Sunday, August 07, 2011

Anne Patchett's State of Wonder

State of Wonder is the story of Marina Singh, who enters the jungle with reluctance but a sense of purpose. Marina needs to find out the details surrounding the death of her co-worker, who preceded her to the Amazon. His death was announced in a letter from the doctor on site, stating simply that he had died of a fever.

The South American jungle she enters is not so much chaotic, but rather a place dancing in perfect step to music only it can hear. The doctor on site, Dr. Anneck Swenson, bends her head to yet another tune. Swenson presents a wall to any purpose other than her own. She is direct yet cryptic, confrontational yet indifferent, rejecting yet needy. Despite Marina's efforts to get a bead on her, she remains slippery to the end.

Marina acts, at every turn, in a way I hope I would act in her circumstance. She resists Swenson's attempts to control her, while she assimilates herself into the local culture with grace and joy. The natives strip her and re-cloth her, braid her hair, offer her the flavors of their world, and she takes it all in with openness and trust. A mirror to her openness and trust is Easter, a deaf boy who lives among them also as a foreigner. Easter hails from a community even deeper in the Amazon, a savage, cannibalistic group who live along an obscure finger of the river. Soon after they meet, Marina and Easter fuse into a single soul. Light, open, loving.

Through a fluke, Swenson learns that the dead doctor isn't dead at all. After imbibing ritualistic hallucinogens, he wandered into the jungle and was taken in by the feared cannibals. Swenson seems to regard this news as little more than a dropped stitch, but Marina and Easter take the boat into the jungle and find the missing scientist. Of course, the cannibals want something in return for the doctor. Recognizing him as one of their own, they want Easter. The confrontation is horrible.

Okay, I was trying not to draw parallels to Heart of Darkness, because the connection is too obvious. But here it is. Here's the confrontation with the inner depths, and Easter, not a creepy Doctor Kurtz, is the one sacrificed. Easter isn't killed, he's delivered to a place where he will dwell, against his will, forever seeking escape. Easter, the embodiment of innocence, is placed in the most primal, uncontrolled tendril of the jungle. Will he be ravaged? Will he transform those around him? I will chew on this for a while.

Marina returns, with her co-worker, to her mid-western existence and leaves us to wonder what she now carries within her from the Amazon and whether it will allow her to return.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Voltaire Gem

I'm re-reading Candide, and it's just as fresh and wonderful as I remember. What a great little masterpiece. Here's one of my favorite parts:

The man of good taste explained quite clearly how a play could arouse some interest, yet have no merit. He proved in a few words that it is not enough to bring in one or two of those situations which are found in novels or two of those situations which are found in novels and which always captivate an audience; but that a dramatist must be original without being eccentric, that he must be often sublime and always natural, that he must know the human heart and make it speak, be a great poet without letting any of his characters sound like a poet, have a perfect command of his language without ever sacrificing meaning to rhyme. "A playwright who doesn't observe these rules," he added, "may turn out one or two tragedies that will be applauded in the theater, but he'll never be regarded as a good writer.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fictionalized Life

I have always written fiction. The first story I remember writing was when I was seven years old. I've had some long dry periods, but I have written fiction my whole life.

I was just thinking about how everyone does...create fiction, that is. If you're a mother, you've been fictionalized by your kids. My kids have created stories of who I am and what I am to them. They're not interested in knowing me. Or maybe they are, but maintaining the fiction overrules getting to know me because the fiction serves a vital purpose in their day-to-day realities. I'm saying that again because it seems so contradictory but isn't. The fiction upholds what they believe to be reality. My younger daughter, especially, uses fictionalized accounts of me to make the drama of her life a tactile experience to herself and anyone who will listen to her. The result is that every time I see her, I feel like a lamb tied to a stake. There are reasons I don't try to see her.

My mother, rather than talk to me, fictionalized who I was to exonerate herself from taking responsibility for the fictional me. I, in turn, fictionalized my mother in an attempt to explain why she acted the way she did.

