Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Thoughts on Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent by Beth Kephart

I always wait impatiently for my friend Beth Kephart's books. I'm lucky they appear on the shelves often. I'm never disappointed when I crack open their spines.  I read her latest, Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent, quickly and quietly because I don't like fits and chokes and starts when I read a Kephart book. I prefer to chug it in its entirety. Then sit happy and full.

That is what I love, love, love about this book.  The fullness and richness of this writhing adventure. Each sentence swells with the endurance of characters that are, in many ways, running on empty, past empty, but with their hearts bursting full at their worn seams.

Fourteen year old William Quinn is a finder and fixer despite a life of tremendous loss (his father in jail, his brother, Francis, murdered, his mother slowly disappearing from a broken heart.) His best friend, Career, still stomps across the dust with a ripped sack jacket and a 'too-big-for-him' vest while he doggedly pursues even bigger dreams.  His mother, struggling every day to cope, still manages to rise from bed and stitch that sleeve. And I haven't even got into blowzy Pearl and her boisterous kindness or the amazing, persistent, stubborn Molly whose yellow bow, against all odds, still clings to her hair. Even the empty promise of the magical sarsaparilla (it's just root beer) doesn't stop them (or me) from believing, hoping, knowing, that their strength is resolute.

I'm not smart enough to really know the time period (1871) or the place (Bush Hill, Philadelphia) but I'm lucky Beth fills the pages with the sound and spirit of the time so I can come to understand it (a most gorgeous review that goes into that here.) And, in collaboration with her husband, artist William Sulit, the beautiful illustrations reveal the scratch and charcoal and steam of those words.  

This winter, in freezing cold, I did visit the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where parts of the novel take place. As a symbol of atonement and redemption, the former prison (known as Cherry Hill) seems to stand at the center of the book, and the characters make their amazing rescues and deliverances around its imposing walls.

I'd pull every sentence from the book if I could, such is the care Beth puts into each one. But I'll just excerpt one of my favorite moments:

William leans against the streetlamp, corner of Broad and Pennsylvania, the light an apron of yellow around his old, broke boots. Two brown moths lap at his head, fuzzy creatures with gigantic wings that make him think of the night he and Francis and Ma sat within the spectacle of the Phasmatrope. She'd caught her breath as soon as the first projected waltz had begun, and by the time the tumblers started galvanizing and leaping across the screen, Ma was pulled to the edge of her seat, her sons on either side each holding one hand. Ma's fingers were white from the laundry bleach. Her nails were short and square. It was her gold ring that shone like a star that night, an infinity band. William remembers remembering Pa and what Pa'd been through and what he'd done and lost, and how the bearing of him had changed, but never his outright love for Ma.  

I love this moment for the wide-eyed, knowing, perhaps misunderstood kindness that brought them to the Phasmatrope, William's memory of it, and the enduring love behind it, always at the center of Beth Kephart's beautiful books. If I must wait for the next one at least I always, always, wait happy and full.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

In Clouds

It's been a strange week. I'm feeling more silent than usual, with this idea that I shouldn't speak, not necessarily that I can't.  It began with a move to a new office space. Suddenly I find myself with a desk set far back into a tiny room with a door and four walls to dampen sound.

I work with audio and music and character voices that are often painfully shrill, and, while the move to this newly renovated office floor has meant smaller, less private workspaces for many big-wigs, it has meant a larger, completely private workspace for nobodys like me.  Because of the painfully shrill voices, you see. Not to mention my department coworker Sam's ear-splitting whistle toy, which nearly sent all of us and a particularly cranky Design Director to the looney bin.

So, as a result of annoying an entire company of toymakers with our vast array of whistling, shouting, screaming, singing, buzzing, (and even farting!) toys, a truly happy thing has happened. I now have my own office. A door. Soft lighting. I listen to music while I write scripts. And I see no one. Until I am forced into a meeting or until I make a choice.

It seems, with choice, I am decidedly more social. I emerge from my new cave and swing my legs from the benches next to friend's desks and laugh with my birthday sister Kira and wonder, out loud, rather than through email, where we all might go for lunch (a new experience, today, with seitan, from the gangly group of vegans who insisted I try, and I'll never understand the strangeness of recreating the sense of meat where there is no meat, I'll never.)

This afternoon, I found myself in a high-level executive meeting where it wasn't clear whether I was wanted, a strange back and forth of invites that turned into dis-invites that turned into maybe come, into definitely don't you dare, into are-you-kidding-get-on-the-subway-and-meet-us-now.

So, up in this tall building in Times Square, I stood and looked out and my feet had that tingly feeling, that one more step and you could fall feeling, but today there was nothing except fog and the memory of a river and, sitting at the long conference table, with the nagging feeling of shouldn't, shouldn't, I didn't say a word.

On the way home it felt as if I'd been caught in a secret all week, shrouded in the atmosphere of those clouds. A stranger asked me where the subway was and it was only after I gestured the way, told him of these few blocks and that one right turn, after I walked for a moment, then stopped to whip around, that I registered the staggering, unsteady girl just behind him.

