Looking back/looking ahead

One day rolls into the next and we call it a birthday, a new year, a celebration. We stop to recalibrate, reflect, feed our spirit in a way we rarely stop to think about satisfying the needs of a grumbling stomach. Choose your words, we tell our children when they’re young and our hope is to teach them what it means to think before they speak.

I do a lot of thinking. A lot of writing. As much reading as I can.

The cusp of 2015 has me thinking about the heightened attention brought to books by women via Joanna Walsh and her galvanizing #Readwomen2014 hashtag. It takes a village, indeed, to hack away at gender bias in publishing. With all that I now know, would I still put Shoes Hair Nails  front/center of a story collection? You bet. Call me crazy.

Better yet, call me someone bent on looking beyond reading women to celebrating the themes near and dear to us, and too often trivialized; that fine distinction between books by women and books for women gets a little muddled in the marketing arena.

Cozying up with a book is its own singular pleasure, an unspoken communication between writer, via the characters and worlds she has created, and reader. Then comes that collective pleasure—sharing thoughts on books, shouting one book’s praises/ another book’s serious shortcomings. Of all the rich fiction by women that I read in 2014, the three novels that comprise Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Trilogy are at the very top. Take my word for it. Or Google her and take your pick of all the pieces written about this mysterious writer and how she so marvelously captures the intricacies of female friendship.

womeninclothes-600All of which has me thinking that validation for a writer is as much about seeing her own motifs in the works of greater, more recognized writers as it is in reader response to her own work. The minute I read about Women in Clothes—the brainchild of Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, which becomes a ‘conversation’ of sorts among the hundreds of women they surveyed—I got myself a copy. “For someone who is fascinated by how people relate to one another,” writes Heti, “it’s hard to overlook personal style as a way we speak to the world.” This is a book not intended to be read straight through, more to be perused section by section. I challenge you to see if you don’t see something of yourself in some part of it. A beautifully produced mix of text, illustrations, and photographs, it makes a great birthday gift for a girlfriend.

Old photographs, coupled with artwork by Maira Kalman and text by Daniel Handler, are at the heart of Girls Standing on Lawns, as charming a book as it gets. I have boxes of them, a jumble of stories told through images. The unfamiliar ones require a bit of detective work, looking at dates and settings, trying to recognize faces in their earlier incarnation. The familiar ones remind me of times that girls standingsometimes feel lost if not forgotten.

Which brings me to my own recent trip down memory lane, a family vacay on the East End of Long Island. Going back to someplace you haven’t been in 26 years is riddled with emotion. How could it be otherwise? Place has a certain constancy to it (except of course when disasters, natural or otherwise, decimate it) and passing years can’t help but color memory, cloud expectation. My husband and I were living out there when my daughter was born 28 years ago. We rented a weathered cottage in Sag Harbor, had a modern design shop in East Hampton. The original ‘we’ would have been my husband and his partner, Keith, an early casualty of AIDS. My husband would turn things around with new business ventures. I would turn to fiction.

We had an agenda, and we had lots of fun in our pilgrimage to the place Sara spent a very early part of her life and had never seen. Sag Harbor still retains some of its charm (the movie theatre is still standing), East Hampton is even more Madison Avenue than it was back then, Montauk was desolate. More than one winery has cropped up in the intervening years (we went to a tasting), and serendipity would have Canio in his legendary bookstore the very day we visited. It was like saying hello to a long lost friend.

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12 thoughts on “Looking back/looking ahead

  1. **Going back to someplace you haven’t been in 26 years is riddled with emotion**
    Yes, both physically & mentally, as well.
    Happy 2015, Deborah. xx

  2. How wonderful to visit a place that evokes such feeling and memories! Maybe that’s why we love to read so much–we can go so many places in our minds. Happy New Year, Deborah!

    • It was nice to go back . .. and it was especially serendipitous to see Canio at the bookstore that was once his and still retains the name. Apparently he’s there on Mondays. Of course I couldn’t leave without buying a book.

  3. Such a wonderful way to start the New Year, Reflection is and sharing. As I read through the post I found myself anxious to click the links to check out the books, but I wanted to stay and read through your thoughts on the past, the place, and how it felt then and now. I like dipping into my history when I am writing. The well of emotions is just too rich not too. Now off to check out those books. Happy New Yea, Deborah

    • Yes, that well of emotions is rich . . .and for writers especially it’s a reminder that nothing we’ve experienced ever really leaves us. How we process it, while allowing for the full spectrum of thoughts/feelings it brings to light, is the trick.

  4. This post is filled with so much good stuff I feel as if I just attended a banquet cooked by a 5-Star chef. Happy New Year, dear friend. (Wish we had known each other as children.) 🙂

    • What a validating image you leave me with . . . Thank you, dear friend. We might not have the history that childhood friends have with each other, but I still marvel at what brought us together in this ‘adult’ incarnation.

  5. Thinking of you re-exploring your old haunt fills me with joy. I can see your brain ticking away with each step of the journey; sorting, categorizing, feeling, remembering, and seeing the old with the new perspective one inevitably has after so long.

    And I can feel how this experience will be woven into your fiction—how the character, or perhaps characters who will experience “this” similar journey will also embody the you who did this and that as well as the you who may/would have/should/could have done this or that given different circumstances, or perhaps just different shoes.

    Love this piece…so rich and fulfilling.

    • It probably will not surprise you know that the circumstances of that part of my life were the genesis of my YA novel. And like all powerful ideas or feelings, something of them continues to emerge in other pieces of fiction. You touched a nerve with ‘journey’ as a theme near and dear to me. And of course you just couldn’t resist the shoe metaphor. 😉

  6. What a wonderful trip, the physical one and the one we travel through wonderful books, that put us in the minds of others and allow us to experience the familiar and the unfamiliar.

    Elena Ferrante and #FerranteFever was one of the wonderful discoveries of 2014 and so great to be reading outside what we are usually offered within the English language, I love the cross cultural transition and invitation into those other worlds, so far away and yet so near.

    All the best for the year ahead Deborah & Sara!

    • That exposure to other cultures, through both fiction and nonfiction, is the Internet book world at its best. I often remind friends, especially in the New York area, that there’s so much more rich literature than what we get through the NY Times Book Review. Not that I don’t read it regularly.

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