Friday, June 28, 2013

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane": A Review

Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane is brilliant. When I say this, I don't mean 'smart' brilliant (although it is this as well), I mean 'moonlight' brilliant. Reading this novel is like walking through the woods at night, coming to a clearing, looking up at a patch of sky encircled by tree braches and being overwhelmed by the dazzling brightness of a full moon you never even knew was above you all long. Take-your-breath-away-piercing-somewhere-in-the-back-of-your-heart-in-a-place-you-thought-you-had-forgotten kind of brilliant. Yeah, that kind.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is terrifying- "nightmares tearing at a nightmare" (pg. 128) in that it is primal and calls upon childhood fears that I believe resonate deep within everyone. It is also comforting- "I would stay here for the rest of time in the ocean which was the universe which was the soul which was all that mattered" (pg. 145) in that it brushes against certain undeinable truths that we all intrinsically ache for, but want only to reach out to, not actually touch. Gaiman's writing in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's and Roald Dahl's and Stephen King's and classic fairy tales and his own earlier work, but it transcends comparisons as well. It is a jewel of a novel- sparkling while you read, and shimmering on the back of your eyelids long after you have turned the last page.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Summer and Writing

When I was a child, summers were magical. They were comprised of moments like this:

Jumping into the alligator infested river in the middle of the night to swim alone in the rippling moonlight, eating cool-pops on the front porch, slurping warm, metallic tasting water from the end of the water hose, climbing oak trees, swinging from vines and crashing to the ground, water balloons, splinters, copperheads and black snakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, bonfires, picking blackberries, thunderstorms, heat lightning, and reaching out into the darkness to catch fireflies with my brother while the stars shimmered overhead and we knew that we were participating in something ancient and miraculous and divine.

I am an adult now. And I've moved away from the woods and the swamp; I live in a city, by the ocean.

I'm more likely to run down the shell crusted beach, instead of a splintering wooden dock, and crash into salty waves instead of slipping into velvety stillness. I'm more likely to drink sangria, eat gluten-free chips and salsa and not get lost among the trees.

But I am still guided by my imagination. I still believe in daydreaming, still believe that reading is the perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon, and that inhabiting other worlds in my mind is not a means of escape, but simply a better way to experience life.

We don't have fireflies here in the city, but I am chasing much the same thing with my words. When I write, I am stretching back to something ancient and forward to something miraculous. I am seeking the divine in a phrase, in a description, in a character, in a scene.

Summer is still magical.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Why "Kon-Tiki!" is My New Battle Cry

I love books that are beautiful without meaning to be. Books that make you sit up and examine your own life when the author was only attempting to record a story, a moment in time and pass it on to the reader.
Okay, so Kon-Tiki, the true and infamous book about a Norwegian who built a raft and sailed from Peru to Polynesia just to prove that it could be done, is not just an everyday story. And no, it did not inspire me to go build a raft out of sticks and hop in the ocean. I live five miles from the beach. I like to watch sea life documentaries. That’s about as far as I want to take it when it comes to the seafaring lifestyle.
No, Thor Heyerdahl’s wild adventures on the Pacific and candid writing style inspired me in another way- the “shut up and just do it” kind of way. Heyerdahl was no Shackleton or Amundsen; he was not out to discover a new land or become rich and famous or get girls. So why did he set out to attempt the impossible? Because no one would read his manuscript! He had written a book on his theory that people from South America had sailed across the Pacific Ocean and colonized the islands of the South Seas. Everyone thought the idea was absurd and publishers refused to even read the manuscript. So he decided to prove that it could be done. This is what I find so inspiring: when I get a manuscript rejection, I eat a pint of ice cream and go outside to kick a tree. Thor Heyerdahl built a raft out of balsa wood and successfully sailed across the Pacific Ocean. Talk about sticking it to the man….
And then there is Heyerdahl’s breathtaking ability to kindle the spark of the sublime among chapters filled with sharks, whales and flying fish. In describing a night on the raft he writes:
            Coal-black seas towered up on all sides, and a glittering myriad of tropical stars drew a faint reflection from plankton in the water. The world was simple—stars in the darkness. Whether it was 1947 B.C. or A.D. suddenly became of no significance.
When I read those lines, “The world was simple—stars in the darkness,” so many things made sense for me. The world can be simple, is simple, if you look at it the right way. People don’t like your book? Build a boat. People say you’re going to drown when you sail it? Prove them wrong and end up on a tropical island drinking coconut milk and dancing the hula. Feel the weight of the world, of deadlines, rejections, failures and complicated relationships pressing down on you? Take a deep breath and look up at the sky. In the end, Thor Heyerdahl reminds us, we control our destiny and that is all that really matters.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Transitions and Writing

Change is good. And now the best change of all for a high school teacher has finally occurred: the end of the school year. Yes, I love my job. And my students. And the faculty. And most of all that perfect moment in the classroom when everything just "clicks" and it makes sense why I do what I do. BUT... there is nothing like the feeling of having worked incredibly hard all year and then knowing that I now have two months all to myself to relax, re-center and, oh yeah, write. My goal is to finish the first draft of my third novel by the start of the next school year- it can be done! And now I have the time to do it. Happy Summer....

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review: Karen Russell's "Vampires in the Lemon Grove"

     As with her two previously published works (Swamplandia! and St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves- also a collection of short stories) Vampires in the Lemon Grove borders on the bizarre. Each short story makes me wonder if Russell wakes up in the morning with a question, such as: "what happens when a president dies?" or "where does silk come from?" and then answers them for herself- "Oh, he becomes a reincarnated horse!" and "kidnapped, furry, mutant girls, of course!".

    Yet the beauty in this collection of haunting, awkward and even grotesque stories doesn't lie only in the breadth of Russell's imagination and her penchant for the otherworldly. The real strength of Russell's writing comes forth in the gracious curve of her sentences and her uncanny ability to balance narrative diction with lyrical syntax. She makes it appear effortless. Reading her stories is like watching a tightrope walker meander on a tiny wire above your head, and feeling certain that the acrobat will never fall. For anyone who enjoys the artistry of well-crafted fiction, Vampires in the Lemon Grove is not to be missed.