Monday, December 31, 2007

Letters to a Fiction Writer edited by Frederick Busch

Because of my teaching responsibilities, I try to stay up on all the various creative writing texts that are out and about in the world. With actual textbooks this isn't so hard, but in the exploded market of books on writing for the general public, it's quite difficult to get to them all (and lots I just judge by their covers--I know, I know). Anyway, this collection of letters in which established writers advise newer writers came out a few years ago, but I'm just getting to it.

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 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.

Dancer by Colum McCann

This novel about Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev is built in a collage structure that spends most of its time on the points of view of the less-than-famous people that surrounded Rudy as he came up as a dancer. And there are moments that are exquisitely written. One thing: I was most engaged by the perspective of the ordinary people who are touched by knowing someone famous (more than famous, someone genius at his craft). It really really matters to them that they knew him and helped him and had some brush with his aura. It's very convincing in showing how that feeling can be not just celebrity-hanger-on-ism but a real gift to the ordinary man--a feeling of the sublime just by having made Nureyev's shoes or given him a home when he was kid---it's an act of creation for these non-artists. I was much less engaged by the moments that were in Nureyev's perspective (there are actually very few of these) and the moments that were connected to his 80s excess (no sublimity there). The other thing: I was really convinced by the moments in which characters reacted to his dancing, it really made me feel his dancing was remarkable. But I was less convinved by the moments in which the dancing itself was described (and again, there were only a few of those).

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Sicily Papers by Michelle Orange

I was perusing the website of the literary magazine Hobart when I came across this book that their small press arm published, and it strikes me as just the kind of thing that small presses are designed to do. It's a short, cleverly designed, epistolary travel narrative that made me feel like a good friend was letting me read her journal (btw, one of my friends actually did this--he was living in Burkina Faso and he mailed me his journal, which remains the coolest thing I ever received in the mail. I eventually gave it back to him, but I kind of wish I'd xeroxed it first). Anyway the book is packaged in a cover that looks like a passport and includes all the little drawings, cross outs and annotations that Orange must have written on her letters (I plan shortly to start signing off my letters with a little line drawing of myself just as she does--that is if I ever write a letter again). The letters are all to a mysterious "B" who is either a recent ex-boyfriend or a soon-to-be boyfriend--clearly they are in some in between state, but it is hard to tell if it is post- or pre-. And part of the fun of the book is that since it has no jacket copy, as a reader you have no context to place it in, so you have to puzzle together who these people are and what they mean to each other purely from the one-sided text. And Orange, who also writes for McSweeney's and the Huffington Post, is a great correspondent. The book works (supposedly these are real letters that she sent during a month long trip to Italy) because the letters are aimed at this guy in particular and so they reference conversations they've had, email he is apparently sending her during the time, writing that they've's a good lesson in how to create a character who is entirely off-stage. The mysterious "B" is not as clear as the fruit-loving, washing-machine-breaking, sometimes needy, sometimes independent author, but he's remarkably clear.

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

Tell me

What were the best books (old or new, fiction or not) you read this year?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald

I like to get book recommendations from students and I'll usually follow through on reading them, but occasionally I take a little too long and the student book-proselytizer (semi-wild guess on the spelling there) will press a copy into my hands. That's how I ended up with this very well-written novel that is most aptly described by the pull-quote from the Chicago Tribune that's on the front cover: "...reads as if John Irving met Joyce Carol Oates in her Gothic period...." I've been known to complain about the lack of a female John Irving, who would write big books about Capital C female Characters (I'm far too short-winded to be that writer myself), and so I'm excited to see there is one (at least with one book).

