Kirkus Best Books of 2017
The best-selling novelist and memoirist delivers her most intimate and powerful work: a piercing, life-affirming memoir about marriage and memory, about the frailty and elasticity of our most essential bonds, and about the accretion, over time, of both sorrow and love.
Hourglass is an inquiry into how marriage is transformed by timeabraded, strengthened, shaped in miraculous and sometimes terrifying ways by accident and experience. With courage and relentless honesty, Dani Shapiro opens the door to her house, her marriage, and her heart, and invites us to witness her own marital reckoninga reckoning in which she confronts both the life she dreamed of and the life she made, and struggles to reconcile the girl she was with the woman she has become.
What are the forces that shape our most elemental bonds? How do we make lifelong commitments in the face of identities that are continuously shifting, and commit ourselves for all time when the self is so often in flux? What happens to love in the face of the unexpected, in the face of disappointment and compromisehow do we wrest beauty from imperfection, find grace in the ordinary, desire what we have rather than what we lack? Drawing on literature, poetry, philosophy, and theology, Shapiro writes gloriously of the joys and challenges of matrimonial life, in a luminous narrative that unfurls with urgent immediacy and sharp intelligence. Artful, intensely emotional work from one of our finest writers.
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.17(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.46(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:April 10, 1962
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1987, M.F.A., 1989
Read an Excerpt
Time, Memory, Marriage
From my office window I see my husband on the driveway below. It’s the dead of winter, and he’s wearing nothing but a white terry- cloth bathrobe, his feet stuffed into galoshes. A gust of wind lifts the hem of the bathrobe, exposing his pale legs as he stands on a sheet of snow-covered ice. His hair is more salt than pepper. His breath makes vaporous clouds in the cold. Walls of snow are packed against the sides of the driveway, white fields spread out to the woods in the distance. The sky is chalk. A rifle rests easily on his shoulder, pointed at the northernmost corner of our roof.
So. He bought the gun. I take a long sip of coffee. Our two dogs are sleeping on the rug next to my desk chair. The old, demented one is snoring. There’s nothing I can do but watch as M. squeezes the trigger. Bam! I start, and the dogs leap up. The windows rattle. The whole house shakes.
The woodpecker had arrived the previous fall. Once he chose our house he seemed quite content, settled in, as if he had every intention of staying a while. At first, I had no idea where the noise was coming from. Rat-tat-tat. From my study, it sounded like a loose shutter banging, though we had no shutters. It was almost a city sound –– like a faraway jackhammer –– out of place in the quiet of the country. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Of course, it seemed possible, too, that the infernal banging was entirely in my mind. “My head,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “is a hive of words that won’t settle.” I couldn’t hold a thought. It was as if an internal axis had been jarred and tilted downward; words and images slipped through a chute into a dim, murky pool from which I could not retrieve them.
Finally, I spotted the woodpecker from my son’s bathroom window. Perched on a drainpipe just below the wood shingled roof, he was a small, brown bird with a tiny head and a pointy beak that moved back and forth with astonishing speed as he hammered away at what was already a sizable hole in the side of the house. Rat-tat-tat.
It had been a time of erosion. I’d begun to see in metaphor. We’d lived in the house for twelve years, and things were falling apart. The refrigerator stopped working one day. The banister warped and the spindles on the staircase loosened and clattered to the floor. An old, neglected apple tree on our property split in two, its trunk as hollow as a drum. The house needed painting. The well needed fracking, whatever that meant. The front door was cracked, and on winter days, a sliver of wind could be felt inside.
Late that same fall of the woodpecker, as I sat reading at the kitchen table one afternoon, two large, mangy creatures loped across the meadow. One was grey, the other a pale, milky brown, they were otherworldly, terrifying. My spine tingled. I grabbed my phone to take their picture, then texted it to M., who was in the city that day.
Not coyotes. I know coyotes.
The basement regularly flooded. If the wind blew in a certain way during a heavy rainfall, we could count on a half inch of water in the workroom where M. kept projects in varying states of half-completion. On a long table, he had hundreds of photos cut into stamp-sized pieces. These, he planned to assemble into a photo collage. A finished one from years earlier hangs in our guest bathroom. I never tire of looking it: our now-teenaged son as a toddler, hoisted on the shoulders of a friend, a smiling, radiant man whose daughter will later fall to her death from a Brooklyn rooftop; my mother in a hat to cover her bald head, months before she died; my mother- in-law before Alzheimer’s set in; the three of us –– my little family and I ––on the steps of our Brooklyn townhouse; then older, on the porch of our house in Connecticut. Alive. Dead. Lost. Like the names I refuse to cross out in my address book, I catalog those I have loved.
