Tag Archives: Colum McCann

Sunday Salon/Currently: Reflecting on a Year of Reading

Books Transform in Hourglass

Books Transform in Hourglass – courtesy of Getty Images

Here we are … the first Sunday Salon/Currently post of 2016!  As I’ve mentioned before, I am all too happy to welcome a new year and a fresh start, even if not much has actually changed.

I thought I would use this post to reflect on and recap my 2015 reading year.  I would categorize this as a pretty good year, quality-wise.  In terms of quantity, though, not so much. I read a total of 52 books, compared to 75 in 2014. (This is still rather respectable, especially when you consider that this averages to be one book per week).  I try not to fall into the book blogger trap of comparing my totals to others; the reality is that I always am most critical of myself.

I attribute the decrease to two factors: 1) more time spent listening to podcasts in the car  (I listened to 22 audiobooks last year, compared to only 10 this year) and 2) being ruthless in abandoning books that weren’t working for me. At the same time, I have quite a few books in progress. Finishing books was a bit of an issue this year, probably because of reading multiple books at once.

(What can I say? I work for an organization that has five million items available free for the borrowing — and most of them are books. It is hard not to be tempted by the shiny and new. Or the old and classic.  Or, whatever.)

So, we’re not really going to focus much on the amounts. It’s all about the experience, right? And there were some great literary experiences in 2015.

Before we get to the Best Of selections, some stats for my fellow book geeks who love this sort of thing.  (You know who you are.)

2015

Number of Books Read = 52
Number of Pages Read = 10,001
Longest Book:  The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (564 pages)
Shortest Book: Remnants of Passion by Sarah Einstein (37 pages)
Number of Audiobooks Listened To = 10
Number of Hours Spent Listening to Audiobooks = 87.31
How Many Days of Listening That Equals = 3.6
Average Number of Days It Took Me to Finish a Book = 7
My Average Rating of a Book = 3.9
Authors Who Were New to Me = 36
Authors Who I’d Read Previously = 16
Female Authors Read = 33
Male Authors Read = 19
Oldest Book Read = The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (published in 1890)
Second Oldest Book Read = The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (published in 1892)

And now, without further ado, here are my favorite books in Fiction, Short Stories, Memoir, and Nonfiction.  Links take you to my reviews, if I’ve written one. (Writing reviews was also a bit of a challenge this year.) As you’ll note by the years in parenthesis, these include my favorite books I read in 2015, regardless of the publication date.

Best Fiction

Thirteen Ways of Looking

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann (2015)

None of the Above

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

“But once you understood what you were … how could someone not want to be fixed? I couldn’t conceive of a world in which I wasn’t broken.” (pg. 146)  Debut novelist I.W. Gregorio has given her readers a story that explores identity and acceptance through the perspective of a main character who just learned she was born intersex. This is one of those books that I appreciated on a highly personal level and for the sensitive way the author handles a subject matter that’s considered by some to be taboo. Because of books like None of the Above and authors like I.W. Gregorio, there exists the hope for a more caring, sensitive, and accepting world. ~ from my review, 6/22/2015.

Tampa - 2

Tampa by Alissa Nutting (2013)

The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)

Honorable Mentions for Fiction:

The Edible WomanThe MiniaturistZLike FamilyOur Souls at NightEverything I Never Told YouWest of SunsetMy Sunshine Away

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (1969)

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014)

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Fowler (2013)

Like Family by Paolo Giordano (2015)

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015)

Our Souls at Night is a quiet, understated novel about love and grief, family and community.  It challenges the reader to view older people as still having desires and needs rather than individuals who should renounce all vestiges of intimacy the minute their AARP card arrives in the mail.  It is a gorgeous finale for author Kent Haruf.  (From my review 9/22/2015)

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (2014)

