Monday Morning Books is one of many blogs initiating a #BloggerBlackout in response to Kathleen Hale’s article in The Guardian. Previously published content will still be accessible during #BloggerBlackout.

Bibliodaze: An Open Letter to Kathleen Hale & Guardian Books: Stalking Is Not Okay.?
Bibliodaze: #HaleNo, Blogger Blackout and the Non-Existent War?
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books: The Choices of Kathleen Hale?
Alex Hurst: Hale vs Harris, and the Breach of Online Ethics

The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 29, Number 2

There are a lot of changes going on, and I don’t just mean the cold wind that blew in last night. Granted, some of them are still just whispers, but I know they will manifest themselves sooner or later. I don’t like change more than the next person, but I’ve learned to treasure my moments standing on the threshold, to love the liminal spaces that hold so much promise.

One thing that hasn’t changed, despite reams of blogs and tweets and status updates, is my love of long, closely reasoned essays about writing. I love when they take my ideas about what I’ve read and turn them upside down.

I added The Writer’s Chronicle to my pared-down list of subscriptions a few years ago, by default, when I attended an Association of Writers and Writing Professionals (AWP) conference. I’ve kept it because it consistently delivers the goods.

This October/November 2014 issue is no exception. I won’t go over every essay and interview, though each rewarded scrutiny. One standout is Gregory Orr’s essay on “Foundational Documents and the Nature of Lyric”. After anecdotally describing the ecstasy of writing—being “transported by the words in a world that the words were creating”, he points out that our western tradition, unlike India, China, Japan, does not encourage the lyric poet. Plato’s attack on poets as “weak and womanish” stood for hundreds of years until Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads granted us the freedom to feel. I condense, but truly the entire essay is fascinating, and the final reference to Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels blew me away.

Having just participated in a symposium on GeoPoetics: the intersection of geography and poetry, I paid close attention to “The World of the Story”, by Eileen Pollack. She rescues the story element of setting from mere painted backdrop and restores it to its place as creating an entire world, with its own cultures and communities. She offers an inspired reading of stories such as Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” and William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Speaking of mashups, I also enjoyed Lisa C. Krueger’s “_Ars Poetica_ and the Talking Cure: Poetry, Therapy, & the Quest to Create”. I had not before considered the common factors of poetry and therapy.

Best of all for me is Sue William Silverman’s “Memoir with a View: The Window, as Motif and Metaphor, in Creative Nonfiction”. Coming on the heels of the stunning National Gallery show of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of windows, “Looking Out, Looking In”, this essay fed my fascination with these mythic structures. They may be transparent or reflective; there may or may not be a person present, but always “two worlds are in play: the confined interior world, and the sprawling exterior world.” She examines how each speaks to each. For example, in Joyce’s classic story “The Dead”, “the more Gabriel envisions the world outside the window, the more his interior state is revealed to the reader.”

And Silverman takes us even deeper. She reminds us that the person gazing out of the window may also be seen. She talks about the temporal aspect of a window frame in addition to its physical aspect; what we see outside may be a past or possible future. And here I’m only scratching the surface of her insights.

I highly recommend this journal if you want to exercise your mind and consider what you are reading in a different light. Change is hard for everyone, but accepting the uncertainty of the threshold can result in powerful insights.

What journals do you read regularly?

Miss Buncle’s Book, by D. E. Stevenson

When the seasons change, I sometimes get a cold, but this one couldn’t have happened at a worse time. I had a number of author events scheduled for the coming week, including three full days at a book festival where I would be reading and helping out at various booths while also chatting about my books with one and all. Time to get serious! Falling back on my most reliable remedies, I put aside all my plans and spent the day curled up on the sofa with endless pots of tea, herbal supplements, and something to read. Desperate times call for comfort reads, and what could be more comforting than a D. E. Stevenson novel?

In this 1934 novel, recently reissued by Persephone Press, Barbara Buncle is worried about money. The dividends, which up till now have enabled her to continue living in her childhood home in the quiet village of Silverstream, have suddenly dried up. Some didn’t come in at all while others were only half the usual amount. Casting about for a way to earn money she hits on the idea of writing a book.

She has a lot of fun writing it, using her neighbors—thinly disguised—as the characters. But partway through, she realises that not a lot happens in Silverstream (Copperfield in her book), so she starts inventing twists that wake things up.

Much to her surprise, Mr. Abbott wants to publish it and summons her to his London office. He’s not entirely sure whether it is satire or in earnest, but he enjoys reading it so much that he is sure it will be a big hit. Newly rechristened Disturber of the Peace, the book will come out under her pseudonym.

