Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys – Book Review and Writing Tips

The sound of children screaming, wood splintering, and life departing roared from behind. I tried to run toward the crowd but the soldier grabbed me and threw me off the road. I crawled through the snow toward the pink of Emilia’s hat and draped my body over hers. (Joana)

I’ve read many books about the atrocities that occurred during World War II and hesitated to open another. I’m glad that I did. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a timely reminder of the human costs and futility of war.

Salt to the Sea unfolds through the voices of four separate narrators: Joana (a nurse who is haunted by guilt); Florian (an artist whose skill is his fate); Emilia (whose condition is her shame); and Alfred (whose fear propels him toward betrayal and delusion). Joana, Florian and Emilia—along with a blind girl, an old shoemaker, a small boy, and a giant woman—make a hellish journey toward the port at Gotenhafen, walking across Lithuania, East Prussia, and Poland as Russia advances toward Germany and Germany advances toward Russia. Alfred awaits aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a luxury liner refitted to evacuate German military and refugees.

I held the paper, waiting to approach the checkpoint. I stared at the type.… Special pass. It looked real. Perhaps my best work ever. (Florian)

At the lagoon, the refugees must cross there was a strafing, panic of course, then fifteen-year-old Emilia:

We waited on the bank for several hours but the planes did not return. The water froze again. So did our hands and feet.

I held my breath as we crossed, quivering at the thought of our Ingrid frozen beneath. The ice ached and groaned, like bones carrying too many years, brittle and threatening to snap at any moment.

Alfred, already aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff is a frightened boy, a boy in the German navy:

This would be my first-ever journey at sea. My maiden voyage had already presented its challenges. I noticed an unbecoming rash had appeared on my hands and in my armpits. I blamed the Communists.

These excerpts do not begin to demonstrate the page-turning intensity of the story. Sepetys does not wow with vocabulary or overwrought emotion. She lets each of her narrators slowly reveal their character and together their voices accumulate to tell the larger, universal horrors of thousands of women, old men and children crossing treacherous landscapes and borders (the young men—except for Florian—have been conscripted).

I highly recommend Salt to the Sea. I’m a slow reader but the bedside lamp was lit most of two nights straight and the last page was read before the weekend was over.

For the writers among us:

  1. The point of view of the narrator affects what readers are told and how they respond to a story. The story of the three little pigs would be different if told from the wolf’s perspective rather than an omnipotent narrator who is sympathetic to the pigs’ plight. Think about Sepetys use of multiple narrators and what she may be attempting to achieve that she could not achieve with a single narrator.
  2. As Robert Fulford wrote in The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture, “There is no such thing as just a story. A story is always charged with meaning, otherwise it is not a story, merely a sequence of events. [T]here is no such thing as value-free story.” As you read, think about the values embedded in Salt to the Sea. What is Sepetys telling us about war and its victims?
  3. Do you write (or will you attempt writing) stories with multiple points-of-view? What can you learn from Ruta Sepetys’ Salt and the Sea? Poets too: accept the challenge.

All this…and we did not even touch on researching and writing historical fiction! Another time perhaps.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Salt to the Sea

Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese (Book Review & Writing Tips)

…the day that’s all around you, is inside you too, and you think that it’s a perfect fit. But you go outside and you walk in your woe. You take it to the streets or the fields or wherever and you walk in it.

This is what you do with yearning.

A book is powerful when it captures emotion, when it stirs memory buried so deep you’re surprised when it surfaces. Ragged Company by the late Ojibway author Richard Wagamese is a powerful story.

The memory Wagamese stirred in me is rooted in a downtown neighbourhood of Ottawa around 25 years ago. Every morning as I walked the few blocks to my office along the river, I passed a man sitting on a worn grey blanket, his back to a wall. In winter, icy wind tunneled through the street. In summer, dust and debris blew relentlessly. I respected his diligence. Some mornings—not every morning—I dropped change into his hat, but whether I did or not, we nodded. Gradually over time, I think we looked for each other. One morning, he beckoned me to squat down as he unfolded a newspaper. There on his lap was a feather. “A peregrine feather,” he told me. A man had found it—a pair were nesting high on one of the city’s hotel towers—and had given it to him. A hawk feather. A simple, thoughtful act. A smile crinkled his eyes. I felt deeply honoured to be sharing his joy.