I called out softly after them, Are you okay?  But they didn't answer and I stood wondering why I didn't notice sooner, why I didn't speak louder, why a terrible, nagging, piece inside me wished not to bother, wanted to be alone in secret, in clouds. The same piece that wished I hadn't seen her at all.  A different piece than the one that fears for and wonders, too late, about her now.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

International Be Positive Day

Robyn Campbell and Sharon Mayhew, two of the loveliest children's writers and friends I know, have declared today International Be Positive Day.

It's a day to be positive, to encourage one another, to share the happy, through twitter, Facebook, and your blog.  Will you join us?

I walked this path in Laguardia, Spain last May. When I think of this place, I think, here, is where dreams seem possible.

The dirt is thick sandy desert rushing into shrubbed meadows, lake, then mountain rock. There are jungle green grape vines, technicolor sky, and storybook clouds.  Nearby, a gardener tends to his roses, and they are larger and brighter than any other I've seen.

When I think of this place, I think dream big. I think, it is possible for the sky to open up to us, for us to see how endless it really is.

Do you have a place where it feels possible to dream bigger?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Paper Anniversary

I thought I might write something profound about a first year of marriage, about becoming wife, or what that might mean.

Then I realized these photos, the small present exchange for a first year anniversary and the traditional gift of paper on Sunday, might be a better representation of what it's all meant.

Tyler gave this to me:

I gave this to Tyler:

Maybe it's not such a coincidence because we are going to travel to Ireland this summer but I thought it represented our relationship. We think about exploring and adventure and what we might share. We often think the same.

Friday, May 17, 2013

My Writing Tree

So, this is my writing tree.  I don't sit under it, with my back scratching up against the bark. I sit next to it and, if I opened the window, I could touch the leaves.

In the winter, when it's bare, that space of white you see in the upper left, is the Manhattan skyline, and I can see the crisp edge of lights from the Freedom Tower. I can see the neighbor's terrace across the way and I watch as they move their plants from behind the sliding doors and, another day, back again, in a ritual I can not understand. I wonder, as I watch, if they see me, laptop balanced on my knees, my back propped against a pillow my mother knitted me.

But now my tree is green with a few patches of brick against the spine of each branch. When the sky is crayon blue it looks like someone painted it just for me.

What do you see from where you are?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What's Up Wednesday

I thought I'd try this weekly meme because I've been struggling with what to write in this space. I always want to be here, writing posts, sharing thoughts, but then I find myself at a terrible loss, staring at the blank screen. As a result, as a default, as you've probably noticed, melancholy Melissa comes out to play on the blog.  As in, everyone is skipping and patty-caking, and I'm all, look at the dead bird.

So. Let's try this. Shall we?

What I'm Reading

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. This book is fascinating. I've lived a good, long, life wondering why I feel uncomfortable in many social situations and, the more I read, the more I understand what's behind a lot of this discomfort: an extrovert ideal, a shift that took place in the 1920's and has permeated society since. Now, I understand why the stimulus of Toy Fair sends me into a panic. I know the psychology behind my coping mechanism at cocktail parties.  I get why I can not thrive in office brainstorms. All of these 'shortcomings' have really upset me in the past and now the awkward puzzle pieces finally fit. I've been forced to fit my personality into an ideal that doesn't suit who I am. Major. Enlightenment. I'm going to have a lot to say about this book when I finish.

What I'm Writing

I'm working on revisions with my agent for RABBIT ISLAND to prepare for submission (!)  I've begun research for, what shall be known from here on out as, The Oyster Book.

What Inspires Me Right Now

Let's see...the power of introverts, oysters, friends who live their dreams, the complexity of sky, rediscovering Amy Winehouse's Back to Black Album, the lyric I'm a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside.  And as always, New York City, its two rivers, my writing tree in bloom, mornings on the subway rattling, bunched up, next to, near a stranger.

What Else I've Been Up To

I traveled briefly to sunny Florida and wandered through a professional golf tournament this past weekend. I read and have been inspired by the manuscripts of friends. I received deliveries and library alerts of books by women I admire.  I've gone to work each day. I look for new work. There have been dinners with friends, first birthday parties. Our first anniversary approaches, soon to reflect on a year as wife.

Well. Look at that. I liked doing this meme very much.

What's up with you this Wednesday?

For more What's Up Wednesday, check it out: here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I'd Rather

This morning, I thought, I'd rather stay home, read a book, just be. I'd rather dream a story. I'd rather sit down with a notebook and a purple pen near my writing tree, now in full bloom beyond the window where I curl on the little couch that matches today's sky. I'd rather take a walk with a friend. I'd rather cook with Tyler. I'd rather rest my bare feet in the grass, lean back, be with just the sun and me.

This morning I woke up from a dream in which I met Kermit. That Kermit. Really. I asked him if he ever sings Rainbow Connection anymore.

