Monday, December 22, 2008

The School on Heart's Content Road by Carolyn Chute

As with Chute's first novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine, this novel is really unlike anybody else's. And as with her first novel, I loved the opening sixty pages or so and then felt a diminishing return. Still the originality and the writing and a tender (sort of) ending make it worth following through (I originally, accidentally wrote falling through, which maybe is more what I meant). Anyway, the novel follows a commune and a militia, each in Maine, and how their goals and members intersect and collide. In some ways, especially in its social commentary, it's like a Don DeLillo novel, just not about the middle class. And whereas DeLillo has the television in the background saying "Toyota Celica" during a scene, Chute gives the TV a voice of its own (the novel is in alternating voices, most less than a page or two). This is what the TV has to say first: "Beeeee afraid! Low types of people are everywhere; in cities, in towns, in your backyard! In other countries. Drugged, crazed, mindless, evil is at large!" In order to distinguish between the voices, some of which are major characters (they get the most time), some of which are inanimate (the tv) or at least not human (a crow), Chute uses little typographical symbols to label them. This is the kind of thing students sometimes do with their word processors, and I used to discourage it (too cute for my taste) but lately I've gotten more interested in what writers can do graphically in their text, and here Chute's symbols are a help not a hindrance. And though they are a bit cute, or maybe gimmicky, it works all right with her voice, which is exaggerated and a little silly--which works to counterbalance the rather tragic plot.

A good moment of characterization of one of the main speakers, Mickey, a sixteen year old boy: "I was just taking the bus to school, to finish out the year at this school here. I don't mess with their books--you know, frig with them, write shit in them, or vandalize things. That's stupid. But I figured before the last day in June I was going to draw a picture of Mr. Carney sucking a pony's ---- on a separate piece of paper. And, you know, tape it into the book."

And I've never smoked but this seemed like a good, non-cliched way to describe addiction: "He has tried to give up cigarettes but he can't. Where the drive for food is felt in the stomach and the drive for sex is a hot spot between the legs, the drive for a cigarette is felt in every cell. It is a hunger shaped exactly like Mickey inside Mickey, a flaming Mickey shape screaming, I need! I need!"

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is in her seventies, which might explain the shortness of her novels lately. And this novel actually reads much more like a short story (admittedly a 165 page short story, but that's still how it feels to me) in that it works a great deal with implication, hinting at deeper things all around these characters, but not really giving up the details. Anyway, it's Morrison, so it's good enough for me.

Recently one of my undergraduates, a visual arts major, had some wonderful paintings in FAU's senior show (Hi, Jennifer) and in the art catalogue, she explained her process as painting a smaller stroke inside of a larger stroke. Which sounded cool, but also suggested a way of analyzing Morrison's technique in this novel. While in a painting viewers see the two strokes at once, here in a section of text Morrison will give the big stroke--a scene where you can see what's happening but you don't know why or to who or exactly what's going on--and then in a later section (often with a different narrative point of view), you'll get the big stroke filled in with a smaller stroke. For example, a character referred to as "you" will be revealed to be a blacksmith one narrator has fallen in love/obsession with. So the strokes are sequential, but one still fills in the other. It has the effect of first jarring the reader out of complacency, but then reassuring them that there is a truth and it will be told. I guess it's sort of how life works--you make sense--or a story--out of most things only later? I don't know if this is true, but it sounds pretty good.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

A casual remark in a recent department meeting about whether a piece of writing was journalism or memoir made me realize I was holding to a strict distinction between the two that isn't at all true anymore (if it ever was). Because the piece contained quite a bit of personal stuff I was calling it memoir while my colleague (rightly, I think in hindsight) was calling it journalism because of all the non-personal stuff. The difference in genre didn't matter in the slightest for our purposes but it did remind me that most of my favorite books by journalists (Oracle Bones, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, The Orchid Thief...) are at least in part memoir. And Dexter Filkins has written a book that is being marketed as a journalistic account of the Iraq war, but which has definite memoirish qualities. There was no way for Filkins to pretend that he wasn't a part of the events depicted--in one case, his mission (obtaining a photograph to illustrate an article) results in the death of a soldier. So this isn't an objective historian's account. But it's probably all the better for it.

I've been interested in reading accounts of the Iraq war by soldiers and have looked at a few over the years, but in many cases the soldiers lack the ability to address their subjectivity. Their accounts are interesting because they experienced high stakes events that I otherwise feel very removed from. But their prejudices tend to go unaddressed. What Filkins is able to do very well is acknowledge his own subjectivity (his liking and admiration for the soldiers he is embedded with, his fear, his thrill-seeking desires, his growing cynicism and callousness as the war goes on and life in the country worsens) and how that subjectivity influences his thinking. So while the journalist's code used to be objectivity, maybe in a post-objective world, the next best option (or possibly the better option) is objectivity about your subjectivity. Or in non-invented-theory-language: awareness of your own position.

One of the remarkable things about the book is how long Filkins stayed in the Middle East. He starts out in pre-9/11 Afghanistan but gets booted from there, and then spends many years in Iraq. As a result he is able to depict the change from the hopeful and cooperative position of the Iraqis in the early days of the occupation to the growing resistance and frustration as the country's infrastructure gets worse rather than better and foreign insurgents are able to enter the country. You really feel like you're getting the whole story so far.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

Years ago Kate Atkinson wrote a literary first novel that I loved--Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Then she wrote a literary second novel that I also loved but that was rather similar to the first. Then she wrote a third that wasn't that appealing to me (but which still got good reviews). But for her fourth novel (Case Histories) she was suddenly reborn as a mystery writer. And it really worked--her way with language, her characterization all made for a really appealing commercial novel. I suppose she's never looked back (or been allowed to by her publishers). But the nice thing about a literary writer turned mystery writer is how clearly it demonstrates that the lines between high culture and low aren't always so thick and that masses of people enjoy a well-written book. And When Will There be Good News? is a well-written engaging mystery. Bound to be another bestseller (especially now that Janet Maslin has named it a favorite of the year).

Lately I've been collecting lines of characterization that I especially like and here is one: "She [Reggie] didn't add that Mrs. McDonald was rapture ready, that she embraced the end of all things and was expecting to live eternally in a place that when she described it sounded a bit like Scarborough."

(if I may blur blogs for a moment: consider describing a character's conception of heaven as an invention exercise)

Most mysteries have a detective protagonist--usually either a girl (or boy) detective, a world weary cop, or a beleagured private investigator. One of the clever aspects of this novel is Atkinson has all three and they start out with three separate story lines, but ultimately converge to make a funny little crime-solving "family." Awhile back I had the epiphany (while watching the film The Darjeeling Limited) that it's all well and good to write about partnerships between two people, but when you add a third there's a good deal more opportunity for tension and variety. (I guess this is not a particularly revolutionary thought, but there it is).

Atkinson also has the good sense to create a truly heroic dog. I mean this is like a superhero dog in the manner in which it protects the novel's beloveds. Heroic people need to be a bit magic, we don't really believe in them anymore, but a heroic dog just needs to have been top of its class at doggie school.

I suppose my one quibble with the novel is the unnecessary coincidence that gives it a poetic ending. Some consider me an over-zealous crusader against coincidence in fiction, but that's because they seem so convenient. So written. Coincidence in life is appealing because it's so hard to believe and yet it's true. So how to convey in fiction something that is hard to believe but true? The problem is it's not true. The reader knows it's made up. It's like the wizard having the curtain pulled back. But then again coincidences do happen in life so they ought to be allowed in's a conundrum.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lush Life by Richard Price

Fans of the television show The Wire, which Price was a writer for, will certainly like this cop procedural, which is fast moving, engagingly written, and realist enough to be taken seriously. But it's definitely a genre novel. The dominant protagonist is a cop, left purely to type (as in not a real person). He's a bad dad, a touch of an alcoholic, burnt out. But he's merely the guide through the novel, the thing that makes it accessible to the bulk of bestseller readers... there are however some much more real characters who get a lot of play, and there is lots of social commentary slyly built in. For example, one character--a twentysomething white guy who's writing a screenplay while working at a bar--is witness to a murder and when he's brought in for questioning the police clearly think he did it. He's traumatized by their questioning and as a result refuses to cooperate once they realize he is innocent and in fact their only witness. Now as a plot point this is clever--lots of drama in the police interrogation and it allows most of the novel to pass without the witness identifying the killer (we, the readers, know whodunit from the start). But it also works as a coded explanation as to why so many residents of the projects won't come forward and help the police solve the crime. If Price had used a poor black guy instead of the middle class white dreamer, a lot of readers (readers who would not consider themselves racist at all) probably would have balked--said why on earth isn't this guy cooperating. But by using a witness who is more like his readership, those readers are more likely to imagine themselves in the situation and then hopefully be able to step back and understand, oh that's why it's hard to get police cooperation, lots of people feel the police aren't on their side. Which is not to say all of Price's readers are middle class white folk, but realistically--lots of them are. And also not to say that Price is criticizing the police--he's very careful to create good cops and dumb cops, good criminals and dumb criminals...

