Saturday, July 15, 2006

Florida by Christine Schutt

For those of us who live in Florida, it's worth noting this short novel is not set in Florida, but rather uses the metaphor of a dreamlike, paradise-in-the-distance Florida. The writing here is beautiful, particularly in the first half, which evokes a bittersweet childhood nostalgia (sehnsucht, the Germans would say--except I'm not sure I spelled it right). Then in the second half the narrator is older and the writing, previously so precise, minimalist and lovely, is not quite as tight. It's an interesting dilemma to age a narrator from childhood (where almost inevitably they are innocent and likeable even when they're not) to adulthood when they almost inevitably become less likeable. Part of the problem is the conflict in a child's life never really seems the child's fault, but adults we expect to work out their problems. And a lot of fiction (much like memoir, as Benjamin Kunkel points out in the NYTBR this week) is people suffering through their problems rather than addressing them. My undergrad class was just talking about using the hero's adventure structure in short fiction (Joseph Campell works nicely, you might be surprised to know, with Raymond Carver's "Cathedral") and how that can help create complex fiction which is not so hopeless as much of what we read. I could have used a little more of the hero in the narrator's second half of Florida, but over all it's a far above average read, and the people who fussed about this book being nominated for a National Book Award (the year the nominees were all women who hadn't sold many copies of their books) should hang their heads.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Sssh, Reading in Progress

Some fiction writers say they can't (or don't) read fiction while working on a project. I find it depends on the stage of writing that I'm in. Sometimes in the midst of something, I find I really really need to read something brilliant and inspiring (in which case I turn to something I've read before and know to be good), sometimes it doesn't matter and I can read anything, and sometimes I can only read nonfiction. These stages seem to correspond with whether or not I'm trying to find the voice of the piece (requires inspiring reading), whether I'm happily in the midst of the piece (read anything), or whether I'm trying to solve some problem, either in drafting or revising (read nonfiction). Right now I'm moving between two nonfiction books, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond and The 9/11 Commission Report (which is well written enough to surely have had some English majors on staff). These reading choices have to do with the fact that I am trying to solve a problem while revising my novel, but also because I've started thinking about my second novel and they're prompting new ideas.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity by David W. Galenson

I confess I didn't read the whole book, the concept turned out to interest me more than the specifics, but this is a scholarly study of visual artists who paint their best work (as judged by commercial and critical value) either at a young age or at an older age (nobody seems to do it at middle age). The idea is that some artists (here named "conceptual") have big ideas at the start of their careers that instantly revolutionize painting (as judged by influencing their peers) and then have diminishing returns as they get older, but other artists ("experimental") work their way, painting by painting, study by study, to a new idea that revolutionizes painting. There are obvious correlations to writing, and the last chapter actually covers writers like Hemingway ("conceptual") vs. Faulkner ("experimental"). I, in part, found the book a relief--I hoped to be a young genius, but sadly am not, and now it turns out I can hope to be an old master instead--and also a revelation regarding teaching writing. Workshop in certain ways favors the young genius, since s/he would receive early acclaim (assuming the class was open to revolutionizing art) as does the academic world, where writers need to publish relatively young in order to receive tenure... But at least addressing the fact of old masters in class could probably go a long way toward keeping student writers encouraged. And emphasizing process and long term goals (beyond the degree program) could also help...

Monday, July 10, 2006

Poet's Choice by Edward Hirsch

Much like Camille Paglia's Break Blow Burn, this book is really a guided anthology. Each poem is accompanied by a reading of the poem by Hirsch. Whereas Paglia's reading were line by line and even word by word explications that analyzed the poems much like an English major would, Hirsch goes with a more humanist approach. His readings, which were originally essays for the Washington Post Book World often include anecdotes about the author, a thematic context of how the poem fits with other poems on the subject, and an emotional response. Both anthologies do their job just fine and largely pick interesting poems, though Hirsch has the wider selection. What's interesting is that these books are aimed at a wider audience--the reading public who is generally assumed to be afraid of poetry. The idea is if you provide the poem with a reading of it, it's less intimidating. Probably true. Paglia's book seems to have had success and Hirsch's, which is just out, should too given his past track record. But sometimes I think by treating poetry so delicately ("let me help you with that") we just confirm that it is something to be afraid of and something that one can't simply read and react to without a guidebook. A friend of mine told me about "math phobia" and how it is actually promoted or even created by math teachers who say things to students like, "I know you don't like math but you have to learn it," or "I know this is hard but ..." There is a poetry phobia and sometimes those of us who teach poetry (which I do only at the introductory level) create it. I think Hirsch and Paglia are striking blows against the phobia, but maybe they are perpetuating it a little bit too.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