My conclusion is that all is fiction. We never really know anyone. Where memory is concerned, the brain is a flawed organ.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Lobster Tales

I always wonder what it will take to be published. The writer's groups and workshop leaders have traditionally been so discouraging. When I outlined the plot of my unpublished YA novel, Giving It Over, someone piped up and said that no one wants to read what it was like in the olden days. The story takes place in 1973, the year abortion became legal, and deals with the subject of teen pregnancy.

Yesterday, I had one of my classic pajama days, lots of tea, lots of cat time, pajamas, maybe a snack and a book. I recently read a review about a new book by Stewart O'Nan. I hadn't read anything by him, so I looked for him in the library and grabbed a copy of Last Night at the Lobster. The book seemed a perfect pajama day book, something that I could read in a day. And this is what I read yesterday.

Last Night at the Lobster was engaging, the handful of characters were well-developed and the pacing was perfect. Yet the story is not a big one, no one's earth is shattered. It reminded me of the sad clown, or Carol Burnett's washerwoman. Last Night at the Lobster is the story of a manager's last day at a closing Red Lobster restaurant. It's just before Christmas, and the restaurant should be packed with last minute shoppers, but a blizzard reduces the dinner clientele to a forlorn couple making their way to an unknown destination. The characters are restaurant employees and customers. The story takes place in this single day.

For Manny, the manager, the story is one of a man who has no control of anything in his life. He's an anonymous cog in a corporate wheel, dedicated, conscientious, and hard-working. With his employees, he's fair, thoughtful and generous. Every action Manny takes is an effort to do what is right, and the result is nothing. If I were to sum up the story's message, it is that integrity is worthless in this day. The corporation doesn't see Manny, the employees don't respect him, the customers represent the ugliness of American entitlement and fling at him their outrage for every minor transgression. Yet he conducts himself with professionalism to the end.

An enjoyable read, but, as a writer, I find myself thinking, if I'd written this book, the workshop leaders and writer's group participants and anyone else I deem to share my writing with, would say, yes, but... Yes. But no one cares about a manager at a Red Lobster. Well, that's rather the point, though, isn't it? Every contact I've had with agents sand blasts the same message into my forehead. The book must be marketable. It must be something an agent sees as a money-making proposition. It must be a worthy project that a publishing house wants to take on, must generate enthusiasm and excitement. How was Lobster pitched? How does a book like this get into print? Engaging as it is, I can't imagine a agent or a publisher doing cartwheels at the thought of how many copies this would sell.

Lobster isn't trying to be a blockbuster novel; it isn't trying to be anything other than what it is, a pleasurable read on a Sunday afternoon. We all have dozens of stories we could tell about endings of things that were destined to be short-lived. But who would publish them? Lobster is a story of our time. It addresses the disposable mindset of American culture and may even cause readers to consider that there are dramas playing out in all kinds of unsuspected places. The subject matter is commonplace. We've all seen, if not eaten at a Red Lobster. I even know someone who managed one a long while back. The recognizable signposts, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, shopping mall, all ground us in the story's familiar setting. I found myself filling with gratitude that I'd escaped the horrors of working in food service or retail. But most of all, I found myself, once again, wondering about the wheels that turn the publishing industry.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Marmon Silko

The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Marmon Silko isn't a recounting of a life through linear time. This memoir stands apart from other memoirs and redefines the genre. Marmon Silko takes me into her private, inner world and shows me how the world looks through her eyes. I've never read a memoir more intimate and personal.

As I read, I fall into the rhythm of her habits and daily routines. I see magic and mythology, the cycles of severe desert weather and the travails of the arroyo near her ranch. I also see through the eyes of a woman who possesses a deep love and respect for the earth and all living things she shares it with.

