Monday, December 14, 2009

Recommended Reading

My friend and colleague Andy Furman has another great essay out. This one, on snook (that would be a fish), is up at Agni Online.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

What have you been reading?

It's well known that I enjoy lists (though I'm troubled by the revised and updated edition of "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die"--I already have 755 to go without them adding titles)

Anyway, tell me this:

1. What were the most compelling books you read this year (published any year)?

2. What do you think I should read (and blog about) next year?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Stitches by David Small

A disturbing but compelling comic book memoir (graphic novel seems wrong given that it's not fiction and therefore not a novel) about a boy whose doctor father, thinking he was treating his son's sinuses, gave him hundreds of radiation treatments that subsequently gave the son cancer. At least that's the hook that's been used to promote the book, but truthfully Small's father giving him cancer seems a much less significant element of the memoir than the fact that his parents treated him extremely coldly and everyone in the family seemed to be in their own silent misery...

But storyline aside, I was thinking about how comic books are particularly well-suited to childhood stories because they can so clearly depict the child's eye view through the pictures. Prose writers always have to cope with the problem of putting the child's perspective into language which often exceeds the child's actual capacity for language and so you get a lot of articulate child narrators... Interestingly like many prose stories about childhood the narrator of this memoir is an adult looking the whole thing is actually in past tense. But while in a piece of prose writing this perspective is usually very noticeable (we never forget that it's an adult talking about his childhood), in this case I frequently forgot that it was an adult narrator. I think this is because a comic book can essentially have a present tense narrative and a past tense narrative running simultaneously. The pictures show things from a kid's eye view and feel like they are happening in the right now. And the dialogue is without tags so it never has to use said vs says. Thus the pictures are a present tense narrative. But the accompanying "voice over" is in past tense and adds that layer of adult reflection. So most of the time you feel like you're in the present tense (inside childhood), but when the past tense comes in, it's very easy to make the transition into adulthood. Prose writers could choose to write childhood in the present tense when in scene and past tense when doing more reflective adult narration, but I suspect it would never feel so seamless. And even in scene you'd most likely end up with non-childish language.

So in the end, it seems comic books are a particularly good form for looking back on childhood this case, pretty dark and scary ones.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Slumberland by Paul Beatty

A very funny novel by the author of the also funny White Boy Shuffle. The narrator, who goes by DJ Darky, moves to Berlin to find a reclusive musician, nicknamed The Schwa, to have him record the perfect beat the narrator has created. It's kind of a quest novel and so it does feel resolved when the Schwa gets found and the beat recorded (I'm not giving away much of a surprise there) but it's not really a novel too worried about plot. Instead, in DJ Darky, Beatty has created a narrator so clever and word-wise and observant that Beatty can take the novel anywhere. It's really just a forum for all his insanely sharp and original observations about life in the right now (except the novel takes place when the Berlin wall is coming down). This kind of thing--a novel that's mostly a stringing together of thoughts by a really clever narrator--could get pretty irritating if it came across as smug or overly convenient or just plain boring, but Beatty is just unbelievable in his ability to give a fresh take on familiar subjects. And it's precisely because the narrator can go anywhere in his references at a given moment (Beatty's ability to connect disparate things is uncanny) that the novel stays interesting. Back when I read The Master and Margarita, I talked about how the plot can go anywhere because Bulgakov holds it together with one central event, well in this case, the thinking can go anywhere because it's held together by one central character.

Case in point:

A dialogue between the narrator and his girlfriend when she won't turn on the heat: "'Doris, it's eight degrees in here. Do you know what that is in Fahrenheit?' 'About fifty degrees.' 'Fifty-one-point-eight degrees to be exact, which is the temperature at which black men lose their f-ing minds. In 1967 when my Uncle Billy turned down a scholarship to UCLA and volunteered to go to Vietnam, it was eight degrees Celsius. On that clear, blue, carry-me-back-to-Ol'-Virginny morning when Nat 'Crazy Like a Fox' Turner looked directly into a solar eclipse and decided there and then to kill every white person in the world--it was eight degrees Celsius. In Rocky II, when Apollo Creed agrees to give Rocky Balboa a rematch in Phila-f-ing-delphia, Rocky's hometown, it was eight degrees Celsius...'"

Or this: "I'd never been in love. I'd always thought love was like reading Leaves of Grass in a crowded Westside park on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, having to suppress the urge with each giddy turn of the page to share your joy with the surrounding world. By 'sharing' I don't mean quoting Whitman's rhythm-machine poetics to a group of strangers waiting for auditions to be posted at the Screen Actor's Guild, but wanting to stand up and scream, 'I'm reading Walt Whitman, you joyless, shallow, walking-the-dog-by-carrying-the-dog, casting-couch-wrinkles-imprinted-in-your-ass, associate-producer's-pubic-hairs-on-your-tongue, designer-perambulator-pushing-the-baby-you-and-your-Bel-Air-trophy-wife-had-by-inserting-someone-else's-sperm-bank-jizz-in-a-surrogate-mother's-uterus-because-you-and-your-sugar-daddy-were-too-busy-with-your-nonexistent-careers-to-f--k, no-day-job-having California Aryan assholes! I'm reading Whitman! F--k your purebred, pedigreed Russian wolfhound! F--k your WASP infant with the Hebrew name and the West Indian nanny! F--k your Norwegian au pair who's not as hot-looking as you thought she'd be! I'm reading Whitman, expanding my mind and melding with the universe! What have you done today? It's ten in the morning, do you know where your coke dealer is? Have you looked at the leaves of grass? No? I didn't think so!' That's what I thought love would be like. Reading Whitman and fighting the urge not to express your aesthetic superiority."

And also, the novel very cleverly sets its tone by having the black narrator go to a tanning salon in the first scene--seemingly a pointless, possibly crazy action--and he lets the reader see the absurdity of the moment--and then he reveals the narrator is in Berlin and desperate for some serotonin-sunshine. An absurd action committed for a rational reason. This is the narrator in a nutshell--he seems like a nut until you know him better.

The Wild Things by Dave Eggers

I don't have much to say about the content of this novel (an expanded version of the film version of the picture book, requested apparently and sanctioned by Maurice Sendak) other than I found it to have the same pros and cons as the film, which I liked but didn't love.

But what I really want to talk about is the fur! As many of you probably know, the novel came in two editions--regular and fur-covered. And I (of course!) bought the fur-covered one. I intended to give it to a family member as a gift but I decided she'd be too freaked out by it, and so naturally I kept it all for myself. And I am totally freaked out by it! And fascinated by it! The fur is presumably fake, but very convincing--I have a very wolf-like dog and this is very wolf-like fur, nearly indistinguishable from the dog's when I vacuum. But the fur (which covers the whole exterior of the book minus the two eyes peeking out) gets ruffled periodically and naturally I have to smooth it out (much like in a petting motion). And I am here to tell you petting a book makes you love it more! This is the answer to digital mucketymucking in the world of books. Publishers must make us love our books more! They should be like those electronic gadgets you have to feed and babytalk so they don't die. Put a chip in our books--if we don't read them or stroke them or speak them aloud--they die!

