Right now I'm in the middle of reading my 100th book of the year and I'm so glad to have made reading more of a priority. The more I read, the more I love books. Here are my favorites from October:
1. Too Much Happiness (Alice Munro) – "None of the people she worked with knew what had happened. Or, if they did, they didn't let on. Her picture had been in the paper – they'd used the picture he took of her and the three kids, the new baby, Dimitri, in her arms, and Barbara Ann and Sasha on either side, looking on. Her hair had been long and wavy and brown then, natural in curl and color, as he liked it, and her face bashful and soft – a reflection less of the way she was than of the way he wanted to see her."
2. Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates) – "When she looked briefly away from him, down at her cup or off misty-eyed into the room, it was only for a kind of emotional catching of breath; once he could have sworn he saw her planning how she would tell Norma about him tonight ("Oh, the most fascinating man..."), and the way she seemed to melt when he helped her on with her coat, the way she swayed against him as they walked out of the place for a stroll in the sunshine, made it clear that the last shred of doubt could be safely abandoned. He had it made."
3. Stoner (John WIlliams) – "And she grew fat. Between that winter and her thirteenth birthday she gained nearly fifty pounds; her face grew puffy and dry like rising dough, and her limbs became soft and slow and clumsy. She ate little more than she had eaten before, though she became very fond of sweets and kept a box of candy always in her room; it was as if something inside her had gone loose and soft and hopeless, as if at last a shapelessness within her had struggled and burst loose and now persuaded her flesh to specify that dark and secret existence."
4. The Last Picture Show (Larry McMurtry) – "They soon left the boulevard and got into some of the narrowest streets the boys had ever seen. Barefooted kids and cats and dogs were playing in the street, night or no night, and they moved aside for the pickup very reluctantly. A smell of onions seemed to pervade the whole town, and the streets went every which direction. There were lots of intersections but no stop signs – apparently the right of way belonged to the driver with the most nerve. Sonny kept stopping at the intersections, but that was a reversal of local custom: most drivers beeped their horns and speeded up, hoping to dart through before anyone could hit them."
I hope my monthly recommendations have been useful! I'd love to hear your recent favorites, too...
We were six, seven, eight and a half, and ten, and we went everywhere together. We stayed up way past our bedtimes. We always looked both ways. We knew Where the Sidewalk Ends by heart. We were constantly looking for moonbirds. We never wanted the night to end, but there was always another one lifting up from the horizon.
We were unprepared at our piano lessons. We all broke our wrists the same year. We played sardines and almost locked ourselves in the cellar. We saw old Mrs. Abrams accidentally run over our beagle, and we cried in our separate bedrooms into faded pinstripe pillowcases. In early spring we swam farther than anyone thought we could, and climbed out of the pool shivering, grinning through the dripping water.
You took us to our favorite place on earth that summer. We were wild. We met the girls in the rental cabin next door. One of us got his heart broken, and the rest of us just laughed at the poor sap, though secretly we'd gotten our hearts broken too. We came back home and wrote our names inside stacks of spiral notebooks. We were at the end of the bus route and we never sat together. The girls at school were pretty, but they were nothing like those girls at the lake.
We were so excited for Christmas that we couldn't get to sleep. We were each other's lookouts and peeked at our meticulously wrapped gifts. We were getting good at lying. We were difficult, we were territorial, we were jealous. We tried to tell you all sorts of things but could not always find the right words. We were just trying our best. Even when we were older, the feeling always stayed with us. Whenever we were with each other, the space in our hearts no longer felt so cavernous.
alice munro on how a story is like a house.
i've never roasted a cauliflower whole, but after seeing this i want to try it.
henry gustave molaison, the man who forgot everything.
and just in case you haven't seen it yet, the trailer for the grand budapest hotel. i can't wait.
Has it really been three and a half months since the last update about my novel? Yikes. I don't mean to be secretive. I guess I haven't shared anything with you because I haven't reached any big milestones. But for those of you who asked, here's how it's been going:
I typed up everything I handwrote on those yellow legal pads and am now working exclusively on my laptop. On a bad day I'm uninspired and unproductive. On a good day I can write a new scene from start to finish. My manuscript has 64,328 words. It's still a big mess plot-wise, but quantity-wise that's roughly 250 pages in a typical book. I have a separate document titled "unused" with 40,488 words – stuff I've edited out but can't bring myself to delete yet. Yes, it's somewhat discouraging to have written so much that is going in the trash bin, but you can't write the good stuff without working your way through the bad. I used to think that writing a book was about translating the story in your head onto the page; now I think of it more as starting with a nugget of inspiration in your head and using the process of writing to navigate through it and discover it and unfold it. All the hard work is done on the page.
