Ellen Crispin

Review: “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert

BigMagicCoverI was sitting on a beach in Northern Greece and I was about to cry.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, sat in my lap. I hadn’t opened it yet.

What are the myths of being creative? Come on, we all know them. They’ve been embedded in our cultural landscape: the alcoholic writer, the heroin-addicted musician, the demons that devour those who choose to devote themselves to creating beautiful things.

The Aegean Sea spread before me, smooth and clear, and all I could think of was a short story I struggled to write earlier in the day.

You couldn’t create real art without struggle. Or so the story goes.

Until I cracked Gilbert’s new book.

(It’s a nonfiction beauty that proclaims on its cover: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR. Most of us would accept WITH fear, but aim high, I get it.)

Funny. Insightful. Honest. Irreverent towards the hulking beast of artistic nihilism. But, of course, most of us have read Gilbert before and these qualities find their way into all of her works. The particular form of magic in Big Magic comes in a very unusual wrapping: hope and love.

Perhaps its Gilbert’s ever-present but unthreatening spiritualism that makes Big Magic read like a devotional. Like a love letter to the earnest artist inside most of our hearts.

In Big Magic, Gilbert says that one should never write books for other people. One must write for oneself. Big Magic explores a great deal of Gilbert’s life and professional hurdles and successes. But inside this personal exploration, Gilbert manages to capture a powerful idea.

What if we chose to love our artist selves instead of trying to sacrifice them on the altar of “great works”? What if the artist was more important than the art? What if we stopped trying to make creativity our job and instead treated it like a prized garden? Tended only for the joy it brings to our hearts. Of course, some people will be better or luckier and find true success in their art, but that will always be the case.

I once had a very talented artist tell me that he could never create a “great” piece of art because his childhood was too perfect. He said he resented his parents sometimes. I, of the dark and artistically-prized childhood, wanted to laugh in his face.

But this is the exact idea that permeates artistic mindsets and Gilbert addresses it beautifully. She pulls apart, piece by piece, the mythology of the suffering artist to offer us something new. A recognition and a refocusing.

Recognition that all artists feel doubt and shame and despair. (Gilbert’s perfect example is the second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius writing to himself in his private diaries that it’s alright to not be as good as Plato. Seriously. Everybody feels this way.) Recognition that we don’t have to be dying on the street to be “artists.” And that an artist can be a middle-aged woman who finds transcendent joy in dancing.

Art is not perfection. Art is something much more. It’s the patient and heartfelt work of millions of artists. All connected by the powerful urge to create transcendence within their own lives.

Or so Gilbert says and shows, as she cracks the door open and lets in the light we’ve all been told to avoid.

That’s the Big Magic, of course, letting the light into a house we’ve been trying to board up.

Let yourself be inspired. Be brave. Look into that bright, magical light. Don’t give up. Trust that the act of creating will bring you what you need.

And read Gilbert’s Big Magic. Whisper thank you and believe that in some way she maybe heard it. These things have a way of coming around, you see. And in a week when you’re at a bookshop in Paris, pick up a used copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations that you find for two Euros. Because this is certainly the universe coming around for you.

And now you know enough to watch for it.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead Books | 9781594634710 | September 22, 2015)

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

music_for_wartime_9780525426691_eec5dEach of the stories in Rebecca Makkai’s new collection, “Music for Wartime,” begins as a secret. The protagonist, the author, the very book itself is whispering something to you. The whisper begins soft and muddled, the story obscured until, suddenly, the characters leap from the page and tell you their failures and memories.

Considering the collection’s title, it makes sense that most of Makkai’s diverse collection of narrators live in war-torn regions, or to be more accurate, they used to live in war-torn regions. But Makkai also pulls from quieter, more domestic wars. The war of love and heartbreak, the war of being a child and trying to understand your parents, the war of surviving your own conscience.

The secrets of Makkai’s stories come from a distant place in the past as if to say: they are long gone, this is not their story, this is the way we imagine them. In “The Miracle Years of Little Fork,” a young preacher does some good in a small town while questioning his faith and choices. What you as a reader take away at the end is entirely up to you—that’s the gift of a secret. You may find this particular secret sad or hopeful, it all depends on you. And as Makkai shows us, it all depends on each of us. We’re the good and the bad, the political prisoner and the lover that absconds in favor of safety; we’re the proud owners of our family’s victories and the begrudging holders of their crimes.

In “Music for Wartime,” Makkai reminds us that our lives are made up of small choices, but those small choices ripple on and on into the future. A composer in “The Singing Women” tries to capture the dying songs of a culture and, in doing so, wipes it out. Our best intentions reap what they reap.

Rebecca Makkai’s stories are beautiful and heartbreaking, musical yet somber. The brightest moments are tempered with the greatest loss, and the only hope we find for ourselves in these pages comes in the form of other people. We’re stories, old and new, and we’re all connected. And we’re all true even when we’re made into characters on a page.