It never occurs to Miss Buncle that her neighbors in Silverstream might get their hands on the book, much less that they will recognise themselves in it. She is shocked by their reactions: a few are delighted but most are angry and determined to find out who “John Smith” is.

The fun continues. Stevenson handles her large cast with ease, making each so memorable that I never got confused. How they handle this vision of their alternate lives entertained me right up to the last page.

Miss Buncle’s confusion and fear that she will be found out made me think wryly of when my memoir came out a few years ago. I wasn’t trying to be anonymous, but I did wonder what people who were in it would think. I was also a bit taken aback when I realised how many of my friends were reading it. There was a resounding silence from my family (other than my sons who had pre-approved it). I don’t know if any of them even read it. Luckily, they didn’t play a large role in the events covered by the memoir.

Any writer, whether working with fiction, poetry or memoir, reveals herself. If you don’t take that risk, you won’t dig deep enough, leaving your words to lie lifelessly on the page. It helps to laugh in the face of fear, and Miss Buncle’s adventures certainly gave me plenty to laugh about. I think all the laughing drove away my cold.

What are your comfort reads?

The Empty Family, by Colm Tóibín

Tóibín has long been one of my favorite authors. I was bowled over by the first of his novels that I read and have continued to enjoy his fiction. Then at a reading at Goucher College I picked up his collection of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, which I found both amusing and intriguing. However, short stories require a different sort of approach. I wondered how his breadth of vision and depth of emotion would fare here. I feared it would be like plunking down an ocean liner in a small pond.

I’m relieved to say that he is a master of short fiction as well. This collection of short stories only confirms my appreciation of his work. The protagonists may be male or female, Irish or Spanish or Pakistani, but each is fully imagined.

The first story drew me into depths so profound it was some time before I could go on. “Silences” recounts Lady Gregory’s experiences leading up to a dinner conversation with Henry James in which she tells him a story. I don’t want to give away too much, but it seemed to me that Tóibín captures what it is to be a storyteller, the alchemy we perform and the strange satisfaction we take in the telling.

Yet he titles it “Silences”. I think about what is not said, what core of emotional truth becomes the secret spring for a story.

There are silences at the heart of many of the stories in this collection. Some trauma has occurred in the past that has thrown the protagonist’s life off course, but often we aren’t told what it is. We don’t need to know. What we are seeing are the effects, now, many years later. Alex Sokoloff and others talk about the protagonist having a secret wound, some event from the past that haunts them. Because of course we all do, no matter how uneventful our lives. It may be something small or large, superficial or deep, but it is there.

The stories in this collection made me understand that it is not only the family that can disappoint, empty of the loving support or the tribal identity, but our lives and relationships as well. The emptiness of endeavor: we set out to do great things in the world, yet we shy away or postpone, thinking we have all kinds of time. Still, the past holds us close; we get dragged back into situations we think we’ve left behind.

One of Tóibín’s great skills is his ability to convey banked emotion. Each of these deeply felt stories contains huge emotional power. It threatens to spill over but never does. How does he do it? Partly by making the stakes high. In “One Minus One”, the narrator is called back to Ireland by the impending death of his mother, pulling him away from his new life teaching in New York City. As if a mother’s death is not enough, he remembers another earlier and deeper wound. Then at the end, when he speaks quite simply, you know the roiling and complex storm held in check behind his simple words.

Even in more mundane situations Tóibín can make the stakes seem high. In “The New Spain”, Carme returns to Spain after eight years in England. As she travels to the house her recently deceased grandmother has left her, she remembers summers she and her sister spent there as children. With only a few details, Tóibín summons the smell and taste of those days and nights in the beloved house under her grandmother’s benevolent rule.

Another way he conveys the emotion behind a seemingly ordinary event, such as looking at the sea through a telescope, is through the rare burst of poetry. It may be just a phrase, but it creates the leap Robert Bly speaks of as essential to poetry, the moment when you the reader are invited to take part in the story. The ground falls out from under you and you see that there is more here than you thought.

The silences between the characters also invite us in. In “The Street” Malik, newly arrived in Madrid from Pakistan, is afraid to leave the street where he works with the other eight men who share his single room. He’s been told not to wander, but anyway he doesn’t speak the language. Even with the other Pakistanis, though, there are silences and it is only gradually through the story that dialogue begins to appear, tentatively at first, and then growing stronger.

In my fascination with Tóibín’s talent, I probably haven’t conveyed how strong and satisfying these stories are. By the end I felt as though I’d lived an additional nine lives.

Have you read any of Colm Tóibín’s work?