Monday, December 31, 2007
And while none of these letters say much that hasn't been said in other places, the book works just fine for a writer who isn't in an MFA program, doesn't know any writers to get letters of their own from, and who feels generally clueless about the profession. This kind of book can also be useful if you've been out of your MFA program for awhile or away from writing groups etc and are looking for a way to feel more like a writer again. The act of reading about writing certainly does make you think about writing which makes you more likely to actually write. Unless, of course, you replace writing with merely thinking about it...in which case, put the book down. The most interesting element for me was when a couple of letters would work as a sequence, a teacher writes to her student, who years later is a teacher and writes to her student, and so on. That is both a risk and a reward of teaching. There is a wonderful sense of connection to passing on information that was passed on to you. The risk, though, is if you mindlessly parrot what you've been told without considering if it is good or true or suited to the student in front of you.
Saturday, December 29, 2007
For those who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love (which is the well-written though maybe not terribly feminist memoir dominating the bestseller charts), this is an even better exploration of a woman traveling alone and sometimes thinking about love.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Monday, December 17, 2007
One of the persistent threads of this novel is the miscommunication between characters including distant and near relations, but what MacDonald does is make those moments of miscommunication very specific--we witness moment after moment where we recognize immediately that the character is misreading with great certainty what another character is communicating. And she doesn't do this at all subtlely, but to tragic end time and again...which makes the book feel very high stakes (and gothic), and for such a fat book, very exciting. What's particularly rewarding though is that with possibly only one exception you believe the miscommunications because they are grounded in childhood mistakes that were never corrected due to a dead mother and a neglectful father. Because we've traced these characters for years we understand and even sympathize with exactly how they grow up to be quite so foolish. Big and bold and yet it works.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Thursday, December 13, 2007
The novel follows a ninety-two year old woman who is dispatched to a nursing home that turns out to be a very peculiar place. The tone is Jane-Bowles-strange and the narrator is a Character with a Capital C and very very funny things happen. Including an interlude in which the narrator reads a book by a winking nun who describes further very funny and very strange happenings (let's just say the Holy Grail is involved).
Capital C Characters are often defined more by their unique thoughts than their unique behaviors, as evidenced by this: "I never eat meat as I think it is wrong to deprive animals of their life when they are so difficult to chew anyway." The not eating meat describes the character, but the reason why defines her.
And should you need further inducement to read, I give you this: "The rest of that ill-omened night was spent burying the Prince in the kitchen garden."
And this: "'A report from Mother Maria Guillerma informed me of the following extravagant occurrence of which she was eyewitness through the ample keyhole of Dona Rosalinda's apartments. The keyholes later on became obscurum per obscurius after two nuns were blinded in one eye by a silver needle poked through the opening by the ever-perspicacious Abbess."
And this: "...then I would join my lifelong dream of going to Lapland to be drawn in a vehicle by dogs, woolly dogs."
Sunday, December 09, 2007
Anyway, I can see why this isn't exactly the most popular Austen novel. It's very funny but at the expense of all of its characters, including the heroine (who is too much obssessed with the gothic novels of the day). Later Austen learned to be funny at the expense of her secondary characters allowing her heroine (and often a hero such as Darcy or Colonel Brandon) to be noble throughout (despite flaws). This allows readers to simultaneously enjoy a satire of a romance and a romance all in one (the heroine always gets her man). To deliver the very thing that one is satirizing is either very saavy or completely hypocritical. But I fall for it all the same. Its current incarnation seems to be Cormac McCarthy who both critiques killing and delivers it in gory detail (so I'm told; I'm not tough enough to endure say Blood Meridian).
