And I wish again that there were two lives apportioned

by Lorin Michel Saturday, March 5, 2016 7:53 PM

Pat Conroy died today. Long one of my favorite writers, I read early this morning that he succumbed to pancreatic cancer after announcing that he was sick just last month. It seems that a very human disease, too human of a disease, captured the man whose prose was poetry, whose sentences seemed not of this world. I am sad.

I remember reading The Prince of Tides for the first time in 1990. By then it was out in paperback. I had never heard of it until, for some unknown reason, I picked it up for a trip back east. I started reading in the airport as I waited for the plane. I read across the country. As the plane was touching down at JFK, I was on the last pages. Determined to finish, I feverishly devoured the words. The wheels of the plane screeched, the plane lurched and we careened down the runway as I read the last words. 

There is a passage on page 565: “We swam in the warm opaque waters, diving in deep from the shrimp boat’s bow. After swimming, we ate dinner from the picnic basket and toasted my father’s homecoming with champagne. Savannah approached my father and I watched them as they walked to the front of the boat holding hands. 

“I tried to think of something to say, a summing up, but I could think of nothing. I had taught myself to listen to the black sounds of the heart and learned some things that would serve me well. I had come to this moment with my family safely around me and I prayed that they would always be safe and that I would be contented with what I had. I am southern made and southern broken. Lord, but I beseech you to let me keep what I have. Lord, I am a teacher and a coach. That is all and it is enough. But the black sounds, the black sounds, Lord. When they toll within me, I am seized with a capacity for homage and wonder. I hear them and want to put my dreams to music. When they come I can feel an angel burning in my eyes like a rose, and canticles of the most meticulous praise rise out of the clear submarine depths of secret ambient ecstasy.” 

His words always mesmerized me, even though none ever came close to having the impact of The Prince of Tides. I had never read prose like that before, though I’ve no doubt that it exists elsewhere. I’ve read it since, but that book showed me what true writing could be. My Aunt Barbara sent me a copy of The Water is Wide: A Memoir, which Conroy had written in 1972 chronicling his teaching experiences on Daufuskie Island in the late 1960s. The island, off the coast of South Carolina, had a population of all blacks. The children who lived there didn’t know what country they lived in, the name of their president, or what ocean lapped their beach.

“There is something eternal and indestructible about the tideeroded shores and the dark, threatening silences of the swamps in the heart of the island. Yamacraw is beautiful because man has not yet had time to destroy this beauty.”

By the time Beach Music was released in 1995, I was with Kevin. He knew of my adoration of Conroy and it had no sooner been released than he came home with a hard copy of it for me. I think I sat down with a glass of wine and began reading immediately. It didn’t reach to my core like The Prince of Tides did, but it was filled with lush, haunting and harsh descriptions of relationships, and of Conroy’s beloved South Carolina.

He was actually born in Georgia into a military family and moved 23 times before he was 18 years old. Eventually, after attending the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, he settled there. He married three times, and had several children. I don’t know what kind of man he was, what kind of father. He described his writing style as “sitting in gloom and darkness.” I doubt he was cheery and light, but that’s ultimately what made his writing so exquisite. It hurts to read his prose, to absorb it into your soul. Again, I am sad.

I haven’t read any of his books since Beach Music unless you count re-reading The Prince of Tides. My Aunt Barbara sent me a copy of My Losing Season, published in 2002. I am embarrassed to say it remains in my stack of books yet to be read. It’s a stack that has grown very high. This news today though makes me think I’ll move it to the top, and read the first words. It was always the danger with Conroy’s writing, because to start is to read through to the end, and then sit there bereft, and yet elated by the haunted life he had brought me into, only to leave me wanting more.

I suppose that is the mark of a literary artist for to me, Pat Conroy was so much more than just a writer, or an author. He was an artist, one who used words to paint colorful pictures on a black and white page.

