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This is a first–upon finishing Bright Before Us, still shivering from that perfect head and stomach turning feeling a great book’s last sentence can give you, I turned to the acknowledgments page and found myself thanked. In one way, this isn’t totally surprising–although Katie and I are more like pen pals these days, she’s a friend and we were MFA classmates in Mary LaChapelle’s, Amy Hempel’s and Victoria Redel’s wonderful classes. In another way, this is totally surprising because I can’t imagine I provided any sort of help in this book’s journey to being. I was essentially incapable of providing constructive criticism when it came to Katie’s submissions in workshop. I would read her draft and think, “Well, that’s perfect. Publish it!”

And, more or less, that’s what she’s done. This book is little changed since I first read it in draft form. The ending is different and tweaks have been made here and there, but I wasn’t being too generous in class–it really was already that good.  Read the rest of this entry »

I just returned last night from Sayulita, Mexico. During the week I spent there, I alternated between swimming in the ocean, floating in the pool, eating fish tacos and guacamole, and reading. It was absolutely heavenly (except for one small blip of food poisoning near the end) and coming home to the news that my beloved American Folk Art Museum is closing makes New York seem all the more distant from paradise.

At least I have the memories, some new recipe ideas (chipotle/peanut salsa?!), a bit of a tan, and some truly excellent reading to look back on. I may write longer posts about some of these later, especially because I think I’m going to read the first one again this week, just to meditate on the sentences some more. But for now, here’s a list.

1. In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard

The day after this book came out, I went to a little bookstore on the UES and bought them out of copies. It was torture to wait a week until I was in Mexico to read the one I kept, but I waited and it was worth it. There are no real big events in this book, just the trials of being a fourteen year old girl. A few years ago, when Jo Ann was speaking at Sarah Lawrence, someone asked her what this, then incomplete and quite overdue, book was about, she said: “Oh, two girls being idiots.” And it is! And that’s terrific. These girls and lives are so real, so lived, so carefully observed. As always with Jo Ann, the magic is in the writing.

2. An Invisible Sign of my Own by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender has joined the cast of my favorites, alongside Jo Ann Beard, Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro. I came to her fairly late–I read some of her stories and liked them but she didn’t quite grab me until The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Suddenly, I was in love and sought out this older novel of hers. It is simple, sweet and incredibly weird. It takes place in a small town existing in the shadow of an impossibly large hospital made of blue glass. Sickness abounds, in many forms. Mona, a nineteen year old obsessed with numbers, becomes an elementary school math teacher and winds up connecting with her class of second graders in a big way. She also buys an axe for her 20th birthday and hangs it on her classroom wall. You know that’s not a good idea, but don’t find out why for quite a while. There’s a romantic love story in here, but many other kinds of love stories, too. PS I just read that this book has been made into what seems to be a terrible movie starring Jessica Alba. I advise you to skip the movie and read the book.

3. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

This book, I’m happy to report, lives up to the hype. Its central image is Philippe Petit walking on his tightrope between the Twin Towers. This action somehow touches the lives of many people on the ground, seemingly disparate but ultimately closely connected. A car accident and a trial later in the book have the same sort of effect–although only a few characters are present for each, these incidents alter the fate of all of them. The stories told here are of people as diverse as a mother-daughter prostitute team in the South Bronx, two brothers from Ireland, a beautiful failed artist, a judge, a group of women who lost their sons in Vietnam, and more are braided together into an incredible novel. There was one section in the middle that I didn’t understand and I think could have been easily excised from the novel, but everything else was wonderful and necessary. The reader is able to see the same incidents through the eyes of many different protagonists which brings depth and understanding to every corner of the book. I read it in one day, not because it was suspenseful and I needed to see what happened, but because I had the time and there was nothing I’d rather do (and–remember–I was in paradise).