Only with Jim, he said and there was the furrow of green, a hand become mouth become frown become human.

This morning, it seems, I wondered too much about what could be, what isn't, what's missing, what's gone.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Thoughts on Schroder by Amity Gaige

First thought: Wow.

Second thought: Wow, wow.

Additional thoughts: What a strange, odd, and beautifully, beautifully crafted book.  It's a father/daughter story like nothing I've ever read, about the people we fail, the love we can't understand until it leaves us, the lives we choose and the lives that choose us.

There are so many extraordinary things about this book, I barely know where to begin.  Schroder, the narrator, in writing a letter to his estranged wife, is a man preoccupied with pauses (you'll have to read to understand), who analyzes the pauses of Pinter plays, who, in trying to understand silence, instead fills it with actual footnotes.

The story itself is a kind of footnote.  It takes place inside the parentheses of an extended pause. It's a road trip, and trips have a way of existing outside of the reality of our lives.  They become a series of moments that are distinctly a part of us but don't necessarily connect with the rest of the minutes and hours, and Schroder's trip becomes all the more parenthetical because of its inevitable bitter end.

It's also a book about walls, barriers, and divisions. These are often the catalysts for failed relationships but, in this book, Gaige also reminds us that they leave an indelible print on our identities. The Berlin Wall somehow manages to feature prominently and, at the same time, almost ghostly veiled, as the first division in Schroder's life, a life that continues to divide like a cancerous cell as his story unfolds.

And I couldn't help but be slightly reminded of another book that intrigued me, Shards by Ismet Prcic. These are two very (very) different books but both feature men who escape divided countries and live two lives. The very last line in Schroder made me aha (!) at their connection. (Don't worry, I'm giving nothing away.)

I am covered in shards. 

Also, I liked the writing.  My favorite passage here:

I would stand there in the bathroom with white bits of deodorant caught in my underarm hair, penetrating my own nostril with the whirring pole of an electric nose-hair trimmer. You left a scene of camelia in your wake. I left tiny whiskers in mine. My footfalls were heavy. Yours were soundless. You could handle glass. I looked like an idiot holding a champagne flute, a real gorilla. I'm grateful, really, and also sad, that you were so beautiful.

The more I think about it, the more I like it. I hope you'll read it.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Thoughts on What I'm Reading

I seem to be on an incredible reading streak these days and I wanted to share a few thoughts here. I'm often hesitant to write about actual books on this blog and far more comfortable discussing the experience of reading. So many times I have thought that I only want to write about books I have loved fiercely but there are many more books I read and appreciate for their craft or intention, and I'd love to be able to 'talk' through them.  So, it seems a constant evolution, deciding how I want to write about books here and I hope you'll bear with me as I experiment.

For me, a magical read, the kind of book I am drawn to more and more lately, where the line between what is real and what isn't is ever-so-slightly blurred. Reality has a strange way of floating through this book and every line is more beautiful than the last. I was drawn to this story about mothers, daughters, and the salty ocean that binds them.

A story of first love, with such a distinctly quirky and loveable voice. This book paid such amazing attention to detail, to every tender or strange or annoying or magical moment between two people who find one another and save one another from an often cruel world. I felt safe in Rowell's hands, in the presence of the purest, most innocent, truest form of love.  The entire book felt like crawling into the space of someone else's giant, accepting heart. It's a book I will remember always. 

And from there I fell into such an incredibly different book with an entirely new set of rules, it's bizarre to tuck it neatly below the other two. It's hard for me to say that I like this book but equally hard for me to say I don't like it. Basically, I can't stop thinking about it. 

I went into it knowing nothing about the plot and I think, if you decide to pick it up, I would recommend you go into it the same way. I was really impressed with the unraveling (like a runaway ball of yarn or even toilet paper let loose) of this book.  I thought it more of an amazing study of how to write satire, or deal with an unreliable narrator, or write about chilling events. It's dark, disturbing, cynical, and written in such an intentionally lighthearted manner interspersed with moments of severe, aggressive snarling. I don't think it's for everyone, but, then again, with the success of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl this year, I wonder if there is a broader appeal for the absolutely despicable character than I think. The kind of character made all the more haunting and strange and unsettling for the small moments we connect, empathize, or understand him. Maybe I'm new to this genre, maybe it is so far out of my comfort zone I don't know quite how to deal with it, but I found this book to be quite powerful.

What are you reading?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Adventures in pasta-making - homemade ravioli

After taking a class at Brooklyn Kitchen, Tyler and I have been experimenting with making pasta. Right now, we make the dough with the aid of a food processor but I hope, someday, we'll perfect the art of the flour wall, the well of egg, salt, and olive oil, the slow fork and turn, then the pummel of our palms against the sticky cold mixture.

It's still a time-consuming process, even with the aid of kitchen tools, but the outcome is well worth the time. To take things apart, to know the ingredients, the steps, it always makes me appreciate the food we take for granted so much more.

Is there something you were glad to take the time to make from scratch?