Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Hello, Cephalopod Coffeehouse participants. I join you by way of the superb Suze. I can't help imagining this gathering in an underwater garden, and hope I will be embraced by your many tentacled arms (or do I?)

This past month I read Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Wonder is a contemporary middle-grade novel about Auggie, a young boy with a severe facial deformity who enters middle school after years of being schooled at home. The book is told from several different perspectives, including Auggie, his sister, and some of the kids he meets at Beecher Prep.

For the record, I have not read many middle grade books since, um, I was maybe ten. But this book caught my interest, particularly because it earned a Beehive Book Award (an honor bestowed by the great state of Utah), and because I caught an interview with the author on NPR. The book is certainly worthy of the recognition it has received. The narrators struck me as sincere and genuine, and while the subject matter was heart-wrenching at times, Palacio balanced the story with a healthy dose of humor.

The dominant theme of the novel is that of kindness. In fact, Auggie's English teacher structures his class around a monthly "precept," the first of which is: "When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind." Summer, a pretty girl who genuinely befriends Auggie, personifies this precept throughout the story. She is the kind of character that made me hope I would react exactly like her if placed in a similar situation - and hopeful that I am teaching my own children to behave with kindness as well.

The most striking thing I heard in Palacio's interview on NPR was when she described the inspiration for the novel. She was at an ice cream parlor with her three-year old son, when she noticed a young girl with a severe facial deformity at the table next to them. Palacio said when her son noticed the girl, he started to cry. In her own words: 

"I hurriedly tried to push him away in the stroller, not for his sake but to avoid hurting the girl's feelings, and in my haste I caused my older son to spill the shakes, and, well, it was quite a scene—the opposite of what I had hoped for. But as I pushed my younger son’s stroller away I heard the little girls’ mom say, in as sweet and calm a voice as you can imagine: “Okay, guys, I think it’s time to go.” And that just got to me."

I guess knowing the back story and then reading the novel, I was struck by the way that fiction allows us, in a way, to revise and edit our own narratives. Palacio certainly did with Wonder

Saturday, May 24, 2014


The city cemetery on the corner of 90th South and 7th East is not exactly a serene resting spot. It is bordered by a 7-Eleven and a Domino's Pizza and two steady streams of noisy traffic. A Liberty Tax Service is not more than a hundred yards down the street, where, from January 1st to April 14th, a woman dressed in a Statue of Liberty costume stands outside the storefront, dealing passing motorists a double whammie. No, nothing in life is certain, except death and taxes.

Normally when we pass the cemetery my daughter points and exclaims, "That's where Frankenweenie's buried!" But today she is fast asleep, worn out from an afternoon at the children's museum. Even without her prompting, I notice the cemetery today. It is dotted with color - dozens and dozens of brightly wrapped mums decorating the lowly headstones. Despite its unfortunate location, the cemetery is suddenly bright and beautiful with the sentiment of remembrance.

At home I don gardening gloves and kneel at the flower bed in front of the garage. I dig a shallow hole and plant a fledgling Clematis into the earth, wrapping strands of the tender vine around a trellis. My paternal grandmother had a Clematis against the south side of her red brick house. I remember as a child being astonished at the creeping, climbing plant and its delicate flowers that looked like purple stars.

In the middle of the night, I am awakened by memories, memories vivid and textured. The thick, serrated red brick of my paternal grandparents' home. The sycamore in their front yard, with its shaggy, crumbling bark that we would peel away, revealing a smooth, dappled green. The bumpy ceiling in the front room that seemed to sparkle and reminded me of stalactite. The oval portrait hanging next to the front door, cloudy and in muted tones, of Mary Ione, my grandmother's mother.

Mary Ione died from influenza when Anna, my grandmother, was just a baby. When I was a child, each Memorial Day we joined my grandmother on a pilgrimage of sorts to visit her mother's grave. We piled into station wagons and pick-up trucks and drove south on I-15, the Wasatch Front to our left, the Oquirrh Mountains to our right. It was as if we were cradled in the palm of the Rock of Ages himself. We drove into the land we had claimed, past sagebrush and farmland, past towns named after our Book of Mormon prophets: Lehi, Nephi, Moroni. We would reach the little plot of earth where my grandmother's mother lay, my grandmother arranging us cousins around the humble headstone like flowers.