My copy of The Prince of Tides is now tattered, literally, from several times reading. The cover has detached itself from the spine, sections have pulled away from the glue. I could get another copy but I don’t. It reminds me of the first time I read it, on an airplane, flying over a flawed country and paying no attention to what was drifting by below me because I was wrapped up in Tom Wingo’s world. As the plane touched down, with tears streaming down my face, I read the last paragraph: 

“Each night, when practice is over and I’m driving home through the streets of Charleston, I ride with the top down on my Volkswagen convertible. It is always dark and the air is crisp with autumn and the wind is rushing through my hair. At the top of the bridge with the stars shining above the harbor, I look to the north and wish again that there were two lives apportioned to every man and woman. Behind me the city of Charleston shimmers in the cold elixirs of its own incalculable beauty and before me my wife and children are waiting for me to arrive home. It is in their eyes that I acknowledge my real life, my destiny. But it is the secret life that sustains me now, and as I reach the top of that bridge I say it in a whisper, I say it as a prayer, as regret, and as praise. I can’t tell you why I do it or what it means, but each night when I drive toward my southern home and my southern life, I whisper these words: “Lowenstein, Lowenstein.”

I am very, very sad.

The Haunting of Hill House

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, October 14, 2015 10:20 PM

Like most teens I was fascinated with horror and the occult. I didn’t practice it, but I devoured the stories. I was a huge fan of early Stephen King. His The Stand remains one of my all-time favorite books. So is Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour. A recent addition to Lorin’s favorite books is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I guess my fascination with horror didn’t end with my teenage years.

In high school, I remember two stories that we read in English. One was Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery. The other was Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House. The Lottery is one that has long haunted me because of its dysfunctional utopian view of middle America, something I sometimes fear is more truth than fiction. But The Haunting of Hill House is one I had forgotten about. On the second hour of “The Diane Rehm Show,” on NPR, they talked about this book, and I was riveted.

Diane and her guests talked about the description of the house as depicted by Jackson as being a prime character, a dismal place that is never what it seems. Nothing leads to anything else. It is all strange angles and disproportionate lines. The cornices are described as eyebrows, as if the house is looking at you. It’s a ghost story that never raises its voice. Instead it delivers a quiet chill. It’s about suggestion, the unknown; about what’s most terrifying being what isn’t seen. It’s more terror than horror in that sense, playing off of people’s inner fears and anxiety’s much like Jackson’s own life.

Jackson suffered from several psychosomatic illnesses, including anxiety and prided herself on not being normal. But she was. She had four kids, cooked for everyone and had parties. She wrote about her kids in stories like Life Among Savages and Raising Demons. Even her stories about her kids had slightly macabre titles. One of the guests on the show talked about just that, how switching the narrative just a bit turns those stories from being humorous to horrific.

She wrote The Haunting of Hill House in the late 1950s. It was published in 1959. Here’s the opening paragraph:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

One of the greatest opening paragraphs ever, and makes me want to read it again.

Is the house haunted? Is the house itself evil, or is evil what the characters cast upon it? Is it interpretive? This is the power of fiction, the ability to read and absorb, to create worlds in our mind that are filled with even more dysfunction than is on the page. Such is the power of imagination. It’s completely internal, and what I’m celebrating just two weeks leading up to Halloween.

The lowland

by Lorin Michel Friday, October 24, 2014 9:56 PM

In 2000, the Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her debut book, a collection of short stories entitled Interpreter of Maladies. The stories are about the conflicts of Indian American’s when caught between the old traditions and the modern world. I didn’t read it but it is now on my list for two reasons. One, I’m a big fan of the short story. I think being able to take a snap shot of lives and tell something compelling about the characters in a small number of pages is a lost form of art and narrative. Two, because I’m reading Lahiri’s most recent book The Lowland and it’s fascinating.

Lahiri is herself an Indian American who was born in London but raised in the north eastern part of the United States having moved here with her parents when she was two. She actually considers herself to be an American. She was educated at Boston University, receiving multiple degrees. As an accomplished author and professional, she has taught creative writing at her alma mater but she currently lives in Rome with her husband and their kids.

I picked up The Lowland when I was stuck in LAX one night. I don’t always know what attracts me to a book. There are certain authors that I gravitate to, like Alice Hoffman, but I more often I gravitate toward people I haven’t read before. Unlike wine labels, I rarely notice the cover art. I do notice a title. I notice the way the author’s name is positioned. I don’t tend to like books where the author’s name is bigger than the book’s title. It makes the writer more important than the story when I believe it should be the other way around. On paperbacks, which is what I bought, I notice the quality of the paper. I realize that sounds odd. I don’t know why this book asked me to pick it up but I did. Maybe it’s because under Lahiri’s name it says “winner of the Pulitzer prize.” Above the title it says “national bestseller” and “national book award finalist.” I’m not much for labels but two of those are pretty prestigious. I picked it up, and did what I always do with a book I’m considering buying: I open it in the middle and read a couple of paragraphs. If the story and the prose can capture me when I know absolutely nothing but the book’s title, it’s a pretty safe bet that I’ll enjoy it.

