Notes on the Craft of Writing: From story to novel in Anthony Marra’s CHECHNYA and A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA

That headline is a bit of misdirection, since this post will focus on Anthony Marra’s short story, Chechnya, which was my first introduction to Marra.  Chechnya was initially published in  Narrative Magazine’s Fall 2009 issue, having won their Spring story contest, and was anthologized in the 2010 Pushcart collection.

Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is based on this story.  It is due to be published on May 7 by Hogarth (an imprint of Random House).  It’s generating significant word of mouth already; it is the #1 IndieNext pick (as voted by the member stores of the American Booksellers Association.)  Before reading the novel, I wanted to go back to reread the story to see how Marra managed to develop the story into the novel.  Short stories, with their compression, intolerance of unnecessary detail, and use of imagery to help convey their emotional landscape, can be more akin to poetry than to novels and I look forward to exploring the two reading experiences.

Rereading Chechnya now was as much of a shock as it was the first time.  The story starts with a difficult situation and gets darker, and then darker again, as though Marra was pushing himself – how deep could he go and not lose his characters or his reader?  How ambitious could he be in the structure of the story and still hold it together?  The miracle of this story is that he maintains the narrative tension and keeps the reader connected to his character even as he strips away, piece by piece, everything that resembles hope, and still keeps the reader reading – and hoping.  Marra breaks multiple rules of short story writing, and succeeds with a small masterpiece.

Here is the first paragraph:

“After her sister, Natasha, died, Sonja began sleeping in the hospital. She returned home to wash her clothes a few days a month, but those days became fewer and fewer. No reason to return, no need to wash her clothes. She only wears hospital scrubs anyway.”

A half sentence in, and we are already deep into a story of loss and a narrowing of hope, telegraphed by the discarded clothes, the uninhabited home, the setting limited to the hospital.  And we switch from past tense to present, a way to make the narrative immediate, urgent.   Details become metaphors.  Akhmed, a local man, brings in a 10-year-old orphan to Sonja’s hospital; on noticing his beard, Sonja first “thinks he’s a religious man, then remembers that most men have grown their beards out. Few have shaving cream, fewer have mirrors. The war has made the country’s cheeks and chins devout.”  This sentence is a wonderful example of conveying the surface of individual religious expression, and the inability to judge a person’s motive by their appearance.

The point of view shifts from present to past and back, from Sonja’s point of view to Akhmed’s toNatasha’s, and back.   It’s a story-writing rule of thumb that the limitations of the form requires only one point of view.  But breaking that rule works here, perhaps because each segment is brief, but mostly because so much is at stake and Marra is so deft at establishing those stakes immediately for each character.  People die, in prostitution or bombs or torture, or are  they are “disappeared.”  It stops just short of overwhelming the reader because Marra has such compassion for his characters and tells in a matter-of-fact way, from an almost repertorial distance.  Emotions are never belabored; we simply see the characters moving through the story.  Here’s an example:  “Natasha spent a week in jail on prostitution and indecency charges before being transferred to a clinic specializing in victims of human trafficking.”

This gifted writer deserves his Pushcart and Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest.  He’s a Stegner fellow and an Iowa Writer’s workshop graduate; I am eager to see how he puts his talent and training to use in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

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Review and congratulations for Indie’s Choice Adult Fiction Book of the Year: Louise Erdrich, Round House

Congratulations to Louise Erdrich, whose recognition for ROUND HOUSE includes the 2012 National Book Award (citation here) and now, the American Booksellers Association’s 2013  Adult Fiction Book of the Year (an Indies Choice Book Award, as selected by independent bookstores nationwide).

The Round House, Louise Erdrich, Harper, 2012, $27.99 hc

Native American writer Louise Erdrich returns to the familiar world of the Ojibway reservation with The Round House, her most accomplished and powerful novel yet.  The Round House is partly a coming of age story, but it also explores themes familiar to her readers – issues of class and culture, the bonds of family and tribe, and the need to correct wrongs both ancient and new.

“Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation,” says thirteen-year-old narrator Joe Coutts at the beginning the novel, tipping us off to the struggle of injustice within and outside the reservation.  Joe lives with his father Bazel, a tribal judge, and his mother Geraldine, a lawyer who now lies in an upstairs bedroom in mute depression following a horrific rape.  Bazel, circumscribed by anger and grief, cannot breach Geraldine’s silence and solitude and, with very few other clues, can do little to investigate the crime.  It is left to Joe to pick up the pieces of his life, fending for himself and gathering the crumbs of evidence that fall his way.  Joe has a small lifetime of discussing tribal legal issues with his father and an intimate knowledge of the reservation.   Driven by a need to find out what happened to his mother, he explores places and asks questions he’s too young to handle.  The steady rhythms of reservation life, here beautifully told, drop their inevitable hints, and Joe slowly begins to piece together the puzzle of the crime while struggling to retain his connection to his mother, his father, and his group of friends.