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
One of the aspects of this novel that I really enjoyed is the diversionary subplots that either pop up periodically or last a chapter and end. Actually there are so many subplots I'm not certain there is a central plot this time. My workshop had a conversation recently about the value of plot (by conversation I really mean me suggesting having a plot was not the same as being plot-driven and therefore not such a bad thing) and one of the things often missing from graduate student thesis novels are subplots (this may be why grad novels also tend to be a little short)... Now unite this with the fact that TV on DVD has raised my love of the form from amateur level to professional, and I've come up with a theory:
TV dramas tend to have one major plot per episode, but they also have season long plots, and plots that last two to three episodes then conclude. Translated to books I see this as the major plot, a bunch of subplots that don't extend the length of the novel but rather rise up part way through and finish, and then some diversions--perhaps chapter length episodes. And suddenly you have a novel that doesn't feel so thin as many a beginner novel does. (That is, assuming your plots are good, and your characters compelling)
And this is exactly what Fforde does so well here. All the events are tied to Thursday Next (the heroine) but they aren't necessarily all tied to each other, nor do they necesssarily last the whole book.
From the opening of The Poem of a Life: "Fascinated with numbers as Zukofsky would become, he considered himself 'a man with three birthdays.' For someone else, these confusions over names and dates might have been mere irritations or curiosities; for Zukofsky, one might hazard, they served as signs of his own multiple natures, his own betweenness--he was a man with three birthdays, a man with two names, a man who would leave behind the world of his fathers for a world in which he was never entirely at home."
Monday, December 03, 2007
This came up recently with a friend of mine who wrote a great draft of a story that bore the visible imprint of a This American Life story and in my workshop where a student took a local news item about a fifty-year-old corpse of a baby found in a suitcase in a storage unit (by the decendents of the people who rented the storage unit) and built a story out of it. I recognized the origins of the story in both cases. And I'm here to say... I don't think it's a problem.
It's long been a trend to take history or famous figures and place them in fiction, so what's wrong with taking real unfamous figures (or famous in a different way, like for being on This American Life) and placing them in fiction? I say nothing. A few years ago T.C. Boyle wrote a story about the high school kids who murdered their baby upon its birth (after hiding the pregnancy) and a really good recent movie, Stephanie Daley, took on a similar storyline. And both of those fictional pieces clearly came from true sources, sources I recognized, and it didn't matter to my "reading" of the fiction. It added to my reading of the fiction...I liked having a glimpse into how the story might have been built. It seemed a new version of meta-fiction, where you don't necessarily acknowledge your sources but you don't fight to deny them either. It may well be one of the ways that the essay will influence the story. That topics addressed in essays get a second life in fiction. And it might provide interesting evidence into why we need both genres. One difference seems to be that in essay form the Wolfman is the point, the piece is about why he did it, what effect it had. But in story form, the Wolfman becomes a detail in the larger context of someone else's story (not that the essay couldn't have done that, but in this case it didn't). Maybe I'm wrong, but essays seem to me to typically have a focused center in a way that stories often don't. And so the fiction can take this strange detail of the Wolfman and apply it to anybody's story, to move it into a different space in the world than the one in which it actually existed, and therefore examine it from a different angle.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Bennett is best known as a playwright, most recently for The History Boys (which in its cinematic version I just couldn't get excited about), and I sense this novella is in certain ways his own history of becoming first a reader and then a writer. But what makes it funny and charming is juxtaposing what is on the page--the story of a busy fussy woman who begins to read obsessively thus neglecting her other duties and forcing books on all the people around her who view reading quite suspiciously--with what is off the page--the public personality of Queen Elizabeth II. It's a clever, not necessarily conscious, nod to how much the individual reader brings to the experience of reading. The novella works modestly if you know nothing about QEII but it works closer to uproariously if you have the conception of her that most of the public seems to: stern, businesslike, stoic, proper. It's an interesting twist on the idea of using real life figures in fiction. Typically what we see is an attempt to make public figures more three-dimensional, to show their human flawed, vulnerable, and in the case of Henry James in Colm Toibin's The Master, sexual sides. But Bennett is not trying to create a more human QEII; he's not interested in realism at all. It's more in line with alternate history (like Philip Roth making Lindbergh president)...what if the Queen was a reader. And that allows him to write what is really an essay on: the effects of reading, both pro and con; the perception by others that reading is a hostile act (time given to reading often means choosing the company of a book over that of a person); and the way that writers are born. One funny bit has the kitchen boy who introduces the Queen to the work of Jean Genet removed from his position of influence by the prime minister's assistant by being offered a spot at the University of East Anglia to study creative writing.