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

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

A couple of episodes in the past year suggested I ought to give H.G. Wells, who I had not read one word of (of whom I had not read one word? of which I had not read one word?), a shot. And while what I wanted to read was Invisible Man, what I had on hand was The Time Machine, so that's what I read. The writing was a lot stronger than I expected--a really well-rendered voice--and now at least I know who Weena, the Morlocks and the Eloi are (this should be good for my crossword skills). But what it actually made me think about is the genre of dinner-table-stories. I feel a lot of books I read in middle school were of this genre (though now I can't name any), where a strange character tells a strange tale to a gathering of dinner companions. And that's the frame of The Time Machine, which allows the story to have a nice added layer of did it or didn't it really happen. The novel is told to us by one of the dinner guests, but told to him by the time traveler himself, who disappears (sorry, spoiled the end) and thus can't tell the tale any longer. But really I just like the idea of reading a contemporary short story that's constructed with that frame. It feels old-fashioned but allows for any kind of story to be told in the middle. It'll be a long time before I get around to you should try it, whoever you are.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

If like me, you consider the recent Fantastic Women issue of Tin House the greatest single issue of a literary magazine ever, you'd likely enjoy this reissued novel from a master surrealist painter and writer. I admit I purchased the novel because I momentarily confused Leonora Carrington with Dora Carrington, the painter affiliated with the whole Strachey/Woolf crowd. Instead L. Carrington turned out to also be a painter but affiliated with the whole Ernst/Dali crowd. I also admit I purchased the novel years ago, put it in the laundry basket (it's a nice wicker basket and it's full of books to be laundered, I mean, read) and forgot about it until I was recently perusing the 1001 Paintings to See Before You Die (I'm a sucker for a life list) and came across the wonderful "Baby Giant" by L. Carrington and thought, isn't that on the cover of that book I bought and then buried in the laundry basket... and finally, here we are: I am entranced.

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

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I asked my graduate workshop, not too long ago, which one author they would read every word of should they be asked to do such a thing, and they each came up with an answer (I gave them ten minutes to think about it) and then, quite unfairly I maintain, asked for mine. I, dilettante that I am, of course had no answer other than the truth which was, well, now I want to read all the authors you just mentioned (they included Twain, Pamuk, Pynchon, Ondaatje...). But later I thought of the obvious answer... Virginia Woolf. Which led me to admit to self that I also wanted to read all of Edith Wharton (I've had a good start) and Jane Austen (also a good start) and the Brontes and maybe George Eliot... which has led to a pretty big nighttable pile.

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

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

The author of the book lover's thriller The Eyre Affair is back on form after a few decent misses.

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.

The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky by Mark Scroggins

One of the great pleasures of being an academic is that I am surrounded by people who have in-depth knowledge about all kinds of things that I know nothing about. And as a total dilettante, I relish hearing them talk about their passions. I once wrote in a story that a character was obsessed with other people's obsessions, and I confess here, reader, c'est moi. So over the years I've learned bits and pieces about the evolution (de-volution?) of the adventure narrative, about the travel writing of Robert Louis Stevenson, about the new Bloomsbury group of Danticat/Diaz/Menendez/etc, and lots of other cool things. Lately I've been absorbing bits and pieces about the art of biography from my colleague Mark Scroggins. And now his own biography of the poet Louis Zukofsky is out and I am learning about this poet that, until I met Mark, I had never heard of, but who, no surprise, is a unique and interesting writer. I have heavily romanticized the idea of being an expert (the expert) on a single writer, but am far too lazy to do a happy dilettante I remain.

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

Tin House: Fantastic Women

Like many writers I know, I have been savoring the Fantastic Women issue of Tin House which contains magic realist or fantasy-tinged stories and poems by women writers (and oddly enough one essay by Rick Moody). And while I bought the issue for the high number of writers I already admire (Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, Samantha Hunt, Judy Budnitz, Shelley Jackson, Stacey Levine, Kelly Link, Miranda July, Lydia Millet...) the real fun has been in the new discoveries. I'm not done reading, so I'm sure more are to come, but the best surprise so far has been a coming of age story, "The Wilds," by Julia Elliot. It's about a girl whose next door neighbors are a pack of boys who lead a pretty feral childhood (actually it's a pretty normal childhood described in terms that point out how feral childhood can be). Anyway, one of the boys in the story spends a part of each month wearing a Wolfman mask and playing Wolfman for his brothers. Now I don't know where Elliot got that idea, but it echoes a great This American Life piece on a pack of brothers who were terrorized, really put into terror, by their older brother who pretended to be a Wolfman whenever he babysat them. And whether or not Elliot heard the piece, it made me think about how the world's connectedness has in certain ways led us to all know the same quirky news pieces, and how many writers gravitate toward the same places for our news (the same blogs, the same NPR shows, etc). And now that's showing in our fiction.

