one of those books that I wanted to race to the end to see what happens but also I wanted to slow down and savor every scene and sentence, never wanting it to end.

What I learned: To observe and write from that place of compassionate precision.

 

Five on Friday

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1. My latest on elephant journal.

2. A great interview with Elizabeth Gilbert.

3. This is sad and true. Reminds me of this piece I wrote.

4. Can’t wait to read Robin Black’s new novel. Loved her story collection.

5. By walking around the neighborhood block you can walk yourself out of a creative block.

Five on Friday

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1. My latest on “elephant journal.” I cried when I wrote it, cried when I read it.

2. Excellent piece by David Ebenbach on trusting yourself.

3. Love all of these 21 things by Robin Black. Seriously. Can’t even choose a favorite. I need to print it and hang it over my desk. 

4. Intriguing take on the eclipses coming this month.

5. To practice yoga you only need one thing.