Okay, perhaps I go too far, but I've long thought that the publishing world is going to go increasingly high and low--e-books being low and fur-covered books (or the aforementioned bite-marked Firmin by Sam Savage) being high. The physical book (as opposed to the digital book) as art object and not just reading experience is a path I wouldn't mind following. Except in my opinion the low (e-book etc) should be priced way way lower than it is now. And I say that as someone who hopes to make royalties one day.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever

This is a nonfiction, non-academic work about the relationships that existed between Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau--with some appearances by Herman Melville, Henry James, and other notables. I always like reading about artists' communities and how friends can push each other to heights of success. And it always raises some questions: was it a genius-cluster (something in the water), how did such a thing form... In this case, the link is geography (much preferable to Facebook in my opinion)--these writers all lived in Concord, Mass--but also personality--as in the personality of Emerson. The book suggests it was really Emerson's financial support that allowed Thoreau, the Alcott family, and for a time Hawthorne, to survive. So while networking may also have helped each member of the group professionally, and mentoring and modeling (as in role-modeling) presumably also helped (I imagine especially for Alcott who was younger and got to watch these men build their writing careers), patronage may have mattered the most. The book is an entertaining read if you're interested in such things (I, for one, had no idea Thoreau was Alcott's teacher for awhile; and also knew next to nothing about Margaret Fuller or the Peabody sisters, who all turned out to be fascinating) and for all those who fuss about MFA programs, I can't help but think what we're trying to do formally is exactly what Emerson tried to do informally--provide financial support, mentoring, and community for developing writers.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Go check out my friend and colleague Andy Furman's essay in the latest issue of Ecotone!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser

My adaptation class recently read Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" and that prompted me to finally read this Pulitzer prize-winning novel. I'm a big fan of Millhauser's first novel Edwin Mullhouse and of his recent short story collection that I'm suddenly forgetting the name of, but I knew my feelings wouldn't be so strong for this novel which I had started in the past and never finished. Yet I admired it in the end.

Two interesting things: first, the novel has a subtitle (as does Edwin Mullhouse), in this case, "The Tale of an American Dreamer" and that does a lot to point the reader to an interpretation of the novel that goes beyond the character-plot stuff on the surface and second, it starts off as a very realistic piece of historical fiction but turns into a more speculative piece of alternative history. And the turn works partly because it's a Millhauser novel and so anybody who's read his work before is comfortable with his inventive imaginings and because the style from the start of the novel always feels a little unreal, fable-ish. Readers of "Eisenheim the Illusionist" will recognize a similar thing at play--he creates a very real sense of history through known facts and convincing detail, but simultaneously creates a sense of fantasy through style, metaphor, and a near absence of direct dialogue (so that the characters feel a little unreal). So when he wants to move away from history to his own alternative, it doesn't feel out of nowhere--the shift still feels of his world.

While what makes Millhauser unusual is his ability to invent really original stuff, I think what I admire most is his use of imagery. Whether describing something real or something imagined his ability to create an atmospheric photograph (it's often a frozen moment) is really top notch. It's what makes both the historical and the speculative storylines believable. And it's a good reminder that realism and fantasy require the same attention to detail to be effective.

Monday, October 26, 2009

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I always love a good Big House novel and especially a good British Big House novel with a little Comedy and a little Romance thrown in. And this novel from the 40s fits that bill. Eccentric family living in poverty in a run-down castle (no I didn't mean a jailhouse, I meant an enormous house), all narrated from the point of view of the clever sixteen year old daughter. I can kind of see how it fell out of print--eccentric Brits living in diminished circumstances is not an unheard tale--but I also see why it came back. It's compulsively readable. And what I noticed was the basic structure--we start with one family and another family moves in nearby. The various members of the two families intersect in a variety of changing relationships. And so a novel structure is born. By bringing two whole sets of characters together enough complications ensue to cover hundreds of pages.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin

I was really excited to discover this story collection which a colleague recommended. I confess lately fiction about children of immigrants has started to blend for me into one big story of one big generation gap. But these stories are a new take, both fresh content and a fresh style, and--added bonus--they are really funny. The collection, largely centered on twin Chinese sisters, Moonie and Mei Ling, and their feisty ninja grandmother, uses folk tales, fables, manja, Buddhist parables and all kinds of other forms as its stylistic base, but what makes it feel so fresh to me is the way both the older generation and the younger generation have become this mix of old and new ways.

Another fresh aspect: Chin doesn't ignore the bawdiness of folk tales the way most contemporary re-writers of the form do--she really embraces it (Let's just say Hello Kitty has some new connotations) and lets the twins, or at least one of them, be odd sexual adventurers, ultimately creating female characters who are unabashedly strange and audacious not just in their sexual behavior but all around.

I'm not really conveying the spirit of the collection which moves quickly from episode to episode and style to style...but it's funny and fun while being political and sophisticated. The tone is antic but there's a lot under the surface. Probably the most original story collection I've read since George Saunders came on the scene. (though admittedly I haven't been reading that many story collections in the past few years)(I'm happy to hear any recommendations).

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (trans. Maureen Freely)

I'll say up front that a lot of my interest in this novel came from its Turkishness, and there are aspects of it that I forgave because of that. My colleague who lent it to me was perhaps less forgiving, so you can take this with a grain of salt.

The novel is about a man who has an affair with a younger woman while he's engaged. Both the affair and the engagement end badly, and the man spends the rest of his life obsessed with the younger woman. Now having just read, about a month ago, the Ottoman tale of Leyla and Mejnun, I was both quick and proud to recognize this novel is in many ways a rewriting of that tale. And so I was also quick to forgive or at least believe in much of the ridiculous behavior that the narrator engages in. Because he's following in the steps of Mejnun there isn't the same need to justify his actions. Except maybe there is... not just because as a Nobel Prize winner Pamuk has many Western readers who won't get the reference, but because shouldn't a fiction always stand on its own? Well, maybe not. I'm on the fence. Pamuk makes the reference pretty clear, so maybe he is fairly saying if you want to get the most out of my novel you need to understand the literature it has grown out of and if you don't, well, that's your own fault. Or maybe he's not even thinking of his Western readers--after all, you wouldn't worry too much about making sure your rewrite of Little Red Riding Hood would stand alone, would you?

But just so you know, Mejnun is famously crazy. He falls for Leyla, goes mad, runs off into the desert, and eventually enters a love so deep that he's one with the universe and therefore one with Leyla and doesn't even really want her anymore (in the physical sense) because he's got her (she's part of him spiritually). And Pamuk's narrator is a version of Mejnun. But what's interesting about the narrator (except that he's only kind of the narrator--a gimmicky thing I won't even bother to explain) is he doesn't sound in the least bit crazy. It's pretty common to write madmen stories in which they rant or speak in heightened voices or say things that are obviously off. But the narrator here sounds at all times quite rational and calm--his actions are not at all rational, but he hasn't lost his ability to have a conversation, to explain his own thinking--it all feels much closer to mental illness as I've witnessed it--and makes for a more sophisticated character (not an over-the-top, hair-tearing lunatic).

Also, Pamuk makes good use of first person here--writers are always aware that there are limitations to what a first person narrator can know but usually it's just a matter of making sure you don't violate the rules. But in this case, the fact that the reader can't know what Fusun (the young woman) is thinking makes a huge difference. It's not just that the narrator doesn't know what she's thinking, it's that we can't tell if his interpretations of her thoughts/actions are rational or crazy. She might still be in love with him; she might not be.