Price gets a lot of love from people who don't usually give love to genre novels--and that's because his novels aren't escapist. They are entertaining, but not mindlessly or falsely so. One of the elements he adds to the cop stuff is a sense of history. The setting is lower Manhattan and the buildings are old tenements that show a history--in their very walls--of their Jewish past. And Price nicely builds that in to the writing. Readers are reminded that these stories--of poverty and oppression and trying to get a leg up--have been going on for generations, sometimes shifting from one minority group to another. Price gets lots of attention for his dialogue--which is great, tv ready for sure--but it seems to me the other stuff that really adds a deeper layer.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

I'm a big fan of Kelly Link whose short stories tend to be fairy tale-fantasy-gothic literary hybrids. She's always attentive to character and language, so she's one of those crossover genre/literary writers. But she's also a crossover between the young adult and adult audiences. And I first saw this new collection advertised as a young adult title (it's her first book put out by a major trade publisher, Viking, rather than by her own small press, Small Beer Press) but when I bought my copy (the book is available in the usual locations but if you buy it from her website she'll sign it--there are also free downloads available on the site) I noticed it doesn't bear any indicator of being a young adult title. I loved the book, loved the stories which are in the same vein as her stories in Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners, but what really interested me was this marketing issue.

In my workshop on Writing for Young Adults we start each workshop with a discussion of what age group the submission seems to be intended for. Sometimes these discussions can be a little perfunctory, sometimes a little like guesswork, and sometimes a little contentious. Because, of course, age is not a solid indicator of reading ability, emotional maturity, or life experience. But kids do tend to fall in ranges, and their interest tends to lie in characters just a little older than themselves, so it's a doable exercise. But is it a pointless exercise? I don't think part because publishers, librarians and teachers (not to mention parents) worry a lot about what is age appropriate. And writers should too--kids change a lot year to year--and I suspect it would be naive to imagine that you can just write a book for this market and simply let it find its audience. Because writers don't always match voice to content... those of us who write for the grown ups don't tend to worry too much about stuff like that. With a collection like this--grown ups like me (who hold a strong attachment to the things they loved as children) can absolutely enjoy it. Though the stories are all about young people, the character-driven stories are not emotionally simple, the scary stories are scary at any age, and the language is accessible to younger readers but the imagery, metaphors, and narrative voices are still compelling for older readers. But I'd say it's a book for high school on up.

There's a movement on lately to label young adult and children's books with a recommended reading age--and apparently a lot of authors are against this idea. I need to educate myself further as to why, but personally I think parents need help finding books for their kids. There are a huge number of books being put out for kids every year and parents generally aren't reading book blogs and reviews and magazines that analyze these books. They're picking them up in the store and the library and looking at the cover and flipping through. And a label might help them make an educated decision. Most parents will know if they have an eight year old who is mature or not so mature, and presumably will adjust according. Though I'd suggest a removeable sticker or band so eight year olds don't have to over think the fact that they're reading books aimed for six year olds or ten year olds. And I also suggest really sensible people make these decisions--a single word--like say scrotum--does not make a book inappropriate for young readers.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Home by Marilynne Robinson

My reaction to this novel falls in between the deep and abiding love I have for Housekeeping, Robinson's first novel, and the admiration I have for Gilead, her second. I was truly attached to the main characters of Home, who appear on the periphery in Gilead (in a nice touch the central characters of Gilead appear on the periphery here), but one of the most noticeable qualities of the novel is how dialogue-heavy it is. These aren't characters who do; they are characters who talk. But what I really want to point out is the crying. I am constantly drying the tears that flow in my students' stories. Now obviously I know people cry and therefore fictional characters should cry, but you wouldn't believe the weight of these tears--they are constantly soaking garments, dripping to the floor, leaving salty trails everywhere. And generally it's not a bad sign that my students write so much sobbing--it means the characters are in high stakes emotional situations which typically are good for fiction. It's just that it's practically impossible to describe crying in a way that doesn't sound cliched, melodramatic or sentimental. One of my favorite moments in Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day, which is about an emotionally repressed butler, is when someone has to tell the butler that he's crying. He's so out of touch with his own emotions that he hasn't noticed his own tears. So his crying is revealed via the dialogue of another character. And this is exactly what Robinson does. Glory, the protagonist of the novel, is a cry-er. Mostly because her brother Jack--the prodigal son returned--drives her to it with his sad past, his lost love, his alcoholism and his general despair. But somewhat weirdly--though interestingly--Robinson never says, Glory cried. Certainly there are no salty trails. Instead she has Jack tell us via his, "There you go again," or "Are you crying" or "You're crying;" and even though I admit I found this pattern a little distracting, it does serve the function of making Glory's tears a burden to Jack rather than a burden to Glory. Glory doesn't mind that she's crying--she can't help it--but Jack certainly feels that he's the one making it happen. Sometimes he teases her, sometimes he feels guilty, but always, the reader is reminded, the problem is Jack and the tears ostensibly belong to him.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

I have suddenly become obsessed with the fact that there is no "The" in the title of this novel. It would be a natural for a "The"...but no. And Coetzee's deliberate enough that it can't be a mistake... I suppose it de-emphasizes the fact that the life and times are Michael K's...

Anyway... I see this novel by one of my favorite writers as an evolutionary step between Kosinski's Being There and McCarthy's The Road, and of the three I like it best. There are echoes of the childlike gardener Chauncey Gardiner in Michael K (who is, unsurprisingly, also Kafkaesque), and there are echoes of Michael K's attempts to evade notice as he tries to return to his mother's home in the post-apocalyptic journey of the father and son in The Road. But the thing that has always bugged me a little about The Road is how easy it is to leave out all the details of the apocalypse and what happened to the mother and what the heck is going on. I liked The Road well enough and am not saying it was easy to write, but it's easy to get readers to feel sorry for a boy who has a dead mother, a shell-shocked father, no home and a bunch of faceless cannibals behind every bush, and no other defining traits. And it's easy in Being There to make it funny when people mistake the mentally challenged Chauncey for a political genius. But it's harder, in my opinion, to do what Coetzee does. Michael K has a cleft palate, is seriously undersocialized, and is insanely unwilling to accept help from the few who offer it as he escapes one refugee camp (govt run outdoor prisons, more like) after another; yet Coetzee makes him both sympathetic and intelligent enough to be compelling without turning him into an idiot-genius (as in so dumb he's way wiser than the rest of us--I've never bought into that whole better-to-be-stupid idea).

During much of the novel Michael K is alone, either walking the land or trying to farm it (yes, he like Chauncey is a gardener) and though Coetzee's use of internal monologue or free, indirect style is minimal, Michael K seems both sympathetic and intelligent precisely because of his skills with the land. This is different than making him a noble savage (better off because of his lack of so-called culture); it makes him expert in something that is useful and honorable. It drives me nuts when I am supposed to admire a character (like the movie version of Forest Gump) just because he's too innocent to be corrupt--but I'm very interested in a character who is innocent in the manner of a child, but who tries to determine what is right (Michael K thinks "right" is to go to his mother's home, where she wished to be buried, and grow fruit and vegetables) and tries to do right but faces constant obstacles. That formation allows a simple-minded character to engage in a complex plot.

And, of course, Coetzee makes it all a larger story--there is government corruption, overzealous do-gooders, and society's desire to turn the poor and oppressed into performing puppets who tell their stories on command and allow the do-gooders to ooh and ahh at their misfortune without actually solving the causes. In a lot of ways it's a novel about being a refugee and feels even more--or at least just as-- relevant now than when it was published in 1983.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Piccadilly Jim by P.G. Wodehouse

Whenever I need to shore up my air of whimsy, I turn to the novels of Wodehouse. And not long ago I picked up a used copy (he doesn't need the royalties anymore) of this novel at my local used book shop, Bookwise. I never really know if I've read a Wodehouse before (unless I own it) and it doesn't really matter--they all have certain similarities and are perfectly okay for rereading since they don't stick in my head at all. But I really really enjoyed Piccadilly Jim, even more than usual. Perhaps because it's not a Jeeves book and so felt a little different, and perhaps because it's set in NYC, a juxtaposition that made the big-house aspiring-to-the-House-of-Lords baseball-loving-impostor-butler comedy even funnier. And while I was reading it occurred to me that while Austen may have supplied the plot, Wodehouse supplied the voice for Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones. I've long said the thing I like about so-called chick lit is that it permits women writers to be funny but I'd love to see more (women?) writers do comedy omniscience like this (the second sentence):

"She was a large woman, with a fine figure and bold and compelling eyes, and her personality crashed disturbingly into the quiet atmosphere of the room. She was the type of woman whom small, diffident men seem to marry instinctively, as unable to help themselves as cockleshell boats sucked into a maelstrom."

It seems pretty often the Bridget Jones-Shopaholic-Good-in-Bed women protagonists are Bertie Wooster-like in their behavior so that the comedy is mostly grounded in the things they do and think and sometimes in the situations they get into...but the narrator rarely (in my unscientific study) steps back and notices the larger world in such a funny way as Wodehouse does.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Between Panic & Desire by Dinty W. Moore

Full disclosure: Dinty Moore will be FAU's Sanders Writer in Residence for a week in the spring, he published my essay in Brevity, and he recently did me a career-related solid... but even if those things weren't true, I'm certain I would have enjoyed this memoir all the same.