“Recently her mother had started referring to the dissertation as a manuscript. She spoke of it as she might speak of an infant, telling her father one night at dinner that she worried about the pages being blown out an open window, or being destroyed by a fire. She said it worried her, sometimes, to leave them unattended in the house.

“One weekend, stopping at a yard sale, Bela and her father found a brown metal file cabinet among the odds and ends for sale. Her father made sure the drawers opened and closed easily, then bought it. He carried it from the trunk of the car into her mother’s study, knocking on her door, surprising her with this gift.

“They found her at her typewriter, holding her head the way she always did when she concentrated, staring up at them. Her elbows on the desk, the last two of her fingers pressed against her cheekbone, making a V, creating a partial triangle that framed her eye.”

Skip ahead a couple of paragraphs to this: “Every day Bela heard the drawers opening and closing, containing the pages her mother typed. She had a dream one night, of returning home from school and finding their house burned down to a skeletal frame, like the houses she would construct out of Popsicle sticks when she was younger, with only the file cabinet, intact, on the grass.”

Those are from pages 244 and 245 of the paperback. Those aren’t the same paragraphs I read that evening in Terminal One, Southwest at Los Angeles International. But I am hooked all over again.

I love the somewhat stark style. Lahiri uses an economy of words that is enviable. She gets to the point, she paints a picture, and yet there is no fluff, no oversaturation of words. Her language isn’t fancy, nor are her characters. But they are both compelling, and as I said earlier, I’m going to pick up her short stories. There is now a second collection entitled Unaccustomed Earth.

She writes semi-autobiographically, drawing on her own life experiences as well as those of her parents, friends, and those in the Indian communities with which she is familiar. She writes of anxieties and biases, detailing the nuances of the immigrant psychology and behavior. Maybe that’s partly why I’m intrigued. I was born here, and yet I can imagine how difficult it must be for others from a vastly different culture to integrate into our way of life. I’m sympathetic to that and I embrace the cultural differences of others. I’m fascinated by all humanity. Perhaps that’s another reason I picked up her book. I wanted to know about the lowland.

In her hands, it is about hiding and escaping, but ultimately being found. Exactly what I did with this book, and what I’m celebrating tonight.

The great first paragraphs from I know this much is true

by Lorin Michel Friday, August 29, 2014 7:22 PM

“On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable. Mrs. Theresa Fenneck, the children’s librarian, was officially in charge that day because the head librarian was at an all-day meeting in Hartford. She approached my brother and told him he’d have to keep his voice down or else leave the library. She could hear him all the way up at the front desk. There were other patrons to consider. If he wanted to pray, she told him he should go to a church, not the library.

“Thomas and I had spent several hours together the day before. Our Sunday afternoon ritual dictated that I sign him out of the state hospital’s Settle Building, treat him to lunch, visit our stepfather or take him for a drive, and then return him to the hospital before suppertime. At a back booth at Friendly’s, I’d sat across from my brother, breathing in his secondary smoke and leafing for the umpteenth time through his scrapbook of clippings on the Persian Gulf crisis. He’d been collecting them since August as evidence that Armageddon was at hand – that the final battle between good and evil was about to be triggered. “America’s been living on borrowed time all these year, Dominick,” he told me. “Playing the world’s whore, wallowing in our greed. Now we’re going to pay the price.”

“He was oblivious of my drumming fingers on the tabletop. “Not to change the subject,” I said, “but how’s the coffee business?” Ever since eight milligrams of Haldol per day had quieted Thomas’s voices, he had managed a small morning concession in the patients’ lounge – coffee and cigarettes and newspapers dispersed from a metal cart more rickety than his emotional state. Like so many of the patients there, he indulged in caffeine and nicotine, but it was the newspapers that had become Thomas’s most potent addiction.”

These are the great first lines of Wally’s Lamb’s 1998 novel I Know This Much Is True. The book, one of Oprah’s book club picks in the same year and recommended in the last few months by my friend Diane, tells the story of twin brothers Dominick and Thomas, the latter of whom suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. After an incident, which I won’t mention in case you haven’t read the book, Thomas is placed in a mental hospital. But when Dominick discovers evidence of abuse in the hospital, he starts trying to help his brother. This causes him to look at their family’s history and leads him to start seeing a therapist in order to analyze the events and tragedies in his own life. It’s the story of alienation and connection, of devastation and renewal. It’s heartbreaking, thought-provoking, frightening, poignant, haunting, and I suspect ultimately cathartic in all of the wonderful ways a novel should be.

