Open Wounds

Book Reviews

Eat Sympathetic Gurus

May I be Happy: a memoir of love, yoga and changing my mind, by Cyndi Lee is a memoir about why women hate their bodies and a primer on how to take your yoga practice and use it in your daily life.

Let me put this out there.

I picked this up because Ms. Lee is a yogi who is internationally known for her teachings (yoga and mindfulness meditation) and I’ve read and enjoyed two of her previous books, Yoga Body Buddha Mind (which I loved as a book about yoga and practice and mindfulness) and Om Yoga: a guide to daily practice (which I have used in my own daily practice). I took classes and workshops at her Om yoga studio (before she lost her lease last year and now has a wandering studio) and it was one of the nicest studios I’ve ever been too.

So I think she’s great.

But here’s the thing.

This memoir is written by a dancer, yogi, celebrity with connections to Cyndi Lauper and Jamie Lee Curtis, who travels to India and is in Japan (Tokyo to be exact) during the horrible earthquakes two years ago. She meets famous gurus (because she can). And is obsessed with her body – she has been taught, to just like so many women by our wonderfully patriarchal misogynistic society. She comes from a privileged position at the top of her field so take that into consideration too.

What am I saying?

I tried to read Eat Pray Love twice and both times I couldn’t get more than twenty pages in. Why? Because I just didn’t care about the main character. She was like the three women in Sex and the City – I just didn’t care about them. Okay, okay. I’m a guy so that’s a problem too. It was hard for me to connect but still. The Sarah Jessica Parker character always complained about her life and I found it hard to feel sorry for her. She lived a good life, in a comfortable home, had plenty of money, dated lots of men, had good friends. What was she complaining about? Anyway a sympathetic character helps to keep the attention of this reader. Also, I know, I’m not the target audience for these shows/books so know that too.  As a reader I’m in the minority as the book Eat Pray Love is a best seller and people have told me how much they loved it – just not me.

Back to Cyndi Lee before I go off again. I read within the context of my experience. I can’t help that. But I also can learn. That I can help.

So Cyndi…  She wrote her memoir about why she hates or why “women” hate their bodies because she does and was taught to. As a “role model” to so many women, she thought it would help other women to explore this issue. Again, I had a hard time during the first part of the book because she is so successful and whining about her squishy parts (her term). This is a woman who does not have visible squishy parts. But she is also dealing with aging, and a mother who is dying, and a husband who has issues – let’s just leave it at that. These aspects of who she is, when taken as a fuller tapestry of who she is were fascinating and brave to speak about. I read on because I wanted to learn more about her. These other stories made her more vulnerable to me, as a reader. She puts herself out there and that is a brave thing to do.

But the most interesting aspect of the book and the main reason I read on was because she used a yogic filter for all of her experiences and that filter was fascinating. I teach in yoga class that we practice in class so that we can take it out into the world. She does this and uses herself as an example. She lives what she teaches and this direct application of yogic philosophy hooked me. Anything else would have been an interesting memoir but this raises it above that status and into another – at least if you’re a yogi or yogini.

One other thing from a writer’s perspective also caught my eye. She leaves out information about her relationship with her husband at a key point of the book which I will not reveal as it’s a spoiler for the memoir. But the absence of information is powerful in how it allows me to see her. Deep pain can be described or it can be inferred. It’s like in a movie when the director has a choice to either show the murder or show a shadow of the murder. Each can be powerful but what is  not shown is filled in by the imagination of the reader. Some readers of Cyndi’s memoir may get angry because she leaves this out. As a writer I was fascinated by the story the shadow told me.

Now here’s a question for you. With a little punctuation, how many different meanings can you make with the title of this blog post?

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Breaking Bread not Heads

ASK THE PASSENGERS by AS King

I finished Ask the Passengers a few days ago by A.S.King. I’ve been letting it percolate and settle. Her novels do that to me. I won’t tell you what the ending is but I will tell you it is perfect. I didn’t expect it, the way A.S.King wrote that ending – having her cake and eating it too. If you read the book, and I highly recommend you do as it’s wonderful, I’d like to know what you think about the ending.

But that’s not the only thing, however veiled I’m being about gobsmacking perfect endings, that I learned from her latest book. Actually all three of the books I’ve read of hers, Everybody Sees the Ants, and Please Ignore Vera Dietz, included, demonstrate a great narrative writer’s technique.

I’ll get back to it. Hold on.

I met a Flannery O’Connor award winning author early in my writing career (long aside in progress so watch out for piratical brussel sprouts) named Rita Ciresi. I met her at a writer’s conference in Connecticut – but I don’t remember the name of it as it was a good 20 years ago. In one of her workshops she said, “One of the things I like to do the most is put my characters in a room together and let them eat. All kinds of things happen.” Let them break bread not heads. Now I know you’re thinking, he couldn’t remember the name of the conference but he could remember what Ciresi said. Hmmm. Well, deal with it.

