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.