I'm struggling most my ability to gauge what's interesting and what's not. I'm struggling with how to make the small pieces add up to something bigger, and how to do that subtly and lyrically. I'm struggling with believable dialogue. It's a strange thing, being able to read a story written by somebody else and so clearly understanding its structure, its strengths, its faults, and yet not being able to do the same with your own work.
Despite all the frustration and slow progress, the last nine and half months that I've spent working on this book have reaffirmed my lifelong feelings about dedicating myself to fiction. I've never stuck with a story for this long before, so that means something. I have never, until now, written anything so close to what I have wanted to write. Every so often I write a paragraph that captures the mood and crispness and fluidity of what I have been striving for, and when that happens, it is so very wonderful.
At six o'clock on a foggy October morning, Ellis finished burying the previous day's bottles in the empty half acre behind the courthouse. He'd begun the task at sundown the evening before, thinking that he was allowing himself plenty of time, that surely he'd get to bed by his usual hour. They were small bottles, after all, and didn't need to be buried deep. But the soil was harder here than elsewhere in town, and, though he tried not to, he couldn't stop himself from holding each bottle up to the moonlight to attempt a peek before setting it into the earth.
"You been out there all night, El?" his wife asked, when he was back at the farmhouse, finally undressed and sinking into the bed beside her. Her eyes remained closed as she spoke, her voice muddy through sleepiness.
"No," he said, "I've been home a while."
He waited until her snoring resumed and then he shut his eyes. By eight thirty he'd need to be up again. There was so much left to do in town. All the house calls to make, consultations to give, bottles to collect. He thought of all those secrets under the turned earth, trapped inside the bottles the size of a child's fist. Some of them, when held up to the moonlight, had revealed themselves. But most had not. There was only one he didn't bother holding up, because it was his own. That bottle he buried last, and buried deeper than the rest, tamping down the coarse red dirt until it looked like it had never been disturbed in the first place.
Fiction Friday is an outlet for experimentation while I work on my novel. Read the rest of the stories here...
Here's my favorites from the last couple months of reading:
1. Birds of America (Lorrie Moore) – ""The house is amazing to look at," I say. "It's beat-up in such an intricate way. Like a Rauschenberg. Like one of those beautiful wind-tattered billboards one sees in the California desert." I'm determined to be agreeable; the house, truth be told, is a shock. Maple seedlings have sprouted up through the dining room floorboards, from where a tree outside has pushed into the foundation. Squirrels the size of collies scrabble in the walls."
2. Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? (Lorrie Moore) – "When I was a child, I tried hard for a time to split my voice. I wanted to make chords, to splinter my throat into harmonies – floreted as a field, which is how I saw it. It seemed like something one should be able to do. With concentration and a muscular push of air, I felt, I might be able to people myself, unleash the crowd in my voice box, give birth, set free all the moods and nuances, all the lovely and mystical inhabitants of my mind’s speech."
3. Empire Falls (Richard Russo) – "The first assignment is to paint your most vivid dream, and Tick's is the one where she's clutching a snake in her fist. The painting is going pretty well. The snake started out looking like an eel, but now it's less flat, more serpentine, except it's not as scary as the snake in her dream, which, no matter how tight her grip, manages to squirm up to where it can turn and look at her."
4. Sweet Talk (Stephanie Vaughn) – "We went next to Goat Island and stood on the open bank to watch the leap and dive of the white water. My mother held her handbag close to her breasts. She had a habit of always holding things this way – a stack of dinner plates, the dish towel, some mail she had brought in from the porch; she hunched over slightly, so that her body seemed at once to be protective and protected. "I don't like the river," she said. "I think it wants to hypnotize you.""
5. Light Years (James Salter) – "Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers."
How about you – read anything great lately?
for years I dream
those same sweet dreams
in which I swim
deep as the submarines
or deeper, still,
to the place where even light
does not exist.
a hundred million
the yeti crab, the giant squid,
into the deep dark caves we swim
and swim and swim, these
friends of mine
their bodies' pulsing golden glow
skimming over the ocean floor
I stay asleep
for those sweet dreams
for the endlessness,
i couldn't pass up these beauties while grocery shopping yesterday. from left to right, that's a swan white acorn, delicata, baby blue hubbard, acorn, and gold nugget. (don't you love those names? a while ago I said I loved all the names for colors; same goes for squash varieties.)
that afternoon I sliced up the delicata, drizzled it with olive oil + salt + pepper, roasted it, and ate it with feta and mint. yum. as a bonus, it also made the house smell like autumn. do you have a favorite type of squash or a go-to recipe?
watering the veggies,
making eggs for breakfast,
reading the beautiful book light years by james salter,
and the paris review's interview with ray bradbury,
and being hypnotized by ballet videos...
like this one about nyc ballet, and this peek at royal ballet in rehearsal.
hope your week has been a good one so far.
