Monday, December 31, 2007

Letters to a Fiction Writer edited by Frederick Busch

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

And while none of these letters say much that hasn't been said in other places, the book works just fine for a writer who isn't in an MFA program, doesn't know any writers to get letters of their own from, and who feels generally clueless about the profession. This kind of book can also be useful if you've been out of your MFA program for awhile or away from writing groups etc and are looking for a way to feel more like a writer again. The act of reading about writing certainly does make you think about writing which makes you more likely to actually write. Unless, of course, you replace writing with merely thinking about which case, put the book down. The most interesting element for me was when a couple of letters would work as a sequence, a teacher writes to her student, who years later is a teacher and writes to her student, and so on. That is both a risk and a reward of teaching. There is a wonderful sense of connection to passing on information that was passed on to you. The risk, though, is if you mindlessly parrot what you've been told without considering if it is good or true or suited to the student in front of you.

Dancer by Colum McCann

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

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Sicily Papers by Michelle Orange

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

For those who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love (which is the well-written though maybe not terribly feminist memoir dominating the bestseller charts), this is an even better exploration of a woman traveling alone and sometimes thinking about love.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tell me

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

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald

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

One of the persistent threads of this novel is the miscommunication between characters including distant and near relations, but what MacDonald does is make those moments of miscommunication very specific--we witness moment after moment where we recognize immediately that the character is misreading with great certainty what another character is communicating. And she doesn't do this at all subtlely, but to tragic end time and again...which makes the book feel very high stakes (and gothic), and for such a fat book, very exciting. What's particularly rewarding though is that with possibly only one exception you believe the miscommunications because they are grounded in childhood mistakes that were never corrected due to a dead mother and a neglectful father. Because we've traced these characters for years we understand and even sympathize with exactly how they grow up to be quite so foolish. Big and bold and yet it works.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

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

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

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

The novel follows a ninety-two year old woman who is dispatched to a nursing home that turns out to be a very peculiar place. The tone is Jane-Bowles-strange and the narrator is a Character with a Capital C and very very funny things happen. Including an interlude in which the narrator reads a book by a winking nun who describes further very funny and very strange happenings (let's just say the Holy Grail is involved).

Capital C Characters are often defined more by their unique thoughts than their unique behaviors, as evidenced by this: "I never eat meat as I think it is wrong to deprive animals of their life when they are so difficult to chew anyway." The not eating meat describes the character, but the reason why defines her.

And should you need further inducement to read, I give you this: "The rest of that ill-omened night was spent burying the Prince in the kitchen garden."

And this: "'A report from Mother Maria Guillerma informed me of the following extravagant occurrence of which she was eyewitness through the ample keyhole of Dona Rosalinda's apartments. The keyholes later on became obscurum per obscurius after two nuns were blinded in one eye by a silver needle poked through the opening by the ever-perspicacious Abbess."

And this: "...then I would join my lifelong dream of going to Lapland to be drawn in a vehicle by dogs, woolly dogs."

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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

Anyway, I can see why this isn't exactly the most popular Austen novel. It's very funny but at the expense of all of its characters, including the heroine (who is too much obssessed with the gothic novels of the day). Later Austen learned to be funny at the expense of her secondary characters allowing her heroine (and often a hero such as Darcy or Colonel Brandon) to be noble throughout (despite flaws). This allows readers to simultaneously enjoy a satire of a romance and a romance all in one (the heroine always gets her man). To deliver the very thing that one is satirizing is either very saavy or completely hypocritical. But I fall for it all the same. Its current incarnation seems to be Cormac McCarthy who both critiques killing and delivers it in gory detail (so I'm told; I'm not tough enough to endure say Blood Meridian).

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

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

One of the aspects of this novel that I really enjoyed is the diversionary subplots that either pop up periodically or last a chapter and end. Actually there are so many subplots I'm not certain there is a central plot this time. My workshop had a conversation recently about the value of plot (by conversation I really mean me suggesting having a plot was not the same as being plot-driven and therefore not such a bad thing) and one of the things often missing from graduate student thesis novels are subplots (this may be why grad novels also tend to be a little short)... Now unite this with the fact that TV on DVD has raised my love of the form from amateur level to professional, and I've come up with a theory:

TV dramas tend to have one major plot per episode, but they also have season long plots, and plots that last two to three episodes then conclude. Translated to books I see this as the major plot, a bunch of subplots that don't extend the length of the novel but rather rise up part way through and finish, and then some diversions--perhaps chapter length episodes. And suddenly you have a novel that doesn't feel so thin as many a beginner novel does. (That is, assuming your plots are good, and your characters compelling)

And this is exactly what Fforde does so well here. All the events are tied to Thursday Next (the heroine) but they aren't necessarily all tied to each other, nor do they necesssarily last the whole book.

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

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

From the opening of The Poem of a Life: "Fascinated with numbers as Zukofsky would become, he considered himself 'a man with three birthdays.' For someone else, these confusions over names and dates might have been mere irritations or curiosities; for Zukofsky, one might hazard, they served as signs of his own multiple natures, his own betweenness--he was a man with three birthdays, a man with two names, a man who would leave behind the world of his fathers for a world in which he was never entirely at home."

Monday, December 03, 2007

Tin House: Fantastic Women

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

This came up recently with a friend of mine who wrote a great draft of a story that bore the visible imprint of a This American Life story and in my workshop where a student took a local news item about a fifty-year-old corpse of a baby found in a suitcase in a storage unit (by the decendents of the people who rented the storage unit) and built a story out of it. I recognized the origins of the story in both cases. And I'm here to say... I don't think it's a problem.

It's long been a trend to take history or famous figures and place them in fiction, so what's wrong with taking real unfamous figures (or famous in a different way, like for being on This American Life) and placing them in fiction? I say nothing. A few years ago T.C. Boyle wrote a story about the high school kids who murdered their baby upon its birth (after hiding the pregnancy) and a really good recent movie, Stephanie Daley, took on a similar storyline. And both of those fictional pieces clearly came from true sources, sources I recognized, and it didn't matter to my "reading" of the fiction. It added to my reading of the fiction...I liked having a glimpse into how the story might have been built. It seemed a new version of meta-fiction, where you don't necessarily acknowledge your sources but you don't fight to deny them either. It may well be one of the ways that the essay will influence the story. That topics addressed in essays get a second life in fiction. And it might provide interesting evidence into why we need both genres. One difference seems to be that in essay form the Wolfman is the point, the piece is about why he did it, what effect it had. But in story form, the Wolfman becomes a detail in the larger context of someone else's story (not that the essay couldn't have done that, but in this case it didn't). Maybe I'm wrong, but essays seem to me to typically have a focused center in a way that stories often don't. And so the fiction can take this strange detail of the Wolfman and apply it to anybody's story, to move it into a different space in the world than the one in which it actually existed, and therefore examine it from a different angle.