Books of the Month: May 2018

IMG_9694Troubling Love, by Elena Ferrante. Like many others, I read all four of the Napoli novels by Elena Ferrante. Like Troubling Love, they troubled and entranced me simultaneously. Ferrante’s depiction of a lifelong friendship between two women in the Napoli novels–if friendship is the right word– a friendship that covered five decades of life and love and hate and hardship, will be with me always. People talk about the beauty of Ferrante’s writing, but I don’t find it beautiful. I do find it mesmerizing, though, to the extent that I stood outside the door of Magers & Quinn on the day the fourth and final novel came out, waiting to buy it and devour it. She is an unsparing writer who writes with a kind of calm brutality. Nothing slips by her. Such is the case with Troubling Love. It’s a slender novel about a daughter trying to unravel the mystery of her mother’s death, and by extension, the mystery of her own childhood. This novel reads like a dream/nightmare, and I couldn’t put it down. 

IMG_9685Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. Damn. This is a hell of a novel. I was instantly absorbed into the lives of this Shaker Heights community and its denizens. Ng writes with such clarity about every one of her people, no matter who they are, weaving issues of class and race into the powerful themes of the book in such a way that I empathized with everyone. That’s not an easy task. You know what else is an inordinately difficult task? To write in the third person omniscient (in which you’re inside the heads of everyone) and pull it off, the way Ng does, seemingly without effort. And her portrayal of Mia, the photographer artist at the core of every scene, was astonishing in its powerful take on what drives an artist and her art. I loved this book. 

 

IMG_9636Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds. Jason Reynolds can do no wrong in my eyes. He’s changing the world, one book and one speech at a time, and Long Way Down is no exception. The structure of the book is cool –it takes place in a single elevator ride from the 13th floor to the lobby of the building in which the main character lives–and it’s told in near-verse. Few words, huge power. This novel shook me up and made me want to reach into its world and wrap my arms around everyone, living and dead, who is given a voice here. 

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What I Leave Behind, by Alison McGhee. Yup, this is my own book. While on book tour for this new novel, about a sixteen year old boy named Will who works in a dollar store and is trying to figure his way through some tough times, I’ve had to re-read it. Much to my surprise and relief, this hasn’t been a soul-damaging experience. Maybe because it’s such a brief, poem-like book, and maybe because readers are responding to it straight from the heart, which is how I wrote it. Here are a few of the things they’ve said on Goodreads. 1. I can’t believe a book this small managed to touch my heart so completely. 2. Will’s compassion and kindness ripped my heart out. 3. . . . a beautiful look at trauma, what to do when you feel powerless in the world, and how to do more than just move forward. 4. One of the most profound, poignant books I’ve read in a while. Very few books make life feel so real and precious.

IMG_9866Looking for Alaska, by John Green. This is my third John Greene novel, and when I finished it I decided to read everything else he’s written. The man deserves his bestselling and critically acclaimed status. The way he gets straight to the heart of the matter, the matter being life and its big questions in the face of tough situations, especially in his brilliant dialogue, is the way I wish we all were, all the time, in real life. His people are so real and so lovable, and they care so much about each other. Hilarious, painful, heart-opening.

Poem of the Week, by Pat Mora

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Mrs. Martin was the only one who believed in me.

When Mr. Jackson died I flew across the country to his funeral and told his family what he had meant to me. 

I still have the note that Miss Delaney gave me on the last day of third grade.  

I named my son after Mr. James, the way you might name a son for his father. Because that’s how important Mr. James was to me. 

Teachers wield power –sometimes for bad, like the first-grade teacher who hung a sign around my sister’s neck that read “I talk too much in class,” but mostly for good. And that power lasts a lifetime. How many times I have given this prompt in a workshop —Think of a powerful figure from your childhood and write about that person– and listened to story after story about a teacher. A magical teacher who created a cloud of safety around a child ignored, unseen, and unsung, as in the quiet, lovely poem below. 

 

Ode to Teachers, by Pat Mora

I remember
the first day,
how I looked down,
hoping you wouldn’t see
me,
and when I glanced up,
I saw your smile
shining like a soft light
from deep inside you.

“I’m listening,” you encourage us.
“Come on!
Join our conversation,
let us hear your neon certainties,
thorny doubts, tangled angers,”
but for weeks I hid inside.

I read and reread your notes
praising
my writing,
and you whispered,
“We need you
and your stories
and questions
that like a fresh path
will take us to new vistas.”

Slowly, your faith grew
into my courage
and for you—
instead of handing you
a note or apple or flowers—
I raised my hand.

I carry your smile
and faith inside like I carry
my dog’s face,
my sister’s laugh,
creamy melodies,
the softness of sunrise,
steady blessings of stars,
autumn smell of gingerbread,
the security of a sweater on a chilly day.    