And lastly, the title comes from a museum the narrator sets up in honor of his lost love. It's small stuff like her hair pins and cigarette stubs, but it's a museum modelled after the small museums of the world--like the homes of authors which then put on display their typewriters and old cans of uneaten food. It's an addition to the novel that has nothing to do with the plot--I mean it's easily dropped--but it's the kind fo thing that declares this as a more ambitious, literary novel than most. It's sort of Kundera-ish in the way that it adds a layer to the narrative by commenting not just on the characters but on the ways of the world, the things we treasure, and the ways we store our memories. It was probably my favorite aspect of the novel. And while it's not the kind of thing you can add to say a realist novel (probably), it's worth considering: what if you took your imagining one step further into the unexpected...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Taking Chance

Congrats to my old high school pal Ross Katz for his three Emmy nominations for writing, directing, and producing the HBO film Taking Chance, about the return home of a US soldier killed in Iraq. You can check the film out on DVD. It makes a good case for the power of quietness in storytelling.

Go Fords!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

There's an MFA canon that runs parallel to but only occasionally overlaps (Hemingway, O'Connor, Welty...) the literature canon. It includes people like Alice Munro, George Saunders, Donald Barthelme...people who are always taught in workshops and loved by many many writers...and Lorrie Moore just might be the queen of that canon. Her story "How to be an Other Woman" was one of the most personally important stories I encountered as an undergraduate--it made writing seem both pleasurable and possible. So the truth is I probably wanted to love this novel too much--I set us all up for disappointment.

The first half--funny and sincere and believable--is everything I wanted. But then Moore gets REALLY big in her plot. I mean these people suffer. And you know what--I just didn't believe it. Normally I only blog about books I recommend, but I figure Moore--one of my writing heroes--can take a little criticism. Actually if I had read this book back in the early nineties when I read the rest of Moore's work and found it so influential, I probably would have liked it more. So maybe it's just my tastes have changed and the stage of my writing life that I'm in requires different influences.

But her sentences are so good--it may be worth the read anyway. What I struggled with were the four major dramatic events that happen in proximity to the narrator--one related to a boyfriend, one to her employers, one to her roommate, and one to her brother. I'm not going to spoil the plot, but let's just say these are BIG events. Each the kind of thing with the potential to change or end a life. And our narrator has four of them in one year. And none of them are caused by her but rather happen to people close to her. So not only did I struggle to believe what was happening (there is no such thing as "suspension of disbelief," people--you have to earn my belief with every sentence) but I wasn't superinvested because the narrator had nearly no way to interact with these events. All she could really do was grieve them.

Still it made me want to go back to Anagrams and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? both of which I haven't read in a long time...

Big Machine by Victor LaValle

An enjoyable enough novel by the author of The Ecstatic, which I admit I preferred. LaValle is very very good at generating suspense to start (it was the plot in the middle where I kind of flagged)... he uses a classic mystery set-up and places a number of strangers in a remote location all gathered by some strange man with a plan. Because LaValle is so good with voice you'll happily go for chapters not knowing what's up because you like the narrator so much and so he can withhold information for quite awhile. Not to mention, about fifty pages in you meet a new character who has no connection to the narrator whatsoever until he describes her as"my future wife." So you can't help but read on to find out how on earth they go from the position they're in to being married in two hundred pages.

But what I wanted to mention is for a long chapter in the last third of the novel the point of view switches from first person to third person and relates the past history of the wife character. It's set up so that you understand she has told the narrator this story--but it's not told to the reader via his first person or hers. It's just set apart--given a title of its own--and dropped in. Which made me think you can get away with this kind of thing if you own up to what you're doing. Just switching without announcing the switch would have bugged me more. But this seemed okay. In my adaptation class we've been talking about handling flashbacks and I have a similar theory about them--they work best when the film acknowledges the change and doesn't try to make that flash seamless. In a number of ways LaValle is up front about writing a comic book in the form of a novel, and I suspect this third person section--a side adventure for a secondary character--may have also been under the influence of comics.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


O Magazine has a great profile on Michael Silverblatt the host of Bookworm--the one podcast every writer should listen to.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Excuses #1-5

Beginning of the semester is always a bit busy. Plus I started a few books that I wasn't motivated to finish. And I'm waiting for my Lorrie Moore to arrive from Amazon. Also, I've been watching a lot of episodes of Dexter. And I've been working on my bowling.

But I have in hand a library copy of Big Machine by Victor LaValle, an advance reading copy (courtesy of my hooked-up friend and colleague) of The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (which I hear contains a character named Papatya, a fact I am ridiculously excited about) and the aforementioned Lorrie Moore has been shipped.

So I should be blogging more soon.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Father and Son by Larry Brown

I'm a big fan of this novel--it makes a good case for how horror can be conveyed very quietly and be all the more moving for it. There was lots I admired, but a few things stood out:

One is that the early pages of the novel set up its circumference--the premise: a guy gets out of jail after three years and returns home, the place: rural, poor, everybody knows each other and both grudges and friendships go back generations, the characters (and their conflicts): sheriff (Bobby), ex-con (Glenn), and friends and associates of both. And the whole novel stays within that circumference--but though you think you know what will happen based on information and assumptions that you enter the novel with (about ex-cons in rural poor places and the who and the what you think they come from)--you really don't know what will happen (or what happened in the past). And it all unfolds quite gradually (it's a good novel to study for what is revealed when), so that your attention is held as new pieces of info are relayed. There's also the feeling early on that Glenn's behavior (largely bad) will be explained by the alcoholism of his father, who he bitterly resents--and while that's partially true, there's a much bigger story that Brown reveals in an interesting way. He uses his third person omniscience really intelligently because as he moves between characters, and into and out of their perspectives, you realize that Glenn often believes things that really aren't true. And he misjudges people, a lot. But even when you learn that...and you know some kind of tragedy is on the way (the novel sets that up from the start--which helps earn that ending), you don't (or at least I didn't) predict what actually happens.

So structurally it's well done, but stylistically I loved it too. The writing is very matter of fact, the chapters very short (and Brown has some clever chapter transitions--e.g. one character goes to sleep at the end of a chapter, different character wakes up at start of next chapter), and the amount of time spent in characters' heads is quite limited--which all helps balance out the potential melodrama of the action (let's just say the body count is high for a literary novel).

One of the best novels I've read in awhile, I say.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (translated by Alison Anderson)

I happened to read three newish, well-received novels in a row (this French novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steven Hely, and You Or Someone Like You by Chandler Burr) that were in some way about reading (I guess that's not that much of a coincidence given my taste). The Elegance of the Hedgehog was by far my favorite but all three seemed to struggle some with balancing a novel of so-called ideas with an actual plot. The Hely novel is a mostly funny satire about a guy who decides to write a bestseller (he succeeds) in order to impress an ex-girlfriend at her wedding (he fails). And while it's got some funny bits about writing, mostly it's funny on the split between what is considered popular and what is considered good. It raised an odd question of audience someone who thinks about the split between popular and good I should have been an ideal reader, but he was in essence telling me what I already knew, so I kind of smiled my way through rather than laughing aloud. On the other hand, a reader who wasn't already in the choir would likely be insulted by his thoughts on popular taste. The Burr novel has a different problem in that it needs its characters to behave in a way that suits the ideas that are being raised. And while I enjoyed the premise (Hollywood is swept up in book club mania), I struggled with believing the actions of the character who creates all the tension. Because the whole reading/book club thing was rather disconnected from his actions. They felt like two separate novels. But still not a bad book. But Elegance of the Hedgehog...

