Sunday, February 21, 2010

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler

Full disclosure: I've known Pete since I was a freshman in college and he was a sophomore. He also once stopped me from being run over by a car with a timely "head's up."

As with his first two books, this is a great read--funny and informative and thoughtful. And as with his last book, Oracle Bones, it's interesting to see how he finds a way to take disparate magazine articles and turn them into a reasonably cohesive book. One of the things I noticed this time is how the book is being sold more as a Peter Hessler book than as a book about driving in China. His name is above the title and in red...And most interstingly, it's described as the last in the trilogy of Pete's books on China. I have to assume this is because he's ready to move on to new subjects (or even genres) and so is declaring early: the next book you see is going to be something different. It's not a strategy I've noticed before, but it makes sense: you can get pigeonholed by your success and this could be a way to build anticipation for whatever new thing Pete will do as well as a way to declare to his publisher and his public, this is it for the China stuff.

A couple of notes on the writing. One of the mistakes I see writers make when taking on cultures outside of their own is they are either too romantic or too condescending. Ah look at the poverty of Africa portrayed so lyrically and tragically. Or ah listen to how funny those wacky Vietnamese are. But this book uses humor really well without being condescending, and it definitely never romanticizes. (One reason is Pete lived in China for something like nine years, so naturally he's better able to convey the place than someone who just spent their junior year abroad). But, of course, Chinese bureaucracy can be funny and of course there are funny things that happen when an American journalist goes to live among Chinese peasants. So how does he convey that? Aside from the fact that Pete often positions himself as the object of humor, and that he fully characterizes the Chinese men and women in the book so that when they do something funny it's not a caricature, for the most part the book uses language as an object of humor as opposed to using people as an object of humor. My favorite examples are the quotes from the Chinese written driver's exam threaded throughout the opening section: "True/False: In a taxi, it's fine to carry a small amount of explosive material". And Pete's also very good at using his own quirks of language to add humor. Instead of holding out a thumb, Chinese hitchhikers bounce their hands up and down when looking for a ride, and to Pete this looks like they are petting an invisible dog. So throughout the book, he'll use that phrase "petting the dog" so that you see how the action is funny through his eyes-it reminds us that he's the foreign and strange one, not them. Another nice trick of language is that when referring to the car he rents and drives all over Mongolia he uses its brand name--the City Special--repeatedly so that the car itself gets a personality. Similarly when he gets lost due to the mismarkings on the Chinese maps--called Sinomaps--he says that he has been "Sinomapped" into sand or "Sinomapped" to a dry creek bed. It's a good reminder that attention to language--no matter your genre--is always going to be a good thing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber

One of the reasons I like teaching writing is I like talking about craft. A lot of people, even teachers, don't really care for the idea of zooming in on various technical elements of writing and talking about them in prescriptive ways. They worry, justifiably, that doing so oversimplifies writing and makes it more mechanical. But I like it for two reasons--I like reading for craft (duh, whole blog about it) as a way of reading in and of itself, and I find it useful when brainstorming to actively think about how some of these craft elements could enter a new piece. I tend to let go of such distinct thoughts on craft once I'm actually drafting, but it helps me conceptualize. This would horrify some because it's a very self-conscious way to write, but hey, I get to do it any way I want. But also, and here's my point, I think it's fun to invent names for things that haven't been named. And Joan Silber, in this craft book from Graywolf's "The Art of" series edited by Charles Baxter, does a great job of naming different ways of depicting the passage of time: classic time, long time, switchback time, slowed time, fabulous time... And after giving these different practices names, she's able to dissect what they do and how they are created. It's a simplistic thought, but one of the ways we, as writers, can look more closely at craft is by first naming what's happening... name it so you can study it. Anyway, you'll have to read the book, which I recommend, to actually learn something about time...I'm just musing about craft writing in general.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

This is a young adult novel that's been on my to-do list for a long time. But once I started it (about twenty years late) I zipped through. It's engagingly written, has very short chapters, and is very mysterious--all condusive to compulsive reading. Since I'm teaching adolescent literature this semester I've become increasingly aware of the fact that many college students are still in the stages of reading that I associate with being a teenager (quite a few college students of course still are teenagers or just barely beyond). And one of those stages of reading is taking a great deal of pleasure in solving puzzles. And so in the intro to creative writing class I tend to see quite a few pieces that are meant to be solved with one right answer. These pieces tend to fare well with the other students and much less well with, say, me. Because adult literary readers tend to want puzzles that don't have one right answer. Ambiguity can be great, a mystery with a solution feels a lot less complicated. And students in the lit classes get confused as well--they're still expecting their reading (especially poetry) to be a puzzle to be solved with one right answer. They're not so comfortable with the idea of multiple interpretations each of which has to be argued.

All of which is a long way of getting to my point...this novel is a puzzle to be solved with one right answer and it works; it's a classic. It's a really good puzzle, well executed, surprising in the end...a good example of what can be done with this kind of mystery. And it made me wonder if I am unfair in so regularly rejecting this kind of writing when it comes to literary fiction for adults. A lot of literary novels set up a mystery, gradually reveal clues so that the reader can be actively solving the mystery as they go, and then in the end...they solve the mystery and tell us just what did happen. A genre mystery doesn't really bear rereading because once you know the answer, the text isn't compelling. But a literary mystery can bear rereading because you care about the characters and the language and the ideas... so I guess it's fine to have a puzzle, as long as you also have the other stuff.

With that said, I still maintain my equally strong reaction against ironic endings. I just saw the film A Single Man and my reaction to the last five minutes was to wish I had closed my eyes and plugged my ears for that bit. Liked the movie a lot, but I reject its finish.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

I reread this novel after picking up a one dollar copy at the Delray Beach Public Library, and I remembered admiring the voice, but I hadn't on my first reading read Hansen's novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and so I hadn't noticed how similar the voices are, except for the fact that Jesse James is a really long novel and Mariette in Ecstasy really short, and Jesse James is about outlaws and Mariette in Ecstasy about nuns. The voice is lyric and pretty and full of poetic lines arranged like lists--and oddly enough it works perfectly for both novels despite the differences. Probably because the prettiness is a nice surprise in Jesse James and while not surprising in a novel about a convent, it is a good fit. I don't really have a point except to say both the unexpected and the expected can work depending on what you do with them. And that an author might have a voice that carries between works (they're not an exact match, don't get me wrong) but that doesn't mean the works feel repetitive or even similar.

Monday, February 01, 2010

for New Yorkers

If you happen to live in or near Manhattan, my remarkably patient and supportive agent Priscilla Gilman is participating in this, surely informative, free event:

From the Writers' Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York:


"Come hear Chris Cox from The Paris Review, Priscilla Gilman from Janklow & Nesbit, Hugo Lindgren from New York Magazine, David Propson from The Week Magazine, and Eben Shapiro from The Wall Street Journal discuss how to craft a great (and perfect) pitch. Feel free to bring along anyone interested as well as all the questions you’ve been dying to ask."

DATE: Wednesday, February 3rd from 5:30 to 7:30
PLACE: Segal Theater, at the Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue (and 34th)