This month, we're flush with recommendations for books that will draw you in. For my part, I finished Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation. (We Literary Mama editors do follow up on each other's reviews!) Offill's story is about the compromises and sacrifices we all make as we're going forward from one thing to the next thing, not really sure what we're doing, but keeping on. I found myself pulled in two directions while reading: the spareness of the writing moves the reader along easily, but it also leaves the reader feeling like she really ought to go back and linger. The quotations with which Offill often introduces sections are particularly thought-provoking, as they root this mundane story of a creative woman's creativity-killing family life in a lofty tradition of spiritual, philosophical, artistic and even scientific thought. Cleverly, Offill makes this the wife's story by letting her narrate it—but only up to the point at which the husband's affair is discovered; there, the book shifts jerkily into third person so that the narrative doesn't go off the rails along with the wife. Although the inevitable affair feels rather trite and tiresome (as it feels to the wife, as it consumes her life), some of Offill's insights into motherhood feel breathtakingly original and utterly convincing. There is heartbreaking resonance in the way the wife regards her young daughter, setting unrealistic ambition up against equally unrealistic motherhood: "I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would agree to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen."
Creative Nonfiction Editor Rae Pagliarulo is similarly engaged by craft: "The strength in Jill Talbot's incredible memoir, The Way We Weren't, lies not in its action or drama, nor in its twists and turns. The narrator's traveling—from job to job, state to state—is as much a map to nowhere as it is a meditation on leaving. We follow Talbot as she starts over and over again after Talbot's partner and the father of her child abandons them. The journey we go on moves backwards and forwards at the same time. How does Talbot interweave blazing a new trail with dissecting the past so effortlessly? I am still trying to discern the answer. What I know for sure is that Talbot's masterful writing and the emotional core of this book ring so true, I let go of my need to know where I'm going, and simply let the narrator lead me where she needs to go."
Profiles Editor Christina Consolino writes, "Back in December, I had the pleasure of attending a reading by Dayton author R. A. Morean, who read from her newest book, Azimuths. From the moment the author spoke her first words, I felt drawn to the story. Morean paints a portrait of five women who live at the Raceway Trailer Park, situated on the lip of the Mojave desert. These five women—Hattie, Melody, Kinni, Lani, and Oxena—each tell a unique story of the struggles they face on a daily basis, both mental and physical. A common thread, however, well beyond simple proximity of habitation, ties them together. Morean's prose is filled with rich imagery that brings the desert landscape and her carefully nuanced characters to life."
Fiction Editor Colleen Kearney Rich shares, "I recently finished reading Leslie Pietrzyk's short story collection This Angel on My Chest. The book was the winner of the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and I had the good fortune to hear Pietrzyk read a story from the collection at a book festival in the fall. All the stories are linked in an unusual way: Pietrzyk lost her first husband suddenly at the age of 37, and each story grapples with the sudden loss a spouse/lover in some way. Although the stories aren't truly autobiographical, Pietrzyk said at the reading she challenged herself to put one hard truth in each story. The stories are inventive. The one presented as a multiple choice quiz is a favorite of mine; another one is written as a craft lecture. I was inspired by the variety of approaches to storytelling and would definitely recommend the book."
Literary Reflections Editor Andrea Lani offers some creative optimism: "With the new year, I felt a new drive to reenergize my creativity. To that end, I picked up Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. Throughout the book, Gilbert writes about the hard work and diligence that go into a creative life, without sugarcoating, but she also speaks to the joy creative work brings. Her definition of creativity is expansive, and she makes an effort to encompass a range of creative pursuits from cake baking to figure skating, but because she is a writer, and her personal anecdotes come from the writing realm, I felt particularly drawn to her words. Gilbert debunks the myth that pain and suffering are prerequisites for creativity and that substance abuse feeds it. Rather, she focuses on the pleasure of the creative process, urging readers to open themselves to inspiration and not only love their work, but let their work love them back. For those who do not already have a creative passion, Gilbert offers this advice: follow your curiosity. As I read, I imagined buying a great big stack of the book and sending copies to all of my creative friends and family members. Who couldn't use a little more Big Magic in their life?"