Ragged Company is a hard story told in stark language through the voices of five narrators—four “rounders” of the streets and one “Straight John.” Everyone has a story, and none are as soft as mine. One of the characters, One For the Dead (they each have street names), explains to the “Straight John” the importance stories play in our lives:

“We’re all storytellers, Granite,” I said. “From the moment we’re graced with the beginnings of language, we become storytellers. Kids, the first thing they do when they learn to talk is tell you all about what they’re doing, what they’re seeing. They tell you stories about their little lives. Us, too. When we get together after not seeing each other for a while, the first thing we do is tell each other a story about what we’ve been up to. What we’ve seen, what we did, what we felt and went through. Guess we kinda can’t help ourselves that way. It’s who we are.

I won’t go into the plot line of Ragged Company, you can check the cover copy for that, but the themes of loss and yearning and the importance of friendship and respect are particularly interesting as explored by Wagamese.

Although Granite is a retired journalist who knows something about stories, he learns more about others and about himself. He comes to realize a truth:

Beggary. It’s not the sole property of the street people or the ill defined. It’s part of all of us, part of everyone who has ever suffered loss. A handout. It meant something more suddenly. It meant more than the image and the idea of a dirty, wrinkled, weakened hand stretched outward to accept nickels and dimes. It meant every hand extended across the galaxy of separation that exists between all of us.

This is a story about loss of culture, loss of family, loss of love, and loss of self. It is also a story about finding those things within and through the company of others. It is course and tender, brutal and poetic. The sixth narrator—perhaps the voice of Wagamese—is reflective and appears sparingly in offset italic type. It is this voice that introduced the novel and the thread of movies that runs throughout creating insight, magical, empathetic insight.

For the writers among us:

  1. Movies become open doorways to understanding unspoken realities and dreams, catalysts for feeling and for discussion among the unlikely friendships. Whether you write prose or poetry, think about how you open windows and doors for your characters and readers?
  2. We write our myths and legends into our work, sometimes directly as Wagamese does with Ojibway stories, and sometimes subtly written between the lines. Think about your awareness of the stories layered in your writing and what they add to (or distract from) your theme.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Ragged Company

Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock: “A Poetry Book Review”

Days into Flatspin is Ken Babstock’s extraordinary second collection and it reveals a poet in full flight, fearless and technically brilliant.

Diving into and then beyond what is seen, or the “coma of looking” as one poem calls it, Babstock veers into the inner core of things, animals, and places through portals that exist all around us…. And these are always entry points, always a means by which to go forward and further into… (cover overleaf).

The first time I read Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock, the words rushed through my mind and over my lips: they raced. They carried a voice, dramatic and theatrical. It was easy to imagine Babstock, like poetry slam writer Taylor Mali, performing the poems (see May 2018 review: The Whetting Stone). I was carried by the force of words and rhythms and was left feeling disconcerted. Then I read Days into Flatspin again.

Reflecting on Babcock’s choice of words, I thought of Ursula LeGuin who wrote that words “transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it” (The Wave of the Mind). Babstock’s poems brim with energy and they clearly fed energy to me. But that addressed only part of my dilemma, which led me to Jane Hirshfield (please see Ten Windows). Hirshfield notes that “a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over….”

In Babstock’s second collection, his mastery of these skills – words that create action/energy and words that leave the door open for a remaining question – is clear from the outset. I looked closely at Babstock’s word choices and the work they were doing together.

The first poem titled “Carrying someone else’s infant past a cow in a field near Marmora, Ont.,” ends:

…What was I shown that I haven’t retained?
What peered back long before the cracked
bell of its name

This unknown (unknowable?) is also apparent in the second poem “Bottled Rabbit,” in which Babstock describes an image seen, alludes to a charcoal sketch by Cézanne, a CBC interviewer in Gander, Newfoundland, a play by Pinter, and his great-aunt’s kitchenette. But suddenly, the scene shifts: “The word wore down, thinned to a film on the air in the ear. Morning ate its hinge.” Once more, after the carefully constructed images and linkages Babstock provides, we leap into something surprisingly different from where the poem ostensibly was taking us. He draws us into what is seen but also unseen, what is felt, unknown, unsayable.