Their taxi has been driving for days, against a backdrop of dunes, when at last the makeshift tents come into view. In the backseat Sunny has a temperature of 102, and the pale purple spots down his legs are no longer turning white when his mother presses on them. "Just a little further, sweat pea," she whispers into his warm ear. The car goes over a bump, and her head inadvertently knocks against his. But he doesn't cry, or even whimper; he just looks at her with his drowsy, wandering eyes.
They are not allowed inside the tents. A series of signs leads them along a winding path to a steep hill, where the mother has to stop and catch her breath before going on. Sunny is heavy in her arms. Hot and heavy, and far too quiet. But there on the other side of the hill, where the sand gives way to pale tall grass, is one last tent with its flaps tied back.
"I don't know what's wrong with him," she says. There are two women who take him from her. They nod and turn their backs toward her. "I feel kind of crazy coming here, but..."
"He'll be fine," one of them says. They have set him down inside the tent, washed his legs, told him something in their soft, braided language. A silvery glow appears in one of their hands, and they begin.
Fiction Friday is an outlet for experimentation while I slowly work on becoming a novelist. Read the rest of the stories here...
last night a summer
storm came, cracking open
the black and blue sky.
you were sleeping and I was wide awake,
too warm in my cotton pajamas,
thinking of the emails in my inbox,
the bag of trash I forgot on the porch,
the weird rustling in the walls.
I wondered why thunderstorms never
showed up in the middle of the day,
say, at noon, or two-thirty
but then I remembered a vague time from before,
walking back to the car,
carrying our Thai leftovers from lunch.
a spicy red liquid puddled in the bottom of the plastic bag.
"Be careful, it's spilling,"
just before the sky flashed white and poured.
we peeled off our clothes
and draped them over a braided clothesline above the bathtub.
I wrung out my hair in the sink.
we made a fire
and ate the leftovers
and you admitted you loved summer storms.
you said you loved waking up to them in the middle of the night,
loved the thunder shaking the house,
loved the rumbling that moved through you.
We went to Deception Pass yesterday, walked over and under the bridge, explored the dunes at West Beach, and weaved in and out of the shade of trees. It makes me think of this poem called Sea Fever by John Masefield:
I must go down to the seas again, to
the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,
I must go down to the seas
again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas
again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
For my twelfth birthday we spent a weekend on Woodley, a mossy oblong island that lays just off the coast of Washington. I had been there only once before, but remembered nothing besides the way shadows fell in eerie shapes across the dark winding road. This time, what struck me was the abundance of neighborliness. Without fail, every car coming from the opposite direction waved hello; in the grocery store, we waited in line for twice as long as we would have back home due to the prolonged conversations carried on between the cashier and other customers. My sister, sighing loudly in protest, only received a grin from the old woman in front of us. The old woman was buying hardly anything. Three apricots, that was all – and every time the conveyor belt halted, the pieces of fruit bumped into each other gently, as if kissing.
After dinner my parents and sister sang to me and then we ate the cake that had been purchased from the slow grocery store. I unwrapped gifts while sitting on the hotel bed. Later, asleep under the floral print comforter, I woke to a pair of frantic feet kicking at my calves. I tried to shake my sister out of sleep. "Hey," I whispered forcefully. "You're having a bad dream." She wouldn't wake. But she did stop kicking, just before rolling away from me and pulling most of the comforter with her.
The next day we drove the circumference of the island. My mother took photos through her open window, lowering the camera from her face only when we stopped at a designated lookout point. There was no one there to take our photo – it being the one time that a friendly islander was nowhere to be found – and so my mother set the timer and positioned the camera on the roof of the car. In the photograph, as it turned out, we're all cut off from the chins down, but the view behind us remains immaculate: a breadth of satiny water, ferries cutting across it in diagonals, and the faraway foothills that stretch for miles.
I picked up some more veggies from my favorite nursery the other day – spinach, brussel sprouts, beets, and carrots. I still feel like I don't really know what I'm doing, but what's the worse than can happen? The plants will die, and I'll try again. But I hope that a few months from now I have a good update to share.
(Oh, and the tomatoes? They've been absolutely delicious.)
Rufus had his habits and routines at the old place; naturally, he had to come up with new ones for the new place. These days he sits in front of the french doors and meows about how unfair it is to be an inside cat, rushes past me on the basement stairs as if it's a race, hangs out on top of the fridge, and hides inside the bathroom vanity for no reason at all.
Things that haven't changed: he still paws at my face to wake me up, he still hasn't learned that candles will singe his whiskers, and he still tries to eat dinner scraps off our plates. Well, what can I say? Cats will be cats...
The McCullen girl was a beauty, a memory, a murmur, a sound in the dark when the moon was out. She had been living in Saint Luna Zoo for two hundred and ten days, seventy of which had been spent with the orangutans. In the winter, as the white sky broke into snow, she wove a parka out of bits of plastic and ficus leaves, padding the inside with matted fur she had collected months before from the bottom of the cages. In the spring, when the men came to build a new lion's den, she watched them from the adjacent exhibit while giraffes wandered sleepily behind her.