“Honey!” I called downstairs, keeping an eye on the woodpecker who, if he noticed me, didn’t seem to care. “I need you!”
M. peered at the woodpecker through the bathroom window. “Little fucker.”
“We’re going to have to replace all that siding.”
“Let’s put it on the list.”
The list included pressing items such as painting the house, fixing the front door. We really did need to install a generator, replace the heating system. The list had once included items like redoing the bathrooms, building an addition. I’d stopped keeping a list.
“I’m getting a gun.”
“I don’t want a gun in the house.”
“Not a real gun. A pellet gun. Nail the fucker.”
I did some research. All the while, the pecking continued. More holes were hammered into the side of our house. A friend recommended a brick of suet, hung from a tree. Another suggested a porcelain owl placed atop our roof. M. is not fond of home remedies. The weather grew colder. Leaves on the trees turned russet, deep yellow, bright burgundy. Families of wild turkeys strutted across the front meadow. My mind was on fire. Each day, I sat in my second floor office and heard rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.
I’ll take care of it, M. said. A familiar refrain, one I have always loved and long to believe. This longing – my longing – is part of our marriage. We have been together for nearly two decades. The woodpecker, the mangy creatures, the hive of words. The creaky house, the velocity of time, the accretion of sorrow. The things that can and cannot be fixed. I’ll take care of it.
M., before I knew him, owned real guns. He had been a foreign correspondent working out of Africa, in territory that required bodyguards and weapons. He kept a Kalashnikov stored in a locker in Mogadishu. On occasion, he wore a bulletproof vest. It hangs on a hook in our coat closet.
Now, he is having a tete-a-tete with a woodpecker as I stand holding one quivering dog while petting the other. He hadn’t listened to me. When had he snuck a gun into the house? Where had he bought it? Walmart? Bam! The sound echoes off the roof. His hair is standing on end and he looks not unlike Einstein. A small dark speck against the white sky as the bird flies away, and I can almost hear its laughter, a cartoon bubble: you can’t catch me!
We have recently embarked on a massive housecleaning after reading a popular book about the Japanese art of tidying up. It falls into the department of things we can control. The author instructs readers to empty the contents of every single household drawer and closet and lay it all out: the old sneakers, balled up work-out clothes, tangled necklaces, single earrings, gift soap still in cellophane wrappers. The report cards, paper maché art projects, baby bjorn. The boxes of heating pads from a long-ago bout with sciatica. The pregnancy test displaying the pink line. The electric ‘smores maker, a housewarming gift, deposited unopened in the back of the coat closet.
I found these old journals of yours. Just yesterday, M. handed me two thin, spiral-bound notebooks. One is red, the other blue. They don’t look familiar. I open the red one. Dated June 8, 1997, the entry reads: Day one. Arrived early in London and bought books at Heathrow (paperback ed.of Angela’s Ashes.) Arrived in Paris in the early afternoon (Orly) and took a taxi to the Relais St. Germain. D. unpacked. Loved the room, great big bed, fluffy towels. My handwriting looks to me like a letter to my future self, a missive launched forward through time. If you had asked me if I’d kept a journal on our honeymoon, I would have told you with certainty that I had not. And who the hell writes about herself in the third person in her diary?
Today we ventured across the Seine only to discover that the Beauborg was closed. Went to Agnes B. where M. bought two nice shirts. Walked through the Marais, went to Ma Bourgoune, where a pigeon shat all over the back of M.’s new Agnes B. shirt. D. went upstairs and washed it off in a public restroom.
We weren’t all that young when we married. I was thirty-five, M. forty-one. As I read my entries, I feel time collapsing on itself. It is as if I can reach out and tap that blissed-out honeymooning not-so-terribly young woman on the shoulder, point her away from the fluffy towels and café and shitting pigeons and direct her toward another screen, a future screen. As
she walks into a shop on the Place Vendome (D. finally ended her search forthe perfect watch to go with her beautiful new wedding band) I want to suggest to her that life is long. That this is the beginning. And that it may be true, at least in poetic terms, that beginnings are like seeds that contain within them everything that will ever happen.
