The Sunday Salon: Handling the Truth

No one can or should tell you what to write about. But if you don’t know where the memoir impulse is coming from, if you can’t trace it, can’t defend it, can’t articulate an answer when somebody asks “Why’d you want to write a memoir anyway?” – stop. Hold those memoir horses. Either the mind has been teased for years upon years, or there’s that small thing that won’t be refused, or there’s something else genuine and worthy. But nobody wants to hear that you’re writing memoir because you need some quick cash, or because you think it will make you famous, or because your boyfriend said there’s a movie in this, or because you’re so mad and it’s about time you get to tell your version.  from Handling the Truth, on the writing of memoir, by Beth Kephart

handlingthetruthI love Beth Kephart’s writing. I love every lyrical, magical, evocative word of it.  I wallow in a Kephart book, marvel at the way she uses language like a paintbrush, eat up her daily blog posts like part of my healthy breakfast.

So how happy am I that she has finally written a book about writing?


Handling the Truth distills the wisdom from Kephart’s own experience as a writer of memoir, from her class at the University of Pennsylvania, and from the work of those writers  whom she most admires. It’s chock full of sound writing principles and  imaginative exercises, set out in a systematic way to prepare you for the actual writing of your memoir.  If you follow it, you will have a firm foundation for writing your personal story.

But what I love most about Handling the Truth is that it reveals a side of Beth Kephart I’ve not seen before. She is fierce in this book, like a mama bear protecting her cub. Kephart has written five memoirs of her own, each one astoundingly good, each one proving anew her passion for this genre. And throughout handling the truth she exhorts all of us – we fledgling, aspiring memoir writers – not to take this work she loves and mess it up. In the opening pages, she gives us a forthright and adamant list of what memoir is NOT – not “a lecture, a lesson, a stew of information and facts.” NOT “a self-administered therapy session.” NOT “an exercise in self-glorification.” NOT a “trumped-up, fantastical idea of what an interesting life might have been, if only.”

What must we do, then, in order to write the stuff of our lives that is good and strong and true? The stuff that speaks?  Real memoirists “open themselves to self-discovery,” she says, “and, in the process, make themselves vulnerable…They yearn, and they are yearned with. They declare a want to know. They seek out loud. They quest. They lessen the distance. They lean toward.”

Makers of memoir “shape what they have lived and what they have seen. They honor what they love and defend what they believe. They dwell with ideas and language and with themselves, countering complexity with clarity and manipulating time. They locate stories inside the contradictions of their lives…they write the stories once; they write them several times. (…) And when their voices are true, we hear them.”

If there is something in your mind that’s been “teasing you for years,” if there is “some small thing that won’t be refused,” if you are brave enough to take up the memoir standard, then Handling the Truth is the book you must read.

I have purchased a copy of Handling the Truth to give away to an interested reader. Simply leave a comment with the name of your favorite memoir.  Winner will be chosen at random on August 18.

Handling the Truth, by Beth Kephart

Copyright 2013, Gotham Books, published by the Penguin Group

ISBN: 978-1-592-40815-3

Purchase the book here:

Barnes and Noble
Books A Million

The Sunday Salon: Quietude, and the July Reading List

Oh my, the house is quiet.

Connor and Brian reading (july 2013)For the past two weeks we’ve been reveling in a visit from our son, daughter-in-law and 19 month old grandson. But now they’ve headed back to the extreme heat in their hometown near Dallas, and we are left to bask in the cool breezes of  our near-perfect Michigan summer.  We’ve traded our grandson’s precious babbling for the symphony of bird song, accompanied by the rustling of leaves and the mongolian tones of our backyard chimes.

July is historically my busiest reading month. Looking back over the past 10 July’s in my reading journal, I’ve routinely records 10 and 11 books read during this long summer month.

This year totaled only 7  (but then I’m not counting the dozen or so books I read to Connor during the time he was here. And re-read. And read again.)

Here are three of the highlights of my July reading:

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer: This novel was bound to appeal to me, as it featured a group of young people who meet in the 70’s at an arts camp and become friends for life. Their relationships criss cross in unusual ways throughout the intervening decades. Wolitzer writes of the foibles and concerns of my generation, and she does it superbly.