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

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

A slim novella about falling in love with reading're the Queen of England.

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

Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking by Aoibheann Sweeney

A lyric coming of age novel about a young woman raised on an island in Maine who goes to Manhattan.

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

Back Soon

I'll be returning any day now, not least because the semester is winding down but also because I'm reading a really good novel...

In the meanwhile, check out some poetry in MIPOesias including my former student Sara Femenella and my former grad school colleague, cover boy Miguel Murphy.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Sorry, it's been a vampiric semester.

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
7. Slingshot--Morley
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

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A novel of a Pakistani man, educated at Princeton, employed at a prestigious consulting company, who has a post-9/11 meltdown, paired with a love affair gone wrong, who may or may not end up a terrorist and who may or may not be telling his story to a CIA agent in Pakistan, who he may or may not kidnap or kill.

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

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

A novel set around 9/11 by the master author of White Noise and Mao II.

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.

The Curtain: An Essay in Nine Parts by Milan Kundera

A nonfiction book on reading and writing novels by a master of thought and form.

"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

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The novel of a wannabe writer named Oscar Wao, who is an enormous Dominican with a love of all things superhero (Diaz calls him a ghetto nerd), who, well into his "brief" life, wants desperately to lose his virginity.

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

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Ernest Hemingway meets Stephen King. I've been known with a shrug to say of Cormac McCarthy, "Boys in books" and in consciously or not, paring his writing down to the twin influences of the two authors most cited by young men I know as favorites... well, no wonder it's such a hit. But of course the queen bee of feminine readers (whatever that means, I'm just tossing ideas out here; I LIKE Oprah) has also sanctioned this novel... so suddenly everyone I know has read it, and I thought I oughta...

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

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

I have a terrible crush on Michael Ondaatje. Not a literary, of-the-head, crush, but a real of-the-body crush. He seems to me the perfect combination of cuddly and sexy. When I first heard him read (Flagstaff Book Festival, 1998), I wished aloud that he would read to me before bed each night. My gradschool roommates were impressed when soon after I achieved that goal with an audio recording of Running in the Family (I still like to break it out on occasion). The English Patient was a revolution for me as a reader and Anil's Ghost was the heartbreaking disappointment that followed (though his poems--Handwriting--remained great) so I approached Divisadero with some trepidation. I wasn't sure if I wanted to get back together with someone who'd broken my heart. But the love is back on... oh, it's back on.

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

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

I finally understand all the fuss over Updike. My encounters with Updike have been in this order: The Witches of Eastwick, Rabbit is Rich (#3), Rabbit at Rest (#4), the occasional short story, and then finally Rabbit, Run--the novel that generated the fuss in the first place. And that's where I should have started. Maybe it's always best--or most fair--to read the book that made an author famous before you read their later efforts.

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

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Having finished the final Harry Potter novel, I find that most people instead of asking, "did you like it," ask "were you satisfied." Now rarely would anyone evaluating a novel say, "Well, it satisfied me," as opposed to "I liked it," but in this case, it's entirely appropriate. (I was satisfied and I did like it, by the way). Because, at this point, one loves Harry or one doesn't, (presumably if you read the seventh novel already, you're on the side of love) and for that final book readers weren't asking Rowling to increase their love but just hoping that she wouldn't break the spell. To be unsatisfied would mean that Rowling had ended with developments that felt false, contrived--either faking us into tragedy or faking us into happiness--and the whole magic world we've all been living in for the past eight years would have dimmed. But I'll just say I was satisfied. (I also want to say that it gives me great pleasure to have witnessed the Harry Potter phenomenon in real time--having to wait years to bring the story to an end only added to the fun of it--my heart was literally racing as I cracked the cover of Book Seven).

