Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013’s Ten Best Books (I Read or Reread)

Once again, I’m flipping through the pages of my book journal to see which books I thought were the best…which means this is my highly personal, highly unscientific take:  sometimes I loved a book that may not be a work of “art.”  Many times those books may not have been published in the current year.  The only rule is that I have to have read them in 2013.  Also, I try to avoid putting books by friends on my list, though on occasion I also allow myself to break that rule every now and then.  So, in order only of when I read them throughout the year, here goes:

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn:  A bestseller that is hardly a book that needs my endorsement, but I’ll say that I consumed this in about 24 hours, wondering how on earth the author could write to an ending…and totally impressed that she did. 

2. With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack: The best literary gossip about an amazingly talented group of people in a most creative time and space, 1950-60s Boston…this book sent me down a remarkable Robert Lowell rabbit hole that I may never emerge from.

3. Serena by Ron Rash:  Another popular book that hardly needs my accolades but just SO compelling and beautifully written.  I can’t love Serena, but I sure was fascinated by/terrified of her.

4.  The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald:  A reread, and my exact words from my book journal:  “I was worried, but yes—these stories still make my heart ache.”  A down-on-his-luck Hollywood hack still tries to believe he’s someone of relevance…just like Scott himself, I imagine.

5.  Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion:  Another reread.  How does she get away with writing episodically about an emotionally numb character who’s not entirely sympathetic?  Oh, of course: because she’s Joan Didion.

6.  The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford: A lovely pathway of the Robert Lowell rabbit hole, discovering this novel by one of his wives…I’m so angry that the book has been forgotten and that Jean Stafford is basically a footnote.  Wit, sarcasm, darkness, secrecy…sign me up for more of Stafford’s work!

7.  Deliverance by James Dickey: A reread, which sent me back to the movie (also brilliant). A nail-biter even knowing the outcome, and a dark, dark, dark book from which no one emerges unscathed. I recommend reading it while alone in a cabin in the same Georgia mountains where the book takes place!

8.  Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell:  Smart writing that cracks like a whip and leaves you feeling uncomfortable.  These stories burrow into the souls of girls and women and spills their secrets.

9.  The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor:  A reread. And if I had to pick one book that shaped my writing/mind during this year, it would be these stories, especially when combined with the experience of being in Georgia while reading them and visiting O’Connor’s house and town.  Dark, funny, true, hard…these stories chill me to the marrow.

10.  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt:  Totally immersive and addictive, with memorable characters and richly evoked settings—and lots and lots of plot!  A big book in the best meaning of the word.  Set aside your life for a few days and dig in!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

One Powerful Sentence

Poet/ small press publisher Ed Perlman, my colleague at Johns Hopkins, teaches a very popular class called “Sentence Power” that all the students rave about.  I know why, based on this glimpse of Ed’s insight into the role of a single sentence taken from Alice McDermott’s novel, After This:

Facial description continues to challenge even the most accomplished writers, and when the writer wants the description to give the reader insight into deep character, the task can become daunting. Alice McDermott never fails to rise to the occasion. Her description of her main character’s office co-worker in After This begins benignly enough with the commonplace details that are the stock-in-trade of many MFA fiction students. For “large face” substitute “round face,” “oval face,” “small face,” “flat face,” and for “strong jaw” substitute “square jaw” or “weak jaw,” and you can see how easily this sort of description begins to fall into the abyss of cliché. Add the color of the eyes to push the sentence over the cliff. Yet no such fate awaits McDermott’s deceptively simple and straightforward rendering of Pauline’s physiognomy. Those blue eyes provide the departure for a description that takes my breath away every time I read it.

You MUST read on, to see precisely how McDermott creates this artful and revealing sentence…and to have your own eyes opened to how your sentences can be more powerful.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

More on Donna Tartt, My Literary Crush

Here’s a good interview with Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch, the book I’m currently pushing on everyone:

“When people ask you why you did this or that you’re sort of compelled to make up the reasons. But the real answer is, I don’t know why.” The best answer she can give is to cite Rudyard Kipling’s maxim: drift, wait, and obey….

With all her books, she says, what she is striving for is an “immersive experience – the kind of book that you can absolutely lose yourself in; where you’re in a different world, your mother calls you, you don’t hear her – that kind of book.” In short, the kind of books that she loved as a child growing up in Mississippi, “a girl who loved books for boys” – Jules Verne, Ivanhoe, Robert Louis Stevenson….