Now it’s back to Ask The Passengers. A.S.King uses meal time – who eats what, with whom, in what room, with what drinks – to paint a tapestry of relationships that are mostly dysfunctional – though watching how they change over the course of the book is one of the subtle joys of the story. They do dishes, cook sometimes, go out into the backyard, lie on the picnic table and stare at the planes passing overhead and send them the love they cannot give to the ones they want to. She is brilliant at creating situations at home that cause her characters to interact. As a writer and reader I watch and marvel at her ability to do this.


Hookers, Language, and Naked Acrobats

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man by Jay Atkinson is not your ordinary memoir – at least not here in the US. In England there are plenty of memoirs of famous ruggers but here in the US? I don’t know if there is even one – either famous ruggers or memoirs about them. Regardless, Atkinson surely has the credentials and the longevity in the sport to be an expert voice on it.

A friend of mine – someone I faced on the rugby pitch many times over the years and with whom I share a love of the sport – gave me this book for the holidays and I read it quickly and with great enjoyment. I especially enjoyed the perspective of a hooker (a position in the scrum that is responsible for “hooking” the ball back to his teammates when the ball is sent into the scrum. It’s a brutal position simply because of the physics of the scrum (all the pressure of eight players pressing into the shoulders and necks of the front three players and the front row center player is the hooker). I played rugby for 13 years and for all but maybe four or five games played with the backs at wing, fullback, or center. I played 2nd row once (my ears wouldn’t allow me to do it a second time) scrum-half once (now that was fun even if I was terrible) and flanker two or three times. I say this because as a back I especially enjoyed the peek into what it was like to be in the front row and hook.

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man: Guts, Glory, and Blood in the World's Greatest Game

But what does all this mean? It means Mr. Atkinson had a tough sale to make about a sport that is not real popular here in the US. And he sold it anyway. It helps that he’s published a few novels, some of which have been successful critically and sales-wise (I’m going on record to say that I’ll be reading one of his novels this year …)

What I was amazed at was how heartfelt the memoir is. Now hear me out. Heartfelt and rugby don’t necessarily go together but let me see if I can explain. Atkinson’s book wades through drinking, partying, and sex scenes (there’s one in particular with a naked hand-standing acrobat… ) one after the other for most of the first two-thirds of the book – which is a lot of what rugby is about – mayhem – but it is a bit of an onslaught. Still it is not a sport for the faint hearted and does linger in alcoholic mayhem post play. I think I’m too attached to that word, mayhem. But war stories like this can be tiresome after a while. What’s the point? How do they build the overall story of this man’s life? In a novel wouldn’t some of them be cut to make sure the narrative moved forward?

Atkinson’s story snuck up on me. The backbone of the rugby life laced with stories of his family and his writing is what did it for me. His relationship with his father and with the writer Harry Crews (his teacher) became the emotional thread that built and peaked the narrative in the third act. It made his story a coming of age story that resonated with me deeply. It gave the memoir shape, it gave it form.

It also reminded me of what a writer friend told me once when critiquing my “rugby” novel a long long time ago (it was a novel that never sold but got me my first agent), “Put in all the rugby language and don’t worry if people don’t understand exactly what it means. Fuck ’em.” What I see in Atkinson’s use of the language of rugby – which by the way is the same language that Andrew Smith so skillfully uses in his book Winger – which has its main character play rugby – is how beautiful language can be when it’s unique to an activity – even when it’s brutal. It is language that even if not understood in a direct word for word translation tells a story with texture and depth.

Oh. And what about that kick-ass cover? I remember one game almost drowning in a good foot of water and mud on a flooded field in Bayonne New Jersey…


Ciaphas Cain, Rob Petrie, and Unreliable Narrators

For The Emperor: A Ciaphas Cain Novel

What do Dick Van Dyke and Ciaphas Cain have in common?

Who the hell is Ciaphas Cain? Though it’s a terrific name, don’t you think?

And why oh why is there a brussel sprout on my shoulder?

Why do I read memoirs or biographies? Especially of actors? Mostly because of the story they tell of time and place. Dick Van Dyke was born about the same time as my character, Cid Wymann in Open Wounds, was born yet his life was so different. Dick Van Dyke  as he says, was in the right place at the right time to be chosen for some choice roles – from Rob Petrie to the chimney sweep Bert in Mary Poppins. When actors tell their own story I learn about their character from how they portray themselves, how they seem to want to be seen, what they leave in and what they leave out. For example, Van Dyke starts off saying he’s not writing a tell-all with lots of dirt to uncover then tells – in his first bit – how he found out when he was in high school that he was conceived out-of-wedlock. Memoirs are great for teaching me how to not only get inside someones head but how to shade a narrative so it presents (either knowingly or unknowingly) a certain face to the reader.

