Monday, September 4, 2017

In Rilke's Footsteps: Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer

I had the pleasure this summer of working with a group of teenagers to help them start a writing group. Their writing goals and genres were varied but they shared the desire to write and they exhibited such mutual respect for one another. Now that they're back in school, I realize that some English, journalism, and creative writing teachers are going to feel so fortunate to have their spark in the classroom.

This week I listened to Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer, a title he borrowed from Rilke . I'm a great fan of McCann's novels, Transatlantic and Let the Great World Spin, so I trusted that he would have something valuable to say. I was right. I also appreciated that he acknowledged that his "young writer" might, indeed, be any age.

Since McCann read the audiobook himself, I got to enjoy his lovely lilt, but I hadn't made it far through the CDs before I realized that I probably need a copy for my own library shelves. Each chapter begins with a quotation from a great writer--living or dead. I wanted to write them down and stick them to my mirror or over my desk (if I had one) or on the dash of my car.

The advice is practical enough that an individual writer or a  writing group could spend time working chapter by chapter. McCann doesn't claim to have all the answers, but he dispenses wisdom in a straight-forward, sometimes self-deprecating way. He acknowledges that no one can TEACH you to write.

He kept the book short, too, letting readers get back to the role of writers, following his strongest bit of advice: get your arse in the chair.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

When Alabama author Gin Phillips' new novel Fierce Kingdom started popping up in all my favorite book publications, I took notice. I'd read her first novel The Well and the Mine and then found Come in and Cover Me an especially good reading experience. In that book, she has an archeologist, who made her reputation on a pottery find, called to the location where pieces evidently made by the same Native American artisan were found--far from the first. She manages to work in a little touch of supernatural without losing the reader.

I realized, too, that both books stood alone as works of literature without being so obviously the work of one writer.

This newest novel Fierce Kingdom carves out its own place as well. The story, set in a zoo in early fall, introduces Joan, a mother having an outing with her young son Lincoln. As closing time nears and they head toward the exit, she hears loud popping noises, then sees what she eventually recognizes as bodies--and shooters. She heads deeper in to zoo to hide and await the police.

What follows is a suspenseful story, introducing other secondary character--including two teenage shooters and other zoo visitors trying to escape them.  At the heart of the story is Joan's relationship with her son as she draws from all her resources, mental and physical to keep her son safe in the most harrowing of experiences.  She faces some difficult ethical decisions along the way as well.

Phillips' novel sets itself apart from other "airplane books" as the reader is privy to Joan's interior thoughts, the writing moving from straightforward to desperate. Small details, even the items in her purse, gain significance as the plot develops.

At times I was reminded of Ron Koertge's novel-in-verse The Brimstone Journals, told in a multitude of voices at a high school, including a misfit like Ronny, the shooter that readers get to know best. Having spent much of my teaching career in the high school classroom, I recognize the vulnerability of some young people who are hungry to belong. One nice touch in this book, in fact, involves one of the potential victims, a retired teacher whose memory and people skills are called into play.

Through the course of the book, I found myself as present in that zoo as if I had been there. The physical location of the action was so artistically drawn that I experienced the smells, the textures, the chill, even the pain of injuries. I think I'll be more circumspect the next time I visit the zoo.


Friday, September 1, 2017

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

Just in time for all the documentaries on television commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, William Kuhn published a charming novel with Queen Elizabeth as one of an ensemble cast of characters. I had read Alan Bennet's An Uncommon Reader, which imagined the queen happening upon the bookmobile while walking her corgis, stepping in to look around and becoming an avid reader. I was amused to learn that the Queen in Kuhn's novel was aware of that book too.

In this particular story, the queen is wrestling with her place in Great Britain and the world. She's still stung by the reaction to her during the period following Diana's untimely death, and she even suspects she, like Diana, may be suffering from a touch of depression, the reality of which she was late to recognize during Charles and Di's marriage.

Kuhn interjects a number of quirky and interesting characters--her equerry and butler, her personal dresser and a lady-in-waiting, two women on whom she depends but who have no relationship themselves. He also includes Rajiv, a young Pakistani clerk at the local cheese shop and Rebecca, the girl who works at the Royal Mews.

When the Queen learns that Parliament is considering defunding the royal train, after already placing her yacht in dry dock, she goes gets a hankering to visit the yacht and strikes out with her handbag, but wearing a hoodie lent to her by Rebecca when the queen appeared in the stables not dressed for the weather.

The self-deprecating humor of the monarch as she wrestles with her own obsolescence is particularly charming. When she finds herself seated with a blind man, his almost blind wife, the guide dog, and a pierced and tattooed young man, they note her striking resemblance to Helen Mirren, but afford her the opportunity to spend a day in the midst of her subjects without threat.

Kuhn avoids being either over-sentimental or judgmental toward the Queen; instead, he shows her vulnerable human side. She finds herself caught with an audience of a performance of Shakespeare's Henry V, which she has learned from Rajiv only during this short time to appreciate. When the play is interrupted with the announcement of a nearby terrorist attempt, she gets the chance to follow her own mother's royal example, choose an appearance among the injured over her own safety.

The chapter titles, all yoga positions, point to the Queen's own yoga practice, an image that amuses, just as it also humanizes the octogenarian. I loved all the characters so much I hated for the story to end.