The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater

This is not the sort of book I usually read. The hint of anything paranormal is enough to make me abandon almost any book. However, the holiday season with its memories of childhood sent me back to the sort of Young Adult books I loved back then: stories of ordinary kids stumbling across a bit of magic.

Blue Sargent has her hands full with school, waitressing at Milo’s pizza place, walking dogs, tutoring children, and various other activities. You might think her an ordinary teen if it weren’t for her mother and the other women—aunt, cousin, friends—who sometimes or mostly live in the house at 300 Fox Way, all of them psychics, true ones, though as Blue’s mother says, “‘accurate but not specific'”. However, Maura and her fellow psychics have no trouble being specific about Blue’s future: if she kisses her true love, he will die.

True love hasn’t been on the menu for Blue, and certainly not with the boys from the local prep school, Aglionby, whom she calls raven boys for the school patch on their jackets featuring a raven. When four of them show up at Milo’s and one who displays the slick grace of a president asks if she would come talk to his friend who thinks she’s cute, Blue responds with disdain.

When not in class or eating pizza, the four boys are consumed by a quest. It’s really the President’s quest but he has fired the imagination of his three friends and they willingly take on the tasks he assigns them. They want to map the ley line—one of the ancient lines of power that hippies and New Agers have been scouting for decades—that runs through this town of Henrietta, Virginia, and to discover and rouse what they think is buried there.

I found the writing extraordinary. The teens, Blue and the four boys, are vividly drawn, genuine in their actions, words and environments. Their seemingly ordinary teen-ness gives way to a deeper understanding of the way in which each is damaged, details that are fed out slowly throughout the story. And Stiefvater slips in bits of characterisation that bring them into focus. For example one of the boys is messing about with wood, and is asked what his plan is.

Ronan smiled his lizard smile. “Ramp. BMW. The goddamn moon.”

This was so like Ronan. His room inside Monmouth was filled with expensive toys, but, like a spoiled child, he ended up playing outside with sticks.

Of course, this is only one of the many facets of Ronan.

Cryptic predictions and comments by Blue’s mother and her cohorts combined with the triteness of everyday life often make scenes at home hilarious. For instance, one of them asks for grape juice to pour into a bowl to see the future. Blue holds up a jug of Cran-Grape. “‘That will work fine,'” the seer says. However, it is a death she wants to see, and the scene effortlessly shifts from silly to serious.

That is one of the great strengths of this book: the way scenes hold a range of emotions and move between them so naturally that it is only looking back that I can marvel at the tiny turning points. Often in manuscripts I see single emotions: this is the scene where he is angry; this is the one where he is tender. But we are more complex than that. We can experience a dozen emotions just walking from one room into another.

Another great strength is what Donald Maass, literary agent and author, in his recent book, Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, calls micro-tension. These are the questions and conflicts that make us keep reading page after page, long after we should have turned out the light.

Stiefvater does this in many ways, one of which is with slight asides that create a little question in the reader’s mind. For example, in a conversation between Blue and one of her mother’s friends: “‘And you have plenty of time to grow into your own intuitive talents,’ Neeve added. Her gaze seemed hungry.” Why hungry? I must read on! Of course, it’s important not to do this too often, and Stiefvater uses it sparingly.

Her dialogue also keeps the reader alert. Her characters often don’t respond directly to what’s been said, and even when they do it can create that little tension-producing gap. Here’s Blue talking with Gansey, the President boy, about her talent for enhancing other people’s psychic ability:

“Yes,” she said, “I guess I make things that need energy stronger. I’m like a walking battery.”
“You’re the table everyone wants at Starbucks,” Gansey mused as he began to walk again.
Blue blinked, “What?”
Over his shoulder, Gansey said, “Next to the wall plug.”

The one fault in the book is the ending. Like so many books these days, it just falls off after a climactic scene, as though the author got tired of writing, leaving many story questions unanswered. Of course, this is the first in a projected four-book series (three published so far), so perhaps the dangling threads are meant to make us read the next book. However, that seems like a cheap trick from such an accomplished author.

What makes you keep reading?