There are 897 pages in the hardcover. As a lover of books, I still prefer to spend the money on something heavy and tangible when it comes to reading the written word. There’s strength in the weight of it. I love the feel of it in my hands, the smell of the paper.

I’m not yet finished with I Know This Much Is True. I hope to finish it shortly. When I read, I am consumed by the page and my own writing suffers. It’s why I read less often than I’d like. It’s also why I have stacks of books, all hardcover, waiting to be opened and devoured. I’ll get to them eventually. I always do, even as I buy more and create a new stack.

I think I might put another book by Mr. Lamb on my list, his first, She’s Come Undone. I love that both of these books have titles that are also song titles. He has another called Wishin’ and Hopin.’ I don’t know that there’s a connection or if it’s just coincidence. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s just his way of living it out loud.  

 

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great first paragraphs | live out loud

The great first paragraphs from “The Invention of Wings”

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, February 11, 2014 11:12 PM

“There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, “Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.”

“My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy. She looked at my face, how it flowed with sorrow and doubt, and she said, “You don’t believe me? Where you think these shoulder blades of yours come from, girl?”

“Those skinny bones stuck out from my back like nubs. She patted them and said, “This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ‘em back.”

“I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. We could fly all right, but it wasn’t any magic to it.”

Sarah Grimké

These are the great first lines of Sue Monk Kidd’s new book, The Invention of Wings. I bought it in the airport on Friday when I was stranded in Los Angeles, waiting for our plane to come in from wherever it was coming in from so we could take off for Tucson. I have been wanting to read the book; it was on my list of things to order from Amazon. I just hadn’t gotten around to it.

There I was, three hours into the delay and I was getting tired of walking back and forth in the terminal. I was running low on battery power for my phone and my laptop and Terminal One at LAX, the Southwest terminal, has about three plugs. The two bars in the terminal, a crappy Mexican place and a crappy beer place, were both packed with other people looking for a place to sit and hang for while until their equipment arrived. I had already had coffee, and McDonald’s and I try to stay away from one another. My feet hurt; I was in high heels. I wasn’t in the mood for Brookstone. That left the newsstand.

I walked toward it and before I even got in, stopped at the stand outside the door with books displayed. At the top was The Invention of Wings. I didn’t even look at the price. I simply bought it. It ended up being the salvation of my trip. I’m currently just over 100 pages in and wish I were further along. I also wish I had more time to simply sit and read. I would have been finished by Sunday.

The book is loosely based on the life of Sarah Grimké, an abolitionist and suffragist born into South Carolina society in 1792. Because it was the south, in the 18th century, they had slaves, something Sarah didn’t approve of, even as a child. In the book, Sarah is given a slave girl for her 11th birthday. It’s her present from her mother – her very own slave to do with and treat as she wishes. Sarah is mortified and as her very first act, writes a proclamation to free the girl, whose name is Handful. The proclamation is torn up by Sarah’s father and so the novel progresses, through the lives of these two girls of the same age but with vastly different stations in life. Each chapter, however long or short and some are literally just two or three pages, alternates between Sarah’s point of view and Handful’s. Sarah teaches Handful to read and write and it changes both of their lives even more, and not necessarily for the better.

It’s a fascinating character study and commentary about history without passing judgment. The way Ms. Kidd writes is truly remarkable. Her sentences and descriptions just seem so spot on, so melodic. It’s hypnotizing. Oh, to write like that.

I haven’t read someone I enjoy so much since my last Alice Hoffman book. Hoffman remains my favorite contemporary writer. If you’ve never read one of her books, I suggest starting with The Dovekeepers. It’s exquisite. Another writer whose prose is simply effortless is Barbara Kingsolver, though I didn’t finish her last book. When I was reading it, I loved it. But it wasn’t enough to leave me salivating for the next chapter.

The Invention of Wings is symbolic, heroic, tragic, thrilling, frightening, beautiful. And I’m just a third of the way through. I can’t wait to see where the words take me. I can’t wait to see what becomes of Sarah and Handful. I can’t wait to fly. 

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great first paragraphs | live out loud

The great first paragraphs from “The Book Thief”

by Lorin Michel Sunday, November 17, 2013 12:21 AM

“First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.

