Hooray! An Event of Successful Fiction and Memoir

IMG_2731Yesterday, we headed down to Alexandria, Va., to attend an event at Hooray for Books with Beth Kephart, whose writing cannot be praised enough, and Debbie Levy, who is as charming in person as I expected.  It has been many years since I’ve been there, but I’ve always loved the waterfront, the Torpedo Factory, and many other things about the shops and restaurants there.  While I did notice some changes, including the movement of Hannelore’s where I got my wedding dress to a side street off of King Street, much of the atmosphere remains the same.  What did we do after the event? We went to our favorite pub, Murphy’s, though after the nauseated morning I had, I did not dare have the Guinness I would have love to have.  And then we took Wiggles around to check out the sights she has never seen.  (pictured here is my favorite tree down by the water).

Due to construction on the lovely George Washington Parkway, I was late to the event and I hate being late!  I abhor it.  My husband kindly dropped me off as he sought parking.  I walked in and was told there were still seats, which was good, though I would have stood for this one.  And stupidly, I became too absorbed in the conversation to take too many photos.  There was talk about memoir and its differences from fiction and autobiography, and how there is still a need for imagination in memoir, but not in making up facts.  We all know those memoirists that have been caught bending or blatantly making up facts — they are not Beth Kephart or Debbie Levy (below Beth on the left and Debbie on the far right).


There were books galore to be had at the bookstore, and when my husband finally arrived with Wiggles, they sat for a few minutes while the audience — and myself — were engaged in a writing exercise about what friends from our school days would remember about us and what we’d like them to remember — thanks to Debbie Levy.  Earlier we had engaged in a different writing exercise about a first person account of an object, which Beth Kephart dreamt up.  I did share the poem, I will share here at the behest of Beth and Debbie, though I feel it is unfinished.

Ghost in a Book

She was a bean pole
books hanging from her nose,
from her hands,
in her bag.
Looking down, but
always -- inwardly -- out
to a horizon
beyond four walls,
small town, gossip.
Ready to spring --
jump forward, move
and leave us
wondering if she was here.

I’ve honestly written more poetry than fiction and essay and have never written memoir or nonfiction. It was good to stretch my writing in these exercises, and it was fun to see what others came up with. Some of them were funny and sarcastic, while others were serious. This was a great event for more than one reason — writing exercises, readings, questions and answers — but most of all the genuine awe and support the writers showed for one another, culminating in each buying books from the other’s stacks and signing books to their friends and loved ones. I loved how they bounced questions off of one another and how they interacted. It was like watching two colleagues who have known one another longer than I suspect Beth and Debbie have.

I’ll leave you with my favorite photo from yesterday — thanks to my husband who took the photo — of three lovely ladies.


Small Damages by Beth Kephart

There are books that pump your adrenaline for you and there are books, like Small Damages by Beth Kephart, that seep deep into your being, settle there, making their mark on your emotions, your perceptions about other cultures, and your own world view.  Kephart has a skill unlike other young adult authors in that she never sees her younger readers as incapable of understanding or of deep emotion.  She trusts them to follow her characters in their unusual circumstances and settings and garner a deeper understanding of what it means to mature from a child into an adult and the responsibilities that weigh on them even now when they are so young in this modern world.

Kenzie Spitzer is an 18-year-old pregnant girl who struggles with the loss of her father and the silence of her mother every day, and she keeps secrets from her friends, her family, and herself.  Kevin Sullivan, the boyfriend, is on his way to Yale in the fall, and she had planned to attend Newhouse film school after a summer on the New Jersey shore in a rented house with her boyfriend and friends.  To say the least, her life is turned upside down by the pregnancy news, but what’s worse is the decision to have the child and give it up for adoption is taken out of her hands when her mother makes arrangements for her to go to Los Nietos (the granchildren) ranch in Spain where she will be cared for by her mother’s friends Miguel and Estela until the baby is born.

“We scatter the herd, break the bulls out of the shade until they are near, running beside us — fast in a straight line, awkward on the turns, annoyed.” (Page 14 ARC)

Like the scattering of the bulls when she arrives, Kenzie’s life has been derailed and those of her friends and of Kevin are moving parallel to her and from her point of view cased in blissful ignorance as her life is the only one changed.  She even ruminates on how even though a child conceived is the doing of man and woman, it is the woman’s life that is changes irrevocably.  Kenzie’s thoughts are very similar to teenage girls, vacillating between the past and what the future could have been — analyzing each moment over and over.  Unlike other novels on this topic, Kephart’s kind hand guides the narration without judgment allowing the character to reveal her own maternal love for the child and her confusion without the harsh lens of blame and resentment.