Living in suburban Ohio in the 1970s, the Lee family is one full of secrets, of regrets, of unfulfilled dreams and hijacked ambitions. Of letters never sent nor received, of tchkotches stolen, of misunderstandings big and small, of innermost feelings repressed and silent pacts. And sometimes – yes, oftentimes – our lives turn out differently than we planned. Terrible things happen. But by listening to what the people we love are and aren’t saying, admitting to our deepest wishes and exposing our most fragile insecurities, our lives and those around us have a chance to change for the better. (Reviewed 5/4/2015)

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (2015)

Stewart O’Nan, a Pittsburgh author, more than succeeds in capturing legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald during the legendary author’s final troubled three years.  At 40, Scott’s literary success is well in the past and his wife Zelda is institutionalized for psychiatric issues. When Hollywood (finally, thankfully) comes calling with work as a screenwriter, Scott is emotionally and financially broke, “borrowing against stories he has yet to imagine.” (Love that line!)

Dust off the Hollywood glitter, though, and there’s something universally relatable about West of Sunset. Anyone who has ever gone through a difficult professional or personal stretch of time (which would be …oh, all of us) will likely find something to identify with in the F. Scott Fitzgerald that Stewart O’Nan presents. West of Sunset is about coming to terms with real and perceived failure, the drumbeat of self-doubt and loathing that accompanies it, the quest for self-redemption, and what happens when our self-reliance runs out.  (“Somewhere in this latest humiliation there was a lesson in self-reliance. He’d failed so completely that he’d become his own man again.”)  Reviewed 2/5/2015.

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (2015)

Best Short Stories

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Best Memoirs

Dear Mr. You

Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker (2015)

Whatever ...Love Is Love

Whatever … Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves by Maria Bello (2015)

Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela (2015)

M Train

M Train by Patti Smith (2015)

Best Nonfiction

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

This book’s moment in the spotlight comes at precisely the right time, given the current racial climate and rhetoric in our country. Between the World and Me is an important book, a classic of our era that deserves to be widely-read and taught in schools long after the accolades and the “best of” lists fade into the New Year and the ether of the Internet. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that he “would have [his son] be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”  Reading this book and talking with others about it is one small way we can do the same.  Reviewed 12/29/2015.

Big Magic

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)

You may be thinking that Big Magic is just another gimmicky book about creativity and following your passion, the likes of which you’ve probably read before. And you also may be judging this based on perhaps a negative impression of Eat Pray Love or any other of Gilbert’s work. And you would be wrong on both counts.  (I can say that because I did both of those things.)

Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t advocating that we creative types go into the office tomorrow and quit our jobs or commit to waking up every morning at 3 a.m. to write The Best Novel Ever or build a wing onto our house for the studio of our dreams. If you are able to do those things, more power to you. That’s not reality for most of us, however. And if we’re looking to our creativity to solve the bigger questions of our lives, we might be missing the point altogether.

“Perhaps creativity’s greatest mercy is this: By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir — something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration.” (pg. 172)

I really enjoyed this book and Elizabeth Gilbert’s direct and down-to-earth approach to creativity was exactly what I needed at the time.  Reviewed 11/3/2015.

Letters to a Young Poet

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke (1929)

As I said, this was a wonderful year. Thanks so much for reading my reviews and bookish banter. Looking forward to another fun year here together in 2016!

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currently … a little christmas, now

Trimming the Tree - Reading Elf

Currently…
Things are getting back to normal after our family’s scare on Thanksgiving.  We’ve had some time to reflect on everything and how close it seemed to having our lives changed forever. I’d like to think I already was appreciative, grateful, thankful, etc. without a medical emergency as a wake-up call and that I wasn’t taking anything or anyone for granted, but this has magnified that. Needless to say, It has been an emotional week (on quite a few fronts, actually).

Decorating…
We decided to put the Christmas tree up yesterday because, as one of my favorite holiday songs goes, we definitely needed a little Christmas in the aftermath of the past week. Every single ornament has some personal, sentimental significance. There isn’t one ordinary ornament on the tree. If I had to choose a favorite, it’s the reading elf that’s pictured above.  I’ve had it forever; it was given to me when I was a young child. We don’t do outdoor lights or much decorating besides the tree.

