Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power

On the surface, this book, a nonfiction account of the consistent US policy of non-interference when it comes to genocide in other countries, has little to do with writing fiction. But as I was reading I kept thinking wow, everyone should read this book. Now normally I don't fall prey to such hyperbole, but it was eye-opening to see the repeated pattern of US passivity until and sometimes beyond the last minute, and it was equally eye-opening to realize the government often used the public (and our lack of out-cry) as an excuse not to act. Anyway... that thought--everyone should read this book--led me to wonder if there was a work of fiction I thought everyone should read.

I will go down insisting that fiction is as vital and important as non-fiction, but I couldn't really come up with an answer. It's something I'll have to give more thought to. What would make a work of fiction feel that important? And does such a work of fiction already exist?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Douglass' Women by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Jewell Parker Rhodes was one of my mentors as a graduate student, and I try to keep up with all of the books of my former teachers, but she writes so diligently that I fell behind and only just read this novel about the black wife and white mistress of renowned abolitionist (and former slave) Frederick Douglass. It is now my favorite of Jewell's books (though Voodoo Dreams is a lot of fun).

The novel alternates between the first person story of Anna Douglass (Douglass' wife) and Ottilie Assing (a German woman who worked for the abolitionist movement). The alternating voices structure works well here (I often don't like it in other novels) because Douglass shuttles between the women, treating both of them rather selfishly, and so each can tell the part of the story that the other can't. But the two voices combined show clearly how Douglass failed to love either one of them and how united the two women are in their unrequited devotion to him. It's really quite sad.

What particularly interested me though is how unknown this history is. In her author's note, Jewell shows an awareness that she is showing the flaws of a much-admired (and deservedly so) hero of American history, but the novel does not make Douglass less of a hero, it simply makes him more of a human. I really admired it. It seems to me a perfect book club book, and I'm not sure why it hasn't met with more success. It's accessible, it's romantic, it's historical, and it's well-written.

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

I heard Philbrick read at Levenger's the other week, so I got sucked in to buying a copy of this nonfiction bestseller. He's not an artistic writer, but he tells a compelling story and he hits a lot of historical notes that I never got in elementary school (which was the last time I learned about the Plymouth colony). Especially interesting is his focus on the Native American tribes who first aided and then warred with the Pilgrims (or in several cases, were warred on by the Pilgrims). He (or his publisher) titled the book brilliantly; a lot of readers seem to be drawn to boat stories but the Mayflower is really only the start of the story. But it seems to me a more accurately titled Plymouth, would not sell nearly as well.

Mostly though I want to point out that Philbrick was an English major and indeed holds an MA in American Literature from Duke (if I remember right). So for all of you English major/writers--fiction is not your only option. And it's certainly not your most lucrative option. Ross King is another good example of someone who studied English/writing only to become a big seller as a nonfiction writer (focusing on art and architecture).

All of this reminds me of how well nonfiction sells compared to ficiton. I really enjoy nonfiction, but a book like Mayflower kind of reminds me of watching television, where I am a fairly passive receiver of information. The book is summary and fact, though told in a narrative fashion, and while I found the facts interesting, it's not like I had to decipher them for meaning or try to puzzle out the storyline. Philbrick told me things straightforwardly and I believed him. I know history isn't quite so simple, but I wonder if this is part of the appeal of popular history books. You're learning, but you're not necessarily challenged.

The Complete New Yorker on DVD

The Complete New Yorker is the greatest thing to hit my computer ever. Thanks to my brother who financed this gift, I will never again be without something good to read. Just yesterday I read a mention in the NYTimes of a 1977 New Yorker profile of Tom Stoppard that struck me as off I went to my Complete New Yorker, discovered it was more than 40 pages long and spent a long time reading it. Then I read a bunch of Susan Orlean articles, then while browsing I happened upon an Ann Beattie story, which was right next to a Donald Barthelme story, then one of my friends was talking to me about Annie Proulx's story "Brokeback Mountain" and so I went and looked it up on my Complete New Yorker...

The only problem is I find it challenging enough to stay on top of my to have 80 years of New Yorker to read...I may never leave the house again.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Lend Me Your Character by Dubravka Ugresic (translated by Celia Hawkesworth, Michael Henry Heim and revised by Damion Searls)

Very clever, entertaining, thought-provoking, often meta-fictional and intertextual short stories (plus a novella) by a Yugoslavian (when such a thing existed) writer that made me think three things:

1) I like novellas. Do other people? If not, why not?

2) I appreciate meta-fiction but rarely find it original anymore. It used to be interesting by its mere existence, but no more. These fictions work well, but not necessarily because of their meta-fictional qualities.

3) Lately, international writers have the best shot of being published in translation in the USA if their homeland is war-torn and genocidal. Witness the latest fiction issue of The New Yorker. I'm not against this, but wish more international writers got attention for more kinds of writing. One of the interesting things about this collection is it predates the dismantling of Yugoslavia, and it's still really relevant, enjoyable, compelling, without being about current events.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

I wasn't too excited by the HBO version of Empire Falls, so it put me off reading the novel for awhile (though I'm a fan of Russo's very funny Straight Man). Now that I have read it, much like the movie, I admired it, but in a detached way.

What I admire most, though, is the patience with which Russo executes the novel. It's third person omniscient and while there is a central character, Miles, the novel is not just about what happens to him, but manages to be about the specifc small town of Empire Falls and the general idea of towns like it, which are struggling to continue to exist. Despite writing mostly in scene, staying close to event and character and not spending much time on narration or grand ideas, it is still a novel with a big scope. I tend to think of big scope novels as containing Kundera-like narrators who talk to the reader about ideas just as often as they convey scene. But Russo suggests his scope fairly simply by portraying close details of large swaths of the characters' lives and giving each character enough emotional depth that ideas are suggested rather than told. Partly he does this by really taking his time with each scene. The reader is immersed in the moment and never rushed through it.

My main difficulty with the novel has to do with the plot point that ends it. I won't give it away, but it's a small town tragedy, and (perhaps this is merely a matter of taste) I tend to prefer novels (like Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter) that detail the consequences of tragedy rather than the causes. Actually I would be interested in a novel that shows the build up to tragedy, how it can happen, but the violent events here seem rather facilely treated--they feel added to the main plot in order to create a more monumental effect--and not as carefully examined as the more ordinary problems of these characters. But I tend to favor subtlety in all things, and I can still see why this novel is a critical favorite.