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...'"