Reading … 
Thirteen Ways of LookingYou all know how much I love Colum McCann.  I love everything he has written and I think he’s a brilliant author. I’m reading Thirteen Ways of Looking for a review and I am just completely in awe of this man. The title novella is probably one of the best pieces of shorter fiction I’ve ever read.

Listening …
Speaking of short fiction, my current audiobook is The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, which I thought was on my list for The Classics Club, but it isn’t.  The only Hemingway I’ve ever read is The Old Man and the Sea, which was back in high school or something and left me unimpressed (like many people).  I was in the mood for short stories on audio when I picked this up at the library.   Some are better than others.  Of those I’ve read so far, the ones I thought were particularly well-done are “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Capitol of the World,” and “Up in Michigan.”

Blogging…
Sheila from Book Journey is planning to host her third annual First Book of the Year event on January 1.  Like Sheila, I always give a lot of thought to the first book I read in any given year. I like it to be something that, in whatever way, sets the tone for the months to come — whether that happens to be related to a goal, something to provide inspiration, or whatever.

ReadMyOwnDamnBooksbuttonI like having my first book of the year be one that I already own, because that gives me a personal sense of accomplishment that at least ONE book from my shelves will be read in any given year. And as luck would have it, there’s a “reading effort” that will help me with this.  Andi from Estella’s Revenge is hosting #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks, billed as a “you do you,” choose-your-own-adventure. No rules or requirements except reading your own damn books. So, I’m in … although I don’t know what my personal guidelines will be yet. I may just make it up as I go, with the objective being to read as many from my stash as possible.

If you’re participating in The Classics Club, it’s time to spin! This involves listing “your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list — in a separate post. Tomorrow the organizers will post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by February 1, 2016. More details are here.

Since I never finished (or even started) my designated book for the last spin I joined, I’m highly tempted to reuse my same list for this go-around.  But it’s worth a revision, so we’ll see what tomorrow brings!

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The Sunday Salon: Go Fourth and Read

The Sunday Salon

It has been a spectacularly gorgeous Fourth of July weekend here in Pittsburgh, one that lent itself to some quality time spent reading on the deck … which is exactly where I’ve been most of the last three days. Part of me feels a bit guilty for not partaking in all that Pittsburgh had to offer during this weekend (the regatta, fireworks, etc.) but the reality is that we don’t particularly like huge crowds and the kids are outside and active all day during the week with their day camp. Reading on the deck and watching baseball games suits us just fine.

The Signature of All Things

Last night I started reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. I haven’t read anything of hers before (I never bought into the whole Eat, Pray, Love hype) and frankly, Signature just wasn’t on my radar until I heard that a) there was a Philadelphia aspect to this one and b) Elizabeth Gilbert will be part of the upcoming Monday Night Lectures series with Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures this season. I’m on the fence about whether to get tickets for Elizabeth Gilbert, but in the meantime, I’m trying to read as many of the PAL authors as I can.

Big Book Summer Reading ChallengeThis is a chunkster and thus qualifies as my book of choice for the 2014 Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by Sue at Book by Book. I love this reading challenge and I try to participate every summer. It’s easy; all you have to do is commit to reading one book of at least 400 pages. There’s still plenty of summer left to participate, as this one goes to Labor Day. (This post counts as my official “I’m signing up to participate.”)

Some other reading recaps from the week:

My audiobook of the week was French Lessons by Ellen Sussman, a new writer friend of mine. If you happen to find yourself on a beach this week and in need of a light, fun, escapism, sexytimes sort of read, French Lessons is it. I’ll admit, this strayed a bit into the romance/chick lit realm for my typical taste, but whether it was the fact that I was just getting back from vacation, this was a fun listen during my daily commute to and from work.

