The Power – and Joy – of the Right Word

Many writers write for the love of story.  Many for the love of language.  But the best writers are those who strive for beauty in both the story and the language.  The story is not sacrificed for lyricism. It is told with language that serves the story, but that also often surprises us.

I’m currently reading Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, and as did his National Book Award- winning Let the Great World Spin, TransAtlantic reminds me over and over again of the power of the right word.  His descriptions are so clearly drawn, his word choices so strong and inventive, that it takes my breath away.

A few of my favorite lines so far:


“Sometimes it withered him just to keep his mind steady.”

“…an incidental skim of words across the surface of the day…”

“The children appeared marooned by hunger.”

McCann uses such beautiful, creative language.  It is the story that has drawn me in, that keeps me going on this journey with him.  But it is the way he tells that story – the language – that makes me love the ride so much.

When I read writers like McCann, I want to be better.  I want to challenge myself.  I begin to rethink my verbs, searching for stronger and more evocative ways of saying things.  I begin to play with my word choices.  And I remember again what is so much fun about writing.  I remember why I write in the first place.


2013: A Great Year for Books so Far

It’s been a while since I wrote about the books I’ve read recently, so I thought I’d throw out a few from the 25 or so I’ve finished this year so far. Remember. No reviews, just some thoughts from an avid reader.

Last year I really had to dig at the end of the year to come up with 4 or 5 books I loved. This year there have been only a few I haven’t liked.

  • Best book I’ve read in 2013: Without a doubt, Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. I’ve always been a Kate Atkinson fan, but this book wowed me. Made me want to read it again to figure out how she did it. The structure is a lesson in non-linear narrative, but she doesn’t sacrifice story for form. Read it.

Life After Life

  • Another Book I loved: Ten Thousand Saints, Eleanor Henderson. Don’t know what took me so long to get to this (it came out in 2011, I think), but I am so glad it ended up in my reading pile. If you were anywhere from 15 to 40 in the 80s, you are going to feel this book in your gut. You are going to get these characters, even if you never huffed turpentine, or were part of the straight-edge scene, or had dope smoking ex-hippies for parents. It pounds and thumps like the music its characters love, with emotion and passion and teen angst. Loved it.

ten thousand saints

  • And Yet Another Book I Loved: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel. She sure doesn’t need my praises here – Ms. Mantel has won all sorts of awards for both Bring Up the Bodies and her previous book, Wolf Hall. I loved them both, but honestly think this is the better of the two. Can’t wait to read the third of the trilogy when it comes out.
  • Book I was disappointed by: Wish You Were Here, Stewart O’Nan. I am a big fan of Stewart O’Nan, so I was really looking forward to going back and reading some of his books I hadn’t gotten to yet. This one didn’t do it for me. It was well written, of course – he’s a tremendously talented writer. But I’ve read better books dealing with families. It felt too much like something I’ve read before. In fact, it felt a lot like Red House by Mark Haddon (which I also didn’t care for). Since Red House was published after Wish You Were Here, I can only guess that maybe Haddon had read O’Nan’s book at some point and unconsciously channeled it in his own?  Didn’t care for either version.
  • Book I’m reading now: Among the Mad, Jacqueline Winspear. My friend Burnley turned me on to the Maisy Dobbs books, and I’m reading the latest in the series about a woman private investigator in London in the years between World War I and World War II. History, mystery, and a brave heroine. Old fashioned fun.
  • Book I Can’t Wait to Read: Bad Monkey, Carl Hiaasen, coming out in June. If you haven’t read Hiaasen, you should. If you like to laugh. If you like weird characters and absurd plots. If you have fantasies about sticking it to politicians and other bad guys.  Can’t explain Hiaasen – just read him.

BAD MONKEY by Carl Hiaasen

If you’ve read any great books I should add to my to-be-read list, let me know.  I’m always on the search for the next book I love.

Take a Book..Leave a Book

A month ago I went on a carriage ride through Charleston with a friend, and this particular ride took us on a route I rarely travel in the city.  It wasn’t my favorite route – that’s down by the Battery – but it was pretty, and I saw some things I’d never seen before.

The best find really had nothing to do with Charleston and the history here, and everything to do with books.  Tucked down on Logan Street between Queen and Broad, mounted on a post in the front yard of one of the charming homes, was a box with a glass door.  And through the glass you could see books.  From the bottom of the house hung a sign:  “Little Free Library.  Take a book…  Leave a book… Or both.”

Little Free Library on Logan Street

I’d heard about Little Free Libraries, but didn’t know there was one in Charleston.  I really had no idea what an amazing organization it is until I did a little research.  Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization that promotes these little “libraries” that house free books for members of local communities.  The idea was conceived by a man as a tribute to his mother, a school teacher and book lover.  He designed a library that looked like a schoolhouse, filled it with books, and mounted it in his front lawn.  Little Free Library was born with that one schoolhouse box. Their website estimates there are now between 5000 and 6000 out there in 36 countries.  They’ve also formed a partnership with Books for Africa to provide Little Free Libraries with containers of books.

You can build your own, or buy one from the organization (though those seem pretty expensive), or even have one custom designed.  Then you register it, and the coordinates are put on a map on the website.  It’s only $35 to register, and you get the sign, a bumper sticker, some bookplates, and occasionally free books from publishers. Best of all, though, you get to share books, and have others share books with you.  Don’t all readers love that?

Check out their website, and see if there is a Little Free Library in your community.  If there is, leave a note to the steward of that library thanking him or her for contributing to the promotion of literature.  Leave some of your favorite books, or if you are a writer, share a few of your own.  And if there’s not a Little Free Library in your community, consider being a steward yourself.  I am.