A very quick, very light read that probably could have been something a good deal more interesting if it said more unexpected things about reading but fun all the same. I suppose an English reader might also see it as a comment on how democratic reading is and how undemocratic the monarchy is.
Friday, November 23, 2007
The first third of this novel is about a girl who lives alone with her father, who is completing a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, on an island along the coast of Maine. As you might guess, there's a lonely feeling to the place, the people, and even the past. I was really hooked by the opening, and the strange character of Mr. Blackwell who first spends a lot of time with the family and then doesn't. Then the novel moves, with the narrator, to New York. And I was really excited to see what such a talented writer would do with a major shift in story. I was surprised but pleased by the thought that the novel was going to break out of what it seemed to be (a Howard Normanesque remote town remote people novel)....
And when I started to lose interest, I first thought it was because New York, grand city that it is, just doesn't have that fresh feeling. But really I was still invested in the main character, and the setting--which included a peculiar little research institute was handled just fine. The problem was the new characters. Mr. Blackwell and the narrator's father are replaced with a whole host of New Yorkers who are polite, articulate, recognizable, and ultimately pretty dull. There are some great revelations about the narrator's family history (things that are handled very subtlely and touchingly), but the current story loses all its intensity when the new cast comes in.
I've been thinking lately about lessons television drama has to offer a fiction writer (hey, tv's gotten really good lately! See Friday Night Lights for proof.) and here's an obvious one: the new cast has to bring something pretty great to the story otherwise we're going to resist them. Season Two's are always trying to intro new characters to give the writers new plotlines and novel writers often have a similar problem--how to keep the story going--to complicate the plot usually--a hundred pages in. New characters are a great solution, but only if they have their own appeal and their own agendas.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Saturday, October 27, 2007
That and I subscribed to a whole lot of new magazines that are really taking up an inordinate amount of my time.
And I think my IPod is trying to tell me something. Right now the shuffle is on:
1. Fallen for You --Sheila Nicholls
2. In the Words of the Governor--Sufjan Stevens
3. Green Grass--Big Audio Dynamite
4. Get Up--Sleater Kinney
5. The Boy with the Arab Strap--Belle&Sebastien
6. I'm Wrong About Everything--John Wesley Harding
8. The Sound of Silence--Simon&Garfunkel
9. Strange Conversation--Ted Hawkins
10. You Were Right about Everything--Erin McKeown
Is it me or do 1 & 4; 5 & 7; 8 & 9; and 6 & 10 all seem to interact?
Really, though, I'm still reading, just not blogging so much while I get my grading done.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
This has probably been the most financially successful of the post 9/11 novels, and it's not hard to guess why. Well, actually the cynic in me guesses it's because it's short, but also because of the wisely chosen title and the fact that this is the only 9/11 novel written in English by a Middle Easterner (as far as I know). (Full disclosure: I knew Mohsin casually from my freshman dorm and from a creative writing workshop)
There was a lot that I liked about this spare novel --the inside view of a foreigner at an Ivy League institution, the inside view of one of those NYC banking-consulting-big business firms that so many of my classmates joined after college, the inside view of the room in the airport where they make you take off your pants if you don't come from the right country... But the thing that interested me most is the form. It's a first person novel told directly to another character. It's a really awkward form compared to the typical first person novel, in which the narrator floats above the text without a temporal body and therefore without a need to address where and when s/he is as s/he tells the story. But Hamid has to include lines that would never be spoken by the average person, like "Look here comes our waiter now" and "My what big arms you have" (I paraphrase) in order to reveal that the narrator is talking to someone he clearly believes is a brawny CIA operative in a Pakistani restaurant. And it made me think about how un-real first person really is.