On Friday, I finished reading Paul Monette’s extraordinary memoir Borrowed Time, which I reviewed here yesterday. This is likely going to be one of the best books I will read this year. It left me speechless.

And speaking of this year, can you believe we’re already halfway through 2014? As of June 30, I’ve read 33 books this year, with exactly 1/3 of those being audiobooks. My goal is 75 books total by the end of the year, so I’m pleased with that.  Interestingly, this happens to be exactly where I was this time last year. I’ve read more female authors (23) than male (10), which is typical for me.

Of the books I’ve read, 10 were fiction; nine were memoirs; six were nonfiction; three were short story collections and three were poetry. The other two were historical fiction. My average rating for a book is 3.6.

My picks, then, for The Best Books I’ve Read During the First Half of 2014:

Fiction:
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Stories by Maile Meloy
Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer
Transatlantic, by Colum McCann
Perfect, by Rachel Joyce
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian (to be published 7/8/2014)

Memoir:
Nest. Flight. Sky, by Beth Kephart
Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan
In the Body of the World, by Eve Ensler
Hope for a Sea Change, by Elizabeth Aquino
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, by Beth Kephart

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to send out get-well wishes to one of my very favorite authors,  Colum McCann. It’s a holiday weekend, so some may have missed the news that Colum McCann was attacked in New Haven, Connecticut while trying to assist a woman involved in an apparent domestic violence incident. (“An Author Known For Empathy Has None for His Attacker,” NYT, July 3, 2014). I was horrified to hear this (although not surprised to hear that he intervened, because that’s the sort of person Mr. McCann seems to be). I’m glad to hear that it seems that Mr. McCann is going be all right, as this could have been much, much worse. Not that I think he reads this blog or anything (but, hey, you never know) but I hope Mr. McCann makes a full recovery and that his attacker is caught and brought to justice for both incidents.

I also hope that the woman involved in the incident seeks support, for on Independence Day and every day, everyone deserves to be free from that type of abuse in their lives. Next time there might not be someone to come help.

Hope all of you who were celebrating had a happy – and safe – Fourth of July.

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Armchair BEA 2014: Some People Buy Shoes, I Buy Lecture Tickets.

ArmchairBEA 2014

 “Some people buy shoes, I buy lecture tickets.” ~ my Facebook status before a Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures event

We’re lucky here in Pittsburgh.  We’re an incredibly literary town, moreso than the average person might imagine. Among the literary offerings is a very popular lecture series called Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures that brings world-famous authors to town at a price that is affordable for all. This has quickly become one of my favorite ways to spend an evening.

When I heard that Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures would be hosting Colum McCann, who happens to be one of my all-time favorite writers, I bought my ticket A YEAR IN ADVANCE. Yes. An entire year. And then I upgraded my seat at the last minute, paying extra to sit in the second row (which was so worth it). And then I met him.

And then I died and went to heaven.

Melissa and Colum McCann

That was almost three months ago and I still haven’t written a coherent post about it because I am still grinning about how wonderful Colum McCann’s talk was here in Pittsburgh.  Thank God I took good notes.

I’ve been fortunate to meet several writers but I have to say that having the chance to talk with Colum McCann (even briefly) was extraordinary. And his lecture! If you ever have the opportunity to hear him, go. You won’t regret it.

Ann Patchett was another author I met through Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures. So incredibly gracious and kind. Her lecture was lovely, and when I got my books signed by her, I mentioned that I was interested in reading The Magician’s Assistant because I’m writing a novel about the AIDS epidemic.

“Oh, you want to read Borrowed Time by Paul Monette,” Ann Patchett says to me, scribbling down the title on the Post-It note with my name that marked the place for her to sign my book. “You need to read this.”

Well, when Ann Patchett gives you a book recommendation, you listen. At least I do.  (Guess what book I’m currently reading?)

(Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures has an awesome lineup for next season. James McBride, Simon Winchester, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jesmyn Ward, and Jodi Picoult are just a few of the authors who will be appearing.)