“HERE IS A SMALL FACT. You are going to die.

“I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

“– Of course, an introduction. A beginning. Where are my manners?

“I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.

“At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery; a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I’ll hear after that will be my own breathing, and the sound of the smell, of my footsteps.

“The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?”

These are the great first lines from the incredible tome The Book Thief, narrated by Death that takes place during the time of Nazi Germany. Death makes note of the fact that it was a very busy time for him, even as he follows a particular young girl named Liesel Meminger who is shipped off to live with a foster family, the other residents of their neighborhood, and a Jewish fist-fighter who hides in the home during the escalation of the War.

Liesel arrives at her new home having just stolen her first book, even though she hasn’t learned to read. It’s called The Gravediggers Handbook, and her foster father uses it to lull her to sleep when she has nightmares about her younger brother’s death. For the next years, during the late 1930s and into the 1940s, Liesel collects more stolen books as well as a peculiar set of friends: a boy named Rudy, a Jewish refugee named Max, the mayor’s reclusive wife (who has a whole library from which she allows Liesel to steal), and especially her foster parents.

It’s a fascinating book, written by Markus Zusak, in a style that might have graphic novel tendencies if it had illustrations. Instead it has blocks of descriptive scene information that helps move the story forward just as the poetic narrative of Death does. It’s an incredible read and soon to be a major motion picture. I don’t know if I’ll see the film, but the book is worth celebrating because of the way its written and because it manages to do something different with the horrors of Nazi Germany. It manages to find hope in one of my favorite places, the pages of a book. 

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great first paragraphs | live out loud

The wind in the palms

by Lorin Michel Thursday, November 7, 2013 10:13 PM

Like most people, I read The Wind in the Willows when I was young. It used to be required reading; I don’t know if it still is. I do believe that it should be, though, because it is a powerful book containing powerful symbols of tradition, purity, innocence and the unknown. I suspect that if I re-read it now, I would also find correlations to modern strife, perhaps politics, even the fight for gay rights. All of the characters in the book are, after all, male.

I remember the book as being somewhat dark, a twisting labyrinth of mysticism, adventure, friendship and discovery. I remember Toad Hall and the characters named only for their species. Rat, Mole, Badger and, of course, Mr. Toad. The book was published in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame, an English writer of Scottish descent, who wrote his most famous work as a series of letters to his son, Alastair, who had been born partially blind and thus became the inspiration for Mole. At least that’s the theory. The letters eventually evolved from a bedtime story into the beloved book we all know. It begins at the River Bank like this: 

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the graveled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.”

Just typing that makes me want to read it all over again. So much is said in that first paragraph; it just grabs you with its imagery. I can see Mole, a dirty little dude with an exasperated attitude, who has had it with everything. What he does is not wallow in the darkness of his fate but scratch and claw his way to the sunlight. The metaphor in that first paragraph alone is inspiring. I doubt I thought of it when I was 10, the first time I perused these fabulous pages, but I can see it now so clearly. The sunlight is there. The rollicking meadow is there. It’s a matter of getting to it and, with perseverance, it can be done.


Wind in the willows, by Maya Eventov

For some reason I was thinking about this book last night as I went to bed. My day had been extremely busy getting things ready for a client who was launching their crowdfunding campaign this morning. I started in the morning at about 7:30 and turned off my computer last night at 11:33. Yes, there were breaks. Of course there were, but when I work right up until the time I go to bed, I have trouble sleeping. My mind must first power down, and my body has to relax. I lay there, snug under the covers, listening to the roar of the wind outside. The palm tree fronds were flipping and crashing and thrashing. It sounded vaguely violent and oddly soothing at the same time. I went to sleep with that sound wrapping me up, the wind in the palm trees giving an odd kind of comfort to my otherwise chaotic day. Perhaps that was the point.

By this morning, the winds had calmed but The Wind in the Willows was on my mind. I was thinking about the river, probably the most powerful symbol in the book, something that seemingly represents the never-ending flow of life and the force of it all, without judgment but with reality. And the wind as it whispered through the book, through the willows. When I was young I didn’t understand its significance. I’m not sure I do now. But I think, perhaps, that it might be about the intangible, the unknowable, the idea that we can’t contain it anymore than we can contain the direction of our lives. The wind simply is and it’s OK. It, along with the sun, the moon, the stars, our loved ones, our pets, books, all let us know that…

“This is fine!”