Back during my glory days as an editorial assistant at Anchor Books, we were always trying to get essay writers to turn their essays into single narrative books. The theory then, and possibly now, was essay collections didn't sell as well as single narratives. Sedaris and Vowell and others have made a dent in that theory, but all the same, they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. The problem though is it's hard to turn disparate essays into a single narrative what I noticed most powerfully with this memoir was how well Moore had pulled off that feat. Partly this is because there is a quirky nature to his writing (which sometimes includes quizzes, psychic hotline calls, and numeracy (numerology? I don't know the right term) and is almost always collaged) that allows the reader to accept a collaged over-arching narrative. But what he does most brilliantly is apply extended metaphors that thematically link all of the essays. This may be because he has a strong sense of what he's doing with his writing--so the metaphors were in the background all along--but he sets up these metaphors at the start of the memoir so that they truly glue together all that follows. Two examples are the title--Panic and Desire are two Pennsylvania towns that Moore visits, and he cleverly sets up his trip between the two as a metaphor for his emotional journey through life, and his double vision (the thought of which absolutely gives me a headache)--which again serves as a metaphor for how he views the world. Read the book to find out what I'm talking about.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

A charming novel described as Dickensian by quite a few critics because of its oddball characters, child protagonist, and violations of labor laws...but it's not an imitation, it has its own more fantastical bent--with a dwarf living on a rooftop, a mousetrap factory, and amputated limbs galore. It's as if Dickens had watched Twin Peaks. (actually I don't know why I used that comparision since I've never seen Twin Peaks; it's as if Dickens had watched a Jean Jeunet film.)

Because I'm teaching Writing for Young Adults this semester I've become more conscious of how child protagonists are presented in novels for adults--and they seem to fit into two categories--the precociously verbal or the eerily quiet (in books for kids the kids have more range, some are even of only average intelligence). Ren, the protagonist one-armed thief of the title, is more of the eerily quiet variety (though he talks when he needs to). And his quietness creates a kind of serious, mature aura around him that helps keep him interesting despite his youth.

But what I really want to point out about this novel is how tightly woven it is. A lot of writers will know Charles Baxter's idea of echoes (he might even call them rhyming echoes, I forget) in fiction, in which certain objects or ideas or places get used more than once. It's especially noticeable in short fiction where the objects are fewer and therefore recycled more. But this novel makes brilliant use of that technique. And interestingly as you move through the novel and start to expect that things will reappear unexpectably, it helps make some fairly unbelievable occurrences feel more believable. Because you accept that this is a world in which nothing disappears for good--say for example if you pee into a jar and put that jar of pee into a desk drawer then when that desk drawer gets opened three chapters later that jar of pee will still be there and it will be useful.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Critics went gaga over this recent novel by Joseph O'Neill (who btw, is half-Turkish, my fellow half-Turks might be interested to know. He is also the author of a memoir about his split heritage, a copy of which I gave to my brother though I'm pretty sure he never read it just as I didn't read it but still hope to one day). Anyway the novel is good every which way--setting, characters, metaphors small and large, but I confess I never got beyond thinking it's good. Happy to read it once, unlikely to read it again. For a more loving view and a strong case for the value of an extended metaphor re: cricket see James Wood's take in the New Yorker.

Some reviews see the novel as a post-colonial Great Gatsby (I confess I also admire, but don’t worship, the feet of Fitzgerald). The narrator is Dutch, a finance guy living with his wife and child in Manhattan when 9/11 hits. His wife splits with the kid back to London and the narrator is left gutted, wandering, but still pretty rich. So he ends up hanging out with this cricket club made up of much poorer immigrants from Southeast Asia and the Caribbean and led by Chuck Ramkissoon, the would-be Gatsby, whose murder opens the novel. Chuck is possibly involved with the Russian mafia but definitely has big dreams, including opening a major cricket field in NY. The narrator is drawn to him despite misgivings, which makes this a sort of Gatsby in reverse—the Nick Carroway character is rich, the Gatsby character is poor. All of which I found intellectually interesting but not terribly emotionally rousing.

But still it’s a well written novel. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how characters are written, including the moment when characters are first introduced, the physical description, the use of their thoughts, the metaphoric descriptions attached to them… anything that shapes character. And I especially admired this description of Chuck which follows a dialogue in which he goes off on a long list: “Chuck wasn’t going to stop there. He believed in facts, in their momentousness and charm. He had no option, of course: who was going to listen to mere opinion from him?” What interests me is the way the narrator makes a broad comment about the character—taking the moment and using it to indicate a pattern of behavior and then expands that pattern out to a comment on the world in which we we live. Chuck is an immigrant and poor, not to be taken seriously unless he backs his opinions with facts. That moment of narrative "show and tell" makes Chuck feel real and deepens the scope of the novel.

Lately I’ve been thinking too about iconic characters, and what makes them iconic. Gatsby is, but in the end Chuck probably isn’t though he had the potential to be. He’s left a little too much of a mystery for me. He doesn’t actually feel quite as important to this novel as Gatsby does to his own (note to self: put character name in title should you wish iconic status).

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso

I seem to be on a run lately of reading lyric, precise memoirs of illness, and this one is my favorite so far. Manguso's renders her illness--a rare blood disorder which at its worst leaves her so weak that she is unable to walk--in chapters that are more like individual prose poems and in paragraphs that are more like individual lines. One of my favorite lines comes on the last two pages: "But to pay attention is to love everything." The "but" follows two paragraphs about how suffering teaches you to pay attention because you might not know what's the important part (the lesson-giving part) of your suffering. But the way Manguso sets her paragraphs apart--with an extra space break between every single one--lets the line float on its own, both the completion of her idea and an idea of its own. To pay attention is to love everything. I'm not sure if the line/idea would have hit me so hard without the context of the whole book coming before it, but all the same: it's a mantra that works for me.

But back to Manguso's paragraph breaks. Any of you who teach at FAU have probably experienced the current bane of my existence--when students come to school to print, their documents are converted to the new Word 2008 on the university computers and suddenly there is an extra space break between every paragraph. It drives me nuts. And few students seem to have learned how to fix it. But here, Manguso shows how such a thing--used deliberately, that is--can be very powerful. It's not just that the white space between every paragraph, many of which are only one or two sentences long, creates a meditative pause for the reader (which it does), or that it emphasizes the line that came before the space break (which it does), but it forces you to emphasize the first sound of each paragraph in a way that you wouldn't otherwise. In other words, she's not using paragraph breaks so much as line breaks. And like a good poet she knows to sometimes use the sounds at the start of each line in combination. For example in one section (most of which are only two or three pages long) nearly every paragraph starts with "my" or "I." While in the abstract that may sound annoying, it actually creates a nice rhyme and rhythm (especially because she knows to interrupt it periodically) that lulls you as you read her sentences, which are mostly very clinical, fairly horrifying descriptions of what is happening to her body. It brings the poetry to the science.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Pharmacist's Mate by Amy Fusselman

I quite admired this small sad memoir about the death of the author's father (paired with her fertility treatments and pregnancy struggles). Lately I seem to prefer my nonfiction really spare (I'm also reading the similarly spare Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso). And this seems the kind of book that small presses exist to do (it's put out by McSweeney's)--too many small presses simply pick up books that are what the big presses publish but not quite as good. Small presses seem most successful when instead they pick up books that big presses weren't willing to take a chance on not because they weren't quite good enough but because they didn't seem marketable enough. And this is a pretty depressing book that's less than a hundred pages long, is poetic in its voice, and blends in the writing of a non-professional (the dad). And for all those reasons probably seemed risky to big publishers (if they ever saw it, I don't know). But it's really lovely and, despite what might be a pregnancy at the end, properly mournful. Elegaic, I suppose the reviewers would say.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

A very funny novel about an office in decline narrated from what I always thought of as a collective first person (we) but turns out to be called first person plural. First person plural had a celebrated appearance twenty years ago (good grief) in Jeffrey Eugenides first novel The Virgin Suicides but I hadn't really seen it much since. It is a strange beast because a reader has to first figure out is this actually a single narrator who is talking about a tribe in which he is a member (much the way you might say, "We ate dinner" when talking about yourself and, you know, somebody else) or is this supposed to be somehow the voice of the group. Intellectually it seems in both this novel and Eugenides it's supposed to be the voice of the group but it's impossible to read it as anything other than a single individual speaking for the group. So every character who is a named member of the group is excluded as a potential narrator and you're left assuming the narrator is this observer who never actually does anything but is part of the group all the same. Eugenides avoids this problem by not naming the members of the group (or very few) and almost never identifying single actors--all actions are committed by "we". Eugenides got away with that because the novel is driven by the girls of the title who are indivualized, and do not have relationships with any of the narrators except in a collective way. But Ferris can't do that, he needs individual characters who are group members (the novel is as much about the group as it is about what the group observes)... all a long way of saying, I really read this as first person singular with the group as a subject observed by one unidentified member. So why then make it "we" and not "I"? Because if it had been "I", readers would most likely demand insight and knowledge into the narrator. First person narrators never really get to observe without identifying who they are and why the story matters to them. So Ferris avoids that by having us all pretend there is no first person narrator.