My favourite poem in Days into Flatspin, “The Painting on the Cover of Otherwise,”  seems to explain a bit about what drives so many of the poems in the collection toward unsettled feelings.  He begins with an image:

A small pond dug
into a footpath that bisects
a French garden. The neat
hedgerows bent, obey.

And then, he identifies what is missing, things like “wind…litter, heel-scuffs…a sparrow, anything.” Perhaps, like me, you will come away from reading the collection with a new awareness of the dichotomy between what is seen – how we often idealize it – and what is more deeply experienced through what lingers after the immediacy of the moment when we ponder the place “where hard edges slip…unclipped…beyond the vined wall that darkens the middle distance.”

This unfocused middle distance of mystery is what Ken Babstock discloses through a turn, a surprising glimpse that doesn’t provide an answer to our questions, but draws us to a deeper, elusive potential.

The writers among us will have heard Emily Dickinson’s instruction to “tell it slant.” Many will know LeGuin’s advice about making every word a choice; particularly poets will know that every word must work. We have probably also been told to reward readers for reading to the end, to provide a surprise, a twist, something that illuminates. Hirshfield’s suggestion to create a disconcerting disequilibrium is another consideration that pushes boundaries and borders.

Days into Flatspin achieves this triumvirate of advice. The poems begin with what we may each have experienced, but they take us beyond images, sounds, emotion into deeper, surprising places of heart and mind.

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In addition to Days into Flatspin (2001), Ken Babstock has published Mean (1999), Methodist Hatchet (2011; Winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, 2012), and On Malice (2014).

Available through your local bookstore or online: Days into Flatspin

Anita’s Revolution by Shirley Langer

Anita’s Revolution targets young adult readers. It is a coming of awareness story—both in a personal context as well as a social one. It is also an historical fiction and a teen adventure. But travellers to Cuba of all ages will enjoy the story and gain insights into a past no longer evident, yet still in the memories of people they will meet. Writers of YA fiction will be interested in figuring out how Shirley Langer gets under the skin of her protagonist and how she creates a time and place that readers can experience. Pay attention, too, to her language, pacing, and the literary techniques she employs to keep youth interested and turning pages.

Anita, the protagonist of Anita’s Revolution, is a young teen in 1960 when Fidel Castro announces to the United Nations and the world that Cuba will stamp out illiteracy by the end of 1961. To accomplish this extraordinary goal, he elicits the aid of Cuba’s youth. In 1961 more than 100,000 volunteers answered the call—many of them students, along with teachers and others. They streamed across the island with energy and enthusiasm. The fictional Anita is one of them.

Anita must overcome her own fear given the real danger of volunteering, since counter-revolutionaries have killed a young brigadista. She must also overcome the concerns of her parents. She joins forces with her brother and they win their parents over, even if a bit reluctantly. With others from her school, Anita sets off for training and for the adventure of her life. Anita is a determined girl. Besides the literacy focus, Anita’s Revolution, takes us along on a journey from the innocence of a protected childhood to the awakening of a young woman.

Besides Anita’s personal story, Anita’s Revolution is a social justice story, and a story that demonstrates the very positive difference youth can make in a society. She arrived, not exactly welcomed by the people she would teach to read and write. But when she left, she left family behind.

Anita returned to her suburb of Havana knowing that more needed to be accomplished and wondering how she’d adjust into her relatively privileged life. The story doesn’t end like a fairy tale; it presents a believable girl in a real situation with the ideals and dreams of youth, but the bigger job beyond literacy isn’t finished.

Shirley Langer lived in Cuba for five years in the 1960s and writes with the immediacy of knowing a time and place. She writes with the knowledge of having lived among the people of whom she writes. During my research, I learned that she also lived for a period in the Bay of Quinte region (Ontario, Canada), which is my home. Langer has lived at Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) since 1995.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Anita’s Revolution

Cuba aficionados will also want to see my review of A Simple Habana Melody for a pre-revolutionary novel. And perhaps two of my travel blogs: A Cultural Portal: Windows and Doors and scroll through my travel blog.