Makkai sums it up perfectly when she writes: “But I’ve made it sound like a fable, haven’t I?”

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai (Viking | 9780525426691 | June 23, 2015)

Review: The Remedy for Love

“I think what love is, is that two people cross into a different world together because of a shared event or experience. Like, they cross together into one of those other worlds.”

the remedy for loveSometimes we leave love and sometimes love leaves us. Either way, the central characters of Bill Roorbach’s warmhearted novel, The Remedy for Love, find themselves adrift in a world without love. When Eric, a small town lawyer, attempts to help unkempt and angry Danielle at a grocery store, the two find themselves on a collision course towards something extraordinary. The “Storm of the Century” traps them together in a small cabin and through Roorbach’s evocative wordsmithing, the reader feels the snow crushing these two closer and closer together as their conversations become deeper.

Roorbach captured the snow-blighted landscape and harsh edges of these two people’s broken hearts in such a way that I found myself unable to put this book down. Roorbach frames the growth of this unexpected and electric love through stories of the betrayals and failings of their own relationships. The juxtaposition of new love and old creates a beautiful dissonance in the novel, as if the joy these two broken souls are able to experience with each other raises questions for all relationships, offers hope for all broken hearts.

At times sensual and always witty, Roorbach’s newest endeavor allows a look into the first moment of love, past and present. He offers a window into a hope that Thoreau wrote of: “There is no remedy for love but to love more.”

The Remedy for Love by Bill Roorbach (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill | ISBN 9781616203313 | October 14, 2014)

“The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henriquez

“Besides, I don’t need anyone’s pity. My life has been what it has been. It’s not a wonderful story, but it’s mine.”

 In general, Americans tend to associate immigration with hopefulness. A certain level of dreamy ambition. But in reality and in Cristina Henriquez’s second novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, the sad undercurrent of immigration and migration in the Americas comes to the surface. The story follows the experience of several families and individuals who share an apartment building in a lackluster part of Delaware. In particular, it traces the budding love of two teenagers, Maribel and Mayor, and the intertwining of their two households. Henriquez masterfully taps into the heart of each family; she exposes the international roots that led everyone to this unglamorous corner of the United States and, with a deft hand, displays the trials and tribulations that they face. And she charts their minor successes and their brief joys. I could argue that Henriquez’s greatest success comes from her ability to capture that particular brand of sorrow leaving one’s own culture brings. The way food looks and tastes different, the changed smells in the air, the language barriers that isolate and heighten every source of fear. From Panama to Mexico, each immigrant carries their own story in their heart. They move in and out of Maribel and Mayor’s view, but Henriquez punctuates the novel with their stories. Their heartbreaks, their loves.

As a young child, I was taught that to empathize with others, one must read voraciously. How could one ever expect to understand someone culturally different than oneself without reading his or her story?

This is that story.

Henriquez captures the political and social climate of immigration in the United States without becoming preachy. She paints an intimate portrait of loss and becoming that separates itself profoundly from other literature produced in this country at this point in time. If you want to understand the experience of an American population that we often overlook, read this book. If you’d prefer to read an immersive, beautifully rendered narrative about the struggles of family and pride, read this book. I think you get where I’m going with this.

“The Untold” by Courtney Collins

If the dirt could speak, what story would it tell?the untold 9780399167096_3ef9c

Courtney Collins’ debut novel, The Untold, traces the experience of twenty-six year old Jessie as she runs into the Australian bush, attempting to escape the crimes that follow her. The cover copy sets the reader up for a romp through a semi-Western landscape and I must admit that I expected an Australian Cormac McCarthy when I first began The Untold. After the first chapter, I knew I’d been wrong in my assumption.

Collins has created something much more singular and magical than a standard historical revision. (The novel is very loosely based off of the life of 1920s bushwoman Jessie Hickman.) Her choice of narration stands apart from the physicality of the story, and this choice turns Jessie’s journey through the harsh landscape into a softened meditation on life and death in hard times. At moments, the novel loses itself in the beauty of its own language and region, and in the dreamy otherworld quality of its narration. But the novel refocuses and the reader finds themselves once again among the soil and mountains and cold, clear rivers of the Australian bush.

Perhaps the most surprising development of this story comes in the form of mother and child. I finished The Untold with an unshakeable sense of maternal connection. Behind the mask of historical Australian western, Collins’ story captures the distance and weight of love between a mother and her child. The weight never lessens and the distance counts itself into the psyche with each step.

You’ll have to discover for yourself what I mean. That’s the magic of The Untold—discovering something new among what you thought you recognized.

The Untold by Courtney Collins (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam | 9780399167096 | May 29, 2014)