that had for 99 percent of the book a really great balance between the characters' thoughts (which are on philosophy, reading, class...) and the characters' behaviors, which were charming, interesting, funny. And a certain amount of tension is set right at the start by one character's declaration that she is going to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. You pretty much trust that she won't (I mean, good grief if she did!) but the tension still resonates because you worry about someone who is so unhappy. And then halfway through a new character arrives (always a way to move the plot along) and the action picks up even more. But then ... but then... I really hated what happened in the end. It felt like the intellectually sound finale (it ties the philosophizing up nicely) but felt so contrived as a plot point. Very coincidental, very sentimental, very melodramatic. All things I have a personal prejudice against that I maintain is a personal prejudice you all should share. So the question is how to have it both ways...ideas and plot. Philosophy and character resolution. Well, I suppose you just can't force the action to fit the philosophy, which is what both Barbery and Burr seem to do. Hely is writing such a ridiculous book (meaning satire) that he can get away with that much more readily. Barbery is writing a sort of realist fairy tale blend, so she could get away with a slightly unreal finish...but not the one she's got, I think. Still I love that this novel, in translation no less, has gotten such good press and I love that I had to wait months before I could get it out of the library because so many people were reading it. And I loved the book itself up to until pretty much the last chapter which I may just mentally scissor away.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Live Through This by Debra Gwartney

One of my favorite This American Life segments was about 12 year old and 14 year old sisters who run away and their mother and their eventual reconciliation. Now, quite a few years later, their mother has written a memoir of that time, and it's just as powerful and upsetting and empathy-producing as the radio show was. And it raises some interesting distinctions between what a radio segment does, what an essay does, and what a book does. The advantage of the radio was the girls also told their story and so there are things that aren't in the book that they revealed on the show--like what they were thinking and doing during the time they were away. But it's interesting that despite the fact that Gwartney now knows more of what the girls were doing--at least what they've told her--she chooses not to reveal much of it. It's very much her version and her experience and that's one of the reasons the book works as a complement to the much-replayed radio program rather than as simply another version of the same thing. It does raise the interesting possibility, though, of what if memoirs were written by a collective of people--constructed from multiple voices like the show was. I guess in some sense that's what journalists do when they write other people's stories, but I mean more allowing each person to fill in their part as a portion of the overall structure (which would need to be authored by someone).

Anyway, the radio show by nature of its length is more like an essay than a book--and this book is a good argument for what the long form can do. The radio version, and likely an essay version, powerfully convey what it was like to have the girls run away, and it suggests Gwartney's sense of guilt, it suggests the things that lead up to the worst events and how they were reconciled...but the book tells a much more complicated version. Only now do I realize how many years of problems there were. How serious those problems were. How different the two sisters actually are (in the short form they kind of merge into one character) and how different the relationship between mother and each daughter actually is. You also get a much much closer understanding of how guilty Gwartney feels and how she really did make some mistakes (understandable, human mistakes) and how both genetics and her ex-husband were factors. And you get a much closer understanding of how long the recovery period for this family was (is). So it's an obvious statement, but the book tells the bigger story and is a case for why sometimes the short form can't do quite as much.

By coincidence, I'm also reading the novel Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks which is about a teen boy runaway just a few years earlier, and it made me consider how much I appreciated that this memoir was about girls. I lived in Tempe, AZ from '96-99 and it was a big period of grungy kids riding into town on the freight trains and camping out in parks in the warm weather, so I have a strong picture of how these girls were living--and it's important to realize that those troops of youngsters were in no way just a bunch of guys hobo-ing and testing their manhood. It was a weird communal horrifying tribe of kids and girls were/are very much a part of it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Sister by Poppy Adams

An enjoyable enough novel narrated by an elderly woman with a penchant for lepidopterary who grew up in a Victorian house with hundreds of years of ancestral burden. The novel makes pretty clear that the narrator has some version of autism and that she may have as a child pushed her sister out of a tower (sister lived) and may have as an adult pushed her mother down some stairs (mother didn't), but it withholds, naturally since it's first person, quite what the narrator's condition is and whether or not she did these things. But the writer is a little stuck, I think, because she can't straight out say what's going on, and clearly that's supposed to be part of the draw of the novel, but she still wants to reveal more in the end than she did the rest of the way. And so what happens is the narrator suddenly seems a lot more impaired toward the end. And it's not that she seems to have changed physically but what she is able to tell us and how she tells it and what she does (with some provocation) kind of has. And that makes certain conclusions obvious. And it feels a little like a cheat, though like I said it's an enjoyable read and well-plotted. But it raises the question of why have this narrator tell the story. Clearly it was her inability to openly tell the story that was of interest to the writer, and it creates a kind of tension, since the truth can't be told outright, but it all feels a little coy. You know something's wrong with her--as well as the other characters do--and there's not actually that much suspense to withholding the info about the possible murder. I had mixed feelings about it. All these novels with impaired narrators start to feel a little gimmicky. There doesn't seem to be much point to using this narrator other than for her impairment. It doesn't actually feel like an intimate look at what it would be like to have autism or be the sister of someone with autism; it's more of a well-written murder mystery.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser (revisited)

I already posted on this book once, but I found myself thinking about a number of the stories a lot, long after I read them, and so I read it again recently (with the thought I'd teach it in my grad workshop in the spring, which I probably will). And it really is a pretty great collection. The stories are big in the way of Alice Munro's, but often reaching into some alternate history or alternate future and they're full of both science and wonder.

What I was paying most attention to this time was how unflashy the sentences are, and yet how there is always a moment in the story where what is said is so much more surprising or profound than what has come before that the story steps to a new level. A lot of the stories are heavy on concept, something student writers often respond to, but that moment has to come when the concept goes where the reader couldn't have imagined. The danger with heavy concepts is the summary of the story (it's about high school students who form a laughing club) can be as good as the story itself if you don't take it past what the ordinary reader would imagine on his/her own. And Millhauser is really good at examining an extraordinary idea in a believable way and then connecting it to some deeper emotion or less directly connected thought...leading to that moment of surprise. Which he then goes past. The moment of surprise is not the end of the story, it's more like the middle or the beginning of the last third--so a whole chunk of the story arises out of the unexpected shift.

The Spider Sermons by Robert Krut

Full disclosure: Bob was a friend of mine in grad school and though I haven't seen him in years I still hold him high in my esteem and in my heart.

I'm feeling old today, so reflecting on being out of grad school ten years may not be the best idea, but's always a pleasure to see my grad school colleagues publish, partly because I can see the echoes of their student work and partly because they've moved so far from their student work. I never took a workshop with Bob since he was a poet (mostly) and I was a prose writer (mostly) so I only remember some poems from readings and such, so I'm not sure how many, if any, of the poems in this book are from his grad school years. But I can see the writer he was then still in them, and I can see growth too. I sometimes say to my graduate students, "This is not your practice writing, this is your writing," and I mean it. It doesn't pay to think this is my student work and I'll take myself more seriously when I'm not a student. But the truth is, it is all both your practice work and your work. All we do is practice (this is a very yoga-ish thought, I suppose).