I've read dozens of memoirs, but this is the only one I've read where, upon completion, I feel as though I know the writer. With other memoirs, I finish knowing if I share experiences in common with the writer. With Marmon Silko's, I know something much more valuable. I know where I share a way of seeing and revering the world.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids by Patti Smith is a rich journey into the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. More than that, though, the book takes me through a fascinating period of time in New York, when Warhol's Factory was on the wane and the glamor of those days turned to pastel. Even in pastel, the color and excitement jumps off the page. Amphetamines fade and are replaced by pure, natural adrenaline. Hendricks, Joplin and Morrison each sing a tune and flash a smile before joining (or maybe founding) the 27 club. Many more ghosts join the permanent residents of the Chelsea Hotel.

I get to see Smith and Mapplethorpe go through years of being broke. They rise from homelessness to obscurity and eventually to fame.

I wish I knew whether Smith utilized a ghost writer for this memoir. The writing is crisp and full of flavor.

Memoir Reading and Writing

I've read a lot of memoirs over the past few years. For a while, I even dabbled at writing one, a sort of set the record straight document. While some fiction contains elements of life experience, writing a memoir relies upon one's fiction writing talents. When I read memoirs, I know, for example, that the writer is not remembering past conversations verbatim. Some license is taken in recording details, and I, as the reader, understand that what I am reading is being delivered in a manner to maximize dramatic effect. Memoir differs from autobiography in the delivery. Memoir is a story, autobiography is a recording of a sequence of events.

As I worked on my memoir, I attended some workshops and read some books to help facilitate the process. I learned a few things. First, a great many people believe that their stories are extraordinary and would have a wide appeal. We are right in that our stories are all extraordinary. Every life holds magic and wonder and transcendence. But we are almost always wrong about the wide appeal part. After I swam way out into the middle of the icy lake of my own story, and a little voice whispered, "Yes, Nancy. But what's the point?" It's a humbling event when one can't answer that question. What is the point, indeed. I keep hoping that some day there will be one. In the meantime, the memoir sleeps in a REM stage.

Second, where critique groups are concerned, submitting a memoir to a critique group places an unfair burden on the group. Group members find themselves in a position where they risk criticizing someone's life rather than the content or delivery. Readers can't exactly say that the story is not credible. In the end, I withdrew it as a project from my critique group because I felt as though my readers saw that I was soliciting feedback on a document of uncontrolled self-disclosure, when what I wanted to know was how it read as a story. Asking a critique group to read a memoir just ain't fair.

There's something so pleasurable about reading a well-written memoir, though. Getting lost in a life, and knowing that it isn't fiction is somehow more engrossing. I've read many wonderful memoirs in recent years. The Color of Water, The Glass Castle, Living to Tell the Tale, Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Warrior Woman are some of my favorites. The pair, Autobiography of a Face and Truth in Beauty especially captivated me as a story of a life and then another memoir of a friendship that looked on from a perspective that revealed a completely different story.

I've read many others, some I found over indulgent and bulging with ego. But enough great ones are around to keep me interested in the genre.

A New York Times Book Review reviewer published an article in recent months, stating that memoir is a useless genre. The writer was so scathing and pompous that he implied the only people more naive and boring than the memoir writers are the people shallow enough to read them. I believe that there are a great many stories worth telling and worth reading. Sure, we can flaunt our intellectual prowess by pigeon-holing them: The abused child memoir, The incest survivor, The adopted child, The teen pregnancy, The alcoholic treatment memoir, The coming out as a gay person memoir.. I've read memoirs by people who fit each of these categories. But I'm not jaded enough to believe that stories owning these natures are boring because someone else has told them. A story well-told will always stand on its own and need not strain to circumvent worn trails.

So, I'll keep reading memoirs. And maybe in the quiet of my office, I will keep a silent vigil over my own sleeping manuscript.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Seeking a Clean, Well-lighted Place

I once read somewhere that a person lives beyond the span of his life up until the point when the last person who remembers him dies. If I am alive, and no one knows or remembers me, does that mean that I'm already essentially dead? Have I lived a completely purposeless life? I was hit with this today when an old friend responded to an email I sent, saying she had no memory of the times we'd spent together. If she'd been a passing acquaintance, I might have shrugged it off. But I considered her to be a close friend during my college years. We've put a lot of miles on the road since then, but still.