A lot of students will express how hard it is to reveal the narrator in a first person work because people don't go around explaining what they look like and so on. But I say, for one, yes they do, and two, the whole premise of a first person story or novel is unnatural in the first place, so why are we pretending that it's more suited to realism than a third person narrative is. Of course, we all speak in first person, but we don't go around telling our life stories in scene and exposition. So embrace the falseness of it all, I say. I tend to think if you've chosen first person it should be stylized, made different somehow than the generic first person voice of so much writing, and I think, too, that a first person narrator can say anything they want. Including, what big arms you have.
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
I've become attached lately to the idea of having a central image that echoes throughout a novel. And the Falling Man of the title, a performance artist who bungee jumps off of buildings in front of unsuspecting New Yorkers and then freezes in a falling pose, an echo of those who jumped from the burning World Trade Center towers, is just such an echoing image. And it was the one part of the novel that worked for me. The sadness of the image--a man falling--paired with the cruelty of his art--people think he's really a suicide jumping in front of them--is so complex emotionally and intellectually. It casts a great shadow of meaning and feeling over the book.
But the rest felt pretty uninteresting to me. I know the book pulled quite a few raves off of critics, and I guess I'll reread those reviews to look for what they found, but it felt to me like DeLillo relied too much on 9/11 to supply the complexity to his novel and never developed the characters or the narration enough. In my favorite DeLillo novel Mao II, he uses historical events throughout the text, but it's the narrator's thoughts on these events as well as the characters actions in juxtaposition with them, that make the book feel rich and complicated. With Falling Man, DeLillo seems to assume that since all of his readers experienced the event for themselves (and he seems to assume we all experienced it as New Yorkers did), he need say no more. But the reason to read a DeLillo is that he's smarter than I am, that his reactions to such an event, should help me decipher my own.
Libra, DeLillo's novel of Lee Harvey Oswald, also makes use of a historical event that quite a few of his readers would remember, but by creating Oswald as a character DeLillo gives readers a view (invented, admittedly) that the newspapers didn't give. With Falling Man, the details feel pulled from the news rather than the imagination.We live in interesting times and quite naturally those times will and should make it in to fiction, but it's worth examing, how do you write historical fiction about history that isn't yet in the past.
"Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional--thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious--is contemptible."
Easy for him to say.
But he's a little bit right too. I think ambition is often considered either ugly or egotistical among young writers, published and unpublished, but I think that's why we too often settle for good rather than great. Interestingly students often reward good work in workshop, without pushing the student-author to be great, but are very reluctant to acknowledge great work in the reading I assign. I suppose it's a way of finding hope and even inspiration--to mythologize their peers and de-mythologize their published predecessors.
In the novel My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk has his characters argue whether a great artist is one who can copy exactly the work of his great predecessors or one who finds his individual style and in so doing changes the very nature of what is considered great work. Kundera makes clear that history has come down on the side of individual style. The books that get remembered are the ones that change what has come before. And so great books only achieve their greatness in the context of history. That if someone wrote a Shakespearean play (not one of those rewrites but an original play in the voice and style of Shakespeare) it would not be considered great, at all. It would be anachronistic, imitative and a step backwards. But this may be an academic view more than a popular one. People might really like a new Shakespeare play... but the make-up of courses and theories of art as tied to periods of history (British Novel of the 20th Century, etc) doesn't really allow for such a work to be important.
Friday, August 24, 2007
Junot Diaz has taken a famously long time (11 years) to come out with his second book (first novel), and it shows the influence of some writers who have hit big in the meanwhile... David Foster Wallace (footnotes, check), Zadie Smith (hyperactive voice, check) (or what James Wood would call hysterical realism--which I happen to like), and Michael Chabon (superheroes, check). But somehow while this is a book that shows its influences, it still feels very much its own (or rather Diaz's own). (I've come to realize my dominant stylistic tic in blogging is the parentheses) (deal with it).