 

For more information on Pat Mora, please click here.​

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Poem of the Week, by Richard Jones

IMG_6359Old men who hold their wives’ handbags for them as they put on their coats. Young fathers who hold their toddlers’ hands as they cross the street. The girl who jumps up to open the door for the woman using the walker. The cafe manager who keeps a water bowl outside, filled with cool water, for passing dogs. The man with the truck who goes up and down the rural road, plowing out his elderly neighbors. Everyone waving goodbye, tears in their eyes, as the ones they love disappear into the airport, like in the movie Love Actually*. The movie Love Actually. A note left in a poetry box, thanking the “poem attendant” for “all the good poems.” A carful of grinning men chattering in Spanish, pulling over to the side of a snowy road and pushing the young woman’s car out of the ditch. The world is full of sweetness. When I need to remind myself of that, which is often, in these days of bewildering cruelty and greed by our elected employees, this is one of the poems I recite to myself. 

 

After Work, by Richard Jones

Coming up from the subway
into the cool Manhattan evening,
I feel rough hands on my heart –
women in the market yelling
over rows of tomatoes and peppers,
old men sitting on a stoop playing cards,
cabbies cursing each other with fists
while the music of church bells
sails over the street,
and the father, angry and tired
after working all day,
embracing his little girl,
kissing her,
mi vida, mi corazon,
brushing the hair out of her eyes
so she can see.

 

For more information on Richard Jones, please click here.

*I love Love Actually except for how mean they are to Aurelia’s sister. And I fast-forward past Sarah and Karl’s scenes because they are too painful. 


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Poem of the Week, by Ellen Bass

Me and ArthurLast week my water filter leaked into the storage bin where my youngest’s childhood mementoes are kept. I brought it upstairs and spread her things out to dry. Onesies, footie pajamas, overalls with ripped-out knees. Her high school graduation cap. Notebooks filled with book reports and drawings and journal entries. Cards she’d written to me, mostly construction paper drawings along with I love you mom. The arc of eighteen years spread out on the kitchen table and counters. The tiny quilt I made for her before she was born and which she wore to literal shreds was damp, and I picked up the strands and held them to my heart.

The day my first baby was born was the day I knew true terror. What if something happened to him? That terror only grew when his sister was born, and again when my second daughter entered my life. There’s no way around that terror. All you can do is learn to live with it. That’s the price of love. I’m thinking now of daughters and sons and mothers stretching into infinity, all of them holding tight to some version of a blanket. 

  

For My Daughter on Her Twenty-First Birthday, by Ellen Bass

When they laid you in the crook
of my arms like a bouquet and I looked
into your eyes, dark bits of evening sky,
I thought, of course this is you,
like a person who has never seen the sea
can recognize it instantly.
They pulled you from me like a cork
and all the love flowed out. I adored you
with the squandering passion of spring
that shoots green from every pore.
You dug me out like a well. You lit
the deadwood of my heart. You pinned me
to the earth with the points of stars.
I was sure that kind of love would be
enough. I thought I was your mother.
How could I have known that over and over
you would crack the sky like lightning,
illuminating all my fears, my weaknesses, my sins.
Massive the burden this flesh
must learn to bear, like mules of love.

 

For more information about Ellen Bass, please click here.

New one-day creative writing workshops!

Dear writers,
If any of these three new June workshops look interesting to you, please join us. I’d love to see you there. All workshops are taught in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis.

Friday, June 8: Manuscript Feedback: Picture Books 

Location: Uptown’s Community Gathering Space, 36th & Bryant Ave. S., Minneapolis
Time: 12-4 pm
Cost: $100, payable via personal check or this Paypal link.

Do you have a picture book manuscript that you need feedback on? Welcome to my one-day picture book manuscript feedback class! We’ll begin by going over the basics of picture book writing, then move on to individual feedback. Each participant is welcome to bring a picture book manuscript to distribute to the class. We’ll read each out loud, make notes, and then talk about the story. Where is its inherent power? Are there ways to make it stronger? 

The class is​ designed for picture book writers of all abilities, experience levels and subject matter – so I forbid you to worry or feel inadequate. Note also that even if you don’t have a current manuscript in hand, you are welcome to attend, because the class will provide lots of useful information for your future drafts. Enrollment is limited to 12.

 

Friday, June 15: The Transformation of Trauma

Location: Uptown’s Community Gathering Space, 36th & Bryant Ave. S., Minneapolis
Time: 2-4 pm.
Cost: FREE, but registration is required. Send me an email at alison_mcghee@hotmail.com to add your name to the list.