For the Emperor is a story set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It’s a memoir translated through a narrator who has edited it and included footnotes and other accounts to balance out the memoirist point of view. The author has done a fascinating thing with Ciaphas Cain, the writer of the memoir – a Commissar (high-ranking Emperor’s man usually working with Imperial Guard units across the galaxy). Cain is an unreliable narrator. Here’s how he starts his narrative:

One of the first things you learn as a commissar is that people are never pleased to see you; something that’s no longer the case where I’m concerned, of course, now that my glorious and undeserved reputation precedes me wherever I go. A good rule of thumb in my younger days, but I’d never found myself staring down death in the eyes of the troopers I was supposed to be inspiring with loyalty to the Emperor before. In my early years as an occasionally loyal minion of his Glorious majesty, I’d faced, or to be more accurate, ran away screaming from, orks, necrons, tyranids, and a severely hacked off daemonhost, just to pick out some of the highlights of my ignominious career. But standing in the mess room, a heartbeat away from being ripped apart by mutinous Guardsmen, was a unique experience, and one that I have no wish to repeat.

And so we are introduced to a character who is heroic in spite of what he says, self-serving, caring, and always trying to surround himself with warm bodies in case the bullets start flying and he needs a shield to protect himself from them. It starts off with perspective, clear voice (amusing also), and action.

The narrator who finds and annotates Cain’s memoir is a colleague of his – only to what degree, we have to wait until the end of the story to find out. Short asides of secondary characters are inserted to fill in information about what is happening in other parts of the city Cain ends up in. They give us further views into Cain’s world, Cain, and the narrator. It leaves me with a fuller picture of what probably happened and keeps me smiling at the number of times Cain would like to (as in a Monty Python movie) run away, but ends up charging forward instead.

Finding new ways to tell a story is like stealing a golden chalice from Smaug’s treasure horde under the Lonely Mountain – satisfying in the dark and even more so in the light of day.

 


There Ain’t No Sanity-Clause

I’ve thought about this a lot.

There are a lot of writers out there writing about how to write novels, how to write stories, how to write right, how to write wrong.

I’ve written some posts about the writing process in this blog and as a guest poster for some friends but no matter what angle I write about I just don’t think I’m bringing much new to the discussion. The best of them, like Andrew Smith’s “How to Write A Novel parts 1-4 and counting…) make me laugh at the absolute insanity (there ain’t no sanity-clause) that is the world of publishing and the writing life (whatever that is).

But I keep feeling like there’s something I can offer. I’m just not sure what I can bring to the table.

Salt and pepper?

Artichokes?

Brussel sprouts? Okay I really don’t like Brussel sprouts so let’s not talk about them ever again. Seriously. I can eat just about anything but brussel sprouts. I get a gag reflex just thinking about those little green balls of sprout. So let’s stay off the brussel sprouts.

Here’s two bits of advice I can give. It’s not much but it’s only January 20th so work with me.

Both bits of advice you’re heard a million times before – I’m sure – so I’ll try to give each a different context to make them sound important and fresh. Or at least not stale. I’m not sure why I’m stuck on food analogies but hopefully they will work their way off… the table.

The first bit of advice comes from a man named Pattabhi Jois who died in 2009 and was one of the great yogis (not as in bear but as in the yoking of the physical and the spiritual) of our time – and developed the style of yoga called Ashtanga yoga. I never met him but I wish I had. I have been to yoga studios that he taught in and spoke in so I got to soak up some of his vibe but that’s about it. Still his influence on yoga in the 20th century has been great.

Anyway I digress. Whenever students asked him when they would achieve the next level of anything in their yoga practice (or their life) he would say, “Practice and all is coming.” I think it works the same way for writing.

The other bit of advice I’ve been told and passed on to others just like many many other writers is if you want to be a writer you need to read – a lot. The only thing I can add to that is to read everything, not just the classics, but all genres, good writing and bad writing. I say this because it has worked that way for me. Everything I read is like a short course in how to write, what works and what doesn’t. I can’t help myself. If I was a Brussel sprout farmer I would see all food through the lens of a brussel sprout. As I writer I read on two levels, for pleasure, and to understand why I like or dislike what I’m reading. This can be summed up as, do what works for you as a reader and don’t do what doesn’t.

For example, I read Robert Jordan’s first book in the Wheel of Time Series (many friends recommended it to me) and was driven crazy (there still ain’t no sanity-clause) by the number of characters that muttered. He muttered. She muttered. We muttered. They muttered. You familiar muttered. So… I try not to have characters mutter. I also learned from that book (I only read the first book in the series so I can’t say if this is so about the other books in the series) to make sure that things happen in my writing. Jordan was a beloved writer, just not by me. Little happened in that first book and it was a long book for little to happen in. So… having things happen is good. Not having things happen is bad. I try to make sure when I write that things happen.

So this year I’ll be trying something new on my blog in my own personal attempt not to mutter, to make things happen, not to eat brussel sprouts, and to bring back the sanity-clauss.

I’ll be writing about the books that I read during the year and telling you what I learned from reading each of them. And if there’s one thing I know about my own writing it is that I have a lot to learn.

Maybe this is something I can bring to the table.