Those were the first words Mole said as he lay on the grass in the sunlight. I’d say it’s all very fine indeed.

The Witching Hour

by Lorin Michel Saturday, June 22, 2013 1:06 AM

One of my favorite books is by the horror-gothic-science fiction writer Anne Rice. It’s one of her earlier works and it’s entitled The Witching Hour. It begins …

“The doctor woke up afraid. He had been dreaming of the old house in New Orleans again. He had seen the woman in the rocker. He’d seen the man with the brown eyes.

“And even now in this quiet hotel room above New York City he felt the old alarming disorientation. He’d been talking again with the brown-eyed man. Yes, help her. No, this is just a dream. I want to get out of it.”

The book tells the story of the Mayfair Witches, a deeply connected family where the death of one strengthens the others with his/her knowledge. It’s filled with ragged history and the atmosphere of New Orleans and San Francisco. It’s rich and dark, frightening and fun. The moss from trees fairly drips from the pages.

The phrase the witching hour is purported to mean midnight, that time of the day when the clock rolls into the unknown, when supernatural creatures like witches and ghosts are thought to appear and be at their most powerful. It can sometimes mean bad luck, or the start of something ominous. Rice’s The Witching Hour is all of those things and more, a supernatural cocktail of suspense and anxiety, a changing of the world from one we know to one we perhaps fear.

“The doctor sat up in bed. No sound but the faint roar of the air conditioner. Why was he thinking about it tonight in a hotel room in the Parker Meridien? For a moment he couldn’t shake the feeling of the old house. He saw the woman again – her head bent, her vacant stare. He could almost hear the hum of the insects against the screens of the old porch. And the brown-eyed man was speaking without moving his lips. A waxen dummy infused with life–“

The first writer to use the term “witching hour” may have been Washington Irving in his legendarily creepy short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Irving used both “witching hour” and “witching time” to talk about the darkness of midnight, the unknown of the sounds, the things that can’t be seen, the dread of what might be out there. The phrase appears to have been in reference to the famous Salem Witch Trials.

“No. Stop it.”

Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar have ghosts and other manner of supernatural phenomena occurring around midnight. In Hamlet, the young Dane says “’Tis now the very witching time of night” meaning that the ghosts, perhaps of his father, will soon show themselves and haunt the castle. It’s dark, the moon is shadowed, and the time of the unknown has arrived.

“He got out of bed and padded silently across the carpeted floor until he stood in front of the sheer white curtains, peering out at the black sooty rooftops and dim neon signs flickering against brick walls. The early morning light showed behind the clouds above the dull concrete façade opposite. No debilitating heat here. No drowsing scent of roses, of gardenias.”

Anne Rice wrote her novel in 1990, the first in her series of the Lives of the Mayfair Witches. She has always been prolific and loves to write several books with the same characters. Witness her Vampire Chronicles which started with her very first book, Interview with the Vampire. The first printing of The Witching Hour was on October 19, 1990 and it was 976 pages. I devoured every one.

The Witching Hour is one of those books that I re-read occasionally to make sure that I still enjoy it. It’s much like Steven King’s The Stand in that regard. The Stand appeals to my apocalyptic sense of the world; The Witching Hour appeals to my interest in the occult.

I lead such a normal and somewhat boring life, but these possibilities intrigue me. What if there could be the end of the world? What if there are vampires and witches? What if there truly is a witching hour? If there is, I hope there’s wine.

“Gradually his head cleared.”

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great first paragraphs | live out loud

The great first paragraphs from "White Oleander"

by Lorin Michel Friday, April 26, 2013 12:28 AM

“The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon.

“”Oleander time,” she said. “Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind.” She held up her large hand and spread the fingers, let the desert dryness lick through. My mother was not herself in the time of the Santa Anas. I was twelve years old and I was afraid for her. I wished things were back the way they had been, that Barry was still here, that the wind would stop blowing.

“”You should get some sleep,” I offered.

“”I never sleep,” she said.

“I sat next to her, and we stared out at the city that hummed and glittered like a computer chip deep in some unknowable machine, holding its secret like a poker hand. The edge of her white kimono flapped open in the wind and I could see her breast, low and full. Her beauty was like the edge of a very sharp knife.

“I rested my head on her leg. She smelled like violets. “We are the wands,” she said. “We strive for beauty and balance, the sensual over the sentimental.”