Rachel Renee Russell and daughters

Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures has author events for kids, too. (As a child, I would have been over the moon. To be my daughter’s age – 12 – and meeting my favorite writers?! Are you kidding me??!!) I’ve taken my daughter to meet Rachel Renee Russell, author of the Dork Diaries series. Ms. Russell’s daughters help her co-write and illustrate her books and they were all absolutely lovely.  (This was a crazy book-signing … they each signed every kid’s book, and there were hundreds of kids! Some people were in line for nearly 4 hours.)

I would also be remiss without mentioning Rachel Simon (The Story of Beautiful Girl) and Beth Kephart. I consider each of them friends now, but I started out as a regular fan. (OK, maybe a little bit on the groupie side.) I met Rachel in 1990 when I attended a writing conference and she was the keynote speaker. She had just published a short story collection called Little Nightmares, Little Dreams and was regularly writing columns in The Philadelphia Inquirer. I admired her writing and soaked up any bit of advice and knowledge I could get from her – and when I had the chance to take a class with her, I was thrilled.

There are other authors I’m forgetting, but I’ll leave you with this photo of me and Beth Kephart from Book Expo America in 2010 (actually, it’s the Book Blogger Convention). I look like I am ready to collapse; that day, I left my house at 3:30 a.m. to catch a train to New York City (chances are, Beth did too) and I was fading fast when this photo was taken. Beth, on the other hand, looks vibrant and radiant in her fuschia, ready to take New York by storm, as she always does.

Book Blogger Convention (38)

Now it’s your turn: which authors have taken your life by storm?

 

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The Sunday Salon: Dispatches from the Back Deck

The Sunday Salon

 

I can’t think of too many places I’d rather be writing this Sunday’s salon than my current location: my lounge chair situated on our back deck. These are the days that make the bullshit of the -13 degree temperatures with the -30 wind chills that we dealt with during this winter worth it.

There’s nothing better than that first time venturing back out onto the deck after such a winter. It’s glorious.

OK, yeah, sure … I admit that there are other more exotic places in the world, but right now on this almost 80-degree perfect weather Sunday with an occasional gust of a breeze and my daffodils in bloom and Don Draper back in my living room this evening and my kids getting along, this corner of southwestern Pennsylvania is as pretty close to heaven today as you can get.

It’s not, of course. Just several miles east of here, the Murraysville community is reeling from this week’s events at Franklin Regional High School where a 16 year old student stabbed more than 20 people. It has shaken many of us in the Pittsburgh area; we know none of us are isolated from this sort of thing and this week brought that reality and the powerless feelings ever so closer to home, once again.

My kids have been talking about the stabbings a little bit. It has come up in their classrooms and in conversations with their friends. As somewhat of a distraction from that and other things, we went to the movies earlier this morning and caught a 10:45 am. matinee of “The Muppet Movie: Most Wanted.” We’re big Muppet fans in this house and although the sequel was, as even The Muppets themselves admit, not as good as the first movie, there were enough fun moments to make it worthwhile. There’s a great very brief-don’t-blink-or-else-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Josh Groban, which I loved and the song “I’m Number One” will speak to anyone who has been in the position to someone who gets all the credit for your hard work.

Mrs. PoeIn bookish news, I’ve been feeling somewhat behind in … well, everything. I have a bunch of reviews and posts that I want to get written, and I can’t remember when I last sat down with a book for a long chunk of time. Next to me here on the deck is my current read, Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen, so I’m hoping to make some more headway with that this afternoon.

GoneSomething I did read – and finish this week was Colum McCann’s new short story “Gone,” which is now available as a Kindle Single.  I will, as you know, read anything that Colum McCann writes; he could write the Yellow Pages and I would devour it. (With this, I made the mistake of starting it at lunchtime and I didn’t have enough time to finish it; don’t be like me and do that.) When a child with special needs goes missing, McCann gets to the heart of parental guilt, anguish, and self-blame.