In the middle of the night, I am awakened by regret, regret tender and forgiving, but painful still. I regret that I always viewed my grandmother as Grandma and nothing more - as a woman who was soft and pillowy and doled out cookies and smiles. I regret that I never asked my grandmother what it was like to grow up without her mother, that I never asked her what it was like to raise ten children in a home with only two bathrooms, that I never asked what interests she had beyond her church and family. I regret that I never wondered if she ever visited her mother's grave in Moroni alone, and rested her smooth cheek against the cool gravestone, and whispered her hopes and heartache to the woman she loved but never knew.

In the middle of the night, I am comforted by the thought of the Clematis growing in my garden, its roots extending into the earth, grounding my memory of her.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Conversation # 21,294. Or: Forgetting who we were before we were us

 "Isn't it funny that we both like the exact same style of house? I mean, is that something we've decided together, or, like, did we both like houses like that before we met?"

 "I liked houses like that before we met."

 "You sure? I honestly can't remember. I mean, I think I did, but... we were so young, you know?"

"Yeah, I don't know. I mean, maybe? Maybe I influenced your opinion...."

"...or I influenced yours? Or it's just some kind of symbiotic thing?And what if, like, we had married other people? What then? Would we like an entirely different style of home?"

(A beat of comfortable silence.)

"I'm pretty sure I liked houses like that before we met. I think."

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The long and short of it...

Since I fell pregnant with my son nearly two years ago (isn't that figure of speech just wild?), I have hardly written a thing. But, I have read. In fact, just the other night I finished reading this:

George Eliot's Middlemarch - a novel that has been on my TBR list for years, but didn't make it into my hands until I heard a rave review of it on NPR: the reviewer literally called Middlemarch "the best novel ever written."

I'm not certain if I concur with this assessment; but, after reading all 800 plus pages of Eliot's novel, I must say it was well worth my time. It was a novel that took a while to get into: there is quite a bit of exposition in the beginning chapters, as well as references to the political climate of the time (which I had to Google to understand). However, once I got into the story, I was fully absorbed into the lives of all the residents of Middlemarch - the kind of immersion that can only occur in a sprawling, lengthy novel.  Although some of the political and cultural references are outdated, Eliot's humor is still incredibly current. This is one of those novel's that you are better for having read - the kind you need to read with a highlighter in hand, so you won't lose all the gems enclosed. The main protagonist Dorothea is beautifully drawn; and she is granted such lovely lines of dialogue, such as: "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?"

Aside from Middlemarch, I have also read these:

 Until this past year, I have never, aside from compulsory reading for school, read a short story collection. If you haven't either, do yourself a favor and check one of the above books out. Short stories are so sophisticated, concise, surprising, and powerful. In fact, reading short stories was the thing that made me want to start writing again. After working on a short story for the past few months, I am nearly convinced that it takes more skill to write a short story than a novel. Unless, of course, that novel is Middlemarch.

What have you read lately?

Thursday, May 1, 2014


On Tuesday night I dream of flying. Certainly I must have dreamt of flight before, but when I awake it feels like I've just been blessed with some great novelty. I seldom remember my dreams anymore, and when I do they are usually of a more banal, adult variety - dreams of trying to run uphill but not moving anywhere.

My daughter used to practice flying. She would fashion wings out of hangers, perch herself on the edge of my bed, and leap into the air. She also used to creep into my bedroom in the morning, her platinum blond hair ratted into an ethereal halo, and tell me her dreams. I would wake, bleary-eyed, and gaze in wonder at the little creature before me, reporting her nighttime visions like some ambassador from another realm.

She is five now. She is learning how to read and can operate the remote control all by herself. She can buckle her own seat-belt and, this coming fall, she will be in kindergarten. I can't remember the last time she practiced flying, or for that matter, the last time she told me her dreams. So last night when she tiptoes into my room and asks if she can lie by me, I readily concede. She snuggles into the bed beside me and quickly falls asleep. I am not dreaming, but I fervently hope that she is.