I took formal piano lessons for about five years from one of the pianists at my church. She taught me a lot about expression, that music isn’t just notes on a page. When I started high school, a local college professor regarded* me and asked if I’d like to “study” with him. That’s what they call it when you move out of elementary piano lessons into focused study of music. And that’s what we did: study.

The week after a recital, Mr. Phillips, who was a brilliant concert pianist, would bring me music he wanted me to learn. He would play for me new Chopin, Debussy, or some obscure English composer, and I would become entirely giddy. My stomach would flutter like a teenage girl’s to think I could possibly play something so fantastic. The best artists and the best art have this effect on me.

I recently stumbled upon an author whose writing elicits such giddiness. The first book I read of Richard Russo’s I didn’t actually read but listened to. Those months I commuted from Toledo to the small town where we now live I needed something to make the 3-hour drive go by quickly. I perused lists of award-winning books available for purchase/download, and Russo’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner Empire Falls sounded interesting enough.

I’d never read (heard) anything quite like it. And then I read more of his works. Next came That Old Cape Magic, then Bridge of Sighs, and now I’m working through his collection of short stories, The Whore’s Child.

bridge_of_sighs Russo draws you in with his masterful character development. Bridge of Sighs, for instance, features a host of characters whose lives intersect at a corner grocery store in a small town in upstate New York, all of whom you find yourself wanting to get to know. Their diversity, not only in Bridge of Sighs but also Empire Falls, brings to mind a great playwright whose cast runs the gamut of the human experience.

A lot of authors rely on plot to keep their readers turning pages. I’ve found Russo’s plots to develop slowly; he seems to focus instead on the characters, like a therapist content to linger on the couch. His plots do, however, culminate in a flurry, causing you, the reader, to abandon all responsibilities so you can finish yet another of his masterpieces.

the_whore's_child Russo may attract with his characters and their witty dialogue

“This is a storytelling class, Sister. We’re all liars here. The whole purpose of our enterprise is to become skilled in making things up, of substituting our own truth for the truth. In this class we actually prefer a well-told lie,” I concluded, certain that this would dissuade her. —The Whore’s Child

and with his surreptitious narrative, but he absolutely enraptures with his stunning prose.

Having had no religious training prior to entering the convent, Sister Ursula was for some time unable to recite prayers with the other children, further evidence, if any were needed, of the moral depravity inherent to being the offspring of a whore. She discovered it was not an easy task, learning prayers to the cadence of public ridicule, but learn them she did, and though the rote recitation was, in the beginning, a torment, it eventually became a comfort. …

And perhaps because she had confided so much about herself, I felt a sudden, irrational urge to confide something in return. Something terrible, perhaps. Something I believed to be true. That my wife had left because she had discovered my involvement with a woman I did not love, who I had taken up with, I now realized, because I felt cheated when the book I’d published in the spring had not done well, cheated because my publisher had been irresponsibly optimistic, claiming the book would make me rich and famous, and because I’d been irresponsibly willing to believe it, so that when it provided neither fame nor fortune, I began to look around for a consolation prize and found her. I am not a good man, I might have told Sister Ursula. I have not only failed but also betrayed those I love. —The Whore’s Child

As a nascent writer … (you like that word, nascent? Budding writers like me overuse our thesaurus.) … Russo does one of two things for me, depending on my outlook on a given day:

  1. He makes me want to throw away my pen (so to speak). Why bother?
  2. He inspires me to become a better writer, like Mr. Phillips made me want to be a better pianist.

I encourage you to check out Richard Russo’s work, maybe start with Empire Falls like I did. (Although, he recommends The Risk Pool, which I haven’t read yet.) The audio versions of Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs are extraordinarily narrated.

A WORD OF WARNING: Since reading Russo, I’ve found it terribly difficult to tolerate other books. I made it through about 30 pages of a 99¢ bargain book at the Sony Reader Store; I could endure no more. Right now I’m reading a more action-paced thriller that artistically pales in comparison, an 89¢ purchase at Kobo. The plot better be worth it. But then, how can I complain when I’m reading $1 books?

Richard Russo’s books are well worth the price, but don’t ask to borrow mine. Some books you lend, and some you treasure.

Who are your favorite authors? Favorite books?

* One of Russo’s favorite words and thus mine.

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