And you probably won't and maybe shouldn't find your ONE voice as a student writer. Hopefully you will find a voice, but hopefully you won't spend your life feeling limited to it. So it's cool to see lines like these, which remind me of the Bob I knew and remind me there is another older Bob who I don't really know:

"Gravitypants Rocketboy is fashioning a flying apparatus
made of old newspapers and wood from his childhood home."

(side note: I was recently asked what I wanted my "bowling" name to be--I went with my own--but only because I hadn't heard of Gravitypants Rocketboy (Rocketgirl?) then)


"because I want you to help me
because I don't know what it means--
the dream where everyone
I know is hurting themselves,
and it begins with my voice."


"I'll be honest--
this is how it has been lately:
a coat of skin thrown
over a six foot tear."

I like how I don't know if that last word is tear as in drop or tear as in rip.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Firmin by Sam Savage

Anyone who has taught an intro to creative writing class is wary of books narrated by non-humans and I was seriously disturbed by my childhood reading of Stuart Little (though E.B. White is one of my all-time favorite authors, I say if you want to put young people off of the idea of sex for awhile just let them believe that they might give birth to a mouse) it took me years to come around to reading this novel, narrated by a rat, despite only having heard positive reviews. But when I was browsing the bookstore, and I pulled it off the shelf to read a page or two with the idea of getting it from the library if I liked it, I saw the book had a bite taken out of it. I mean the publisher had faked a large bite going all the way through. So I had to take it home. (some books are like puppies, they cannot be left in the store). Publishers are getting a little wonky nowadays with their panic over the Internet and the Economy and the End of Art Appreciation ...but I firmly approve of a little bravery and innovation when it comes to the physical object of the book. And it turns out a chunk missing from the side of the book makes for a very comfortable resting place for my thumb. I'm thinking of carving out little thumbholders in all my books.

Anyway...the content: in the past in my studies of anthropomorphism in fiction I've talked about how doglike is the dog or how tortoiselike is the tortoise, but this isn't a novel about rats, it's a novel about reading. It reminded me more of Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader or Walker Percy's The Moviegoer than it did any animal books. So why not write about a person, rather than a rat, who reads-and fantasizes his life more than lives it--well, I think maybe while we know lots of people like that (and some of us may be a little bit like that ourselves), they aren't the most sympathetic characters when they're all passive and reading and unhappy. But a rat who is reading--well, he actually seems really active, an over-achiever. And when he's unhappy, it's understandable--he's a rat, and while he can read, he can neither talk nor type nor execute sign language (all of which he tries). It reminded me of a children's book author who talked about how she could have animal characters push each other out of trees, but obviously you couldn't have child characters doing that. So sometimes it's useful to write about the things that humans do, without using actual humans. Readers are more sympathetic. In the end, while Firmin gets a lot out of reading (and movie watching and music listening)--the novel makes clear that a life that's all reading is not all of a life. (clever, huh?) So it's pretty sad in the end. Not entirely a novel For Me, but I appreciated it all the same.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


It's not that I haven't been reading, I've actually been reading a lot; it's just I'm in that state of speechlessness that frequently follows months of teaching. So in the meanwhile, check out this poem by one of my nearest and dearest, Oliver de la Paz, in the latest issue of Guernica.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Movies for Writers

One of my graduate students has started a blog that I imagine readers of this blog will appreciate:

Monday, June 01, 2009

A Person of Interest by Susan Choi

Don DeLillo is one of my all-time favorite fiction writers, and so I always notice when a contemporary writer gets given the DeLillo comparision. And sometimes I wonder why. DeLillo himself seems so varied--all out funny in White Noise, meditative and serious in Mao II, floaty and strange in The Body Artist, all inclusive in Underworld... but I think what critics mean when they pull out the DeLilloism is the author has taken on social issues of our contemporary world.

And this novel, which I much admired, is the story of a Korean scientist and professor who is suspected of being a Unabomber-type when his colleague gets blown up by a mail bomb. It's a combo (and I think I read this in an interview with Choi) of the suspicion that the Asian scientist at Los Alamos came under and the Unabomber story. And the connection to real life definitely adds weight to the fiction. But really it's interesting for the characterizations, and it's weighty for the level of psychological, human insight not because it has something to say about the American media, or about othering, or about the Unabomber. DeLillo (in Mao mode) would have had lots of narrative comment about all those issues, but Choi tells the story of this one guy and what it would be like to be a real live, flawed, and innocent person suddenly under suspicion. I appreciated that she felt free to use contemporary history, but didn't feel obligated to comment on it directly.

One of the most interesting choices she makes is to veer off nearly 2/3 of the way through the novel (maybe more) into the point of view (still third person limited, just not the protagonist we've been with for most of the novel) of an unexpected character. It's the kind of thing that is a violation of the fake rules of the fictional universe--set a pattern and stick to it (in layman's terms, don't all of a sudden change perspectives)--but as a reader I didn't mind at all for the simple reason that she kept the writing and the character super interesting. There was no dip in her level of execution so I gave her the benefit of the doubt--and in fact felt a little relieved to break from the claustrophobia of sticking with an interesting but maddening character. And the pay off is good because the choice of whose perspective she followed is so good--and so unexpected. Now this could backfire--readers are suspicious of the hand of the writer suddenly coming up through the page and showing itself--but she immersed the reader so quickly and so deeply in this character's perspective--the psychic distance is so close to him--that you don't have time to pull back and go, what just happened? You go with her. Or at least I did.

One other small thing, the main character is called by his last name throughout--even other characters call him by his last name--and this has a great distancing effect. He's the kind of guy that doesn't let other people in close and that choice reflects that very nicely.

The Signal by Ron Carlson

Full disclosure: I have a deep and abiding love for Ron Carlson, who has been my mentor for more than ten years now. But who would you be if you didn't blog about the books by people you love?

One of the interesting things about reading everything that one writer puts out (and it's rare that I do that), is you notice when they drop certain habits. And lately Carlson has dropped the habit of being funny. Now, I'm sure he still is and can be, and I wouldn't be surprised if he comes out with some short stories soon that are once and again really funny. But this novel, despite some moments of humor, is not funny at all. It's absolutely and completely sincere. And lately it's not that often that I read fiction that is completely sincere. It's about the mourning of two losses the protagonist's wife (who he betrayed and she divorced him) and his father (who died just before his romance started years before with his wife). And even though the plot is a combined Western-shoot-out-Secret Agent thriller kind of thing (done literarily, of course), the book's heart is about how those two losses--and the nostalgic memories connected to them--seep through all the camping and hunting and manly action.

So it just made me think maybe humor sometimes comes at a cost. Because the light tone that I associate with a lot of Carlson's short stories--which I really enjoy--would have prevented the reader from really feeling the mourning that comes with this novel (as with Carlson's previous novel, Five Skies). Not to say heartbreak can't come with humor...probably my favorite novel of all time (if I really had to pick) is Catch-22, which is uber-funny and yet uber-serious. But perhaps a certain kind of narrator--that charming, smart-alecky one, needs to interrupt itself, and choose a different tone, for deeper impact. And in short stories, it's harder to vary tone. So short stories are often serious and sincere or funny and ironic. I'm not sure about this... for class we just read "Jon" by George Saunders, which is funny and ironic and a little bit glorious and awesome (in the literal sense not the Valley Girl sense) in its end. So I guess certain writers pull it off.