What do people who don't read receive as gifts? Due to turning thirty-five (yes, happy birthday to me) as well as a recent pilgrimmage to a used bookstore, pilfering of my mother's library, and finally getting my library card at the remarkable Delray Beach Public Library I now have much to read: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, Our Mutual Friend by Frederick Busch, The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington, Beauty and Love by Seyh Galip, Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King, Poet's Choice by Edward Hirsch (who I have a big crush on), The Hills at Home by Nancy Clark, A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley... This is compounded by not having yet read all the books I got as Christmas presents (Young Turk by Maris Farhi...) and by one of my favorite birthday gifts: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (yes, I made little checkmarks next to all the books I've already read and started post-it flagging ones I want to read soon). Not to mention the previously mentioned Complete New Yorker....

But today I'm reading Good in Bed and I'm enjoying it, thank you very much.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Burning by Thomas Legendre

This first novel is written by a friend of mine from graduate school, so perhaps I was predisposed to like it, but it's a fun and rare combination of commerical and intellectual (read: sex and ideas in one). Tom first sought to publish the novel in the United States, but agents weren't sure how to sell it, so instead he found an agent in the UK where he is currently living. The book was a big success in England and so his publisher (Little, Brown) has put out a US edition. Which just goes to show: persist persist persist. When I knew him Tom was one of those writers who wouldn't begin the rest of his day until he'd written a page which also goes to show: write write write.

Anyway, what I found most original about the novel is the way that it takes a character trait (the protagonist is an economist) and uses that as part of the third person narration. It's common to have a first person narrator in which an economist (or farmer or what-have-you) uses the tools/lingo of his/her trade to illustrate his/her story, but it's much rarer to have a third person narrator do it. As a result, the novel has a worldview and it feels constructed by an author--more idea-driven then it would have felt in first person. What I admire is how the economic ideas here (and they're tied to environmentalism, which was a fresh and compelling linking for me) invade the plot, the voice, everything. When a character has an affair, it's in economic terms. When characters gamble it's literal and metaphoric. This is in the end a much more sophisticated and complex book than either the title or the cover, which involves flesh, water, and kissing, suggest.

It's a joy to see my fellow MFA-ers do what they trained to do. I'm totally jealous.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

It took me a long time to pick up this very popular novel because I once, years ago, read a page and felt exhausted by the density of language. Which just goes to show taste is sometimes a matter of mood (or maybe of age) because this is probably the best novel I've read since I read Bel Canto and Life of Pi a few years ago. The voice is in simple terms: gorgeous. Literature by Indian authors has become popular in the past decade but of all things this reminded me of the Eudora Welty novel Delta Wedding. The southern setting that permeates Welty's novel is strangely akin to the lush setting of Roy's novel. And it shows how place can be used to achieve an entire novel's tone. Perhaps hot and humid dictates mournful and measured. One interesting aspect of the novel is the way it circles around one pivotal event and the even larger consequences of that event without covering a large number of scenes but by inching its way around a complete, three-dimensional description of the key moments.

I don't want to say anything else about it, I just want you to read it (when you're in the right mood).

Black Maria by Kevin Young

The full title of this poetry collection is Black Maria: being the adventures of Delilah Redbone & A.K.A. Jones and the full author credit is Poems Produced and Directed by Kevin Young. I enjoy when two seemingly disparate things come together nicely and Kevin Young has brought together film noir and poetry in a clever collection. Sometimes I think poets get too caught up in linked collections (that's not really a proper term, I'm stealing the short story equivalent) where all the poems have to overtly fit under one heading (thematic or otherwise), but this one felt original and appropriate. The tightly-wound language of noir (and though Young works with cinematic ideas, it's often really the language of noir fiction that he's using) is very well-suited to the compression and precision of poetry. And Young has a way of turning familiar phrases around with a single word replacement that is quite funny and fresh. This weekend my five-year-old nephew said to me, "See a shadow, pick it up" and it reminded me of Young (which is not to say Young writes like a five-year-old but rather that my nephew talks like a poet--naturally I believe he's a genius).