Now don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the novel tremendously and think the "we" was the right choice, but one choice I do quibble with is when two-thirds of the way through Ferris instead goes with third person limited for a section. It's to track a character who is outside the group but who is much speculated on by the group and who has secrets much speculated on by the group. So he follows her so that readers can know what the group can't. And it's the kind of point of view cheat that writers consider forbidden but tend to do anyway when they want to. But my issue is the only reason for the rule breaking is because Ferris wants us to have her story--which is less silly and more poignant than what the group can observe. So it's his only cheat. But it felt to me both unnecessary (much more interesting to leave us wondering as the group wonders and then have us find out what the group finds out) and a little too easy--I would have loved to have seen him find a way to make the character's story as poignant and compelling without violating the rules he set for the novel at the start.

Then again this is the kind of thing readers barely even notice. But I swear it bugs them without their being able to identify why.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Check out my former student and FAU MFA graduate Kathrine Wright in the current issue of Brevity. Some of you will recognize her essay as the "Why I Write" assignment from the summer workshop a few seasons back.

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

This is a pretty charming, mostly funny book of essays by a young woman who is a book publicist in Manhattan. Lots of what I enjoyed about it had to do with my occasional nostalgia for the publishing industry and for the bucketloads of fellow just-graduated English majors who I worked with back in the mid-nineties. But more objectively, a lot of Crosley's essays (which on the surface are about things like how men she dates always give her plastic ponies (there is an explanation), or how she locked herself out twice in one day at two different apartments) are quite interesting structurally. Her humor comes from the situations described and her voice, but the essays get their weight (which is not substantial but certainly on par or even deeper than humor-essayist-heavyweight David Sedaris) from the thread of ideas that she follows. Her essays are never about just one thing. I tend to think of the essay as being akin to the short story in that it typically ought to have a tight focus, but she makes a good case for thinking bigger. For example, an essay will start out on one subject, her parents' unholy fear of fire, but then moves (via candles) to the lax Judaism of her parents (Xmas tree decorators all the way) then on to her devotion to her Christian summer camp and then on to a spoiled girl she meets at summer camp and ending at her mother's reaction to her playing the role of Mary in the summer camp Christmas play after the spoiled girl, originally scheduled as Mary, breaks her toe when she slams into the dock while water-skiing. So one thing leads organically to the next, bringing in new ideas and experiences, and yet Crosley makes it all part of a larger, connected whole. All while making you laugh quite a bit.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This short memoir was blinked out letter by letter by its author, the former editor in chief of French Elle, who could move only his left eyelid after suffering a massive stroke. The context of its writing is impossible to ignore--of course, his condition is also the subject of the memoir, but knowing how it was written shades how you read it--making it good evidence for how readers bring their own emotions to the table. You forgive the memoir its shortness, its gaps, its lack of total honesty (the movie version, a more artsy endeavor yet seemingly a little more true, makes the author less sympathetic and more suffering) because its creation seems so impossible.

On the one hand, if you are immobile in bed with a fully functioning brain, what else could you do but tell yourself stories, on the other, how badly must you want to communicate if you blink out every word letter by letter. But what's amazing is how crafted the sentences, paragraphs and sections are. These are no noun-verb straightforward constructions; they are rhythmic and long. And Bauby, who died shortly after the book's publication in France, would memorize each paragraph before dictating it.

But back to my point--as readers, we are often intended to place ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist or memoirist, but how often do we really do it? It's pretty easy to read from a semi-indifferent remove, but Bauby makes his extraordinary situation so real via detail (looking in the mirror, he writes: "Reflected in the glass I saw the head of a man who seemed to have emerged from a vat of formaldehyde. His mouth was twisted, his nose damaged, his hair tousled, his gaze full of fear. One eye was sewn shut, the other goggled like the doomed eye of Cain. For a moment I stared at that dilated pupil before I realized it was mine.") and so interesting via reflection/metaphor/imagination, (the paragraph continues: "Whereupon a strange euphoria came over me. Not only was I exiled, paralyzed, mute, half deaf, deprived of all pleasures, and reduced to the existence of a jellyfish, but I was also horrible to behold.") that you actually want to imagine yourself there--and then gratefully return to your own reality. It would have been just as easy, I suppose, for Bauby to blink out a novel instead of a memoir, but it's telling that instead of choosing to spend his time escaping his own reality he decided to confront it head on, and write the inside story that nobody else has been able to tell before. It strikes me as just the kind of thing nonfiction can do best.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Gathering by Anne Enright

If you love language and aren't too fussed about plot, then you ought to enjoy this Booker Prize-winning novel. I've been interested lately in novels that work more with narration (so called "telling") than with scene (so called "showing"), and this novel pulls that off so well I barely noticed the lack of scene until I was two-thirds of the way through. The center of the novel is a wake (we're in Ireland) for the narrator's brother who has committed suicide and the chapters are all spokes off that center--memories related to her brother, present moments related to the death, and imagined memories of the narrator's mother and other characters. And the shuffling between those times makes you feel like you're moving forward even though we're pretty static in the present moment. But it all works (for me, at least) because the narrator has a strong voice, interesting observations, and an emotional intensity that makes even the imagined memories feel high stakes. So I was happy to spend time with her--it's a case of wanting to get to know the narrator better rather than wanting to know what happened.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier

There are some books that I fall in love with because of character and voice (Owen Meany, The Giant's House, Harriet the Spy) but there are a handful of books that generate a different sort of love in me that runs even deeper. I think it's a more personal reaction to the feeling that the book creates--a sense that the world is big and strange and a little bit magic--the kind of feeling that one gets most often as a child. Franny and Zooey is that kind of book for me, as is Wind, Sand and Stars... and now so too is The Mystery Guest. Which is not to say that this short memoir by a vulnerable Frenchman who is invited to be the "mystery guest" at a famous artist's party by an ex-girlfriend who deserted him many years ago in a brutal way (that he seemed to deserve) is going to last as long as those books (who knows?) but that it generated a feeling of wonder in me that was really pleasing to find again. The book's strength is the author--a man who has taken to wearing turtlenecks all the time even though he hates men who wear turtlenecks--and his willingness to admit to how high the stakes are in seeing this ex-girlfriend again. And somehow in telling his own odd story he makes it okay to be human and frantic and a little bit weak--and in fact finds the beauty, the wondrousness, in those very qualities. Beginning writers often make the mistake of thinking a sense of universality comes from creating characters who are undefined (the better to fit your own shape into) but this book is a good example of how the exact opposite is true. I bear little resemblance to this author--not in life experience, not in philosophy, not in nationality, gender, etc etc--but he rendered his experience so clearly, so specifically, that it felt like my own. You want readers to recognize the truth in what you describe, not to have to insert their truth into it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

For the most part I enjoyed this semi-comic novel about women whose kids are growing out of their dependent stages, and one of my favorite aspects was the way Wolitzer periodically broke out of the box of the expected structure. At the novel's center is a group of four women friends, but Wolitzer feels free to sometimes pull back and write semi-grand lyric sentences about women in general (e.g. the opening line: "All around the country, the women were waking up.") and also to write occasional short chapters that follow a woman only tangentially related to the central characters (these include their mothers but also Margaret Thatcher's personal assistant, Magritte's wife, and Nadia Comaneci). While the specific stories of the main characters obviously stand for the lives of many women of today and readers could certainly have extrapolated that on their own--I thought many of the novel's most surprising moments came from those times when Wolitzer illustrated their stories with these out-of-the-box add ons. It's a good reminder that novels don't have to be story-tight.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

What Maisie Knew by Henry James

It's easy to assume that the current state of things where children of divorce get shuffled between parents is a modern development, but James' novel of 1897 makes clear that while it may be a current issue it's not a new issue. Maisie's parents get divorced and she is to split her time between them, but the novel's comedic commentary and its drama are drawn from the fact that neither of her parents want her much. And with re-marriages, affairs, and the like, Maisie ends up with all kinds of different people parenting her. I once heard the critic James Wood lecture on free, indirect style using this novel as a model, and it is the perfect example. The novel is third person but at times we are very much in the voice of Maisie's head. But what I kept thinking of was how brilliantly it is titled. My theory on titles is they must work first to raise our curiousity before we have read the novel (check: what DID Maisie know, I've been wondering for years--hmm, guess it didn't work that well since it took me years to get around to finding out) and to raise our understanding after we have read the novel. And it is in this second matter that I found the title most effective. It wouldn't have escaped many readers that Maisie, as a child, has limited understanding of the shenanigans (turns out I don't know how to spell that word) going on around her, but by making that thematic element the title, you spend a little more time pondering exactly what she understands, what she learns, and how she changes as a result. It makes the novel thematically focused in a way that is useful since the drama is confined to her perspective (the big scandals involving maids, governesses, counts, etc all happen off stage so there's not a lot of tension in the scenes we do see--unless you consider them from the perspective of what Maisie does and doesn't know).