My graduate workshop recently read My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (perhaps more on that some other time) and Pamuk says that the formula for originality (ah the irony, a formula for originality) is to pair two things that have never been paired before. (sort of resembles the formula of comedy, pair two things that don't go together, interestingly enough). Now while I resist the idea of formula, Pamuk is describing a real pattern. For example, the pairing of literary writers with a popular genre (Phillip Roth and alternate history, Michael Chabon and comic books, Cormac McCarthy and horror, Sherman Alexie and science fiction) has entered candicacy for the hottest new genre, as of late. Anyway... Diaz seems to have found originality not just by pairing two disparate things--immigrant culture and fanboy culture--but by creating the proverbial melting pot of disparate things...
... the most disparate of all being the writer's biography. Or rather the fictional writer's fictional biography (appropriate in the age of the truth in nonfiction debate). I don't know for sure, but would be willing to bet, that Diaz has read that writer's favorite (a fave of mine), Steven Millhauser's novel Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright. Edwin is a child prodigy according to his neighbor and childhood friend Jeffrey, who rescues Edwin's childhood writings from the dustbin of history and makes him a posthumous literary star. Oh, and he kills him, too. But whereas Cartwright finds genius in Mullhouse's writing, Diaz's narrator Yunior seems to find genius in Oscar's past. Oscar is important, because of who and where he came from, not because of his writing, which is essentially lost in the mail for all of eternity. A postcolonial biography, I suppose.
Diaz says that his first book, Drown, which is typically referred to as a short story collection was intended to be something in between a novel and a story collection. But Drown seems to me exactly a story collection, wheras Oscar Wao, which is billed as a novel, is much more in between. It's got Oscar at the center, and the longest narrative thread is his story (though not by much), but shooting off like spokes are narratives by Oscar's sister and narratives of Oscar's parents and grandparents in the Dominican Republic. And embedded in footnotes is the history of the D.R. And while all these narratives connect because they spoke off of Oscar at the center, they don't add up to a traditional novel (each piece of exposition is unusually complete on its own). And yet the pieces are more woven than individual stories that link. Perhaps Diaz has put two things together--the novel and the short story collection (not to mention the biography)--and come up with something new?
Locals might be interested to know Diaz is reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables on Sept 13.
Monday, August 13, 2007
And I enjoyed it. The writing is very carefully crafted, deceptively simple--straightforward sentence structure but not a simple vocabulary. A voice appropriately stunted given the state of shock of both the protagonist (who at times speaks in first person) and the world around him. And it's quite suspenseful, I turned pages quickly. And it's very sad. Everyone we see, even the baddies, are worn out and dirty and tired. But in the end, it felt very much like an entertainment without a lot of complications under the surface. Of course, it's terrible to have the end of life as we know it and to have to decide whether or not to eat people, to team up with others or stay on your own, to kill yourself of struggle on for the sake of your young son (who provided for me a welcome comic note with his constant post-apocalyptic equivalent of "are we there yet?")... all quite tragic... and maybe it's a big statement to have a contemporary character take the heroic good old American stances--no eating people, stay independent, sacrifice yourself for the young--but this novel just wasn't much more than a good read for me, which given all the hullabaloo was disappointing. I blame the hullabaloo.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
For many years my father has mailed me what he calls "fat envelopes" of clippings, articles and tidbits that he thinks should interest me. And this Ondaatje novel feels like a literary version of those fat envelopes: images and ideas that Ondaatje has collected just for me. Ondaatje's characters go through life as I imagine him to, noticing hawks, learning card tricks, dancing with cats, humming bits of old songs, traveling with gypsies, naming horses, cutting wood, identifying healing plants and poisonous ones too. It's a romantic world they live in and a nice reminder that we could all live there if we only opened our eyes to what's around us.
Fiction writers are always being told show don't tell and this novel is one fat envelope full of examples of how telling can be as good as showing. That telling can show. For example, Ondaatje uses indirect (summarized) dialogue as much as, if not more than, direct (quoted) dialogue. And the effect is to allow Ondaatje, the storyteller, to use his lyric, lovely sentences most of the time, even when creating the feeling of scene (the feeling of showing). And it also creates a great aura of silence (another romantic thing) around these characters and their actions.