Erdrich often uses multiple narrators in her novels, resulting in layered stories that cut back and forth in time.  Her narrative approach is more straightforward here, which lends a vibrating tension to the unfolding events.  Joe is completely believable, teetering on the edge of an adulthood he fears and wants in equal measure, taking on the big questions of injustice and belonging in the wide-eyed yet skeptical way typical of boys his age.  He is the perfect narrator for this aching and complicated story.  Erdrich also moves away from earlier books by presenting a more ambiguous struggle:  this is not simply a world where the poor struggle against their wealthier oppressors, where minorities rub up against white power brokers.  Joe is the son of tribal privilege, at the top of reservation hierarchy, and this gives a different, more universal slant to the story and somehow upends our expectations.

Erdrich has long been one of America’s most lyrical writers.  She is poetically attuned to language and setting.  The Round House builds on her reputation with a book that is perfectly balanced, perfectly paced, perfectly voiced.  It is heartbreaking and beautiful, full of sorrow and longing and hope.  This is Erdrich’s best book to date, a mature vision from a writer at the top of her craft.

Bottom Line:  Louise Erdrich returns to the familiar world of the Ojibway reservtion in this beautiful novel about crime and justice, in her most powerful novel yet.

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Review: Peggy Riley, Amity and Sorrow: What makes fiction work

This past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review featured Dylan Landis’ wonderfully positive review of Peggy Riley’s debut novel Amity and Sorrow (312 pp. Little, Brown & Company $25.99).  It’s the story of a woman named Amaranth and her two daughters Amity and Sorrow; Amaranth has tied them together at the wrist and driven across four states to escape the polygamous compound where she lived with her 50 co-wives and  her husband, the cult leader.

Reading the review and having had a somewhat different reaction to the novel made me wonder why people respond so differently to novels (and it’s a good thing we do).

Of course, a successful novel has to satisfy key craft requirements:  the characters must be believable; the plot must engage and the conflict, whether internal or external, must be clear; the setting should work in tandem with everything else so that it can provide foreshadowing or other clues or offer a frame for the characters as they act and react to the events; and the narrative voice and point of view must be consistent and believable.   Whether the book skews literary or commercial depends in part on the level of writer’s ability for each element and how they work together as a whole.  The quality of the writing – use of imagery, skill using words – becomes more important for literary fiction.

Then there’s personal reader preference.  Some readers will look first for beauty of expression and others for a distinctive narrative voice or unusual situations or settings that open up a new world, or novels that cover meaty and relevant issues like aging (like Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending) or relationships, race (like The Help).  Some people want a redemptive note, or an elegaic acknowledgment of loss, or have a preference for funny, or for dark.  And so on.

Finally, we often like to see ourselves (or the way we’d like to see ourselves) reflected on the page and gravitate to characters who experience the world the way we do.

Dylan Landis, who wrote the review, is the author of the much-praised Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a novel-in-stories about a teenage girl growing up in the 1970’s Upper West Side who is alienated from her peers and has a troubled relationship with her anorexic mother. In her review of Amity and Sorrow, which is perhaps the ultimate story of alienation from one’s community and of troubled mother-daughter relationships, Landis writes, “Riley has an engaging way of raising mysteries, then deferring their answers. How exactly does a man talk a wife into sharing him? Who set the temple fire just before the escape? Why is Amaranth grateful for Sorrow’s miscarriage? And why are women prohibited from setting foot in the fields?”

My own reaction to this technique differed; I found it frustrating and arbitrary to have these issues raised, sometimes obliquely, and not answered.    While Amaranth feels deeply, the narrator reveals little about her emotional reaction to being the first of 50 wives, undermining her character’s credibility when it is not clear Riley meant her narrative voice to be unreliable.