I have carried love in my heart for so many people I've known over the years. Just because they're no longer in my life doesn't mean I've stopped loving them. And I remember the times we've had together. No, it seems that I've carried all of this and have always been essentially invisible. Unremarkable. Mr. Cellophane. This may all seem very self-pitying, but allow me a moment of sadness. I've retreated from life, maybe hoping someone would say, "Don't go." No one did. I faded into everyone's past and then from their memories, leaving no trace, no residue, no vapor.

This comes to me now because I've had the colossal arrogance to want to be a published writer. But look! I'm not even memorable in my life. Where could I possibly get off thinking that I might write some memorable fiction? I want to be the kind of writer who walks on nails, the kind who stands on the edge of a precipice in billowy clothes, wind whipping me from all sides, arms outstretched. But I can't find the precipice on mapquest. It's springtime. I should go to Paris. Just get on a plane, take a couple weeks off. Just go. Right now. Who cares if it's crowded? I can sit in cafes, with scribblings before me. Lose myself in the Louvre. Wag my tongue at gargoyles. Visit graves.

I'm looking into the possibility of going to Paris and Florence in December. I've needed to see Paris forever, and I really want to wander the streets of Florence again. How far does a woman have to go to find a clean, well-lighted place?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Answering the Call to Adventure

Back from my weekend of focused writing, and about all the writing I did was on this blog. The weekend wasn't a loss, though. I spent it focused on the craft of writing, the journey, the inner space.

I started reading The Hero's Journey, which starts with discussion of the call to adventure, which is precipitated by the wasteland. I've told my therapist for the past few months that I feel like I'm lying fallow, or like I'm drifting amid the rich, green silt at the bottom of a lake. I feel broken. Rather than staring at the blank page, I feel as though I am the blank page, empty, silent, not able to do anything but anticipate.

I passed four days of putting it out there, hoping that something would change and allow me to make some kind of a new beginning.

Two things happened.

First, I discovered that Leslie Marmon Silko has written a memoir, The Turquoise Ledge. I grabbed a copy and started reading immediately. Her writing, entering her world, bubbled to the surface some truths about the world that I carry but have never articulated. I love it when I read or hear something that does that for me. She talks about communicating with animals, that birds, snakes, rabbits, all communicate with us all the time. I have always known this to be true and have had many wonderful relationships with beings other than human. She also talks about how the spirit world communicates with us through animals and the elements of the world, clouds, the earth, wind. Reading this, I recalled an instance soon after my mother's death when an animal served as a messenger from the spirit world. Her writing gives me a sense of awakening.

Second, I was contacted by an old writer friend who reminded me of the good things about communing with other writers who have no agenda other than to gain sincere feedback on their writing and offer the same in return. I need to start doing that again and am hoping that he, I and one other writer can resume that connection.

Over all, I have to say that the writer's retreat was productive. Even though I didn't write, I feel supported, if not transported, by that mineral-rich current.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Reading The Turquoise Ledge

omg. Omg. OMG!!! Leslie Marmon Silko has a new book out...and it's a memoir! I'm already about 20 pages into it and I feel like I'm tonguing the richest, milkiest Swiss chocolate with just a hint of some exotic, magical spice I can't quite name. She has rescued me before, and it looks like she's doing it again.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Defining the Female Monomyth

The other day, someone asked me if the Harry Potter movies met the criteria for the Dykes to Watch Out For movie approval rating. The comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, has 3 rules for a film to meet its criteria:

1. The movie must have more than one woman character.
2. The women characters must talk to each other
3. About something other than men.

Generally, I have to say that the Harry Potter stories receive a resounding no on this. There is more than one woman/girl. But the girls do not talk to each other in any memorable way or play a significant role other than as supporting characters for the activities involving the men/boys.

