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.