I recently mentioned in class that I never seemed to read comedies as realist and there was much protest at this--as real life is quite funny and often absurd--but real life doesn't come with such a one note point of view as most comedies do (because they leave out all the unfunny stuff). The context for the comment was Zadie Smith's White Teeth, another favorite of mine, but an example of when humor eliminates the chance of heartbreak (or heartlift). She chose humor over heartbreak though, I wouldn't say she went for both.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

You Can Read

my essay on getting tenure at The Chronicle of Higher Education Career Network. The editor cut a line that I kind of like so here it is as a teaser: "There are obviously an infinite number of uses (not practical uses, not desirable uses, just uses) for a spoon."

You'll have to guess where it went.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

My Students Make Me Proud

Brevity has announced on their website that the essay "Why" by FAU MFA grad Kathrine Leone Wright has been selected by Dzanc Book for The Best of the Web 2009 (available in late June).

Regular readers will recall that's a piece of Kathrine's thesis essay.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

You can read

my essay in the current issue of Brevity.

Also check out the essays by my dear grad school friend Rigoberto Gonzalez and the wonderful Richard Robbins who gave me my first job as a professor.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Three women fiction writers were finalists for the Pulitzer this year: winner Elizabeth Strout, Louise Erdrich and Christine Schutt. Should you care to, you can read my posts about the Strout, Olive Kitteridge, and the Schutt, All Souls. And awhile back I posted on Schutt's short novel Florida, then a finalist for the National Book Award . I generally enjoy Louise Erdrich but haven't really kept up with her output since Love Medicine.

Monday, April 13, 2009

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

This slim memoir of the births of fiction writer McCracken's stillborn first child and her healthy second child is moving and poignant and agonizing for all the reasons you would expect when a horrific subject and a beautiful subject meet a skilled and subtle writer. But through all the tears (mine not hers) I couldn't help but read it as an insight into the writing life of the novelist who wrote one of my personal favorites, The Giant's House. What kept making my jaw hang were all the pages that McCracken referenced writing that never saw the light of the printing press. She described a novel she gave up on, a memoir of pregnancy (pre-stillbirth) she gave up on...literally hundreds of pages, years of effort... Now I'm well accustomed to the idea of writers having first manuscripts that never got published (and never should) pre-success but it was a bit disspiriting and a bit reassuring to realize that writers also have projects that get drawered post-success. So in part I liked this book for the same reason that I like Ann Patchett's memoir Truth and Beauty (which lots of people criticize because they see it as exploitive of its subject, her friendship with the (deceased) writer Lucy Grealy)... because on the margins it's a book about being a woman writer and how that fits into a larger life.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

This novel hit so big that even some of my undergraduates--who surely have no time for pleasure reading--were going around talking about it. I can see why it was popular--driving plot paired with so many hooks--mute child protagonist, dog breeding farm setting, Hamlet rewrite--that the media coverage wrote itself. And it's good, way better than the typical best seller. Personally I responded most to the dog farm--it's a good example of creating a world that the average reader doesn't know and teaching them how it works. But I suppose the Hamlet layer is what interested all those book clubs and high schoolers. Shakespeare makes for good cannibalizing because he has such layered plots that they can be novels and the characters have such dominant traits that you can turn anyone into a Hamlet or a Kate or a Lear. E.g. being a prince is irrelevant, it's being indecisive that matters, hence you can give a mute kid indecisiveness and call him a Hamlet.

What I noticed as I read this novel was how dependent my acceptance of the plot was on the pre-existence of the play. The character actions--murder! revenge!--are only believable because they were the actions of Claudius, Hamlet, Laertes...they aren't believable as the actions of Claude, Edgar, Glen... In other words, if I read this novel without having any knowledge of Shakespeare I would seriously question the character motivations. But because Wroblewski chose Hamlet (assigned in almost every high school and part of the cultural collective conscious and likely to be known by those who will pick up a 500 page literary novel anyway), he doesn't have to sweat it. If you model your novel on some unknown text, your novel must stand alone. But if you model your novel on Hamlet, you are choosing not to have it stand alone. I guess it really shouldn't stand alone--or why else is Hamlet in there? Still the character thing troubled me ...

Friday, April 03, 2009

Palate Cleansing Pratchett

This is why I like Terry Pratchett (from The Wee Free Men):

"'There's a headless horseman after me!' she [Tiffany] shouted.

'He'll no make it, hinny. Stand ye still! Look him in the eye!'

'He hasn't got any eyes!'

'Crivens! Are ye a hag or no? Look him in the eyes he hasna got!'"

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano

Bolano is having a posthumous renaissance now that so much of his work is being translated into English, and I read about half of his novel The Savage Detectives and about half of this collection of stories (though some might not call it a collection of stories) both with pleasure--though apparently not enough interest to get all the way through. That fact, though, has more to do with personal preferences (so much Pratchett to read now!) and limited time.

So this book is a collection of profiles of fictional writers (as in made up people not writers of fiction) with Nazi sympathies. And while that may seem like a concept built for shock value--it's surprising unshocking. Instead it's really really funny. One of Bolano's big interests seems to be looking at the lives of writers, of movements, of non-writers interest in writers...but by choosing Nazi writers instead of say Leftist writers or Catholic writers or any other designator that has supporters and foes in equal measure, he eliminates the sense of making an overly obvious political statement. While the world obviously still contains Nazi sympathizers, there's no way readers will think this book is taking a pro-Nazi position or that it would really bother to take an anti-Nazi position, so you have to look deeper for significance. And the parts I read had a lot to do with why people write (and Bolano can be quite judgemental about this) and why people read...

What interested me most though was how the structure of a character profile--a mini biography--can absolutely work as a short story structure. These characters are at times endearing, disturbing, entirely mockeable... and despite the encylopedia type structure of the book, despite the lack of a "story" in terms of a building plot, you care about them.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Monday, March 30, 2009


Victor LaValle has an essay on Black nationalism in the current issue of Bookforum. Bookforum is always online in its entirety. Check it out.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Last Last Chance by Fiona Maazel

I've been known to complain in the past that there weren't any contemporary women writing really wacked out novels (or even mildly wacked out novels) with really wacked out women characters but that's all changed in the past five years or so. And it might even be a benefit of creative writing workshops. Men and women in classes together seeing what each other do might actually have more influence on busting self-imposed gender boundaries than men and women reading each others books ever did. This is a really funny novel about a superplague (in a world of post-9/11 novels, this is really the first post-Anthrax novel, though some other hideously infectious lab specimen is used in lieu of Anthrax). Anyway the novel is narrated by a drug addict who happens to be the daughter of the scientist (who subsequently committed suicide) accused of loosing the superplague on the public. And there are some reincarnated Vikings. Kind of Denis Johnson meets Don DeLillo meets the guy that added zombies to Pride and Prejudice.

One of the hazards of workshop is that excess often gets trimmed. Even when it's allowed by the workshopees, it's typically suggested that the author pull back. This novel is not in the least pulled back and that's why it feels original. Actually I guess it doesn't feel totally original since I just called it a Jesus's Son's White Noise Zombie novel...but it feels original all the same. And one of the great choices Maazel makes is to pair this end of the world plague with a character who goes into rehab. It's a great juxtaposing of a Big Universal Theme and a Smaller Character Issue. What better way to suggest that there is always hope than to have a character kicking drugs when she's about to be superplagued out of existence? Well, the only better way is to include reincarnated Vikings who show there is always a second chance, and a third, and not just a last chance, but a last last chance.