I’m also reading Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens with my son as part of a school project (and listening to the audio book in the car, to try and stay ahead of the game). That deserves a whole separate post, which I’m hoping to get to soon. 

Year of the SnakeAs I mentioned in my previous post, my friend Melissa Luznicky Garrett published her 7th novel yesterday. Year of the Snake is the third book of hers that I’ve had the honor of editing. On the back cover, I give this endorsement:

“In Year of the Snake, Amelia embarks on a year-long journey of self-discovery and, in the process, learns what it’s like to truly fall in love. In her seventh novel, author Melissa Luznicky Garrett proves her own growing versatility as a writer. With madcap plot twists and delightful surprises,Year of the Snake wraps the reader tightly around Amelia, Mason and Desmond and keeps one guessing about who will be Amelia’s ultimate choice. A light romantic read, it’s impossible not to look more closely at our own lives to discover what stories are inside us that are just waiting to be written.” 

Now I’m off to spend some time with Mrs. Poe and perhaps a glass of wine. Here’s to good books, and to spring finally being in bloom. (At least for today, until it becomes 45 degrees again later this week.)

Such is spring in Pittsburgh.

Daffodils in bloom 2014

 

 

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The Sunday Salon: A Week of Author Meetings

The Sunday Salon

 

Dork DiariesI’m taking my daughter and one of her BFFs to meet Dork Diaries author Rachel Renee Russell this afternoon, and their enthusiasm is absolutely palpable. They’ve been talking about this for weeks, ever since I mentioned it to my girl, who then told her entire lunch table, and her friend reportedly started “almost crying and jumping up and down.”

So, yeah, they’re a little excited.

I get it. Oh, you know I absolutely get it.

Today’s event follows on the heels of the lecture I attended Monday evening with Colum McCann, which was everything I thought it would be and then some. And then some more. I was – and still am – in complete awe. He’s just as amazing a speaker as he is a writer – and so genuine, personable, and funny as hell. I haven’t had a chance to recap the event here, but I wrote a post here that I’m rather proud of and that I think captures the event.  (“One Book One Community: Colum McCann’s Gift to Pittsburgh and the World.“)

(Oh, OK. Because I can’t resist.)

Melissa and Colum McCann

Me and Colum McCann!

(You have no idea how many times I’ve looked at this photo to make myself believe that I really did meet and talk with Colum McCann.) 

In the Body of the World

It was a good week book-wise, too. I listened to Eve Ensler’s memoir In the Body of the World on CD and … my God. First of all, it’s a miracle that Eve is alive at all to tell this story – her experience with cancer and the god-awful aftermath. Eve Ensler does not sugar-coat her cancer story in the least, and if you’re familiar with her work, nor would you expect her to. Still, this memoir is raw, searing, gritty, honest, and downright real. It can be difficult to read or listen to in parts, but at the same time, it is absolutely riveting to hear her talk about how her cancer is part of her work with the women in the Congo and her past history of abuse.

Time is short. Must run to the next author event. Such a fun week this has been.

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Book Review: Songdogs, by Colum McCann

SongdogsSongdogs, by Colum McCann
Picador
1995
212 pages

Here’s how much of a fangirl I am for this guy:

I bought tickets to Colum McCann’s upcoming lecture here in Pittsburgh the first day they went on sale to the general public.

No big deal, right?

Except. Well.

I bought my $15 ticket almost a YEAR IN ADVANCE.

The event’s not until March 10, 2014. Which will probably be a blizzard here in Pittsburgh. In which case, Mr. McCann is cordially invited to hang out in my living room and give his talk. [Note: I wrote this review on August 28, 2013 but just haven’t published it on the blog till now. No blizzard tonight, but clearly, I was prescient about this winter’s crappy weather.] 

So, you top that in literary geekery, why dontcha? I am so freaking excited for this that I am nerdishly preparing by reading as many of his books as I can.

