Friday, April 21, 2017

Book Review: Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

I inadvertently found myself in possession of an advance reader's edition of Elizabeth Strout's newest book, Anything is Possible. It's set to drop on April 25th.

Scrabble's response to the title:
Does this mean I can eat ten times a day?

It's a companion, a follow-up if you will (but not a sequel) to her last novel, My Name is Lucy Barton. Which was fantastic and spare and a perfect example of Strout's phenomenal carefulness in her writing. I loved it for all those reasons. I love Anything is Possible for completely different reasons.

It's a collection of linked stories, not unlike Strout's Olive Kitteredge. Each of the stories showcases a particular character referenced in My Name is Lucy Barton. In My Name, conversations with her mother over the span of a few days reference a host of do-you-remembers, and whatever-happened-tos involving offscreen characters that are delightfully interesting in their own right. Anything is Possible is full of these rich characters rendered fully alive in chapter after chapter of delicately connected stories.

The themes running throughout is one of the things I love about the book. Centering around Amgash, Illinois, many of the stories involve poverty--the overcoming of it, the experience of shame within it, as well as the experience of having no shame growing up in it. Strout looks at the issue of rural, very American-style poverty from a variety of angles through these stories, shedding fresh light from each angle on a complex issue. Veterans also make frequent appearances throughout the stories, and Strout explores the ways they return from war changed, and in turn changing those around them. Another theme running throughout is the tension (often only internal) between staying and leaving your small town roots, as well as how painful returning can be.

The other thing I love about this book is that it is not spare. In fact, it's luxuriously sprawling. I felt like I'd found a giant box of sentimental keepsakes. It was so dang satisfying to get to read into all these characters lives, enjoy the bird's eye view into a town's connections, and find each character living lives large with meaning even in the midst of harsh pain and loss. Perhaps the characters did not see or feel this meaning, certainly no one walked around their chapter in a blissed out state, but the reader can detect the depth.

The opportunity to see these characters play out their own destinies beyond their several sentences of introduction in My Name is Lucy Barton was a deep pleasure. It reminded me of the experience of reading L.M. Montgomery as a young impressionable reader. Of course I adored Anne of Green Gables, but I also found Montgomery's collections of spin off stories and novels fascinating--books like Rilla of Ingleside (based on Anne's daughter), Jane of Lantern Hill, and the Story Girl. They expanded the universe Anne lived in even when they had no direct connection to Anne's storyline. Prince Edward Island still looms high on my list of places to visit in this lifetime.

Super satisfying read all around. Quick note: I was glad to have had the chance to re-read My Name is Lucy Barton first; having these characters fresh in my easily distractible memory prior to reading Anything is Possible made the experience even more enjoyable. I think you could still enjoy Anything is Possible on it's own, but you'd miss out a bit, so I recommend starting with My Name is Lucy Barton if you haven't read it already. And it's a really great re-read, all the more so because it is so spare and you can devour the whole thing in one or two sittings really.

If you are in the bay area, join me at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on May 11th for an Elizabeth Strout appearance, or find her near you here: http://www.elizabethstrout.com/appearances/ .

Happy reading!




Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Writing is a Confidence Game

Some people just naturally walk around the world feeling like they are hot shit. I'd wager most weren't writers. Oh sure, there are some exceptions: some cock-sure arrogant types who truly believe every word from their pen is golden. They've either been praised too much in their youth or never been workshopped before.

In general though, writers are a needy unconfident bunch. An unexpected side effect of going part-time and tripling my writing efforts is to get way more in touch with this part of myself.

My job has its own cycle of feedback and reward, and mine is not generous in either but I generally know how I'm regarded, and I'm quite confident in about 60% of what I do. The other 40% are either things I'm getting better at, or things I don't care if I ever get better at.

It took me a solid one and a half to two years at this job to feel confident. That's a really long ramp-up time, but universally true for my role in my organization. It's complicated, ambiguous work further complexified by systems that don't work and shifting industry needs.

I've been writing since I was a child, and very intentionally growing myself as a writer since 2003. Fourteen years into that process, having studied for and received an MFA in creative writing, having countless workshops and story swaps to gain useful and sometimes painful feedback, tiny bits of external affirmation through publication, and reams of printer paper sacrificed for handwritten first drafts followed by dozens of re-drafts, thousands of mornings just me and the blank page, and I still find myself questioning if I'm truly a writer.

No book out yet. It's a vulnerable feeling. I'm twitchy that certain people wonder at this lack of progress, I suspect they are beginning to think I should obviously just give up if I haven't made it by now.


Scrabble, doing her best to infuse the writing 
with a sense of confidence and illumination


The itty bitty fierce resilient fighter inside me says: this is how it always feels right before it gets better. Before the payoff. If you do the work. And then, if you're lucky, you'll get to experience the other crises of confidence that go along with getting a second book out. And then another. But if you chicken out now, there are still a lot of years left of life to be disappointed in yourself. If you get quiet, hush the scary voices you've invited into your head just long enough, then maybe....

I can hear her say something akin to my MFA director,

Writing is a game of attrition. Don't attrish. 

I'm not sharing this to solicit votes of confidence, to prod others into bolstering my ego. I'm sharing it because it's true, and I know it's not just true for me. So if you too are feeling less strong in yourself than you need to be, if you feel like you're losing in the super un-fun game of confidence, borrow my little fighter's voice if it helps, or give yourself permission to hear your own. Writing is a game of attrition. Don't attrish.