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The House of the Spirits

When I was sixteen years old, in a period of about seven weeks, I read The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende and A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle, back to back.  I was in Mexico at the time, where I was already feeling very tender and romantic.  My heart was wide open to both books, and being surrounded by Spanish speakers didn’t hurt getting me into the House of the Spirits … spirit.

I’d always loved reading, but A Ring of Endless Light and La Casa de Los Espíritus did something remarkable to me that spring.  Before them, I didn’t know books could be like that.  I didn’t know a writer could just rub her palms together and materialize a fiction so fantastical, so wild, so true, close to the heart, and powerful, that it could transport a young girl completely out of her own reality, then slam her home at the end so violently as to render her a woman with a closing of the back cover.  But that’s what happened.  Equally profoundly, I believe it was those two books, read in that place at that time, that turned me into a writer.  (I promptly borrowed a typewriter from the house manager, Jaime, and sat poolside banging away at my first manuscript, as some old classmates might recall.)

Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L'Engle

Certain books inspire me for their greatness.  Some for their glorious mediocrity.  Some for being just what I needed at the time.  The House of the Spirits and A Ring of Endless Light are not on my list of current books that inspire me, but I thought they deserved due mention.  I haven’t gone back to either of them since the first time, and I’m not sure I ever will.  I’m tempted, but I’m also inclined to think that they’ve served their purpose in my life, and that I should let them be.  They’re in my personal cannon, and they’ll be gifted to all the little girls in my life as they approach their mid-teens (just what every girl wants for Channukah – a stack of books).  But for me, I’ve moved on.

Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende

The books on this list are not the only books I’ve read, and some of them aren’t even the best books I’ve read.  Favorites don’t always inspire, necessarily.  Sometimes they coddle or console, without generating any degree of inspiration.  The list I’ve started, and that I plan to add to periodically till I reach 7, is very specifically a list of the books that light a spark (or a brush-fire, depending) in the writing crevices of my personhood.  They’re the books that make me know I have to try harder, and have to do better.  They’re books that feel like exercise, or a really delicious meal that’s also healthful.  There are several Pulitzer recipients on my list, so I won’t be winning any originality awards on this one, but that’s not the point.  Apparently, the books that inspire me also inspire boatloads of other people, and I’m hoping the most interesting parts of my list are in the whys, not the whats.

The list is written in no particular order, though now that I look at it it’s almost chronological (in the order I read them, not that they were written).

~ please tell me what books inspire your own work in the comments!  just scroll way down.  i want a blog comment so, so bad. ~

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City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan, by Beverly Swerling – added 9.23.11

In 2005 I went to my local library and asked the librarian to point me toward his favorite historical fiction.

“Something with plenty of sex,” I specified with a smile.  Then I added, “and politically inspired violence.”

I had the beginnings of my first novel germinating, but I hadn’t yet started any writing.  I had just finished reading Gone with the Wind for the first time, though I can practically recite all four hours of the film from memory, and I had this idea that I could write something sweeping and epic as well.  I needed more than Margaret Mitchell under my belt, so I sought out another grand tale.  The librarian offered me a dirty blue flyer printed in a monospaced font, from a copier that must have been nearly out of toner.  It was a list one of the librarians had compiled in her spare time, bless her heart, of her personal historical fiction picks.  I navigated my way through the Dewey decimals, reading dust jacket synopses, and eventually landed on Swerling’s bulky early New York epic.

I love stories of old New York, so City of Dreams seemed like an obvious choice.  I checked it out, and a month or so later, my own first novel was officially born.  This novel is on my list because it’s close to my heart in this way, and also because Beverly Swerling does one hell of a job telling her story.  It’s inspiring because she made the task of writing a big, complicated books with a host of unwieldy characters seem doable to me.

The most inspiring aspect of Beverly Swerling’s saga was, for me, that her prose isn’t magical.  She doesn’t spin it like silk.  There’s nothing flowery in her writing.  Her analogies are coarse.  There’s not a whole lot of poetry there.  But girlfriend can tell one hell of a story.  She’s a fierce raconteur.

Beverly Swerling

Beverly Swerling

I’ve long known the limits of my own true talent as a writer.  At the time, I feared that my straightforwardness was a liability.  That my inability to do the Toni Morrison thing made me a sub-par specimen.  For all my originality in life, when I sit down to write, what comes out is very practical.  Not my story-lines, per se.  More my style.  The language I choose.  The words I cobble together to make a complete picture.  They’re very regular.  What Beverly Swerling taught me through City of Dreams, is that it’s all good.  City of Dreams is a page-turner.  Swerling has built a veritable franchise out of the series, and she’s been able to support herself on writing alone – that’s no movie deals, just writing – which in this crazy time in history is tragically rare.

She weaves a complicated and compelling narrative in novel after novel, and she does it brilliantly without emulating that classic greatness.  As an author, and I imagine as a person, she’s confident, and is just who she is.

And not for nothing, she’s not afraid to write raunchy and violent sex scenes, which is more than I can say for lots of other writers both male and female.  I give her mad props for having the cojones.

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The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver – added 9.23.11

This is legitimately one of my all time favorite books.  I’ve read it twice: the first time, because I heard it took Kingsolver more than ten years to write it, and I found that fascinating – that someone could remain interested in and committed to a project that lasted so long.  (I’m now experiencing my own prolonged proceso largo, though I’m in no way comparing myself to the great Barbara Kingsolver.)  The second time because I realized I’d missed the big picture of it the first time around, so I went back in a few years later.