Her working method is Byzantine. She writes in longhand in large spiral-bound notebooks, adding thoughts and corrections in red, blue and then green pencil, and stapling index cards to them to keep track of plot and characters. When it all starts getting “too messy” she types the manuscript into the computer, then prints out the drafts on colour-coded paper. “I can pick up the pink draft, and I know that’s the first one; or the grey draft, or the most recent one is the blue. So if I need something from an older draft I know where to find it. My French teacher, many years ago, told me this, and it actually works.”…

Friday, December 6, 2013

Why I Loved "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is one of the few writers who makes me feel I must read every word she writes.  Admittedly, it’s a bit easy in this case, since she comes out with a novel about once every ten years, big, juicy books with lots of plot and fabulous characters: The Secret History, The Little Friend, and now, The Goldfinch, which I finished this morning.  At 771 pages, it’s not something to enter lightly (and it will make your wrists hurt if you still prefer paper editions, as I stubbornly do [though, sidenote, I really did not like the paper this book was printed on—why has no reviewer noted this?]).

Still, Donna Tartt!  So I buckled down and started reading over the Thanksgiving weekend.  I’m not going to give much away, but the basic premise is that a young boy and his mother are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bomb explodes, killing the mother.  The boy, Theo Decker, has a surreal exchange with a dying man who gives him a ring and tells him an address to take it to.  He also tells Theo to save (by stealing) a painting, The Goldfinch by the Dutch painter Fabritius, who died tragically early—also in an explosion—and who was notably a student of Rembrandt and an influence on Vermeer, as well as being a genius in his own right. (Here’s a picture of the painting.)

Theo does as instructed, and many, many, many things happen afterwards, taking us from New York to Las Vegas to New York to Europe.

This may not be the right book for everyone, but it is about the perfect book for me.  What I loved about it:

--The Dickens-ish cast of characters, all well-defined and slightly larger than life, and yet believable enough…Boris was a particular favorite!

--The feeling of being immersed in a book in exactly the way we (I assume this was not unique to me!) read as children, that sense of suspense and fear, “what will happen next?”, and seeing the world through a (smart, observant) child’s eyes.  If you read and loved “orphan books” back in the day, you are exactly the right reader for this one.

--The magic of coincidence and reversals and plot that Tartt remarkably pulls off.  If you like Harry Potter books, I suspect you’ll like this one, too—there’s a similar twisted inter-connectedness but with a much more sophisticated view and writing style.  She was so good, that even I suspended my disbelief on a few nit-picky bits of reality (surely Theo would get some settlement money after this tragedy).

--There’s some purposeful meta- that I enjoyed, such as Boris’s nickname for Theo: Potter (because of his round eyeglasses); she knows she’s channeling Harry and what we love about that series. The writer raises the curtain a bit from time to time to let us in on her intentions without ever losing compassion for her characters.

--Wonderfully evoked settings.  New York is very New Yorky, but then a different, non-touristy side of Las Vegas is equally well-depicted.  I’ve never been to Amsterdam, but I felt very comfortable in those sections, so much so that I’m rather surprised now, out of the book, that I haven’t actually seen those canals in real life.

--So many elements of the writing were masterful on a craft level.  Great dialogue (it’s a very talky book, which I find attractive).  Perhaps the only dream in fiction that is executed elegantly and feels well-placed and relevant, unlike the usual fictional dreams that often come off as convenient plot devices.  And I can’t believe I’m saying this!  More exclamation points than any writer should every use!  And yet I’m convinced she needed every single one! !! 

--Finally, and the biggest plus of all, is that the book ultimately asks the hard questions about life and death and art, and what could be more essential?

Read more:
Salon interview with Donna Tartt:To think about a place has always been a way into a story.

The Washington Post: “The novel ends in full-throated praise for the power of a great painting to sink into your soul, to act as a bulwark against the inevitable victory of death.  Look here: A great novel can do that, too.”

The New York Times Book Review:   “It’s my happy duty to tell you that in this case, all doubts and suspicions can be laid aside. “The Goldfinch” is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind. I read it with that mixture of terror and excitement I feel watching a pitcher carry a no-hitter into the late innings. You keep waiting for the wheels to fall off, but in the case of “The Goldfinch,” they never do.”

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Melissa Dickson's Review of Scything Grace

Scything Grace
by Sean Thomas Dougherty
Etruscan Press (2013)

Reviewed by Melissa Dickson

A benign manila envelope arrives in the mailbox—inside, a book; on the book’s cover, a genderless figure in jeans and a black top. The photograph’s exposure produces a decapitation as the head and face disappear. There, in the dark nether regions of the image, a title: Scything Grace

From the opened pages falls the publisher’s note, “Enjoy!”