Readers and writers of YA fiction, will want to take another look at The Great and the Small, a YA novel by A.T. Balsara that I reviewed last February.

 

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Paris Wife and who have not read other stories of Kenya’s colonial era, particularly Beryl Markham’s memoir or Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. It’s a juicy read but repetitive in many of its details and expressions. Writers of historical fiction will take note to examine how the author leaps from historical fact into juicy fiction. For writers of bibliography, Circling the Sun provides a cautionary tale. Beware that you can become so engrossed in your research and character that you may slip deeply into your material and repeat phrases and scenes that are iconic and recognizable, leaving this reader scratching her head.

When Circling the Sun by Paula McLain about the flyer Beryl Markham came my way, I could hardly begin to start reading. Having read Markham’s memoir West with the Sun, I looked forward to McLain’s take on this adventurous woman’s life. I had also read Out of Africa by Markham’s contemporary Isak Dineson / Karen Blixen, and watched the movie of the same name many times (partly because I love John Barry’s soundtrack, which captures my mood-memories from a month long visit I made to Kenya in 2010). Another contemporary of Beryl Markham, Idina Sackville, has been written about in Frances Osborne’s The Bolter. Besides these stories, a bookshelf dedicated to African writing and writers brims. So, I curled up in my favourite chair with a tea ready to learn more and perhaps have my eyes opened to a new take on the early 20th century era when Kenya was a British colony and change was rampant.

Circling the Sun focuses on Beryl Markam’s childhood, which is unique—even when compared to that of other settler children—but l learned little that was new, although perhaps a bit more detail. Markham’s young adulthood as portrayed in Circling the Sun is limited to troubled relationships—with both men and women. The bibliography takes us up to her early flying days but doesn’t examine her flight across the Atlantic or her life after the landmark adventure (perhaps McLain hopes for a sequel). The sun Beryl Markham circles in this book is not the one that follows her across the ocean; it is, I suppose, the sun of youth’s annual seasons.

With a publisher like Bond Street Books / Doubleday, I anticipated original information and new revelations about the woman, place, and time. Too frequently as I read, I found phrases and images that felt repetitive from my other reading and Out of Africa the movie. For example, “I was in real trouble now”; “ ‘Oh, Berkeley, I’ve got myself in deep this time’”; and “I…lay my hand on his chest, feeling along the slick buttons of his shirt and the perfect piped edge of the cotton,” which is pretty much what Karen Blixen does to Denys in the movie. Perhaps someone who is not familiar with Beryl Markham’s memoir and with other writing about Kenya, especially during the early 20th century colonial era, might enjoy Paula McLain’s take on Markham’s life. However, if you are looking for a light read about a fictionalized woman during an exciting era, Circling the Sun will entertain you.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Circling the Sun

Book Review: The Gathering by Anne Enright

Readers will simply fall into this story—its events; its place. The writers among us might read beneath the beautiful words to think about how Anne Enright untangles memory and truth.

I do not know the truth, or I do not know how to tell the truth. All I have are stories, night thoughts, the sudden convictions that uncertainty spawns. All I have are ravings, more like.

The Gathering by Anne Enright is a provocative family saga that delves into questions of secrets, memory and truth. At its heart is the story of a sister and her brother, their intense attachment within the milieu of a big Irish, multi-generational family.

I know, as I write about these three things: the jacket, the stones, and my brother’s nakedness underneath his clothes, that they require me to deal in facts. It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine.

It is also the story of marriage and children—the people we choose to live our lives with and the ones we don’t—the choices we make and decisions (or circumstances) made for us.

This sounds like a tangled, complicated story, but Enright’s writing is smooth and lyrical. The novel moves forward, while conversely it slips back into the lingering puzzles of childhood—with extraordinary and enviable storytelling skill.

The Gathering is an Irish story as only Irish writers write (think Joyce, the poetry of Seamus Heaney). It is grounded in Ireland. About three-quarters of the way along, Enright says,

This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family—a whole fucking country—drowning in shame.