“I stay where I am, halfway in, halfway out, the moon and the stars bright behind me.”  (Page 172 ARC)

Forced into a decision that is not her own — but is in a roundabout way a compromise with her mother — Kenzie is left adrift in a foreign land with people she doesn’t know or understand, wondering through silences and asking endless questions that are unanswered more often than not.  She meets Esteban with whom a connection is born as they share a tragic parental past, even though for a long while all Kenzie wants is to be someone else, somewhere else.  Like the birds in Seville and at Los Nietos, they are there guiding Kenzie, showing her the color as Kevin had done when her father died.  She is alive, and they remind her.  There is one passage in the novel in which Esteban talks of how one particular bird always comes, but that he brings the others with him — reminiscent of The Conference of the Birds (my review) and the faith they need to find what they seek.

“‘Only to the earth do I tell my troubles,’ Arcadio sings softly, ‘for nowhere in the world do I find anyone to trust.’

‘If my heart had windowpanes of glass,’ Bruno sings the next line, ‘you’d look inside and see it crying drops of blood.’

‘These Gypsies, they are the famous,’ Miguel says.  ‘They are starting very young; they played for Lorca.  They had duende. Have duende. ?'”  (Page 165-6 ARC)

Small Damages by Beth Kephart is about the courage we must find within ourselves to face the past, our tragedies and losses, and our fears about the future.  Kenzie is a young woman on the verge of her new life when it is turned upside down, and while the decision to go to Spain is not her own, she finds the courage to make her own decisions for herself, her baby, and her future.  Through the chords and melodies of gypsy music, Kenzie must peel the tough, bumpy rubber skin of the orange in her journey through Spain to reveal the prized juice and supple pulp beneath the skin.  While damages may seem large and insurmountable when they are first scored through our hearts and skin, they heal and become the small scars that make us who we are and how we learn to be better than we were.

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of 14 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, is due out in June 2009. And a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, will be released in March 2010. “The Longest Distance,” a short story, appears in the May 2009 HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World.

Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. Kephart teaches the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. You can visit her blog and my interview with her.

My other Beth Kephart reviews:

Have you seen this book trailer?

Publication Day for Small Damages by Beth Kephart

Today, Beth Kephart’s latest young-adult novel, Small Damages is released.  As many of you know, I adore her poetic prose and how her characters and their homes leap off the page, envelop you, and pull you into their worlds.  Her writing most closely resembles the writing I know I have the potential to achieve, and I don’t begrudge her my failings to achieve it.  In fact, I celebrate her care and concern for the perfect word or phrase in each of her books.  I praise her and adore her and her poetry because it is all out there, on the bookshelves — virtual and otherwise — to enchant readers.

I have had her latest book on my shelf for many months, and I’ve been tempted by it each time I walk by the shelf; it calls out to me.  I’ve held off reading it because it was too far in advance so readers would be forced to wait for it to hit shelves and I’ve gotten busy with other books and family things, but Small Damages has been there, in the back of my mind, waiting for me to be ready with its glowing oranges, the fruits of Beth’s labor.

I’m ready now.

I have one solitary day off at the end of the month in which I do not have to toil over my day job, and while I will still have to care for my daughter, who is growing well, I plan to sit and immerse myself in Beth’s beautiful writing…to have her transport me to Spain, a country I’ve loved from afar and in my studies and a country close to my ancestors’ homeland of Portugal.  I want to be absorbed — to fall into Kenzie’s world and her problems and find the beauty that I know is there.

Would I have found Beth without Amy of My Friend Amy?  Possibly, but I still thank her for the introduction to this lovely woman and her poetry.  In the meantime, while you wait for my thoughts on Beth’s book, please feel free to check out some of these other wonderful reviews and to stop by Beth’s blog:

Mailbox Monday #156

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch. This month’s host is the Let Them Read Books.

Kristi of The Story Siren continues to sponsor her In My Mailbox meme.

Both of these memes allow bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received this week:

1.  Lost in Timeby Melissa de la Cruz from SantaThing!

2.  Masquerade by Melissa de la Cruz from SantaThing!

3.  Thirst: The Eternal Dawn No. 3 by Christopher Pike from SantaThing!

4.  Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron unsolicited from Algonquin Books.

5.  Small Damages by Beth Kephart from the author for review.

6.  Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs from Book Blogger Holiday Swap partner Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews.

7.  Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress from Book Blogger Holiday Swap partner Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews.

8. All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson from Harper Collins for review.

What did you receive?