Playlist 2014

My expectations for this year have all been overturned. I was certain that I knew what the shape of this year would be, this changed life. But my ideas were replaced by new, maybe better dreams and plenty. Thes are the songs that kept me company. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

These Days, Tom Rush
Urge For Going, Tom Rush
Time Has Told Me, Nick Drake
Blue Moon With Heartache, Rosanne Cash
Open Road , Michael G. Ronstadt
Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Paul Simon
Harvest Tune, Mike Marshall & Chris Thile
J.S. Bach: The Goldberg Variations, No. 1, Mike Marshall & Chris Thile
Arctic Air, Malmö Academic Choir & Orchestra
Underbar En Stjärna Blid, Malmö Academic Choir & Orchestra
Gift Horse / Over The Water, Craig Taborn
There's The Day, Cathal McConnell
No Money, Ben Moss & Laurel Swift
It's Alright, Precious Bryant
Rise Up, 3rd String Trio
Cinecitta, 3rd String Trio
Ah, Mari, 3rd String Trio
Vent D'Automne, 3rd String Trio
The Introduction (Carolan's Cottage), Daron Douglas And Karen Axelrod
Miss Thornton's / Mason's Apron, The Latter Day Lizards
Arran Boat/Paddy Fahey's/Devlin's/Bagdad Bully, Alexander Mitchell
Candles In The Dark, Alexander Mitchell
Seamus O'Brien, The Latter Day Lizards
Bright Morning Stars are Rising, Jacqueline Schwab
The Dreamer, Tom Rush

What have you been listening to?

Long for This World, by Jonathan Weiner

A few weeks ago my son mentioned that new medical research may well extend our lives significantly, even for those of us alive today. So when I saw a recommendation for this book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Beak of the Finch, I jumped on it. I was prepared for some heavy reading but in fact the book flew by, the science delivered in small, easily digestible bites. Weiner has an outstanding ability to describe the particulars of the research being done such that a layman can easily follow it.

To my amazement, that research promises more than just many of us being able to live to 100. It may enable us, basically, to live forever. And not just as withered, decrepit shells, but with the health of our prime.

Of course, my immediate thought was a cynical conviction that these benefits would be monetized like everything else, so only the rich would live forever while we peasants would serve and die. I wondered if immortality was such a good thing: Strom Thurmond would have been a Senator until the end of time.

Luckily, Weiner doesn't avoid the tough questions. He brings in philosophy, art and literature. He looks at the big questions. Would such longevity bring massive overcrowding or would people have even fewer children or none? Societies whose life spans have increased dramatically in the last 60 years have also experienced dramatic declines in birthrates. He asks if we would become bored, if life would lose its meaning. He quotes moral philosopher Bernard Williams from The Makropulos Case where he argues that: “Immortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless …so, in a sense, death gives the meaning to life.”

Weiner asks what immortality would do to our sense of time:

Mortality is the central fact of our lives . . . We try to number our days, so that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom, as we are advised in the Psalms. And it is essential to us at any age to know or to guess roughly where we are in our time—because that knowledge does teach us how to live.

Our ability to exist in time may require our being mortal, although we can’t understand that any more than the fish can understand water. What we call the stream of consciousness may depend upon mortality in ways that we can hardly glimpse.

Even more interesting for me as a writer, he considers our universal metaphor of life as a journey. All stories are about journeys. We writers work hard at learning how to structure stories to be meaningful and interesting. One thing we know for sure is what Aristotle said: all stories have a beginning, middle and end. But what if they don't? How do we then understand the shape of our lives?

We are performers of the self, we are playwrights of our lives, and we need death to bring down the curtain, or the play will go on too long; the story will lose all shape and cease to be a story at all.

Weiner gives us not just the science behind today's search for immortality, but also some of the people behind it. These lively conversations and descriptions help to make the book even more readable. There's a lot here to think about, questions that go to the heart of what it means to be human. The book came out in 2010, leaving me eager to find out what new research has happened since then. I'm still not at all convinced that hugely increased longevity is a good thing, but I want to know more about it.

If you could stay healthy, would you want to live to 100? How about 500? A thousand?

Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth

I’ve greatly enjoyed this series on PBS, but hadn’t thought about reading the books upon which they are based until my friend, Cynthia, advised me that they were even better than the show. I usually assume books to be much better than their film incarnations, if only because films must condense the story and often lose much of the subtlety and shading. However, in this case the films are so good that I couldn’t believe the books could be better. I was wrong.