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen

With all the buzz and backlash about this novel by one of the founders of the excellent literary magazine N+1, I never really registered that it's a comedy (or as they might say in tv-land, a dramedy), and I found much of it really really funny. Partly because some of the behaviors of the sad young literary men are highly recognizable to me from my collegiate and post-collegiate years. While some readers automatically react against Ivy League novels (demned elitism, they cry), I think lots of people would find this novel funny.

But for budding novelists, the thing I'd most like to point out is that Gessen, like any number of novelists, writes about a group of characters and rotates sections between them. A lot of writers when creating a group choose one of each--a blonde, a brunette, a redhead, or a bad boy, a good boy, a funny boy, a serious boy (you know, John, Paul, Ringo, and George)... what I'm trying to say here is they create characters who are noticeably different in some way. Partly I suppose to set the sections apart and partly to be able to write about different behaviors. And often that works just fine. But one of the effective elements of this novel is these three guys are pretty similar. Of course they have their distinctions and different things happen to them, but they are, as so many friends are, overlapping in lots of ways. And because Gessen still keeps each of the sections/characters interesting (and different enough) the novel ends up having a wider and deeper scope then it might have otherwise. It's a novel not just about three different guys who have loose connections to each other, but it's about a certain type of person at a certain point in his life. And we get to see that type engage in slightly different behaviors etc--so he feels pretty well-examined, satsifyingly so, by the end.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

A clever fun read of a novel by a young British writer. The novel is about a company that makes products for kids and teens and it's at times too obvious in its critique of the marketing and corporatization of toys (easy easy target) but it's clever in that the protagonist is a code-maker/cracker and so naturally there are lots of codes and fun stuff included. The novel also references pretty much every bit of science and psychology that the average college freshman gets exposed to--Milgram, Turing, etc.--cocktail party science that I confess I enjoy. And then there's the math ... I don't object to math, I'm fine with math (my department recently mocked me for referencing prime numbers and how they relate to workshop--they don't! we split into groups!), but this math was definitely beyond me... and the novel has a clever way of dumbing it down. Thomas puts most of the math into the exposition. And so it is being explained to the protagonist when she is a little girl. So it can be explained really really simply. This trick could have backfired but the characters are set up to be people who talk about math in dialogue and so it works out just fine.

And there are some nice surprises in the end that make this a novel especially well suited to teenagers who haven't yet lost their idealism.

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo

I love Sully. The elderly, stubborn pain in the rear protagonist of this novel is completely unavoidably loveable. And that's pretty much how all the characters react to him as well. They want to smack him (sometimes they do smack him) but they love him all the same. And the only way for that to feel believable--that such a jerk would be so universally loved--is for the reader to fall in love too. And how do you do that... it's a hard trick. Rabbit of Updikedom shares a lot of traits with Sully--cheats on spouses, sexualizes women constantly, abandons family members, behaves selfishly stubbornly and stupidly--and yet I want to smack Rabbit (twice) and don't love him at all. But Sully...I love Sully.

And I suppose it's because Russo makes Sully self-aware (he embarks the novel on a "stupid streak") and on the path to redemption (fresh start with grown son, good relationship with grandson), and a caretaker for quite a few members of the town (especially elderly women who he treats with great respect and affection). But it helps too that Sully is a working class guy who had a terrible father and who doesn't have a lot of prospects for the professional advancement that would get him out of this small town--which he doesn't want to leave anyway. Rabbit on the otherhand is an well-educated, well-off guy--and yes, that makes his behavior less forgiveable. Call it reverse classicism or maybe even condescension but it's real. The working class character--if treated fully and fairly (as in not stereotyped)--from small town America is probably almost always a more sympathetic character than the upper middle class guy from the suburbs.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

This slim collage novel of an old woman's thoughts is full of gems I'd like to pull out of my pocket and study at will (in other words, I wish I could memorize paragraphs). It's really more like a portrait gallery than a novel--pictures line up next to each other in a deliberate order but placing it into a narrative is really up to the reader--like glimpsing someone else's consciousness without them organizing it first. A form that fits the subject well. It's also a novel that assumes a high level of cultural knowledge--no explanations but lots of references.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Often the phenom of connected stories bugs me--it feels publisher induced--but in this case the book really is all the stronger for having the title character star in a number of stories and appear in the rest. And Strout has managed to pull off stories that all feel individual and complete and link them together in a way that doesn't feel like she should have just expanded the links to write a novel instead. These need to be separate stories because they don't all center on Olive--but her brief appearances in those other stories still add dimensions to her character as we keep reading the book.

Basically Olive is a bitch. But she's more a bitch to her husband and son than to everybody else in town. To them she is the old woman who was once the scary elementary school teacher who sometimes reached out to them in ways that really mattered. So we see her struggle--humanely, she's a bitch you feel for--in the stories that center on her life, but we also see how compassionate and strong and loving she can be to those around her. The fact that she can't sustain that behavior nor play it out for those closest to her feels tragic and real in a way that's effective.

There's something Alice Munro-ish about Strout's writing, so part of me feels like, well, we've still got Munro, do we need Strout? but I'm going to go with yeah, we do. The more Munros the merrier.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

A funny very short novel (novella really) by the reigning master of satire. Phil is a robot-like creature who runs roughshod over the handful of residents of a neighboring country so small only one inhabitant--and only a part of that inhabitant at that--can fit in it at one time, so that the citizens all rotate, the rest standing as short term residents in Phil's land. And if that sentence makes sense to you, you've probably read Saunders before. If it didn't well, you should go see for yourself.

When I first read Saunders' early short stories, which largely mock corporate culture and mass consumerism, I really loved them, but over time began to feel if he didn't find some new aspect of the USA to make fun of, he was going to lose steam. And then Bush II came into office. And Saunders' fiction (I'm generalizing some here) and nonfiction seemed to focus mainly on the antics of our duly unelected government. And I don't have any problem with that, except for the fact that Bush II and co. are very easy targets--their actions, whether you agree with them are not, are so big. And in some ways I'm more interested in realist fiction and nonfiction about these times rather than satire--what is it really like to be profiled or spied on by your govt, what is it really like to go to war when all you wanted was a college education, what was it really like to live in Iraq under Hussein, what is it really like to live in Iraq now etc etc. So the moments when The BFR of Phil (which came out in 2005) works best for me are actually the least overtly allegorical ones--it's not the self-reporting media nor the goon drafting tactics of Phil--but rather the stranger aspects of the fiction that made me think and react the most. The stuff that goes well, you think what's going on is bad--just see where else it could lead.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Slaughter-house Five by Kurt Vonnegut

It's interesting reading books way late--as in long after the age when most people read them (in this case, lots of people seem to read Slaughterhouse-Five in high school) and also long after many other writers have written their own novels under the influence of this one (certainly Tom Robbins but even Tim O'Brien seems to have been affected). The great thing about Vonnegut though is that despite my having reached the age of almost-thirty-seven and of being aware of the novel and hearing people mention it for decades, I could never have predicted what was inside. I knew it was about prisoners of war and I knew it was by the author of the hilarious Cat's Cradle but I could never put those two things together and come up with a prediction of what would lie there in. And yet now that I have read it, it seems perfectly Vonnegutian. A serious but funny novel that uses the storytelling practices and philosophical beliefs of a group of aliens to perfectly depict post-traumatic stress in a soldier. If I had read this in high school (we read Cat's Cradle instead) I know there would have been much discussion of the Christ symbol of Billy Pilgrim and whether or not the aliens were real, but sometimes, I admit, it's nice just to feel a book rather than interpret it. And I definitely felt this book.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Jonathan Franzen somewhat famously championed this novel back into print and I can see both why he did and why it was out of print. It's quite good, but it feels of its moment--the 60s--in a way that's sort of uncomfortable now. The 60s have been mythologized by the winners--the rock and roll generation--not by the losers--their parents (I generalize, of course) and this feels like a novel of the parents who were frightened by just how dirty and dangerous the coming changes felt (or so I hear, I'm not as young as I feel but I'm not as old as all that either). So it's a novel about people who are completely unnerved by the coming moment.