"That the wild girl?" one of the men asked.
"Well, she ain't a zookeeper," another replied.
Had her presence not boosted ticket sales, and had she not nursed their only arctic fox back to health, the zoo surely would have found a way to remove her. But on the five o'clock local news, Eve Granger, president and CEO, said soberly into the camera: "She is welcome here, of course. Our home is hers." It had been almost a year by then, and still no one had gotten within conversation's reach of her. For weeks after the newscast, the sky was clear, and the moon was as bright and big as you could hope for. It casted a silvery light over her figure moving down the path as she returned to the orangutans, who slept noiselessly through the long, silky night, and who awoke the next morning to the unmatchable happiness of seeing their young friend again.
The first line of this story was inspired by the opening line of one of my favorite books, Cannery Row by John Steinbeck: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." I almost can't believe this is my fiftieth Fiction Friday... (!) ...thank you for all the encouragement along the way.
Some of you might remember these "you and me" necklaces from a while ago. I'm excited to bring them back to the shop with a few great changes. I'm now using my favorite little faceted beads on these necklaces (it's the same bead style used on my lucky earrings, but one size smaller) and you get to choose from 18 pretty colors...
I've been wanting to add bridesmaid necklaces to my shop for a long time, and I realized that these would be perfect for it – so I'm also offering bulk pricing (just email me). The necklaces are, of course, also sold individually. They're available with gold or silver chain and custom lengths, too, if you'd like. You can find them here in my shop.
Three books I enjoyed the most from the last month of reading:
1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – "It was his view that Latin was mostly for looks anyway, and he devoted himself to the mottoes in order to find one with the best look. The one he settled on was Una uvam vivendo varia fit, which seemed to him a beautiful motto, whatever it meant. One day when nobody was around he went out and lettered it onto the bottom of the sign, just below "We Don't Rent Pigs." Then he felt that his handiwork was complete."
2. The Book of Men: Poems by Dorianne Laux – "I walked home slow under Orion, his starry belt / heavy beneath the cold carved moon. / My room was still, quiet, squares of starlight / set down like blank pages on the yellow quilt."
3. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard – "One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water."
How about you? Any recent favorites?
On Saturday we took a morning trip to Snoqualmie Falls... afterward, I started searching for poems about falls; even the smallest reference would do. Nothing was catching my eye until I came across the poem "Saving Minutes" by Jonathan Galassi. It begins:
You were in bed.
You heard your mother working in the kitchen.
It was still light, the birds were bickering,
the waterfall behind the house was falling.
Its rushing lulled you,
you loved the moment you lay in,
and you counted the time
from this instant
and put it away
to be lived on another night,
your wedding night or some other night
that needed all the luck,
all the saved-up minutes you could bring it.
...and it goes on. Finding poetry that speaks to me has always been a challenge; discoveries like these feel significant. You can read the poem in its entirety at The Poetry Foundation.
At the end of July I drove up to Pulgio, where my great grandfather had lived. The trees were as thick and green as in storybooks, the forest floor soft with moss, the air misty and cool. The entire village came out of their houses, most of them weary-eyed. "Hello," I said in their language, and their chests relaxed. I held out a photograph of my great grandfather's face. I was prepared to explain myself, but they understood right away. They pointed up the sloped landscape to a red stone house. It was the only one left unlit. I had brought matches; inside, I struck one, and navigated by its light until a lamp came into sight. By lamplight, I saw the layers of dust coating it all, and the lack of footprints. They had not disturbed anything inside, though it had been uninhabited for years.
They stood in the doorway behind me. "You can have it all," one of the elders said. "What was his is now yours."
"I'll only take a few things," I said. "I just came up here to see it, mostly."
"Take a few now," the elder said, speaking slowly to make sure I could understand the dialect. "And next time you come, you'll take a few more."
I noticed, then, the birds by their feet, multicolored and curious. I vaguely remembered a story from my childhood, but I could not remember how it ended.
Another one of the elders scooped up a bird, and held it out. "For you," he said.
"I can't possibly..." I refused, but by the end of the day I was driving back home with the bird in a box, a row of air holes punched in the side. Its wings quietly fluttered against the cardboard. "It will be happy with you," they'd explained, before I left. "But if you don't like it, just set it free. Do it on a clear night, and it will be fine. It will come back to us. You might think it's too far, but it knows the way home."
Fiction Friday is an outlet for experimentation while I slowly work on becoming a novelist. Read the rest of the stories here...
Hi! I'm Rachel, and these are bits of my days and things I like. I run the online shops Elephantine and Mignon, am a fiction writer, and live in Seattle with my husband and two cats. Read more about this blog...
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