Tomorrow There Will be Apricots, by Jessica Sofer: This beautiful debut novel is the story of two women in New York, a widow and an almost-oprhan, each seeking love and connection, using their common love of food to bring them together. Sofer writes with elegant detail about our relationships with family  – the one we are born to and the one we find for ourselves.

One and Only, by Lauren Sandler: Billed as a “humorous, tough-minded, and honest case for being and having an only child,” Sandler’s book appealed to me on several fronts. Because I am not only an only child myself, but also the daughter, wife, and mother of other “singletons” (the new terminology), I naturally have a vested interest in the subject. Sandler, an only child now raising an only child of her own, is almost rabid in her defense of the one-child family.  She makes her case using more sociological and psychological research than personal examples – this is not a memoir, although her own experience informs her interest in the subject.  As a “mature” only child, one who has been caring for elderly parents for the past two decades, and now facing the perils of old age looming on my own horizon, I would have been interested to see some discussion of how singletons in my demographic are handling their status. Overall, the book was well written and researched, and inspired me to thoughtfully consider my own feelings about this very current subject.

All month long, I’ve been listening to Tumbleweed, by Leila Meacham, a real pot-boiler of a novel about a triumvirate of friends growing up in the Texas panhandle (circa mid 1980’s to the present). I LOVE lisetning to these kinds of books – love the long story, the plot twists and turns, the relationship arcs. Impeccably read by Angele Masters, it’s the kind of novel that so completely engrosses me I sometimes forget where I’m driving (and they talk about cell phones being distracting!)

So far this August, I’m completely engrossed in Sight Reading, a novel by Daphne Kalotay (author of Russian Winter). This is another guaranteed “like” for me, since the main characters are professional musicians. Kalotay has done a marvelous job of research with this novel, as she explores the complex relationships between couples and their work.

How did July shape up in your reading life?

The Sunday Salon: Permission to Read, Please

Woman Reading - Henri MatisseOn this hot summer Sunday, I’ve been seriously contemplating climbing the stairs to my bedroom, stretching out on the king sized bed underneath a gently whirling fan, and reading napping. It’s a revolutionary concept for me – the napping part, not the reading part. I never nap. But I haven’t been sleeping very well, and last night was another in what has become something of an ugly habit – wake up at 1:30, stay awake  until 3 or 3:30, and then drift off into restless sleep until the alarm sounds

Summer afternoons seem made for reading, and I’d love to allow myself the luxury of lolling around with The Burgess Boys, which I picked up at the library yesterday. But most of my reading is done at the extremes of the day. I’m used to reading first thing in the morning, often before anyone else is awake, and last thing at night, just before falling asleep. And these recent middle-of-the-night periods of wakefulness have proven a boon to my reading life, if not my physical one.

I wonder why it seems such a decadent pleasure to read in the middle of the day, one almost akin to eating dessert before (or instead of) the meal. In my youth and early adulthood, I often spent time in the afternoon reading, and recall many summer afternoons spent on the back porch of our house or under the shade tree, book in hand, while baby napped inside. It was so rejuvenating, that hour or so spent with a book, that it seems churlish not to engage in it more often.

It is without a doubt my Puritan work ethic that nudges me off the couch and on to more “productive” tasks. I tell myself that reading is sustenance for a writer, that it’s is necessary for the betterment of my craft. I remind myself that many of the books piled on my TBR shelf are review books and require my dedicated attention. But even as I settle comfortably on the sofa, I can feel nagging tugs at my shirtsleeve…how about that laundry? did you remember to get the chicken out of the freezer? have those bills been paid yet?

What I really crave is permission to let that other stuff go and read in the middle of the day just for the pure love of it. Isn’t that silly?

So without further ado, I will attempt to spend at least part of this summer Sunday engaged in the practice of reading.

How about you? When does most of your reading get done? Is reading during the day a guilty pleasure for you?