This got me thinking, what would a girl hero look like? Would a hero's journey be the same for a girl? Do the masses of books about hero's journey even have anything to do with women? There are tons of books on the subject of the archetypical hero's journey and about archetypes in general, but do they even have anything to do with women? Joseph Campbell said that the women are the ones waiting at home. He contends that the women are not the ones toiling along the hero's journey because they have already achieved the spiritual enlightenment the men must struggle to attain. So, what of archetypes? It seems we do not share the standard archetypes of men. Do we have our own? Are there cultures with stories of the journey women must take?

For we do journey in a much different way. So ours has been to stay at home. Isaac Denisen touched on it when she talked about learning to live in boredom, in a quiet state of waiting while the men go off into the world without us.

Certainly, at this point in history, we women are venturing into the men's world and are met with resistance. In trying to claim a chair at the table, a cube on the floor, a voice in the meeting, we are being subtly beaten to a gory pulp. Like men who beat their wives, the corporate men make sure that the bruises are in places no one can see them. They disregard our ideas, only to reintroduced them as their own. They overlook our participation, even when we lead the way through, and praise the men who play a part. They make us invisible in a hundred different ways, and we feel crushed under it, demoralized and overwhelmed with the futility of it. If we attempt to discuss it, we are accused of having overactive imaginations. If we become more vocal, we are being too aggressive. If we don't speak up, that is our sin. Oh, and when we make a mistake, we get all the attention that was denied us in all other circumstances.

We seem to be in a no-win position. But isn't being invisible something we can leverage? Is invisibility an archetype for women? Women are the ones who operate behind the scenes, in the shadows, ones attending to details, making everything nice, ensuring that things run smoothly. We are the ones never seen, heard or noticed. There's food on the table, paper in the copy machine, coffee in the pot. The systems are stable. The infrastructure is in place.

Being the detail chaser is a job we never chose for ourselves, yet we do it automatically. It's only courteous to refill the coffee pot or the copy machine. In the past, this peripheral supporting role was the only one we were allowed. Now, we maintain that role while simultaneously and invisibly performing other, more critical functions. My experience working in IT operations demonstrates this repeatedly. My worst employment experience ever was at Expedia, but all of my IT jobs have supported this contention to some degree. Expedia is the only company I've worked for that really worked at being the worst employer for women in technical positions. The harder I worked, the harder they tried to diminish me. I digress, but I left Expedia feeling so bruised, so broken and so powerless. I left there months ago, yet I still fall into a ditch occupied by the thoughts about how it could have been different. The ditch is full of lies. It could not have been different because the men hold all the power, and they did not want it to be different.

Was I a hero in this story? No. They won. They abused me until I left. Is there a way I could have been a hero? I feel compelled to find a way through this because it isn't just me. It's every woman I've ever known who has worked in a technical field. There has to be a way through. There has to be a way to be in this field and not be crushed under the giant's foot. There has to be a way to stop being the one who sweeps out the fireplace that doesn't involve being rescued by a prince.

This is my quest. I want to tell a story that meets the Dykes to Watch Out For criteria, makes women the heroes and identifies the elements of the female monomyth.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Writer's Retreat 2011 - Getting Started

A day into my time on Orcas, and this is the first I've written.

Last night, I had strange dreams which have set the tone for my day. First, I dreamed a cartoon in sort of Japanese Anime-style. The main character was a hero resembling Aladdin. He was being pursued by an enemy and was threading his way along a wooden plank overlooking a lake. As the enemy drew nearer, Aladdin came to know that the only way to escape was to plunge into the water and die. He does so and his will to escape pulls him to the lake's bottom like a sinking stone. As he sinks, he hears the singing of the sirens. They are telling him in their song that he has to give himself over to life; he must learn to see life and be alive. As he sinks, he drowns and releases his hold on trying to survive. In doing so, he is born to a sense of wonder for his life and of all that is living.