The novel's structure--not straightforward narrative but a meandering open ended one--has been praised and criticized--but it felt quite carefully constructed to me. What feels like random wandering from one character to another is all an outgrowth of the first event of the novel--a love affair turned violent when the father of the girl involved bloodies the scene. And even the final section, in which we've gone back in time to follow a character not present at that opening moment, is a commentary on how such moments affect a whole life. It is a conclusion to the plot set up earlier (which seems to hang open-ended); it's just a conclusion that uses different characters to end a similar situation. Clever, indeed! Just writing about the novel makes me want to go back and read it again.
Monday, July 30, 2007
Now the things that bothered me about the third and fourth Rabbit novels are still present--there is a misogynism to Rabbit that bleeds over into the narrator that makes me very uncomfortable--but I found myself much more forgiving of the young Rabbit than the older Rabbit, and much more engaged by the plot of this novel, which feels amazingly complete given that it spawned three sequels. This raised the question for me of the likeable-unlikeable protagonist. I liked Rabbit better in this book (I felt I understood his behavior better and could imagine why a decent person might do some of the things he did--running out on pregnant wife, etc) than in the others, and I liked this book better than the others. Does that mean I'll always like a book with a sympathetic protagonist better than I like a book with an unsympathetic protagonist? I know the writerly-artistic answer is no--that unsympathetic protagonists can be quite interesting and that a good writer ought to be able to write a compelling, engaging book despite (because of?) the inherent unlikeablility of the main character. But my honest answer is Yes. I will always like a book with a likeable protagonist better than a book with an unlikeable protagonist. I can't think of one truly great book--a book that I loved--that doesn't have at its heart a character that I feel sympathy for. Which makes me want to keep the unsympathetic to the margins--secondary characters at most--or to not have them all together (to always aim for some sympathy even amongst the wrongdoers--young Rabbit as opposed to middle-aged Rabbit). Convince me I'm wrong.. please.
With that said, Updike always shows a great ability with description: "He is asleep when like a faun in moonlight Ruth, washed, creeps back to his side , holding a glass of water." It's that "Ruth, washed" that really gets me.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
In recent weeks, I spent some time rereading past Harry Potters and more than ever, I admired the way that Rowling brought characters into the series early on and then picked them up and developed them in later books. She's always maintained that she had the whole thing planned from the beginning, but I'm going to guess that it was only the larger strokes that were definite (and those strokes were the points that I was sure of from the start regarding certain characters who shall not be named), but other things she has to have developed as she progressed. And I strongly suspect that rather than always looking forward and planting characters she would need later, she instead looked back and when she needed a character (say a slightly sketchy member of the Order of the Phoenix) she would look back to who she had created in earlier books (ah Mundungus Fletcher will work). But that seems to have been true mainly for smaller characters and smaller points. What seems quite clear in rereading is that she never put a book to press without knowing how the next book would go. So a vital character of Goblet of Fire (Cedric Diggory) is introduced one book earlier (he beats Harry at Quidditch) or the mysterious R.A.B. at the end of Half-Blood Prince is actually introduced in Order of the Phoenix (that one I figured out for myself, so I don't think I'm giving too much away). I've never thought about writing a trilogy let alone a seven book series (I'd be pretty happy to be a one-book-wonder), but if ever I did, it was a useful revelation to understand that you need to plan one book ahead, so that you've put what you need for the next book into the current one... that's how you are able to write an end that will satisfy.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Young Adult Books I've enjoyed lately: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the first three in the four Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books by Ann Brashears, Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. Why so many y.a. books, you ask. I have my reasons.
Great Books I've taught lately: Mrs. Dalloway by Virgina Woolf, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno
Books I've enjoyed recently in anticipation of teaching them in the fall: The Master by Colm Toibin
Sorry, I just haven't had anything to say about 'em. I think I have Blog Ennui. Check back in August.