The Sunday Salon: Summer Time

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…

MTB070685027  01It is, isn’t it? Anyone who has ever been a slave to the school year (student, parent, teacher) has a special affinity for those precious three months of freedom. Days are loooonnng, creating a seemingly infinite number of possibilities. When I was a child, it meant staying outside until 9:00 at night, it meant hours riding my bicycle side by side with a girlfriend, not going anywhere particular,  just riding around talking and gossiping companionably. It meant queuing up for the Good Humor truck, slurping rainbow popsicles or Nutty Buddies. It meant slathering on Coppertone suntan lotion and jumping into the neighbor’s pool or running through the backyard sprinkler.

But even as a child, reading was an important part of my summer fun. I always joined the library summer reading program, and usually cajoled several of my friends into joining me. We made weekly trips to the library, our carefully completed summer reading logs in hand, and picked out even more books which we’d bring home and pile up next to our chaise loungers under a shade tree. I would carry my reading on far into the night (or as far as my sleepy eyes would let me), my book propped surreptitiously under my pillow with only a tiny flashlight to guide me along its pages.

I noticed our local library has started a summer reading program for adults, in addition to their programs for children and teens. Reading is usually a solitary activity, but it’s human nature to be drawn toward a group so there’s something enticing about the idea of sharing this pastime with other readers. Probably why we like book clubs and readalongs, why I can so easily start conversations with strangers if they’ve got a book in hand. We recognize our compatriots and gravitate toward them.

Sometimes I make plans for my summer reading, but this year I’m winging it – whatever takes my fancy on trips to the library or bookstore. Right now I’m engrossed in Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s breathtaking memoir about finding herself on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s an inspiring allegory for  life in general, and I highly recommend it if you haven’t yet read it.

How about you? Do you read more in the summer? What’s on your reading list?The Sunday

The Sunday Salon: The Woman Upstairs – Finding Friends Between the Covers

The Sunday Salon.comNovelist Claire Messud was in the news recently when her testy reply to an interviewer from Publisher’s Weekly provoked some debate among the literati. The interviewer commented  something to the effect that she “wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora (the main character in Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs) because her “outlook was unbearably grim.” Messud’s response was thought provoking: “If  you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble,” she told the interviewer. “We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ ”

woman upstairsThe question seems to have taken Messud aback, but I know where the interviewer was coming from. I recently finished this novel which I found quite brilliant. I actually could see myself being friends- or at least friendly – with Nora. Most women I know can relate to Messud’s concept of the The Woman Upstairs – the one who quietly takes care of others, follows the rules, puts her own needs on hold for the greater good of her family, her colleagues, her friends. Nora is angry about the way her life has turned out, and she is very outspoken about her anger. “My anger is prodigious,” she says in the last pages of the book. “My anger is a colossus. I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough … before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.”

So while I  don’t read to find friends per se, I do want to find someone in every book with whom I can be sympathetic, someone I understand on some level, someone who is relatable enough that I can picture myself sharing coffee and conversation with them on some imaginary occasion. Perhaps that part of what Messud was trying to get across? If an author can make their characters come alive, make them three-dimensional so that the reader relates to them on a myriad of life levels, then the relationship between writer-character-reader is much more complete.

I wonder if this isn’t all part of a necessary schism between writer and reader. The writer wants to create characters with something to say, with something to demonstrate about life; while the reader tends to gravitate toward characters with whom they can relate, that make them feel – if not comfortable – than at least comparable.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – the writer and reader have separate roles in this thing we call The Reading LIfe, and they usually join together quite nicely for a satisfactory experience all round.

The Sunday Salon: A Tale of Two Zeldas

The Sunday


I haven’t seen the remake of The Great Gatsby, and I’m not sure I want to.

The trailer scares me a little.

I cut my cinematic Gatsby teeth on the 1974 version, with Robert Redford/Mia Farrow, all shimmery pastels and brooding looks accompanied by Nelson Riddle’s score. I loved everything about that movie – I was 18 after all, and it was so romantic.  Baz Lurman’s remake, with all it cinematic special effects and hopped up score frightens me.