Are you haunted by the memory of trauma? Maybe someone sexually assaulted you, or abused you over a long period of time. Maybe you’re having a hard time going on after the loss of someone you loved. Maybe as a child, or adult, you struggled through domestic violence or emotional manipulation. If your life is compromised by these memories, and you’re looking for a way to work through them and find a happier and more peaceful life, welcome to this workshop. The making of art, in all its many and varied forms, can be a profound way to make sense of past experiences that were unfair, unwanted, and cruel. We’ll do some brief writings, read and discuss a few short readings, and hopefully find ways to unlock your own power. This class is designed for people of any writing ability or experience – all are welcome. Enrollment is limited to 10.

 

Thursday, June 21: Creative Writing Kickstart 

Location: Uptown’s Community Gathering Space, 36th & Bryant Ave. S., Minneapolis
Time: 5:30-8:30 pm
Cost: $75, payable via personal check or this Paypal link.

Have you always wanted to write but aren’t sure how to begin? Or, are you a writer in need of an energy boost and a fresh start? This three-hour intensive Kickstart workshop will recharge your writing energy and help you develop a regular writing practice. We’ll do several brief writings and talk about various aspects of craft and process –maybe language, maybe flow, maybe dialogue, maybe tense and point of view, maybe some other things– in terms of what makes great writing great. 

The class is designed for writers of all abilities, experience levels and genres – so I forbid you to worry if you’ve never written before! Whether you’re a longtime writer in need of a boost or someone who’s always had an interest in writing but never known how to sit down and get started, the class is designed for you. 

Bonus: Weekly writing prompts will be emailed to you for one month following the end of class. Enrollment is limited to 15.

“What I Leave Behind,” a novel

IMG_9435I. My new novel, What I Leave Behind, out on May 15, stars 16-year-old Will. Will is one of those charming people that everyone loves – maybe because he’s naturally cool, but probably because he’s fundamentally kind. He knows how to make lonely people feel less lonely, for example his socially-awkward boss Tom at Dollar General. He knows how hard life can be –he lost his dad to suicide a few years ago and his childhood friend was recently assaulted—but instead of turning inward to his own pain and sorrow Will tries to make the lives of those around him better.

II. Will wonders: If he had stayed at the party where his friend was assaulted, could he have prevented it? Could he somehow have prevented his father’s suicide? Questions torment him. One of the ways Will tries to make sense of this un-sense-making world is by walking. He walks and walks and walks the streets of his downtown L.A. neighborhood, past Superman, the homeless man, past the house of a little boy he’s nicknamed Little Butterfly Dude because of his love of butterflies, past the bridge where his dad jumped, until he finds a rhythm that lets his thoughts roam free.

III. What I Leave Behind is a novel in almost-verse. I composed it in 100 chapters of 100 words exactly. It was a great artistic challenge to compress the emotion and depth of a novel into one-hundred-word passages, but I love great artistic challenges and I loved writing this book. The brevity of the passages and the need to infuse them with profound emotion worked a kind of magic on me. So did Will’s kindness. He is near and dear to my heart. Will conjured himself up like a gift to the world. I hope he feels that way to readers.

 

Early Reviews

“Told from Will’s fragmented, raw perspective, this slim novella packs a profound punch. Haunting, introspective, and traced with pain.” Kirkus, starred review.

“In this spare, emotionally raw novella, the deeply thoughtful 16-year-old narrator, Will, vainly tries to recreate his father’s cornbread recipe, and he walks through L.A. neighborhoods while his mom works overnight at the hospital. Ultimately, the piercing narrative offers an affirmation of remaining connected to others through loss as Will embraces his relationships and begins to heal.” Publishers Weekly, starred review.

“Sixteen-year-old Will is a walker. Things have to be walked out through the soles of your feet, he believes. McGhee’s short, understated novel is an artful exercise in melancholy. . . conveying emotions that are pure and sincere. Will is a classic wounded teenager who is nevertheless his own person. Everybody loved his father—and every reader will love openhearted Will.” Booklist, starred review, Review of the Day.

Bookstore Appearances

May 16, St. Paul, MN. The Red Balloon Bookshop, 6:30 pm.

May 21, La Grange, IL. Anderson’s Bookstore, 7 pm. 

May 22, Cincinnati, OH. Joseph Beth Booksellers. In conversation with Mindee Arnett and Emily Henry, 7 pm. 

May 23, Washington, DC. Politics & Prose. In conversation with Mary Quattlebaum (Washington Parent editor and Washington Post freelancer), 7 pm. 

May 24, Madison, CT. RJ Julia Books, 6:30 pm. 

To Order a Copy

From your local independent bookstore
From Amazon

From Barnes & Noble

 

 

Poem of the Week, by Robyn Sarah

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Last week I visited The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My grandfather and his family lived there when they first emigrated to New York, after fleeing the pogroms in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Small dark rooms. No electricity. No running water. Four toilets in the back yard for the entire building. Family piecework factories. One of my great-uncles died of TB, which he contracted in a sweatshop. No, scratch that. He died of suicide because he didn’t want to put his family through the pain and expense of a long and agonizing death. 