The novel’s subject, of a woman escaping a polygamous cult led by her husband whose power over his wives is absolute, is both familiar and sensational, like a newsreel of an unfolding scandal we’ve seen but can’t help but watch again  Amaranth’s teenage daughter Sorrow has just had a miscarriage, and in a compound with no young men and one patriarch, it is easy (though still disturbing) to guess the identity of the father.   And this, ultimately, is the problem with the novel.  The context is larger than life but the characters are are not; they are so dwarfed by the sensationalism of their story that they never quite ring true on the page.  The ripped-from-the-headlines shock value overwhelms the story so that the characters’ journeys to understand themselves, each other, and the ties that bind them, become secondary.  As a writer, Riley is not quite in control of her material.

It is unfortunate, because Riley’s writing is poetic and lovely.  Amity, watching out the car window as barns and fields pass by, “is watching for the end of the world.”  She tastes her first Dorito; it is a “dance of salt and chemicals” on her tongue.  Riley’s characters have stories to tell and love to learn, as complicated and heartbreaking and hopeful and devastating as that prospect is.

Amity and Sorrow is a major focus for its publisher, and it getting a great deal of positive attention:  my reaction is clearly in the minority.  I can see why.  The themes of family and alienation and the ties that bind are universal and appealing and are ripe for discussion.   They are themes shared with Landis’s novel, which may help explain her appreciation for it.   The look at a polygamous cult is a big hook that will also draw in readers wanting a glimpse into that world.  It is easy to see the commercial possibilities for this book, and it’s good enough that it may reach that broad readership.

Riley is a gifted and promising writer who has an excellent novel (or more) waiting to be written.  She would do well to showcase those gifts in a way that is not obscured by the sensationalism of her material.

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Review: Douglas Hofstadter, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

My review of Doug Hofstadters new book, Surfaces and Essences:  Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking ran in today’s Shelf Awareness. It is also copied below in its entirety.

Hofstadter’s first book, Godel, Escher, Bach, was essential reading a generation ago – it remains iconic for the way it pulled common threads from very different disciplines to answer a core question about human thinking.

Surfaces and Essences reads in a much narrower way, as a string of examples angling in on the idea of analogy in thinking.  Those examples,  while exuberant, remain lists of examples in service of an argument.

One of the pleasures of reading science books comes from recounting experiments used to support the hypothesis.  There is narrative tension inherent in the question of whether the experiment will turn out the way the scientist wants it to; will it or won’t it support the point?  Will the counter-intuitive turn out to be “true?”  What other experiment will be devised next, to answer further questions?  Surfaces and Essences doesn’t use experiments, which explains the challenge of judging it as a reading experience as satisfying as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, for example.

As a contribution to science, Hofstadter’s core argument about analogy  is not new, but he takes the argument farther than has been done before, and the insights about creativity and discovery are interesting.  But the book does not open up an idea across disciplines and subjects like GED did and it seems unlikely to have the same cultural impact.


ReviewSurfaces and Essences: Analogy As the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking by Douglas Hofstadter, Emmanuel Sander (Basic Books, $35 hardcover, 9780465018475, April 23, 2013)

Douglas Hofstadter was just 34 years old when he published the 1979 Pulitzer Prize‑winning Gödel, Escher, Bach, a profoundly original and bravura achievement that vaulted across disciplines to explore how consciousness and a sense of “self” might arise from inanimate matter. It became a cult classic, a shared “nerd bible” (as Time called it) for a generation of educated readers. Nearly 30 years later, I Am a Strange Loop (2007) offered a more contained and personal explanation of consciousness and the physical nature of thought.

In Surfaces and Essences, Hofstadter and French cognitive psychologist Emmanuel Sander address the central role of analogy in thought, an important research focus in cognitive science. The result is a definitive and emphatic affirmation of the argument that analogies are essential for concepts and thinking, permeating every moment and every aspect of thought. We understand the new and unfamiliar because we associate it with something familiar. Analogy is thus the core of thinking.

Hofstadter and Sander spin out this idea on multiple levels, from the personal to the cultural, from specific words, phrases and situations to abstract ideas and ultimately, to creativity. They explain that the mechanism that allows us to use the simplest words is the same mechanism that has enabled humanity’s most groundbreaking discoveries and its greatest accomplishments.

They also take unbridled and often infectious pleasure in backing up each key step in their argument with a dizzying array of examples, often laced with playful humor.  Surfaces and Essences shares with Hofstadter’s earlier books his joy in exploration and ideas. Its frequent examples from children to show the preconscious nature and development of analogies are effective and warm.