Until I make a choice, I’m indulging my long standing interest in everything pertaining to the Fitzgeralds, and reading two recently published books about Zelda Fitzgerald, the fascinating woman who lived with F. Scott during his tumultuous and reckless writing career.

Z, A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Fowler, is straightforward bio-fic (biographical fiction), imagining Zelda and Scott’s courtship and early years of marriage. I raced through it, getting a great photographic portrait of this couple’s marriage.

Ericka Robuck’s Call Me Zelda comes at the subject from a slightly different angle. Robuck introduces a fictional psychiatric nurse who is Zelda’s caretaker at the mental hospital in Baltimore. I love this approach, because the novel gives the reader a two-for-one story as we meet this very interesting character who has a story of her own to tell, one that seems to intersect in interesting ways with Zelda’s.

I’m glad I decided to read them in the order I did  (Z first, followed by Call me Zelda), because I have the background on Zelda’s entire life from Fowler’s book to illuminate all the corners of Robuck’s novel, which focuses on a briefer span of time.

Both books are great ways to satisfy an interest in this fascinating woman.

What are you reading this Sunday?

The Sunday Salon: Reflection

A sure sign the blog has been fallow for too long – a rash of spam comments on very old posts. Those things magically appear  like dust bunnies under the bed at the first sign of neglect. Like most people I’ve been a little pre-occupied this week,  mulling over the events in Boston and Texas and being quietly thankful to have spent an entirely uneventful week in my little corner of the world.

But mindful that it could change any second, as it did for the people in Boston, and Watertown, and West.

It’s all combined to make me feel a little melancholy.

My spirits were lifted Friday evening as I gathered with a group of bookish ladies for a lively discussion of The Orchardist. If you recall, I waxed rhapsodic about the book a few weeks ago. And while the general consensus among the group was to praise the writing, several people found the story simply too bleak to call enjoyable.

As much as I loved  The Orchardist, I could never call it a “feel good” book. It’s rather like the events of the past week – it’s a book that forces you to contemplate evil and sadness. It’s a book that uncovers isolation and hopelessness and unfulfilled dreams. As we sat around the table and talked about these things, it occurred to me how often I gravitate to books like that, how I almost relish that kind of literary atmosphere. Of course there’s sadness and pain and disillusionment and misunderstanding. I take it for granted in my books, like I’ve come to take it for granted in my world.

Having lived a lot “in my head” I know my own penchant toward the melancholy. My book choices reflect that – the memoirs and novels I read often focus on people who suffer, who seek spiritual and emotional sustenance. I don’t like violence or cruelty – won’t read a book that has any of that in it – but I do hunker into those books that delve into the depths of the human experience.

Of course this week I haven’t had to read about it in fiction…it’s been all over the news.

I wonder if other readers find themselves drawn to books that reflect their emotional temperature? Do you?









The Sunday Salon: Of Wind (and Windbags); Closets; and Special Places


That’s the best word to describe the general state of our weather this winter, and it seems to be carrying over into this makeshift of a spring season. This morning the wind whipped around the north side of the house like a twister, rattling the very window panes like the angriest of March lions.

But wait – it’s APRIL.

I wonder what the climate change experts are making of these prevailing winds?  Perhaps we should be investing in wind turbines after all.

Today’s temperatures are somewhat seasonable, but yesterday was winter redux. Thirty-seven blustery degrees for a high, with not a whimper of sunshine in sight. Nevertheless, I took a leap of faith yesterday and flipped my closet, meaning I transferred all the winter clothes to the the winter closet, discarding an entire 30 gallon plastic sackful in the process. Haven’t worn it all year? Gone. Worn it but unhappy whilst wearing it? Into the sack.

Then I did the same with my spring clothes.  The remaining pieces are now hanging, color coordinated, in my closet. And if I have a moment’s panic that there are only half a dozen t-shirts left instead of three dozen, I remember that for most of the winter I wore the same four shirts over and over again.

I have become ruthless – RUTHLESS, I tell you –  when it comes to paring down. I do believe my husband and dogs are frightened of me when I get into “pitch it” mode. They huddle up together on the couch, trying to disappear as if afraid they too will get tossed into the nearest bin.

