Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘words’

H is for The History of Love

dz4ci-6po3g-gwnl4cngalnndzs62nytqwgix4baty4sx8nifzte1hpcd5-xpglqc61lzpms85

The History of Love begins with an obituary and ends with the same – not a propitious beginning for a novel unless it is written by Nicole Krauss. Fortunately for readers, this book is. It contains a book within the book, one that is published under a thief’s name, and a view about love so enduring that no other person can take the place of the beloved. It is also about a search for a child, a child’s search for identity, and the true authorship of books.

This book won my heart as a reader but also as a writer. The first time I read it was pure pleasure as I became immersed in the story, eager to find out the ending but reveling in every phrase written, every image suggested, every new twist to a maze of a story. At the second reading, I paid attention to Krauss’ brilliant plot construction, character development, and psychological insight. She is a master writer, and for someone like me still learning to write, she is an entire writing class in a single volume.

The book is dense with imagery and poetic language, a gift for those who savor words and yearn to be kidnapped by story. It’s also complex and confusing, demanding sleuthing skills usually reserved for murder mysteries, and I found myself re-reading passages to reorient within the novel. The two main characters are each haunted people who brought me to tears and occasional laughter as I unraveled their stories. Leo Gursky, an old Polish Jew, now lives in New York. He is a Holocaust survivor without heirs or friends, afraid of dying alone and unrecognized. Once spying on the son he didn’t know about until, he is devastated to learn that he has died, a famous author who never knew his father. Leo has loved one woman in the world, and for her he wrote a book about love.

Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer, bereft from the loss of her father to cancer, is convinced she is named after an Alma from an old story about undying love, her parents’ favorite. She wants to find a man who can love her grieving, widowed mother and give her a reason to live. Her younger brother, Bird, is strangely obsessed, believing he is one of the thirty-six lamed vovnik, the righteous people chosen by God for whom the world is made. Like many impassioned teenagers, Alma feels the world’s weight pressing upon her shoulders and struggles to balance the responsibilities of saving herself, her brother, and her mother.

Tangled in the journeys of these two is the history of the book Leo wrote decades earlier and another book that Alma’s mother is translating. Both of course are Leo’s The History of Love. Then there is Zvi Litvinoff, who has claimed and secretly published Leo’s book as his own work; Bruno, Leo’s one friend until he dies; and Isaac, the son Leo never met. A less polished writer might have written a muddle of a book out of such disparate parts, but Krauss penned a taut and multi-dimensional story.

The end is somewhat ambivalent, readers debating exactly what has happened, a bit of magical realism claiming its part of the story. What is understood is that love is all consuming and eternal, that sometimes the obvious facts don’t add up until you find all the other facts, and that no matter who writes a book, love endures and makes all things possible. Krauss has conveyed intuition about writing, love, relationships, and identity in a story with an apt title.

My favorite line from the book is this: Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. Who of us does not want to be so consumed by love that it spins our world and lets us breathe?

It’s a book I’ve kept and one I’ll read again, not to discover more of the writer’s technique but for the pure pleasure of enjoying a story well told. And that is what a good book should be.

The History of Love won the 2008 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing for fiction.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for H:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Harry Potter (entire series) by J.K. Rowling

Hawaii by James Michener

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

He, She and It by Marge Piercy

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus

The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite H fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and W.W. Norton & Company

Advertisements

Charades

Charades is the game of finding the correct words to translate a silent pantomime. It’s a time filler when the party runs up the alcohol level and winds down the intelligence quotient.

imagesWriting is about finding the correct words to describe what’s going on in your book. Good writing sets the standard for intelligent expression and evokes authentic experience. We learn as young writers not to write, he was in despair, she was terrified, they felt horror run through their veins. What does any of that say? Is it the same despair you felt when you weren’t invited to the prom? Probably not if it’s the despair of a boy taken from his village to be turned into a soldier to fight an adult war. Is it the terror you experienced when your grades arrived in the mail and your parents got the envelope before you did? Not likely in comparison to the terror of a little girl snatched from her mother’s arms and pulled into a stranger’s van. Is it the horror you bore as your kid stuffed her dirty underwear down your toilet and flushed? Not quite like the horror of the child that stands at his mother’s bedside and sees the rise of her final breath, then wonders who will care for him.

