Aspen Summer Words: ‘Hourglass’ author Dani Shapiro |

Aspen Summer Words: ‘Hourglass’ author Dani Shapiro

"Hourglass" is Dani Shaprio's fourth memoir.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘We All Start Somewhere’ with Dani Shapiro and Hannah Tinti

Where: Aspen Summer Words, The Gant

When: Monday, June 19, 3:30 p.m.

How much: $25

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

What: ‘Living the Creative Life’ with Dani Shapiro, Jericho Brown and Jess Walter

Where: Aspen Summer Words, Belly Up Aspen

When: Tuesday, June 20, 6 p.m.

How much: $25

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

As her new memoir began to take shape, Dani Shapiro didn’t know what she had on her hands.

A slim and potent book that unflinchingly examines her marriage, Shapiro’s “Hourglass” abandons chronology — instead, it assembles short bursts of memories from an 18-year union and quotations from other writers, along with excerpts from a honeymoon journal. This roaming and intimate inventory of a marriage and a life in progress, Shapiro found, couldn’t be written any other way.

“I was writing from the middle of something — the middle of a marriage, the middle of mid-life — and there’s no chronology to that,” recalled Shapiro, who is teaching a memoir workshop at Aspen Summer Words this week. “It was the way that the book unfolded for me as I wrote it. And it was scary for me. I was like, ‘What is this?’ It’s not a narrative, it’s not a story, it doesn’t have a plot or a beginning, middle and end.”

Released in April, “Hourglass” is Shapiro’s fourth memoir.

In distilled prose and with blunt self-assessment, the book questions how two people can share a life, how time both wears and strengthens a marriage, how the present informs the past and shapes memories.

“In our heads, memories are a jumble,” Shapiro said. “I wanted to find a way to create that jumble on the page in a way that would be compelling, not confusing, to craft and shape it so that it would mirror life and internal life, so that the reader is entering a consciousness — not being told a story.”

The book opens with an image of Shapiro’s husband — referred to only as “M” in the text — looking ridiculous in a bathrobe while toting a rifle in their driveway on a winter morning, attempting to shoot a woodpecker that’s pecking away at the siding of their Connecticut home. Once a swashbuckling foreign correspondent, he’s now diminished by time, fatherhood and suburbia. But, as this emotionally complex memoir plays out, the reader finds, he’s also a charming, supportive and devoted partner in what turns out to be an enviable partnership that can bear the harsh scrutiny of “Hourglass.”

The book picks up emotional momentum as it goes, as all the scattered memories and thoughts add up. That woodpecker returns, a symbol of the little things that can gnaw at a long-term relationship, along with repeated phrases like “I’ll take care of it,” used by her husband as a catch-all salve for difficult situations both big and small. The big ones — dying and sick parents, their son’s near-tragic accident — and the small ones stand side-by-side in the book.

Shapiro also includes a short vignette about teaching at Aspen Summer Words (this week is her third trip to town for an Aspen Words festival). At the tail end of the retreat, at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, preparing to fly over the mountains on an intimidatingly windy day — she heading one way, her husband and son heading another — Shaprio writes that she is overwhelmed with emotion. It’s a small moment, like many in the memoir, but leads her into thinking about how well she’s doing by her family and in her work on the book that would become “Hourglass.” It ends with M telling Shapiro to be tougher on him in the book.

But “Hourglass” isn’t necessarily just a book for the midlife crisis set. For readers at the beginning of a relationship, or a marriage or parenthood, “Hourglass” functions as something like a road map.

“That’s been a lovely surprise,” she said, “that a lot of people who are just starting out, or married or thinking about it, that they seem to read it as if it’s a window into the future in some way.”

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