Of course they’re safe, but I really have completely embraced the concept of less-is-more, especially since moving into this house. We have lived here over six months now, and I figure that anything I haven’t missed yet I’m not going to miss. Yes I only have one set of dishes, but that’s really all I need. Instead of 30 different coffee mugs stacked precariously in the cupboard, I have six and that has been plenty. I feel lighter all over without so much stuff taking up space in every corner of my house. (Yes, Deb Smouse, you are spot-on again!)

There are two things that I have trouble tossing – one is books (although I give A LOT of books to our local library book sale) and the other is pictures. Even though nearly all of our new photographs are stored digitally, I have hundreds of old printed ones that I can’t bring myself to throw away. I know I could have them digitized, but I like having them in their original format. Happily, they’ve all found a home inside a wicker storage chest in the basement.

As for books..well, even thought I have plenty of empty shelf space in the “library,” there are some books I won’t have any qualms about consigning to the book sale. I am reading one right now (well, I was reading it until I finally said ‘enough’) in which the “hero” is such a slimy, self-serving windbag that I can hardly wait to drop it into the big wooden bin for donations at the library. “Pitch it” mode, indeed.

Now I’m cleansing my mind’s palate with the latest Peter Robinson mystery, featuring DI Alan Banks. If you’ve never read this series, I highly recommend. My husband and I both enjoy these books (which is a rare occurrence – usually our reading tastes never intersect). Watching the Dark is the 20th volume, and it’s starting out to be just as well-written and compelling as the rest. Robinson masterfully weaves a lot of stories together in his books, and the narrative of Banks, his family, and his colleagues carries through from book to book which I always enjoy. Plus, they’re all set in Robinson’s native England – another plus for this closet Anglophile.

englandThe thought of England brings me to thoughts of special places, which I’ve been contemplating this morning at the behest of my friend Bella Cirovic, and her lovely online group 30 Days in April. “Where is the place that you go outside of your home that is your special spot?” Last year that questions was easier to answer – our home in Florida was always a retreat from the world, a place where everything was pretty and clean and new. And even though I couldn’t get there every day (or even every week!), just knowing it was waiting for me got me through some rough times.

Bella’s right -we need “special spots” to go when the winds get too blustery and life is too cluttered. Spots where the air is calm and clean, and there is space to stretch your arms out wide and breath deeply. I’ve claimed that kind of space inside my house by clearing away clutter and making room to be still.

But there is value in having a place outside and away to retreat and renew, because those concepts work in tandem. And so I am on a quest now for a new place that fills my spirit with calm and peace and hope. Maybe it will be as close as the pond behind the house, or as far away as the undulating green hills of southern England.

Maybe the wind will take me there.

The Sunday Salon: Patchwork

My reading over the past few days has been something of a crazy quilt -a bit of this, another bit of that. After reading a book with the scope and style of The Orchardist, it’s difficult for me to settle into something else.

dakotaOne of the things I’m really enjoying about my new local library are the daily bins of used books. Their trade paperbacks are only 50 cents, and I’ve already picked up several things to add to my library. Earlier this week I found a copy of Dakota, A Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris. This was one of the first creative nonfiction books I ever read, (back in the mid-1990’s) and it helped me fall in love with the genre. So I was happy to grab it up, especially at that price.

So I’ve been poking around in it this week, and today I opened to these words:

If there’s anything worth calling theology, it is listening to people’s stories, listening to them and cherishing them.

This quote, from Mary Pellauer, a feminist author and scholar, heads a chapter entitled The Holy Use of Gossip, in which Norris writes about the role of  gossip which seems pervasive in small town life. “Gossip done well,” she contends, “strengthens communal bonds.”