On our tour, I was the only American. When the tour guide asked if there had once been languages spoken in our families that are no longer spoken, I was the only one to raise my hand: “Sure. Russian, Yiddish, German, Danish, French.” My ancestors lived not an American dream but an American story, like most of us.  It was a relief to emerge from that dark, cramped tenement and stand in the sunshine. 

 

On Closing the Apartment of My Grandparents of Blessed Memory, by Robyn Sarah

And then I stood for the last time in that room.
The key was in my hand. I held my ground,
and listened to the quiet that was like a sound,
and saw how the long sun of winter afternoon
fell slantwise on the floorboards, making bloom
the grain in the blond wood. (All that they owned
was once contained here.) At the window moaned
a splinter of wind. I would be going soon.

I would be going soon; but first I stood,
hearing the years turn in that emptied place
whose fullness echoed. Whose familiar smell,
of a tranquil life, lived simply, clung like a mood
or a long-loved melody there. A lingering grace.
Then I locked up, and rang the janitor’s bell.    

 

For more information on Robyn Sarah, please click here.

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Books of the Month, April 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 7.08.45 PM.pngBorn a Crime, by Trevor Noah. I listened to Trevor Noah read his memoir aloud to me as my tiny little car and I cruised along the highways of Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma. What a wonderful book. Noah was born to a black South African woman and a white British father in South Africa – his birth was literally a crime back in the waning days of apartheid, hence the title of the memoir. Like Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, this book is as much an homage to his fierce, brilliant, take-no-shit mother as it is his own story. Listening to Noah talk about race, class, the city vs. the townships, and his coming of age on the mean streets of both made me think about my own country and upbringing. This book is by turns hilarious, enraging, enlightening, and always utterly absorbing. Highly recommend – and if you’re an audio fan, get the audio version. Noah is an uncanny mimic. 

IMG_9434 Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple. This was my first sampling of Maria Semple, and damn, she’s good. A few pages into this novel, I was both immersed and sure that it would fit into a category of novels that in my head I think of, rightly or wrongly, as Funny Contemporary Novels About Funny Contemporary Women. Brain candy-ish but smart. I was wrong. Today Will Be Different is far less categorizable and far more complex, multi-layered and deeper than I initially expected. Much of the novel centers around a middle-aged woman who’s trying, against her own predilections, to be a good and kind person. She’s haunted by the loss, due to a complicated estrangement, of her beloved younger sister, and as the novel progresses, this loss is shown to affect everything about her daily life and her relationships – with her husband, her son, her friends. An unexpectedly moving novel, with an uncomfortably acute sense of the human psyche, that I had a hard time putting down. Also, it’s hilarious. Highly recommend.

IMG_9492How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a novel by Mohsin Hamid. Such a poignant, bittersweet, moving novel this is. It’s been kicking around on my bookshelves for a couple of years now, because even though I knew it was a novel, every time I looked at it I would tilt my head and think How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising AsiaJust doesn’t sound like a novel. And because I don’t care about getting filthy rich in rising Asia (or anywhere else for that matter), it stayed on the shelf. But once I finally cracked the cover and began reading, wow. Structured like the get rich quick self-help books that are apparently wildly popular in Asia, with each chapter heading a different aspect of how to get rich, the book charts the life of one unnamed man. We follow him from early childhood in rural Pakistan (I’m assuming, because the country, like the main character, is never named) to old age in a sprawling, tentacled, ever-growing city, every step of the way alighting, like a hummingbird, on the various aspects of his life and longings that never change. A delicate, painfully-wrought, beautiful book. I loved this novel and will now seek out Hamid’s other books. Highly recommend.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 3.41.10 PMThe House Without Windows: And Eepersip’s Life There, a novel by Barbara Newhall Follett. Reading this brief novel was an experience unlike any I’ve had before when reading. The author, who was born in 1914 and vanished at the age of thirty, was eight years old when she wrote the novel and twelve when it was published. After reading an article about her on NPR I tracked down her novel and read it as an e-book. The House Without Windows is about a child desperate to live alone in the wild. She runs away from her family, never to live with them again, and dances and sings and swims and climbs her way from forest to sea to mountains. She lives on roots and berries, she weaves clothes from ferns and leaves and flowers. In the end, she vanishes from human sight and becomes a nymph of the woodlands. As I read the book I had the constant feeling that I was inside the mind of its writer, even that she was writing a dream of her own life that portended her disappearance (death? suicide?) as a young woman. When I finished the book I went in search of more information about her. Barbara Newhall Follett was a badass from start to finish – she did not live by the rules of society and she did not care to. Reading her novel, and then about her, has left me unsettled. It’s almost as if she’s calling to us from a century ago, at this particular time in the life of women in the world, with a fierce message. Highly recommend, if only because it’s essential to jolt yourself out of your habits every once in a while, and this novel will do that.