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

Books I've enjoyed lately: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Five Skies by Ron Carlson, Absurdistan by Gary Stytengart

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

The Keep by Jennifer Egan

I'm an admirer of Jennifer Egan's ambitions. She writes novels the way Don DeLillo, Marilynne Robinson, John Updike, and Toni Morrison write novels. With the intent not only to tell a story but also to say something, to at least observe, and possibly comment, on life the way it is lived. The Keep alternates between a story of a strange castle in a strange country that is being remodeled (kind of) into an out-of-body resort intended to restore visitors' imaginations (or at least that's my interpretation) and the story of the guy writing the castle story. He's in prison, in a prison workshop. And then at the end, there's a surprise third story that makes the scope of the novel one step larger. And it almost works. My one problem was as I was reading, I kept feeling like the prison story wasn't necessary (it was reiterating the themes of the castle story but in a much more obvious way) and it wasn't until the third story (the very end of the novel) that it felt necessary. So the question is can a reading be redeemed by a strong finish? Probably not. There should be some way to make all three sections work. Part of the problem with the prison sections was they were very meta-fictional, but they seemed to be for an audience/readers who don't write fiction. So they were questions/comments about writing that struck me as very obvious. Made me wonder about who I think meta-fiction should be for--for an audience who is already expert in writing and therefore wants some complex comment or for an audience who is curious but unknowledgeable about writing. The latter is fine, certainly it's a broader audience; just not me, I guess.

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

The Airborne Toxic Event

It's true my love of books washes over into my musical taste: The Books (do I really need to explain?), Sufjan Stevens (also a fiction writer)... but this is my new favorite band:

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

Lord Malquist & Mr. Moon by Tom Stoppard

I've already declared my fandom of Tom Stoppard's plays, so I was excited to see a reissue of his 1966 novel, which was described as "zany" by the Washington Post and indeed it is. The plot includes among other things, a runaway lion, a biographer with a bomb in his pocket (and no knowledge of how it got there, when it will go off or how to rid himself of it), and a lord in a livery coach with a blatantly unfaithful wife, as well as some cowboys. The plot is random to say the least, the dialogue as sharp and funny as you'd expect, and the characters surprisingly warm. Why surprisingly warm? Because one of the things you don't get in a play is point of view (what the characters are thinking), and instead the characters must be warmed by the actors who play them, so it was the thing Stoppard was least likely to be good at. But actually he was good with point of view.

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

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

I'm a fan of Miranda July, who is a filmmaker (Me and You and Everyone We Know), musician, performance artist, and writer. I particularly like her website, Learning to Love You More, which seems to exhibit the world view that life can be one big art project and wouldn't it be better if it were. I'd read some of her stories in various magazines and was really looking forward to reading the rest when this collection came out.

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

Silent Sustained Reading

The blog is taking a break until May. Books I've enjoyed lately, but haven't felt like analyzing, include: The Mystery Guest, Indecision, The King of King's County, Revolutionary Road and The Hazards of Good Breeding.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Blue Front by Martha Collins

A book-length poem about two lynchings (one of a black man accused, seemingly falsely, of raping a white woman and of a white man who happened to be in the jail at the same time) that occurred in Cairo, Illinois in the early twentieth century. What I admired particularly was that Collins (who, full disclosure, I consider something of a mentor) has written a book-length narrative but has never forgotten that she's writing poetry. I tend to favor narrative poetry simply because I really like narratives, but too often it seems such poems are really mini stories or essays with line breaks thrown in. There is nothing other than the breaks (which additionally are often placed at highly natural comma/semi-colon/period moments) to separate them from prose. But Collins uses her white space, her stanzas, her syntax, her word choices and both form and free verse to never let the reader forget they are inside of a poem. And that made the book a much more complicated, original, thought-provoking, emotion-evoking read.