Funny. Not perfect but funny.

One of my former grad students mentioned how she would never ask addicts to read Johnson's Jesus' Son because the book prizes cleverness in just the way that addicts need to let go of (I actually think the character moves from prizing cleverness to prizing moments of sincerity, but I see her point, readers definitely prize the cleverness). And this novel is I suppose I'm saying it's not something one should read to help with recovery, it's more like magic realism where the addiction is metaphor rather than reality. Which raises the question of should such a real problem be left to realism...the answer has to be no (no boundaries!)... but it's an ethical concern authors should at least take to heart.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Maybe twenty years ago this 1922 novel was made into a Merchant-Ivoryesque film that I really enjoyed and it turns out the adaptation was straight up, the novel is funny and pretty and simple in all the same ways. What's interesting though is the use of point of view is actually quite good in the novel, so you would think the absence of the characters' thoughts would be problematic in the film. But it turns out the characters are thinking in ways that are very consistent with the ways they are behaving so the only losses are some funny and fine turns of phrase (which would be a more noticeable loss if the dialogue weren't also funny and full of fine turns). But regardless the novel is a good example of third person omniscience. It's a big house novel in which four British women rent an Italian villa and have their senses reawakened and as go the senses so goes the love blooms all around. It's like The Secret Garden for grown-ups. Nowadays I suspect this would be written in four rotating first person views, but I really liked the consistency of the voice and how it held to one point of view per scene but actually used the movement from head to head (perspective to perspective) to create the sense that the novel was moving forward even though most of the action involved arguing over who would pour the tea in the garden and who would get to use Mrs. Fisher's pen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I admit it: I enjoy American Idol. And last night watching the battle between favorites Danny and Adam, I couldn't help but think the producers were trying to set this up as a good vs evil thing. There was young widower Danny dressed in white, clouds floating on a video in the background, singing "Jesus Take the Wheel" and there was Adam, fingernails painted black, flames shooting up behind him as he sang "Ring of Fire." And while I like Danny, I love Adam. I do. I love him. (Though for the record: I don't vote! I'm not that into it!)

So this might explain why I found it so much fun to be able to love the devil--and especially his trained cat--in this classic Russian novel. The Master and Margarita is a rollicking good read in which the devil, and his demonic posse, come to Moscow and wreak havoc on the elite. It's satire and I confess plenty went over my head as I'm not as informed as I should be on Stalinist (or honestly pre or post-Stalinist) Russia. But the absurdity of the actions and especially conversations that take place is really really funny. And often at the expense of writers and bureacrats who have lost their souls. Yes, this devil is punishing people for having lost their soul. Which brings me back to Adam--who seems like a sweet talented young guy who likes to costume himself and put on a show. He likes to be free. And yes, American Idol is hokey and blatantly commercial and sometimes really boring, and maybe not as democratic as it lays claim to be (there are weird moments of racism, classism and homophobia from judges and audience alike) but it's sure better than being jailed or exiled or merely unpublished for expressing your true self. It really is pretty American. Hmm, I'm pretty sure when my colleague recommended this novel, he wasn't expecting a defense of capitalist pop culture to be the result of my reading, but hey, I am what I am.

Anyway, as a writer, one of the things I most appreciated about the book was its willingness to go unexpected places. When I choose texts for students one of my goals is to show them what's possible. Even if at heart you're a realist or a minimalist or a romance writer, it's good to get out there and read things that do what you don't. Because on its own the imagination doesn't always get...well, imaginative. We repeat ourselves, we fall into comfortable habits, we copy what we've seen most often...and a novel this willing to go pretty much anywhere is a good reminder of what's possible in fiction. But one of the interesting tricks to this novel is how it uses its opening scene as an anchor.

Apparently Harry Crews tells his students that at the start of their fiction they need to declare their space. He likens this to how motorcycle riders have to drive in the middle of the lane so cars don't shove them onto the shoulder. And at the start of the novel, Bulgakov has a young poet talking with an elite journal editor when the devil (who they don't recognize, but readers will) interrupts them. The devil predicts the death (decapitation at the hand of a woman) of the editor and it soon comes to pass. The scene is presented humorously and it sets the tone for the rest of the novel. But more than that, it remains an anchor for the novel throughout. Lots of essentially unrelated plots unfold (including a second fiction following Pontius Pilate) and lots of essentially unrelated characters appear but Bulgakov periodically brings in reminders of that first scene and the two men involved...and it helps make the novel seem far less random than it could. The characters, action, or themes of the scene reappear just when readers might be losing the thread. So while this feels like a case of anything goes stylistically, it doesn't feel like random storylines thrown together into the soup. It ends up feeling very deliberate, a structure with a backbone.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

A long time ago my friend Ted told me about Terry Pratchett, but whenever I was faced with his ouevre in the library/bookstore/book vending-type-place, it was so large, I didn't know where to begin. But while hunting down a much more highbrow challenging intellectual life-changing brain-expanding read at the university library I wandered into the curriculum section and plucked this young adult novel at random. And I loved it. Funny, strange (there's a cheese named Horace that doesn't so much talk as mind-meld with the heroine), and charming. I've noticed that contemporary young adult lit has done really well by the just-verging-on-adolescence heroines (think Lyra, Hermione, and this novel's protagonist, Tiffany Aching) but it hasn't done so well with actual teenage girls (who seem all gossip girly). In other words, once boys enter the picture, the novels seem to fall apart and become stereotypical (Bella anyone?) swoony or bitchy girls. So somebody please write a novel with a teenage girl who is as great as these 12 year olds. I know Hermione grows up and Tiffany Aching apparently does too, but they really became icons at their younger--Harriet the Spy-esque ages. Actually I'd love to read a teen novel about a teenage couple in which both the boy and the girl (or any other gender pairing) are equally strong and in a strong relationship and busy saving the world. If you know of one let me know...

But my of John Gardner's pearls on writing in Art of Fiction is how effective it can be to have your protagonist do the wrong thing for the right reason. The example I tend to give in class is Sethe in Beloved--she kills her children (an obviously wrong thing) to prevent them from being taken back into slavery (an arguably right reason). And so the conflict that ensues is provocative in part because it was caused by the protagonist, but the reader doesn't lose sympathy for the character as a result. And this is what happens in Wintersmith. Tiffany Aching dances with the Wintersmith even though she was told not to. Why? Mostly because she's a kid but partly because she really wants to and can't see the harm in it and her feet kind of take over. But all the conflict that ensues as a result of her having danced is her fault. So the level of investment in whether or not she is able to solve the conflict is higher. Her fault, her responsibility to fix. It's something I don't notice as often in kid lit where kids are often fated, born into their problems (i.e., Harry Potter).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Monday, February 16, 2009


Check out my old high school pal Ross Katz in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

His movie, Taking Chance, will be on HBO this weekend.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Ecstatic by Victor LaValle

Anthony, the narrator of LaValle's 2002 novel, may just be the evolutionary step between John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius J. Reilly and Junot Diaz's Oscar Wao. He is morbidly obese, mentally unbalanced, and really really funny. LaValle's acknowledgments page ends with "Last, I'd like to express my affection for fat people and crazy people everywhere," and that affection which the novel wraps its narrator in is really what carries the book.

