Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Three women fiction writers were finalists for the Pulitzer this year: winner Elizabeth Strout, Louise Erdrich and Christine Schutt. Should you care to, you can read my posts about the Strout, Olive Kitteridge, and the Schutt, All Souls. And awhile back I posted on Schutt's short novel Florida, then a finalist for the National Book Award . I generally enjoy Louise Erdrich but haven't really kept up with her output since Love Medicine.

Monday, April 13, 2009

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

This slim memoir of the births of fiction writer McCracken's stillborn first child and her healthy second child is moving and poignant and agonizing for all the reasons you would expect when a horrific subject and a beautiful subject meet a skilled and subtle writer. But through all the tears (mine not hers) I couldn't help but read it as an insight into the writing life of the novelist who wrote one of my personal favorites, The Giant's House. What kept making my jaw hang were all the pages that McCracken referenced writing that never saw the light of the printing press. She described a novel she gave up on, a memoir of pregnancy (pre-stillbirth) she gave up on...literally hundreds of pages, years of effort... Now I'm well accustomed to the idea of writers having first manuscripts that never got published (and never should) pre-success but it was a bit disspiriting and a bit reassuring to realize that writers also have projects that get drawered post-success. So in part I liked this book for the same reason that I like Ann Patchett's memoir Truth and Beauty (which lots of people criticize because they see it as exploitive of its subject, her friendship with the (deceased) writer Lucy Grealy)... because on the margins it's a book about being a woman writer and how that fits into a larger life.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

This novel hit so big that even some of my undergraduates--who surely have no time for pleasure reading--were going around talking about it. I can see why it was popular--driving plot paired with so many hooks--mute child protagonist, dog breeding farm setting, Hamlet rewrite--that the media coverage wrote itself. And it's good, way better than the typical best seller. Personally I responded most to the dog farm--it's a good example of creating a world that the average reader doesn't know and teaching them how it works. But I suppose the Hamlet layer is what interested all those book clubs and high schoolers. Shakespeare makes for good cannibalizing because he has such layered plots that they can be novels and the characters have such dominant traits that you can turn anyone into a Hamlet or a Kate or a Lear. E.g. being a prince is irrelevant, it's being indecisive that matters, hence you can give a mute kid indecisiveness and call him a Hamlet.

What I noticed as I read this novel was how dependent my acceptance of the plot was on the pre-existence of the play. The character actions--murder! revenge!--are only believable because they were the actions of Claudius, Hamlet, Laertes...they aren't believable as the actions of Claude, Edgar, Glen... In other words, if I read this novel without having any knowledge of Shakespeare I would seriously question the character motivations. But because Wroblewski chose Hamlet (assigned in almost every high school and part of the cultural collective conscious and likely to be known by those who will pick up a 500 page literary novel anyway), he doesn't have to sweat it. If you model your novel on some unknown text, your novel must stand alone. But if you model your novel on Hamlet, you are choosing not to have it stand alone. I guess it really shouldn't stand alone--or why else is Hamlet in there? Still the character thing troubled me ...

Friday, April 03, 2009

Palate Cleansing Pratchett

This is why I like Terry Pratchett (from The Wee Free Men):

"'There's a headless horseman after me!' she [Tiffany] shouted.

'He'll no make it, hinny. Stand ye still! Look him in the eye!'

'He hasn't got any eyes!'

'Crivens! Are ye a hag or no? Look him in the eyes he hasna got!'"

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano

Bolano is having a posthumous renaissance now that so much of his work is being translated into English, and I read about half of his novel The Savage Detectives and about half of this collection of stories (though some might not call it a collection of stories) both with pleasure--though apparently not enough interest to get all the way through. That fact, though, has more to do with personal preferences (so much Pratchett to read now!) and limited time.

So this book is a collection of profiles of fictional writers (as in made up people not writers of fiction) with Nazi sympathies. And while that may seem like a concept built for shock value--it's surprising unshocking. Instead it's really really funny. One of Bolano's big interests seems to be looking at the lives of writers, of movements, of non-writers interest in writers...but by choosing Nazi writers instead of say Leftist writers or Catholic writers or any other designator that has supporters and foes in equal measure, he eliminates the sense of making an overly obvious political statement. While the world obviously still contains Nazi sympathizers, there's no way readers will think this book is taking a pro-Nazi position or that it would really bother to take an anti-Nazi position, so you have to look deeper for significance. And the parts I read had a lot to do with why people write (and Bolano can be quite judgemental about this) and why people read...

What interested me most though was how the structure of a character profile--a mini biography--can absolutely work as a short story structure. These characters are at times endearing, disturbing, entirely mockeable... and despite the encylopedia type structure of the book, despite the lack of a "story" in terms of a building plot, you care about them.