Strangely, my readings today have a reoccurring theme and seem to tie in with my dream. In The Hero Within, I keep reading of the theme of the wasteland, and the hero's call to adventure.

"...the heroic journey does not require you to become something greater than you are. It merely requires absolute fidelity to your own authentic path."

Great. How many ways have I deviated from that path? I've cultivated a career that I find unsatisfying so that I can make a lot of money. I've remained stuck in an unsatisfying relationship because I'm afraid of being alone. About the only quest I've been on is one for instant gratification. Food. Drink. Clothes. Car. Since graduating from college, I haven't been able to commit myself to anything. How many false starts have I made, only to abandon them when it turns out that focus and effort is required?

What does this have to do with writing? I'm not sure. Not yet. But this weekend is about exploring and following the flow. I'm going where I'm led. So far, I've had that very bizarre dream, and some interesting reading. I've also gotten caught up in wikipedia surfing on the Fisher King, the Mabinogian, the Grail, Cuhlwch and Olwen, the Book of Taliesin.

No stressing allowed. Just let one thing lead to another and see where I end up. Usually, I get flustered, desperate to accomplish something, and I freeze. This weekend, I am allowing myself to just be with myself and flow. Allow my process to flow and NOT freeze up because I don't think it's going in the right direction. Whatever direction it is going in is the right direction.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Getting Away, Getting To It

I didn't do it last year, because I was in a fit of writer's angst, but I usually go away for a few days in February or March for a private writer's retreat. A three-day weekend approaches (Thanks George and Abe), and I am heading out to Orcas Island to the Kangaroo Bed and Breakfast.

If the weather permits, there will be hiking. There will definitely be driving around, visiting the sheep lady, exploring art galleries and bookstores. And there will be writing.

I'm a little scared. I haven't had a fiction project in over a year. I have the finished but unpublishable YA novel, the fifty-pages into it second YA novel, some short stories that have never gotten past their premie births and a few ideas to body forth. In spite of the angst, I was executing a plan by not writing for all these months. I wanted to get all the crackling out of my head and get back to a place where I can hear my own voice. All of the writer's groups, retreats, conferences, workshops had seeped into my inner ear and perched there, waiting, just waiting, for the instant I put fingers to keyboard. When the idea of writing entered my head, they would pummel me with a cacophony of loosely-aimed opinions. My fingers would hover, maybe type a few sentences and then still.

Time, I thought. I need time for the noise to fade away.

I'm not sure that they are completely silent, but it's time for me to try writing again, hence the private retreat.

Orcas Island in the off season is a paradise for anyone wanting to spend quiet days in a beautiful setting. The island is virtually deserted, except for the locals, and is loaded with places, alternately, to sit and focus or to be distracted. This will be the third private retreat I've given myself on Orcas. The first year I stayed at the Anchorage Inn. The room was huge, elegant, full of comforts. A huge four-poster bed with down comforters, a wicker rocking chair with soft woolen blankets, a gas fireplace, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the water, an efficiency stocked with yogurt, juices, home-made granola and fresh baked coffee cake, a hot tub by the water and no other guests besides me made for a great four-day weekend. I think I wrote four chapters of Giving It Over on that trip. Two years later, I stayed at the Otter Pond B&B. Since I was the only guest, the proprietors gave me an upgrade. I really enjoyed the B&B, but the writer in me was distracted. I couldn't settle into the zone. The static of all the support I was getting as a writer kept pulling my fingers off the keyboard.

In between trips to Orcas, I've gone to other of the San Juans and once to The Resort at Mount Hood. Mt. Hood was a great destination. The Resort was so newly remodeled that it sparkled. I went snow shoeing and ate brunch at a buffet so enormous and colorful it looked like a rose-parade float. I also sat and wrote in front of the six-foot fireplace in the lobby and enjoyed long bubble baths in a deep tub. The writing was somehow not satisfying.