Surfaces and Essences is not a review of the research leading to its conclusions. Its purpose is to show how analogy works at successive levels. It relies on examples that illustrate rather than prove, but which often lack inherent interest beyond the point they support and, in their sheer number, can seem excessive, distracting from the main argument. The result is unnecessarily difficult reading, especially in the earlier chapters. Later chapters on creativity and scientific achievement are more persuasive, full of insights and ideas. The extended focus on Einstein’s dependence on snowballing analogies for his “grand train” of discoveries provides the strongest narrative thread, making this section the most engaging–a compelling capstone to this deep dive into human thought.

Shelf Talker: Like the iconic Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter’s latest is serious idea-driven nonfiction for general readers–especially fans of Stephen Pinker, George Lakoff and Daniel Dennett.


(By comparison, here is Publisher’s Weekly’s take.)

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Reviewing Reviews: Adam Johnson’s Orphan Master’s Son Wins the Pulitzer

Congratulations to Adam Johnson whose Orphan Master’s Son won the Pulitzer yesterday.

It was published a month after North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il’s death, with the unforgettable image of millions of people mourning a monomaniacal strongman.  Since the novel takes North Korean culture and political leadership as its setting and themes, reviews naturally placed the novel in the context of those events.  Still, reviews ranged from very positive to mixed, hinging on whether the reviewer thought Johnson’s literary technique of adopting elements of magical realism (a close sibling of the fable, where the whole story creates an alternate world that becomes a metaphor for our own) is successful.

 Here are two such reviews.

The New York Times review last year was very positive.  It put the novel in the context of those events and noted that the novel reveals North Korea’s”state-sponsored storytelling.”  It quotes from the novel:  

“Where we are from,” says one character, “stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

The review praises Johnson’s novelistic ability, especially in “combining fablelike elements with vivid emotional details to create a story that has both the boldness of a cartoon and the nuance of a deeply felt portrait….In making his hero, and the nightmare he lives through, come so thoroughly alive, Mr. Johnson has written a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice.”   

USA Today’s reviewer was a little more ambivalent, calling the first half of the novel “a tour de force” but argues that the novel as a whole doesn’t work, given a surprising plot twist “complicated by a narrative switch. Chapters no longer run in a recognizable sequence. The narrator shifts from one section to the next. And this happens as you’re trying to understand what’s real and what’s not as Jun Do switches into his new life and begins plotting a double cross of his own.”

It goes on to suggest that Johnson’s literary technique may well reflect the confusion of life in North Korea where nothing is as it seems, (while stopping short of identifying that technique as magical realism) but adds that “it also knocks the reader off-balance.”  It concludes:  “(The) storytelling vivid and bold, his North Korea brilliantly rendered. But midway, a smart literary thriller sprouts into a David Mitchell novel without warning – making The Orphan Master’s Son feel divided into two very different novels.”

Nevertheless, that bold push into the farther reaches of storytelling, that celebration of the imagination (which also characterizes Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, another worthy contender for the Pulitzer) deserves recognition.




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Future of the Book: Is the e-book the new scroll?

Another wonderful image that came up in conversation with a friend last week. We were talking, of course, of books and e-books.

Read the comments on LinkedIn groups and it’s easy to think the only options are mutually exclusive:

– physical books are dead tree technology and will soon disappear (or will disappear within a generation) and open up possibilities for writers to circumvent outmoded Big Six publisher/gatekeepers. Bookstores deserve to go out of business.

– physical books are increasingly important as permanent, tangible cultural artifacts connecting readers and communities.  Indie-published (formerly known as self-published) books lack quality control; how can the consumer know whether they’re buying something worth reading without publisher or bookstore gatekeepers?  Bookstores are community connectors and incubators of culture on a personal, local scale and need our support.

Statistics are often unreliable.  Assertions like “ebooks have a 20% share of sales” often raise more questions than they answer.  What does that 20% share represent?   Number of titles sold?  Net billing for the publisher?  How much of that percent is the low-priced promotional area that Amazon does such a good job handling?  What categories?

The truth is that there are many different kinds of books and many different kinds of readers.  For some people, it is a very different experience to read digitally than to hold a physical book, turn its pages, and flip back and forth to find a favorite passage.  Other readers do not distinguish much in terms of the actual reading experience; they’re focussed on the words and content, not the vehicle.  There are factors of convenience, price (price!), privacy, connection, the comfort of the tangible, and more.  There are books that lend themselves to reading straight through and those that demand more back-and-forth interaction.  And current e-book technology still fails to do justice to illustrated or heavily designed books.