Thursday, June 07, 2007
But still, I'm an admirer. One of the things Egan does to take her writing beyond fiction to literature, is to use characters who have philosophies. And Danny (the protagonist of the castle story) is that kind of guy. For example: "Fear was dangerous. It let in the worm: another word Danny and his friends had invented all those years ago, smoking pot or doing lines of coke and wondering what to call that thing that happened to people when they lost confidence and got phony, anxious, weird. Was it paranoia? Low self-esteem? Insecurity? Panic? Those words were all too flat. But the worm, which is the word they finally picked, the worm was three-dimensional..."
Another interesting thing she does here is use play formatting for much of her dialogue. For the most parts readers ignore all the "said"s and "asked"s that we throw into fiction, but as anyone who notices the rhythm of their writing, needing to add or subtract syllables based on how the sentences sound... well, you know those saids can mess you up. I don't think Egan is making some major point (partly her prison workshop writer breaks rules because he doesn't know them) but it works as a small innovation. I might just borrow it sometime.
Monday, June 04, 2007
Not only does their name come from White Noise, but one of their songs ("The Girls in Their Summer Dresses") is an adaptation of an Irwin Shaw short story.
Friday, May 25, 2007
When I read novels like this, which don't have a very sensible cause and effect plot that makes meaning easy to distinguish, I try to figure out what makes the novel still work structurally and in this case it's largely motifs that recur (the lion, the bomb), often in unexpected places, that make the novel feel of a piece. And when I break it down further, the structure is actually quite conventional (yes, the bomb does go off)--while many strange things occur without cause, they generally occur in chronological order and in the end, they affect the characters, especially Mr. Moon, and so a traditional character arc is complete. And further zaniness ensues.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
In the end, though, the stories I'd read before were the best ones and as I read the whole book all the way through I thought about the difference between story cycles (in which the stories are linked somehow) and story collections. I'm often an advocate for the collection; I find the recent market-driven decision to turn most collections into cycles unnecessary and a little bit annoying. I think by tying stories together writers often get away with including weaker stories--or doing less work in individual stories to make them great. Great story cycles work both ways--as individual stories and as a greater whole when put together--but great story collections work both ways too.
So back to July--I, for once, thought this should be a story cycle instead of a story collection. July's protagonists are often youngish single women who share the same quirks, concerns, and ways of viewing the world. Now I'm a big fan of this character--who is much like the protagonist of July's film--she is funny and sad and sharply observant with charmingly weird reactions to almost everything--but when you meet fifteen versions of her, you start to wonder if the world could possibly be populated with a tribe of quirky thirtysomethings who were maybe all raised on some remote women's collective together than spread to the four corners--or if this is just the same woman operating under fifteen different aliases. If all of the stories had been linked by one protagonist I think they might have grown in value rather than diminished.
With that said, there are a handful of stories in here that are among my favorite stories of the past two decades--and that's saying something.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
Friday, March 09, 2007
It was also interesting to trace, via her acknowledgments, the origins of the book--which come from her father's first hand experience, her family's geographical history, an art exhibit in New York, a conversation with a fellow artist, and research. It's a great look into the process of creating a book. I'm of two minds with acknowledgments--I have respect for the writers like DeLillo who leave the text to stand alone but I also love the behind the scenes look offered by a detailed appendix-like acknowledgments page.
I want to be Don DeLillo when I grow up. But still me. Watch for it.
Monday, February 26, 2007
The memoir is about being a boy in Sierra Leone, first running from the rebels who killed his family, and then fighting for the army, which promised him a chance to revenge the killings, then in a camp where he was rehabilitated, from the drugs and brainwashing of the army, onto the home of an uncle he had never known, and then finally, after another coup and another death (the uncle who took him in) to NY. Wisely Ishmael keeps his tone quiet as he relays all of these dramatic events and he does not embellish nor even try to draw meaning from his experience--he recognizes that what matters here is to tell the story simply so that readers can register it in its full horror. And while it really does make your heart hurt, Ishmael's ultimate success at regaining his humanity completely without blocking out his experiences is a really triumphant tale.
