I think of books as sustenance. Words nourish an inner place the way a meal fortifies the body. There’s room at the table for all kinds of dishes: appetizers, hearty proteins, sides, desserts. All have a function and touch a particular organ the way all kinds of books fill our needs. Today I want to focus on the essential ingredients, the words, and emphasize the way they promote the health of our fiction, and thus the health of the reader, when they are nourishing.
The following three quotes provide a small flavor of the greater lyricism of the works from which they come. Choosing just one passage in each case was a challenge because I had so many sentences highlighted, underlined, or dog-eared. The words I’ve selected made me pause to consider a new idea, see an approach to a familiar subject in an original way, or absorb a deep realization. These authors remind us, as writers, not to forget the power of language to support character and story.
The Lost Wife, Alyson Richman
The Lost Wife begins at a wedding in the present day when an old man sees an old woman, and realizes she is the woman he married in WWII Prague, before the Nazis tore apart their lives. It shows with devastating contrast the time before and after the war for the Jewish families living in Europe, but also the incredible capacity humanity has for creativity, love, and resilience.
This quote highlights the way words can reveal character and relationships through specific vocabulary and nuance. It gives an alternative to back-story for a character who is an artist, and shows the reader important connections between a mother and a daughter.
“At night, I am tucked in by a mother who tells me to close my eyes. ‘Imagine the color of water,’ she whispers into my ear. Other nights, she suggests the color of ice. On another, the color of snow. I fall asleep to the thoughts of those shades shifting and turning in the light. I teach myself to imagine the varying degrees of blue, the delicate threads of lavender, or the palest dust of white. And in doing so, my dreams are seeded in the mystery of change.”
No One Is Here Except All of Us, by Ramona Ausubel
Ausubel’s novel is another WWII story, this time set in a remote valley in Romania where a Jewish community reinvents itself for protection against the outside world. In the rewriting of their history, however, a small crack in the foundation leads to tragedy. Ausubel’s voice is original and her historical novel has a fascinating touch of fantasy.
This quote comes from a scene of intimacy. So often, these encounters in fiction leave the reader more frigid than a cold shower, but Ausubel’s phrasing brings a scene to vivid life.
“Naked, the stranger felt like a specimen, and she wanted the jeweler to examine her, to discover the reason for every warm offering. He wet the dry riverbed of her spine with his mouth, he measured and weighed her breasts in his hands. He made an end-to-end journey.”
Everything Beautiful Began After, by Simon Van Booy
Finally, Everything Beautiful Began After is an explorative, literary novel about a love triangle, an earthquake, and a journey. Like the “timshel” speech in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the rapturous revelations that come at the journey’s end are profound. I can not overstate the brilliance of this novel.
“You must…learn to accept that death is the most sophisticated form of beauty, and the most difficult to accept. From this moment on, you will always be conscious of what you are doing. And any future feeling, whether joy or grief or excitement or regret, will come now with an awareness of its own end—with shadows you never noticed in youth. Variation of feeling will be depth of feeling. And you will appreciate tiny things—and step with the confidence of someone overjoyed to know he is doomed.”
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I don’t mean to belabor the food metaphor, but when I read a great book, I can feel the weight of the words in my mouth. I can sense their effect because of a physical response I have once I’ve read them: chills on my skin, a drawing in of breath, the utterance of an ‘ooh’ or ‘ahh.’ Sometimes it takes only a simple passage to remind us what a lengthy craft book strives to impart: employing purposeful language can elevate our fiction to a more satisfying level.
What author or novel nourishes you? I’d love to see some “nourishing” quotes.