E-books, with lower (sometimes very low) price points and ease of reading straight through are particularly suited for commercial, plot-driven fiction and popular non-fiction.  The limitations of e-book technology often makes reading literary fiction, art books and illustrated books and serious non-fiction more challenging.  A reader wanting to revisit a certain passage for context (what was it about that character?  Where was that passage?  Top half of the page, left side, about a third of the way in?) often has a harder time of it in digital versions, given the differences in pages and the lack of visual cues in e-books.  The “delivery vehicle” matters.

For those “flip the pages” readers, e-book technology right now is not a step forward beyond the obvious convenience and price factors.  Like the scroll, ebooks are most easily read straight through.  For other books or readers, the ingenious simplicity of physical books is still hard to surpass.

The first flush of adoption of e-technology has leveled off, and it’s maturing as a format, allowing consumers to make clearer decisions based on experience rather than the lure of the new or the romance of the old.  E-books will continue to grow in total share of reading, but not at previous exponential rates.  The growth will be concentrated in indie-published titles, commercial vs literary fiction and non-fiction, and educational/professional/reference areas (though those latter areas have their own technological and structural problems to solve).

New disruptive technology not yet on the horizon may well change all that.  But for the actionable future, we will live with both options, and have the privilege of choice.

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Book Review, sort of: Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (Random House, 2009) used Phillippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center as the novel’s central metaphor, an image of glorious achievement twenty-five years earlier as a redemptive symbol for a contemporary tragedy.    The tightrope itself is a metaphor for the novel’s structure.  Many characters from forgotten corners of the city move on and off stage, as the narrative moves back and forth in time to collect their stories and weave them together until Petit is atop the tightrope.

The novel won the National Book Award that year, but before the win, reviews were mixed.  The New York Times review by Jonathan Mahler called it “one of the most electric, profound novels I have read in years.”  He goes on:

“The circle (of individual characters’ stories) continues to widen, six-degrees-of-separation-style, with the players growing ever more diverse…. “It had never occurred to me before,” one character says, “but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.

Like a great pitcher in his prime, McCann is constantly changing speeds, adopting different voices, tones and narrative styles as he shifts between story lines…It is a mark of the novel’s soaring and largely fulfilled ambition that McCann just keeps rolling out new people, deftly linking each to the next, as his story moves toward its surprising and deeply affecting conclusion.

In a loose sense, what connects everyone in this novel is the high-wire walker; the day of his stunt is a pivotal one in all of their lives. But they are bound more powerfully by something else: grief. “Let the Great World Spin” is an emotional tour de force. It is a heartbreaking book, but not a depressing one. Through their anguish, McCann’s characters manage to find comfort, even a kind of redemption.”

Mike Peed in the Washington Post saw it differently:

“McCann can craft penetrating phrases — a smoker resembles “his last cigarette, ashen and ready to fall” — but his theme is stale, and the exhaustive back stories he gives each character never pay off. McCann relies on streams of short sentences that can seem lazy and distracted. “Pureness moving” describes a break-dancer 140 pages before the exact phrase is used again to describe Petit. Perhaps the repetition is deliberate, but, either way, the line doesn’t land a punch. By book’s end, McCann is writing of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the width of his canvas enhancing neither the plot nor our concern for it.”

I remember the jolting experience of reading the book:  falling into long, twisting, beautiful sentences and pulled along by the short urgent ones; dipping in and out of so many lives and characters, joys and losses.  It was a full, complete reading experience.  McCann pulled off an ambitious goal that would trip most writers:  repeatedly interrupting the narrative , and characters whose stories the reader just started to enter when the story shifted to someone else’s.  In McCann’s hands, however, the stunning language and the pure white heat of the emotional through-line helped drive the narrative momentum.   And by the novel’s end, an intoxicated appreciation of how all the story strands flew together.

Also worth mentioning is the difficulty of taking on such loaded material.  It takes a writer of exquisite control to avoid being overwhelmed by subject matter like 9/11, a national tragedy that altered the course of world history and left a nation reeling in anger and grief.   Lack of control often shows up in small, reactive character dwarfed by their context, who cannot react in emotionally recognizable ways to each other or the world around them, or in gratuitous descriptions of something the reader already knows and distracts from the story itself.  And by taking on 9/11 in this more indirect way, opening up lives lived long before those events but that we cannot now think about except through the lens of that one event, McCann made its impact more deeply felt.

It seemed apt to think of the success of this novel having just finished McCann’s forthcoming Transatlantic (Random House hardcover, $27, June 4, 2013)  which adopts a similar structure and writing style to tell the stories set in motion when two young World War I airmen trying to leave behind the memories of their recent horrors make the first transatlantic flight.  I wondered if McCann could do it again or if it would seem too familiar, a ploy.

