Stuff I've Been Reading

It's fair to say that I haven't been writing a lot lately -- here or anywhere else -- because I haven't. I'm finding working on the second draft of my novel is moving at a glacial pace. I'm unsure of my footing and the ideas are coming slowly. I suppose I should take stock in the fact that it's moving at all. In the meantime, I've been hunkering down on some reading, fairly tearing through a handful of books the last couple months. Figured a quick round-up of thoughts on those could pass for a blog posting, no? Enjoy! stiff

A month or so ago, I breezed through Mary Roach's "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers." I'd had it in the back of my mind to check it out for a while now. Yes, it's exactly as it sounds -- an exploration of what happens to bodies after we die. A graphic, often-gruesome explanation, ranging from the grave-diggers of centuries ago, to the human body parts used in auto safety testing to proposed new methods of disposing of human bodies.

I confess to having a gruesome streak in me. I watch more CSI and forensic television programs than is probably considered healthy. I once had a brief period where I devoured everything I could on serial killers and mass murders and lay awake at night absolutely terrified that Richard Ramirez, the freaky-looking satanic serial killer known as the Night Stalker, was coming to get me.

So maybe I'm the ideal reader for this book, although I think it also appeals to anyone who has a curiosity about how we, as a culture, value our vessels after life passes away. The real draw here is Roach's writing. It takes a skilled scribe to make a subject like this not only riveting, but also laugh-out-loud funny at times.  Her own squeamishness and reluctance sort of gives us permission to tag along for the ride and be thoroughly entertained as we go.

It's definitely food for thought and, at times, food for worms. (Oh, yes, I did!)

songsformissing Next up was Stewart O'Nan's "Songs for the Missing." Chris returned with it from a road trip, saying he saw it and thought I might enjoy it. Now, since I'm the sort of stubborn ass who decides not to see a great movie just because so many people have told me I SIMPLY MUST SEE IT, it's not surprising that I was a little turned off by Chris' certainty. I mean, what? Just because we've been together for a decade, he suddenly knows so much about me?

I know. It's a weird glitch I have. I'll talk to my therapist about it. Maybe.

Anyhoo, you can see where this is headed, right? I read the book and I did really enjoy it. I have to sheepishly confess that I'd never read any of O'Nan's previous books. In fact, I'd never even heard of him, but he has a number of titles to his name and, quite frankly, as someone struggling to finish one book, I think anyone who has finished more than one should somehow automatically become a household name.

"Songs for the Missing" is the story of a family coping in the aftermath of the disappearance of their eldest daughter Kim, a high-school senior. It's not quite "Lovely Bones" territory, as there's no narration from beyond the grave, but there's a spareness, a sadness that reminded me of Alice Sebold's work. I'm not sure it's a book that will change your life, but there's a compelling, harrowing sense to the prose that I found really seductive.

Make no mistake: this isn't a detective tale or your typical mystery. It's more of a character study of the people left behind -- Kim's parents, her sister, her friends -- and the ways they cope with her disappearance. I read some reviewers' complaints that not enough happens, and while that may be true for some readers, it was enough for me to walk their path for a while. Just don't tell Chris I liked it.

gateatstairsThen it arrived. It arrived. Oh, I'd been waiting for this book for so very long. Fifteen years if you wanna get technical about it: Lorrie Moore's long-awaited new novel, "A Gate at the Stairs."  I should warn you that I can't even pretend to be objective about this book. Moore's one of my all-time favorite writers. She and Amy Hempel were just two of the young female voices emerging in the early eighties, showing me that women could write and they could write like this -- in a brave, honest way I hadn't known was possible before. With humor and grace and simplicity and irony.

Her short story "How to Become A Writer" has been anthologized a gabazillion times and is one of the best-received examples of second-person prose. Its first line has stayed with me for more than 20 years and pops into my head whenever I find myself at my desk trying desperately to squeeze blood from the proverbial literary stone: "First, try to be something, anything else. " It makes me smile every time. It makes me do what Lorrie Moore always does. It makes me think, "This chick gets it."