The quality in Kingsolver’s writing I’m most envious of, and which I guess you could say is most inspiring about The Poisonwood Bible (because I can’t go on about all the inspiring aspects), is how elegantly she weaves the post-colonial tragedies of the Belgian Congo in the 1960s with the lives of the Price women, five in all.

It grounds us in the lives of the women, who are all vastly different from one another, and simultaneously propels us into the tangled complications of wartorn Africa in the 1960s.  She manages to make Africa itself the sixth narrator in the book.  It has its own voice.  As a reader, you can’t help but wish for its salvation above any other human character.  What magic that is, to be able to do that.

The story is narrated, alternately, by each of four sisters and their mother.  They’re the family of a missionary (the husband/father) who starts out slightly off the rails and is driven completely mad by “the dark continent”.  While the lives of the women are dictated largely by the father’s obsessions, he’s almost an afterthought in the narrative.  Each woman has her own private obsessions, her own unique perspective each wildly different from anyone else’s.  There’s a pair of twins, and they share some similarities, but one is beautiful and precocious and the other is crippled and creepy, so they come from very different places in their perceptions.

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver

We see Africa through their eyes.

The miracle of Kingsolver’s writing is that we come to understand the tragedies of what happened in the Congo in 1960 without too many overly expository dialogs.  I could sit, over a glass of wine maybe, and tell you with great detail the sad story of Patrice Lumumba and the United States’ role in his death.  I could tell you what happened when Mobutu took over, and what ensued in the following years.  I could tell you all of that just from reading The Poisonwood Bible, and I don’t even exactly remember learning any of it.  I remember the characters, and their personal threads, and somehow the rest of the knowledge just unobtrusively showed up.

The novel I’ve been working on, on and off for years, has a strong political element.  My protagonist, a young woman, begins to understand the political malfeasances of her government after a close friend is murdered, and she begins to care for the first time.  One of my biggest challenges is figuring out how to pepper the manuscript with enough details to make the political situation clear without getting too far away from the personal narrative.  For me, it ends up like a batter that hasn’t been properly mixed.  There are dry lumps everywhere.  A seven-page hunk of blank-filling-in.  Where Kingsolver’s is creamy as can be.  She manages this as well as it can possibly be done.  It’s like magic.  She makes it seem effortless, the intimate mingling of these disparate pieces.  5 blondes from Georgia and an authoritarian African regime, no problem.

Her prose is also enviable … but I’ll stop here.

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The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx – added 9.24.11

Annie Proulx is exactly the sort of writer I am not.  She is literary to the max.  Every page reads like a poem.  It’s exquisite.  It’s boring.  It’s like drinking simple syrup in a way, and going to bed with a toothache.

I believe I read somewhere that she was a poet before she was a writer of fiction.  That made sense, but the information was contradicted by an interview I later read, where Annie said she never thought of herself as a writer until she fell into journalism, and only that because she needed a job.  I guess that rules out the poet thing, but I do know that I think of her as a poet.  A poet who can’t control herself and straps liquidy plots and unusual characters to long, long poems.

I can’t tell you if I even liked The Shipping News.  I think I liked it, despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy reading it.  I know I’m in awe of it.  I know I wish I could write like that, but even as I admit that I’m not sure I’d want to.   There was nothing luscious about the experience of reading it.  It took me awhile to get through, and when it was over, I felt a bit relived.  I never felt exactly connected to Quoyle, the protagonist, though I did have a vague sense of wanting him to be okay.

I was once lamenting aloud the disappointment I dealt with around the limits of my ability to be literary in my writing style.  What I mean by that is, I’m much more of a Beverly Swerling than I am an Annie Proulx, and at my core I think Annie Proulx is a “better writer” even though the experience of reading Swerling’s work is a hundred times more pleasurable.  It could just be a grass-is-greener thing, I’m not sure.  Because I can do what Swerling does, but on my best day I can’t come close to doing what Proulx does, and so by virtue of its distance from my capabilities it just seems better.  Or it could be what the critics of ultra-literary styles say it is.  Namely, a smoke-and-mirrors thing.  An over complication of simple thoughts to give an illusion of superior quality, where really the work is just a stretching of simple declarative statements, lists, or overworked analogies.


I was bellyaching about this to a friend.  Wondering aloud if my knack for writing – my talent, or whatever it is – even counts beyond its lowest forms of application (like blogging, ahem) if it’s not in the least literary, and he said a really helpful thing.  He said something to the effect of, reading the Annie Proulxes and Cormac McCarthys is like being in a room super crowded with beautiful heavy antique furniture.  Point being: they’re nice to go into but you don’t want to spend a lot of time there.

Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx

I come back to The Shipping News again and again.  I only read the whole thing once, because reading it felt like a project.  But I do take pleasure in walking by the bookshelf, pulling it out, and opening to a random page.  I’m almost certain to land on a good passage.  I find myself drawn to it when I’m feeling stuck on a description of a landscape, in particular.  Her many descriptions of clouds alone are enough to make me toss the critical analysis of her writing style, and hold her up as a scion of true, admirable, crazy talent.

From The Shipping News, here’s an excerpt from the very first page.  One of my very favorite book-beginnings.

Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns…

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence.  Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing.  He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.

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** Next on the list, coming soon! **