Iris Bowen lives in the west of Ireland, where it is still possible to submit to a soft-focus dream of a misty-green land of softly rolling hills andIris Bowen lives in the west of Ireland, where it is still possible to submit to a soft-focus dream of a misty-green land of softly rolling hills and air scented with roses and blue sea. Iris has always lived an unassuming life, devoted to her husband and her adopted daughter, Rose. But her husband died two years ago, her daughter has moved to London, her newspaper gardening column has been axed, and a troubling shadow has appeared on her mammography x-ray. Only in her mid-forties, Iris must accept that her life is no longer quite the gentle walk on a clear path she’d counted on.
Impulsively, using a possibly frightening diagnosis as impetus, Iris bolts to Boston to find her daughter’s birth mother. She fears leaving Rose alone in the world and envisions an open-armed reunion with a woman she met briefly twenty years ago. Iris’s search and those whom she meets along the way are the bridge between her old life of certitude and this new life of possibility.
Also breaking into the world like a chick from an egg is Rose. A talented violinist, she’s earned a coveted place at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Whether or not she has the skill and backbone to withstand the demands of RAM becomes the story’s subplot. The brilliant descriptions of the music we “hear” in the book—Rose’s classical pieces, the traditional Irish fiddle playing by the luthier who crafted Rose’s violin, and the jazz riffs offered up by Hector, a Boston pianist—are some of my favorite passages.
Her Name is Rose is the awakening of two women to the demands and possibilities of life on their own, one in the golden afternoon of middle-age, the other in the bright dawn of youth. It is a novel to sink into, like a ray of sunshine on an April day when the warmth of summer is a gentle tease, a reminder that deep pleasure can be found in quiet stories of family and the first bursts of new love. Christine Breen writes with compassion and a lovely, easy lyricism. Comparisons to Ireland’s beloved Maeve Binchy are warmly, enthusiastically offered. It’s heartening to know that the world still has room for smart, touching fiction whose characters make us want to live more authentic lives.
My thanks to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an ARC of Her Name is Rose...more
Outstanding. Written nearly fifteen years ago, yet this could have happened yesterday. Woodson writes the most compelling, believable characters. AndOutstanding. Written nearly fifteen years ago, yet this could have happened yesterday. Woodson writes the most compelling, believable characters. And she approaches her expected reader-the young adult-with no need to soft pedal or condescend. These are real struggles and vital themes, written to include and explore. What an incredibly gifted writer. ...more
There came a point early in To The Lighthouse when I understood why I had not been ready to read Virginia Woolf before now, or if I had, it would haveThere came a point early in To The Lighthouse when I understood why I had not been ready to read Virginia Woolf before now, or if I had, it would have been a literary chore, something to check off the, “Been There, Done That” list. It was in the moments Mrs. Ramsey spends picking up after her children at the end of the day, thinking how glad she was to be alone, at last:
“She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself; a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.” (The Window; Chapter XI).
I could have read those words and understood them years ago, but I wouldn’t have felt them as I do now, at an age when “all the being and the doing” become less important, but no less expected, and “a sense of solemnity” becomes precious.
To The Lighthouse is a meditation in three acts: The Window; Time Passes; The Lighthouse. It is not so much a story as a vignette of a marriage, a family, of the passage of time, and the meaning of home. It is a study of this, in Woolf’s own words:
"'...how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.'"
And what Woolf does here, why this book is so beautiful, so maddening, so genius, is to make the reader live those moments one by one, literally (as she does in Mrs. Dalloway, my first unsuccessful attempt at reading Virginia Woolf. But I’m open to another go.) The progression of plot is minute; time slows, breathing slows. I found myself reading passages over to catch details my eyes had missed the first time. But in one moment, the world can change.
“...she took her hand and raised her brush. For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air. Where to begin?--that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still the risk must run; the mark made.”
Time Passes brings the inanimate to poignant life. It shows how a house can decay with neglect, as if a home is somehow aware that the family, which had once filled its rooms with conversation, arguments, love and expectations, has also suffered tragedy. It is the story of all life: when we do not have a purpose to serve, we begin to wither and face.
