Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: Church of the Dog

Some books bring tears to your eyes when you finish them. Some bring tears because you finish them. The rare books bring tears for both reasons. Church of the Dog by Kaya McLaren is one of the rare books.

Told from multiple perspectives, this is a story of wonder and mystery, wonder over the events of life, mystery because events have a way of producing unintended consequences. Deep in Oregon ranch country lies a spread owned by Earl and Edith. Cattle and sadness are the two main "crops." Earl and Edith face another sad anniversary when a young art teacher Mara shows up and asks if she can rent one of their outbuildings. They agree, and vegetarian Mara moves in with a pig she's rescued from a local fair. Mara agrees to help around the ranch in return for a place to live and a pen for her pig.

Earl and Edith become friendly with this free spirit who creates art from metal junk, who paints a stained glass window on the side of the outbuilding and who dances in the moonlight. When Earl and Edith's grandson, also broken in spirit, comes for a visit, Mara realizes she needs to heal him too.

This literary novel reads with a fluency of language unusual in a debut writer. It's beautiful, lyrical and painfully true.

What is interesting about this novel is the use of multiple perspectives to tell the story. McLaren breaks many of the "rules" of writing with these multiple narrators. Without them, the book would have been all right, but it wouldn't have been great. One hopes her second novel is as good or better than her first.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Honoring My Mother

Eight years ago my mother died from small-cell lung cancer. She was a former smoker who’d quit ten years earlier, but the damage was done. We had a special dynamic: I was an only child, and she was an only mother. When her health became delicate, long before the cancer diagnosis, she came to live with my husband Terry and me.

It wasn’t always easy, having her in the house, but it was worth it for peace of mind. I knew where she was, that she was well taken care of, that if she needed help in the middle of the night, we’d be there.

I didn’t write about my mother for six years following her death. I couldn’t. One night, I went to a poetry reading and book signing by Jim Minick, a wonderful Appalachian poet who teaches at Radford University. He's become a good friend over the years. Jim read from his collection Her Secret Song, a collection of love poems dedicated to his aunt who also died of cancer. His love for this woman who suffered from “elephant man’s disease” brought me to tears. I cried all the way home.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I rose before dawn and walked my normal two-mile walk in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. When the sun rose over a dew-studded pasture, I heard a poem in my head. It took 24 minutes to put every word together. I couldn’t wait to get to my desk and put fingers on keyboard. I let the poem sit for a week before rereading it. I changed one word. I called it Three Weeks.

I got up enough nerve to take it to my writing group in Roanoke, the Valley Writers. When my turn came, I couldn’t read the poem. My girlfriend and fellow writer, Donna Knox, stepped in to read. She broke down at the end.

Since then, I’ve read the poem at dozens of events. People cry and remember a lost loved one. I love the shared memories. My purpose as a writer is to encourage people to talk and share while they are being entertained. We’ve all been through loss. If sharing simple words has a positive effect, I’m satisfied. I’ve done something good.

I’d love to publish it somewhere. I’ve sent it in to several poetry and cancer journals. I have the rejections to prove it. I keep sending it out. One of the days someone will like it enough to publish it. If you want to read the poem, send me an email. I’ll send you a copy. All I ask is you let me know how it affected you, even if you didn’t like it.