Norris’ definition of gossip is different than the way most of us have come to think of it – the whispered rumors of a marriage on the rocks or a husband’s out-of-control drinking, even the titillating headlines on celebrity magazines we peek at while on line at the checkout counter. The word “gossip” actually derives from the words that mean God and sibling, and originally meant “akin to God.” In fact, a “gossip” was used to describe someone who acted as a sponsor at a person’s baptism, someone who “helped give a name” to another. Antecedents of the word are “gospel,” “godspell,” and “sabha” (a village community). Gossip then (if used correctly) can be a way of sharing our human story, of giving a name to the things that define us. And these stories, by Pellauer’s definition, can be called part of the wisdom and study of God’s precepts in the real world.

Notice also that Pellauer talks about not only listening to people’s stories, but cherishing them. I talk a lot about the importance of story – our individual stories, and our collective story as a nation, a gender, a vocational group. I read memoir upon memoir as a way of hearing all kinds of stories, and cherish each one for the impression it leaves in my mind and heart.

But I think cherishing one another’s stories has a real life application as well, beyond the effect of words on a page. Norris talks about this so well in Dakota, how the folks in her small town of Lemmon, South Dakota, express their solidarity through gossip or shared story. The plight of a young family with a seriously ill child spreads quickly – but so does the response of people bringing food, sitting with the other children in the family, gathering in prayer circles. The stories of the town drunk who either undergoes a miraculous conversion OR loses everything are equally morally instructive. “Gossip – or Story – is theology translated into experience.”

In the patchwork of stories that make up the crazy quilt of our lives, there is something almost sacred about the tales we share with one another and take into our hearts.

The Sunday

The Sunday Salon: Reading Through Life

The Sunday Salon.comOh my, it’s been ages since we’ve talked.

Time has sped by in its inexorable slick passage while I’ve worked and shopped and run errands and talked to friends and played for music festivals and hosted benefit concerts and…and…and…


I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.

3655754-sea-shells-that-have-washed-up-on-the-beachLife happens and we slip and slide on the tides of it, sometimes washed ashore cracked and broken like the fragile shells we are, but more often than not swept back out into the sea of daily living where we rise and fall at the whim of nature and the gods.

One thing that remains constant in my life is reading. So today – a day when the waves have calmed and the sea of life laps gently around my ankles – seems a good day to catch you all up on the books that have been keeping me company.

I did a lot of memoir reading in January, partly because I was taking one of Andi Cumbo’s wonderful online writing classes, but also because I love that genre. I believe our individual stories are SO powerful, and that by telling them we gain so much empathy and insight into the human condition. Three of the standouts for me were Magical Journey, by Katrina Kenison; Devotion, by Dani Shapiro; and Elsewhere, by Richard Russo.

Some sweet relief from the (sometimes) heavy work of the memoir came from a couple of novels – Three Good Things, by Wendy Francis, a novel about Ellen McClarety, a recent divorcee who counts on her ability to bake the best Danish kringle to help her turn her life around, and The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, the latest quiet adventure of philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, one of Alxander McCall Smith’s indubitable heroines. Both books struck the perfect balance between frothy and fun without being sickly sweet.

Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife was a thought provoking historical novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh that sent me to my shelves to search out my copies of her letters and diaries, not to mention her famous memoir A Gift from The Sea.

And I was totally swept up in To the Power of Three, a psychological suspense novel about three teenage girls and the deadly power one of them wielded over the others. This was an older book by Laura Lippman, who is queen of the psychological thriller.

In addition to these titles, I’ve listened to a couple of audio books – I find those absolutely necessary to keep me from going crazy with the banality of popular radio stations. I’m awfully fussy about what I listen to, though. It has to be a really good story, but not too complicated or deep. The narrator also has to be good. I like a voice that clips along, without too many dramatic pauses. The Replacement Wife, by Eileen Goudge, provided many days of much needed road diversion.

I’ve spent today catching up and clearing up some of the things I’ve let slip down to the bottom of the sea these past weeks. I’ll end the evening by spending some time with The Good House, a spectacular novel by Ann Leary. This was a library find, and is such unexpectedly compelling reading that I hate to see it come to an end.

But end it will, as all things do. Hopefully my extended leave of absence from blogging has ended too.

We shall see how the tides turn.

How about you? What’s been keeping your reading life afloat?