The final section is a riddle of anticlimax I haven’t solved, but I’m willing to accept it for what it is—a sober leaking away of expectation and hope. It is, as Macbeth tells us after learning of Lady Macbeth’s death, the sad irony that "This life .... is but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Give To the Lighthouse the time it requires to sink in and work its quiet spell on your psyche. Allow Virginia Woolf’s writing to awe you with its sound and fury.
I discovered I’m not the only one who found that this book gets better with age (of the reader, ahem): The indelible woman ...more
I’m having the most difficult time writing a review for brown girl dreaming. It’s so hard to bubble over and breathe and cry and write, all at the samI’m having the most difficult time writing a review for brown girl dreaming. It’s so hard to bubble over and breathe and cry and write, all at the same time. Each and every page is a gift of wisdom and innocence and discovery. Heartbreak. Joy. Family. Loneliness. Childhood. History. I savored and smiled as I read. I wept. I rushed out to buy my own copy. I wish I could buy enough copies for the world.
My only reading goal for 2015 is to read more poetry. Without design—just luck of the queue at the library—brown girl dreaming, a memoir in verse, was the first book I completed this year. There is something sublime in that serendipity. The book’s opening poem signals the story Jacqueline Woodson seeks to tell:
I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA— A country caught
Between Black and White.
Woodson reminds us that when she was born in 1963, “...only seven years had passed since Rose Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus” in Montgomery, Alabama. The author, too, is of the South, but also of the Midwest and of the North. She moved with her mother, sister and brother to Greenville, South Carolina—to her mother’s family—when she was a toddler, and then to Brooklyn, New York in elementary school.
brown girl dreaming is also the story of a little girl finding her voice. In Woodson’s case, it was the discovery that words and stories belonged to her—she just needed the time to meet them on her own terms:
I am not my sister. Words from the books curl around each other make little sense until I read them again and again, the story settling into memory. Too slow my teacher says. Read Faster. Too babyish, the teacher says. Read older. But I don't want to read faster or older or any way else that might make the story disappear too quickly from where it's settling inside my brain, slowly becoming a part of me. A story I will remember long after I've read it for the second, third, tenth, hundredth time.
There is such joy and love in her verse, a profound appreciation for her family and for the places that make up her visions of home. She writes of her mother’s parents in South Carolina:
So the first time my mother goes to New York City we don’t know to be sad, the weight of our grandparents’ love like a blanket with us beneath it, safe and warm.
And of Brooklyn:
We take our food out to her stoop just as the grown-ups start dancing merengue, the women lifting their long dresses to show off their fast-moving feet, the men clapping and yelling, Baila! Baila! until the living room floor disappears.
You may find brown girl dreaming on the fiction shelves of bookstores and libraries, for it is classified as a “fictionalized memoir.” Leaving aside debates of genre, it is far more likely to find a readership from these fiction shelves, and that is a good and necessary thing. Memoir and free verse may seem like odd companions, particularly in a book meant for younger readers, but oh, what a stellar opportunity to read and teach the power of poetry.
brown girl dreaming received the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and is ostensibly a book meant for middle-grade readers, but it is timeless in its grace and eloquence. I recommend it to everyone, regardless of age.
Were I a pre-teen, I know I’d be reading this at every available moment: at the breakfast table, on the bus, in the cafeteria, in my room instead of suffering through long division homework and answering questions on the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of chapter 27 in my Social Studies text. The intimacy and immediacy of brown girl dreaming feels like a secret passed between BFFs, a Technicolor “now” of an After-School Special, the story of an American kid my age that is at once familiar in emotion and exotic in setting.
Were I the parent of a pre-teen or a younger child, we would read this together, for this is the history of America in the 1960s, and it offers so many of those “teachable moments”: opportunities to reach for history books, to seek out primary sources, to watch videos of speeches and documentaries of a time that is both distant, yet still very much at hand. The same would hold true for a book club of adults. brown girl dreaming can serve as a touchstone for African-American literature and history, which is our shared history.
As an adult, I read this with humility and wonder, enchanted by the voice of young Jacqueline Woodson as she discovers the importance of place, self, family, and words. As a writer, I am awed and overjoyed by the beauty of her language, by the richness of her verse.
Even the silence has a story to tell you. Just listen. Listen.