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.

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

A strange and floaty little novel (novella, really) about a woman who retreats to a remote house after the death of her famous husband only to find a strange and floaty man living there. DeLillo is capable of such variety in his novels that I never know if I will worship a book (Mao II, White Noise) or be mildly interested (Underworld, Libra). This one is somewhere in between but has prompted the epiphany that DeLillo writes women characters remarkably well. I don't buy into the idea that it's impossible for men to write women effectively and vice versa. I think occasionally writers of opposite genders ignore some physical realities of what it is to be a woman (or man) and therefore make mistakes. But I don't believe women think/act/talk a certain way and so I don't think women characters do either. What DeLillo does so well though is create specific women, who think/act/speak in ways that are complex and interesting and individual-- and who are as important to his story as the men are. Writing the opposite gender badly is most often a self-fulfilling prophecy simply because male (or female) writers don't pay enough attention to the women (or men) they create.

I want to be Don DeLillo when I grow up. But still me. Watch for it.

Monday, February 26, 2007

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

I wish I could have gotten to this novel before the movie got to me, but alas I read it knowing full well the Greek tragedy into which I was headed. Probably the most compelling aspect of the book--that it is both literary and heavily-plotted--was somewhat diminished as a result. All the same, it's quite a good read. It's one of those books though that regular readers probably love more than writers do. The things that bugged me about it--in particular that two thirds of the way through, Dubus moves from a back-and-forth first person to a back-and-forth third and first person point of view--didn't bug all the non-writers I know one bit. I think sometimes that nobody really cares about all the rules we set in place for ourselves.

The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe

I was pretty charmed by this quirky novel about a father who goes into a coma and the teenage kids who run astray during his big sleep. When I teach workshop, I sometimes ask the class if they feel the writing in hand is meant to be realist--in other words are we supposed to believe this could happen--as a first step in discussing a piece. And lately in published work I'm noticing a fair amount of not-exactly-realist but also not-fantastical fiction. It's not magic realism because the laws of physics don't get broken, and yet through stylistic tricks, the writer seems to be winking at the reader while having his teenage slacker character draw magic marker sideburns on his coma-dad. It's an interesting idea--using style as a means of getting away with extreme coincidences and pretty crazy characters. And usually it's cued by a line toward the start of the fiction that makes you think--ah, we're in strange waters here. It's less definite in this novel--though perhaps the title suggests the tone enough to give readers their first hint. But it's really a couple of chapters in when you realize this is no Salingeresque coming of age. It's more Vonnegutesque but here on Earth.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

So for the first time, as far as I know, one of my former students has published a book. Not only that but he's popped up on The Daily Show (where he made Jon Stewart's "heart hurt"), in the NYTimes Magazine, and at #2 on the NYTimes bestseller list in nonfiction. When my students hit, they hit big (well, so far). I didn't know Ishmael terribly well, and I haven't been in touch with him since he was my student in an Intro to Creative Writing class at Oberlin College five years ago. But I'm proud all the same. I know exactly how far his writing has come, and the effort it must have taken to complete this book in the time since then and now.

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

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Let me say first, that I really really enjoyed and appreciated this novel. It's lyric, it's insightful, it's fun, it's even, dare I say, deep. But if I was distracted by the Dave Eggers' ventriloquism of What is the What, I was doubly distracted by the fact that Nicole Krauss has written a really great Jonathan Safran Foer novel. She's written a Jonathan Safran Foer novel better than the last Jonathan Safran Foer novel which was actually written by Jonathan Safran Foer. She has written a Jonathan Safran Foer novel so good it makes me want to write a Jonathan Safran Foer novel. Which leads me to wonder... why does that matter? Why would that make her achievement any less?