One of the things I admired was the novel's tight structure--it's short, 156 pages in my edition--and is centered around a three day period in which the protagonist is bitten by a cat and then waiting to hear if the cat is rabid. But the lesson therein is that the novel is not about the cat bite and the waiting. It's about all the things that were already going on in this character's life that coincided with--and were then framed and illuminated by--the cat bite. One of the mistakes student writers tend to make in planning a novel or even a short story is they have a concept--woman bitten by cat must wait to discover if she has rabies!--but confuse that with a plot. As Ron Carlson used to say (probably still does), into what life has this day come. In other words nobody is sitting around waiting for a cat to bite them (well, metaphorically I might be), they have stuff to do, things going on. That stuf is your plot. The bite is what brings it all into focus.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Away by Amy Bloom

I was only so-so on this novel by the very talented Amy Bloom (lots of critics liked it though), but I was interested in how she used a journey structure but managed to avoid an overly episodic feel. Most journey novels have something clearly at stake for the beginning and the end--the thing that is the reason for going on the journey (in this case, Lillian, the protagonist, is trying to go back to her four year old daughter who she had left for dead after a Russian pogrom in the 1920s)--but the whole middle can feel a little random (anything could happen! anyone could be met!). In this case, Lillian has to get from NYC to Alaska to Siberia without any money (sounds like an episode of the Amazing Race) and naturally she meets lots of characters along the way. But Bloom's short story credentials are useful here because she treats each meeting like an individual story. So the encounters last long enough for the reader to get to know the new characters, to develop concern for them, to allow Lillian to develop a genuine relationship to them and for high stakes action to happen beyond the consistent question of will Lillian stay alive and get to Sophie or not. And Bloom makes the choice to follow, very briefly, each of the characters that Lillian meets all the way through their future. So in a paragraph or two you learn the rest of their lives. This is pretty satisfying and leaves you in the end feeling like she's created a whole world of people--mostly women--who are doing the up-by-the-bootstraps American thing in the 1920s (mostly in the northwest). So the journey is the skeleton, Lillian is the heart, but everything else is the flesh.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

I have long said Toni Morrison was my favorite living writer, but reading this novel it occurred to me that the mantle might have passed to Coetzee. Not due to any diminished love for Ms. Morrison, but because he seems to still have great books in his future, and it's hard to believe that she does. So she transitions over to one of my favorite writers, and we'll switch the word living to working. Coetzee might be my favorite working writer. He's like Kundera but with plot. And he very consistently has major female characters, and he writes about race and politics and class all while being very meta-. And it probably doesn't hurt that his novels tend to be short. I enjoy a big fat read but when one has 765 books to read before she dies, well...

Anyway, Foe is described as a retelling of Robinson Crusoe but it's more like a retelling of the telling of Robinson Crusoe. In this novel, a woman lands on the island and lives with Crusoe and Friday for a year before they are all rescued. Crusoe dies before making it home, and so the woman and Friday are left to their own devices. And the woman ends up finding a writer (Foe) to write the story of their adventures on the island--which she finds she herself cannot write. And the implication seems to be that Foe wrote her out of the story and out of existence. But the novel's moral center is more on Friday--who is tongueless and ends the novel learning to write. And one of the things I like about Coetzee is he's not terribly subtle--I mean he symbolizes Friday's lack of a voice by giving him no voice--and yet he is quite complex. So you read his novels understanding exactly what is happening, but having to puzzle over what does it mean. This is more to my taste than writers who symbolize the complexities of life by leaving you without much of a clue as to what is literally going on. It seems to me the difference between confusion and ambiguity. Or maybe I just like a dark room better with a nightlight on.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen

Turns out I really like Ron Hansen. I love his short story "Wickedness" and his novel Mariette in Ecstasy and this novel...but I just only now realized the same person wrote all three. I'm not sure why I didn't put it together; he has a fairly distinct manner in which he lists characters, detailing one for a paragraph then the next for a paragraph then the next...lots of people in his fiction. And he tends to use a really flat but really specific voice. It's not emotionally colored--except I guess for the fact that flat tends to feel sad--but it always names things properly. The trees get their right name, the architectural details get their right name, anatomy gets its right name...

Anyway, I didn't know about this novel until I saw the Casey Affleck movie (some might be inclined to call it the Brad Pitt movie, but in this case the coward is way more interesting than the hero) that came out last year. And the voice-overs (why do voice-overs get such a bad rap in movies; I like them when they use language well) were so good that I thought they had to be lifted right from a novel. Turns out they were, and not only that but the dialogue was too. I mean right from page to stage (okay, screen). And it made me realize how strong Hansen is in both narration (third, past) and in scene. The dialogue makes these guys quite funny--the very puppyish qualities of Robert Ford come out mostly in what he says--but the narration makes the book serious and sad. It's like having a comic relief character in a drama--except all these guys feel like comic relief in an otherwise serious situation and setting. And the narration is actually mostly action and setting--just a detailed description of what everyone's doing and where they're doing it. But it really increases the scope and does a good job of implying the complexity of these characters (it doesn't speculate much on why they do what they do but it suggests a lot about their visions of masculinity and government and family).

One of the things that mystified me about the novel was how Hansen gets away with the old-timey language that he throws in quite often. It works; I just don't know why it works. I mean I know the setting is the Ye Old West, but the old-fashioned speech could just have easily sounded fake and silly.

Book Lists

I'm not saying these lists are good or bad, but Su's comment prompted me to point them out:


New York Times

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

As a fan of the epistolary and as a book lover, I adore 84 Charing Cross Road the book of letters written between Helene Hanff, a New Yorker, and the British bookshop from which she ordered English classics throughout the 50s. Her voice-in-letters is funny and self-deprecating and makes you think she would be a great deal of fun to hang out with. And here, lo and behold, is a sequel that I never knew existed--a diary of her trip to London, her first, made to promote the British edition. Aside from the pleasure of being reuinted with Hanff, it's interesting to see how many complete strangers adored her and called her up and took her out to eat just because they'd read her book. Are there any authors you would invite to dinner if they came to town?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Apparently Tey was a really popular mystery writer in the forties and fifties though I only heard of her recently when I read an interview with a children's book writer that declared this one of the greatest books of all time. I must say I did really enjoy it (though it wouldn't go on any best-of lists for me) but interestingly the only reason I knew it was a mystery was because the cover told me so. The novel takes place at a women's physical training college that as far as I could tell turned out gymnasts, dance teachers, girl's athletic coaches and nurses and one of the things I really enjoyed was the close study of this little post-war, pre-modern world that I never knew existed (physical training colleges?) (and now that I think about it because of the setting the novel is populated by about twenty women and three men which also made it feel unique). But what was striking was that the murder (which you assume is coming having judged the book by its cover) doesn't take place until 2/3rds, maybe even 3/4ths of the way in. And it's perfectly obvious who did it. (both who you are supposed to think did it and who really did it--it's not a spoiler, I'm telling you, you'd know). And so really what makes this a mystery? Isn't it just a novel with a murder in it? Though I like the idea of more mystery writers embracing the idea of holding off on the crime and establishing characters and setting first. Lately most of the contemporary mysteries I've read (which I admit has pretty much been limited to Elizabeth George and Kate Atkinson) put the crime in chapter one and then need to resort to a second crime halfway through to up the stakes again. The thought of building to the crime--and hopefully disguising it and its perpetrators more than Tey does--intrigues me.

Ooh, a list!

I don't tend to go for these memes (I don't even know what that word means) but I love me a book list and as a devotee of the 1001 Books I Must Read Before I Die (235 read and counting), I couldn't resist this one (which I saw over at William's and Emily's blogs). These are apparently:

the top 100 or so books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing’s users. Bold (in this case green) the books you have read, underline the ones you read for school, italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish. I think there should be another category--the ones you own but haven't read so they're on your bookshelf where visitors can't be sure if you've read them or not, I'm putting those in a wee font...

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre

The Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha

Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
Angels & Demons
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse

Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake
Cloud Atlas

The Confusion is this There is Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values

The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield

12 of them I read for high school (Go Fords!), 7 for undergrad, and only 3 for grad school. Probably says something about the list more than my education.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

I'll say first that I applaud HarperCollins for being willing to publish a novel-in-verse about werewolves. But I did find myself wishing it was a better novel-in-verse; or either a better novel or a better verse. Anne Carson I think pulls off both good novel, good verse in Autobiography of Red, and maybe I was unfairly comparing this n-in-v to hers. Carson is truly a literary writer, but what Barlow has written is more of a thriller. So who am I to say that just because it has line breaks that it has to be literary. Except, I couldn't help but feel that as a novel without line breaks it wouldn't have made it. The book depends too much on its conceit to be really original.