This is proving to be fun homework. After finishing his first novel Songdogs, Mr. McCann is two for two in my book, the first being the incredible Let the Great Word Spin, which I loved

But Songdogs is different. Songdogs takes some getting used to. Because Mr. McCann throws his reader off one’s bearings with a disconcerted sense of place, the narration and the action jumps back and forth – sometimes very quickly, sometimes on the same page. It fluctuates between the present (with Conor home for a week in Ireland, apparently because of visa requirements) and Conor recollecting his travels through Mexico, California, and Wyoming – where he now lives as a rancher – while trying to find his long-lost mother, whom he only knows through his father’s old photographs.

“Mam is just about smiling as she looks down at her hands. It is not an unhappy smile, just a little lost on her face. Maybe she’s wondering what she’s doing here. Wondering what has led her to this. Wondering if life is manufactured by a sense of place, if happiness is dependent on soil, if it is an accident of circumstance that a woman is born in a certain country, and that the weather that gives birth to the soil also gives birth to the unfathomable intracacies of the heart. Wondering if there is a contagion to sadness. Or an entropy to love. Or maybe Mam isn’t thinking this way at all. Maybe she is wondering about the sheer banalities of her day, what she will cook for dinner, what end of the kitchen table she will do her ironing on, when she will get time to wash the white tablecloth, if she should put some aloe on her husband’s hands, hands that are now out of the photograph, pressing down on a button that will open a shutter.” (pg. 138-139)  

Songdogs poses a question for the reader. If one’s life is, indeed, “manufactured by a sense of place,” the symbolism of water and the soil making us who we become, then what of the connections with the biological people we come from who are elsewhere, literally and figuratively, by geography and by choice?

The answers are ours to figure out.

“Curious how different the sense of space is here. In Wyoming I can take off and go walking for miles on end without seeing a soul, only a few cattle scrubbing away on the lands, every now and then a horse breaking the hills. Land like that seeps its way into you, you grow to love it, it begins to thump in your blood. But it’s confined here, the land, the space. Doesn’t feel much like mine anymore – it’s like when I am with the old man, floating around him, not really touching him.” pg. 94)

For the most part, this 1995 novel moves at a slow pace. That’s deliberate, as Mr. McCann is setting you up for some emotional upheaval towards the end. It’s worth it, because by that point you’re so invested in Conor and wondering why his mother left him and his quiet father (an aging, unkept, incredibly foul-mouthed Irish photographer and fisherman) that the climax of the story catches you completely unawares. 

(If you’re bothered by profanity, particularly liberal uses of the f-bomb, choose another book.)

Then, there are also words like these:

“Years later, in America, I was told that Navajo Indians believed coyotes ushered in the Big Bang of the world with their song, stood on the rim of nothingness, before time, shoved their pointed muzzles into the air, and howled the world into existence at their feet. The Indians called them songdogs. The universe was etched with their howls, sound merging into sound, the beginning of all other songs. Long ago, when they told me their stories about Mexico, Mam and Dad, I believed they were true. And I suppose I still do. They were my songdogs – my other by the washing line, my father flailing his way against the current. They tried very hard to tell me how much they had been in love with one another, how good life had been, that coyotes really did exist and sing in the universe of themselves on their wedding day. And maybe they did. Maybe there was a tremendous howl that reached its way all across the desert. But the past is a place that is full of energy and imagination. In remembering, we can distil the memory down. We can manage our universe by stuffing it into the original quark, the point of burstingness.

It’s the lethargy of the present that terrifies us all. The slowness, the mundanity, the sheer plod of each day. Like my endless hours spent strolling through Mexico. And my father’s constant casting these days. His own little songdog noise of a fishing line whisking its way through the air.” (pg. 72-73)

Songdogs may not be for everyone. It’s easy to think about casting aside. In the end, it’s one of those intense novels that you appreciate much more after finishing it – and want to immediately start reading again.

5 stars out of 5

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