“”The wands,” I repeated. I wanted her to know I was listening. Our tarot suit, the wands. She used to lay out the cards for me, explain the suits: wands and coins, cups and swords, but she had stopped reading them. She didn’t want to know the future anymore.” 

These are the great opening lines from Janet Fitch’s 1999 novel White Oleander about a child on the brink of puberty and her brilliantly beautiful mother, a woman who uses her luminous beauty to intimidate and manipulate men. The child’s name is Astrid and she worships her mother. Completely caught up in the world they share, a world of darkness and mystery, love and ritual, she doesn’t see the disaster they’re heading for. Her mother, Ingrid, falls apart over a lover and in a moment of passion, kills the man. Ingrid is sentenced to life in prison, leaving Astrid to navigate through a series of foster homes, each a place of impossible circumstances.

I first read this book back when it first came out. I was looking for something to take on an airplane, and it had an interesting cover. It’s often what makes me pick up a book. That, and the title. I want to be intrigued by both. It’s how I’ve found a number of books, at the bookstores that once and in certain terminals still do populate airports. I wander through, running my hand along the stacks and inhaling the smell of books. Hundreds and hundreds of books. Hard covers, soft covers; fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I almost always gravitate to fiction. I have enough reality in my life. It was an airport bookstore that I discovered one of my favorite books, The Poisonwood Bible. It was an airport bookstore where I first discovered my favorite author, Alice Hoffman.

I imagine I found White Oleander as I waited to embark on a trip back East, a trip from Los Angeles to Boston. I remember loving the first lines because they were about Santa Ana winds and I’ve always thought there was something mystical and frightening about those winds, especially at night. Those opening paragraphs rang true for me, as did the whole book. They made me shiver even in their warmth, in the warmth of the day. They transported me, made me part of it all. They make me shiver still. 

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great first paragraphs

The great first paragraphs from "Sharp Objects"

by Lorin Michel Thursday, March 21, 2013 10:30 PM

“My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly. It was May 12 but the temperature had dipped to the forties, and after four days shivering in my shirtsleeves, I grabbed cover at a tag sale rather than dig through my boxed-up winter clothes. Spring in Chicago.

“In my gunny-covered cubicle I sat staring at the computer screen. My story for the day was a limp sort of evil. Four kids, ages two through six, were found locked in a room on the South Side with a couple of tuna sandwiches and a quart of milk. They’d been left three days, flurrying like chickens over the food and feces on the carpet. Their mother had wandered off for a suck on the pipe and just forgotten.  Sometimes that’s what happens. No cigarette burns, no bone snaps. Just an irretrievable slipping. I’d seen the mother after the arrest: twenty-two-year-old Tammy David, blonde and fat, with pink rouge on her cheeks in two perfect circles the size of shot glasses. I could imagine her sitting on a shambled-down sofa, her lips on that metal, a sharp burst of smoke. Then all was fast floating, her kids way behind, as she shot back to junior high, when the boys still cared and she was the prettiest, a glossy-lipped thirteen-year-old who mouthed cinnamon sticks before she kissed.

“A belly. A smell. Cigarettes and old coffee. My editor, esteemed, weary Frank Curry, rocking back in his cracked Hush Puppies. His teeth soaked in brown tobacco saliva.”

These are the great first lines of Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects. In it, a reporter named Camille Preaker is forced to confront her troubled past when she travels back to her hometown in Missouri to cover the murders of two pre-teen girls. While there she must deal with the neurotic, hypochondriac mother she’s hardly spoken to in eight years and a half-sister she barely knows. She chooses to stay in her family’s Victorian mansion. She’s haunted by the childhood tragedy she’s spent her whole life trying to forget, and as she works to unravel the clues of the murder, she also begins to unravel her own past to confront what happened to her years before. It’s the only way she can survive her homecoming.

Gillian Flynn’s latest book is called Gone Girl and it’s another psychological twister, and a huge success. Sharp Objects is where she began, after years spent writing for Entertainment Weekly magazine, largely as a film critic and lastly as a television critic. Her prose is crisp and creepy, her characters real and driven. The disturbing story moves along at a fast pace and it takes you along for the ride.

I remember reading this book a couple of years ago. I like books like this, books that are atmospheric and moody and creepy and stunning and interesting and different. Thrillingly real and sharply written. If you’ve read Gone Girl and like it, read Sharp Objects. It’s chillingly good.

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great first paragraphs

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