On the highest shelf in my office closet, five boxes filled with reams of pages are stacked along with several cloth-covered volumes from the years I kept journals. Keeping journals was a practice for me, a way of ordering my life. It was an attempt to separate the interior from the exterior. To keep all my trash –– this is the way I thought of it –– in one place. Into the journals I poured every thought, each uncomfortable desire. Every petty resentment, seething insecurity, unexpressed envy that would be boring to all the world except –– perhaps –– to me. I continued the journal practice for years after becoming a writer, because I thought of the journals as the place where the detritus would be discarded, leaving only the essential ––somehow the process itself would determine which was which –– for my real work. I never imagined that a soul would read the journals. I would have been horrified, mortified if anyone had seen them. So why are they still on a shelf in my closet? Why have I kept them?
The red and blue notebooks are, I believe, the last journals in which I wrote. After we returned from our honeymoon, that practice, which had accompanied me all through my teens and twenties and into my thirties, disappeared. It was disappearing even as I wrote in them, I becoming she. Interspersed in those thin notebooks were other things: lists, thoughts, ideas. But that still doesn’t explain why I haven’t burned them. They aren’t there for posterity. Nor for reference. I don’t believe the young woman who wrote them has anything to teach me. What does she know? She hasn’t lived my life.
After breakfast we drove to Massaune, home of the best olive oil in France. Picked up three bottles. Then left St. Remy and took off for the Cote d’Azur. While in the car, D. ended up getting bitten by a nasty unidentified flyinginsect and jumped into the back seat where she remained crouching until the car stopped. After determining that the insect was not a bee and D. would live, we detoured to Aix-en-Provence for lunch (M.’s idea.)
Excerpted from "Hourglass"
Copyright © 2018 Dani Shapiro.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Hourglass by Dani Shapiro, an enlightened and searching meditation on the nature of marriage, the passage of time, and life’s inexplicable turns that emerge in a brilliant kaleidoscope as the author takes inventory of her life.
1. Shapiro describes the process of decluttering her life and house at the outset of the memoir. How does this listing and parsing of ordinary household objects allow readers to enter her world and relate it to their own?
2. When reading her old journals from her honeymoon, Shapiro acknowledges the oddness of her writing about herself in the third person. What does this suggest about how she thought of herself as a young woman, and how she thinks of herself now, in midlife?
3. What does the memoir suggest about the nature of hindsight? Does Shapiro speculate about how she’d make different choices if she already knew the outcomes, and how did reading about this make you think about your own choices?
4. Although Shapiro takes comfort in her older (and mostly analog) ways of recording experience and communication, she is a creature of modern technology as well, and brings it into her narrative. What does the juxtaposition of older and newer ways of making memories say about our human impulse to connect? What are we gaining or losing in the shift from privately writing in journals to posting on social media?
5. What’s particularly shocking for the family about the incorrect online “fact” that she and M. are divorced? Do public “truths” like this have a way of tend to have an impact on reality?
6. The woodpecker and coy-wolves pose literal conflicts—fear and disturbances to the couple’s daily lives—but more figurative ones as well. What does Shapiro internalize about these animals, and how do her observations of them help her glean more in the process of reviewing her past?
7. What are some of the more haunting memories of the couple’s life together? How do the gradually revealed details about her son reflect the pain of those particular times? And how do those painful times serve to strengthen the couple’s bond?
8. Does M. appear in the memoir as an individual, separate from Shapiro’s interactions and past with him? How does his character in the book reflect the ultimate subjectivity of any narrative, and the dependence on a person’s point of view? Discuss the parts of his life and job that stood out to you as most formative in Shapiro’s understanding of her husband.
9. The couple are both writers. What do you think Shapiro is conveying about two artists who make a life together? What are the benefits and the challenges? Each of them has multiple projects and assignments in drama/TV that require them at times to adopt personas. Does that performative aspect of art seep into their lives and into these pages?
10. Discuss Shapiro’s tonal equanimity in describing major life events. What about her profession as a writer allows her to arrive at a voice that is more densely poetic than confessional?
11. How did Shapiro’s pr
11. How did Shapiro’s process influence your own understanding of your past? Have you ever undergone an exercise like the one in this book—of cleaning house in an attempt to clear your mind? Are there things in your past that you’ve consciously or unconsciously hidden away in “closets,” and how do you go about unearthing them?