Yet all we writers have is words. How I’d love the throb of a deep drum pounding out the steps of the boy as he is marched into the army. A volcano to erupt when the little girl is taken from her mother. A torrential downpour as the child stands beside his dead mother and doesn’t know where he’ll sleep that night. Those words – despair, terror, horror – have so many labyrinths of suggestion, depending on context. Context is everything. Writers must explain what we mean, how it really is.

Yet explain what you mean in too many disjointed words and your reader closes your book. “It was a jungle so dark that the leaves overhead blocked all the light, the way that a canvas tarp blocks out the sky when you go camping, but this was much more terrifying because they weren’t camping, they’d forgotten their compass and they were lost.” Your reader didn’t get that far – yawning with disorientation, he quit reading a description of a jungle the writer had never experienced.

This is the jungle of the 1959 Belgian Congo in the hands of Barbara Kingsolver from The Poisonwood Bible:

 

Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

crZO4d3VQ8Sg60XAOOC5K9LVuhqjAfmoAU2hqQ2AfH0xMGM3pk6nDFDLuUjgHFgg6phsroc=s113

Here is the Nigerian jungle from Little Bee by Chris Cleave when Little Bee walks into it with her big sister, Nkiruka:

 

When we reached the jungle it was silent and dark…We walked for a long time, and the path got narrower, and the leaves and the branches closed in on us tighter and tighter until we had to walk one behind the other. The branches began closing in on the path so that we had to crouch down. Soon we could not carry on at all…We carried on for a little way, weaving around the plants, but very soon we realized we had missed the path and we were lost.

 

In this excerpt, Ann Patchett describes Marina Singh’s first view of the Amazon jungle from State of Wonder:

 

At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find. Easter slipped back inside his shirt while Dr. Swenson and Marina wrapped their heads like Bedouins in a storm.

 

Three views of the jungle with very different depictions, each authenticated by distinctive detail. We didn’t have to read the books with the dictionary on our other arm; the words are basic. Master writers use language with precise nuance and we get the image. Novice writers must learn to apply that kind of expertise and insight to their stories.

The convergence of characters and divergent life paths becomes our story. How we describe those characters and divulge that action becomes our voice. There is no voice without adequate words but much opportunity with them. Our point of view suggests the cultural focus of character choices and reactions, and the multitude of words provides the means of expression.

How to choose, what to choose, what words will do the job best? It might be the smallest words, those that let us see details that reveal the truth because other words are rife with ambivalence or too many definitions. When describing the process of marquetry in The Inlaid Table, I couldn’t write, “A complex machine forms an intricate shape.” I want the reader to look through the pin holes pierced by a thin needle so they can see the precision of placement for tiny shards of wood to create a sunburst pattern. It’s the same information but one take is broad and general, the other, specific and detailed. The first example hints at the finished product. The second allows the reader to sense the breadth and skill of the task, achieved with perfectly chosen words.

A book is as much charade as the party game. The audience/reader tries to figure it out by watching/reading the clues. The master paints a vigorous picture – ah, I know exactly what you mean. That’s the level I aim for.

Come with me into the jungle.

 

 

Mime courtesy Google public domain images, clipartlord.com

Jungle courtesy Google public domain images, commons.wikimedia.org

Will Walk for Words

My writing routine begins with a walk outdoors. Not a long walk or a fast one. Two miles up the street and back, early in the morning in summer before our California sun blisters the city, or before rain turns a winter walk into a slog. Most mornings it’s a walk on the shady side of the street, a familiar trek that doesn’t require me to think about where to turn or when to start ambling back home.