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

Graceland by Chris Abani

When I was in college, the Eastern Bloc opened up and subsequently many of my peers went off to travel and study in Eastern European countries, which led to, about five years later, a lot of ex-pat novels and stories set in those countries as well as to the English language publication of quite a few Eastern authors. Now it seems, perhaps due to the double whammy of genocide and AIDS, many African countries are having their turn. College students, Peace Corp workers, travelers are going there, and Africans are coming here. And African lit, particularly that written in English, is having its moment in the trade publishing sun. And this novel is one of the best, that I've read, to come out of the trend.

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

Ssh, Reading in Progress

This from Chris Abani's novel Graceland: "Elvis didn't answer immediately, distracted by the many medals the soldier had. He couldn't determine the man's rank, but he couldn't help wondering how he got so many medals, considering the military saw so little action."

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

It's well documented that I am a huge fan of Robinson's other novel Housekeeping so I can't really explain why it took me so long to get around to Gilead. But a dollar copy at the Delray Beach Public Library finally drew me in, and the novel is all that reviewers have said: lovely, significant, deeply spiritual and meditative. For once, the jacket copy did not seem excessive in the least. But what interested me most about the novel (which is in the form of a journal that an eldery minister keeps for his very young son to read in the future) is how it pairs up with Housekeeping. It does not have the big plot that H has (it's a masterful example of how withholding the smallest mystery can keep a reader turning pages as long as the sentences and ideas are good) but it is very much a companion piece. H. traces the line of women in a family and how they shape each other, Gilead does the same for a line of men. H. is the story of a daughter who lost her mother as a child, G. is the story of a father who knows his son will lose him very soon. H. is about a daughter who seems to find a spiritual quality in the world and G. is about a father who wants to instill that spirituality in his son from beyond the grave. Anyway, it's interesting to see how Robinson has written two novels that are both grounded in her own worldview but that bookend each other without ever feeling like one is repeating the other. I hope that she'll write a third novel without waiting 24 years in between, but if she doesn't her oeuvre is still remarkably deep.

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (ed. Leonard S. Marcus)

Ursula Nordstrom was the children's book editor at Harper's who was responsible for among other notables: Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, and Louise Fitzhugh (who wrote my favorite y.a. novel of all time, Harriet the Spy). Last semester in my "Teaching Creative Writing" graduate course I talked about the existence of cultural gatekeepers--people who are able to dictate what art actually reaches an audience (it was in the context of workshop teachers being cultural gatekeepers at a very early stage of a writer's career since they have the power to encourage and discourage)--and the students seemed to be insisting that gatekeepers weren't as influential as I was suggesting. One student said the market--the demand of the people--would always win out. But my point was the people can't demand what doesn't exist or what isn't physically available or what they don't know exists even if it is available. I say while developments like the Internet and self-publishing do make writing more democratic, that the gatekeepers (editors, professors, reviewers, bloggers, the book buyer for Barnes and Noble...) still wield huge influence. And personally I think they're necessary (I don't want to have to read all that is written in order to find what is good). Which is the long way around to saying thank goodness Ursula Nordstrom was a gatekeeper! Some of the greatest works of children's lit--both picture books like Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon and young adult books like Charlotte's Web and The Long Secret (also Fitzhugh) might not have made it to readers without her. It's easy to see how great E.B. White is now, but let's face it, Stuart Little (his first young adult novel) is a weird book that makes quite a few people uncomfortable and it wasn't an obvious buy for an editor. Likewise, Where The Wild Things... with its monsters and rebellious little Max who threatens to eat up his mother was not in the convention of picture books of the time. So hurray for Ursula Nordstrom. And she writes very funny, charming letters that reveal just how much hand-holding and ego-soothing some authors (not all) need.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

There's lots to like in this novel. Messud is exceptionally good at staying in the moment--paying close attention to the thoughts and actions of a character and slowing down real time via metaphor and language. What interested me most overall was how she takes the familiar structure of a group of friends who seemingly are going to add a new member to their midst, but she keeps the new member, Bootie in this case, outside the group (he never actually becomes their friend) so there is a constant tension between him and the members of the group. Each of the main characters has their own rise and fall of a story arc, but Bootie provides a structure for the whole novel--his exit from the group's midst makes for a very pleasing sense of closure at the end of the novel (just as his entrance made for a good beginning). I didn't quite buy the end, but that didn't seem to matter so much since I'd bought all the rest.