But I digress. We were talking about "A Gate at the Stairs," right? It's lovely. So lovely. I may be in lovely with it. It's Lorrie Moore, only better than ever. The same wit and sense of irony. The same ability to observe the human condition in the small ways most likely to bring you to your knees.

Yet there's also an even greater sophistication, a greater skill to the way the words build sentences, and sentences make paragraphs and all of it just winds together in a way that makes you do crazy things. Like remember this is how you want to write when you grow up. It's enough to send a person back to her own manuscript after two week's absence with a greater sense of clarity about what it is she wants to accomplish, who her main character is and what needs to matter most.

The story? Oh, that. Yes. It's about Tassie, a Midwestern college student who goes to work as a caregiver for a disaffected couple who are in the process of adopting a mixed-race child. The backdrop is America post-9/11, as the country prepares itself for war in the Middle East and Tassie's own aimless younger brother considers enlisting in the military. It's a year of strange encounters, unlikely bonds and strange secrets that threaten to unravel everything.

Did I mention I liked it? 'Cause I did. Lorrie Moore, please do not take 15 years before your next novel. I know you have groceries to get and probably other things to do, but if it speeds up the process, I will help you. On the other hand, if this is what time produces, I'll wait.

possibilityI switched gears after Moore's book even though I have Richard Russo's "That Old Cape Magic" just begging to be broken into. I felt I wanted to cling onto whatever I got from the former and so I thought I'd go memoir with my next selection and, timing being everything, it worked out perfectly that Hope Edelman's "The Possibility of Everything" was out by the time I finished "A Gate at the Stairs."

I have a history with Edelman, which is not nearly as impressive and/or insidious as it sounds. I read her New York Times best-seller "Motherless Daughters" right after my mother died in 2003. The following year, when I decided to take a class at the Iowa Writer's Workshop Summer Writing Festival, it seemed serendipitous that Edelman was teaching a memoir workshop. Then I discovered that she had also roommates in college with a friend of ours and it all seemed like it was meant to be.

A couple of years ago, I took a fiction course in Iowa while another friend took a class with Edelman where she discussed the project she was working on then: a memoir about taking her three-year-old daughter to Belize to be healed by a shaman. In-ter-esting, I thought. And when I saw it was being published last month, I jumped right on it.

In 2000, Edelman's daughter developed a new imaginary friend, whose emergence touched off some behavior in Maya that Edelman found increasingly disturbing. With a husband working long, hard hours and disengaged from the day-to-day parenting, Edelman's sense of isolation and concern grew. When the family decided a vacation was just the thing they needed -- and Belize the perfect destination -- they also decide to take Maya to see a shaman to "heal" her.

I realize that on the surface this sounds like crazy talk. Children have imaginary friends all the time and it doesn't mean that they're possessed by evil spirits. But that's precisely what makes this book interesting. Edelman is fiercely honest about her own skepticism and how it interplays with her maternal instincts that something is very wrong with her child -- and the willingness to be open to anything, things she never would have thought possible, to make Maya okay.

Set against the magical, mysterious backdrop of Belize and its ancient Mayan culture, a disconnected family finds ways to heal. Edelman gamely and gracefully shares her own reluctance to try on ideas about faith and grace that she finds both confusing and embarrassing. There's something really endearing about Edelman's willingness to talk about something she's perfectly aware many people will find nutty. And I think that's ultimately what makes the book such a good read.

Next up for me? I've pushed Russo back again, poor thing, still thinking I need to keep "A Gate at the Stairs" more fresh in my mind while I write right now. In the meantime, I'm going for Esmerelda Santiago's memoir, "When I Was Puerto Rican." Then maybe Russo'll get his chance or I'm on to Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food."

And that's you all up to date on my reading. Luck you!