In the early 1950s Worth, then Jennifer Lee, having trained as a nurse, was placed at an Anglican community of nuns to learn midwifery. The nuns belong to an order, which she calls St Raymund Nonnatus and their convent, Nonnatus House, in located in Poplar, a neighborhood in London’s East End. Together with the nuns and two other young midwives-in-training, Worth serves the vibrant but shockingly poor Cockney East-Enders, as a midwife but also on occasion as a district nurse.

Her stories of her fellow midwives and the characters she meets are funny and sad and enchanting. English has been known to treasure its eccentrics, but never did I imagine so many crowded into one small book. Worth gives them in all their glory, showing their faults and remarkable strengths, always describing them and their antics with dignity and respect.

I had not realised conditions were so bad in the East End during the 1950s. I knew that England, still recovering from the Second World War, struggled to find food and housing for its battered population, but I didn’t know that condemned tenements lingered on for decades due to the lack of alternate housing. Some of these densely populated tenements blocks only provided a single cold-water tap and lavatory for each level of flats. What with the docks and the railway terminus, the already-overcrowded East End had been targeted during the Blitz, leaving many to live in bombed-out buildings even during this period.

When I think of the prosperity I grew up in here in the U.S., I can now understand why my mother continued to send food parcels to her English friends throughout the 1950s. At the time, it didn’t make sense to me, conditioned as I was by my reading to think of England as a “green and pleasant land”.

When I teach memoir writing, I encourage writers to find the balance of narration and dramatic scenes that best serves their story. Worth succeeds brilliantly at this. She gives us just enough narration to understand the social (and sometimes political) context and then jumps right into the action. Each chapter is devoted to a different person, either a colleague or patient, except for a few instances when one or two more chapters are needed to finish the story. While it may seem organised like a picaresque novel, just a sequence of episodes, there is a narrative arc, which only becomes clear when you look at the book as a whole, culminating in Worth herself being profoundly changed.

The chapters fly by, so entertaining and assured is Worth’s voice. These vivid characters will stay with you. Worth wrote the book, she said, to capture a way of life that disappeared during the slum clearances of the 1960s. There is still poverty but no longer is it quite so dire. I ponder, however, the ways that the vibrant working class life she describes has changed. I of all people will not romanticise poverty, yet must allow that when I lived in neighborhoods of working class families and those on public assistance, I found much that was preferable to the prosperous neighborhood where I grew up.

What novels or memoirs have you read that have vivid characters, people whom you can’t forget?

Hungover Poet, by Natasha Ramsey

This book left me reeling. Ramsey’s poems of love and anger and redemption explode from the page. Full of outrage, raw hurt and tender caresses, they command the reader’s attention and emotion.

Some poems are not as strong as others, but what fascinates me is the way they gather force as the book continues. In the middle sections, Ramsey takes on various personas—someone dying of AIDS, someone on death row—to explore even more intense experiences. And the poems in the last section are simply spectacular. Reading the book is like watching a poet find her voice.

I have heard Ramsey perform, so could hear her voice as I read and reread her words. Since we are friends, you may be right in suspecting that I am biased, but check this out:


I am not black, brown, white, grey or yellow
I am flesh. Red blood simmering,
White bone floating on a smoky stoned cloud.

I don’t belong here
Earth is no home
My mood matches mother moon.

A dark day equals this stormy night’s bruise.
I am not black, brown, white, grey or yellow,
I am life. Acceptance is my hue.

Or this excerpt from “2008”:

Updating my resume with poetic rhetoric, I petition for the creation of a White House Jester position.
License and paycheck will allow me to tell how it really is
Instead of recycling nifty 5 o’clock catch phrases.

Pondering, penning, sketching and spilling
Bloody messages from a war torn group that will be refuted by the faint of heart and some historians in part, while
sprinkling our food for thought with philosophically salted excesses
hoping to form opinions from the hardening of arterial stresses.

Ramsey’s courage and honesty jump from every page. She is not afraid to take on the most controversial issues: abortion, homosexuality, incest, abuse. Nor does she hesitate to draw us in to the most personal moments. I’ve sometimes found that spoken word poems lose some of their force when deprived of the poet’s performance. However, the poems in this collection, especially those in the final section, retain their passion. Ramsey invites us to experience the world fully, its joys and sorrows, and to rail with her against injustice.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.