But I enjoyed it in moments (good line about how maybe all relationships start with a version of stalking), and it prompted some thinking on a subject I find pretty interesting--animal characters. I read an interview with a children's illustrator recently in which she mentioned that when you draw animals instead of children you can have them do things like push each other out of trees and it's cute. But one child pushing another out of a tree would be creepy at best, psychotic at worst. And similarly Barlow can have his werewolves commit vicious executions and gruesome acts of cannibalism while they are dogs, and then have them change back into people. And they are more sympathetic than if they had committed the killings while in their human form. But all the same...I couldn't most of the time tell the werewolves apart (check out how well Carson does character development in Red) and so ended up tuning out and then dropping out all together.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I really enjoyed the recent Masterpiece Classics version of this novel and so finally picked up the crumbling (but still lovely) copy that belonged to some unidentified ancestor of mine. And I fell for the book just as I did the TV version. It made me want to move immediately to an old English village and drink tea while gossiping with the neighbors. The characters, mostly a group of single women in a small village whose old ways are becoming ...well, old... are treated with a great deal of humor and yet it's never truly at their expense because Gaskell makes clear how loyal and good they are despite being fairly ridiculous. It's a good lesson in how you can mock a character's behavior and yet still balance the mockable behavior with honorable behavior...and end up with a book that is funny and optimistic and all about how nice people can be to each other. It made me think of the movie Lars and the Real Girl (Ryan Gosling, yes, very nice) which takes as its premise what if a guy lost his mind (he falls in love with a doll--yes, let's stick with calling it a doll) and everybody in town is nice to him instead of mocking him. And it ends up being a really optimistic movie about how kind people can be. A nice balance to the largely pessimistic world of most artistic endeavors.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Most people seem to read this novel in their teens but somehow it passed me by and I've found myself writing a novel about a bunch of teenagers (why didn't it occur to me that I haven't been a teenager for quite a long time?) and so I've been reading some of the novels you read around then... which is all to say, this is an engagingly written novel--I enjoyed it much more than I expected--but really not scary which is what I understood it to be for most people. And as a teen I was definitely scared by books--I remember being home alone reading Cujo and having to go sit in the backyard, where I felt amongst people, while I finished it--but now I find it really hard to imagine being scared by a book--maybe I should say by the text because I'm still traumatized by the copy of Rumpty Dudget's Tower on my parents' bookshelf. There was one moment that unnerved me in Hill House though and it's when the characters find strange writing (in blood, 'natch) on the wall. It seems text from the beyond (Redrum relapse perhaps?) is more frightening than other manifestations. Wonder why that is, and if it's just a personal thing or if somehow textual voices really are scary?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer

This was one of my buy a book for a dollar library purchases (sorry, no author royalties in that, I know) and it's a book I've already read, but just figured would be useful to have around for teaching purpose. But I got sucked into reading all the stories again and liked them even better this time around. This happens a lot with short stories for me. I often feel mildly about them on first reading and have them grow on me. I think everyone going around saying how the world should be reading short stories since we have no time and can fit them in has it wrong. I seem to take longer with stories, and in fact need time to have them work on me.

Anyway, I just loved this description of physical action (something I've been paying mind to much more ever since one of my students did a presentation on it) in Packer's story "Brownies":

"That did it. The girls in my troop turned elastic: Drea and Elise doubled up on one another like inextricably entwined kites; Octavia slapped her belly; Janice jumped straight up in the air, then did it again, as if to slam-dunk her own head. They could not stop laughing. No one had laughed so hard since a boy named Martez had stuck a pencil in the electric socket and spent the whole day with a strange grin on his face."

Uncontrolled laughter, like uncontrolled crying, is incredibly hard to describe. Packer uses all the old tricks--metaphor, simple physical description, and exposition to make it work.

All Souls by Christine Schutt

A well-written--lyrically written--occasionally slight but more often affecting novel of girls in high school, including one who is very ill. And it made me think about the confidence the author can instill in me with a well-crafted sentence.

"Mr Dell, in his daughter's room, stuck his face into the horn of a stargazer lily, one of a ... one of a...must have been a dozen, and he breathed in and said, Wasn't that something."

That's the opening. And what I especially like about the sentence is not the nice snippet of dialogue, the carefully identified flower, the stammering that evokes an emotional state but rather that it starts, "Mr. Dell, in his daughter's room..." instead of "In his daughter's room, Mr. Dell..." It's a small little thing that non-writers surely don't notice, but the little turn-around really worked on me. It makes me look at him, and wonder why he's in the room, instead of making me look at the room. And it sounds just a little odd, enough for me to pay more attention to the language than I would have otherwise.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer

The opening of Scott Spencer's novel Endless Love is one of the best novel openings of my recent memory because it evokes with great clarity and compassion and intensity how crazy-making love can be, especially when you are a teenager. His more recent novel A Ship Made of Paper again picks up that theme and Spencer again is incredibly good at evoking intensity. His protagonist loves with a level of obsessiveness that should seem creepy and destructive yet Spencer makes it feel so believable and even desirable that you find yourself thinking, why don't I love like that, rather than, what's wrong with that guy. Now, to my taste, Spencer is not so good with plot (or perhaps that kind of love demands a capital B Big capital P Plot that is not to the liking of my quiet little soul) but the novel is well worth reading as a study of how metaphor can sometimes work better than free indirect style (using the interior voice/language of the main character in the narration even though he isn't the narrator) or what I have suddenly (just this second!) decided to call thought captioning (giving the exact words running through the character's head) when it comes to placing a reader inside of a character's emotional experience.

But to be clear, Spencer is good with, and makes use of all three...

free, indirect: "What can the world do to you with its beauty? Can it lift you up on its shoulders, as if you were a hero, can it whoopsie-daisy [that's the most overt example of the free, indirect] you up into its arms as if you were a child? Can it goad your timid heart, urge you on to finally seize what you most shamefully desire? Yes, yes, all that and more. The world can crush you with its beauty."

thought captioning: "So will that be the contest? History in one corner and Love in the other? Fine. Ring the bell. Let the fight begin. Love, he thinks, will bring history to its knees."

metaphor: "Infidelity is an ugly business, but it makes you a stickler for detail. You're an air traffic controller and the sky is stacked up with lies, all of them circling and circling, the tips of their wings sometimes coming within inches of each other."

One interesting element of the novel is how much Spencer wants it to be about race--the OJ Simpson trial is in the backdrop, the protagonist, who is white, has an affair with a black woman, the novel is dotted with incidents of whites denying their own racism and blacks living with it. But the whole thing feels weirdly added on to the novel. I wanted it to work--most fiction ignores race in a way that is not at all realist--yet by including all these moments of racism that tend to go unacknowledged in life (for example, liberal whites who avidly support equal rights but, when it comes down to it, are afraid of blacks) but having characters constantly acknowledge them--the novel felt not quite real. In other words, I certainly believe many if not most people are at times unconsciously racist--and obviously that unconscious racism needs to be analyzed in order to be eliminated--and yet the characters, the unconscious racists themselves, can't really be the ones to do it, it seems.


Musicians read!

Where have you been?

Toward the end of each semester I increasingly have the desire to yell out, would you all please stop looking at me. So I went (virtually) away for awhile. Now I'm back.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Like You'd Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard

I confess I didn't read all of the stories in this National Book Award finalist collection but that wasn't a judgment on their quality--more that I had a lot of other things to read (I've been moving steadily through Infinite Jest, for one) and it was due back at the library. But this is an interesting collection because a lot of the stories are moments in history but not all of them are, and they're not all about the same moment in history (they range from the twentieth century Chernobyl meltdown to Ancient Romans). In other words, no forced links. Hurrah! And they surely run far afield from the author's own experiences. My graduate class recently had a conversation about how the time constraints of workshop tend to prevent students from writing historical fiction (no time for the research), which is a real shame, since when writing historical fiction the beginning writer can get some real help with both plot and detail via that research. And I've always been a fan of Toni Morrison's quote that as a subject "the future seems finite, it's the past that's infinite."

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Come to Me by Amy Bloom

There was awhile in the mid-nineties, right when I was working in publishing during which it seemed like every work of fiction started with a Surprise! A kind of shock and awe strategy for prose. And sometimes it worked, sometimes it felt silly. But Amy Bloom, whose short story collection, Come to Me, has one of my favorite short stories, "Silver Water" in it, is one of the better Surprise! wielders.

Case in point, the first sentence of the first story, "Love is Not a Pie," goes like this: "In the middle of the eulogy at my mother's boring and heart-breaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding." In a surprise-story gone wrong, this would be the most original moment of the story and the rest would be a relationship gone astray, birth in the midst of death kind of story. But in this story calling off the wedding turns out to be the frame that starts and ends the story, but the most startling, original, disturbing, fascinating information is gradually dispensed in the middle (and mostly has to do with the narrator's parents). Middles don't get enough attention in teaching as far as I'm concerned. This is because it's far easier to teach what a beginning does and what an end does...much harder to explain how to keep interest in the middle. Anyway in this case, the story goes back in time and a secret is gradually revealed, and at the same time, the effects of this secret are also revealed. So mostly I think middles take the reader both backwards and forwards in characters' that we have a full understanding of the characters. Middles are largely about stages of revelation, I suppose.

About Grace by Anthony Doerr

Doerr is one of my favorite fiction writers for his use of language. And this novel maintains, for hundreds of pages, the precision of his best short stories, "The Shell Collector" and "The Hunter's Wife." It also interestingly enough combines the two locales of those stories--the Caribbean and someplace cold and snowy.

And it's got a pretty genius premise for keeping you hooked. The protagonist has dreams that reveal the future (usually innocuous things like a dropped glass of ice tea, but once, as a child, a premonition of a man losing his head to a bus). Toward the the start of the novel he dreams that his baby daughter drowns in his arms in a flood. So when it starts raining--and raining--and raining--he flees. And his fled wife won't tell him if the baby lives or dies and he is too afraid to go home and find out. For twenty-three years. For twenty-three years, hanging over his plot (which goes in various directions), is the question of did his daughter live or die. It's a very effective page-turning-device in an otherwise lyric, quiet novel.

