Monday, February 26, 2007

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

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

The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe

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

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

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

The memoir is about being a boy in Sierra Leone, first running from the rebels who killed his family, and then fighting for the army, which promised him a chance to revenge the killings, then in a camp where he was rehabilitated, from the drugs and brainwashing of the army, onto the home of an uncle he had never known, and then finally, after another coup and another death (the uncle who took him in) to NY. Wisely Ishmael keeps his tone quiet as he relays all of these dramatic events and he does not embellish nor even try to draw meaning from his experience--he recognizes that what matters here is to tell the story simply so that readers can register it in its full horror. And while it really does make your heart hurt, Ishmael's ultimate success at regaining his humanity completely without blocking out his experiences is a really triumphant tale.

But what the memoir made me think about was naturally the workshop in which I knew Ishmael. The writing he was doing then (fiction, drama and poetry) was all grounded in his real experiences (though not the worst of them) and fortunately I had a class that recognized that in workshopping this kind of autobiographical material it was important to be sensitive. At the time, his writing was still full of ESL mistakes and honestly a little rough. But while we talked some about those things, the focus was always on the material--what we thought he could do with the material. And I'm glad of that because we had no idea really the extent of the horror of Ishmael's past. There was no way for us to know that by the time he was fifteen he was a trained military killer and that by the time he was eighteen he was addressing the UN about child soldiers. This was a good reminder to me that while I think I know my students, I really know very little of what their lives are like outside of the classroom, and that I shouldn't assume that I do. I don't think anything would have stopped Ishmael from writing his story, but I'm glad to say that our class was a voice of encouragement, expressing that we wanted to hear more.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

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

Now Krauss, who happens to be married to Foer, says they don't read each other's work until it's in page proofs. And she says of the much remarked upon links between their two novels that "people see what they want to see." But it's not the structural and thematic similarities that have been mentioned the most that really struck me--it's that the sound and rhythm of her voice is his. Her sentences sound like his sentences. Which, let's face it, tends to happen in a marriage. It's a frequent joke that couples start to look alike, but it's much more real that they adopt each other's speech patterns. Which makes me wonder if she just can't see what's happened. But in fact her novel is in part about the appropriation of other people's stories, and publishing someone else's novel under your own name, which seems to be a coincidence too far. Now I'm not suggesting he wrote her novel, and if they say they don't read each other's work, I believe them. But what a shocker it must have been once they did compare. Especially if they don't talk about each other's work. BUT... I keep coming back to, why does it matter? Her novel is great. His novel is partially great. The novels they wrote before they knew each other are great (though this is where it becomes clear that she took on his voice rather than vice- versa). It makes me wonder why as a culture we're so attached to authorship. Why shouldn't two authors use the same voice--if the books were published anonymously we wouldn't know who wrote what and would just judge by the text. And yet... we don't publish books anonymously and I wouldn't want us to. I want to group books by author, to compare one of an author's books with another, and I want to compare authors. Actually if they weren't married it would seem like a crazy violation for her to write in his voice, but because they are, somehow it seems kind of sweet. Like it's the perfect union. Which makes me wonder why on earth with two great novelists at home addressing the same themes they wouldn't swap work before proofs? But therein lies the gossipy, curiousity side of reading and not the valuable side...

Friday, February 16, 2007

Graceland by Chris Abani

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

Abani, a Nigerian, who now teaches in the United States, creates this chaotic but believable portrait of Lagos that gave me a much stronger sense of what it would mean to live there than any New Yorker article ever has. In his acknowledgements Abani thanks fiction writer Percival Everett and it's interesting to see the kind of strangeness that Everett often works with in his characters and plots also at work here. In some ways, Graceland reminded me of the novel Like Water for Chocolate (both thread in recipes and rituals) but whereas Esquivel writes magic realism, Abani writes realism with characters who seem like they belong in a magic realist novel yet are absent the magic. I'm not sure how to articulate that to anyone who hasn't read the book. Perhaps it is that in Gracleand the characters are strange and otherworldly seeming, whereas in magic realism, it's the events that are otherworldly.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ssh, Reading in Progress

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

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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

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

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

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

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