I’m lucky if I can get going without returning for one last thing, like replacing the house phone for my cell, realizing I’m not wearing my contacts, trading stiff shoes for a more comfortable pair, one more trip to bathroom, another smear of sunblock. Once I’m finally on my way, it’s a slight uphill hike and a reverse easy jaunt down.

A walk is a great opportunity to get a bit of exercise, because I will never wear those dorky rubber band outfits I’d have to don to go to a gym. I work out problems, even if I don’t work up much of a sweat, like the chronic situations that give me nightmares if I sleep in too late. I worry about personal problems, because as much as I’m fortunate to have loving family and friends, there is always someone to worry about.  I worry about the injustices of my employment, politically inspired office intrigue affecting even my paltry claim to the working world. The walk uphill gives me a chance to excise those devils, though they’ll return like persistent hiccups. I walk more and more determinedly, relinquishing the pain in my calves for concentration on those cerebral irritants. Most days I realize there is little I can do except let go my worry, anger, and frustration, so I do, resolution of sorts.

At the top of the rise my palm swings around the light post that signals my walk homeward, and I begin to write. I work in my head because I can’t walk with a laptop though I’ve considered it. Some of my effort will get lost on the way home, but I’ll retain the essence of my work.

I hunt when I walk. I am a bird of prey. I seek words and pluck them before they scurry to safety. I stash interesting words that say things other than boring things like thing, (could you be more specific?) or stuff, (could you please be more specific?) or place (oh come on now.) Words come inspired by the crack of brittle tree limb, a flash of sunlight tagging a flag on a house balcony, the blap of a horn as a car zips by. Sensory imprints cast words like paladin (I want one of them for my very own, with sword or without), bleat (the sound of losers whining or of animals trapped in tales about Cyclopic pigs with batwings), contrafactum (just hum along here). I cache words for late night writing snacks.

Then I’m on to phrases, collections of words strung in movable pieces like frig magnets, passages whizzing around pesky as gnats. Found this one after passing an odorous clump left by someone who owns a dog but “forgot” the blue plastic baggie: “a dapple of sunlight tapping shadows on the ground, the only beauty in this muck.” Technically the dog left it, but you know what I mean. This next phrase is a bit of a cheat as I discovered it after falling into the cul de sac trying to remove a stubbornly rooted weed, minutes after completing my walk: “I see myself as a force of nature but a submissive one.” Maybe this one is usable: “Why is it that when a thing drops, it always slides under a cabinet so massive and low-grounded that you can’t reach it without a backhoe?” Cheating again, a complete sentence but not a profound one. The idea came after the pretty stone I wanted to keep dropped and rolled under a tangle of weeds, lost forever. How many unidentifiable clumps did I want to turn over?

Finally it’s the serious stuff I’m gathering. Like the sight of the lady who used to push a baby stroller done up in hot pink tiger stripes with sequined bows on the sun awning. A close look revealed it wasn’t her child she was pushing. Well, not her human child, anyway. It was a shih-tzu-oodle-hua, one of those toy pooches bred not for walking or running like other wild critters, but a little fluff of squeaks to salve a lonely soul who doesn’t have a hope of having grandchildren. And then my pity rolls out, because as awful as I find the tawdry contraption in which the yapper rides, I also respond to the woman’s isolation, so removed from the world that she can best communicate with a mini dog that can’t talk. Or walk.

The sensations, images, and words I’ve collected on my walk will show up in my writing. I’ll bring them to the front when I need to feel an activity in my gut, when I want to describe something with authentic detail. I’ll twist, tweak, and change elements to suit, but they’ll end up in some story. The best walks deliver the opening to writing gridlock that’s kept me scribbling drivel for the last day or two. Engaged with story, I’ll delete crap, write passages, correct problems, or know how to get my main character rolling off the sofa to make a decisive move in my WIP.

Back home in an hour, I’ve worked off 27 calories, 32 if I’ve walked fast, a paltry effort at improving my health. But I’ve started to write and can hardly wait to get on the computer. That’s my routine, odd as it is. For me it works. Let me know what works for you.

This post was originally published on Today’s Author blog site on March 7, 2013