Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison: A Review

The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingThe Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last night while I was lying in bed finishing this book (which I had initially recommended to my husband), I shook my head and said, "Nope. You shouldn't read this one." "Why?" he asked. "It will break your heart," I said. "In half."

THE REVISED FUNDAMENTALS OF CAREGIVING (which is one of the best titles ever in the history of titles) is the story of Benjamin Benjamin, a man who has suffered an unthinkable tragedy and, in the wake of the disaster, is charged with caring for a young man named Trevor who suffers from Muscular Dystrophy. A real light-hearted beach read, right?

But surprisingly, Evison is able to bring humor to this story of two men who find hope in each other. I found myself laughing long before it made me cry.

It's a road trip novel filled with colorful characters. It's got a little love story too. Some of the action felt a little over-the-top (car chases, lots of physical comedy), but I forgive these small weaknesses because by the end of the novel I truly cared about both Ben and Trevor. And it broke my heart. In half. Luckily, unlike my husband, I enjoy that sort of thing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Breathing Water: A Retrospective

1999 was an amazing year. At the end of my life, I still suspect I will look back at that year with equal parts wonder, nostalgia, and pride. I got married in 1999. I turned 30. I received a $10,000 grant from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation immediately after being laid off from the job I had entering airline award rules into a database for a website that no longer exists. And my first novel, Breathing Water, was published.

Breathing Water was not really my first novel. It was actually my third. In college I wrote a book called Tygers and Berries: A Modern Inferno (don't ask, please don't ask). In graduate school I wrote a novel which ultimately became Paper Rain. (You can see the post about this one here.) But Breathing Water was the first novel to be published, to find a real audience. And I was over the moon.

I remember going to our local Barnes and Noble and seeing a stack of them on the front table and almost passing out. I wish there was a word for that feeling, but there just isn't.

My publisher didn't send me on tour, but I fashioned a tour myself, traveling around Vermont with my Dad, visiting all of the local bookstores where I happily sat signing books for anyone who would have me.

Me at my very first book signing.

I remember feeling both thrilled and exposed by the novel. Knowing that there were five thousand copies (!) out there in the world was both exciting and terrifying. What would people think? Of Effie (who was so very much like me at the time). Of my writing? What if people hated it? What if it was all a fluke, or worse some cruel sort of joke?

Then when the review came out in The New York Times, I was pretty sure I was on the fast track to literary fame and fortune. (My grandfather posted copies of the review all over my hometown in Vermont -- including on the bulletin board at the boat access area at the pond which serves as inspiration for Lake Gormlaith. He also purchased a dozen copies which he distributed to all of the local libraries, slipping a copy of the review inside each one.)

Who would have known that just five years later, Breathing Water, as well as my second and third novels would be out of print? That I'd be working as an admin assistant at an IT company. That I would be so busy with two babies I barely had time to think, never mind to write. And that when I finally did manage to finish my fourth novel, no one in the world would want it. That I was damaged goods. Having three novels out of print made me an untouchable in publishing, though no one would admit that was the reason for rejection.

The grant money was long gone (as well as money from the NEA which allowed me to finish Two Rivers). Breathing Water had been remaindered, that luminous blue cover labeled with Discounted stickers wherever books were sold. All those gifts from 1999 were gone. Though luckily, the husband stuck.

It felt like a death. Of course, the grief was smaller, the sorrow just a sliver of true sorrow. But it truly felt like a dream had died.

The years that followed were difficult, though filled with so many other blisses: my daughters, a cross-country move/adventure, many years of teaching, and more writing. Because while the dream of fame and fortune (of further publication even) might have been dead on the vine, the need to write was not. And the simple act of writing, of working and creating was what drove me. I had to trust that if I continued to write my heart on the page that someday someone would love those pages back.

Of course, most of you know the rest of the story. Two Rivers finally found its home with Kensington (as did the the subsequent four novels). And even better, Kensington bought my backlist and has systematically revived them - one by one, year by year, ending with the re-release of Breathing Water. Today.

Today is the first day in a decade that every single one of my books is in print. And while nothing compares to that moment when I stood looking at my books perched on the front table at Barnes and Noble for the first time, this feeling comes pretty damn close.

Monday, September 24, 2012

When One Idea Usurps Another

Here's what happened:

I wrote the first thirty pages of a new book. I listened as the characters started to tell me their stories. I got excited about them. They started to breathe. I came up with a title. I even made a Pinterest page where I gathered images to inspire. And then I signed a contract with my publisher for three new books...this would be the first.

But then we went to Vermont (where the novel is set), and the voices got softer. Farther away instead of closer. I was looking everywhere for the story, but it was playing an elaborate game of hide-n-seek with me. Still, I didn't fret. I enjoyed time away from writing and with my family. I read lots and lots of wonderful books. I walked in the woods. I basked in the sun. I ate a lot. I looked at the pond.

Then, one day as we were driving into town from our camp, I saw a trailer that I had never noticed before, spray-painted: NO TRESPASSING, NONE! GAURD [sic] DOGS 24 7. That's right. Someone spray-painted their house in order to keep trespassers out. There were also signs nailed to the trees by the house, bearing the same warnings (but in fluorescent orange instead of white Rustoleum). What also happened during our trip back east was that we went to visit family in Massachusetts and went on a tour of Emily Dickinson's house. I started thinking about agoraphobia and the solace of home, the safety of home. The sanctity of home. Contributing to this, we had a minor mishap with our rental house (our old house in Maryland) which got me thinking a lot about privacy and property and home ownership. This summer we also lost my grandmother, which both muddied and clarified all sorts of things. Anyway, all of a sudden there were new voices whispering in my ear, saying, Listen to my story.

We came back from Vermont and determined to return to the original idea. I figured I'd been on vacation, so maybe these characters had too. But to no avail. It's kind of like can't make someone love you back. And Rain and Vivi are playing hard to get. Or maybe they're just letting these new characters have this dance.

So what next? Next I listen. I listen to R.J. as he tells me about his obsession with bridges. I listen to Sylvie as she describes her life confined inside her 500 square foot home. I wait for the hurricane that is creeping up the coast.

And then when this song is over, I'll go back to the corner where I hope the others are sitting patiently waiting and I'll see if they are ready to dance.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Salt God's Daughter by Ilie Ruby: A Review

The Salt God's DaughterThe Salt God's Daughter by Ilie Ruby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ruby's THE SALT GOD'S DAUGHTER reads like an extended dream, this novel unlike anything else I've ever read. This story is written in a language somewhere between poetry and prose, about a world somewhere between reality and fantasy, and the characters somehow between human and mythological.

The story of three generations of women, it is also about motherhood and nature and the cruelties of humankind. Set in southern California primarily in 1970s and 1980s, most of the novel is dedicated to Ruth, the daughter of a bohemian mother who fails her daughters at seemingly every turn. But it also offers us Naida, Ruth's daughter. I found Naida to be the most endearing character, and my heart ached for her as she struggled to free herself from her own heredity and history.

It took me forever to read this simply because I wanted to linger over certain sentences. The lyricism reminded me in many ways of WE, THE ANIMALS by Justin Torres; the prose was so lush and rich.