It might better have said “Endure!”  …exclamation point intact.

Sean Thomas Dougherty’s Scything Grace doesn’t ask a reader to enjoy. It asks for company inside the dark hall of loss. It offers itself “heavy with grief,” and serves a brew of sorrow: contemplative, savage, and enduring.  Here is a child unborn, a marriage in tatters, dead friends, drug addicts and drunks, victims of the AIDS epidemic, homeless lovers, gambling addicts. Here is “a hallway of maps leading nowhere.” Here is a man alone with memory, disappointment, a vision of an unfulfilled future, and the “seven deaths I carry every day.”

“[I]f not for my shadow,” writes Dougherty in “This Ongoing Elegy to Everything,” “I would not have seen another human figure today.” So it seems throughout Scything Grace. The poems’ speakers are surrounded by shadows named and unnamed, born and unborn, compromised, lost, forgotten, dead. Here, in this “neighborhood of ghosts,” comes a kind of beauty and pathos that can only be endured. Dougherty’s song is not Amazing Grace, redemptive and whole; it is Scything Grace, brutal and riven.

In “Confessional Poem,” he writes “I too haven’t been born,” as if the accumulated loss has negated any possibility of being, living, beyond loss.  The poem “Sonogram” begins:

                You want to say the bell to a trumpet. A hollow sound. The sound of
                emptiness becoming

                whole. Whole as a loaf of bread, and the hungry sound that

It is the emptiness and loss, the tragedy, which becomes tangible in these poems. What’s gone is itself the artifact; what it leaves behind—its absence—becomes the material possession accumulated and catalogued in Scything Grace.

Several lines later “Sonogram” continues:

                A thumb-sized sound.

                That small. That full of losing. How large it grows. And you are lost
                in the forest of what did not happen.
The ideas of loss and of being lost are entwined motifs throughout the book. The poem “No Forwarding” concludes, “my last known address remains your face—“  The m-dash leading into the desolate remains of the page.

Maps, destinations, departures, and the departed all commingle in Dougherty’s tour of hurt.  In “Triptych from the Dictionary of Dead Letters” the speaker asks “The story goes to what geography? What map?” “Poem Written in the Margins of an Eclipse” ends “we have no map to offer. To travel our/weeping labyrinths.”  In “Drugs in Perfect Jars” the map becomes “a lithograph”:

                a lithograph of the city swept
                from your elaborate self, from its crumbling
                ramparts of someone else watching the rain
                slowly scything through the darkening trees.

In Scything Grace, place is a state of being, and states of being become places as in the prose poem “Orphaned:”

                […] If
                my life is an abandoned farmhouse at night I stare through the beams
                of my roof. I stare passed [sic] the fabulous constellations. Nothing that is
                not alone interests me.

The metaphysical idea of alone-ness, or abandonment, becomes a physical manifestation in nearly every poem of Scything Grace. The final poem, a prose poem titled “Your Voice is a Right Cross,” is no exception:

                […] We carry those invisible seams throughout
                the day. And how in the house of done, the house of leaving, the house
                of left, something remains. Another kind of music embroidered in the  
                threaded air, in the sentiment of a lover’s look, in the sound of freight
                trains coupling, or the long drive up to Detroit…

But here there also seems to be a parting volley that rings of hope: “what I mean to/say is we have survived, unexpectedly sighed, crowbarred and jabbed,/if our arms are a house, how lucky we are we take turns being the roof:”

The colon at the bitter end of the collection signals back toward the first page, where the cycle of loss and survival begins again.  Were it not for Dougherty’s charismatic voice, rhythmic syntax, and vivid imagery, the heartbreak would be unendurable. This is the gift Dougherty grants readers of Scything Grace: you will know pain; you will know loss; you will “Endure!”

Buy this book. : Etruscan Press (2013) 

Melissa Dickson’s poetry has appeared in Shenandoah, North American Review, Southern Humanities Review, Cumberland River Review, Southern Women’s Review, and Literary Mama. She is a 2015 Pushcart nominee for Shenandoah and Cumberland River Review. Her collections Sweet Aegis, Medusa Poems (Negative Capability Press) and Cameo (New Plains Press) were published in 2013 and 2011. She holds an MFA in Painting from The School of Visual Arts (1995) and an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College (2012). 


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.