The flap copy claims the novel is in the tradition of "misfit picaresques" --a tradition I did not know existed but enjoy the thought of -- and while The Ecstatic has more of a one-thing-builds-on-the-last quality than I think of most picaresques as having, it's not exactly hooked on plot. Which means, to keep going the reader really has to attach to the narrator who holds it all together. My undergraduates and I recently tried to discuss creating likeable characters but the conversation felt a little too clinical (1 tsp. character flaw, 2 tsp. character strength, mix in one lightning scar ...)...but LaValle, in an interview with the journal Hobart has helped me see the issue in a new way. It's not likeability that characters need; it's personality. He defines voice as personality, which for my taste leaves out an aural quality of voice that feels important, but I very much like the idea of creating personable characters rather than likeable ones. After all, we often are drawn to the people who when looked at logically aren't likeable at all. And Anthony's personality is partly drawn by his physical traits (looks and actions) but much more by the things he thinks. This is what I think LaValle means by voice--what Anthony has to say is what makes him most interesting.

For example: p.44, "Disposable income was wasted on the dumb." and p.32, "To me women were like the perfect model of government: paving the roads and protecting the weak. Omnipotent. Boys without fathers say that kind of thing a lot. About their mothers. About their wives. Comparing ladies to goddesses and gold. But still I think we hate women even more than the average guy," and p.108, "...a little neon always makes me feel like I'm near people I understand."

And another small thing I appreciated--Anthony works cleaning houses. A lot of fictional women clean houses, but not a lot of (any?) men. Sometimes it's the small things that add originality.

And one last bit of trivia: Mos Def has named his latest album The Ecstatic after the novel, which he describes as a favorite. If only Mos Def wasn't so skinny, I'd pitch him for the movie. But I strongly approve when public figures reveal themselves to be fiction readers. I like it when characters in movies and tv read novels (Sawyer reading Watership Down is really what sold me on Lost) and I get peeved when I hear public figures make a point of mentioning that they don't read fiction (keep your shame secret, please). I had mixed feelings, for example, when even the intellectual/musician Andrew Bird, when asked what he read by New York magazine referenced the terrific Cabinet magazine and Saul Bellow, but made a point of saying he didn't "go for" much modern fiction. Mr. Bird, if you're out there...give The Ecstatic a try.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

I don't really have any wisdom to impart about this collection of linked short stories about a seventh grade teacher other than the bits on teaching rang very true, the stories are amazingingly different from Bynum's lyric novel, Madeleine is Sleeping, and I really enjoyed the book all the way through. And here is a character moment I loved:

"On Parent's Night, Ms. Hempel felt fluttery and damp. She knew from past experience that she would make a burlesque of herself, that her every sentence would end with an exclamation point, and her hands would fly about wildly and despairingly, like two bats trapped inside a bedroom. The previous year, a boy named Zachary Bouchet had reported, 'My mother says that you smile too much.'"

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blindness by Jose Saramago

I first became conscious of Saramago when he won the Nobel prize in 1998, but it wasn't until recently that I regularly heard students, friends, other writers talking about Blindness to the point that I finally bought a copy. I suppose that has to do with the movie coming out, but it's possible that it's the reverse, that the movie was finally made because the buzz on the book had been gradually building. This need for building buzz perhaps sounds ridiculous given that Saramago won the Nobel prize, but it seems to me lots of Nobel prize winners essentially go unread by even highly-literate Americans. Anyway...

The novel is an overtly allegorical tale of a country in which there is an epidemic of contagious blindness. Instead of seeing darkness the blind see a bright white that obliterates their vision (why is it that being in the light sounds so much more exhausting than being in the dark?). Lots of things interested me about the novel--which is strangely compelling despite its lack of in depth characterization and what seems at first to be an overly obvious metaphors (humans go blind, their animal natures are revealed). But in the end the characters are tremendously moving and the metaphor not so obvious. So the mystery is how did he pull that off...

One of the strengths of the novel is its absolutely classic plotting. One thing leads to the next in a totally believable manner but because the premise of the blindness is so clever the novel doesn't feel predictable. Warning: plot points revealed here. First the blind are quarantined (in appalling circumstances) then there are fights and abuses amongst the factions of the quarantined (one ward, who have the advantage of a gun and a blind man who has been blind all of his life, turns on all the others) then the quarantine fails as the inmates realize there are no longer any guards on the outside (they've all gone blind) then the inmates struggle to survive in the outside world where there is no power, no running water, no functioning economy...and then everybody gets their sight back. It's a novel with big plot points which is not something that you necessarily connect to a novel of ideas. I loved that about the book. Things happen just when you need them to. And I was continually curious as to what the consequences of each new problem would be.

But the classic plotting is attached to an unusual style. None of the characters have names--there are even some funny twists on calling everybody the blind man (the first blind man, the blind man with the eye patch, etc) and readers know almost nothing of their pasts. They exist only in the present. That's how they exist for the reader and how they exist for each other. Nameless, faceless, pastless. Which is great for the allegory but hard on the writer--how do you write scene, how do you keep the characters interesting. Well, as to writing scene, Saramago does something that seems crazy but oddly enough works. He mostly runs the dialogue together in single sentences so that two characters might have five exchanges or more of conversation with only commas separating their lines (he does use some dialogue tags within those sentences). Readers who are used to regular dialogue tags, paragraph breaks, etc have none of their usual comforts. We are, drum roll please...blinded. But it's almost never confusing. Saramago manages to have created personalities/inner lives for these characters that allow us to know who would say what and he quite smartly rarely has more than two characters talking at once. And he rarely has them express more than a single "sentence" at a time. But that doesn't seem overly simplistic because you're being pulled quickly through a long sentence of rapid exchanges.

Where I think the novel gets its necessary depth though is from the rare intrusions of the third person narrator who shifts the reader toward more complicated interpretations of the allegory, beyond the humans are blind in their hearts idea. I won't give those away, they're more important surprises than plot surprises are.

But Saramago's most important decision, most likely, was to make the central character a woman who chooses to go with her blind husband into quarantine even though she herself is somehow immune to the disease. She provides a necessary contrast to the experience of the others, she helps make their survival a lot more believable, and she serves as the reader's own avatar in the novel--the one who can see among the blind and yet so often feels helpless because of what she sees.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Don't Look Now by Daphne DuMaurier

The New York Review of Books has put out this new selection of short stories by Du Maurier, best known for the novel Rebecca, and for the Hitchcock adaptations of that book and her short story "The Birds." The title story, "Don't Look Now" was also made into a rather creepy but well-regarded film. And this is one reason I'm interested in the collection. (The other reason is I've loved Du Maurier since I was a girl and I found My Cousin Rachel on the shelves of the summer house my grandparents used to rent in Nonquit, Mass.) Anyway, in the fall I'll be teaching a graduate workshop on adapting fiction to film, so I've been giving some thought to my reading/viewing list. But I haven't collected my ideas on that yet, so in the meanwhile I'd just like to point out how well these stories prefigure contemporary American magic realism. (Du Maurier was British and writing largely in the 40s and 50s.)

While some of these stories are very lightweight (and irony or surprise heavy), some have held up quite well. I kept thinking of contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and especially Kelly Link and how they use strangeness to convey a sense of mystery and wonder about the real world. In a number of stories, Du Maurier bends time or brings in psychic phenomena or natural but extreme phenomena (such as those birds), but underneath readers understand that these are post-world-war stories, a kind of supernatural vision of post-traumatic stress. They're ghost stories with soul.