But what the memoir made me think about was naturally the workshop in which I knew Ishmael. The writing he was doing then (fiction, drama and poetry) was all grounded in his real experiences (though not the worst of them) and fortunately I had a class that recognized that in workshopping this kind of autobiographical material it was important to be sensitive. At the time, his writing was still full of ESL mistakes and honestly a little rough. But while we talked some about those things, the focus was always on the material--what we thought he could do with the material. And I'm glad of that because we had no idea really the extent of the horror of Ishmael's past. There was no way for us to know that by the time he was fifteen he was a trained military killer and that by the time he was eighteen he was addressing the UN about child soldiers. This was a good reminder to me that while I think I know my students, I really know very little of what their lives are like outside of the classroom, and that I shouldn't assume that I do. I don't think anything would have stopped Ishmael from writing his story, but I'm glad to say that our class was a voice of encouragement, expressing that we wanted to hear more.
Monday, February 19, 2007
Now Krauss, who happens to be married to Foer, says they don't read each other's work until it's in page proofs. And she says of the much remarked upon links between their two novels that "people see what they want to see." But it's not the structural and thematic similarities that have been mentioned the most that really struck me--it's that the sound and rhythm of her voice is his. Her sentences sound like his sentences. Which, let's face it, tends to happen in a marriage. It's a frequent joke that couples start to look alike, but it's much more real that they adopt each other's speech patterns. Which makes me wonder if she just can't see what's happened. But in fact her novel is in part about the appropriation of other people's stories, and publishing someone else's novel under your own name, which seems to be a coincidence too far. Now I'm not suggesting he wrote her novel, and if they say they don't read each other's work, I believe them. But what a shocker it must have been once they did compare. Especially if they don't talk about each other's work. BUT... I keep coming back to, why does it matter? Her novel is great. His novel is partially great. The novels they wrote before they knew each other are great (though this is where it becomes clear that she took on his voice rather than vice- versa). It makes me wonder why as a culture we're so attached to authorship. Why shouldn't two authors use the same voice--if the books were published anonymously we wouldn't know who wrote what and would just judge by the text. And yet... we don't publish books anonymously and I wouldn't want us to. I want to group books by author, to compare one of an author's books with another, and I want to compare authors. Actually if they weren't married it would seem like a crazy violation for her to write in his voice, but because they are, somehow it seems kind of sweet. Like it's the perfect union. Which makes me wonder why on earth with two great novelists at home addressing the same themes they wouldn't swap work before proofs? But therein lies the gossipy, curiousity side of reading and not the valuable side...
Friday, February 16, 2007
Abani, a Nigerian, who now teaches in the United States, creates this chaotic but believable portrait of Lagos that gave me a much stronger sense of what it would mean to live there than any New Yorker article ever has. In his acknowledgements Abani thanks fiction writer Percival Everett and it's interesting to see the kind of strangeness that Everett often works with in his characters and plots also at work here. In some ways, Graceland reminded me of the novel Like Water for Chocolate (both thread in recipes and rituals) but whereas Esquivel writes magic realism, Abani writes realism with characters who seem like they belong in a magic realist novel yet are absent the magic. I'm not sure how to articulate that to anyone who hasn't read the book. Perhaps it is that in Gracleand the characters are strange and otherworldly seeming, whereas in magic realism, it's the events that are otherworldly.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Thursday, February 01, 2007
Monday, January 29, 2007
Monday, January 22, 2007
"Thus purified, bland as a lamb, Danielle lay naked between her fine sheets, bodily weighted, and, she hoped, cleared in spirit; and still, for a good hour, in the semi-darkness, she thought she could detect her worries darting like wisps in the corners of her blameless room."
Monday, January 15, 2007
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
I like to read interviews of writers for two reasons--one, because they sometimes make me think about my own writing in a different way and two, because in becoming more human, writers make writing seem more do-able. It matters to me what their lives are and how they conduct them because they are already up the ladder I want to climb. But I've never been too sure why non-writers find interviews with writers interesting. The one thing they almost never seem to do is offer a new understanding of the texts of the interviewee. Those, for me, almost always stand apart from the person who wrote them.