But what I wanted to mention is how the novel does one of my mom's favorite things--teaches you something. The protagonist is a hydrologist--and water in all its forms makes for lovely metaphors even when you are describing it literally. So reading along you learn things about snow and ice and rivers and sea creatures, all while the metaphoric subtext of those literal descriptions ekes its way into your heart. A good example of the emotional embedded in the physical.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Selected Cronicas by Clarice Lispector (translated by Giovanni Pontiero)

Lispector wrote one of my favorite short stories "The Smallest Woman in the World" (translated by Elizabeth Bishop) but I admit I've never felt terribly involved by her longer works. This book, a selection of her newspaper columns, is more my thing. One of my former graduate students once lamented the disappearance of the writer's sketch, bit pieces that are not fully fleshed out prose or poetry but are just slices of thought and image. These columns are very much like that. And some of them are mere curiousity pieces, but others have a lingering impact the way a strange piece of art can. And it occurred to me that blogs are the perfect forum to resurrect the writer's sketch. I enjoy blogs that link and blogs that review (or whatever my blog does), but why not have more blogs that are pieces of real writing--or rather slices of real writing?

A sample from Lispector, titled "Wanted":

"This is the ideal newspaper for classified advertisements and, as I scan the items under Wanted or For Sale, my eye catches on the following advertisement printed in bold type:

'Man or woman wanted to help someone remain contented. I am so contented that I cannot keep all this happiness to myself and must share it with others. Exceptional wages offered: the right person will be repaid minute by minute with happiness. Apply at once because my happiness is as fleeting as those falling stars one only sees after they have fallen; I need this man or woman before dusk because once night falls no one can help me and it is much too late. Applicants must not expect any free time until the horrors and dangers of Sunday have passed. Anyone who is sad may also apply because the happiness promised is so great that it must be shared before disaster strikes. ... There is also a house on offer, all lit up as if a ball were being held. The successful applicant will be allowed full use of the pantry, the kitchen, and sitting room...'"

Friday, March 28, 2008

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoe Heller

This novel, made into the Cate Blanchett/Judi Dench film Notes on a Scandal, is a well-executed exercise in the is-this-narrator-completely-nuts point of view. The novel makes a point of demonstrating how un-self-aware the narrator (an older female teacher who becomes infatuated with a younger female teacher who becomes infatuated with a even younger male student) is, but what was more interesting to me than the show-the-reader-what-the-narrator-can't-see tricks was how surprisingly fascinating it is to view the world through the eyes of someone who is really really mean. The moments with the heavy writing-pyrotechnics tend to be the ones that demonstrate the narrator's obsession with the other teacher, but the more surprising, and to my mind, sharper moments are when the narrator observes everyone and everything else. The brief moments when the story steps away from the plot to observe some tangential thing actually did a lot to elevate this from a boil-the-bunny kind of story to a more literary one. For example, "For most people, honesty is such an unusual departure from their standard modus operandi--such an aberration in their workaday mendacity--that they feel obligated to alert you when a moment of sincerity is coming on. 'To be completely honest,' they say, or 'To tell you the truth,' or 'Can I be straight?'" I'm a big fan of when fiction takes a step back from observing individuals and instead observes patterns, and Heller does this very well.

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

I am a huge fan of Millhauser's first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, and a more modest fan of pretty much everything else he does. In this story collection, he does a nice job of marrying high concept ideas (snow globe type housing communities, teenage age laughing clubs) to real people and real feelings. But what interested me most was the way the collection avoids the whole everything must be linked trend that publishers are imposing on the short story world. The first story is called an Opening Cartoon and then there are three sections, Vanishing Acts, Impossible Architectures, and Heretical Histories, each of which contain four stories. The section structure allows for like-minded stories to be grouped together without forcing the whole collection to be of a piece. I approve.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar translated by Martin Chalmers

I always appreciate finding Turkish women writers who have been translated into English, and this novel was particularly interesting in that it followed a young Turkish woman who, during the revolutionary 60s, traveled to Germany as a guest worker and then back again (I recently discovered that there and back again novels are a whole thing that people talk about, which was useful since I'm working on what is apparently a there and back again novel myself--different than my big house novel, in case you're wondering). Anyway I was interested to know that women did this on their own--for no good reason, I always thought of men as leading the way in the guest worker system.

What struck me while reading the book is that there is a distinct difference between a fast-paced novel and a fast-paced voice in a novel. A fast-paced novel, one that moves quickly through events and pages, tends to include a lot of scene--dialogue and action. It shows a lot, tells less. On the other hand, a fast-paced voice can actually, and possibly usually, be within a quite slow-paced novel. This is because a fast-paced voice is created by long sentences that don't pause for breath and is much more summary than scene. It's an interesting sensation to be carried along by a hyperactive narrator through a fairly dense book. It makes the book feel less dense, less slow than it actually is, but also occasionally feels like bicycling up a steep hill (you know, you feel like your feet are moving fast but your bike is moving slow).

Monday, March 10, 2008

The New Kings of Nonfiction edited by Ira Glass

When I first heard the title of this essay anthology, edited by the peerless host of This American Life, I thought it odd that he/they picked such a gender-specific title. I'm sure someone will say well, these are metaphoric kings so they can be women. Baloney. Kings suggests men, always has, and I gotta imagine always will. And if this had been an anthology of male writers--and declared as such--I'd have no problem with it. But it's an anthology of twelve male writers and two female. Twelve and two. Now my question is do editors of anthologies such as this (an anthology intended more for the public than the classroom) have a political and ethical responsibility to diversity in their selections?

What Ira Glass claims to have done in making his choices is just picked through essays he'd saved over the years--his favorites. And most of them are written by authors who are white, male, middle-class, and approximately his age. It's not really surprising that a reader would favor writers who resemble him, but I can't help but feel Glass had a bigger responsibility than simply picking his favorites. Maybe I only reacted strongly because I'm a woman and a writer and so felt excluded in a way that women readers might not, but I think a table of contents like this sends an implicit message that men write better than women, or at least that Ira Glass, a well-respected public figure, thinks so. In other words, it matters on a larger scale what Ira Glass says his favorites are. Interestingly his radio show, This American Life includes what seems to me to be a mixed balance of men and women and definitely aims to represent a wide swath of America (though I'm sure many think it's a very NPR audience politically-approved swath), so it's not like Glass isn't aware of a need to represent a bigger picture. And maybe part of the issue is these are all the same kind of essay--very New Yorkeresque profiles (though many were published in New Yorker clones such as Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times Magazine. Only the David Foster Wallace essay breaks from the traditional journalistic form, so in that case it's 13 to 1 against diversity.

With all that said, case by case, I loved these essays. They are fantastic. It's just that put together as a book collectively they make a bigger statement that I have to assume Glass didn't intend to make.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach by Tom C. Hunley

At first this book, which is exactly what its title suggests, a plan for teaching poetry, really frustrated me because the author kept making statements like "The traditional workshop model fails to take creative writing instruction seriously, and it does not take students seriously...When instructors don't bother with lesson plans, syllabi, explicit grading policies, exercises aimed to help combat writer's block, exercises designed to give students the proper terminology needed for critiquing each others' work, and so on, are students really being taken seriously?" My problem with this statement is twofold: one, he assumes the traditional workshop model is all workshop all the time (apparently without any discussions of vocab built into the workshop also) and two, who teaches like that? I'm sure some do, but the presumption of the book is that most creative writing profs do--which simply hasn't been my experience. Now I don't claim my experience is scientific--I don't have any stats to back up what happens across the country, but neither does Huntley.

But once I got over my frustration with his negative assumptions, I found the book quite interesting. Like most teaching texts, some suggestions were Not for Me, some were Patently Ridiculous, and others were Really Intriguing and a few were even I'll Definitely Try That. The most intriguing, but least likely for me to implement idea was to use classtime largely for writing--guided exercises--and do all of the workshopping online. That swaps out the more usual practice of writing at home and workshopping in class. I'm not convinced by the arguments for online workshopping--that students are more honest, more thoughtful (I think a good workshop leader gets students to be honest and careful for in class workshopping and it's face-to-face, which seems nicely human to me), but I think some students (not all--certainly not me when I was a student) would benefit from the in-class writing. And I would find the in-class time to do more of other things--going over reading, e.g.--appealing. But as in most things, I tend to favor the middle road. My workshops do many things in class over the course of the seemster--exercises, reading discussion and workshopping. Lately I've been favoring a few weeks on, few weeks off movement between anthology-type reading and workshopping.

The overall proposal of this text is to use a more rhetoric-based structure for class. Moving from invention, to arrangement, to style, to memorization and delivery. I don't really dispute teaching any of those things, but I do wonder if focusing so much on poetry as argument would encourage undergrads to fall into didacticism. This could of course be combatted by examples and discussion. But the truth is my students love their creative writing classes but they don't love their composition classes. And it's not because their creative writing classes are easier (trust me, I demand more than the average freshman comp teacher) so I worry that such a plan for teaching might emphasize argument at the cost of art.

Still the book does have interesting ideas, and I'm all for more study of, and more variety in, how c.w. is taught.