Monday, January 29, 2007

What is the What by Dave Eggers

I like how Dave Eggers works at making writing a force for good and at making it hip for young and old, and I even like the intentions of this novel--to tell the story of someone who wouldn't write it on his own. But I was continually jarred by the idea intrinsic in the subtitle: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. At first, I actually thought it was one of those novels where the writer fictionalizes a writer and a publishing scenario etc (Lolita, Edwin Mullhouse, many others...). But by all appearances, it's not. Dave Eggers actually did lengthy interviews with Valentino Achack Deng, a real "Lost Boy of Sudan," and then wrote down his story, novelizing where he felt it needed novelizing, but claiming to stay pretty close to the story. And there isn't anything inherently wrong with that. But it was an odd sensation to have the Eggers' voice, which is distinct and apparently something he can't or won't go without, in the mouth of someone else. I never quite got over it. Perhaps what I was looking for was more novelizing. The narration goes between the troubles Deng has now that he's been settled in the US and the troubles he had in the Sudan--and there's no denying the guy has had a lot of very serious troubles. But the events that engaged me the most were actually the ones in the US, since those involved the most developed characters (a lot of other people come and go very quickly), yet those seemed to serve mainly as a frame for the time in the Sudan. I think one problem was the characterization of Deng is pretty limited, you get the facts, and some of his emotions, but Eggers seems reluctant to give him more of a point of view in most situations. Perhaps because the events are so dramatic that point of view seemed unnecessary (not true!) or perhaps because he was reluctant to invent the inside of Deng's head. It's the trouble with trying to serve nonfiction and fiction simultaneously. If Eggers had written his own first person nonfiction account of obtaining Deng's story (like Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) perhaps it would have held my attention more.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ssh, Reading in Progress

from The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud:

"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

2 Girls by Perihan Magden (translated by Brendan Freely)

This is the second novel I've read by Turkish writer Perihan Magden and I'm glad to have discovered her, and hope her work continues to be translated. This novel was apparently a big seller in Turkey and has been made into a movie (not as far as I know, available in the US). It's difficult to imagine this becoming a bestseller in the US because it's heavy on voice and is a fairly dark look at life as a young woman. The plot centers on a two week intense friendship between the two girls of the title, but its emotional core is one girl, Behiye, who starts the novel with "The Feeling You'll be Rescued." This is the name she gives her emotional state--and it's a great way to start a character-driven novel. Magden establishes the emotional vulnerability of her character right off the bat and makes clear what she wants--to be rescued--which immediately creates a sense of conflict, because any good reader (and Oprah devotee) knows there are no rescuers other than yourself. Soon after The Feeling, Behiye meets Handan, who she labels her hoped-for rescuer, and of course, trouble ensues. One interesting structural element is that Magden threads the discovery of a series of murdered males throughout, via police reports and such, but never directly links our two girls to the dead boys (and in fact, I'm not sure there is a direct link, though it's made clear that there might be). I was happy these weren't dead girls for once, and Magden uses this device to create an incredibly powerful final page that in its cold clinicalness (it's a medical report for analyzing wounds) becomes a devastating metaphor for Behiye's new emtional state.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (ed. Vendela Vida)

The title of this collection of interviews from Believer magazine made me think it would be writers in conversation, each talking about their own work, but for the most part it's conventional-though interesting--interviews, where one writer is interviewer and the other is interviewee. The one that comes closest to a conversation is the Zadie Smith interview of Ian McEwan, which not coincidentally was also the one of greatest technical interest. But overall I enjoyed this book--it made me want to read some writers I haven't, to reread some writers I have, and gave me a few fresh ideas about process and technique.

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.