So, the first retreat was the best. I belonged to a small, intimate online writer's group with a handful of people I trusted and respected. Those people stayed with me all the way through the writing of my first novel. I miss them and often wish we could all go back to those days. My self-confidence dwindled over the years. Everything I did to find my way served to obscure the road signs.

Now, more than year away from all writing-related activities, I'm about to see what I can do. I feel like anything could happen. I hope to find that I've returned to days when writing is dangerous, where the edge of the jungle comes all the way down to the shore and eagles are ready to tip their wings and catch an upward current.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Getting to the Last Page

Some books fly so fast, I can hardly hold them in my hands. I settle my eyes on page one and suddenly find myself at the end. I don't often wade out into a pool of words and turn back without reaching the far shore. I never do so without treading water for a time. Getting half-way through a book is an investment. It's an investment in time, in emotional attachment. From the beginning page, I send out tentacles to embrace a relationship with the characters, the landscape, the cadence of the writer's words. I'm the ideal reader, always starting out with optimism, always poised to suspend disbelief. So, I never turn back lightly.

I'm treading water right now, smack in the middle of Dale Loves Sophie to Death by Robb Forman Dew. I don't turn back because I sense that this entire first half is just stage-setting for something big about to happen. I don't like any of the characters. I don't have sympathy for any of them. The protagonist is a sullen, sickly, delusional, quick to anger rag of a woman. Her children are sullen and damaged and forever skulking about on the periphery. But there's a sense of something building to a crescendo. So, I continue on. Thinking it'd better be worth it.

I bought this book based on Amazon's, if you liked this, you'll like that recommendations. Once bitten.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Half Broke Horses...and Another Thing...

From a writer's perspective, this book should be read with a mind for voice. The first-person narrative of Lily maintains a distinctive voice, as do the other characters. Think high-fallutin', old west, cowboy drawl as opposed to southern drawl. Walls pulls it off well, and it can't have been easy. That is, she pulls it off in her writing. Walls also narrates the audio version of the book, and in the spoken medium, she doesn't demonstrate the same prowess. The publishers of the audio version would have done better to have hired a professional narrator with a talent for liltin' and truncatin' words.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Review: Half Broke Horses

When Jeannette Walls' memoir, Glass Castles, came out a few years ago, I and all the reading women I know read it immediately. I don't remember how I heard about it, but there was a buzz in the air that caused all of us to snap it up as soon as it came out and talk about its haunting grace notes for months to come. Walls' story was such an odd combination of cruelty, beauty, survival and love. Born to parents who displayed outrageous neglect, seasoned with underlying love, Walls told her story in such straight-forward, non-judgmental terms that we readers were forced to reluctantly accept her life on her grounds. The crowning irony for me was, after growing up facing starvation and homelessness, Walls' discovery, in adulthood, that her mother owned millions of dollars worth of land in Texas.

Half Broke Horses is primarily the story of Walls' grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. Told from her point of view, Lily expresses herself as an iron-willed, fearless, outspoken force. The story of Walls' mother, Rosemary, is also painted into the arid desert landscapes. Like Walls' memoir, Half Broke Horses, presented as a novel, is engaging and portrays characters who are often over the top.

I couldn't help thinking, while reading it, how we daughters spend so much of our adult lives trying to fill out the stories of our mothers. Walls explains how her mother, who can't remember Walls' phone number, is able to recall detailed accounts of her mother's story. Walls also seems to be searching in Lily's story for truths about her mother. This book brings to mind my own meditations on old photo albums of my mother's family, and the stories told by facial expressions and discordant juxtapositions. Our mothers are a mystery to us, and we want it not to be so. We believe that somehow, knowing the truth, understanding the whole story, will set us free, define us or allow us to be who we are. As daughters, we feel made by the women who brought us here. Is Walls going back to her mother's source to understand what could produce a wealthy woman who chooses homelessness on the cold streets of New York City?

We all want to stave off the contradictions. Walls has a gift for turning the contradictions of her life into masterful stories.