But if you’re not a political or history buff, don’t let that stop you from reading this unflinching look at life, life’s struggle for love. I am not alone in finding The Gathering a story to read; Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize in 2007.

Reading as a Writer, pay particular attention to the pace of the story, how the author keeps you turning pages. Think, also, about the opening sentence:

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.

As you read, be aware how Enright stays constant to this thread, weaving the elusive “thing” and its consequences through to the last sentence.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Gathering

Book review: Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (by Jane Hirshfield)

Jane Hirshfield’s words perceptively reveal the seduction of poetry, of art. They open windows of clarity while simultaneously celebrating ambivalence and paradox. Ten Windows provides both a brilliant journey and practical guidance through the world of poetry for both readers and writers.

Poetry’s addition to our lives takes place in the border realm where inner and outer actual and possible, experienced and imaginable, heard and silent, meet…In a poem, everything travels inward and outward.

The essays in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World lead us from what is inherent in poetry (and the other arts) through metaphorical windows of language, image, sound/music, hidden/unsaid, ambiguity, surprise, transformation, and more. Throughout, Jane Hirshfield reminds us of the importance of poetry in our lives, how it reflects culture, and how it can even change cultural borders.

In “Seeing Through Words: An Introduction to Bashō, Haiku, and the Suppleness of Image” (Chapter Three), Hirshfield writes, “…if you see for yourself, hear for yourself, and enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing, all things will speak with and through you.” Haiku was not new when Bashō came around in the 17th century, but he changed it and influenced writing since. Bashō sought more from the form than did his predecessors. He sought

…to make of this brief, buoyant verse form a tool for emotional, psychological and spiritual discovery, for crafting new experience as moving, expansive, and complex ground as he felt existed in the work of earlier poets. He wanted to renovate human vision by putting what he saw into a bare handful of mostly ordinary words, and he wanted to renovate language by what he asked it to see.

Even for poets who veer from the Haiku form, this goal is an ambitious one. In this small poem of image and sound, Bashō excels in meeting the challenge:

seas darkening

the wild duck’s calls

grow faintly white

In Ten Windows, Hirshfield reminds writers and readers to see what isn’t said, to read between the lines. To me, this poem speaks volumes beyond what Bashō saw; it stirs emotions of darkness, of the fleetingness of experience, and of things disappearing/lost. Hirshfield notes:

“The reader who enters Bashō’s perceptions fully can’t help but find in them a kind of liberation. They unfasten the mind from any single or absolute story, unshackle us from the clumsy dividing of world into subjective and objective, self and other…. 

In a chapter about uncertainty, Hirshfield reminds us:

Poetry often enacts the recovering of emotional and metaphysical balance, whether in an individual (primarily the lyric poem’s task) or in a culture (the task of the epic). Yet to do that work, a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over—disorder and brokenness are necessarily part of human wholeness.

A couple of paragraphs on, she continues developing her idea: “The most serene works on the bookshelf are…in the lineage of Scheherazade’s stories—art holding incoherence and death at bay by invention of beauty, detour, and suspense.” In the colloquial, we say show, don’t tell; leave something to the reader’s imagination; tie up loose ends, but leave the door open.

A work of art is not color knifed or brushed onto a canvas, not shaped rock or fired clay, a vibrating cello string, black ink on a page—it is our participatory, agile, and responsive collaboration with those forms, colors, symbols, and sounds.

Later, in the transformation chapter, Hirshfield writes:

The experience of art takes place within and under the skin. When we read the word “orange,” neuroscientists have found, our taste buds grow larger, more so if we are hungry. A mountain in a poem is known by what has been motionless and stony in us, and by what we have internalized of rock and steepness through legs and eyes. The characters of a story or play are lent our lives’ accumulated comprehensions and history, in order to make theirs our own.

Writing and reading is collaborative. “Poems are made of words that act beyond words’ own perimeter because what is infinite in them is not in the poem, but in what it unlocks in us.” This can be said of all art forms. Jane Hirshfield’s words perceptively reveal the seduction of poetry, of art. They open windows of clarity while simultaneously celebrating ambivalence and paradox. Ten Windows provides both a brilliant journey and practical guidance through the world of poetry for both readers and writers.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Ten Windows