And that is a post for another day.

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The Future of Books: An Anecdote

The other day, a friend who is an editor at a large publisher and the parent of a small child came over for coffee.  Of course, the talk ran to books.  “How many did you get rid of when you moved?” she asked, and we discussed storing them, keeping them, not keeping them, what books we’d read digitally and when we preferred physical books.

She said something that struck me as profound.  Her three-year-old is completely digitally native, and knows her way around a smartphone better than either parent.  My friend said that she had no trouble with the idea that her child had to demand attention from a parent absorbed in reading the paper; that situation is as old as the newspaper itself.  But she suddenly realized that her daughter lived in a world where all adults’ attention was narrowed down to a 4″ screen, with everyone looking down at a small black object all the time instead of engaging with the world.

I was struck by complexity of that image. Reading – whether books, magazines or paper, opens up the world to us, and the image of narrowing down one’s vision to a small handheld device.  Of course, immersive reading always means losing awareness of your surroundings so that the world becomes what you are reading, and having this experience does not require a physical book.  But a child (or anyone else in the room) cannot readily distinguish between an adult reading the newspaper on their phone, or a book, to checking email or Facebook.  Does this matter?  Perhaps not at all, but my friend decided it mattered enough to revive her paper subscription to the New York Times so that her daughter had a way of knowing what was engaging Mommy and Daddy.

Of course, we live in a world where we can make choices, and it does not need to be all physical book or all digital. Physical books have the advantage of tangibility and a more complete engagement that involves the physical way we move through it, turning pages, instinctively remembering if a passage is on the left hand page or on the right; we can thumb or flip back and forth in search of a passage much more easily.  Digital has the advantage of greater potential interactivity, with links and multimedia, portability, and price.  The advantages for “consumable” books – commercial fiction and non-fiction, and reference books, are easy to recognize.  But that metaphorical difference is something I had not thought about before, and now I can’t get it out of my head.

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Poetry Review: Palace of Contemplating Departures by Brynn Saito

My review of Brynn Saito’s The Palace of Contemplating Departure (Red Hen Press, 2013) ran in today’s Shelf Awareness for Readers (dedicated poetry issue; it is, after all, Poetry Month).

I loved this collection.  Saito is wonderful with imagery and lets her persona narrators follow her associative leaps for vivid, surprising and emotionally heightened effect.  It takes a a talented writer to range so widely across the emotional landscape and comment on the cultural, political and personal simultaneously.  I think Saito is very talented, as her Benjamin Saltman award and this collection makes clear.

From the review:

Saito’s startlingly juxtaposed images reveal the layered complexity of her material. In the six-poem sequence “Women and Children,” she writes: “My children as they wandered from me took on the shapes of beauty. I was proud of the way they suffered though I know they were undone by the sharpness of the earth’s asking: Do you know… the color of grief?” This technique allows her to explore difficult emotional truths without collapsing into them: “The color of grief is the bright amber of wasted honey.”

At her best, Saito’s associative lyricism recalls Laura Kasischke’s enigmatic and powerful Space, in Chains while keeping the same tight control over her imagery and personas. Some of the poems feel confessional but Saito is after something deeper. “And the Lord said Surprise Me so I moved to LA,” she writes in an early poem that quickly becomes a commentary on America itself:

“I drove through the South
with its womb-like weather…
and the century unspooled
like a wide, white road with lines for new writing
and the century unspooled like a spider’s insides.
The country was a cipher so I voted with my conscience.”

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Poem Snippet of the Day: April Chores by Jane Kenyon

This is from “April Chores” by Jane Kenyon – from today’s Writers Almanac (where you can also read the whole poem):

Like a mad red brain
the involute rhubarb leaf
thinks its way up
through loam.

I love that image – that odd “mad red brain” energy taking us by surprise, and then the rhubarb leaf thinking its way up,  reminding us how deliberate that energy is; how much effort Spring takes.   It is an acknowledgement of opposites.  It’s both volitional and involuntary, introspective yet explosive -the “On” button has been pressed for a new season and the world bursts open.

The word “involute” means “rolled inward, from the edge” as in the edge of a leaf.  I love that idea of something curling inward in all its reflexive and tender self-protection and then the intentionality of coming up through the soil.

“Involute” also means “complex”.

I think the whole poem turns on that one word.  Perfect.

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