Stories Like Spring in Vermont

April 16th in Marlboro, Vermont, and my garden fork hits frozen ground at 4 inches. Funny that our cars sink in ruts deep enough to plant bushes in the road, yet we can barely find enough softness for sprouting peas in our yards. The goal for the gardens this year is to replace most of the flowers with food.

Last Sunday night, I had a phone conference with my writing mentor. We talked about the overall publishing arena, the wavering standards, and the “readiness” of a story.

What is readiness, anyway?

I thought my terraced beds would be ready. A month ago, I ordered 6 red currant bushes, 2 elderberry plants, 2 table grape vines, and a new zone 4 hardy shrub cherry from a place called Greendale, Indianna, the word Greendale on the catalog having grabbed the hand of my vision and run. I gazed from my paper order form to the snowy landscape out the kitchen window as I spoke lengths of numbers into the phone to the customer service woman, who was probably wearing short sleeves, who repeated them back like an incantation. Melt snow, melt snow.

But like T. S. Elliot’s April, the melting of snow can be cruel, the revelation a rust-hued lawn, a leaf-littered garden patch. What’s a life that whoops it up when the black kale from last fall greets the gardener like a cluster of veiled mourners?

“Stories need to breathe. They can’t be rushed,” my mentor says.

The space between us through cords of phone line, beneath the ground and above the trees, meets somewhere in the middle. He is probably wearing short sleeves.

My stories have only known the inches of winter’s death, of all that rests beneath the well-earned drape of time, cold and dreary, after the first rush of autumn drafts. By drafts, I mean the writing kind, four inches thick on my table.

“You’ll know,” he continues, the pause stretching between us. “One day, you’ll read it and know exactly that it’s done.”

Take up the hoe, I tell myself. Prod the depths a little bit each day until the ground gives way fully and the writer/gardener manifests her flowers to food, and the absoluteness of ready.

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March Reading Challenge: Four Novels and Some Stories, Part 2

Books continue to pile up and teeter. Discussion on a potential office renovation turns from crafting new shelves to building an additional room. Anyone witness to my growing stacks may breathe a sigh of relief; as long as I have credit on my Visa card, paper books can not possibly be in danger. But, I’m a word addict. I don’t discriminate. I read my Kindle under the covers at night and on the machines at the gym during the day.

In March, any book on my reading list had to pass three criteria. 1.) Was it written by a woman? (In honor of Women’s History Month.) 2.) Does it appear on my MFA advisor’s suggested bibliography? 3.) Does it exist in my unread library? Luckily, I found several titles that qualified.

In reading Cat’s Eye, written in 1988 by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, I celebrated International Women’s Day. A few months back, I heard Ms. Atwood read from her new book, The Year of the Flood, a work she describes as “speculative fiction about the future.” While Cat’s Eye is reminiscent instead of futuristic, it is no less timely in it’s message. The protagonist, Elaine Risley, is an artist who attends a retrospective of her painting career in the fast-developing metropolis of Toronto. She recalls the horrors and delights of growing up female in a cultural era hell-bent on gender emancipation. One asks, has much changed for girls and women? Over the course of 462 pages, the reader follows Elaine’s development from childhood to post middle age as her present endeavor stimulates haunting memories that have shaped her life. The child narrator voice is strong, vibrant, and believable, supported by Atwood’s choice to use present tense to tell about the past, proving again how a child’s story, when told through masterful narration, may appeal to an adult reader. Elaine’s world is one you enter wholeheartedly and stick with through several decades, a rare treat in the literary world. It’s a book you read when you have gobs of time to wallow in a writerly retreat.

Two story collections passed the muster for the March list as well. Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven is structured in this way. A minor character or passing event in one story is picked up as the protagonist or major event in the next. In this, readers may read the collection as a meandering short story experience. Interestingly, these stories lack the conventional “rules” of the form. Silber’s stories span decades in few pages. Scene is spared for exposition. Yet, somehow, Butler’s idea of “the fictional dream” is maintained. Is it the masterful prose and interesting characterization alone that encouraged me to read on? Or, did I read these as well-written personal essays, forgetting the stipulation that essay is non-fictional.

Equally engaging was Elaine Fowler Palencia’s Small Caucasian Woman, comprised rollicking regional tales that hail from Appalachia. When the thread of small town gossip threads through a collection of stories–dark, funny, simple, tragic– count me in!

The local March Reading Challenge did wonders for my Reading to Fifty initiative. After lingering for days with Cat Eyes, I polished off some lighter fare, Cleaning Nakobov’s House, by Leslie Daniels, which I chose because Daniels is a VCFA MFA graduate. While I found the writing to be confident and aware, the premise left me a bit ungrounded. The mess-to-mastery journey of a single mom trying to regain custody of her kids does what anyone well-deserving mother would do; she opens a brothel! Throw in a little intrigue about unpublished notes that may have been written by Nabokov, and you have quite a quirky rumpus. But, I was entertained enough to add ten more minutes on the Ellipicals, and the baking scenes did make me hungry. Besides, I wanted her to fall in love with the cute carpenter. I can be a chick, when I want to be.

Next, I opened up Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey. Small town to big city, girl to woman, changing times in female roles in history, the extraordinary amidst the mundane, Livesey’s 2002 novel mirrors Atwood’s 1988 novel, but the comparison ends here. While Atwood’s Madonna hovers fleetingly, Livesey’s ghosts walk the earth, unrelenting and with agency. I simply love the thrill of a gracefully inserted ghost.

Finally, I’ll wrap up March 2011, with a guy, for good measure. Sorry, women, historical and contemporary alike, but if I had to pick my favorite book of the month, I’d have to say, the winner is…(drum roll)…The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, and winner of the Impac Dublin Literary Award. This book exudes excellence. The size and shape fits like a gift in one’s hands. The quality of paper makes you want to sleep with your head on it when your eyelids lower the curtain on late night reading. The characters and the landscape are both stark and compelling, as is the prose. What shakes me in my skin is the deft stroke of surprise when I discovered the coming-of-age story in the middle-aged man. We are left with hope for just about anything for which we may need it.

My blog posts run as long as my book shelves, a big no-no in the club rules. So if you made it this far, I offer special gratitude for your perseverance. See me after for extra marshmallow peeps.

Until next time, Happy Reading!